Our definitive list captures the full scope of supreme sounds closing out the second decade of the 21st century
John Everhart is right. There seems to be far too much of a rush in music journalism to get your Top 10/20/30/40/50 Albums of the Year up and on the Internet before the competition beats you to the punch.
“I don’t think there should be such a rush to be first with year-end lists,” he wrote to me over the Christmas holiday. “Why? I remember Rolling Stone’s coming out in late January yearly in the early ’90s, but they were thoughtful, with articles written by someone like David Fricke, who actually knew a bit about music.”
And growing up in New York, there was nothing like having WNEW-FM’s Top 1027 songs of all time as your soundtrack each New Year’s Eve, a tradition still being maintained by the true believers over at Q104.3 as we slide into 2020. I, too, remember reading the Rolling Stone and SPIN year-end lists around this time as well, which has fully emboldened me to post the Rock & Roll Globe’s own long-awaited Top 30 list today, on this last day of 2019. Just like they used to do in the days when the Internet was only available through Prodigy and all that mutha jazz.
I’m making The Muffs album the no. 1 record because its not only an amazing fucking power pop masterpiece but it’s also an exemplary document on the triumph and resilience of the human spirit in the face of unspeakable odds. To think that Kim Shattuck performed at this level as she was battling ALS is such an inspiration. If you haven’t checked out No Holiday yet, you are missing out.
As for the other 29, this is what I’ve assembled based on what I have personally thought were the most game changing full-lengths to have come out in 2019. Don’t listen to what anyone else says, it was a truly remarkable year for new music. – Ed.
1. The Muffs No Holiday (Omnivore Recordings) I can barely review this. Like hundreds in the indie/rock world, I enjoyed my share of madcap run-ins with Kim Shattuck over 25 years (interviewing her twice), relishing them all. Few made fans so immediately, with her welcoming, disarming, hilarious, irreverent, bawdy frankness, and guffawing personality, so crazy kick ass! That personality went unfiltered into her shows, songs, and records with blasting bassist and drummer Ronnie Barnett and Roy McDonald, until she died October 2. That she publicly hid her incapacitating ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), and, speaking only with eyes-tracking technology via Viber app on a Tobii speech tablet (same ribald personality, robot voice, how insane!), made No Holiday like nothing had changed is… so Kim. Unable to play or sing, she directed/produced Barnett, McDonald, and secret fill-in guitarist Adam Schary, overdubbing her unreleased 1991-2017 recordings. If you knew none of this, you’d say it sounds like the six hot, catchy Muffs LPs that preceded it. It’s like an unearthed photo album of places they’ve visited, varieties of her lovable punky-crunchy, power-poppy-Ramones-y tunes and engaging, off-kilter vocals. From the adorable, acoustic-ballad “A Lovely Day Boo Boo” to the Visqueen-does-Velvet Crush rascally rocker “To That Funny Place,” her irrepressible essence fuels another great Muffs record, period—what she wanted, living until dead. Bless her/them and Kim, you were the best. Thank you! (omnivorerecordings.com) – Jack Rabid
2. Billie Eilish When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? (Interscope)
Strip away the Invisalign jokes, the samples from The Office, the kooky clothes, and the freaky videos – those are just the icing on the cake to the real star on this stunning debut album: the songs. Whether seeming to channel Kurt Weill (“All The Good Girls Go To Hell”), Cole Porter (“Wish You Were Gay”), or Leonard Cohen (“I Love You”), Eilish reveals a gift for melody and lyrics far beyond her 17 years. Some people (OK, old people) seem to get hung up on what they see as adolescent concerns, but who among us hasn’t felt left out by friends who need to get “inebriated” to go to a party, or confused by someone who’s unreasonably resistant to our personal charm? What, you stopped having nightmares when you turned 25? Lucky you – I’ll just keep nodding my head to “Bury A Friend.” That’s not even to mention the sheer entertainment value in the way Eilish and her producer-brother, Finneas, embrace the darkness on tracks like “Bad Guy” (“I might seduce your dad guy”) or “You Should See Me In A Crown,” which is a great glam-metal song in disguise the same way Kraftwerk’s “The Model” is – I’m waiting for the Marilyn Manson cover. I was relieved to read that the music-biz geniuses already tried to get Eilish and Finneas into the studio with the Swedish pop machine. Needless to say, they didn’t need the “help.” My advice to the money men: after their upcoming world tour, let the siblings go back in the bedroom, turn out the lights, fire up the laptops, keyboards, and drum machines, and go about their secret business of creating another classic. MY money’s on them only getting better.- Jeremy Shatan
3. The Who WHO (Polydor)
Here’s the obvious, undeniable headline: The Who are back with their first studio album in nearly 14 years. And here’s the subhead: it may be their best since Quadrophrenia. Now that’s a bold claim in itself, one which, by implication, supersedes Who Are You. Nevertheless, given the fury, frenzy, balls and bombast — not to mention the not so subltle references to the band’s storied history (“People try to crash on down,” Daltrey wails at one point, playing off their seminal battlecry “People try to put me down”), one can’t help but think of WHO as a requiem of sorts. That’s especially evident given the historical recap they share in the song “I Don’t Wanna Get Wise.” In a very real sense, WHO is a victory lap, one which bears many of the essential elements that the Who have incorporated for the past 55 years — their driving delivery, Daltrey’s petulant posturing, Townshend added soul and sensitivity, and mostly the memorable melodies that have become a call to arms across these many decades. Of course, there are those that still argue — and with due cause — that without Moon and Entwistle, the Who is really “The Two,” and that the absence of their presence makes the current incarnation seem like a spinoff. Be that as it may, sans a look at the credits — which, notably, don’t include any players other than the two principals — one would say that Townshend and Daltrey fill the gaps without missing a beat, both literally and figuratively. As one track title notes, they’re still “Rockin’ With Rage.” And that ought to be huge consolidation to the doubters. WHO fits nicely into the group’s legacy and continuum, while boding well for the fact that even at their age, this won’t be Who’s last. Note: The three bonus tracks on the deluxe version are essential to completion. WHO doesn’t get its due without them. – Lee Zimmerman
4. Solange When I Get Home (Columbia)
You likely know such musical terms as art rock and art pop (or even Artpop, heh heh). Solange Knowles’s fourth album argues for a new entry in the lexicon: art soul. (“Art R&B” just sounds weird.) Because what I hear when I listen to the phenomenal When I Get Home is a soul take on an art rock record. The artist herself has noted that Stevie Wonder’s 1979 album Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants is a good-sized piece of the album’s DNA — and c’mon, that’s as arty as a soul record gets, right? I hear New Age here, too, especially private press American stuff, as well as some modern classical (cf. Steve Reich’s focus on repetition).
