A song can grab us in all sorts of ways. We fall for it by the time the first chorus kicks in; or it takes a dozen listens before its genius reveals itself; or it plays during a relevant moment in our lives and becomes forever attached to it; or it burrows its way into our subconscious and starts playing in our cerebral jukebox. In a year when almost everything didn’t work like it was supposed to, these 25 songs were reassuring reminders that music could still take hold of my emotions in these same old ways.
Happy listening, and happy new year!
25. Swamp Dogg (ft. Justin Vernon & Jenny Lewis) – “Sleeping Without You Is A Dragg”
In 2020, I thanked god every day that I could still hug and kiss and sleep next to the person I love. The ache in this 77-year-old R&B legend’s voice spoke for those who couldn’t.
24. Polo G – “Martin & Gina”
“I get this feeling in my stomach when you next to me,” confesses this inherently melodic Chicago drill rapper, evoking what love feels like in a way no multi-camera sitcom ever could.
23. The Chicks – “Tights On My Boat”
Natalie Maines delivers a viciously cathartic kiss-off to her trifling ex-husband, over wink-and-a-smile acoustic strumming: “Hey, will your dad pay your taxes now that I’m gone?”
22. Zara Larsson – “Love Me Land”
Love is an amusement park on this gobsmacked electro-pop earworm.
21. Angel Du$t – “Turn Off the Guitar”
This side project for members of the hardcore bands Turnstile and Trapped Under Ice has become an unexpected pop juggernaut – “Turn Up the Guitar” is their boppiest effort yet.
What Freddie Gibbs does to this beat is some gold-medal-worthy gymnastics.
19. Gillian Welch – “Didn’t I”
Give Gillian Welch a 12-bar blues and she will inevitably work a miracle.
18. The Avalanches (feat. Leon Bridges) – “Interstellar Love“
In December, the electro-pastiche virtuosos The Avalanches released its enchanting third LP, and it’s heavily influenced by the love story of astronomer Carl Sagan and writer/creative director Ann Druyan, who worked together on NASA’s 1977 Voyager Interstellar Project. On “Interstellar Love,” the group uses a soothing Alan Parsons Project sample to create a nurturing cocoon of synths, which slowly launches into an exhilarating expanse, the voice of Leon Bridges showing us the way to romantic transcendence.
17. Jessie Ware – “Soul Control”
An undeniable “Two of Hearts” synth line brings us behind the velvet rope at an ’80s discotheque, where the chorus froths over like champagne.
16. Bill Callahan – “Pigeons”
A year after crafting the best album of 2019, Bill Callahan still had more to give: driving newlyweds around in his limo and reflecting on the universality of marriage, all while doing his best Johnny Cash impression.
15. Kylie Minogue – “Say Something”
Ray of Sunshine #1: Pop legend Kylie Minogue made a sparkling, return-to-form album called Disco this year. Ray of Sunshine #2: Its lead single healed through dance music in classic Kylie fashion – “Baby, in an endless summer, we can find our way.”
14. Fat Tony – “Je Ne Sais Quoi”
This Houston rapper does a better job describing his own song than I ever could: “This beat has a certain Je Ne Sais Quoi / With a quality much like the dust from a star.”
13. Carly Rae Jepsen – “This Love Isn’t Crazy”
Per usual, Carly Rae Jepsen’s B sides were catchier and sweeter and more emotionally authentic than most artists’ A sides in 2020.
12. Soakie – “Boys On Stage”
The next time you hear a Democratic man talk about the value of pragmatism, drown him out with this ferocious neo-riot-grrrl assault.
11. Charli XCX – “Claws”
This frayed, homemade electro-pop love song had me dancing in my living room with tears in my eyes.
10. TOPS – “I Feel Alive”
I think Fleetwood Mac’s 1982 album Mirage is criminally underrated. And if this lovestruck air balloon ride of a song is any indication, there’s a Montreal soft-pop band that agrees with me.
9. John K. Samson – “Fantasy Baseball at the End of the World”
The former Weakerthans frontman uses sports metaphors to confess his death wish for our 45th president, over gentle, sympathetic guitar.
8. Kamaiyah (ft. J. Espinosa) – “Get Ratchet”
Four years after dropping one of the best rap albums of the decade, Kamaiyah was back with authority in 2020. And so were ominously funky minor-key piano chords. And extended scratch solos. And the feeling that hip hop could re-energize the world.
