The Top 100 Albums of the 2010s (100-96)

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So I just finished reviewing my 100 favorite albums from the 1990s, a process I began in 2011, as a relatively energetic guy in his early thirties excited about reevaluating the music of his youth. It took me NINE YEARS to finish it, which of course meant that by the time it was done, another decade had elapsed, which meant I had another 100-album list on the docket. I’m a lethargic 41 now, so I considered waiting a few months to start writing about my favorite LPs of the 2010s. The conversation went a little something like this:

“Time to get right back on that 100 album horse,” the sad, honey-voiced cowboy that lives in my mind said to me, right after I declared Björk’s Post the #1 album of the ’90s.

“Do I hafta, Dusty?” I responded, lisping just a little bit like Brian from Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (see image below) in hopes of melting down his resolve. (Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that my mind-cowboy’s name is Dusty Sleeves.)

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“You have to,” Dusty responded. “Some folk were born to break horses, or till the land, or paint pictures that make grown men cry. You, you were meant to make lists. Lists that feed your malignant narcissism because they make your opinion seem important. Lists that feed the compulsive urge to organize the chaos that runs rampant on this good-for-nothin’ blue marble we call Earth.”

“Gee Dusty, you’re mighty ornery and depressin’ sometimes!” I responded.

“Well Sweensryche, consider that I’m trapped in the tumbleweeds of your mind for eternity. It ain’t exactly a picnic.”

“Sorry about that Dusty! I’ll try to mentally project a basket of cucumber sandwiches, and send it your way. But I gotta say goodbye for now! The Top 100 Albums of 2010 ain’t gonna write itself!”

“Well aren’t you just going to basically repurpose reviews you already wrote?”

“Shut up Dusty! This is ALL NEW CONTENT.”

“But little britches, lying is not gon—”

“I said… SHUT UP.”

[silence]

And now, without further ado, enjoy the first five entries of my Top 100 Albums of the 2010s!

Love-loss--and-autotune-by-Swamp-Dogg100. Swamp Dogg – Love, Loss and Auto-Tune (2018)

By the time an artist gets around to releasing their 22nd album, the best we can usually expect is a respectable return to form under the guidance of a savvy producer – a Time Out of Mind or American Recordings. But since he began dropping eccentric cult R&B records under the name Swamp Dogg in 1970, Jerry Williams Jr. has done anything but what we’d expect. True to its title, Love, Loss and Auto-Tune layers Williams’s beautifully weathered tenor in pitch-correcting robotics. But it’s not like his voice needs help, or that the material requires some kind of chilly remove. Like Eno with a synthesizer, this is just a boundary-pusher exploring new frontiers. Whether he’s crooning a Nat King Cole standard, begging his love to wait up for him so they can sip “Dom Perignon ’69,” or busting out a spoken word screed about our fucked-up economy, the effect is absolutely unique – and stop-you-in-your-tracks emotional.

Ulver99. Ulver – The Assassination of Julius Caesar (2017)

As a legend of the Scandinavian black metal scene, Kristoffer Rygg understands the mechanics of slow-building soundscapes and folkloric songwriting. And on his 11th album fronting the shapeshifting outfit Ulver, Rygg applied these talents within the eyeliner-smudged confines of 1980s goth-pop. It’s remarkable how well it worked. Over the nine-plus minute expanse of “Rolling Stone,” the band rides a throaty synth riff until we’re in its thrall. And on “Nemoralia,” Rygg goes full Depeche Mode, his voice floating over hauntingly catchy synths, connecting the pagan feast of the goddess Diana to the tragic demise of the princess of the same name. Obsessed with ancient history and aglow with gloomy beauty, The Assassination of Julius Caesar is a master class in how to experiment with genre without losing yourself in the process.

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98. Aimee Mann – Mental Illness (2017)

When it comes to depicting complicated emotions with just a handful of syllables, Aimee Mann is an all-time great. On her ninth album, Mann unpacked feelings of regret, and abandonment, and stubborn hope, in tight stanzas that shimmer with the clarity of a breakthrough in therapy. “It happens so fast / And then it happens forever,” she sings, immediately breaking the hearts of anyone who wishes they could have that one crucial moment back. Buoyed by cozy strumming-and-strings arrangements, Mental Illness glows with a truly reassuring thought: someone else out there feels this way.

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97. Beyoncé – Lemonade (2016)

Seventeen years ago, Beyoncé released her debut solo single – an exhilarating song about how love made you feel crazy. In 2016, on her stunning emotional arc of a concept album, the artist wrestled with the consequences of that overwhelming emotion, how it can be taken for granted and betrayed. “What’s worse, looking jealous or crazy? … I’d rather be crazy,” she sings over the airy island rhythm of “Hold Up,” refusing to suffer in silence about her cheating husband. Gorgeously curated and thoughtfully sequenced, Lemonade is more nuanced than your typical breakup album. The artist doesn’t limit herself to syrupy ballads to convey her pain. She burns with righteous anger, eulogizes her sense of security, then blazes a path to forgiveness and, ultimately, empowerment.

Lucy Dacus_ Historian96. Lucy Dacus – Historian (2018)

Lucy Dacus songs unfold like realizations, exploring the periphery before working their way in. So by the time we realize that addictions can be interpersonal, or that our homeland isn’t as homey as we hoped, or that death is coldly, poignantly final, the whole experience has been enriched by context, the volume rising steadily like the tide. On the opening track “Night Shift,” Dacus spends more than three minutes painting a picture of a relationship in ruins. Then, only when we understand, does the chorus finally kick in: “You’ve got a nine to five / So I’ll take the night shift.” It’s more than a cool breakup line. It’s a rejection of everyday drudgery, and Dacus sings it more confidently each time, as if she’s realizing in the moment that she deserves better. Historian is full of songs like these. Ideas that develop in steady crescendo, until they blossom as breakthroughs.

 

The Best Album of the 1990s

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1. Björk – Post (1995)

It’s hard enough for an artist to sound ahead of their time. But on Björk’s second album as a solo artist, she was ahead of her time, and behind it, and looping back through it like a reincarnated spirit, and angling jagged shards of it at the sun to melt away whatever barriers we thought existed between post-punk balladry and thrumming house beats and musty old showtunes.

The Icelandic singer/songwriter and ex-Sugarcube had already taken some gargantuan strides on 1993’s Debut, using her newfound artistic freedom to see how her operatic supernova of a voice held up in a variety of contexts. That album crackles with experimental energy, and the growing confidence of a superhero who’s just starting to understand how much power she really has.

If Post merely kept this feeling going for another album cycle, it would have been a worthy achievement. But a lot had changed in the artist’s life in those two intervening years. As her star rose, she relocated to London, a global hub for pop-adjacent, emotionally complex club music. From this new, rain-spattered catbird seat, Björk approached the Post sessions with an auteur’s vision and an ice climber’s confidence, taking over lead production duties for the first time in her career. And to make it absolutely clear how much we were about to be blindsided by her evolution, she kicked off the record’s debut single with the sound of a fiery explosion. “Army of Me” is one of the all-time gauntlets thrown in the history of pop music – right at that precise moment when this buzzy alternative artist was primed to reach unforeseen levels of popularity, she hurled a ball of fire right down the throat of Generation X. As the distorted circular bass line slithers its way through one of the best-ever interpolations of John Bonham’s “When the Levee Breaks” beat, Björk drops bombs on slacker-chic culture, a full decade before it metastasized into the YouTube commentariat:

You’re alright
There’s nothing wrong
Self sufficiency please!
And get to work
And if you complain once more
You’ll meet an army of me

With the sheer snarling force of “Army of Me” as its opening salvo, it’s clear that this record is going to have plenty to say about the burgeoning self-confidence of an artist coming into her own. The sonic palette expands to encompass an entire Pantone book – the fluttering acid house drums of “Hyperballad”; the soft, cinematic strings of “You’ve Been Flirting Again”; the fire-breathing horn section of “I Miss You”; the cheeky, zing-boom Broadway orchestra of “It’s Oh So Quiet.”

