Tuesday, December 24, 2019

My Top 40 albums of 2019

I really, really thought 2019 was a great year for music. Thanks again to CHIRP Radio, I got exposed to a lot of things I wouldn't have otherwise heard. I listened to a ton of new releases this year -- over 150, by my count. And figuring out what would go in the last 10 or so on this list was incredibly hard. Indeed, if I went through the albums a couple of months from now, you might have found the 2019 albums from the following artists on my list: Sasami, Cloud Eleven, Christian Scott, Tommi Zender, pronoun, Sharon Van Etten, Prince Fatty, Kaina, These New Puritans, Rosie Carney, Angelique Kidjo, The Embrooks, Bryony Jarman-Pinto, Jenny Lewis, Danny Brown, Mark Lanegan Band, and others I've forgotten about. Anyway, this is just a list of the stuff I liked the most, in a year where there was so much to like.

1. Michael Kiwanuka -- Kiwanuka (Polydor/Interscope): A confident Kiwanuka teamed up again with producers Danger Mouse and Inflo to further his intriguing blend of folk, rhythm and blues, and psychedelia. This album builds on its predecessor, Love & Hate, in the best possible ways. Kiwanuka’s vocals are as warm as ever, and he still conjures up wonderful melodies, while he and the producers conjure up a sound rooted in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but with a modern feel. Kiwanuka incisively writes about both personal matters and the ongoing struggle for civil rights with commitment and feeling, creating a very resonate album.

2. Jamila Woods -- LEGACY! LEGACY! (Jagjaguwar): The framing device for these songs brings out the best in Woods. Using the artists that inspired her as the basis for each song leads to many interesting observations, whether they are personal to her or a commentary on the artist (which comes through loud and clear in “Miles”, for example). The music follows in the path of HEAVN, coming off as a retooling of the retro R & B of Erykah Badu and others from that era. Woods manages to be ambitious yet down to earth, with a truly unique voice, both as a singer and a lyricist.

3. Raphael Saadiq -- Jimmy Lee (Columbia): Saadiq’s mastery of R & B, both past and present, as been evident ever since he burst on the scene in the late-‘80s with Tony! Toni! Toné!. Until now, he hasn’t really delved into social commentary. This album is his What’s Going On. Inspired by the death his brother from a heroin overdose, Saadiq looks at addiction, how it affects families, and how it has affected the African-American community at large. There are some immediate, catchy tracks, as Saadiq will always create those. But there are also some true growers here, and the more I played this album, the more of it sank in.

4. Mikal Cronin -- Seeker (Merge): I always liked Cronin and his melodic power pop-adjacent indie rock. On this album, his first with a proper title rather than a number, he really ups the ante. His ear for a good melody is still there. What is different here is how visceral this album is, with some seething songs that explode, calling to mind artists like Neil Young and Dinosaur, Jr., without quite sounding like them. These songs are so powerful, with raw feelings exposed in a memorable fashion.

5. Angel Olsen -- All Mirrors (Jagjaguwar): The progression of Olsen, from intimate, torchy acoustic songs that she kicked off her career with to the widescreen, theatrical songs on this album shows true progression. Working with producer John Congleton, Olsen has penned some emotional epics, and found some really in-your-face ways to use strings to heighten the already fever pitch emotion. Yet the album never gets strident or bombastic, as Olsen provides some balance some more relaxed songs. It makes for a gripping listen.

6. FKA Twigs -- Magdalene (Young Turks): Twigs has been a stand out in the world of chilly, electronic R & B, and is equally acclaimed for her innovative live performances. On her new album, she uses the biblical story of Mary Magdalene as inspiration for a cycle of songs about how the patriarchy impacts women. Moreover, she really unleashes her crystalline voice and the music moves somewhat in the direction of artists like Kate Bush and Bjork, while still faithful to her core sound. This is artier and somehow both more sweeping and more intimate. The production and sonic approach is spectacular, allowing the songs to sparkle while not losing sight of the full emotional content.

7. Brittany Howard -- Jaime (ATO): Howard’s main gig deservedly made her famous, and was, to my ears, somewhat formulaic, as so many Alabama Shakes songs seemed to solely be vehicles to allow Howard, at some point, to unleash her powerhouse vocal capability and overwhelm the song. On her solo debut, Howard, whose other projects already indicated her varied interests, reveals so many more dimensions, evoking Prince at times. There are so many variants on R & B, soul, and funk on here, married to personal songs that tackle subjects such as sexuality and race relations with depth and power. And Howard really shows her ability to tailor her singing to the song in a way that didn’t always come through in her old band.

