My 2019 top 10. Let’s dive in! Here’s yer playlist:
10. The New Pornographers – In the Morse Code of the Brake Lights
Carl Newman said that when this album started coming together he questioned himself saying, “Are there too many songs using car metaphors?”, and then decided “Maybe people will think it’s a concept album.” Well, concept album or not, this album grabbed and held my attention more than the last few records from the group. Something you’ll note in this top 10 (and really in the top few from last week’s list as well) is that I really feel there are no weak tracks on this record. This album grabbed my attention with the first couple singles, but held it because of the strength throughout. One thing that The New Pornographers have always been sneaky good at is knowing how to open and close an album. The first track and the last track are always the perfect way to open and close the album, respectively. Things like that go a long way to making a great record. It also helps that they really hit the sweet spot, and gave us a murderer’s row of great songs on this one.
9. The Highwomen – The Highwomen
In terms of supergroups, this is about as good as it gets. Each artist is a rising star in her own rite, and the entire album is just bursting with the talent of Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Amanda Shires and Maren Morris. The first thing that hits you with this record is the vocals. The interplay and the harmonies of four stellar vocalists is absolutely beautiful, and it’s something special and rare in modern music. Beyond the vocals though, is a richly layered sound of guitars, piano, organ, violin. It’s a warm and soulful sound sound, and the songs are filled with positive messaging. Initially, I was most struck by “Highwomen” and “Crowded Table”, but the entire record is so good and more recently I’ve really been loving “Old Soul” and “Wheels of Laredo”. Also this year, the group contributed to the soundtrack for the movie “The Kitchen” with an incredible cover of Flletwood Mac’s “The Chain”.
8. Mark Lanegan – Somebody’s Knocking
Mark Lanegan gave us a modern rock masterpiece this year. It’s dark and brooding, but it is not without hope and beauty. Lanegan has never been one to stick with a formula though. While there is plenty of his low rasp over fuzzed-out guitars, there is also much more electronic elements in this record. There are some bold connecting lines to New Order and Joy Division on this record. “Penthouse High” could easily be considered Lanegan’s love-letter to New Order. If you were to hear that song without his recognizable vocal, then you could mistake it for a New Order b-side you hadn’t heard. This could come off as cheap mimicry if not for the context of the album. Somebody’s Knocking easily shifts gears from 80’s to 90’s to 00’s to 10’s, and all in this context of Mark Lanegan’s unique touch and perspective.
7. Shredders – Great Hits
Is this an album or an EP? I’ve heard EPs longer than this, but this is so sharp that it had to make the list. Doomtree these days is mainly operating in 2 main entities in my mind. There are still other side projects from Sims, Paper Tiger and Lazerbeak, but the two main operators right now are Shredders and Dessa. Where the full crew Doomtree albums are huge, Shredders is a leaner project. P.O.S. and Sims have been the two most prolific rappers in Doomtree, and so 2017’s debut, Dangerous Jumps, saw them trading bars in over some of Lazerbeak and Paper Tiger’s sharpest, fastest beats. I loved that record, and it narrowly missed my top 10 that year. What Great Hits does that Dangerous Jumps didn’t is that it sharpens the focus of the subject matter. There’s a cohesive message that comes through, especially on “Suburban Base”, “Vanilla ISIS” and “Ayeyayaya”. P.O.S is one of my favorite rappers, but I think this record is Sims at his finest. Their contrasting styles both hit top of their game. Sims is sharp and fast, P.O.S is aggressive and hard-hitting. If you get a chance to see these guys live, then take it. They are fast-paced and engaged like few others are, and they are super chill to hang out with after. If this was longer than 7-songs and a 20 minute run-time, then it could have landed above 7.
6. Making Movies – Ameri’kana
This album made a late run for me, and certainly earned a spot in my top 10 favorites. Making Movies offers a spirited blend of Rock, Cumbia, Psychedelia, Son Cubano, and Americana that also makes sure its message is heard. The Kansas City quartet earned some Latin Grammy nods this year, and I would expect that it’s not for the last time. The guest appearances on this album from Flor de Toloache, Ruben Blades, Frankie Negron, and others are fantastic. What Making Movies offers is a confluence of many different styles from across Latin America as well as styles pioneered in the US, and they do it beautifully. This album is a must-listen.
5. L’Orange, Jeremiah Jae – Complicate Your Life With Violence
L’Orange’s collaboration with Solemn Brigham, Marlowe, was my #3 last year, and now here is L’Orange again. The North Carolina-born producer constructs his album in a cinematic fashion using samples of old radio dramas, jazz and blues records and black-and-white films to piece together a plot and dialogue, and this time he’s paired up with Chicago rapper, Jeremiah Jae. The pair have worked together before on 2015’s The Night Took Us In Like Family, and it’s a pairing that work well. It’s clear that L’Orange thinks of each record in terms of fiml-genre. He’s basically said as much on his twitter as he discusses his albums as “my crime-drama record”, “my Western record” etc. This is a boot-camp war film riddled with scandal and maybe some madness thrown in. Personally, my highlight here is the artfully-done Elmore James samples on “Cool Hand”.
