It’s here! Favorite Music of 2019, ranked 50-1 by album. What a spectacular year for music this was. I know it’s not technically the end of the decade (that’ll happen December 31, 2020), but this year feels like we’re going out on a high note indeed.
50. Thom Yorke, Anima
49. Josh Ritter, Fever Breaks
48. The Highwomen (self-titled)
47. Dori Freeman, Every Single Star
46. Charlie Marie (self-titled)
45. Bedouine, Bird Songs of a Killjoy
44. Karen O & Danger Mouse, Lux Prima
43. A Winged Victory For the Sullen, The Undivided Five
42. Lankum, The Livelong Day
41. Caroline Polachek, Pang
40. Erin Enderlin, Faulkner County
39. Pernice Brothers, Spread the Feeling
38. Dykeritz, Madrigals
37. Jenny Lewis, On the Line
36. Clairo, Immunity
35. Allison Moorer, Blood
34. Federale, No Justice
33. Fink, Bloom
32. The New Pornographers, In the Morse Code of Brake Lights
31. Calexico + Iron & Wine, Years to Burn
30. Andrew Bird, My Finest Work Yet
29. Aldous Harding, Designer
28. Joe Henry, The Gospel of Water
27. Marika Hackman, Any Human Friend
26. Jessica Pratt, Quiet Signs
25. Vampire Weekend, Father of the Bride
24. Elbow, Giants of All Sizes
23. John Paul White, The Hurting Kind
22. Mike and the Moonpies, Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold
21. Kalie Shorr, Open Book
20. Sharon Van Etten, Remind Me Later
19. (Sandy) Alex G, House of Sugar
18. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Ghosteen
17. Caroline Spence, Mint Condition
16. Wilco, Ode to Joy
15. Purple Mountains (self-titled)
14. Emily Scott Robinson, Traveling Mercies
13. Jay Som, Anak Ko
12. Brittany Howard, Jaime
11. Angel Olsen, All Mirrors
10. Oso Oso, Basking in the Glow
I haven’t enjoyed a power-pop album this much since Fountain of Wayne’s perfect opus, Welcome Interstate Managers back in 2005. It’s in that echelon: a band hitting its stride, armed with supreme confidence and a vault of sticky hooks. (For similar fare, check out No. 39 on this year’s list.)
9. Bruce Springsteen, Western Stars
I have not taken much pleasure in a Springsteen album since the 80’s – until now. Western Stars offers a tightly connected suite of sweeping, cinematic arrangements mated to some of his sharpest and most poignant storytelling, where we meet a cast of drifters, dreamers, and ordinary Joes moving forward against the bruises and setbacks life has handed them. A fantastic late-career offering that suggests that the creative well runs deep and strong as ever. It’s also one of two album covers in this year’s top to feature a nice photo of a horse. (The other is Love and Revelation, No. 7 below.)
8. Bill Callahan, Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest
It’s like Astral Weeks, only not so astral — just “weeks.” Ordinary Weeks. Brilliantly constructed across four sides (as in vinyl; it all fits on a single CD), Callahan offers musings and oblique meditations on writer’s block (this is his first album in six years, during which time he got married and had a child, which apparently conspired against his creativity); how it “feels good to be writing again”; the often overlooked, mundane grace of domestic life; the meaning of true love; and, on the last “side,” the inevitable shadow of mortality and finality. Not a word is wasted, not a guitar flourish or percussive chatter out of place. There are so many quotable lines, it’s hard to pick just one. Consider: “Angela, whoa Angela, like motel curtains, we never really met.” Shepherd is another Callahan high-water mark in a career full of them. It is, easily, his happiest album — he sounds serene, not somber; pensive, not resigned—everything, even a final, birdseye view of a graveyard, is shot through with hope. And couldn’t we all use a little of that now?
7. Over the Rhine, Love and Revelation
Over the Rhine is the band that anyone who knows me knows I’ve been evangelizing about for the last 23 years – ever since I first heard them play in a tiny coffeeshop/hangout in Downtown Cincinnati, Kaldi’s. (Alas, Kaldi’s is no more.) Since then, the husband and wife duo of Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist have gotten only better and wiser, in their song-craft, their lyrics, and especially their music-making together. Kelly and I spent Memorial Day weekend this year on their property, Nowhere Farm, about an hour outside Cincinnati, for the Nowhere Else mini-festival that they’ve been curating under a big tent on their lawn for the past 3 or 4 years. Love and Revelation, their latest set, is a lean and lovely collection of 11 songs, the best writing they’ve done this decade, and possibly since their masterpiece double album “Ohio” (2003) (off of which they played a few tracks in concert this spring. Here’s a link to tickets to the Festival in 2020, if you want to join Kelly and me on the farm – we’d love to see you!
