December has come at last, careening toward the end of the year. I’m sitting right on top of middle age, and my tastes have both hardened and softened. The music that moves me is pretty squarely in a set of musical borders, but my engagement with artists wandered all over this year: lots of new stuff in my top ten. I’m throwing in two from 2018 that I didn’t really consider at the time, but which floored me when I finally listened this year, to make an even dozen; and some honorable mentions for the long tail. Here they are: jnon’s favorite albums of 2019.
12. Nils Frahm: All Melody (2018)
Gorrrrrrrgeous. I’ve wasted a year, not considering this album. That’s a year of listening I can never get back.
11. The Beths: Future Me Hates Me (2018)
If I’d known that an album rocked this hard or tasted this sweet last year (the “whoo-hoos,” the complementary lyrics sung one on top of the other, the power chords), my top three would’ve looked 33% different. This is the kind of record you don’t take off the player for months: pick up the needle, go back to the beginning, drop it again.
10. Telekinesis: Effluxion
Michael Benjamin Lerner stops trying so hard and delivers 10 sunny, shuffling pop confections in his earnest and endearing tenor. Surprised to find myself liking a Telekinesis album again, and quite this much.
09. Aldous Harding: Designer
That’s it, that’s the review.
08. Hiss Golden Messenger: Terms Of Surrender
Almost embarrassingly prolific these past few years, MC Taylor is making a densely packed assault on a particularly southern mystical tradition, where musicians come together to perform an alchemy that transcends rock and roll, or makes rock and roll transcendent. Hiss ties a string to these experiments to make sure he can find his way back out again, or to keep a tenuous hold on the whole thing as it beats its black wings and tries to take off and float away. Directing these songs to his children, his ego, his heart, also helps ground them, resulting in another pristine document of a songwriter balancing on the razor edge between losing himself and finding nirvana.
07. Brittany Howard: Jaime
Howard bulls her way through dirty rock, soul and torch music, but as an auteur and not the frontwoman to a band. Turns out it makes all the difference, as these songs feel alive in ways Alabama Shakes never did, to me. I was hooked, from the first mantra-like chorus of History Repeats to the last wet drum hit of the laconic Run To Me. A superlative record in every way.
06. Liz Lawrence: Pity Party
A late year accidental find, Liz makes a particularly British pop-punk that makes me think of a complicated cross between last years’ gem, Caroline Rose’s Loner, and Feist’s song-deconstructing Pleasure. Like those albums, these songs are relationally directed at a specific hearer, making Pity Party feel intimate. A loner pleasure, which is how I listened to this album the last couple months: it feels like a personal find, that old feeling of finding a new artist who’s all yours. At least until she hits the big time.
05. Hand Habits: placeholder
“What’s the use if you’re not trying to forgive,” sings Meg Duffy in an anthem for the back half of a life. Upper-case feeling with all lower-case titles. These sonically gentle but lyrically piercing songs got way under my skin early this year and made themselves right at home.
04. Floating Points: Crush
Sam Shepherd pushes his electronic/freeJazz methodology in two directions: closer to the dance floor and the concert hall in equal measure. The stuttering strings of opener Falaise are a useful touchpoint, an almost classical swell of violins dissected by programmatic beat-like silences into a hybrid, echoed in the frenetic clicks under album closer Apoptose, Pts. 1 & 2. These experiments feel as vital to now as Elaenia felt to 2015.
03. Nilüfer Yanya: Miss Universe
Yanya’s sparse new wave, tied together by a series of dystopian pharmacotheraphy skits, felt like it skittered over the anxious heart of 2019. This voice, supremely confident even as the lyrics upset and unsettle; this music, approaching the sublime even as the guitar careens toward dissolution. Firmly tied to the pop tradition; one of my most-listened-to albums this year.
