Was 2019 a good or bad year for music? That is always an easy question for me and it may surprise some friends and readers: every year is a great year for music! I never fail to find albums that capture and inspire me. There is great music all around us and it comes from new and veteran artists every year if you are willing to look for and be found by it.
So yes, 2019 was a great year for music and here are just some of the albums - listed alphabetically -- that spent considerable time with me and a few words about what I love about them. I highly recommend and hope you will check them out for yourself!
- The Black Keys - "Let's Rock": "Shine A Little Light" might be the single catchiest tune I heard all year. I'd call it a summer feel good hit except the lyrics, well, they don't so very much fit that. No matter, this is a great tune that will have you humming along. There are several other good ones like "Sit Around And Miss You," which feels like the half-brother of "Stuck In The Middle With You." It's not the "return to form" it was billed as if you were looking for a return to the low-fi sounds of early records but it's the best collection of songs the Dan Auerbach has turned out in some time.
- Black Pumas - Black Pumas: What a stellar debut! Black Pumas have a timeless sound that blends retro and modern soul but more importantly they have songs with hooks. This is a tight record, easy to listen to from top to bottom and then start all over again.
- Leonard Cohen - Thanks For the Dance: The most remarkable aspect of this final artistic statement from the Leonard Cohen is how Cohen's son Adam pieced this together in the months after his father's passing and made this sound not like a collection of outtakes and leftovers but as a comprehensive, intentional album. Very little from this record was completed before Leonard's passing but it sounds as though he was present throughout every step making it feel as though the legend is still with us. "Happens To The Heart" and "Puppets" are major works that stand proudly along anything else in Cohen's unassailable Tower of Song.
- Madison Cunningham - Who Are You Now: Madison Cunningham's full-length debut is the Album of the Year. I'm rarely at a loss for words but I struggle to describe the range and intensity of the emotions I feel when I listen to this album and these songs. "Common Language" is my Song of the Year. You should also spend time with "Pin It Down," "Trouble Found Me," and "Something To Believe In."
- Patty Griffin - Patty Griffin: It is unexpected and unfair that genius talent Patty Griffin is still doing her best work but this self-titled album may be her strongest yet. "Luminous Places" is the most beautiful song I heard all year. "River" beautifully sketches the power and beauty in one woman but the expressions and descriptions feel universal. "Mama's Worried" presents the struggles of these trying times through the eyes of another powerful female perspective.
- Mark Lanegan Band - Somebody's Knocking: Again, talk about it being unfair for a veteran artist to continue producing their best work but that's where we find the Mark Lanegan with his latest collection. Lanegan still sings dark anthems and explores hidden places in the human heart but has expanded his sonic palette beyond acoustic dirges, embracing synthesizers, drum loops, and other electronic elements. "Stitch It Up" and "Night Flight To Kabul" are great entry places.
- The Messthetics - Anthropcosmic Nest: Exploratory instrumental music that doesn't rely on virtuosity or endless self-indulgent jams abounds on this tight, 37 minute record. "Better Wings" and "Touch Earth Touch Sky" are great bookends to a record that covers considerable terrain without lingering or feeling rushed.
- Michaela Anne - Desert Dove: I don't know what real country music is or what that even means anymore but this record has it if such a thing does still exist. Michaela Anne tells captivating stories with the perfect command of her impossibly beautiful voice. "I'm Not The Fire" should be a hit single on heavy rotation at radio. "One Heart" is beautiful and "Somebody New" will break your heart. This record is not to be missed.
- Joshua Redman - Come What May: The first of two entries from Redman on my year-end best of list, this album reunites him with his excellent quartet. The album boasts seven Redman originals, all of them good. Standout tracks include "Stagger Bear," the title track, and album opener "Circle of Life."
- Joshua Redman & Brooklyn Rider - Sun on Sand: This record pairs Redman's saxophone prowess with Brooklyn Rider, a string quartet. It's neither classical music nor orchestral jazz but elements of both can be found in these songs from a suite by the Patrick Zimmereli.
- Bruce Springsteen - Western Stars: It's been awhile since we got new music from The Boss and even longer since we got a great record from him but that, Friends, is what Western Stars is. It's a solo record and the narrative songs and stories fit the kind of writing found on prior Springsteen solo outings like The Ghost of Tom Joad and Devils & Dust. The lush string and horn arrangements adorning most of these songs bathe Springsteen's weathered and weary yet still strong voice. The title track and the stunning closing trifecta of "There Goes My Miracle," "Hello Sunshine," and "Moonlight Motel" are reasons why this is the strongest set of songs and the tightest record he's made since Magic. It may well be his best 21st century record.
- Shovels & Rope - By Blood: This is the best, most consistent record Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent have recorded since forming Shovels & Rope. The unfailing quality of the songs also allows for a fistful of standouts like Song of the Year contender "Missippi Nuthin,'" the swaggering mission statement of "I'm Comin' Out," and "The Wire." I'm also going to plug personal favorite "The Hammer."
- Tool - Fear Innoculum: They spent 13 years (not) making this record and I started to wonder if I even cared by the time it was released. But of course I had to listen. There is nothing on this record that makes me understand why it took so damn long; it's vintage, quintessential Tool. That's also why it's one of the best records of the year. It is a punishing, intense, visceral, brutal album. Drummer Danny Carey is in many ways the focal point of the album but guitarist Adam Jones gets his licks and a couple of solos in and Maynard James Keenum's vocals maintain their haunting-yet-mechanical despair.