The end of 2019 is hours away and barring a crazy-timed release, there isn’t an album that is set to make its way onto the year-end list.
Of the thousands of albums that were released the staff at American Songwriter put together its list of albums that stood above the rest for this calendar year. There is a wide range, from Bon Iver to Vampire Weekend, that made this a great year for tunes.
Here are the Top 25 — listed alphabetically — according to our staff.
(Sandy) Alex G, House of Sugar
Since hitting the scene at the beginning of the decade, (Sandy) Alex G has become known for his eclectic musical sensibilities, his ingenious writing and his DIY recording style. A darling of the lo-fi community, he put out his eighth studio album, House of Sugar, this past September. Featuring brilliant melodies carried through acoustic guitars, violins, effect-heavy vocals, synths and pretty much anything else that excites him, this record is one of Alex G’s finest works to date.
Read our Q&A with the artist from November.
Angel Olsen, All Mirrors
It’s a riveting beginning that immediately draws an artistic line in the sand. And even though the following 10 tracks lean in a similar direction, none quite kick in with the audacious power of that first tune. Some like “Summer” forgo the fully orchestrated route for a more intimate, but still bold, sound. Here, Olsen sings, “Took a while but I made it through/If I could show you the hell I’d been to,” above crisp, military-style percussion, near-operatic vocals and a sturdy beat. Check out the full review of the album or, read her take on songwriting from her “Writer’s Room” feature.
Bill Callahan, Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest
Callahan takes his time. Nothing is rushed and even though the tempos are varied over the course of the 21 relatively short tunes, the disc feels like one long song sliced into more manageable pieces. Some words rhyme, most don’t and melodies wander without much obvious structure. Sporadically, Callahan throws in some avant-garde playing, maybe just to jar the listener. But generally, his comfy, velvety voice lulls and floats over stripped-down, predominantly acoustic instrumentation, drawing you into his interior spaces. Take a look at our initial review of the album from earlier this year.
Brittany Howard, Jaime
It was inevitable really. You could count the amount of listeners who didn’t think Alabama Shakes frontwoman Brittany Howard would go solo on the fingers of one hand and still have enough left to flash the peace sign. The surprise is how quickly she took the plunge. After only two full albums from the Shakes, Howard is already off and running. In comparison, Mick Jagger waited two decades to make the same move.
But one listen to the compelling, uncompromising, and intensely personal Jaime and you’ll know why she had to go this one alone. Read the album review, or our feature story, “Brittany Howard Has Something To Say.”
Caroline Spence, Mint Condition
Perhaps this album, her first on major indie Rounder, will change things for the better. It certainly deserves to because the songs, singing, melodies, lyrics and especially sympathetic production by multi-instrumentalist Dan Knobler dovetail to create a beautifully crafted, introspective and never sappy collection that brings Spence’s multiple talents into sharp focus. Some titles such as “Who’s Gonna Make My Mistakes” about the frustrations of finding romance, “Sometimes a Woman is An Island” (“Sometimes a woman stands alone/ ‘Cause they’ll turn her joy into sorrow / And she knows her grief is her own”) and “Who Are You,” about finally finding the right match but not believing it (“There is no one for you/ Until there’s someone”) explain Spence’s frustrations without having to read much further. But the beauty of these compositions is how she intricately crafts and layers stories with the reserved grace of a voice that’s sweet, authentic and never phony. The complete review is still available to read as is our feature, “Married to the Mystery” if you want to catch up on Spence.
Craig Finn, I Need a New War
Craig Finn’s characters suffer all manner of indignities on his latest solo album, I Need A New War: Their lights are turned off because they can’t pay the bills; they spend far too much time living in a place where the bathroom and kitchen are one and the same; they battle middle-aged health scares and are haunted by unmentioned past incidents. One of the title characters of “Ann Marie And Shane,” the album’s closing track, ends the song missing, while the other doesn’t want to talk about it. We loved the album then — read the review — and still do. We also got to talk with Finn way back in April.
While it has been 19 years since Duster released their second and final album, Contemporary Movement, in many ways it feels like the music never stopped. The members, multi-instrumentalists Clay Parton and Canaan Dove Amber, and drummer Jason Albertini, have stayed connected over the years and continued to work together in different capacities. Albertini formed Helvetia after Duster’s dissolution, where he frequently collaborated with Amber. Their first six releases came via Parton’s The Static Cult Label. They were a tight-knit group. We talked to Duster recently about the album.
