20. Katie Dey – solipsisters [Run For Cover]
In an interview with the Fader, Melbourne-based bedroom-pop songstress Katie Dey talked about her predilection for distorted, pitch-shifted vocal effects: “It was a way of relieving dysphoria,” she said, “and making my own music more palatable for me to listen to so that it didn’t upset me — like putting an Instagram filter on your face.” That filtered sound was crucial to her memorable 2016 album flood network –– the way her voice was often too warped to make out her lyrics is part of its hypnagogic beauty –– but with solipsisters Dey takes a less abstract approach to her vocals. She continues to play around, always toying with new manners of digital manipulation, but here her voice is clearer, higher in the mix, and as such her raw, incisive lyrics are at the fore. “I was born inside this body, and I’m stuck there,” she warbles on “stuck,” backed by a drum machine rhythm built on jerky eighth-note tom hits. “I’m a storm inside a rotting false construction.” This note of despair is tempered later, as she tries to imagine an escape from her own body-cage: “if we abandoned our shells,” she wonders, “do you think anyone could tell / who we were?” It’s a question that seems to suggest a duality, the liberation of breaking free from the confines of one’s body contrasted with the frightening reality that comes with stepping out from behind the protective toughness of one’s “shell.” This sort of raw, emotional vulnerability makes solipsisters a powerfully moving listen, and Dey’s singular abilities as a writer and producer only enhance the experience. – Brendan Nagle
19. Priests – The Seduction of Kansas [Sister Polygon]
It’s no secret that Priests’ sophomore album was difficult to make. Reduced to a trio of vocalist Katie Alice Greer, guitarist G.L. Jaguar, and drummer Daniele Daniele, Priests were forced to rethink their entire creative approach and nearly fell apart in the process. The band even went so far as to hire a band therapist to help them get their shit together. All of this could spell trouble for a band trying to follow up a highly acclaimed debut, but Priests managed to overcome it all to birth The Seduction of Kansas, a rousing album that shreds and shimmies across twelve tracks of smart, danceable music.
Listening to Kansas, one gets the impression that Priests took all the stress and tension they were dealing with and poured it into the music. There’s a low-level hum of discomfort that writhes through songs that explore toxic masculinity (“Jesus’ Son” and “Control Freak”), corrupt politicians (“Good Time Charlie”) and the pliability of so-called “real Americans” (“The Seduction of Kansas”). Working with producer John Congleton, the band buttressed the fiery, punky textures of their debut with atmospheric production and cold, post-punk grooves. Jaguar’s guitar radiates with an extraterrestrial energy while Daniele’s insistent drumming pulses and Greer (and occasionally Daniele) struts, growls, wails and croons over it all. It simultaneously burns hot and cold, like a dying supernova sending one last blast of energy from the furthest reaches of space. And now, with the news of Priests’ impending hiatus, Kansas is the last message from the dying supernova that was Priests. It’s a hell of a way to go out. – Eric Mellor
18. The National – I Am Easy to Find [4AD]
Is there a more consistently great band working today than The National? Despite what some naysayers may grumble, every one of their albums holds a unique spot and sound in their excellent discography. I Am Easy to Find is no exception. It’s the light reflection of the dark undertones of Sleep Well Beast. While that record expanded the band’s sound into dirty digital glitches, the follow-up adds light electronic touches to counter the heavy piano chords and blood-pumping percussion that are The National’s bread and butter. It’s the sound of enjoying a breezy day in the sun with a heavy heart, or the reckless joy of speeding down a highway in an attempt to outrun tragedy.
