Our critics weigh in on the best albums of the 2019
We all have different tastes, and when it comes to music, sometimes we don’t even make sense within ourselves. Case in point: Two of our critics picked their top alums of the year, and only one disc appeared on both lists (and in different spots). But considering how much music is out there nowadays — from traditional platforms to SoundCloud, YouTube and just hangin’ out in clubs — it’s a wonder we can agree at all. So listen up! And continue to listen throughout 2020.
10. Miranda Lambert, Wildcard. After flooding a sublime double-disc album with her post-divorce feelings (hey, divorce is hard!), Miranda Lambert got her groove back and then finally decided that life is “pretty bitchin,’” a sentiment she shares on Wildcard. Yeah, I’m a turner, she sings on the standout “Bluebird,” casually cool, earning your own optimistic tears. I turn pages all the time. Don’t like where I’m at, 34 was bad, so I just turned to 35. In many ways, Lambert also turned the page on what a country music artist could sound like, experimenting with a punch of classic-rock on “Track Record” and a charged psychedelic-rock edge on “Mess With My Head.” Then there’s Lambert, the observer, on the nod to her country roots, “Dark Bars,” which will make you feel like even when you actually are drinkig, you’re never truly drinking alone. And the rest? Pretty bitchin’, too.
9. Sturgill Simpson, Sound & Fury. Country-rocker Sturgill Simpson’s Sound & Fury was spectacularly insane. I was enveloped by it. I was scared by it. I couldn’t stop listening to it. It rides in tame enough with “Ronin,” before blasting into action and never letting up, each track fusing into the next, a big “fuck you” to … well, to a lot. Including nosy music journalists. It bombards you with a constant procession of heavy, loud feelings that whips through you at a fast and furious pace, and if you’ve never walked into a fire after getting into a car accident, well, at least now you can say you feel like you have.
8. The Highwomen, The Highwomen. Having Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires join forces for these songs about women, written by women and sung by women is perfectly in tune with the times. With women’s stories and experiences taking center stage in a broader sense, the leading ladies assembled as a powerful and necessary collective, The Highwomen, to show the male-dominated country music genre just what women can do. Their smart, witty and emotional self-titled debut explores love, family and politics with a keen sense of their place in the world. “Redesigning Women” already sounds like a modern-day classic, and the rousing story-driven title track honors persecuted women. Through and through, the quartet demonstrates what I’ve always known to be true: Women do it better than men.
7. Ariana Grande, Thank U, Next. Bop on bop on bop. Before Thank U, Next, I was half-sold on Ariana Grande, but I’ve finally come around to the pop star after this fusion of pop and hip-hop, stacked with moods and hooks and enough vocal flutters to give a clipped bird its wings. It’s the first time I’ve truly thought of Grande as a tastemaker … and also a human being. The proof is evident in what I found to be her warmest song to date, “thank u, next,” which reshapes a cheeky kiss-off into a message of authenticity, positivity and self-love. And when Grande wasn’t giving you reasons to love yourself, she was — with “7 rings,” a satirical take on millennial greed — making you feel like you deserve anything you want, with a wink.
6. Sharon Van Etten, Remind Me Tomorrow. I couldn’t shake Sharon Van Etten’s emotionally piercing fifth album, but it was “Seventeen” that made me want to roll down the windows, pop open my moon roof, and then, Perks of Being a Wallflower-style, cruise the interstate. Sung to her 17-year-old self, it is the centerpiece of Van Etten’s latest work and also a downright masterpiece, with its Springsteenian lyrics capturing a mood relatable to anyone who managed to survive that year: “I see you so uncomfortably alone, I wish I could show you how much you’ve grown.” If your 17 was anything like Van Etten’s 17 (or my 17), you’ll lament a time that seems so far gone now, but yet, through Van Etten’s wistful lens, not so distant at all.
5. Tanya Tucker, While I’m Livin’. You get the impression Tanya Tucker, pictured, might not have made another album after her last, released in 2009, if it weren’t for Brandi Carlile, one of the most talented singer-songwriters of our time and now a true gay saint for getting a country legend back in the saddle. Produced and co-written by Carlile, Shooter Jennings and Carlile’s longtime collaborators, twins Phil and Tim Hanseroth, Tucker’s resurgence takes a few notes from Carlile’s own sincerely real methodology, delivered by way of Tucker’s sincerely real (see: ragged, husky) voice. These are classic country songs that cut deep, and that’s palpable on Tucker’s version of “The House That Built Me,” which movingly compliments Miranda Lambert’s original cut. Lambert longed for home as a child who’d grown up and moved away; with a few lyrical tweaks, Tucker is the longing mother whose children are grown and gone. There’s even more feeling packed into “Bring My Flowers Now,” a heartbreakingly vulnerable piano elegy that’s like looking at a life through the rear-view mirror.
