The Fire Note would not be possible without the talented writers that share their educated thoughts and true enjoyment of music with our readers. The time and commitment that goes into writing consistently is appreciated by TFN and taken for granted by everyone else!
Our official year end Top 50 is coming soon but clearly everyone has different tastes and ideas when naming the best album released in 2019. Thanks again to all our contributors!
We are always up for some new voices so if you want to be on this list next year send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Now – on with the show!
1. Dumb: Club Nites – Should Black Midi be #1? Probably. But I went with my heart instead of my head this year. This was the most fun I had listening to a record this year. LIYL: Parquet Courts
2. Black Midi: Schlagenheim – An absolute smash of a debut album. Get the non-album singles. Intense, diverse and unpredictable. LIYL: Slint
3. Kneeling In Piss: Tour De Force – Brilliant lo-fi power pop moments sprinkled with indie weirdness. LIYL: Lo-fi GBV.
4. Mike Krol: Power Chords –Not a dull track on this fuzzed out power pop-laden gem of a record. LIYL: The Strokes
5. Possible Humans: Everybody Split – Brilliant DIY jangle rock from Australia. LIYL: R.E.M. and GBV.
6. Snapped Ankles: Stunning Luxury – Punktronica? Sure, why not? Dance punk excellence from London. LIYL: DEVO mixed with LCD Soundsystem and some krautrock for good measure.
7. Christian Fitness: You Are the Ambulance – CF returns to form with a ripper of an LP. Sarcastic and mean. LIYL: Mclusky and Future of the Left.
8. SIZ: LIQUID – high powered pseudo-grunge from France.
9. Blue Ray: Live Laugh Love – Fuzzed out lo-fi noise punks from Boston. LIYL: If you want to hear an entire album that sounds like Particular Damaged from GBV’s Propeller.
10. King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard: Infest the Rats’ Nest – King Gizzard go full 80s thrash metal on this album. It did not disappoint. LIYL: 80s thrash.
11. CZARFACE & Ghostface Killah: Czarface Meets Ghostface – Not a lot of rap makes my end of year list, but this album wormed its way into my soul. LIYL: Cannibal Ox and Wu-Tang Clan.
12. Spray Paint: Into the Country – Fascinating no wave punk. Into the Country could be the soundtrack for a horror film or the ramblings of a serial killer.
13. Warmduscher: Tainted Lunch – The best Beck album since Midnite Vultures.
14. Guided By Voices: Sweating the Plague – Best GBV album in a long time. A short run time, loaded with hits. What more do you want?
15. Pinch Points: Moving Parts – Angular post punk pop from Australia.
16. Mundaze. Tangerine – Dreamy lo-fi jangle rock.
17. Tropical Trash: Southern Indiana Drone Footage – Noise rock didn’t get much better than this album in 2019.
18. Trumans Water: Chèvre Au Lait – 90s noise heroes return with an album that sounds like it was recorded in their prime.
19. Kills Birds: Kills Birds – Dark power pop. Seethes and grooves all at the same time.
20. Cagework: Cagework – Like a punk rock Built to Spill.
21. I’m Being Good: A Constellation of Bad Ideas – If Polvo was a sludge rock band.
22. Bench Press: Not the Past, Can’t Be the Future – Another power pop punk delight from Australia.
23. Captain Frederickson: Heel Heat – Heavy and fun. If Ween were into Christian Fitness, it might sound like this.
24. Lightning Bolt: Sonic Citadel – My first foray into the world of Lightning Bolt. I could stay here a while.
25. Petersburg: Show – The more lo-fi albums you have in your collection, the better. Catchy stuff.
1. Amyl & The Sniffers – Amyl & The Sniffers (ATO/Flightless)
2. (Sandy) Alex G – House Of Sugar (Domino)
3. Guided By Voices – Sweating The Plague (GBV Inc.)
4. Swervedriver – Future Ruins (Dangerbird)
5. Big Thief – U.F.O.F. (4AD)
6. Levitation Room – Headspace (Greenway)
7. GA-20 – Lonely Soul (Karma Chief/Colemine)
8. Oso Oso – Basking In The Glow (Triple Crown)
9. Omni – Networker (Sub Pop)
10. Black Beach – Tapeworm (Self-Released)
11. Steve Gunn – The Unseen In Between (Matador)
12. Possible Humans – Everybody Split (Trouble In Mind)
13. Cherry Glazerr – Stuffed & Ready (Secretly Canadian)
14. Good Shade – Way Out (Dirtnap)
15. Charly Bliss – Young Enough (Barsuk)
16. Truth Club – Not An Exit (Tiny Engines)
17. Paul Orwell – SMUT (Heavy Soul!)
18. WIVES – So Removed (City Slang)
19. Gong Gong Gong – Phantom Rhythm (Wharf Cat)
20. The Murder Capital – When I Have Fears (Human Season)
21. Martha – Love Keeps Kicking (Dirtnap)
22. Ghost Funk Orchestra – A Song For Paul (Karma Chief/Colemine)
23. The Shoots – R & Beat (Heavy Soul!)
24. Better Oblivion Community Center – Better Oblivion Community Center (Dead Oceans)
25. Brat Curse – Brat Curse (Anyway)
25. Seratones – Power
24. Yak – Pursuit of Momentary Happiness
23. Amyl and the Sniffers -Amyl and the Sniffers
22. Ex Hex – It’s Real
21. Drugdealer – Raw Honey
20. Wand – Laughing Matter
19. Black Mountain – Destroyer
18. The Budos Band – V
17. CFM – Soundtrack to an Empty Room
16. L’Orange & Jeremiah Jae – Complicate Your Life With Violence
15. Hippie Death Cult – 111
14. Tropical Fuck Storm – Braindrops
13. Deerhunter – Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?
12. The Flaming Lips – King’s Mouth
11. The National – I Am Easy To Find
10. The Black Heart Death Cult – The Black Heart Death Cult
One of the most mind expanding albums released this year, The Black Heart Death Cult had to make my top 10. The album is a molten space rock that hurdles throughout the heavens. Australia has been on fire with musical acts and this group is no exception. With so many psychedelic albums coming out left and right, The Black Heart Death Cult is truly one to absorb.
9. The Raconteurs – Help Us Stranger
I’m a huge Jack White fan but, I bounced off Boarding House Reach pretty hard. So, when I heard that Jack was getting back together with Benson and Co. I couldn’t help but be intrigued. I wasn’t disappointed at all. This album has a fun flare that really shows that rock n’ roll ain’t near dead.
8. Flaural – Postponement
As a big dummy this is an album that I sadly never reviewed. I have no one to blame but my self for that. Now that I have that out of the way, I can tell you how truly great Postponement is. Postponement, in my mind, is basically the sequel to Innerspeaker and the prequel to Lonerism. This album has Kevin Parker vibes all over it. It’s really the psychedelic album that Tame Impala fans deserve.