And then there’s the celebration of Houston hip-hop, via samples from Scarface and Crime Mob, and guest vocals from the likes of Playboi Carti and Gucci Mane. There are collaborators like Tyler, the Creator, Panda Bear, and Standing on the Corner. Interludes feature Phylicia Rashad and her sister Debbie Allen, and the noted lesbian poet Pat Parker among others. This is a thinkin’ album. When I Get Home is not where you come for jams, and it’s all the better for it. This isn’t just art soul; this is art, period. And it’s Black art. Solange clearly had a vision for this record, and she realized it. This is the most brilliant album I heard all year, and the one I keep coming back to more than any other. -Thomas Inskeep
5. Sleater-Kinney The Center Won’t Hold (Mom + Pop)
Easily the biggest stylistic departure of Sleater-Kinney’s career, this epochal band sounds less like a band than ever on the St. Vincent produced The Center Won’t Hold, and more cut-and-pasted, with anomic undercurrents subverting their trademark sound. Here, on the icy “Hurry on Home,” Corin Tucker sings “Disconnect me from my bones/So I can float,” which could well serve as an overriding metaphor for the transformation. “LOVE” captures the spirit of Sleater-Kinney of yore, with a self-aware rearview mirror courtesy of Carrie Brownstein referencing the band’s past glories, like her classic “Modern Girl,” minus the sepia, speakers blown-out warmth of 2005’s borrowed nostalgia. Now it’s sleeker, smoother, and more terrifying, and as she sings robotically, “And we can be rough/And we can be smooth/There’s nothing to hide and there’s nothing to prove.” it’s also a pronouncement of sorts that this is the end of Sleater-Kinney as we know them, as drummer Janet Weiss would announce her departure after the album’s release. But on The Center Won’t Hold, they’ve blasted into the present, announced on “The Future is Here” as a place from which “we can’t go back,” but still where “I need you here more than I ever have,” injecting the album with a needed dose of humanity and vulnerability. No matter what’s to come, this record’s ultimately a gas, as they take a riotous Grace Jones via The Go-Go’s route to assuage our pre-apocalyptic tension. – John Everhart
6. Tool Fear Inoculum (RCA)
Progressive/alternative metal quartet Tool were never prolific, taking between three and five years each to put out the first three follow-ups to 1993’s Undertow. However, that slow-but-steady pace, combined with their characteristically intellectual, brash, and utterly hypnotic compositions, always gave them a larger-than-life appeal that few of their peers could match. Even so, the thirteen-year gap between 2006’s10,000 Days and Fear Inoculum inarguably divided fans along the way, with some championing that the wait would be worth it while others proudly proclaimed that their fifth studio LP would never come out. (At least we all enjoyed the jokes about them literally taking 10,000 days to make it along the way.) So, does Fear Inoculum match—or even exceed—expectations? Well, yes and no. On one hand, it contains all of the tricks and traits that make Tool so influential and unique, with the opening title track alone welcoming you back with tribal percussion, hallucinatory effects, captivating hooks, and a gradual ascension of mesmeric intensity. For the most part, the remaining pieces capture that tried-and-true vibe just as well (including their knack for commendably experimental choices via a few interludes and the bizarre electronics of drum solo ‘Chocolate Chip Trip”), making the sequence endearingly recognizable and idiosyncratic. Sadly, that familiarity is also Fear Inoculum’s biggest shortcoming, as it feels too much like a mere composite of Lateralus and 10,000 Days whose prolonged and seemingly simpler structures make it fall short of both of those predecessors. In other words, all of the elements are there—and they definitely work more often than not—but it also seems like there’s just less ambition and discovery afoot as well. Nonetheless, Fear Inoculum is still a great return that generally satisfies and validates how special Tool remains. – Jordan Blum
7. John Kilzer Scars (Archer Records)
When it comes to classic 80s Heartland rock, there is not a more unsung name than Memphis songwriter John Kilzer. One of the singular dark horses of Geffen’s late 80s/early 90s heyday, he recorded two great albums in 1988’s Memory in the Making and 1991’s Busman’s Holiday before leaving music altogether to become an ordained minister and earn his Masters of Divinity at Memphis Theological Seminary before heading into the PhD program at London’s Middlesex University. After returning to music in 2011 with a third LP entitled Seven, Kilzer fell into a dark place in his life, the fragments of which comprise what should be hailed as his greatest career work, Scars, produced by Matt Ross-Spang fresh off his work with John Prine on his 2018 LP The Tree of Forgiveness and featuring a crack studio band led by Hold Steady/Bash & Pop guitarist Steve Selvidge alongside Rick Steff (keyboards), drummers Steve Potts and George Sluppick, Dave Smith (bass) as well as Spang (guitar) who cut the whole album live to tape. These songs, especially the likes of “The American Blues” and “Memphis Town”, have the feel of a trusty old saddle that just gives you comfort as soon as you hop on it. Those Geffen albums, both of which are still available at decent prices on the third market, secured Kilzer’s strength as the living bridge connecting The Replacements and John Cougar Mellencamp in terms of the Prairie Fundamentals of Rock. Scars secures his legacy in that position. Sadly, Kilzer hung himself at 3:16 p.m. on Tuesday, March 12, at the Hazelden Betty Ford Center in Center City, Minnesota. In a year when way too many talented men took their own lives, the suicide of John Kilzer at the age of 62 takes on such a more significant weight to it because you listen to Scars and you wish he just got distracted enough that day to let the ideation pass and go out on the road to play these songs live. I guess we should just be grateful he got this record together before his departure, and do our part to make sure it gets heard, because Scars is simply too good to overlook. -Ron Hart
