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.

Love’s Like That, You Know: Nick Cave sees things as they are

ghosteen

“There’s nothing wrong with loving something you can’t hold in your hands,” sings Nick Cave on Ghosteen, his doleful new album with the Bad Seeds. It’s as if he’s granting himself permission for the 11 stark, revealing confessions that occupy these 68 minutes—songs that cling tightly to vanished bodies and phantom limbs; songs that try to to wrap big bear hugs around ghosts and vespers; songs that pledge an intimacy that will last forever, in a world where moth and rust destroy. It’s the first album Cave has conceived since the sudden death of his 15-year-old son, Arthur. (Woebegone though it sounded, Skeleton Tree was largely finished when the accident occurred, its bleak lamentations prescient, perhaps, but not diaristic.) It is at once easy and right to hear Ghosteen as an extended meditation on grief, though it is also worth noting that Cave— seldom one to wear his intentions on his sleeve— never uses the word grief nor even death in these new songs. There’s another word that comes up time and time again, however. “I’m speaking of love now,” Cave sings in the title track, as if that’s not what he’s been speaking about this entire time. Ghosteen is an album about bonds that linger even when flesh and blood turn to vapor; and, about tending to the gardens of a marriage, even when both partners are hobbled by sorrow. You can hear the album as a collection of ghost stories, one in which the spirits themselves rarely appear; mostly we see frail humans going about their daily affairs, as though nothing’s changed, as though everything has. In one of many moments of heartbreaking candor, Cave sings about doing the laundry for someone you’ve lain in the ground. Life’s little rhythms, its daily devotions and acts of service, persist even through shattering disruption. “Love’s like that, you know,” Cave ventures.

Ghosteen is singularly sad, a season of fathomless lament and senseless tragedy preserved in amber; and yet, it’s nowhere close to being the insular downer that you might anticipate. Cave is essentially sitting shiva here. Rather than holing up in a dark room, he’s opened his doors and peeled back the curtains, inviting us, as though we were his very kin, to sit with him in his hour of crisis; to honor his loss with the fullness of our attention, and to receive the generosity of his unmasked witness-bearing. Like the recent Over the Rhine record, Love and Revelation, Ghosteen displays a real wisdom in not rustling for answers, nor reaching for platitudes to tell us everything will be okay. It won’t be, these songs suggest, and there is therapeutic value in simply abiding that truth together. The plainspoken need in these songs reflects the transparency of Cave’s Red Hand Files newsletter, and his ongoing questions-and-answers tour; and, it is reflected in the music itself, as starkly beautiful as anything in the Bad Seeds catalog. Cave says this album completes a trilogy that began with the murmuring Push the Sky Away and reached a harrowing level of low-key abrasion in Skeleton Tree; Ghosteen takes the weightlessness and perspicuity of those recordings and stretches them to their logical extremes. It is the most ambient Bad Seeds album, the most quiet, and the one most demanding to be played loud. Almost entirely drumless, the album wafts and pulses with the sound of analog synths, occasionally rusted over in dirty feedback loops, anchored here and there by Cave’s piano. “Waiting for You,” crisp and romantic, recalls the formal precision of The Boatman’s Call, but more characteristic of the album is “Spinning Song,” which heralds the earthy rock and roll swagger of Elvis Presley above the drone and hum of an vintage keyboard. The record sounds wispy, at times spartan, but it’s also disarmingly beautiful: “Bright Horses” builds from the hymn-like austerity of the piano and the twinkle of a vibraphone into cathartic swells of wordless human voices. It is to the eternal credit of the Bad Seeds that they mostly let their leader hold the spotlight here, though Warren Ellis brings his film scoring bona fides to bear in songs like “Night Raid,” so atmospheric, so drizzly and damp that when Cave’s lyrics reference rainfall, it almost feels superfluous; it’s a perfect concert of dank sound effects and muggy imagery. At the center of all of this is Cave, confessing, confiding, consoling; no, he has never sounded older, but neither has he ever sounded more open or free.

