I’ve Mined That Song Forever, Part 1: 25 favorite albums from 2019

USA Portrait - Joe Henry

It’s the time of year when I tend to enthuse, at some length, about the bumper crop of top-shelf records released in the preceding 11 ½ months. This year, I’ll cut to the chase: My list of 25 favorite albums from 2019 includes at least three or four masterpiece-level achievements, and that’s estimating conservatively. The title slotted in at #5 could easily have topped the lists of yesteryear. Don’t believe anyone who tells you the well has dried up, or that they just don’t make albums like they used to. This year’s embarrassment of riches reveals such foolishness for exactly what it is.

A few notes: Witness-bearing was a recurrent theme in many of 2019’s most bracing records, with astute songwriters taking stock of a pervasive sense of loss and chronicling it without any sugar-coating or sentimentality; consider albums by Elbow and by Over the Rhine, each written in the shadows of crumbling empires and fraying bonds; each written to remind us that things fall apart, or, as another 2019 band suggest, that the center won’t hold. Albums by Joe Henry and Nick Cave are clear-eyed in their assessment of loss, mortality, and grief. Albums by Allison Moorer and Our Native Daughters consider different kinds of trauma and its lingering impact.

And yet, there were also several excellent albums to suggest, even amidst wreckage and ruin, that there lies before us abounding opportunity to connect with one another: Andrew Bird counsels us to log off of Twitter and offer something tangible into the world; Rhiannon Giddens exhibits radical neighborliness through boundary-crossing folk songs.

It was a boon year for singer/songwriters, with several veteran scribes releasing albums that stand proudly alongside their best work: Henry and Cave, Moorer and Bird, but also John Paul White, Todd Snider, Patty Griffin, Hayes Carll, and others. (Seven albums in, surely Taylor Swift qualifies for veteran status as well?)

One last thing: Only upon completion of the list did I tally up the male-female breakdown, finding that roughly 18 out of these 25 records were made by women. (Your count may vary depending on how you want to categorize husband/wife teams.) It seems well-proven by now that great music by women isn’t as well-publicized or promoted as it should be, but it’s certainly being made, and it’s really not difficult to find.

Anyway: These are 25 albums that meant the world to me in 2019. As ever, the rankings are fairly fluid, and I wouldn’t get too hung up on them. Each title selected here is worthy of your full time and attention.

  1. Walk Through Fire | Yola
    walk through fire

The British vocalist Yola is a singer of regal power, clarity, and directness. What makes her Dan Auerbach-produced Walk Through Fire so striking is how she sends gutbucket soul rippling through carefully-structured and meticulously-arranged variations on country and R&B, as if to simulate how roiling emotions bubble up through the sincerest intentions of poise and decorum.

  1. To Myself | Baby Rose
    to myself

The songs of Baby Rose are as crisp and clean as any Amy Winehouse banger, as gnarled and textured as D’Angelo’s wiry funk. They are perfectly evocative for lyrics that are haunted and panged with doubt, and a voice etched with experience far beyond her years.

  1. The Highwomen | The Highwomen
    highwomen

The Highwomen were assembled to address a particular problem— namely, gender inequity on the country radio charts. It’s to their enormous credit that their Dave Cobb-produced debut proves its point without preaching it, largely avoiding didacticism in favor of tight harmonies, uproarious jokes, good-natured camaraderie, and tough-as-nails honky tonk.

  1. Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3 | Todd Snider
    cabin session

Just wait til you hear “Talking Reality Television Blues,” in which Todd Snider deconstructs a familiar folk form, offers a capsule history of the entertainment industry, and draws a straight line from Michael Jackson’s rise-and-fall to the ascent of the 45th President, all within the span of a single track. It’s just one of several high-wire songwriting feats on Snider’s opus-to-date, an album that’s bare-bones in its arrangement but lavish in its imagination.

  1. Crushing | Julia Jacklin
    Crushing

“Don’t know how to keep loving you, now that I know you so well,” admits Julia Jacklin on one of several masterful slow-burners. Her album Crushing is painstaking in its appraisal of how intimacy with another person can lead to blurred identity, compromises of physical space, a creeping sense of erasure. It’s all played out with sobering tactility; grinding guitars, creaking pianos, bruising percussion.

