2020: Year in Review

Remember 2016? There was a lot of “Worst Year Ever” chatter as it wound to its close, four years ago this month. We lost David Bowie, Prince, Gene Wilder, Maurice White, Muhammad Ali, Bernie Worrell, Greg Lake, Keith Emerson, George Michael, Carrie Fisher and so many other “big” names that year. We also elected President Bonespurs Tinyhands, made Brexit a sick and sad reality, watched global climate change unfold in tragic ways in real time, experienced a devastating number and impact of mass shootings, and suffered the extreme right-wing media giddily expanding its reach and impact in the aftermath of international fellow-traveler efforts to sabotage our already-sickened democracy through the infectious cesspools of social media.

It all seemed utterly dreadful at the time, and it certainly felt wonderful to wish it all good riddance come January 1, 2017. But then 2020 arrived, said “Hold My Beer,” and made 2016 look like a veritable paradise of goodness and justice and equity in comparison to the horrors that the past 12 months have heaped upon us, domestically and around the globe. If you want or need concise hot takes on why 2020 was such an ass-end of a year, I’m sure you can find plenty of them in the newspapers, magazines, websites, blogs, televisions shows or social media feeds of your choice. I generally try to avoid such wallows, and I doubt that I can add anything worthwhile to that bewildering stream of chatter, so I’m not even going to bother to try. Suffice to say that 2020 was a truly shitty year on a truly macro basis for an immense number of people, and that my normal website year-end report (which follows) is offered as a diversion for the record, not as a summary of recent horrors.

ON THE BLOG:

In 2019, I posted 70 articles on this website, noting 12 months ago that “as satisfying as that is, given my own goals for the upcoming year, I doubt that I will hit the same high post mark in 2020.” Well, surprise, surprise, 2020 didn’t quite go the way I planned it, and I ended up writing 147 posts, the most I’ve done since the Poem-A-Day Project in 2004. Retiring from full-time work certainly gave me more time to write, as did the cancellation of planned travel, and the need to fill socially isolated time in some satisfying and/or productive fashions. Interestingly, other folks being similarly isolated seemed to have an impact on readership here, per the following trend analysis of 2014-2020 website hits and visitors (actual numbers edited out, as it’s tacky to share them; the trend line is what matters):

I’ve owned this domain since the mid-1990s, but prior to 2015, I split my writing between a variety of sites with a variety of hosts. Since consolidating everything here in 2015, our Anno Virum has clearly been the most successful year in terms of readership numbers. It is nice to think that perhaps I helped some folks distract themselves, even if just briefly, from the day-to-day awfulness that 2020 has inflicted upon us. I suppose at some point I should consider trying to monetize that. Though I know from experience that turning fun/hobby undertakings into work/income ones that way usually never plays out as happily as one might expect it to.

As I report each year, here are the dozen most-read articles among the 147 new posts here in 2020:

And then here are the dozen posts written in prior years that received the most reads in 2020. It always fascinates me which of the 1,000+ articles on my website interest people (or search engines) the most, all these years on since the first 1995 post on an early version of this blog. (Note that I exclude things like the “About Me” page or the generic front page from the list, even though they generate a lot of my traffic). And once again, here’s hoping that people realize that the perennially-popular “Iowa Pick-Up Lines” post is a joke . . .

ELSEWHERE ON THE WEB:

See this earlier post: Best of My Web 2020.

TRAVEL:

See this earlier post: The Roads Not Taken.

RECORDINGS:

See these two earlier posts: Best Albums of 2020 and Most Played Songs of 2020.

LIVE PERFORMANCES AND ART EXHIBITIONS:

Yeah, right. That didn’t happen, for obvious reasons.

BOOKS:

See this earlier post: Best Books of 2020.

FILMS:

See this earlier post: Best Films of 2020.

AND  THEN . . . .

. . . onward to our brave post-Trumpian world, hopefully one that is anchored in science, justice and truth, all of which we will enjoy from our new homestead in Arizona. At least until travel is safe(r) again, anyway. I assume that I will be back here at my desk in December 2021 with a similar report (as has become my habit), marveling at that which was, and eagerly anticipating that which is yet to come. See you then?

Ho Ho Humbug Us, Every One!

Best Albums of 2020

Given the pending holiday season, efforts associated with moving into a new house over the next few weeks, and the fact that I’m not able to readily download and spin new music right now due to technical transitions, I deem it timely for me to post my 2020 Albums of the Year Report. This edition marks the 29th 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 at this juncture in my life.

