Best Albums of 2020 (First Half)

As teased last week, it’s time for my annual “Best Albums” mid-year summary report. I usually post my Albums of the (Full) Year reports in early December, recognizing that things that come out after that just aren’t likely to have enough time in the hopper and proven legs for me to want to claim them as being among the year’s greatest musical achievements. Because of that timing practice, I allow myself a wee bit of calendar fudging for mid-year reports; if something hit the streets in the last couple of weeks of 2019, but its greatest impact is felt most fully this year, I’m including it on this list.

My year-end reports contain mini-reviews of each of the ranked albums (here’s last year’s, the 28th such annual installment I’ve written for newsprint and/or web purposes), but at mid-year I simply provide links for further exploration. Many of these will obviously make the year-end list, but not all of them, since with six more months of musical exploration ahead of me, there’s gonna be tons of great tunes yet to be heard, and I am not ambitious enough to write 50+ album reviews when we finally get to December. The year-end reports also rank the albums numerically, culminating in an Album of the Year honoree, but for mid-year, I just go alphabetical.

It’s been a really solid six months of listening, with a lot of variety, a lot of fave artists issuing late career gems, and a lot of artists who I had never heard before 2020. That’s the way I like it. I hope never to get stuck listening primarily to the music of my teen and college years and declaring that those days were somehow intrinsically “better” than anything released since then. That sort of catalog ossification is obviously common, but I consider it a stunted statement that denies and denigrates ongoing growth, and I like to expand my (musical) horizons, even when my (real-life) horizons are shorter than they’ve ever been in my adult life as social distancing and travel restrictions keep me looking at the same places over and over and over again.

Maybe these albums will help transport you elsewhere, as they have for me over these recent tough weeks and months. It’s worth a try anyway, isn’t it? Click and enjoy!

  1. Awale Jant Band, Yewoulen
  2. Dark Sky Burial, De Omnibus Dubitandum Est
  3. Einstürzende Neubauten, Alles In Allem
  4. Hazel English, Wake UP!
  5. Childish Gambino, 3.15.20
  6. Hyperlacrimae, Yoga Darśana
  7. Theophilus London, Bebey
  8. Bongeziwe Mabandla, iimini
  9. Hailu Mergia, Yene Mircha
  10. Mowgan and Solo Sanou, Soya LP
  11. Myrkur, Folkesange
  12. Plone, Puzzlewood
  13. Ras Michael, Live by the Spirit
  14. Run The Jewels, RTJ4
  15. Sepultura, Quadra
  16. Shriekback, Some Kinds of Light
  17. Sightless Pit, Grave of a Dog
  18. Slow is the New Fast, Slower
  19. Snog, Lullabies for the Lithium Age
  20. Sparks, A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip
  21. Moses Sumney, Grӕ
  22. Various Artists, Mogadisco: Dancing Mogadishu (Somalia 1972-1991)
  23. Vula Viel, What’s Not Enough About That?
  24. Wire, Mind Hive
  25. X, Alphabetland

The title track of this great album has received more home spins than any other song in 2020. Choice cut!

My Top 200 Albums Of All Time (2020 Update)

Life During Quarantine Time has produced something like 12+ hours of music listening time around our apartment, each day, every day. Which is a lot, even by my own extreme standards. To fill the daily jukebox, I’ve been buying plenty of new music, as I do, but also taking a lot of spins through old favorites, some that pop up reasonably often, some that lie in wait for years before I remember to slap them on the (virtual) turntable.

Digging through the back catalog reminded me that it’s been awhile since I’ve updated my running list of most-loved albums, so let’s remedy that situation today. As I’ve noted for background before, I’ve been keeping lists of my favorite albums since the very early ’70s, when I was a grade school Steppenwolf fan. My tastes have evolved dramatically over the years (though I still like Steppenwolf), so I review and update this list periodically, dropping things that haven’t aged well, and adding new things that excite me and seem to have staying power.

For many years, this was a “Top 100 List,” but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve felt entitled to expand the roster beyond the century mark, since I’ve listened to a whole lot more music now than I had when I was younger. I also used to exclude “Greatest Hits” and other compilation or live albums, but I’ve gotten less uptight about that, too, since for some artists, their best work may have appeared on singles that only saw long-form release in the form of “Best Of” collections.

So here’s the update, in alphabetical order by artist name. Maybe you’ll be reminded of some old favorites and give ’em some nostalgia spins. Or maybe you’ll find something new to rock your home world. Or maybe you’ll just sigh and wonder what the hell goes on in my head to produce an all-over-the-place listing like this. It’s all good. As is the music.