  1. Absolute Zero | Bruce Hornsby
    absolute zero

For his latest set of songs, Bruce Hornsby turns to the language of mathematical theory, literature, and quantum physics in an effort to impose some order on the unruliness of human emotions. That only deepens Hornsby’s anthropological mysteries, and his adventurous arrangements (equal parts arena rock, studio experimentation, free-form jazz, and chamber folk) bear witness to worlds of inexhaustible allure.

  1. Canterbury Girls | Lily & Madeleine
    canterbury girls

For anyone who prefers their pop euphoria laced with strychnine melancholy. The fourth album from sister act Lily & Madeleine is a sweet-and-salty coming-of-age saga that posits romantic dissolution as an opportunity for personal discovery. Includes candescent production from the same team that made Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour, last year’s Album of the Year honoree, but the most brilliant special effects are the sisters’ tight harmonies.

  1. Amidst the Chaos | Sara Bareilles
    amidst the chaos

She doesn’t need to spell it out for you. You can tell from the title that Amidst the Chaos is Sara Bareilles’ reckoning with what life feels like in the disorienting days of 2019, and it’s a feeling she explores through an elegant series of subtexts, implications, and plausible deniabilities. The lean production from T-Bone Burnett matches the finesse of Bareilles’ writing, and highlights her easeful way with soaring melody.

  1. Western Stars | Bruce Springsteen
    western stars

How is it possible that, almost 50 years after Springsteen’s debut, he is still making albums unlike any he’s made before? Western Stars is distinguished not merely for its handsome orchestral pop classicism, but also for its point of view: Springsteen has spent most of his career writing about men chasing redemption, but here settles down with characters who know they’ve run out the clock. They’re left to make peace with the choices they’ve made, and the people they’ve become. 

  1. The Center Won’t Hold | Sleater-Kinney
    center wont hold

Tragically, this album is likely to be remembered primarily for proving its own point; for how inviting St. Vincent into the fold led to the departure of drummer Janet Weiss and the rupture of golden-era Sleater-Kinney. Better to remember it for its lurching, mutated, and corrosive take on their signature sound; for its impish evocation of dissarray; for how it allows the punk veterans to try something different while also playing to their strengths.

  1. Open Book | Kalie Shorr
    kalie shorr open book review

It’s not for nothing that Kalie Shorr opens her first album with a song called “So Much to Say.” Throughout Open Book, she comes across like a prodigiously gifted songwriter who’s been stockpiling material, and is bursting at the seams to unveil it. There wasn’t a country album released all year to boast sharper writing; her jokes, her confessions, and her therapeutic asides are all equally withering.

  1. Blood | Allison Moorer
    allison moorer blood review

Allison Moorer’s adolescence was shattered by a formative tragedy: A murder-suicide that claimed both of her parents. She has had decades to consider if and how she might speak to this trauma, and in 2019 she chose to tell her story both in an acclaimed memoir and a compact, powerful album, both titled Blood. The Blood album is a triumph of narrative courage and clarity, and a thoughtful reckoning with how we all must carry the past with us but not allow it to define us.

  1. Silences | Adia Victoria
    silences

Singer/songwriter Adia Victoria announced Silences by affirming her intention to make the blues “dangerous” again, an implicit acknowledgement that her chosen idiom can sometimes err toward safe conservatism. You needn’t worry about encountering anything overly comforting on this slanted, modernist reworking of blues tropes; Victoria plunges a knife into God’s chest in the opening song, and spends the rest of the album torn between fleeing the Devil and running into his arms.

  1. Patty Griffin | Patty Griffin
    patty

Patty Griffin made 10 studio albums before deciding to name one after herself; it raises the specter of autobiography, and if the songs on this album don’t quite feel like a memoir, they do form a meaningful meditation on the nature of self. Griffin survived cancer in order to make this record, and while she never references it directly, the experience obviously brought focus and clarity to these songs of struggle and survival. It’s her richest collection yet, performed with appealing intimacy and warmth.

