10. Weyes Blood – Titanic Rising
“A lot’s gonna change in your lifetime / try to leave it all behind / in your lifetime / let me change my words / show me where it hurts.” If there’s a thesis statement for Titanic Rising, this closing sentiment to opener “A Lot’s Gonna Change” is surely it. Or, wait: maybe it was “Waiting for the call from beyond / waiting for something with meaning / to come through soon”, the brutally searching coda of “Picture Me Better.” “Don’t cry, it’s a wild time to be alive?” “No one’s ever going to give you a trophy for all the pain and the things you’ve been through / no one knows but you?” That’s the problem with Natalie Mering’s fourth album as Weyes Blood; there’s a wealth of options to choose from in what represents a stunning crescendo for this steadily rising artist, a peculiarly out-of-time musical capsule that is still very much of 2019 in its anxieties and hopes. What I keep coming back to is something more fundamental, the crux of Titanic Rising‘s struggles with modernity and its dissection of all-American tropes then – “when no good thing could be taken away” – and now, where Natalie Mering’s crisis is so much more simpler: “I’m so scared of being alone, it’s true, it’s true.”
For its time, Titanic Rising is an anomaly, a singular expression of its artist’s retro ’70s sensibilities, an immersive dive into decades’ worth of sounds and production that envelops you like a warm bath, and just as comfortable to sink into. Given a looser leash from a label confident in Mering’s abilities after 2016’s superb Front Row Seat to Earth, Titanic Rising fulfilled all of the grand promises and bittersweet emotions thrumming below the surface of her prior work. It’s the rare album that breathed life into the husk of clichés like “a headphones record” or “an album’s album,” the kind one needed to hear in one full sitting. Mering’s world-building talents and her bold, saturated instrumental choices make diving into her headspace a joy, despite how exhausting it should be given the topics Mering explores. Her rich, elastic alto wanders through a litany of issues familiar to anyone who’s grown up in this millennium: the tension between what’s real and what’s fake; the illusory comforts of modern life going up against the almost painful weight of nostalgia; a search for connection and meaning in an era where it seems everything is on the verge of (literally) ending up underwater or on fire (with these themes, Mering’s closest cousin this year was almost certainly Lana Del Rey’s deconstruction of Americana myths in Norman Fucking Rockwell!).
Yet Titanic Rising never felt hopeless – that would be hard to do with a record so unremittingly pretty as this. No, in inviting us into her world, Mering created a respite from all that outside shit, an escape you can come back from feeling renewed and maybe, hopefully, improved. It’s telling that, after scouring galaxies and seemingly resigning herself to a hunt that may never end, Mering concludes “Andromeda” with an appeal and a command to seize the unknown: “Love is calling / it’s time to give to you / something you can hold onto / I dare you to try.” Perhaps that’s Titanic Rising‘s best thesis statement yet. –klap
9. Jenny Hval – The Practice of Love
Love, specifically as it is understood in practice as a heteronormative romantic ideal, is such a well-trodden topic in popular music that Jenny Hval has already spent a decade dissecting its relation to, and influence on, other desires that beset the body and mind in a world where sexuality, gender, autonomy and feminism remain controversial and vulnerable topics. Considering the four albums that precede it, and Hval’s fascination with pop music and stardom, a Hval album titled The Practice of Love feels like an inevitability, the culmination of a decade evolving her experimental trip-hop trappings into arch hooks and choruses caught in the shattered light of discotheques.
But if Hval has maintained a constant in her music, it is her altered perspective, not just a deviation from the norm but that of her own. The Practice of Love reveals itself as a rumination on love’s capacity to fail us within its standardized parameters, in art’s way of compartmentalizing trauma and healing as a closed loop of suffering and process, and in the peculiar way pop stars come to be defined by the universe they create (or rather, the corpse they suck dry). On “Ashes to Ashes,” Hval’s most effervescent pop concoction yet, romantic entanglements and narrative fodder derived from heartbreak are self-fulfilling prophecies, divine inspiration capable of becoming as binary an experience as Tinder’s algorithms; or toxic as a long night of chain-smoking.
