Saturday, December 28, 2019
The year and decade came to an end in far finer shape than it had any right to be, not because some new genre of pop music defined the decade, but because a startling number of new artists established themselves, both within 2019 and the decade previous. The trend toward women’s dominance in pop continued in 2019, to the point where four-member male rock bands almost became an afterthought – check out the gender balance of the top 30 this year. It didn’t take any effort to come up with more than 200 albums in 2019 worth hearing. Reunited bands from a wealth of previous decades were all the rage, but special albums (live, compilations, etc.) were a rare commodity, as were EPs. Just as pop discovered experimentalism a few years ago, it was great to see R&B and hip-hop plunge headlong into the weird in 2019. Musicians no longer need to stick to genres, to predictable rhythms, even to identifiable melodies! Oddly enough, pop music showed more of a risk for experimentation than did rock of the 4/4, guitar-oriented variety.
The album as a 40- to 80-minute vehicle for making an artistic statement was as alive as ever, but the physical instantiation of that album was in strange shape. All signs pointed to the death of the CD from larger manufacturers within 2020, but what proved even stranger was the apparent desire of major labels to fail to ship any form of physical product, even though they were well aware of the global vinyl fetish. Do the Big Three labels really WANT to die?
There are many releases to look forward to in 2020 – Halsey, TORRES, Cowsills, Diane Cluck, Sarah Harmer, Destroyer in just the first couple months -- but it is uncertain whether the releases will show up as anything other than streaming wraiths in the cloud.
We lost some wonderful people in 2019, including Pegi Young (Neil’s former wife), Roky Erickson, David Berman of Silver Jews, Kim Shattuck of The Muffs, Lorna Doom of The Germs, Peter Tork of The Monkees, drummer Hal Blaine, Keith Flint of The Prodigy, Mark Hollis of Talk Talk, experimentalist crooner Scott Walker, rapper Nipsey Hustle, Leon Redbone, Dr. John, Elliot Roberts, Lloyd Watson of 801, Johnny Clegg, Joao Gilberto, Daniel Johnston, Eddie Money, Ric Ocasek of The Cars, Daryl Dragon, Robert Hunter, Ginger Baker, Paul Barrere, Marie Fredrikksen of Roxette, rapper Juice WRLD, writer Nick Tosches, and Dick Dale. Hard to remember a year-end list this long and grim.
1. Lana Del Rey, Norman Fucking Rockwell – With each succeeding album, Del Rey becomes less a dissolute louche and more a chronicler of this century. You could call this her pinnacle, but I thought the last album was. Never underestimate Lana Del Rey.
2. FKA Twigs, Magdalene – One could argue that Twigs and Solange are exploring similar strange and ethereal territories, but Twigs inserts a little more Kate Bush/Janelle Monae styling into her work, and hence ranks higher.
3. The National, I Am Easy to Find – Yes, the short film made the difference for me, but the music alone is the best thing Matt B. and gang have released in many years. It is inexplicable that this album didn’t make more Top 10 or even Top 50 lists.
4. Bis, Slight Disconnects – Could a Glasgow teen bubblegum-punk band still find relevance in their mid-40s? Oh yes. Bonus points for holding their first reunion show at the legendary Hug & Pint.
5. Jesca Hoop, Stonechild – A masterpiece from a woman who makes masterpieces look easy.
6. Sturgill Simpson, Sound and Fury – If you thought the duty of a good musical artist was to frighten and surprise, Simpson sure has gone beyond his original goal of bringing psychedelia to country music. Bring on the noise.
7. Holly Herndon, PROTO – One of America’s finest experimentalists turns to vocal ensembles, with startling results.
8. Lizzo, Cuz I Love You – A newish R&B artist worth every bit of the hype for her full-length debut.
9. Solange, When I Left Home – I am so appreciative of a Knowles sister keeping it weird. A true avant-classic.
10. Amanda Palmer, There Will Be No Intermission – Yes, of course she’s insufferable, but sometimes that equals great art.
11. Billie Eilish, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? – Yes, the marketing hype was a bit extreme for a teen artist, but she and her brother were allowed recording freedom, and didn’t screw it up.
12. Tyler the Creator, Ygor – Shifting to a Gil-Scott Heron piano-driven sound was the right move, by far.
13. King Princess, Cheap Queen – In which Mikaela Straus proves she was worth the wait. Don’t even tell me this is all dance and no content, Straus is great.
14. Maggie Rogers, Heard it in a Past Life – Her media overexposure caused some to dismiss her as a lightweight hippie queen, but this album actually was very good.
15. Rhiannon Giddens, There is No Other – What an insane 2019! Giddens leads a group of four traditionalist women, taking first place in our Specials section, and releases this impressive solo album as well, with unusual input from Francesco Turrisi.
16. Emily Strange, The Other Side – An incredibly varied jazz-stylist/hip-hop/poet debut from someone we will no doubt hear from again.
17. The Who, Who – Whaaaat?! Townshend and Daltrey are relevant again? Well, that was an unexpected year-end bonus.
18. The New Pornographers, In the Morse Code of Brake Lights – A quieter but interesting album, minus Dan Bejar but adding violinist Simi Stone.
19. Son Volt, Union – Wow, did Jay Farrar get political and poetical after the disappointment of the last album. Whew.
20. Big Thief, UFOF
21. Big Thief, Two Hands – How many folk-rockers are audacious enough to release two albums this good in one year?
22. Angel Olsen, All Mirrors – I admit to being worried about Olsen adding strings to this one, but she can go big and go audacious and make everything all right.
