In terms of music, 2019 began with a whimper and ended with a roar. An influx of powerful, innovative works emerged in the latter months, many of which have buoyantly emerged near the top of this list. The 2010’s have been a multifaceted decade of music, and the music in 2019 provided a perfect exclamation point as we head into a new decade.
Deerhunter, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?
Damien Jurado, In the Shape of a Storm
Ezra Furman, Twelve Nudes
Flaming Lips, King’s Mouth
Maxo, LIL BIG MAN
Pile, Green and Gray
Pissgrave, Posthumous Humiliation
Joan Shelley, Like the River Loves the Sea
Sacred Paws, Run Around the Sun
Wilco, Ode to Joy
I discovered Brazilian psych band Boogarins three years ago at SXSW and loved their mind-altering performance so much that I would see them two more times over the course of the week. When I returned home, I ordered every album they had to offer but was disappointed by how little the produced material resembled the magic I’d witnessed on the stage.
While past albums felt like slapdash affairs, Sombrou Duvida captures their live show with precision and nuance. Layers of guitars wash over each other like waves as the powerful drumming of Ynaia Benthroldo bubbles and pops across the surface. Boogarin’s ability to mix the traditions of psych-rock with tropicalia is a throwback to Brazilian legends like Os Mutantes and Tom Ze, but the band brings in modern splashes, making for a listen that will wash you away into the ether if you let it.
39. Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire
Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire
[Chocolate Rabbit; 2019]
One of the biggest joys of listening to Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire’s 2019 self-titled album is its unpredictability. Production-wise, the backtracks provide a variety of atmospheres, from funky to murky, from driving to chill.
But even more than the musical variety, eXquire’s lyrics are what provide the real moments of surprise, weaving dissimilar imagery together into one entertaining hip-hop quilt. At times he’s humorous with left-field lines line “R Kelly can rot in hell but his music is too good to mute” and at other times his references come at you so quickly that you have to relisten again and again like the line “German lager/ Ayahuasca/ Jushin Thunder Liger/ Ashwagandha/ In Wakanda, with Lupita.” But when he’s at his finest, eXquire explores politics and the bleak future of this country with lyrics that delve into the surveillance state, reparations, and commercialism.
The World in Handcuffs
[Anti Fade; 2019]
There have been multiple albums in the past few years that have taken a critical look at the criminal justice system. With their 2019 release, The World in Handcuffs, Ausmuteants took a different tact, recording a concept album where all of the songs are told from the perspective of a police officer.
If you’re thinking this is some type of “blue lives matter” affair, you’re way off base. Instead, the album is a satire of the machismo and pigheadedness often found within the type of person that would be interested in becoming a cop. Instead of focusing on the victims, singer Shaun Conner encapsulates the “woe is me” demeanor of officers that believe they are above the law. As a whole, it’s an entertaining listen, but it also cuts into a part of the discussion that is often ignored – what compels someone to enter the field of law enforcement?
[Sacred Bones; 2019]
The second album from Oakland based group Spellling, the brainchild of Tia Cabral, is certainly one disorienting listen. Her sound is rooted in R&B and electronic traditions, but Mazy Fly is so much more. From sultry to haunting, her voice adapts to her surroundings, the synths often favoring darker tones and dissonance.
Lyrically, the album is even more off-kilter. The songs sing of aliens, flying dogs, and ghost ships, but in a strange way, these science-fiction images are used to convey a message of equality. For example, on the upbeat dance number, “Real Fun” she describes a scene where aliens and humans are dancing together. While this imagery may come off as silly on the surface, she’s singing throughout the album of a future where being black is celebrated and accepted as a part of the whole.
36. Oozing Wound
[Thrill Jockey; 2019]
One look at the tracklisting for Oozing Wound’s third album, High Anxiety, and it’s clear that they are pissed off at a lot of people. From album opener “Surrounded by Fucking Idiots” to “Tween Shitbag” to “Birth of a Flat Earther”, few are spared from vocalist Zach Weil’s vitriol.
If you do happen to be one of the aforementioned, you probably won’t be able to make out Weil’s diatribes anyways because it’s all delivered in a rasping screech as the band’s distortion and bedlam seems to decay with each passing moment. Oozing Wound’s brand of metal teeters between punk, noise, and thrash, delivering it all in one crushing bolt of chaos. High Anxiety is a cathartic album for anxious times.
35. Shannon Lay
[Sub Pop; 2019]
To label Shannon Lay’s 2019 album August as a cheery affair would be misleading, but if you’ve heard any of her past work, there does seem to be a turn toward a more positive outlook. Sure, there are still moments of chilling introspection, but as a whole, Lay has softened with age.
It would also be a stretch to call August a step up in terms of production since, for the most part, the album features her tried and true stripped-down approach of her tender voice and an acoustic guitar. But within these singer-songwriter staples, producer Ty Segall brings in splashes of brilliance with a saxophone here, a drum fill there, and an echo-y vocal effect on the haunting album closer, “The Dream”. The album’s title derives from the month she quit her day job to focus solely on her music, a risk that has certainly paid off.
