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.


My Favorite Albums of 2016

I’m not sure what happened to 2016. In the annals of bad years, 2016 will go down in infamy. We lost Prince and Bowie. We lost Muhammad Ali and Gordie Howe. Gene Wilder and Alan Rickman. Harper Lee and Pat Conroy. Garry Shandling and Garry Marshall. And then we elected Donald J. Trump to the most powerful job in the world. 2016 pretty much sucked (and it’s not quite over yet).

So why should I be surprised that for the first time in decades of compiling my favorite albums of the year I struggled to find 10 albums to make the list? For whatever reason, most of my favorite artists didn’t release new albums this year. And while we did get one magical farewell album from one of the greatest of all time, this year’s lot (for me anyway) would make Ziggy Stardust catch the first rocket back to from wherever he came.

That said, all is not lost. I’m pleased to report I did manage to find 10 albums that I liked enough to make a list this year. I’m tempted not to put them in any order, but like they say, no guts no glory. So here goes:

10. Sturgill Simpson —  A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. Has hell frozen over? Is that, dear lord, a country album in a Len Gutman top 10 list? I’ll be the first to admit I had no idea who Sturgill Simpson was until his incredible cover of Nirvana’s In Bloom started making the rounds on the Interwebs. The song gives me goosebumps every time I hear it and I knew I had to listen to the whole album when it came out. Admittedly, Simpson is not your typical twangy pop country crap — he is described as alt country or outlaw country. Whatever you call it, the man has chops and can write a song.  A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is a really soulful album that was inspired by his young son. Frankly, any album that features the Dap Kings is alright in my book.

9. Band of Horses — Why are you OK? It’s been six years since Infinite Arms made my top 10 list and truthfully I haven’t listened to much BOH since then. Something made me listen to this year’s Why are you OK? and I’m really happy I did. This Seattle band known for its Americana sound is definitely worth exploring, like this Casual Party.

8. Kaiser Chiefs — Stay Together. I didn’t know much about Leeds, UK band Kaiser Chiefs until I listened to Stay Together and I have to say they fall right in my sweet spot. I really love 80s inspired bands like Franz Ferdinand, Phoenix and The Kooks and Kaiser Chiefs fits the mold. I am definitely going back to listen to some of their older records to hear what I’ve been missing. In the meantime, check out Parachute from Stay Together.

7. Fitz and the Tantrums —Fitz and the Tantrums. The self-titled third album from Fitz and the Tantrums is another great dance album filled with that unmistakable Fitz sound. I make no apologies for loving these guys and while I certainly didn’t like this album as much as the band’s first two I did enjoy it. I was also fortunate to see them live this year for the fourth time in the past few years and you’re simply not going to find a more enjoyable live concert experience. Bring your dancing shoes and don’t forget to clap your hands to the beat.

6. Red Hot Chili Peppers — The Getaway. The Chili Peppers’ first album came out in 1984, the year I graduated from high school. I have to admit that over the years I’ve had a love/hate relationship with them. I didn’t like them early on, although here and there a song caught my attention. It wasn’t until 2002’s By The Way that I was really hooked, and I played that album over and over for years. By the time Stadium Arcadium came out in 2006; however, I’d cooled on them and that’s the way it stayed until the first time I heard Dark Necessities this summer. Oh man, that song stuck in my ear and when the full album was released I was a Chili Peppers fan again! Credit goes to Brian Burton (AKA Danger Mouse), who produced The Getaway, and put his unmistakable stamp on it. Damn, that guy knows how to make an album.

5. Bob Mould — Patch the Sky. You’ve got to appreciate a guy who finds his sound early on and sticks with it. When you hear Bob Mould there’s no mistaking it. Whether you first found him back in the 80s with Hüsker Dü or in the 90s with Sugar, I venture to guess that if you’re a Mould fan you like it all — as I do. So it really wasn’t a huge surprise when Patch the Sky came out in March and it was vintage Mould. If you are a fan and haven’t heard it yet I urge you to give it a listen and start with Voices in my Head. If you’re not a fan, you probably weren’t alive in the 80s!

4. The Temper Trap — Thick as Thieves. If you listened to music in 2009 you undoubtedly heard The Temper Trap’s huge hit Sweet Disposition, which went Gold in the U.S. and Platinum in the U.K. and the band’s home of Australia. But like me, you may have thought they were a one-hit wonder. Yes, they’ve been going strong down under since then, but Thick as Thieves should really put them back on the map around the world. The Temper Trap has a great sound that is one part modern and another part 80s throwback. I’ve listened to this record a lot since it came out this summer and it is solid all the way through, including this great track Fall Together.

3. Dawes — We’re All Gonna Die. Rarely does a band place back-to-back records on my favorite albums list, but this year following on the heels of 2015’s wonderful All Your Favorite Bands comes We’re All Gonna Die. I just love their sound, which has been described as having a Laurel Canyon vibe. Dawes is the kind of band that’s perfect for listening to while sitting on your patio on a warm day with a cold beer. Like I said last year, Dawes is an unabashed throwback to the likes of Fleetwood Mac, Joni Mitchell and Jackson Brown. Kick back and just Roll with the Punches.

2. Kings of Leon — Walls. I couldn’t get enough of KoL during the Only by the Night and Come Around Sundown years, but I cooled on the Followill boys in 2013 when Mechanical Bull came out. I liked it, but I didn’t love it, and in truth they were pretty overexposed there for a while. So my expectations were low when Walls came out this autumn, and maybe that’s what did it for me. Walls is KoL’s best album since 2008’s Only by the Night and since it just came out a few week’s ago I expect it will get even more ingrained in my head as time goes on. All due respect to the top album on my list this year (it deserves all the accolades it gets), Walls is really my favorite record of 2016. Take a listen to Waste a Moment and tell me I’m not right!

1. David Bowie — Blackstar. What can you say about Blackstar that hasn’t already been written? For Bowie fans it was a surprise farewell album that upon his death just a few days after its release left us stunned and in awe of the man’s genius. Who else but Bowie could have written an album about his own impending death with such grace and style. Blackstar is dark and moody, but the message is clear — his time was up. I challenge anyone not to get chills watching the video for Lazarus. Ironically, I had been listening to a lot of Bowie in the months prior to his death and I was critical of myself for not having dived deeper into the man’s discography earlier in my life. That changed in the weeks following his death as I listened to Bowie nonstop and will continue to do so until my own star is extinguished. I suspect Blackstar will take home plenty of Grammy Awards and will go down in history as the best swan song ever written. I’m not going to argue it wasn’t the best album of an otherwise mediocre year.

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