7. Omni – Networker
Coming out of nowhere at the end of the year, Networker was truly a surprise. What makes it so catchy? It’s mathy without pretension, it’s at times simple and at time intricate, and most of all it’s punky with a nonchalant, calm, coolness that few albums possessed.
6. Purple Mountains – Purple Mountains
David Berman, is sadly, the greatest musical tragedy in the year 2019. I’ve barely dipped my toe in to the Silver Jews pool but, I know enough to say that American Water is a true classic. Relating to that, so is Purple Mountains. The music comes with this cheerful, dread that very few artist can muster. Now that he’s gone we know, sadly, that this was a man that was truly living his music. This is the album that packed the most emotional weight of any album this year. Where ever you are David Berman, I certainly hope your having margaritas at the mall.
5. Thom Yorke – Anima
Not only did we get a new Thom Yorke solo album this year but, we got a Paul Thomas Anderson directed Thom Yorke short film too. A nice balance of the The Eraser and Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes. Anima takes beauty, fear, anxiety, loss, and love and turns it into one of the years best electronic albums.
4. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – Fishing For Fishies and Infest the Rats’ Nest
Take your pick, environmental blues album or environmental thrash-metal album. My take, you really cannot go wrong. While it took a little time for Fishing for Fishies to grow on me. The attraction to Infest the Rats Nest was almost immediate. I’ve always enjoyed Gizzard at their most metal, examples being 2014’s I’m In Your Mind Fuzz and 2016’s Nonagon Infinity. Infest The Rats Nest took a Metallica edge on the formula and makes the record super engaging from start to finish. Fishing for Fishies is one of their best blues themed records they’ve ever done.
3. Black midi – Schlagenheim
An album that came out of nowhere for a lot of people. To quote Thomas Wilde, Black Midi is “Post punk for a new generation.” This trio of youngsters is basically unconfined in their musical stylings. Noisy, automated, precise, uncontrolled, passive, reactive, dark, and bouncy are just a few ways to describe Schlagenheim. One of the most unique albums crafted this year.
2. Tool – Fear Inoculum
This album was 13 years in the making and it really did pay off. Maynard James Keenan, Adam Jones, Justin Chancellor, and Danny Carey have created an odyssey that explores self, the past, the present, and the future. It was one of the most intricately crafted albums this year and easily is my #2.
1. Frankie and the Witch Fingers – Zam
Frankie and the Witch Fingers has never put out a bad album and this year is no exception. ZAM has to be the album that I went to the most this year. Anybody who liked music, I tried to share it with all I could. The rubber band, gelatinous cube jams of “Pleasure,” the fist pumping freak-outs of “Dark Sorcerer,” and the automated, breakdown jams of “Work” is only a small peek of the aural magic this album produces. Also, do yourself a favor, if they ever come to your town go and see them, please.
Here in 2019, if you’ve been paying attention, there’s been a lot of great music made, so much that you’re likely to miss some really good things in the avalanche of new releases. There are a bunch of records that I had to leave out of my “best of” list, that surely deserve an airing. Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth fame is out with her debut solo work, and it’s quite good, and Jesse Malin’s great new album could be easily overlooked. Plus, I’ve encountered a bunch of new releases that would have been in competition for this list, but they came in so close to the date I had to write this up that there was no way to do them justice. The music is out there; go find it. Here’s my list, might be a good place to start.
25. The Yawpers – Human Question (Bloodshot)
This one was an unexpected burst of raw rock energy, but further exploration revealed, smart songs asking big questions in a literate way.
24. Pedro The Lion – Phoenix (Polyvinyl)
It’s hard off the top of my head to think of a singer/songwriter who wears their heart on their sleeve more than David Bazan, who seems to use his music the way some people use a confessional. Here he reunites his band Pedro the Lion, but the songs describe Bazan’s return to the town where he grew up, learning to appreciate music at an early age sitting on the family “Piano Bench” with his religious parents, whose influence has fueled his deconstruction and stirred up a lot of rock & roll angst.
23. Brittany Howard – Jaime (ATO)
Brittany Howard may have named her debut as a solo artist after her late-sister who died from a childhood illness, but she is determined to tell her own story, and express her unique musical vision away from her band, Alabama Shakes. She delves into a broader sampling of R&B and hip-hop influences, tries on a falsetto that hints of Prince or Smokie Robinson, while sharing her thoughts on racism, both in her childhood and her current experience, plus thoughts on sexual intimacy, spirituality, self-discovery and self-worth. In short, the kinds of things musicians have always written about, but Howard marks everything here with her unique personal stamp.
22.Pixies – Beneath The Eyrie (BMG/Infectious) / Sleater-Kinney – The Center Won’t Hold (Mom + Pop Music
I was so excited to see the Pixies back together (albeit with bassist Paz Lenchantin) that two summers back I put up with seeing Weezer again just so I could experience Black Francis back where he belongs. The two albums made recently feel like warm-ups for this one, which delivers a more mature, seasoned Pixies’ sound, but with no less passion and artistic sensibility, set in a suitably haunted environment.
Now I know it’s cheating to list a tie, and not make it count for two… it’s a sneaky way to get more than 25 records into your top 25… well, exactly. But, I think of Sleater-Kinney as similar way as the Pixies, and I’m grateful to hear Corin Tucker (also the voice of Filthy Friends) and Carrie Brownstein back making music together, here in a bit more polished form thanks to the production touches of St. Vincent.
21. Bob Mould, Sunshine Rock (Merge)
While Bob Mould, formerly of Minneapolis premier punk rockers Husker Du and later Sugar, has never disappointed, even on his more acoustic solo efforts. Here he turns up his guitars, and pumps out a dozen songs that lean toward the bright sunny disposition the title suggests. Nobody cranks up that fast, buzz-saw guitar sound quite like Mould, and here he drives his band, including a few tracks with strings, in some fun, melodic punk/pop.
20. Filthy Friends, Emerald Valley (Kill Rock Stars)
Speaking of vocalist Corin Tucker, she’s back for a second album with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey, who has recovered from the stroke that impacted the band’s tour behind their 2017 debut, Initiation. This time the band feels more settled and comfortable as they dig into a fine collection of rockers that take on issues from ecological concerns to the current President. Tucker gets to channel her inner Patty Smith, and that alone is worth going along for the ride.
19. Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars
The Boss channels his inner Glen Campbell, enough said.
18. Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell! (Polydor/Interscope) / Jenny Lewis – On The Line (Warner Bros.)
2019 was a great year for women in music. Here are two fine female artists who are stretching the boundaries of pop with smart, fun results. I first encountered Del Rey’s fifth album through the catchy, sophisticated single, “Doin’ Time” on satellite radio. From the title, you can see that Del Rey is willing to push the usual pop boundaries with her consistent use of several expletives. But here, the music is as inventive, compelling and entertaining as her insightful lyrics that take on the American dream and sexual stereotypes head on.
