Angel Olsen’s All Mirrors was one of the highlights of last year. Olsen pretty much never disappoints. Every few years she comes out with a deeper, richer record that the last, both in music and in writing. Angel Olsen makes the kind of records that inspire usually dry and snarky music critics to reach for poetic metaphors: “Behind the parachute silk and dry ice, the smoke and mirrors, stands a record in high emotional definition, its outline becoming sharper by the second.” went Mojo’s review. It may be because Olsen has the voice of a you-know-what, or because she writes lyrics that don’t instantly fall into boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl categories. She simply defies easy description, and that’s why her records are both so hard to write about and so rewarding.
Where do Nick Cave’s death songs and murder ballads come from? Besides life? Why, from folklore. One may not easily think of Nick Cave, the gutterpunk become man of taste, as a student of folk music, but there’s no older narrative than the cautionary tale, it’s the oldest narratives that inform the blues and folk music that everything else is built upon. Cave has turned to mythology and fables many times in his writing, especially the referencing the flawed gods and humans of Greek myth. He uses some of those broadly shared reference points on Ghosteen, an album soaked through, by necessity, with the very personal. He draws the connection between the myths that trace back through millennia, and the very fresh myths that have been minted in living memory; the fable of the King of Rock and Roll may have been played out by people who still live, but it formed the arc of a cautionary tale that has been played by interchanging players ever since humans first learned how to form the events of their lives into interesting and informative narratives. The lesson is we’re all very small, even the Elvises among us, and we keep blundering into the same mistakes and enacting the same tragedies, over and over, and the only thing we know how to do is keep repeating the same stories about it.
Mark Ronson is a superproducer known for having a hand in some of the most memorable records of the past 20 years. (He helped launch the careers of Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen and Adele, among other luminaries.) His work as a solo artist hasn’t made much of an impression on me up until now. A producer’s job is to make others shine their brightest, not to have a sparkling personality of their own, and a producer’s album is usually only as good as its guest stars. However, I really enjoyed last year’s Late Night Feelings. Not least because it features a stellar collection of guest stars, from Angel Olsen to Miley Cyrus. I liked the general theme of loneliness and heartache – what Ronson describes as “sad bangers” – and the woozy, lowtempo atmosphere. I smell a divorce and/or midlife crisis behind these songs, and it makes it feel more intimate the usual ‘bunch of stars jamming together’ producer vanity record. The guest vocalist in this case is Ilsey, who is also a songwriter and producer who specializes in making other people’s records better.
Here’s a band I’ve never heard of before. Hot Chip formed in 2000, and I’ve never heard of them in all of that time. Apparently, though, their album A Bathfull of Ecstasy was one of the most acclaimed records of 2019, at least in the UK. What I find out about when I start browsing new releases. Admittedly, I only listened to this record because I liked the title, and I was expecting, I don’t know, club music or something. It’s actually exactly the kind of melodic synthpop that I love, and which I think defines the past decade for me, as far as genres go. So, yeah, definitely check out more of these guys.
I skipped out last week – I was busy! – but I haven’t skipped out on finishing the rest of this list. There’s so many more records left to discover and enjoy!
1. Norman Fucking Rockwell! – Lana Del Rey
Remember when Lana Del Rey was an ingenue with lousy stage presence who bombed on SNL? Neither do I. Lana has slowly been accruing accolades as her work has matured, and now she’s made the most acclaimed record of her career. She’s become one of those rare artists who can maintain an aesthetic without impeding creative growth, and she’s finally getting the respect she’s always deserved.
2. Oklahoma – Keb’ Mo’
Kab’ Mo’ has been quietly keeping the blues alive since the 80’s, and he’s seen interest in roots music wane and ebb. Blues-based music may be at a bit of a low tide right now, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be fresh and relevant in the hands of a master like Mo’ – and this master still has a lot to say.
3. On the Line – Jenny Lewis
This has been one of those records that everyone and their dog seemed to have been listening to all year. Jenny Lewis, of course, has been an indie rock darling for a solid two decades. With this confident and accomplished record, it’s pretty clear why.
4. Only Things We Love – Blaqk Audio
There’s no lack of bands ambitiously trying to recapture the magic of 80’s New Wave, but not many of them actually do. Blaqk Audio is one that actually does, with a sound reminiscent of Human League at the height of their glory. It’s ‘reminiscent’ without sounding apish, and consistently fun, stylish and, uh, very gay.
5. Outer Peace – Toro y Moi
6. Pony – Orville Peck
“Orville Peck” is an anonymous masked cowboy who croons like the second coming of Roy Orbison. With an image that makes reference to the iconography of mainstream Americana AND to the leather-daddy underground, Peck is camp of the highest refinement. Gay cowboy jokes aside though, he’s the best throwback crooner since Chris Isaak seduced Helena Christensen.
7. Remember the Future – Ionnalee
The Scandinavian contingent continues to dominate the electronic music spectrum. Like her peers Karin Dreijer and Aurora Aksnes, Jonna Lee uses her haunting voice and ice-wraith image to create atmospheric music that is both chilling and soothing, and ever so slightly surreal.
