2019 has been a great year for music. As much as I was disappointed with much of the new music released in 2018, this year has been a different story. Several of my favorite artists released new music this year. Here are my favorite albums of the past year with an accompanying Spotify playlist if you’re interested.
- Bon Iver, i,i. Justin Vernon only makes classics. After a decade of following his career, what other conclusion can we draw? The austere brilliance of For Emma, Forever Ago introduced us to his singular genius and the story is well known by now: recorded in isolation in a Wisconsin cabin, this debut record emerged from the winter of Vernon’s personal life. He would follow up Emma with the Grammy-winning majesty of Bon Iver, an expansive response to Emma’s solitary beauty (and my favorite album of 2012). 22, A Million was yet another departure, incorporating elements of electronic music — more of a slow burn for me, but I eventually came around. i,i stands as the culmination of these works: equal parts sparse and jaunty, electro-weird and beautiful. Vernon has described this record as his band’s most honest, complete, and generous work. Using a host of collaborators, Bon Iver has never sounded more vital. The opening track is nothing more than 30 seconds of primordial chaos out of which emerges the dreamlike iMi, an ode to friendship (“I like you / and that ain’t nothin’ new”) carried by gospel-tinged vocals, guitar swirls and a cacophony of horns. We congeals as a long-lost Bon Iver track while Holyfields brings us full circle from that Wisconsin cabin as Vernon sings, “I’m happy as I ever been.” That’s not to say that Bon Iver is turning a blind eye to the travesties of the world (see Sh’Diah). Vernon calls men to be better; speaks out against homelessness, climate change and the opioid crisis; and even acknowledges the erosion of our collective faith. Most definitely, Justin Vernon can hear crying (Naeem). But the soul of this record is found in Hey Ma, an achingly beautiful homily about family, the ones who are “back and forth with light” in our lives. (See the accompanying music video.) This idea is sprinkled throughout i,i, whether it’s the “more love” refrain in Naeem or the hopeful line of RABi: “sunlight feels good now, don’t it?” Indeed. Even when faith declines, as he sings on Faith, Vernon can’t help but cling to hope: “I’m not out all the way.” In the end, this beautiful, haunting, hopeful record is my landslide selection for Favorite Album of 2019. I’ll be listening to this record 10 years from now.
- Daniel Norgren, Wooh Dang. The year’s best Americana record came from this 36-year-old Swedish singer-songwriter. Goofy title aside, there is a delicate yearning that weaves its way through this tight 10-song set, Norgren’s first international release after several home-recorded LPs. The sound is instantly vintage, no doubt due to the analog recording of these sessions which supposedly took place in an 18th century farmhouse. These songs are decidedly hopeful, too, perhaps hearkening back to a brighter time. The Flow opens sparsely, a meandering melody set to lyrics about searching for something transcendent. And although Wooh Dang never presents itself as a concept album, Norgren’s muse comes into clarity early on. “Use the power in your heart,” Norgren repeats in The Power; elsewhere he riffs on the necessity of letting love “run the game.” The Day That’s Just Begun is the album’s quiet coda, a tender ballad that serves as a bookend to the pining of The Flow. This folk record was the soundtrack of my spring and early summer.
- Pedro the Lion, Phoenix. This is David Bazan’s first album as Pedro the Lion since 2004, but it’s definitely my favorite. While much indie rock has veered toward folk / Americana in recent years, Pedro the Lion remains first and foremost a guitar band. Phoenix is simultaneously an homage to Bazan’s Arizona upbringing and a metaphor of rebirth. This album ranks here for me largely on the merits of Yellow Bike and Quietest Friend, the latter being my favorite song released this year.
- Michael McDermott, Orphans. It’s really a shame that this Chicago-based singer-songwriter isn’t a household name. I’ve been following him since a friend gave me a copy of his self-titled album on CD in the late 90s. After 2018’s excellent Out From Under, I wasn’t expecting any new music from McDermott this year. But Orphans is filled with unreleased tracks from both the Willow Springs and Out From Under sessions. Honestly, I love these songs as much as anything on those first two records and the fact that these songs were “orphans” from previous albums is a testimony to McDermott’s prolific brilliance at this stage of his career. The album title is all the more poignant upon realizing that in recent years McDermott has lost both of his parents. The song Meadowlark is a tribute to his mother. When I first heard the song’s the lonely, road-weary narrator sing “Every once in a while / I’ll tell myself I’ll be ok / You’re just a few miles / and a world away,” I lost it, realizing the truth in those words as I reflected on the loss of my own mother.
- Dylan LeBlanc, Renegade. LeBlanc’s sound here is less Muscle Shoals and more 70s AM rock ‘n roll (by his own admission) but that’s fine with me. The whole record is great, but standout tracks for me include Lone Rider and Bang Bang Bang.
- The National, I Am Easy to Find. This isn’t the best National record — that would be Trouble Will Find Me — but it’s the least serious. Credit a host of collaborators, many of whom are female, for loosening up the band. There are even moments where it sounds like Tom Beringer is actually enjoying himself. Of course, this being The National, the quieter moments are the real standouts, with Quiet Light and Light Years being my favorites.
- The Tallest Man On Earth, I Love you. It’s a Fever Dream. The Tallest Man On Earth is the creative outlet of Swedish singer-songwriter Kristian Matsson. (Apparently I have a real thing for Swedish singer-songwriters.) If you’re a fan of Bob Dylan, TTMOE would be worth your time. On this great set of songs, my favorites include There’s A Girl and My Dear.
- Thom Yorke, ANIMA. I love these little side projects Yorke will put out every couple of years. And I hope Radiohead will be adding Dawn Chorus to their live sets.
- Wilco, Ode to Joy. It’s pretty clear that Jeff Tweedy is in a chill, stripped down kind of state of mind these days. Here, he reunites with Wilco after a couple of solo records. This music sounds like January to me — cold, dark, and sparse, even bare.
- Grizfolk, Rarest of Birds. Yes, they’re from Sweden. But you should listen to it anyway, especially Spoonful.
Honorable mentions: Kanye’s new album isn’t great, but I admire the heck out of what he’s trying to do. Sturgill’s barn-burning rock record isn’t my favorite, but it’s probably the most Sturgill thing he could’ve done, so I’m good with it. I’m as surprised as anybody that Vampire Weekend isn’t on this list, but I thought their album needed some serious editing and there was just too much good music to choose from this year.