7. Run the Jewels ft. Gangsta Boo – “Walking in the Snow”
Black people are murdered by police so often, a rapper can write lyrics about a specific atrocity and chances are it’ll apply to others by the time the track drops. Like on the ominous synth-funk hailstorm “Walking in the Snow,” where Killer Mike connects the dots between the American education system, criminal justice system, and the destruction of Black lives with chilling precision and fulminating passion.
6. Moses Sumney – “Cut Me”
A breathtaking, falsetto-streaked, prismatic burst of R&B artistry that fills the D’Angelo-sized hole in my heart.
5. Thundercat – “Dragonball Durag”
When Thundercat’s dropped this adorably goofy R&B come-on as an advance single before his album’s April release date, is was an early glimpse of an especially fruitful spring.
4. Laura Marling – “For You”
At some point in 2020, I started putting little talismans on my dining room table, the place that had become my main workstation (and Dungeons & Dragons dice-rolling surface). They were little gifts and notes from my wife, whose job still required her to go out in the world every day. It wasn’t until I heard “For You” that I realized what I was doing. “I keep a picture of you / Just to keep you safe,” Laura Marling sings over a lullaby landscape of light hums and strums, appealing to anyone whose heart resides in someone else’s body.
3. Cardi B (feat. Megan Thee Stallion) – “W.A.P.”
Yes, the world’s reaction to “W.A.P.” included some tired old sexist pearl-clutching from conservative politicians and Fox News types. Yes, it’s annoying that two women rapping about their sexual prowess is still a headline-making event. (Men will be rapping about their boners until the mountains crumble into the sea.) But “W.A.P.” absolutely deserved this level of global attention – because it’s an ebullient feat of pop craftsmanship. Over a three-note bass rumble and an instantly iconic loop of the 1992 Frank Ski house track “Whores In This House,” two of the best rappers alive pack as many hilarious innuendos as possible into three minutes – staking their claim as peerless artists, making it clear that there’s no shame in consensual sex, and bringing some much-needed joy to the world.
2. Waxahatchee – “Lilacs”
“And if my bones are made of delicate sugar / I won’t get anywhere good without you,” admits Katie Crutchfield on this instant country-folk classic. Over a spare, radiant arrangement of guitar, organ and snare-rim clicks, the songwriter uses the fragrant, short-lived blossom of its title as a metaphor, not to dwell on mortality, but to drum up the courage to acknowledge the beauty that’s right in front of us: “I need your love too.”
1.Bob Dylan – “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)”
A year ago, back when traveling was still a thing, I took a trip to Hawaii with my wife. We got a place in the middle of the jungle that seemed created for the purpose of sitting down, unwinding, and appreciating how beautiful our world can be. For 10 days I was able to look up from the pages of a novel and see blooms of impossible brightness, banyan trees reaching to the sky like the hands of giants, and the ocean in the distance, conducting its prehistoric symphony. Pretty much immediately, we started talking about retiring there. It was a place where we could rest in peace.
A few months later, Bob Dylan told the world about his idea of heaven on earth – an island in the Florida Keys that’s famous for attracting 20th century literary geniuses to its shores. “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” is a hazy dreamworld of a nine-minute ballad, its clean, reverberating guitars and gently brushed snares exemplifying how time slows to a crawl when you’re in your favorite place. In his weary, 79-year-old voice, Dylan takes us down unexpected avenues on every verse, tuning in to an old broadcast from Radio Luxembourg, pointing out Truman Capote’s old house, making sure we don’t miss the gardens overflowing with hibiscus flowers, orchid trees and bougainvillea.
But this isn’t some cryptic, “Desolation Row”-style lyrical puzzle-box. On the choruses, Dylan makes his intentions as clear as a Caribbean tide pool, sighing with audible contentment about how this island makes him feel:
Key West is the place to be If you’re looking for immortality Key West is paradise divine Key West is fine and fair If you lost your mind, you’ll find it there Key West is on the horizon line
As the music slowly fades, the impact of what just happened washes over us. One of the least transparent artists in American history – who I have never seen actually speak to an audience beyond begrudgingly introducing his band – was singing, openly and earnestly, about where he wants his sun to set. I can only hope my last wishes will be so clear.
Music wasn’t the only thing that got me through 2020. My wife, who makes my home life perpetually exciting and meaningful and new, had me guiltily enjoying quarantine. My job allowed me to work from home, out of harm’s way. My coffee maker never broke down.
