2019 has been a banner year for music for me. For whatever reason a ton of bands I like released new music this year and while it has been a mixed bag for me I can’t remember a recent year when I had so many solid albums to choose from to get to my Top 10.
More than 30 albums caught my attention in 2019 across a wide array of genres. Alternative rock is always going to be my favorite, but this year it’s pretty obvious that modern soul and R&B have leaped to the forefront. I think we’re smack in the middle of a soul revival, one that probably owes its growth to the likes of Amy Winehouse, John Legend, Adele and others who reinvigorated the genre in the early part of the century. So many soul artists have emerged in their wake, from the more classic soul sounds of Leon Bridges, Michael Kiwanuka, and the late Sharon Jones to blue-eyed soul greats like Hozier, St. Paul and the Broken Bones and Nathaniel Rateliff. This year I added two amazing new soul artists to my rotation that you’ll see in the list below.
This year also brought some disappointments from some artists I love. Sometimes it’s hard to live up to my admiration year after year and record after record, and for a few artists this year began with high expectations and left me feeling…meh. Guster, New Pornographers, Fitz and the Tantrums, Jamie Cullum, Two Door Cinema Club, Coldplay, and Of Monsters and Men released so-so records in 2019, and perhaps most disappointing was the new record from Keane, which broke up a few years back and returned this year with the dull Cause and Effect. I liked these records, but none cracked my Top 10 or even garnered honorable mentions.
Speaking of honorable mentions, here are the albums that I liked in 2019 but didn’t quite make the cut for my Top 10. Alice Merton broke through this year with her debut album Mint, which got a lot of attention for her song No Roots but which is a great listen all the way through. Santa Fe band Beirut is an artist I discovered this year and their release Gallipoli is a sweet mix of pop and horns and indie rock. American Love Call from Durand Jones and the Indications was a suggestion from a friend that proved my point about the neo soul resurgence — this is pure soul goodness that would make Sam Cooke proud. And then there was Lux Prima from the unique combination of Karen O (lead vocalist of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and Danger Mouse (super producer Brian Burton who turns everything he touches into gold). Lux Prima defied genre logic — Clash Music described it this way: “whirring, mysterious sounds – reminiscent of sci-fi film scores – are eventually invaded by a chirpy, poignant piano…the worlds of the two creators collide instantly.” This Land from guitar god Gary Clark, Jr. was a sweet mix of Hendrix inspired rock and soul, You’re Stronger Than You Know from James Morrison added to my soul train this year, and then there was Kings and Queens / Knaves and Thieves from The Ocean Blue which proved the 80s still has legs.
Here now, my 10 favorite albums of the year:
10. Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost—Part 1 — Foals. I have to admit I didn’t know much about Oxford, U.K.-based Foals until this year. Then I heard a track on satellite radio and I was interested enough to listen to the whole album. It’s really solid alternative rock, and apparently they have a reputation in the U.K. for great live shows. Check out Exits for a taste.
9. Sound & Fury — Sturgill Simpson. There was no bigger surprise for me this year than this album from country/Americana artist Simpson. I mean, he was the first country artist to make one of my Top 10 lists when A Sailor’s Guide to Earth came out in 2016, but imagine my surprise when he released his next album this year and it was straight up rock and roll. And damn good rock and roll. Dude can shred the guitar. Check out this cut, Sing Along.
8. Kiwanuka — Michael Kiwanuka. Album number three by Michael Kiwanuka did not disappoint. His voice is truly an instrument and his sound is unmistakable. This is a brilliant record that just envelopes you in its soulful softness. It was great to see him blow up a bit by providing Cold Little Heart to the opening segment of HBO’s Big Little Lies. Kick back, relax with a cup of joe or a glass of wine, and let Michael Kiwanuka take you to your happy place. Check out Solid Ground for a sample.
7. I Am Easy To Find — The National. It could be argued that The National is my favorite band of the 21st century, and this year’s release proved once again that this band from Ohio by way of Brooklyn is doing things that other bands simply are not. I Am Easy to Find feels almost like a rock opera and brings new voices to the front to go along with the baritone genius that is Matt Berninger. My favorite track from the record is Rylan, which is arguably my favorite single track of the year. Light Years is also memorable and includes a video starring actress Alicia Vikander. To describe this album as haunting would be fair.