For an album focused on the journey of one woman’s life, in all its wonder, heartache, elation, melancholy and love, singer Matt Berninger shares and cedes the spotlight to an array of fantastic female singers. This new addition helps to breathe additional life into already stunning songs. “Oblivions” works wonderfully when it’s two people holding tightly onto each other, their trust a shield against fear of the future. The wordless vocal melodies that end the title track say more than any lyrics could. The heavenly chorus of “Not in Kansas” acts as a balm to Berninger’s despondent ramblings. All of these examples and more show a band in a constant state of evolution. That’s why The National are always easy to find. Just look for the nexus between the familiar and the unexpected. – Joe Marvilli
17. Sunn O))) – Life Metal [Southern Lord]
Recorded over two weeks on analogue tape with super-producer Steve Albini watching over the boards, Life Metal marks the most vivid and, well, life-affirming release in the 20-year catalogue of Sunn O))). Both vibrant and deep in its layering of sound, Life Metal – the title is a pun that marks the reversal Sunn O))) is trying to pull off here – is an immersive work of sonic invention. It is also a mature and meditative exploration of what it feels like to be alive.
Every corner of the album is rich with texture. The movement of the riffs is glacial, making the experience of listening to Life Metal akin to slowly exploring an intricate and cavernous grotto. In stripping away vocals almost entirely, Sunn O))) have refocused the listener’s attention on the movement of the compositions. The band have always plumbed the depths of metal and drone in search of the electric point of their connection, but on Life Metal they have managed the much more difficult feat of documenting that very exploration and capturing the energy of the search. This is still of a piece with their decades-long project of deconstruction, but the centrality of the practice of playing music makes for a masterful work of near-zen obliteration. – Ian Maxton
16. Thom Yorke – ANIMA [XL]
Despite being the head of one of the most important and talented bands of the last 30 years, Thom Yorke’s growth as a solo artist has been a long process of finding steady ground. From the Radiohead-lite The Eraser to the somewhat forgettable Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, Yorke’s solo output has felt unmoored and unsatisfied, almost mechanical. You’d be forgiven for thinking his third album, ANIMA, would be yet another futile attempt to make music without the specter of his day job hanging just overhead.
Except, that’s not what ANIMA turned out to be. Instead, inspired by the loopwork of Flying Lotus and created with the help of longtime producer Nigel Godrich, he finally grabbed onto something that felt fully-formed, that didn’t need a Greenwood, Selway, or O’Brien to make it work. These songs move in uneasy but entirely addicting ways, transporting his characteristic songwriting into a world where a song’s atmosphere is just as important as the beats. In the case of “Dawn Chorus” – Yorke’s greatest solo song to date – those beats take a backseat to his own need to crawl inward and process his own grief.
The end result of all of this is that these songs feel strangely inviting, a feat considering how uneasy they can be. ANIMA shows us Yorke turning a corner and making an album worthy of his own stature, inventive and addicting and immaculately produced, all tied together with Yorke’s fantastic songwriting. If Radiohead ever split up – and here’s hoping they never do – at least ANIMA is here to help us feel safe knowing that he can make work this compelling without them. – Holly Hazelwood
15. Matana Roberts- Coin Coin Chapter Four: Memphis [Constellation]
It’s astonishing that four albums into a singular artistic project, Matana Roberts continues to push her boundaries further and that the art has only gotten more potent with each release. There have been few artistic endeavors this decade that grapple so gracefully and powerfully with themes so intellectually, emotionally and historically challenging.
Memphis closes out this decade of Roberts’ massive project with a piece that feels cumulative of the three that preceded it and extending the scope of Coin Coin even further. Roberts re-integrates the sonic elements of free jazz, gospel and collage, and she introduces American folk features to set listeners deep into the album’s titular locale. With the addition of these regional sounds – instruments like the fiddle, jaw harp and an electric guitar – Roberts’ and her band embark on a continuously flowing composition rife with improvisations that run from raucous and cathartic to hypnotic and sprawling, and a masterfully unfolding narrative of familial trauma and self-actualization that reemphasizes everything the Coin Coin series has been about up to this point.
