Music was something to cling to in 2019, more than ever. These were the albums that pushed me forward and lifted me up this year. They’re all over the musical map, from pop to rap to guitar noise. Some are by old favorites; some are by new kids; one is by Bruce Springsteen. Some of these albums are full of rage and fury. Some are full of consolation and healing. Some look out at the world; others look deep into the heart. But they were all reasons to celebrate in 2019.
It was the end of a decade, but the start of an age. The pop visionary of the 2010s tops off her twenties with a career-crowning suite about adult romance. It’s her most emotionally voracious and musically confident statement, from the country twang of “Lover” to the punk venom of “The Man.” Nobody, absolutely nobody, thought Taylor wasn’t writing enough melodramatic bridges, but Lover is her most bridge-intensive tour de force since Speak Now — these songs take twisty detours that stretch on forever like the Verrazzano Bridge, threatening to devour the rest of the song, and you keep wondering how the hell she’s going to escape from this one. Until she jumps back into the final chorus to slam it all home. Here’s to Taylor’s twenties — and here’s to the even better decade to come.
Listening to Lana shut down the California dream in “Venice Bitch” is like the scene from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood where all the neon lights turn on all over L.A. — except in reverse. She’s singing her some-velvet-morning farewells to a host of American ideals that turned out to be a bust: men, for one. (As another Lady of the Canyon once sang, “Acid, booze and ass; needles, guns and grass. Lots of laughs.”) Respect to her musical wingman Jack Antonoff: Between Lana, Taylor, and Lorde, he is to “crying in the back of the cab” songs what Phil Spector was to glockenspiels. I still can’t tell whether Lana is singing “the waitress just mixed a Fireball” or “Hawaii just missed that fireball,” but it’s the kind of album where confusing a cocktail with a nuclear disaster makes sense.
The best rock & roll band of the decade? Well, the one who made the greatest number of mind-blowingly crucial rock & roll albums — three of them, to my ears: Gypsy Pervert in 2014, Romantic in 2016, and the pick of them all, this summer’s Patience. Philadelphia punk Marisa Dabice rages through a breakup with feelings-on-fire urgency and guitar screams. I thought I was Mannequin Pussy’s biggest fan, to the point where I worried I was overrating them a bit, but it turns out I was laughably underrating them all this time, because I had no idea they were capable of this. “If you don’t see someone who looks like you doing what you wanna do, that’s a sign you need to fucking do it,” Dabice told the crowd in Brooklyn this fall. “You don’t just want your art. You need it.” Glad she needed to make this album — songs to rip your heart apart and slap it back together.
Love — the most magic and hallucinatory of all mushrooms. It might be a cheat to include Fine Line on a 2019 list, since it just arrived, but it’s clearly one of the best things to happen to the planet this year. Harry’s pop masterpiece is drenched in starman joy, from the Prince-meets–Pink Floyd guitar trip of “She” to the dulcimer-crazed “Canyon Moon.” But the real killer has to be “Cherry,” where he lives out every tortured moment of a breakup over a Lennon-esque acoustic guitar. Like the rest of Fine Line, it conjures up the rueful mood of Phoebe Waller-Bridge taking that long slow walk home alone in the final scene of Fleabag. Living with Fine Line is one of the best things to look forward to in 2020.
All hail Sasha Flute. I first heard Lizzo a few years ago as the opening act on Sleater-Kinney’s reunion tour — I walked into the show never having heard of her, and came out a fan. She’s one of those pop stars who’s already an adult when she hits the top, so she knows exactly what she wants to say, what she wants to flaunt. Cuz I Love You made her America’s sweetheart, from the Missy Elliott summit “Tempo” to the hip-hop self-love of “Juice” to the declaration “Only exes I give a fuck about are my chromosomes” to the flute solos. Bling bling — that’s the goddess in her.
