Rather than cook up another introduction to this — my list of my favorite recordings of 2019 — I’ll point you to two things you might want to read first:

The introduction to my 2019 in Review here:

My 2019 in Review: An Introduction

… And the first part of my celebration of the music of 2019 — a trip through the Honorable Mentions:

Favorite Recordings of 2019: Honorable Mentions

Are you all caught up now?

Okay…

I will share two important re-releases here, and then my top 25 new-release recommendations.


BLASTS FROM THE PAST

The Beatles

Abbey Road (2019 Mix)

As with last year’s Giles Martin remix of The Beatles’ The White Album. my favorite listening experience of 2019 was Martin’s spectacular remix of Abbey Road. Where The White Album was already my favorite Beatles album, Abbey Road had never made much of an impression on me. That changed this year when I heard layers of sound, clarity, and energy that I’d never perceived before. Ask you friends and neighbors until you find the best possible stereo, and then crank this up. You won’t regret it.

Here’s NPR’s Bob Boilen talking with Giles Martin about the production:

Briane Eno

Apollo — Atmospheres and Soundtracks — Extended Edition

Another remastering from 2019 that provided beautiful and mysterious soundtracks for my creative writing classes, Brian Eno’s Apollo — Atmospheres and Soundtracks — Extended Edition was a major highlight.

Now, let’s focus on music that was entirely new in 2019.


25.

Our Native Daughters

Songs of Our Native Daughters

No record I heard this year is more necessary than this one. Where banjo playing has typically been a man’s show in American history, here it’s taken up by not one but four women of color: Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Allison Russell and Leyla McCalla. But that’s just the beginning of this record’s distinctiveness. Read the liner notes, especially Rhiannon Giddens’ vision for the project:

There is surely racism in this country — it’s baked into our oldest institutions — just as there is sexism, millennia old. At the intersection of the two stands the African American woman. Used, abused, ignored and scorned, she has in the face of these things been unbelievably brave, groundbreaking and insistent. Black women have historically had the most to lose, and have therefore been the fiercest fighters for justice — in large, public ways that are only beginning to be highlighted, and in countless domestic ways that will most likely never be acknowledged.

The music, then, puts the spotlight on America’s shame — and not only America’s shame, but the shame of professing Christians specifically. As Kiah sings in “Black Myself,” challenging the vocabularies of white Christian slaveholders, “Is you warshed in the blood of your chattel? ‘Cause the lamb’s rotted away.” During a year when so many white Christians — American, European, otherwise — seemed more than willing to throw the Gospel aside for the sake of gaining political power and advancing a white supremacist vision, songs like this sound like foreshadowing of a pending judgment, a verdict from a truer and higher ground.

The sounds on Songs of Our Native Daughters may sound like something drawn up from the Smithsonian archives, but their moral vision and righteous anger is all about the here and now.


24.

Angel Olsen

All Mirrors

Angel Olsen’s All Mirrors had one of the more interesting backstories about its development and how Olsen arrived at such a lush and complex production, one of the more spectacular aural experiences of the year, whether you hear it on headphones or speakers.

Here’s Bob Boilen’s NPR interview with Angel Olsen and producer John Congleton:


23.

Wand

Laughing Matter

In a year when the closest thing to a great Radiohead record as a Thom Yorke album, Wand delivered the strongest and most ambitious art-rock musicianship. The complexity of their polyrhythms, the grace of their melodies, the confidence in their performance, and the patience they demonstrate in letting songs evolve and change — they have a lot of the characteristics of my favorite bands. Laughing Matter is a couple of tracks too long, in my opinion, and the focus, complexity, and inspiration of the record’s first half isn’t sustained in the second. But those first few songs are well worth the price of the record, and I’ll be blasting them in the car for a long time to come. The promise I hear in this record makes me even more excited about whatever Wand does next.


22.

Pedro the Lion

Phoenix

After so many other musical endeavors and manifestations, David Bazan’s return to a band — and, specifically, to a band called Pedro the Lion — represents an important step in his evolution as an artist. He seems to have realized that all of those different costumes were just stages in the growth of one vision, and that he can be at peace with who he is and where his rocky path has taken him. His famed falling out with Christianity has led him to an ever-intensifying reckoning with the nature of sin, conscience, truth, love, and grace. He may have cast off the vocabulary of the church, and he may have given up any formal embrace of the Gospel’s narrative, but the causes and motivations of his choices remind me a lot of what Simone Weill once wrote: “… [O]ne can never wrestle enough with God if one does so out of pure regard for the truth. Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.”

