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.
I feel like I had more
albums than ever in my running yearlong playlist this year, but I didn’t get to
spend nearly the time with all of them that I would have liked to. Here’s my
list of the albums that rose above the noise in 2019. (Minus metal records.
Those might get their own list later.) And a handy playlist too!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Is Patrick Wall the only one here who gives a shit about the rules?
KNEE MEETS JERK: A Tragicomedy in Three ActsOr, In Which a Mostly Retired Music Critic and Journalist Offers Brief, Non-Critical and Non-Sequitur Thoughts Only Tangentially Related to His Favorite Music of 2019. Because, Hey, Music Is Personal and Subjective, Right? Listed in alphabetical order. Results subject to change.
I’m not sure I know where to begin.
So maybe this is a place as good as any: In mid-December, when year-in-review lists started propagating, my friend Reid asked on Twitter how folks can keep up with the never-ending stream of just so much god damned stuff, let alone listen to it and hopefully connect to some of it.
My short answer is simple and practical: I keep a list. In years past, it’s been in a spiral-bound notebook or a Microsoft Word file; this year, it was in a Google Keep sticky note. If I listen to a record and it strikes me on some fundamental level, I make an entry on my list: the release date, the artist, the record, and the label that released it. Come the end of the year, compiling a favorites list is easy: I go back to my list. Some years, there’s a little chaff to be trimmed. Some years there isn’t. But the list helps keep the year-end panic at bay.
The long answer is complicated.
This year I can’t in good conscience list ten albums in order. It always feels like splitting invisible hairs to decide between one and two or five and six, and when the albums I loved this year are such a diverse bunch it just seems silly. (I would say it is like comparing apples to oranges, but one can compare apples to oranges easily. Oranges are much better. Clearly. Ask anyone.) There is a unifying theme in my list, though it embarrasses me a bit to notice it. Almost all of these albums have a throwback quality to them. They often involve attempts to recapture something pure from earlier incarnations of the genres. The best albums of the year represent pure forms of rap/hip-hop, country/rock and punk. Among the others you can hear echoes of Madonna, Magnetic Fields, Silver Jews, and (um, of course) the Talking Heads. St. Vincent is probably the exception. As an aside, it somehow seems to me that many of the newest sounds these days come from women–witness Cate LeBon, PJ Harvey, and Bjork. And Radiohead. I guess Radiohead is the exception that proves the rule is not really a rule after all. In any case, here’s my shot at this year’s list.
Cloud Nothings, Here and Nowhere Else (Subpop)
These Cleveland darlings just keep getting better with every release. There are shades of Nirvana, The Descendants, and about a dozen other punky lovelies. I probably listened to this one more than any album this year.
Run the Jewels, RTJ2 (Mass Appeal)
In this year of racial fucknuttery, with white cops reviving scenes of Selma and dumbasses taking it out perfectly innocent police, it was a perfect year for RTJ2 to bring us intelligent, hard hitting rap. El-P and Killer Mike have had the year of their lives and the excitement is infectious as hell. Just hearing Killer Mike start the thing out makes me start punching the air. Lie, Cheat, Steal might be the track of the year.
Angel Olsen, Burn Your Fire for No Witness (Jagjaguwar)
It’s not really fair to have a voice this strong while still kicking ass as a songwriter. How can someone like this not make those boneheads in Nashville change the way they think about making and marketing music? If you liked Sharon von Etten’s Tramp, and you did if you are even moderately reasonable, this album should be on your shelf. Like von Etten, Olsen spills her guts with style, but perhaps with a greater diversity of styles. She morphs from Patsy Cline to Leonard Cohen in a heartbeat.
Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (High Top Mountain Records)
My friend Eric turned me onto this saying “This guy is legit as shit,” and this album plus that comment is a good reminder of why we love our friends. I haven’t been as excited about country since Richard Buckner’s early albums. Unapologetically excellent. (Might be paired well with Luke B. Goebel’s “14 Stories and None of them are Yours.” Those two guys might be the same damn person.)
Death from Above 1979, The Physical World (Last Gang/Warner Bros.)
Another album from a duo who packs the energy of an entire decade of rock. I doubt these two spend afterparties riding alligators around a hotel room bonfire, but they sound like it. I’ll eagerly wait another ten years for these guys to record another album if I have to. This stuff is timeless.