8. Purple Mountains Purple Mountains (Drag City)
Indie-rock legend David Berman, longtime frontman of critic’s darlings the Silver Jews, returned in a big way in 2019 with a self-titled album under the band name Purple Mountains. Over five years in the making, the album represented a fresh start and a reboot of Berman’s long-dormant music career. Sadly, it also proved to be his final statement as the enormously-gifted singer/songwriter took his own life roughly a month after the release of Purple Mountains. It will never be known if Purple Mountains was purposely designed to be Berman’s swansong, but it certainly provided a hell of a high note to go out on. The artist took his time in crafting the album’s brilliant, lyrical songs, Berman reportedly recording music with former bandmate Stephen Malkmus, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, and Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys as well as recording an entire album with Canadian psych-rockers Black Mountain, all of which were discarded in favor of working with members of the Brooklyn folk-rock outfit Woods. The talented musicians in Woods surrounded Berman’s intelligent wordplay and sonorous vocals with a soundtrack of loose-limbed yet melodic rock, pop, and country sounds, even incorporating scraps of Mariachi-styled horns. Channeling the dark obsessions of his songwriter’s mind, Berman’s lyrics for Purple Mountains touch upon his struggle with depression, his troubled relationship with his estranged wife, and even the mountain of debt he faced that motivated his return to music after a decade on the sidelines. The result is a stark and sometimes agonizing self-portrait of an artist trying to keep his head above water. With Purple Mountains, Berman combined the introspection of Townes Van Zandt with the oblique self-referencing of Bob Dylan in the creation of a masterful coda to a career cut short by tragedy. – Rev. Keith A. Gordon
9. Slipknot We Are Not Your Kind (Roadrunner Records)
Love them or loathe them, Slipknot’s sixth studio album We Are Not Your Kind, is a fantastic, modern metal album. This record has everything a Slipknot fan loves about the band. On its 14 tracks (including some sampled intros/segues), the masked nonet manages to keep the listener intrigued throughout its 63-plus minute runtime.
With diverse compositions such as the church choir vocal harmonies on “Unsainted,” to the acoustically-laden “A Liar’s Funeral,” to the Faith No More-esque vibe of “Birth of The Cruel,” to the menacing attitude of “Red Flag” and “Orphan,” there are many memorable moments that grace the album.
The musicianship of the whole band is fantastic, especially the performances from guitarists Jim Root and Mick Thomson, as they play some of the best guitar riffs and solos I’ve ever heard from them in a long while. Plus, the production from Greg Fidelman is top notch, with a dense and robust sheen. The lyrical content is also some of the darkest vocalist Corey Taylor has ever penned. Since Slipknot’s formation in 1995, the band has mostly shed its nü metal moniker with an amalgam of styles that include death metal, thrash, speed metal, alt metal, rap metal with industrial elements. If you’re on the fence about whether or not you like Slipknot, you need to give this album a spin. It just may convince you. It’s that good. -Kelley Simms
10. Freddie Gibbs and Madlib Bandana Madlib Invazion (RCA)
It might be the cliché of all clichés to use a basketball metaphor in a hip hop review, but here goes: On his own, Freddie Gibbs is like the Charles Oakley of rap. He gets in, gets the job done, and gets out. He can go hard when necessary or lay back and give someone else the shot at glory. Reliable, hardworking, the ultimate team player. But when he works with Madlib, that mysterious master of Dilla-inspired production, he becomes more like Michael Jordan. As on their first album together, Piñata from 2014, Gibbs here is wildly creative, making lyrical leaps that surprise and delight and pushing himself beyond his comfort zone. As Gibbs himself noted of working with Madlib: “I feel like you gotta bring your ‘A’ game to really shine on his beats, or his beat is going to outshine you. It’s definitely a challenge. You can’t just come any kind of way on these beats, you gotta really make a marriage to ‘em and live with ’em.” So, instead of coasting on his grittiness, Gibbs dazzles with a flow that hits a variety of tempos and mixes up the content with political observations and street lit. He shines when he gets personal, too, as in “Situations”: “1989, I seen a ni**a bleed/Uncle stabbed him in the neck and hit his knees/Turned the arcade to a stampede/I was playin’ Pac-Man, Centipede/Put me on some shit I never should’ve seen.” Watching the love between the two men on their recent Tiny Desk Concert proves that Madlib is getting as much out of the team-up as Gibbs. The champion crate-digger doesn’t phone it in either, making hay out of samples old and newand even building a trap beat on “Half Manne, Half Cocaine.” Stay out of the paint if they collaborate again – Gibbs will never miss with an assist from Madlib.