Lyrically, Björk is just as ambitious, bending time and space to suit her mood. “I miss you, though I haven’t met you yet,” she tosses off, sounding not like a lonely person searching for hope, but like a traveler from the future with otherworldly insights on her fate. “Hyperballad” details how amazing it feels to crawl into bed beside someone you trust by focusing on what happens before that moment – the narrator stands at the top of a mountain, dropping things off the edge and watching them break, in order to fully appreciate her safety. And over the gritty, churning bass of “The Modern Things,” the most visionary artist of the ’90s talks about technological innovations like they’re buried treasure, just waiting for a truly special human being to unearth them:

All the modern things
Like cars and such
Have always existed
They’ve just been waiting in a mountain
For the right moment
Listening to the irritating noises
Of dinosaurs and people
Dabbling outside

In 1995, Björk had this treasure map. And she was well aware of its power. She called this album Post to create a clear delineation line between it and Debut – an overt “before” and “after.” It’s a grand, futuristic promise of artistic evolution, and Post makes good on it in ways that I am still processing 25 years later. Feeling free to explore whatever sounds, subjects and potential collaborators were fascinating to her in that moment, Björk made a record that is post-modern, post-punk, and post-linear. It was ahead of its time then, and still is now, and will be until the seas swallow us whole.

This completes my thoroughly narcissistic countdown of the Top 100 Albums of the 1990s – also known as “100 Things That Are Better Than Better Than Ezra.” Check out the full list here. (It took me almost a full decade to write it! I’m lazy!)

My Best Pictures

Before 2019, it was a sketchy proposition for a Very Important Filmmaker to Grapple with Their Own Mortality on screen. Because there are few people on earth as egomaniacal as a famous director having a midlife crisis. How can we expect them to resist the urge to wallow in their own pretentiousness? This is the urge that drove Stanley Kubrick to make Eyes Wide Shut, one last exercise in justifying his own perversions before his soul could be judged. The Tree of Life made us weigh the minutiae of Terence Malick’s childhood against the literal creation of the universe (I’m sorry that your dad was an asshole, but come on, dude).

But last year was different. It featured plenty of high-profile filmmakers tapping into that ol’ existential wrestling match, and at least three of them held their own egos in check, telling stories brimming with genuine, relatable pathos – along with all the tenderness and pain and humor and philosophical profundity that implies. Two of these, Martin Scorsese and Pedro Almodóvar, even racked up Oscar nominations. The third, David Milch, is a TV guy who used the unlikely return of his finest show to say something incredibly meaningful about endings.

So as we near the end of yet another Oscar season, praying to God that it doesn’t embarrass us too much (please Lord, don’t encourage the makers of Joker any further) and that the good art gets rewarded (Parasite, Antonio Banderas, Florence Pugh, The Lighthouse’s cinematographer), let’s focus on an unlikely, lovely fact – these 2019 films about old age and disease and death left me feeling especially alive, each in their own way. Now, without further ado, are My Best Pictures:

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Deadwood: The Movie

Thirteen years after HBO unceremoniously cancelled his signature show – the curse-jar-shattering Shakespearean Western Deadwood – showrunner David Milch was finally granted the opportunity to give us all a sense of closure, in the form of one made-for-TV movie. And he did it in the midst of unimaginable personal turmoil, having been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a year earlier. Somehow, his script for Deadwood: The Movie packs a season’s worth of story into 120 minutes, without sacrificing the show’s penchant for loose banter and heavy soliloquy. A plot involving the return of the slathering wolf George Hearst, who discovers how he was hoodwinked a decade ago by our ragtag murderin’ pals, provides plenty of dramatic tension. But more importantly, it creates pockets of space for director Daniel Minahan to recreate the familiar, mud-smeared thrum of a town living on a knife’s edge. While giving almost every surviving cast member their own lovely curtain call. When Ian McShane delivers his final words as the abusive monster/loyal friend Al Swearengen, we get one last shot of profane, blasphemous poetry. And then it’s closing time, for good.

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Homecoming

Just like a great drama has to offer more than just drama, a great concert film has to give us more than just music. And Homecoming, Beyoncé’s tour de force documentary about her instantly iconic 2018 Coachella performances, is one of the greatest accomplishments of the genre. Because this supremely motivated superstar approached the task of directing with as much tireless effort and conceptual flair as she applied to the stage show itself. As the first black woman to headline White Privilege Woodstock, Beyoncé embraced a theme of education, employing the marching bands and color schemes and resilient legacies of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, amplifying how rare it is to see unfiltered depictions of black culture on stages this large in America. Via a riveting series of cinema verité-style behind-the-scenes interludes, we get a real sense of how much work goes into a choreographed production of this size, of how easy it could be for its star to forget about cultural impact and just focus on the Herculean task of recovering from her pregnancy and hitting those umpteen-thousand cues. But her whole point of showing these rehearsals, of giving a voice to her dancers and drummers and designers, is to show us how hard her community works. So when we inevitably see this impossibly talented person singing about being crazy in love, while being surrounded by her artistic, cultural, and biological families, that love feels all-encompassing enough to shelter us all.

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The Irishman

Like most mob movies, The Irishman is sprinkled with moments from the lives of practicing Roman Catholics – well-attended baptisms; ornate weddings; wrenched expressions of guilt; naked pleas for forgiveness. But the theology behind Martin Scorsese’s 26th feature is, if anything, more Buddhist. By following the corpse-strewn path of real-life hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro, speaking volumes with every wince) in minute detail, the director asks his audience to meditate on the long-term damage of each heinous act. To consider the metric ton of bad karma slowly being amassed. And to consider, silently and unblinkingly, the wretchedness it causes. Sheeran’s hits aren’t captured with elegant tracking shots – they’re abrupt and impersonal, a decidedly inhumane transaction. Obituaries of random characters pop up from time to time, blunting any swagger they might have in that moment with the fact of their grisly demise. What little romanticization there is comes from Steven Zaillian’s crackling script, which makes these criminals much funnier than they likely were. Coming from the likes of De Niro and Pesci and Keitel, this dialogue, along with the walking-and-talking Chekov’s gun that is Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino, spittin’ mad), kept me rapt past hour three. Just in time for Scorsese to show us what comes of all that greed and political maneuvering and emotionally barren tough-guy bullshit. It sure as hell isn’t nirvana.

