At In Review, I’ve written about a couple of albums that feature new versions of older songs. There’s They’re Calling Me Home, new from Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi, which uses ancient tunes about death and isolation to help us assess the current moment. (It’s very much a sister album to there is no Other, and nearly as good.) And then there’s Taylor Swift‘s meticulously recreated version of Fearless, which casts songs of innocence as songs of experience, and is pretty close to un-reviewable.
It’s hard enough narrowing down a list of favorite albums from a given calendar year. Where to even begin whittling down a decade of music into just 25 records? What I settled on here was a simple question: Which were the albums I was most thankful for? Each of the records listed here are ones I’ve received with deep gratitude. I am so happy they exist.
Just a couple of housekeeping items. One, I have constrained myself to only picking one album per artist, though you might argue that #5 and #10 constitute a bit of a cheat. And two, I’ll simply acknowledge that the rankings here may ever so slightly contradict my rankings from previous year-end lists. Such is the fickle prerogative of the list-maker. I discourage overthinking it.
And now, some albums I love:
- Coloring Book | Chance the Rapper (2016)
The Christian theologian Dallas Willard has defined joy as a “pervasive, constant sense of wellbeing,” rooted in the sovereign character of the Divine. There are few figures in pop music who embody this virtue as ably as Chance the Rapper; and, while many will argue for Acid Rap as his achievement to date, it’s his third mixtape, Coloring Book, that shines the brightest with Chance’s inner light. Here he dusts off the dread and depression of tumultuous relationships, family conflicts, the waning of his youth, the onset of adult responsibilities; he does it with appealing buoyancy, attesting despite circumstance that all manner of things shall be made well. And, though the Chance tapes are charming for their shagginess and looseness, this one quietly codifies some of the decade’s most significant hip-hop inflection points: the genre’s embrace of melody; the common ground it’s staked with black church traditions.
- Far from Over | Vijay Iyer Sextet (2017)
For his first album presiding over a large band, pianist and composer Vijay Iyer summons familiar sounds from the annals of jazz: The cool funk of Miles Davis’ late-60s combos, the rowdy charts of vintage Charles Mingus. Yet you can tell just from the song titles (“Nope,” “Wake,” “Into Action”) that Iyer isn’t interested in nostalgia; he’s tapping into the past as a way of engaging hard realities of the present. His songs sound like the 2010s felt— tense, raging, searching, disruptive, assertive. It’s a testament to jazz as an endlessly renewable resource, and a language of common purpose.
- Band of Joy | Robert Plant (2010)
Upon the release of Robert Plant’s liveliest solo album, Band of Joy— an excavation of forgotten blues and country tunes, plus a reappraisal of more recent rock obscurities— critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine noted, “Some of these songs feel like they’ve been around forever and some feel fresh, but not in conventional ways: Low’s ‘Silver Rider’ and ‘Monkey’ feel like ancient, unearthed backwoods laments and the riotous ‘You Can’t Buy My Love’ feels as if it was written yesterday.” In other words, Band of Joy is the work of one of our most imaginative archivists, who ever since the days of Led Zeppelin has been drawn to folk songs as talismans, occult items, and mystic texts. It’s also the work of one of our most magnetic singers, largely surrendering his banshee wail in favor of charismatic whispers. The colorful, harmony-rick production from Buddy Miller (call it bubblegum country) pulls it all together into an album that makes the past sound sweet, strange, and seductive.
- Isolation | Kali Uchis (2018)
The irony of an album called Isolation is that it was conceived through collaboration. Singer Uchis partnered with auteurs like Damon Albarn, Tyler the Creator, and Steve Lacey to create its colorful parade of sounds— speaker-rattling hip-hop, dingy New Wave, pulsing reggaeton, throwback R&B. Its diversity of styles suggests a future where pop is female, pan-cultural, and cheerfully eclectic, yet even in their sprawl these songs are unmistakable as companion pieces. They attest to an artist who doesn’t compromise and knows how to get what she wants; who could’ve sold plenty of records singing retro soul but instead made a ruthless album of songs about the high stakes of independence; its allure and its cost. It’s a high watermark for pop records in the 2010s… freewheeling, borderless, confident in its point of view.