  1. Love and Revelation | Over the Rhine
    love and revelation

“Is it sacrilegious dancing in the light of all we’ve lost?” That question comes toward the end of Over the Rhine’s Love and Revelation, an assured collection of songs that extend their unmatched legacy of finding grace notes amidst heartache and grief. Capping a trilogy of fine albums released in the 2010s, Love and Revelation handles deep melancholy with a gentle touch, sounding as comfortable and as lived-in as anything the band has made. It emanates empathy, voiced with a career-best, slow-burn turn from singer Karin Bergquist. Some will tell you this is the most accomplished Over the Rhine album yet… but at this point, it’s madness to think you could pick just one.

  1. Songs of Our Native Daughters | Our Native Daughters
    ournativedaughters

What’s more miraculous: The one of the year’s most celebrated Americana/roots albums features four black women unflinchingly bearing witness to the historic and ongoing consequences of the Atlantic slave trade? Or that, impossibly, the album wrests moments of defiant joy and hard-won hope from the bleakest of circumstances? Noble and necessary work; deeper and richer than you’d think possible; abounding in knowledge, but most noteworthy for its wisdom.

  1. My Finest Work Yet | Andrew Bird
    my finest

As advertised. Bird levels his natural affinity for whimsy at our grim national mood and pervading sense of discord, whistling, crooning, and plucking his way through songs that shun self-satisfied rage in favor of the hard work of neighborly love and bridge-building. It’s as funny and strange as any Bird record, but also earnest and direct in ways he seldom allows himself to be. “This ain’t no archipelago,” one song concludes; a reminder, even in these tribalized days, that none of us are islands.

  1. Father of the Bride | Vampire Weekend
    father of the bride

Ennobles all the tiredest cliches about classic “double albums”— how its charm is in its sprawl, how minor songs contextualize major ones, how the discursions reinforce key themes. Validates the pleasures of pure studio craft as surely as any album from Steely Dan or Fleetwood Mac, offering endless textures and tiny details to get lost in. Justifies its Bible references and elder-millennial hand-wringing with a dazed portrait of privilege and malaise. There’s a lot going on here, and it rewards whatever investment of time and attention you care to make.

  1. Breakdown on 20th Ave. South | Buddy & Julie Miller
    breakdown on 20th ave south

Decidedly not a breakup album. What it is is a reminder of marriage’s high stakes, the need for daily engagement and attentiveness, the gravity of love and the requirement of self-sacrifice. The mere existence of a new Buddy and Julie album is one of 2019’s happiest tidings, and it would be enough if all they gave us were those sweet harmonies, the deep blues of Buddy’s guitar, the ramshackle bedroom production. All the better that the Millers offer songs of such pungent emotion, bruised humor, persuasive sweetness, and hard-won wisdom.

  1. Wildcard | Miranda Lambert
    wildcard

It’s possible that we all know a little too much about Miranda Lambert; that we’ve gleaned too many personal details from the tabloids, read a little too much into some of her songs. You’d understand if she wanted to grouse about the high cost of fame, but instead Wildcard uses her public persona advantageously, flipping her storied track record into a statement of dogged perseverance and fire-forged optimism. It’s an instant classic for so many reasons: For how it plays with meta-narrative, for its great jokes, for being the best-sounding and most appealingly-textured Miranda album yet, but more than anything because she is self-evidently the greatest voice in country music, and she’s never sounded better. 

  1. there is no Other | Rhiannon Giddens
    thereisnoother

A luminous take on “world” music? An earthy version of a “standards” repertoire? A borderless companion piece to the landmark Allen Toussaint/Joe Henry collaborations? Gidden’s third and finest record under her own name is all of that, plus a mesmerizing act of compatibility with multi-instrumentalist Franseco Turrisi. But mostly, it’s a celebration of some of our best conduits for connection: A shared love of musical instruments; songs that transcend culture; the grain of the human voice; a commitment to radical neighborliness in all its forms.

