It's that time of year again... to share my Spotify music playlist and album picks for 2019. Always a joy to share what I loved from the previous year. The video above for the single "This Land" was my co-favorite single of the year. Thank you, Gary Clark Jr. and Tanya Tucker for releasing two epic tracks. But there's plenty of young bands, new bands, and veteran artists rounding out my list. Feast on it. Dive in and swim around. These songs are good for your constitution. And your heart. And your soul.
This year I decided to pick just ten of my favorite albums. I've added videos to some of my favorite songs from those albums, too.
Brittany Howard: Jamie (ATO)
From the spotlight of the retro roots-rock stylings of Alabama Shakes that scored with their massive international hit "Hold On," frontwoman Brittany Howard steps out magnificently on her solo debut. And what an album. Top to bottom. Dedicated to her sister Jamie who died from a rare cancer when she was 13. Much to confront and unpack. Pushing boundaries and textures and tones, more sophisticated, but keeping it together with fantastic tunes, vocal phrasing, and smart lyrics. This is the sound of modern yet retro R&B/Soul and Americana filtered through modern production flourishes. Check out the mid-tempo single featuring actor Terry Crews above. And then listen to the guitar and vocal ballad "Short and Sweet" where she channels the ghost of Billie Howard wrapped around a tune that one could hear Bill Withers or Curtis Mayfield singing way back when. Simply stunning. Or the rap meets aggro-blues "13th Century Metal" collaboration with jazz keyboardist Robert Glasper where she chants "We are all sisters!" layering the dense tune with drum rhythms and pronouncements and a wicked organ loop. Solange's masterfully sonic palette comes to mind. 11 songs in 35 minutes. Well-worth every second.
Andrew Bird: My Finest Work Yet (Loma Vista)
Andrew Bird is smart. His music is smart. But he's funny, too. And did I mention that he's clever? And cheeky, too. Why else would name is an album My Finest Work Yet. And while the LA-based singer/songwriter/violinist/whistler's new album may be another feather in his silly cap it isn't really all that silly; it is mostly a memorable, melodic, and well-played and produced affair and thus worthy of my year's end list.
Wilco: Ode To Joy (dBpm)
It's easy to dismiss, or miss out on, Jeff Tweedy and his perfect rock band Wilco. He's always releasing fantastic music. And that's not easy. "Love Is Everywhere (Beware)" is one of my playlist staples. Comforting, like a favorite pair of blue jeans or that old cashmere sweater, it envelops the listen. And with Jeff's secret weapon guitarist Nels Cline, well, his guitar flourishes always add a sonic color that most bands would give their eye teeth for. Sometimes simple music is not so simple to execute. But Wilco were born to serve that edict.
Lana Del Ray: Norman Fucking Rockwell! (UMG/Polydor)
Her sixth and best album. Hands down. The opening track lays it all out for the listener. This is an artist who has matured in her songwriting. It may not be your cup of tea as this ballad-heavy, piano-driven confessional effort pulls no punches. Dealing with life and love as a grown up doesn't always translate to song for many artists, but this is sophisticated music. This is an artist at the top of her game. Moreover, I haven't heard an audacious opening stanza of lyrics since Patti Smith once sang: "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine" before ripping into her punked-up cover of "Gloria." But on the album's title song, Lana laments:
"Godamn, man child / You fucked me so good that I almost said, 'I love you'."
And on "Fuck It, I Love You" she laments that even moving to California doesn't guarantee happiness. No fun in the sun when it's all a state of mind. Perfect Sunday morning music.
Morrissey: California Son (BMG)
An album of cover tunes, twelve of them. But what a cool selection of tunes. And with "Moz" delivering some stunning vocals and his band's fantastic arrangements, it's a must-listen collection of some of his most beloved songs. Like the video above of the Dionne Warwick classic "Loneliness Remembers What Happiness Forgets" or the Laura Nyro-penned/Fifth Dimension soulful hit "Wedding Bell Blues"or the obscure glam rocker Jobriath's stunning album opener "Morning Starship." By the way, I would encourage one to hear it on vinyl.