11. Lizzo Cuz I Love You (Atlantic)
Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You sweeps in like a hurricane, washing over us with such force that it’s all we can do to hold on for the ride of our lives. And what an exhilarating ride! Lizzo (Melissa Jefferson) climbs inside these songs, turning them inside out until she finds the groove she wants, and belts out the lyrics with propulsive and defiant vocals, coursing over musical terrains from soul to rap to gospel-inflected pop. “Heaven Help Me” opens with a gospel piano roll before galloping off into a rap/soul anthem that cannily nods and winks toward a new way of thinking about salvation and love: “If love ain’t dead/I’m gonna kill it/’Cause it’s killing me.” The seductive, slow-burning “Lingerie” closes the album as Lizzo moans and screams the lyrics ahead of the climactic, dreamy, take-me-there-lover bridge. On the soulful title track, which opens the album, Lizzo grabs us and shakes us with her soaring vocals that alternate between the rapping of the verses and the soul shouting of the transcendent, Whitney-Houston-meets-Ruth Brown chorus. After the songs ends, Lizzo has already taken us higher and higher until on the song’s final notes she runs the scale from high to low and ends in a whisper. Cuz I Love You delivers hip-shaking, heart-stopping songs that at once transport us out of this world and force us to look inside ourselves to affirm our own beauty. – Henry Carrigan
12. The Comet Is Coming Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery(Impulse!)
“The blend of saxophonist “King Shabaka” Hutchings – a shooting star of U.K. jazz with his bands Sons of Kemet and Shabaka & the Ancestors – with keyboardist Dan “Danalogue” Leavers and drummer Max “Betamax” Hallett – who also trade under the electronica name of Soccer96 – has proven itself an explosion of energy and ideas. Not dance music, but far from a sit-down listening experience either, the band’s sound aggressively searches out the meaning in this life, the universe, and everything, nourishing the union of mind, body and spirit. Released earlier this year, TCIC’s second album Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery, out on reactivated classic jazz label Impulse!, represents its biggest splash across the music industry’s consciousness yet, with its brand new EP The Afterlife consolidating its position as one of the most exciting acts in jazz, electronica and all points in between.” -Michael Toland
13. The Specials Encore (Island)
The Specials open their long awaited eighth album Encore with an on-the-nose cover of The Equals “Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys.” It’s as good a re-introduction to a pretty classic line-up of THE essential 2 Tone ska band as Terry Hall joins Lyndval Golding and Horace Panter for the first time since 1981 (and quite the send-off as that was on the seminal single “Ghost Town”) — no Neville Staple or Roddy Radiation. It’s been over two decades since we last heard a studio album from any Specials iteration and this is clearly a “reunion” album — the album title even leans into it — yet Encore is remarkably natural for a line-up not seen since the days of Margaret Thatcher’s evil gaze. And being the Specials, it is obviously, boisterously political. Golding kicks that off with a funky-passionate spoken-word biographical tour of racism’s ravage covering three countries on “B.L.M.” They artfully cover their own material with Fun Boy Three’s no nukes chant “The Lunatics Are Running The Asylum,” stripping it down to its more cabaret elements. The album boasts one of the coolest guest stars in Saffiyah Khan, whose image went viral when the teen stood up to white nationalists with a bemused, dismissive smile. As she was sporting a Specials t-shirt, the band invited her on to spit some truth on the Prince Buster-inspired “10 Commandments. On the penultimate track, Hall battles a different, related form of demons on the hulled-out “The Life and Times Of a Man Called Depression).” Still, at the end of the tunnel, the Specials do see light — closing the prepared set with the haunting call to rise above racism and other human absurdities on “We Sell Hope.” – Jason Thurston
14. The Highwomen The Highwomen (Atlantic Records)
On their debut, self-titled, album, The Highwomen—a collaborative movement formed by Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Maren Morris, Natalie Hemby—move and stir the soul and heart with poignant, down-to-the-bone songs about the power of community, the unbreakable bonds of love, the absence of ego, and the affirmation of women’s identity in a world that marginalizes women and girls. The Highwomen ranges cannily from the rollicking honky tonk of “My Name Can’t Be Mama”—a skittering tune that affirms that a woman’s identity is not caught up and limited to motherhood or to the act of mothering—to the achingly beautiful waltz “If She Ever Leaves Me,”—a love song that transcends sexual boundaries and that rides high on Carlile’s flawless vocals. Maren Morris leads on the swaggering and defiant “Loose Change,” where she refuses to allow herself to be just another penny in an ungrateful lover’s pocket: “Loose change/you don’t see my value/I’m gonna be somebody’s lucky penny someday/Instead of rolling around in your pocket like loose change.” “Crowded Table,” sung as a chorus with no singer taking a lead vocal, joyously celebrates family and community and welcomes all to join the table: “I want a house with a crowded table/And a place by the fire for everyone.” The title track is a rewrite of Jimmy Webb’s “The Highwaymen.” In Carlile and Shires’ version, though, the remembrances come from persecuted women: a Honduran immigrant, a healer/witch from Salem, a Freedom Rider (the verses sung by Yola), and a pioneer preacher. Each song on The Highwomen is better than the one before it, and every song on the album weaves canny and sharp lyrics through dazzling sonic threads, creating a blanket of sound and words that unsettle the comfortable and comfort the unsettled. – Henry Carrigan
15. Versus Ex Voto (Ernest Jenning)
