As always, art doesn’t take too kindly to being quantified, ranked, graded. It’s objectively impossible to determine the “best” music of any given year. But these are my favorites of 2019, the records that got me through another trip around the sun on this big, wet, spinning rock in space.
Weyes Blood | Titanic Rising (Sub Pop)
Natalie Mering is mysterious, flowing, and full of trenchant insight. She has an astonishingly beautiful voice and emanates a goth Karen Carpenter crossed with Kate Bush vibe. Titanic Rising is orchestral and enveloping, but also melodic, surprisingly jaunty in places, and full of really excellent George Harrison sounding guitar, retro-futuristic prog rock synths and Laurel Canyon singer/songwriter acoustics. But a little bit heavier. Here, she grapples with the ever-increasing weight of the world—but also always offers an open window into her heart, which lets in rays of hope and optimism. On Titanic Rising, Mering acknowledges that the world’s problems are real, heavy, and immediate, but emphasizes never letting the fire inside you get extinguished, which is essential to any sort of chance we have at overcoming our collective challenges, internal and external.
Better Oblivion Community Center | Better Oblivion Community Center (Dead Oceans)
Phoebe Bridgers strikes me as a spiritual descendent of Conor Oberst’s brand of wordy, knife-edge emo storytelling; both their collaboration and adorable friendship feel completely natural. They sound and act like peers, so it’s no surprise that the music they make together immediately clicks. BOCC is packed with songs that grab you at first listen but continue to reveal heretofore unseen depths after a dozen spins. Bridgers’ and Oberst’s voices are so different, yet their harmonies have a satisfying way of filling in each other’s blanks. His nervous warble interlocks so well with her cool croons. Better Oblivion Community Center is evocative, mysterious and affecting. It’s two kindred spirits and masters of incisive yet understated turns of lyrical and melodic phrase making great art together and having fun doing it.
Angel Olsen | All Mirrors (Jagjaguwar)
Smoldering, orchestral torch songs. Baroque but not oblique. On All Mirrors, Angel Olsen is hurt but defiant, wrapping songs of loss and survival in tense but beautiful strings and synthesizers that sound like the way a city looks in fog at night. Olsen may be wounded, but she also has the strength to be vulnerable. The opening duo of “Lark” and “Mirrors” are stunning, gale force winds—acknowledging and learning to sit with strong and upsetting emotions. All Mirrors finds Olsen surrounded by an array of reflections, and learning how to separate her perceptions of identify from who she actually is. The truth is usually messy; All Mirrors accepts the disarray and rejects easy, comforting artifice.
Spectator | Charlie, Baby (Nordic)
Charlie Baby, the sophomore LP from St. Louis-based Spectator carries a worldly pedigree that matches its lush sound. Husband and wife team Megan Rooney and Jeffrey Albert wrote the album in Oakland, recorded it in South City, and released it on a Norwegian label. The result is urbane dream pop that fuses global sophistication with local charm. “Waste” could be the forgotten child of Steely Dan and Mazzy Star, while swaying, driving, uptempo winner “Weight” sounds a bit like if Arcade Fire cut their teeth at Off Broadway. “Save Me” is a woozy, charming, dreamy epic with a shoegaze sheen. Rooney’s vocals are Charlie, Baby’s strong spine. Hushed, cooing, soaring, and supple, she amplifies the album’s blissful, unhurried stylishness, and adds urgency to faster tracks like “A Dream of You.” Albert’s backing vocals make it all stronger, and the songs where the lead/backing duties are reversed add another welcome layer to the band’s sound. Charlie, Baby makes you want to get dressed up and go out. And then come home, pour a nightcap, hold your baby close, and slow dance the midnight hour away.
Jenny Lewis | On the Line (Warner Bros.)
On the Line is defined by two themes: impermanence and resilience. Lewis uses her razor-sharp observational skills and storytelling prowess to craft a remarkable record about the craters that litter life’s landscape. She has the grace and honesty to admit when she’s fallen in and the confidence to celebrate when she’s managed to weave around just in time. There are almost too many gorgeous moments here to count, and every song has a detailed story to tell. The organ streaked “Little White Dove” sounds like Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks jamming way too late into the night. “Wasted Youth” laments misspent moments but recognizes it’s never too late to make up for it, and implores the listener to “do something while your heart is still thumping.”