  1. AC/DC: Back in Black
  2. AC/DC: Highway to Hell
  3. Allison, Mose: Swingin’ Machine
  4. Bad Livers, Delusions of Banjer
  5. Bauhaus: The Sky’s Gone Out
  6. Bee Gees: Main Course
  7. Beef: Stink, Stank, Stunk
  8. Beefheart, Captain and the Magic Band: The Dust Blows Forward
  9. Bogmen: Life Begins at 40 Million
  10. Bongwater: The Power of Pussy
  11. Bonzo Dog Band: Keynsham
  12. Bonzo Dog Band: The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse
  13. Bowie, David: Station to Station
  14. Bowie, David: Low
  15. Bowie, David: “Heroes”
  16. Bowie, David: Lodger
  17. Bowie, David: Blackstar
  18. Buggy Jive: The Buggy Jive Mix Tape
  19. Buggy Jive: The B-Side
  20. Burning Spear: Marcus Garvey
  21. Bush, Kate: Hounds of Love
  22. Butthole Surfers: Hairway to Steven
  23. Butthole Surfers: Locust Abortion Technician
  24. Camberwell Now: All’s Well
  25. Cave, Nick and the Bad Seeds: Henry’s Dream
  26. Cave, Nick and the Bad Seeds: Tender Prey
  27. Chance The Rapper: Coloring Book
  28. Chap: Mega Breakfast
  29. Christian Death: Catastrophe Ballet
  30. Chrome Hoof: Pre-Emptive False Rapture
  31. Clash: Combat Rock
  32. Clash: London Calling
  33. Clutch: Book of Bad Decisions
  34. Clutch: Elephant Riders
  35. Clutch: Robot Hive/Exodus
  36. Coil: Horse Rotorvator
  37. Coil: The Ape of Naples
  38. Collins, Phil: Face Value
  39. Coup: Sorry to Bother You
  40. Coup: Sorry to Bother You: The Soundtrack
  41. Cramps: Bad Music for Bad People
  42. Crisis Actor: Slave New World
  43. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young: Déjà Vu
  44. Culture: Two Sevens Clash
  45. Dälek: Absence
  46. Dälek: Gutter Tactics
  47. Death Grips: Ex-Military
  48. Death Grips: Government Plates
  49. Devo: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo
  50. Diamond, Neil: Hot August Night
  51. Dogbowl: Flan
  52. Dogg, Snoop: BUSH
  53. Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment: Surf
  54. Dunnery, Francis: Tall Blonde Helicopter
  55. Eagles: Desperado
  56. Ebanks, Jonathan: Tales From the G-String
  57. Einstürzende Neubauten: Halber Mensch
  58. Einstürzende Neubauten: Haus der Luge
  59. Emerson, Lake and Palmer: Tarkus
  60. Emerson, Lake and Palmer: Trilogy
  61. Emerson, Lake and Palmer: Brain Salad Surgery
  62. Eno, Brian: Here Come the Warm Jets
  63. Eno, Brian: Another Green World
  64. Eno, Brian: Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)
  65. Eno, Brian: Before And After Science
  66. Fairport Convention: Unhalfbricking
  67. Fairport Convention: What We Did On Our Holidays
  68. Fall: Hex Enduction Hour
  69. Fall: The Real New Fall LP (Formerly Country on the Click)
  70. Fall: Imperial Wax Solvent
  71. Family: Bandstand
  72. Family: Fearless
  73. First Aid Kit: Stay Gold
  74. First Aid Kit: Ruins
  75. Fleetwood Mac: Future Games
  76. Fleetwood Mac: Rumours
  77. Focus: Live At The Rainbow
  78. Funkadelic: Maggotbrain
  79. Gabriel, Peter: Peter Gabriel (III/Melt)
  80. Gang of Four: Entertainment!
  81. Gang of Four: Songs of the Free
  82. Gay Tastee: Songs for the Sodomites
  83. Genesis: Duke
  84. Genesis: Abacab
  85. Genesis: The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway
  86. Genesis: Wind and Wuthering
  87. Good Rats: Tasty
  88. Grateful Dead: American Beauty
  89. Grateful Dead: Workingman’s Dead
  90. Hall, Daryl: Sacred Songs
  91. Hanslick Rebellion: The Rebellion is Here
  92. Hawkwind: Doremi Fasol Latido
  93. Hawkwind: Hall of the Mountain Grill
  94. Heilung: Futha
  95. Hitchcock, Robyn and the Egyptians: Element of Light
  96. Human Sexual Response: Fig. 14
  97. Human Sexual Response: In a Roman Mood
  98. Hüsker Dü: Zen Arcade
  99. Jarre, Jean-Michel: Equinoxe
