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.
There’s a huge amount of competition when it comes to bright electropop, but Maggie Rogers made a strong impression with her debut. Featuring catchy hooks, smart writing and the singer’s image of earthy glamour, it’s a record that feels very now.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I have never listened to Tindersticks before and have now idea who they are or what they’ve been doing, though they’ve apparently been doing it since 1991. But I stumbled across this record in my research, and loved its eccentricity and romanticism.
It’s a challenge keeping up with the stream of new releases. There’s just so much that comes out, and a lot of it stays under the radar unless you’re lucky enough to stumble upon it. Amongst all that, it’s particularly hard to predict which new records will turn out to be keepers. It’s too early to call the field at this point in the year, but so far I’ve enjoyed a couple of records enough to play them twice. The National’s I Am Easy to Find is one such record. It is, of course, just The National doing what The National does. It’s an hour of sadness and gloom, which may not be everybody’s idea of a hot summer album. Nobody does sadness quite like Matt Berninger. Nobody takes it seriously, nobody wants to make a career out of being seriously sad. But I still want to hear a really good sad album, and my sad record library doesn’t get much fresh restock. So I think it’s safe to say that this record will find its way into heavy rotation next time I feel like I have something to cry about.
I can’t recommend The National enough for all of your mournful, mopey needs. Do you need something to stare balefully at the rain to? Do you have some shitty cooking wine or bottom-shelf liquor you need to consume? Has it been three or four days since you’ve talked to your love interest? Are you getting yourself all worked up remembering that time you were really depressed? The National is here for you. Now, I’m not going so far as to say that it’s music for when you’re actually really depressed. You can make your own judgement call on that one, but for me it’s just gloomy and not straight-up scraping-the-bottom music. You know, there’s a distinction between performatively sad and, like, really depressed and stuff. You can have a performatively sad day, because, I don’t know, maybe you’re not getting enough dick or something, or all of your friends are jerks, or whatever makes you feel the most sorry for yourself.
The National is just dreampop for when you want to have bad dreams. That’s my hot take. Honestly there’s just not enough music that sounds like it was written specifically for those 3 a.m. alone hours when you’re not quite sure if you’re really depressed or just contemplating the universe. You don’t have to be having the sads to enjoy The National, of course, but it’s not music you put on at parties, for sure. I like the contemplative and the atmospheric. Throw in some self-deprecation and I’m hooked. And I relish those inward-gazing hours and the music that sets the mood for those times. It’s good for the soul.
If you’ve been hunting for something enjoyably downbeat and relaxingly depressing, something that’s just really really good to mope to, may I recommend The National. Singer Matt Berninger just has a sad voice, the way some people have sad eyes. Not all of their songs are trying to be sad, but there’s definitely a lot of them that are about love (the sad kind) and crying and at least one song appears to be about suicide (it isn’t this one.) This song is actually one of their less gloomy offerings, having a little bit of a faster tempo, though, of course, the lyrics are still mopey. It’s perfect music for crying in the bathtub, and don’t you even try to tell me you don’t have a ‘crying in the bathtub’ playlist. Let this be a valuable new addition to that playlist.