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Best of 2019

December 30, 2019

There was a lot of great music in 2019, but this is a year that I am hard-pressed to single out an album that I can call the best.  I have a lot of favorites to share with you in no particular order.

Grace Potter – Daylight 

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I am a long time fan of Grace Potter.  This may be her best album to date.  In a different era, or if she was a “he,” Potter would be a big star.  The original post is here.

Yola – Walk Through Fire 

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I love podcasts.  Without a recent Broken Record podcast, I would not have discovered this album. The album is country-ish, but it is also soulful. It has a retro sound, but not the tired retro-soul sound that has been played to death over the last decade. It is more of a country-pop sound from the 60s. Think of Patsy Cline from the past or a southern fried Adele from today. The best comparison is Mavis Staples, who always seems comfortable with a bit of country in her soul music.  The original post is here.

Green Lung – Woodland Rites

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I never got around to writing a post about this album.  One of the best things I have done on Instagram has been to follow hashtags – I have discovered so many cool things from that.  The album cover for Green Lung’s Woodland Rites showed up in my Instagram feed and it caught my attention. I decided to give it a listen and instantly loved it. It reminded me of Ozzy-era Black Sabbath.  Physical versions are hard to obtain (there is not a domestic release), but it is available on streaming services.

Sturgill Simpson Sound And Fury 

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Sturgill’s last album, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth, was my favorite album of 2016.  Sturgill’s latest is an outright rock record, southern rock, but rock all the same.  With Sound & Fury, Simpson makes the case that he is going to have a Neil Young type career: throwing knuckleballs that have wicked movement. One moment heavy metal and the next bouncy bubblegum. Somehow those juxtapositions work and are oddly seamless.  Simpson can shred like Neil too.  The original post is here.

Lana Del Rey Norman Fucking Rockwell 

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Lana Del Rey has been around for a while now (her debut album came out in 2010). I feel like I should be a fan:

  • I take female artists seriously (Joni Mitchell rivals Dylan for my favorite artist)
  • I am a big fan of current female pop stars
  • I love dreamy slow songs
  • Mazzy Star is one of my favorite bands
  • Cat Power’s The Greatest is one of my favorite albums

But somehow LDR has never really resonated with me.  But this album has hooked me, it is dreamy and petulant. Dare I say that LDR sounds like a millennial Joni Mitchell? She sounds nothing like Mitchell, but evokes her spirit: spilling her soul in that direct, yet oblique Joni way. Sonically the very modern production makes subtle nods to Laurel Canyon’s 70s soft rock.  I like it enough that I am now backtracking through her catalog.

Bon Iver i,i 

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I like this album more than their last album (22, A Million). That album was a major shift from the folk sound of their prior two albums to a harsher more electronic sound. i, i sounds like the perfect reconciliation of their first two albums with 22, A Million.  The original post is here.

Thom Yorke Anima

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This is my favorite vinyl packaging of 2019 and is it my favorite Thom Yorke recording outside of Radiohead.  Anima lands squarely in the electronic soundscapes that solo-Yorke has worked in since his debut solo album The Eraser in 2006. It alternates between infectious dance numbers and dirges (sometimes in the same song). Ultimately, this is dream music. Not only dreamy sounding, but I assume we are getting a peek at Yorke’s unconscious mind on this album.

Yorke developed Anima with longtime Radiohead producer and collaborator Nigel Godrich via studio work and live shows. It was accompanied by a 15-minute short film directed by Paul Thomas Anderson released on Netflix.  The film complements the album and the album complements the film.  The original post is here.

Jessy Wilson Phase 

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Thank goodness for warm-up acts.  If Jessy had not warmed up for Gary Clark Jr. I would have never discovered her.  If you need categories, I will say this is a combination of soul music and psychedelic rock. If you don’t need categories, file this under good music. In addition to being an engaging performer, Jessy is a songwriter; she is the whole package.  The original post is here.

Bruce Springsteen Western Stars

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I should never underestimate the masters of the classic rock era.  Bruce is still very much in the game. This is an outstanding album – it may be his best since The Rising in 2002 and rivals his glory days. This is an interesting tweak on the Springsteen sound: an orchestra and pedal steel. Where Bruce used to use the E Street Band or synths, he is now using an orchestra and pedal steel. It does not sound saccharine, it sounds sweet.  This really works.  The original post is here.

