Soul women, teen goths, singer-songwriters, and rapper-producers are represented on my list of the Top 10 albums of 2019. So are the queen of California beach noir, a country singer who made a synth-rock dance record, and one Philadelphian.
In first place, though, is an album that was tearing me up when it came out last summer — even before it was touched by tragedy.
Purple Mountains, Purple Mountains. David Berman committed suicide at age 52 in August, less than a month after this album came out. That’s an inconsolable tragedy. Yet, there’s plenty that is funny on Purple Mountains, an album that takes a dark view of existence, to be sure, but is also shot through with humor.
“How long can the world go on with no word from God?” Berman — a poet with two books to his name and former leader of the Silver Jews — sincerely asked in a song called “Margaritas at the Mall.” Elsewhere, he made light of his troubles, complaining of being “forced to watch my foes enjoy ceaseless feasts of Schadenfreude.”
The warning signs were all over Purple Mountains. But the songs are so good and delivered with so much spirited dark humor and attention to detail — with the singer so fully engaged in delivering them — that I never could have guessed what was coming.
Brittany Howard, Jaime. Since Alabama Shakes’ 2015 album Sound & Color, Brittany Howard stepped outside the band to express herself in a pair of side projects. But the music she makes on Jaime, named after a sister who died of cancer at age 13, cuts far closer to the bone. Howard experiments with the aid of collaborators like jazz man Robert Glasper. And she’s never sounded more free than in her staggering, soul-singing display in “Stay High.”
Michael Kiwanuka, Kiwanuka. Producers Danger Mouse and Inflo bathe Kiwanuka in strings and lush atmospherics, but they’re smart enough to stay out of the Ugandan-British singer’s way on songs that have an anxious edge, but never get downhearted. That because Kiwanuka’s voice, which recalls soul men like Bill Withers and Terence Trent D’Arby, is one of the most pleasurable instruments in pop.
Billie Eilish, When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? Lots of attention is paid to the strangeness of Billie Eilish, the pop-goth superstar who turns 18 this month. Yes, she wears absurd, baggy clothes and looks like a pint-size Marilyn Manson. But her music, created with brother Finneas O’Connell, obviously doesn’t sound so odd to her massive audience. (She has 44 million Instagram followers.) Using found sounds and whispered vocals, Eilish’s music is fraught with tension. Her songs are subtle earworms that convey constant uncertainty. Like being a teenager!
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Ghosteen. Ghosteen is Nick Cave’s full-on response to the death of his 15-year-old son in 2015. It consists of one gorgeously mournful song after another. Cave’s The Red Hand Files, in which the Aussie rocker answers fan questions with uncommon intelligence and deep respect, is also highly recommended. Nick Cave, you are my hero.
Lana Del Rey, Norman ______ Rockwell. It’s been quite the decade for Lana Del Rey. In 2011, she scored a viral hit with “Video Games,” then endured a backlash. Mood pieces like “Summertime Sadness” made people realize she’s a master of California beach noir. Now, this album has been greeted as a work of genius. Prematurely, perhaps. But it’s clearly Del Rey’s best work, and her discursive songwriting style (“Hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have — but I have it” is a typical title) is entirely her own.
(Sandy) Alex G, House of Sugar. Havertown native Alex Giannascoli is 26, but he’s been creating splintered, homemade music for a decade. With fractured surfaces, his songs take their time grabbing you, but his melodic gift has always been apparent. On “Hope,” he’s more immediate than ever, singing about the opioid epidemic: “He was a friend of mine, he died / Why write about it now? Gotta honor him somehow.” The Philadelphia album of the year.
Sturgill Simpson, Sound & Fury. Sturgill Simpson is supposed to be a country singer: He won a Grammy for his 2016 A Sailor’s Guide To Earth. But Simpson is too rebellious to be bound by genre. Recorded in a Michigan motor inn and accompanied by visuals created by Japanese anime director Junpei Mizusaki, Sound & Fury is Simpson’s self-described “sleazy synth-rock dance record.” Its credo is summed up in a song title: “Make Art Not Friends.”
The Delines, The Imperial. Released in January, this gem has kept me coming back all year. Songwriter Willy Vlautin is a Reno, Nevada-born novelist and former front man of the country-rock band Richmond Fontaine who is expert in creating down-and-out, deeply human characters. What makes The Imperial special is singer Amy Boone’s soulful phrasing. The album feels like it takes place in a corner booth in a dark bar in the middle of the day, where as much is said with silences as with the words spoken.
Tyler, the Creator, Igor. Tyler Okonma came to prominence a decade ago as ringleader of the Odd Future hip-hop collective. Then as now, he excelled as a multitasker and overall visionary. Igor continues the winning streak begun with 2017’s Flower Boy, with guests such as Solange, Playboi Carti, and Philadelphia rapper Lil Uzi Vert, taking cues from 1970s funk, with Okonma acting vulnerable instead of obnoxious.