Saturday, December 14, 2019

Best Of 2019: The Top 25

“Where there is doubt, there can be no doubt,” Robert De Niro said in Ronin and that becomes my guiding principle around this time of the year as I confront the conundrum of what ends up on this list that wasn’t on the mid-year Top 25 - and what drops off. Much of it comes down to what I listened to the most, usually a sure sign that it belongs here. But there were a couple of things I played over and over, hoping they would connect fully, eventually admitting they were mostly excellent, even life-giving, but they had a moment or two that caused doubt. And where there is doubt there can be no doubt.

Looking back, I’m somewhat surprised to see three-fifths of the list coming out of the realms of rock, folk, pop, etc.,  but I just have to accept that that’s what I needed to get through. There's also a clue in the fact that 305 of the 812 tracks - nearly 40% - I put into my general Of Note playlist were sorted into the Rock, Folk, Etc. playlist. To anyone affronted by what dropped from that July list, I will firmly say, It’s not them, it’s me. And don’t forget, there are many "Best Of" lists yet to come as I try to pay homage to another great year for music. 

Listen to selections from each album here or below. As usual, if I’ve previously written about a record, click the link to learn more about why it’s here. 

9. Angel Olsen - All Mirrors Funny how you can still be surprised by how much an artist can surprise you, even when they have traveled as far from their roots as Olsen did between Burn Your Fire For No Witness (2014, #15/20) and My Woman (2016, #17/20). But that was the case when I first heard the audacity of All Mirrors, still a jaw-dropping experience these many listens later. Connecting with two composer/arrangers, Jherek Bischoff and Ben Babbitt, who both straddle the worlds of classical, rock, and soundtracks, was a genius move as they contribute wildly creative string arrangements that dominate a number of songs. Babbitt co-wrote all the music with Olsen, which is the first time she has collaborated to that extent, and played a good number of instruments on the album. Producer John Congleton does a fantastic job of blending all the organic and synthetic sounds. 

Olsen doubles down on her retro-futurist torch singer persona, coming on like Julee Cruise’s cyborg progeny, hyper-emotional, and with a superhuman power. She has found new dimensions to her voice as well, wielding each tone, texture, and timbre with astonishing control. Like all of her albums, All Mirrors  touches on elemental subjects of love, friendship, and self-actualization, making for a richly immersive song-cycle that seems to only expand as it grows more familiar. A triumph for Angel Olsen and a wonderful addition to what is already one of the most rewarding discographies of the decade. 

11. Starcrawler - Devour You That part of the thrill provided by the short, sharp, shriek of their debut was untapped potential is firmly proven by Devour You, which succeeds even beyond my wildest expectations. The LA quartet were no doubt helped by producer Nick Launay (Bad Seeds, Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs, etc.), far more skilled in the studio than Ryan Adams. Time on the road has lent both solidity and swing to the rhythm section of Austin Smith (drums) and Tim Franco (bass) - listen to them groove on “You Dig Yours” - while wunderkind guitarist Henri Cash now has the most exciting riffing hand in the business. But he also has developed the musicality to create layered parts full of fine detail and raw power. Then there is Arrow de Wilde, who shows herself equally at home fearlessly snarling out sarcasm as she is sending a soaring ballad(!) like “Born Asleep” into the stratosphere. The variety in the songwriting shows not only ambition but a deep engagement with the history of rock. Unlike an earlier generation of punked out rockers, they don’t want to burn it all down - but they do want to light a little fire under a genre where introspection may be easier to find than instigation and inspiration. But don’t get it twisted. While Starcrawler may be showing signs of maturity and nuance in concert they’re still the same filth-peddling, blood-spewing circus they’ve always been. On Devour You, the combination of those primal urges with a bit more sophistication is nothing short of intoxicating. 

24. Kanye West - Jesus Is King Back In 2004, I put one foot in front of the other to Jesus Walks. The fact that I got to work ready to do my job every day I owe at least in part to the strength I got from West's classic track and the album it came from. Then, in 2010, after a string of good albums (interrupted by 808's and Heartbreaks), he gave us My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, in the running for album of the century. It pulled me through a long winter and, while I can't remember what was stressing me at the time, I know MBDTF helped the situation. The point is, when you connect with the work of an artist on these levels, you give them the benefit of the doubt. Yeezus was another stunner, angry shards of glass aimed at every target in sight, including himself. The Life Of Pablo, scattered as it was, gave us hints of strength among the sorrows and lousy laugh lines. Then came Ye, undoubtedly the worst project West ever put his name to, only partially redeemed by Kids See Ghosts, his collaboration with Kid Cudi from the same year. Despite all the self-instigated click-bait madness that accompanies West everywhere, I still go back to those old records and get what I need. Now we have converted Kanye, not an automatic deal-breaker even if there are references to “prosperity gospel” that rub this atheist/socialist the wrong way. After all, I have included gospel music in my listening since I was hooked by a Mahalia Jackson LP I pulled out of the stacks at my local library almost 40 years ago. 

I don’t feel I have to defend what I like to anyone, so I’ll just say that I get some of the old West fire on Jesus Is King combined with the inspiring energy of the African American gospel tradition. While this is not a straight-up masterpiece like Dylan's Slow Train Coming, the listening experience - for a West fan, anyway - is not dissimilar. Part of the energy comes from what seems to be a disordered mind, like the way the first song, Every Hour, starts just a tad in progress, as if someone un-paused the tape recorder after the song began. There are other weirdnesses (“Chick-Fil-A”??) and hints of the under-cooked quality that has become an unfortunate signature of West’s work since Pablo. On the other hand, Jesus Is King contains some of West’s finest vocal work ever, whether rapping tight to the groove of Follow God or emoting soulfully on God Is. As for guests, the most impressive is the team-up of a reunited Clipse with Kenny G. on Use This Gospel, the kind of left-field combo that is the glory of the best hip hop since the Bronx schoolyard days. I am drinking deep from this cup, taking the bitter with the sweet, and wondering where the journey goes next. 

If I’ve introduced you to something you didn’t know you needed, let me know! Don’t see your favorite here? Tell me all about that, too. It just may be on an upcoming genre-specific list. Stay tuned for the whole series, encompassing:
But not necessarily in that order, which will only add to the fun. This is supposed to be fun, right?!?

1 comment:

  1. Best, most useful, (soundclips) tasteful and informed blog about the universe of new music in this sector of the Galaxy. Vic Garbarini.