8. CHAI -- PUNK (Burger): The four women of CHAI continue to marry fizzy feminist and inclusive messages in appropriately peppy songs. The band’s second album is more pop-oriented and less guitar-focused than the debut, but some of the clear post-punk influences remain. Thankfully, they are really good at pop music too, and there are plenty of top drawer songs that are immediate and hooky as all get out. It’s fun, affirmative music that is easy to dance to.

9. Jason Ringenberg -- Stand Tall (Courageous Chicken): The frontman for the legendary cowpunk band Jason and the Scorchers had been laying low for the past few years, devoting most of his musical energy to his Farmer Jason kid’s music project. Then he got a fellowship to be the songwriter-in-residence at Sequoia National Park, which got him back to grown up music. It led to this wonderful album, which is full of great story songs, some personal (Ramones), some historical (John Muir, John the Baptist), mixed with apt covers. The album mixes pure, upbeat Americana with a few barn burners that would fit well on a Scorchers album. And Ringenberg still has a drawling voice that is made to sing this material.

10. P.P. Arnold -- The New Adventures of...P.P. Arnold (Earmusic): The woman who hit big in the UK in the late ‘60s with “The First Cut is the Deepest” saw her solo career fade quickly, but remained an in demand backing vocalist. A chance encounter with Steve Cradock (Ocean Colour Scene/Paul Weller’s band) in the ‘90s led to demos that were put aside until Cradock revived the project last year. This is a terrific album that blends ‘60s styled pop-soul with a bit of dance music, beautiful ballads, songs penned by Cradock and/or Weller, and an amazing musical rendition of a Bob Dylan poem. This album shows why Arnold is so respected in the business, as 51 years after her last album, she delivers powerful, nuanced performances on song after song.

11. The Comet is Coming -- Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery (Impulse!): Shabaka Hutchings strikes again. The British saxophonist connected with the second album from this exciting British jazz combo. Somewhat comparable to recent music from Christian Scott, TCIC plays a kind of 21st Century fusion jazz, with elements of R & B, rock, and hip hop giving the music a thrilling buzz. This has a drive that isn’t characteristic of a lot of jazz, but then adds concise compositions that allow the musicians to express themselves and dazzle.

12. LizzoCuz I Love You (Nice Life/Atlantic): Lizzo is certainly the best music story of the year. She is an artist who has continued to ascend artistically. The affirmative, empowering lyrics are melded to a mish-mash of old school R & B, hip hop, and modern dance music. As time has gone on, her rapping has taken a back seat to her singing. This isn’t a problem, as she’s a good rapper, but she is a great singer, who is packed with personality.

13. Sampa the Great -- The Return (Ninja Tune): An African rapper who got some schooling in L.A. and ended up getting her career going in Australia, Sampa is a confident emcee who has a pretty expansive musical vision and a distinctive, compelling flow. This album mixes in some fairly poppy hip hop with some more soulful tunes. She also incorporates some Afro-pop, and hits on some interesting, lengthy tunes at the end. This album balances the ambitious and the accessible very well.

14. Bob Mould -- Sunshine Rock (Merge): While it’s not all rainbows and unicorns, this is about as cheerful as the seemingly terminally dyspeptic punk rock legend gets. Ever since perfecting his band with Jason Narducy on bass and Jon Wurster on drums, Mould has been rocking out confidently and consistently, but this album is just a bit catchier and the slight attitude adjustment made it one I wanted to listen to a bit more than other recent (and still quite good) albums.

15. Weyes Blood -- Titanic Rising (Sub Pop): This was one of most acclaimed albums of the early part of 2019, and as a fan of her prior album, I was happy to see Natalie Mering getting such positive attention. This is a mix of classic singer-songwriter material, but filtered through modern instrumentation, especially the use of keyboards. Where some saw this as a big step up, I think this is just a logical progression from her prior work, and I think there might be even better albums in the future.

16. Priests -- The Seduction of Kansas (Sister Polygon): Things really came together for this D.C. band. While still capable of some fairly straightforward punk, the band really delves into post-punk with elements of arty acts like Pylon and early goth rock. The album mixes bursts of rock with songs with rubbery rhythms. The lyrical content is not always direct, but it’s always interesting. And the passion never flags.

17. BedouineBirdsongs of a Killjoy (Spacebomb): Bedouine’s whispered acoustic guitar-based songs are two parts Vashti Bunyan and one part Judee Sill. Her songs are so simple and her phrasing is so precise, as the melodies flow so sweetly. She sings her words in such an understated manner, imbuing them with feeling. This is a mellow pick me up.

18. Peter Perrett -- Humanworld (Domino): Perrett’s second solo album since he re-established his career continues his post-Velvet Underground explorations. This album ranks right up there with his best stuff with The Only Ones. Age has, if anything, made his voice more interesting now that it’s weathered around the edges. His songs range from whimsical to acidic, and he sounds confident.

