Monday, February 17, 2020

Best Of 2019: Rock, Folk, Etc.

As the “rock is dead” or “whatever happened to rock & roll” discussion continues in seeming disregard for the actual health of the genre, it occurs to me that those making those statements and asking those questions might have a very limited definition of the music. That’s a nice way of saying that there are a lot of Kiss, Def Leppard, and Bon Jovi fans out there - and if they’re not finding what they need in new records, the fault may lie not in their rock stars but in themselves. I mean, I’m a Zeppelin fan, but I don’t need to listen to pale imitations like the regrettable Greta Van Fleet (remember them?) to get my fix. In any case, I found more than enough to get my pulse up, including albums that were in my Top 25 like Zam by Frankie & The Witch Finger (5/25), Devour You by Starcrawler (11/25), Satis Factory by Mattiel (13/25), Sombrou Duvida by Boogarins, or Commit Yourself Completely, the scorching live set from Car Seat Headrest. 

Then there were swaths of indie rock of a gentler nature throughout the Top 25, whether the world-beating songwriting of Ocean Music, Julia Jacklin, Tiny Ruins, and Hiss Golden Messenger, who held the first four spots, or Molly Sarlé, Angel Olsen, and Jane Church, who could be found further down. This year I even had a massive pop record from Billie Eilish, which had plenty of dark thoughts to fill the needs of goth-rockers looking for a spider bite. 

What you’ll find below is more of the same variety of flavors from these realms, all of it nearly as excellent as what I had on that main list. Believe me when I say that if this is your area of interest, your view of 2019 will not be complete without these records. 

As I did for my Classical list, albums I’ve already covered will be referenced with links to the original posts, while other albums and EP’s will be blurbed below. Press play here or below so you can listen while you read. 

Michael Chapman - True North
Hand Habits - Placeholder
Cass McCombs - Tip Of The Sphere
Sunwatchers - Illegal Moves (they also put out a cracking live set)

Edwyn Collins - Badbea

Baroness - Gold & Gray
Crumb - Jinx

Jay Som - Anak Ko 
Tool - Fear Inoculum
Amyl & The Sniffers
Bon Iver - I,I
Ex Hex - It’s Real
Ocean Music - Fan Fiction For Planet Earth

Tyler Ramsey - For The Morning
Elana Low - Loam
Andy Jenkins - The Garden Opens
Charles Rumback & Ryley Walker - Little Common Twist
John Calvin Abney - Safe Passage 
Courtney Hartman - Ready Reckoner
Jonathan Wilson - ‘69 Corvette
Molly Sarlé - Karaoke Angel
Daughter Of Swords - Dawnbreaker
Tate McClane - Jackpine Savage
Rebecca Turner - The New Wrong Way
Wilco - Ode To Joy

League of Legends

Leonard Cohen - Thanks For The Dance While there is a little of the too-neat phrase-turning that dampened my enthusiasm for some of his late-career albums (Popular Problems, for one), there are also many devastating and surprising lines (“I had a pussy in the kitchen and a panther in the yard”) to make this intimate completion a fitting capstone to Cohen’s career. Son Adam Cohen’s settings for these recitations are appropriately reverent, finding hidden chords in his dad’s speech. Cohen fans should feel a debt of gratitude to him (and guests like Beck) for bringing this to fruition. 

Hunt Sales Memorial - Get Your Shit Together Everyone who has heard Lust For Life or actually listened to Tin Machine knows that Sales is one of the greatest drummers alive. In his amusingly-named solo project he puts his devastating swing beneath some brick-hard rock and then sings over it all in a gruff and strangled voice that is an encyclopedia of hard living. While it may occasionally occur to you to wonder if he should be singing at all, you'll probably be singing along - or laughing too hard to care. 

Patrick Watson - Wave Watson has been flying progressively under my radar since the heights of Wooden Arms (#2 of 10 in 2009) and Adventures In Your Own Backyard (#14 of 20 in 2012), but, then again, this is his first album in four years after the disappointing Love Songs For Robots. He is nearly in full contact with his muse on this gorgeous collection, however, and even throws in a few new tricks of an almost cinematic nature. This is songwriting of great depth, realized by production that combines organic and synthetic sounds to intoxicating effect. Welcome back.


