The year that was 2019 felt excruciatingly long and full of terrors. Yet, somehow, the end of the year really snuck up on me. Usually, as the year goes on, I keep a list of albums I’ve liked and need to revisit, then actually do that starting around November. Unfortunately, some real life distractions and my own focus on getting my best of the decade lists in order resulted in me never getting around to a proper list-making process this year. So this is about as far from a “best of 2019” list as I’ve ever done, really it’s just the 10 albums I’ve listened to the most. I’m even going to forgo honorable mentions, because my list of those right now is about 40 albums.
I get it, every Cigarettes After Sex song sounds the same. I know people are going to complain about that. Both their album covers and basically every picture of the band is in black and white, lending even more credence to the argument that they’re just a downer of a group. But! I don’t know, I really like Greg Gonzalez’s super intimate vocals and the insanely horny lyrics. There’s even a song on this about hentai called “Hentai.” That’s pretty funny, right?
Basically, Sasami Ashworth’s debut album was my go-to “I need to have music on” album this entire year. Released in early March, I’m not sure what it is about this album that makes it so easy to listen to, but it sure fucking is. Sasmi gained notoriety as a member of Cherry Glazerr, having left the band to focus on her solo stuff last year. I guess she made the right choice, as her album is on my list and Stuffed & Ready isn’t. It’s also a pleasant surprise that someone known for being a wizard on the synths would make such a guitar-forward album, as Colin loves to point out, everyone else seems to be working their way away from the ol’ six strings.
Speaking of ditching guitars for synths, Vagabon. This second album is a bit of a departure. Did I miss the melding of indie rock and earnest insecurity of Infinite Worlds? Yeah, I think I still prefer her first album. But Vagabon sounds even more heartfelt on her sophomore effort, and is clearly pushing herself as an artist. I think “Water Me Down” is one of her best songs, and had a great time seeing how well it, as well as much of this album, integrates with her back catalog when I saw her live earlier this month. In Vagabon I trust.
If it wasn’t immediately at release, Anamanaguchi’s Endless Fantasy has become the high watermark for chiptune-infused pop. Since then, the band has been on an epic journey to make the followup, [USA], a title they maybe felt a little less weighed down by baggage when it was first announced back in 2014, before Gamergate, the alt right, and everything else I need not remind you about. The resulting album is more grounded, and therefore less fun, but in a very deliberate way. This album gets dark and scary in moments, and then also has a track with Hatsune Miku. I guess what I’m saying is that it’s more mature, but still goofy, like we all aspire to be. This is a bizarre style of music, and I still think no one does it better then Anamanaguchi.
Andy Stack is half of Wye Oak, a guy who can play the drums and a synth at the same time. So I guess it was just a matter of time until he put out his own solo album, which he finally did this year under the moniker Joyero. This is yet another album about breaking up and heartbreak, but I don’t think it really feels that way? It’s more just a fun electronic/dream pop soundscape thing. My dude even sings! He’s got a nice voice. Oh, also, all saxophone solos are cool, more songs should have them.
In the five years since Sharon Van Etten’s fourth album the singer-songwriter has taken on a few new titles: actor, mother, Angeleno. It’s enough to have made you wonder if she was going to come back to music. But of course she did, and in strong form. Remind Me Tomorrow came out all the way back in January, and, for me at least, never really dropped out of rotation. Also another album with a guitar person going more synthy to explore complex emotions! At least in this case, SVE has always been willing to get pretty real. Oh, also, “Seventeen” is a deluxe banger.
Angel Olsen just keeps getting bigger and bigger, huh? What started as lo-fi alt rock expanded out into the massive My Woman and then grew even larger with the addition of strings on All Mirrors. Where does she go from here? It took me more than a few listens to adjust to the scale of this new album, so here’s my pro tip for first timers: turn it up. Let it get loud. Go see her live, if you can. I’m really glad I did, she put on the most fun show I saw all year.
Here’s an extremely British concept album. Sometime in a dystopian future, WWAY HEALTH (short for We Worry About Your Health) is an alienating healthcare bureaucracy (thanks Wikipedia for that delightful summation) that unfortunately may become all too real as the UK hurtles toward a disastrous Brexit. Miss Universe is also notable for being the exciting debut of Nilüfer Yanya, a talented singer and guitarist in the mold of Mitski and Snail Mail. She’s one of those people who seems like they can do anything, which would be annoying if she wasn’t using that gift to share art with us. Seriously, how could the same person make “In Your Head,” “Melt,” and “Heavyweight Champion of the Year” all on the same album?
I can’t believe I’ve been sleeping on Helado Negro for so long! Roberto Carlos Lange has put out six albums over 10 years as Helado Negro, and by all accounts This is How You Smile is his best yet. If a lot of the music I like could be called “synth pop” this is like “synth folk.” It helps that folks like Sufjan Stevens and Jenn Wasner contributed to the record, along with a massive slew of talented artists whose names I don’t recognize. This is delightful, overwhelming, escapism in music form. As my old friends Siskel and Ebert used to say, “two thumbs way up!”
Since the first Bon Iver record, Justin Vernon has made an effort to redefine what Bon Iver is. Today, he calls it an amorphous collective, far from his guy alone in a cabin roots. Similarly, the sound has evolved from delicate guitars and vocals to something a whole lot weirder. While that strangeness took a lot of getting used to on 22, A Million, i,i arrives much more approachable and charming. I think it’s really cool how a song like “iMi” can seem so jarring and unusual but still retain the beauty that I associate Bon Iver with. One of the last artists whose new albums I always become completely obsessed with. I don’t want to tip my hand too much, but expect to hear more about Bon Iver from me when we get to albums of the decade.