Top Ten Albums Of 2019

With the rise of music streaming services, it’s easier than ever for artists to get their music out there. Of course, that means a lot more to sift through to find your favorites. Here’s mine from this year:

Durand Jones & The IndicationsAmerican Love Call – Vintage late-60s/early-70s style soul music of the highest order. The songs are as tightly written as Motown classics, but performed with the direct, down-home passion of the finest from Stax/Volt. Durand Jones has an ideal soul voice — a nice balance of grit and honey. But the band’s secret weapon is drummer Aaron Frazer, who provides co-lead and harmony vocals in a falsetto that would do Smokey Robinson and Frankie Valli proud. His steady snare sound is also high in the mix, backed by sweeping strings, in-the-pocket bass, and the occasional chiming guitar — think Al Jackson, Jr. and the Hi Records band that backed Al Green on his biggest hits. I invoke the names of these soul music touchstones, because even though this band came together as crate-digging aficionados of soul music, this is not some tribute band — this band is a true revival — worthy of consideration alongside the soul/R&B influences that spawned it.

Gang StarrOne Of The Best Yet – DJ Premier finally secures the rights to some of Guru’s final studio recordings, and builds an album that stands as a worthy tribute to the late MC and their partnership. Premier sounds like, well, Premier, which is actually pretty stark and fresh versus modern hip-hop beats, and several of Guru’s raps hit with that old school intensity. Premier brings in a mix of old friends and modern proteges as guest MCs, who fill in the gaps admirably. This is not the place to start with Gang Starr, and it’s probably not going to supplant their 90s classics for most people, but I think it’s better than The Ownerz from 2003, and nearly a decade on from Guru’s death, stands as a reminder that they are among the true hip-hop greats — one of the best yet, indeed.

White ReaperYou Deserve Love – They started out as scuzzy, independent, low-fi power-pop and now, after signing to a major label, are set to take their shot at the “big time”. Of course, their brand of melodic hard-rock and power-pop had it’s heyday decades ago with bands like Cheap Trick, Thin Lizzy, and The Cars all of whom are undoubted influences. But credit the band for writing a solid set of songs, and letting the melodies breathe by not keeping the guitars cranked to 11 all the time (like they did on their last release). The resulting album is one of their best. Rock may be for old people now, but this is an album that can be appreciated by both teenagers and their Dads.

ChromaticsCloser To Grey – Their scuttled album Dear Tommy has become like Smile by the Beach Boys or The Black Album by Prince — a lost gem, perhaps to be released sometime in the future and heralded as a masterpiece. In its place we get Closer To Grey which may seem underwhelming at first, given the hype around its unreleased predecessor, but other than a couple of songs sounding rushed/underdeveloped, it’s another solid Chromatics album. The sound is built around Johnny Jewel’s patented low BPM thump paired with cinematic synths/production and topped off with Ruth Radelet’s breathy croon. Chromatics always aim to make their music a soundtrack to an unwritten noir film and they succeed yet again.

BleachedDon’t You Think You’ve Had Enough – L.A. style punk-influenced pop band, led by the Clavin sisters. Something like a modern version of the Go-Go’s or Blondie. They’ve got a knack for catchy melodies/choruses and an uncommon songwriting touch that makes some of their more typical subject matter seem distinctly personal and real. The album is a grower — definitely snuck up on me to become one of my favorites.

Vampire WeekendFather Of The Bride – Vampire Weekend return with a bit of a stylistic shake-up. Previous albums fused indie-rock grooves with African and world-music styles, similar to Talking Heads. They are still blending some of the same styles, but front man Ezra Koenig has taken the lead role. They are following the singer-songwriter path — their muse seems to be Paul Simon more so than David Byrne this time around. The songs mostly succeed, and the best, “Harmony Hall” and “This Life”, are simply fantastic. There’s a few filler tracks that could have been left off to make the album a tighter package, but overall this is another winner from Vampire Weekend.

