As far as years to end decades on, you could do worse than 2019. You could do better, of course; both 1969 and 1989 were world-shakers when it came to music (among everything else). But it’s not like 2019 was 2009, when the best album came out in January and everything else was just sort of okay after that. It wasn’t 1999 either, when we were mired in nu-metal and rap-rock, hip hop was still stuck in it’s Gucci-vacation mode, and jazz was still something for old people to tap their toes to while they were waiting on the final heart attack. That year gave us Woodstock ’99, and the less said of that the better.
Rock ‘n’ roll didn’t fare very well throughout the decade, depending on your perspective. A lot of it’s best moments were pretty underground; mainstream rock is a horrorshow that can be best encapsulated in that Billboard chart of the best rock songs of the decade that has numbers one through three occupied by Imagine Dragons. Hip hop, though, has progressed rapidly and weirdly through a strong experimental phase, the haters be damned. The comeback of jazz is in many ways the story of music in the teens, or the tens, or whatever we’re calling this past decade. There will be a number of entries in these three categories and more on this list, of course, but it’s good to take these final entries and use them to take stock of where we’ve been. For many artists, taking the decade challenge is extremely instructive, especially for the one sitting at the #1 spot this year. This is true of many of the artists in the top 20, several of whom were forging names for themselves in the underground in 2009, and others who were at a career crossroads back then.
A decade-ending list will be forthcoming at some point when I actually get the time to do it, but without any further ado, here’s my hundred favourite albums of 2019.
#100: Slowthai – Nothing Great About Britain
The grime of growing up on council estates, the populist hypocrisy of modern politics, the sense of living in a country whose best days are decades – if not centuries – behind it. As the Union Jack sinks into a mire of isolation and poverty, expect more of this kind of thing.
#99: Charly Bliss – Young Enough
The 21st Century has seen a glut of female-led power pop bands, and while there’s a certain minimum quality for all of them they’re rarely as viscerally feel-good as Charly Bliss.
#98: Bill Callahan – Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest
The former Smog songwriter trades in warm, smoky folk with an apocalyptic overtone, and Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest is no different in that regard. What is different is the streak of intimacy that runs through this record; perhaps, finally, Bill Callahan is learning to open up to the possibilities of love.
#97: The Flaming Lips – The King’s Mouth: Music And Songs
After a solid decade or so of digging further and further into experimental weirdness, the OKC psych legends emerge back out into the surface world with a collection of sounds that haven’t been this fully articulated since the band last went to war with the mystics. The lyrics aren’t completely up to past efforts but on the other hand Mick Jones is all over the place providing narration, so it comes out clean in the wash.
#96: Lingua Ignota – Caligula
Kristen Hayter has made a (still young) career out of taking in lived aspects of misogyny and domestic abuse and turning them into powerful statements of industrial-noise art. People often spout the cliche that the best art comes from horrible circumstances, but very few actually walk that.
#95: Carly Rae Jepsen – Dedicated
Four albums and one massive, ubiquitous single in and it’s becoming increasingly clear that, while Eighties revivalism has been all the rage for ten years now, no one really GETS the spirit of Eighties pop songcraft quite like Carly Rae Jepsen does.
#94: Sunn O))) – Life Metal
Sunn O))) – a band that is more of a weird aural cult than it is a band – has always taken the idea of sludge metal to absolute extremes. Life Metal, though, is the first album recorded in analog, and it’s the first album they’ve done where Steve Albini is manning the boards. I’m actually not sure if that makes it heavier, to be honest. I’m not sure if you could really tell. Maybe if you put it on big speakers in a cathedral and just crank it. Of course, Albini also did Yanqui UXO and Life Metal is a better record than that, so…
#93: Uboa – The Origin of My Depression
Ambient, horrifying, a solid entry in the “bands wanting to be Nurse With Wound” subgenre. It’s driven by the tension and unsettling struggles of creator Xandra Metcalfe with her transgender identity, and the choice of stretched-out doom metal as a skeletal framework for her ideas fits the mood perfectly.
#92: Maja S. K. Ratkje – Sult
An experimental modern composer in a country where they still value that sort of thing, Maja Ratkje has done a bit of everything from chamber music to opera to film soundtracks to solo soundscapes. Sult is an ambient fever-dream, the soundtrack to a sweet interlude in a plague-soaked hellscape in the final days of the human experience.
#91: Purple Mountains – Purple Mountains
When it came out I was fairly middling on the project. It was nice to hear David Berman return to music a decade after he dropped it to commit himself full-time to owning his defense-contractor father politically, but there wasn’t anything that particularly recaptured the magic of early Silver Jews records. Then he killed himself and subsequent listens cemented the uncomfortable fact that Purple Mountains is Berman’s suicide note, and that it’s fully meant as such. When Bowie did Blackstar there was a slyness to it, an admission that the artist fully well knew he was dying and went out with a wink and a nod. Purple Mountains is much more straight-forward than that; not as straight-forward as Phil Elverum’s “I am drowning in loss and grief and this is not a metaphor” opus A Crow Looked At Me, but still not played for sad, knowing laughter and wistful regret.