Regardless of what Roberts may do with the eight remaining pieces in Coin Coin, she has left an overwhelming mark on the 2010s musical landscape. Memphis sets a new peak for Roberts’ work by continuing along the path of exploring the concepts of self, history, memory and America with unflinching bravery and intense emotional honesty. – Evan Welsh
14. Fire-Toolz – Field Whispers (Into the Crystal Palace) [Orange Milk]
After two incredible releases on the Chicago-based Hausu Mountain, Angel Marcloid brought her Fire-Toolz project to the esteemed Orange Milk label for Field Whispers (Into the Crystal Palace). While her electronic collages and bleeding love for the harmonies and sounds of jazz fusion might still sound alarming to the uninitiated, Field Whispers was a more refined approach than her previous releases. Marcloid’s steady rise over the last five years reached a peak with this, her most critically acclaimed and cohesive project to date.
Some of Field Whispers’ most memorable moments were its breeziest, such as the beautiful synthesizer chorale “April Snowstorms (Idyllic Mnemonic)” or the “Hologram of a Composite (World of Objects).” Here, the Romantic ethos at the heart of Marcloid’s music shines. Between the holistic philosophy of the track titles and the sweeping electronic soundscapes, the music of Fire-Toolz reached new levels of bizarro empathy and compositional nuance. Along with the bits of wacked-out, post-digital sound constructions, Field Whispers felt like the most cohesive and perfectly sequenced release from Marcloid yet.
Field Whispers was enough to make Marcloid’s music stand out this year, saying nothing of equally fantastic releases under her Nonlocal Forecast and MindSpring Memories monikers, as well as a host of mastering jobs for equally bizarre and enriching artists (w i n t e r q u i l t 愛が止ま, CAR, etc.). All of it is worth diving into, and Field Whispers is a perfect introduction to the increasingly deep world of Marcloid’s musical mind. – Connor Lockie
13. Angel Olsen – All Mirrors [Jagjaguwar]
Musically, Angel Olsen’s story is one of slow, consistent evolution. She’s not one for throwing curveballs; each album feels like a natural progression from the previous one, as if she’s driven by the need for each new piece of music to sound grander than what came before it. That having been established, no one could have seen All Mirrors coming. Initially intended as a bare-bones collection of songs written in near-isolation, the album that Angel Olsen ended up releasing in 2019 is her most lush, orchestrated piece of music to date.
The massive-sounding orchestra and keys that form the basis for most of the songs on All Mirrors reflect the level of emotion that Olsen is playing with here. Olsen described the album as “angry,” and while All Mirrors doesn’t properly explode the way one would think, there’s a palpable tension throughout. The walls of reverb make the songs sound like the soundtrack to the end of the world, but Olsen is wry, despondent, resilient and angry in equal parts. Far from being a solemn, monochromatic record, All Mirrors uses its window dressing to disguise a plethora of unresolved feelings, the sort of stuff that everyone innately understands but only a select few can craft into art. – Kevin Korber
12. Danny Brown – uknowwhatimsayin¿ [Warp]
Danny Brown took his outrageousness as far as it could go on [Atrocity Exhibition]. To match his newly found clean-cut image, he reigns himself in on [uknowwhatimsayin¿], his follow-up and second album on Warp, under the tutelage of executive producer Q-Tip and and prominently featuring the work of his beat-maker of choice Paul White. His tendency to more mature themes is indicated on the dragged out groove that underpins the defiant opening cut “Change Up” (“Can’t even think, got my mind wrapped up/ But I still bite down, punch my teeth, knuckle up”). “Shine” (a collaboration with White, Blood Orange and Standing on the Corner) plods along with heavy bass hits, highlighting Brown’s world-weariness and age-awareness. Cameos from Flying Lotus, Thundercat, Run the Jewels and JPEGMAFIA see Brown turn up like he did on previous works, and, while this is old hat, Brown’s flow is delivered with expert precision.