I usually post the report 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 then do an update or supplement in January if I feel like I need to add anything truly notable that slipped in after that. This is a little bit earlier than my usual annual article accordingly, but the list is not likely to change in the next two weeks, so it feels safe and apt to post it now.

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 2019. (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: Lingua Ignota, Caligula

As I normally do when I post “best of” lists like this one, I make two notes up front before getting to the good stuff. 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 traditional Cape Verdean skronk-jazz-style tabanka album recorded entirely on 19th Century double-reed woodwinds, though I’ll happily read about it on your own list, and would likely enjoy hearing it. Please feel free to share that list with me after you post it, and you really don’t need to add a “Dude, you suck” preamble to it because I neglected your niche. It wasn’t personal. Honest.

With that behind us, let’s get to the final countdown, from my #32 Album to my #1 Album of the Year for 2020. (Why 32 albums? That was just in case I decided to do this thing head-to-head, knock-out tournament style, but the ranking and writing came quickly and naturally this year, and that paired approach ended up not being necessary, though I kept the list I’d developed for it). You might want to buckle up for the wild ride ahead. 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 memorable journey, right? I certainly think so.

#32. Dark Sky Burial, De Omnibus Dubitandum Est: Napalm Death bassist Shane Embury is one of the busiest men in rock, and it’s a rare year that he doesn’t appear on multiple hard metal albums. This record, though, is a bit of a departure for him: working with longtime Napalm producer Russ Russell, Dark Sky Burial finds Embury mining evocative ambient and electronic lodes, turning up plentiful cool gems in the process.

#31. Sightless Pit, Grave of a Dog: Kristin Hayter won my 2019 Album of the Year title under her Lingua Ignota nom de rock for her soul-crushing Caligula. Lee Buford placed high on my 2016 and 2018 lists for his work with The Body. Hayter, Buford and Dylan Walker (Full of Hell) teamed up for Sightless Pit’s debut disc this year, and their work is potent and powerful, an electro-organic scream from the depths of musical darkness.

#30: X, Alphabetland: The first concert Marcia and I saw after moving to Chicago was by X, with founders Exene Cervenka, John Doe and D.J. Bonebreak playing with a guest guitarist, as Billy Zoom was in treatment for cancer. It was a fun show, though it felt a bit like a nostalgia review. That makes the great Alphabetland, with Zoom back, a truly special treat, 35 years since the SoCal punk pioneers last released new tunes together.

#29: Wire, 10:20: Wire have appeared on lots of my year-end lists. I thought their streak was over after January’s Mind Hive, the first Wire record since 1990’s Manscape to leave me cold. But then came 10:20 in June, and it did the job for me. Like some prior great Wire records (e.g. IBTABA, The Drill), this one takes old studio songs, then reinvents them around live arrangements. A nice blend of the strange and the familiar.

#28. Duma, Duma: The first of several African releases on this year’s list, Duma are a duo from Nairobi, Kenya; their name means “Darkness” in Kikuyu. Their self-titled debut is a brutal slab of electronic noise, trans-metal riffery, and monstrous, guttural, and/or choked vocals. It’s ugly music, beautifully rendered. Duma also win the prize for best album cover photo of the year, a true gut-punch classic. Click the link to see it.

#27. Metal Preyers, Metal Preyers: As with Duma above, Metal Preyers was issued by Nyege Nyege Tapes, “a Kampala-based label exploring, producing and releasing outsider music from around the region” (per their website). This multi-national collaboration brings noise mavens from London, Chicago and Uganda together to crush skulls and take names later, using both electronic and organic sonic tools.

#26. The Residents, Metal, Meat & Bone: The Songs of Dyin’ Dog: This is the first Residents project since the death of Hardy Fox, who was officially just part of their management company, but was in reality also their primary composer. Props to the remaining crew and new recruits for holding up the side with this collection of dark songs allegedly first recorded by lost albino bluesman Alvin “Dyin’ Dog” Snow. Uh huh.

#25. Hazel English, Wake UP!: Smart art-pop with gorgeous arrangements from a native Australian now working in California. My Best Albums lists for the past two years have prominently featured a variety of up-and-coming female solo artists offering nominally similar fare (e.g. Alice Merton, Sasami, Caroline Rose, etc.), but I didn’t find as much to love in that vein in 2020, alas. It’s probably me, not you.

#24. Hailu Mergia, Yene Mircha: Hailu Mergia was the keyboardist and composer for the Walias, arguably the greatest instrumental jazz-funk band in Ethiopia in the ’70s. Mergia fled his home country’s repressive Derg regime in 1981, working as a cab-driver in Washington, DC for decades. In 2018, he re-emerged with the stellar Lala Belu, and two years later, Yene Mircha continues his late-career hot streak. Lucky us!