  1. Lover | Taylor Swift
    lover

Probably not controversial: Taylor Swift is one of the four or five more consequential pop musicians of the past decade. Highly controversial: Lover is her most assured and rewarding album, pulling together threads from her country roots and her imperial era into a record bursting at the seams with energy and imagination. Following the defensiveness of reputation, its most noteworthy attributes might be its bright hues and its open-hearted, generous outlook. It is also a showcase for Swift the singer, delighting in different voices and styles. Would be an Album of the Year contender if only for the churning anguish in “Cruel Summer,” the romantic ambiance of “Lover,” or “False God” and its argument for earthly love as a spiritual discipline. But the best song is “Paper Rings,” the year’s most potent burst of pure joy.

  1. LEGACY! LEGACY! | Jamila Woods
    legacy legacy

“My ancestors watch me,” confides Jamila Woods on her sleek and purposeful second album. Ancestry is the guiding principle in these songs, and Woods apprehends it not as something confined to a history book or a genetics test so much as an animating force that dwells inside her; each song summons the spirit of a luminary influence, whether Eartha Kitt or Muddy Waters or Octavia Butler, and Woods taps into their lived experiences to navigate the complexities of righteous anger, generational trauma, and creative autonomy. Her writing is bruised and courageous, often at the same time, and reaches a cathartic apex in “BALDWIN,” in which she dares to love even her enemies and her persecutors. A font of wisdom, and every song’s a banger.

  1. Ghosteen | Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
    ghosteen

You won’t hear Nick Cave sing the words dead or death anywhere in Ghosteen, the first album he wrote following the tragic death of his teenage son. But you may notice just how frequently he uses the word love, a clue to what these wrenching reflections are all about: Bonds that outlast physical frames, affections that reach past the grave. Ghosteen is quiet, reflective, meditative in its pacing, and largely drumless; it’s haunted by images of a suffering Christ, the Jesus of the disinherited. And yet it’s never the downer you might expect it to be: In his grief, Cave connects to a deep reservoir of empathy, and much of Ghosteen is concerned with how the experience of loss binds us together. All of this is expressed through sharp-cut songwriting jewels, by turns impressionistic, surreal, confessional, and allegorical. 

  1. The Gospel According to Water | Joe Henry
    the gospel according to water review

“Come the turn of story, come the moving floor,” goes one song from the 15th Joe Henry album, the first released after a personal health crisis that pulled the rug out from under him. It’s not the only song on The Gospel According to Water to be set against uncertain terrain; while it’s reductive to call this an album about mortality, it’s true enough to say that it’s an album uniquely concerned with the question of how any of us are to carry on in a world where things fall apart, moth and rust destroy, and big shoes drop all the time. The answer posited here is one of radical acceptance: The Gospel According to Water surrenders solid ground and instead aligns itself to the experiences of loss and uncertainty that we all share. It is a masterpiece of poetry: Henry is virtually unmatched at writing songs that scan as stand-alone verse, and this is the full flourishing and refinement of his lyrical gift. And, it is his most melodically robust album; half of these songs sound like they ought to be standards, the other half ancient folk songs. Altogether, it is a wise and consoling friend; a balm for anyone who’s ever felt their footing falter.

Bluesmen Next Door: Familiar pleasures from Jimmie Vaughan, The Cash Box Kings

hail to the kings

When Adia Victoria released her album Silences— a chilling, modernistic reworking of Southern blues tropes— she framed it with a simple statement of purpose. “I want to make the blues dangerous again,” she told The New York Times. (Mission accomplished.) You just barely have to read between the lines of that manifesto to find the implicit critique of her chosen idiom, an insinuation that contemporary blues records have largely become comfortable, anodyne, and predictable. 

But what if predictability has its own rewards? Listen to Baby, Please Come Home, the latest album from stalwart bluesman Jimmie Vaughan, and you just might be persuaded. In a relaxed set of quasi-obscurities from the blues canon, Vaughan leads a crack band (complete with brass) through rolling, after-hours ballads and prickly, Chicago-style raves. All of it has the easy flow of a weeknight set at the local juke joint, to the point that you’ll hardly notice when Vaughan slips a couple of live recordings in with the studio cuts. 

