As 2019 comes to a close, it’s time to look back on the year in music. As always, it’s nearly impossible to condense 12 months of releases into an exhaustive list, and major albums from Lana Del Rey, Solange, Angel Olsen, Bon Iver and more made 2019 especially difficult to narrow down — much less to rank.
This year I’ve chosen five releases that I found especially enjoyable or thought-provoking. Consider this an entry point to the albums, artists and songs that stood out in 2019:
Cate Le Bon, “Reward”
Apparently, Welsh singer-songwriter Cate Le Bon spent a year in near-isolation prior to the release of her fifth album “Reward,” splitting her days between writing the album and getting really good at woodworking, and it fits: There’s such an immense attention to detail in these songs, such a precise architecture, that it’s not a stretch to assume the craft bled into her approach to the music. Her songs are constructed like cubist edifices — guitars sound like percussion, saxophones sound like guitars, measures move along like oblong shapes.
For Le Bon, “Reward” feels like the culmination of a quiet but steady development that has spanned a decade. Sonically, it picks up where 2016’s “Crab Day” left off; that record found Le Bon beginning to exploit the percussive potential of saxophone and marimba alongside her distinctive guitar work. The new album reins in some of the more rock-leaning impulses of its predecessor, though, favoring soundscapes that patiently unfold over the course of a song. The scope of influences here is greater, too: “Mother’s Mother’s Magazines” and “Magnificent Gestures” sound like they’d fit right in with Lizzy Mercier Descloux on a “New York Noise” compilation, while “The Light” and “Home to You” hint at the reggae and dub that defined that particular era of post-punk.
Many of the tracks on “Reward” build themselves atop loops, repeating parts that might be doubled or tripled by other instruments in the mix, and it’s this sense of repetition as perpetual motion that makes these arrangements so mesmerizing. And there’s Le Bon’s voice, which is always front-and-center, calmly yet confidently guiding each song through its construction. In a remarkably fertile year for indie music in general, Cate Le Bon led the way in pushing its boundaries.
FKA twigs, “MAGDALENE”
Since the release of her acclaimed debut album as FKA twigs, “LP1,” Tahliah Barnett has stayed relatively quiet, her last proper release coming in 2015 with the “M3L155X” EP. But in April, she finally put out “Cellophane,” a stunning and minimal piano-based ballad recounting the fallout of a relationship. On paper, “Cellophane” is a fairly simple song — “I just want to feel you’re there / And I don’t want to have to share our love,” Barnett sings in its refrain — but her delivery, with a falsetto that spans two full octaves and moves ably between cracked whispers and soaring vibrato, registers the layers of vulnerability, anguish and longing underneath. Barnett has always been a good vocalist, but “Cellophane” makes a compelling case for Barnett — already an accomplished dancer, fashion icon and producer — as one of the great vocalists of pop music today.
The full-length “MAGDALENE,” then, has all the makings of an “auteur” moment for FKA twigs, as the numerous, too-easy comparisons to Björk and Kate Bush attest (apparently many critics have never heard of any other women). Each of its nine tracks is distinct and fully realized, from the hymn-like round of “A Thousand Eyes” to the radio-ready, Future-featuring “Holy Terrain” and, of course, “Cellophane,” perfectly positioned as the closer. In public statements, Barnett has framed “MAGDALENE” as a process of healing and catharsis — since her last album, she underwent a painful surgery to remove fibroid tumors and ended a very public relationship with actor Robert Pattinson, enduring the often-cruel, tabloid-driven scrutiny that came with it — and one can hear the pain behind these songs. Through it all, though, twigs is controlled and assured, and with “MAGDALENE,” she sounded like no one else in 2019.
Lil Nas X, “Old Town Road”
Yes, Lil Nas X’s record-setting hit is the only entry in this list that’s not a full-length album, but “Old Town Road” makes such distinctions feel hopelessly trivial. “Old Town Road” is a song, sure, but it’s also a living document, a meme, a case study in the uselessness of Billboard charts, a Rorschach test for seemingly all things cultural. (In other words, a music writer’s dream.) First released in late 2018, the single by the previously-unknown rapper dominated this calendar year like little else, moving from TikTok snippets into everyone’s ears before the fever finally broke in August, ending its unprecedented reign on the top of the Hot 100.