Dylan LeBlanc, Renegade
It won’t take long after pressing play on singer-songwriter Dylan LeBlanc’s first album in three years to realize something has changed. The once low-key, often atmospheric and tender style LeBlanc had perfected over the course of three previous releases gets a shot of adrenaline. The opening electric guitar riff explodes into a full-fledged Tom Petty-styled strum rocker, complete with enhanced reverb and a driving, insistently propulsive rhythm. The tune’s (and album’s) “Renegade” name, a howling six-string solo along with a surprise “f” bomb, pushes the boundaries of what most existing fans might expect. Welcome to LeBlanc’s finest hour. Check out our complete album review or his Guest Blog from the songwriter, using his own words.
Gary Clark Jr., This Land
The swirling currents of the past three years had cut into Clark’s personal experience and created a need for an outlet of expression. According to producer and engineer Jacob Sciba, who’d also worked on the Sonny Boy record, it was this sense of urgency that informed much of the recording process. Clark was also determined to elevate the level of his songwriting, and this time around he wanted to have a message, to use his voice for the greater good. In short, he wanted to say something. “No more ‘Mr. Nice Guy,’” he told Sciba, “he’s dead.”
Clark gave us a very deep look into the making of his album last January. “All or Nothing” was a feature worth revisiting.
Jenny Lewis, On The Line
In late March, Lewis released her fourth solo album, On The Line. The album, which follows her acclaimed 2014 release The Voyager, comes after a difficult several years for Lewis, who lost both her mother and her long-term romantic partnership in the period between LPs. Accordingly, On The Line finds Lewis exploring grief, heartbreak, autonomy and renewal across what is arguably the best work of her already celebrated career. We had a chance to write a feature, “One Long Narrative” with her earlier this year.
J.S. Ondara, Tales of America
As the album’s title and closing track “God Bless America” (not the Irving Berlin standard) implies, Ondara is infatuated with the U.S., but not always in an optimistic sense. That concept subtly threads through these eleven acoustic songs, even when he’s singing about broken relationships (“Television Girl,” “Saying Goodbye,” “Good Question,” “Give Me A Moment”) with a sweet yet melancholy and reflective tone. Not surprisingly, there’s a strong early Dylan feel to much of this, like the stripped- down folk of “Master O’Connor,” with the disturbing lyrics of “This love of mine, she is so unkind/ She said I was made for her leash.” Producer Mike Viola adds minimalist accompaniment on about half the tracks. The most striking aspect of his influence is in the dissonant strings that appear for only a few seconds to underscore the lyrics of “Days Of Insanity.” Take a reminder of the full album review or read more from our feature written in May, “Let Me In.“
Justin Townes Earle, The Saint of Lost Causes
It’s La Croix kind of day in Nashville, and the flavored sparkling water is flowing at the Sound Emporium, the legendary studio founded by Cowboy Jack Clement in the late 1960s. Well, La Croix and marijuana, to be fair: and one works better than the other to quench this searing, sticky August heat. Justin Townes Earle is here with his band and co-producer, Adam Bednarik, to partake in both while making his new album, The Saint Of Lost Causes. But, right now, they’re sitting in the living room area next to a vintage Capt. Fantastic pinball machine, talking about the origins of a weed grinder. Wasn’t it from the place across the street from the strip club that’s now a parking lot, someone asks?
Kelsey Waldon, White Noise/White Lines
Waldon responds with her finest, most personal and diverse work yet, one that pushes boundaries yet remains firmly ensconced in the roots folk/ country genre she calls home. From the honky-tonking of the retro, binge-drinking concept of “Very Old Barton,” where she sings, “My life is a song, my mind’s a picture show / You are the real thing when you are alone,” to the slower, swampy drama of the title track, which revels in being alive by repeating “We’re only here for a moment then we’re gone,” Waldon charms with twangy vocals and earthy lyrics. She samples her father on her voicemail for the intro to “Kentucky, 1988,” a story about her childhood where she sings, “This is my DNA, no matter how far I get away.”
Check out the full album review, or the feature “
Flood Country” that we wrote from earlier this year.
Marc Cohn & The Blind Boys of Alabama, Work to Do
Two terrific new studio originals kick off the disc — the gorgeous and inspirational title track and the cool, inspired swampy “Talk Back Mic” — show that this musical relationship has further possibilities only touched on here. Hopefully there will be a follow-up to further advance this impressive and beautifully conceived, long time coming, meeting of the minds.
The full album review is available to check out if you missed this collection of songs.
Michael Kiwanuka, Kiwanuka
This album is apparently meant to be absorbed at a single listen since many tracks blend into the next, the songs are immaculately produced and arranged. Idiosyncratic strings that shift from romantic to edgy enhance nearly every selection, multiple keys and synths layer themselves over and under the melodies and odd, retro-styled background vocals nearly steal the spotlight on cuts such as the first single “You Ain’t the Problem.” It kicks off like an outtake from Graceland before exploding with horns and supporting singers that sound like they are mimicking an early ’60s TV commercial. Along with the following “Rolling,” they are Kiwanuka’s most upbeat melodies here. The full review is available here.
