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:
- Amendola vs Blades, Everybody Wins
- Clinic, Wheeltappers and Shunters
- Phil Judd, Flightless Bird
- Lightning Bolt, Sonic Citadel
- Pye Corner Audio, Hollow Earth
- Sin Fang, Sad Party
- Tinariwen, Amadjar
- Tronos, Celestial Mechanics
- Weyes Blood, Titanic Rising
- White Denim, Side Effects
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, Birthday: This 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 . . .