On the Line is a great sounding record, clean, lush and colorfully stylish, featuring an excellent crack band and contributions from guests like Beck, Jason Falkner, Ringo Starr, Benmont Tench, and Jim Keltner. It’s full of strong melodies that wink and shimmy. And Lewis sings every note in her powerful, inimitable voice—at once honeyed and inviting, and a perfect vehicle for a savage smackdown. Jenny Lewis has always been battling demons; here, for once, she finally sounds like she has the upper hand.
Idlewild | Interview Music (Empty Words)
Produced by Dave Eringa, who helmed their early 2000s breakthroughs 100 Broken Windows and The Remote Part, Interview Music is as sturdy and energetic as those hungry young records, but showcases a band that has been completely reborn, a butterfly emerging from a Hebridean chrysalis. Idlewild has never been keen to repeat themselves. Interview Music showcases a bit of every influence they’ve picked up over the last two decades. The band that was once very memorably and accurately described as “the sound of a flight of stairs falling down a flight of stairs” still knows how to rock out, but tempers it with country, Scottish folk, and chamber pop. Interview Music features a number of unusual, fascinating arrangements that surprise and impress, but also always serve the song. And it’s a joy to listen to Roddy Woomble sing. When the band began, his voice was a thrashing, flailing scream. It now sounds like it’s absorbed three human lifetimes’ worth of nuance and expressive skill, and he uses it to sing his unique, poetic lyrics. His words are abstract but evocative and always emotional. He excels at using words to create a room that he then invites the listener to inhabit with him. Idlewild songs are like koans and like conversations. Interview Music is full of mystery and insight, and is a stirring reminder that we are never too old to keep growing and learning, to never stop striving to be the best version of ourselves.
The National – I Am Easy to Find (4AD)
See my full review at: http://theartsstl.com/the-national-i-am-easy-to-find-4ad/
Vampire Weekend | Father of the Bride (Columbia)
Father of the Bride, Vampire Weekend’s first album in six years and their first without keyboardist/producer/lynchpin Rostam Batmanglij, is a curious beast. It effortlessly incorporates prog, jam band, and funk into their existing Graceland-esque indie and stately chamber rock sounds. The sound of Hypercolor t-shirts and slap bracelets at Rainforest Cafe, the double album features a number of great songs that shine in isolation. But the record suffers from a lack of coherence and flow. That frustration aside, songs like “Married in a Gold Rush” and “Unbearably White” (the title possibly a winking reference to the band’s reputation) break new ground for the band, and tracks like “Harmony Hall” and “This Life” are as effortlessly melodic and well-constructed as anything in the band’s catalog. Father of the Bride is undoubtedly informed by Ezra Koenig’s fatherhood, as well as his move to Los Angeles. But there’s a welcome NY-LA tension in these often sunny songs. No matter how often the sun shines, there’s always shades of gray. On Father, Koenig embraces the rays but remembers the clouds.
PUP | Morbid Stuff (Rise)
PUP’s third album has the wide ranging, barely contained nervous energy of a pop punk Titus Andronicus that swallowed a Lewis Black rant. Stefan Babcock writes biting, honest lyrics about mental health, loss, revenge, not having your shit together, and the kinds of dark thoughts that you’re not proud of having. When he’s not having a “Full Blown Meltdown,” he’s yearning for “Closure.” What makes Morbid Stuff so compelling is the way PUP marries tuneful, proficient punk to this kind of painfully self-aware self-analysis. These songs aren’t self-pity. They’re open air therapy. Babcock has a gift for taking his issues just seriously enough, which gives Morbid Stuff heft but also the ability to laugh at itself, which makes for an album that’s enlivening and cathartic.
