It’s time to pause the top 100 songs of the decade list for this year’s best albums according to me, the kind person who has enough time on their hands to make a top 100 songs of the decade post every day for 100 days. Enjoy!
As always I give you the disclaimer, these are my favorites based on what I listen to, and even then I’m sure I still missed out on something in those genres. I don’t know if this year was weaker, I was busier, or maybe I simply was listening to more older stuff in anticipation of the top album of the decade list, which I’ll be bringing to you sometime after the new year, but I’m only doing a top 20 this time. I could throw an extra five on there but what’s the point if it isn’t actually something I listened to that much? Anyway, let’s jump right in…
20. Midnight by Stef Chura
This one I checked out in the middle of the year and went to the record store with the intention of buying it but they didn’t have it. (I did end up with another album from this list though) Then I kind of forgot about it for like five months until I recently saw that Stef is going to be opening for Against Me on their tour next year which reminded me to go back to it. I’ve been listening a lot recently and it’s good. Her voice has a vaguely Karen O vibe and the music reminds me a bit of older Speedy Ortiz. Those are two I like so I like this too.
19. Memory by Vivian Girls
Vivian Girls returned this year as if they’d never broken up. This one fits right in with their catalog. Complete with harmonized vocals and lo fi production. Glad to have them back.
18. Anima by Thom Yorke
Just in case your weren’t sold on this Thom Yorke guy’s abilities he’s released an excellent solo album without his band. This is up there with their last album A Moon Shaped Pool to me. It’s not Kid A or OK Computer but it’s still really good.
17. Satis Factory by Mattiel
Mattiel has a big voice and the warm sounding production gives this almost a Jefferson Airplane feel. The standout track Keep The Change is one of my favorite songs of the year.
16. I Am Easy To Find by The National
The National suffer from extremely high standards. If a new band released an album this good everyone would be very excited by them. We expect it from them, so much so that you could fairly easily make a case that this is at best their sixth best album, which only tells you how great their career has been. This album went hand in hand with a short film of the same name, the album isn’t the soundtrack and the film isn’t a music video. Some of the interludes on here are clearly for the film’s benefit and I wonder if you trimmed them away maybe this would have gotten a better reception. The line “It’s half my fault so half forgive me” from Not in Kansas goes right up there with some of my favorites from The National and they do some really interesting things with the many guest female vocalists on this. I’m not worried about the future of The National at all and I’m glad they’re trying ambitious projects like this one.
15. Violet Street by Local Natives
Another good album from Local Natives who are becoming one of the more reliable and consistent bands going. They always have great singles like When I Am Going to Lose You and Megaton Mile but you can also count on the album tracks to be good too. This one seems shorter than their earlier albums but what’s here is good enough to make this worth checking out anyway.
14. i,i by Bon Iver
This is the hardest album of the year for me to place on the list. I feel like it hasn’t totally clicked yet with me but very well could soon. I like the whole thing when I play it but then it’s like I have to remind myself to go back to it rather than being compelled to. It’s Bon Iver so there’s obviously a lot to sunk your teeth into. I feel like this is going to be a grower album that I’ll like more and more as I listen to it over the years.
13. Surface Noise by Judiciary
Now this one is what you see what you get. Crushing metallic hardcore that doesn’t reinvent the wheel. It basically sounds like Merauder with better production values, so … it’s awesome.
12. Schlagenheim by Black Midi
Black Midi got a lot of buzz this year and deservedly so. They do not play the genre of black midi, which is unlistenable but they do play weird, extremely unpop rock songs. Mixing tempos and parts, sometimes sounding a bit like the Dillinger Escape Plan, sometimes like an atonal Bloc Party. This is definitely a band to watch in the future.
11. Closer to Grey by Chromatics
Chromatics have been teasing, promising, and releasing singles from the album Dear Tommy for years and this year they finally surprised released. . . a totally separate album that didn’t include any of the supposed Dear Tommy songs. Whatever they call it you usually know what you’re going to get with Chromatics, hazy chill sounds that feel nostalgic for a time that never actually existed. Vocalist Ruth Radelet is the is glue that makes Chromatics sound Chromatics as producer Johnny Jewell has several other projects. Her vocals are similarly calm whether she’s singing over something that sounds like it could have come from a 40s pop tune or a hip hop song.
10. Crushing by Julia Jacklin
Julia gives us all the gory details of her breakup from her ex getting them kicked off a plane for smoking in the bathroom, to her worry about the naked picture of her she knows he has, to her friends pressuring her to move on, to her family flying in for support. She does it all while keeping the songs good and making an album I kept coming back to most of the year.
9. Atlanta Millionaire’s Club by Faye Webster
Faye Webster does about as good blending disparate genres as any one lately. This album starts out prominently featuring steel guitar and by the end has guest vocals from rapper Father that don’t feel out of place at all. At no point is there a shocking hard transition to a different kind of song. She makes me think of a country-fied Natalie Prass. This is also an entire album about a breakup, one that she has accepted by the end and even has a bit of a chuckle about.
8. Remind Me Tomorrow by Sharon Van Etten
Sharon Van Etten has been around for a while with a more folk singer songwriter style but this year she broke through in a big way when she added more production elements to her sound. Lead single Comeback Kid features more of a pop dance music style, Jupiter 4 stands out with it’s slow electronic sound, and there are a few songs that wouldn’t seem out of place on a Phantogram album. The album’s attention getting opening line on I Told You Everything is “Sitting at the bar I told you everything, you said holy shit.” But the headliner here is her song Seventeen, where she writes to her child’s future self, her own past self, and her mother at once about growing up and the thoughts and hopes you had as a teenager. Her powerful vocals at the end of the song are on of the best music moments of 2019.