4. Bon Iver, i, i. I once listened to Justin Vernon, the songwriter and frontman of the group Bon Iver, play underneath a blanket of stars. My body on scraps of grass, I just let him take me away. I approached listening to i, i in a similar way, which is to say, I didn’t overthink his enigmatic verses and baffling non sequiturs. Based on the spiritual connection I feel — feel, since this is music that speaks to you in weird, discordant tones — I’m finally coming to the realization that maybe understanding any of this isn’t the point anyway. By the end of i, i, which I’ve only listened to alone — no stars, no festival crowd, just whatever language I may one day distill from all of this — I felt not alone but connected to something much bigger.
3. Carly Rae Jepsen, Dedicated. Where could Carly Rae Jepsen go after E•MO•TION? A career-defining body of work, it was also arguably the best pop album of 2015. It seemed nothing could even remotely come close to achieving that same level of pop greatness. Upon their release, songs from Dedicated felt looser, more low-key, though the coyly sexual, Cyndi Lauper-inspired, Squeeze-ish “Want You in My Room” was a sure bet from the get-go. For Dedicated, Jepsen let E•MO•TION be E•MO•TION and created something entirely special in its own intimate, pleasurably dialed-back right.
2. Vampire Weekend, Father of the Bride. My favorite album of last year, Kacey Musgraves’s Rainbow, imparted breath and light into our dark, disquieting global climate; that same serenity runs through Vampire Weekend’s buoyant Father of the Bride. Recorded without former member Rostam Batmanglij, Ezra Koenig’s sound isn’t fussy, instead leaning into a majestic simplicity that stands out against Vampire Weekend’s other albums, the haunting Modern Vampires of the City and the punchy Contra. In many ways, this feels like the band at their most earnest, with a relaxed, traversing sound as new and invigorating as daybreak.
1. Lana Del Rey, Norman Fucking Rockwell! Even if Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell! wasn’t the best-sounding album of the year, it certainly would be one of the most important. But Del Rey’s best work yet manages both feats. Elegant and cool thanks to Jack Antonoff’s understated production, the album is fitted with Del Rey’s casual delivery of a commentary (sometimes earnest, sometimes low-key caustic) on American politics, celebrity and suitably, given our current patriarchal times, the perpetual state of men as disappointments (but she’s not giving up just yet, as she concludes, hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have — but I have it). One of modern music’s greatest songwriters, Del Ray writes incisively and vividly about her longing for her past and the America we lost. The collective spirit of Norman Fucking Rockwell! is euphoric and seductive, and like a flower in bloom, fuller and even more captivating over time.
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES’
In 1899, a patent commissioner declared everything that could be invented had been invented — one of the great misstatements in history. Then again, you have to admit that we spend a lot of time repuposing things that have come before. That felt especially true in 2019 when it came to music. The albums that stood out were all new … but also throwbacks to prior eras, older styles, earlier genres. (Think no further than “Old Town Road,” which blended hip-hop and country and became the biggest hit of all time.) Greatness can stand on the shoulders of greatness, as it did in these 10 albums, which I list without further comment, except to say the artists responsible for them showed how they have evolved — themselves and the medium — with creativity. From Broadway to gay-inclusive rap to indie pop, these albums conjured everything from Prince to Roy Orbison. It seems there’s still more to be invented after all.
10 (tie). Various, The Prom and
Hadestown original Broadway
9 (tie). DaBaby, Baby on Baby and Kirk
8. Tyler the Creator, Igor
7. Anderson.Paak, Ventura
6. Pink, Hurts 2B Human
5. Orville Peck, Pony
4. Brittany Howard, Jamie
3. Vampire Weekend, Father of the Bride
2. Billie Eilish, When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
1. Lizzo, Cuz I Love You
Year in Review: Music
Hear me out — 6 best songs by women in 2019
It seems the media are always declaring the current year to be The Year of the Woman. (Yeah, but look who’s president.) But 2019 could ay some claim to that, insofar as music — especially the power of the song — is concerned. Here are a half-dozen that really stood out.
“Bring My Flowers Now,” Tanya Tucker. The country music legend’s elegiac coda from her first album in 10 years, “Bring My Flowers Now” off While I’m Livin’, is a frank reflection of leaving this life, its imagery handled with a gentle hand in the song’s music video. The video features Tucker riding atop a horse, two young girls flanking her and releasing flowers petals to the streets. They stop at one point, wave goodbye. On her journey, Tucker passes a smiling preacher and a man in a convertible. Finally, she comes to a halt to share a moment with the co-writer of “Flowers” and While I’m Livin’ producer Brandi Carlile, who’s playing the piano; the out singer-songwriter and the country icon relay a deep mutual respect through a simple tip of their hats and a warm, silent acknowledgement. Then Tucker is on her way. The video is one of the year’s best, its simplicity the perfect match for the small, heartbreakingly specific details in Tucker and Carlile’s plaintive lyrics about Tucker’s life and its message of living for those you love now. Don’t spend time, tears, or money on my ol’ breathless body. If your heart is in them flowers, bring ’em on, she achingly sings. The years on Tucker’s voice are as life-affirming as the song itself. And these — plus its Grammy nomination for song of the year — are her flowers. Lovingly, Carlile has brought them to her.