#23: Petbrick and Deafkids, Deafbrick: This disc is a fascinating and pummeling collaboration between Brazil’s Deafkids (featuring founding Septultura drummer Iggor Cavalera) and England’s Petbrick. Deafbrick runs a sonic gamut from pummeling tribal to pummeling electronica, with some surprisingly melodic earworms embedded atop the beats as shiny icing on the noisy, dirty cake. Play loud. It helps with the pummeling.

#22. Einstürzende Neubauten, Alles In Allem: This is the German industrial pioneers’ first major studio project since 2014’s World War I Centennial inspired Lament. While their signature metal-work percussion and shrieking vocals from front-man Blixa Bargeld feature regularly in the mix, they’re deployed in some of the most beautiful, melodic music in the group’s long, inspirational career. A truly welcome return.

#21. Midnight Oil, The Makarrata Project: Sadly, I only learned of this album after reading that Midnight Oil bassist Bones Hillman (also ex-The Swingers) had died of cancer. His final work was brilliant, as the Oils re-emerged from long semi-retirement with a fine album dedicated to celebrating indigenous Australian culture, alongside a great cast of collaborators. Inspirational fare from a band of truly good, decent people.

#20. AC/DC, Power Up: Australia again! After the wheels seemed to have finally fallen off the Acca Dacca machine a few years back, the post-1980 classic line-up of Angus Young, Brian Johnson, Cliff Williams and Phil Rudd, with Stevie Young depping for his late uncle Malcolm, unexpectedly re-united to release their best work since 1990’s The Razor’s Edge. They do what they do, and they do it well. Rock on! And on and on!

#19. Bongeziwe Mabandla, iimini: This is one of the most beautiful records I heard this year, by a South African singer-songwriter blessed with a perfectly pure near-counter-tenor voice, and great skill with lean, natural arrangements that deploy ambient background sounds as a key mix element. The lyrics are mostly in Xhosa, but the soulful sentiments expressed transcend language, so very moving are the emotions expressed.

#18. Hyperlacrimae, Yoga Darśana: I’m realizing as I write this that there are a lot of noisy duos in this year’s roster of greatness, with Hyperlacrimae representing that idiom from their home country of Italy. This one is very beat-heavy, with some killer tribal vibes, vaguely Mediterranean to Middle Eastern filigree, and world-weary English vocals buried deep in the mix, deftly drawing you into their dark fugue fatigue.

#17. Mowgan, Soya LP: Mowgan is a French producer who has specialized in recent years by infusing his house music affinities with authentic African artistry and instrumentation. His primary collaborator on this disc is Solo Sanou, a percussionist from Burkina Faso who lives and works in Toulouse. The fruits of their collaboration are joyful and juicy, uplifting the spirit while making the hips swivel of their own accord.

#16. Rymden, Space Sailors: Magnus Öström (drums) and Dan Berglund (bass) were the rhythm section for the highly-acclaimed Esbjörn Svensson Trio (e.s.t.) until the tragic scuba-diving death of keyboardist Svensson in 2008. Rymden has the duo working with Norwegian keyboardist Bugge Wesseltoft on a wild, genre-bending disc, anchored in the e.s.t. legacy, but then stretching its chains to their breaking points and beyond.

#15. Gordon Koang, Unity: This is Gordon Koang’s 11th full-length album, but the first since fleeing his South Sudan home in 2013, seeking asylum in Australia. Koang’s official bio opens by noting that the artist, blind since birth, is “a fountain of warmth and joy,” and that’s quite obvious in his music and lyrics. Koang is also a master of the thom, a traditional stringed instrument of the Nuer people. Very unique. Very cool.

#14. Rose City Band, Summerlong: As I write this blurb, I realize that I know absolutely nothing about this band. I saw a review of the album, sampled and loved it, play it all the time, but never went back to see who, exactly, created this beautiful blend of Flying Burrito Brothers and late-Velvet Underground flavored music. So, who is it? Huh! Turns out to be Ripley Johnson of psych-freaks Wooden Shjips! Didn’t expect that!

#13. Pottery, Welcome To Bobby’s Motel: Pottery are a Canadian quintet, but they’ve somehow made one of the most oddly USA-feeling albums I’ve heard in ages, magically blending Tejano tall tales, Talking Heads-type surrealist funk, and Devo-deconstructed angularity, with dashes of Memphis and Philly Soul atop the pile, like salsa and sour cream. This video was my intro to their wild and wonderful world. See what I mean?