But this is a music column, and I did spend many precious hours of this past year playing old records and streaming new masterpieces while “trapped” inside my humble Maine bungalow. So if you’ll humor me, here are a few of the ways that music was there for me in 2020:
Music kept me engaged. As the Black Lives Matter protests spread across the world this summer, new albums from several artists on the list below channeled righteous, motivating anger at America’s deeply rooted, white supremacist systems. And many classics felt even more urgent and alive – when I played my vinyl copy of Marvin Gaye’s 1971 triumph What’s Going On and heard him so effortlessly croon, “Brother, brother, brother / There’s far too many of you dying,” the realization of how little has changed brought tears to my eyes. A few weeks later, my wife and I were on the streets of Portland, chanting George Floyd’s name.
Music made me appreciate my age. I’m firmly in my 40s now, which means I’ve been obsessing over certain albums for decades. So when I decided to play several of my long-time favorites back to back on a long summer day, I was floored at how deeply they were ingrained in my psyche. I hadn’t properly listened to Randy Newman’s Sail Away or Joni Mitchell’s Blue or Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life in years, but the lyrics came flooding back to me in a wave. As I puttered around the house, unashamedly singing along, it truly felt like some old friends had come to visit. I wouldn’t trade that connection to be 20 years younger if you paid me.
Music helped me relax. As a teen, I’d fall asleep to music all the time. I’d put five CDs in my beloved stereo, set them on shuffle, and let them take me away. In 2020, for the first time in ages, this happened again. I didn’t plan on napping when I put Kraftwerk’s Trans Europe Express on the turntable, but its cold, soothing bleeps made the book in my hand feel as heavy as my eyelids, and I drifted off. Waking up to the sound of the needle gently bumping against the label was like being told, “You’re coming back to reality now. And that’s okay.”
Here are 20 more examples of how music got me through this bizarre and challenging year. Each of these albums reminded me that the world was still turning out there, and that while creativity can be shaped by current events, it cannot be stopped by them. Thanks for reading, and happy holidays!
20. Carly Rae Jepsen – Dedicated Side B
When Carly Rae Jepsen named her 2019 LP Dedicated, she wasn’t kidding. The feel-good pop juggernaut wrote close to 200 songs during those sessions, in search of that perfect embodiment of love’s effervescent, organic swell. She pulled it off – and then some. Because for the third release cycle in a row, CRJ has followed up an LP with a “Side B” companion album, and this collection of Dedicated outtakes is just as effortlessly catchy and casually profound as Side A. Jepsen’s brand of ‘80s-inspired synth pop is as low-stakes-joyful as ever, combining the disco-ball sparkle of Kylie Minogue with Cyndi Lauper’s subtly emotional delivery. When she sings, “This is what they say / Falling in love’s supposed to feel like,” it’s with real wonder in her voice. And the synths and drums and backing vocals help her translate that feeling into the kind of starry-eyed, idealized pop music we especially needed this year.
19. Nnamdi – Brat
In the three years since his breakout LP Drool allowed him to quit his day job at a law firm, Nnamdi Ogbonnaya has been wrestling with career-based survivor’s guilt. On his emotionally and sonically kaleidoscopic follow-up Brat, the Chicago multi-instrumentalist wonders if he’d be more valuable to the world as a farmer or astronaut, confessing that “I mostly live in silence.” Ironically, the way he confronts these feelings of self-doubt is proof that he’s in the right line of work. Brat jumps from acoustic folk to rubbery hip-hop to synth-chilled art-pop with a boldness that belies its themes. It’s a world where the materialistic banger “Gimme Gimme” and the vulnerable ballad “It’s OK” feel of a piece, because they’ve grown from the same soil of self-awareness and melodic ambition.
18. War On Women – Wonderful Hell
“We’ve gotta stop this fascist creeeeeeep!” screams Shawna Potter on “Wonderful Hell,” the fist-pumping thrash-punk centerpiece of her band War On Women’s uncompromising, anthemic third LP. While it’s no mystery who Potter is referring to, this riot-grrrl-inspired Baltimore quintet is more concerned with the petrie dish of systemic racism and misogyny from which our soon-to-be-former president is just the latest mutation. Whether the subject is domestic violence, mass incarceration, or do-nothing “thoughts and prayers” politicians, the message is delivered with the clarity of a punch to a Nazi’s face, and paired with melodic riffs that are wired directly to our adrenal glands. This is righteous indignation, distilled into one irresistible call to action after another. The louder it gets, the more hopeful it feels.
17.Jessie Ware – What’s Your Pleasure?