Not for the first time, we hear Cave searching for God from the depths of the abattoir; and just like last time, the results of his questing aren’t entirely conclusive. In “Fireflies,” a spectral spoken word piece toward the album’s end, he scavenges in vain for any sign of the Master’s hand. “There is no order here, nothing can be planned,” he confesses, his divine discontent no less pious than that of the blameless and upright Job. But his struggles for belief seem underscored with an implicit cry for the Lord to help his unbelief. In “Waiting for You” he turns his gaze to a priest and a Jesus freak, both surrendered to the idea that all the present heartache will lead eventually to Christ’s glorious return; Cave isn’t quite there, but he’s tantalized by the solace that a faith vocabulary can bring. Jesus himself is invoked throughout the album, never riding a white horse in victory but only ever lying in his mother’s arms, a crucified son; the Jesus of the downtrodden and the persecuted, the meek and the disinherited. Meanwhile, Cave envisions in “Sun Forest,” we’re all swaying alongside him on some manner of hanging tree. There’s a similarly grim picture painted in “Bright Horses,” where “we’re all so sick and tired of seeing things as they are.” The self-evident cruelty of the physical world makes him all the more eager to take up the vision of faith, and for half an instant, it lets Cave see past the abattoir and into the highlands, his voice curling however briefly in tantalizing joy (“I can hear the horses prancing in the pastures of the Lord”). But the song ends as Bruce Springsteen’s “Tucson Train” does, with the protagonist waiting at the railroad station for an absent loved one to return; in both cases hopes run high, and in both cases it’s unclear whether the holy fool will see his good faith rewarded.

Even in Ghosteen’s roaring quiet and its plainspoken candor, Cave never sounds like he’s alone. If loss has been a catalyst for faith, it’s also been an empathy generator; maybe that’s the point of “Hollywood,” which closes the album with an ominous 14 minutes of clattering low-end rumble. Toward the end of the song, Cave recounts the Buddhist parable of Kisa, who loses her son and is told by the teacher that she can revive him if only she finds a mustard seed from a household untouched by death. Of course, no such household exists; “everybody is always losing somebody,” Cave laments, death not just a momentary interruption but a continuous degradation. It’s a sobering reflection that Cave renders beguilingly beautiful in “Galleon Ship,” where he envisions himself taking to the sky in search of solace. “For we are not alone it seems,” he wonders, “So many riders in the sky/ The winds of longing in their sails.” Loss can feel isolating, but here Cave imagines his trauma as part of a great cloud of witnesses. There is also the witness of Cave’s lost son, manifest here as a fuzzy shape at the end of a corridor, as “a wish that time can’t resolve,” even as the wandering spirit Ghosteen who arrives with strange tidings of comfort and peace. His presence hovers over the margins of these songs, while Cave’s wife and Arthur’s mother, Susie Bick, often seems to occupy the center of the frame. The album is generous in remembering that the grief over a child is never proprietary, and unflinching in portraying the ways it can fray the bonds of marriage. “Ghosteen” alternates between the mundanity of loss and hallucinatory visions beyond the physical realm, at one point settling into a strange and unsettling scene of three bears in a post-traumatic funk: “Mama Bear holds the remote/ Papa Bear, he just floats/ And Baby Bear, he has gone.” In “Night Raid,” Cave looks back to the evening when his twin sons were conceived, seeing it now through a veil of tears; the suffering Jesus is there as well, promising hardship from the start. In “Waiting for You,”  husband and wife mourn in chilly silence; all he can offer her is time and fidelity (“just want to stay in the business of making you happy”). “Spinning Song” opens the album with scenes of Elvis and Priscilla, a rock and roll couple fated for tragedy— yet even facing down doom, the narrator has devotion on his lips: “And I love you, and I love you, and I love you, and I love you,” he pledges. It’s a promise he returns to in “Leviathan,” a subterranean trance that serves as the album’s fulcrum. “I love my baby and my baby loves me,” chants Cave, as though lifting up his daily prayers. It’s one sure thing he can lay his hand to— at least for now.