Mike Mains & The BranchesWhen We Were In Love – Indie rockers deliver their finest album, an autobiographical song cycle about true love, infidelity, depression, forgiveness, and redemption told from the perspective of lead singer/songwriter Mike Mains about his marriage to band member Shannon Mains. He’s clearly a man of faith, as evidenced by the religious references and genuine regret, angst, and depression he feels at what he has done. It’s his wife’s forgiveness that allows him to emerge from the darkness a new man and a better husband. To his credit, he documents a difficult time in their relationship with a clear-eyed viewpoint and he and the band ensure that every song has a cracking, ultra-catchy melody. It’s easy to enjoy the earworm tunes without truly digging into the emotional core, but it’s an album that rewards a deeper dive.

OperatorsRadiant Dawn – Sophomore release for the 1980s-style electronic side-project of Wolf Parade’s Dan Boeckner. Lyrically the album continues an exploration of the dark side of the 80s — fear of nuclear apocalypse, ennui, helplessness, mental illness, nihilism. But all of Boeckner’s lyrical bleakness is countered by an upbeat bounciness in all the songs, as if a Jane Fonda workout might help cure all that ails him. It’s this juxtaposition that makes the album more interesting than the typical 80s revival. I prefer it to the more recent work from his main band.

Cigarettes After SexCry – Hypnotic ambient pop built around languid tempos, gentle bass throb, minimalist percussion, wispy, echoing guitars and the idiosyncratic song styling of Greg Gonzalez. His androgynous tenor is mixed front and center, effectively setting the stage for his heartfelt vignettes of love, lust, and loss. Sometimes his lyrics can be a little clunky, but when it all connects, it creates an enchanting mood. It’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea, but this album was a definite late-night addiction for me. If you like it, make sure to check out their self-titled debut album as well.

Mark Feldman’s Level 5Sybil [EP] – I love instrumental jazz/funk, e.g. Booker T. & The MGs, The Meters, The JB’s, Medeski, Martin & Wood, etc. The Sybil EP from Mark Feldman’s Level 5 is the best I’ve heard recently. Feldman is a noted drummer and drum teacher in NY, who recorded the EP with noted session bassist Will Lee, guitarst Oz Noy, and Adam Klipple on keys. Credit to Noy for writing a solid and memorable set of songs that serve as a durable base, allowing the improvisational skills of all four contributors to shine. Everything is instrumental, but as with the best ones, each song seems to have a very distinct story. In particular, the sudden segue of swinging funk to heavy-metal crunch in the title track is a brilliant wordless description of a psychotic mood swing. Here’s to hoping for more from this group, though it looks like this may have been a one-off, at least with these specific musicians.

Honorable Mention:
The Hold SteadyThrashing Through The Passion
The NationalI Am Easy To Find

Best re-issues:
ChicThe Chic Organization 1977-1979
The PoliceEvery Move You Make: The Studio Recordings
O.M.D.Souvenir: The Singles Collection 1979-2019
Prince1999 (Deluxe Edition)
The SpringfieldsSingles 1986-1991

Top Ten Albums of 2018

Time to recap my favorite music from the last 12 months — mostly indie rock/pop with a retro flavor. My top ten in no particular order:

Snail MailLush – Lindsey Jordan was taught guitar by Mary Timony, who led 90s indie rockers Helium. Her first EP, Habit, caught national notice, and got her profiled in Pitchfork while she was still in high school. She was signed to redoubtable indie rock label Matador Records shortly afterwards. The music cognoscenti were clearly ready to anoint this young prodigy the next Liz Phair or Fiona Apple. It’s not always easy to deliver when expectations are high. But Jordan comes through with songs that are emotionally sincere and wise beyond her years. The band and production bring out the best in her material, putting her efficient guitar work up front. Unquestionably indie rock’s rookie of the year.