At its best, dance music has a transcendent effect, its rhythms triggering something in our subconscious that shelves our worries so we can focus on the present moment. Jessie Ware’s fourth LP is dance music at its best. Over simmering, synth-driven R&B arrangements that hearken back to the ’80s post-disco reveries of Grace Jones, the London vocalist tells her glitter-flecked stories of dance-floor infatuations with leisurely confidence. Instead of just belting out these bangers, she adds to their nostalgic spell by tenderly crooning them, the reassuring warmth of her voice as welcome as a happy memory. To complete the effect, Ware closes with “Remember Where You Are,” a towering morning-after ballad written in reaction to the election of Boris Johnson and designed to help us cope with the world outside: “When life is hard, that’s how it goes / As your destiny unfolds, hold on.”
16. Oranssi Pazuzu – Mestarin Kynsi
On April 17, when it was starting to really sink in that we wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while, the Finnish psychedelic black metal sorcerers Oranssi Pazuzu took us on a journey of the mind, in the form of its brain-flambéing fifth album, Mestarin Kynsi. By layering synthesizer patches and guitar effects to create uniquely unsettling atmospheres, and then vaporizing them in the cleansing fire of drums and distortion, the band expresses no interest in soothing our jangled nerves. When singer Juho ”Jun-His” Vanhanen enters the fray, croaking like a disturbed cryptkeeper, the spell is completed, resulting in extended suites that stick in our heads like lucid nightmares. “Uusi Teknokratia” is perhaps the boldest display of disregard for genre norms, shifting from new age synth flutes to chaotic thrash to avant-garde horror-score classical without ever losing sight of its hellish destination.
15. Thundercat – It Is What It Is
The polarizing rock iconoclast Frank Zappa is back in the news these days, thanks to an acclaimed documentary, which I’m not rushing to see. After all, with Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner in my record collection, I have even less incentive to try and “get” Zappa’s intentionally difficult catalog. An astoundingly gifted bassist, Thundercat could probably build a loyal following by just showing off. But on his third LP, he continues to do what I always wished Zappa would – value hooks as much as chops. It Is What It Is has its share of jazz-fusion fireworks, but they’re leavened by sensual R&B grooves and synthetic yacht rock melodies. His lyrics, delivered in a crystal falsetto, are often funny, but in a sweet, self-effacing way. “I may be covered in cat hair / But I still smell good,” he belts with a wink on the adorably non-threatening pick-up song “Dragonball Durag.” This is ambitious music, exquisitely played, that also wants everyone to sing along.
14. Polo G – The GOAT
This summer, America was forced to think about how dangerous it is to be a Black person within its borders. As complicit white assholes like me played catch-up, long-released books like The New Jim Crow re-entered the best-seller lists. And there were few albums better suited to soundtrack this overdue racial reckoning than The GOAT, the unflinchingly honest, sneakily melodic second album from the 21-year-old Chicago drill rapper Polo G. Released two weeks before the murder of George Floyd, The GOAT pairs heartbreaking descriptions of life in a racial caste system with minor-key piano and guitar loops that ring out like bad omens. He has no time to mince words when discussing the stark reality of this rigged game: “You gon either die or see the system / Ain’t no slippin’ up.” Yet, through the ease of his singing voice and the deftness of his pen, Polo G is somehow able to stuff these songs with hooks, turning would-be dirges into profoundly emotional pop music.
13. Megan Thee Stallion – Good Times
In 1964, Sam Cooke released a single called “Good Times,” an homage to the power of music to “soothe our souls” amidst the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement. 56 years later, Houston rapper Megan Thee Stallion gave a similar gift of irrepressible joy to beleaguered Americans. Good Times declares independence from holier-than-thou body policers, patriarchal gender roles, bad lovers, Instagram haters, racist cops, and the misogynistic victim blaming the artist had to endure after being shot in the foot by rapper Torey Lanez this past July. Over thunderously catchy beats that hearken back to classic tracks from Naughty By Nature, Biggie Smalls and Eazy-E, Meg raps like a force of nature, melding the past and present into something exhilaratingly new. “They tried to knock me off, but a bitch still grindin’,” she proclaims with a smirk, creating a space for anyone who feels beaten down by 2020 to take a break, crank the bass, and let the good times roll.
12. Porridge Radio – Every Bad
Dana Margolin embraces contradictions. As the lead singer, songwriter and guitarist of the Brighton, UK, post-punk quartet Porridge Radio, she’s drawn to themes that explore the faultlines between adolescence and adulthood, when we know just enough about ourselves to be dangerous. “Oh I don’t know what I want / But I know what I want,” she sings in her deep tenor on “Don’t Ask Me Twice.” “I am okay all of the time / I am okay some of the time,” she shares on “Circles.” “Baby, I was born confused,” she repeats on the opening “Born Confused.” The band soundtracks these cripplingly uncertain narratives with the care of a supportive parent, going silent when Margolin needs to whisper, bashing wildly when she needs to scream, lending structure and shading to every bittersweet melody. Resulting in one more glorious contradiction: Every Bad is very good.