Similarly, Jenny Lewis takes a stark look at the underbelly of suburban culture, offering a fun insider look at all that’s going sadly wrong, while relying on some of the more sophisticated pop production insights of the best 70’s singer/songwriter albums, with help here and there from Beck, Benmont Tench, Ringo Starr, Don Was, and Russell Kunkel.
17. Thom Yorke – Anima (XL) / Bon Iver – I,I (Jagjaguwar)
Anima is the third and most satisfying of the electronica solo albums from Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and his collaborator Nigel Godrich. Yorke has acknowledged that the underlying musical impetus here is his own sense of anxiety and feelings of dystopia. It’s a curious thing to explore the dehumanizing realities of our culture using music that is generated largely through the use of loops, synths and electronic devices. But, the result is a lot more satisfying and interesting than those inspirations might suggest.
Like Yorke, Bon Iver has pushed away from the traditional instrumentation of earlier efforts, although while Radiohead started out as a traditional alternative rock unit, while Justin Vernon’s early outings leaned toward folk music. Here Bon Iver seems to want to strike a more accessible balance that mixes acoustic instrumentation, including Bruce Hornsby on piano for one track, with his loops, and electronic bells and whistles, but finds tangible melodies in each context that work to create a quite pleasant listening experience.
16. Andrew Bird – My Finest Work Yet (Vista Loma)
Unlike the two previous artists, Andrew Bird is a musician in the more traditional sense, one who is quite at home on traditional instruments, whether they be violin, acoustic guitar or whistling as well as singing. Tyler Chester brings a jazzy quality to the piano which provides structure throughout, while Bird’s arty lyrics are actually not addressed to subjects in ancient Greece, but are in fact critical observations of our current political predicament. You hear elements of jazz, classical, and a variety of traditional forms here in Bird’s lovely collection of pop/rock songs, marked by his strong vocals, and creative musicality.
15. The National – I Am Easy to Find (4AD)
The former Cincinnati band continues the unique, artful approach that turned 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me and 2017’s Sleep Well Beast such great albums. Here, vocalist Matt Berninger is joined by a handful of guest female vocalists, and an orchestra that bounces off or mixes with the band’s dry urban rock sound. It’s an artful and compelling collection of songs that invite repeat listening and deep reflection.
14. Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride (Spring Snow/Columbia)
After six years, Vampire Weekend returned with a long musical collection that appears to be written around a spring-time theme, which means that while principal singer/songwriter Ezra Koenig has explored a variety of musical styles there’s a certain up-tempo brightness throughout. Well, bright musically, some of Koenig’s lyrics look at the darker concerns of human relationships and existence. Musically there are nods to the pop genius of Paul Simon, some jam band acoustic things that nod toward Dave Matthews, there’s a lot going on here, some orchestrations, some bright guitar and piano here and there. At 18 tracks, it more than makes up for all those absent years, but more than anything it’s the depth, smarts, heart and musicality that makes this return so welcome.
13. Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Colorado (Reprise)
After over a decade, Neil Young has reconvened Crazy Horse, bring back Nils Lofgren who played with the Canadian singer/songwriter in the 70’s before joining up with Bruce Springsteen. Young continues to look back fondly on the “Olden Days,” but he’s also paying attention to the climate crisis, and takes on the issue of racism and immigration with determination in “Rainbow of Colors.” There’s a delightful retro feel here, but Young still makes music like a young man who wants to sing songs that matter and get the girl in the end, and on Colorado he manages to do both. Of course, he had me when he sang, “you might say I’m an old white guy,” at the front end of “She Showed Me Love,” before he condemns his peers for “trying to kill Mother Nature.”
12. Redd Kross – Beyond The Door (Merge)
This late summer release arrived just in time, bringing with it the power-pop vibe of their first time around, in the 80’s alongside bands like Material Issue and Jellyfish. But, thankfully the reunion of the brothers McDonald for the band’s 7th album is far more that a retro blast from the past, on 10 originals they rock with a fun sensibility that remembers to get down to business (guitars on 11), but always with their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks. The album’s one cover redoes the Sparks’ 90’s disco pop hit, “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way,’” revisioning it as a delightful piece of pop rock genius.
11. Mavis Staples – We Get By (Anti-) / Robert Randolph & The Family Band – Brighter Days (Mascot Label Group)
At 80, Mavis Staples is coming out of the decade in her career that comes closest to her early days in the Staples Singers, and here, after making 3 albums with Jeff Tweedy of Wilco and one with M. Ward, Staples works with Ben Harper producing a collection of songs that are perhaps closest to the R&B and Gospel music written by her father, Pops Staples. Last year, Mavis recorded a concert album, Live In London, and while she took on the issues of race and survival on 2017’s If All I Was Was Black, here Harper allows her to inspire and encourage her “Brothers And Sisters” as they work for “Change.” She’s in great voice, and these songs give her room to run, and run she does.
Robert Randolph has single-handedly brought the pedal steel guitar out of country music, and following the Sacred Steel of his youth, brought that slide guitar sound into the realms of Gospel church music fit to rock the clubs, and on Brighter Days he and his Family Band deliver the goods, mixing funk, blues, soul and rock on songs that flirt with the spirituality of his youth. But if nothing else, Randolph is giving a tutorial on how to make that steel guitar, sing, scream, and cry.
10. Sheryl Crow – Threads (Big Machine) / The Highwomen – The Highwomen (Low Country Sound/Elektra)
Sheryl Crow obviously felt good about the songs she’d recorded for this new album when she played the Fraze in Kettering, OH, back in July, which she is reported saying is her final effort recording a long-player. But if this is going to be her last full length album, she’s gone the distance, delivering 17 tracks, and bringing in a host of music star friends to sing and play along. While Crow is a rocker at heart, she’s made a few faints in recent years toward country music, and there’s plenty of songs here that reflect the culture of her adopted home in Nashville. For her song “Redemption Day,” Crow accessed a cover of the song that Johnny Cash had recorded, and through the miracle of technology turned it in to a duet. Some of the star guests fare better than others, of course, but she’s got everybody from Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson, Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton, and Keith Richard and St. Vincent on here, but in all that Crow still shines.
I wrote earlier that this was a great year for women in music, and this album is all the proof you need. Four younger women in Americana/country/pop music – Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, and Natalie Hemby, come together to create a super-group that delivered an album full of songs that seem to celebrate the promise and possibilities for modern women. In “Crowded Table,” we get a picture of what it looks like when women have the power to rule, and the result is far more inclusive and welcoming than what we see around us now.
9. Buddy & Julie Miller – Breakdown On 20th Ave. South (New West) / Over the Rhine – Love & Revelation (Great Speckled Dog)
While Julie Miller has been dealing with serious illness and depression through recent years, her husband Buddy has been busy as the go to guy playing with everybody from Emmylou Harris to Robert Plant, serving as the music director on the TV show “Nashville,” after T Bone Burnett moved on to other projects. On this new record, we see the couple working together more as a team, Julie writing all the lyrics, Buddy playing all the guitars and almost everything else including the hurdy-gurdy. The result is a rich collection of songs that capture the push and pull of a relationship that has been through hard times. The album is a special work of art, Americana at its best, and most honest.
