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.
2019 was a weird year for me, in terms of the music I enjoyed most. A lot of artists put out genuinely great singles, only to follow them up with lackluster albums, EPs as stopgaps between albums, or really nothing at all. It’s a good thing I was following all of my favorite artists on Spotify, as well as some newer ones I was curious to hear more from, or else I might have not heard a good quarter of this list until 2019, if ever. Usually the vast majority of my Top 100 songs for the year comes from my favorite albums released that year, with some spillover from the year before. While that’s still true in 2019, it’s worth noting that nearly a tenth of my list this time comes from EPs or compilations rather than albums, and close to another tenth of the list is made up of non-album singles, that have yet to be attached to a larger collection of songs (assuming that will ever happen at all). While this speaks to the ability of many of my favorite artists to strike while the iron is hot in terms of getting new music out, it also worries me slightly where the longevity of the album format is concerned. But that’s an issue to discuss when I get to my list of Favorite Albums for the year. My Favorite Songs list, while eclectic and probably whiplash-inducing at certain points, definitely required some tough decision-making because there were so many great songs that spoke to me this year. At the end of the day, whether a song is part of a larger narrative or not, that’s really all that matters – whether the song stands out to me as unique in some way, and makes me want to keep coming back to listen to it over and over again. And everything on this list passed that test with flying colors!
As I do each year, I’ll give some insight into my reasons for picking the Top 30, and you can assume after that point that the ordering is somewhat arbitrary. Many of these songs (limit one per artist) are collected in my 2019 in a Nutshell playlist over on Spotify.
Artist: Andrew Bird Album: My Finest Work Yet Year: 2019 Grade: B
In Brief: While the songwriting on this album certainly features some of Bird’s finest words yet, on a musical level it seems to be mostly in the same comfort zone he’s established on his last several albums. That’s not a bad thing, particularly when Bird gets more playful with his rhythms, or leaves space for a bit of his trademark whistling and noodling on the violin. But as always, there’s the issue of certain songs being too low-key to fully deliver on the virtuoso instrumental talent we all know Bird possesses. This has the side effect of helping us to focus more on the lyrics, perhaps… but I’d really love to see an album where Bird really goes for broke on both fronts.
This is the music I’ll remember the most when I think back on 2016. Not just the great singles (though these albums have plenty of those) or the dark horse picks buried deep in the track listings (tons of those too, though), but the way these records all flow from song to song, creating a continuous listening experience that makes spending nearly an hour of time with each artist (or more, in a few cases) worthwhile. On my most cynical days, I’d say that thanks to both terrestrial radio doing its thing and the ephemeral lifecycle of most songs and artists that go “viral” on social media, the single is a much more easily digestible and obtainable format for popular music nowadays, putting the album in danger of becoming a lost art. But from the very obscure to the decidedly mainstream, every record on this list would be here to prove me wrong.
The final days of 2016 are upon us, and that can only mean one thing – it’s time for some long lists that try (perhaps in vain) to sum up the best music I was listening to this year. As always, I’ll start with the individual songs that stood out to me the most. The in-depth reasons why I love these songs so much are mostly spelled out in the album reviews I’ve linked to from here, but in addition to the usual video evidence, I’ve also included a quick blurb for each of the Top 30 entries, just to keep it from being a long list with no explanation whatsoever, I guess.
I’ve also made a Spotify playlist that collects a lot of these highlights, if you’d like to spend a few hours following along. (That one’s ordered more as I discovered the songs, not so much how I’d rank them now, and it’s limited to one track per artist.)
Artist: Andrew Bird Album: Are You Serious Year: 2016 Grade: B
In Brief: While Bird’s unique blend of violin, guitar, whistling, and live looping still has a tendency to hint at brilliance more often than he actually demonstrates it, the solid string of performances at the front of this album and the intriguing songwriting throughout remind me why he’s continued to pique my curiosity for over 10 years now.
There’s a lot of war, betrayal, decay, and destruction that plays out over the course of these two discs. You wouldn’t guess it right away from a lot of the up-tempo song selections, nor from the downright worshipful songs that bookend the set, and certainly not from the lovely scenery taken from a few of my favorite hikes that got chosen for the the cover art. This didn’t come from some weird place of turmoil in my own life – either it was a reflection on conflicts going on in the world at the time, or else I just sort of realize a theme was pulling itself together in the individual songs I was enjoying around that time, and I put them together in such a way that it really emphasized the common thread between a lot of them. There’s also some weird stuff about astronauts and aliens here and there… and a few songs that were chosen to commemorate an unusually warm Southern California spring. So it’s not all dark clouds and disasters and bullets and bombs and blood. But yeah… I guess it’s mostly that.
In with the New:
The Reign of Kindo
Sara Watkins (as a solo artist – appears previously with Nickel Creek)
Out with the Old:
Joseph Arthur & the Lonely Astronauts