best albums of 2019

hi friends, and welcome to my favorite time of the year. I’ll (probably) send something in the next day or two about why this dead, low-stakes time between christmas and new years is the best time of the year, but right now I have something else for you. sometimes this newsletter has kind of been something like a music blog, so I wanted to do a Best Albums of 2019, but the truth is that my way of relating to music, in which I listen to one song on repeat for a month at a time and also find it necessary to put The National’s entire discography on every playlist I make, means I get through new music slowly and haltingly and rarely discover my favorite albums of a year within that same calendar year (my favorite album of 2019 is an album from 2018, for instance, but there’s another letter coming about that, too). My point is: I didn’t feel like I was qualified to write a Best Albums of 2019 post, so I asked Thomas — who is one of those people who listens to new music at an almost incomprehensible rate the week it comes out, and who is constantly sending me albums that look fantastic and imploring me to listen to them while I put “Hairpin Turns” on repeat again — to write it for me. I’ll turn this over to him now:

I dove into the music of 2019 expecting to surface with absolute gems, inarguable and shining. What I discovered is an interesting pile of emotional shapes and solids, some of them strange, several of them feeling far too much. 

I’m not sorry. 2019 was a weird one. 

Here goes…

Jenny Lewis, On The Line

There is nothing I could say about Jenny Lewis that Helena hasn’t said already and better. (HF note: this is absolutely untrue, but I do think you should click on that Jenny Lewis piece, since it’s my favorite thing I wrote in 2019). On The Line came out back when the year was young and I said then it would be (one of) my album(s) of the year, and that’s not changed. A round of Red Bull & Hennessy for everyone, line ‘em up and get wicked, y’all. (Spotify)

Jamila Woods, LEGACY! LEGACY!

A good concept album will sell me every time, and a great concept album fills me with awe and envy. It’s one thing to stick to a thesis, another to use it as a sure foundation, to build upon it something entirely your own, shining and beautiful. Jamila Woods has forever been a secret weapon for other artists, but LEGACY! LEGACY! places her in the front of a class, demanding attention, writing names on the board like “OCTAVIA (Butler)” or “(Nikki) GIOVANNI” and teaching while singing, singing these legends into being, leaving you wanting to listen again and then to go to the library for more of that rich source material. (Spotify)

Hatchie, Keepsake

Discovering Hatchie was the result of an almost-end-of-year cheat code. About a month ago, I found a list of overlooked albums from 2019, and right in the middle was Keepsake, the debut album from Harriette Pilbeam. After a single listen, I had to listen again and then a third time. It became a go-to, one of those albums you put on for the commute home. Keepsake lives in a space I didn’t realize I needed, a sonic limbo between The Cure’s Disintegration (1989) and Camera Obscura’s My Maudlin Career (2009), with a touch of The Sundays for good measure. This album is a moment to stop and collect, something sorely lacking in 2019. (Spotify, Bandcamp)

Georgia Maq, Pleaser

Toward the end of the summer, I heard Camp Cope for the first time, and I decided right then and there How To Socialise & Make Friends was my album of the year. “The Opener” is a perfect track, fearless and excoriating. But alas, HTS&MF can’t be my album of the year, because it came out in 2018 and I’m the one turning up late to the party. However, just two weeks ago, Camp Cope’s Georgia Maq dropped a heretofore secret solo pop album, just over a half-an-hour’s worth of songs recorded in somebody’s bedroom or several bedrooms. With one listen, it kicked its way into this top ten. This is DIY New Order, this is Alanis 2019, this is the Sleater-Kinney album we didn’t get. Pleaser (the album) is fantastic, and “Pleaser” (the single) is at-once bleak and catchy as hell. (Spotify, Bandcamp)

King Princess, Cheap Queen

Cheap Queen is an album sitting uncomfortably close on a crowded train, talking to itself about questionable decisions bravely made the night before, daring you to lean in and listen. Every song is defiant and charged, from the sweeping dips and sways of “Homegirl,” to the don’t-you-dare-look-away gaze of “Prophet.” Speaking of, that heel turn at the two minute three second mark of “Prophet” is the defining sonic jaw-drop of 2019. Then there’s the entire Broadway musical contained in “Isabel’s Moment.” It’s difficult to write about this album without contributing to an unruly pile of hyphenated, invented adjectives, but that’s kind of the point and here we are. If you made it this far through the year without giving this album a shot, get into it now. (Spotify)

Harry Harris, I Feel Drunk All The Time

Full disclosure, Harry Harris is a beautiful human and I know this from first-hand experience. A couple years back, he helped Helena treat me to a most wonderful birthday in Edinburgh, just by being a lovely fellow and sharing a few beers. And while it’s not unusual to have a musician in your friend group, it’s something else entirely to have a Harry Harris. All this to say, Harry’s 2019 album blew me away, blessed as we were to hear it some weeks before the rest of the world. He writes songs that fill your sails and break your heart, and he sings them like he’s tearing down a highway. Harry is a gift and I Feel Drunk All The Time is a work of heart and art. And if you don’t tear up or just flat out cry before the title track is over, I don’t know what to do with you.