  100. Jesu/Sun Kil Moon: Jesu/Sun Kil Moon
  101. Jethro Tull: Songs From the Wood
  102. Jethro Tull: Heavy Horses
  103. Jethro Tull: Thick as a Brick
  104. Jethro Tull: Benefit
  105. Joy Division: Unknown Pleasures
  106. Joy Division: Closer
  107. Juluka: Scatterlings
  108. Kamikaze Hearts: Oneida Road
  109. Kaukonen, Jorma: Quah
  110. Keineg, Katell: Jet
  111. Killdozer: Twelve Point Buck
  112. King Crimson: Starless and Bible Black
  113. King Crimson: In The Court of the Crimson King
  114. King Crimson: Lizard
  115. King Crimson: Meltdown: Live in Mexico
  116. KOKOKO!: Fongola
  117. Kraftwerk: Minimum-Maximum
  118. Kurki-Suonio, Sanna: Musta
  119. Lateef, Yusef: Eastern Sounds
  120. Lateef, Yusef: The Complete Yusef Lateef
  121. Lingua Ignota: Caligula
  122. London, Theophilus: Bebey
  123. Magma: Üdü Ẁüdü
  124. Michael Nyman: A Zed and Two Noughts (Original Soundtrack)
  125. Minutemen: Double Nickels on the Dime
  126. Mitchel, Joni: For the Roses
  127. Mitchell, John Cameron and Stephen Trask: Hedwig And The Angry Inch
  128. Mos Def: The Ecstatic
  129. Napalm Death: Time Waits For No Slave
  130. Napalm Death: Utilitarian
  131. Napalm Death: Apex Predator — Easy Meat
  132. New Order: Movement
  133. New Order: Power, Corruption and Lies
  134. Parliament: Chocolate City
  135. Pere Ubu: The Modern Dance
  136. Pere Ubu: Terminal Tower
  137. Phair, Liz: Exile in Guyville
  138. Pink Floyd: The Dark Side of the Moon
  139. Pink Floyd: Animals
  140. Pink Floyd: The Wall
  141. Presley, Elvis: Peace In The Valley: The Complete Gospel Recordings
  142. Public Enemy: Fear of a Black Planet
  143. Public Enemy: Apocalypse ’91 . . . The Enemy Strikes Black
  144. R.E.M.: Life’s Rich Pageant
  145. Renaldo and the Loaf: Songs for Swinging Larvae
  146. Replacements: Let It Be
  147. Residents: Animal Lover
  148. Residents: Demons Dance Alone
  149. Residents: Wormwood
  150. Rolling Stones: Exile on Main St.
  151. Roxy Music: For Your Pleasure
  152. Rundgren, Todd: Healing
  153. Sepultura: Roots
  154. Simon & Garfunkel: Sounds of Silence
  155. Smiths: Louder Than Bombs
  156. Snog: Last of the Great Romantics
  157. Snog: Lullabies for the Lithium Age
  158. Special A.K.A.: In the Studio
  159. Steely Dan: Aja
  160. Steely Dan: The Royal Scam
  161. Steely Dan: Can’t Buy A Thrill
  162. Steppenwolf: Gold
  163. Stevens, Cat: Buddha And The Chocolate Box
  164. Swans: Filth
  165. Swans: Holy Money
  166. Talking Heads: Fear of Music
  167. Tazartès, Ghédalia: Diasporas
  168. Television Personalities: Closer to God
  169. This Heat: Deceit
  170. Tosh, Peter: Mama Africa
  171. Tosh, Peter: Equal Rights
  172. Tragic Mulatto: Italians Fall Down and Look Up Your Dress
  173. Tsukerman, Slava et. al.: Liquid Sky (Original Soundtrack)
  174. Utopia: Utopia
  175. Utopia: Swing to the Right
  176. Vega, Alan: IT
  177. Wailer, Bunny: Blackheart Man
  178. Wall of Voodoo: Happy Planet
  179. Wall of Voodoo: Seven Days in Sammystown
  180. Wasted: We Are Already in Hell
  181. Weasels: Uranus or Bust
  182. Weasels: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow
  183. Ween: Quebec
  184. Ween: The Mollusk
  185. Who: Who’s Next
  186. Who: WHO
  187. Wings: Band on the Run
  188. Wings: Venus and Mars
  189. Wire: The Ideal Copy
  190. Xiu Xiu: Angel Guts: Red Classroom
  191. Xiu Xiu: Girl With Basket of Fruit
  192. XTC: Black Sea
  193. XTC: English Settlement
  194. Yes: The Yes Album
  195. Yes: Fragile
  196. Yes: Close to the Edge
  197. Young, Neil and Crazy Horse: re-ac-tor
  198. ZZ Top: Tres Hombres
  199. Zappa, Frank and the Mothers of Invention: One Size Fits All
  200. Zappa, Frank: Joe’s Garage, Parts I, II and III

