Top 20 Albums of 2019 (10-01)

10. 75 Dollar Bill: I Was Real

Plain and simple, this album is absolutely stunning and in my heart of hearts deserves top honors, particularly for anyone interested in music that truly challenges one’s definition of genres and norms.  Guitarist Che Chen and drummer/percussionist Rick Brown formed 75 Dollar Bill in Greenpoint, Brooklyn back in 2012.  Remaining relative unknowns outside of the small but thriving experimental music scene, the two have finally broken out and found a larger audience with their third album and second released by Thin Wrist / Black EditionsI Was Real builds on the primal sounds and rhythms explored on their previous two albums but refines their vision into distilled compositions of sprawling minimalism, droning strings and wooden box beats, blues infused rock and roll with a hint of ancient traditional instrumentation, and more genre defying tracks.  Along with Che’s modified quarter-tone guitar inspired by the Mauritanian musicians he studied with and Brown’s wooden box drum kit are a fleet of musicians who lend various instrumentation to build out the diverse tracks on the record including bass guitar, alto and baritone saxophones, contrabass, viola, signal processing, and synthesizer.  Unlike any other album on any other year end lists I promise I Was Real will do more than offer a three and a half minute earworm. In fact, it is far more likely to birth a 69 minute long earworm devouring sonic monster of epic proportions and everlasting aural impression. I Was Real is the real deal. – Greg Scranton

09. Gauche: A People’s History of Gauche

Whether they’re channeling B-52s’ party energy on songs like “Rent (V.)” and “Running” or driving headlong through the socio-politically conscious “Cycles” and “History”, Washington, D.C.’s Gauche tackle every track on A People’s History… with a sense of retro-new wave saxophone-infused charm and culturally woke urgency. With vocal duties shared between the exuberant and over the top stylings of bassist Mary Jane Regalado, saxophonist Adrienne CN Berry, and Priests’ Daniele Yandel, Gauche’s songs are able to cover a diverse range of moods and emotions. There’s not a single ballad to be found on A People’s History of Gauche. While the band occasionally pulls back tempo-wise, it’s never for long. And although the songs maintain a consistently upbeat tempo and optimistic tone from moment to moment, much of the record’s lyrical content is couched in thoughtful ponderings on race, gender, and economic inequality issues. The dichotomy, in regards to Gauche’s instrumentation and lyrics, creates a clever obfuscation if you’re only paying attention to one or the other. With A People’s History of Gauche, the danceable D.C. post-punk revival band manage to create an original debut by combining late-70s/early-80s dance-punk inspired grooves and a modern, progressive message. – Andy Mascola

08. Carly Rae Jepsen: Dedicated

At the end of 2018, when Carly Rae Jepsen released “Party for One” as the promised first single from her upcoming album, expectations were that we were in for another round of rousing 80s-tinged pop songs. Subsequent singles were less shiny and more subtle which finally culminated in the release of Dedicated. The album received positive but lukewarm reviews which makes sense to me because I wasn’t even sure I like it at first. The pop of the album is slow burning. “Julien” didn’t seem immediately catchy to me until I found myself singing the chorus backing vocals “oh-oh-oh-oh-nah-yeh-ju-u-u-u-li-en.” Same can be said for the Harry Nilsson inspired “Everything He Needs” which I dubbed “cheesy” on my first listen through and then couldn’t get out of my head. It was gradual but it was an album that grew on me even when I wasn’t listening to it until I finally relented and loved it. – Adam Tercyak-Morgan

07. Cate Le Bon: Reward

Welsh songstress Cate Le Bon is back with a new solo album and her first with her new label Mexican Summer.  On the heels of her critically acclaimed 2018 album Hippo with collaborator Tim Presley (White Fence, Darker My Love, The Nerve Agents, The Strange Boys) under the moniker Drinks, Le Bon strikes out on her own again with Reward, a 43-minute excursion of distinctive melodies and unorthodox arrangements that will have a deep listener in bliss after the first couple of listens.  Le Bon has always challenged her audiences with sounds and compositions not easily assembled. She crafts blind dovetail joints of sonic craftsmanship in each of her songs on Reward, which is in fact a true prize for any willing to accept it. Le Bon’s legato vocal stylings round the ears of even the most acute critics. Her arrangements recall Slapp Happy and Henry Cow era complexity and unorthodoxy while revising their overt political nature in favor of a more surreal rendering. Her words are undoubtedly poetic and unquestionably her own in style and content.  Beware Reward is anything but a pop album while lyrically resonating in singular fashion. – Greg Scranton