The 1975A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships – The 1975 have updated and refined rock/pop for a new generation. They cover plenty of well-traveled rock territory, but with their own retro style. For example, there’s the song about drugs thinly disguised as being about something else (friends, girls, relationships) — e.g. Depeche Mode’s “Never Let Me Down”, The La’s “There She Goes”, Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life”. “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)” is their estimable addition to that canon. “TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME” is about the consequences of infidelity, to a bouncy pop beat. “Give Yourself A Try” is an emo-esque anthem about being true to yourself, couched in a surprisingly edgy guitar loop. “The Man Who Married A Robot / Love Theme” comes off as their version of Radiohead’s “Fitter, Happier”. Not groundbreaking, but a rewarding listen all the way through.

SemblanceI Love You [EP] – A couple of talented teenagers from the Philly area get together to form an electro-rock band. As the song titles (“Angel”, “Hell” “Ghost”, “Sex”, “Two Hearts”) clearly portend, they do not shy away from “big” topics. The songwriting is authentic and the production is impressive, with deft synth and post-rock touches. I think they have a ton of potential, and I’m looking forward to the full album. In the meantime, I’ve got the EP on repeat.

ChvrchesLove Is Dead – The gleaming synth-pop production is almost too perfect, bordering on the edge of sterile. But Lauren Mayberry’s voice imbues with it passion and heart. And their knack for hooks hasn’t diminished. Chalk up another winner for the Scottish trio.

Calvin HarrisFunk Wav Bounces Vol. 1 – Yes, I am aware this came out in 2017. However, I completely missed it until early 2018. And I listened to it so much that I felt it would be unfair to exclude it from the list. It seems like uber-producer Harris knocked this out on a lark, but with a relaxed summertime vibe, it’s a low-key gem. The warm old school beats pair well with the bevy of guest artists. It’s all based in hip-hop, but there’s tons of variety, from warped radio-pop (e.g. “Feels” feat. Katy Perry) to retro-R&B styling (the Amy-Winehouse-esque “Hard To Love” feat. Jessie Reyes) to unexpected Caribbean-flavor (“Skrt On Me” feat. Nicki Minaj). Just a fun and solid listen all the way through. Here’s hoping for a Vol 2.

Beach House7 – The most reliable purveyors of modern dream-pop keep adding subtle touches to their signature sound to keep things interesting. Their hypnotic melodies and Victoria LeGrand’s rich, potent vocals are in excellent form. But this time around, they bring in James Barone to provide live drums and a new producer who experiments with a wider range of synth and sound effects without getting gimmicky or annoying. The result is a fresh twist on their winning formula.

Twin ShadowCaer – His brooding, Prince-meets-Morrissey style and willingness to experiment occasionally leads to unsatisfying results. But when it all clicks, George Lewis, Jr. can produce some transcendent music. On his latest album, the hits far outnumber the misses. “Saturdays” is a lost hit that could sit comfortably next to Bruce Springsteen or Prince on any 1980s radio dial. “Brace” is informed by the tour bus crash that sidelined him for months. “18 Years”, “Littlest Things” and “Obvious People” seem to be about idealized young love and heartbreak. “Sympathy”, “When You’re Wrong”, and “Bombs Away (RLP)” are a bit more dark and gritty. For me, “Little Woman” is the only true misfire, but, as is common with Twin Shadow, I can imagine it being someone else’s favorite.

Timecop1983Night Drive – I’ve been enamored with Timecop1983’s chilled-out, synth-wave productions for a while now. On his latest album it’s just more quality material, with some solid vocal collaborators. He’s developed a signature sound — which can seem formulaic, but there’s really nothing else quite like it. If you loved dark 1980s synth-pop and/or the revival kicked off by the Drive soundtrack, this is definitely worth checking out.