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The Lighthouse

When my wife and I moved in together, it was into a studio apartment that would’ve been cramped for one person. The “bedroom” was a ladder to a wooden pallet installed a foot below the living room ceiling. The shower was like a leaky coffin. There were rats, and those rats had fleas. In case I ever forget how lucky I am to have found someone who could live in such a shithole with me without killing me, I will watch The Lighthouse and let the waves of gratitude pour over me. Robert Eggers’s ominous, patient, quite-funny masterpiece of psychological horror shows us what happens when two incompatible people get thrown into close quarters with no chance of escape. When Ephraim (a briskly mustachioed Robert Pattinson) lands on an isolated New England island to work as an assistant to the head lighthouse keeper (Willem Dafoe, a bug-eyed, farting Lear with a beard like a cartoon lion), they pass the time by getting plastered, telling stories, and generally trying their hardest to manage how annoyed they are. When it becomes clear that their scheduled transport off the island is not arriving anytime soon, things get a whole lot weirder. The actors both do some incredible work depicting how need can so easily turn to resentment, which slowly pickles into rage. Often, it’s unclear if they are going to kiss or kill one another. By the end, they’ve broken all kinds of leases, including the one so cruelly granted to them by God.

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Pain & Glory

I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a more moving encapsulation of the relationship between pain and religion than this line from Pain & Glory, Pedro Almodóvar’s nostalgic, bittersweet, overwhelming visual feast of an autobiography: “The nights that coincide several pains, those nights I believe in God, and I pray to him,” shares Almodóvar stand-in Salvador Mallo (played with electrifying vulnerability by Antonio Banderas). “The days when I only suffer a type of pain – I’m an atheist.” The film follows Mallo around Spain as he reconnects with old colleagues and lovers, his nostalgia receptors sparked by a local revival of one of his earliest feature films. Reminiscing all the while about his complicated relationship with his mother – the person he worshipped as a child, whose stubborn homophobia caused him great pain as an adult – Mallo feels finished, a husk of what he once was, assaulted from all sides by headaches and back pain and choking fits. Even at his lowest, Almodóvar can’t help but make every shot feel like a painting that would change your life if you stumbled across it in a gallery window – everything from Mallo’s kitchen cabinets to the color palette of his nightly pills feels injected with the luminescence of an endangered sea creature. By the end, our hero is writing again. He doesn’t know if this new work is going to be a comedy or a drama. He only knows that it’s alive.

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Parasite

Usually, when something is deemed to be “too on the nose,” that’s a diss. A criticism of a pedantic piece of art that doesn’t trust its audience to get the point. But when I say that Bong Joon-ho’s dark comedy Parasite is on the nose, it’s a compliment. I’m not sure what the income inequality problem is like in Bong’s native Korea, but America was in desperate need of a whip-smart story about the ever-growing chasm between the rich and the poor, full of metaphors that hit us over the goddamn head. Parasite follows a poor family of four who lives in a basement apartment – huddled together watching drunks piss in an alley like it’s an FDR fireside chat. When they get a once-in-a-lifetime chance to infiltrate the gorgeously outfitted confines of a wealthy household, their hopes are sparked, and their fates are sealed. The instant-classic scene of the son and daughter (Choi Woo-shik and Park So-dam, witheringly sarcastic) practicing their fake art teacher backstory establishes the first half of the film as a class caper that hits that age-old snobs-vs-slobs pleasure center. But the family didn’t really have an exit strategy, and unfair class systems are constructed to destroy those who try to climb too high. So as Parasite transitions into the horror movie it was pretending not to be, and our smiles curdle into grimaces, we realize that we’re witnessing a brutally efficient takedown of the American dream. One that’s so on the nose, we have to breathe through our mouths.

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Us

“It’s us.” Of all the indelible one-liners in the history of horror, this might be the most economical. Because when you take away all the clever flourishes and dynamic performances from Jordan Peele’s second feature, what’s left is a multi-layered metaphor anchored in a stark, preternatural fear – that, unlike what so many well-meaning parents and teachers have told us, we’re not special. Us pits the Wilson family, led by matriarch/superhero Adelaide (Lupita Nyang’o, Best Actress), against their own bloodthirsty doppelgangers, clad in red jumpsuits and wielding beautiful vintage scissors. As Adelaide discovers the origins of this mysterious legion of doubles, and does the math to connect them with a certain House of Mirrors-related childhood trauma, Peele’s ultimate points also emerge, fully formed. We might not be able to see the strings, but the haves and have-nots of our society are inexorably connected. When a smirking California doofus “earns” enough money to buy a hideous modern home with a boat out front, there is an equal and opposite impact on the guy who works at the factory that processes marine supplies. That doofus may think they live in different worlds. But no. It’s us.

Honorable Mentions: Annabelle Comes Home; Escape Room; Glass; The Great Hack; Happy Death Day 2U; I Lost My Body; The Intruder; Jojo RabbitThe Last Black Man in San FranciscoLittle Monsters; Little Women; The Nightingale; Ready or Not

The Best Songs from Jan 2020

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It’s 2020 everyone. You know what that means: Optometrists everywhere have a year’s worth of killer material. Also, it’s a whole new year of me telling you what songs I like. Here are the ones from the month that was…


1. Andy Shauf – “Neon Skyline”

As this Saskatchewanian soft rock virtuoso describes two friends meeting up at a bar, his syllables tumble like jukebox quarters. Bringing the scene to life with such guileless ease, I can practically taste the Molson.

2. Caroline Rose – “Feel the Way I Want”

On her first single in three years, former folkie Caroline Rose abandons the smirking power pop of her last album, in favor of a neon-bright synth groove. In case you’re wondering why she’d make yet another genre shift so early in her career, just take another look at that song title.

3. Kvelertak (ft. Troy Sanders) – “Crack of Doom”

One of the most blisteringly fun heavy metal bands on earth return with a fiery new singer and a bit of garage rock grit added to their arena thrash formula. My neck aches just thinking about it.

4. Rosalia – “Juro Que”

Flamenco slaps.

5. TOPS – “I Feel Alive”

Serious ’80s Fleetwood Mac vibes abound on this lovestruck air balloon ride of a song.

6. Thundercat (ft. Steve Lacy & Steve Arrington) – “Black Qualls”

Bass virtuoso, session legend and yacht rock crooner Thundercat is finally dropping is third LP this year. And judging by this lead single, it’s going to be funky as fucking hell.

7. Soakie – “Boys On Stage”

The next time you hear a Democratic candidate talk about the value of pragmatism, drown him out with this ferocious neo-riot-grrrl assault.

8. R.A.P. Ferreira – “DOLDRUMS”

The artist formerly known as Milo (and the pride of Biddeford, Maine), raps about getting kicked out of a Wegmans over mesmerizing eddies of piano jazz.

9. Terry Allen & The Panhandle Mystery Band – “Houdini Didn’t Like the Spiritualists”

As outlaw country legend Terry Allen sings wistfully about Harry Houdini’s efforts to expose the hoaxes of spiritual mediums in the 1920s, one can’t help but feel bad for ol’ Harry. Despite his best efforts, cheaters are prospering now more than ever.

10. 070 Shake – “Morrow”

The best part of Kanye West’s uneven 2018 album ye was the Brooklyn vocalist 070 Shake, who took control of an unstable narrative with unique gravitas. “Morrow” underlines her strengths even further, its sinuous new age atmosphere giving her recounting of a breakup the spiritual clarity it deserves.

The Bestest Songs of 2019

In the grand scheme of things, 2019 was a year with precious few bright spots. Fortunately for this column, music was one of them. Artists from the worlds of rap, metal, punk, folk, calypso, dance, R&B and pop all gave me that most precious of cultural gifts – a few minutes to focus on something beautiful. Here are my top 25 songs of 2019.