One of my first musical obsessions. I played this 8-track to its breaking point. I also recall a big family argument after my grandfather asked my mother “Why the hell is that boy singin’ about ‘Goddamn the pusher man’?”


Teenbeat: Best Albums of 2010-2019

We’re in a new decade this month, unless you’re one of those “Well, actually . . . ” types who wants to mansplain (and if you are making this argument, then I know that you are a man) that 2021 is the real beginning of the 2020s. I get the logic behind that argument, I guess, but I still refute the conclusion that we have to wait another twelve months to celebrate the Teens, and all the art and culture produced within that span.

Me being a music geek, the new decade (hush, I heard you the first time!) means that I feel compelled to go back through my various lists and libraries to look at the very best albums issued between January 1, 2010 and December 31, 2019. And then, of course, I also feel compelled to share that list with you, dear readers.

I present my “Top 100 Albums of the Teens” below, alphabetically, accordingly. I welcome your own additions, reactions and reflections, as always. And if you do not know where the title of this post came from, then check out tracks two and four at this link. Brilliance from the ’70s. Which ran from January 1, 1970 to December 31, 1979, just for the record. Stop being difficult!

  1. AC/DC, Rock or Bust (2014)
  2. Ian Anderson, Homo Erraticus (2014)
  3. Asia, XXX (2012)
  4. Erykah Badu, But You Caint Use My Phone (2015)
  5. Karl Bartos, Off The Record (2013)
  6. Aloe Blacc, Lift Your Spirit (2014)
  7. Aloe Blacc, Good Things (2010)
  8. Black Midi, Schlagenheim (2019)
  9. The Body, I Have Fought Against It, But I Can’t Any Longer (2018)
  10. David Bowie, Blackstar (2016)
  11. David Bowie, The Next Day (2013)
  12. Action Bronson, Wonderful (2015)
  13. Buggy Jive, The Buggy Jive Mixtape (2018)
  14. Buggy Jive, The B-Side (2019)
  15. Camp Lo, Ragtime Hightimes (2015)
  16. Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book (2016)
  17. Clutch, Psychic Warfare (2015)
  18. Clutch, The Book of Bad Decisions (2018)
  19. The Coup, Sorry To Bother You (2012)
  20. The Coup, Sorry To Bother You: The Soundtrack (2018)
  21. Dälek, Endangered Philosophies (2017)
  22. Jed Davis, Small Sacrifices Must Be Made (2012)
  23. Jed Davis, In The Presence of Presents, Vol. 3 (2017)
  24. Death Grips, Exmilitary (2011)
  25. Death Grips, Government Plates (2013)
  26. Devo, Something for Everybody (2010)
  27. Snoop Dogg, BUSH (2015)
  28. Doyle, Abominator (2013)
  29. Judy Dyble and Andy Lewis, Summer Dancing (2017)
  30. Einstürzende Neubauten, Lament (2014)
  31. Jad Fair and Kramer, The History of Crying (2017)
  32. The Fall, New Facts Emerge (2017)
  33. The Fall, Re-Mit (2013)
  34. The Fall, Sublingual Tablet (2015)
  35. First Aid Kit, Ruins (2018)
  36. First Aid Kit, Stay Gold (2014)
  37. FREEMAN, FREEMAN (2014)
  38. Frightened Rabbit, The Winter of Mixed Drinks (2010)
  39. Ezra Furman, Perpetual Motion People (2015)
  40. Future Islands, In Evening Air (2010)
  41. Gangrene, Vodka and Ayahuasca (2012)
  42. Gangrene, You Disgust Me (2015)
  43. David Gilmour, Rattle That Lock (2015)
  44. Girlpool, Before The World Was Big (2015)
  45. Goat, World Music (2012)
  46. Godflesh, A World Lit Only By Fire (2014)
  47. Godflesh, Post Self (2017)
  48. Golden Suits, Kubla Khan (2016)
  49. Here We Go Magic, A Different Ship (2012)
  50. Holly Herndon, PROTO (2019)
  52. Idles, Brutalism (2017)
  53. Idles, Joy as an Act of Resistance (2018)
  54. Imperial Wax, Gastwerk Saboteurs (2019)
  55. Japanther, Eat Like Lisa Act Like Bart (2013)
  56. Jesu/Sun Kil Moon, 30 Seconds to the Decline of Planet Earth (2018)
  57. Jesu/Sun Kil Moon, Jesu/Sun Kil Moon (2016)
  58. King Crimson, Live in Chicago (2017)
  59. King Crimson, Meltdown: Live In Mexico City (2018)
  60. KOKOKO!, Fongola (2019)
  61. Korn, The Paradigm Shift (2013)
  62. Lingua Ignota, Caligula (2019)
  63. Malibu Ken, Malibu Ken (2019)
  64. Paul McCartney, Egypt Station (2018)
  65. Melvins, Hold It In (2014)
  66. Hailu Mergia, Lala Belu (2018)
  67. Alice Merton, Mint (2019)
  68. The Monkees, Good Times! (2016)
  69. Moses Hightower, Önnur Mósebók (2012)
  70. Napalm Death, Apex Predator – Easy Meat (2015)
  71. Napalm Death, Utilitarian (2012)
  72. No Age, An Object (2013)
  73. Pere Ubu, 20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo (2017)
  74. Kate Pierson, Guitars and Microphones (2015)
  75. Planningtorock, W (2011)
  76. Public Image Ltd., This Is PiL (2012)
  77. Public Service Broadcasting, The Race for Space (2015)
  78. The Residents, Intruders (2018)
  79. The Residents, The Ghost of Hope (2018)
  80. Jonathan Richman, Ishkode! Ishkode! (2016)
  81. Caroline Rose, LONER (2018)
  82. School of Seven Bells, SVIIB (2016)
  83. Snog, Last of the Great Romantics (2010)
  84. Soulfly, Ritual (2018)
  85. Teho Teardo and Blixa Bargeld, Nerissimo (2016)
  86. Thighpaulsandra, The Golden Communion (2015)
  87. Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment, Surf (2015)
  88. Uriah Heep, Living the Dream (2018)
  89. Alan Vega, IT (2017)
  90. Tom Vek, Luck (2014)
  91. Vulkano, Peach Punch (2017)
  92. Vulkano, Iridescence (2015)
  93. The Weasels, AARP Go the Weasels (2013)
  94. The Weasels, The Man Who Saw Tomorrow (2018)
  95. White Denim, Performance (2018)
  96. Wire, Change Becomes Us (2013)
  97. Wire, Nocturnal Koreans (2016)
  98. Wire, Silver/Lead (2017)
  99. Xiu Xiu, Angel Guts: Red Classroom (2014)
  100. Xiu Xiu, Girl With Basket of Fruit (2019)

If you like the hard stuff, then this one is a viable “Album Of The Decade” for you.


Best Albums of 2019

With the holidays and a heavy travel schedule sneaking up on me in the month ahead, I deem it time for my 2019 Albums of the Year Report. This edition marks the 28th consecutive year that I’ve publicly published such an annual report in either traditional print or digital formats, so it’s a venerable personal tradition for me at this point. I usually post it in late November or early December, figuring that I need to live with an album for a month, at least, before I declare it among the best things I heard over the course of a year. I typically do an update or supplement in January or so if I feel like I need to add anything truly notable that slips in after that.

To provide some perspective on the choices I’ve made over the years, here is the complete reckoning of my published Albums of the Year from 1992 to 2018. (I had yearly favorites before then, obviously, I just didn’t hang them out for others to look at). I don’t quite know what I was thinking in some years, retrospectively, but I made my choices in public and I stick with them as a point of principle:

  • 1992: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Henry’s Dream
  • 1993: Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville
  • 1994: Ween, Chocolate and Cheese
  • 1995: Björk, Post
  • 1996: R.E.M., New Adventures in Hi-Fi
  • 1997: Geraldine Fibbers, Butch
  • 1998: Jarboe, Anhedoniac
  • 1999: Static-X, Wisconsin Death Trip
  • 2000: Warren Zevon, Life’ll Kill Ya
  • 2001: Björk, Vespertine
  • 2002: The Residents, Demons Dance Alone
  • 2003: Wire, Send
  • 2004: The Fall, The Real New Fall LP (Formerly “Country on the Click”)
  • 2005: Mindless Self Indulgence, You’ll Rebel to Anything
  • 2006: Gnarls Barkley, Elsewhere
  • 2007: Max Eider, III: Back in the Bedroom
  • 2008: Frightened Rabbit, The Midnight Organ Fight
  • 2009: Mos Def, The Ecstatic
  • 2010: Snog, Last Of The Great Romantics
  • 2011: Planningtorock, W
  • 2012: Goat, World Music
  • 2013: David Bowie, The Next Day
  • 2014: First Aid Kit, Stay Gold
  • 2015: David Gilmour, Rattle That Lock
  • 2016: David Bowie, Blackstar
  • 2017: Dälek, Endangered Philosophies
  • 2018: First Aid Kit, Ruins

2019 was a very good year for new music, a true plethora of riches that left me with far more viable contenders for my list than I usually consider at this time of the year. That holds true not only for the list as a whole, but also for the top of the list. I count half-a-dozen albums that I’d feel good about declaring Album of the Year, so picking just one is going to be a challenge for me as  work through this. There are stalwart favorite artists on the list and thrilling new pokes from artists who I didn’t know existed 12 months ago. I love that type of balance of fresh and familiar.