02. The Building: PETRA
I don’t know anything about Anthony LaMarca except a) he’s got some Catholic in his background and b) he has/had cancer. Well, and that he has the temperament to think deeply about what life requires in the face of those facts, and write songs about it, and sing them somewhere in the patri-lineal lineage of Neil Young. Cancer and Catholicism both require a reckoning with loss. This album is a gift about coming to terms with loss, going through and not even coming out the other side, but imagining what coming out the other side will mean for the other half of a life lived well. Really, this album was a revelation, one of my favorite new finds of the year.
01. Beyoncé: HOMECOMING: THE LIVE ALBUM / The Lion King: The Gift
HOMECOMING is an unqualified triumph, as a synthesis/metamorphosis of an incredibly accomplished career, as a Black Fuck You Slash What’s Up to a white industry, as, just even, a document of a live performance. Beyoncé is at the absolute height of her powers here, and the effect is to completely obliterate the listener: I’m fully absorbed into Beyoncé’s world, on Beyoncé’s terms, and somehow both lose my self completely and come out the other side more fully myself. It’s the only album this year that consistently makes me cry.
What other performer could seat herself so securely at the center of Black Life, with such assurance, even arrogance, and garner no pushback? What other Black document could white America consume but not co-opt, attend but not assimilate; what other Black document enforces meeting it on its own terms? What other catalog of songs enjoys the popular recognition and cultural significance of Beyoncé’s, such that its interpretation by marching band might enhance and not destroy it? HOMECOMING easily belongs in the list of the best live albums of all time, the best Best Of albums of all time. The interpretations and interpolations of some of these songs supersede the original recordings (I could happily never hear Deja Vu again without that horn chart). Beyoncé and her comrades on HOMECOMING accomplish a feat no one saw coming: they transmute gold into… another kind of gold, a stunning transformation that I’ll need years to come to terms with. Fortunately, that’s a power worth spending years considering.
HOMECOMING also represents Beyoncé’s complete ownership of the industry’s capitalization of Beyoncé. I’ve already written about the ways that Beyoncé used Coachella such that Beyoncé now owns Coachella, and with an eye on sustaining her future (HOMECOMING, as a documentary and an album, ensure that Beyoncé will profit from Coachella long after Coachella will profit from Beyoncé). That this is only her first magic trick of this kind this year is just more proof that there is no one playing on Beyoncé’s level. The Lion King: The Gift is Beyoncé’s response to the critics who look sideways at her participation in Disney’s “live-action” The Lion King remake. A paycheck? Maybe. But even as Disney tries to commodify Beyoncé, Beyoncé uses Disney mercilessly, to platform Black artists, to extend her own brand as a fulcrum for Black music, and most importantly to re-interpret The Lion King as a love letter / legacy letter to her own children (note that the King doesn’t survive the film: it’s the Queen who presides over the Prince’s ascension). The collection is shot through with Beyoncé’s concern for her children’s regal inheritance: that they know they are loved and worth love, that they are fully realized people in a racist world, that they already have the Keys to the Kingdom. Even as HOMECOMING puts a bow on Beyoncé’s career to date, The Lion King: The Gift looks forward to a time when Beyoncé wills the whole thing to her future Queens and Kings. That she crafts both statements in a single year? Bow down, bitches.
Some Honorable Mentions
Benny Sings: City Pop
Bedouine: Bird Songs Of A Killjoy
Big Thief: Two Hands
Andre Bratten: Pax Americana
Bon Iver: i,i
Chance The Rapper: The Big Day
Clark: Kiri Variations
Sam Cohen: The Future’s Still Ringing In My Ears
Nils Frahm: All Encores
Carly Rae Jepsen: Dedicated
Cate Le Bon: Reward
Lisel: Angels On The Slope
Metronomy: Metronomy Forever
Over The Rhine: Love & Revelation
Jessica Pratt: Quiet Signs
Ride: This Is Not A Safe Place
Taylor Swift: Lover
Jamila Woods: LEGACY! LEGACY!
Thom Yorke: Anima