11. Fireboy DML – Apollo
“Time doesn’t exist / When you’re listening to your favourite song,” observes Nigerian pop sensation Fireboy DML in the middle of his unselfconscious-grin-inducing second album, Apollo. The track, “Favourite Song,” stands as proof of its own hypothesis, its dopamine-summoning groove marked by bouncy “Sussudio” horns and an honest-to-god “Macarena” sample. The artist has a knack for taking us out of time, especially on tracks that fuse the fiery syncopations of his native Afrobeat with the pillowy sounds of ’80s adult contemporary. And despite the god-complex album title and delightfully confident opening track “Champion,” this is far from an ego fest. Apollo gives us plenty of time with Fireboy on his own, sifting through his regrets, searching for answers. “I just want to be alone / I don’t wanna see no message on my phone,” he admits over the gentle “In Your Eyes” synths of “Airplane Mode.” Press play, and set your soul to vibrate.
10. Sault – Untitled (Rise)
Perhaps there were some PR considerations behind the decision to completely conceal the identities of this mysterious UK outfit – it worked for Daft Punk, after all. But it makes for a more meaningful, holistic listening experience as well. Sault’s second “Untitled” LP of 2020 sounds like it could be a lost R&B masterpiece from the late-’70s, discovered in an auction of Prince’s record collection. Sweaty funk, rippling Afrobeat, catchy Motown, soothing spoken word, and achingly pretty jazz – it’s all here. Couple that with its restorative, motivational themes of inner peace and racial justice, and we have a record that felt like a gift from a benevolent entity. With nowhere else to look in the liner notes, we have no choice but to examine the song titles. The first three are all we need to know: “Strong.” “Fearless.” “Rise.”
9. Charli XCX – How I’m Feeling Now
One of the silver linings of quarantine has been how it stripped away life’s extraneous bits and forced us to inspect the foundation. The experimental pop cosmonaut Charli XCX spent the first few months of lockdown putting her own self-assessment on tape. What she discovered will be recognizable to any of us lucky enough to be hunkered down with someone we love. Over the malfunctioning robot glitches of producer A. G. Cook, she sings indelible hooks, evoking the bliss and terror of realizing someone else has the keys to your heart. “So I made my house a home with you / I’m right here and it feels brand new,” she swoons. A few tracks later, she confronts the power that her partner now wields: “Maybe you’re my enemy / You’re the only one who knows what I really feel.” Charli XCX may have been trapped inside, but her feelings were free as a bird.
8. Ka – Descendants of Cain
“When age speaks, youth listens sometimes,” states a crackling, uncredited voice at the outset of Ka’s fifth solo album, the gently haunting biblical allegory Descendants of Cain. And while Gen Z may not go wild for the Brooklyn rapper’s low-lit, open-hearted, hungover Wu-Tang vibes, he continues to set an incredible example, one gorgeous track at a time. “Got to be in grace first, to fall from it,” he murmurs over the ringing minor-key guitar licks of “Solitude of Enoch,” speaking to the inherent value of every American Cain driven to violence by forces beyond their control. Ka delivers every line, no matter how sad or outraged, in the same quiet, level-headed tone, like a Zen master telling stories anchored in universal truths, their life lessons burrowing deep into our consciousness.
7. Caribou – Suddenly
The title of Dan Snaith’s fifth LP under his Caribou moniker might have you expecting a bunch of sonic jump scares. But the eclectic electronic artist reportedly chose Suddenly because his daughter was “obsessed with the word.” She’s not the only Snaith who is fixated on the way things sound. Every track on Suddenly is its own carefully curated sonic universe, with constellations of pillowy synthesizers and modified soul samples that ensure Snaith’s angelic falsetto points heavenward. The overarching mood is soothing and supportive, the soundtrack to an afterparty that makes it feel less scary to come down and reenter that stark, sunlit world. When Snaith sings, “She picks up all the pieces / She’s going home,” over a touching Gloria Barnes sample, it feels like we’ve arrived at a warm, graceful place, where nothing sudden can happen.