Also noteworthy: I would suspect that this is among the most gender-balanced lists that I’ve posted over nearly three decades, with both female soloists and bands featuring women all over the final roster. (Of the 30 finalist albums referenced below, 15 are by or prominently feature female performers). It’s good to see more equity on that front than is typical in some of the sausage party genres I routinely trawl. On the flip side, I note a dearth of records from categories that normally appear fairly heavily on my annual lists: rap/hip-hop and extreme metal. When I noticed that I wasn’t finding a lot of things that excited me within those genres a few months ago, I started scouring various other sources and lists to see if I was missing something that moved me. Not much did, unfortunately. I know there are great releases out there in both genres, as there always are, but few things clicked strongly with me this year. Guess I just wasn’t in the mood, or perhaps it’s just a sign of me getting soft in my old age. We’ll see in 2020.

As I normally do when I post lists like that, I have two final notes to make up front. First, this is all subjective, and it’s all my opinion. But of course it is. If music criticism were objective, we’d all end up with one mutually-agreed upon list at year’s end, and what would be the fun in that? Second, I can only rank and review what I actually hear in a given year, so that’s limited by (a) what I like to listen to, and (b) what I actually acquire to spin. So I’m sorry if I missed your favorite Kalimantan skater boi raga jazz record this year, and I’ll happily read about it on your list when you post it. Please feel free to share that list with me, and you really don’t need to add a “Dude, you suck” preamble to it.

I’m going to start this year’s review with ten Honorable Mention albums, in alphabetical order by artist name. They are all very enjoyable in their own ways, and at various times over the year, I had them on my list-in-progress, but when we get to rug-cutting time, they did not make the Top 30 that I will review in more detail below. Still worth exploring (click the links to do so),  and still deserving of kudos for accomplishment:

Also of note, I do not generally include EPs in my Album of the Year list, but there were two examples of that format that I covered earlier this year in an article celebrating the slight but welcome return of wonderful EP releases (like, say, Slates by The Fall) in the digital era, and I document them here as they also include some of the year’s best songs, just not as many of them:

And now the final countdown, from my #30 Album to my #1 Album of the Year for 2019. Hold on tight. There’s going to be a lot of abrupt and juddering swings back and forth between various genres, styles, and techniques, some calm, some extreme, some inspirational, some soul-crushing, some wobbling at the very cusp of explainability. But that’s what makes for a good ride, innit? I think so. As above, the links will help you explore further.

#30. F-DORM, COMMUNE: I don’t usually use artists’ own press materials to describe their work, but F-DORM’s summary of their sound is so perfect that I just can’t top it: “Comprised of cold grinding electronic repetition and perversely distorted, bloated vocalizations.” Yes. That. A great and harrowing experimental project from Chicago’s Connor Camburn and Conor Ekstrom, on SCRAPES Recordings, a brilliant label.

#29. Pip Blom, Boat: This young Dutch quartet follow the early P.J. Harvey rubric, where the singer-songwriter and the band share the same name, complicating conversation about them. But that difficulty aside, the songs the singer crafts and the arrangements within which her band plays them are infectious, offering a fresh take on guitar rock that feels easy and familiar, by virtue of being well-crafted and original.

#28. Generationals, Reader As Detective: Louisiana’s Generationals (singer-songwriter-guitarists Grant Widmer and Ted Joyner, supported by contributing producer Dan Black) offer 10 sparkly, infectious, and dance-ready gems on their first proper studio album since 2014. It’s always a treat to be reminded that really good pop music doesn’t have to pander stupidly to the lowest common auto-tuned denominator.

#27. Sacred Paws, Run Around the Sun: More smart pop from another sharp duo, this time from the other side of the Atlantic. Rachel Aggs and Eilidh Rodgers make a truly joyful noise, with ebullient paired vocals, rich arrangements, clever rhythms, memorable melodies and Aggs’ spectacular Highlife-style guitar work, which is busy in all the best ways, like a swarm of audio bees making sweet musical nectar. Tasty!

#26. Iiro Rantala, My Finnish Calendar: A delightful album from Finland’s best known jazz pianist, featuring 12 songs, each one named after and inspired by a month of the calendar year. The recording is warm and inviting, the songs are evocative (it’s fun to scramble them and guess which month is which), and the liner notes are priceless, as Rantala frankly and humorously describes how Finns experience their chilly climes.

#25. The Specials, Encore: A welcome return, and a welcome return to form, even if only three of the great 2 Tone group’s members (singer Terry Hall, singer-guitarist Lynval Golding, and bassist Horace Panter) are carrying the torch these days. There’s no time for nostalgia here, and the social and political topics covered here are timely and trenchant, with great beats you can dance to.

#24: Focus, Focus 11: I say “Focus,” and you invariably think “Hocus Pocus.” Which is great, but the Dutch masters offered so much more than that one yodel-fortified hit. Their technical prowess and composing skills are on full display on Focus 11, and Pierre van der Linden (one of two classic-era members, along with Thijs van Leer) offers some of 2019’s most choice drum work, in the sweet spots between jazz and rock. Listen.

#23. Pom Poko, BirthdayThis young Norwegian four-piece get jaw-drop reviews for the live shows, and while I’ve not caught them in concert, I can clearly hear how this album’s material would be nuts in concert. The songwriting careens all over — post-punk, power-pop, prog-puree — sometimes in a single song, and the players are all conservatory grade talents. Bonus points for this video, the stuff of smart nightmares.

#22. Korn, The Nothing: Korn put out an album. I put in on my year-end list. That’s how it goes, because they’re great. Then someone from the critoisie invariably chides me for my choice, because we’re supposed to shake our heads about Korn’s popularity, not embrace it. But they deserve kudos, here and anywhere, and this is a top five album in their deep catalog. Jonathan Davis moves me, and his bandmates are boss. Deal with it.

#21. Thighpaulsandra, Practical Electronics With: Four long, squelchy, disturbing songs from the provocatively creative artist whose mother knew him as Tim Lewis, and whose work with Julian Cope, Spiritualized and COIL made all of them better. The flavor here is most closely comparable to the late COIL Live series (Thighpaulsandra was a crucial contributor there), and it oozes darkness of the brightest varieties.