What truly sets The Practice of Love apart in a storied discography is how it doubles down on the elements that have come to define Hval’s output while further developing her arsenal of pop songwriting tropes. “Accident” and “Thumbsucker” are earworms littered with synthetic horns and mutating trance beds, and Hval’s delicate voice stylings slice with great impression through the industrial mélange. The employment of a number of her peers (including Vivian Wang and Felicia Atkinson) for whole spoken word verses throughout the album lifts the practice out of art-pop interlude purgatory, strengthening themes of companionship and inspiration reflected in Hval’s evocation of her pioneering and oft-misunderstood predecessors (“But I was seeing them / Red cannas in the sky / Like they were tearing up their heavens / Opening the zipper”). The Practice of Love solidifies Jenny Hval’s placement in the lineage of progressive songwriters challenging the status quo while infiltrating it, another fascinating portrait of a woman as a new kind of pop artist. –Lewis
8. Cult of Luna – A Dawn to Fear
Coming off of a career high (the 2016 collaboration with Julie Christmas, Mariner), Cult of Luna favored experimentation over comfort. Avoiding repetition or drops in quality, they shifted directions and crafted a massive album that can be compared to a cinematic experience. A Dawn to Fear offers multiple build-ups, twists and climaxes that beautifully intertwine during its 79-minute run. Displaying a wide array of sounds and variations, crafted with incredible attention to details and most importantly, flow, the LP could pass off as a soundtrack to a thriller/horror movie with its lyrics signaling the end of civilization where Mother Nature regains control of Earth. From the bludgeoning groove of “The Silent Man”, a suspenseful atmosphere kicks in and things get darker, stranger and eerier with each passing cut. The powerful guitars boast that muddy, sludgy tone, the drums are often pounding, whereas the chunky bass and keyboard leads sew the instrumental together tight. When you think you have figured everything out, the band switches tempos, entering various clean, elegiac segments, only to return to cathartic riffage later. Raging mammoth songs such as “Lights on the Hill”, “The Fall”, and “Nightwalkers” heavily contrast the subdued, but brooding moments like “We Feel the End” or the title track. The vocals are very effective as well, mostly punctuating, rarely taking the lead. Plus, the pessimistic tone of the clean lines work great over the music’s dispirited vibe.
A Dawn to Fear may seem like a brick wall initially; still, it slowly cracks upon repeated listens. It’s not an album to leave playing in the background. Under the dense layers lies a deeply emotional experience that requires attention to be understood and truly enjoyed. Nevertheless, very few bands have managed to deliver such a long record that’s gripping all the way. Cult of Luna remain unrivaled in the post-metal genre and this collection of songs is definitely one of their finest. –Raul Stanciu
7. Purple Mountains – Purple Mountains
If you were to look up in a dictionary the meaning of the term “tortured soul,” there would be a fairly decent chance you’d find a portrait of the late David Berman occupying the page. For a man who had been through quite a lot in his life, Berman somehow kept fighting, no matter how unbearable it must’ve become for him; from shouldering the burden of being the son of a lobbyist (who, in part, was a cause for Berman’s initial retreat from music a decade ago) to his own personal demons, which had continued to haunt and ultimately consumed him.
