I have a lot of thoughts about Star Wars.
I won’t go into them here, but suffice it to say that I truly hated The Rise of Skywalker, and the more I think about it the angrier and sadder I am about it. One of the reviews I read noted that the film was “made in bad faith,” and I think that hits at the center of my problems with it. The film was clearly designed as a repudiation of Rian Johnson and anyone who appreciated the directions he tried to take Star Wars, and with such petty and cowardly motivations at its center, it couldn’t help but fail. It was also lazy and stupid to boot.
I guess getting kicked in the face by Star Wars was something of a fitting end to a year I cannot wait to see the other side of. The music of 2019 was one of the few bright spots, getting me through more than one rough patch, so let’s concentrate on that, shall we? In fact, let’s celebrate the very best of the best of 2019, the music that stirred my soul even as the world outside was battering it.
As with most years in which the worthy musical selections were plentiful, the following list reflects my taste more than it would in a year with clear standouts. Check the lists around the internet and you’ll see no clear consensus for 2019. Of course, my own list has more than one entry on it that didn’t make anyone’s list, as far as I can see, which I’m used to. I’m surprised the album at the top didn’t get more traction, but that’s how it goes, I guess.
It’s also no surprise that this list is a little bleaker, a little sadder than others you may find. While some prefer to use happier music to set their moods (and certainly the album at number four this year helped me with that), I have always found honest sad music to be the best salve. Much of this list is about finding hope in dark places, about sinking below the surface and seeking out whatever light can break through.
In short, these are the songs that helped me get through 2019. Here we go.
#10. Coyote Kid, The Skeleton Man.
I admit some trepidation when I heard that Minneapolis favorite Marah in the Mainsail had changed their name to the more pedestrian Coyote Kid. Thankfully their big, wild sound hasn’t diminished in the slightest. The new name signals a shift in their storytelling – The Skeleton Man is the first chapter in a post-apocalyptic dystopian western full of new characters and twisty plot developments. The music still bristles with a go-for-broke energy. Like the best conceptual pieces, songs like “Strange Days” transcend their contexts to provide scream-along anthems for a year of confusion and discord. The Skeleton Man provides a clean slate for a band that feels like it’s just getting started. Listen here.
#9. Bat for Lashes, Lost Girls.
Speaking of transcending conceptual contexts, here is Natasha Khan’s brilliant tribute to the supernatural films of the 1980s. The title’s reference to The Lost Boys makes Khan’s inspiration clear, and she fully immerses herself here in the sounds of the era she’s celebrating. Lost Girls is heaven for fans of old-school synth-pop and Khan feels fully in her element in a way she hasn’t for a few records now. And this newfound comfort gives us wonderful songs like “The Hunger” and “Safe Tonight” and, finally, with “Mountains,” one of the year’s finest odes to loneliness and loss. Khan’s been great for a long time, and Lost Girls is one of her best.
#8. Over the Rhine, Love and Revelation.
Married couple Karin Bergquist and Linford Detwiler have been plying their trade for 30 years, and they still know how to open a doorway right to my heart. Love and Revelation is a brief record with a lot of magic to it. These are songs of fighting through isolation and sadness to find peace, and their simple settings keep the focus on Bergquist’s sublime voice. (I’m not sure why she’s not universally considered one of our finest singers, but in my house she is.) As if songs like “Given Road” and “Broken Angels” were not gorgeous enough, the pair offers up a perfect benediction with “May God Love You (Like You’ve Never Been Loved),” simply one of the most beautiful songs of grace I have ever heard. May they keep this up for another three decades.
#7. Peter Mulvey, There Is Another World.
Mulvey has always been a poet (despite his misgivings about poets in general), but never more so than here. Written during a harsh winter in a midwestern small town, There Is Another World provides sketches of isolation and natural beauty as Mulvey contemplates changing his life. These brief acoustic pieces rest in a complex soundscape that adds depth and dimension, and connects these songs into a single 33-minute thought. The result is the most transporting and affecting album of Mulvey’s career, one that sounds like 2019 in ways I cannot even describe.
#6. Bryan Scary, Birds.
I waited four years for progressive pop wunderkind Bryan Scary to finish Birds, and it was worth every second. As promised, this effort is a more folksy and less manic one, but that doesn’t mean the songs are any less brilliant. Scary draws on decades of folk-pop here, from Fairport Convention to 10cc to Supertramp, and each song feels like he labored on it for all four years. If you have even a passing interest in classic pop sounds, masterpieces like “Seagull” and “Quick, Wendy, Wake the Sparrow” will feel like someone speaking your secret language. This is an album that moves effortlessly from the down-home acoustics of “Royal Soil” to the absolute insanity of “Loon on the Lake,” and Scary makes it all look as natural as, well, birds flying.
#5. Coldplay, Everyday Life.