#20. Sasami, Sasami: The cover of this album, featuring Sasami Ashworth stepping precariously across ice sheets in an Arctic landscape, is perfect for the music’s tone: it’s chilly, it’s wobbly, it’s cool, yet it always creates a sense that it could dump you elsewhere unexpectedly, at any time. Lots of stick-in-the-ear melodies here, thoughtful lyrics, and arrangements that are all deliciously awry and unpredictable. A great debut.

#19. Mekons, Deserted: Most emphatically not a debut, Deserted marks the 40th anniversary of the Mekons’ audaciously primitive debut album The Quality of Mercy Is Not Strnen. Their new disc finds the Chicago-to-UK eight piece taking their many instruments and voices and styles out for a creative foray in the dry country, their stories and sounds evoking a perfect sense of heat-haze craze and tumbleweed twang.

#18. Cup and Ring, Cup and Ring: Guitarist Gavin Laird wrote a haunting cyclical finger-plucked figure, looped it, and sent it to several collaborators with these instructions: start a song with it, end the song with it, and do what you want in between. Eight songs so created comprise Cup and Ring, a wonderful, creative suite, various styles and techniques flowing around that mysteriously evocative central figure. Sound magic!

#17. Jenny Hval, The Practice of Love: Norway on the list again, this time courtesy of accomplished artist Jenny Hval’s seventh solo album, which is actually an international affair as collaborators Vivian Wang, Laura Jean and Félicia Atkinson recorded their parts in Singapore, Australia and France. Love is the central consideration, in all of its wonderful weirdness, as the brilliant music deftly balances challenge and accessibility.

#16: Goon, Heaven is Humming: There’s a marked dearth of white American boys playing alt-rocky guitar on this year’s list, but California’s Goon represent that side and do it very well. They have an identifiable sound that stands out in mixes, and they offer it while playing in a wide range of contemporary styles and arrangements, from the stripped down and elegant to the big and furry and lumbering. Sublimely solid, all told.

#15. Pere Ubu, The Long Goodbye/Montreuil: Technically two albums, but packaged together, so I rank them as one. The Long Goodbye is a new studio work initiated while leader David Thomas was home-bound, facing serious health issues. Montreuil is an audacious live take on that album, played while the songs were still poppin’ fresh. A perfect pair, touching all facets of the unique, decades-long Ubu oeuvre and process.

#14. Daniel Kahn, Bulat Blues: Daniel Kahn is an expat American in Germany, working with The Painted Bird, a “Klezmer Yiddish Punk Cabaret” ensemble. Bulat Blues is an album of chansons by Soviet-era composer Bulat Okudzhava, translated into English by Kahn, who performs them accompanied by Russian guitarist Vanya Zhuk. I’d never heard of any of them a year ago. Now they’re indispensable listening. More, please?

#13. Ezra Furman, Twelve Nudes: Ezra Furman, on the other hand, I’ve been listening to regularly since chancing upon his band when he was a college student in Boston, circa 2008. He’s a Chicago native, so I’ve seem him there several times too, and he is a stunning talent, getting better by the year. Twelve Nudes is the most raw sounding, energetic and confessional record in his catalog, closely capturing his stellar live vibe.

#12. Xiu Xiu, Girl With Basket of Fruit: Xiu Xiu have been regulars on my annual lists for a lot of years, offering album after album of extreme to really-extreme material, both sonically and lyrically. Girl With Basket of Fruit falls in the really-really-extreme bucket, to the point where it was almost off-putting at first, even to me. But I succumbed to its dark charms eventually, and now I see and hear it as one of their best.

#11. Black Midi, Schlagenheim: It’s rare to hear a standard guitar-guitar-bass-drum outfit do something unexpected and original, with virtuoso chops. But when young UK quartet Black Midi played a live set on KEXP, which went viral, we saw and heard that, and then some. The brilliant, creative precocity of that performance translates fully to their thrilling debut album, which sounds like nothing I’ve heard before, seriously.

#10. The Hu, The Gereg: I have deep fondness for Central Asian throat singing and extreme metal. So when my wife shared an NPR report about a Mongolian band that merged those two musical loves, that was a no-brainer buy for me. Amazingly, it lived up to its promise. It’s not as hard as NPR implied, but is better for that, making throat-singing and Mongolian melodies as accessible and rousing as I’ve ever heard them.

#9. Holly Herndon, PROTO: Holly Herndon’s PROTO is another album that sounds like nothing I’ve heard before. The Tennessee native merges hearty call and response gospel singing with glitchy electronics, deploying an artificial intelligence named Spawn as a collaborator in dicing and splicing these incredible tracks, teaching it to sing with the humans in the process. Bring on our robot overlords if this is their music.

#8. The Who, WHO: I did not like The Who’s 2006 Endless Wire, and have wished that they had not released it, since it sat, inert, as a wan coda to a grand career. So when I heard that Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend were planning a new release, expectations were low — then happily demolished. WHO is the best Who since Quadrophenia (1973), easily. They may not have many new tricks, but they’re very good at the ones they know.

#7. Alice Merton, Mint: As with Generationals and Sacred Paws down-list, this album is chockablock with smart, chop-stocked pop, and it was apparently really popular, too, since I’ve heard some Mint songs played in public by others over the past year, which is rare for me, given what I usually listen to. I guess I should not be that surprised though, since, Holy Moly, is this album punchy-catchy! An auspicious debut. An artist to watch.

#6. Heilung, Futha: A Tuvan throat-singer, a Blixa Bargeld impersonator, and a Valkyrie walk into a mead hall in the middle of a battle and start singing. No, it’s not the set-up for a joke, it’s a description of what Futha sounds like. Heilung hail from Denmark, Germany, and Norway (another entry!), and refer to their work as “amplified history” and “primeval music concrete.” Both apt descriptions. Beautiful and frightening fare.