It sounds basically like it could have been released at any point over the last 50 years, which happens to be how long Vaughan has been making music. His depth of expertise plays out in songs that follow familiar beats, and where rough edges have been sanded down into smooth contours. That’s not to say the record wants for electricity, but Vaughan is enough of a pro to understand the difference between showmanship and showboating: In the opening title cut, he inserts barbed-wire electric guitar frills between cheerful outbursts from the horn section, his pyrotechnics never threatening the song’s supple groove; when he does erupt into a solo, it’s clean, tuneful, and dexterous. 

This is blues as comfort food: Because you know all the marks well in advance, it’s easy to appreciate how ably Vaughan hits them. And if there’s tremendous power in Adia Victoria’s blues-as-exorcism, there are humble but nourishing pleasures in the way Vaughan transmutes the agony of love and the desolation of heartache into songs so casually, stoically joyful. In “Just a Game,” he’s content to croon rather than wail his blues, a mode he sticks to for most of the album; he’s more at ease playing the seducer than the shaman. In “Midnight Hour,” when he tells you he cried the whole night long, you’ll believe him, but you’ll also believe he’ll get over it. And in “I’m Still in Love with You,” amid humming organ and brushed percussion, he professes romantic devotion in terms that are convincingly ordinary and everyday.

Blues music can be the most conservative of genres, often entangled in ideals of purity and authenticity. But it’s also an idiom that rewards connoisseurship; the more you know the tried-and-true playbook, the more you value refinement of craft when you hear it. Vaughan’s professionalism helps him to smoothly unfurl a catholic vision of the blues, one with enough space for both sly curveballs (simmering organ and crisp snare pops make “Hold It” a soulful instrumental vamp in the “Green Onions” vein) and feats of interpretation (Lefty Frizzel’s twangy “No One to Talk To [But the Blues]” is reimagined as moaning doo-wop). But the most substantial delights come from the warm chemistry of the band, nimbly navigating rhythms they know by heart. The closing “Baby, What’s Wrong” snarls and struts, swings and sways; it exhibits the deftness of bluesmen whose joy just gets deeper with time.

Another album to ratify the familiar pleasures of Chicago-style blues is Hail to the Kings!, roughly the seventh album from the Windy City’s own Cash Box Kings (give or take some live releases). This is a homegrown blues posse that’s happily devoid of mystique; they’re never anything less than friendly and unpretentious, and when they title a song “Bluesman Next Door,” it sounds like the perfect summary of their innate modesty. But don’t take their amiability for toothlessness: Hail to the Kings! is a loud and raucous good time, the beer-soaked, after-hours barnburner to Jimmie Vaughan’s elegant showstopper.

Like Vaughan, the Kings view blues music as the mouth of the river, but are unafraid to trace its various tributaries. Opener “Ain’t No Fun (When the Rabbit Got the Gun)” kicks off with a Church Berry guitar riff that quickly morphs into a jostling jump blues, complete with gritty Little Walter-style harmonica blasts from Joe Nosek; it sounds like both a faithful adaptation and a gentle remix of golden-era Chess Records. But if The Cash Box Kings are respectful of tradition, it’s never at the expense of good humor. Shemekia Copeland stops by for a bawdy duet called “The Wine Talkin,’” where two lovers scramble to make boozy excuses for their questionable decisions. Over the greasy grind and barroom piano of “Smoked Jowl Blues,” singer Oscar Wilson gets frisky about breakfast food, and leans into down-home ad-libs (“it ain’t nothin’ but bacon from a hog’s jaw, baby”). And in “Joe, You Ain’t from Chicago,” a jaunty Bo Diddley jam, Wilson and Nosek compete to see who’s the realest Chicagoan; would it surprise you to know that their points of contention are largely related to the city’s hallowed eating establishments?

The Cash Box Kings are faithful stewards of a lineage, but they also know how to accommodate modernity in ways both clever and courageous. In the former category there’s the album-closing “The Wrong Number,” an old-timey shuffle that chronicles text message (not landline) miscommunication. And as for the latter, listen to “Bluesman Next Door,” a study in not-in-my-backyard syndrome; Wilson bears witness to the hypocrisy of white audiences who celebrate black musicians on stage, but go deaf and blind with regard to real-life injustices that surround them. The song’s documentation of American racism is pointed enough to include the words “plantation” and “slavery.” Most blistering of all is “Jon Burge Blues,” a hometown protest number about a dirty cop who tortured the city’s black residents; it’s withering enough to cast a shadow over the rest of the album, contextualizing the rowdy good times and the downcast numbers alike. It’s why they sing the blues, and evidence enough that even a “predictable” blues album can pack substantive surprises. 