In 30 years, the married duo of Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler who took their band name from the Cincinnati neighborhood where they got their start, have made fifteen albums, moving from edgier alternative sounds to more of an Americana folk/rock vibe. On recent albums, they’ve leaned on the production skills of Joe Henry, but with him laid up, they undertook this first album in 6 years with their Band of Sweethearts. The result is a collection of songs that are soulfully delivered and embrace the delicate beauty of the whole of life.
8. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Ghosteen (Ghosteen Ltd.)
Recent albums from Nick Cave have downplayed the power and might of his band The Bad Seeds, in favor of the darker, reflective tones of grief and introspection best expressed in dense patterns played out on piano and various synthesizers by Cave and his friend and associate Warren Ellis. Here Cave’s songs center on literate parables and storytelling all that point back toward the grief thrust upon his family by the tragic death of their teenage son. It’s an artful, beautiful work, stunning to behold.
7. Robbie Robertson – Sinematic (UME Direct)
In the long decades since the break-up of The Band, Robertson has released a half a dozen albums, but has consistently collaborated with filmmaker Scorsese, assisting with the musical soundtracks. That cinematic quality shines through the 13 tracks of Sinematic, Robertson’s first album in 8 years. Musically, he’s created lushly orchestrated musical beds, some instrumentals you might see in a movie’s more reflective moments, in others his smoky vocals and piercing guitar lines come piercing through. This is a lush, beautiful album, quite musically satisfying.
6. Elbow – Giants of All Sizes (Polydor)
The eighth album from the Manchester, British quartet comes as their home-land is reeling in the political fall-out of the Brexit vote, a tragic fire in a public housing unit, and the death of three individuals close to the band, so there’s a dense, darker quality to Giants of All Sizes than many of their earlier efforts. Still you can hear the prog-rock influences of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, Radiohead and Talk Talk making their way into the musical compositions. This is a very strong effort, full of creative musical twists and turns.
5. Rhiannon Giddens (with Francesco Turrisi) – There is no Other (Nonesuch)
Singer and banjo player Rhiannon Giddens has had a remarkable career in just the last decade. She’s released three solo albums since 2015, plus a variety of live releases, in 2017 she won a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, and earlier this year she was part of an Our Native Daughters release of traditional music from the Native American traditions with three others. Here on this album, with Italian jazz musician Francesco Turrisi, with just two of them playing while Giddens sings, she takes a musicological look at folk song traditions from around the globe looking for common musical characteristics, something no doubt suitable as a doctoral thesis. Producer Joe Henry keeps the settings and arrangements stark and focused on Giddens’ playing and singing, and the various instrumental support offered by Turrisi. The result is deeply moving when one considers the ties that bind humanity, and our natural desire to make music.
4. The Raconteurs – Help Us Stranger (Third Man) / The Black Keys – Let’s Rock (Easy Eye Sound/Nonesuch)
I didn’t know how much I was missing some serious guitar rock until these two albums took over my… I was going to say “turntable,” but that’s not how I listen to music any more, it just feels stupid to say my computer. It had been 11 years since Jack White and Brendan Benson had come together to do this thing together that they do so well. The give and take of shared lead vocals here works real interestingly, but White’s lead guitar playing and interactions with Keeler, who’s a bit of a monster on the kit, well it’s something akin to poetry, but, thankfully louder and more intense. Here’s hoping it’s not 11 more years.
The Black Keys also returned from a hiatus, and obviously came back ready to get down to business. Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney have also been busy with other projects, but I find them most compelling when they are pulling together in the same direction. While I don’t care for the electric chair on the cover, I was totally down with the title “Let’s Rock,” and I was grateful to experience truth in advertising. Black Keys rarely wander too far from their obvious strengths, and here they were hitting on all cylinders, Auerbach’s guitar sounds, and vocal melodies, together with Carney’s strong rhythmic sensibilities and their arrangements throughout really work.
3. Lizzo – Cuz I Love You (Nice Life/Atlantic)
I had heard the name “Lizzo” here in there in the music buzz providers, but I remember the first time I heard this young woman sing. It was on a late night drive home from some music event, and she was being interviewed on NPR and performing songs from this album live in the studio, with only minimal instrumentation and her background singers. Right of the bat, I was struck with her somewhat amazing voice, her way of honoring traditional R&B influences but bringing it all together in completely fresh arrangements, plus her entertaining sense of humor and complete artistic confidence. The creative energy in these 14 tracks is downright contagious.
2. Joe Henry – The Gospel According to Water (earMUSIC)
Joe Henry’s played a role in several albums and artists that showed up earlier on my list, a past producer for Over the Rhine and worked recently with Rhiannon Giddens. As a singer/songwriter he’s been steadily recording for over 3 decades, but has been more successful as a producer. But this particular album comes following the particularly dire news of a terrifying cancer diagnosis, from which he is currently in remission. With a couple of exceptions, the entire albums worth of songs were written in a few short weeks last Spring, and were recorded as demos in one single day. There’s a worthwhile courage at taking the bull by the horns, the way Henry does on this beautiful, intimate, artful recording. It’s very moving. And it’s a reminder that great art often comes out of those moments in life when all the facades are torn from us, and we have no choice but to be real.
1. Gary Clark Jr. – This Land (Warner Bros.)
I’ve been rooting for Gary Clark Jr. ever since I heard Blak and Blu back in 2012, it’s mix of hip-hop and traditional blues seemed to be something worth developing, it felt important. In the years since, I’ve been more impressed by his enormous talent as a guitarist, and celebrated those moments he was allowed to shine in public settings, whether on the Grammy’s or on jam sessions sponsored by Eric Clapton. But here on This Land, Clark has tapped into some deep emotions, no doubt related to the rise of Trump era racism, who he name drops in the album’s opening title track. Throughout the album, he’s determined to take on stereotypes that diminish and throughout he let’s his guitar speak with an authority that was long overdue. The songs connect, his voice has gotten stronger, including the occasional falsetto that he slides into. Clark is the real deal as a musician, and finally he’s produced the album that makes that case for him. He delves into a variety of traditional R&B and blues inflections, but remains consistently focused and emotionally present musically. This whole thing works in a strong and compelling way. So, This Land is my album of the year.
10. Billie Eilish: When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? – Had you told me in January that a previously unknown teenager would come out of nowhere to dominate 2019’s pop charts with a dark, breathy, lo-fi, even dinky-sounding record called “When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” I wouldn’t have believed you. Well, I might have; the second half of the decade was a lot weirder than the first. But either way, the goth-pop teen wonder that is Billie Eilish took 2019 by storm with this mysterious and sparse dance record that as haunted as it is infectious. That genuinely original surprises like “When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” can still cut through the thick, top-down bureaucracy of the music industry in 2019 is a welcome — even somewhat startling — reality.
