They say once you hit 33 your musical taste is pretty much set in your musical taste is pretty much set in stone Finding new musicians to love is unlikely, and if you do, there’s only a slim chance you’ll find them outside of your musical comfort zone.
Some quick caveats: I’m choosing here as a fan, not as a reviewer; these choices are in no particular order; and I’m not trying to round up the year in music, just share some of my year in music. If you like any of these songs, or know of any you think I’d like, get in touch!
“Cattails” by Big Thief
“U.F.O.F.” was a stunner of an album… and they followed it up months later with the astonishing “Two Hands”! On “Cattails,” from the earlier album, the hypnotic chords, the shuffling drums, and Adrienne Lenker’s loving vocals come together like one of those perfect summer nights that goes on and on and on and then lingers forever in your heart. Or in your ears; “Cattails” pops up in my head constantly, and I hope that never stops.
“Rolling” by Michael Kiwanuka
“Kiwanuka” is a song cycle where its namesake takes on some pretty weighty topics and backs them with a magnificent symphony of 70s-influenced sounds. At first listen it can come across like a downer “What’s Going On,” but keep listening. There’s hope here, too, and even in the bleakest moments you can marvel at just how fully Michael Kiwanuka has realized his vision.
“Aaron” by Palehound
Ellen Kempner first earned a reputation as a top-shelf guitar slinger, and the guitar playing on the “Black Friday” album is as impressive as always. But the real draw here is Kempner’s gift for writing songs, in particular about queer relationships and the challenges people in those relationships face. The most affecting line in any song this year is when she sings “if you want me to, I’ll call you Aaron.”
“Memorial Day” by Sharon Van Etten
Guitar-lovers like me have done a lot of humoring musicians who switch to keyboards, but Sharon Van Etten’s ode to the Jupiter 4 synth, “Remind Me Tomorrow,” is no letdown. The songs are as good as any she’s written so far, and she and her collaborators know how to use their new palette of sounds to bring out the hearts of the songs, not just paint on top of them. “Seventeen” is the obvious single, and it’s terrific, but I’m drawn to the spooky and atmospheric “Memorial Day,” where the eerie synth sounds match the emotion in the vocals. It reminded me of the best moments on PJ Harvey’s similar left-turn album, “Is This Desire?” Can’t wait to see where Sharon Van Etten heads next.
“Morning Comes” by SASAMI
The debut album from SASAMI sounds a little bit like Jay Som fronting Stereolab, a surprising and very welcome mix of sounds. “Morning Comes” has a quietly relentless beat, sparkling guitars ad a perfect weave of vocal tracks. Plus, if you use Spotify on your phone, SASAMI’s short video that plays in place of a still photo or an album cover is awesome, with an amazing surprise ending!
“Open” by Patio
Imagine if members of Wire, The Raincoats and Mission of Burma formed a supergroup and moved to Brooklyn, and that’s sort of where you’ll find the sound of Patio, who will hopefully find the large fan base they deserve in 2020. “Open” is unsettling rhythms and angular guitars under a mostly spoken tale that gets more disturbing as it unfolds. This band is something special.
“Ten Thousand Voices” by Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi
Rhiannon Giddens won a genius award, which kind of says it all, doesn’t it? All I can add is that “Ten Thousand Voices” takes only a few words and a few notes and turns them into something elemental.
“Human” by Molly Sarlé
“Well, who hasn’t talked to God like he’s a man?” “Human” is one of those songs that you hear and you think it must be a half century old because it sounds so timeless and so wise, and when you hear it’s from 2019, you think, well, music is just full of surprises, isn’t it?
“Pearl Cadillac” by Gary Clark Jr.
We knew he could stretch out on guitar, but the album “This Land” is where Gary Clark Jr. stretches out in all kinds of ways. The songs are full of clever sonic touches, and Clark’s singing and lyrics match his always-mesmerizing leads. “Pearl Cadillac” is a sledgehammer of a performance on a breakout album.
“Love Starvation” by Nick Lowe and Los Straitjackets
From the sounds of “Love Starvation” the masked men from Nashville are the band Nick Lowe has been looking for his whole career. That they found each other and recorded this instant classic together is kind of magical.
“Dancing In The Dark” by Lucy Dacus
Releasing a new single for each holiday of 2019 could have been a fun gimmick to build an album around, but Lucy Dacus went way beyond that with each song in her “2019” series. “My Mother & I” is a jaw-dropper, the kind of song that anyone would be lucky to write, but I also love this lively cover of Springsteen’s “Dancing In The Dark,” which soars.
“Western Sunset” by Bob Mould
Since his Husker Du days, Bob Mould’s been known for writing the noisiest pop songs, but, with the exception of Sugar’s knockout debut “Copper Blue,” Bob has never tried so deliberately to write pop, and never succeeded so thoroughly as he has on “Sunshine Rock,” an album of songs he wanted to be bright enough to keep out the gloom. “Western Sunset” and its very “Moonlight Mile”-style string coda wraps it up perfectly.
Very after-the-fact honorable mentions: In other words, here are some releases from 2019 that I would have included if I had been better organized. I’ve added them to the playlist.
- “Nights That Won’t Happen” by Purple Mountains
- “Muddy” by Jamila Woods
- “When What It Is” by Joan Shelley
- “On Time Out Of Time” by William Basinski