My Favorite Albums of 2019

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.


Favorite Albums of 2015

I think this year was a pretty decent year for music, despite the fact that the majority of my favorite artists did not release new albums. That simply meant I looked outside my sweet spot for new music and for someone my age that’s a good thing. No point in letting yourself get stale. A lot of people my age say there’s no good music out there anymore, but I couldn’t disagree more. You just have to look, or rather listen. I suppose I could play the same artists over and over and be happy, but for me the hunt is as fun as the catch. There’s a new documentary film out this year about the history of Tower Records called All Things Must Pass. And while I have not seen it yet, the trailer reminded me of how important Tower Records was to me in my youth. I literally considered hanging out at Tower Records a night out, flipping through the rows of LPs, talking with pierced and tatted employees about the latest records, copping a squat by the magazine rack looking through copies of NME and Rolling Stone. When I worked at a record store in college I expanded my musical tastes exponentially because I was able to be exposed to so much new music.

These days, SiriusXM has become my Tower Records. I can listen to my favorites from the 80s on First Wave, the 90s on Lithium, or rock on Classic Vinyl. But more often than not I tune into The Spectrum, and in addition to my favorites I hear new music by bands I’ve never heard of…and some of them stick. And some of them become my new favorites, like The National, Phoenix, Mumford and Sons and Arcade Fire. Even better, by subscribing to a streaming music service like Google Play I can listen to entire albums by new bands to go beyond the hit tracks and see if there’s more there. Or I can read about an artist on the web and give them a listen without making a commitment. Some of them turn out to be duds, but more than a few end up on my year-end favorites list. Which brings me back to my favorite albums of 2015, which consists of a nice mix of established artists and newer artists.

First, a few honorable mentions. I really liked the new Blur record The Magic Whip, especially on the heels of Damon Albarn’s amazing solo album from last year, Everyday Robots.  25 by Adele is exactly what we expected, and although for me it’s nowhere near as good as 19 and 21, it’s still Adele and it’s still wonderful. Sound & Color by Alabama Shakes is bluesy goodness. Squeeze delivered a nice little reminder of why Difford and Tilbrook will always be among the best songwriters in rock and roll history with their first new album in decades — Cradle to the Grave. And speaking of history, one of the biggest surprises of the year for me was Pete Townshend’s reinterpretation of Quadrophenia with the Royal Philharmonic — seriously, give this a listen. Kintsugi by Death Cab For Cutie is a solid (though not great) album by one of my favorite bands. Finally, while it won’t be released until Dec. 18, early indications are that I’m really going to like Cage the Elephant’s Tell Me I’m Pretty (which was produced by Dan Auerbach). And now, here are my 10 favorite albums of 2015:

10. Beneath the Skin by Of Monsters and Men —  This follow-up to the Icelandic band’s first album, 2012’s My Head is an Animal, is really great. It’s quite a bit more mellow than their debut, which was one of my favorite albums of 2012. While it’s probably a disappointment sales-wise following the huge success of My Head is an Animal (which sold more than two million copies), it nevertheless delivers the same lovely and moving sound of Nanna Hilmarsdóttir’s voice.

9. Return to the Moon by El Vy — What a happy surprise  it was when I heard Return to the Moon on the radio the first time and couldn’t believe The National had a new album out that I didn’t know about. Well, turns out it was indeed The National’s Matt Berninger on lead vocals but it was a side project not a new album by one of my favorite bands. I don’t know what it is these days, but musical collaboration seems to be on the rise. I have to admit I wasn’t familiar with Brent Knopf before hearing this album, but I’m sure glad he and Matt decided to do an album together.

8. California Nights by Best Coast — Lead singer Bethany Cosentino cited Gwen Stefani, Sugar Ray and the Go Go’s as influences for California Nights and the result is pure California pop goodness. I don’t hear much No Doubt in the album, but there’s most definitely a Go Go’s vibe and frankly a Beach Boys vibe. This is Best Coast’s third studio album and the second to make my year-end list. They are the perfect example of a band I never would have found without doing some work — and I’m so glad I did.

7. A Head Full of Dreams by Coldplay — I’m an unapologetic fan of all things Coldplay but even I have to admit last year’s Ghost Stories album was a disappointment. And I was as surprised as everyone else when Coldplay announced a new album this fall, and I was skeptical, but after just a few listens I really like it. It’s upbeat with a bit of a dance edge and has 11 really solid songs on it, especially the disco-infused title track. Welcome back Chris and friends.

6. All Your Favorite Bands by Dawes — This band from Los Angeles tend to get put in the “folk rock” category but I think they are in a category of their own I like to call “California Cool.” I probably did not coin that genre, but it fits. Think 1970s California soft rock — Jackson Browne and the Eagles. This is perfect music for cruising up the coast in a convertible, which is exactly what I was doing when I discovered Dawes a few years ago. I hope your brother’s El Camino runs forever.

5. Love Stuff by Elle King — Quite the debut album from 26-year-old Tanner Elle Schneider, aka Elle King. With a huge voice and a bad-ass attitude to go along with it, King is the anti-Taylor Swift and wants you to know it. She may not be America’s Sweetheart, but she’ll be around for a long time if she keeps writing songs like Ex’s and Oh’s. I can envision dad Rob Schneider sitting up in the balcony yelling “you can do it.”

4. Yours, Dreamily by The Arcs — Released on Sept. 4 (my son’s birthday), this album featuring the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach did not disappoint. Yes, it sounds like the Keys, but if you’ve read my favorite albums lists over the past decade you already know how much I love the Black Keys. This solo project has a nice blues/soul feel that is a little less raw than the Keys, and while “Outta My Mind” could have easily been a hit for the Keys, my favorite tracks are deeper on the album, especially Put a Flower in Your Pocket. Recorded at the Sound Factory in LA, this album got a lot of plays on my stereo this fall.

3. Positive Songs for Negative People by Frank Turner — In 2013 I kept hearing this song on XM called Recovery by Frank Turner and it really grew on me. I had never heard of Turner but I listened to the whole album and really liked it. This year Turner released his sixth album and I really love it. Turner’s music is acoustic post-punk folk with a hard edge and great lyrics. I’m sure fans of his early work think he is too mellow these days, but there’s nothing wrong with being more accessible.

2. Wilder Mind by Mumford & Sons — Babel was my favorite album of 2012 and it is sure to land high on the list of my favorite records of the decade, so imagine how excited I was when the band announced it would release its third album in 2015 but that it would be more modern and would not include the banjo. What! The Mumfords without a banjo? Sacrilege! Guess what? Wilder Minds is tremendous and I think Believe is probably my favorite Mumford & Sons song ever. So they evolved. What’s wrong with that? I absolutely love Wilder Mind and listen to it all the time, and almost six months later I still turn the volume up when Believe or The Wolf comes on the radio.

1. What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World by The Decemberists — 2015 began with this gift from the Decemberists and the album never stopped delivering. Frankly, it wasn’t even close this year — this album is head and shoulders above the rest for me. I was fortunate as well to see them live early this year and they were spectacular.  Make You Better was easily my favorite song of the year, and the lesser known and hauntingly beautiful Lake Song stands out as well. The Decemberists have firmly planted themselves near the top of my list of favorite bands and I look forward to many years of new music from Colin and the band.

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