(A Brief Pause: As we move to the five finalist albums this year, I again want to note how hard it has been for me to even separate these five from those below them, then to sort them in a meaningful order, then to pick one that’s better than the rest. It’s a game of inches this time around, when it comes right down to it. I suppose I could just cop out and declare a tie, or do one of my head-to-head round-robin competitions, but the last time I did that, I didn’t end up with a winner that had legs in the years beyond its title. I will note that the legacy issue is a factor as I consider the album that I pick this year: if I keep doing these reports — and I have no reason to think I won’t, bar death or dementia — I will keep opening the annual article with the list of all of my prior Albums of the Year, so each of those single list-topping records ends up being the one item representing that year in new reports going forward, while the others often disappear into the dusty corners of the mental and digital jukeboxes. So as I look at these five finalists, and try to decide which one will best represent my sense of 2019 on my lists for however many years I keep doing this going forward, I think I see a winner. Okay. Back To The Countdown).

#5. Malibu Ken, Malibu Ken: Aesop Rock is a ridiculously verbose MC. Tobacco is an analog synth wizard whose occasional verbal declarations are always warped through vintage vocoders. Malibu Ken is their first collaboration, and it’s a doozy. This was the first new album I acquired in 2019, and it’s never left any of the various machines on which we listen to tunes in our house. Tobacco’s music is viscous and ripe, rhythmically rich and perfectly suited for Aesop’s flow. And flow he does, with his trademark self-deprecation and story-telling skills in full effect. Highlights include the laugh-out-loud “Churro” (which describes the day when a popular eagle’s nest cam caught Mama Birb feeding her chicks a kitty) and “Acid King,” a graphic, historically accurate re-telling of the dismal Ricky Kasso story. A brilliant pairing. Here’s hoping for Malibu Ken II soon.

#4. Imperial Wax, Gastwerk Saboteurs: I wrote a full review of this album upon its release, placing it in context (three fourths of Imperial Wax were the final line-up of the late Mark E. Smith‘s The Fall), and then assessing the new record on its own rich merits. My esteem for Gastwerks Saboteurs has only grown since then, as my brain adapts to hearing the group in its own right, rather than as The Fall with a new singer. Which it is not, and that’s a very good thing, as singer-guitarist Sam Curren is formidable and well-suited for the robust set of songs that Gastwerk Saboteurs offers. I also still hold the ex-Fall members in highest regard, as they’ve been brilliant at respecting and protecting the legacy of MES and The Fall, rather than just trading on their names. A sharp new single bodes well for further greatness, in their own voices, with their own touch. Choice!

#3. Buggy Jive, The B-Side: Professor Buggy Jive is an Upstate New Yorker whose work I’ve been admiring since our paths first crossed in Albany in the mid-’90s. He broke my heart in the most beautiful ways with this record’s advance single, “Another Song About The Moon,” which I wrote about in full here.  Even without the personal resonance and relationships described there, I’d cite “Moon” as 2019’s video of the year, easily. Watch it here. Seriously. Go do it. I’ll wait. [Waiting waiting waiting]. You back? Guess what. That’s not the only great video from The B-Side. Go dig “Stole My Stealing From Eliot” too. No rush. Get on. [Waiting waiting waiting]. Amazing, huh? Well, so is the rest of this record, which when coupled with 2018’s The Buggy Jive Mixtape finds this master in a creative hot streak of stunning and scintillating strength.

#2. KOKOKO!, Fongola: I wrote about the ways that I first encountered and experienced African music, and how important it has been to my listening habits, earlier this year in my eulogy for the great Johnny Clegg. I cited Fongola as a current/recent example of the best music that his home continent had to offer, and as 2019 winds down, I find myself amending that statement to say that Fongola contains some of the best music that the world presented to me over the past twelve months. KOKOKO! are the musical wing of a Kinshasa-based artists’ collective, including musicians, dancers, singers and performers united to celebrate the spirit and culture of the Congolese people. Fongola features makeshift instruments crafted from the industrial and consumer detritus of the Western cultures and businesses that consume The Congo’s natural resources without care for its people, the sharp electronics of Belgian producer/DJ débruit, and the thrilling vocal stylings of Makara Bianko. The overall effect is explosive and engaging, even without the linguistic skills to get the lyrics’ meanings. Here’s a video introduction that demonstrates the vibrant energy of this great music. Fongola brings that into the comforts of your own home, with an edge.

#1, My Album of the Year for 2019: Lingua Ignota, Caligula: St. Hildegard of Bingen was a 12th century mystic, composer, scientist and philosopher, most celebrated in the 21st century for her music; there are more of her compositions known today than from any other composer of the Middle Ages, making her one of the most recorded composers of Medieval plainchant in all of history. She also developed the lingua ignota (Latin for “unknown language”) and its associated alphabet, ostensibly through Divine inspiration, and for purposes unknown to modern scholars. Singer-musician-composer Kristin Hayter adopted the name of Hildegard’s constructed language for her ongoing musical activities, onstage and in the studio, and she has released three albums and an EP under its banner. It’s a perfect moniker for her work, evoking mysticism, art, communication, history, inspiration, and the spaces and places where women can and do create deeply personal work for their own purposes, in their own ways, free from psychic or physical interference from those who would silence their voices. I first encountered Hayter when she sang, with frightening power, on four cuts from The Body’s I Have Fought Against It, But I Can’t Any Longer, #7 on my 2018 Albums of the Year report. On Caligula, she now takes all the glorious intensity of The Body’s best work, drapes it with nearly orchestral arrangements of organic and electronic instruments, and delivers 11 terrifying, deeply personal texts atop her great musical compositions, twining the experiences and emotions of a domestic violence survivor with the words and story of the decadent and depraved Roman Emperor whose name this album bears. The music throughout Caligula offers crushing and breath-taking dynamism, and Hayter’s voice is a thing of wonder throughout, ranging from sweetly melodic whispers through glorious pure operatic arias to layered shrouds of shrieking, nearly-wordless anguish, made sound. Lyrics are inspired and exceptional, though almost unrelentingly dark (song titles include “May Failure Be Your Noose,” “Spite Alone Holds Me Aloft,” and “Butcher of the World,” among others), but the few moments of uplift, and release, and freedom from pain are all the more powerful in contrast to that which surrounds them. All told, this is a genius, cathartic work, inspired on all fronts, and inspirational in its ambition and impact. It’s also arguably the least accessible, most challenging Album of the Year that I’ve named since Jarboe’s Anhedoniac in 1998, but it truly deserves to be heard widely, and celebrated, along with its creator, for its bravery, bite and brilliance. Brava!