“Pray for all the souls you’ve left/It’s hard to be alive,” intones Versus singer/guitarist Richard Baluyut on Ex Voto’s closer, the man as god in ruins immortality fantasy “Re-Animator,” harmonizing gloriously with bassist/vocalist Fontaine Toups. It compassionately conveys how difficult it can be to stay here when all can disappear cruelly and suddenly. Versus sublimate this into grand catharsis throughout what’s been anointed their “sci-fi concept album.” But to call it that would be a tremendous disservice, as despite myriad references to fixtures in the “sci’fi” pantheon, including The Twilight Zone on the hypnotic cacophonous rumble of “Mummified,” and the film Interstellar on “Atmosphere,” they’re just plot devices used to get to the crux of what’s going on beneath the mundane surface of life. Centerpiece “Baby Green” is a woozy, mid-tempo ballad, using the film Melancholia as a conduit to convey what it’s like to let someone you love leave your life to follow their own path. The journey ends on “Re-Animator,” with Baluyut quixotically nodding to the cosmos, “When you look right at the sun/It’s looking right back.” Is there potential redemption via an afterlife, as in the film Re-Animator? Is God actually alien? No answers are offered, just questions, posed via a surfeit of tremendous songs. – John Everhart
16. black midi Schlagenheim (RoughTrade)
In this indie landscape, when an honest-to-god rock band breaks through, they’d better bring it. The first hint that these young Brits deserved better than the “Alt-J x Deerhoof” notes that you’ll scrawl down and bitch to your friends at first is drummer Morgan Simpson, a part-man/part-octopus legend who razors through hot-potato post-punk on “Years Ago,” caustic prog on opener “853” and the best drum fills of 2019 on centerpiece “bmbmbm.” The latter is a one-note masterclass in how intense jabbering nonsense can be, which is the calling card of frontman Geordie Greep, who sounds like the nutjob from UNKLE’s “Rabbit in Your Headlight” video started a band. My esteemed editor likens him to Grace Jones; I propose maybe if she fronted Pere Ubu. “It helps that our country is falling apart,” Greep said of their writing process, so maybe these 20- and 21-year-olds aren’t trying to control their chaos all that much after all. But they’re a whole lot better than Alt-J and Deerhoof ever were. Maybe funnier, even. And as you’d expect from a band called black midi who is not of the crazed Japanese electronic microgenre black midi, the one called “Reggae” is not a reggae song. – Dan Weiss
17. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds Ghosteen (Bad Seed)
Iconic Australian troupe Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds had their work cut out for them with Ghosteen, their seventeenth studio album. After all, 2016’s Skeleton Tree was a beautifully tragic minimalist dig into loss and grief (fueled in part by the death of Cave’s son, Arthur, around the time of recording). Its core persona—regretful dirges spoken with matter-of-fact weariness and backed by chillingly serene and subtle arrangements—was endlessly evocative. Luckily, the two-part Ghosteen—which continues the themes of its predecessor while also being dedicated to and inspired by the passing of keyboardist Conway Savage—sustains that aether. From start to finish, it delivers an even more haunting, grand, and resonant blend of electronic, ambient, and symphonic rock tapestries. The record sets the mood straight away via opener “Spinning Song.” Ethereal tones waver around a mournful center as Cave’s trademark cadence offers plenty of commanding spoken-word storytelling. Before long, more timbres are added without the track ever becoming full-bodied and conventional; rather, it remains harrowingly gorgeous, evoking similar techniques by art rock bands like Nosound and Anathema. (His choral closing sentiments—“And I love you” and “Peace will come”—alone are sublimely devastating.) Fortunately, this trajectory is more or less maintained as Ghosteen moves on, yet each track obviously also offers its own specialties. For instance, “Bright Horses” is a tad more hopeful and classical, whereas “Night Raid” is earthy, “Ghosteen Speaks” is more surreal, “Ghosteen” is elegantly triumphant, and closer “Hollywood” soars thanks to its reserved yet hypnotic percussion and piercing main motif. True, Ghosteen’s sixty-eight minutes is a bit repetitious and imposing when taken all at once, but there’s no denying its power as a stunningly touching work of art. – Jordan Blum
At 83 years young, Jamaican singer, songwriter, and producer Lee “Scratch” Perry continues to be alarmingly prolific, with a back catalog of music that runs to dozens of albums. Perry has enjoyed a 33-year relationship with his British acolyte, producer and musician Adrian Sherwood, who has worked with reggae giants like Prince Far I and Mikey Dread as well as rockers like Depeche Mode and Primal Scream. Together, the duo made not one, but two of the most intriguing and entertaining albums of the year in Rainford and Heavy Rain. Rainford is a brilliant late-career effort by the enigmatic Perry, his gymnastic vocal performances here enhanced by Sherwood’s studio wizardry, the album full of shimmering island rhythms, trip-hop beats, Jamaican dancehall, soulful horns, and even a bit of ‘60s-styled psychedelia. It’s Perry’s heartfelt lyrics that drive his art, however, and whether he’s preaching against the evils of capitalism as he does on “Kill Them Dreams Money Worshippers” or waxin’
nostalgic on “Autobiography of the Upsetter,” it’s clear that Perry’s mind is unclouded by age, his pen still mightier than the sword.Heavy Rain is the dub sequel to Perry’s Rainford. Along with producers like Errol Thompson and King Tubby, Perry helped pioneer the dub stylings of reggae better than 50 years ago, and his Upsetter Records label was home to numerous influential musical innovations. Dub places a greater emphasis on a song’s rhythms, and Heavy Rain allows its musicians to really shine, with Perry’s scattershot vocals jumping out of the mix and Sherwood embellishing the performances with his own creative efforts. The result is an invigorating musical landscape that showcases the talents of both men. Perry’s legacy may be etched in stone, but it hasn’t stopped him from striving to make new, bold musical statements like these two albums. – Rev. Keith A. Gordon