Mega Bog - Dolphine Erin Birgy gives us more than enough sublime folk-rock (with touches of bossa nova and yé yé) to make it easy to overlook the random weird bits. Save the pieces, as TV Guide used to say - and they are marvelous pieces. 

Rachael Dadd - Flux Offers some of the same incantatory pleasures as This Is The Kit (their singer, Kate Stables, is a collaborator) though Dadd's take on Brit-folk is slightly more oblique. The arrangements, including horns, are often surprising but quickly make perfect sense. Listen and let the pieces come together in your head.

Nev Cottee - River's Edge His last album, Broken Flowers, was one of the delights of 2017, landing at #12 on my Top 25, so expectations were high for this one. While he uses many of the same elements - his gravelly voice, the enervated tempos, a quilt of starlit guitars - somehow the sum total just misses the heights of Broken Flowers. It could come down to the songs, which have less dynamic tension, making the album almost an ambient experience. But, still, Cottee is one of a kind and a presence I value greatly.


UV-TV - Happy Post-punk power pop worthy of both storied traditions and a mite bit more gloss compared to their 2017 debut has in no way dampened the energy of this trio. Now that they’ve relocated to Brooklyn, I’m looking forward to catching them in concert. 

Bodega - Shiny New Model While their wry critique of late capitalism is still in evidence, this EP adds some sugar to Bodega’s tart no wave blend. Plenty of fun and kind of thrilling when they flex their pop muscles. 

Dry Cleaning - Sweet Princess & Boundary Road Snacks and Drinks Florence Shaw's talk-singing (OK, it's more like talking) slots this UK group into an area alongside Young Marble Giants, The Raincoats, The Slits, and the like, which is one of my favorite areas. And that what she's talking about ("...a mixture of inner monologue, YouTube comments describing memories of songs, and phrases collected from adverts on TV," as Shaw put it in an interview) over the sturdy sturm-und-jangle of the band is so resolutely of this moment only makes these EP's more fun. Catch them at their first U.S. date at Saint Vitus on March 6th.

Stargazer Lilies - Occabot I spotted these masters of monolithic and hazy shoe-gaze on tour dates with  Pale Dian (who I saw open for Cheatahs in Austin and I think my ears are still ringing). Working with Tobacco of Black Moth Super Rainbow has added melodic focus and further studio manipulation to their sound, making the musical visions of Kim Field and John Cep even more lethally compelling. This is their fourth album but feel free to start here if you're unfamiliar. And bring your earplugs to Saint Vitus on April 22 - or a venue near you.

Versing - 10000 This two-guitars-bass-and-drums band from Seattle has only improved since I saw them open for The Courtneys a couple of years ago. Tighter songwriting, more interest in the guitar interplay, and an uptick in the passion quotient means that maybe the next time I see them they'll be headlining and the crowd will leap to their feet like we did when Silver Velvet started up.

W.H. Lung - Incidental Music Opening their debut album with Simpatico People, a 10-minute journey of blissful motorik rhythms, pulsing synth, and guitar arpeggios is a bold statement of purpose for this trio from Manchester (of course they're from Manchester!). But that the rest of the album lives up to that overture makes me think there's a bright future ahead for them.

Historian - Hour Hand and Spiral Again Chris Karman put out two albums as Historian in 2019 and has already followed them up with Distractions, which came out in January. So dive in! There are many ruminative rewards to be found in his atmospheric chamber pop, which has only grown more assured since his first album, Shelf Life, from 2013. Spiral Again is a little stripped down for him (fewer strings), but he still manages to build up clouds of sound with what he has on hand, making either one of these a fine point of entry into his world.

L'Epee - Diabolique I was not aware that Emmanuelle Seigner - actress, wife of Roman Polanski - had a sideline in singing. And if you had told me so, I might have dismissed it out of hand. But this collaboration with Anton Newcombe (Brian Jonestown Massacre) and The Limiñanas is completely convincing. Seigner's dark-hued vocals combine perfectly with the driving, hypnotic rock cooked up by her bandmates and there's a bit of kicky sixties revivalism that never gets slavish. Could be a one-off, but either way it works!