- Mr. Misunderstood | Eric Church (2015)
Eric Church released a clutch of top-shelf country records over the course of the 2010s, and Mr. Misunderstood stands as the first among equals— the most compact, the most accessible, the most absorbing of the bunch. In under 40 minutes’ time, Church offers everything you could want in a country album: He is macho and ridiculous on “Chattanooga Lucy,” earnest and sentimental on “Three Year Old.” In the title song, he makes myths and raises hell; on “Mixed Drinks About Feelings,” he gets tears in his whisky. Long a proponent of prog and blue-collar rock, Church finesses a few metallic guitar blasts and some gangly funk into his gritty, otherwise unostentatious sound. And he is nearly unmatched in delivering a version of country that fits the contours of the mainstream while still making room for the Americana crowd—literally so in well-chosen vocal features for Rhiannon Giddens and Susan Tedeschi.
- Universal Beings | Makaya McCraven (2018)
In the long-running project to build bridges between the jazz and hip-hop worlds, Makaya McCraven must surely be some kind of architect-savant. Universal Beings, his most full-bodied and exploratory album to date, draws connections between the two idioms that aren’t just cosmetic, but structural. Spanning four different bands and 90 minutes of music, the album creates raw material from soulful, improvisational playing, then chops it up and stitches it back together through seamless post-production work. It’s an approach to studiocraft that reaches back to Teo Macero’s innovative work in service to Miles Davis, but it also perfectly captures the fluid pacing and recontextualized sound effects that feel native to hip-hop. A mesmerizing suite, Universal Beings seems at first like a series of compelling micro-moments, but through repetition it becomes the kind of weather-changing music you can get lost in. Standing on the shoulders of his ancestors, McCraven has given us the sound of the present and future.
- MASSEDUCTION | St. Vincent (2017)
Annie Clark has always shown an affinity for strange, disruptive textures. What makes MASSEDUCTION her most bracing St. Vincent album is the presence of pop formalist Jack Antonoff, who frames Clark’s art-house sound effects in the colors of a big-budget blockbuster. Rather than sand away Clark’s rough edges, Antonoff’s production serves as a kind of pressure cooker; these songs are sleek, propulsive, readily accessible, and constantly on the verge of explosion. It’s a perfect aesthetic for Clark’s songwriting, which teems with unease: She sings about desire curdled into addiction, love soured into obsession, independence that’s really just isolation. Instantly memorable and doggedly off-kilter, MASSEDUCTION is one of the great feats of subversive pop.
- Honey | Robyn (2018)
Robyn didn’t invent the “dancefloor as therapy” motif, but she may be its most persuasive proponent, and Honey her therapeutic masterwork. Following a hiatus from recording, Robyn wrote these nine songs while in the throes of heartache and grief; they are presented in chronological order, offering a diaristic glimpse into her journey toward healing. Honey includes some of the artist’s steeliest bangers, her most delicate textures, and her freest singing. In “Missing U” she sounds as though her mourning will last forever, and in “Ever Again” she pledges that her days of sadness are gone for good. Both songs are believable, the emotional anchors to this thesis study in pop vulnerability; this glitter bomb of human fracture.
- To Pimp a Butterfly | Kendrick Lamar (2015)
The third album from Kendrick Lamar features a staged interview with the ghost of Tupac; the recurring presence of a mysterious temptress named Lucy (as in, Lucy-fer); and Lamar rapping in many different voices, inhabiting a full range of characters. It’s an album uniquely demanding (and rewarding) of scholarship, and, along with albums by Jamila Woods and Solange, distinctly uninterested in feigning accessibility for anyone outside its intended audience. Through its boldness and its purity of vision, Butterfly also became one of the most loved and admired records of the 2010s, perhaps in large part because it’s not merely a triumph of intellect. It’s also a masterpiece of conscience, the suddenly-successful son of Compton grappling with his status as a hero, a survivor, and a prophet in a land more fractured than he’d ever imagined, where the stakes of failure are life-and-death.
- My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy | Kanye West (2010)
Before his dalliances with Republicanism, Kanye West wrestled with a more honest set of vices; he was a loudmouth, a boor, a good old-fashioned asshole whose intermittent interest in holiness was punctured by bondservice to his own ego. Maybe My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy isn’t the sound of a pilgrim making progress, but it does sound like the confession of a man who hungers and thirsts for righteousness, and continually does the very things his conscience deems contemptible. He was making Christian music long before he started making “Christian music,” and his opus-to-date remains a bravura show of vision and imagination; an album with the sweep of a blockbuster and the sophistication of an auteur’s masterwork. Contains not only the best West verses of the decade, but also his best jokes.
