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.

Beauty in a Breakdown: Kalie Shorr has too much to say

kalie shorr open book review

Kalie Shorr, a 25-year-old singer and songwriter from Portland, Maine, starts her first full-length album with something pitched halfway between a promise and a warning. “Don’t go asking questions that you don’t want answers to/ I’ve got too much to say, and I’ll tell it all to you,” she pledges, and it won’t take long for you to realize just how much she means it. She wrote the songs on Open Book— its very title a commitment to transparency— amidst the ruins of what she calls “the worst year,” one marked by romantic collapse, mental health struggles, and the sudden death of her sister. That’s an awful lot of hardship and tragedy packed into a small time frame, and the 13 songs on Open Book often sound like they’ve exploded from a pressure cooker; Shorr pulls no punches and spares no detail, documenting her year from hell with bracing candor, defiant jokes, narrative perspicuity, and persuasive psychoanalysis. “I don’t really like dating assholes/ But I do it ‘cause I have a weird relationship with my dad,” she admits in the opening couplet of “Gatsby,” fast-talking a few extra syllables into her meter, as if the song can barely contain the wild honesty of her lived experience. Over and over, Open Book lays it all on the table; it bursts at the seams. It sounds like nothing so much as the work of a gifted singer/songwriter who’s long had much to say, and can’t hold it in any longer.

Shorr is a country singer, though she’s never any more or less attached to genre tradition than she needs to be. Her version of roots music extends back no further than to the supercharged, chart-topping country of the 1990s, and Open Book is generously adorned with arena-filling drums, red-hot guitar licks, doleful pedal steel, and sawing fiddles. But if you want to triangulate her sound, you only have to go back as far as the previous generation’s great women of country: Shorr invites passing comparison to early Taylor Swift (for her diaristic clarity), Kacey Musgraves (for her attention to detail and her careful rendering of small-town life), perhaps even Miranda Lambert (for how she pivots so easily from hell-raising to introspection). But the active ingredient in her songwriting is an abiding love for cheap-sounding pop-punk and mopey emo, idioms that aren’t broadly fashionable but offer her a language for direct emotional appeal. The most irrepressible moments on Open Book come when she allows these reference points to mix and mingle. “The World Keeps Spinning,” a song for her sister, has weepy steel guitar and a bruised, blood-letting chorus. The perfectly-titled “Angry Butterfly,” where she announces herself “a ballerina wearing combat boots,” writhes and seethes in grungy dissonance, but it’s got gossamer banjo latticed on top.

You never feel like these songs are very far removed from personal experience, but that’s not to say they’re unvarnished journal entries, either. Shorr tempers her eagerness to share with immaculate songwriting formalism, and several of these songs come with the kind of pitch-perfect premises that your average country song-slinger would trade his best pickup truck and a full case of domestic beer for. Listen to “Messy,” about two neat-freaks who look down their noses at other couples who allow any imperfection or discord to show; the twist, of course, is that their immaculate surfaces hide an emotional shit show. “Thank God You’re a Man,” a swaggering song of seduction, picks up where Ariana Grande’s “God is a Woman” left off; it brims with the confidence of a woman who knows she can pull a few hallelujahs out of even the most resolute nonbeliever. Best of all is the righteously petulant breakup song “F U Forever,” a carbonated cocktail of honky-tonk twang and mall-rat thrash. It includes a few lyrics that any good psychotherapist would surely categorize as breakthroughs (“I’m just a mirror reflecting/ and you’re just an asshole projecting”), but the smartest thing about it is how Shorr saves her one epic profanity for an uproarious punchline.

Indeed, her songs are witheringly funny, except when they aren’t. Some of Open Book’s richest turns of phrase are mirthlessly clever, like a couplet from “The World Keeps Spinning” that perfectly captures the solitude of grief in a world of indifference: “I drove by a wedding on the way to your funeral/ I bet the bride was happy that the weather was beautiful.” The pounding “Lullaby,” written in the wake of a breakup, moves from consuming sadness to self-determination in the span of a single chorus (“I’m singing one last lullaby and I’m/ putting this to bed.”) Part of what makes these songs so compelling is the believability of Shorr’s self-appraisal; she plays some of her therapist’s-couch asides for laughs (“looks like my abandonment issues got the best of me again”), but many a truth is spoken in jest, and Shorr is unsparing in her assessment of how her year of tribulation turned into something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Listen to the old-timey soft-shoe gait and and casual one-liners in “Gatsby,” a song about turning to self-destruction as a way to avoid facing down the demons within; Shorr delivers bleak lyrics from behind a shit-eating grin, which is the whole point. There’s no such performative zeal in “Escape,” which quietly offers the album’s most sobering turn; here Shorr chronicles various drugs of choice used to “sweeten up the lows” before admitting that her own defense mechanism is running away. It’s a harsh confession that belies the album’s confrontational spirit. Surely it’s no accident that Open Book ends with an antagonistic rager; in “Angry Butterfly,” Shorr’s crawled back from hell with a resolve forged in fire, ready to say her piece and possibly bust some skulls. Its tantalizing promise is that, for as much as she says on this album, she’s really just clearing her throat.