Artist: Geographer Album: New Jersey EP Year: 2019 Grade: A-
In Brief: This 7-track EP may only feature 4 full-length songs, with the rest being intros and outros that help glue everything together, but those 4 songs are phenomenal. This was the perfect gateway for me to get into Mike Deni’s “sort of a band, sort of a solo project” blend of indie rock and synthpop, and it leaves me incredibly eager to hear what’s next on his upcoming full-length release due out this December.
Artist: Holden Days Album: Sylvan Lands, Vol. I Year: 2019 Grade: A-
In Brief: “Dream-folk” is a dead-on descriptor for the exquisitely crafted music of Holden Days. Listening to the first half of this recently completed two-part project evokes the same sort of feelings one would feel while taking in a long summer sunset during a hike through flowery meadows or a leisurely canoe trip on a secluded lake. And just when you’re tempted to think it’s all pastoral bliss, a song will change its structure midway through, progressive rock style, to reveal a compelling new refrain or perhaps a striking electric guitar solo. I’ve belatedly discovered one of my favorite albums of 2019 – a year which I mistakenly wrote off as lacking in immersive and high-quality recordings such as this one.
Artist: Tool Album: Fear Inoculum Year: 2019 Grade: C+
In Brief: I hate to be so ho-hum about a band’s first album back after a 13-year hiatus, but Tool is far more simmer than boil on this one. The band’s jammy, exploratory side has taken over, but their ability to be hard-hitting and thought-provoking has mostly taken a back seat to their insatiable need to drag every track out to 10+ minutes. It’s exhausting, and not in the immersive and fascinating way that Lateralus once was.
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.
While 2019 didn’t give me as many new albums to get truly excited about as a normal year would, the silver lining is that there also wasn’t much that I truly hated, either. I’d say most of the stuff I listened to this year ranged from “promising but flawed” to “moderately disappointing”, with only a few albums standing out for eliciting overly negative emotional reactions from me. Notably, these are all releases from artists I’ve enjoyed in some capacity in the past – I don’t make these lists to pick on easy targets or styles of music that would have been outside my wheelhouse to begin with. Here are the few 2019 releases that I would wholeheartedly recommend avoiding at all costs (and where applicable, embedded audio/video for the rare songs from these albums that I actually did enjoy).
It’s inevitable most years that some of the best music I listen to either isn’t going to fit strictly into the album format and thus won’t be eligible for my Favorite Albums list, or else it’ll have been released the previous year, and thus get added to that year’s list retroactively. In 2019 in particular, there were enough cases of this that I’m basically willing to consider this rundown of EPs, live albums, re-releases, and/or seasonal albums as my “Honorable Mentions” list for the year. 2018 also proved to be the gift that kept on giving, as I got turned on to several strong releases that I hadn’t known about yet when I wrote up last year’s countdown.
Artist: Coldplay Album: Everyday Life Year: 2019 Grade: C+
In Brief: Coldplay didn’t make an album here, so much as they made a sound collage that occasionally includes the full band performing together on an actual Coldplay song. The overbearing theme of unity in diversity is admirable, but the way the record continually tries to drive it home is redundant and honestly a bit superficial. The record as a whole doesn’t provide enough of a payoff to make all of the half-finished vignettes and the stylistic jumping around worthwhile.
Artist: Global Genius Album: New Folk Year: 2019 Grade: B-
In Brief: This is really more of a singer/songwriter side project by a pair of guys mostly known for playing instruments and/or singing BGVs on other people’s records and in commercial jingles. That may seem like an oddly commercial pedigree for this under-the-radar independent release, but there are some genuinely smart lyrics and soothing melodies on this modest little album, if you’re willing to overlook a few of the cornier selections.
Artist: The New Pornographers Album: In the Morse Code of Brake Lights Year: 2019 Grade: B-
In Brief: This album brings back some of the sonic diversity that Whiteout Conditions lacked, especially with violinist Simi Stone upgraded to full membership. But song-for-song, it just doesn’t hit nearly as hard, and I think part of the problem is that despite all the singers in this band, we’re really only hearing the artistic voice of Carl Newman. No longer having Dan Bejar around kind of exposes his limitations as full-time band leader.
Artist: Coyote Kid Album: The Skeleton Man Year: 2019 Grade: A-
In Brief: A deliciously dark and righteously ragged song cycle about beating Death at his own game. It certainly won’t be for everybody, but I can say with all honesty that the band formerly known as Marah in the Mainsail has surpassed my already high expectations by delivering the most exciting rock record of 2019.