By the time we reconvene on Christmas Eve, I will have seen The Rise of Skywalker.
Oddly, I don’t feel much about it at all. I’m marginally excited, mainly because I expect this thing will look and sound like Star Wars, and I always appreciate that. I would never pass up the chance to hear John Williams’ final Star Wars score, either. But I don’t care about it the same way I cared about the original trilogy, or even the prequels. The story of Star Wars was complete for me in 2005, and these bonus films haven’t filled me with the same joy.
That said, I did adore The Last Jedi for actually saying something new with Star Wars. It was a film that took aim at the things holding the franchise back – the Skywalker family, the Jedi order, the fans of around my age who refuse to let Star Wars grow. So of course it was roundly hated, and every early notice I have seen of this ninth and final film tells me that it veers right back to safe nostalgia, trampling the lessons of The Last Jedi as it goes. But we will see.
More on that next week, I expect. We’re not here to talk Star Wars, we’re here to talk about the end of 2019. I’m writing this, as usual, from my mother’s home in Massachusetts on my extended holiday break, and I’m enjoying the opportunity to take stock of the year. Personally, it was a terrible one, and I end it a lot less happy than I have been in a long time. But thankfully the music of 2019 was pretty damn good, and that’s what we come to praise, not bury, this week.
As longtime readers know, I compile a top 10 list every year, and I adhere to a few rules when I do it. Only new full-length studio albums consisting of mostly new material released between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31 are eligible. That means no live albums, no greatest-hits collections, no covers records, no albums of re-recordings and no reissues are eligible. Which means there are plenty of pretty splendid releases each year that are disqualified out of the gate.
I’d only like to mention a few of those this year, but there were many. Perhaps the most painful omission for me is With Friends from the Orchestra, the 19th Marillion album. It cannot appear in the top 10 list because it’s a revisit – the band re-recorded nine of its best songs with strings and horns. But I wish I could include it, because this album brought a new dimension to their work, even for me as a longtime fan. Including both “This Strange Engine” and “Ocean Cloud” (totaling 34 minutes between them) was a gift, and I love all of these new versions at least as much as their original counterparts, and some of them more.
I also wish I could laud Interpreting the Masters Vol. 2 by the Bird and the Bee as one of the year’s best. It’s a wild left turn for this synth-pop duo, taking on the early Van Halen oeuvre, and they reinvent these songs as if it were as easy as breathing. Their pulsing take on “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love” is one of the coolest things I heard this year, and it’s just one highlight on a record full of them. It’s so much fun.
It would be lovely to include Marc Cohn and the Blind Boys of Alabama on the top 10 list. I listened to Work to Do more than almost anything else this year. It’s an absolute delight. It’s also three new songs and seven live recordings, so I couldn’t make it fit the rules. But trust me that this thing is wonderful, particularly the long and gorgeous take on “Silver Thunderbird.” I deeply hope this record and tour has revitalized Cohn and that we hear from him again very soon.
This was also a tremendous year for reissue box sets, and I only want to mention a couple. I will probably delve further into the Frank Zappa estate’s amazing year, but there were four (count them – four) killer sets from Zappa this year, including the new Hot Rats Sessions six-CD monster that hits next week. All told we got more than 18 hours of archival Zappa goodness in 2019, and I very much enjoyed diving through it all.
But the standout has to be Prince, whose estate released what I hope is the first in a comprehensive set of boxes of classic material. This one celebrates his 1982 masterwork 1999 with a remastered version of the album, two discs of unheard rarities, a disc of alternate versions and two full live shows. This is the way it should be done, and while I wonder whether Prince would have wanted us to hear most of this, I’m happy to have it. This set is revelatory, and hopefully serves as the blueprint (purpleprint?) for future reissues.
Which brings us to the also-rans, the records that didn’t quite make the top 10. I have quite a few this time – since there was such a bounty this year, the final 10 selections reflect my personal taste a lot more than in years with fewer choices. That means your favorite of the year might have ended up here, in the runners-up list, but that’s OK. I wouldn’t quibble with anyone who claims any of the below as favorites. My list is just my favorites. Your mileage may vary.
Anyway, let’s begin. BT is another artist who had a hell of a year, giving us three new studio albums. I’ve only heard two of them, since the third comes out next week. But of the two, his collaboration with singer Christian Burns as All Hail the Silence knocked me out. This is a straight-up synth-pop homage to Depeche Mode and Erasure, and it’s an absolute delight. “English Town” is one of my favorite things of the year, and I remain grateful that I was turned on to BT back in the ‘90s. He’s been a fun artist to watch.
Jenny Lewis made a swell new solo record with On the Line, tackling some dark material with bright melodies. Same can be said of both halves of The Civil Wars, John Paul White and Joy Williams, who impressed on their respective solo albums. Joe Jackson returned with one of his very best, a proggy pop monster called Fool, which shows that this cranky old man still has it even after 40 years in the business.
I owe Jeremy Krommendyk for getting me to listen to French metal masters Alcest – their new one, Spiritual Instinct, is a beast, but a fragile and beautiful one. On the other end of the spectrum (though not really) is ambient duo Hammock, who completed their recent trilogy with the peaceful, beautiful Silencia. These two records feel like different sides of the same coin, both bands interested in creating the most gorgeous music they can, in their own ways.
And then there’s Devin Townsend, who has been an under-the-radar genius for decades now. He seemed to take a leap forward with Empath, a record that threw all of his many genre experiments and influences into a blender and presented the mixture without concession or apology. It’s heavy, it’s proggy, it’s quirky, it flies by without giving you a moment to catch your breath. It’s the ultimate Devin Townsend album, and it came close to the list this year.
But it didn’t quite get there. And neither did these last six selections, which I would call the number elevens. In an alternate universe quite like this one, any of these records could be on the list proper. I love all of these records, and if you want to argue for their inclusion, I would not put up a fight.
In no particular order, then. Brittany Howard took a step forward out of Alabama Shakes to make a strange and glorious solo record called Jaime. Virtually none of it sounds like what you’d expect from Howard, and that makes me excited for her future efforts. David Mead’s Cobra Pumps sounds exactly like you’d expect from him – it’s ten short, rocking, immaculately crafted pop tunes, delivered with style.
English band Foals hit us with a double album in two parts, called Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost. With a more clockwork first half and a more live-band, raucous second half, Foals showed off all sides of their math-y sound to great effect. Fellow Brits Elbow returned with one of their very best records, Giants of All Sizes, and while there’s nothing surprising here, it’s all splendid stuff.
One of my favorite returns of the year was Pedro the Lion, roaring back after ten years of leader David Bazan’s solo career. Phoenix is about the titular city, but also about rising from the ashes, and it’s a well-considered return to a sound and a subject matter I thought he’d left behind. And finally, there is Leonard Cohen, whose first posthumous album, Thanks for the Dance, overcomes the odds to feel like a perfect capper to an extraordinary career.
That’s what I have for you. Next week we’ll dive into the 2019 top 10 list, and I’ll probably have some words about Star Wars. Until then, I plan on enjoying my vacation. Here’s hoping you all get some well-deserved time off with family and friends. Talk to you on Christmas Eve.
See you in line Tuesday morning.