19. Rose Elinor Dougall -- A New Illusion (Vermilion): After a foray into more electronic based sounds on her last album, Dougall goes back to a more organic approach. Dougall never belts out enough to make her tunes torch songs, but her wistful mid-tempo tunes are perfect for her wan vocals, creating a timeless pop sound rooted in classic melodies.

20. Joan ShelleyLike the River Loves the Sea (No Quarter): At times, this record sounds like it could have come out 45 years ago. Joan Shelley is a great folk singer-songwriter. Some of these songs are close to something like early Joni Mitchell, but generally, her material is more roots based. Although the playing is fuller than on her last one, she wisely keeps her voice front and center, it’s clarity demanding attention.

21. Le Butcherettes -- bi/MENTAL (Rise): Le Butcherettes have perfected their sound. It’s a mix of gothic new wave, punk, and hard rock that supports the powerful singing of Teri Genderbender. While not really pop in any sense of the word, Le Butcherettes have some solid melodies and strong hooks. Moreover, the passionate playing supports songs that very much take on the powerful and fiercely advocate for women’s rights.

22. International Teachers of Pop -- International Teachers of Pop (Desolate Spools): This trio has concocted some impressive electronic pop. As the name hints, the Teachers have an arch sense of humor, which sometimes finds its way into their lyrics. The songs sometimes sound like a mid-point between the clubbier side of Pet Shop Boys and the dancier side of Pulp. Vocalist Leonore Wheatley has a lot of personality which combats the potential for this synth-based group to sound sterile.

23. SeratonesPower (New West): I picked this album up on a whim and it hit me the first time I listened to it, and then really hit hard about the fourth time I spun it. The Seratones remind me a lot of the Noisettes on their debut album. Seratones are a bit more committed to their garage rock/R & B sound and don’t have quite as many pop leanings, making the blend just a bit different. And that’s a wonderful thing. The songs are catchy and AJ Haynes sings the hell out of them.

24. Chris Von Sneidern -- Emerge (Mastromonia): CvS was big with the power pop crowd back in the late-‘90s/early-aughts with his bittersweet melody fests that evoked Badfinger, Marshall Crenshaw, and others of that stripe. As he’s soldiered on, his distinctive personality and musical depth continued to impress. But he never verged on confessional. I don’t know if any of these songs are personal, but they are raw and visceral. His pop smarts sometimes come to the fore. Yet this is more singer-songwriter type material from a man who is a masterful songwriter.

25. Mounties -- Heavy Meta (Light Organ): The second album from this sort-of Canadian supergroup comprised of Hawksley Workman and guys from Hot Hot Heat and Limblifter isn’t quite as awesome as their debut. At their best, Mounties create hooky indie-pop that mixes in new wave with more of a straight ahead college radio vibe. The only thing that separates this from the first album is that the debut was littered with killers, while this is more good songs with a handful of wads.

26. Jay Som -- Anak Ko (Polyvinyl): Melissa Duterte continues to hone her craft, and the bedroom pop spirit of her prior work is still there, best evidenced by the simple, sweet melodies that typify her work. And that’s great. Even better, she’s continuing to get better at her songwriting and especially the production. This is still an indie pop record with charming, personal songs, with a great guitar sound and other touches that make the record shine without being overly polished or slick. This is simply very enjoyable.

27. Yola -- Walk Through Fire (Easy Eye Sound): Dan Auerbach is the perfect collaborator for this big-voiced country-soul singer from England. This is retro music and Auerbach doesn’t try to hide it. Yola’s songs just lend themselves to that and trying to force fit her into something more contemporary would be wrong. So this ends up being a terrific debut album that sounds like it could have come out in 1975, but it wouldn’t quite have sounded like anything else. If Yola can continue to develop as a songwriter, big things are ahead.

28. J. Robbins -- Un-becoming (Dischord): The first solo album from the frontman for Jawbox, Channels, Burning Airlines, and Office of Future Plans shows that Robbins still has his thing down. And that thing is coming off like a somewhat more dissonant variant on Bob Mould. Robbins’s tunes sometimes seem a bit off-kilter, but they usually resolve themselves in the chorus. There are a few fist-waving anthems to go along with the arty stuff. He is consistent and sui generis, and everything he releases is worth hearing.

29. The Dream SyndicateThese Times (ANTI-): The second post-reunion Dream Syndicate album improves on its predecessor. I think there are two reasons for it: 1) all the touring on the previous album honed them as a band, and not just a band playing old songs, and, 2) Steve Wynn’s songs are just a bit sharper than the last time around. This is great driving guitar music, that rarely explodes, but simmers with purpose.