Tip takes the reins on three of the album’s tracks, intermingled with the remaining cuts. The staccato keys, free jazz sax and persistent beat on “Dirty Laundry” are unmistakable, and underplay Brown’s sexual deviancy and free advertising for detergents. Off-kilter soul illuminates “Best Life” as Brown ruminates over the early stages of his rap career and past misdeeds. “Combat,” however, is the killer final blow. Jabbering, raspy horns amplify the track’s upper register while Brown spits in his deeper voice before his inflection jerks upward with increasing urgency, recanting a dangerous path from happy-go-lucky to tormented (“Listen, all a nigga wanted was a Chevy on some Daytons/ Wasn’t thinkin’ ’bout no lawyer, nigga, fuck savin’/ Didn’t know we’d see them horrors like Wes Craven”). The song is bookended with chatter from 80 Blocks from Tiffany’s, a documentary about South Bronx gang members, which provided a name to “Savage Nomad” – a seemingly minor detail that reminds you that Brown is an auteur who deliberates over the minutia of his art. – Danny Kilmartin
11. Solange – When I Get Home [Columbia]
You need a certain suspension of disbelief to approach Solange Knowles’ fourth album – maybe not a willingness to believe in magic, but something in that ballpark. She sings “I saw things I imagined” no less than 16 times in the record’s first minute, sometimes drawing one word out for emphasis, other times retreating jazzily into her throat. If it sounds absurd, this might not be the album for you, but if you feel the album deepening a little bit with each repetition, you’re ready to be swallowed by the warm cocoon Solange spins from her free associations and memories of home.
Solange conjures her native Houston in part through musical and geographical cues – the low moan of chopped-and-screwed music, a feature from Devin the Dude, the black cowboy fantasia of its full-album video. But mostly, the sense of being home comes from the music itself, which seems to envelop the listener through the pads and keyboards that flutter between the snap of her snares. Words are hesitantly repeated, and her voice never floats above a faraway coo. This is simple, healing, wholesome music. Those still skeptical of pop as an art form might see the avant-gardism on display as Knowles’ way of cutting corners. An interlude deep on the album lands as a preemptive response to criticism: “Do nothing without intention.” – Daniel Bromfield
10. Charly Bliss – Young Enough [Barsuk]
If Charly Bliss’ debut album, Guppy, brought a propulsive alt-rock sound to emotionally-resonant lyrics, then Young Enough both deepens and widens the band’s sound and style. The group leans heavily into a synth-fused, blood-on-the-dance-floor vibe, with a strong punch beneath the gloss. Rather than hiding their vulnerability, the new sound accents it. This is pop music with heart, soul and a bottomless well of empathy. Eva Hendricks has a remarkable talent for turning small moments of life into personal odes that are bolstered by undeniable earworm melodies. “Blown to Bits” turns last year’s false missile incident in Hawaii into a lament at all the little wonders that would be lost if the world ends. On “Camera,” she wonders if reporting a stolen credit card purchase has prevented a masterpiece, a tragedy or neither.
But when Hendricks takes on deeply personal struggles and trauma, the impact is tremendous and cathartic. The bubbly synths and tremoring bass of “Capacity” finds her trying to protect herself from the draining forces of negative people in her life. “Chatroom” is a purging of toxicity from a sexual assault she experienced. The slow-building, epic title track reflects on the pain of a loving relationship falling apart. For all these songs, Charly Bliss reach out to make your feet move and your eyes water. It’s a passionate, resonant album for anyone who wants to dance through their pain and find joy on the other side. – Joe Marvilli
9. Bill Callahan – Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest [Drag City]
Bill Callahan slows down the sweep of human life to a crawl, luxuriating in the moments that make it worth living. Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest is the most comfortable rock record of this year and most others, a sumptuous evocation of his happy marriage to filmmaker Hanly Banks, and its 20 songs open up onto each other like rooms in a vast, carpeted, slightly dusty mansion as steel guitars and upright basses creak and moan like the “imitation Eames” in the singer’s living room. Callahan’s singing, low and steady as ever, is like a long exhale, and his lyrics are about small miracles: being able to write, hearing the howling of wolves outside, watching the sweep of the sky pass by through a plane window, being alive and making music.