J.S. Ondara Tales Of America 

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I am always amazed that there is a gem hiding in your own back yard. Ondara came to Minnesota to find the muse of Bob Dylan. He was twenty and not even a serious musician. He dove in headfirst to become a singer-songwriter and six years later he has a major label LP release. I won’t even try to recap the story – it is better told other places.  If it was fiction, it would be preposterous. The songs are pop-folk with great hooks, think of a contemporary Simon and Garfunkel. This is an amazing debut, it is confident and mature.  The original post is here.

The Black Keys Let’s Rock 

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The Black Keys have been on hiatus for a few years.  There are no innovations here, just good rocking music. The dirty riffs have just enough sweetening (a keyboard here, a backup vocalist there) to go down easy. The Black Keys remind me of AC/DC – not that they sound like them – but that they have found a signature groove and consistently delivered quality rock music for nearly twenty years now. This is just another reliable chapter in the Black Keys story.  The original post is here.

Kishi Bashi Omoiryai 

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I can’t tell you how many times I have selected an album purely based on album art. Before the internet, I discovered new music on the radio, reading magazines and based on reputation.  Catchy cover art was also one of my ways of discovering new music. It happens less frequently in this streaming age, but it still happens. Kishi Bashi’s Omoiyari is a recent example.

What I hear on the album (both in the music and the words) are longing and romance.  The music is beautiful, Bashi has gorgeous melodies decorated in elaborate arrangements.  I hear Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, and Paul Simon – Bashi’s vocals are ethereal.  The original post is here.

Black Pumas Black Pumas 

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This is slow-burning soul – in the quiet storm tradition. Great vocals, sophisticated arrangements (that are not too busy) and tasty guitar work.  The original post is here.

The National I Am Easy To Find 

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On paper, I should be a huge The National fan (an algorithm would say so), however, their work has never resonated with me. I did not hate The National’s music – it bored me.  I heard the teaser singles and I liked it enough to listen to the new album when it dropped. I am no expert on The National, but it seems like a new sound for them – not boring, but exquisitely weird. This is a great album and I think I could now become a fan.  The original post is here.

Maren Morris Girl

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This is my least favorite album cover art of 2019 – it undermines Morris.  Despite Morris’ pop production and looking like a teenager, this is adult music (she is 29 so this should not be a surprise). There are fourteen songs here – even more impressive is that there is no filler material. There are some hit songs here, but every song is good – there is not a stinker on the album. The original post is here.

Maggie Rogers Heard It In A Past Life

Maggie Rogers enchanted me in 2019.  Maggie Rogers fuses a folkie singer-songwriter groove with EDM in a totally natural way.  It sounds familiar and unique at the same time.  The original post is here.

Vampire Weekend Father Of The Bride

 

Vampire Weekend has been quiet for a few years and lost a key member (Rostam Batmanglij) and so I was concerned if they would still have it.  The new album is terrific: poppy, quirky and as ambitious as ever. It is not out of character with its three predecessor LPs.  The original post is here.

Tedeschi Trucks Band Signs

The band is not mining new ground here, just continuing to craft high quality and perfectly executed blues-rock as they have on their previous live and studio albums. If you miss the Allman Brothers, this album will fill that hole. The original post is here.

Jenny Lewis On The Line

On the Line is clearly Jenny Lewis, but not The Voyager II (despite similar torso branding on the cover. It’s something altogether different – not radically different, but it is its own thing. The Voyager was Jenny’s Court And Spark – a California Laurel Canyon pop folk-rock masterpiece. Super accessible, yet uncompromising. On the Line is edgier. It is a rock record, lest we forget Lewis’s origin as an indie-rocker. The original post is here.

Bob Mould Sunshine Rock

This album uses the classic Bob Mould power trio, occasionally augmented (perfectly) with strings and keys. It is a difficult time for rock, having fallen out of fashion, but Mould has pulled off a miracle 40 years into his career: a perfect pop-punk album – authentic and enthusiastic.  The original post is here.

Gary Clark Jr. This Land

This may be my favorite Gary Clark Jr. album. This LP is all over the map: classic rock, the blues, R&B, punk, reggae, Prince, and hip-hop infused neo-soul. Despite the stylistic chaos, there is cohesion. That cohesion is the total persona of Gary Clark Jr. He has become a rock star. No simple accomplishment in these times. The original post is here.