19. Madonna Madame X (Interscope)
Queen Madge’s best album since 2000’s squelchy Music may well be her most experimental, most playfully batshit record ever — or at least since 1990’s Sondheim-goes-Betty Boop period piece I’m Breathless. That’s a lot of decades her pop genius spans, and even if you think she hasn’t been a genius since, oh, Music, her craven trend-chasing and endless walk-in closet of personas and costumes deserves a tribute of its own with a title fitting the Carmen Sandiego-esque espionage conceit. So in one of the best pop years in ages, she does her part for the Latin-pop takeover recruiting Maluma on several tracks, gives two of rap’s best team players, Quavo and Swae Lee some big highlights (especially the latter’s gorgeous duet “Crave”), and folds Tchaikovsky into the patently ridiculous “Dark Ballet,” which is campier than Cats and probably much more fun. The patently foolish (and offensive) video for “God Control” exemplifies the limits to her no-filter approach. But the music is rarely tarnished, and you’re never questioning what side she’s on. At 60, her message is that she cares about the world and the music that inhabits it, a great deal of which now owes this petty thief and culture-bending genius. – Dan Weiss
20. Aldous Harding Designer (4AD)
On her third album Designer, New Zealand singer/songwriter Aldous Harding, again enlists John Parish for production duties, as she did on 2017’s sophomore release Party. The pairing again yields a great LP, with Designer outstripping Party in both songwriting acumen and sophistication of arrangements. Harding has a Mary Margaret O’Hara-level of enigmatic eccentrism, and writes songs from the perspective of an outsider desperately striving for human connectedness. In the process, she gives listeners a sense of belonging worthy of the best efforts of Laura Nyro, Joanna Newsom, and Kristin Hersh. “Imagining My Man” dazzles, as Harding keens, “You were right/Love takes time/Hey hey,” over a calypso-like piano jaunt. The spare “Treasure,” with its tasteful arrangement of spindly acoustic guitar and fire-side, minor key keyboard ripples, finds Harding questioning, “What will you do if the game keeps changing?” The question is rhetorical, and it serves as an overriding leitmotif for the album, and Harding’s modus operandi as an outsider artist–she thrives on flux. It acts as the invisible hand which drives her creative impulses, and Designer is anything but “by design”–it’s guided by an ethos of spontaneity. In this process, it captures both the pathos and joy attendant in not denying life’s entropic vicissitudes. She loops and feeds them back into the fuel for her most emotionally arresting work to date. – John Everhart
21. Weyes Blood Titanic Rising (Sub Pop)
Weyes Blood, aka Natalie Mering, swings for the fences on her fourth LP, Titanic Rising, and strikes gold. Mering again captures the divine alchemy akin to outsider songwriters Linda Perhacs, Vashti Bunyan, and Bridget St. John, and succeeds gloriously. But now, more than ever, she has a confident swagger, with songs buttressed by swelling orchestration to match her outsized ambitions and formidable songwriting swaps. It uses the film Titanic as a plot device to convey youthful disillusionment and wonderment, the fool’s gold element of being sold easy answers, while capturing the pleasures attendant in swallowing them whole. Ultimately, this is a case study of cognitive dissonance and the arts–Can you suspend your disbelief forever? The answer is resoundingly ambivalent. But it certainly is a beautiful journey, one in which Marling parses whether a populous work is sheer, manipulative artifice, or a profound artistic statement. And the answer lies somewhere in the middle, it seems, but let’s hope she continues to find unlikely outlets for her decidedly idiosyncratic artistic voice. It’s one of the most compelling out there now. “True love is making a comeback,” Marling sings on “Everyday” without a hit of irony or cynicism. When such an easily construed as mundane lyric is sung with such conviction, we’re left rapt, with fervent hope, and a belief even, that she’s right. – John Everhart
22. Raphael Saadiq Jimmy Lee (Columbia)
It has taken 30 years, six solo albums, high profile soundtrack work (such as on Insecure and the Academy Award nominated Mudbound), not to mention countless star-studded songwriting collaborations for Grammy-winning soul master Raphael Saadiq to let his personal life direct his musical output. The immensely talented Saadiq’s latest opus, Jimmy Lee, is named after his late brother, whom he lost to addiction in the 1990s, one of four of Saadiq’s deceased siblings. The album is a way to acknowledge his brother’s dark reality at the same time revising the narrative about him though the bright filter of Saadiq’s memories. Jimmy Lee plays like a concept album—unintentional though that may be. Through its storytelling style you get to know all sides of Jimmy Lee’s personality and the impact his actions had on his loved ones. This is finely illustrated on “My Walk” and on the beseeching “Sinners Prayer” which is offset by the funky shuffles of “So Ready.” But Saadiq’s focus is not all on the past as he weaves the tale of Jimmy Lee into the present time with bold statements, not the least of which is on “Rikers Island,” whose sticky chorus is all Saadiq singing over and over in different ranges. The music mirrors the message, or perhaps it is the other way around as Saadiq is known for his accurate and expert reference to retro sounds, but also for having a firm foot in the future. Saadiq’s customary classic soul is overlaid with ‘80s signature synthesizer sounds, which he ascribes to Tears for Fears, Duran Duran and David Bowie. His played and programmed drums are super futuristic and his signature rhythmic bass propels these songs forward. Jimmy Lee rings particularly true as it comes from such a personal place. But it also speaks a timely, universal truth. – Lily Moyaeri