It’s music about happiness, and it’s as escapist as the most absurd luxury rap. But what gives Shepherd its prickly nuance is the one ear Callahan always has tuned to the past and the future. The once-notorious playboy is tamed now, and he’s watchful of the beast that might still slumber within this happy man. And then, of course, is the suggestion that if contentment is the final chapter in one’s life, maybe happiness is a series of moments leading nowhere. “What comes after certainty?” asks Callahan midway through the record. He receives no answer. – Daniel Bromfield
8. The Mountain Goats – In League with Dragons [Merge]
The Mountain Goats could comfortably make a home in any number of worlds, and they do just that on In League with Dragons. The band continues to expand its sound, songwriter John Darnielle bringing in support to tackle creative arrangements on wizard-worthy cuts. The record began as a sort of concept album, but it grew into something else, a strange core of a fantasy land remaining, but reaching tentacles out into our reality. Darnielle sings of wizards and kings and navigators, but he also sings of country music fans and baseball players. The two realities sit less in juxtaposition than they do in empathy.
The album, besides being wonderful conceptually as a whole, contains some of the group’s most memorable individual cuts. The groove of “Younger” gets a boost from Matt Douglas’ saxophone solo. “Doc Gooden” opens with a fantastic hook before diving into the pitcher’s attempted comeback. “Cadaver Sniffing Dog” sounds like an urgent investigation, and its successor “An Antidote for Strychnine” turns both sad and creepy. The tracks accumulate meaning and emotional weight. By the time the disc closes with “Sicilian Crest,” we’re all in need of relief, which Darnielle undercuts by giving us a questionable deliverer. In League with Dragons can be catchy, smart, and devastating, often all at once. The Mountain Goats have pushed themselves and, in doing so, have created one of the strongest works in their lengthy catalog. – Justin Cober-Lake
7. Sharon Van Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow [Jagjaguwar]
Over the past decade, Sharon Van Etten effectively mastered the art of subtle songwriting; even her loudest, most explosive songs were filled with quick lyrical turns of phrase, subterfuge to express what she felt she needed to without necessarily revealing too much. However, we currently live in decidedly unsubtle times, and getting older has a habit of making one more plainspoken, especially when looking back at one’s past mistakes the way Van Etten does here. In many ways, Remind Me Tomorrow is an album that toys around with nostalgia in both its lyrics and arrangements, yet what makes the album resonate is Van Etten’s refusal to give in to nostalgia wholly.
Sorrow is a key emotional element to Van Etten’s music as a whole, but Remind Me Tomorrow refocuses that sorrow in an interesting way. Whereas Van Etten lamented her past mistakes on previous albums with a sense of fresh wounds, here she sounds more bemused than outright sad. Time has healed some of the wounds, and while songs like “Comeback Kid” and “Seventeen” still soar with raw, searing emotion, they’re clearly the work of a mature songwriter looking back at the life she’s lived and taking it all in. It’s an album that embraces the mistakes of youth while displaying the maturity necessary not to romanticize those mistakes. Even for an artist as consistently brilliant as Sharon Van Etten, Remind Me Tomorrow is something special. – Kevin Korber
6. Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride [Columbia]
For their first album in six years – and first without founding member/sonic architect Rostam Batmanglij – Vampire Weekend pulled out all the stops to create their most ambitious outing to date. Eighteen tracks clocking in just under an hour, Father of the Bride manages to distill the best of VW into an immediately accessible, hook-laden package that shows the band continuing to grow whilst building on their previous successes. Musically it’s of a piece with their prior outings – albeit without Batmanglij’s distinctive sonic footprint – borrowing bits and pieces of the band’s previous incarnations to create something that feels like the logical evolution of where they’ve been headed for more than a decade, albeit stripped to its poppiest essence.
Gone are the esoteric instrumental flourishes, replaced by music both highly individualistic – there’s no mistaking VW for any other band, particularly given frontman Ezra Koenig’s strangled yelp – and openly welcoming. “Harmony Hall” opens on a gently undulating acoustic guitar figure that finds Koenig’s voice virtually unchanged from the band’s 2008 debut, slowly building into a rolling bit of triumphant pop euphoria. “This Life” takes a similar approach, opening with an electric guitar line that sounds like a deconstructed take on “A-Punk” or “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” lending the song a self-referential tone that not only immediately paints it as a VW song, but shows it to be worthy of the upper echelon of the band’s already stellar catalog.