8. The Return – Sampa the Great
The future of American music is being shaped by artists all over the world. R&B, soul, & hip-hop music, all as American as fortune cookies and fried chicken, can seem stagnant if you listen to what’s on the top of the charts. Maybe it takes an African woman living in Australia to make those genres sound alive again. Sampa the Great is a Zambian-expatriate who raps about life as a border- and identity- hopping citizen of the world.
9. Rouge – Yuna
In a global world, we want our pop singers to be as international as our fusion cuisine. There’s a thirst for pop music that’s both exotic and accessible. Malaysian sensation Yuna is a cool fresh drink for everyone who’s been parched waiting for the next Kali Uchis. Yuna has Top 40-friendly pop chops, alright, with an eye on the global market too. She can collaborate with major-name rappers one minute and be singing in Malay a minute later.
10. Solutions – K. Flay
K. Flay comes off as your trainwreck bestie, the one who always fucks up the hardest but always manages to land on her feet. She might not be a very good singer, or a very glamorous person, but she’s a writer and performer who projects wounded tough-girl attitude. Each one of her records has been relatable, dirty and funny.
Here is part two (out of four) of the best records of 2019. As I said before, it’s been an unusually good year, and it’s an unusually long and diverse list. There are new works from old favorites and new favorites from new discoveries. I tried to cover as many bases as I could
1. Ghosteen – Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
Nick Cave continues to explore an emotional landscape of grief and hope, grappling with the death of his son and how, in the aftermath of a life-changing tragedy, to move forward as an artist. It is both depressing and as bracing as a dive into frozen water.
2. Heard It In a Past Life – Maggie Rogers
3. Help Us Stranger – The Raconteurs
Like a lot of fans, I’d just about given up hope that Jack White would bring The Raconteurs back together. But here they are, and it sounds like no time has passed. Except for being, of course, a little bit older and wiser, it’s the same folksy roots rock than we expect from a Third Man product.
4. I Am Easy To Find – The National
5. Ilana (The Creator) – Mdou Moctar
Every year, thousands of records are released by artists all over the world that never connect with audiences outside their own local niche. But every once in a while an artist emerges who transcends genre. Mdou Moctar, of Niger, combines Taureg and Berber musical traditions with psychedelic rock reminiscent of Hendrix and Santana, making a melting-pot of an album with global appeal.
6. In the End – The Cranberries
The Cranberries were one of the definitive alternative rock bands of the 90’s, but in the decades since, they had largely been forgotten. It took the death of singer Dolores O’Riordan to get them back in the spotlight, and this posthumous album is a reminder of why they should, by all rights, have stayed popular.
7. The Lion King: The Gift – Beyonce
The Lion King remake may have been an exercise in gratuitous CGI, but bringing Beyonce on board was the best decision the Disney studio ever made. Bey’s companion album couldn’t be further away from the schlocky show tunes Elton John and Tim Rice cooked up in 1994. Leaning on uptempo Afropop, it showcases messages of positivity, courage and empowerment that are accessible enough for kiddos who loved the movie and sophisticated enough for adults who love Beyonce.
8. Love + Fear – Marina
After a short hiatus, Marina Diamandis dropped the “Diamonds” from her stage name, and moved in new, more intimate direction. Ditching the high-fructose pop she became famous for, Marina focuses on the songwriting chops she never got enough credit for. This record may not be uptempo enough for Froot lovers, but fans will recognize a more mature version of the vulnerable/witty singer, and will luxuriate in her amazing vocals.
9. LSD – Labrinth, Sia & Diplo
I love it when huge pop stars follow up their huge successes with something totally unexpected. Sia had a very great couple of years, and she followed up her string of hits by forming a supergroup with Labrinth and Diplo. Like the best supergroups it brings out the best in the supers. It’s the irreverent, fun, one-off album that keeps superstars from taking themselves too seriously.
10. No Treasure But Hope – Tindersticks
I don’t know if there was just something in the water than made 2019 a particularly inspiring year for music, or if it was my ears pricking up more than usual, but it was a very good year for music. I certainly went out of my way to hear more, and as a result, I’ve had to pick more favorites. From old geezers doing what they do best, to new-establishment favorites, to newly-discovered talents holding their own; from huge stars to obscure imports; in every genre and all over the map – it’s just been a really good year for music.
- Androgyne – Gyasi
2. Better In Blak – Thelma Plum
3. California Son – Morrissey
4. Chronologic – Caravan Palace
5. Cry – Cigarettes After Sex
6. Cuz I Love You – Lizzo
7. Daylight – Grace Potter
8. A Different Kind of Human (Step 2) – Aurora
9. Eve – Rapsody
Rapsody is the antidote to every hoodrat female rapper who talks about stripping, hustling and beefing with rivals. With each track named for a legendary Black woman, from Nina Simone to Afeni Shakur, Eve is a collection of poetry about the embattled lives and deep strength of Black women.
10. Free – Iggy Pop
Iggy Pop is already rock’n’roll’s most unexpected survivor, but even more unexpected, he’s one who still loves what he does and fearlessly jumps in entirely new directions. For the Godfather of Punk, a new direction might mean a horn section or a reading of Dylan Thomas, but then, he’s always been deeper than his antics led us to believe.