 

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25. Steve Gunn – “Vagabond”

This swirling acoustic ramble feels like it could go on forever. It’s almost disappointing when it doesn’t.

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24. Charly Bliss – “Under You”

“Every time you say my name I think it’s a mistake,” marvels Eva Hendricks on this absolute sugar rush of a pop-punk love song.

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23. Moon Tooth – “Awe At All Angles”

As singer John Carbone compares himself to whitewater rapids, the rest of this Long Island prog-metal quartet takes us on one hell of a ride.

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22. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib (ft. Anderson .Paak) – “Giannis”

Anderson .Paak’s gliding croon and formidable bars are perfectly suited to this twinkling groove from Madlib. But that doesn’t stop Freddie from outshining them both.

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21. Goldlink (feat. Maleek Berry & Bibi Bourelly) – “Zulu Screams”

Over an unrelenting, percussive Afropop beat, GoldLink doesn’t drop rhymes. He pours them, his preternatural flow a tributary to oceans of hooks, rhythms, and overwhelmingly good vibes.

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20. Normani – “Motivation”

If an early-’00s R&B revival is upon us, I am here for it.

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19. Jessie Ware – “Mirage (Don’t Stop)”

Club music tends to bludgeon. But in Jessie Ware’s hands, it caresses. “Last night we danced / And I thought you were saving my life,” she sings with gentle confidence on “Mirage,” as the irrepressible bass line whisks our inhibitions away.

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18. Ozzy Osbourne – “Under the Graveyard”

Ozzy Osbourne’s voice has a troubled, mournful quality that has elevated even the dopiest of lyrics. And on this impeccably produced power ballad – his first single in nine years – our 70-year-old Prince of Darkness shows us he’s absolutely still got it. Pondering the finality of death, in a voice that can still sound stunningly forlorn.

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17. Otoboke Beaver – “datsu . hikage no onna”

This Kyoto punk quartet has tapped into a reservoir of adrenaline potent enough to reanimate a long-dead heart.

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16. Purple Mountains – “Maybe I’m the Only One for Me”

This sad-sack country jaunt will have you LOLAL-ing (laughing out loud about loneliness): “If no one’s fond of fucking me / Maybe no one’s fucking fond of me.”

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15. Idle Hands – “Nightfall”

If you like your Satan worshipping with a spoonful of sugar, don’t sleep on these Portland, OR, occult rockers. “Nightfall” has hooks to rival The Cure and Blue Oyster Cult, along with an irresistible dark energy all its own. So grab your sacrificial daggers – and dance!

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14. Rico Nasty – “Hatin”

Rico made a Neptunes beat her own in 2018. In 2019, it was Jay-Z’s turn.

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13. Weyes Blood – “Everyday”

The Beatles made it sound easy, but “I need love” can be a pretty terrifying thing to say out loud. Weyes Blood makes this admission, over and over again, wisely bringing a soothing, 1970s soft rock orchestra along for the ride.

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12. Little Simz – “Boss”

Take a goddamn seat, Bruce Springsteen.

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11. Helado Negro – “Imagining What To Do”

Calypso Nick Drake.

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10. Carly Rae Jepsen – “Too Much”

One of our finest pop alchemists applies her singular lovestruck energy to Mae West’s famous adage, “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.”

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9. Megan Thee Stallion – “Realer”

Right now, nobody on earth is rapping with more authority than Houston emcee Megan Thee Stallion. On “Realer,” she wields syllables like free weights, knocking us out at the end of every couplet, while only getting stronger for the next one.

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8. Angel Du$t – “Big Ass Love”

This supergroup of moonlighting hardcore screamers happens to be incredibly good at writing catchy power-pop love songs.

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7. Brutus – “War”

This Belgian trio delivers a post-metal ballad that has a lot in common with Metallica’s “One” – a simple title; martial lyrics; an extended dramatic intro; a thrilling, headbanging flashpoint. But Stefanie Mannaerts is a better singer than James Hetfield, and a better drummer than Lars Ulrich. “One” was a ground battle. This is an airstrike.

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6. Annika Norlin – “Showering in Public”

A staggeringly beautiful folk song about locker room anxiety.

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5. Maxo Kream – “Meet Again”

This gifted Houston rapper pairs heartbreaking rhymes about an imprisoned friend with a beat that’s as smooth as a summer cocktail. This dissonance is brilliance.

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4. Bill Callahan – “What Comes After Certainty”

Magic is for rom-coms. The real shit, the chills-up-your-spine shit, is knowing, without a doubt, that you have found your person.

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3. Charli XCX – “Official”

“You know the words to my mistakes / You understand because you made ’em too,” sings Charli XCX on this jaw-dropping ode to the interlocking connections and somehow-perfect imperfections of a loving relationship.

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2. Denzel Curry – “Speedboat”

As partly-cloudy piano notes do their best to dampen the mood, this gifted Florida emcee clusters his syllables in irresistible ways, all while completely subverting what most of us would expect from a Miami rap song about an expensive sea vessel.

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1. Lizzo – “Cuz I Love You”

Lizzo reminds us that love is the best kind of devastating, singing with real, visceral, mascara-streaked joy. An instant classic.

Honorable Mentions: 2 Chainz (ft. Lil Wayne & E-40) – “2 Dollar Bill”; Anderson .Paak (ft. Brandy) – “Jet Black”; Bleached – “Hard to Kill”; Caribou – “Home”; Carly Rae Jepsen – “Everything He Needs”; Charli XCX (ft. Christine and the Queens) – “Gone”; Coldplay – “Cry Cry Cry”; Cupcakke – “Squidward Nose”; Czarface – “Call Me”; Danny Brown – “Theme Song”; Donny Benét – “Second Dinner”; Gang Starr – “Bad Name”; Haim – “Summer Girl”; Hatchie – “Obsessed”; Iggy Pop – “James Bond”; James Blake – “I’ll Come Too”; Jamila Woods – “Muddy”; Lana Del Rey – “Love Song”; Lil Nas X (ft. Billy Ray Cyrus) – “Old Town Road (Remix)”; Maren Morris – “The Bones”; The Mountain Goats – “Clemency for the Wizard King”; Neil Young – “Eternity”; Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – “Waiting for You”; Nicki Minaj – “Megatron”; Sudan Archives – “Glorious”; Tanya Tucker – “I Don’t Owe You Anything”; Tyler, the Creator – “Earfquake”; Vampire Weekend – “Sympathy”; Van Morrison – “Dark Night of the Soul”; Wiki – “Fee Fi Fo Fum”; YBN Cordae (feat. Anderson .Paak) – “RNP”; Young Thug (ft. Lil Baby) – “Bad Bad Bad”

The Top 20 Albums of 2019

2019 marked the 10-year anniversary of me uselessly shouting my opinions into the void writing this blog. Why am I still doing it? Because I am constantly hearing great music, and am incapable of not writing some flowery bullshit to express how much I love it. And this past year was no exception. A country legend mounted an improbable comeback. A pop star who had always bored me brought me to tears. Oregonian Satanists and Miami rappers and Swedish folksingers all brought me joy. And to top it off, one of my all-time favorite songwriters made a masterpiece about domestic bliss. So as I kick off another decade with my Top 20 Albums of 2019, let me say, from the bottom of my heart – thanks for reading. I truly have no idea why you do it.