St. Vincent, St. Vincent (Loma Vista)
We Dallasites like to think of Annie Clark as our own, and those of us who have done time in that monochromatic suburb of Garland want to feel somewhat redeemed by the association. But the truth is she is probably from outer space and has some Kryptonian story of how she got here. For my money she belongs with PJ Harvey and Bjork as one of the most interesting and innovative artists out there. She can hack the guitar into pieces and hit all manner of notes while stoically packaging herself for television consumption. Every St. Vincent album is worth having, and this might be her best yet , but I wouldn’t be surprised if she just continues to get better for about sixty years.
Alvvays, Alvvays (Polyvinyl/Transgressive)
If I can’t include Chad VanGaalen’s album on my year end list, and honestly I can’t, I’m happy at least to include an album he produced. Toronto based Alvvays’ self-titled album is the sort of fresh lo-fi pop that is easy to try but damned difficult to pull off. While they remind me a lot of Camera Obscura, they’re willing to let a little more fray show at the edges, and their sound is a little too rough to be twee. Just try not to like Archie, Marry Me. If you do try, you’re just being a jerk.
You think you’ve got game, and then you meet Drew Harkins and you throw the game away because you just can’t win.
Deerhunter, Monomania (4AD)
Pick your favorite review of this album:
a.) Monomania is a willfully inscrutable/abstruse nocturnal garage pastiche of shopworn indie standards, pieced together meticulously from a post-nothing fakebook, delivered with mesmerizing panache and terrorizing aplomb.
b.) Deerhunter’s Monomania re-imagined as a Phish setlist, the way that guy from Dirty Projectors did Black Flag:
Anti-Scale Mode -> Puke Racket, Pot Arpeggioz, Schlock & Choogle II, Churn/Thrust N’ Fey, Jam Progression -> Lawnmower Ratchet -> Omega Point, Denouement, Coy Spoon Acoustic Reprise
c.) When you get a tattoo on your shin, the majority of the work takes place on the fleshy haft of your lower leg. It’s mostly easy dermis for canvas, all smooth and humming along with the perfect amount of pinch, subtly reminding that you’re permanently defacing your skin.
The only actual pain comes when the needle bears down on the distal ends. A pitted feeling sucks your gut but passes quickly. Those couple moments when the point clicks over that little groove in the ridgeline is the real treat, because it’s just enough to make your privates tingle.
d.) The Black Lips dudes dubbed Monomania “transcend-fi” and I see no reason to reinvent the wheel.
e.) Yes, Bradford. It was great. And it was punk.
Queens of the Stone Age, …Like Clockwork (Matador)
“Some men are so macho they’ll get you pregnant just to kill a rabbit.” – Maureen Murphy
Lonnie Holley, Keeping a Record of It (Dust to Digital)
Because Oxford American needs to see him.
Wolf Eyes, No Answer: Lower Floors (De Stijl)
Richard Youngs, Summer Through My Mind (Ba Da Bing!)
Because Ba Da Bing! captured him at his prolific best.
R. Kelly, Black Panties (RCA)
Jace Clayton, The Julius Eastman Memory Depot (New Amsterdam)
Because Eastman isn’t just a school in Rochester.
Tim Berne’s Snakeoil, Shadow Man (ECM)
Byron Coley, Dating Tips for Touring Bands (Hot Cars Warp)
Because you should at least hear the one about Don Rickles and Giuliani.
My Bloody Valentine, m b v (m b v)
The Dead C, Armed Courage (Ba Da Bing!)
Because, really, it’s been a while.
SINGLES: Phosphorescent, “Song for Zula” (Dead Oceans) Antwon, “Dying in the Pussy” (Suicide Squeeze) Benjamin Clementine, “Nemesis” (Later…with Jools Holland) David Bowie, “Where Are We Now?” (Columbia) Jennette McCurdy, “Wrecking Ball” (YouTube)
Jaap Blonk, “The Prime Minister I” (Plant Migration) Hair Police, “Mercurial Rites” (Type) Daft Punk, “Get Lucky” (Columbia) Jennifer Walshe, “In a Way, It’s All New Age Music” (THMOTES) Parquet Courts, “Stoned and Starving” (What’s Your Rupture?)