(HF note: Thomas listened to this immediately when Harry sent it to us, because he’s a good person; because I’m a leaking garbage bag full of feelings, I didn’t listen to it until much later. “Harry’s album is so good, you should listen,” Thomas kept saying and I kept answering, “I know, that’s why I haven’t listened yet, I’m too scared.” The truth is that during that weekend in Edinburgh a couple years ago, Thomas and I went to see Harry play a show in a tiny room above a bar. I arrived in the sort of jovial mood in which one shows up to support one’s friends in their art-doing endeavors; three songs in I was regretting that we had sat in the front row because it meant I had to actually hold my face together in order to keep from sobbing. One of my worst qualities is that, as much as I work to get over this, some part of me hangs onto the boring, snobbish, patently incorrect belief that anyone who is truly good at something must already be famous for doing it. Seeing Harry play just one set of songs disproved that belief in a tidal wave, and I was left with this enormous sense of loss and forgiveness and wonder. Perhaps many of us, quietly working at the thing we love day in and day out, truly are producing work as good as or better than that by the people whose names everyone already knows; perhaps the true best albums (and books, and movies, and anything else) of this year really are the ones unlikely to make any, or many, lists. Perhaps there really is so much that we’re all missing out on, at every moment, just waiting to be discovered, to flood illumination into our lives from less-visible sources. The handful of songs Harry played that night made me feel so much - not just about this, but about all the stuff strummy singer-songwriter-y rock music (for better or worse my favorite genre) is supposed to make you feel, about heartbreak and renewal and regret and compassion and the feeling of watching the landscape go by out a train window with your headphones in and thinking it isn’t too late to remake your whole life - that I was terrified to listen to his new album. When I finally did, it was in the middle of the summer, well after it had officially dropped. A dear friend of mine had died unexpectedly, and I knew I Feel Drunk All The Time was also about the loss of a dear friend. I found myself walking around Soho on a blindingly bright day, listening to one song on repeat for hours, and it was the first thing that had actually felt like the right thing to do. I have rarely gone a day without listening to this album since.) (Spotify, Bandcamp)

Harry Styles, Fine Line

A couple weeks back, I sat bolt upright and realized one of the many problems with 2019: there was no Golden Hour. Kacey Musgrave’s 2018 effort was a north star of an album, the kind of record that just works and nobody can argue. Throwing a party? Throw on Golden Hour. Everybody nods. But here we are a couple scant weeks from the end of this tumultuous year, and praise God Almighty there’s another sun on the rise. The Golden Hour of 2019 is Fine Line from young Harry Styles, late of One Direction. Unapologetically pop, full of Feelings with a capital F, reminiscent of the finest ‘70s FM Gold, The sonic run through the first five tracks is a flawless rollercoaster of bops. I’ve said too many times with too much misplaced optimism that only pop music will save us all, and I’m saying it again. We need so many more Fine Lines and we need them right now. (Spotify)

The Highwomen, The Highwomen

I was walking on 8th Avenue. I’d just hopped off the subway at West 4th, on my way to meet Helena. I crossed MacDougal right as the chorus of “If She Ever Leaves Me” began. I stopped walking. That was it. I was done and finished, wrapped and shipped. Hardly ever do I listen to songs on repeat, but I had to hear this again and again. The entire album could just be that one song repeated ten times and I’d call it perfect. Fortunately, it shares a track listing with eleven more songs just as wonderful. Politics is awful, everything is on fire, and yet we are so lucky to live in a time when Carlile, Hemby, Morris, and Shires each exist as an independent artist, much less a supergroup like this. (Spotify)

The National, I Am Easy To Find

It’s funny how things become a part of your life, how you come to love what your partner loves. My initial exposure to The National was during a roadtrip with Helena and my reaction was less than enthusiastic. “Is that guy going to apologize again?,” was my question. Funny how things change, indeed. Here we are a few years later and Spotify tells me The National was my artist not only of the year, but of the entire decade. I Am Easy To Find is no small part of that, an album wherein Matt Berninger and the brothers Dessner step aside from their own microphones and let women’s voices fill the gaps and expand the conversation. Will This Is The Kit, Mina Tindle, Gayle Ann Dorsey, and Sharon Van Etten become regular features of future The National albums? We can only hope. (Spotify)

Lucy Dacus, 2019 EP

We saw Lucy Dacus in concert three times this year. I don’t think I’ve ever done that. One artist, thrice in a single year. We saw her twice in Central Park, opening for Mitski over two weekend nights in the summer, then we saw her again a couple weeks back, headlining her own show at Webster Hall. The difference between being the opener and being the headliner is breathtaking. In either case, Dacus and her band (those boys love her so much!) sound gorgeous and put on a brilliant show, but left to headline with no reason to hold back, they have an energy I wish I could bottle and keep forever. Her 2019 EP is a collection of covers and originals, including her stunning and dad-dedicated take on Springsteen’s “Dancing In The Dark.” An artist’s EP of ostensible B-sides shouldn’t feel like a cohesive effort, and yet for Dacus it all works, its only fault being how it clocks in under half an hour. So flip it over and start again. Keep on dancing in the dark. (Spotify) -TS

(griefbacon is ending soon, you know that already. I have a few more drafts to get through so it’s gonna be less the end of the year and more like the end of the first week of January, I think. enjoy these weird few end-of-decade days and listen to some albums. more of whatever this is real soon. xo)