https___images.genius.com_7dc1f9644ce16b2e9cfa89d132240124.600x600x120. Brutus – Nest

“Fire! Burn them all! I’m breaking your walls down,” goes the opening lines to Nest – the blisteringly loud, sweepingly emotional second record from the Belgian trio Brutus. And walls do indeed get pulverized here, between about a dozen subgenres of punk and metal, and between society’s expectations for female musicians and the formidable talents of vocalist/drummer Stefanie Mannaerts. On “War,” a wrecking ball of a metal ballad that begs comparison to Metallica’s “One,” Mannaerts pledges the destruction of her ex, and her choice of weapon is her drum sticks. When the guitar and bass follow her lead, it’s insufficient to say this trio is merely “in the pocket.” They’re nested – intertwined; inseparable; utterly at home.

https___images.genius.com_49a7f3fdf3f030a23c30bc2cabc3fad9.1000x1000x119. Tanya Tucker – While I’m Livin’

Since 2002, when Tanya Tucker dropped her last LP of original songs, the outlaw country legend lost both of her parents, and released a doomed covers album that made the industry wary of a comeback. But singer/songwriter and Grammy favorite Brandi Carlisle was determined to turn this tide, and do for Tucker what Rick Rubin did for Johnny Cash in the ’90s. She sent Tucker a clutch of raw, open-hearted songs for a proposed LP. Tucker was nervous, but she made the right call and followed Carlisle’s lead. While I’m Livin’ foregoes Tucker’s usual countrypolitan sheen in favor of an earthier twang, which suits the 61-year-old’s gritty, powerful voice. And the songs themselves were penned bespoke for her outlaw image – its narrators include an escaped prisoner, a fed-up housewife, and a country singer who wouldn’t change a thing about growing up poor. “The days are long / But the years are lightning,” Tucker ponders on the gut-wrenching, reaper-tempting ballad “Bring My Flowers.” She sure did electrify the hell out of 2019.

https___images.genius.com_d0bc88e39fc7bedd05a4a8079445a357.1000x1000x118. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Bandana

In the push-pull relationship between rappers and producers, it’s the guys with the microphones who tend to do the pushing. So it’s pretty remarkable when the opposite happens – like on Bandana, the second effort from Indiana workhorse Freddie Gibbs and Bay Area beatmaker/wizard Madlib. On their 2014 debut, Piñata, Gibbs hadn’t yet gotten the hang of how to inhabit his partner’s woozy, sample-heavy atmospheres. No such trouble this time around. Gibbs just takes a deep breath and flows. I’m talking seemingly endless cascades of syllables, about slinging coke and the prison industrial complex and flat tummy tea and watching Dora with his daughter. “I done been dropped before / Talked about and wrote off before / Heart on my sleeve and the ATF at my mama door,” he spits on “Giannis,” throwing grit and grime all over Madlib’s dreamy glockenspiel loop, pulling it down from the clouds into the complicated rhythms of the here and now. Gibbs is still absolutely the Garfunkel of this shit, but Garfunkel was Simon’s vessel to transcendence. (Don’t tell your parents I said this, but Graceland is overrated.)

c0pgud81zws2117. Carly Rae Jepsen – Dedicated

Once you’ve taken pop music to its absolute peak, where do you go from there? In 2019, Carly Rae Jepsen went right to the dance floor. With the neon glow of her richly layered, sweep-you-off-your-feet-romantic triumph E•MO•TION in the rearview, the British Columbian pop star spent years figuring out what to do next, writing hundreds of songs, toying with everything from a disco theme to a concept album called Music to Clean Your House To. Eventually, she just gathered all of these threads and made Dedicated, a breezy, cheeky, low-key delight of a dance-pop LP. Her disco jones shows up on the opening “Julian,” and the fizzy synth-pop hooks of “Now That I’ve Found You” could easily be sung into a broom handle. “I’ll do anything to get to the rush,” she confesses on the instant-classic drunk-on-love ballad “Too Much.” Dedicated is the result of that drive, that desire to get these light, blissful moments exactly right.

a4071199145_1016. Annika Norlin & Jens Lenkman – Correspondence

In the early moments of 2018, a pair of expressive Swedish songwriters agreed to a year-long experiment. Jens Lenkman would write a song dedicated to Annika Norlin in January; she would respond with a tune of her own in February, and so on. The resulting LP, Correspondence, is a triumph of emotional communication. Both artists commit themselves wholeheartedly to the concept, reacting to their counterpart’s sadness with words of support. “I just want someone to talk to or maybe not just anyone / I’ve always liked what goes on in your brain / So would you like to correspond?” pleads Lenkman over his finger-picked acoustic on the opening “Who Really Needs Who.” Norlin responds with an ingenious song about her fear of showering in locker rooms, sharing her own insecurities in solidarity. The metaphors just get more evocative from there, especially Norlin’s, who wishes she could hibernate like a bear, or be as certain about life as a cult member. People might not write letters anymore, but they sure do write masterpieces.

d1cd15de102b996097a8100b1ddf77b0.320x320x115. Danny Brown – uknowhatimsayin¿

Eight years after telling us he was gonna “die like a rockstar,” the squawky Detroit rapper Danny Brown has thankfully proven himself wrong. In 2019, his charming, Pee Weeinfluenced talk show Danny’s House premiered, after which he dropped uknowhatimsayin¿, his most assured, sonically ambitious LP. Dude’s a star. But he’s seemingly a much happier one than he predicted he’d be. “What’s in the dark, always come to light,” he shares on “Dirty Laundry,” airing out some old sexual escapades while riding one of his healthiest metaphors. This album never reaches the intense heights of his masterpiece, 2016’s Atrocity Exhibition, but the softer, subtler soundscapes introduced by executive producer Q-Tip have inspired Danny to scale back his helium-huffing rants and let his word choices thrill us all on their own. “I don’t give a fuck / I could talk a cat off the back of a fish truck,” he boasts, calmly and hilariously, on the trumpet-flecked closer “Combat.” Relaxation looks damn good on him.

a81f1051f61c93c3ad4489700ee04328.1000x1000x114. Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell 

At the end of John Steinbeck’s Great Depression epic The Grapes of Wrath, the character Rose of Sharon, mourning her stillborn child, breastfeeds a starving man in a rundown California barn. Life, and hope, somehow continue on, all thanks to a woman. On her starkly produced, magnificently written sixth album, Lana Del Rey takes some cues from Rose. As she sings about California’s empty promises and the deeply rooted misogyny that makes them downright dangerous for her gender, Del Rey simultaneously refuses to give in to the malaise. On “Mariner Apartment Complex,” she throttles a guy who misinterprets her sadness as weakness, begging him to wake the fuck up and bask in her strength. On her nostalgia-spiked state of the union address “The Greatest,” she calls one of pop’s biggest stars to the mat and administers the casual savaging he deserves: “Kanye West is blonde and gone.” And over the barnboard-bare piano chords of the closing track, she goes full-on Rose of Sharon – admitting with a tremble, “Hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have / But I have it.”

