While most critics believed the year belonged to the likes of Lizzo, Billie Eilish, Lana Del Rey and Ariana Grande, there was of course a swagger of other artists out there who shaped the sound of 2019. And so, as the year draws to a close and everyone has frantically put out their lists, I too, have gathered some of my thoughts on the best albums this year. My picks are, as always, an eclectic mix of artists with something interesting to say musically. Importantly, for the first time in a long time, one band this year has release not one but two critically acclaimed albums that has stirred our imagination. They sit here in my list as musical geniuses, so lets find out who they are.
Sometimes the albums that are the toughest to listen to are often the most telling. Alison Moorer’s tenth studio album Blood is not only a tough listen but one that can arguably help us understand deep trauma and grief. It’s safe to say Blood is Moorer’s most personal and revealing album to date, which chronicles and explores and ties together Moorer’s feelings and thoughts around the family tragedy of her parent’s murder-suicide in 1986 when Moorer was 14.
The haunting vocals and otherworldly electronic sounds reminiscent of Enya, knock the wind out of your sails on Perfumed Earth by Purple Pilgrims, the experimental dream pop project of New Zealand based sisters Clementine and Valentine Adams. In short, if you are expecting cheerful undertones, I’m afraid songs about life and death, even loneliness permeate throughout the album lyrically not too unlike our friend Nick Cave. On Two World’s Apart for instance “I was born to live alone / The only life I’ve ever known” gives you a hint of what to expect. But don’t be put off, Perfumed Earth (which was released back in August) is still wonderfully ambient and contemplatively rewarding at the same time. It’s a sleeper that probably most of the big wig music publications won’t give a second thought to review, but for my mind Perfumed Earth is an incredible album.
I’ve read many reviews about English musician Sam Fender’s album Hypersonic Missiles in the last few months. The Tom Petty and Bruce Springteen-esque rock comparisons still interest me, as do the machinations of his observational songwriting. From the stadium rock of Hypersonic Missiles to the haunting tragedy of youth suicide on Dead Boys, Fender’s album is a welcomed bolt out of the blue. With Fender’s focus squarely fixated on the world around him, songs about toxic masculinity, domestic abuse and even the dysfunctional reality of life in the UK (on arguably the most divisive track on the album called White Privilege) is a rewarding listen set against dreamy jangly guitars and an anthemic holler better than most. In short, if this is the quality Fender can produce on his debut, I can’t wait to hear his next record.
Lindsey Stirling, the 32-year-old youtuber, violinist, dancer and artist’s fifth record Artemis, named after the Goddess of the Moon, shines a bright light of hope what has been a trying year for most. Her feel good Celtic-inspired violin set against a whirlwind of atmospheric electro-pop for my mind continues to buck against the trend of what most of us are listening to nowadays. That’s a good thing because anyone with half a brain would realise that she provides a wonderful alternative and worldview of what music can be. Inspired by her own battle with depression following the awful lose of both her father and best friend to cancer, Stirling intuitively harnessed her grief to rise to the occasion to produce a 13-track concept album that serves as an allegory of spiritual hope.
My favourite garage rockers The Black Keys return this year with their stunning ninth album Lets Rock. In truth, they never left my side with plenty of music to listen to from their back catalogue but how good is it to hear some new stuff after five years away! The charming toe tapper Go which first stoked the flames of their return in May, arguably setting the scene of what was to come on their new album. Interestingly the cool music video that accompanies the song pokes fun at all the rumours that Auerbach and Carney had fallen out with each other, when in fact they just simply suffered from burnout. Back and energised, if The Black Keys don’t riff their way back into my heart, then rock is truly dead my friends. With their focus squarely centred back on guitar and drums on the new album, you will positively enjoy standouts like Get Yourself Together, Lo/Hi and Eagle Bird.