23. Sharon Van Etten, Remind Me Tomorrow – A dense and complex work from someone growing exponentially with each release.
24. Chris Stamey, New Songs for the 20th Century – It almost seemed appropriate to put this one in Specials. It’s a studio work of new compositions, but crafted in a Tin Pan Alley style with a slew of singers. Intriguing.
25. Cate Le Bon, Reward – Wow, what interesting songwriting directions she is heading in. Somehow this is her most mainstream work, but makes no compromises.
26. Calexico/Iron& Wine, Years to Burn – Proof that the two bands’ collaborative EP of a few years back was not a one-time fluke – they belong together.
27. Jenny Lewis, Hold the Line – The sizzling redhead chanteuse looks back on life from early middle age, and provides us with stunning observations.
28. Better Oblivion Community Center, s/t – Who would have dreamed a duo of Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst would work this well?
29. Brittany Howard, Jaime – If we don’t count the anonymous Thunderbitch record, this is the first solo outing from the Alabama Shakes singer, a powerful confessional and endlessly creative work.
30. Kim Gordon, No Home Record – Depend on Kim to keep it weird. She’s becoming more essential than ex-husband Thurston Moore.
31. Jamila Woods, Legacy! Legacy! – Like Solange and others, I am loving this melding of R&B and avant garde experimentalism.
32. Guided by Voices, Warp & Woof – While other GbV fans squabble over the early 2019 Zeppelin Over China or the late 2019 Sweating the Plague, I find this mid-year collection of 1- and 2-minute songs to be the most intriguing of all.
33. Bruce Springsteen, Western Stars – Quite an exceptional album from The Boss, even if over-orchestrated in spots, and only doesn’t make the top 20 because the new vanguard already has taken over.
34. Craig Finn, I Need a New War – Finn kicked out a new Hold Steady LP and EP in 2019, both of which were great, but his new solo album is really exceptional – just like his last two solos were.
35. Jenny Hval, The Practice of Love – Hval achieves the optimal balance of experimentalism and passion in a truly exceptional album.
36. Girlpool, What Chaos is Imaginary – It took a while for me to grasp where this queer duo was going, but now I’m all in.
37. The Twilight Sad, It Won’t Be Like This All the Time – While some find James Graham repetitiously morose in the manner of Arab Strap, there are songs like “I’m Not Here” in this collection that are simply magical.
38. SOAK, Grim Town – A remarkable step forward in SOAK’s sophomore album, a concept album of sorts.
39. Pere Ubu, The Long Goodbye – A powerful farewell for the Cleveland Dadaists, though they had strong competition this year preventing a Top 20 ranking. Props for covering the rare Neil Young song, “Running Dry.”
40. Santana, Africa Speaks – Who sez Carlos Santana is out of touch? Wow!
41. Mark Lanegan Band, Somebody’s Knocking – An unusual but rocking effort, occasionally dredging up the ghost of Joy Division.
42. Charli XCX, Charli – An impressive collection after a five-year hiatus, putting Charli back on the top of the pops.
43. Guided by Voices, Zeppelin Over China
44. Guided by Voices, Sweating the Plague – There are some who consider GbV’s Plague album to be best of the decade, but it emphasizes hard rock over power-pop, and I think GbV’s real power is in the pop.
45. Eilen Jewell, Gypsy – Jewell leaps from rockabilly and blues to a first-rate songwriter worth repeated listens.
46. The Muffs, No Holiday – What a way for Kim Shattuck to go out with a bang. Even better than David Berman’s last will and testament.
47. Joy Williams, Front Porch –- She’s still the better songwriter of the former Civil Wars, and this album proves it (though John Paul White is no slouch).
48. Caroline Polachek, Pang – Wow, what an intriguing solo work from the former lead singer of Chairlift.
49. Aldous Harding, Designer – I know some would rank Hannah/Aldous up there with King Princess or Solange for stage presence, but her breathy ethereal style seems more like Hatchie to me at times.
50. Not for Pussies, Into the East – A worthy return to the studio for this Scottish duo.
51. The Comet is Coming, Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery
52. The Comet is Coming, Afterlife – Could we classify these two albums as a unified single work? Not sure, but the Impulse! Label wants to call this British ensemble the future of free jazz. They’re a little more structured than that, more like Return to Forever or Mahavishnu Orchestra, but they’re certainly cool.
53. Taylor Swift, Lover – Maybe a bit fluffy in places, but she functions best in a sparkly pop environment, and this is so much better than the ill-conceived Reputation.
54. The Highwomen, s/t – Maybe this ensemble doesn’t have the harmonic range of other country women supergroups like I’m With Her, but Brandi Carlile and Maren Morris turn this into one kickass debut.
55. Priests, The Seduction of Kansas – A decided improvement from their first album, a shame this isn’t higher, as this album rocks.
56. Art Ensemble of Chicago, We Are On the Edge – A two-disc Mcompendium of everything that made the ensemble great since the mid-1960s. The only reason this doesn’t rank higher, is that with only two surviving members, this is really an album of Roscoe Mitchell and Famoudou Don Moye with a bunch of young whippersnappers – but it’s great.
