Indie

Steven Hyden’s Favorite Albums of 2019

Whenever I decide to list the albums I liked in a particular year in order of personal preference, I feel the need to give the following disclaimers. Though I suspect most people won’t read them anyway. They will instead skip ahead to quickly scanning my list to see which records that they like aren’t here. And then they will find me on social media, and say, “No love for [This Album That I Like]?”

However, for those of you who are reading, here are my disclaimers.

1) The point of making a list is to introduce you to at least a couple of albums that you haven’t heard, and will hopefully like as much as I do. With that in mind, I didn’t list some albums I really liked here that are also extremely well-known, because I gave preference to lesser-known albums that can probably use an endorsement more. However, there are still some extremely well-known albums included here, because I couldn’t bear to not include them.

2) There are a lot of albums I liked from 2019 that aren’t on this list. Not including them here does not mean I don’t like them. In fact, there’s a very good chance that as soon as this list publishes I will hate most of the albums I ranked here and wish I had included many of the albums I didn’t rank.

3) I am also guaranteed to hear at least five albums from 2019 that belong in my top 10 within one week of this publishing.

4) I also listened to a lot of music not released in 2019 in 2019. One of my biggest obsessions was 1970s prog rock. The three albums that were new to me in 2019 that I loved the most were Jethro Tull’s Stand Up, Steve Hackett’s Voyage Of The Acolyte, and Terry Riley’s A Rainbow In Curved Air.

5) Notice the headline says “favorite,” not “best.” This is a small semantic distinction that makes a big difference to me. I am saying these are the albums that moved me the most in 2019. Therefore, I cannot be wrong, because I know what moved me better than anybody else. However, I would love to know what moved you, so instead of complaining about a list you should share your list.

6) Overall, I thought this was a pretty strong year. I would get into a fist-fight to protect my top 13 albums, and a loud, potentially violent argument to stand up for albums 14 through 25.

Okay, let’s start ranking!

25. Sharon Van Etten — Remind Me Tomorrow

One of the decade’s quintessential confessional singer-songwriters made the best album of her career by playing against type, embracing goth-y synths and rousing arena-rock dynamics for a song cycle that reflects insightfully on the profound changes that parenthood introduces to a life. On the standout track “Seventeen,” Van Etten writes as well as anybody I’ve ever encountered about how having a child makes you re-investigate the lost parts of your own childhood.

24. Dave Harrington Group — Pure Imagination, No Country

A musical adventurer who has roamed in the worlds of electronic and jazz music, Dave Harrington is also something of a stealth guitar hero, a side that he indulges in gloriously on Pure Imagination, No Country. While elements of jazz and ambient music abound, the sensibility is psychedelic rock, with several songs veering into jam-band territory. Though the album ultimately resists all classification, living up to the promise of the title.

23. Pup — Morbid Stuff

These surly Canadians broke through in 2016 with The Dream Is Over, a punk-rock gut-punch set inside a burning house fueled by crippling millennial ennui. It’s not exactly accurate to say that they matured on Morbid Stuff , but Pup’s ability to apply knowing gallows humor to the vagaries of late capitalism and imploding global democracies steers the album clear of despair.

22. Young Guv — Guv I / Guv II

You might know the name Ben Cook from his association with punk bands like F*cked Up and No Warning. But you might as well set all of that aside when approaching Cook’s work as Young Guv. Instead of screams and bulldozing guitars, Cook has crafted the two most winning power-pop records of 2019. Fans of Teenage Fanclub, Matthew Sweet, and Material Issue who haven’t discovered Young Guv yet might not bother playing anything else for months.

21. Jessica Pratt — Quiet Signs

This beguiling singer-songwriter’s music feels out of time, like a dusty LP fished out of a thrift-store pile that stands as the solitary released by a long-lost cult artist from 1971. Thankfully, on her third LP Quiet Signs, Jessica Pratt only sounds like an ethereal ghost who can conjure long-disappeared worlds with only her guitar and unique, luminously cracked voice.

20. Thom Yorke — Anima

With Radiohead mostly laying low in the 2010s, Anima stands as the best music to come out of one our last remaining legacy rock bands this decade. When left to his own devices, Thom Yorke tends to dwell on small-scale, laptop-based music that willfully resists the bigness of his main band. But on Anima, he’s able to stay intimate while also reaching for outsized feelings on standouts like the rueful “Dawn Chorus.”

19. Brittany Howard — Jaime

It’s been four long years since Alabama Shakes put one of the decade’s great rock records, Sound + Color. With her mind-bending solo debut LP, Brittany Howard implies that it might be a whole lot longer until that band returns. On her own, she builds upon the experimentation of Sound + Color by pushing even further into the realms of psychedelic funk and blistering rock with free-jazz dynamics.