Virginiana Miller: The Unreal McCoy (Santeria Records)
Italian Americana. With hints of The G0-Betweens. Formed in 1990, these dynamic Italian rockers released their 7th album back in April. It's also their first in English. Frontman/singer-songwriter Simone Lenzi is a true Renaissance man. He's also a novelist, screenwriter, translator, and actor. In 2012 his first novel La Generazione (Generation) was adapted into a screenplay and the resulting film, Tutti i santi giorni (Every Blessed Day), directed by Paolo Virzì, was released the same year. Lenzi worked on the film as a screenwriter, and his band Virginiana Miller wrote the title song for the film, which won the David di Donatello (the Italian equivalent of an Oscar) for Best Original Song in a Film in 2013. Regardless of Simone's impressive resume, this new album is fantastic.
Jerome Hadey: JHADEY (Villa Lena Recordings)
This is a fantastic chill out album even though it's only 38 minutes long. Released by the Strausborg-born, Tuscan-based DJ, composer, and cultural curator Jerome Handy. For the 38-year old it's his debut. Though he's worn numerous hats in the music biz, including a stint as Wu-Tang Clan's manager, Hadey has struck a real groove on this long player. Like New Order meets a hypnotic film score. It comes as no surprise that he studied under uber film scorer Hans Zimmer. Or that his son's godfather RZA guests on two of my favorite tracks -- "Tomorrow" and "Like Children in Candy Stores." Operating out of Villa Lena, his Tuscan-villa that he runs with his wife Lena must offer the perfect environment to compose.
Elbow: Giants of all Sizes (UMG/Polydor)
Elbow are just too good. This UK quintet do not release mediocre content. The Seldom Seen Kid Live at Abbey Road remains one for the ages, one of the best live albums ever released. This new effort certainly continues their trend of excellence. The mid-tempo ballad "Empires" could be the theme song for MAGA/Brexit hardliners alike, Guy crooning.
"Baby, Empires crumble all the time"
As is expected this is a true album listening experience to fully appreciate the artistry.
Tanya Tucker: While I'm Livin' (UMG/Fantasy)
Country as it should be. Heartfelt, no bullshit Nashville-cookiecutter crap. A mature woman singing her heart out. The confessional ballad "Bring My Flowers Now" -- co-written by Tucker with Brandi Carlile and Carlile's bandmates, twin brothers Tim and Phil Hanseroth -- is a song for the ages. Just Tanya's raw vocals and piano. And the piano, acoustic guitar, and cello ballad "The House That Built Me" -- written by Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin and covered by Miranda Lambert in 2010 -- is just as impactful. The album and "Flowers" single have rightfully been nominated for Grammy and multiple country music awards. The entire effort was perfectly produced by Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings. It's one of those classic country albums that will stand the test of time. Even if you don't like country, you will be moved.
Tedeschi Trucks Band: Signs (UMG/Fantasy)
If you've never seen TTB in concert you're missing one of the best touring jam/rock/R&B bands on the planet. Think Delaney & Bonnie meets Mad Dogs & Englishmen with one of the best guitarists in the world. They never disappoint. And that goes for their recorded output too. Signs is their fourth studio album. And it delivers. Eleven fantastic tunes -- soulful ballads, new jam band classics, horn-fueled R&B ditties -- basically something for every music fan.
Rob Baird: After All (Hard Luck Records)
If Steve Earle wrote and recorded a "break up" album, this could be it. Austin-based Americana singer/songwriter Dan Baird said in his press release: "Probably the only girl I have really loved in my adult life thus far and this is how we got this record." It sure is. You can hear his pouring out of all ten tracks. Heartfelt. Heartbreaking. His pensive reflection and ultimate acceptance of love's journey with the album's debut single "I Tried" is one of the best songs of the decade. Released in January of 2019, it may have been lost in the deluge of albums this past year, but it's a must-own.