57. Nick Cave, Ghosteen – This is supposed to be the culmination of the trilogy involving the death of his son, but over two discs, Nick gets a little too overstated compared to The Skeleton Tree. Still, a powerful work.
58. Bill Callahan, Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest – Callahan has a vast body of work under his own name and (smog), but here he proves that connubial bliss and a righteous life well-lived can lead to great songs, too.
59. Quelle Chris, Guns – Anyone who thinks Danny Brown is the quintessential sardonic hip-hop artist needs to hear Quelle Chris. Relevant, political, and vastly underappreciated.
60. Carly Rae Jepsen, Dedication – As much as she turned from “Call Me, Maybe” to critical darling, she still hovers on the outside edge of top-tier pop divas, but the sheer enthusiasm displayed in this album continues to make her important.
61. Marissa Nadler, Droneflower – An uusual “movie score’ project with Stephen Brodsky, maybe belonged in the Specials section, but super-cool in any event.
62. Campfire Flies, Sparks Like Little Stars – An intriguing high-harmony folk supergroup of sorts, with rough edges that serve to enhance the effort.
63. The Flesh Eaters, I Used to Be Pretty – The pre-X L.A. punk band returns, with some enhanced saxophone and long-form poetry to shake things up.
64. Shovels and Rope, By Blood – Folk-rock as a camp revival meeting only works if you’re rowdy. This works.
65. Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Colorado – Of course it’s wonderful to have Neil and Crazy Horse back together, and Neil’s lyrics are blistering in political finger-pointing, though as with other recent albums, he sometimes gets a little too pointed and preachy.
66. Heather Maloney, Soil in the Sky – Not quite as earth-shattering as her last EP, but any time Heather enters the studio is cause for celebration.
67. The Mountain Goats, In League with Dragons – I enjoy any time John Darnielle goes into the studio, though his topical excursions sometimes lose me.
68. Bon Iver, I,I -- Yeah, I really do think Justin Vernon is up to some cool stuff, though his experimentalism can lean to the pretentious at times.
69. Beth Bombara, Evergreen – Thanks to Wendy at Conqueroo for turning me on to a Grand Rapids native with an incredible portfolio of work.
70. Sasami, s/t – What an intriguing solo debut for this former keyboardist of Cherry Glazerr.
71. Cherry Glazerr – Stuffed and Ready – And speaking of Cherry Glazerr, Clementine Creevy is moving further into guitar goddess category.
72. Ariana Grande, Thank U, Next – A lot of people call this her peak work, but there’s a little too much self-assured picking on Pete and others for me to enjoy it as much as previous albums.
73. Bob Mould, Sunshine Rock – Good to see the Husker Du founder get happy – while staying relevant.
74. Joan Shelley, Like the River Loves the Sea – A return to the stripped-down acoustic music that fits this Kentucky songstress best.
75. Pernice Brothers, Spread the Feeling – Joe and Bob are back, with that Byrds/Jayhawks sound that fit the late 1990s so well, and sounds just fine in 2019.
76. Gang of Four, Happy Now – Strong political statements from Andy Gill, but arrangements are hit and miss.
77. Gary Clark, This Land – Easily Clark’s most powerful work, with some frank and potent lyrics.
78. Ex Hex, It’s Real – Mary Timony turns a little more toward hard-rock rock goddess in this album, but there ain’t nothing wrong with that!
79. Purple Mountains (s/t) – David Berman’s final work, a great project, but full of the sorrow that would eventually lead him to take his own life.
80. !!!, Wallop – A cool and complex work from NYC’s finest underground dance band.
81. Swans, Leaving Meaning – The latest in Michael Gira’s string of double-CD epics, with this one emphasizing poetry and chanting.
82. Cranberries, In the End – A fine remembrance for Dolores O’Riordan, crafted with love by her former bandmates.
83. Wendy Woo, Immigrant – Some strong self-disclosure and political statements from one of Denver’s most powerful guitar goddesses.
84. Sebadoh, Act Surprised – A great return of Lou Barlow to his best band project.
85. Tindersticks, No Treasure But Hope – A more jazzy, vibraphone-and-piano type of album for Stuart and the morose gang, and like the title implies, some glimmers of hope in the lyrics.
86. Wilco, Ode to Joy – In which Jeff Tweedy gets his Buddha on, with good results.
87. Mindi Abair and the Boneshakers, No Good Deed – A raucous album featuring one of the finest sax players around today.
88. The Pixies, Beneath the Eyrie – Frank has been sort of hit and miss since the band reunited, but this one works well.
89. Stella Donnely, Beware of Dogs – A truly wonderful southern Australia import.
90. Bat for Lashes, Lost Girls – A sci-fi experimental album for Natasha, though maybe not as arresting as her last two.
91. Dressy Bessy, Fast Faster Disaster – Tammy really expands both lyrics and arrangements on this one.
92. American Football, LP3 – Many have this in their Top 10, considering Mike Kinsella the future of shoegaze rock. I’m not quite as convinced, but I do like this album.
93. Rosali, Trouble Anyway – Some deep and complex rock from this Philadelphia singer-songwriter.
94. Ka Baird, Respires – Here’s a woman who uses breath and silences to optimal effect in her experimentalism. Cool stuff.
95. Southern Avenue, Keep On – Good to see some chunky blues-tinged rock bands this good.
96. Behavior, Spirits and Embellishments – One of L.A.’s more intriguing punk bands expands into hints of Pavement, Preoccupations, Bodega….