Drone Shots

75 Dollar Bill - I Was Real Call me a curmudgeon, but this is the record I’ve been waiting for from these guys since first reading a description of them in an Other Music email. And you know that was a while ago, so I can be a very patient curmudgeon. By both expanding and deepening their drone jams, Rick Brown (percussion) and Che Chen (guitars) have made the Brooklyn via Sahara soundtrack for the next time I have to hike from Pioneer Works back to civilization - or mass transit, at least! Preferably that will happen after seeing them on stage. 

Earth - Full Upon Her Burning Lips Stripping down to drummer Adrienne Davies and guitarist Dylan Carlson has given Earth a way out of the cul de sac they found themselves in after their last album, which was heavy with guest vocalists. Carlson’s riffs are still monolithic but they’re also more organic, with a prairie wind blowing through the spaces between the notes. Davies has plenty of air and nuance in her drum patterns, too, while still remaining absolutely implacable. One of their best yet. 

Sunn O))) - Life Metal While I don’t think they’ll ever top Soused, their collaboration with the late, great Scott Walker, part of what impresses here is their exquisite control over tone and impact. It’s almost a dictionary of malevolent guitar noises, with a few added bonuses, like the vocals and cello of Oscar-winning Icelandic composer Hildur Guōnadódottir, and supported by bass, synth, and pipe organ.The only thing that would make it better (besides Scott Walker) is a searchable index so you could instantly find the snarl, feedback or power chord you need. 


Levitation Room - Headspace The difference in this aptly-named L.A. quintet's take on psychedelia lies in their light touch. There's plenty of guitar fireworks, but there's still a crisp elegance to everything they do. Pushing their sound and style into songwriting of a more striking originality is the turn of a key keeping them from greatness. The packaging from Greenway Records is exceptional, even by their usual standards - grab a die-cut copy while you still can!. 


Clairo - Immunity While not nearly as fascinating as Billie Eilish, neither did this bedroom pop singer go the full Jack Antonoff route like Lorde - and thank god! Her simplicity and faux-naive approach maintains most of the charm it had when she was just posting from her iPhone onto YouTube. Not every song is a killer, but enough are to make you think she can go further.

The Drums - Brutalism “I know some good luck/And a good fuck/A nice glass of wine/And some quality time/Is gonna make you mine/(But it's not what I'm trying to find)” - imagine those transparent lines sung in a sunny tenor to an indelible melody over bright electro-pop and you’ll get a good idea of what Jonny Pierce is up to here. The fact that he keeps it up song after song is something of a marvel.

Faye Webster - Atlanta Millionaires Club Ultra-modern countrypolitan stylings from a young woman who could be Natalie Prass's little sister. Then she veers into woozy R&B on Flowers, throwing in a guest verse from Father and reminding you that she really is from the dirty south, not just name-checking it in the album title. If her next album went even further in that direction, you would hear no complaints from me - although Prass might start looking over her shoulder.

100 Gecs - 1000 Gecs Cut up random notification sounds from your phone, loop them, sprinkle with some Raymond Scott fairy dust and beats from hip hop and digital hardcore, then .zip to them your friend. Have her auto-tune the heck out of her voice and sing and rap in ways that ride the line of catchy and annoying. Master for streaming services and ta da, you're Dylan Brady and Laura Les. This is pop, as XTC once declared, and so it is. It remains to be seen, however, if they can remain interesting longer than Sleigh Bells did.

Beck - Hyperspace As a venture into pop territory, this is often much more successful than Colors, his previous album. But it also barely recovers from the Beck-lite of Saw Lightning and the Mellencampian idiocy of Die Waiting. But keep listening, because the last track is one of the best things he's ever done. His vocal performance alone on Everlasting Nothing is astounding, but it's the lyrics that stick the knife in more than once. In honor of that achievement, I'll let him have the last word on 2019: "And I washed up on the shoreline/Everyone was waiting there for me/Like a standing ovation for the funeral of the sun/In the everlasting nothing."

P.S. There's more goodness from 2019 to be found here and to make sure you don't miss the gems of 2020, follow this playlist.

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2018: Rock, Folk, Etc.
Best Of 2017: Rock, Folk, Etc.
Best Of 2016: Rock, Folk, Etc.
Best Of 15: Singles & EP's
Best Of The Rest Of 14: Old Favorites, New Sounds

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