9. Sharon Van Etten: Remind Me Tomorrow – There’s only one Sharon Van Etten, and in 2019 she roared to the height of her powers with the characteristically frank and vulnerable “Remind Me Tomorrow.” Eschewing the relatively spare piano-centric approach of her previous release (2014’s enchanting “Are We There”) “Remind Me Tomorrow” finds Van Etten harnessing a mass fuzzed-out synthesizers to craft elaborate and driven soundscapes. Easily one of modern indie rock’s most consistent and earnest voices, Van Etten on “Remind Me Tomorrow” plants her flag somewhere between Bruce Springsteen and Arcade Fire, and throws in flashes of late-stage David Bowie for good measure. If you only listen to one song on this record, make it the sublime and powerful “Seventeen:” “I used to be free, I used to be seventeen,” she belts over a swirl of synths. If you listen closely, you’ll understand what those words mean to her and why she’s singing them, and you’ll remember that you used to be, too. Pure magic.
8. Lizzo: Cuz I Love You. – Lizzo is awesome, and there’s no greater testament to that than her major-label debut “Cuz I Love You.” This record is everything a pop record should be, and then some; Lizzo is an authentic and untempered voice who spins fun, funny, original, and swaggering proclamations into massive, indelible choruses that are simply impossible to shake. Flashes of early 2000s R&B brilliance mixed with heavy doses of disco-pop make “Cuz I Love You” one of the most savory and enjoyable records of the year.
7. Orville Peck: Pony – Not unlike Billie Eilish and Lizzo, Orville Peck is the kind of artists I didn’t know I needed until I suddenly couldn’t get enough. Wrapped in often jaw-droppingly wild Nudie suits custom be-fringed Lone Ranger masks, Orville Peck croons old-school country western tunes dipped in psychedelia and updated for the indie rock aficionados of 2019 who crave the strange, the performative, and the sweet. “Pony” is the rock-solid opening act of what will hopefully be a long and thrillingly bizarre career for Orville Peck.
6. Alex Cameron: Miami Memory – It’s hard to know what to make of Alex Cameron. The Australian performer’s first two records “Jumping The Shark” and “Forced Witness” were character-driven art pieces, relatively small in musical scope but sprawling in terms of imagination and storytelling. Upon first listen, “Miami Memory” isn’t much of a musical departure from the the keyboard-forward sound that has defined Cameron’s style to date. But a few laps around the track with this thing and it becomes clear that “Miami Memory is a much bigger, more entertaining, and more honest project. The lyrics are as clever and as laugh-out-loud lewd as they were on “Forced Witness,” but it’s hard to dismiss the sneaking suspicion that Cameron has perhaps dropped his many acts entirely. Gone are the scorned showmen characters of “Jumping The Shark” and the affably oblivious, beaten-down losers of “Forced Witness,” all replaced with what may just be an only-slightly-cartoonish version of Alex Cameron himself. It’s thrilling and jarring all at once, especially when the Cameron’s going on about porn, sexual harassment, and, um, “oysters.”
5. The National: I Am Easy To Find – The National’s seventh record — and their longest — is a curveball that needn’t have been a curveball. Firmly atop the indie rock hierarchy, The National could’ve simply kicked back and relaxed, opting to coast of the success of their Grammy-winning 2017 release “Sleep Well Beast,” or even 2014’s Grammy nominee “Trouble Will Find Me.” Instead, they put together their most complex, spastic, and challenging work yet; “I Am Easy To Find” is a genre-bending wildcard that find’s Brooklyn’s mumbliest indie rockers sputtering all over the place. Sharing lyric-writing duties with his partner Carin Besser and vocal duties with a rotating cadre of female guest vocalists, frontman Matt Berninger leads The National through the weirdest record of their career, from the colorful “You Had Your Soul With You” to the pounding “Where Is Her Head” all the way through the record’s humble closing ballad “Light Years.” “I Am Easy To Find” is ambitious when it didn’t need to be, earnest when it could’ve been a cynical cash-grab, and challenging in ways completely unexpected. It may not be The National’s best record, but it is their boldest since 2010’s “High Violet” and one of the very best of the year.
4. The Hold Steady: Thrashing Thru The Passion – The Hold Steady does one thing, they do it really well, and on“Thrashing Thru The Passion” they’re doing it better than they’ve done it in a long time. You won’t hear as half as many squealing guitars, glistening piano licks, and beer-hoisting singalong choruses anywhere else this year. In some ways, the record is a departure for lighter, less heady fare, but in others, it’s a return to form. “Thrashing Thru The Passion” is the first Hold Steady full record with piano player Franz Nicolay in over ten years, and his contributions give the record a brightness that was sorely missed on 2010’s “Heaven is Whenever” and 2014’s “Teeth Dreams.” The record also prominently features a big, brassy horn section, which has always been The Hold Steady’s most overlooked secret weapon. “Thrashing Thru The Passion” goes down easier than any other rock and roll record I heard this year, and that’s what makes it so damn good. It’s all straight-up old school bar rock, and they do it better than anyone.
3. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Ghosteen – Nick Cave’s four-decade journey to become the man behind 2016’s haunted “Skeleton Tree” and 2019’s “Ghosteen” is sprawling, epic, and painful. This record — the first Cave has written since the tragic death of his teenage son — is a soaring and stunningly beautiful work, soaked hear to toe in grief and sorrow. Cave has achieved a Leonard Cohen-like ability to elicit hidden emotions from commonplace words by the sheer power of his delivery. On “Waiting for You,” he sings a line as relatively simple as “Sleep now, sleep now, take as long as you need / ‘Cause I’m just waiting for you to return,” and it hits like ten tons of bricks. “Ghosteen” is yet another masterpiece from an artist who is, at this point, completely on his own planet, making his own discoveries and sharing them with the rest of us, even if sometimes in the records most heart-wrenching moments we might wonder if he shouldn’t. Or, perhaps better said, if we’re not ready.
2. Sam Fender: Hypersonic Missiles – The Sam Fender phenomenon hasn’t totally crossed the Atlantic in full quite yet, but it will. The twenty-five year old singer-songwriter from North Shields writes pulsing, anthemic songs that instantly suck you in with jangly guitars, saxophone solos shamelessly ripped from Born To Run-era Springsteen, and brilliant, timely lyrics that tie together themes of love, death, politics, community, nihilism, existentialism, and personal myth-making. Barring some kind of disaster, there’s no question that Fender is a master in the making, a 70s-and-80s-influenced powerhouse who might just one day save rock and roll one day. If the saxophone-and-glockenspiel bridge of the title track doesn’t knock the wind out of you, the raw pain of “Dead Boys” or the drama of “Play God” will.