6. Big Thief, U.F.O.F. & Two Hands
I know, it’s really not fair to put both of these albums down on a single line, but I needed to include both. Although U.F.O.F. dropped in May and Two Hands in October, it seems as if the two function together as a proper double album, the first more hushed, intimate, and delicately constructed; the latter more rough, more aggressive, less meticulous—but, equally devastating in their lyrical focus and musical intensity. Compare the searing “Not” from Two Hands to the pastoral “Cattails” from U.F.O.F. and despite the obvious differences in instrumentation, tone, and content (the first is about how, in the words of a Genius (the website) reviewer, “to negate a thing is also to posit that very thing, making vivid, alluring, even present, the elements or events that are to be cancelled or set aside” (S/he’s a smart reviewer.); the second is a tender promise to a loved one who is dying), what you get from the two side-by-side is their commonality, how they share Big Thief’s overarching commitment to remind us at all times that (and here I’m quoting PItchfork’s wonderful review of Two Hands) “intimacy isn’t just about the comfort we bring to each other but also the proximity to our sickness and pain, blood and guts.” In most other years, this could easily have been a Number One on my list; it’s just that 2019 was too darn good.
5. Michael Kiwanuka, Kiwanuka
I’ve heard this album described variously as R&B, Soul, and something I’ve never heard of before, called Psych-Soul, which seems to fit best. It certainly shares DNA with Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, minus the raw political edge and explicitly accusatory tone. You’ll still pick up a searching quality to Kiwanuka’s writing, which touches on brutality inflicted communities of color (“Hero”), the anxiety of unmoored isolation (“Solid Ground”), and the quest for love, truth, and faith in a world that would deny them all. And there’s that yearning, burnished, smoky voice.
4. Lana Del Rey, Norman F****** Rockwell!
….In which all of Lana Del Rey’s thematic fetishes coalesce around a pungent vision of America (Los Angeles stands for America in the Del Rey lexicon) and the corrupted American Dream: the potent allure of beaches and summertime, high-gloss cars and celebs, man-children and fake dolls, drugs and alcohol, romance and capitalism, with a sickly sweet smell of decay just beneath its surface. It’s all wrapped in a strong set of piano ballads and vintage Laurel Canyon arrangements. It has every bit the feel of one of those classic Seventies AM radio records. Producer and co-writer Jack Antonoff nails the texture. It even has something no one every thought we’d need: a Sublime cover song. All this, and one of the greatest opening lines of a pop album — ever. Which makes me wonder: what are the best opening album lines of all time? I’d put a vote in for: Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On (“Mother, mother/There’s too many of you crying…”). Or Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited (“Once upon a time you dressed so fine/Threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?”) Or Simon & Garfunkel, Sounds of Silence (“Hello darkness, my old friend…”). Or Steely Dan, Aja (“In the corner of my eye / I saw you in Rudy’s / You were very high…”). Or literally any album opener by Joni Mitchell or Elvis Costello. We’ll play this game some time.
3. FKA Twigs, Magdalene
Prepare to be gobsmacked by Twigs’ second proper full-length. As the title suggests, the British singer/dancer’s album explores the intersection of the sacred and the profane, the madonna- and whore- archetypes. Somewhere I read a listener’s appraisal of Magdalene as the 2010’s answer to Bjork’s landmark Homogenic (1997), and the comparison works. You’ll also hear shades of Kate Bush, James Blake, ARCA, Nicolas Jaar…. The videos are absolutely mind-blowing. (Check out the video for “Cellophane” to understand how twigs deploys madonna/whore images.)
2. Better Oblivion Community Center (self-titled)
Here’s an example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Indie-folk godfather Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes, Desaparecidos), who has about a zillion albums to his credit, and relative newcomer Phoebe Bridgers, who has one, teamed up to write this album together – and it’s a little gem. Every song is a self-contained a diary, coalescing as a deeply affecting whole around a shared gaze on mortality, a mordant sense of humor, and a commitment to tunefulness rarely heard among indie artists these days. I hope they keep this project going—I like it better than just about anything Oberst has done as a solo artist. It’s clear that Bridgers has become a muse most suitable to his prodigious gifts, and a hell of a songwriter in her own right. Save for one album (see No. 1, below), no set of songs got more in my head in 2019 than this.
1. Weyes Blood, Titanic Rising
Stone. Cold. Classic. Since its release in early April, Natalie Merling’s new album (she records as Weyes (rhymes with “Wise”) Blood) didn’t leave regular rotation. Think of Enya crossed with the Carpenters, but with the songwriting scope of a Jackson Browne. In fact, Titanic Rising reminds me of no other album such as Browne’s gorgeous, plaintive Late for the Sky (1974), for the dramatic expansiveness of the writing, the lush orchestration, the interconnected motifs among the songs (water, water everywhere), and the emotional sweep of the album as a whole. In all, a modern masterpiece.