The presence of Danielle Haim on three tracks and Steve Lacy on two show the band looking beyond their insular walls for fresh ideas and inspiration. In this, Father of the Bride is the already-accessible band’s most accessible work to date and yet another near-flawless entry in one of the most unimpeachable catalogs of 21st century pop music, indie or otherwise. – John Paul
5. Tyler, the Creator – IGOR [Columbia]
For all of the attention paid to Drake and Kanye’s impact on hip-hop this decade, arguably no one embodied the seismic shifts in the genre’s sound and underlying mood than Odd Future. Assembled as a group of brash teenagers whose untamed skills collided harshly with the immaturity natural to to their youth, the collective has since splintered into a group of constantly developing, self-revising artists who have bridged what gaps remained between hip-hop, R&B and soul while exploring frank questions of sexuality. For none of the crew has this been more shocking than Tyler, the Creator, who started out as a controversy-baiting, slur-slinging enfant terrible, only to gradually morph into a sensitive, searching musician increasingly comfortable with his own identity. IGOR manages to top 2017’s Flower Boy as an expression of this developed honesty and openness, even as he continues to push his sound into unpredictable paths. A concept album about the messiness of a bisexual love triangle, IGOR captures the sidewinding loops of heartache, of the way that the same bad patterns can repeat endlessly while feeling different every time. Tyler’s voice, electronically bolstered but in ways that only emphasize the fragility of his delivery, cast the title character in terms of his pleading mood swings, which can turn from cooing to furious in the space of only a few bars. Somehow, all of this sounds effervescent and made for summer play. Once the most impish of rising rappers, Tyler has become one of the most soulful, forward-thinking artists of his generation. – Jake Cole
4. FKA twigs – Magdalene [Young Turks]
Just throwing it out there, but Magdalene may be the most well versed album to ever grace our dying planet. Lyrically, there are references to – at the very least – the Bible (not just Mary Magdalene but also Eve, Moses, Satan and the Revelation of St. John the Divine), Frank Ocean, Kate Bush and Moonlight. Musically? Holy Christ. On top of the Björk and (burning) Bush, there are traces of Just Blaze, Mas Ysa, Holly Herndon, The-Dream, Jamie xx, Bando Jonez, Julianna Barwick and Under the Skin. Also, Future shows up. (Insert Magda-lean joke here.)
“Well versed” can also refer to how fluently the LP echoes back unto itself. The fresh fruits of “Home with You” (“apples, cherries, pain, breathing”) attract fruit flies by the time we get to “Daybed.” Her blue skin from “Holy Terrain” bursts towards her lover’s blue heart on “Mary Magdalene.” And those “Thousand Eyes” from the album’s start become the thousand I’s of its conclusion. “IIIIIIIIIIII just want to feel you’re there,” she pines.
This miraculous collection of songs is engraved in the ledger of eternal loneliness. A love is wrapped in plastic, left to die. All the people in love are just reminders of an absence. Exiting the room will lead to certain death. In fact, all nine tracks take place inside that room’s four walls – doors, windows, daybed and all. FKA Twigs becomes both mystic and monk, able to channel visions of “true nature” and vanquished foes from the cacti-riddled wasteland of a chamber for one.
There’s a tendency, this millennium so far, to worry about screen time and virtual distractions from the real, but Magdalene contends that an opened mind has diversions enough to send the mind spiraling. Wait inside and see. – Jeff Heinzl
3. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Ghosteen [Ghosteen Ltd.]