- The Idler Wheel | Fiona Apple (2012)
A surprise contender for Best Headphones Album of the Decade, if only because each of its songs sound like a choir of voices permanently embedded deep in your brain. It’s the only Fiona Apple released in the past ten years, a pace that may flummox fans but results in one finely-cut jewel after another; these songs are perfect, equally withering in their humor, their self-loathing, their lust, and their rage. Perhaps some are songs to lovers and leavers, but more than anything they sound like songs to Apple herself, nightly wrestling matches with all her most obstinate, irreconcilable impulses. She matches the candor and gallows humor of her writing with vocal panache, cooing and roaring and occasionally turning herself into an actual choir. And the production, mostly just voice, piano, and drums, is streamlined but never spare: The black-and-white framing allows the songs to display a vivid spectrum of color. When people talk about “singer/songwriter” albums, The Idler Wheel is the platonic ideal they’re grasping for.
- Lover | Taylor Swift (2019)
Few would argue that Swift was one of the most consequential pop artists of the last decade, which saw her imperial era in full flourish. Some might quibble with the elevation of Lover over lauded albums like Red and 1989, but for anyone who’s ever wished Swift would drop her armor— that she’d stop writing defensively and instead write with humility, joy, confession, and abandon— then this is surely her most rewarding body of work. It also happens to be a smart consolidation of everything she does well, from colorful pop to wistful country. It includes her most comfortable and assured production from Jack Antonoff, her freest and most varied singing, and songs that would earn a spot on any best-of compilation. “ME!,” the endearingly silly and much-maligned lead single, turns out to be a helpful paradigm for the album as a whole: Long gifted in brand management, Swift now learns that it’s healthy to risk looking ridiculous sometimes.
- there is no Other | Rhiannon Giddens (2019)
The 2010s saw a number of records that ratified folk traditions as a versatile and eloquent language for describing the present day. One of the best such albums is Rhiannon Giddens’ there is no Other, which I like even more than I did a month ago, when I described it as “a luminous take on ‘world’ music,” “an earthy version of a ‘standards’ repertoire,” and “a celebration of some of our best conduits for connection: [The] shared love of musical instruments; songs that transcend culture; the grain of the human voice; a commitment to radical neighborliness in all its forms.” Giddens has rightly been celebrated as one of the best practitioners of quote-unquote Americana music, and this album demonstrates why such superlatives are both accurate and insufficient: Her affection for traditional idioms isn’t an end unto itself, but a gateway into a larger world.
- The Harrow and the Harvest | Gillian Welch (2011)
Gillian Welch concludes The Harrow and the Harvest with something like a shrug: “That’s the way the cookie crumbles,” she deadpans. What might seem like a descent into frivolous cliche is actually a perfectly mordant apex for an album of fatalistic, unsentimental songs about choices and consequences; sowing and reaping. Welch’s handsomest album (and still, maddeningly, her most recent one) is as stark, elemental, and mysterious as the works of William Shakespeare or the Holy Bible; she writes about virtue, vice, and vanished innocence in black-and-white tones that fit in seamlessly with the sparse guitar lines and vocal harmonies supplied by Dave Rawlings. Its bleakness feels like a promise, a timeless guarantee about how the world works; but then, so do its moments of tenderness, and its surprising glimpses of subversive humor.
- Ghosteen | Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (2019)
Nick Cave’s Ghosteen is beautiful for many reasons, not least how it resists at every turn easy summarization: Though written following the loss of Cave’s teenage son, it’s not really an album about death; though attentive to the process of grief, it’s not purely a downer; though respectful of the private nature of bereavement, it avoids isolation and actively seeks connection. Perhaps most surprising of all is that, capping a trilogy of ambient meditations with the Bad Seeds, it represents Cave’s most extreme and fulfilling adventure into softness. An epic and majestic whisper of an album; a masterpiece of intimacy.