Phoenix is a reassertion of a persona and a purpose. More importantly, it feels like the first album from Bazan in a long time that I would call celebratory and even joyful. At times, his trajectory suggested that the rest of his career would be an extension of a contentious argument — a lament. Here, he seems exhilarated, excited, and at times maybe even having fun.


21.

Said the Whale

Cascadia

And speaking of bands that know how to have fun: Said the Whale drew sounds from Spoon, The Replacements, and even The Knack (“My Sharona”) to cook up the most blissfully joyous pop-rock album I heard all year. Listen to “Record Shop,” “UnAmerican,” and “Cascadia” and then try to get those hooks out of your brain’s music app. And then, right in the middle of it, they dropped a fierce anthem “about being a man in 2018 and the importance of listening to women.”


18., 19., 20. (three-way tie)

Okay, I’m cheating: Three albums are tied for #20.

Here are three albums by dynamic duos — Conor Oberst, Buddy Miller, and Daniel Levi Goans pair off with Phoebe Bridgers, Julie Miller (of course), and Lauren Goans (of course). And I can’t tell you which record I like better, which represents a stronger work of songwriting and performance, or which duo is a match made in a higher heaven. You tell me. Make an argument.

Better Oblivion Community Center

Better Oblivion Community Center

Lowland Hum

Glyphonic

Buddy and Julie Miller

Breakdown on 2oth Avenue South

 


17.

Thom Yorke

Anima

I needed a dose of Radiohead in 2019 to give me a way to sing about the end of the world. But then, Hail to the Thief plays like it was written about what’s happening right here, right now. So instead, I’ll take this much more personal, devotional, and meditative record from Thom Yorke, which comes with a Netflix movie that stands with the most exciting and affecting cinema I saw all year.


16.

Lankum

The Livelong Day

As solid as as time-tested as the stone on the album cover, Lankum’s The Livelong Day doesn’t feel so much like a new rock-and-roll revelation as it does our discovery of something that has been there for more than a century.


15.

T Bone Burnett, Jay Bellerose, Keefus Ciancia

The Invisible Light: Acoustic Space

This is the strangest and most furious record of T Bone Burnett’s career, which is saying something. And he builds it in the middle of a hurricane of percussion that only Jay Bellerose could stir up. In “To Beat the Devil,” his spoken-word delivery channels the voice of a Great Deceiver who will seem familiar to those with ears to hear:

“I’ll tell you what you want to hear…

I’ll play upon your darkest fear…

then I’ll take what I want from you…”

And then he shifts to lines advising us in how to respond and how to maintain hope:

To beat the devil you must go deep as he stays shallow…

To beat the devil you must not be part of the dissonance…

Nothing that he does will last…

Listening to this, you’ll find it sounds like someone has tapped into a fury — specifically, the fury felt by those who believe that the 2016 election was a sledgehammer smashing the very foundations of democracy and justice in America. But it’s not nearly as narrow as that: It’s a timeless description, applicable to any Antichrist. And it has to be heard to be believed.


14.

Kate Tempest

The Book of Traps and Lessons

Just listen, Israel, to the prophet in sackcloth and ashes at the ages of the city. She is speaking with the voice of the Holy Spirit. She is a human heart exposed and beating, calling us out and confessing her love to the end of the world. I’m so moved by this record that when I’m listening to it, I’ll probably tell you that while it might be the best record of 2019, it’s definitely the most potent, detailed, and personal response to 2019 I heard all year.


13.

Andrew Bird

My Finest Work Yet

Joking aside, it just might be.

It’s prophetic. Poetic. Biblical. Haunting. And beautiful.


12.

J. S. Ondara

Tales of America

It seems right that the most singular new voice on the big American stage in 2019 came from an artist born in Nairobi. J.S. Ondara’s. Tales of America feels like a solid cornerstone on which he can build a body of work that will stand as a pillar of timeless American music.

 


11.

(I’m treating two albums as one here. Deal with it.)

Big Thief

Two Hands

and

U.F.O.F.

In the biggest flex of the rock-and-roll year, Big Thief followed up their promising 2017 record Capacity with not one but two tremendous records. I refuse to pick a favorite. It feels like the first and second part of a show that establishes them as one of the most vital, original, and gifted bands in music today. Best of all, it reveals a group more interested in mystery and discovery than popularity; these lyrics are unsettling in their raw honesty and intriguing ambiguity.