97. Vampire Weekend, Father of the Bride – Don’t get me wrong, I like this return to the studio, particularly the duos with Danielle Haim, but Ezra hasn’t totally left preppie-ville yet.
98. Maria Taylor, s/t -- Perhaps her most introspective and honest work. If this doesn’t make you cry, you’re unreachable.
99. Jessica Pratt, Quiet Songs – Sort of the equivalent of P.J. Harvey’s White Chalk. A work of minimalist beauty.
100. Filthy Friends, Emerald Valley – The ranking might suggest a sophomore slump, but Corin Tucker’s work here still outranks her work with Sleater-Kinney.
101. The Hold Steady, Thrashing Through the Passion – Really a great return to form, but sort of got overshadowed by Craig Finn’s solo work this year.
102. Of Monsters and Men, Fever Dream – Nice to see our cute Icelandic indies go all scary and serious on us.
103. Cage the Elephant, Social Cues – No longer the young Tennessee whippersnappers, but still interesting and relevant.
104. Deerhunter, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? – A very poppy and intriguing effort produced by Cate Le Bon, but it didn’t quite connect for me.
105. Lily Kershaw, Arcadia – An ethereal and erudite songwriter with a voice like Lana Del Rey.
106. The Yawpers, Human Question – Because sometimes brash and rowdy matters.
107. Titus Andronicus, An Obelisk – A return to near-greatness after a couple of dreary albums.
108. Buddy and Julie Miller, Breakdown on 20th Avenue – Given Julie’s health problems, the duo has come back in surprisingly strong form.
109. K. Flay, Solutions – I know, shoulda been higher, I love this woman’s transition from hip-hop to pop.
110. Trumans Water, Chevre Au Lait – These guys are my favorite Dadaists, and I’m just happy to see them back, though the chaotic sounds sometimes seem stuck in the 1990s.
111. Heavy Diamond Ring, s/t – Who says Esme Patterson was the heart of Denver’s former Paper Bird? Sarah Anderson carries the day on this excellent debut.
112. Florist, Emily Alone – A very cool, understated songwriter debut.
113. Joe Jackson, The Fool – Quite a great pop album by the master, despite the low ranking.
114. Beirut, Gallipoli – Nothing inherently wrong with this place-based travelogue from Zach Condon, just an occasional sense of drift.
115. Mekons, Deserted – Hooray, Mekons are back, and Sally in particular is sounding great! Needs to be higher, I know.
116. Yeasayer, Erotic Reruns – They may be a dance band first and foremost, but they sure are whip-smart and they sure are fun. Too bad this is apparently their swan song.
117. Faye Webster, Atlanta Millionaire’s Club – This woman is hard to characterize but all kinds of wonderful.
118. Karen Hagloff, Tobiano – A classic example of how to make something experimental and rocking simultaneously.
119. Claypool Lennon Delirium, South of Reality – A great way to get your Zappa-esque psychedelia on.
120. The Black Keys, Let’s Rock – Good to see this duo back, but they’re getting a bit overpriced and full of themselves.
121. Kevin Morby, Oh My God – Morby’s observations on spirituality are cool, but tend to drag on occasion.
122. Van Morrison, Three Chords – Probably deserves better, but Van’s been kicking out so much new material of late, it’s getting exhausting!
123. The Free Nationals, s/t – Is Anderson.Paak’s backup band as good in neo-soul as Durand Jones or Solid Bronze? Who cares, we all benefit!
124. Bobby Rush, Sitting On Top of the Blues – Proof that one can kick out an amazing blues album when one is well above 80 years old.
125. Frankie Cosmos, Close It Quietly -- Make no mistake, I love Greta Klein, though her observations tend to be a bit lite-pop at times.
126. Patty Griffin, s/t – A bit hippie-ish at times, but still an important work.
127. Charlie Faye and the Fayettes, The Whole Shebang – What a big passel of fun!
128. Lower Dens, The Competition – An interesting concept album on capitalism from Jana Hunter, though the anthemic sweep sounds too much like U2 at times.
129. Karen O and Dangermouse – Lux Prima – An intriguing collaboration, even if it’s quickly forgettable.
130. Bill Orcutt, Odds Against Tomorrow – It’s Orcutt guitar improvisation, and that’s really all you need to know.
131. Durand Jones and the Indications, American Love Call – Some outstanding retro-Motown originals here.
132. Sara Bareilles, Amidst the Chaos – Once you get past the Broadway production elements and occasionally overwrought lyrics, Bareilles can offer unique rhythms and stunning arrangements.
133. Those Pretty Wrongs, Zed for Zulu – Luther Russell and Jody Stevens (Big Star) have been so busy with their own solo projects lately, it was easy to overlook this duo release. Lots of good power-pop within.
134. Hatchie, Keepsake – A cool new artist, though a bit dream-poppy.
135. Madonna, Madame X – It could have been worse, she could have insisted she was a sex goddess in her sixties, instead we get sort of a “Where in the world is Carmen San Diego?” concept album – which has cool moments.
136. Rebecca Turner, The New Wrong Way – At first her Victoria Williams style of vocal phrasing can put one off, but these arrangements and lyrics are fascinating.
137. The Dead C, Rare Ravers – It’s always good to see our New Zealand noise experts back in the studio, though this seemed to meander a bit.
138. Weyes Blood, Titanic Rising – Many people had this in their top ten, and I wanted to like it much better, but Natalie is too Sarah-McLachlan-overproduction for me.