23.Christone “Kingfish” Ingram Kingfish (Alligator Records)
Ringo Starr, echoing the lyrics of George Harrison, once declared, “You have to pay your dues if you wanna sing the blues.” Nevertheless, that early hit “It Don’t Get Come Easy” didn’t take into account the instant success Christone Ingram, best known by his nickname Kingfish, achieved with his self-titled debut. It wasn’t enough that he was signed by the revered blues label Alligator, that Grammy winner Tom Hambridge (Buddy Guy, Susan Tedeschi, Joe Louis Walker, George Thorogood) opted to produce his initial album and that he secured the blessings of Buddy Guy, with whom he toured and duets on an aptly named entry titled “Fresh Out.” It’s also the fact that critics instantly credited the 20 year-old with the kind of revered status usually reserved for someone with decades of extensive experience. Naturally enough, the pundits are never swayed easily, but the fact that Kingfish is not only a remarkable guitar player and emotive singer, but also a superb songwriter as well adds to his esteem. Notably, he penned eight of the album’s twelve tracks. And while staying true to the blues while moving the mantra forward can be challenging, he still manages to retain the sanctified spirt of true Delta blues. Kingfish pays tribute to several distinguished forebears of the blues — Robert Johnson, Elmore James, Muddy Waters and Lightnin’ Hopkins, B.B. King, and Albert King, among them — but never negates his own intents. Then again, the ability to connect past and present are at the essence of Kingfish’s craft. It’s little wonder then that the track “Been Here Before” reflects a sense that perhaps he lived the life of a wizened bluesman back in the day. No matter; he’s clearly got a fine future ahead of him. — Lee Zimmerman
24. Lana Del Rey Norman Fucking Rockwell! (Interscope)
Lana Del Rey’s latest album Norman Fucking Rockwell! was a smash with fans and critics alike—and that’s saying something for an artist who a mere seven years ago was pegged as a likely flash-in-the-pan pop singer. Del Rey has come a long way since “Summertime Sadness,” and it shows on the 14-track album she released in August. She brought to Norman Fucking Rockwell! the same swelling, breathy vocals we’ve all grown familiar with since her 2012 debut, supported primarily by delicate piano that punctuates a truly gorgeous voice throughout. The title track and “Mariners Apartment Complex” appeared as early standouts, with “Venice Bitch” showing Del Rey following her experimental impulses while keeping the breezy California girl image she often embraces intact. Perhaps the best thing about NFR! is that it felt like the step Del Rey had been gearing up to take, and she went all in. The album has earned two Grammy nominations (Album of the Year and Song of the Year for the title track), but it attracted significant buzz from those who pay attention to music news long before the Grammys made their announcements due to Del Rey’s Twitter rebuke of the largely positive think piece written by NPR’s Ann Powers. That confrontation spawned a wider debate about the relationship between artists and critics, but first it sparked curiosity that kept Del Rey’s release in the cultural conversation longer than it might have lingered otherwise—and in the end, Norman Fucking Rockwell! is the deserving benefactor of that attention. – Meghan Roos
25. Harry Styles Fine Line (Columbia)
While Styles’ 2017 self-titled solo debut was a declaration that there was more than one…um, course to Harry’s musical creations, his second album, Fine Line, reveals even more folds. It’s downright fun and beaming with the infectious joy of a young talent feeling his oats. His music reflects the abundance of personality he displayed both as frontman of One Direction and as SNL host — along with the willingness to take risks. That’s not to say that he’s lost the love of a good old basic pop hook, as Styles satisfyingly stacks the singles early in the album, from the delirious, slightly disposable “sugar high” of “Watermelon Sugar” to the alterno-electro spike of “Adore You” to the old school R&B-tinged rave of “Lights Up.” It’s at this point the album takes a veering left turn, as if Styles has dispensed with the required hitmaking, and can now really open everything up, as Fine Line gets weirder and weirder and it’s wonderful. His wanderings reflect hints of everything from Prince to Donovan to Jeff Buckley to aughts dream-pop acts like Doves and Gay Dad — anyone remember Gay Dad? I suspect Styles might. This second half peaks on the thrilling pastiche of “Sunflower, Part 6,” a track that somehow blends calypso touches, classic rock riffs, synth flourishes, sunshine pop chorales, and well, if I included every element this review (or even sentence) might never end, but let’s just say, improbably, it works. And that sums up Styles’ second record: it’s indulgent and may or may not be classic, but it’s honest, pushes boundaries and is never, ever dull. – Jason Thurston
26. Trupa Trupa Of The Sun (Lovitt Records)
A deep listen to Of The Sun reveals a tremendous amount of growth for Poland’s Trupa Trupa since their formation over a decade ago and comprised of Grzegorz Kwiatkowski (vocal, guitar), Wojciech Juchniewicz (vocal, bass guitar, guitar), Rafał Wojczal (second guitar, keys), and Tomasz Pawluczuk (drums). The basslines of Juchniewicz, for instance, indeed smack of pointed-yet-elastic rhythms that split the difference between Peter Hook and Tony Levin, especially while while the increased presence of Wojczal on acoustic piano really adds a level of nuanced beauty into this varied collection of songs expressed so wonderfully through Kwiatowski, who is like if Syd Barrett, Roger Waters and David Gilmour were just one man instead of three. It also makes perfect sense for this band to sign to a Dischord-adjacent label, given the strong Fugazi vibes they express as well, especially through the forceful Canty-esque drumming of Tomasz Pawluczuk. That is they decided one day to have their hopefully one day possibly forthcoming reunion album produced by Kevin Shields. Or perhaps even Robert Fripp, in the spirit of the Peter Gabriel “Scratch” LP. Whatever you want to call it, this band is turning the concept of post-hardcore rock on its ear with a heavy beauty fans of Deafheaven, Cave-In and Lovitt labelmates The Mercury Program will most certainly appreciate. – Ron Hart