“Track Record,” Miranda Lambert. Even Miranda Lambert knows she’s been a little busy with the boys. She mocks her floozy image with dry wit on “Track Record” from her new album Wildcard, owning it and treating it as a shoulder-shrugging fact of her life rather than a rueful self-analysis. I’m obsessed with what might be the Pun of the Year, as Lambert pokes fun at her ways with men, noting that her past is as checkered as the floor at the diner on Main Street. She even makes time for a casual dig, namelessly calling out past exes, the “user” and the “loser.” Sonically, there are traces of The War on Drugs in “Track Record,” matching the indie rock band’s signature sound with its hypnotic ’70s-rock-style torrent of glistening guitars and chugging drums. When Lambert sings, Girls like me don’t mean it but we don’t know better, I got a track record, you really do have to wonder: Is this the Grindr anthem we’ve all been waiting for? (Lambert will perform in Dallas in February. We will run an interview with her prior to the concert.)
“Love You For Free,” Cynthia Erivo. If church every day was merely Erivo singing “Love You For Free,” my hands would be folded and I’d be at that pew right now. The Broadway star’s sparse, inviting, almost-prayer of a song is about unconditional love, its warmth radiating through her angelic approach to its gentle, dreamy stride and twinkling sound. The song is among over 30 originals recorded for Hedwig and the Angry Inch creator John Cameron Mitchell’s 10-episode Anthem: Homunculus, an alt-autobiography he produced for the Luminary podcast app (see our interview with Mitchell about the podcast on DallasVoice.com). Its central character is Ceann Mackay (voiced by Mitchell), whose brain tumor is essentially collective Catholic guilt and shame. Erivo plays Joan the Bishop, the mother of his child. The singer’s greatest contribution, and perhaps the greatest from any of the podcast’s performers, Patti LuPone and Glenn Close among them, is “Love You For Free.” For the world’s outcasts, queers and others who have felt rejected by any church, hearing Erivo sing, In this world, my child, you have a place, is like falling into arms that won’t let you go.
“Cornelia Street,” Taylor Swift. The lyrical cornerstone of Taylor Swift’s Lover album, “Cornelia Street” shares some DNA with tender story-song “All Too Well,” off her 2012 Red. Both summon images with the striking vividness of a photograph. The latter happens to be one of Swift’s best-written songs … and now so is “Cornelia Street.” The sole credited songwriter, Swift is confronting the fear of potential romantic loss, setting the scene over gentle, rolling synths like a movie whose image shifts aspect ratios. She’s riding in the backseat with her man, Londoner Joe Alwyn, drunk in love, maybe, but definitely drunk on something stronger than the drinks in the bar. She’s afraid of losing him. This is serious. The song rolls on like the car she’s singing about, accelerating at the chorus, a flood of sound pouring in; there are car-door and wiper-blade sound effects tucked into Jack Antonoff’s production, which also includes a heartfelt piano break. “Cornelia Street” is like going back to a good book. You discover something new and wonderful every time.
“Bible and a .44,” Trisha Yearwood. Yearwood turns words on a page into country-music magic, but the singer is at her best when those words tell a story as rich as the one CMA best new artist Ashley McBryde wrote for “Bible and a .44.” Yearwood’s finest moment on her album Every Girl is this weepy, which illustrates the lessons a father has passed down to his child. Made personal by the death of Yearwood’s own dad in 2005, the singer fondly remembers what he looked like (hair as white as a cottonfield) and what he taught her (to be perceptive, to love the Lord, to take what you’ve got and do the best you can). The guitar softening to a whisper, she reflects on seeing him strumming this thing [which] he left it to me like he said he would. Before the final chorus, Yearwood reminds us, her warm, no-frills vocals accompanied by Patty Loveless’s soulful harmonies and ad-libs, of how certain things become our most prized possessions: And if you ask me why it sounds so good, it’s ‘cause I’m holdin’ onto more than strings and wood.
“Higher Love,” Whitney Houston. When Whitney’s unreleased cover of Steve Winwood’s 1986 hit “Higher Love” was released during June Pride Month, I made my gay friends listen to it any way I could. Of note was the time this past summer when I flung open my car doors and cranked this one up, the song’s divinity thumping in a public parking lot. Not only did my closest friends hear, but so did many lucky passersby. I was doing them a favor that day, because Whitney’s never-before-released-in-America cover, originally recorded during her I’m Your Baby Tonight sessions and reimagined as a club banger thanks to Norwegian DJ Kygo, is gay dance heaven. She sounds incredible, and Kygo enlivens the song at every turn, taking it beyond its very ’80s origins and into timeless soul-revival territory. This is exactly the Whitney I want to remember.
— Chris Azzopardi