Top Ten Albums of 2019
I’ve spent the past week or so re-listening to and finalizing the order for the following, penultimate (although probably most important) list of 2019. The following albums all are, at the very least, incredibly important to me and how I have experienced the past year. If you haven’t heard any of these records, it is my considered opinion that you correct that as soon as possible. I will also take this opportunity to reiterate the request I always make: please support the music you listen to monetarily. Even the worst bands put a significant amount of effort into the music they make. That deserves more than that fifth of a cent Spotify pays per stream.
So now, without further ado, my top ten albums of 2019:
10. (Sandy) Alex G – House of Sugar
Alexander Giannascoli’s newest effort, House of Sugar, essentially condenses and streamlines the many experiments of his 2017 album Rocket into one of his most impressive works to date. Whereas Rocket felt like a series of mostly disconnected short stories, lyrically, House of Sugar feels like a novel. Its characters and themes are consistent; there is a satisfying narrative arc; indeed there is even a central setting: the SugarHouse Casino, a real place (whose name changed to the Rivers Casino Philadelphia just a month after the album’s release). At its center the album confronts the inevitable moral decay wrought upon working class folk by economic and emotional hardship, with a particular focus given to the opioid crisis and addiction with prominent references to Fentanyl, gambling addiction, and alcoholism and their devastating effects. These subjects don’t exactly mark new ground for Giannascoli, who seems to constantly return to his central themes of working class life and masculinty on every one of his albums, but this time the musical and lyrical continuity of the work in general give a greater weight to its concerns, and it packs a greater emotional punch for just that reason. In terms of musical experimentation, Giannascoli ventures into new ground in terms of production, electronics, composition, and structure. Instead of beginning the album with a short intro, he opens with the longest track, a loop-based song centered around a mere couplet: “Someday I’m gonna walk away from you / but not today.” And from its cut, in media res opening chord, we begin to hear the degree to which Giannascoli is willing to set aside potentially clean production for something more interesting. This point reaches greater heights in the chopped-and-screwed vocal manipulation of “Near” and the deliberately Outsider Music, home electronics feel of “Project 2.” There is probably more to be said about the strange attention to detail in the composition of “Southern Sky” (e.g. its metrically weird opening), “In My Arms” (its brilliant second verse), and “Sugarhouse (Live)” (might as well be a live recording of something from Born to Run), but I’ll leave these as some gems for you to find for yourself. Overall, a masterful work from a long-time favorite of mine.
Choice Tracks: “Walk Away,” “Hope,” “Southern Sky,” “Gretel,” “Taking,” “Near,” “Project 2,” “In My Arms”
9. William Patrick Corgan – Cotillions
At a glance Cotillions, Billy Corgan’s third solo effort and second attempt at acoustic Americana in three years, may not seem to be as experimental and exciting as it truly is. After all, this is the guy from Smashing Pumpkins, the band who first mixed shoegaze and metal, who captured the heart of the angst-ridden ’90s, who did Dream Pop just as well as Disco just as well as acoustic balladry. Why is that guy making Country and Americana, and why does it matter? Well, putting aside the fact that Cotillions features some of the most nakedly innocent songwriting Corgan has been able to manage in a decade (see especially “Fragile, The Spark”), it is also very conceptually interesting. And no, I don’t mean the concept behind the writing of the album (Corgan toured the U.S. for 30 days, documented it online, and began writing all these songs on the trip), no: I mean the fact that Corgan is creating something very close to American literary modernism. He has created these Americana and Country songs—complete with twang, slide guitar, fiddle, and the occasional banjo—and written lyrics that mix a pastiche of the golden age of American Folk with, you’ll never guess, Classical imagery and metaphor—that is to say, Greek Classical references, oftentimes quite erudite. Corgan mixes these traditionally High and Low forms to simulate the ascension of American Folk into the cosmic and universal. This isn’t far from Pound’s Cantos, in terms of its literary method. And Corgan has, both in interviews and linear notes, admitted his love for Yeats (and indeed “Thirty-Three” is probably the best Yeats poem he never wrote). Conceptually, the album is absolutely fascinating to me. Its songwriting mostly stands on its own as some of Corgan’s best. Its pastiche of Country, Western, Americana, and Bluegrass is triumphantly accurate and compelling. The production is brilliant, shifting appropriately with the genre imitated (“Apologia” is the closest Corgan will ever get to writing a Mountain Goats song). The only problem I have with the album lies in its pacing. It is sequenced in such a way as to give the songs an “off the cuff” feeling, so there are frequent mood shifts that deliberately draw the eye away from its cohesive central concept and structure. But this also makes the album feel inconsistent and slow at times (although I think its length and bulk are warranted). With a bit better sequencing and perhaps a few cuts, I think it could be a perfect record.