#12. Public Enemy, What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down?: As with AC/DC above, it seemed like Public Enemy had lurched into oblivion a couple of years ago, making both acts’ returns delightfully surprising. Also similar: this is a killer album, I’d say PE’s finest since Apocalypse ’91: The Empire Strikes Black. 2020 has been such a shit year, so it’s truly great to have Chuck, Flav and crew back when we need them most.

#11. Childish Gambino, 3.15.20: Donald Glover is a stone-cold creative genius, and I will eagerly investigate anything he makes, in any of the idioms within which he works. We saw what was billed as a farewell tour for his Childish Gambino persona in 2019, so I was as surprised as anyone when a new album under that name emerged in 2020. Even better: I’d say this is his most completely rewarding record yet, every track a gem.

#10. Shriekback, Some Kinds of Light: Shriekback’s 15th album may technically be a very, very late 2019 release, but it didn’t reach the States until January 2020, so I’m counting it. Core members Barry Andrews, Carl Marsh and Martyn Barker have made their most organic album in ages, filled with strong playing, brilliantly weird lyrics, and ear-worm hooks to die for. Best since their legendary Oil and Gold (1985), I’d say.

#9. Sparks, A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip: It sort of boggles the mind to consider just how long and prolifically Ron and Russell Mael have been pursuing their weird pop visions: they debuted in 1971, and this is their 25th studio release. Luckily for us, they’ve experienced a grand creative surge of late, and this album is one of their finest, offering the usual wry songs and stories, plus some great pokes into trenchant, topical themes.

#8. Moses Sumney, Grӕ: Moses Sumney immigrated to California from Ghana, and quickly earned a name (circa 2013) around Los Angeles, where various execs wanted to pigeon-hole him as a stereotypical “hottie” R&B singer. He was having none of that, and relocated to North Carolina to write this brilliant double-album of “experimental soul.” Sumney’s the real deal, and this disc proves the acumen of his creative career choices.

#7. Sepultura, Quadra: This is the best record of Sepultura’s Derrick Green era, and arguably the best thing they have done since the unbeatable Roots (1996). Quadra is framed in four sections, exploring various facets of the group’s sound, but it feels seamless and perfect. While some may pine for a “classic lineup” reunion, having Sepultura, Soulfly and Deafkids making great music in parallel seems like a win to me.

#6. Myrkur, Folkesange: Denmark’s Amalie Bruun is an accomplished singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, who has released music under her own name, with the band Ex-Cops, and as Myrkur. The self-professed “black metal girl” eschews her heavier stylings on Folkesange, which is dedicated to traditional Scandinavian music and acoustic originals. It is haunting and beautiful, however you label it. Especially “Vinter.”

A Brief Note Before the Top of the Pile: Over the course of the year, the remaining five albums were ones that I seriously considered as Album of the Year candidates at various times and for various reasons. In some years, the top of the pile is an obvious choice. Take 2016, for example, when David Bowie issued an amazing album in January, then passed away. For all intents and purposes, that year’s contest was over by February. In other years, though, it’s a tough choice between many contenders. Last year was like that, and when faced with such decisions, I tend to consider how an Album of the Year fits within the spirit of the age in which it was released. So with 2019 having been the year of the #MeToo movement, Lingua Ignota’s Caligula, anchored as it was in Kristin Hayter’s experiences with sexual discrimination and abuse, took the top spot ahead of a large list of other possible contenders. It just fit the times best, and that felt right and good. Viewing my 2020 finalists through such a lens, I emerged with two particularly strong contenders, then selected the one that felt like it spoke the greatest current truth through the most accomplished creative acts. Again, it feels right and good. Here’s how it falls out . . .

#5. Napalm Death, Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism: Napalm Death have had a tough run since 2015’s epic Apex Predator — Easy Meat. Long-time guitarist-singer Mitch Harris left active service, Shane Embury (mentioned above) missed a tour, and singer Mark “Barney” Greenway noted difficulties in writing and recording his vocals. That made the gap between albums the longest of their career, but as it turns out, it was all worth the wait and worry. Harris appears on Throes of Joy, but Embury went into multi-man mode anyway, offering bass, percussion, guitar and vocals, all brilliantly. Stalwart producer Russ Russell works his usual magic here, making everything sound powerful throughout, and Danny Herrera is thunderous as ever on the drums. “Amoral” is one of their best songs, and surprisingly accessible. Try it! At the opposite end of the spectrum, “A Bellyful of Salt and Spleen” is horrific and heart-breaking, a perfect example of how Napalm make the political personal, to everybody’s benefit.