- Hell on Heels | Pistol Annies (2011)
So many of the tension points that ran through country music in the 2010s are distilled in this first Pistol Annies record. It walks a highwire between the mainstream and Americana idioms, never sounding cloying and never sounding rote in its earthy outlaw approximations. And, years before the formation of the Highwomen, Hell on Heels puts the stories of women in the spotlight: It’s filled with one-liners that are by turns riotous and devastating, touching on everything from booze to pills, from shotgun weddings to the housewife’s malaise. It’s an endlessly appealing record not only because the writing is razor-sharp, but because it so ably demonstrates the individual personalities and the collective power of the Annies. Their three releases of the 2010s comprise the decade’s most satisfying trilogy, and this slot could almost have gone to the spirited and ranging Interstate Gospel, but Hell on Heels remains first among equals in its compactness, purity, and grit.
- LEGACY! LEGACY! | Jamila Woods (2019)
An instant R&B classic from a singer who’s now barely in her 30s. And also, an album generations in the making. Here’s what I wrote about it last month: “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.”
- We Got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service | A Tribe Called Quest (2016)
Contains just about anything one could want out of a rap album, including some things that are in short supply these days. The back-and-forth, tag-team rap acrobatics? The high density of jokes? The lithe funk and combustible jazz? The dense, Bomb Squad-style production? This miraculous and much-delayed final album from A Tribe Called Quest checks every box. And oh yeah: How about political observations that made it seem almost prophetic upon its release, three days after the election of the 45th President, and still sound wise today? And some final words to and from Phife Dawg, whose death hangs over the album but never curtails its joy? It’s all here in Tribe’s ragged, wondrous swan song.
- undun | The Roots (2011)
Nine years later, has anyone in the hip-hop mainstream truly caught up with the genius of undun? The Roots’ deep, conceptual epic tells the story of a young man who sees a life of crime as his only escape from poverty; narrated in reverse, Memento-style, the record opens in the afterworld and moves back through every fated decision point in the man’s life, becoming a complicated and wise meditation on the nature of free will and how circumstance dictates the choices available to us. It extends empathy to the kinds of characters hip-hop grandiosity often leaves in the margins, the guys whose champagne wishes never come true. It covers some of the same thematic ground as Kendrick’s masterful good kid, M.A.A.D. city, though it’s both more complex and more digestible. The full-band performances are crisp and compelling; Black Thought’s couplets among his most deft and revealing. An art record that’s addictive, accessible, and profound.
- Golden Hour | Kacey Musgraves (2018)
A glorious feast of comfort food: On her most stylish and assured album to date, Kacey Musgraves leans hard into classic country, supple soft rock, and unostentatious pop. It’s a sound so easeful and undemanding, it brought the term “roséwave” back into popular use. And yet, the album is also deeply nourishing. Written in the dawning light of a new marriage, Golden Hour apprehends joy and contentment first with skepticism, then with gratitude; it abides emotional nuance without forcing simplistic narratives, which means one song is about being “happy and sad at the same time,” and there’s really no better way to put it. Musgraves, already a mover and shaker for her picture-perfect songs about small town malaise, is unguarded and mostly snark-free here, choosing to view her happy and sad world through the lens of wonder. Oh, what a worldview.
- The Weight of These Wings | Miranda Lambert (2016)
Though it was assumed the sixth Miranda Lambert record would address her divorce from Blake Shelton, the tenor of the album probably isn’t what anyone expected. It neither rages nor sulks, but instead uses pain as an opportunity for earnest self-reflection. Unmoored from the life she once knew, Lambert takes to the road, a series of gypsy anthems, highway soliloquies, and prodigal laments serving as a unifying conceit for double-album sprawl. It all hangs together remarkably well, not only because it sounds like Lambert’s working with a consistent band throughout but also because the songwriting is so unerring. She de-glamorizes barroom confessions in “Ugly Lights,” grounds herself in concrete particulars in “Pink Sunglasses,” admits she’s a runner at heart in “Vice,” and alchemizes her pain into wisdom on “Keeper of the Flame.” As usual, her choice in cover songs is pitch-perfect; a song called “Covered Wagon” sounds like it was made for this epic collection of heavy-hearted roadside rambles. Belongs on any list of the most majestic heartbreak albums of all time.
