I’m gonna keep it lean this year and just stick to a Top 10 Albums list instead of my usual 20. It just seems right, what with the smaller pool of albums that I had to choose from which got a strong enough positive reaction from me that I’d recommend them to others without hesitation. This year I only gave a single album an “A” grade, and the rest of these are in the B to B-plus range. You might wonder if that’s a side effect of having listened to so much music from earlier in the decade over the course of 2019 (in preparation for the Decade-End list I’ve got coming up early in the new year) that I didn’t really make a lot of time for new releases, but I compared my 2019 Music Journal to the one from 2018, and I actually listened to almost the same amount of new albums both years. And I definitely tried brand new artists this year who might not have seemed at first like they’d be up my alley when their music was described to me – a few of those even landed in my Top 10! So it wasn’t for a lack of opportunity, or attentiveness on my part.
Anyway, these are the 10 albums that impressed me most in 2019. I’m sure I’ll eventually find others to add to this list retroactively (feel free to leave suggestions in the comments), so I don’t consider this a done deal. But it’s the end of the year now, and I wanted to at least document what albums I enjoyed the most while they were brand new.
THE BEST OF 2019:
1. Coyote Kid – The Skeleton Man
You wouldn’t normally expect a raggedy rock album with rough, gravelly vocals and a preoccupation with death to claim my #1 spot. What can I say, Austin Durry is a master storyteller, who can run the gamut from exhilarating to emotional to downright terrifying depending on what sort of vocal approach a song calls for. Formerly known as Marah in the Mainsail, the band renamed itself this year with this new concept album already in mind, and it manages to surpass the old band’s excellent Bone Crown in terms of intriguing characters and unnerving plot twists. The overarching theme of this one seems to be that maybe you can cheat death… but be careful what you wish for, because there will be consequences.
2. Owel – Paris
This five-piece indie band from New Jersey has a certain, as the French would say, je ne sais quoi to their music, that makes it hard for me to describe what elevates their music above a number of other bands with similar influences – a little baroque pop helped along by their in-house violinist, a little electronic experimentation a la Radiohead or Sigur Ros, a whole lot of emotion in the slow-building climaxes of their songs thanks to the compelling falsetto of lead singer Jay Sekong, and a healthy balance between all of those elements and a keen ear for an unconventional pop hook. That’s what enables a long, drawn-out, gut punch of a song like “Get Out Stay Out” to exist alongside an almost recklessly joyful single like “No Parachutes”, with neither song being worse for the wear. Owel is consistent almost to a fault – I’ve given all three of their albums a strong B-plus rating, and I’m actually having trouble deciding which one is their best so far, holding out hope that they give themselves that ever-so-slight nudge over the top into instant classic territory on album #4. They’ve become one of my Bucket List Bands (TM) that I feel like I absolutely have to see live before I die, and Paris adds a healthy handful of new highlights to the list of songs I hope I’ll one day be lucky enough to see them perform.
3. Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride
I think if you’re a band and you decide to go on hiatus for like six years, you owe it to your fans to come back with something really meaty and ambitious. Vampire Weekend did this in a way that I genuinely wasn’t expecting – you won’t find much of the edgier side of the indie rock sound they had cultivated on previous singles like “Cousins” and “Diane Young” here, but you will find the curious blend of classical European and rhythmic African influences that first put them on the map blended with a summery, soft-rock vibe reminiscent of the 60s and 70s. This makes for a mellower album than we might have expected, but also a very immersive one, with almost none of its 18 songs feeling out of place, and a few of the singles easily ranking among VW’s all-time best and most unusual works. Just listen to the Van Morrison-esque vibes of “This Life”, the flamenco-techno blend of “Sympathy”, the funky guitar-and-bass boogie of “Sunflower”, or the multiple layers of piano and guitar that light up “Harmony Hall”, and tell me none of that brings a huge smile to your face. Then listen to the lyrics about political and religious strife and personal identity crisis, and tell me you’re not sure how they get away with all of that to the tune of such cheerful music. It’s a strange gift these guys have, and I’m so glad to finally have ’em back.