#4. Etuk Ubong, Africa Today: Etuk Ubong is a Nigerian trumpeter, composer, singer and band-leader, offering an eclectic blend of Afrobeat, jazz, highlife and ritual drumming he calls “Earth Music.” Africa Today features six of his compositions recorded live in the studio with an 11-person band of players from Nigeria, the UK, and the Netherlands. The music is fiery, rhythmic and melodic, each song built around killer grooves that never wear out their welcomes. The lyrics are also incredible, offering a “you are there” peek at the troubles and travails of common folk in Nigeria and beyond, as their leaders engage in grift, racism, oppression, mismanagement and corporate cronyism. Hmm. Wonder why that resonates here? Comparisons to the legendary Fela Kuti are inevitable, given the styles offered and topics addressed, but Etuk Ubong more than holds his own, sounding fresh, not derivative, offering his own takes on the sadly intractable problems that seem to plague his nation. And equally sadly, ours.

#3. Theophilus London, Bebey: Theophilus London is a native Trinidadian who now lives and works in New York. Bebey is his third full-length album, released six years after his sophomore disc, Vibes. Around our household, this album played more than any other in 2020, getting placed on our various music-playing devices in January, and never leaving, as we never grew tired of any of it. Unlike my other four finalists this year, the politics of Bebey are mostly interpersonal, not international, with fresh jam after fresh jam raising the spirits and singalong voices, as toes tap, and hips wiggle. London self-released his latest album, and he’s filled it with just glorious, warm, engaging songs that evoke the sunniness of his native island, both thematically and musically. Guest appearances from Raekwon, Tame Impala, Ariel Pink, Lil Yachty and others add value in every case, rather than just feeling like promo verses tacked on by marketeers. In a dark year, this bright, fun record made us feel good. That’s enough.

#2. Snog, Lullabies for the Lithium Age: Snog’s David Thrussell is a conceptualist. As with The Residents (see entry above), most of his albums are released with narrative framing explanations, which often get picked up and reported by less skeptical media outlets as fact, even though they rarely are. Some notable earlier Thrussell releases have found him claiming to have written an album while living on a diet of human flesh, or having gone through gender transition, or while working on commission for the NXIVM cult. This one finds Thrussell (allegedly) working with a famed psychotherapist after six years of semi-retirement, including one year in a near-catatonic state. Take all that for what it’s worth, then listen to the music, which sounds pretty much exactly like what you would expect from an artist after such an experience, “real” or not. The senses of anomie, ennui, acedia, nihilism and despair that these times beat into us deserve a soundtrack, and David Thrussell has delivered it, with finesse and flair.

#1, THE ALBUM OF THE YEAR FOR 2020: Run the Jewels, RTJ4: George Floyd was murdered on May 25, 2020, the video recording of his cruel and needless death sparking massive national outrage and protests. Run the Jewels issued their fourth album just over a week later, and its lyrical content and music could not have been better planned or more attuned to soundtrack the cultural convulsions of the Summer of 2020. That’s actually a sad testament to the pervasive nature of the concerns raised in Minneapolis and elsewhere, since obviously Killer Mike and El-P didn’t write this album specifically about the George Floyd killing, but the details and stories and backdrops and backgrounds that they did evoke and invoke nailed it to a T. The recurring themes of social injustice and political inequity are presented with genius-level insight and creativity, delivered via crazy rhymes, flows, toasts and stories, atop some of the finest beats and rhythms to ever grace a hip-hop inflected album. Toss in ace cameos from the likes of Mavis Staples, Zack de la Rocha, Pharrell Williams, Josh Homme and others, and you just kick things another few branches up the brilliance tree. RTJ4 is an objectively fine album that could have been a contender for Album of the Year whenever it had been released, but for 2020, it moves beyond contender and into champion stature, so perfect is it for its time, place, and audience. When great music speaks great truth, people listen. Maybe not enough people to change things, but you’ve got to start somewhere, and with a soundtrack like this one, people are going to want to march along, hopefully toward a better place. Well done, them. A worthy new entry in my long list of Albums of the Year.

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. Various Artists: If You Can’t Please Yourself You Can’t, Please Your Soul
  177. Vega, Alan: IT
  178. Wailer, Bunny: Blackheart Man
  179. Wall of Voodoo: Happy Planet
  180. Wall of Voodoo: Seven Days in Sammystown
  181. Wasted: We Are Already in Hell
  182. Weasels: Uranus or Bust
  183. Weasels: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow
  184. Ween: Quebec
  185. Ween: The Mollusk
  186. Who: Who’s Next
  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)
  51. HOGG, SELF-EXTINGUISHING EMISSION (2018)
  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.