- Real Midnight | Birds of Chicago (2016)
The decade’s most surprising discovery, and its most reliable dispenser of joy. Birds of Chicago— essentially the husband-wife duo of Allison Russell and JT Nero— are the kindest, most genial of bands, a fact that’s by no means unrelated to the music they make: Where some groups are built for mystique, the Birds of Chicago emanate open-hearted compassion. So you’re welcome to hear Real Midnight, an album that portends the apocalypse and warns that all our earthly allegiances are fleeting, as an election year homily, but its concerns are actually more domestic: How do we carry on when we know the lives we make here will eventually vanish? It is perhaps the most convincing and relatable album ever made about the particular jitters of new parents and young families, and if that sounds like a downer, rest assured that Real Midnight is anything but. It puts its joy into practice through rich gospel harmonies and massive sing-along hooks; it rocks and rumbles with uncontainable hope. After Real Midnight the band made the more muscular and really just as good Love in Wartime, solidifying Nero as one of our sharpest songwriters. And 10 years from now, when you’re reading an Artist of the Decade feature on Russell, you’ll want to go back to Real Midnight (“Kinderspel” and “Barley” in particular) as a kind of origin story; the moment we all realized we beheld a legend.
- The Gospel According to Water | Joe Henry (2019)
Over the course of the decade, Joe Henry released four solo albums under his own name, each one bearing witness to a singular songwriter, equally gifted in writing melodies that sound like old standards and lyrics that work as stand-alone poetry. The Gospel According to Water, the fourth and best album in that sequence, arrived in the aftermath of a life-shaking medical diagnosis, and has the unmistakable feeling of everything being brought into sudden focus. The words here are scalpel-sharp, the melodies more robust than ever; what’s most beguiling about the album, though, is how little it sounds like an album about cancer or death or loss, and how much it sounds like a wise and buoyant meditation on what it means to carry on in a world that can pull the rug out from under you at any turn. Eschewing certainty for mystery, dogma for humility, and security for surrender, Henry’s Gospel offers hard-won peace and contentment. And it sounds great, too, an unvarnished document of fleet-fingered guitar lines, winding reeds, and Henry’s freest singing. Just when you think it can’t get any more beautiful or deep, the Birds of Chicago show up to sing harmony. It’s one revelation after another; a deep well of blessings.
- Black Messiah | D’Angelo (2014)
The third D’Angelo album was nearly a decade and a half in the making. And yet, by some accountings, it was also something of a rush job. Moved by scenes of the Ferguson protests and the dawning Black Lives Matter movement, the legendary singer sought to choose a side and speak his mind. The result, a song called “The Charade,” is a vision of black bodies outlined in chalk; a prayer for dignity, a voice for the voiceless. Maybe nothing else on Black Messiah is quite so quote-unquote political. But then again, each of its songs, including the songs of romance and the songs of resistance, ask for humanity to be acknowledged in its fullness. They are about the hard work of being physically present, alert, and engaged. It’s an even better album than Voodoo, D’Angelo’s second album and first masterpiece, if only because it’s shapelier; where the previous venture was full of loose-limbed jams, the songs on Black Messiah are sculpted, punchy, and precise. That doesn’t mean they don’t contain multitudes, including some of the most alluring textures heard anywhere in the 2010s— the raucous din of “1000 Deaths,” the sweet caress of “Really Love,” the blurry supplications of “Prayer.” An album of monstrous grooves, unfailing vision, big heart, and heavy conscience.
- The Long Surrender | Over the Rhine (2011)
The decade’s most affecting and sustaining record was made by a husband-wife folk duo from Ohio, who spent more than two decades working the roads, playing their asses off every night, and making one beautiful album after another before finally releasing this haunted meditation on dashed dreams and faded glory. Songs about the rock-and-roll life are almost always insular and dull, but The Long Surrender redeems them into a prayerful, candid, and funny song cycle about the possibility of grace. “Rave On” swaps tour-bus glamor for the concrete realities of obeying a calling, giving yourself away to a mission even when you can’t see its fruit. “Infamous Love Song” retells the history of the band as a winking, Leonard Cohen-style epic, testifying to the grind and churn required to make love and revelation tangible options. At every turn the album groans with the weight of experience, and sparkles with the flash of earned wisdom: It is the masterwork from unsung masters, and feels like a consolidation of everything they do well. Joe Henry, producer of many of the decade’s best-sounding albums, provides Over the Rhine with boon accompaniment, assembling the Band of Sweethearts posse and guiding them through moments of mystic swirl and acoustic clarity. All of it pinnacles in “All My Favorite People,” a hymn of solidarity to anyone who’s ever felt beat-up, spit-out, or badly broken. The Long Surrender brings to mind a promise of Jesus: Blessed are the poor in spirit. And it offers one of its own: That none of us are too far gone to fall into the arms of grace.