The BreedersAll Nerve – Reunions are always a tricky business. Kim Deal spent the better part of the last two decades touring with the re-united Pixies, and working on her own material by re-forming The Breeders. The Pixies were a touring success and the Breeders output was decent, so she had managed pretty well. In 2013, the Breeders’ classic lineup (the Deal sisters, Josephine Wiggs and Jim MacPherson) reunited to tour behind a deluxe 20th anniversary re-issue of the seminal Last Splash. The tour was a success, but this lineup managed to do something most reunions (including Deal’s previous ones) never do. Recapture the original magic in the studio again. All Nerve is more confident and consistent than Last Splash. It sounds like it could have been recorded in the 1990s, a couple years after Last Splash, if Kelley Deal had never gotten busted for drugs. It’s probably too much to expect the singles to fully scale the heights of “Cannonball” or “Divine Hammer”, but “Stay In The Car” rocks hard, “Nervous Mary” is tense and pithy, and “Spacewoman” is both affecting and disturbing. Simply put, if you are a fan of vintage alternative rock, this is top-notch, all-new, must-hear music.

Kali UchisIsolation – Isolation pulls off some difficult balancing acts. It’s a whirlwind tour through expertly crafted, smooth pop and R&B stylings, with both modern and vintage touches . Uchis moves effortlessly between English and Spanish. The grooves are old school funky, but with up-to-date R&B production flourishes. There are many collaborations, but the guests only add distinctive touches, they never take over the songs. Contemporary pop rarely gets this good.

Best re-issues:

PosiesFrosting On The Beater (Deluxe) / Amazing Disgrace (Deluxe)
Pet Shop BoysPlease/Actually/Introspective/Behavior/Very/Bilingual/Nightlife (2018 2-CD reissues)
Guns ‘N’ RosesAppetite For Destruction (2-CD deluxe)
Liz PhairGirly-Sound To Guyville
The CarsShake It Up (Deluxe) / Heartbeat City(Deluxe)

Top Ten Albums Of 2017

Another year, another list of my favorite music from the past year. This year’s list skews to established indie rock/pop artists, especially ones with a slightly retro bent. Here’s my top ten albums in no particular order:

The NationalSleep Well Beast – The band with the difficult-to-Google name returns with an energetic new album. The two uptempo singles (“The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”, “Day I Die”) effectively deploy repeating guitar motifs as hooks, and the slower numbers have hypnotic drum and synth patterns that provide an ideal accompaniment for Matt Berninger’s sonorous baritone and jagged, impressionistic lyrics. I’ve been a fan of the band for a decade and a half, and this is one of their finest albums alongside Alligator and Boxer.

The War On DrugsA Deeper Understanding – Building on the success of their 2014 album, Lost In The Dream, the band has crafted a near-masterpiece. Classic rock (from both vinyl and cassette era) remains an abiding influence, but the rich, layered music stands on it’s own against the very best of the past. Only the click-track drumming seems occasionally rote. The lyrics are emotionally charged with a hint of pathos — affecting and powerful. The War On Drugs seem to be scaling new heights with each successive album. With A Deeper Understanding, they have reached rarefied air.

The Pains Of Being Pure At HeartEcho Of Pleasure – If you are a fan of indie-pop with a bit of a sentimental streak, Kip Berman, the leader and only constant member of The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart is still delivering the goods. The knock on the band has always been that they aren’t very original. Sure, they remain in debt to their 80s/90s forebears, but they also continue to write refreshing and catchy songs that, while not expanding boundaries, are certainly welcome additions to the indie-pop canon. I think The Skinny summed it up best in their review of the album, “It’s a low-key record for a certain type of listener – this isn’t a band clamouring for arena-rock status, just one that is happy making good music and having fun doing it.”

Day WaveThe Days We Had – The proper album follow up to last year’s compilation of EPs, Headcase / Hard To Read, this is more of the same in the best way possible. If you enjoyed that release, you definitely need this new album bursting with subtle, earworm tunes. If, in spite of Jackson Philips’ songwriting prowess, you found the songs too same-sounding, well, this doesn’t have much more variety than the last release. I happen to find his take on indie-pop/rock entrancing, so it was a big winner for me.