139. The Lumineers, III – As much as this band gets made fun of, this concept album on substance abuse has a lot going for it.
140. Hot Club of Cowtown, Wild Kingdom – Reminds me of the best days of Asleep at the Wheel, kickass tunes galore.
141. Le Butcherettes, Bi/Mental – Some cool ponderings and arrangements from Teri Gender Bender, probably should have been higher.
142. Grace Potter, Daylight – Her second solo work, with many good songs to recommend it.
143. Cass McCombs, Tip of the Spear – Starts out as one of his strongest works, but meanders a little toward the end.
144. Lambchop, This is What I Wanted to Tell You – Mixing Kurt Wagner and Autotune seems wrong, but somehow this works, though far different from most Lambchop albums.
145. Redd Kross, Beyond the Door – This latest reunion of the band that keeps coming back for more is their most power-pop work of all, sounding almost like Todd Rundgren at times.
146. We Are Not a Glum Lot, The Price of Simply Existing – Great to see Sam Erickson back on the circuit again, with guitar stylings a la Don Caballero and a lively bass on the side.
147. The Delines, Imperial – Almost got overlooked as an early January release, but a powerful juke-joint album.
148. Kyle Craft, Show Boat Honey – In which Craft evolves from a Mott the Hoople fast-talker to a country-tinged rocker. Intriguing.
149. The Head and The Heart, Living Mirage – The band takes an unfortunate turn to mainstream pop, but still manages interesting moments.
150. Xiu Xiu, Girl With Basket of Fruit – Normally I’d follow Jamie in any of the weird directions he’d take Xiu Xiu, but this seemed to be dark and strange just for the sake of being dark and strange.
151. Amelia White, Rhythm of the Rain – An overlooked and fascinating songwriter.
152. The Raconteurs, Help Us Stranger – Not that bad in the overall Jack White canon, but not earth-shattering either.
153. Andrew Bird, My Finest Work Yet – In some ways, the title isn’t that far-fetched, though his stylings seem to be the same in all albums.
154. Idea Fire Company, The Light That Never Ceases to Fail – While Karla Borecky’s piano still lingers front and center, this IFCO album seems more like a jazz trio in a late-night smoky club.
155. John Paul White, The Hurting Kind – While I’m glad he’s past the blame-placing over the demise of Civil Wars, he’s plowed into old-timey country, which is cool, but of less interest to me.
156. Drahla, Useless Coordinates – Probably the wildest trio to come out of Leeds in a long time, I probably should have given this one more due, but in any event, worth a listen.
157. Meat Puppets, Dusty Notes – A nice revival, though this mellower version of cowpunk can be sleepy at times.
158. DAWN, New Breed – Dawn Richard is really redefining 21st-century R&B, though she’s still better live. A worthy album still.
159. Iggy Pop, Power and Freedom – Sounds cool in theory, and a nice diversion from punk, but I wouldn’t turn to Iggy first for my existential philosophy.
160. US Nails, Life Cinema – Cool shout-out punk, though not life-changing.
161. Sleater-Kinney, The Center Won’t Hold – I won’t join the legions in saying I hate this album, though I am upset with Tucker and Brownstein for kicking Janet Weiss out of the band. The problem wasn’t St. Vincent’s production, the problem was that the band and producer just weren’t a good fit.
162. Pedro the Lion, Phoenix – A fine return to form, with excellent historical stories from the Valley of the Sun.
163. ELEPHANT9, Psychedelic Backfire, Vols. 1 and 2 – Just as it says, psychedelic chill-jazz, just right for certain parties.
164. Clinic, Wheeltappers and Shunters – Good to have the British comedic band back, though this seemed to lack a center.
165. Thom Yorke, Anima – Interesting moments, though this is a soundtrack and not a proper album from Radiohead’s founder.
166. Mini-Mansions, Guy Walks Into a Bar… -- Not as bad as I feared from this L.A. band, now that they’ve learned to stop taking themselves so seriously.
167. The Violent Femmes, Hotel Last Resort – It’s cool that Gordon Gano has turned VF into a jug band of sorts, though it limits what the band can do.
168. Jeff Tweedy, WARMER – Cool to get a second Warm volume as a Record Store Day release, though not a huge amount of substance.
169. Solid Bronze, The Fruit Basket – Some very cool psychedelic soul from New Jersey
170. Coldplay, Everyday Life – I want to acknowledge Chris Martin’s attempt to open up the band’s rigidity, but the earnestness keeps getting in the way.
171. Claude Fontaine, s/t – An odd breathy mix of samba and reggae, yet kind of cool in a way.
172. Luther Russell, Medium Cool – A solo effort and a duo project from Those Pretty Wrongs, all in one year!
173. Tiny Ruins, Olympia Girls – A fine songwriter-pop effort.
174. Jimmy Eat World, Surviving – The title says it all, more treading water than anything else.
175. Silversun Pickups, Widow’s Weeds – I want to give this L.A. band the breaks, but this isn’t one of the more interesting albums.
176. Davendra Banhart, Ma – An ode to mothers that is mostly throwaway.
177. Battles, Juice B Crypts – Battles has now shrunk to a duo, which makes its meld of jazz and electronica more difficult in practice, though still worth hearing.
178. The Schramms, Omnidirectional – Although Dave Schramm is from Yo La Tengo, this seventh album by Schramms has more of a Decemberists-but-poppier feel.