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.
- Walk Through Fire | Yola
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.
- To Myself | Baby Rose
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.
- The Highwomen | The 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.
- Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3 | Todd Snider
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.
- Crushing | Julia Jacklin
“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.
- Absolute Zero | Bruce Hornsby
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.
- Canterbury Girls | Lily & Madeleine
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.
- Amidst the Chaos | Sara Bareilles
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.
- Western Stars | Bruce Springsteen
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.
- The Center Won’t Hold | Sleater-Kinney
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.
- Open Book | Kalie Shorr
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.
- Blood | Allison Moorer
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.
- Silences | Adia Victoria
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.
- Patty Griffin | Patty Griffin
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.
- Love and Revelation | Over the Rhine
“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.
- Songs of Our Native Daughters | Our Native Daughters
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.
- My Finest Work Yet | Andrew Bird
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.
- Father of the Bride | Vampire Weekend
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.
- Breakdown on 20th Ave. South | Buddy & Julie Miller
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.
- Wildcard | Miranda Lambert
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.
- there is no Other | Rhiannon Giddens
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.
- Lover | Taylor Swift
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.
- LEGACY! LEGACY! | Jamila Woods
“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.
- Ghosteen | Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
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.
- The Gospel According to Water | Joe Henry
“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.
You might not expect there to be any dance tunes on Songs of Our Native Daughters. This is, after all, an album released on Smithsonian Folkways, an imprint famous for its scholasticism. It’s named in homage to a James Baldwin collection. Its liner notes contain assiduous footnotes and recommendations for further reading. The songs– all 13 of them– trace the long tendrils of the African slave trade; give names to the skeletons that still rattle in our closets; linger long over violence enacted on the bodies of black women. It is unflinching; demanding, even. And yet, less than four minutes in, there it is: “Moon Meets the Sun,” featherweight and buoyant in its gossamer banjo rhythms, an airy mbaqanga dusted in American ash and clay. It almost sounds impossible, and it’s not even the only dance tune on the record: A late-album highlight called “Music and Joy,” creates wide grooves through sparkling polyrhythms, offering just what its title advertises. So if you read the album’s elevator pitch and want to psych yourself out of it– if you assume its achievement is academic, that it’s a righteous and necessary album but ultimately a harrowing listen– don’t. Lean in and you’ll discover a record that’s musically deep and robust; songs that ask us to sit with atrocities but not to settle for them. Remarkably, Songs of Our Native Daughters is both unsparing in its witness-bearing and uncompromising in its sweep of redemption. “We smile to the sky/ We move to stay alive/ And we’re dancing,” one song beams; this music is based in scholarship but enlivened by the resolution to wring joy from desolation; to mine the unthinkable for wisdom and light.
It’s no surprise that a project like this would spring from the mind of Rhiannon Giddens– celebrated folklorist, deep conceptual thinker, minister of neighborliness, curator of what she dubs “black girl banjo magic.” There’s plenty of that here thanks to the convening of blues conjurer Amythyst Kiah, borderless folk visionary Leyla McCalla, and luminous Bird of Chicago Allison Russell, all of them writing, singing, and playing multiple instruments. Even the assemblage of this group, like the summoning of The Avengers, feels momentous; a reclamation of folk forms often supposed to be indigenous to white, rural America but actually rooted in the African diaspora, nurtured and sustained by generations of women. Songs of Our Native Daughters is that secret history writ large, manifest through songs that accommodate both the highlife rumble of “Music and Joy” but also the sawing fiddles of “Polly Ann’s Hammer,” the sinewy blues of “Black Myself,” the prickly bluegrass of “I Knew I Could Fly.” It’s a history that’s been carried through suffering and physical trauma– through “blood and bones,” as one song puts it– and these women honor that history through narratives that never hold back or evade specificity. Many of the receipts of chattel slavery are aired here, including reckonings with the plundering of bodies, the theft of children, the crack of whips, the corruption of Christianity into slaveholder religion, and economic devastation that festers still. Giddens unpacks the economics most explicitly in her spoken word piece “Barbados,” where slavery is condemned as a moral affront but then accommodated as a capitalistic necessity. It’s a song that chases the intellectual seed of racism and injustice, but other songs are purely visceral; “Mama’s Cryin’ Long,” a tour of violence wrought upon black women, is set to hand claps and thumping percussion, each one landing with a bruise. “Slave Driver,” sinister and traumatized, charts slavery’s warped genealogy, naming illiteracy and poverty as its spiritual children. “Moon Meets the Sun” locates the moral authority that slaveholder religion abandoned: “May the god that you gave us/ forgive you your trespasses.”
