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.
20. 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.
19. 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.
18. 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.)
17. 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.
16. 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.
15. 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 Wee–influenced 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.
14. 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.”
13. 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.
12. 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.
11. 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.
10. 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.
9. 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.”
8. 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.
7. 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.
6. 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.
5. 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.
4. 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.
3. 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.
2. 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.
1. 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