Choice Tracks: “To Scatter One’s Own,” “Jubilee,” “Fragile, The Spark,” “Colosseum,” “Buffalo Boys,” “Dancehall,” “Rider,” “Apologia,” “Neptulius,”
You can learn more about Cotillions on the WPC webiste.
8. Big Thief – Two Hands
It was initially difficult to pick which Big Thief album from 2019 should go on this list, or whether I should include both, but actually after spending more time with Two Hands I think I have come to accept that the lyrics and songwriting here are much more consistently compelling than U.F.O.F., although I do prefer the production and vocal performances (see “Betsy”) on the latter. Adrianne Lenker’s ability to make global and political subjects, particularly the current state of our global perpetual war and of course climate change—to make these subjects incredibly personal far surpasses the comparable, contemporary effort of Bon Iver’s i, i—I mean take “The Toy” for example, on which she laments of the global “tomb” we are building as she masturbates—perhaps the most incisive modern metaphor on the Classical themes of love and war I have heard this decade. Musically, Two Hands comes with much more muscle and energy than its predecessor, most notably on “Not”—yes more energy in spite of the fact that Lenker screams on U.F.O.F.. And what’s more than all I have written: every time I listen to Big Thief I think about and hear their music differently. They make consistently rewarding and interesting modern Indie Rock, and I certainly think my opinion of them and this album will only improve as time goes on.
Choice Tracks: “Forgotten Eyes,” “The Toy,” “Those Girls,” “Shoulders,” “Not,” “Cut My Hair”
7. American Football – American Football (LP3)
It did take me some time to come around to the new American Football album—its especially extended ruminative arpeggios and kraut-rocky meandering at first put me off despite those elements’ obviously essential contribution to the tone and efficacy of the record. But once I did come around, I began to appreciate American Football more generally for its textural depth, which is and has always been exceptional even within the relatively textural genre of Midwest Emo. But here that texture shines in its most meticulously crafted state yet, filled to the brim with shimmering detail. And indeed “shine” and “shimmer” may stand as the best adjectives to describe the particularly static and and ambient tone featured here, which acts to express the stasis of love grown cold, of the endless miserable repetition of a middle-aged Midwestern alcoholic’s daily life. Yes there is something mundane and quotidian about this stasis, but there is also something undoubtedly beautiful about the simple truth of such lyrical themes. Most poignant to me are the track’s about the protagonist’s place within a multi-generational lineage of such fraught lives: he worries that the alcoholism, toxic masculine characteristics, and trauma he inherited from his father might affect his son. And the tracks that most prominently discuss this topic in particular sound to me like instant classics, as if they’ve been great songs in existence forever and were just now articulated—I suppose this means I think the album sounds timeless in spite of its very particular reliance on several converging genres in a very particular place. Maybe this says more about me than the album itself.
Choice Tracks: “Uncomfortably Numb,” “Heir Apparent,” “Mine to Miss,” “Life Support”
6. Krzysztof Kotlinski – Black Rain
Although I have already written quite extensively about this album in a review I posted in December, I will take this opportunity to add that my opinion of Black Rain has only increased in the intervening month: it is an astoundingly diverse, layered, and meticulous “ambient” album, and I have no idea how or why Kotlinski spent so much time and effort crafting such an album for an apparent audience of a dozen, but I am nonetheless incredibly impressed.
Choice Tracks: “Screams From The Sky,” “Hiding Place,” “You’re Not Alone,” “Everything Goes Black”
5. Thom Yorke – Anima
Much of Radiohead’s early and late discography—particularly Yorke’s sometimes ridiculous blathering—hasn’t aged well for me, but I have been consistently impressed by Yorke’s solo work, specifically with its unique perspective on Post-Garage, and for me Anima is the logical endpoint of that work. Whereas Yorke’s previous two solo albums each conveyed a deep sense of hyper-modern solitude despite their apparently dance-able qualities, Anima expands this feeling from something expressed by an individual to a greater societal level of expression, which is musically performed by the album’s instrumentation, including but not limited to the use of a full choir, as well as the space defined by the production, which indeed sounds as though one is walking through an empty city late at night. As always, Yorke owes much of the success of the record to his almost career-long producer Nigel Godrich—Godrich’s work articulates in space what Yorke’s lyrics fail to express. But on the subject of lyrics, I will say I think Yorke has matured greatly as a writer, now making work that feels just as consistently urgent as it does touching. I believe the album suffers from some musical and tonal incongruity on a few of the later tracks, but it is largely brilliant.
