It’s my favorite time of the year, Listmas! (Listunakkah doesn’t work, does it?)
2019 was another incredible year for music. In this age of streaming services, it feels like there’s a new major release almost every Friday and I try to keep up with whats going on, downloading and listening to a LOT of new music. The albums that I come back to most often are the ones on the list below. They are all testaments to the spectacular state of music right now.
#10 – Toro y Moi – Outer Peace
I’ve been a casual fan of Toro y Moi over the last few years so it was actually a surprise to me how much I gravitated towards this album, which is firmly in the indie-electronic vein, not usually my wheelhouse. But there’s something loose and interesting about these short songs. My favorite is probably “New House” where he sings “I want a brand new house \ something i can not buy \ something i can’t afford,” it makes me smile. But it was the song “Freelance” that prompted me to grab this album and I kept going back to it because it so perfectly captures the vibe of this year.
#9 – The Flaming Lips – King’s Mouth
The term “concept album” gets thrown out a little too much in my opinion, but with King’s Mouth, uber-productive and decade-spanning pysch rock band The Flaming Lips, have created an album that actually tells a story, and a rather compelling and fascinating one. Buoyed by narration from Mick Jones of The Clash, the album tells the story of the life, and death, of a Giant King of a far away city. The music finds the band curiously restrained, especially after their last few albums, the gloriously massive Embryonic, the post-rockesque The Terror, and whatever the hell Heady Friends was, King’s Mouth is at times almost pop, like in the catchy “How Many Times” or the wonderful momentum building structure of “The Sparrow.” I found this album so inspiring, I started blogging again in this space to highlight the pure joy I felt when listening to it for the first few times. Here is that post.
#8 – Andrew Bird – My Finest Work Yet
I’ve followed the career of multi-talented journeyman, Andrew Bird, for over a decade now. He’s prolific, releasing an album every other year (plus holiday EP’s), so just in the last few years he’s put out a lot of work. Those songs have vacillated between more commercial-minded rock and more esoteric songs with weird structures. I tend to prefer Bird at his more loquacious. His latest album is a happy medium between those two styles and contains some of his best work in years. In songs like “Bloodless,” he references the volatile political situation in the current US, a stark departure for an artist who rarely seems to be of this world. References to Greek mythology (“Sisyphus”, “Olympians”) are definitely more his style. This record also tends to be less morose and more upbeat like in the soaring “Fallorun.” For those unfamiliar with this incredible artist, this album can be a great starting off point.
#7 – Caroline Palochek – Pang
Taking up the HAIM slot for this list is the enigmatic Caroline Palochek, former voice of underrated indie pop band Charlift, who broke up a few years back. Caroline has released a few solo records, but never with her own name, so this one feels like a dramatic new start for her career. And what a start it is! The album is firmly pop, but with a kind of epic scale, the 14+ track list alone makes that clear from the start. There’s also a clear arc to the album, starting off maudlin, getting grander towards the middle, and straight-up dance music at the end. Highlights include “I Give Up”, “Ocean of Tears” and “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings.” Caroline has a very unique and powerful voice, but the trick is using it in a way that’s not repetitive and leans on her strengths when needed. Which I think this album does. Her voice does most of the heavy lifting here, but there’s some expert production here that elevates the material. Looking forward to more from her in the future.
#6 – Mountain Goats – In League With Dragons
As I stated in my long form review, this album was an early favorite of the year (it came out in late April) and has remained a stalwart survivor in my yearly Hunger Games-style battle of the albums. Inspired by Dungeons and Dragons, this is an album that’s impossible to classify. Yes, it may forever be known as “the Dragon album” in the Mountain Goats’ long and excellent discography, but it’s more than a gimmick or even a single story arc. This is an album that feels like it should have taken Mountain Goats leader and former one-man-show, John Darnelle, years to make: a “partial rock opera” as it’s been referred to, fully embracing that dramatic bend to his music. After coming from humble and lo-fi beginnings, this band is just a completely different beast than it used to be. And this glorious, uplifting, terrifying, otherworldly album is proof that they still have it.
#5 – Bon Iver – i,i
There are some breathtaking moments on Bon Iver’s epic fourth album: the breakdown midway through the early standout, “iMi”, the soft pleading tone in “Hey Ma” when Justin sings “let me talk to her, ma” or the ending cacophony to “Naeem.” String those moments together, plus some genuinely awesome songs in “Faith” and “Salem”, among others, and you might wonder why this album is only ranked fifth in this list. Their last album, the mysterious 22, A Million, was my favorite album of 2016. As I tried to capture in my writeup of the album a few months ago, the parts do not elevate the sum. There’s just too much noise on this record (and not in the good way). Songs that should be 30-60 second segways linger for minutes. Other songs are too short and kind of meld together to create a confusing jumble. And the album ends with a meandering couple of songs that don’t really gel with the rest of the album. Justin Vernon obviously spread his musical net wide with this album, bringing in other singers, multiple producers and created a very modern-style collaborative piece of art. Unfortunately, though, it lacks the cohesion present in previous Bon Iver records.