60712a7b6cbcc792502d877fb9a170c5.1000x1000x113. Tyler, the Creator – IGOR

“I hate wasted potential,” sighs comedian Jerrod Carmichael toward the end of Tyler, the Creator’s sixth album. Of all the little pearls of wisdom that Carmichael delivers on IGOR, this one resonates the loudest. When Tyler first broke in 2009 with his Bastard tape, he was both obviously talented and frustratingly hateful, littering his lyric sheets with violent misogyny and homophobic slurs. Fast forward a decade, and that anger has ebbed, leaving self-awareness in its wake. IGOR is a concept album about falling in and out of love with a man, beautifully detailing the butterfly flutters of infatuation, the cold-sweat panic of realization, and the eventual acceptance that it’s over. The music is loose and groove-based, a mix of R&B and acid jazz and old-school Neptunes that creates a consistent feeling of warmth. And the vocal performances are truly special: “Other than air, oxygen and financial freedom, yeah / I want your company,” Tyler raps on “Puppet,” clipping the syllables with nervous energy, clearly conveying the worry that his neediness will drive his love away.

Purple_Mountains_-_Purple_Mountains12. Purple Mountains – Purple Mountains

It’s impossible to listen to David Berman’s shattered, plainspoken comeback album without remembering that it was also his last. The 52-year-old singer/songwriter, best known as the leader of the indie rock band Silver Jews, took his own life less than a month after its release. It’s a lot of emotional freight to put on a listening experience. But while Berman doesn’t mince words about his struggles with depression, he also made an album of exemplary sonic warmth, caustic humor, and ingenious turns of phrase. “I’ve been forced to watch my friends enjoy / Ceaseless feats of schadenfraude,” he sings on the opening country strut “That’s Just the Way I Feel,” using internal rhyme and a good vocabulary to create an effortless blend of sadness and cleverness. That upbeat country & western arrangement pops up a few more times, providing welcome emotional ballast. “Maybe I’m the Only One for Me” effectively employs saloon piano runs, letting us know it’s absolutely okay to LOL at the line, “If no one’s fond of fucking me / Maybe no one’s fucking fond of me.” Even when the arrangements get slower, and the sentiments get bleaker, Berman’s skill as a performer is a balm. When he sings, “The dead know what they’re doing / When they leave the world behind,” it’s with a matter-of-factness that rivals Lou Reed. He’s not trying to make us cry. That’s just the way he feels.

dc8c722b0a00da9ef6c558a51f45d361.596x596x111. Megan Thee Stallion – Fever

Two of the most successful artists of 2019, Lizzo and Lana Del Rey, had one other thing in common – public struggles with negative reviews. Now I’m biased on this issue for obvious reasons, and I have no idea what it must be like to have your art casually torn apart by some random Internet dork. But I have to admit, they’d have been better off taking a cue from Megan Thee Stallion. “Fuck all the critics and fuck how they feel!” the Houston rapper trumpets on the trunk-rattling opening track of her debut mixtape, Fever. There is no doubting her sincerity on this point. Absolutely nobody sounded as inherently confident, as I’m-the-shit-and-I-know-it dominant, on the mic as Meg did this year. With the bass-heavy thump of classic Dirty South production to egg her on, she delivers endlessly entertaining boasts – sexual, financial, and artistic. And she does it with the skill of a rap technician, transforming flexes into self-fulfilling prophecies, and living up to the Foxy Brown power-move artwork that graces the cover. Fuck what I feel, indeed.

Charli_XCX_-_Charli10. Charli XCX – Charli

As one of the most dependable singles artists of the 2010s, Charlotte Aitchison (aka Charli XCX) knows a thing or two about crafting deliriously cheerful dance-pop bangers. On her third LP, tellingly titled Charli, the boundary-pushing artist throws back the veil, exploring the complicated impulses that drive her to make music that helps you forget your worries. “I hate the silence / That’s why the music’s always loud,” she admits over the twinkling guitars of “White Mercedes.” This is part of a mid-album string of deeply personal ballads that place Charli among the best lyricists in pop. “Official” is the love song of the year, outlining how shared affection can transform potential problems into deeper bonds: “You know the words to my mistakes / You understand because you made ’em too.” Even the club-ready earworms have an emotional twinge, like the nostalgia-ridden Troye Sivan duet “1999,” or the self-sabotaging Lizzo team-up “Blame It On Your Love.” Music is no longer an escape for her. It’s a place to work out her feelings, and help us do the same. So when the last track fades out and we’re left in the silence, that won’t be such a bad thing after all.

Goldlink-DIASPORA-cover9. GoldLink – Diaspora

On his second album, the DC rapper GoldLink achieves a thrilling level of synergy between his sound and his name, linking together global genres on the strength of his next-level sequencing skills, effortless-sounding flow, and murderers’ row of intercontinental guest stars. “No bad vibes coulda enter my yard,” beams the British Afroswing singer Haile on one of Diaspora’s many sinuously catchy choruses, encapsulating how this record’s syncopation alone can make you smell honeysuckle in December. GoldLink is more than talented enough to carry an album himself – evidenced here by his incredible, triplet-heavy turn on “Maniac.” But he’s even more comfortable operating as a curator of sounds and talents, like on “Joke Ting,” where a sun-dappled reggae groove is brought to life by Ari PenSmith, a vocalist and producer getting his first shot here. It all comes to a head on the propulsive dancehall masterpiece “Zulu Screams,” where Nigerian singer/producer Maleek Berry and German singer/songwriter Bibi Bourelly team up to deliver a chorus doused in celebratory adrenaline. Transcendence having already been reached, GoldLink has no problem admitting that anything he could add is nothing more than a nice bonus: “Calm down, all good, baby it’s gravy.”

a0427656644_108. Helado Negro – This Is How You Smile

With a potential second term for Donald Trump looming, anger is a valid and necessary response. But there’s also something to be said for quiet optimism. On his sixth album as Helado Negro, singer/songwriter Roberto Carlos Lange delivers soothing balms of hope, in the form of whispered, bilingual electro-folk ballads. When the weight of 2020 feels too heavy to process, Lange’s reassuring truths are going to be my medicine for sure. “We’ll take our turn / We’ll take our time / Knowing that we’ll be here long after you,” he softly croons to the president on “Pais Nublado,” embodying the polar opposite of his spittle-flecked neuroses, buoyed by washes of electronics and leisurely acoustic strumming. The achingly beautiful, steel drum-infused “Imagining What To Do” also preaches patience: “We wait softly / Looking for the sun to come back tomorrow.” Yes, we need to fight for what we believe in. But first, we need the peace of mind to believe it’s possible.

a4123579682_107. Idle Hands – Mana

The adage “Idle hands are the devil’s playthings” is basically parental propaganda, threatening satanic possession if you don’t stop moping and mow the damn lawn. The Portland, Oregon, trio Idle Hands has done an incredible job reclaiming these words for the mopers, the sighers, and the lonely daydreamers – Mana, their debut LP, is the perfect album to have playing in the background the next time you tell mom and dad to go to hell. Taking as much from the melodic goth-rock of Depeche Mode as it does from the supercharged gallop of Iron Maiden, Mana has pop hooks embedded deep in its accursed bones. As lead singer Gabriel Franco illustrates the rush of surrendering yourself to the Dark Lord on songs like “Give Me to the Night,” the blitzing guitar and pommeling drums provide adrenaline boosts of their own. Franco’s tenor is rich, impassioned, and clean, further adding to the outright catchiness of this thoroughly dark material. But when the moment calls for something more brutal, he unleashes a desperate, throat-wrenching yawp – the sound of a soul begging to be saved from the hypocrisies of heaven. Whether they’re reveling in the devil’s embrace, or bemoaning the absence of any embrace at all, Idle Hands draws us in, by combining authentic emotion with absolutely killer melodies. Mana begs to be played loud, and felt deeply.