The new generation of rock headliners seems to be a generation intent upon leaving no identity unquestioned, no vocabulary unchallenged, no hierarchy unprotested. With “Not,” Big Thief has given us an anthem for seekers who refuse to ever declare that they’ve “found it.” For them, uncertainty is the only certainty. And that sounds like an invitation to hope and faith in the midst of disappointments. I’m sure that would sound too cliché for them and their fans, but the beauty in their music feels to me like affirmation of something meaningful — another language for love, mercy, hope in the midst of hurt, betrayal, failure, and trouble.


10.

Michael Kiwanuka

Kiwanuka

Like wonders drawn from a time mid-’70s time capsule refashioned into something vital and contemporary, Kiwanuka is both soulful and celebratory. If Marvin Gaye was working today, I suspect he’d sound something like this.


9.

Hand Habits

Placeholder

One of my favorite discoveries of the year. While I think their band name is terrible (somebody explain it to me so I understand), I think their lyrics are rich and rewardijng, and their sound is subtly compelling. The emphasis on grace and forgiveness woven through these songs kept me coming back for more during days full of provocation toward anger and retaliation.


8.

Sharon Van Etten

Remind Me Tomorrow

I’m not sure any artist I’ve admired over many years made as substantial a stylistic leap forward as Sharon Van Etten did this year. This record is the sonic equivalent of a fourth-of-July fireworks show, but it isn’t just flash and dazzle; it’s deeply rooted in Van Etten’s personal experiences of deepening wisdom in matters of motherhood and mercy.

 


7.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Ghosteen

It would have been naive to assume that Nick Cave’s previous album The Skeleton Tree was the only work of art he would make from the rage and the grief of losing his young son Arthur. Ghosteen delves into even more fantastical imagery, and even more explicitly Christian imagery, in search of a vocabulary for hurt he feels and the consolation he seeks. In a time when so much of my own life’s foundation is crumbling into ruins — the American church, America itself — I find this journey of heartbreak from the failures of human endeavor into a transcendent hope not only necessary but comforting.


6.

Over the Rhine

Love & Revelation

As is usually the case, Over the Rhine made the 2019 record that feels most personal to me. I love exploring the vast geography of music, but the artists whose country I call home is a region of overlapping properties cultivated by Linford Deteweiler and Karin Bergquist (along with a few others: Sam Phillips, Bruce Cockburn, Joe Henry). To read the net of words I cast into the water in hopes of catching something resembling my thoughts and feelings about this record, read this testimony.


5.

Elbow

Giants of All Sizes

Elbow is a band working at the level of U2, Radiohead, and R.E.M., writing about the dreadful here and troubling now, with vision and humility and power, all the while giving us the sense that their best work might still be ahead of them.

 


4. and 3.

Joe Henry

The Gospel According to Water

Patty Griffin

Patty Griffin

So many albums released this year are expressions of loss, lament, resilience, and hope — but two of the most substantial are expressions that come directly from the artists who have were plunged this year into the valley of the shadow of death and have been, for now, lifted back out of it.

Joe Henry’s The Gospel According to Water is, for me, the more substantial work of lyrical poetry — these are songs written by a man strengthened by countless hours of attention to poetry (note the mention of Jane Hirshfield in the acknowledgments), and sobered by a cancer diagnosis that served initially as a death sentence. By God’s grace evident through the work of doctors, friends, family, and Henry’s own humble and spirited response, that sentence was lifted, and his cancer is in remission. But these songs demonstrate an increase in his powers: While they do not expand substantially on his musical style — if you’ve heard his last few records, you know the palette of colors with which he paints — the lyrics show an ever-lightening touch, a trust in the power of suggestion, an inclination toward nature (where past records had delved deep into historical and cultural references), and a prioritization of meditation over crowdpleasing. (There aren’t any tracks here hashtagged as “Hit Single.”) As Henry told The New York Times, “I write a lot of things that I can’t explain but I know them to be right.”

In responding to the potential collapse of his body by a restorative work of imagination, Henry’s album provides a path by which all of us worrying over other potential collapses — of health, of employment, of family, of country, of ecosystem — might imagine our way forward. “I process anything significant in my life by writing,” he told Billboard‘s Daniel Ouellette. “I write to learn, to understand, to discover. When the shoe dropped last November, my beloved wife said that there are a lot of support groups. But that’s not how I processed what I was going through. I needed to write to get through the darkest days. I could have easily coiled up on the floor and accepted that the walls were closing in on me, but as soon as I began to write, I found new access to my own imagination, and I could imagine my way to the other side of the forest — and I did.”