18. Strange Ranger — Remembering The Rockets

One of the most underrated bands in all of indie right now is Strange Ranger, a Portland quartet originally known as Sioux Falls that’s shown an impressive, ahem, range over a growing number of albums and EPs. On Remembering The Rockets, they revel in ’80s dream pop and delve into unexplored spaces between lo-fi guitar rock and zoned-out electronic music.

17. Mannequin Pussy — Patience

Marisa Dabice has one of the great voices in contemporary punk. Not only does she have the rare ability to howl in tune, but she can convey both aggressive, near-violent strength and severe, broken-down-sobbing weakness simultaneously. On the third Mannequin Pussy album Patience, Dabice pushes her vocals forcefully in both directions on a record that’s reminiscent of a bygone alt-rock world, in which artfully glossy art-punk albums were still considered pop.

16. Sam Fender — Hypersonic Missles

This British phenom has been compared to Bruce Springsteen, though his music sounds less like the Boss than The War On Drugs if Branon Flowers became the new lead singer. That should give you an idea of how rousing and anthemic Fender’s debut LP, Hypersonic Missles, is. Of course, there are also occasional sax solos, so Bruce’s spirit is there, too.

15. Bon Iver — i,i

This Wisconsin-based institution was one of the decade’s most daring and unpredictable indie acts. Coming off 2016’s bonkers and noisy 22, A Million — which is either Justin Vernon’s defining masterpiece or boondoggle, depending on who you ask — i,i put Bon Iver back in the realm of soothingly strange heartland prog-rock. While hardly conventional, the album had an undeniable sense of uplift that made it ideal for the arenas that Bon Iver packed this year.

14. Billie Eilish — When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?

Anticipation was high in advance of this 17-year-old phenom debut album, given that 2017’s Don’t Smile At Me EP — which includes five songs that were certified platinum — already made her a streaming superstar. Impressively, Eilish became an even bigger pop act in 2019, thanks to an album of remarkably assured goth-pop that hit hardest when Eilish whispered softest.

13. Mdou Moctar — Ilana (The Creator)

While the 2010s were hardly a great decade for guitar heroes, at least those of us who still enjoy a good shred could enjoy a wealth of wonderful, solo-abundant desert rock from Africa. In the wake of Tinariwen and Bombino making significant in-roads in the U.S., one of the most exciting stars of this scene in 2019 was unquestionably Mdou Moctar, whose blazing Ilana (The Creator) evokes his peers in Tuareg rock as well as the bluesy fuzz of ’70s era ZZ Top and the Grateful Dead.

12. Cass McCombs — Tip Of The Sphere

Already recognized as one of the best singer-songwriters in indie rock, Cass McCombs is also an underrated guitar player and all-around fan of the jam, a side he spotlights to a greater extent on one of his greatest all-time albums, Tip Of The Sphere. I don’t think I played a song more this year than he stunning, Dead-like single “Estrella,” which pits a bewildering tale about reincarnation against a dreamy backdrop of gentle riffs and warm organ fills. Listening to it always feels like climbing into a warm bath.

11. Vampire Weekend — Father Of The Bride

During a year in which several flagship indie bands returned after long absences, no group faced more pressure than Vampire Weekend. Six years removed from Modern Vampires Of The City and now short founding member Rostam Batmanglij, Ezra Koenig retrenched both by embracing the change in his life — songs like “This Life” and “Harmony Hall” are affecting snapshots of family life at the onset of middle age — and also nudging musically toward a laidback, somewhat jammy sonic panoply of R&B, pop, and soft rock that’s adventurous without ever being show-offy.

10. Richard Dawson — 2020

This British folk singer is a prolific composer who manages to take old music forms and twist them into new and often shocking shapes. On his sixth solo album 2020, Dawson writes about the weirdness of modern life with equal parts of revulsion and humor, while the music often takes a strange, prog-like journey toward surprising and uncertain destinations.

9. Pronoun — I’ll Show You Stronger

The greatest 1999 alt-rock radio album of 2019, I’ll Show You Stronger is loaded with extremely catchy emo-pop anthems that reimagine Jimmy Eat World with a Kate Bush makeover. Singer-songwriter Alyse Vellturo delivers her heartbroken lyrics in a husky voice that moves freely from a conversational whisper to a full-throated bellow, an emotional contrast with the mathematical precision of the shiny guitars and insinuating baselines that flesh out her irresistible melodies.