Purple Mountains, an album that was Berman’s melancholic return, became his tragic farewell — a record that, like others of its ilk (Bowie’s Blackstar, Joy Division’s Closer, and Jacques Brel’s Brel to name a few), had either vaguely hinted at their creator’s imminent demise or had laid it out for all to see. Purple Mountains opts for the latter with “All My Happiness is Gone”, with Berman bluntly stating, “All my happiness is gone / It’s all gone somewhere beyond.” When he sings that chorus, you have no choice but to believe it, as tragic as it seems. Purple Mountains is a testament to the struggle Berman faced within himself and with life itself in musical form, perhaps the only real way he could attempt to cope with how at odds he was with where he was headed, no matter what direction he’d head in. In a way, there’s nothing more I could really say to even comprehend the great tragedy that was the loss of David Berman, who was and will always be one of the greatest American songwriters. As the old saying goes, let the music do the talking. –Frippertronics
6. State Faults – Clairvoyant
What strikes me about Clairvoyant, 6 months after its release, is the continuous warmth of its core — heart pumping hot blood, often pulsating with anger or indignation but always striving for an impossible ideal of universal love. One dimension of Clairvoyant draws from reincarnation and the cyclical nature of love and violence, leaving open the idea that the processes of mourning and growing political awareness are doomed to eventual corruption, but also endless rebirth; the addition of a more atmospheric, shoegaze-tinged side to State Faults’ fiery screamo complements the dreamier, abstract qualities of the album. Another dimension more explicitly targets contemporary issues, e.g. “Sacrament” and its condemnation of apathy towards gun violence: “Stop this incision / Semiautomatic / Exasperation infinite / Blood in the sacrament / Pours on the cold cement / Prayers said with violence / Arms crossed in silence.”
Far from being sanctimonious, the album is often deliciously vicious and vengeful, from the simmering slow-burn of the title track to the joyful obstinance of “Olive Tree”: “I offered a branch / But you wanted the whole tree / Burned to never bloom again / I promise to never bloom again.” Indeed, there’s no doubt that Clairvoyant is emotionally and morally turbulent, imperfect, messy; it’s also all the more sympathetic and cathartic for it. Sometimes it feels like a reflex, an instinctive response to the world it perceives — one full of bloodshed, hypocrisy, and misguided righteousness. The anthemic chants of “I don’t know / I don’t know / Where my spirit goes” on “Sleeplessness” depict a state of dissociation and disbelief that abruptly transforms into the title track’s cold-blooded vengeance; “Contaminature”, meanwhile, is almost jaded in its mid-tempo groove, but segues into optimistic closing track “Cemetery Lights”.
“Let true love reign free,” a line present on “Baptism”, is effectively Clairvoyant‘s motto, but I personally find the treatment of violence and vengeance to be the most interesting aspect of the album; their utility and ethical status are ambiguous, they’re clearly liable to falling into the wrong hands, but as rhetorical tools they resonate powerfully and represent on the part of State Faults an unwillingness to capitulate to injustices, to sugarcoat the narrative. –Claire Q.
5. American Football – American Football (LP3)
For the first time ever, American Football are leaving “the house.” If their debut was an earnest portrait of disenchanted youth, and American Football (LP2) was a wistful and aged revisitation, then American Football (LP3) fits somewhere in-between: mature and self-assured but filled with vitality.
It arrives at a time where emo has moved on, closing out a decade which saw the genre erupt, cool, then evaporate from public consciousness. But American Football (LP3), with its strikingly modern take on “twinkly emo”, feels like the album American Football would have made immediately after their debut. The classic sad-boy aesthetic pervades the album’s DNA, but songs like “Silhouettes” weave those hammy moments into something viscerally emotive. “Heir Apparent” and “Doom In Full Bloom” by comparison offer more daring moments; stylistic transitions move boldly and assuredly, with post-rock like catharsis. It’s the most full-fat version of the band’s sound so far and a victorious look at their future. –Xenophanes
4. Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds – Ghosteen
On Push the Sky Away‘s title track, Nick Cave sculpted a plea for perseverance, compassion and love out of three repeating lines. “You got it, just keep on pushing, and push the sky away.” Then, it was a shockingly warm sentiment from Australia’s callous, sardonic, black-hearted rocker thirty years into his career. Now, it feels like a blueprint he’s been following for his greatest decade of releases; a sentiment that’s weathered the tragic death of his son, the amicable departure of Mick Harvey, the sad loss of Conway Savage, and another complete overhaul of his style. The Bad Seeds traded in frenzied, gnarled garage-blues for music that plays like the blips on a heart monitor, where a brush stroke can transform the geography of the world and Warren Ellis’ shattered drones break like waves on a shoreline. Nearly a whole decade later, I feel like it’s all in service of those words of gentle encouragement, still assuring me we can all push the sky away for a little longer.