Over the course of their first two releases, Toronto punk outfit Pup has built a following based on their energetic brand of catchy pop-punk. On 2019’s Morbid Stuff, they remain grounded in the sound that brought them to the dance but take the songwriting to an even more personal level than before.
Pup has the uncanny ability to make human suffering sound fun. Each track feels like you’re witnessing a therapy session with singer Stefan Babcock unraveling emotionally. Despite the wry lyrics of depression and heartache, it’s all delivered with a shrug and a smirk, the liberating riffs and bombastic drums stirring the off-kilter anthems to life. Morbid Stuff is an album that forces you to smile in the face of agony.
33. Ryan Pollie
Back in 2018, L.A. musician Ryan Pollie was diagnosed with cancer. With his former band, The Los Angeles Police Department, Pollie was known for his understated, dream-pop melodies, but with mortality weighing heavy on his soul, he took a different approach with his first solo album in 2019.
On the surface, Pollie’s blend of countrified folk may seem just as unassuming as his past work, but lyrically, the songs take a darker, more direct turn. On “Aim Slow”, Pollie takes aim at God, not asking to be saved, but to point fingers singing, “My God’s insane/ My God’s insane.” The song “Only Child” tells of the experience of trying to reassure loved ones that you’re okay when in reality, you’re scared to death, with Pollie singing, “My hair is falling out/My parents are calling now.” It’s unfortunate that a life-threatening experience brings out the best in an artist, but Pollie’s battle with cancer resulted in one the most cutting and personal releases in 2019.
32. The Hecks
[Trouble in Mind; 2019]
When The Hecks first formed back in 2012, they were your run-of-the-mill Chicago band – noisy, dirty, and abrasive – but you wouldn’t know the band’s noisy beginnings based off their sophomore album, My Star, a throwback to the days when post-punk and new wave collided.
The distortion may be gone this time around, but the band’s driving energy still reigns supreme, each song pulsating with a nervous energy that hearkens back to the early works of Devo. Many songs revolve around a cyclical melody, continually grinding like a cog as flourishes emerge, taking each track through a constant evolution. In a strange way, the band has become more real by diverting their energies into more artificial, plastic environs.
31. Mike Krol
When I saw Mike Krol perform at SXSW this past spring, he took the stage with make-up on. Instead of the glam variety you might be expecting, Krol’s face bared a large maroon bruise, similar to the album cover, while the rest of his band sported bloody noses. I can’t think of a better representation of the brutal fuzzed-out melodies found on his 2019 release, Power Chords.
Power Chords is a break-up album, but you wouldn’t know it based on the hummable melodies and boisterous energy throughout. Over the course of 30 minutes (Krol’s longest album to date), he sings of the battles scars that took shape over the course of a messy break-up. The songs are straight forward power punk, the guitars ripping through one toe-tapping riff after another as Krol’s voice howls out through his signature vocal effects, overdrive and reverb to the max. Power Chords is an album for those who see themselves coming out the other end of a messy relationship, bruised, but not beaten.
30. Jozef van Wissem/Jim Jarmusch
An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil
[Sacred Bones; 2019]
While researching and recording my podcast “Year of the Neil (The Story of Neil Young)”, I found myself coming across the name of director Jim Jarmusch again and again. As a lifelong Neil fan, Jarmusch filmed the Crazy Horse documentary Year of the Horse and even had Neil record the soundtrack to his film Dead Man. The album is a series of boundary-less guitar soundscapes, and based on Jarmusch’s fourth album with lutist Jozef van Wissem, he took note of what Neil accomplished on the underrated soundtrack.
The duo’s 2019 effort, An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil, is a bleak look at the works of poet William Blake, a luminary who questioned Christianity. The album may contain few lyrics, but the music definitely reflects the spirit of controversial Blake classics like The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Auguries of Innocence. Jarmusch’s brutal distortion is counter-balanced by the haunting picking of Wissem, creating an atmosphere that is both haunting and ominous. The dueling instruments creates a dream-like listening experience that can quickly veer into nightmarish territory. An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil may be classified as experimental music, but it’s one of the most metal album released in 2019.
29. Eto & Superior
Long Story Short
[Below System Records; 2019]
On the surface, Long Story Short, the collaboration between rapper Eto and producer Superior, is a chill listen. Eto’s vocals are understated and calm; Superior’s production muted and serene.
This tranquil sound stands in stark contrast to the horrors found within Eto’s lyrics of poverty and crime. This disconnect between the violent lyrics and meditative delivery is what makes this album such an interesting listen. Instead of presenting these stories of the streets in either a manic or braggadocios state, Eto and Superior conjure up a character that is no longer affected by the atrocities he has seen. This is an album of cut-throat stories told by a hardened gangster.
28. Kim Gordon
No Home Record
I used to think Kim Gordon was the Ringo Starr of Sonic Youth, but in 2019, I realized she’s the George Harrison. Call it sexism or simply cluelessness, but I always viewed Gordon as a third wheel to the band’s distinctive sound. The contributions of Thurston Moore and Lee Renaldo are clear throughout any Sonic Youth venture, which might be why I missed the contributions of Gordon all of those years.