These are songs of integrity, historic precision, and moral clarity; they’re not written to make anyone feel better. And yet those very qualities are what make the album’s redemptive work so astonishing and so believable. It would be grace enough to hear these women channel suffering into “music and joy,” or to hear how “Moon Meets the Sun” traces back a long lineage of perseverance and strength (“we’ll survive this” may be the record’s single most stirring example of plainspoken resilience). Kiah supplies the pluck in “Black Myself,” which posits defiant self-respect as its own form of ancient wisdom (“I don’t creep around/ I stand proud and free”). But it’s Russell who’s ablest to turn sorrow into gladness. She sings the album-closing “You’re Not Alone,” which cries out to be performed by Mavis Staples and which summons the witness of the ancestors as a deep reservoir of courage (“All the ones that came before you/ their strength is yours now”). And in “Quasheba, Quasheba,” she tells the story of a distant grandmother who was captured in Ghana and sold into slavery in Grenada. Russell acknowledges a loss that’s incalculable but finds within it a fountainhead of hope; it was through Quasheba’s tenacity and survival that an entire family line blossomed. “By the grace of your strength we have life,” Russell sings, her voice just one of the multitude of blessings that sprung from Quasheba’s resilience. Over and over, Songs of Our Native Daughters tells the stories of women’s bodies being wrested into instruments of commerce, transmuted into crops and into gold– but Russell reframes the narrative. In her telling, a woman’s life is the seed for generations to come, a family tree that stretches on. It’s a song Quasheba’s captors never could have intended.
(Incidentally, the folds of the Rhiannon Giddens Extended Universe include not just Songs of Our Native Daughters and Giddens’ bridge-building collaboration with Francesco Turrisi, but also a recent solo album from McCalla, titled The Capitalist Blues. In it, the Haitian-American singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist creates a jostling and anachronistic vision of her New Orleans home, one that hums with humor, empathy, and pan-cultural imagination. The title song, a vaudevillian shuffle set to old-timey banjo strumming, surveys the wreckage of late stage consumer capitalism; “Aleppo,” a distorted punk-blues, surveys the wreckage of falling bombs. By no means are the two songs unrelated. Listen to this album and then chase it with a repeat of Giddens’ “Barbados” if you really want to feel the capitalist blues.)
There’s a righteous word for the third Rhiannon Giddens album, made available to us by the Anglican priest Oliver O’Donovan. Litigating the ethical demands of Jesus Christ, O’Donovan writes, “Xenophilia has been commanded us: the neighbor whom we are to love is the foreigner whom we encounter on the road.” That same spirit of xenophilia emanates from there is no Other, nothing if not an exercise in radical neighborliness. Your first clue is the album title (including its stylized capitalization), a declarative statement with an attending moral imperative: Giddens conceived the album as a rebuke to othering, which tells us to fear the sidelined Samaritan, the wayfaring stranger, the alien and the immigrant in our midst; to apprehend their humanity as discrete from our own, if indeed we acknowledge it at all. Xenophilia offers no quarter for such separations, requiring not just that we affirm humanity when we see it but that we actively seek ways to esteem it. It asks us to maximize our moral bandwidth, perceiving every person we encounter as a neighbor to be welcomed and embraced. That’s a tall order, but Giddens’ album rises to the occasion, never preaching its point but proving it both formally and aesthetically. There is no Other amounts to an oral history of the cosmic neighborhood we share together, pieced together from porous and borderless folk traditions, sounds and cultures that bleed into one another, roots that run deep and in perpetual entanglement. These songs come from street corners and mountain hollers, from juke joints and royal opera halls. They revel in the overlap of regional vernaculars, standing in defiance of taxonomy and hierarchy. They offer a multitude of ancient and not-so-ancient witnesses, attesting to the interconnectedness of human experience.