The Unsettled Past: Revisionist histories from Liz Brasher, Yola, & Adia Victoria

silences

The past is unsettled. It’s not recounted so much as interpreted, and on a trio of distinguished albums by dynamic singer/songwriters, interpretation is exactly what you got—three different visions of the rich American roots lineage, all filtered through personal experience and seen through the lens of modernity. Liz Brasher’s Painted Image salutes the music of Memphis in an act of sophisticated synthesis and loving pastiche. Yola’s Walk Through Fire channels country and soul through immaculate studio-craft and stylized arrangements. And Adia Victoria’s Silences kicks the blues tradition down a rickety set of stairs and into a haunted house of her own diabolical invention. In a roots scene that’s sometimes bogged down by questions of authenticity, these albums are refreshing for choosing slanted imagination over historic replica. That all three are made by authoritative women of color—too often excluded from these idioms—is a bonus of considerable magnitude.

You could call Brasher’s album a study in tangled roots. A church singer by training, she grew up in North Carolina but decamped to Memphis for the Painted Image sessions, and the result is a sumptuous consolidation of the city’s robust musical pedigree. The cavernous spaces of Sun, the tight rhythms of Hi, the raucous melisma of the gospel tradition, the wee-small-hours heartache of the blues—all of the pieces are here, but they’re not always arranged in the way you’d expect them to be. Brasher brings an outsider’s love but no binding allegiance to Memphis culture, which frees her to play it straight and play it loose in equal measure. Songs like “Blood of the Lamb,” which opens the album with the hazy hum of an organ, the low moan of a brass section, and the reverberant crawl of an electric guitar, hint at roads not taken, suggesting Brasher could spend a career slinking and belting her way through tightly-framed retro soul. She’s even better on the roiling, string-soaked “Cold Baby,” a song of romantic dissolution so tremulous and fraught, it sounds like the center won’t hold and the whole thing could at any moment implode. These are expressive, emotionally weighty reproductions of classic tropes, but Brasher throws some curveballs with “Hand on the Plow,” which sounds like Willie Mitchell’s percolating grooves as interpreted by Steely Dan, and “Every Day,” where the horns return for a high-and-lonesome Mariachi fanfare—a geographic detour but also an effective accent piece to the atmospheric and forlorn songs that surround it. “Painted Image” closes the album with chamber strings and a Spanish guitar, but rather than offering a genteel denouement, Brasher casts it as an echoing, impressionistic fever dream—woozy immersion in longing and regret.

There are plenty of both of those things in Brasher’s songs, all originals and often with lyrics that are as conflicted as her arrangements are sure-footed. Many of them chronicle inflection points, lovers forced to either grip harder or let go of their fraying bond. (“Don’t you know ‘maybe’ never saved no one?” she asks in “Moon Baby,” haunted pop that shimmers and insinuates.) The songs where she sounds surest happen to be the ones forged in gospel resolve. She’s comfortable enough with her faith vocabulary to spin a few sly jokes (“pillar of salt in my lot”) but also to use it as her compass blade and guiding light: “Laid my life down at the throne/ and I ain’t going back no more,” she sings on “Hand to the Plow,” a song of perseverance and a reminder that you gotta serve somebody. To that end, the Pentecostal clap-along “Living Water” sounds like it’s about Jesus, but the spectral “Heaven and Earth” has its scale tipped terrestrially. Here Brasher longs to love and be loved in both body and soul, and whatever whispered mysticism is there gets swallowed up by the howling carnality. It’s the linchpin for an album that’s anchored in a particular piece of soil but exists to both ennoble and transcend it.