7. Anak Ko by Jay Som
This one is the opposite of that Bon Iver album from earlier. The first time I listened I thought that’s pretty good but it didn’t stick out, but then as I got familiar with it I found myself listening to it a ton. It’s smooth sound is great for driving or just hanging out. I see this one staying in the rotation for awhile.
6. On The Line by Jenny Lewis
Jenny Lewis has been making great music for about two decades with her various projects but this year’s album might be her best yet. She utilizes guest musicians like Beck, Ringo Starr, and
Ryan Adams. Red Bull and Hennessy is my favorite song by her now beating out tons of great songs from the past. There are great songs hidden behind the singles too, Party Clown and Do Si Do are standouts and Dogwood includes the kind of eyebrow raising lyrics we’ve come to expect from Jenny like:”You cannot choose your family, oh There’s nothing we can do, But screw, And booze and amphetamines, oh”
5. All Mirrors by Angel Olsen
Angel has done it again, she’s evolved her sound even further and still keeps putting out some of the best material of any musician out there. Bringing in orchestrated string instruments, I don’t even think you could call this rock at all. Some songs sound down right old fashioned like you’d expect to hear in a black and white movie while others, especially album opener Lark sound unique from anything I’ve heard before. Oh and she throws in a huge single like the title track, as well as, other ready for indie radio songs like New Love Cassette, Summer, and What It Is. I don’t know what more to say about her, I think she’s a legendary artist in the making. Go see her now while she is at the top of her powers.
4. Eraserland by Strand of Oaks
Strand of Oaks mainman Timothy Showalter was considering whether he should even continue with music at all when he got an offer her couldn’t refuse, My Morning Jacket offered to be his backing band on an album. I like Strand of Oaks old material but this was a huge upgrade and it shows. Tim turned his doubts into a kind of midlife crisis album with lines like “the scene isn’t my scene anymore” and “I’ve got to get my shit together before I’m forty.” The excellent title track would have been a good album closer except he had the even better Forever Chords that features his best lyric yet “the thing about living is one day you won’t.” All this plus My Morning Jacket’s backup makes this easily the best Strand of Oaks album yet.
3. Purple Mountains by Purple Mountains
This is the toughest listen of the year. This album is a suicide note. About a month after it’s release David Berman killed himself. I wouldn’t blame anyone for not being able to listen to this. I had to put it aside for a while myself, it’s just too much sometimes but the music is incredible. Berman opens up completely in a style that is closer to Johnny Cash than indie rock. Songs like Darkness and Cold and All My Happiness is Gone are highlights. If you watch the music video for Darkness and Cold though you can see David undercut the heavy lyrics a bit with some humor. Margaritas at the Mall is about the soul crushing emptiness of modern life and now that he’s not here to stop it I’m waiting for it to end up in an Applebee’s commercial, they’ll probably skip that part where he says “how long can the world go on with such a subtle god.” This is a truly great album and also probably the single darkest album ever released, including Joy Division and any other artist who also killed themselves. Nights That Won’t Happen is crushing, “the dead know what they are doing when they leave this world behind… all the suffering gets done by the ones we leave behind.” In all seriousness, make sure you are in the right head space if you are going to listen to this album. I could see it weighing heavily on the listener.
2. UFOF by Big Thief
And so we arrive at the easiest picks of the year. There is no question what band dominated 2019. With a great debut album in 2016, a great follow up in 2017, a great Adrianne Lenker solo album in 2018 and this year’s two albums, Big Thief made themselves a contender for artist of the decade without even using the first six years of that decade. UFOF is the mid point between the band’s earlier work and Adrianne Lenker’s solo album abysskiss. This album reuses two of her solo songs and they aren’t that much different but they are unquestionably better. The band is so good at complementing her without taking anything away or stealing the focus. And she is proving to be a very special artist. If you don’t know her backstory she was raised in a cult, had a near death experience as a child, witnessed her parents abusive relationship, went with her father after the divorce not seeing her mother or siblings, and then her father pressured her into a singing career as a country music artist as a teenager, whew. So she’s got a lot of life to write about, no wonder Big Thief has accumulated so much incredible music so quickly. UFOF, which is UFO Friend, starts with Contact, a soft acoustic number that includes background shrieking, it then goes to the title track which includes “real” sounding UFO noises, the kind those History Channel shows tell you UFO’s really sound like, then we get the brilliant Cattails, a song I included on my top 100 songs list despite how new it is and I have no regrets. I could keep going, it’s wall to wall A+ material. I had this pre-ordered and from the time I got my hands on it in May I figured there was no way anyone else would top it this year and I was correct, no one else did.
1. Two Hands by Big Thief
I can’t even begin to tell you how excited I was when Big Thief dropped the surprise announcement of a second new album this year, this one supposedly containing the more raw rocking songs from the writing sessions the birthed UFOF’s folkier tunes. The single Not was too new for my top 100 list that began in October but it definitely would make an updated list that includes the final three months of the decade, no question. Two Hands is every bit as brilliant as UFOF though I won’t argue with someone preferring that one. The band described UFOF as the spiritual and Two Hands as the earthly. So it’s a preference, the raw and plugged in or the calmer and more subtle. Neither pick is wrong. The high points like Not, Forgotten Eyes, Wolf, and Two Hands put this album over the top for me but both are classics. 2019 was Big Thief’s year and as fast as they put out music don’t count them out for 2020 and 2021 either.