6. Laura Marling – Songs for Our Daughter
In 2001, Leonard Cohen released a ballad called “Alexandra Leaving,” where he lies on satin sheets while using ancient Greek metaphors to brood about getting dumped. 19 years later, Laura Marling asked a question that never seemed to cross Cohen’s mind: “Where did Alexandra go?” On the UK folksinger’s impeccably crafted concept album Songs for Our Daughter, she writes about the interior lives of women who have been often cast as villains in her genre, her voice a guiding light of warmth and understanding. Marling doesn’t have a literal daughter; she’s singing to her younger self, her friends, and her future hypothetical charges. “I love you my strange girl / My lonely girl / My angry girl / My brave,” she sings, her confident acoustic strumming a reminder of how it feels to be the protagonist, walking away from pain, having chosen a better life.
5. Andy Shauf – The Neon Skyline
When Andy Shauf’s sixth album dropped in late January 2020, its easygoing, low-stakes, clarinet-flecked folk felt as comforting as a cup of hot tea. But less than a year later, the story told heremight as well be science fiction – while hanging out at a bar called The Neon Skyline with friends, the narrator’s ex-girlfriend unexpectedly shows up, after which the group heads off to a different bar. “Oh I’m just fine / I’m wasting time / Sometimes there’s no better feeling than that,” Shauf sighs on the title track, his laid-back Paul Simon phrasing making it feel even more like a reassuring relic from a simpler, mask-free time. After his ex, Judy, shows up, it sparks all kinds of memories in our narrator, including a fight after a car crash where his selfishness gets the best of him. As the night goes on, his untreated ache grows, and we feel a different kind of social distance in the room. But Shauf ends things on a hopeful note, making it clear he believes that this guy, and all of us, can change. “I make a silent toast to the things I do and don’t miss,” the narrator proclaims toward the end, much like we all have done this year, figuring out how to make the absolute best of a challenging situation.
4. Moses Sumney – Grae
In most creative endeavors, it’s usually good advice to “kill your darlings” – cutting ideas that aren’t essential, no matter how profound you think they are. But on his sprawling double LP Grae, North Carolina auteur Moses Sumney threw this advice in the trash, writing about some of life’s most frustrating obstacles while dipping his brush in whatever genre he damn well pleased. Heavenly R&B, orchestral art rock, profound spoken word, dreamy jazz – it all works, because its connective tissue is Sumney’s voice, an impossibly elastic instrument that welcomes us in like a surprisingly friendly celebrity. Over the course of 20 tracks, he sings about the variety of boxes that society tries to trap us in: its self-destructive definition of masculinity; its cruelly efficient social media self-esteem compactor; its insistence that love is one very specific thing. “Honesty is the most moral way,” he sings in a Minnie Riperton falsetto, refusing to check any boxes in this backwards binary world, or listen to any tired old advice about how to make an album. His darlings are legion here. And we all get to listen to them, defiantly running free.
3. Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud
This summer, my wife and I saw new potential in our long-ignored backyard. I made a fire pit from stray bricks; we bought a projector and a big screen; and spent many unforgettable nights watching old movies under the stars. Fate had pushed us to reassess a familiar thing, and it felt good.Singer/songwriter Katie Crutchfield didn’t need quarantine to shift her focus inward. Her fifth LP as Waxahatchee is the result of years of introspection, a document of an artist’s shift from cynicism to optimism, from self-loathing to self-love. “I’m a bird in the trees / I can learn to see with a partial view,” she sings on “Fire,” accepting she’ll never have all the answers and that actually, life is pretty damn good perched on this particular branch. Musically, the album is one shimmering moment of clarity, its richly hued country arrangements directing steady sunshine on Crutchfield, who lets her voice soar like never before. And as she assembles the stray bricks of her psyche into something whole, she’s free to write honest, vulnerable, built-to-endure love songs. “And if my bones are made of delicate sugar / I won’t end up anywhere good without you,” she confesses, discovering that incandescent truth is within arm’s reach.
2. Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways
Bob Dylan spent the majority of his 70s singing the songs of his childhood, releasing a trilogy of Great American Songbook cover albums and pretty much exclusively playing those live, I imagine to the chagrin of many an entitled boomer. But this was more than just a weird rock star flex. This year, we realized that all that time dwelling in the past was preparing this grizzled poet to look clear-eyed into his future. “Today and tomorrow and yesterday too / The flowers are dyin’ like all things do,” the 79-year-old softly sings at the beginning of his 39th album, Rough and Rowdy Ways. The song, “I Contain Multitudes,” is a quiet autumn wood of ringing guitars, a breathtakingly simple backdrop for a Whitman-biting summation of the artist’s many contradictions. Everything on this album, even the full-bore blues stomps, bears the mark of this restrained, spacious approach – on the deeply catchy “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” drummer Matt Chamberlain doesn’t hit his crash cymbal once. This commitment to openness, both sonically and emotionally, comes to a head on “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” a 9-minute ballad about a Florida island famous for drawing legendary storytellers to its shores. With each sun-kissed note, with every creak in this septuagenarian’s voice, it sinks in deeper – this is about an ideal death. “Key West is the place to be / If you’re looking for immortality,” goes the final chorus. While others rage at the dying of the light, Bob Dylan croons at it like a weary Sinatra, convincing me definitively that the best is yet to come.