Brasher isn’t the only one whose love of American roots idioms is adoptive. The woman born Yola Carter hails from Britain but carries a torch for classic C&W, which might explain why her debut Walk Through Fire filters extravagant countrypolitan lushness through the baroque constructions of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. She made the album with producer Dan Auerbach, who has a knack for scrupulous studio constructions that are richly detailed but also spacious and funky—see also his underacknowledged Dr. John team-up, Locked Down—and Walk Through Fire features a murderer’s row of studio talents that range from bluegrass virtuosos to veteran Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley sidemen. What they conjure here is an airy yet ornate interpretation of classic country/soul, often assembled with the same intricacy and care you’d find in any given frame of a Wes Anderson film. Album opener “Faraway Look” has sighing strings, twinkling harpsichord, chiming bells, even little flecks of brass—and if that sounds a shade too twee, it’s only because you haven’t heard the Richter-scale force Yola can summon when she sings. Pictured on the album cover with an acoustic guitar in hand, her image faintly recalls truth-telling poet-warriors like Odetta and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, perceptions that the album’s soft edges only slightly dispel. She’s a magnetic force, a singer of regal clarity and curlicued precision but also thunderous power; on the verses of “Faraway Look” she plays the calm at the center of the storm, but by the time the supersized chorus sweeps in she’s turned into a tempest. Her magnitudinous boom makes it clear early on that the album’s delicacy won’t scan as anemic gentility, and the rest of the songs bear her out. Each one is a delicate jewel, even (or especially) the ones that work up a little rustic grit: Listen to the sawing fiddles and harmonica on “Walk Through Fire,” little embers of twang that gradually get fanned into an all-consuming flame. Yola has an easy way with a melody, and her lavish arrangements are complimented by tunes that are simple and direct: “Ride Out in the Country” sounds every bit like a breezy car ride on a warm spring day, while “It Ain’t Easier” finds breathing room within layers of fiddle and steel guitar—a wispy country weeper. She also exhibits a vast formal command, easily building “Lonely the Night” from a simmering Delta groove into a gleaming Phil Specter chorus, and packing maximum emotion into a tight package on “Keep Me Here,” a lovelorn saloon song where she gets tears in her beer and a vocal assist from the great Vince Gill.

Just as Yola’s voice holds both gale-force weather and judicious restraint, her songwriting carves space for resonant strength and harrowing vulnerability. There’s no question that this is a heartache album, full of long nights and bitter regrets; Yola’s characters toss and turn in their beds, they talk to shadows, and they desperately try to stave off the ebb of memory. (In interviews to promote the album, she’s been frank about her survival of an abusive relationship.) Her gift is for plainspeak, but her songs are littered with carefully-sprung bear traps; “Ride Out in the Country” sounds at first like a simple confession about going somewhere to forget a broken heart, but of course it’s not so simple at all: “Falling out of love with you/ It’s not an easy thing to do/ But you don’t care about me, baby.” Such knife-twists are manifold, and they’re always deployed with disarming frankness; “That faraway look in your eyes/ is getting harder to disguise,” she sings in the opening song, quietly appraising a love grown cold. But if Walk Through Fire is an album of brokenness, it’s also a catalyst for healing: It was a house fire that turned Yola’s world to rubble and precipitated these new songs, and she turns the experience into a potent metaphor for weathering seasons of intense trial. “The red hot coals are calling/ And I know it’s the only way/ There ain’t no use in prolonging/ The fact that I just can’t stay,” she sings, seeking forward motion even when it’s painful. These aren’t new metaphors, of course, but what makes Yola so compelling is how she makes everything here feel like it’s part of her story, even as she uses the vocabulary of all the firewalkers who have gone before her.