4. Billie Eilish – When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
Billie Eilish probably needs no introduction at this point – her dark and mischievous take on modern pop music has taken the world by storm in the most unlikely of circumstances, by her and her brother doing it themselves the old-fashioned way in their home studio, amalgamating all manner of contemporary influences into a style and persona that feels pretty darn unique. She’s like the class clown with the smart and occasionally salty mouth who irritates all the teachers, then one day she raises her hand and says something unexpectedly profound, or the teacher notices a poem scrawled on the back of a homework assignment that turns out to be truly touching… and more than a little bit troubling. Role-playing as different characters allows Billie to go to some genuinely dark places on this album, but what’s intriguing on top of that is how the music flits back and forth from quietly crooned ballads to idiosyncratic dance and hip-hop inflected bangers with terrifying bass attacks. Not everything about this approach is perfect – the pacing of this album is all over the place, for one thing – but I’ve been endlessly fascinated with it ever since I slowly started to get into the groove of this album over the summer. She’s got a really promising future ahead of her that could easily spin off in a number of different directions, a prospect which is at once exciting and concerning given the insane amounts of fame she’s already achieved this early on in her career.
5. Meg & Dia – happysad
Meg & Dia might have taken the leaner approach in terms of how much new content they gave us after a long hiatus – this is a pretty well streamlined pop album featuring ten tracks and just over a half an hour of music. But cut ’em some slack – this is a duo I had honestly expected never to hear from ever again due to how Dia getting jerked around by the music industry during her gig as a Voice contestant and subsequent stint as a solo artist fractured her relationship with her sister. They made up, and decided to get back to making music together, and while the change in sound is pretty radical from when we last heard from the duo, pretty much every track here is a gem, from the synth-heavy meditation “American Spirit” that opens the album, to the more beat-heavy crowd-pleasers like “Teenagers” and “Happy”, to some of the angstier ballads, to the delicate acoustic track that closes out the album with the two sisters’ voices and a guitar front and center like it was the good old days again. These two have had just about enough of an industry trying to sell them as a young. sexy product that really never fit their image in the first place, so doing it entirely on their own puts them in the best possible place here, and for what I hope is a long string of future releases as well.
6. Jimmy Eat World – Surviving
Jimmy Eat World might be selling themselves short with this album title, when I’d be willing to make the case that they actually thrive instead of just surviving on several of the new tracks on this lean & mean ten-song collection. Ten albums deep now, they know what works for them and they’ve lost interest in trend-chasing, so if you’re looking for a brand new take on their late 90s/early 2000s blend of emo and power pop, you’ve come to the wrong place. But if you’re looking for kick-ass riffs, full-throated choruses, and some surprisingly mature meditations on relationships, communication, and what it means to actually put in the work required to really love someone, you should definitely give this album a try. While the front half (particularly the title track) is strong, it’s really the back half that finds the band taking things up a notch, with the singles “All the Way (Stay)” and “Love Never” pushing the band into the red in terms of pure hook value, while the closer “Congratulations” brings the house down with its riveting heavy coda.
7. Sigrid – Sucker Punch
Sigrid’s trajectory seems to have been a quieter version of Billie Eilish’s, in the sense that she put out a strong single an an accompanying EP back in 2017 that garnered her some attention, but didn’t follow it up with a full-length until this year. I’d never heard of her before her proper debut dropped, and while I’d say her style of indie-meets-electropop is definitely more conventional than Eilish’s, this Norwegian singer/songwriter still has plenty of quirks to help her stand out, with danceable singles like the title cut and “Basic” rivaling the best that Top 40 pop has to offer these days, ballads that evoke shades of Sia and Adele, and a strong dose of buoyant, don’t-tell-me-what-I-can’t-do attitude on the single that started it all, “Don’t Kill My Vibe”. Her sound might seem simplistic on the surface, but I feel like she takes genuine ownership of it and establishes herself early on as an artist who will do everything in her power to resist being bulldozed by an industry that just wants another faceless, hit-generating pop product to sell. Basic pop isn’t a bad thing by any means in Sigrid’s world, but she makes a strong case for why it doesn’t need to be brainless.