#90: Andrew Bird – My Finest Work Yet
Sometimes Andrew Bird gets lost in his own cleverness, but thankfully My Finest Work Yet is not one of those times. When I worked in Toronto I remember having Sirius XMU on and some DJ or another declared “the kids really love Andrew Bird” (this is Mysterious Production of Eggs era, for those keeping track) and while that was untrue then and now this is probably the album that comes closest to that era. There’s less art-pop flourish and more swing, like he remembered that Seventies-era soul was a thing.
#89: The Comet Is Coming – Trust In The Lifeforce Of The Deep Mystery
The comeback of jazz has been one of the more delightful outcomes of the first fifth of the 21st Century, with the comeback of psychedelic rock comprising another delightful outcome. Which, I guess, means that it’s time for fusion to come back, albeit in a more exiciting form and oh look, here it is. If you’ve ever wanted neo-pysch fused with weirdo London neo-jazz, well, there you are.
#88: Holly Herndon – Proto
Originally hailing from the mountains of Tennessee and existing on the cutting edge of electronic production and avant-garde pop, Holly Herndon mixes human voices with AI voices and dares you to tell the difference. Also has a PhD in political science from Stanford, which is nice.
#87: Fennesz – Agora
00s ambient darling Fennesz returned for his first solo outing in five years, with a solid collection of soundscapes that reveal paranoid new parts of your mind every time you listen.
#86: Townes Van Zandt – Sky Blue
The Great Lost Songwriter died far too young, at the age of 52, on a New Years Day that was the culmination of a lifetime spent mired in heroin, alcohol, and poverty. During his most prolific period he lived in a shack without electricity and toured a series of dive bars across America; this despite the fact that he had been born into oil money and retained a share in his family’s resource wealth throughout his life. His songs have been recorded by damn near everyone, including Emmylou Harris, Bob Dylan, Steve Earle, Jason Isbell, and Counting Crows. You might have heard “Pancho and Lefty” at some point, since Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard rode it to the top in 1983. Sky Blue is an album of lost demos, skeletal folk songs that would later find their way onto released albums, or covers that Van Zandt had always been particularly fond of. It was recorded in 1973 in Georgia, during one of Van Zandt’s interminable wanders; the whole thing was done in the home studio of journalist Bill Hedgespeth, and the intimacy serves every single song exceedingly well.
#85: The Claypool Lennon Delirium – South Of Reality
Yes, it’s Les Claypool from Primus and Sean Lennon. No, it’s not a gimmick. Yes, it does sound weirdly like John Lennon fronting a psychedelic prog band from the lost acid-soaked late Sixties. No, it shouldn’t work. Yes, it does.
#84: Gary Clark, Jr. – This Land
There’s a certain canon of songs that gets ingrained into children’s heads from a very young age and we rarely if ever stop to consider them critically. One of these is “This Land Is Your Land” and it was written by a man named Woodie Guthrie who, if you didn’t already know, was an avowed socialist who emblazoned his acoustic guitar with the phrase “This Machine Kills Fascists.” After the 2016 election, Austin, TX blues guitarist Gary, Clark Jr. took up the inherent question embedded in that song – IS this land my land? – and over the course of an album that melds every American genre together into a rich melting pot answers defiantly that yes, this land was made for all of us, and furthermore that if you think otherwise you can fuck yourself.
#83: Tim Hecker – Anoyo
Tim Hecker functions at his best when his ambient ideas have a constraint – consider it a series of challenges. His best album, 2011’s Ravedeath, 1972, could be considered the “Dropping a piano off the roof challenge.” Anoyo, like last year’s Konoyo, is the “Gagaku challenge.” Gagaku is the music traditional to the Japanese imperial court; Hecker recorded both Konoyo and Anoyo with Gagaku musicians. Konoyo was about the physical world, there here and now. Anoyo is about the spirit world – the world “over there.” As such, Anoyo is much more subdued than its counterpart, more entranced with the moments between the notes, the sweeping stretches of time where the notes hang and linger.
#82: Beirut – Gallipoli
Beirut has long established themselves as a band with a distinct style, and Gallipoli is the peak of that sound, with the title track being the peak of the album. If you like languid, flamboyant indie rock with a penchant for bullfigher horns, here you go. This is the pinnacle of what you’ve been looking for.
#81: Matana Roberts – Coin Coin Chapter Four: Memphis
Saxophonist, artist, composer, and all-around cool-ass person Matana Roberts has worked with a lot of people in the past, including Deerhoof, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Thee Silver Mount Zion and TV On The Radio. Coin Coin is an ongoing cycle of performances now on it’s fourth chapter, a heady collection of vibrant, fierce jazz moves and spoken word passages that utilizes an impressive range of musicians and instruments.