179. Tedeschi-Trucks Band, Signs – A cool tribute to lost blues friends.
180. Beck, Hyperdrive – Look, I don’t care if he’s a Scientologist or not, I just care that his chameleon identities are getting squishy. This has the sweet harmonies of Sea Change, but all layered in psychedelia-lite.
181. Olden Yolk, Living Theater – A side project of the Quilt founder, still psychedelic, but with folk influences thrown in.
182. Kinky Friedman, Resurrection – Some worthy political observations from Mr. Friedman, but without that wild fire from the Texas Jewboys days.
183. Hot Chip, Bath Full of Ecstasy – As usual, Hot Chip provides a healthy serving of dance, but not nearly as convincing as !!! or Yeasayer.
184. Glen Hansard, This Wild Willing – Some worthy steps forward from his last two solo outings, but he’s still wallowing in some self-pity.
185. Fastball, The Help Machine – Hey, we need to apologize to Fastball for lumping the band in the 1990s one-hit-wonders category. This reunion is really good!
186. The River Arkansas, Any Kind of Weather – A new outing by Mike Clark, which is always good no matter which project he’s working on.
187. Avey Tare, Crows on Hourglass Pond
188. Panda Bear, Buoys – In the case of both Avey Tare and Panda Bear, I just didn’t get a lot out of Animal Collective members’ solo works this year.
189. Feels, Post Earth – A cool conceptual album by this L.A. punk-electronic band.
190. Gary Nicholson, The Great Divide
191. Whitey Johnson, More Days Like This – If nothing else, it was an audacious and interesting move for pop producer Gary Nicholson to simultaneously release an album under his own name, and an album as imaginary blues artist Whitey Johnson. Is anyone thinking of Hari Kunzru’s White Tears here?
192. Black Mountain, Destroyer – I’ve always liked these guys, but recent band departures have made them sound more run-of-the-mill hard rock.
193. Vandoliers, Forever – A fine half-major-label release for these juke joint rockers.
194. Broken Social Scene, Let’s Try the After, Parts 1 and 2 – This might have ranked higher if I would have treated it as two separate EPs, but as much as I love this Canadian supergroup, this effort was sort of meh.
195. Richard X. Heyman, Pop Circles – Fun explorations in three-minute pop.
196. Lee “Scratch” Perry, Rainford – The legendary reggae producer goes avant garde, sort of.
197. James Blake, Assume Form – As much as I appreciate Blake using sincerity as a means of staying fresh, this album treats itself far too seriously.
198. Frank Hurricane, Life is Spiritual – Frank has a tendency to either be too hippie-spiritual or too comedic in delivery, but if you’re good with that, this one is interesting.
199. Vivian Girls, Memory – Many people are cheering the return of this early-2000s riot grrl outfit, but they sound too fuzzy to me.
200. Harry Styles, Fine Line – Honestly, this former boy-band 1 Direction member put out a fine debut album, and his appearance on SNL was impressive, but this second album sort of meanders.
201. Mac de Marco, Here Comes the Cowboy – Pretty solid, but not as memorable as some of his earlier works.
202. Chris Cohen, s/t – This is the third album from this member of Deerhoof, and actually pretty fine singer-songwriter material.
203. Modern Nature, How to Live – These British newcomers have cornered a market on neo-hippie transcendentalism, though that gets my snarky side up.
204. Hozier, Wasteland Baby! – Since I was never a huge Hozier fan, I didn’t have to experience any sense of letdown. Some cool references to 60s and 70s icons here, maybe too much to establish originality credentials.
205. Stephen Malkmus, Groove Denied – Since this was a long suppressed electronica effort from the Pavement founder, it almost belongs in the specials section, but its worth is mostly as an eclectic change in style.
206. Oumar Konate, I Love You Inna – A cool new studio work from Mali’s most popular guitarist.
207. Lust for Youth, s/t – A must for fans of 1980s coldwave of the OMD/Depeche Mode variety.
208. The Morning Line, North – An intriguing sweet-suite of folk-rock-pop numbers.
209. DBUK, Songs 9-16 – This is mostly cowboy-tinged avant garde for fans of Slim Cessna and Munly. Odd but effervescent.
210. Sir Richard Bishop, Carte Blanche – Although I love material from any member of Sun City Girls, this one just sort of meandered for me.
211. Menagerie, Chama – Cool southern Colorado jams with a sense of humor.
212. Danny Brown, uknowhatimsayin? – Many people wanted to jump on this as some great sardonic and comedic hip-hop, but honestly, this seemed as dark and depressing as his previous Atrocity Exhibition work.
213. Jason James, Seems Like Tears Ago – Some good retro 1950s-style country, with decent songwriting behind it.
214. Blanck Mass, Animated Violence Mild – Some interesting electronica, but easy to lose interest.
215. Drunken Prayer, Cordelia Elsewhere – Morgan Geer of Freakwater offers up some fine comical country-rock.
216. John Xerxes Fussell, Out of Sight – A diverse batch of tunes worth repeated listens.
217. Foxygen, Seeing Other People –Remember when Jeff Tweedy promoted Foxygen as the future of pop and rock? Their arrogance was bound to catch up with them.
218. Will Kimbrough, I Like It Down Here – Some nice blues-influenced roots writing.
219. The Avett Brothers, Closer Than Together – I want to avoid poking fun at this immensely popular Americana band, but really, they often make it easy.
