By Alan Sculley
Not many things in life are certain – birth, death, taxes…and my top 10 album list for 2019 will be different from any other best album list you see this year.
This makes sense in a year where there was no consensus best album and some excellent under-the-radar releases. Here are the albums that stood out for me this year.
Weyes Blood: “Titanic Rising” – Natalie Mering (aka Weyes Blood) is no stranger to writing lovely classical-tinged pop songs. But on her fourth album, “Titanic Rising,” Mering reaches a new level, unfurling one stunning orchestrated ballad after another (“A Lot’s Gonna Change,” “Andromeda,” “Something To Believe” and “Picture Me Better”). “Titanic Rising” is a sterling work, the rare album that shows just how much impact can be generated through the sheer force of melody.
Lizzo: “Cuz I Love You” – Lizzo has gotten lots of attention for championing the beauty of plus-size women, but her most powerful statement is still “Cuz I Love You,” her third album. This diverse effort ranges from “Like A Girl” and “Soulmate,” a pair of outsized hip-hop/soul flavored female empowerment anthems, to the title track, a powerful rock/soul/hip-hop hybrid, to the shimmery rocking soul of “Juice,” the tangy Prince-ish rocker “Crybaby” and the huge soul ballad, “Jerome,” featuring Lizzo’s supercharged vocal. No wonder “Cuz I Love You” is up for eight Grammys.
Sleater-Kinney: “The Center Won’t Hold” – One of the biggest challenges for veteran bands is how to progress musically while retaining their identity. Sleater-Kinney, with the help of producer St. Vincent, meets that challenge and then some on “The Center Won’t Hold.” Many songs take the band into new territory, including the Goth-ish “Bad Dance,” “Can I Go On,” a keyboard-centered tune with a poppy bounce (despite its less-than-cheery lyrics), and “Ruins,” which uses synths and electronics to create a spooky feel. A couple of guitar rockers that feel more like prototypical Sleater-Kinney (“Hurry On Home” and “Reach Out”) round out this bold and brave album.
Armchair Oracles: “Caught In Light” – In a good year for guitar pop/power pop, “Caught In Light” from Norway’s Armchair Oracles was my favorite such album. The band brings just a hint of Laurel Canyon country to a mostly mid-tempo pop sound that blends an appropriate amount of crunch with unusually strong, often winsome melodies. If you like Big Star or the Byrds, you’ll want to catch up with “Caught In Light.”
Aida Victoria: “Silences” – Victoria describes her music simply as blues. But her second full-length release, “Silences,” suggests that her definition of the blues is far more varied than popular perceptions of the genre. In fact, “Silences” evades categories, touching on chamber pop, atmospheric and dreamy pop, rootsy yet textured blues-laced rock and points in between. Whatever styles “Silences” evokes, it’s all compelling, a bit idiosyncratic (in the best ways) and a truly singular work.
Junior League: “Adventureland” – Here’s another standout power pop album. On “Adventureland,” Junior League blends crunchy guitar riffs and strong vocal melodies on such rocking gems as “Town In A Box” and “This Decay,” while putting a little new wave into “Have Faith In Yourself” and “Falling In Love” by adding Cars-ish synths.
Michael Kiwanuka: “Kiwanuka” – The third album from Kiwanuka finds him bringing together soul, R&B and psychedelic-ish guitar rock in unique and surprising ways, cutting a wide musical swath along the way. “You Ain’t The Problem” mixes touches of Curtis Mayfield-ish soul with edgy rock. “Living In Denial” reaches back to classic soul with its bright horns and backing vocals. “Piano Joint (This Kind Of Love)” is a stark and lovely piano-based ballad that builds from near solo to a lush finish. A couple of songs feel a bit unfocused, but “Kiwanuka” is a bold and very successful piece of work.
Miranda Lambert: “Wildcard” – One of country’s most consistently compelling artists, Lambert delivers a fairly diverse album with “Wildcard,” with songs that include the adrenalized rock of “Locomotive,” a perky blend of pop/rock and country on “It All Comes Out in the Wash,” some pleasantly rambling acoustic country-rock on “Track Record” and even a pretty rough-hewn ballad in “How Dare You Love.” With “Wildcard,” Lambert keeps coming up aces.
Vampire Weekend: “Father of the Bride” — Vampire Weekend continues to solidify their sound on “Father of the Bride,” dispatching some of their quirkiness while still coming up with infectious pop songs that show uncommon creativity, individuality and playfulness.
Titus Andronicus: “An Obelisk” – After a side trip into rootsier music on 2018’s “A Productive Cough,” Patrick Stickles and company come roaring back to their punk roots on “An Obelisk,” whose 10 relentlessly rocking and lyrically potent songs made for the best punk rock album I heard this year.
Jamila Woods: “Legacy Legacy”; PJ Morton: “Paul”; Jenny Lewis: “On the Line”; Tanya Tucker: “While I’m Living”; Tedeschi Trucks Band: “Signs”; The Highway Women: “The Highway Women”; Tyler, The Creator: “Igor”; Reba McEntire: “Stronger Than The Truth”; Bruce Springsteen: “Western Stars”; Billie Eilish: “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?”; Southern Avenue: “Keep On”; Lana Del Rey: “Norman F****** Rockwell”; Sturgill Simpson: “Sound and Fury”; Taylor Swift: “Lover”; Nikki Hill: “Feline Roots.”