And with that, I’m done for the year. See you here again in 2020 . . .

My Top 200 Albums Of All Time (2019 Update)

Click here for the 2020 Update to this list.

The Albums Of Our Lives

I was reminded recently of an old interview with (great) writer Chuck Klosterman where he deflected a “best album ever” type question by citing a list of his favorite albums from each year of his life. Probably no surprise to those who are regular readers here, but that made me say “Ooooo! I need to do that too!!”

So I did. And it was an interesting process to develop the list. Some thoughts and observations:

  • The key word is “favorite:” I didn’t try to pick “best,” but rather the things that I enjoy the most, right here, right now, really hewing to the true definition of “favorite” in all of its subjective glory. The difference between “favorite” and “best” is significant, since I know that I love some bad things, and I also know that I hate some good things. Such is the essence of taste.
  • I used my Top 200 Albums Ever list as a starting point, but that quickly stopped being useful, primarily because there are some years where literally dozens of my favorite albums were released (e.g. 1977, with David Bowie’s Low and “Heroes,” Eno’s Before And After Science, Wire’s Pink Flag, Pink Floyd’s Animals, Steely Dan’s Aja, the Pistols’ Never Mind The Bollocks, Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express, Meatloaf’s Bat Out Of Hell, and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, just to cite the top of the pile), and other years when I had to deep dive into my collection to find a single album that I considered worthy of being on this list. As much as I always espouse my non-nostalgic “the best music ever made is the music being made right now” rubric, in truth, objective music quality and import over time is a lumpy graph, and that really shows up in a project like this.
  • I had what would seem to be another quality resource available to me in developing this list, with my own “Best Album” reports from print or digital outlets going all the way back to 1992. But interestingly enough, I did not receive much utility from that list either, as there were loads of years where my identified “Best Album” entries from those long gone years either didn’t have long-term legs and do not please me as much now as they did then, or where I still like those old records well enough, but saw them supplanted by things I only heard some year or years after their original releases. Perspective changes over time, for sure.
  • The final list I developed here is a little bit more of a Caucasian Sausage Party than I probably would have preferred. That said, I am glad to see that the trend lines for diversity generally move in the right directions as we careen into 2019.
  • Chuck Klosterman is younger than me, but we do have two albums in two years where we overlap in our lists. See 1990 and 1993. I’m highly skeptical of any self-proclaimed music critic/nerd if he, she (or you) does not agree with me and Chuck on these two. 1990 and 1993 are years where there’s not a lot of room for negotiation. Seriously.
  • If the first year presented in this list seems incongruous to you in terms of what you think you might know about my life’s timeline, let’s just say that I come from a grand old South Carolina family where such piddling insignificances as “When was I born?” or “When was I married?” or “What year is it, really, and how much does it matter, darling?” are highly negotiable in one’s personal narrative. Suffice to say I’m old enough that it’s rude to ask for clarification on such matters, so don’t.

And with all of that as preamble, here’s the list I’ve developed of my favorite albums, right now, from each year of my life:

1965: John Coltrane, A Love Supreme

1966: Simon & Garfunkel, The Sounds of Silence

1967: Yusef Lateef, The Complete Yusef Lateef

1968: Bonzo Dog Band, The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse

1969: King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King

1970: Grateful Dead, American Beauty

1971: Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Tarkus

1972: Jethro Tull, Thick As A Brick

1973: Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon

1974: Genesis, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

1975: Wings, Venus and Mars

1976: Steely Dan, The Royal Scam

1977: Steely Dan, Aja

1978: Jethro Tull, Heavy Horses

1979: David Bowie, Lodger

1980: Peter Gabriel, Peter Gabriel (III)

1981: Kraftwerk, Computer World

1982: XTC, English Settlement

1983: Swans, Filth

1984: Christian Death, Catastrophe Ballet

1985: Kate Bush, Hounds of Love

1986: R.E.M., Life’s Rich Pageant

1987: Butthole Surfers, Locust Abortion Technician

1988: Butthole Surfers, Hairway to Steven

1989: Einstürzende Neubauten, Haus der Lüge

1990: Public Enemy, Fear Of A Black Planet

1991: Public Enemy, Apocalypse ’91: The Enemy Strikes Black

1992: Television Personalities, Closer To God

1993: Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville

1994: Ween, Chocolate and Cheese

1995: The Bogmen, Life Begins at 40 Million

1996: Sepultura, Roots

1997: Katell Keineg, Jet

1998: Clutch, Elephant Riders

1999: Coil, Musick To Play in the Dark, Vol. 1

2000: Warren Zevon, Life’ll Kill Ya

2001: Hedwig and the Angry Inch (Original Cast Recording)

2002: The Residents, Demons Dance Alone

2003: Ween, Quebec

2004: Xiu Xiu, Fabulous Muscles

2005: Coil, The Ape of Naples

2006: Kamikaze Hearts, Oneida Road

2007: Dälek, Abandoned Language

2008: The Fall, Imperial Wax Solvent

2009: Mos Def, The Ecstatic

2010: Snog, Last Of The Great Romantics

2011: Death Grips, Exmilitary

2012: Napalm Death, Utilitarian

2013: David Bowie, The Next Day

2014: First Aid Kit, Stay Gold

2015: Napalm Death, Apex Predator — Easy Meat

2016: David Bowie, Blackstar

2017: The Fall, New Facts Emerge

2018: First Aid Kit, Ruins

1965 was a very good year to be born, hypothetically and musically speaking . . .