When we all lie wide awake all night unable to sleep, where do we go? I usually go to a Palehound song. Ellen Kempner specializes in intimately tuneful guitar journal entries, with her plucky, breathy voice always pushing on to the next surprise. The songs on Black Friday are full of complex experiences — falling in love, losing love, supporting a partner who’s transitioning, dreaming about dead people you love, and apologizing for ruining it with your tears. Yet they feel fresh and nimble. “The City” seems to be a sincere song about making out, always the rarest of indie-rock treasures. But in “Stick and Poke” she shrugs off the gloom with her chant, “I think I’m due for a shitty tattoo.”
In a year bursting with breakup albums, FKA Twigs went all the way. In this passion play, she’s the Mary Magdalene kneeling to wash the feet of a Hollywood vampire she mistook for Jesus. (It happens to the best of us.) “Cellophane,” “Mirrored Heart,” “Holy Terrain” — these songs tap into the spiritual zone where Kate Bush meets Tricky, her soprano floating through orchestral atmospherics and trap beats. Wherever you hear Magdalene, she turns it into the desolate 3 a.m. of the soul.
The best opening line of any album this year: “Sitting at the bar, I told you everything/You said, ‘Holy shit.’” OK then. Sharon Van Etten never lets on what she confessed, but the whole album has that sense of emotionally agonizing wit. “I’m laughing at life in all its brutal honesty,” Van Etten told me last year. “You know, aim for the stars and you hit the ceiling, and then you’re exactly where you need to be.” On Remind Me Tomorrow, she goes for an electro groove, but with all the stark intimacy of her early acoustic-guitar classics like Are We There? (Which was her best album until now.) She sings about rebooting her life, falling in love with her drummer, becoming a mom, starting over. “Seventeen” is full of empathy for anyone going through those awkward teenage blues, with a hair-raising key-changing Siouxsie-wail at the end. Holy shit.
“I don’t wanna dick around/I just wanna devastate” is a perfect credo for guys who just made their best album in over a decade, pretty much by accident. The Hold Steady might have started as Brooklyn’s finest punk bar band, dabbling in Last Waltz cosplay when they were barely into their thirties, but at this point they’re as seasoned as anyone in The Last Waltz was. They stopped into the studio whenever they felt like it, knocking out a few stand-alone digital singles, until they noticed they’d assembled a album’s worth of top-notch low-life tales. Thrashing is full of dudes who shave their heads at the airport bar (“He said, ‘You’re kinda catching me at a transitional time’”) and a small continent’s worth of mystery girls on drugs: “The amphetamines did what the amphetamines do/And she was chewing through her cheek at the National Zoo.” Craig Finn had a busy year — he also dropped his solo gem I Need a New War, in the wake of his evergreen We All Want the Same Things.
My favorite “first song of the day” song of 2019: Patio’s “Vile Bodies.” Hit play on that first thing in the morning, and it can get you fired up to the point where you just can’t wait for the adventure of the oncoming day. (What’s the song about? I was hoping you wouldn’t ask that. No idea.) Nothing too complex happening here — three punk ladies from Brooklyn, relentless blurts of jagged rhythm guitar, call-and-response vocals full of deadpan wit, beats to pogo along to, blowing past you in 27 minutes. It’s maddeningly playable. Words to live by: “Split me from the inside/Don’t stop until we reach the end/Rip me to fucking shreds/Then make me whole again.”
David Berman back in the day, on an artist whose name he kept to himself: “His paintings were like speculations on the future published in the full knowledge that they would one day become obsolete collector’s items.” That’s a fair description of the kind of artist Berman decided not to be. After the Silver Jews bard disappeared for a while, his comeback as Purple Mountains sounded like a new beginning — one of his best records ever. Even after his death, it sounds like a guy working hard to make the music as good as it can possibly be, finessing the countrypolitan details, finishing the songs, speaking his mind when he’d rather play coy, flashing his brights into the dark. It sounds like a guy determined to create a little beauty and put it out into the world while he can. R.I.P., DCB.
The feminist rap phenom of the year flexes the Houston flow her mama gave her, a finesser and a fine dresser, hustling for that cash because Megan does pimp shit while you’re on some simp shit.