1. Craig Finn: I Need a New War – 2019 was a big year for The Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn, who, at this point, may very well be America’s most underappreciated songwriter. Rounding out what Finn has called a “trilogy” of records, “I Need A New War” is Finn’s most instrumentally electric solo record to date, and it finds him sketching some of the best-drawn characters of his accomplished storytelling career. Always more of a raconteur than a vocalist, Finn delivers song after song about real people, their very real problems, and the odysseys they either undertake or are subjected to in pursuit of American survival. It’s impossible not to see yourself in these songs, or at the very least someone you know — your cousin, your uncle, your neighbor’s kid; they’re all there, fully realized, dealing with the day-to-day minutiae that, when all balled up, constitutes the cosmic makeup of our modern American life. “I Need a New War” is slower and more contemplative than its predecessors, but it serves Finn’s delivery well, and the end result is a heartfelt and at times even leisurely record. On opening rack on “Blankets,” Finn proclaims, “When you’re lonely on the prairie, there’s still a couple people you can call / When it thunders in the canyon, you get the feeling you’re too small;” “I Need a New War” is a relatively quiet record, but it should thunder in the conscious of all those who still believe in the power of a singular artist who’s totally unafraid to deliver their most authentic work.
1. LIZZO: Cuz I Love You
2. Guided By Voices: Sweating The Plague
3. Deerhunter: Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?
4. Billie Eilish: WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?
5. black midi: Schlagenheim
6. Elbow: Giants Of All Sizes
7. Sebadoh: Act Surprised
8. Biffy Clyro: Balance, Not Symmetry
9. Jay Som: Anak Ko
10. Guided By Voices: Zeppelin Over China
11. White Denim: Side Effects
12. Hallelujah The Hills: I’m You
13. The National: I Am Easy To Find
14. Pond: Tasmania
15. These New Puritans: Inside The Rose
16. Vampire Weekend: Father Of The Bride
17. Pile: Green And Gray
18. Pedro The Lion: Phoenix
19. Pixies: Beneath The Eyrie
20. Kazu Makino: Adult Baby
1. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds-Ghosteen
2. Purple Mountains-Purple Mountains
3. Guided By Voices-Sweating the Plague, Warp and Woof, Zeppelin Over China
4. Lee Fields-It Rains Love
5. Honey Radar-Ruby Puff of Dust
6. The Stroppies-Whoosh
7. Possible Humans-Everybody Split
9. Mike Krol-Power Chords
10. Robert Forster-Inferno
11. Bruce Springsteen-Western Stars
12. Black Pumas-Black Pumas
13. Pernice Brothers-Spread the Feeling
14. Thigh Master-Now For Example
15. The Muffs-No Holiday
16. Comet Gain-Fireraisers Forever!
17. Ride-This Is Not A Safe Place
18. Strand of Oaks-Eraserland
19. Baroness-Gold & Grey
21. Dumb-Club Nites
22. Chastity Belt-Chastity Belt
23. Mannequin Pussy-Patience
24. Tropical Fuck Storm-Braindrops
25. Young Guv-GUV I
1. Ghost Funk Orchestra – A Song For Paul (Karma Chief)
2. Guided by Voices – Warp and Woof (Guided by Voices Inc.)
3. Andrew Bird – My Finest Work Yet (Loma Vista)
4. Neal Francis – Changes (Karma Chief)
5. Guided by Voices – Zeppelin Over China (Guided by Voices Inc.)
6. Ride – This Is Not A Safe Place (Wichita)
7. Starflyer 59 – Young In My Head (Tooth & Nail)
8. Guided by Voices – Sweating The Plague (Guided By Voices Inc.)
9. Joseph Airport – Diorama pt. 2 (Joseph Airport Records)
10. Black Pumas – Black Pumas (Colemine/ATO)
11. Prince – Originals (NPG/Warner)
12. Brittany Howard – Jaime (ATO)
13. Durand Jones and the Indications – American Love Call (Colemine/Dead Oceans)
14. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – Fishing For Fishies (Flightless)
15. Kelly Finnigan – Tales People Tell (Colemine)
16. Kit Sebastian – Mantra Moderne (Mr Bongo)
17. The Harlem Gospel Travelers – He’s On Time (Colemine)
18. Black Sire – Black Sire (Independent)
19. Chris Staples – Holy Moly (Barsuk)
20. Alan Parsons – The Secret (Frontiers Music SRL)
21. Ikebe Shakedown – Kings Left Behind (Colemine)
22. Iron & Wine with Calexico – Years To Burn (Sub Pop)
23. GA-20 – Lonely Soul (Karma Chief)
24. The Budos Band – V (Daptone)
25. Surefire Soul Ensemble – Build Bridges (Colemine)
Honorable Mention: Andy Gabbard and M. Ross Perkins – Gabbard & Perkins (Independent)
Top Reissues of 2019
1. Bob Dylan – Blood On The Tracks (Test Pressing Version) and The Rolling Thunder Revue (box set) (Columbia/Sony)
2. Various – Soul Slabs vol. 2 (Colemine)
3. The Kinks – ¬Arthur (super-deluxe box set) (Sanctuary/BMG/ABKCO/Pye)
4. Gong – Love From The Planet Gong: The Virgin Years 1973-1975 (box set) (Virgin/UMC)
5. Devo – This Is The DEVO Box, Turn Around: B-Sides & More 1978-1984, and Live (Warner)
6. Prince – 1999 (super-deluxe box set) (NPG/Warner)
7. Robert Pollard – Kid Marine and Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department (w/Doug Gillard) (Guided by Voices Inc.)
8. Various – Woodstock 50: Back To The Garden (box set) (Rhino/Cotillion) and Creedence Clearwater Revival – Live At Woodstock (Craft/Fantasy)
9. Various – Brown Acid: The Ninth Trip (RidingEasy)
10. King Crimson – Heaven & Earth (box set) (Discipline Global Mobile)
Favorite Jazz/Improvised Music Albums of 2019
1. Junius Paul – Ism (International Anthem). Bassist Junius Paul contributed his talents to one of the four sides of Makaya McCraven’s 2018 double album Universal Beings, and on Mr. Paul’s first album as a leader, McCraven returns the favor, playing drums on several tracks and bringing his studio skills as co-producer. In my estimation, Ism may be even more successful than Universal Beings in advancing the influence of hip-hop on jazz. Paul’s music is clearly rooted in Chicago, but covers an enormous amount of stylistic ground. Pretty damn extraordinary for a debut, and it’s a double album to boot.
2. Abdullah Ibrahim – The Balance (Gearbox Records). Duke Ellington famously introduced the South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (then known as Dollar Brand) to a larger public in the early 1960s (see Duke Ellington Presents the Dollar Brand Trio, released on Reprise Records in 1963). In 2019, at age 84, Mr. Ibrahim continues to execute an utterly Ellingtonian vision with grace and verve—creating art music that you can dance to. Romantic ballads and swinging up-tempo tunes influenced by the folk and popular music of his home country. Welcome sounds in a year that was often riddled with anxiety and dread.