We also had a chance to sit with Kiwanuka for a feature, “Michael Kiwanuka is Alive and Well,” that can be read.
Purple Mountains, Purple Mountains
Even after a decade of silence, David Berman had not faded from public consciousness. Since disbanding Silver Jews in 2009, the acclaimed poet and songwriter hadn’t publicly released any new material. Even his blog, Menthol Mountains, had gone quiet in 2015. But Berman continued to make news.
It felt like we were in front of this album and loved it before it was released. The tunes backed up our belief in the project. Check out our feature with David Berman, “Any Way You Hear It.“
Reba, Stronger Than The Truth
42 years into her career, an achievement in its own right, the icon recently earned her first Best Country Album nomination in 25 years. 1994’s Read My Mind brought such classics as “And Still,” piano weeper “She Thinks His Name Was John,” and the groovy rocker “Why Haven’t I Heard from You.”
Now, her widely-acclaimed Stronger Than the Truth, produced by Buddy Cannon, is up for the night’s top country distinction. In late January 2020, Reba will duke it out against Eric Church (Desperate Man), Pistol Annies (Interstate Gospel), Thomas Rhett (Center Point Road), and Tanya Tucker (While I’m Livin’), another legendary act who has gained renewed attention to their work. Noteworthy here, she is coming off a 2018 win in the Best Roots Gospel Album category for 2017’s Sing It Now: Songs of Faith & Hope.
Reba opened up in a recent interview that is worth the read.
Rhiannon Giddens, There Is No Other
Giddens has built an entire career, and a body of music that is both meaningful art and impactful scholarship, on rewriting that narrative and deconstructing that monolithic characterization. From this year’s project, Songs Of Our Native Daughters with Amythyst Kiah, Allison Russell and Leyla McCalla that speaks for the missing, the unsung and the erased black woman in folk music, to 2017’s triumphant Freedom Highway, to a score for the ballet Lucy Negro Redux and her most recent release with Francesco Turrisi, there is no Other, Giddens’ work has looked to reclaim the American country music canon — one that has erased entire contributions and entire races because of a system designed to only tell one side of the story. And that’s where Giddens comes in, often through the lens of her primary instrument (though she plays many), the banjo, which most people know as resting in the hands of a white player, and not for its roots in West Africa. And, as Giddens points out, the story didn’t just end up that way by accident.
Sharon Van Etten, Remind Me Tomorrow
It’s been a subtle one, but Sharon Van Etten nonetheless has subtly and effectively transformed her musical approach in the time span since her debut in 2012 to her newest album, Remind Me Tomorrow. What was once a guitar-oriented approach now features overt electronic textures, and spare, slow-building production has been replaced with aggressive, effects-laden mixes that are immediately grabbing.
While it was nearly a full year since the release, it is one of the best albums of the year.
Sturgill Simpson, Sound & Fury
While not quite as radical as Lou Reed unleashing the dissonant, experimental, guitar assault of 1975’s Metal Machine Music on an unsuspecting public, Sturgill Simpson takes an equally drastic and potentially fan alienating musical turn with the startling Sound & Fury. If his previous Grammy winning 2016 A Sailor’s Guide To Earth pushed boundaries with its lush orchestrations, jazzy horns and Nirvana cover, this one demolishes and confounds any audience expectations. Certainly Simpson’s 2019 song, the honky-tonking title track to Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die flick, didn’t prepare anyone for this.
Check out the full review on the album from mid-2019.
The Claypool Lennon Delirium, South of Reality
It won’t take long into the opening “Little Fishes,” propelled by Claypool’s elastic bass and Lennon’s dreamy breaks, to realize that this sophomore release is every bit as fun, challenging and off-the-wall zonked-out as the first. Perhaps more so. The songs are longer, which allows for some jamming between oblique lyrics such as, “Where did the Pillsbury Doughboy go wrong?/ When did the bling-y little weasels kill the protest song?” Imbibing all the mind-expanding psychedelics in the universe won’t help you untangle most of the peculiar concepts in tracks with titles like “Amethyst Realm” and “ToadyMan’s Hour,” but it really doesn’t matter. Lennon and Claypool set their own unique musical vibe throughout the nearly 50-minute run time.
Check out the complete review of the album.
The Highwomen, The Highwomen
Like those proud, rootsy country icons, The Highwomen — comprising Americana singer-songwriters Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Amanda Shires and Maren Morris — showcase their C&W roots, in addition to their more boundary expanding work. The collective, formed by Shires when she noticed the lack of female voices on country radio, not surprisingly revels in woman-empowered concepts.