27. Bill Callahan Shepherd in a Sheepskin’s Vest (Drag City)
The six year protracted gap since 2013’s Dream River was indeed a long one for Bill Callahan, obliquely referenced on Shepherd in a Sheepskin’s Vest’s opener “Shepherd’s Welcome,” as he dryly intones in full-on troubadour mode, “Well it’s been such a long time/Why don’t you come on in/I kept the old door/And I cut down the pines/To make a new floor.” It’s essentially a prosaic announcement that he’s living in the same artistic house. One with minor renovations, indistinguishable to all but the keenest, most perceptive observers. But to them, this is a quantum leap forward for Callahan, as he continues on his singular path, the closest modern analog to Leonard Cohen. You wanted it darker? Callahan’s nowhere near there, fortunately, as this superb album evinces love, loss, light, and rebirth. Some may long for the “cold blooded old times” of his Smog years. Instead he offers something “With new strength and new purpose/As free as a mockingbird,” to quote “Angela.” Callahan challenges his audience to grow with him, and many seem to be doing so, an aberration in the attention addled late 2010’s. “I’m just talking about the old days,” he acerbically jests on “The Ballad of the Hulk,” before, with perfect comic timing, dryly quipping, “Well after this next song we’ll be moving along/Out of this vein.” And that’s something of a credo for Callahan’s artistic journey. So pragmatic, yet so damn tantalizing. By John Everhart
28. Jenny Lewis On The Line (Warner Bros.)
It only took two decades for Jenny Lewis to finally get the respect she commands from entities who didn’t grow up on LiveJournal, only most working rockcrits nowadays probably did. It was just their stodgy gatekeepers who wouldn’t let Lewis take credit for imbuing alternative rock with its current standard: 80s R&B and sophisti-pop and Fleetwood Mac thrice-removed. She occupies such an odd place in the universe that she won an opening slot for Harry Styles, a superstar who comes to his influences spirited but far less naturally. She’s earned the right to this lightly settled-in album with its “wasted my youth on a puppy” single and its superb climax “Rabbit Hole,” which bookends her solo debut’s “Rabbit Fur Coat” to cordon off all the debauchery she’s seen in between, which is a lot more than Destroyer, to name but one of her inferiors who’s credited with taking indie-rock to the yacht club. She conducts an orchestra of Beck, Ringo Starr, and Jim Keltner through songs that neither live off of nor hide her rough past. She’s to Red Bull and Hennessey what Stevie Nicks was to gold dust and cocaine, which is to say, a whole lot healthier. – Dan Weiss
29. Starcrawler Devour You (Rough Trade)
There are those primitives among us who would claim that this LA-based scuzz-glam-punk rock band’s debut album was perfect as it was. Starcrawler, which came out just lastyear, was a short, sharp shock of grinding guitars and singing that veered from guttural to shrieking. Ryan Adams was credited with production, and while it had loads more personality than any of his own music, his hands-off approach didn’t do Starcrawler any favors. But part of the thrillwas untapped potential, as proven by Devour You, which succeeds even beyond my wildest expectations. Working with skilled producer Nick Launay (Bad Seeds, Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs, etc.) has no doubt helped. Time on the road has lent both solidity and swing to the rhythm section of Austin Smith (drums) and Tim Franco (bass) – listen to them groove on “You Dig Yours” – while wunderkind guitarist Henri Cash now has the most exciting riffing hand in the business. But he also has developed the musicality to create layered parts full of fine detail and raw power. Then there is Arrow de Wilde, who shows herself equally at home fearlessly snarling out sarcasm as she is sending a soaring ballad(!) like “Born Asleep” into the stratosphere. The variety in the songwriting shows not only ambition but a deep engagement with the history of rock. Unlike an earlier generation of punked out rockers, they don’t want to burn it all down – but they do want to light a little fire under a genre where introspection may be easier to find than instigation and inspiration. But don’t get it twisted. While Starcrawler may be showing signs of maturity and nuance on, in concert they are still the same filth-peddling, blood-spewing circus they’ve always been. On Devour You, the combination of those primal urges with a bit more sophistication is nothing short of intoxicating.
30. Vampire Weekend Father of the Bride (Columbia)
Father of the Bride’s cover art is pure 1990: C+C Music Factory font on a recycling poster from a middle-school classroom wall. So’s first single, “Harmony Hall,” which sounds like the Soup Dragons. The newest (and best) one, “This Life,” resembles “Brown Eyed Girl” of all things. Koenig is the gentle prankster 2019 needs; only trolls us with dignity. A brilliant artist of misdirection, when he first announced the album title’s initials were FOTB, he knew slyly that debates over their controversially Afropop-borrowed guitar melodies would bring “Fresh Off the Boat” to the front of the mind. And now that Batmanglij has left, Koenig dared to say in an interview that the new song “Unbearably White” deals with race. It’s referring to snow. Even in unveiling of his first new music in more than half a decade, “Harmony Hall” and “2021,” Koenig may have chosen these particular tracks of his new 18 just because it’s the longest song and the shortest one. Very few acts in the rock world play 12-dimensional chess with audience perception like this, and U2 never developed the knack. But Father of the Bride is great on simply musically rich terms, which easily criss-cross with their uncool sources. (They cover “Jokerman,” Bob Dylan’s most reggae song, live for crying out loud.)” – Dan Weiss