Doing an annual top albums list for as long as I have one starts to see the true value in the exercise. It’s not the ranking, codifying or picking the “best” things so much as it’s about stitching together a tapestry of one’s year and seeing the patterns that emerged.
Much like in 2018, a lot of my personal music listening energy was devoted to my Before They Die list — a meticulously curated list of musical acts I need to see before, well, y’know — and I ended up catching 12 on-the-list and 17 list-adjacent acts on top of whatever other concert-going I did.
That meant a little less energy spent on discovery. It also meant if one pattern emerged it was that there was lots of leaning on the past. I don’t mean that in the Rolling Stone Magazine-will-always-give-Dylan/Springsteen/Stones-perfect-reviews leaning on the past kinda way. What it did mean, though, was there were a lot of albums that could be argued represent new forms of things I’ve enjoyed in the past.
Read below to see the patterns that emerged.
Bubbling under for 2019: Abjects, Geoff Berner, Sondra Sun-Odeon, Mimico, Jacques Greene, King Gizzard, De la Noche, PUP, Wargirl. (Also, Thus Owls’ The Mountain That We Live Upon probably would have been my #3 but it came out in Sept. 2018 and that was just too 2018.)
10) Mercury Rev — Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete Revisited
The best part of an album isn’t always the album itself, so much as the sense of discovery around the album. Mercury Rev redoing Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete with a cast of guest vocalists not only serves as a wonderful intro to Gentry, but also makes a wonderful entry point for contributors like Margo Price, Carice van Houten (Melisandre from Game of Thrones can sing?) and Phoebe Bridgers.
Hear “Sermon” ft Margo Price
9) Angel Olsen — All Mirrors
Sometimes when I play Fantasy A&R Man the best idea I can come up with is “a new Connie Francis… but goth.” There are points on Angel Olsen’s All Mirrors where she comes this close.
Watch “All Mirrors”
8) Murray Lightburn — Hear Me Out
I’m a firm Dears loyalist and might consider them my favourite Canadian band. However, my acceptance of their transition from an early days chaotic bombast machine to something with more dignity and refinement has been hard won. So it was a touch surprising that Lightburn lead singer Murray Lightburn’s bombast-free second solo album would strike so deep. What Lightburn gives us — “I Give Up” is a soul ballad from another time, “I’m Not Broken” has knowing gospel touches — paints with just enough different colours to enthrall.
Watch “Changed My Ways”
7) Rustin Man — Drift Code
This record is quite literally the output of a wobbly old weirdo who spent two decades building a science project in his back shed. Read my full review here.
Watch “Judgement Train”
6) Tallies — Tallies
It’s been a slow and not absolute process, but I’m on my way to divesting from Morrissey because of his terrible politics and worldview and middling late-period music. Having an act like Tallies and songs like the jangle gem “Midnight” help soften this transition.
5) Deadbeat Beat — How Far
If you like Sloan’s Jay songs you’ll love Deadbeat Beat’s How Far. I’m particularly partial to “Dim Bulbs.”
Watch “You Lift Me Up”
4) Michael Kiwanuka — Kiwanuka
This new Kiwanuka album is exquisite — a majestic, soaring, hands-held-high sermon from Mt. Soul. The brilliance of the individual bits of this record are only half the story, though. The other half comes from basking in the glow of the brilliant craftsmanship. Kiwanuka is a master of his domain and to be able to witness such excellence is its own type of reward.
Watch “You Ain’t The Problem”
3) Moonface — This One’s for the Dancer & This One’s for the Dancer’s Bouquet
Technically, this was a late 2018 release, but I didn’t really tweak to it until well into 2019. And yes, I realize that it’s near hypocritical to endorse Moonface while disqualifying Thus Owls, but it’s my list and my rules, so suck it.
This One’s for the Dancer & This One’s for the Dancer’s Bouquet is a fascinator. It’s two separate projects — half a delayed keyboard treatment audio experiment, and half songs sung from the perspective of the Minotaur of Greek mythology — woven together to create something otherworldly and unique. The Minotaur songs strike particularly deeply. For a giant, blood-thirsty, bull-headed beast, the Minotaur’s journey forgiving all those who’ve hurt it is one of the most genuine, better and human set of stories I’ve heard put to song.
Watch “Minotaur Forgiving Knossos”
2) Hawksley Workman — Median Age Wasteland
In the year 2019 I was not expecting to a) rate a Hawksley Workman album so highly, and b) to feel it so deeply. And yet here we are.
To be fair, I’ve always been casually fond of Workman’s dandy woodsman idiosyncrasy, but with Median Age Wasteland he seems optimized. Having the above-mentioned Murray Lightburn on production probably helped. Certainly Workman’s vocals are both torqued up and focused in ways they may not have been in the past. Where Median Age Wasteland truly stands out, though, is in the storytelling. Whether it’s the mythologizing of a snowmobile (“Snowmobile”), the joyful BMX bike gang journeying (“Battlefords”), the tributes to forgotten figure skaters (“Oksana”) or even the outwardly ludicrous (“Stoners Never Dream”), Workman takes us to fantastical places with each and every song.
1) Julia Jacklin — Crushing
At the 4:27 mark of Jacklin’s “Don’t Know How To Keep Loving You” she delivers a series of repeated “don’t. know. how. to. keep. loving. you” lines so charged, so gut-wrenching you can’t help but worry if Jacklin will ever find her way. The entire Crushing album is filled with these emotion-charged bombs as Jacklin explores unraveling relationships, personal agency, hurt and self-healing in an unflinchingly beautiful way.
Watch “Don’t Know How To Keep Loving You”
Other album lists…
2018 Top Ten — Idles’ Joy As An Act Of Resistance. is #1
2017 Top Ten — Land Of Talk’s Life After Youth is #1
2016 Top Ten — Daniel Romano‘s Mosey is #1
2015 Top Ten — SUUNS + Jerusalem In My Heart’s SUUNS + Jerusalem In My Heart is #1
2014 Top Ten — Sharon Van Etten’s Are We There is #1
2013 Top Ten — M.I.A.’s Matangi is #1
2012 Top Ten — Dirty Ghosts’ Metal Moon is #1
2011 Top Ten — Timber Timbre’s Creep On Creepin’ On is #1
2010 Top Ten — The Black Angels’ Phosphene Dream is #1
2009 Top Ten — Gallows’ Grey Britain is #1
2008 Top Ten — Portishead’s Third is #1
2007 Top Ten — Joel Plaskett Emergency’s Ashtray Rock is #1
2006 Top Ten — My Brightest Diamond’s Bring Me The Workhorse is #1
2005 Top Ten — Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s Howl is #1
2004 Top Ten — Morrissey’s You Are The Quarry is #1
2003 Top Ten — The Dears’ No Cities Left is #1
2002 Top Ten — Archive’s You All Look The Same To Me is #1
2001 Top Ten — Gord Downie’s Coke Machine Glow is #1
2000 Top Ten — Songs: Ohia’s The Lioness is #1
1999 Top Ten — The Boo Radleys’ Kingsize is #1
1998 Top Ten — Baxter’s Baxter is #1
1996 Top Ten — Tricky’s Maxinquaye is #1