It helps, naturally, that Ghosteen is the most peaceful of the Bad Seeds’ albums, even if that peace comes hard-won – don’t mistake the quiet for ease. Ghosteen bled and bruised for its air of tranquillity, so when Cave addresses his life post-Arthur’s death, whether through poetry (the recurring image of children climbing into the sun), fairytale allegory (“Ghosteen”‘s portrait of a family of three bears living inside their loss) or even Cave addressing himself through the eyes of his son (the likely interpretation of “Ghosteen Speaks”), it’s hard to remain unaffected. Cave, one of music’s most considered writers even when sketching madcap tales of murder, a man who never lets a line go until he’s completely satisfied, isn’t merely well-equipped to guide us through an album like this, an album of the tender, brutal process of moving on from the things you cannot move on from. He’s perhaps the only man in music who could.
A ‘ghosteen’, by the way, is a word from an Irish tinker’s book: a benevolent ghost, which takes the form of a small crying child. It’s maybe not rocket science to figure out how the term applies here, but again, it’s the usage of it which marks Ghosteen as a superb, infinitely moving piece of work. Cave does not write in terms of hauntings or supernatural phenomena, not even as metaphor. In the man’s own words, it’s purely a “migrating spirit”. The ghosteen speaks only to assure Cave “I am here beside you” and ponder its own funeral; the writer sees it only as “a glowing circle in my hand / slowly twirling, twirling all around”, before the music on the title track gently washes out and he addresses the tragedy more directly than ever before. It would be remiss not to mention the superb work of the Bad Seeds here and on the entire 2010s trilogy, how they embraced restraint and the silence between notes as tools as powerful as anything; and while Conway Savage is sadly departed, his sweetening touch on the Bad Seeds since 1992’s Henry’s Dream is fully honoured here, in the unbelievable harmonies on “Bright Horses” and “Galleon Ship”‘s tumbling waterfall piano. But in heart and soul this is of course Cave’s album, with musicians he’s had a working relationship with for most of his adult life on his wavelength, attuned to every shift in tone as he wanders up and down the timeline of his grief.
Ghosteen is not an album of solutions or endings, and surely would have rung hollow if it were. Ghosteen offers only the opportunity to sit inside sadness without letting it overwhelm, finding common ground in the shared space we all inhabit: the space between living and dying, peace and unrest, the quiet and the endless crushing noise. –Rowan
3. Big Thief – U.F.O.F.
What’s so beautiful, I think, about Adrianne Lenker’s solo material – sparse, welcoming as it is – is that it appears able to absorb whatever environment it comes in contact with, to find comfort wherever the listener might take it. Listening to “from”, for example, from 2018’s abysskiss in a café or pub allows the clinks of mugs and gulps of coffee or beer to percuss or become the percussion behind the song’s gentle arpeggios, the warmth of its vintage-like production. Atop a hill, on the other hand, beside a quarry, the more violent allusions of that album’s “terminal paradise” are brought to some sick forefront, dusty explosions overshadowing Lenker’s attempts at a prettier depiction of death, leaving in its wake the drab reality of a line like “screaming in the field / as I was born.”