1. Run the Jewels – RTJ4
“Black child in America / The fact that I made it’s magic,” marvels the Atlanta rap inferno Killer Mike on the final verse of the fourth Run the Jewels LP. In a just world, that line would be hyperbolic. But in a year where violent, institutionalized American racism ran amok on the world stage, the continued existence of this brilliant, outspoken, 45-year-old Black man really did feel like a miracle. After a four-year hiatus, Mike and producer/rapper El-P returned at the perfect time to throw us all a cathartic party, summoning our deepest reserves of adrenaline to spew righteous anger at a system built to destroy Black lives. Whether the duo is exposing the “slave masters posing on your dollar,” eviscerating people who are only outraged on Twitter, or proving that shit talk is an art form (“You’re a common cold and my flows are cancerous”), their voices are crackling with purpose, like pissed-off preachers with something to prove. El-P’s production is as fluid and supercharged as ever, his bass lines and drum breaks guiding us through bursts of static like a getaway driver with ice in his veins. And Killer Mike has never been better. Over the twisted, reverb-drenched synth funk of “Walking in the Snow,” he breaks down our country’s ugly legacy on a verse written before George Floyd’s murder:
They promise education, but really they give you tests and scores And they predictin’ prison population by who scoring the lowest And usually the lowest scores the poorest and they look like me And every day on the evening news, they feed you fear for free And you so numb, you watch the cops choke out a man like me Until my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, “I can’t breathe”
It would be enough if this album just featured this kind of raw, urgent, necessary poetry. It would be enough if it featured music that made you feel invincible. The fact that it contains both, and that it came out when it did? That, my friends, is magic.
Honorable Mentions: Bell Witch & Aerial Ruin – Stygian Bough, Vol. 1; Boldy James – The Price of Tea in China; Bully – Sugaregg; Bill Callahan – Gold Record; The Chicks – Gaslighter; Neil Cicierega – Mouth Dreams; Fat Tony – Exotica; Haim – Women In Music Pt. III; Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist – Alfredo; Kamaiyah – Got It Made; Kylie Minogue – Disco; The Mountain Goats – Getting Into Knives;Napalm Death – Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism; Oceanator – Things I Never Said; Pallbearer – Forgotten Days; R.A.P. Ferreira – Purple Moonlight Pages; Jeff Rosenstock – No Dream; Sturgill Simpson – Cuttin’ Grass, Vol. 1; Tops – I Feel Alive; Thy Catafalque – Naiv; William Tyler – New Vanitas
As we say goodbye to August and look to November, Joe Biden is maintaining his slight lead in the polls. But it should be an 80 point lead. Americans are dying from a virus that our president has ignored, and from racist police officers and vigilantes that our president has encouraged. It makes me wonder, do we really hate each other and ourselves this much? Counterpoint: Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion topped the charts this month with a watershed of a song that celebrated the joy that human beings can give to one another. We do love ourselves! Now we just need to apply all that positive energy to canvassing, and donating, and VOTING.
1. Cardi B (feat. Megan Thee Stallion) – “W.A.P.”
Yes, the world’s reaction to “W.A.P.” included some tired old sexist pearl-clutching from conservative politicians and Fox News types. Yes, it’s annoying that two women rapping about their sexual prowess is still a headline-making event. (Men will be rapping about their boners until the mountains crumble into the sea.) But “W.A.P.” absolutely deserved this level of global attention – because it’s an ebullient feat of pop craftsmanship. Over a three-note bass rumble and an instantly iconic loop of the 1992 Frank Ski house track “Whores in this House,” two of the best rappers alive pack as many hilarious innuendos as possible into three minutes – staking their claim as peerless artists, making it clear that there’s no shame in consensual sex, and bringing some much-needed joy to the world.
2. Bully – “Stuck In Your Head”
Alicia Bognanno’s alternative-nation rocker seems to be about never acting on your feelings, and then dealing with the fallout of that inaction. But its blistering hook will get stuck in your head all the same.
3. Marie Davidson – “Renegade Breakdown”
This bilingual robo-funk banger is so catchy, I don’t even mind when it reads me to filth: “Your cheap headlines, your lazy writing / I wonder how it feels for you to sit around all day.”