Choice Tracks: “Last I Heard (He Was Circling The Drain),” “Dawn Chorus,” “Not The News,” “The Axe”
You can learn more on the Anima website.
4. Bibio – Ribbons
Bibio came full circle on his 2017 album Phantom Brickworks, on which we saw him return to the spiraling ambience of his early work for Mush Records, which had until two years ago only found its way into the interstitial moments of his albums on the Warp roster. If we accept that premise, his follow-up, Ribbons is then as much a step forward as a glance backward—which I should say is true in general for Bibio if one considers his frequent use of “hauntological” production techniques and self-referential lyrics. But this time Bibio has found a way to re-intergrate the ambient space and English-Folk elements of his early work back into his more modern, Funkier Warp music. This conclusion clearly could only be reached by way of Phantom Brickworks, although that album’s specters only appear occasionally (most notably on “Pretty Ribbons and Lovely Flowers”—surely the spookiest song of the year). This kind of retrospective synthesis can feel at times disappointing, especially in the wake of such an experimentally out-there album as Phantom Brickworks—certainly the superior record of the two. But retrospection and ghosts are also at the heart of every Bibio album and his aesthetic purpose: in that sense, this is his music in its most exultantly individuated form. For me, that constitutes a much more important criterion for judging music than needless experimentation or pop sensibility. Plainly, Ribbons is perhaps the most essential Bibio album, and that makes it absolutely joyful, gloomy, frightening, wistful, and indeed surprising.
Choice Tracks: “Before,” “Curls,” “Ode To A Nuthatch,” “Watch The Flies,” “It’s Your Bones,” “Pretty Ribbons and Lovely Flowers,” “Frankincense And Coal,” “Old Graffiti,” “Patchouli May,” “Valley Wulf,” “Quarters,” “Under a Lone Ash”
You can learn more on Bibio’s official website.
3. Telefon Tel Aviv – Dreams Are Not Enough
It’s worth knowing that this is the first Telefon Tel Aviv album in about a decade, and also the first to be released as a Joshua Eustis solo project following the tragic death of former member Charles Cooper. Despite these potential barriers to success, TTA has managed to craft an album remarkably in touch with the current electronic zeitgeist, making music that is at once clearly avant-garde and also incredibly cool; simultaneously cutting edge and yet obviously fashionable. That said its voguish dexterity never precludes the tasteful treatment of its central subject: living in the shadow of death, both the literal death of Cooper and the looming dread of Eustis’s own mortality. An evident sense of solitude and loss pervades even the instrumental tracks, oftentimes more powerfully than in the Eustis’s vulnerable lyrics. The album features several ambient interludes at the fronts and backs (and sometimes right in the middle) of tracks, as if each song were only connected by torn threads, or as if the album itself were falling apart (as glitch is wont to do). In these moments especially, Eustis goes unmatched in terms of engineering skill. That he can make such glossy synthetic sounds coo with such harrowing melancholy, and in such a different way from the old TTA albums, speaks not only to his apparently untiring ear for innovative sounds, but also to the complexity of his sonic palette and his adroit sense for emotional electronica. And when he’s able to successfully mix these expertly designed tones with a classic acid synth (as on “arms aloft,”) or a ridiculous 808 hand clap (as on “standing at the bottom of the ocean;”), I am speechless.
Choice Tracks: “a younger version of myself,” “standing at the bottom of the ocean;” “arms aloft,” “mouth agape,” “not seeing,” “not breathing,”
2. Baroness – Gold & Grey
Over the years, Baroness has gone from making rather triumphant Sludge Metal to making increasingly lyrically upsetting and musically unpredictable Hard Rock, and in my opinion Gold & Grey is the most refined form that transformation as achieved so far. It is, at heart, an album based on a simple objective-correlative metaphor: I am burning up, the world around me is burning up. This is not in itself interesting, but when it is translated musically into songs burning up, guitars that sound more like fire than string instruments, vocals that sound more like a dragon’s than a human’s, then it becomes enticing, to say the least (see especially “Seasons”). On top of these production feats (accomplished by the always brilliant Dave Fridmann) come John Dyer Baizley’s increasingly odd and expressive song structures and songwriting methods as well as several interesting electronic / Ambient interlude tracks, which act as a nice dynamic foil to the rockers. And then finally, the way the album builds on itself lyrically and musically, sometimes referencing its own previous tracks as well as Baroness tracks from previous albums with the clear intent of undermining them, as if burning the old music down—this to me makes it not only sonically and thematically interesting but also artistically ingenious. Even in its weaker moments, the solidity of the album as a singular work ties together its fiery mass perfectly; I can only complain that there isn’t more to burn.