8. Andrew Bird – My Finest Work Yet
I’d consider this a pretentious album title if not for the fact that Bird has been known to be rather tongue-in-cheek and self-effacing over the course of his career. Plus, the title might actually be accurate, as I’ve definitely enjoyed this album more from front to back than any of his others. It’s a very good sign when, nearly 20 years into his solo career, an artist known for his labyrinthine word-smithing talents can still come up with gems as intriguing and challenging as the opening one-two punch of “Sisyphus” and “Bloodless”. His virtuoso skill on the violin and his whimsical whistling add a lot to these songs in terms of improvisation and overall attitude, too. While their might be some lulls later in the album, or individual moments where the brilliant pieces of a song don’t seem to quite fit together into a convincing hole, I have to say that Bird has grown more and more astute when it comes to varying the sounds and tempos of each song on an album so that things don’t fall into the sort of slow rut he was often guilty of in his earlier work. That keeps My Finest Work Yet unpredictable and engrossing pretty much all the way through to the end, and it’s probably the second best album songwriting-wise in my Top Ten after Vampire Weekend’s.
9. Sleeping at Last – Atlas: Enneagram
You’re probably going to think I’m being massively inconsistent by putting Sleeping at Last’s latest collection of songs on this list when there were only nine of ’em, and they’re part of a much larger collection of songs he’s been working on for six years and still isn’t done with. Most of the rest of Ryan O’Neal’s Atlas series has been made up of short EPs that stack up to form the individual building blocks in a much larger exploration of the formation of the universe and the experience we call “life”, with some of them pairing off to form what he calls “mini-albums”. But the Enneagram set works as a self-contained listening experience, and if any other artist put out a set of songs like this attempting to personify each of the nine Enneagram types, I’d consider it an ambitious concept album, so just this once, I’m not going to relegate Sleeping at Last to the “Wait, That’s Not an Album!” list. The instrumentation here ranges from the expected “piano with weepy strings” brand of balladeering SAL is best known for, to some quirkier tracks in which faster piano or guitar cadences liven up the proceedings a bit – each one was carefully calibrated to represent the personality it was written to describe, and since Ryan is nothing if not meticulous, most of the performers who played on each of these tracks are people who identify with the Enneagram type their performances helped to depict. A lot of the fun of Sleeping at Last’s music is in the footnotes – the little samples you might barely notice, the blog entries and podcasts enriching the listener’s understanding of how each song was made and who/what he had in mind when writing them. But even if you knew none of that stuff and were fairly ignorant about the whole concept of the Enneagram before diving into this set of songs, I think you’d come out of it with a decent glimpse of each personality type, and possibly even a clue about which one you yourself might identify with. I’m a Five, and even if my favorite tracks here might be the more upbeat ones dedicates to types One and Seven, I have to say the the long-winded, exploratory take on my own type is also one of the most intriguing and satisfying entries here.
10. John Paul White – The Hurting Kind
White took a pretty strong leap forward in his second solo album following the dissolution of The Civil Wars. He’s always been a solid songwriter with an interesting penchant for giving you a song title that makes you expect one thing and then ducking in the other direction once that title comes up in the actual lyrics, a trick which he employs to great effect on several of this album’s best tracks. Musically, he’s assembled a band and given this record a bit more oomph than the bare-bones approach he took for most of Beulah. It’s still fairly traditional country with folk/rock overtones, but the inventive songwriting and the occasional solo from an instrument like the fiddle or slide guitar serve as healthy reminders that he and his band had fun recording this, and weren’t just doing a by-the-basics genre exercise purely by rote. I hate to keep comparing White to his former bandmate Joy Williams, considering how little they had in common before joining forces in The Civil Wars, but since both of them put out solo records within a few weeks of each other this year, and especially since Williams tried to go back to folksy roots on Front Porch, I have to say that White pretty clearly emerged as the winner this time around.