Giddens made the record with Italian virtuoso Francesco Turrisi, whose piano, accordion, and hand percussion accompany her array of stringed instruments; on four songs, they are joined by Kate Ellis on cello and viola. There are historic links between the folk instruments employed, and deep connections between the American and Mediterranean idioms they articulate, but you don’t have to be a musicologist to pick up on the spirit of fluidity and cultural cross-pollination; indeed, what’s always made Giddens so effective as a folklorist is that she values ancient texts not for their amber preserve, but for their mutability. “Gonna Write Me a Letter” is an old bluegrass rag, here dominated by Turrisi’s clamorous frame drum; the song’s cast in a low-end rumble that feels closer to the speaker-shaking dynamics of hip-hop than to the high-and-lonesome key of a string band. That same jostling physicality can be heard on “Pizzica di San Vito,” a buoyant dance number performed here with locomotive momentum, Giddens bouncing crisp Italian syllables off one another as Turrisi’s jangling percussion provides rattle and thrum. That’s not the only song that leans on Giddens’ apprenticeship in the opera; she sings everything here with magisterial command and regal phrasing, not least a couple of actual opera tunes. The famous “Black Swan” aria sounds less like a theater piece than a weird backwoods fairy tale, ominous and grim, while “Trees on the Mountain,” from Floyd Carlisle’s Susannah, transmutes the flair of the theater into the dusty plainspeak of folk music. Such boundaryless invention abounds on there is no Other, where Giddens and Turrisi rough up their classical music with the gutter panache of rock and roll, cast Appalachian tunes with a Middle Eastern canter, bathe jigs and rambles in a mystic glow, and make show tunes sound raucous and earthy. It’s no surprise at all that the album sessions were overseen by producer Joe Henry, unparalleled as a wayfinder along the haunted back roads of folk tradition; indeed, the most helpful antecedents for this record might be The Bright Mississippi and American Tunes, a pair of uncircumscribed reckonings with jazz-as-folklore that Henry made with Allen Toussaint, the latter album enhanced by two show-stopping vocal assists from Giddens herself.
The revelation in all of this is that songs and folk grammars are bridges to one another, entryways and corridors in the neighborhood we inhabit; that there’s ultimately no such thing as island or isolation. (“This ain’t no archipelago,” Andrew Bird might hasten to add.) Giddens makes that point explicit in her original “Ten Thousand Voices,” a dirge that drones and swirls like Arabic music and introduces the album with a web of mutuality; the songs we sing and stories we tell are but pieces of a larger mosaic, it suggests. A few of these songs present us with immigrant encounters. Another original, “I’m on My Way,” has a co-writing credit from Henry; it’s a vagabond’s clanging blues, finding meaning in the journey even as the destination remains unsure. (“I’ve only got the taste for something sweet as time/ Not bottled on the table but still hanging on the vine.”) Giddens also sings the standard “Wayfaring Stranger,” long the anthem of pilgrims making progress, here rising from the steady pluck of a minstrel banjo to the misty splendor of Turrisi’s accordion. It would almost be perplexing if this album didn’t have a song or two associated with Nina Simone, still the patron saint and north star for any artist whose aim is to evade being captured by category, and a thumping take on “Brown Baby” feels like the record’s linchpin; it’s the plea of a mother who hopes to leave her child with a better world, when the only inheritance she can really offer is the song itself, ratified anew by one generation after another. A pair of instrumentals speak volumes, in particular Giddens’ title track, where banjo and frame drum sparkle with symbiosis, completing each other’s sentences. And in “He Will See You Through,” the closing hymn of perseverance and preservation, Giddens does for church music what she does elsewhere for opera, stripping it of ritual to reveal the emotional utility and ancient wisdom at its core.
Indeed, maybe ancient wisdom is another helpful way of receiving this record. Describing the culture of America in the 1960s, Joan Didion wrote that it was a time when “no one at all seemed to have any memory or mooring.” It’s hard to imagine a markedly improved prognosis today, but there is no Other offers grounding and connection; to a birthright of songs that exist beyond boundaries, and to the only neighborhood in which such songs could ever grow.