Tyler Childers Country Squire

This is an amazing album and puts Childers in the same class as my contemporary oddball country heroes Sturgill Simpson and Margo Price. I am smitten and a little embarrassed I am so late to the party (this is Childers’ third album).  The original post is here.

The Who Who

This is only the fourth studio album since Keith Moon passed in 1978. I have enjoyed all those post-Moon albums, but this may be their best and most cohesive of the four. They have somehow updated their sound without compromising who they are. They use modern recording techniques like pitch correction artistically and lean on their classic synth loops without sounding dated. Most of all they sound unmistakably like The Who. The original post is here.

Circles Around The Sun Circles Around The Sun Meets Joe Russo 

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The EP has a mellow vibe, and as usual, Neal Casal’s playing is tasteful. For a set of improvised instrumental jams, this has a very composed and arranged feel. It has less of a Grateful Dead flavor than their other two albums. Instead, it has more of a 70s jazz-rock groove – it reminds me of a sedated Return To Forever. For me, keyboardist Adam MacDougall is the star of this session. He plays multiple keyboards and it feels like the rest of the band is supporting his riffs and melodies. I like that this EP has a more original sound than their first two releases and my only complaint is that it is an EP versus an LP, that is, it is too short.  The original post is here.

Wilco Ode To Joy

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After a short break from touring and recording, Wilco is back with their 11th album (and on the road).  Ode To Joy is a quiet and mellow album. It has a late-night dozing off groove – in a good way.  This album does not stray far from the Wilco template the band has been honing since 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. But that is alright with me. That template allows for endless clever iterations. Ode To Joy is another successful entry in the Wilco catalog.  I recently saw Wilco live and they are playing the hell out of this album (8 songs out of 29 song set). The songs work well live and weave nicely with the rest of the Wilco catalog.

Norah Jones Begin Again

I am just getting to this album now after plucking it from the used bin at the Electric Fetus a few months ago. I was reminded of it on the Broken Record podcast.

I am not sure how this got so low on my listening list. I typically buy Norah the day it comes out. I was a Norah Jones fan even before I knew who she was – I was hooked by the cover of Roxy Music’s “More Than This” she did with guitarist Charlie Hunter on his 2001 release Songs from the Analog Playground. I was an early adopter of Jones. On the strength of her work with Charlie Hunter, I bought Come Away With Me on release day in early 2002. That album eventually sold 27 million copies. A rare moment I was ahead of the wave. To add to the shame, two of the seven cuts on Begin Again Jones co-wrote with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy (a member of my musician Mt. Rushmore).  Now that I have given it a good listen, this is a delightful EP.

The Claypool Lennon Delirium South Of Reality

I am not a Les Claypool/Primus fan nor a Sean Lennon fan. I heard Sean Lennon on a WTF Podcast this past summer and was intrigued enough after that to give the recent Claypool Lennon Delirium album South Of Reality a listen. I liked it – enough to pick it up on vinyl.

So what the hell is this? Imagine if John Lennon fronted Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd with a really heavy bass player and a touch of weird humor.  If you dig 60s psychedelic rock you will like this album. The album cover pretty much says it all.

Tool Fear Inoculum

I really like the new Tool album. I am not much of a Tool fan and I am not sure why. I enjoyed 2001’s Lateralus, but it never prompted me to explore the rest of their catalog. Their combination of metal, prog and psychedelic rock should be right up my alley. There is a lot of music to consume and so it is inevitable that some great ones will get missed.

Fear Inoculum sounds like Metallica on the nod. Imagine if Metallica’s “One” was representative of their catalog. This album is a metal quiet storm. Fear Inoculum is slow and brooding, yet not sludgy. I really appreciate how the album is engineered: huge drums and lots of space.  I am not a lyric guy, so I have no idea what the songs are about. But I sure do like the sound of singer Maynard James Keenan’s voice.