unnamed-1-1569341614-640x6406. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Ghosteen

In the fall of 2018, three years after losing his 15-year-old son to a tragic fall, Nick Cave began a blog called “The Red Hand Files,” in which he answered questions from fans. The first post tackled a question about how his writing process has changed. “I would say that it has shifted fundamentally,” Cave responded. “I have found a way to write beyond the trauma, authentically … I found with some practise the imagination could propel itself beyond the personal into a state of wonder.” The double LP that resulted from these writings, Ghosteen, is just as Cave described – a heartbreaking eulogy that searches for meaning behind the veil of mere biology. “We are fireflies a child has trapped in a jar / And everything is as distant as the stars / I am here, and you are where you are,” Cave posits, acknowledging the frailty of life while finding magic in death. The music of Ghosteen supports his solemn voyage, with blankets of vintage synths lending a gorgeous sense of otherworldliness throughout. Also, for the first time in his career, the 62-year-old sings for long stretches in a stunningly clear falsetto, his voice like his soul, reaching ever higher. “I am here beside you / Look for me in the sun,” he sings, looking beyond the trauma, traveling past a world of concrete beginnings and endings. The fact that we get to go with him feels like some kind of miracle.

a2334189316_105. Jamila Woods – Legacy! Legacy!

One of the more well-known take-downs of music writing is that it’s “like dancing about architecture.” Everyone from Martin Mull to Lester Bangs to Elvis Costello has said this. It is, of course, preposterous. Artists are inspired by other art forms all the time, and their art is better for it. Like the second LP from Chicago R&B singer Jamila Woods – a concept album about her influences that includes homages to poets, actors, authors and painters. These aren’t covers, or attempts to replicate anybody’s style. They’re more like poetic odes set to music, explanations from Woods as to what these people mean to her. “What is it with these independent men? / It’s always something / Threatening your masculine energy / You think it’s fleeting,” Woods croons in her laid-back tenor on a song dedicated to the iconoclastic funk genius Betty Davis. You can feel the lessons Woods has learned from Davis, who famously had to put up with Miles Davis’s bullshit, subsumed in this music. Other tracks are dedicated to Muddy Waters and his resistance to appropriation; Nikki Giovanni and her defiantly triumphant poem “Ego Tripping”; Eartha Kitt and her refusal to compromise. Musically, Woods continues down the neo-Badu R&B path she started on her 2016 debut, coasting on the fluidity of the drums and bass lines until we’re damn sure we must be floating. Her voice is never showy, and it doesn’t need to be, hitting the notes with a confident grace, borne up on the remarkable vision, ability and audacity of those who showed her how.

Denzel_Curry_-_Zuu4. Denzel Curry – Zuu

“Big talk / Speedboat / Pray to God I don’t get repo’d,” raps Denzel Curry on one of 2019’s most indelible choruses. As partly-cloudy piano notes do their best to dampen the mood, the gifted Florida emcee clusters his syllables in irresistible ways, all while completely subverting what most of us would expect from a Miami rap song about an expensive sea vessel. It’s one of several instances on his spectacular fourth album where he’s able to spin autobiographical anxieties and ominous sonic atmospheres into something you’d bump on a summer drive. “Zuu” is a nickname for Curry’s hometown of Carol City, a Miami neighborhood with serious hip-hop pedigree (Rick Ross, Flo Rida, Gunplay and Spaceghostpurrp are all from there, with Trick Daddy and Trina growing up close by). The artist has never sounded this focused before, and it’s because he’s writing about what he knows – advice he got from his parents; the music that inspired him growing up; the shit he had to put up with to pull himself out of poverty; the deaths of his brother and his close friend. This album clocks in at just 29 minutes, and it’s all Curry needs to tell the clearest, deepest, most indelible stories of any rapper this year. “A real-ass n—-a from the 305 / I was raised on Trina, Trick, Rick, and Plies,” he boasts on “Carolmart.” His rapping abilities have taken off, because his feet are planted firmly on his home turf.

Angel-Dust-Pretty-Buff-1552663392-640x6403. Angel Du$t – Pretty Buff

The history of rock music is littered with men full of unearned confidence, telling us how awesome they are. So what a delight it was to see Baltimore quintet Angel Du$t take the piss out of that cliché with the deliciously sarcastic title of its third LP. Pretty Buff finds this group of hardcore punk veterans embracing decidedly non-hardcore things – like acoustic strumming and epic sax solos and full-throated declarations of love. “Say it ain’t so / I don’t ever wanna let you go,” pleads frontman Justice Tripp over the sugar-high riffage of “Big Ass Love,” a moment of unadulterated exuberance designed to blast any cynicism from our weary-ass minds. On “Park,” Tripp wrestles with the death of his dog, making for the kind of heartbreakingly sweet moment you never hear on classic rock radio: “Time can be so cruel / But it gave me memories with you, dude / So I guess it’s cool.” And the opening “No Fair” is a 100% non-toxic expression of romantic disappointment, a tambourine-fueled fist-shake at fate that welcomes everybody to sing along about something that just didn’t work out. This wasn’t just the catchiest LP of 2019. It was an enthusiastic, optimistic, adorable ass-kicking of the highest order.

Titanic_Rising2. Weyes Blood – Titanic Rising

Songwriters have long been inspired to write about their childhood bedrooms, which serve as sturdy metaphors for a refuge from the storm. On her fourth album as Weyes Blood, singer/songwriter Natalie Mering gives a 2019 update to this trope, applying Brian Wilson’s personal ennui to a world of rising seas, vapid summer blockbusters, and esteem-destroying dating apps. On the cover, the artist floats in a womb-like, subaquatic bedroom, speaking to our collective environmental anxiety while simultaneously romanticizing the creative potential of personal space. It’s a perfect echo of the dichotomies Mering explores on these ten tracks, wrapping her existential fears and romantic frustrations in the softest of soft rock packages, ensuring they don’t get shattered during delivery. “Give me something I can see / Something bigger and louder than the voices in me / Something to believe,” she croons over a vintage AM piano ballad backdrop, pedal steel notes cresting across the speakers like shooting stars. On the synthesizer-drenched “Movies,” she wishes life could be as easy as the silver screen makes it out to be. And “Wild Time” references “a million people burning,” while a swaying, late-’70s Joni Mitchell arrangement has the effect of high-grade aloe vera. By translating Mering’s search for meaning into art, Titanic Rising reveals a few things she does believe in – the soothing power of music, and the restorative energy of introspection. If we can prevent these complicated feelings from retreating into our subconscious, maybe we won’t be sunk once and for all.