The recent stratospheric trajectory of Big Thief’s career began with the first of two amazing albums put out this year entitled U.F.O.F. I honestly don’t know where to begin in my appreciation for this indie folk-rock album, but maybe I should start by praising the songwriting nous of Adrianne Lenker. While she might come across as a shy young woman, she writes like someone who has experienced a great deal in her life. She looks inwards, outwards and to the heavens for inspiration. That said, virtually almost every track gently meanders along with painful brilliance, punctuated occasionally with hypnotic jangly chords or a shriek from Adrianne Lenker for instance on Contact. In short, U.F.O.F is a beautiful and cohesive piece of work, backed of course, by the great support of Buck Meek on guitar, Max Oleartchik on bass and James Krivchenia on drums, whose performances all slot in seamlessly into the whole. Standouts include UFOF, Cattails, Orange and Jenni.
I briefly wrote about Lana Del Rey’s song The Greatest earlier this week – so I’ll try not to repeat myself. Instead, I’ll add how poetic and inventive I believe Del Rey’s fifth studio album Norman Fucking Rockwell! is as art as much as it is music. I’ve often wondered whether Del Rey ever feels weighted down by expectation, or whether she simply ignores trends. I personal believe it’s the latter because there isn’t anyone like her. Incidentally, she’s managed to change, evolve and modernise her music over the ten years since her debut Born To Die and NFR is no different. Moreover, her choice to collaborate with a new creative partner in Jack Antonoff, who incidentally produced both Lorde’s and St. Vincent’s acclaimed last albums, has payed off in spades. In short, Norman Fucking Rosckwell! is truly stunning in parts. From the marathon Venice Bitch at nearly 10-minute, where we find Lana in the mood to experiment, to the haunting piano ballad Cinnamon Girl, this is the album almost every single critic agrees is her best work yet. (No less than ten international music publications ranked NFR! as their #1 album of 2019).
The story goes that around 2015, Van Etten decided to take a break from the rigors of music to become a mom and go back to school to pursue a psychology degree. Also tired of the guitar and uninspired by writing a lot of the same stuff, during her hiatus she began writing and creating demos on the piano and synthesizers as something different to do. Encouraged to explore this new side of her artistic self, she confided in a new producer to help make it happen. With the release of her new album Remind Me Tomorrow back in January of this year, everyone immediately fell in love with the new Van Etten. Some called her reinvention a stroke of genius, others saw it as a natural evolution. But whatever we may believe, Van Etten on her fifth album changed how she went about being a musician and songwriter. With plenty of heart, which Van Etten has abundance of, she circled around old themes but also found something new to say too.
During the initial recording process of Angel Olsen’s fourth studio album All Mirror, Olsen picked up her guitar and recorded solo versions of all her songs. Nothing new, nothing exciting there, right? But soon after she did something almost completely out of left field even by Olsen’s standards. In a rewarding layered approach to recording she took up a curatorial role with an array of collaborators, some of them in different countries. Out of the process, Olsen created an epic orchestral-filled album where string sections often build and boil over such as on Lark. Lyrically Olsen focuses her attention on things such as love, self awareness and the destructive nature of toxic relationships. As much as I am a sucker when it comes to Olsen’s guitar driven indie rock sound, I have to admit I really like what Olsen has achieved here on All Mirrors. There is no point going on and on about all the particulars. Lets just say it’s bloody epic and arguably her best album yet.
The New York quartet Big Thief made quite a slash earlier this year with the release of their acclaimed third album U.F.O.F. Building on that success, they surprised everyone by fronting up with another album towards the back end of the year. With Two Hands, Big Thief brings the exciting raw energy you get from their live shows. Considerably more bullish than the arrangements on U.F.O.F, every song on this album brings something new to the table, all within a ten-song framework. Highlights include the towering and cathartic Shoulders, the mid-album show-stopper Not, which features a lively grungy distorted guitar solo that bursts to life midway through the song; and Wolf, which contains the albums’ most beautiful and surreal moments with frontwoman Adrianne Lenker gently howling. At the risk of sounding like I’m gushing, Two Hands with its great emotional depth and soul, surpasses all my expectations of what the best album of the year should be. In short, they have achieved this in part because of Adrianne Lenker’s incredible abilities as a songwriter and her amazing ear for melody.