A blast of righteously pissed-off punk from this Philly power trio, who make their anger sound irresistibly fun. Ali Carter rages against misogyny, capitalism, and the internet in general: “Click click click click click/Makes me fucking sick.” Pick hits: “Office Rage” and “Ego Deaf,” which could pass for Hüsker Dü circa Side Three of Zen Arcade.
Ariana celebrates a period of personal growth by throwing herself an I Turned Out Amazing party, and everyone is invited, especially if your boyfriend is worth stealing.
The D.C. postpunk agitprop glam-wavers, always so fierce live, make the great left-wing death-disco album they’ve always had up their sleeves. Katie Alice Greer kicks it off with the fantastic chant: “I am Jesus’ son/I’m young and dumb and full of cum!” Although Priests just announced a hiatus, here’s hoping they can get it together again, because every element clicks here, from G.L. Jaguar’s guitar to drummer Daniele Daniele declaiming “I’m Clean.” (Her other band Gauche made its own excellent 2019 album, A People’s History of Gauche.) Priests sound a bit like Eighties Boston punks the Proletariat, with a similar guitar buzz and political rage. (And not only are the Proletariat gigging again, they just dropped the excellent new Move, ripping into the American scene of the 2010s just like they used to eviscerate the Eighties. True punks never die.)
Olsen’s songs get more vibrant as they get more lush and orchestral, as she follows the beautiful and loathsome ways different kinds of love transform you over the years. “Spring” celebrates growing older and catching up with a friend from a past incarnation of your life, while “New Love Cassette” opens up to the infinite possibilities of the future.
After so many years exploring the dark places of the soul, Nick Cave responds to real-life horror with the humane candor of his Red Right Hand journal entries. He made Ghosteen in response to the accidental death of his teenage son, a loss unlike any he’s had to sing about before. The album keeps making me recall the eloquent words of Hanif Abdurraqib in the instant classic Go Ahead in the Rain, his love letter to A Tribe Called Quest. He’s talking about the Tribe’s album The Low End Theory: “I imagine the low end to be anything you could touch once but is now just a fading dream. I imagine the low end to be a bassline that rattles your teeth, too. But I also consider the low end to be the smell of someone you once loved coming back to you. Someone who sang along to Aretha, or Minnie, or Otis. Someone who loved you once and then loved nothing.” That’s the low end Nick Cave is tapping into here, and you can hear it in his voice.
His best album of the century is also his riskiest. In the wake of his solo Broadway show and his memoir Born to Run, Springsteen moves into early 1970s SoCal pop, strings and all. Back in the days of Darkness on the Edge of Town, this could have been the music playing inside that Camaro with that dude from L.A. But he relishes the chance to play these seedy West Coast dreamers, especially the washed-up actor in the title song — popping pills on the set, as “the make-up girl brings me two raw eggs and a shot of gin.” It’s no coincidence “Western Stars” has an echo of his Nebraska classic “Highway Patrolman” — these guys are both working men doing a dirty job, because a crucial part of them just ain’t no good.
A double album of experimental groove mayhem from the NYC duo of guitarist Che Chen and percussionist Rick Brown, who bangs on a plywood crate he found on a street corner. I Was Real has the spare trance-drone power of their earlier work, but they’ve expanded with friends on horns, viola, and other instruments for a mighty buzz — especially the 11-minute “Every Last Coffee or Tea,” which could be Steve Reich’s “Four Organs” getting mugged by a psychedelic garage band.
The all-American teenage nightmare, translated into fiendishly inventive songs, by a brilliant pop vandal who says hi by spitting out her Invisalign. I love Billie’s homemade collaboration with her big brother Finneas O’Connell — like the way fellow eccentric Kate Bush got an assist behind the scenes from her never-seen brother Paddy. I also love how they got home-schooled because their parents read an article about Hanson — Billie and Finneas are truly the spawn of the MMMBop. Blood, gore, nihilism, addictions, demons, corpses, spiders — it’s all here. You should see her in a crown. Duh.