Chris Robinson Brotherhood Servants Of The Sun

I have been grooving on the Chris Robinson Brotherhood (CRB) since their 2012 debut Big Moon Ritual. If you are not familiar with the band, Chris Robinson was the vocalist for the Black Crowes. Rather than the Faces inspired blues-rock that was the basis for the Crowes’ successful debut (it sold over five million copies), the CRB is Grateful Dead inspired jam rock. For me, the main features are Chris Robinson’s bluesy vocals, Neal Casal’s psychedelic guitar and Adam MacDougall’s wall of funky keyboards.

Servants of the Sun is more of the same from the CRB and that is all right with me because I can’t get enough. They have been remarkably consistent and prolific (this is their sixth studio album). On the surface, this band sounds relaxed and easy-going. But the more carefully you listen the more you realize the band’s complexity and sophistication. It is the musical equivalent to a basketball layup vs. a slam dunk – keeping in mind that both options only result in two points. I prefer the subtlety of the layup to the aggression and arrogance of the slam dunk. Despite their jam-band vibe, they are not about showy solos. Everything is in service to the song.

If you are a Deadhead, specifically from Wake of the Flood to Shakedown Street you are going to dig the CRB. Servants of the Sun is as good a place to start as any of their albums.

Taylor Swift Lover

Taylor Swift is good at being a pop star. She knows how to stoke the star-making machine, she puts on epic over the top live shows and she can write and perform quality pop songs. This is a solid collection of catchy pop songs. What more do you want?

Atmosphere Whenever

I am a loyal Atmosphere fan and so I listen to all their stuff. I really appreciate that they continue to create quality new material nearly a quarter-century into their career. They are not trying to be stars, but trying to serve their tribe. They have managed to create a nice little niche in the hip hop world. There is nothing innovative here, just fine craftsmanship and that is ok with me. This is sonic comfort food.  Don’t think of that as a dis, this is a very good album.

Replacements Dead Man’s Pop

I liked Don’t Tell A Soul when it came out. I did not really notice the 80s production at the time or even now until I heard this mix by the album’s original producer, Matt Wallace.  After that, I realized how wrong the original mix was.  The remix is a revelation and moves Don’t Tell A Soul from a good album to a great album.   In addition to the remix, the collection includes outtakes from the Don’t Tell A Soul era and a live show.  If you are a Replacements fan, this is a must-have.

Bob Dylan Travelin’ Thru, 1967 – 1969: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 15

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This latest entry to the Bob Dylan Bootleg series focuses on Dylan’s work in Nashville with Johnny Cash – the period that created John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline, and Self Portrait.  The gems here are Dylan and Cash playing together.  The whole collection is only available if you buy it, but a sample is available on streaming services to give you a little taste.

Prince 1999 Super Deluxe

When 1999 was released in 1982 Prince was overflowing in creativity. In addition to releasing a double album, Prince released albums from his side projects The Time and Vanity Six. 1999 was Prince’s first big success.

1999 has recently been reissued as a 10 disk box set. It includes a remastered original, all the B sides from that era, a bunch of previously unreleased material and a live show. The revelation for me was the unreleased material – there is a lot of quality material here.

Fortunately, it is all available on streaming services so even if you aren’t a Prince completist willing to pay $250 for the vinyl edition, there is no reason not to check this mega release.

The Highwomen The Highwomen

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The Highwomen is a country supergroup composed of  Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris, and Amanda Shires.  For me, the album coincided with my recent connecting with the music of Maren Morris and Brandi Carlile – both of which I witnessed live in 2019.  These are great songs, great performances and great production by David Cobb.

Brittany Howard Jaime

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Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes fame released a solo album in 2019.  It is wonderfully odd and personal. The album includes easy to listen to pop songs along with more challenging alternative rock songs, but it is always interesting.

Harry Styles – Fine Line 

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It is not as good as the debut, it is not bad, it is not a step forward, it is a bit of a step backward. However, when you are Harry Styles, even your second-best work is damn good. I am just having fun with the album – it’s a blast. It is pop cotton candy and I love cotton candy.

Well, that is a wrap – sorry it was so long, but there was a lot of great music this year.  I don’t pretend to suggest this is the best music released in 2019 – only what I was exposed to and what resonated with me.  As I look at other year-end lists I am amazed at how much I missed. I hope you find something on this list that will bring you pleasure.

 

3 Comments
  1. I often like similar things to you, so planning to check out some of these like the Tyler Childers and Maggie Rogers records.

  2. As usual you’ve given me some new listening and heads up on familiar people.

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