On her first solo album since the break-up of the band, it’s clear the Gordon was not only important to the legendary band’s sound, but she also may have been under-utilized. No Home Record is one of the strangest, most exciting listens of 2019, and the fact that it was created by a 66-year-old woman should erase any ageist preconceptions. Much like Harrison, it’s clear that Gordon was teeming with material that explodes from each avant-garde track.
27. Horse Jumper of Love
[Run For Cover; 2019]
Is it possible to be lethargic and crushing at the same moment? This is the hypothesis Boston trio Horse Jumper of Love seem to be testing on their sophomore album, So Divine, and based off the batch of homespun songs, I’d say that succeeded with flying colors.
So Divine hearkens back to the hills and valleys of the 90s, picking up where the likes of Sunny Day Real Estate and Slint left off and pulling the fever dream-inducing formula into the 21st century. Production-wise, the album also feels from another time, the drums a bit off at times – the vocals a bit too loud, the distortion muffled – but in a weird way, this abrasive assault is welcome in a time of computerized perfection. So Divine is raw, honest, and as real as it gets in 2019.
26. Bonnie Prince Billy
I Made a Place
[Drag City; 2019]
It has been eight years since Will Oldham has released a full-length album of original songs, and a lot has changed in the world since he last graced us with his unique blend of folksy contemplation. In a time where “babies in cages”, “Jews will not replace us”, and “Muslim ban” are common phrases in the news, Oldham opts to look toward the positives in life rather than ruminate on the state of the world on his 2019 album, I Made a Place.
In the past, Oldham has proven he can delve into the darker recesses of the soul, but on I Made a Place he looks outwardly, singing warm melodies of love and hope. While many hearts harden with age, the man who once sang “I See a Darkness” has softened. Dark imagery still abounds on the album, but he punctuates each bleak vision with inspiration. On “Dream Awhile” he sings, “Concern, concern, that’s all there is, the timbre of the day/ But when I close my eyes I find there is another way.” In these nightmarish times, Bonnie Prince Billy provides a dreamlike respite.
[Drag City; 2019]
In 2015, I’d tell anyone within earshot that Wand was my favorite band on planet earth. The garage-doom hybrid found on Golem was certainly a monumental release for a young band still finding their bearings. The psychedelic, messy albums that followed would soften my stance on the band, but 2019’s Laughing Matter is a reminder that this San Francisco band is capable of incredible music.
Interestingly, Laughing Matter is neither doomy or psychedelic. The only forbearer that comes to mind is Radiohead – the songs avant-garde, the lyrics oblique, the production precise. It’s clear that the band’s penchant for experimentation over the past few years has helped them hone their craft, the songs on Laughing Matter using strange effects sparingly with profound effect. If there is a flaw to Laughing Matter, it’s the length. Standing at over an hour, this album would have certainly ranked higher on this list with a few flabby tracks cut out of the mix. Then again, the band’s unwillingness to adhere to the norm is what helped foster the growth shown on Laughing Matter.
[Young God; 2019]
Looking back over the past decade, Swans have been one of the most impactful bands, a surprising assertion considering the band’s history that dates back to the early 80s. One of the reasons this stalwart from the New York noise-wave scene still persists is frontman Michael Gira’s tradition of changing his band line-up every 5-10 years.
Leaving Meaning provides a nice endnote to a fantastic decade for the band, but it’s actually a starting point with Gira shuffling his band rotation for the first time in the 21st century. Remnants of the band’s dominating sound of the 2010s still resonate throughout, but many of the tracks have a more somber, cerebral approach, providing a glimpse as to where Gira plans to take us for the next ten years.
Saw You Up There
[Self Released; 2019]
One of my favorite discoveries in 2019 was the band Yeesh and their album Saw You Up There, so imagine my disappointment when I discovered that it was a posthumous release. In fact, the Chicago-based post-hardcore trio disbanded two years ago in the midst of recording the songs that would make-up their 2019 album.
This is far from a collection of leftovers or unfinished wreckage in the aftermath. No, this is an album of eleven finely crafted midwestern rock songs that is tightly wound and perfectly executed with driving rhythms, angular guitars, and passionate vocals. The band has two prior albums that I will definitely be checking out soon, but sadly, Saw You Up There is evidence that this band had so much more to offer.
21. Sun Watchers
[Trouble in Mind; 2019]
I’ve never understood why jam bands like Phish and The Grateful Dead have never delved more into jazz music. Their live performances are certainly based in improvisation, but beyond someone like The Dave Matthews Band, these artists usually stay buoyed to their stoner, psych sounds. Sun Watcher’s third LP, Illegal Moves, is a testament to what is possible when the lines are blurred between psych-rock and cosmic jazz.
Over the course of the 41-minute album, sprawling grooves, reverberating guitars, and an unhinged saxophone enter the same stream of melody, their energies radiating from each track. Sunwatchers have said Illegal Moves is a political statement about corporate exploitation. The album may not contain any lyrics, but a spirit of revolution is prevalent throughout the refreshing, improvisational exploration of sound.