As this year wraps up, I’m sharing my favorite albums from 2019. There were a lot of great records that came out and I honestly had a hard time narrowing it down to just ten but I did, and here they are. So, Let’s jump right into it.
10. Telekinesis – Effluxion
This is the fifth studio album of the band, which is really the solo project of Michael Benjamin Lerner. In some ways, it feel a bit out of step with what’s happening in music now. It feels like he belongs in the world of late 90’s to early 2000s indie rock with bands like Spoon and The Strokes. That’s not to say it’s bad things because I really miss the sound of that era. He weaves together fuzzy, guitar power-pop, honky-tonk piano, and acoustic indie folk. Somehow, this unique blend all works because the songs are so dang catchy. It’s a fun album, filled with lots of energy. Essential Songs: Cut the Quick, Feel It in Your Bones, Suburban Streetlight Drunk
9. Joy Williams – Front Porch
Joy is perhaps best known for being half of the Grammy winning duo, The Civil Wars. She’s released several solo albums, both before and after her work with the Civil Wars and this is her latest. As the title suggests, these songs are performed in a stripped down fashion; usually with just a voice, an acoustic guitar, and an occasional mandolin or violin, but with no percussion. It works because of the strength of the songwriting and her beautiful, smooth voice. The songs are incredibility relaxing to listen to and come across very sincere and heartfelt. There is little bit of country flavor to it but it really falls more in the Americana genre. It’s a great album from start to finish with some great tunes. Essential Songs: Be with You, When Does a Heart Move On, Front Porch
8. Big Thief – Two Hands / U.F.O.F.
This is a big, break out year for this Brooklyn based band. They actually released two solid albums and I couldn’t decide which one l liked better so I decided to call it a tie. It’s amazing to me what they are able to accomplish with just a core lineup of guitars, bass and drums. They pay a lot of attention to the tone of the instruments, which sound crystal clear and mixed perfectly. They songs drift seamlessly between whispery folk ballads and bluesy indie-rockers. They songwriting is really strong, with heavy lyrical themes and a sincere and earnest tone and approach. In some ways it’s a homage to classic folk rock like Neil Young but also feels like a passing of the torch from other indie rock bands in the last decade or so who have lost their momentum. Big Thief sounds confident and energized, even if their music can occasionally be gloomy. Essential Song: Not, Two Hands, Cattails, Contact
Stream Two Hands: Spotify
Stream U.F.O.F.: Spotify
7. Angel Olsen – All Mirrors
This is fourth album by this St. Louis-based singer/songwriter. She has a real knack for creating atmosphere in her songs. It’s an interesting mix of retro and modern; of dark yet hopeful and accessible tunes. There are thick, heavy sounding string arrangements with layers of reverb. It sounds theatrical and dramatic in some ways. Other songs have more of a classic rock influence. Overall, I would describe it as a very ambitious record but also hypnotic to listen to. Essential Songs: Spring, What It Is, Chance, Lark
6. Vid Nelson – Beautiful Show
This one is by a local musician who came out of the Provo, Utah music scene where I’m from and has recently relocated to Nashville. This is his fourth album and it’s definitely a step up in terms of production and songwriting. It has a real classic rock sort of vibe with strings, maybe along the lines of John Lennon’s Imagine album or Arcade Fire. His voice is pretty unique and has a real passionate approach with his delivery, especially when he belts it out. There’s also a lot of vocal harmonies and details put into the arrangement. It’s a rewarding listen. Essential Songs: Bon Voyage Ami, Waiting to Find, All The Same
5. Takenobu – Conclusion
This is the project of Japanese-American cellist/vocalist Nick Ogawa and more recently violinist/vocalist Kathryn Koch, who is now his fiance. I recently saw them perform and absolutely loved it. When they play live, they incorporate loop pedals to create multi-layered sounds. For instance, they might use their string instruments to make percussion sounds and then add multiple string parts on top of it until it practically sounds like a full orchestra. The album lives up to the live performance, in my opinion. It’s so interesting to hear what they are able to do with just a few instruments. They exist somewhere in their own world between classical music and indie. I also think it holds up because the songwriting is so great. It’s refreshing to hear something so unique that no one else is really doing, but still done in an accessible way, that is a joy to listen to. Essential Songs: Glorious Harmonious, Nobody Said, Dark in the City
4. Billie Eilish – When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
This has been huge, breakthrough year for this artist. After a series of singles and EPs, she’s released her debut full-length album, which was highly acclaimed by critics and went number 1, and she’s just barely turned 18! Yet more impressive, Billie and her brother, Finneas O’Connell, wrote the songs and recorded the entire album themselves in their bedroom studio. The production sounds fresh. Nobody out there I’ve listened to lately is really incorporating all these styles in quite the same way. Her jazzy vocals weave in and out of a variety of blended genres from hip hop to alternative rock to folk to even a really pretty a capella choral track. With all the hype that surrounds Billie Eilish, it would be really easy to dismiss her and write her off as a fluke but she has the skills and great songs to back it up. She truly breaks the rules and treads her own path. I’m excited to follow her career and see what she does next. Essential Songs: 8, Bad Guy, You Should See Me in a Crown
3. David Gray – Gold in a Brass Age
I first heard David Gray back in 1998 when his breakthrough album, White Ladder became popular, which is one of my all-time favorites. Now over 20 years later, he remains a consistently solid singer-songwriter. With this album, I feel like he upped his production game. He incorporates electronic elements with traditional folk songwriting, much like he did with White Ladder, but he sounds more updated and fresh with his approach. There are layers of subtle sounds and experimental flourishes sprinkled throughout. The beats are really interesting and fun and he sounds energized and confident. It’s like he took note of some of the things James Blake is doing and speed it up to fit his own style. The songwriting is really strong on this album. It’s a great listen. Essential Songs: Gold in a Brass Age, The Sapling, Ridiculous Heart, If 8 Were 9
2. Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride
This is their 4th album and it represents something of a new phase for them. It’s been 6 years since their last record and since then, one of their key members, Rostam Batmanglij, has left the band. The remaining members took the opportunity to rethink their sound and try some new approaches. This time around, they’ve incorporated more acoustic guitars and maybe more jammy instrumentation and sounds then before. The songs feel looser and more fun than their past albums. It’s kind of a good album for vacations or maybe road trips. They’re joined by Danielle Haim (of the band Haim) as a guest vocalist on several of the songs, which also helps distinguish the sound of this record and give it some cohesiveness. Ezra Koenig’s signature singing and songwriting style is as strong as ever. While this is their longest album, clocking in at just under an hour, they throw in enough twists and turns to keep it interesting and a fun, enjoyable listen. Essential Songs: Harmony Hall, This Life, Sunflower
1. Kishi Bashi – Omoiyari
Kishi Bashi is a classically trained Japanese-American violinist who used to play in the band Of Montreal (among other projects). This is his 4th proper solo album. His debut album, 151a came out in 2012 and instantly became one of my album time favorites. I didn’t feel like his 2nd and 3rd albums were quite as strong but he brought me back in with this album and it might be my favorite of his now. The songwriting is really strong with the pretty melodies and poetic lyrics. It’s something of a concept album about the experiences of Japanese-Americans placed in internment camps during World War II. The production takes a more organic, folky approach with beautiful violin and string arrangements, much like his debut. If you’re a fan of the Shins, you’d probably dig it. My wife and I saw him perform this year with his band and he put on one of the most amazing live shows I’ve ever seen. It was over the top fun and joyous and it made me appreciate the songs from the album even more. Essential Songs: Penny Rabbit and Summer Bear, A Song for You, Song of ’42