1. Purple Mountains, Purple Mountains (Drag City)
When David Berman returned suddenly after a self-imposed, decade-long exile, it was cause for celebration. Seeing the world through Berman’s – by turns – caustic, witty, scholarly, devastating, absurd, and wry lens was sorely missed and missing from independent music at large. His suicide merely weeks after his re-emergence only exacerbated the bleakness of the stark poetry in Purple Mountains’ astonishing debut. His songwriting had reached a new level of hook-laden laconicism and resignation, but the heartache and hopelessness that bubbled at the surface turned out to be far too real. Berman tosses off references that may send you to the research room one moment while uncovering a previously unnoticed universal truth the next. He was the poet of a generation of over-educated misanthropes, and he will be missed. This final album will long stand the test of time and fits alongside the best of his Silver Jews canon.
2. Deerhunter, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? (4AD)
Deerhunter’s last two records have eschewed some of the band’s noisier and experimental tangents in favor of more streamlined and cohesive statements that showcase Bradford Cox’s compositional skills. There’s still a healthy dose of weirdness; however, it’s just sheathed in a more digestible coating. In a sense it’s a form of trickery: Cox’s idiosyncratic obsessiveness can morph into a pop format, but, while the darkness that lurks underneath may not be obvious to the casual listener, it certainly haunts subversively. Watching Deerhunter conform to pop conventions has angered some of the band’s core audience, but Cox is willfully nonchalant about fan expectations. He has a vision for his band, and he explores the lure of his muse with an unrivaled intensity, and it’s fascinating to watch. Deerhunter is still one of the most exciting bands making music.
3. DIIV, Deceiver (Captured Tracks)
After two albums of sprawling anachronistic lo-fi dream-pop, DIIV has focused its sites on a more taut and muscular approach. Zachary Cole Smith’s statement of sobriety pulls no punches as it exposes his dark past through mammoth, crunching guitars and ghostly, melodic vocals. There are obvious nods to My Bloody Valentine’s layered dynamics, but they never come across in a gratuitous way. DIIV trades the navel-gazing reverb for a more urgent and aggressive sonic palate. The songs are more complex musically and thus take more time to build and ingest, but the reward is breathtaking and fulfilling.
4. Kim Gordon, No Home Record (Matador)
Prior to this debut solo full-length, Kim Gordon’s post-Sonic Youth output has been mired in deliberately unlistenable drone. Her collaborations with guitarist Bill Nace in Body/Head explored the tangential aspects of the feedback-drenched, guitar-drone scene. On No Home Record, Gordon packages her experimental tendencies in a far more palatable format that almost embraces pop convention. In lieu of the multi-guitar attack of Sonic Youth, Gordon uses electronics as the vehicle for her urgent and uncompromising audio assaults. Gordon has never possessed a true singing voice, but she uses her voice in fascinating and affecting ways, grunting and howling her way through a morass of quirky hooks.
5. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Ghosteen (Ghosteen LTD)
Ghosteen is not a fun record to listen to at first. It takes a bit of effort and commitment to experience properly. Nick Cave has turned the tragedy of losing a child into music that exorcizes those demons through a breadth of emotions. Some of those emotions are hard to listen to but captivating all the same. The compositions are stark and atmospheric, allowing Cave to color in the spaces with his imperfect yet booming voice. His lyrics have rarely been straightforward- as they tend to remain awash in allegory and parable, but he drops the façade occasionally to allow the listener to share in his uncomfortable pain. There’s a weird, overarching sense of hope underneath all of the despair, though, that keeps the album from being a suffocating experience. Cathartic despair.
6. Lana Del Rey, Norman Fucking Rockwell (Interscope)
Lana Del Rey swears her persona is not a “persona.” Regardless of whether the fatalistic, woman-out-of-her-time character is a pose, Del Rey has tapped into something singular and otherworldly, and she has finally created the perfect soundtrack for her guise. Like a black jelly bean in the middle of an apple pie, Del Rey aims to sully the fantasy of the American Dream. Her methods are equally calculating and alluring, but her lyrical acumen elevates her into a rarified league of songwriters. This album is a gorgeously constructed, beautifully sung, and hard to forget.
7. Chromatics, Closer To Grey ( Italians Do It Better)
After teasing the release of the rumored concept album Dear Tommy for nigh on five years, Chromatics returned in 2019 by surprise releasing a completely different record. Closer to Grey runs through the same hall of icy pop mirrors as 2012’s Kill for Love did, but what it lacks in new sonic ground it more than makes up for in substance. Chromatics are masters of monochromatic mood, and this is late night, windows down, driving-through-L.A.-with-the-stereo-at-full-volume music. A haunting soundtrack for what lurks in the night full of whispered, reverb-drenched vocals, sinister synths, splintering guitars and robotic beats.
8. Brittany Howard, Jaime (ATO)
Brittany Howard’s genre-swerving debut is the rare example of a presumably pigeon-holed artist defiantly rising above expectations through unabashed talent. Her songs can feel like off the cuff fragments but betray a deeper craft upon repeated listens. With elements of hip hop, roots rock, neo-soul, and funk, Howard eclipses stereotype with an urgency and vitality that seems effortless for her. “Stay High” is an infectious instant classic that feels like it’s always existed.
9. Thom Yorke, ANIMA (XL)
Amazingly, Thom Yorke’s existential dread has not worn out its welcome after a couple of decades of his flaunting his myriad neuroses. Without his bandmates in Radiohead, Yorke tends to zoom in extremely close on his anxieties that are reflected not only in his mellifluous voice but also in the choppy electronics that always seem to accompany it on his solo outings. Yorke’s nervous energy is contagious. His ability to make such peculiar music palatable to a large audience is uncanny. Anima disregards traditional composition and structure, allowing the songs to unfurl in unexpected waves, where mood dominates form.
10. FKA Twigs, Magdeline (Young Turks)
I do not recommend listening to this album while doing other things because at low volume Magdeline blends into the background. I remained unimpressed several times through only to be floored once I put on a set of headphones. Now that I’ve listened to it as God intended, I am in awe of it. FKA Twigs has an extraordinary voice that she wields like a venomous weapon. The production is caustic and futuristic and surprising. She confronts heartbreak, depression, and public scrutiny with unrestrained vulnerability. Her voice can sound small and fragile one moment only to transform into a searing force the next. Magdeline is an artistic statement by someone whose story is far from finished.