The more I listen to Everyday Life, the more I think it is Coldplay’s best album. It is certainly their most artistically restless, mixing together musicians and genres from across the world as a metaphorical statement about unity, and the band seems to have taken every detour possible away from the sound they are best known for. At first this record sounds scattered, like sixteen songs in search of a vision, but keep listening and it starts to make perfect sense. And then it starts to sound like magic. I love that Coldplay chooses to be this weird, to jump from the gospel of “Broken” to the jazz nightmare of “Arabesque” to the doo-wop of “Cry Cry Baby,” and then to sum it all up with a title track that rises above its simple lyrics to feel like an earnest cry for togetherness. I love this album, and it’s only this far down the list because the next four are so wonderful.
#4. Lizzo, Cuz I Love You.
We all needed some encouragement during 2019, and thank God, here was Lizzo preaching and living self-love and self-care with an exuberant joy and infectious confidence. This would all be enough to make me like and admire her, but she went and made one of the best pop records I’ve heard in years as well. Cuz I Love You is just a powerhouse, one great song after another come to lift your spirits. “Soulmate” was basically my jam for most of the year, and “Water Me” played backup. Virtually every song on Cuz I Love You bursts with melodic exuberance, powered by the irrepressible personality of Lizzo herself. She’s an absolute superstar, and her record is absolutely superb.
#3. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Ghosteen.
This one could not be more different from the album before it in this list. A 68-minute meditation on loss, Ghosteen finds Nick Cave working through the death of his teenage son, taking us on a journey of grief that is almost too much to bear. I cannot adequately describe what it is like to listen to this album straight through. It’s an emotionally devastating trip, one in which Cave finds his usual methods of storytelling out of his reach, unable to help him. And then he closes this album with a story, one about the omnipresence of loss, that shows him finding his footing again, however weakly. Ghosteen is a masterwork, one I cannot listen to very often, but one that speaks to me every time I do.
#2. Keane, Cause and Effect.
Keane’s long-awaited return was always high on my list of anticipated albums this year. What I didn’t expect was that their comeback album would be a sad yet hopeful song cycle about Tim Rice-Oxley’s divorce, one that dissects that ugly period in his life as openly and bluntly as Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story does. I was not expecting a Keane album to make me cry, or to hit me as fully and powerfully as this one did. These songs don’t rise with the same youthful fervor as Keane’s classic material, but they’re more thoughtful, more considered than any they’ve given us. The heart of the album lies in deeply autobiographical pieces like “Thread” and “I’m Not Leaving,” and Tom Chaplin sings his angelic heart out, telling his dear friend’s stories as if they were his own. Even the bonus track “New Golden Age” is a stunner, one of my favorite songs of the year. I don’t know what this means for Keane’s long-term future, but this album won my heart even more with each revisit. I hope they make more. I’m satisfied even if they don’t.
If you thought that was an idiosyncratic choice, my pick for the best album of 2019 will be a real surprise.
#1. Amanda Palmer, There Will Be No Intermission.
She could have called it There Will Be No Competition. I remain stunned and surprised that this record came and went with virtually no fanfare. To me it’s the most moving, extraordinary ride of the year. It takes 78 minutes to listen to this one, and getting from one end to the other is emotionally draining like few other records I know. It’s also beautifully uplifting in strange and perfect ways, confessional yet universal, tackling big topics and diving deep inside one woman’s experience. That Palmer wraps all of this together into a cohesive and beautiful whole is nothing short of artistic wizardry.
It’s a rare artist who can begin an album with ten minutes of herself at a piano and still draw you in effortlessly. “The Ride” is one of my favorite things from this year, and it tells you what kind of uncompromising journey you are in for. Palmer guides you through a wildly produced alarm bell song about global warming (“Drowning in the Sound”), a heartfelt reflection on a beloved author and her impact (“Judy Blume”), a long, ukulele-fueled, anguished cry for grace (“Bigger on the Inside”), and a stunning story-song about her failures as a parent and how she takes strength from them (“A Mother’s Confession”). Along the way she gives us “Voicemail for Jill,” the most empathetic song about abortion I have ever encountered.
And through it all she looks around at this broken, hateful, pain-filled world and she tells us what she sees. It’s not always easy to hear it, from the sinking feeling of permanent loss detailed in “The Thing About Things” to the boy who writes her after his rape in “Bigger on the Inside.” That boy asks her how she keeps fighting, and I think much of There Will Be No Intermission is her answer. The hope here is hard-won, because the agony is unflinching. But it’s love and empathy and the belief that we are all struggling, and we are all worthy. That’s what this album is about.
This record also revels in the artistic freedom that only crowdfunding can offer someone like Palmer. No label would have released this as is, and any tampering with it would have sapped some of its magic away. Every time I have listened to There Will Be No Intermission, I have come away grateful that it exists in all its messy glory, exactly the way its author intended. It’s a perfectly imperfect thing, a hard and incisive listen, an album that thrilled and moved and exhausted me like no other this year. It is exactly the right one to represent 2019 for me, exactly the right one to sit atop this list. I love it dearly, and I couldn’t imagine this year without it.
That’ll do, pig. Next week is Fifty Second Week, and then I’m taking at least a week off as we head into 2020. Have a wonderful holiday, everyone, and thank you for reading.
See you in line Tuesday morning… and to all a good night.