220. Drugdealer, Raw Honey – This might have been a better album if it wasn’t so bouncy-happy. Not to be a Debbie Downer here, but sparkle-pop often doesn’t work.
221. Hedvig Mollestad Trio, Smells Funny – You have to give them credit for even attempting the genre of comical metal, and there’s a lot of cool stuff going on.
222. Fitz & The Tantrums, All the Feels – The best Tantrums singles like “Out of My League” are certainly fun, but the band seems extremely programmed, like a marketing experiment.
223. John Fusco, X-Road Riders – Some cool roots material within.
224. Bibio, Ribbons – Some swear by this British electronic artist’s ambient work, but it sounds a bit Windham Hill to me.
225. Homeshake, Helium – Another electronica work that is sort of OK.
Special Albums (Live, Compilations, Splits, CD-Rs, MP3, etc.) (Of special interest was the reissue of all later Steve Goodman albums this year, though not eligible since not dominated by new material)
1. Our Native Daughters, s/t -- Rhiannon Giddens worked overtime in 2019, putting out a fine solo album as well as collaborating with a group of African-American banjo-pickin’ women for a roots album unlike anything else that has gone on before. If you don’t think slavery culture in the pre-Civil War era played a key role in folk and country, it’s time for a history lesson.
2. Various Artists, Tiny Changes – What began as a tribute to Frightened Rabbit’s Midnight Organ Fight shifted gears following the suicide of Frightened Rabbit’s singer/songwriter Scott Hutchinson in 2018. Some remarkable covers of some unforgettable songs.
3. Patti Smith and the Soundwalk Collective, Peyote Dance
4. Patti Smith and Soundwalk, Mummer Love – Parts 1 and 2 of a trilogy Smith and friends planned for French surrealist poets. Parts 1 and 2 honor Artaud’s time in Mexico with peyote shamans, and Rimbaud’s time in Ethiopia with Sufis. Utterly fascinating. Don’t ask what Patti Smith has done in rock music, she’s far beyond that now.
5. Laurie Anderson, Jesse Paris Smith, and Tenzin Choegyal, Songs from the Bardo – Laurie, meanwhile, teams up with Patti’s daughter Jesse and a Tibetan musician to present readings/music from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Notice how much Laurie and Patti begin to sound like each other when reading from spiritual works. This album has some otherworldly repetition, as one would expect from a ritual piece, but it’s fascinating.
6. Deral Fenderson, Dressing Up – Those who have heard him cover Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Two-Headed Boy” know that Deral Fenderson can generate mighty covers. Here he ranges as wide as Daniel Johnston, Cat Stevens. Pere Ubu, and Prince.
7. Leonard Cohen, Thanks for the Dance – I was so afraid this would be leftover studio noodlings, but several songs are better than anything from You Want It Darker. This is Cohen’s true final studio work.
8. Harry Nilsson, Losst and Founnd – And where the hell did this come from? 1993, to be precise, but left unreleased for 25 years. A fine Nilsson bookend.
9. Negativland, True/False – An analysis of pattern-matching, paranoia, and fake news, one of the finest Negativland releases ever, and essential listening for these deranged times.
10. San Fermin, Live at the Fillmore – The best thing to come out of Record Store Day 2019, and a final chance to hear Charlene Kaye before she left the band. Breathtaking.
11. The National, Juicy Sonic Magic: Live at the Greek cassette box – A three-cassette compilation of a Berkeley show by The National, released for Black Friday. Not just a gimmick, but a wonderful live set.
12. Julia Wolfe and the New York Philharmonic, Fire In My Mouth – An oratorio for the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Remarkable, though I want the video of the performance.
13. Bodega, Witness Scroll – A live album to complement the band’s 2018 debut, though we still don’t have a recording of the stunning “How Did This Happen?”
14. Nils Lofgren, Blues for Lou – As a prelude to Lofgren getting back with Crazy Horse, we get a solo album with new recordings of songs Lofgren wrote with Lou Reed back in the 1980s. Cool as fuck.
15. Sheryl Crow, Threads – The most impressive this year in a trio of middle-aged women rock stars releasing covers/duets. If this is truly Crow’s final album, she left us with quite a testament.
16. Car Seat Headrest, Commit Yourself Completely – This live set from 2018 desperately needs a physical media release, but Matador Records evidently is not committing itself completely to Will Toledo’s amazing body of work.
17. The Accidentals, Live – This is more a “live in studio” work than collections from live performances, but there’s all kinds of new originals and covers, so it’s well worth the search.
18. LCD Soundsystem, Live at Electric Lady Studios – Like the Patti Smith and Kills albums at Electric Lady that came before, this is not a true live album, but it’s a heckuva way to present LCD Soundsystem’s greatest hits.
19. Mercury Rev and Friends, The Delta Sweete – A multi-musician tribute to Bobbie Gentry and the little-known album she released after “Ode to Billie Joe.” Lucinda Williams’ cover of “Ode” is more powerful than the songs from Delta Sweete proper, but it’s a worthy effort anyway.
20. Chrissie Hynde, Valve Bone Woe – This has more continuity than the Sheryl Crow album because of the standard session musicians, but the interpretations of old classics are sometimes overstuffed. Nice to know Hynde’s voice is in fine shape, though.