From the joy of motherhood (“My Only Child”) to the difficulties of everyday life (“Redesigning Women”’s “Runnin’ the world while we’re cleanin’ up the kitchen … How do we do it?”) with of course a few nods to lousy guys who done them wrong (Shires’ going all Dolly Parton on “Don’t Call Me” and Morris’ “Loose Change”), this is a fresh, occasionally feisty, feminine approach to the country genre informed by the group’s singer-songwriter strengths.
The Lumineers, iii
III isn’t thusly titled just because it’s the band’s third album. It’s so named because nine of its songs are split into three chapters that focus on members of three generations of a fictional family adversely affected by substance abuse: mother and grandmother Gloria Sparks, her son Jimmy, and her grandson Junior. Three videos were created for each chapter of the family tree, with the first video introducing Gloria and the alcohol addiction that holds sway over her.
The new album, and Gloria’s character, were inspired by a family member of Lumineers frontman Wes Schultz who was caught in the insidious spiral of alcoholism. But during the writing and recording of III, Lumineers co-writer and multi-instrumentalist Jeremiah Fraites was reminded of a painful loss in his own family, one that inadvertently created a bond between the two Lumineers founders that has lasted for nearly two decades.
The feature, “Here to Stay” was released in September and gave a great look at the band.
The Raconteurs, Help Us Stranger
The space of over ten years between releases for The Raconteurs doesn’t make it any easier to label the band’s idiosyncratic approach. Eclectic only starts to describe the Jack White/Brendan Benson fronted quartet’s combination of rock, blues, folk, prog and singer-songwriter sounds, all sprinkled with a bittersweet psychedelic coating.
It doesn’t feel like that long since the group’s sophomore set because the ease with which they fall into these songs, picking up where they left off on 2008’s Consolers Of The Lonely, shows the four piece has a connection that may transcend the music. Read the rest of the review or check out our feature, “A Sacred Mission,” from earlier this year.
Yola, Walk Through Fire
It won’t take long to get blown away as opening-track “Faraway Look” explodes out of the speakers with the maturity and determination of a professional. The Phil Spector-ish backing builds to a crescendo and Yola lets loose with her husky vocals atop a sweeping original widescreen melody you’ll swear you’ve heard before.
The mood gets more intimate as Yola shifts into shimmering, sweet West Coast pop, a place she clearly feels at home. Even when laying back as on the soft ballad “Rock Me Gently,” one of a few selections about the frustrations of a broken relationship (“Love, it’s a losing game/ The cards, they’re all stacked against me”), you realize it’s just a matter of time until she unloads with her monster voice. It’s that musical tension which makes each of these dozen tunes feel so natural and organic, even with horns, background vocals, multiple guitars and strings supporting her. And when Yola swings to belting diva mode as on the few set-pieces such as “Lonely the Night,” where a restrained opening on a song about unrequited love (“Once upon a time I wished for a love like you/ But I guess sometimes wishes don’t come true”) morphs into full blown Roy Orbison drama on a blockbuster chorus, you know you’ve got a star in the making.
OTHER GREAT ALBUMS of 2019
Here are another 25 (or so) albums that we discussed and agreed that 2019 would not be the same without them.
|Allison Moorer, Blood|
|Billie Eilish, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go|
|Bon Iver, I, I|
|Bonnie Prince Billy, I Made a Place|
|Bruce Springsteen, Western Stars|
|Charles Wesley Godwin, Seneca|
|Dan Luke and the Raid, Out of the Blue|
|Ed Sheeran, No. 6 Collaborations Project|
|Emily Scott Robison, Traveling Mercies|
|Erin Enderlin, Faulkner County|
|FKA twigs, MAGDELENE|
|Horse Jumper of Love, So Divine|
|Jason Hawk Harris, Love & the Dark|
|Jeffery Lewis, Bad Wiring|
|Josh Ritter, Fever Breaks|
|Lana Del Ray, Norman Fucking Rockwell|
|Leonard Cohen, Thanks for the Dance|
|Liam Gallagher, Why Me? Why Not.|
|Liz Brasher, Painted Image|
|Mavis Staples, We Get By|
|Michaela Anne, Desert Dove|
|Molly Tuttle, When You’re Ready|
|Neil Young, Colorado|
|Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Ghosteen|
|Paul Cauthen, Room 41|
|PUP, Morbid Stuff|
|Spencer Radcliffe and Everyone Else, Hot Spring|
|Steve Gunn, The Unseen Inbetween|
|Strand of Oaks, Eraserland|
|Taylor Swift, Lover|
|The National, I Am Easy to Find|
|Vampire Weekend, Father of the Bride|