8. Jenny Lewis — On The Line

Jenny Lewis has written as many great indie-rock songs as anyone in the past 20 years, whether with Rilo Kiley or during her own prodigious solo career. But her fourth solo record On The Line felt like a culmination of a great career. Backed by an all-star cast that includes Beck, Benmont Tench, and Ringo Starr, Lewis was given the “venerable icon” treatment she’s always deserved, and she responded with a low-key but typically powerful collection of songs centered on her cutting wordplay and timeless swagger.

7. Garcia Peoples — Natural Facts / One Step Behind

This shaggy New York City band was arguably more thrilling on stage than on record this year, playing a series of largely improvised guitar freakouts at the NYC club Nublu that were recorded and distributed by sites like the great nyctaper.com. But on their own, these two albums of melodic and vibe-heavy psych-rock portrayed a young band in the process of a rapid evolution, moving from the Pavement-style jams of Natural Facts to the expansive and exploratory 32-minute title track of One Step Behind.

6. Diiv — Deciever

These dream pop masters are one of the most underappreciated indie rock bands in the game. (Quick sidebar: Their 2016 LP Is The Is Are deserved more love on “best of the decade” lists. Our kids and grandkids are going to mock us for overlooking it.) On their third album Deciever, they remain as consistent as ever when it comes to making zippy, catchy drone-pop that balances hooks and pathos like prime-era Cure, while also bringing a new sense of stability to the proceedings. For the first time ever after enjoying a new Diiv album, I feel reasonably confident there will be another one.

5. Sturgill Simpson — Sound And Fury

The crankiest, funniest, grooviest, synth-ist, and least country-sounding country record of the year. By decamping with his crack band to Michigan to groove on Kurosawa films and emulate the horndog blooze-pop of ZZ Top’s ’80s masterwork Eliminator, Simpson managed to draw a defiant line in the sand in favor of art over commerce, all while having an absolute blast. He didn’t thumb his nose at the Nashville establishment as much as disregard its existence altogether.

4. Various Artists — Once Upon A Time In Hollywood soundtrack

If I’m being honest, this is the 2019 album I listened to the most. Was it escapism to retreat into this vivid recreation of LA-area radio right before the 1960s came to a tragic, bloody end? Maybe. After all, I would love to live in an era in which there are so many organ-centric rock bands, hyperkinetic soul combos, and messianic Neil Diamond songs on the radio. However, escapism is fleeting, especially when the parallels between then — an era in which the public tried in vain to blot out war, social injustice, and extreme political polarization with junky corporate entertainment — and now couldn’t be more obvious.

3. Ryley Walker/Steve Gunn/Ryan Jewell — Flops In New York

No trend in music more excited me in 2019 then the small but growing collection of indie musicians who have embraced the practices and philosophies of jam bands, which included playing largely improvised sets of music that push beyond predictable live formulas in search of grand, risk-taking catharsis. And no album this year typified this “indie jam” phenomenon better than Flops In New York, a live album recorded in March by three of the best musicians working in his scene. Reminiscent of extended workouts like the Grateful Dead’s “Dark Star” and Sonic Youth’s “The Diamond Sea,” Flops In New York veers freely between freeform noise and thrilling, mesmerizing melodies. Each listen reveals a new fascinating path taken or not taken, as three musicians lock into a specific frequency for the first and last time.

2. Weyes Blood, Titanic Rising

One of the most acclaimed albums of 2019 is a soft-rock fantasia in which stately ballads are unlikely vessels for witty op-eds about the state of the world. But while I found much to admire about Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell, I found myself returning more to Titanic Rising, the masterful third album by Weyes Blood that hits many of the same bases as NFR with far less bloat. While Weyes Blood leader Natalie Mering has a penchant for grandiose art-pop, she’s always able to make her soft-rock epics about climate change and dead-end Tinder romances feel as snappy as a Carpenters oldie.

1. Purple Mountains — Purple Mountains

It might never be possible to fully separate this album from the circumstances of David Berman’s death from suicide just one month after it was released. But it’s worth noting that this record already felt like an instant classic before that happened. Berman took his time crafting these songs, his first collection of music in 11 years, which touch (of course) on the futility of life in the face of our own fragile mortality. It’s a testament to his tremendous talent as a writer, however, that Purple Mountains doesn’t merely register as a one-note downer, even in light of his untimely and unsettling death. For all of the fatalistic sadness that feels inherent to every line and note of this record, these songs also abound with great wit and even joy at all of the things that offer temporary respite from the darkness: a mother’s unconditional love, the way the woman you adore socializes effortlessly with strangers, a margarita at the mall. And the music is positively bouncy at times, making Purple Mountains the easiest entry point into Berman’s rich body of work. This album isn’t a suicide note, as some have suggested. It’s a last will and testament, a final accounting of a man’s incredible, terrible, hilarious, gut-wrenching, and beautifully human life.

Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.

×