Grief can come in surprising bursts. It can come in slowly unspooling moments. It can be an overwhelming force or an unlikely element in a growing hope. Across the wide span of Nick Cave’s Ghosteen, it takes all sorts of forms, but Cave unceasingly shapes it – and related meditations – into challenging art. The album sounds beautiful, but it delivers a special sort of hurt. The two characteristics don’t contradict each other. In the structure, in the language, in the very prettiness, heartbreak springs eternal. Cave and the Bad Seeds pull all these parts into something formally tight and emotionally remarkable.
Writing in the long shadow of his son’s death, Cave doesn’t stick to a single-note, though. To think of Ghosteen simply as a record of loss or as an exercise in morbidity would be to miss the point. Even finding the point might miss the point. Across two discs and all the words, across memory that piles up like so much dirty treasure, Cave looks both inward and outward with incredible scope. But while he brings forth something limitless, he also circumscribes it by linking the two discs, imagery and language recurring through the songs. The reappearances of various ideas deepen the meaning, opening a complexity in interpretation that rewards focused listening. In his process, Cave hints at transcendence, looks for meaning and maybe even finds a little hope, or at least a way forward. Ghosteen, in all its brokenness, unveils beauty and rich artistry in a profound and ongoing exploration. – Justin Cober-Lake
2. Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell! [Polydor/Interscope]
Though she may be loath to hear it, Lana Del Rey has always projected a composed image, one filtered through the cigarette smoke of some imagined era of noir. Norman Fucking Rockwell! takes its name from one of America’s premier mythologists of the mundane, yet at first blush the painter’s sentimentality could not be further removed from Del Rey’s narcotized neo-femme fatale. Peer within, however, and one finds the most bracing reminder yet that, whatever the artist’s look and sound conjures in one’s head, she has never once been insincere. All signs pointed to this on standout single “Venice Bitch,” which hit shelves a full year before its attendant album; the mammoth 10-minute odyssey recapitulated Del Rey’s knack for intuitive lyrical impressionism around a warm, throwback psych-pop sound so blissful that it made you wonder how she ever got pegged as ironic. Not unlike Florence and the Machine, Del Rey swapped arch, baroque pop for a sunny throwback that fit so well it was hard to believe that wasn’t her sound all along. Even so, the album digs into the very image that Del Rey once projected, teasing out the honest appraisal of down-and-out character sketches that suddenly brought her into sharp focus as a storyteller of malaise-ridden snapshots who could have collaborated with Billy Joel in his prime. Here, those smaller portraits add up to a full tapestry of uncertainty and gloom that reflects the underbelly that is barely even hidden from America’s rosiest image of itself. – Jake Cole
1. Purple Mountains – Purple Mountains [Drag City]
When David Berman – frontperson of Purple Mountains – announced his return to music a decade after the end of his beloved band Silver Jews, it felt like the music world had gotten back one of its great heroes. Once released, Purple Mountains painted a complicated portrait of the singer: his marriage was falling apart, his mother was gone and life seemed to be in general shambles. “Day to day, I’m neck and neck with giving in/ I’m the same old wreck I’ve always been,” he sang on opener “That’s Just the Way That I Feel.”
Any other writer might tackle that destruction with sorrow and melancholy, but Berman talked about it with humor and brilliance, transforming seemingly pedestrian language into something that seemed to be designed to help exorcise the powerful demons he was grappling with. Every song, from the melancholy “Nights That Won’t Happen” to the bouncy “Darkness and Cold,” feels like a cry for help. In the wake of Berman’s suicide, it became clear that it wasn’t just a record – it was an attempt to catalogue the process of accepting defeat, one that might help anyone going through the the same turmoil.
How could any other album in 2019 compare to that? It’s almost unfair to the competition. But Purple Mountains deserves it not just because of Berman’s death, but because underneath all the failure, you can still see someone still working to make things better. If you listen to the stunning “Snow Is Falling in Manhattan,” it’s obvious that Berman knew the power of what he was making: “Songs build little rooms in time/ And housed within the song’s design/ Is the ghost the host has left behind.” Even with one foot out the door and entrenched in sorrow, only he could write a line like that. – Holly Hazelwood