3. Susan Alcorn / Joe McPhee / Ken Vandermark – Invitation to a Dream (Astral Spirits). For its 100th release, Austin-based label Astral Spirits brought together three giants of free improvisation—pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn and horn players Joe McPhee and Ken Vandermark. On Invitation to a Dream, multi-instrumentalists McPhee and Vandermark focus on the upper portion of their respective registers, with McPhee eschewing tenor saxophone in favor of pocket trumpet and soprano saxophone and Vandermark playing clarinet and tenor, leaving his baritone sax and bass clarinet at home. There’s a lot happening on this record—repeated listening will be rewarded.
4. Anna Webber – Clockwise (Pi Recordings). For Clockwise, Canadian-born flutist and tenor saxophonist Anna Webber assembled a kick-ass band of improvisers (Matt Mitchell, piano, Jeremy Viner, tenor saxophone and clarinet, Jacob Garchik, trombone, Christopher Hoffman, cello, Chris Tordini, bass, and Ches Smith, percussion) and turned them loose on a series of her compositions inspired by percussion music of 20th century classical composers such as Xenakis and Stockhausen. If that sounds like it might be a bit dry or academic, I assure you it’s not. Essential listening.
5. (tie) Joe Morris & Evan Parker – The Village (Fundacja Sluchaj); Evan Parker & Paul G. Smyth – Calenture and Light Leaks (Weekertoft); Evan Parker / Barry Guy / Paul Lytton – Concert in Vilnius (No Business). British tenor and soprano saxophone legend Evan Parker has been keeping very busy, and 2019 saw the release of a number of excellent records featuring Mr. Parker. Here are three examples, all of which are live albums: a duo with guitarist Joe Morris recorded in New York in 2014, a duo with pianist Paul G. Smyth recorded in Dublin in 2015, and a trio with bassist Barry Guy and drummer Paul Lytton recorded in Vilnius, Lithuania in 2017.
6. Tomeka Reid Quartet – Old New (Cuneiform Records). The second album by cellist Tomeka Reid’s quartet (featuring guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Jason Roebke and drummer Tomas Fujiwara) is a big leap forward. Great tunes—swinging and experimental at the same time.
7. Peter Brotzmann – I Surrender Dear (Trost). I Surrender Dear is a solo tenor saxophone album that finds the German free jazz legend focusing largely on ballads and standards. There’s still plenty of fire, but listeners familiar with some of his more aggressive work may be a little surprised to hear Brotzmann so deeply in a Coleman Hawkins bag.
8. Rob Mazurek – Desert Encrypts Vol. I (Astral Spirits). After years spent in Chicago and Brazil, the trumpeter, electronic musician and visual artist Rob Mazurek has taken up residence in the west Texas town of Marfa (a place first colonized on behalf of fine art in the 1970s by the artist/architect/furniture designer Donald Judd), and in 2018 Mazurek began producing a music and arts festival in Marfa called Desert Encrypts. Desert Encrypts Vol. I was recorded live at the inaugural edition of the festival and features a stellar quartet, in which Mr. Mazurek is joined by pianist Kris Davis, bassist Ingebrigt Haker Flaten and drummer Chad Taylor.
9. Rodrigo Amado / Chris Corsano – No Place to Fall (Astral Spirits). Portuguese tenor saxophonist Rodrigo Amado and American drummer Chris Corsano match each other, energy-for-energy on this free-blowing duo record. Another winner from Astral Spirits.
10. jaimie branch – Fly or Die II: Bird Dogs of Paradise (International Anthem). Trumpeter jaimie branch’s Fly or Die quartet is one hell of a band, with the leader joined by cellist Lester St. Louis, bassist Jason Ajemian and drummer Chad Taylor. Bird Dogs of Paradise is a strong follow-up to the band’s first album (Fly or Die, released in 2017). On the new record, jaimie branch lets it all hang out, even singing on two tracks that fall squarely in the tradition of pissed-off, political protest songs in jazz (think Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddamn and Charles Mingus’s Freedom and Fables of Faubus). Check out, in particular, Prayer for Amerikka pt. 1 & 2—as urgent as any piece of music released in 2019.
11. Steve Lehman – The People I Love (Pi Recordings). Alto saxophonist Steve Lehman already had an outstanding trio, with bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Damon Reid, but he took things to another level by getting pianist Craig Taborn to join the group for The People I Love. The album is expertly programmed, with three brief duets between Lehman and Taborn interspersed among six tunes for the full quartet and one for the trio, including a mix of Lehman originals and covers of songs by Autechre, Jeff “Tain” Watts and Kurt Rosenwinkel.
12. Chris Speed Trio – Respect for Your Toughness (Intakt). Another terrific album by tenor saxophonist Chris Speed’s Trio, featuring David King on drums and Chris Tordini on bass. Mr. Speed has developed an instantly recognizable voice on the tenor, and the group interplay is excellent.
13. Miles Okazaki – The Sky Below (Pi Recordings). In 2018, Miles Okazaki self-released a landmark recording of the entire book of Thelonious Monk’s tunes (all 70 of them), arranged for solo guitar. Since the release of Work: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Monk, your correspondent had been waiting anxiously to hear how such an extended, in-depth engagement with Monk’s music would inform Mr. Okazaki’s own work. While the influence of the high priest of be-bop is subtle, The Sky Below does not disappoint.
14. William Parker / In Order to Survive – Live/Shapeshifter (AUM Fidelity). An expansive and generous live set, recorded at Shapeshifter Lab in Brooklyn in the summer of 2017. Bassist and composer William Parker’s In Order to Survive quartet (Mr. Parker with Rob Brown, alto saxophone, Cooper-Moore, piano and Hamid Drake, drums) is capable of magic, as amply demonstrated on this double album.
15. Ethan Iverson Quartet Featuring Tom Harrell – Common Practice (ECM). In late January 2017, while still a member of The Bad Plus (as well as a frequent collaborator with other musicians, including elder statesmen like Billy Hart, Ron Carter and Tootie Heath), pianist Ethan Iverson brought a quartet to the Village Vanguard for a week of shows with trumpeter Tom Harrell as featured soloist, with Ben Street on bass and Eric McPherson on drums. The 2019 ECM release Common Practice was recorded during that week at the Vanguard and finds the quartet focused on largely on standards, with a couple of Iverson originals nestled congenially among tunes like The Man I Love, Wee, and All the Things You Are. This is Jazz with a capital “J”—squarely in the tradition and executed at an extremely high level.
16. Dave Rempis / Brandon Lopez / Ryan Packard – The Early Bird Gets (Aerophonic Records). The tenor saxophone trio has a venerable history in jazz (think of Sonny, etc.), so one had best be prepared to bring it when making a statement in that format. Dave Rempis (tenor and other saxophones), bassist Brandon Lopez and drummer Ryan Packard acquit themselves quite well on The Early Bird Gets.
17. Whit Dickey / Kirk Knuffke – Drone Dream (No Business). Another interesting duo record, this one featuring drummer Whit Dickey and trumpeter Kirk Knuffke. Dickey’s free approach blends extremely well with Knuffke’s lyricism.