30. Pernice Brothers -- Spread the Feeling (Ashmont): What a pleasure to have Joe Pernice and various collaborators back. After a nine-year break, Pernice sounds refreshed, and this is a fairly peppy collection of melodic pop gems, with Joe’s wonderful lyrics and aching voice. One noticeable thing -- where prior albums seemed to settle on one motif (ex. - ‘70s singer-songwriter, ‘80s New Order-ish new wave, etc.), Pernice here draws fairly equally on all influences.

31. Jessica Pratt -- Quiet Signs (Kemado): This is a swell follow up to Pratt’s excellent second album, On Your Own Love Again. Pratt has graduated from low-fi to verging on mid-fi production, retaining the spare, spooky feel that is essential to her music. And she still writes songs that are marinated in ‘70s pop sensibility, but understate everything, so they don’t sound like they’d ever get played on the radio. The songs aren’t as consistently great as the last album, but this is a very worthwhile effort.

32. DAWN -- new breed (Local Action/Our Dawn): The former member of the television-created group Danity Kane has developed a striking solo career, with a sleek and modern take on R & B that definitely leans heavily on electronic instrumentation. On her fifth solo effort, things are a bit more organic than prior recent albums, which fits with songs that touch upon her identity as part-Native American, from the Washitaw tribe in New Orleans. The album deftly mashes up genres while not forgetting hooks and melodies, with Richard’s commanding presence working its magic.

33. Pere UbuThe Long Goodbye (Cherry Red): An album conceived when frontman David Thomas thought he might be dying, this is the closest that Pere Ubu has sounded in a long time to the late-‘70s avant-garage band that played with the balance between disturbing and rocking, though sometimes in a menacing, lugubrious manner. The industrial synthesizer sounds are really important here. Yet the album ends with one of the loveliest songs in the Ubu catalog. Thankfully, Thomas appears to have recovered, and more records may be in the offing.

34. Mavis Staples -- We Get By (ANTI-): On this album, Staples teams with Ben Harper, and this is yet another high quality soulful, spiritual protest album. It is interesting that Harper doesn’t play guitar on the album, instead letting Staples’s crack touring band do their thing. That being said, this album has a bit more of a Staple Singers vibe than some of Mavis’s other recent solo albums. Of course, she’s simply an enduring force of nature, singing with passion and nuance.

35. The New PornographersIn the Morse Code of Brake Lights (Concord): The New Pornos have essentially played variations on their core sound on every album. Last time around, with a new drummer in tow, they added some Krautrock influence. This album keeps a bit of that, but adds some orchestral flourishes, aided by multi-instrumentalist/singer Simi Stone. The best songs on this album are large, best exemplified by the appropriately titled “Colossus of Rhodes”. Another winner from Carl Newman and company.

36. The Highwomen -- The Highwomen (Elektra): This country supergroup is quite egalitarian. To her credit, Maren Morris, the biggest star among these four women, is a team player, when I’m sure the record company would have preferred her to be the leader. Indeed, Morris’s modern R & B/hip hop touches are nowhere to be found. Instead, this is a great mix of country tunes that have a bit of a modern touch with some folkier tunes. I hope this isn’t a one shot.

37. Bat For LashesLost Girls (AWAL): After going more organic and piano-based on her last album, Natasha Khan goes back to a more electronic-oriented approach on an album that both musically and lyrically is steeped in the ‘80s. The tunes are synth-popp-ish, but still a bit arty. And Khan was apparently influenced by various ‘80s movies lyrically. There aren’t as many Grade A songs as on prior albums, but this still sounds really good.

38. Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisithere is no Other (Nonesuch): On her first two solo albums, Giddens incorporated some contemporary sounds into her mix of old-time Americana. On her third album, working with multi-instrumentalist (of the olden kind) Turrisi, who is her romantic partner too, Giddens goes back to a more strictly traditional approach. She could do this in her sleep, but she is too committed to these sounds and her lyrics (and those of the tunes she covers) are full of sharp socio-political observations.

39. Robert Forster -- Inferno (Tapete): The former Go-Between mixes some relaxed folky numbers, which he has been writing for years, and which I’ve never gotten tired of, with a few change ups, including the glammy (in a Mott The Hoople kind of way) title track. Forster’s narratives are always compelling and the warmth of the music and his singing make this such a comfortable listen.

40. Nilüfer Yanya -- Miss Universe (ATO): Yanya is a true modern pop-rock artist. You can hear bits of pop and R & B in her sound, but it’s all rooted in her expressive guitar playing, which gives her tunes the right amount of snap. She’s somewhat in league with folks like Soccer Mommy and Snail Mail, separated by being a bit less singer-songwriter-y, if that makes any sense. She sure has a way with a tune, and she has tremendous potential to make some really great albums.

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