06. Fontaines D.C.: Dogrel

This album had big expectations from previously released tracks and yet it lives up to the wait. Fontaines D.C. proved they were no one trick pony, as they showed off a vast variety of tempos and energies that are held together by striking vocals in the album. With its post-punk, lo-fi sound, the album can sound raw at times, but it only makes the album feel like it is trying to take the listener on a journey through real experiences. – Jacob Holke

05. Possible Humans: Everybody Split

From the opening of “Lung of the City,” it’s clear the Possible Humans were set to deliver a stunner with their debut album. Everybody Split is filled with breezy, easygoing songs that balance both being groovy and jamming without becoming too weird or long-winded. The tracks are diverse, yet have beachy, nostalgic feel to them that makes the album sound like a soundtrack to summers past. – Jacob Holke

04. Purple Mountains: Purple Mountains

After a decade without releasing any new music of his own, Silver Jews frontman David Berman returned this past summer with Purple Mountains, a self-titled record comprised of ten country-tinged indie rock songs featuring Berman’s exceptional songwriting, trademark deadpan vocals, and lyrical wit. In addition to garnering immediate critical praise, the album was regarded as a grand and welcome return by Berman’s fans. Sadly, David Berman’s suicide, almost exactly one month to the day of Purple Mountains’ release, cast a pall on the entire event. Still, Berman’s swan song offers some truly touching moments that expertly balance Berman’s persistent melancholy with his gallows humor and underlying sense of hope. Utilizing production assistance from Woods’ Jeremy Earl and Jarvis Taveniere, Berman was able to hear his compositions fully realized. The music on Purple Mountains ranges everywhere from upbeat and wryly sardonic as in “All My Happiness Is Gone” and “She’s Making Friends, I’m Turning Stranger” to tender and sincere as in “I Loved Being My Mother’s Son” and “Snow Is Falling in Manhattan”. Purple Mountains is a profound ending to an iconic independent musician’s storied career. – Andy Mascola

03. Big Thief: U.F.O.F.

If you ever wondered what a witch playing folk music might sound like, Big Thief answered that quandary with U.F.O.F. Adrianne Lenker’s voice creeks along over slow acoustic arpeggios and gentle drums. Save for the screams on the opening track, “Contact,” the album feels like it barely gets over a whisper but it doesn’t need to. The power of it comes from quietness and the intimacy. – Adam Tercyak-Morgan

02. Malibu Ken: Malibu Ken

Aesop Rock‘s rhymes can often be lost over raw or imposing hip hop beats because of his dark sense of humor and dense word play. Teaming up with Tobacco to become Malibu Ken brings out the best in both artists. Over the kaleidoscopic beats, Aes sounds revitalized while not compromising his subject. He raps about self-isolation in the album’s opening track “Corn Maze” while still spit lines like “Pick a one-horse town, four horsemen got his number/I feed each one the others camouflaged in Fluffernutters.” Later in the album during a song about watching bald eagles on a webcam, Aes raps “We overlook the fact that while sometimes a cat’ll eat a bird/sometimes a bird’ll eat a cat like it’s a fuckin’ churro” and you realize that even on the most banal subjects, Malibu Ken makes it fun. – Adam Tercyak-Morgan

01. Lizzo: Cuz I Love You

For our Best Songs of 2019 post, we elected “Juice” and “Truth Hurts” but in reality our top 50 could have easily included “Jerome” or “Tempo” or the album’s titular track, “Cuz I Love You.” Lizzo‘s major label debut was nothing short of a hit factor with even non-singles permeating music fans’ collective consciousness. The best part is it was an album that everyone could feel good about liking, the rapper, singer, and flautist largely spread a positive message about acceptance of different races, sizes, sexes, and creeds. – Adam Tercyak-Morgan