21. New Order, Live with Liam Gillick – This is the album from the Manchester studios that first introduced Joy Division to the world, and it features an “orchestra of synthesizers” sound. It doesn’t always come off well, but the version of “Bizarre Love Triangle” is alone worth the price.
22. John McCutcheon, Sings Pete Seeger – Pete has long needed his own tribute, and it might as well be McCutcheon.
23. Circuit des Yeux, Reaching for Indigo Live: Gaia Infinitus – Recorded with members of the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, but except for one song, it’s largely a full-ensemble recording of Haley Fohr’s 2017 masterpiece.
24. Cate Le Bon, Live at Kings Place, London – Before the release of Reward, Le Bon did a limited tour of minimalist piano works. Stunning.
25. Chip and Tony Kinman, Sounds Like Music – The founders of The Dils, Rank and File, and Blackbird, have needed a compilation of unreleased material for a while. Here it is.
26. Juliana Hatfield, Sings the Police – I have stuck with Hatfield when others dismiss her, though she does veer in strange directions. Her album of Olivia Newton John covers was a bridge too far for me, but this one ain’t bad.
27. Steve Earle, Guy – This tribute to Guy Clark should have been better, but seemed listless in places. Pity.
28. Bill Evans, Evans in England – Dredging up an unknown 1960s set from the esoteric jazz pianist.
29. Diane Cluck, Live at Trans-Pecos Sept. 20, 2019 – A compassionate and intimate set previewing some songs from Cluck’s upcoming 2020 album.
30. New Riders of the Purple Sage, Thanksgiving in New York City – A long overdue double CD of a fascinating 1972 set, though like many country-bluegrass-rock acts of the time, it occasionally shows its age.
31. The Empty Pockets, Live in Seattle – A wonderful tight set from a Chicago folk-rock band more people should know.
32. Lone Justice, Live at the Palomino – In combination with studio sessions released in 2018, this completes the output of a fascinating country-rock band in the early 1980s that disappeared way too soon.
33. NRBQ, Turn On Tune In – A CD/DVD set of radio shows in 2015 and 2017. Great fun with basic roots rock.
34. The Pernice Brothers, Live at Mercury Café, Oct. 20, 2019 – Joe and Bob Pernice are back! Selections from their new album, and great interpretations of some 1990s work.
35. Richard Thompson, Soundtrack for the Cold Blue – A 19-track instrumental work for a film on the pilots of Flying Fortresses in WW2. Beautiful in its own way.
36. TuNe-YaRdS, Score for “Sorry to Bother You” – This film already had a soundtrack featuring The Coup, but here Merrill Garbus gives us the background score.
1. Lil Nas X, “Old Town Road,” – Yes, of course it deserved the sensation, but the real key will be whether this begins more country/hip-hop mashups, or remains a one-shot.
2. Bodega, Shiny New Model – This is long enough to be considered an album, but the band calls it an EP. In any case, it shows more of the sheer genius that came out of the Brooklyn ensemble’s 2018 debut.
3. Lizzo, Coconut Oil – OK, a reissue of earlier material, but this EP was so hard to come by except streaming, it’s great to have it on vinyl.
4. Cheap Perfune, Burn It Down – This punk band continues in the footsteps of bands like Crass and Bikini Kill in putting politics to practical work,
5. Spirettes, Esoteria – A leap beyond the first EP, featuring Lisa’s fine cello work to augment the songwriting of Kate and Kellie.
6. Lucy Dacus, 2019 – An intriguing collection of covers and new originals, loosely arranged around holidays in 2019.
7. John Spengler, What Would You Change? – This second EP features sharper and more sardonic lyrics (“The [Other] Wall”), as well as horn arrangements from Jeremy Van Hoy.
8. Cinema Cinema, CCXMD – With the addition of saxophones, these guys reach a level of crazy rarely heard since Pere Ubu’s debut.
9. Phoebe Bridgers with Fiona Apple and Matt Berninger, “Silent Night/7 O’Clock News” – I’m not much for Christmas releases, but this cover and update of the Simon & Garfunkel song is amazing.
10. Heazza, s/t – This Chicago song-stylist is remarkable m, and her debut EP shows why - maybe a bit overproduced in places, but sounding like a cross between Norah Jones and Lady Gaga.
11. Disturbed Furniture, Continuous Pleasure – A long-lost Brooklyn art-punk band returns to the land of the living.
12. Joan Shelley, Rivers and Vessels – This collection of covers and originals sort of got overshadowed by her new album, but it’s impressive.
13. The Hold Steady, Four On Ten – Four outtakes from Thrashing Thru the Passion, all good.
14. Jonatha Brooke, Imposter – Brooke, like Anais Mitchell, has been spending a lot of time as director and playwright of late, so it’s good to see her return to the recording studio.
15. Eric Bachmann, “Misinformation Age’ – Like Negativland, it’s good to see Bachmann speak out against the madness. Looking forward to his reunion of Archers of Loaf in 2020.
16. Norah Jones, Begin Again – An eclectic and fun collection that shows the breadth of her references.
17. Death Cab for Cutie, Blue EP – Although the title might make one guess depressing and slow, this is some of Death Cab’s most raucous music in years,
18. Jackie and the Racket, Gold Digger – The best hell-raisin’ honky tonk since Lyin’ Bitch and the Restraining Orders.
19. Bridges Will Break, I Was a Commodity – Almost a concept EP of sorts, exploring with topics Lower Dens and others covered this year.