4. Black Pumas – Black Pumas
Wow, did this group just come out of thin air this year? Apparently Eric Burton’s soulful vocals came from a combination of church, musical theater and a lot of busking. I think from the first time I heard “Colors” on the radio it was always going to be among my favorite songs of the year, but then listening to this in full I found there wasn’t a single weak link. The entire record, every song, is flat out amazing. It’s a warm, soulful overall sound that immediately gets you moving and singing along. How often do you here a song for the first time and feel like you need to sing along by the end? “Colors” remains among my very favorite songs of this year, but it’s also a good representation of this beautiful album. I love every aspect of this album. The soulful vocals, the bright guitars, the warm organ and rhodes piano, and the tight rhythm section. Can you ask for a better debut?
3. Malibu Ken – Malibu Ken
Don’t rest your eye on that cover too long. Yikes. This is certainly one of the weirder releases of the year, and I’d expect no less from this pair. Aesop Rock’s notoriously nasal wordsmith work combined with Tobacco’s effects-drenched production is a match made in… well, maybe not heaven exactly. There’s a blance they’ve had to strike here. If it were up to Tobacco’s tendancies, then Aes’s voice would become unrecognizably distorted by the layers of effects. Thankfully, the raps aren’t lost in the mix, and Aesop Rock’s lyrics have been running through my head a lot this year. The weird factor will undoubtedly turn some away from this project, but there’s so much to value in Aesop’s acrobatic wordplay and broad vocabulary being paired with Tobacco’s unconventional and distortion-soaked mixes. There’s great hooks in this record too, and thoughts that stick with the listener. There’s been some serious hours spent listening to this one in 2019.
2. Ibibio Sound Machine – Doko Mein
If you know of an album this year that had more in terms of sheer energy, then I’m open to it. London-based Ibibio Sound Machine took my listening by storm this year. This slab of West-African Funk and Psychedelia mixed with modern alt-rock electro was amazing. Eno Williams powerful vocals and captivating stage presence were among my highlights this year, and seeing this band live in a packed-out High Dive in Seattle was one of my top moments of the year. The band is tight together, but still loose enough to improvise through their set. It’s hard to pinpoint particular pieces of this group to highlight without just listing all the members, and saying what they bring to the group. I’ll try though. Eno Williams energy up front is incredible. She runs the show. The rhythms of Jose (drums), John (bass), and Anselmo (percussion) keeps the groove driving. Those two things are the biggest factors to the group for me. Add that Alfred Bannerman is a phenomenal guitar player, and that the horns-section is absolutely blazing (and they layer in excellent contributions on keys as well), and now I listed everyone anyway. Love this album, and it could have been my favorite of the year if not for an absolute legend giving us a new classic.
1. Mavis Staples – We Get By
Is there a musician I admire more as a person? I don’t think so. Mavis’ career has been a long and winding road that has made her integral in the development of all music today no matter the genre. Having read Greg Kot’s excellent biography of her this year, I could go on for awhile here about different aspects of her career and how she connects to Mahalia Jackson, Bob Dylan, Prince, Arcade Fire, Ry Cooder, Wilco, The Talking Heads, Sam Cooke, and on and on and on… I’ll try and center this about this record in particular. There is a little background necessary to set the stage for this amazing album. When the Staples Singers began, Pops stuck hard to Gospel. It wasn’t until encountering Martin Luther King Jr that things changed to a broader message. They built their most successful run on so-called “message songs”, that were rooted in their Gospel values, but went beyond the walls of the church and connected with people in universal ways (perhaps the way the Gospel was intended anyway, but that’s a different discussion).
All this needs to be said, as it is fundamental to Mavis’ resurgence in the last decade and a half. Mavis makes music with a message for the world as it is, and this year she connected beautifully. The album is produced and co-written by Ben Harper, who, you could say, is rooted in this Staples Singers school of thought. 2016’s Livin’ On a High Note saw Mavis singing songs written for her by various other artists, and Harper wrote my personal favorite track on that album in “Love and Trust”. The messaging of We Get By lands beautifully in part because Harper is such a keen student of this style. It’s the perfect record for this time and place because Mavis, more than many of her colleagues of Soul music, she remains very present. There’s a humility to Mavis that keeps her firmly with regular people rather than taking on soul-diva/rockstar persona. Songs of love, unity, equality and a bold embrace of change, songs that last, message songs necessary for the world we live in. Mavis Staples.
Here’s yer tracklist:
Making Movies, Ruben Blades – Delilah
Mark Lanegan – Gazing from the Shore
The New Pornographers – You’ll Need a New Back Seat Driver
Malibu Ken – Tuesday
Shredders – Vanilla ISIS
Ibibio Sound Machine – Wanna Come Down
L’Orange, Jeremiah Jae – Behavior Report
Black Pumas – Fire
The Highwomen – Old Soul
Mavis Staples – Heavy On My Mind
The New Pornographers – You Won’t Need Those Where You’re Going
L’Orange, Jeremiah Jae – My Everything is Bulletproof
Shredders – Young Bros
Malibu Ken – Sword Box
Mark Lanegan – Penthouse High
The Highwomen – The Highwomen
Black Pumas – Stay Gold
Mavis Staples, Ben Harper – We Get By
Making Movies, Ruben Blades – No Te Calles
Ibibio Sound Machine – She Work Very Hard
Malibu Ken – Purple Moss
The New Pornographers – Leather On The Seat
The Highwomen – Crowded Table
Making Movies – The Wake of the Fall (Nibiru)
Mark Lanegan – Paper Hat
L’Orange, Jeremiah Jae – Cool Hand
Shredders – Ayeyayaya
Ibibio Sound Machine – Tell Me (Doko Mein)
Black Pumas – Colors
Mavis Staples – One More Change