Wilco | Ode to Joy (dBpm)
On Ode to Joy, Wilco embrace the audacity of hope. The album is informed by Jeff Tweedy’s recent solo albums and memoir, continuing his shift from indirect, zen koan lyricism to a more plainspoken, yet poetic, style. The album is relatively quiet, only featuring a few trademark Nels Cline guitar freakouts, but when he does break out, it’s even more impactful. Wilco even find time to write a few of their most instantly catchy, inviting songs in years, “Everyone Hides” and “Love is Everywhere (Beware).” Ode to Joy is a bolstering collection of songs about loss, recovery, and trying like hell to find the beauty in a world and time that doesn’t often feel particularly beautiful or just. It’s a record that cements Tweedy’s skill as a songwriter and illustrates the adventurous, ever-evolving band Wilco has become since this lineup solidified 15 years ago. Wilco is an emotion, a salve, a release, an institution that never stops looking and moving forward. Wilco will love us, baby.
Clairo | Immunity (Fader)
See my full review at: http://theartsstl.com/clairo-immunity-fader/
Faye Webster | Atlanta Millionaires Club (Secretly Canadian)
Atlanta Millionaires Club is economical but impressive. Pedal steel, folky bummer vibes, and sighing jazz horns set a mood that’s a little lonesome, but also perceptive. Faye Webster always sounds like she’s been stood up or is sitting alone at a window table in a café, watching passersby and thinking about what could have been. This is an album that invites the listener to pull up a chair and join her in quiet observation and the comfort of silent togetherness.
Desire Lines | After Sundown (self-released)
Desire Lines’ After Sundown is one of the best local releases you’ll hear this year, or any year for that matter. Jenny Roques and her band sound so attuned to each other, and inhabit that incredible Venn diagram overlap of alt-country, trad country, and gothy post punk. Roques’ songs are both vulnerable and remarkably strong and defiant, her lyrics nuanced and mysterious. And her voice is a precision instrument—equal parts Neko Case, Tori Amos, and Dolly Parton. It all comes together best on the spine-tingling title track. If there’s any justice, this record will be heard far beyond the confines of the 314.
Desperate Journalist | In Search of the Miraculous (Fierce Panda)
See my full review at: http://theartsstl.com/desperate-journalist-in-search-of-the-miraculous-fierce-panda/
pronoun | i’ll show you stronger (Rhyme & in Reason)
i’ll show you stronger is the debut album from Alyse Vellturo, aka pronoun. Her songs are a mix of jangle, early Aughts emo, and a sort of early 1990s production value that’s big and reverby but not soulless. These are confident songs of “queer emo angst” that are committed to inclusivity and speak in staccato. Vellturo punches the sky but cuddles a wounded heart.
Beth Bombara | Evergreen (Lemp Electric)
The latest album from St. Louis treasure Beth Bombara is her best work yet, full of her upbeat, yet yearning, twang and a searching spirit.
Tallies | Tallies (Kanine)
The self-titled debut album from Torontonians Tallies is an absorbing mix of gauzy, shoegazy dream pop and lite surf rock that jangles and swoons and sounds like the first day of spring or the first time the person you fancy smiles at you. Shades of the Sundays, a slightly more upbeat Mazzy Star, and even early Trash Can Sinatras. Sarah Cogan has a wonderful voice, starry-eyed yet secretly grounded. Fire up your reverb and delay pedals and fall in love.
David Gray | Gold in a Brass Age (IHT)
See my full review at: http://theartsstl.com/david-gray-gold-in-a-brass-age-iht/
The Get Up Kids | Problems (Polyvinyl)
Problems picks up where the Get Up Kids’ 2018 reunion/reboot EP Kicker left off. It tunefully tackles adult problems with the heart, humor, and nuance they always applied to their youthful issues. The Kids always had a knack for crafting well-written, affecting, and observant songs about love, longing, distance, and the pressures of life, and they’re still applying that heartfelt energy to synth-splattered pop-punk emo songs that show that passion and grownup focus/perspective aren’t mutually exclusive. There’s something reassuring and energizing about bands that grow with you.
The Delines | The Imperial (El Cortez)
See my full review at: http://theartsstl.com/the-delines-the-imperial-el-cortez/ | Mike Rengel