#4 – Thom Yorke – ANIMA
I’ve been a member of W.A.S.T.E. (Radiohead’s official fan club) for more than half of my life, but Thom Yorke’s solo work never really connected with me. Until the release of this year’s ANIMA, a stark and futuristic album, evoking a lot of modern Radiohead sensibilities, while being distinctly personal. Many artists wear their hearts on their sleeves, but in the case of Thom Yorke, who often turns cliche phrases into loner anthems, he always seemed to leave a part of his soul in each of Radiohead’s many songs. Well, he’s got a lot of soul to play with, because this album is full of the kind of bleeding heart emotion we expect from Thom, whether it’s in the yearning tilt to his voice in “Last I Heard.. (He Was Circling The Drain)”, the robotic monotone to the brilliant Boards Of Canada-inspired “Twist”, or the grinning bad boy persona on “I Am Very Rude Person.” At nine tracks, the album is short and sweet, never seems fluffed or over indulgent. It’s damn near perfect.
#3 – DIIV – Deceiver
There’s a moment midway through the first song on the third album by NYC-based rockers, DIIV, where the music chills out for a moment, leaving only a single guitar line and the lead singer’s whispers, then the song ramps up again into a Mogwai-esque post rock explosion. It’s a heavy moment for a band that hasn’t been known for that kind of sound since they burst onto the scene with their excellent debut album, Oshen. It exemplifies the emotional toll the last few years have had on lead singer, Zachary Cole Smith, and his band, as they dealt with his widely publicized drug abuse and rehab. I was dubious, at first, about starting an album with a song with so much baggage. It was the equivalent of killing off your main character in the first chapter. But I see now, after repeated listens to the whole album, that the track order, along with everything else on this album, was very critically thought out. This album is very much a departure from their loose pop-mingling second album, Is The Is Are. It’s darker, stronger, weirder, and more introspective. ZCS writes in raw terms about feeling like his “pain was self imposed” and “he’s had struggles lately.” That rawness also translates to the music, which still retains the “many guitars” sound of their previous work, but often dips into the post rock strain of indie rock, melding all of these different sounds in a layered cake of music that can often feel overwhelming. In the late album highlight, “Blankenship” the band seems to dare themselves to come up with the most complex guitar riff for a short song and they succeed in breathless fashion. Deceiver is a statement and another wild and memorable outing from one of indie rock’s most exciting young bands.
#2 – FKA Twigs – Magdalene
No one is more surprised by the high ranking of this album on my personal list than me. While I’ve been a casual fan of FKA Twigs for a couple years, I never connected with her work in such a personal way as I have on the gorgeous “Magdalene.” This album is a masterpiece, crafted with such care, it’s like a beautiful sunset that you can’t take your eyes off of. I talk a lot about emotion in music and that is exemplified here, in the boozy swagger of “Home With You,” the soaring vocals of album highlight “Sad Day,” or the wash of sound in the opening moments of “Mirrored Heart.” Another nine song album shot in the heart, this record doesn’t have a dull moment on it, it’s always in your face, in the R&B flavored “Holy Terrain” to the fantastical “Fallen Alien” and the bjork-adjacent “Cellophane.” FKA Twigs has crafted something really special here, the kind of album that transcends genre and will undoubtedly be held in high regard for a long time.
#1 – The National – I Am Easy To Find
The National have always enjoyed playing in the dark. Their best work is full of sorrow. They revel in the kind of broody, pretentious, rock music that some people might mock, but others, like myself, enjoy. That unique and instantly recognizable style is present through the sprawling, epic, I Am Easy To Find, their eighth studio album. It’s also distinctly different than their previous work, as I highlighted in a longish post here a few weeks ago. After surprising everyone (including the band who didn’t attend the show), they won a Grammy for their incredible 2017 record, Sleep Well Beast. The band obviously went into the followup by thinking about expanding their sound. They incorporated other vocalists for the first time, a small group of talented female singers who lend their voices to every track on the album. They also worked with a director to create a parallel short film to compliment the album. There’s a few songs (“Dust Swirls in Strange Light,” for example) that wouldn’t really make sense without the film side of the project. Musically, this album is a full realization of what The National have been doing since the beginning of the millennia: sweeping and dramatic music tied together with Matt Berginger’s iconic vocals, and a serious, if sad-tinged, approach of indie music. It’s just expected at this point that they can throw together a near perfect 2019 ballad. There’s like three of them on this album alone, especially on the final track, the sublime “Light Years.” They can also rock, when the situation calls for it, like on the absolute spot on studio version of “Rylan,” a song they have been playing on tour for years. Everywhere you look on this epic record, there’s some hidden corner to explore. The centerpiece of the album is the restrained “Not In Kansas,” which is mostly quiet except for a choir-like chorus, evoking Sufjan Stevens. The album feels almost novel-like, hard to get through in one sitting, but lending itself to picking up at various different parts. There’s a continuing motif of water and rain and, like all National records, New York City. Whether they are in full bombast mode, incorporating clever electronics, or just baring their soul in the calm moments, this album is the epitome of what The National have been striving for in their career and my album of the year.