Patty Griffin’s is, when I look at the two artist’s landscapes, the one that feels more like a career peak — a revolution of sound by the stripping away of anything decorative so that what we get is the rawest and truest expression of her strengths as an artist, and an exhilarating expansion of her powers. That’s not to say it’s better than Henry’s records — that would be a pointless comparison. What I mean is that Henry’s record feels like a chapter in a masterpiece of poetry that he is still composing. Griffin’s record feels like a standalone work, a break from what she’s done in the past, a metamorphosis.

Griffin, too, was in cancer treatment as she wrote these songs. Instead of writing directly about her crisis, she finds poetic correlatives by diving into deep reservoirs of storytelling, by engaging in inspiring works of portraiture, and by drawing from rivers of folk music and folklore — American and otherwise. As NPR’s Jewly Hight writes,

Moving easily between idioms — tragic Scots-Irish balladry; gospel-blues repetition; earthy, narrative detail; dreamily poetic imagery — she teases out the album’s subtle, animating tension. There’s such a light, sympathetic touch to her accompaniment that the arrangements feel like they sprout from the moods she sets. And the homey production, achieved with the help of her longtime collaborator and multi-instrumentalist Craig Ross, at least partly stems from the fact that they recorded at her house in Austin.

It’s a self-title record, and that feels right. But it could just as well have been the question-refrain of my favorite track: Isn’t She a River?


2.

Luxury

Trophies

If you pitched a fictional narrative that followed this story arc, it would seem too unlikely:

A punk band forms in the midst of small conservative Christian college community, made up of guys…

– who have no interest in “Christian music”;

– who want to follow in the footsteps of The Smiths or Depeche Mode; and

– whose sound is ferocious and groundbreaking, and whose live shows have rock authorities hailing them as the best live show they’d ever seen.

The subversive and challenging lyrics, the gender fluidity of their lead singer’s stage presence and writing, the energy (that’s an understatement) have all of the hallmarks of punk rock legends.

But then, they sign a questionable record deal. And then… an unbelievable car accident that nearly kills them all.

And then… and then… and then… The story of Luxury gets weirder, sadder, stranger. And then, eventually, as if this were either the purpose of the suffering or else a final attempt to make meaning out of chaos, some of them become Orthodox priests.

Here’s the amazing thing: The band keeps going. And improving.

It’s an amazing story. And Matt Hinton, who made an extraordinary documentary about the tradition of sacred harp music called Awake My Soul a decade ago, has crafted a loving, challenging, complicated celebration of this band’s resilience, imagination, and talent: Parallel Love: The Story of a Band Called Luxury.

It’s one of those documentaries in which the story needs to be told via many “talking-head” interviews; it’s too much story to accommodate anything more abstract or poetic. The story and the people are the thing, here, and Hinton is wise to go that route. The goal of the movie is not to advertise and make you a fan, as the story makes it clear that this narrative is not going in the direction of myth-making or world-conquering. The heart of this movie is full of questions and conflicts, and you will be talking about it after you watch it, as I did with friends for hours.

And yet, I’m wondering: As a rock-loving young adult in the late ’90s, how did I miss this band? I feel like I missed out on music that would have been inspirational, exhilarating, and ultimately formative.

I know what you’re probably thinking: A band can have a great backstory. They can even have documentaries made about them. That doesn’t make their music great. Right?

Right. But that’s what I’m here to tell you: the music is great. They really were that good. They are even better now.

Long live Luxury.

 


1.

Rhiannon Giddens

there is no Other

Produced by Joe Henry, there is no Other is Rhiannon Giddens’ finest record yet, and one of two outstanding releases from her in 2019 (if you count Songs of Our Native Daughters). It’s also the album I played most often — for the awakening of conscience; for the necessary work of lament; for the instrumentals that reach beyond our feeble vocabularies; for “Wayfaring Stranger” and how it spans traditions and generations with its everyman testimony; for the resilience in its expressions of hope; for consolation.

Giddens’ voice is a national treasure, and her musicianship is outstanding. Henry captures her chemistry with Francesco Turrisi beautifully.

It’s ridiculous, this process of listing albums when they’re all so distinctly interesting and engaging. It’s similarly ridiculous to select particular tracks from an album like this when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. So take these as breadcrumbs that lead you to rich experience of the album, one with which I hope you find a meaningful relationship, as I am doing now.

The originals are outstanding. Try “Black Swan” or the album’s gospel closer.

And when they take on a timeless classic, their performance is, in this listener’s opinion, as definitive as it gets.

But in a time when the fires of racism are fanned by the President, by Republicans in Congress, and by racist police officers across the country, songs like this are necessary occasions for those of us who care to sustain the greatest ideals of this failing American experiment: a land of liberty and justice for all.

Privacy Preference Center

Pin It on Pinterest

Shares
Share This