What Freddie Gibbs does to this beat is some gold-medal-worthy gymnastics.
5. Orville Peck (feat. Shania Twain) – “Legends Never Die”
Shania Twain is indeed a legend, and she sounds as charismatic and arena-ready as ever while harmonizing with old-school country’s most compelling modern torchbearer.
6. Mourn – “This Feeling Is Disgusting”
I never understood music theory, so I can’t tell you what note this Barcelona pop-punk quartet is playing at the apex of this track’s rollicking lead riff. A seventh? A suspended fourth? I was too busy bouncing around my living room to look it up.
7. MF Doom – “Coco Mango (FloFilz Remix)”
A German producer gives a 2012 MF Doom track a summery piano-jazz makeover.
8. Laura Veirs – “Turquoise Walls”
A ballad about being alone in a room, waiting for a text from someone who betrayed you, that somehow feels like hope.
9. Black Thought (feat. Pusha-T, Swizz Beatz & Killer Mike) – “Good Morning”
This quartet of forty-something rappers might be over the hill, but holy shit are they gaining speed.
10. A.G. Cook – “Today”
Smashing Pumpkins’ deceptively sunny-sounding classic gets a loving electro-pop makeover from the head of the PC Music collective, bringing out its inherent darkness without blunting its shimmer.
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.
25. Steve Gunn – “Vagabond”
This swirling acoustic ramble feels like it could go on forever. It’s almost disappointing when it doesn’t.
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.
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.
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.
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.
20. Normani – “Motivation”
If an early-’00s R&B revival is upon us, I am here for it.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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!
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.
12. Little Simz – “Boss”
Take a goddamn seat, Bruce Springsteen.
11. Helado Negro – “Imagining What To Do”
Calypso Nick Drake.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
6. Annika Norlin – “Showering in Public”
A staggeringly beautiful folk song about locker room anxiety.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”
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
Here are my favorite tracks from May 2019, the month we all celebrated the 10th anniversary of the movie Angels & Demons. We savored Ron Howard’s direction of Tom Hanks’s wig in The Da Vinci Code. But Howsie & Hanksie took us even higher in ’09. Angels & Demons, available now in 4K Blu-Ray.
1. Denzel Curry – “Ricky”
Conflicting parental advice has never slapped like this.
2. Carly Rae Jepsen – “Everything He Needs”
Harry Nilsson’s “He Needs Me,” as sung by Shelley Duvall in Popeye, is sacred ground, one of the greatest songs ever written about how love can translate into self-worth. So there’s only one way to explain how Carly Rae Jepsen has been able to interpolate “He Needs Me” into a breezy, sex-positive, lite-disco jaunt, without jettisoning its emotional weight – she is a pop music magician.
3. Jamila Woods – “Giovanni”
Jamila Woods kicks off her Nikki Giovanni tribute song with an appropriately bad-ass couplet – “You might want to hold my comb / When you find out what I’m made of.” Her voice floats just behind the beat, smirking with its collar popped.
4. 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.
5. Flying Lotus – “Say Something”
Nestled in the back half of electro-visionary Flying Lotus’s sprawling new LP lies this weird-ass piano instrumental, which could soundtrack a quirky British crime procedural. I would watch the shit out of that show.
6. Bill Callahan – “Morning Is My Godmother”
Bill Callahan, one of our finest living songwriters, has a new album out in June – his first in six years. His voice still sounds like whiskey aged in a hickory barrel, and he’s still writing about nature like Thoreau with better weed.
7. Tyler, the Creator – “Earfquake”
Ever since he rode a tired shock-rap provocateur act to fame in 2009, I’ve actively avoided Tyler, the Creator’s music. I’ve clearly missed one hell of an evolution. He’s moved on, both sonically and self-consciously, sounding vulnerable, and inspired, and free.
8. Vampire Weekend – “Sympathy”
Like many a classic double LP, Vampire Weekend’s Father of the Bride is designed to reveal its riches over time. One of these growers has been the mid-album spazz-out “Sympathy,” which pairs a four-on-the-floor groove with acoustic flourishes, megaphone-feedback-drenched breakdowns, and references to Diego Garcia and “arrogant mosquitoes.”
9. 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!
10. Ider – “Wu Baby”
Religious imagery will always be a compelling way to talk about romantic obsession. So when this London duo sings “I prayed all of my love to you / Can you feel it?” over a moody electro-pop synthscape, it feels like more than a crush. This is faith, in all its intoxicating, terrifying vulnerability.