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.

Guess it Was Something I Shouldn’t Have Done: Bruce Springsteen and the hunger of a lifetime

western stars

In “Western Stars,” the title song from his nineteenth studio album, Bruce Springsteen introduces us to a grizzled character actor. In his glory days, the man was a staple of cowboy pictures, back when there was still an appetite for such things; he even shared a scene with John Wayne. Now, he mostly catches checks by appearing in commercials, hawking credit cards and “that little blue pill that promises to bring it all back to you again.” But the unspoken tragedy of Western Stars is that nothing’s coming back to anybody; that things will never again be as they were. The shambling daredevil in “Drive Fast (The Stuntman)” will never walk without a hobble. The runaway in “Chasin’ Wild Horses” can never return to the home he abandoned. The  country songwriter in “Somewhere North of Nashville” transmuted love into heartache and heartache into a tune, but there’s no alchemy in the world that can reverse the process and give him back what he lost. You get the sense that none of Springsteen’s weary men could join Bono in his paraphrase of the sinner’s prayer: “Reach me/ I know I’m not a hopeless case.” And they would likewise find little comfort in the haunted hymnal of Over the Rhine, who dare to hope that they’re “not too far gone” to get “undamned.” For Springsteen’s men, redemption is no longer a live option on the table. They have spent the prime of their life courting restoration; now in their twilight, they have to learn to make peace with their cavernous hollow. 

The political allegory writes itself. There is a palpable sense of irrevocable loss here, the dashed dreams these characters wrestle with suggestive of the vanishing American life Springsteen’s been lamenting almost since the beginning, never feeling less like a memory and more like a mirage than it does here. “Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact/ But maybe everything that dies someday comes back,” sang Springsteen on a bleak album called Nebraska— but that was 25 years ago; and while Western Stars doesn’t sound as stark, its eschatology is just as unforgiving. Here Springsteen ends the album with a song called “Moonlight Motel,” named for what was once the site of a holy rendezvous between two young lovers. Now one of them visits the parking lot of the long boarded-up hotel by himself, drinking two shots of whisky and pouring a third one on the cold earth. Both the union and the site of its consummation are long gone, and they’re not coming back any more than the cowboy pictures, the American Dream, the middle class, the civilization we all thought would outlast us. (The burning question, same as ever: Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true?)

Springsteen uses a musical shorthand to underscore these songs of time and its ravages, hearkening back to an era– was it real or imagined?– when popular music could be nakedly sad, unfold at a leisurely pace, and bear the warm countenance of luxuruous string sections and acoustic instruments. Replacing the muscle and majesty of the E-Street Band with the splendorous melancholy of a string section, Springsteen has made an album quite unlike any he’s made before, one that’s equally indebted to the crisp formalism of Burt Bacharach and the lush country of Glen Campbell. He counts a few familiar names among his list of collaborators– wife and harmonist Patti Scialfa, long-time fiddle accompanist Soozie Tyrell, producer Ron Aniello–  but the lyric sheet’s biggest tell is the name Jon Brion, who decorates several songs with drums and farisfas and celestes, recalling something of the gentle sparkle and easygoing opulence he’s brought to albums by Kanye West, Fiona Apple, and Brad Mehldau. The gentleness is key: Some albums are overwhelmingly disconsolate, but Springsteen’s melancholy is always warm, welcoming, and alluring; it envelopes you just like a Nick Drake record might, channelling an impressionistic vision of American vistas whose vivid Technicolor is slowly fading into washed-out pastel. In “Sleepy Joe’s Cafe,” Latin rhythms are ironed out into easy-listening exotica. “The Wayfarer” lilts and glides across luxuriant strings and chattering castanets. In “Chasin’ Wild Horses,” the string section creates a canopy of stars, while the high-and-lonesome steel guitar of boon sideman Greg Leisz keeps it earthbound and dusty. “Sundown” revisits the symphonic pomp of Born to Run’s Phil Spector-isms– and in what may be the album’s biggest surprise of all, Springsteen convinces that he’s actually gotten better at handling those big Roy Orbison operatics. 

Springsteen has spent close to 50 years mastering perspicuous metaphors for male malaise– many of them automotive!– and he’s gotten them so streamlined, so close to the bone that they just barely register as metaphors anymore. “I got two pins in my ankle and a busted collarbone,” sings the weathered narrator of “Drive Fast (The Stuntman).” “A steel rod in my leg, but it walks me home.” He’s a broken man; a man being held together. Other songs employ the language of prodigal sons. “Maps don’t do much for me, friend,” says the drifter in “Hitch Hikin.’” “When I go to sleep I can’t count sheep for the white lines in my head,” admits “The Wayfarer,” restless any time he’s not in flight. In “Tucson Train,” a heartbroken man waits at the station for his lover finally to return, years of separation giving way to possible jubilee. It’s the most brazenly hopeful song on the record, unless of course it’s really a study in self-delusion. Surely it is ominous that the song has the same premise and the same locomotive sound effects that conclude Frank Sinatra’s classic downer Watertown, where a possibly-crazy, probably-misguided fellow similarly waits for salvation coming down the rails. Both Springsteen and Sinatra allow their songs to fade to black before telling us how things turned out.

It is hard to think of many writers who capture men– their fracture and their resilience– with the same tenderness and specificity that Springsteen does. (Richard Russo?) He is clear-eyed in assessing their wretched estate, but invariably chooses affection and empathy over pity. “Guess it was something I shouldn’t have done,” understates the narrator in “Chasin’ Wild Horses,” the latest in a long line of Springsteen characters who went out for a ride and never came back. This is just the delicacy with which an old man might rue the mistakes of his youth: He’s candid about his regret but also careful not to make too much of it, lest his entire sense of self shatter like glass. The country songwriter in “Somewhere North of Nashville” isn’t so zen; he spends sleepless nights replaying the biggest mistakes of his life on an endless loop. “I traded you for this song,” he says into an empty room. Again you might think of a U2 line: “Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief/ First they kill their inspiration, then they sing about the grief.” And for what? “All I’ve got’s this melody and time to kill,” Springsteen sighs.

Of course, this character is no stretch for Springsteen, who’s been writing about men like this all his life. What distinguishes Western Stars is its sense of hard-earned wisdom. In “There Goes My Miracle,” a man sees his last chance at happiness walking out on him, never to return– and he’s been battered and bruised enough to call it for what it is rather than cushion the blow with florid prose. “Heartache, heartbreak/ Love gives, love takes,” goes one line, its moon-June rhymes suggesting a kind of wizened plainspeak. The narrator in “Hello Sunshine” is more enlightened still. “You know I always liked my walking shoes/ But you can get a little too fond of the blues,” he sings, the prodigal realizing that he’s wandered long enough. It’s a song about choosing hope as a matter of intention, and it resonates all the more for the many years Springsteen’s characters have stared into the abyss. Indeed, his catalog teems with young men who rant and rail, who roam far and wide looking for the missing piece, satisfaction for their hungry hearts. For the old men of Western Stars, there’s no piece to be found, no satisfaction good enough; slim odds at best for a third-act miracle or surprise salvation. If they find redemption, it’s in the peace they make with their fracture; the realization that the hunger lasts a lifetime. Maybe none of them find restoration, but at least some of them find rest.