Bill_Callahan_-_Shepherd_in_a_Sheepskin_Vest1. Bill Callahan – Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest

I recently started reading Jane Austen for the first time, injecting Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice straight into my bloodstream. Of all the ways these classics moved me, I was especially awestruck by the quietness of their romantic denouements. When Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy finally profess their love for one another – after 250 pages of nervous misunderstandings in drawing rooms – it’s over in a minute. No grand gestures are made. Darcy doesn’t even get down on one knee. Their feelings are enough. On his loose, unassuming double LP, Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest, Bill Callahan channels Austen’s straightforwardness about love. Six years removed from his last album – the more traditionally lovestruck Dream River – Shepherd finds the artist reflecting on the joys of being a husband and father, more rooted in his bliss, performing humbly arranged songs in his home studio as if his wife had requested them via a note on the fridge. “The panic room is now a nursery / And there’s renovators renovating constantly,” he shares on “Son of the Sea,” finding peace in the ebb and flow of domestic life. For the majority of his career, Callahan has been more of a wandering cowboy type, philosophizing about life’s grandest mysteries, with the dramatic instrumentation to match. So it’s especially moving to hear him speak plainly, as a man grateful for finding his people, and for the way they’ve shepherded him home. “True love is not magic / It’s certainty,” he declares in his rich, incomparable basso. I’m certain that Ms. Austen would agree.

Honorable Mentions: Anderson .Paak – Ventura; Angel Olsen – All Mirrors; Bask – III; Bleached – Don’t You Think You’ve Had Enough?; Brockhampton – Ginger; Coldplay – Everyday Life; The Comet Is Coming – Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery; Czarface – The Odd Czar Against Us; Gang Starr – One of the Best Yet; Hatchie – Keepsake; Jessica Pratt – Quiet Signs; Kevin Abstract – Arizona Baby; King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard – Fishing for Fishies; Kim Petras – Turn Off the Light; Little Simz – Grey Area; Maren Morris – Girl; Maxo Kream – Brandon Banks; Moon Tooth – Crux; The Mountain Goats – In League with Dragons; Otoboke Beaver – Itekoma Hits; Rico Nasty & Kenny Beats – Anger Management; Solange – When I Get Home; Steve Gunn – The Unseen In Between; Sturgill Simpson – Sound & Fury; Tree & Vic Spencer – Nothing Is Something; Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride; Van Morrison – Three Chords and the Truth; William Tyler – Goes West; Young Thug – So Much Fun; Yugen Blakrok – Anima Mysterium

Catching Up with King: Doctor Sleep

When I moved to Stephen King’s home state of Maine, I thought it would be fun (if a bit cliché) to finally read his books in earnest, and discover how I really feel about his work. For this installment, I decided to find out whatever happened to that kid who talked to his fingers, and picked up the 2013 Shining sequel Doctor Sleep.

81r4acWAaCLIn 2013, shooting wrapped on the Richard Linklater film Boyhood, a project that took 12 years to make, because it was filming its child star, Ellar Coltrane, in real time. As we watched the main character grow from a 6-year-old to a college freshman, we were watching Coltrane grow, too. It turned out to be little more than a gimmick – Boyhood is a fairly forgettable domestic drama. If only it had a fraction of the narrative thrust of another 2013 experiment in fictional growth, Stephen King’s absolutely gripping literary sequel Doctor Sleep.

When we last saw Danny Torrance, it was at the end of King’s 1977 classic The Shining. Danny was six years old, and reeling in an auspicious salmon on a Maine lake, with his mother Wendy and telepathic mentor Dick looking on. It’s one of King’s best endings, a realistic infusion of hope after a long, grim reckoning with violent spectres of inherited trauma. It made us feel like Danny just might have a shot at a happy life, guided by the empathy that comes with his ability to see into the minds of others. Before we even start turning the pages of Doctor Sleep, we’re already rooting for its main character.

King’s novel picks things up 36 years later, without missing a beat. Danny is now Dan, and although he’s learned a few tricks on how to deal with the real-life monsters that followed him from the accursed Overlook Hotel, he’s not handling his psychological trauma quite as well. He’s become a melancholy alcoholic with a violent streak, just like his father. Yet even though he steals booze money from a poor single mother’s purse, Dan remains a better person than the arm-breaking, axe-wielding Jack Torrance. Redemption is still possible. Maybe even happiness. In King’s able hands, this reintroduction feels completely organic. It’s as if Danny had always been alive in the author’s mind, aging in real time.

As he so expertly gets us up to speed on Danny’s life, King includes an old conversation with Dick Hallorann that sets the stage for the events to come:

“Did it ever strike you funny, how I showed up when you needed me?” He looked down at Danny and smiled. “No. It didn’t. Why would it? You was just a child, but you’re a little older now. A lot older in some ways. Listen to me, Danny. The world has a way of keeping things in balance. I believe that. There’s a saying: When the pupil is ready, the teacher will appear. I was your teacher.”

71vhtEw1AkLDoctor Sleep is the story of Danny the student becoming Dan  the teacher. After hitting rock bottom, he somehow finds his way back above the waterline, in a small New Hampshire town. His first boss becomes his long-time AA sponsor. (This book is loaded with AA references, but King sprinkles enough healthy skepticism around to avoid getting preachy.) His job as a custodian at the local hospice center helps him discover his calling – Dan uses his shining to help the dying cross over, providing them with the kind of definitive serenity that no priest could ever gin up. And, most critically, Dan finds himself one town over from a 12-year-old girl named Abra, who shines more powerfully than perhaps anyone in history.

King pulls out some of his oldest tricks when filling in Abra’s history, creating a kind of alternate universe where Carrie White grew up in a loving and supportive household. When Abra predicts 9/11 as an infant; or plays Beatles songs on the piano, from her crib, with her mind; or makes all the silverware stick to the kitchen ceiling, her parents have to admit that their child has telepathic powers. They want to pretend it’s a phase, and Abra lets them think that. Until an evil none of them ever imagined sets its sights on her destruction.

The big bads in Doctor Sleep are not vindictive ghosts, or psychotic parents. They’re a group of psychic vampires called the True Knot, who spend their lives riding the interstate in tricked-out Winnebagos, posing as your average American retirees, out to make the most of their golden years. The True Knot subsists on “steam,” a vapor that has to literally be tortured out of the bodies of human beings who can shine. At first, these villains felt a little too convenient, and more than a little goofy – their leader is “Rose the Hat,” a sneering, top-hatted succubus who routinely lies to the group about how much steam she has in stock. But once they sniff out Abra, and start dropping like flies thanks to a nasty case of the measles, the True Knot becomes a terrifying metaphor for humans who can’t die peacefully. Like a convoy of hillbilly Elizabeth Bathorys, their desire to destroy the young, just so they can squeak out a couple more years, reflects the darkest side of human nature.

vJinkxbMiMQ3t2v8sJsmoTFzDan feels Abra shining pretty much from the moment he moves to New Hampshire. She “writes” him notes on his apartment wall, and they slowly get to know each other, exclusively via the shining. Dan thinks of her as family. And when she’s endangered, he and the few others who know of her abilities come up with a few elaborate ruses to destroy the Knot, without using her as bait. This sequence of the book is just impossible to put down, a gripping, fantastical showdown between the living and the dying, the givers and the takers, the listeners and the din. And through it all, we’re seeing that 6-year-old kid – who watched his father lose his mind, who was so close to the edge of destruction for most of his life – face his own demons, along with Abra’s.

All these years later, Stephen King still believes that you don’t have to become your parents. All it takes is some willpower, and the kind of family that you can choose. Then, chances are when it’s time to go, you’ll do it peacefully, your mind opening up as your body powers down.

THE “CATCHING UP WITH KING” RANKINGS

1. Pet Sematary

2. Misery

3. Carrie

4. The Shining

5. Doctor Sleep

6. The Talisman

7. Nightmares & Dreamscapes

8. 11/22/63

9. On Writing

10. The Stand

11. The Gunslinger

12. Bag of Bones