Welcome to the penultimate section of the Top 100 list! We’re looking at nothing but A-grade material from here on out, folks. Before we dig into the next 20 albums I’ve chosen to highlight, let’s talk about what genres are represented on this list.
Admittedly the concept of “genre” is a tricky thing to define, and I’ve played fast and loose with it as I’ve reviewed albums over the years, sometimes not applying genre tags consistently to the same artist making more or less the same style from one album to the next. or they’ve undergone a radical change in their sound, and yet I still consider them part of the old genre in my mind because they’re still associated with that scene. It’s more of an art than a science, and often the records that excite me most will dabble in a wide array of genre influences, making an accurate descriptor for their sound as a whole rather difficult to nail down.
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.
This is the list I look forward to writing the most each year, and yet that I seem to always agonize over until New Year’s Eve arrives and I have to click the “Publish” button and freeze these opinions in time. Coming up with a good, solid list of album recommendations at the end of every year seems to be a harder and harder task as time goes by, owing to a lot of artists seeming to lose interest in the album format, perhaps putting out excellent singles or EPs, but with the full-length LP becoming almost an afterthought. Even some of the top entries here were records I got to know at least half of as pre-release singles, or as a collection of EPs, before the full listening experience was made available, and thus I regard them more as strong compilations of songs from the latest phase of an artist’s career rather than as cohesive “albums” in the traditional sense. Still, a few holdouts are doing great things with the LP format, making a case for why it’s worth roughly 40 to 60 minutes of a listener’s time to take in a collection of songs in the order presented. I think that’s an art form that is still worth pursuing, even if the state of the music industry makes it an uphill battle to keep doing so.
First on my to-do list as the year comes to a close is to list the individual songs that inspired and entertained me the most in 2018. Some of these may have come out in 2017, or in a few extreme cases, as singles in 2016 that didn’t make it onto an actual album release until more recently. Either way, it was all new to me this year, or else I heard it in late 2017 and I had a belated reaction to it. Explanations and video/audio links are given for the Top 30 – for the rest, if you’re curious, just click the review links where provided to learn more.
As always, many of these songs (limit one per artist) are collected in my 2018 in a Nutshell playlist over on Spotify.
Here are my first impressions of the latest releases from Rosanne Cash, The Lone Bellow, Muse, Crowder, Fleet Foxes, Esperanza Spalding, Mumford & Sons, P.O.D., Chvrches, Kevin Max, and My Brightest Diamond.
There are certain bands whose recorded material I’m absolutely over the moon for, and yet who I feel hesitant about seeing live. Chvrches was one of those bands, right up until a friend decided to get tickets to their Love Is Dead tour when it rolled through Los Angeles. They are absolute wizards of synthpop in the studio, and all three members of the band are capable of playing multiple instruments. Yet when a band plays a style of music that is sufficiently programmed, I often wonder if it’s worth showing up just to watch them press buttons on laptops. As it turns out, that’s not at all a fair characterization of Chvrches’ live shows, where really all that comes pre-recorded is the background effects and loops – the synths, bass, whatever guitar parts their songs might occasionally feature, and most obviously the vocals, are all performed live. For their latest tour, they’ve also added a live drummer. This type of music can get me really excited when delivered with a sufficient amount of live energy, and I should have known better than to doubt Chvrches in this regard. Their three studio albums thus far have been about as close to uniformly excellent as the discography of any band in my collection, so of course their setlist was going to be packed with wall-to-wall favorites, almost no matter what they chose to play. This might have been a little more expensive of a show, with a slightly bigger crowd, than I’m used to when I go to concerts these days, but at no point in the evening did I doubt that this would be 100% worth it.
Artist: Chvrches Album: Love Is Dead Year: 2018 Grade: A-
In Brief: For a band that had such a fully realized synthpop sound from the get-go, it makes sense that change should come only in small increments. Chvrches once again keeps what works for them intact, and while there are a few small surprises in the song structures and instrumentation, the bigger surprise on Love Is Dead is how hard a lot of the lyrics hit. Without being preachy or overtly political, the trio clearly feels a responsibility to address the turbulent times we’re all living in. It’s refreshing and vital, and ultimately that’s what makes this record yet another home run for Chvrches.