Of course, the capacity for — or unavoidable necessity of — an album to be influenced by the context in which it is listened to is true of most, if not all albums; however, U.F.O.F., by leaving no outline uncoloured, provides an interesting counterpoint to abysskiss‘ relative sparseness. On this version of “From”, for example, Lenker sounds far less isolated: her tortured ‘from’s in the chorus are, though no less pained, something far more communal — layered and pigmented by the band beneath or behind or, more to the point, at the foundation of the music. Big Thief’s rendition of “Terminal Paradise”, likewise, allows for a swifter, less strained performance by Lenker than on its abysskissian counterpart, the scattered piano stabs and acoustic sprinklings lifting some of the weight off the frontwoman’s shoulders. Openers “Contact” and “U.F.O.F.” take this newfound holisticness a step further: whereas on previous releases (e.g., at the beginning of Capacity‘s magnificent “Shark Smile”) Big Thief hinted at moments of soft experimentation outside of their otherwise sharp songwriting, distorted screams and vocal samples weave their way into the very fabric of the songs on U.F.O.F., signalling an ostensible shift in sound the band have since refused to follow through with (on the less weird, though equally fantastic Two Hands), in their typical do-what-feels-right fashion.
Nevertheless, what has remained true of Big Thief’s writing since the release of U.F.O.F. is a greater emphasis on world-, or atmosphere-building; and what’s so magical about this, I believe, about the album, is that the atmosphere it creates is all-encompassing. Adrianne Lenker’s songwriting has always – seriously, always; she’s a genius – been mature and holistic enough to spirit you away, but what U.F.O.F. does is establish the band behind her writing as inextricable from the music’s capacity to enthrall. Unlike on abysskiss – and indeed, unlike on any of the the band’s prior releases – Lenker’s strange, spiritual, nevertheless worldy lyrical narratives are given equally strange, spiritual, nevertheless worldy instrumental grounds in which to play and transform into something wholly encompassing, and genuinely riveting. –BlushfulHippocrene
2. Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell!
At the risk of betraying my decrepitude, how’s this for a cultural shift: when Born to Die was released in early 2012, here were the most discussed topics: Rouged lips. Recondite beauty. That SNL performance. Ersatz archaic 1950s Americana flashback. Industry plant. Industry nepotism. Completely detached vocals [true, but purposeful]. Lips (is that collagen or what?). A staggering amount of attention paid to one body. Just like Nancy Sinatra only worse! Manufactured! Women doing clever pop? Must be a man behind it. Red-lipsticked lips, eyes gazing at you like a cadaver. What these comments missed, of course, was an ingenious pop album that in spite (or because) of scorn heaped upon the artist became an authentic cultural moment in a way few albums this decade have. Ironic that the album, heart-rending in inauthenticity, achieved its converse upon reception. Chalk two up to Lana; this year, she released a second cultural touchstone: Norman. Fucking. Rockwell. (!).
What’s remarkable about this isn’t that Lana has changed her ethos particularly; it’s the paradigm that’s been altered. Outside of a much-discussed line in which Lana Del Rey reveals exactly what soft drink her genitalia tastes like (“But does it really? We may never know,” cries a Brooklynite into his I.P.A., snot accruing on his septum piercing), the focus shifted from her body to her body of work, remarkable for how consistent it was. Then “Venice Bitch” and “Hope…” appeared on the scene and, well, y’know that metal band that hadn’t released anything in 5 million years and came back? Among my peers – even the metalhead ones – this one was more feverishly anticipated.
While it’s tempting to attribute this to the two gorgeous songs, Venice Beach a contender for best song of 2018 AND 2019 (see also American Football’s “Silhouettes”), a lazy lolling trip downstream where the water is crystalline, opaque, luminescent – but to drink from it would be to drink from the river of Forgetting), we must also consider long-overdue rectified attitudes towards gender (hey, where did this soapbox come from?) but also the other side of the coin. We, as a generation of listeners, have changed. Once, when Lana’s grasps for something authentic and real – even honest – in a world where everything is mediated by forces outside our control and everything has been said before, even about, yes, Love, that most precious of things, a self-conscious anachronism and platitudinous lyrics and the safe, warm hot toddie of irony, it didn’t seem apposite to us – they were her coping mechanisms, her howls. We have finally caught up to her cynicism, even if only subconsciously; we know media gets parsed for palatability and profitability rather than any moral or quality concern; we know we can’t say to others what hasn’t been said before and that our words aren’t tossaway but an endless reticulation that weaves unto a recursion; are straight white women most acutely aware of their obsolescence in a movement they foregrounded and which Lana eschewed, other artists doubling down with limited results, and does that matter when gender dynamics are still so fucked?
