If nothing else, 2019 will be remembered (by me, at any rate) as the year that, after two decades of insistently trying to sell me on the man’s brilliance, Mike Usinger finally got me to listen to a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds record. And I liked it!
When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
Already a left-field superstar at the tender age of 17, Billie Eilish (with due credit to her ingenious cowriting and producing brother, Fineas O’Connell) is too busy rewriting the pop-music rulebook to bother with trying to be cool—which, naturally, has made her a style icon.
STRAND OF OAKS
This is the sound of a man blowing up his life (and music career) and rebuilding it again, told with the unswerving emotional conviction that is Timothy Showalter’s stock-in-trade. Add in the fact that his backing band on Eraserland is four-fifths of My Morning Jacket, and you really can’t go wrong.
Now, this is how you open a fucking record. Over six minutes and 18 seconds, “Lark” delivers a roller-coaster ride of shimmering synths and swelling strings, culminating in a crescendo of near-symphonic melodrama over which Angel Olsen beseeches “What about my dreams?/What about the heart?” It’s an auspicious beginning to the most ambitious album of Olsen’s career (so far), which all but eschews indie rock in favour of something both stranger and grander.
“You talk a lot of big game for someone with such a small truck” is the best lyric of 2019, and if you don’t think so, you’re not going to like the rest of this record either. An unapologetically abrasive kick-in-the-head mix of pitch-shifted vocals, trap beats, and red-lined video-game squelches, 1000 Gecs is unlikely to even read as “music” to anyone who isn’t a member of the TikTok generation. Even so, “Ringtone” and “Money Machine” are the catchiest pieces of pop-culture trash you’re likely to hear, at least until Lil Nas X finally puts out a full-length follow-up to his 7 EP.
DIIV’s music is often pegged as “dream pop”, and if that’s the case, then Deceiver is the sound of what happens when dreams become nightmares. Through the haze of shoegazing guitars that often build up to mighty walls of distortion, Zachary Cole Smith tackles some heady topics. These include climate change (“Blankenship”, named after the science-denying coal baron Don Blankenship) and the pharmaceutical industry’s role in the opioid crisis (“Skin Game”, on which recovering addict Smith implicates the Sackler family by name). Gorgeous noise and a social conscience? Sign me up.
David Berman’s simultaneous comeback and swan song is the sound of one man’s battle against the unrelenting demon dogs of depression, armed with self-deprecating humour and an innate knack for expressing the inexpressible. It’s a battle the former Silver Jews frontman lost—Berman ended his life a month after Purple Mountains came out—and while that fact certainly adds an air of tragic futility to the proceedings, this is still an unexpectedly uplifting listen.
Cuz I Love You
Armed with the voice of an old-school soul belter and a hip-hop sensibility, Lizzo more than holds her own when Missy Elliott pops by to drop a verse in “Tempo”, and that’s really saying something.
SHARON VAN ETTEN
Remind Me Tomorrow
Sharon Van Etten built her reputation as a songwriter who lays her emotions bare and seems to be singing for her life. Remind Me Tomorrow suggests that she is also evolving into a bold sonic explorer. “Seventeen” is a heart-rending letter to her naive younger self, but it’s also the closest Van Etten has ever come to making a synth-pop banger. (It might not be entirely coincidental that producer John Congleton also worked on Angel Olsen’s equally reinventive All Mirrors this year.)
NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS
A shattering tragedy—the death of one of Nick Cave’s twin sons—inspired an album of fragile, ethereal grace, with Cave ultimately concluding that this world of loss and grief contains sufficient beauty and love to offer consolation in even the darkest of passages.
LANA DEL REY
Norman Fucking Rockwell!
Lana Del Rey resists all attempts to analyze the themes in her work—and is known to respond to in-depth, thoughtful essays on the topic with dismissive tweets. Duly warned, let’s just say that it takes a certain kind of artist to reference the likes of Sylvia Plath, Leonard Cohen, and Robert Frost in her work, thus brazenly courting comparison with them. Del Rey is that sort of artist, and she’s also the sort to do so in the context of an album that also includes a Sublime cover—“Doin’ Time”, which itself is based in part on a George Gershwin song. So many layers.