18. (tie) Made to Break – F 4 Fake (Catalytic-Sound); Entr’acte – Soigne ta Droite (Catalytic-Sound). Like Evan Parker (see #5 above), Ken Vandermark had a very busy 2019. If you are still reading this, you have already seen him singled out for his contributions to one of the very best records of 2019, Invitation to a Dream. I can also state that a live performance by his Momentum 5 ensemble in Chicago this November was one your correspondent’s favorite live concerts of the year. Mr. Vandermark always seems to have a million projects going, and I just wanted to single out a couple of particularly good albums released by Vandermark-led ensembles this year: Made to Break’s F 4 Fake and Entr’acte’s Soigne ta Droite. Both groups are electro-acoustic ensembles (Made to Break being a pared-down quartet and Entr’acte a more expansive tentet), and there are family resemblances in the compositional approaches, as well. Check them both out if you dig free improvisation, experimental sounds, cut-up compositional structures, afro-beat related grooves and a punkish attitude, among other things.
19. Nick Mazzarella Trio – Counterbalance (Astral Spirits). A terrific live album from the trio of Nick Mazzarella (alto saxophone), Anton Hatwich (bass) and Frank Rosaly (drums). Reminiscent at times of Ornette Coleman and Steve Lacy.
20. Billy Hart / Eric Thielmans – Talking About the Weather (Sub Rosa). This is a very special record—figuratively, and at times literally, a conversation between two drummers: jazz legend Billy Hart (the man behind the grooves on Miles Davis’s On the Corner and Big Fun, among others) and Dutch classically-trained experimental percussionist Eric Thielmans. The album is accompanied by a 64-page booklet documenting the duo’s conversations about drumming, weather, life, etc.
21. Tom Rainey Trio – Combobulated (Intakt). Drummer Tom Rainey’s trio with saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and guitarist Mary Halvorson makes consistently interesting music, and the live album Combobulated is no exception. As an aside, your correspondent must admit that he is a bit surprised to notice—given his deeply abiding admiration—that Combobulated is only the second entry on his 2019 list to feature Ms. Halvorson (and neither of those records issued under her leadership). Not to worry, though, given her recent announcement as a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant recipient, more great things are to be expected from Mary Halvorson in the coming years. . . .
22. The Bad Plus – Activate Infinity (Edition Records). With yet another outstanding album featuring new pianist Orrin Evans, The Bad Plus demonstrate that sometimes a change is necessary, even to a well-loved, long-term ensemble.
23. Angelika Niescier New York Trio Featuring Jonathan Finlayson (Intakt). German alto saxophonist Angelika Niescier adds trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson to her “New York” trio with bassist Chris Tordini and drummer Gerald Cleaver. That’s an excellent move.
24. Nick Fraser / Kris Davis / Tony Malaby – Zoning (Astral Spirits). Toronto-based drummer Nick Fraser put together a fine ensemble to perform his forward-thinking compositions on Zoning, with pianist Kris Davis, saxophonist Tony Malaby, and on three tracks, contributions from Ingrid Laubrock (tenor saxophone) and Lina Allemano (trumpet). Can you tell that I think it was an outstanding year for Nate Cross’s Astral Spirits Records?
25. Swiss Jazz Orchestra & Guillermo Klein (Sunnyside). Argentinian pianist and composer Guillermo Klein leads an accomplished 18-piece big band through 13 of his original compositions, somehow balancing swing, be-bop, the churning minimalism of Philip Glass and influences from tango. The window-rattling tuba solo on album opener Cordoba is with the price of admission on its own.
Favorite Rock/Pop/Folk Albums of 2019
1. Brittany Howard – Jaime (ATO Records). A truly great album, with songwriting and performances at a consistently high level throughout. The record has a strong emotional arc that peaks near the end with the song Goat Head, which hit this listener like punch in the gut. Jaime is a deeply personal statement steeped in African-American musical tradition(s). It’s an album that demonstrates an intense engagement with the music of artists like Sly Stone, George Clinton, Prince, D’Angelo and others, and yet it is utterly Ms. Howard’s own. Masterful.
2. Angel Olsen – All Mirrors (Jagjaguwar). Angel Olsen keeps growing as a songwriter and performer. In contrast to 2016’s My Woman, where Ms. Olsen seemed to relish the experience of developing and performing her songs with a working band, the synthesizer and string-driven All Mirrors is very much a studio production, carefully orchestrated to feature a star performer. And I mean like the way the Nelson Riddle Orchestra featured Frank Sinatra. Ms. Olsen lives up to the challenge.
3. Purple Mountains – Purple Mountains (Drag City). It’s tough to say much here, except that Purple Mountains was one of the best records David Berman ever made. I guess that will have to be enough.
4. Jessica Pratt – Quiet Signs (Drag City). Another strong album of psychedelic folk-pop from Jessica Pratt. Irresistible melodies and a hushed, intimate mood, Quiet Signs sounds as if it were recorded in a cathedral, yet makes the listener feel as if the singer is whispering in his or her ear.
5. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – I Have Made a Place (Drag City). The first full-length album of (nearly) all-new material from our troubadour since 2011 finds Will Oldham in fine form, inhabiting such well-known roles as mystic, eccentric, sensualist, down-home philosopher, etc. A bit like a horny Tom T. Hall. Highly recommended.
6. Bill Callahan – Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest (Drag City). It’s hard to believe that it has been 6 years since Bill Callahan released Dream River, a high-water mark in the nearly 30-year career of the artist formerly known as Smog. With 19 original songs and a cover of the traditional gospel song Lonesome Valley (perhaps best known as a Carter Family tune), it’s clear that Mr. Callahan has spent the intervening time writing. And doing it in his best Bill Callahan manner, no doubt—slowly chiseling away until elemental things appear. For examples, see What Comes after Certainty and Tugboats and Tumbleweeds.
7. Cate Le Bon – Reward (Mexican Summer). The rather eccentric Welsh-born, Los Angeles-residing singer-songwriter continues to push into new territory. A couple of the tunes on Reward sound almost like Ms. Le Bon’s gambit for a hit single (if that is still even a thing in 2019), with echoes of David Bowie, while the dissonance and angularity of other songs seem designed to push the casual listener away.
8. Steve Gunn – The Unseen in Between (Matador). Mr. Gunn has really grown as a songwriter and a singer, and The Unseen in Between shows him confident enough to pare back his terrific guitar playing and really let the songs speak for themselves.
9. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Ghosteen (Bad Seed Ltd). The musical partnership of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, at least since 2001’s No More Shall We Part, has proven to be incredibly powerful. A bit over the top? Of course, but Nick pulls it off yet again.
10. Wilco – Ode to Joy (dBpm Records). One of the strongest albums Wilco has made in quite a while. On the album and from what your correspondent has seen of the accompanying tour, drummer Glenn Kotche proves himself to be one of the most indispensable and interesting members of the band.
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