Boldest of all is Silences, from the startlingly visionary and self-assured poet, singer, guitarist, and blues insurrectionist Adia Victoria. She’s spoken openly about how the blues idiom was the prototype for punk and about how her mission is to restore its sense of danger, talking points she shares with many an old-timey twelve-bar revivalist—only she actually means it, and proves in on this uncompromising set of music. She enlisted The National’s Aaron Dessner to produce, and together they transmute Skip James’ haunted austerity, Robert Johnson’s ghost stories, Howlin’ Wolf’s ribald exuberance, and Ma Rainey’s rural vernacular into something bracingly contemporary. On paper it may not read much like traditional blues, yet as it plays it never sounds like it could be anything else: Bernard Herrmann string cues, chilly electronics, woodwind thrum, shards of electric guitar fuzz, and sinister trip-hop beats work together to lurch and howl, lull and menace. You can hear a few quick bars of finger-picked acoustic guitar at the start of “Bring Her Back,” but that droning loop quickly builds into a heady swirl of drums, skronking brass, and alien keyboard effects. It’s merely one of the most obvious bridges between past and future, and its counterpart is the roaring late-album highlight “Dope Queen Blues,” where a clenched stride piano motif is torn and frayed by hissing electronics and spritely horns. Victoria knows the blues well enough that its morbid bent is offset by a defiant lust for life, and there’s an unsettling glee to the spiked cabaret number “Devil is a Lie.” But she can also burrow deep into anguished introspection, as she does in the chilly, wide-open soundscape of “Cry Wolf.” In an album that consistently tilts and disorients, Victoria is the gravitational force that holds everything together. Though she has a storyteller’s performative zeal, she mostly passes on big gestures in favor of the low embers of her voice, pitched somewhere between Eartha Kitt and Valerie June with just a bit of Fiona Apple’s tremulous quiver. She projects total calm even in the songs that are most harrowing, an aesthetic choice that ratchets up the tension considerably.

Hers are songs that could only be fermented by the blood and soil of the American South, here presented as a landscape peppered with Jesus Saves signs and strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees. Victoria’s another Carolina girl who was raised in church—hooked on eternity and other drugs, as David Bazan might say—and whose early adulthood has been a reckoning with various kinds of oppression and internal friction. That she’s shaken off the faith of her fathers is something she makes clear in the grim opener “Clean,” where it’s midnight in the garden of good and evil and she’s a kind of deicidal Van Helsing, stalking the Almighty and ultimately plunging a knife in His chest.  It’s a macabre fantasy that’s immediately followed by “Bring Her Back,” sung from the perspective of a dead girl who spoke out when she shouldn’t have and paid the price. The specter of lynching looms large, and whatever metaphysical reverie Victoria abides is shattered by the blunt-force trauma of the N-word, deployed just once to situate these songs not in ether or abstraction but in actual human bodies, bruised and bloodied.

Victoria is drawn to the grotesque, a form she uses to paint human malice and divine discontent in the starkest terms possible. It’s a trait she shares with sage-of-sages Flannery O’Connor, to whom she is an avowed devotee, and who famously distinguished between the Christ-centered and the Christ-haunted. Silences is decidedly the latter, though really it’s not even the ragged fugitive Jesus who haunts Victoria so much as the hellhounds on her trail. The devil is all over this record, presented as both living entity and as manifestation of personal demons—and either way, his presence is tormenting. There are the makings here of a grand, gothic drama, a battle for the singer’s soul: On “Devil is a Lie” the Prince of Darkness brings all her plans to ruin, yet on “Pacolet Road” it’s her faith that makes a fool of her. Forces of good and evil give Silences its dramatic framing, but her metaphysics are enfleshed by personal experience. You get the sense that the howl and snarl of Victoria’s music are designed to drown out the unholy clamber of what Richard Thompson calls “the rattle within,” and on “Cry Wolf” Victoria begs and pleads and promises to be good, knowing full well that she’s broken such promises before. “Nice Folks” hears that death rattle emanating from just below the white-washed gentility of Southern manners (the folks O’Conner might call “good country people”), and you wouldn’t be crazy to think of Dr. King and his castigation of political moderates—evil’s most reasonable and well-intentioned bedfellows. “Heathen” is a song about recalcitrant women (and the men who love them), making the most of an ungovernable spirit; amidst smoky jazz, Victoria offers a cheerful fuck-you to anyone who wants her to compromise or to crawl. These songs suggest isolation, but the closing “Get Lonely” reaches out for union. Over a cavernous trance beat, she coos to a partner: “I want to get lonely with you.” It’s the desolate love song of two heathens who reckon they might yet be redeemed.