6. Wasteland, Baby! — Hozier. Andrew John Hozier-Byrne broke through the clutter in 2014 with his brilliant debut album that proved soul can come from a white guy from County Wicklow in Ireland. Wasteland, Baby is a memorable sophomore effort that debuted at number one on the Billboard 200. I think he sets himself apart from the slew of neo soul artists breaking out lately because his voice is so powerful and his songwriting is quite memorable. I mean, did you know Take Me to Church is about a same-sex relationship? Anyway, best track off the new record is the first track featuring rock and roll hall of famer Mavis Staples called Nina Cried Power that’s a message about protest songs.
5. Father of the Bride — Vampire Weekend. Sometimes I’m not looking for hard hitting rock or smooth soul, but rather pure pop that makes me nod my head along. Ezra and his college boy friends write solid pop music and this album also benefits from the addition of Danielle Haim on several songs. I’ve always been a fan of their songs, but this album is good from top to bottom. And somehow, out of all the great music I listened to this year, this one got a Grammy nomination for best album. I think it’s very good, especially Harmony Hall and This Life.
4. Black Pumas — Black Pumas. I was sitting on the sofa one day a few months ago reading and listening to Music Choice Adult Alternative on the cable TV. I love this station because I often hear new music and on this particular afternoon I was struck by a song I’d never heard before called Black Moon Rising by a band called Black Pumas. I looked them up and found out this was their debut song and the story of their formation was really unique. Two years ago Austin-based guitarist Adrian Quesada was walking along the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica when he heard singer/guitarist Eric Burton busking and was blown away. He told him he was looking for a singer just like him for his new band and not long after Burton moved to Austin and Black Pumas was born. Fast forward to today and Black Pumas have released their self-titled debut album and this month they were nominated for a Grammy for best new artist. It’s a Hollywood story for sure, but truthfully their debut album is so damn good the Grammy nomination is just icing on the cake of what I’m sure is just the start for these guys. Black Pumas is soul and funk with a modern twist and I defy you to listen to their album and not feel compelled to get up and dance. Which is exactly what I did when I saw them a few weeks ago at a tiny club in Phoenix where they set the place on fire. If you listen to only one album on my Top 10 list make it this one.
3. On the Line — Jenny Lewis. The incomparable Jenny Lewis has been a staple on my year-end lists going back to her days with alt-country band Rilo Kiley. Truth be told, I’ve been a fan even longer than that as I remember her fondly from her role in the short-lived but wonderful CBS situation comedy Brooklyn Bridge on which she played teen love interest Katie Monahan. Jenny is a Renaissance woman who infuses country, rock and pop into a sound and look all her own. Her music is smart and funny, and hard to define. She usually gets put in the Americana category or sometimes the alt-country genre but no matter what you call her sound I adore it (and her). I was lucky enough to see her live a few weeks ago at the Van Buren where I was right up front and it was easily one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen. On The Line is a fabulous album that any fan of her music will love. If you’re not familiar with her sound and style, check out Rabbit Hole or Wasted Youth from her set on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
2. Let’s Rock — Black Keys. Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach have been together as the Black Keys for close to 20 years now and they have never disappointed me. Several of their records have topped my year-end list over the year and you should not be surprised to find at least one of their records from this decade high up on my soon-to-be-posted best of the decade list. Let’s Rock is classic Keys and it very nearly topped my list this year. It is aptly named as it consists of a dozen hard-rocking tracks. I literally love every song on the album, but here’s a couple I think stand out: Go and Tell Me Lies.
And my favorite album of 2019:
Social Cues — Cage the Elephant. I didn’t think much of Cage until 2015 when they released Tell Me I’m Pretty, an album produced by Dan Auerbach that infused their sound with a little taste of the Black Keys. This year they continued that sound with Social Cues and this is the one album I find myself listening to most this year. I think their updated sound is more mature and somehow both raw and polished at the same time. The band finally seems to be getting the attention it deserves, and while the Grammy selection committee still has no clue where to put them (this album was nominated for Best Rock Album this year when it should have been in the alternative category) it’s nice to see them get a nomination. Take a listen to Ready to Let Go or Night Running (with Beck on vocals) for a taste of this great record.