Because it was so inescapable, it’s easy to forget that “Old Town Road” is, at bottom, a good song: Simple, infectious and maddeningly slight in its one minute and 53 seconds, the track’s thrills come by way of an amalgam of trap and country signifiers — like Wranglers, horses, Porsches and lean — that have by now seeped into the collective unconscious of an oversaturated online culture. But despite its reliance on surface-level references, there’s a real earnestness at the center of “Old Town Road” that distinguishes it from, say, “Baby Shark,” this year’s other contender for most inexplicable cultural smash (and maybe most annoying, depending on whom you ask).
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Lil Nas X’s single may seem like an obvious product of today’s internet, but it’s also a reaction to a culture that endlessly recycles itself, where the kind of “real” experience his lyrics depict has been boiled down to an aesthetic. Who among us hasn’t yearned to take their horse to the old town road and just ride? Call it the “new sincerity,” call it “post-ironic,” but it’s that sense of simple relatability, I think, that made “Old Town Road” stick when others fizzled out. At least, until we all got sick of it.
Bill Callahan, “Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest”
“Well, it’s been such a long time, why don’t you come in?” Bill Callahan beckons at the beginning of his sixth album under his own name, “Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest,” which arrived in June. Across four sides that altogether span 63 minutes, this sense of inviting ease persists across each of its 20 tracks, which blend into each other like long summer days. In many ways, it feels like this year’s spiritual successor to Josephine Foster’s “Faithful Fairy Harmony” from 2018, another four-sided song cycle that begins with a directive to “come in.” Like that album, it takes its time, but it never drags: The recordings are appealingly homespun, the arrangements loose and unfettered.
“Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest” finds Callahan’s narrator in a state of domestic contentment. The 53-year-old, recently-married Callahan appears to have settled down, with a “little old house, recent-model car” to boot. The lyrics meditate on love, mortality and basic morality — “big” topics, but examined through the modest lens of day-to-day chores — and they have a deceptively casual, almost improvised quality that can only come from someone with a lifelong command of poetic language and a novelist’s gift for visual description: “Like motel curtains, we never really met,” he sings on “Angela,” one of a few songs here that invokes Leonard Cohen; later, he counsels, “True love is not magic / It’s certainty.” It’s rare that popular art gets made about the mundane setting of married adulthood, but Callahan proves that pain and struggle need not be necessary ingredients for great music. Sometimes, certainty is enough.
Purple Mountains, “Purple Mountains”
Even at the time of its release, “Purple Mountains” felt bleak. David Berman opens the album with the frank admission that “things have not been going well,” and track titles like “All My Happiness Is Gone” and “Darkness and Cold” make their message fairly clear. In the wake of his death by suicide in August, it’s now difficult not to read “Purple Mountains” outside of that context. But what’s remarkable about his final album, is how the songwriter — in his first release since Silver Jews called it quits in 2009 — counterbalances its weighty subject matter with an abundance of beauty and wit.
Even when taking an unsparing look into death, faith and the darkest pits of depression, Berman is plainspokenly observant and mordantly funny; his couplets have a way of knotting themselves in your head, conveying truths and impressions instinctively understood but never expressed. Meanwhile, backing band Woods lends a sprightly, NRBQ-like chug to tracks like opener “That’s Just the Way That I Feel” and Anna St. Louis lends harmonies to quieter tracks like “Snow Is Falling in Manhattan.” That song, a meditation on wonder in the mundane — in the form of snowed-in New York streets — contains a passage that’s worth quoting in full, if only because it speaks to what so many people found in Berman’s music, and what the world is missing in his absence:
“Songs build little rooms in time
And housed within the song’s design
Is the ghost the host has left behind
To greet and sweep the guest inside
Stoke the fire and sing his lines.”