If you’re still with me, consider the following, open it and let it breathe: Norman Fucking Rockwell! isn’t just a superb album – I’m sure I don’t need to wax lyrical about “The Greatest”, for example, other than to say, well, I mean, it might be – but an epochal one. It captures so much of what being alive in 2019 is like in desolate ballads and sweeping orchestral flourish, the sense of confusion and loss, “Bartender”‘s twinkling glissando piano auguring a late night and last call. This is territory well-trod, as mentioned, but here’s what’s miraculous about Norman Fucking Rockwell! – under Jack Antinoff’s pristine production and musical enforcement of lyrics (consider the fluttering coda complementing “If you hold me without hurting me / You’ll be the first who ever did”). “Love Song” sounds so intimate one feels they’re sharing a pillow with her, confessing pasts in hopes for a shared future. For the first time, Lana is, if not being ingenuous, at least being honest: and as honest conversations are happening right now, Normal Fucking Rockwell! feels eerily relevant. Hope is a dangerous thing for our generation to have — but we have it. Unlike other albums, a la Pet Sounds and Forever Changes, only recognised as timely in hindsight, we’re in a position to enjoy the redolence and resonance of our times soundtrack. Norman Fucking Rockwell! will be intermeshed with 2019 forever: I’m grateful we were around to experience it. –Winesburgohio
1. Laura Stevenson – The Big Freeze
It’s one of the first true chilling mornings of New York’s 2019 winter and I’m at my desk with my headphones on, listening to Laura Stevenson’s The Big Freeze. In front of me is a skyline barely lit up by the peripheral light of a sun that has not yet risen — like myself, today’s sun seems to be locked in a moment, thinking about all the shit it has to get done today (and really wishing it could just get back under the covers). Behind me, a girl I have been seeing who (a) “doesn’t really like concerts,” and (b) I am pretty sure still has feelings for her ex, delicately snores under 4 (maybe 5) blankets, unaware that I have slinked away to share this moment with an album that churns my heart in the way that really only good music can. In a few days, I will take her (or, more accurately, she will take me, since she is the one with the car) to see Stevenson play some of these very same songs in what will likely be the final show I attend in 2019.
My 30+ years of life experience assure me that there are many more icy mornings to look forward to in the coming months, but I’ve always maintained that the ones that come in December (or occasionally November) have a certain sweetness. My 10+ years on this website assure me that a decade of music can yield entire discographies of all-time fucking greats, and Laura’s run since 2010 has prompted four (!) such entries. As this decade closes, it seems only fitting that we crown Stevenson’s the best LP of 2019 because it is the one that most boldly grabs the moments upon which it was forged and celebrates them with the sentimentality of a frosty early-morning retrospective. Only Stevenson could strip away so much of the instrumentation that characterized her earlier releases and come back with a sound that is somehow more layered, and more evocative of her own consistent celebration of the beautiful things that we can hold onto as a life decays, naturally, in the face of time. I hope she plays “Rattle at Will”, but even if she doesn’t, I’ll be good as hell in that crowd. See you guys on the decade list (most likely 4 times). –theacademy
List of participating writers (alphabetical order): 204409, Arcade, Atari, AtomicWaste, BlushfulHippocrene, clavier, Deviant., DrGonzo1937, Frippertronics, Greg., insomniac15, Jom, klap, manosg, mynameischan, Observer, plane, Rowan5215, SowingSeason, TalonsOfFire, theacademy, Trebor., Willie, Winesburgohio, Xenophanes