Choice Tracks: “Seasons,” “Tourniquet,” “Throw Me An Anchor,” “I’d Do Anything,” “Blankets Of Ash,” “Emmett: Radiating Light,” “Cold-Blooded Angels,” “Broken Halo,” “Assault On East Falls,” “Pale Sun”
Learn more on the official Baroness website.
1. Kyle Bobby Dunn – From Here To Eternity
To put a work of such extreme ambition, maximalism, intricacy, envelopment—and which generally succeeds in all of these pursuits—would seem to me not only a bit anti-climactic, but also slightly tragic, considering the sheer effort and devotion that has clearly gone into crafting such a masterpiece of our golden age of Drone music. Indeed only two other Ambient records come to mind as holding even a candle to this in terms of scope and efficacy: Selected Ambient Works Volume II by Aphex Twin and Everywhere at the End of Time by The Caretaker. I say that as if some comparison could be made between those two and From Here To Eternity, but actually Kyle Bobby Dunn’s penchant for excruciating synthetic detail and layering makes it quite the opposite of Richard James’ foray into minimalism and Leyland Kirby’s masterful sampling manipulation. Over the course of the album’s nearly three-hour run time, Dunn puts his complex formula of tones through just about every method of drone composition imaginable (SotL-esque Modern Classical, pure textured synth tones, Dark Ambient & Industrial, New Age-wash tracks, a 20-minute-long song based around what appears to be a refrigerator sample (or might as well be), Voice Samples + Drones, sheer unadulterated depression manifested as a gradually moving tone cluster (indeed, “La Stationnment de Finders” is my favorite song of the year), a song with a bass guitar that could be a slowed-down unreleased Seefeel outtake, and of course, the closer, which is indescribable). Not all of its experiments are edge-of-your-seat, gripping excursions into the unknown (only most of them are), but they do each at least express their own very specific feeling that you may know but may not be able to put into words, or perhaps may not even know you know. To me this is the highest goal to which Drone can aspire: to make you feel something new at every turn, or to make you come closer to knowing those ineffable feelings you already have. This isn’t something I can analyze in the close musical terms I use above, but it is a feeling I know everyone who hears this record will understand. That said, I will try to speak a bit about Dunn’s use of structure: the album itself has its own overarching structural logic, which is about as linear as Tristram Shandy, and then within that each song also has its own internal structure which is given ample space for free and complete exploration. In other words, Dunn has created some 18 little worlds in which you are allowed to frolic or mope until you reach their respective boundary, and then you are asked to proceed on. Never do these worlds overstay their welcome (unless they are meant to express something to that effect, as on “September and Her Sudden Drones”) and never do they leave too soon (unless theirs is a world of loss, in which case the bottom is ripped away from you forcefully, as on “Alpine ‘88 (Soundtrack Suite)” and “Eternity, the Stars & You”). This is structurally a feeling that is almost exclusively communicated by Ambient and Drone music, and within those genres no one does this better than Dunn. He crafts spaces that continually evolve until they swallow themselves; he creates rifts that close themselves; he creates wounds that he heals or leaves unhealed at his discretion. And he does this all with several very close tones and timbres that have been expertly mixed so as to give the illusion of a single body made of soft waves, like looking out at the sea on an overcast day. He does this all with such continuity and uniformity in composition style that one cannot help but feel that the sometimes disparate emotions intimated by different songs are somehow innately connected, as connected as the disparate emotions we feel throughout our lives. That cohesion, paired with the album’s tendency to fully explore its songs’ respective premises, puts the listener into what feels like a perpetual dream, the kind which, upon waking, makes you want to sleep again, if only to remember a single trace of what was erased by the morning light.
Choice Tracks: “Triple Axel on Cremazie,” “Years Later Theme,” “Zendel Holiday Hangover Toccata,” “The Flattening,” “Their Memories,” “Alpine ’88 (Soundtrack Suite),” “Foothills Medical Clinic,” “La Stationnment de Finders,” “Rachel (hiver éternal),” “Dead Calm (Southcentre Suite),” “From Over to Wendover,” “Eternity, the Stars & You”
By Isak McCune