Arcade FireEverything Now – More so than any other modern artist I enjoy, Arcade Fire have built their career on concept albums. Their masterful debut, Funeral, a celebratory, life-affirming, meditation on loss was an absolute classic. Neon Bible was a less successful treatise on religion. They nailed the finer details about coming of age in the suburbs with the aptly titled The Suburbs. Reflektor was an ambitious tour of Jamaican and Haitian music styles, filtered through an art-rock prism, a la Talking Heads. Everything Now finds them grappling with everything the Internet age has wrought – information overload, social media anxiety, Internet celebrities, etc. Musically it leans towards a 80s synth/dance-rock style, with their trademark pulsing grooves and tempo-changing intros/codas. The overall message seems to be that the conveniences of the modern age have led many to a lifestyle that is more lonely, distracted, and unsatisfied than ever before. It’s an admirable theme, but one that is hard to pull off without coming off as too earnest, didactic, or curmudgeonly. To their credit, Arcade Fire manage to stay on the right side of that line for the majority of the album, delivering another winner.

SlowdiveSlowdive – This self-titled comeback album took me by surprise. While the brilliance of their 1993 album Souvlaki is undeniable, I have always preferred Ride and Lush when it came to the more pop-oriented shoegazers. Lush reformed in 2016 and released the decent Blind Spot EP before breaking up again. Ride returned this year with Weather Diaries, which had some passable tunes, but completely lacked the depth and atmosphere that marked their best work. Slowdive, on the other hand released an album which is on par with their very best. It’s very much how I would hope any shoegaze band might have matured. The sound is cleaner and more controlled than in the past, but the swlirling guitar melodies are better than ever. Many band comebacks are doomed to fail. Here’s to hoping this one continues to bring us more quality music!

PhoenixTi Amo – A loose concept album about a fantasized summer holiday in Italy. The songs set the scene perfectly — hot weather, cool gelato, even cooler Italian discos, and, of course, summer romance. It’s a very conscious escapism — in the face of all the negative forces in the world, it makes enjoying the simpler pleasures in life seem like an act of defiance. Phoenix have completely mastered their rock-pop/disco-lite sound, and the little lyrical flourishes in Italian and French give the songs an authentic continental feel. It’s their finest album since Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix back in 2009. Godere!

White ReaperThe World’s Best American Band – I’m not sure if White Reaper completely do their audacious album title justice, but damn if they aren’t close to hitting that lofty target. They’ve polished their warm, fuzzy, power-pop sound into a gleaming, powerful buzzsaw. It makes their best songs hit with that much more impact. Conversely, lesser songs don’t have as much sonic space to let their charms develop and win you over. Still, they sure know how to hit those basic rock and roll verities. As one of their choruses goes “If you make the girls dance, the boys will dance with ’em”. Indeed.

SpoonHot Thoughts – I don’t think Spoon has ever made a bad album. Considering their career stretches 9 albums and over 20 years, that’s pretty impressive. They’ve come a long way from the Pixies-style rave-ups on their first album Telephono to develop their own signature sound. Spiky, lean, muscular grooves that are somehow perfect and off-kilter at the same time. Austin’s finest band is really something special, and their new album Hot Thoughts is one of their best. Savor it.

The XXI See You – On their third album, they finally open up their sound just a little bit and it’s wonderful. The he-said/she-said vocals and subtle melodies are fully intact. But an unexpected sample here, a melodic flourish there — it gives the music depth — like a color splash photo; black and white, but with one color to emphasize an object or mood. They are really starting to hit their stride. Definitely their most accessible album, and very possibly their finest.

Honorable Mention:

Timecop1983Lovers (Part 2) EP
Future IslandsThe Far Field
HaimSomething To Tell You
Ted LeoThe Hanged Man
Com TruiseIteration

Best re-issues:

RadioheadOK Computer (OKNOTOK 1997-2017)
PrincePurple Rain (Deluxe)
Hüsker DüSavage Young Dü
Richard Hell & The VoidoidsBlank Generation (40th Anniversary Deluxe)
The CarsCandy-O (Deluxe)
The SmithsThe Queen Is Dead (Deluxe)
R.E.M.Automatic For The People (Deluxe)