These are the 25 records that, to my ears, were the absolute best the year had to offer. As always, I’d love to hear your top 10 or 25 records of the year in the comments below.
25. Mike Mains and the Branches: When We Were In Love
It’s been a long five years since we last heard a new project from Mike Mains and the Branches but When We Were In Love makes the wait completely worth it. This is a wonderfully lush pop record brimming with infectious hooks and romantic lyricism. Its acoustic backdrop leaves no room for fabricated emotions or stylistic dominance. It was a constant listen for me during the Autumn season and I’ve only grown more fond of it since.
24. Common Holly: When I say to you Black Lightning
If I had to describe the type of folk music a ghostly apparition would create this would be the album I’d point to. When I say to you Black Lightning is otherworldly and twisted with an atmosphere that is ominous yet striking. The forest the record abides in is eerie and endless. There are as many roads out as there are unending shadows that, if you aren’t careful, will most certainly devour you whole.
23. Craig Finn: I Need A New War
If you haven’t heard the name Craig Finn then you’ve been missing out on one of the best storytellers in modern music. Finn’s bold yet serene brand of Americana rock brings his characters to life in a way that is genuine, earnest, painfully relatable and yet hopelessly lovable. On top of that the music’s rambling, organic style coupled with Finn’s earthy vocals is a marriage made in heaven to my ears.
22. Hallelujah the Hills: I’m You
Folk music is insane! Hallelujah the Hill’s latest record is just another reason Americana rock and country are quickly becoming some of my favourite genres. I’m You takes cues from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot era Wilco and weaves them with the sound of trumpets, raucous horn sections, and soothing woodwinds. Throw in some more engaging stories and gorgeously patient musicianship and you have yourself another Americana essential and one of the year’s best records.
21. Ithaca: The Language of Injury
You know that crumpled up face you make when a heavy, crunchy breakdown comes crashing in? Ithaca has somehow managed to channel that feeling into an entire 30 minutes. The Language of Injury is one of the most unrelentingly brutal hardcore releases I’ve heard since All We Love We Leave Behind by Converge. Yet, there’s a subtle beauty that ties the experience together. It’s a fantastically innovative and fun record that offers a surprisingly thought-provoking juxtaposition between carnage and grace.
20. Emily Scott Robinson: Traveling Mercies
From Americana to pure country, Emily Scott Robinson’s Travelling Mercies was one of those records I truly began to cherish as the year grew old. It’s beautiful and messy and honest and heartbreaking. The emotional heft in Robinson’s delivery has caught me off guard on numerous occasions. She sings these tales of pain, loneliness, and longing in the arms of forgiveness, redemption, and a newfound romance and optimism. It’s lovely.
19. Lapalux: Amnioverse
I’m not the biggest consumer of electronic music. It’s not for any sense of distaste or indifference for it, it’s merely a genre I haven’t explored as thoroughly as I would like to. Forgive me then for making such an easy comparison, but Lapalux’s latest record channels many of the same emotions and textures of Burial’s magnum opus Untrue. That I’m comparing this to one of the most essential electronic records of all-time should say something. This is amazing stuff.
18. Yeule: Serotonin II
Serotonin II is the perfect record to compliment Amnioverse. It’s a dreamy, haunting venture through the world of chillwave and electronic music. There’s a palatable tension in the air that only becomes fully realized during the record’s deceptive closer, as an unsettling wave of distortion and white noise distort everything you thought you knew about the album. It’s gorgeous and disconcerting, but above all, it’s a rollercoaster of musical excellence.
17. The Tallest Man On Earth: I Love You. It’s a Fever Dream
Kristian Matsson is just an absolute treasure of a songwriter. He breathes the spirit of early Bob Dylan with his strained, raspy vocals and tender (and often frantic) guitar picking. I Love You. It’s a Fever Dream is a different record for Matsson, however. Gone is a lively strumming that blessed The Wild Hunt, the romantic optimism of There’s No Leaving Now, and the full band approach of Dark Bird is Gone. I Love You…. is instead lonely and forlorn. It’s the sound of a man who has lost it all and yet, in defiance of the cruel nature of life, finds contentment in himself. I’m a stranger now! Matsson belts at the top of his lungs. But we will travel past the beating rain and be graceful, after all.
16. The Maine: You Are Ok
For most of the year, I did not like You Are Ok. I thought it was an unfortunate step down from The Maine’s previous record, Lovely, Little, Lonely. I didn’t like that it favoured bombast and anthemic hooks over the strong songwriting of prior records. However, with the help of some gentle probing from a friend, I came around to it in a big way. Do I still agree that the songwriting isn’t quite as strong as it was on Lovely, Little, Lonely? To an extent I do. Does that mean You Are Ok is not the most relentlessly catchy and fun release the band has put out to date? Perish the thought. Sometimes a full-blown assault of melodic glory is just what a day out calls for.
15. Opeth: In Cauda Venenum
Opeth continues being their quirky, creative, epic selves on their 13th LP. In Cauda Venenum is a glorious return to form after Sorceress stalled the band momentarily. Being self-produced was really what hurt that record in the long-run, but the compositions themselves also felt dry and uninteresting and it lacked the engulfing atmosphere of albums like Heritage or Damnation. ICV doesn’t quite remedy the lack of atmosphere but it makes up for it with some of their best-written and adventurous songs to date. Indeed, this is perhaps the catchiest and most cinematic Opeth has ever been.
14. Norma Jean: All Hail
Norma Jean is an unstoppable force. Scratch that. They’re more like an unmerciful hurricane that crushes everything in its path. All Hail sees the band firing on all cylinders, crafting some of the strongest, catchiest, and most pummeling songs of their career. They’re claiming the throne of the metalcore scene and you better be listening.
13. Lambchop: (This) Is What I Wanted To Tell You
A new Lambchop is always a lovely treat (the band is pretty neat too). In all seriousness, Lambchop only continues to warm the heart on their 13th studio record. (This) Is What I Wanted To Tell You takes the formula of their excellent 2016 project, FLOTUS (an autotuned affair adorned with electronic beeps and dings) and goes a little deeper inward, incorporating strokes Jazz and stretches of long, horn-laden ambience that recalls the best moments of Talk Talk’s masterpiece Laughing Stock. If you haven’t jumped onto the Lambchop lounge this may not be the best place to begin (that would be either Nixon or Is a Woman) but rest assured that the group are writing some of their best music nearly three decades in.
12. Seizures: Reverie of a Revolving Diamond
Perhaps the most difficult decision of the year was deciding whether Norma Jean’s All Hail or Seizures’ sophomore effort, Reverie of a Revolving Diamond, deserved to be crowned the metalcore record of the year. In the end, I went with Reverie…. due to its stunning creativity and unique aesthetic approach. Reverie is at once a twisting, ferocious pot of metalcore and a chill, jazzy dream-pop ride. While Norma Jean continues to do what they do best, Seizures are in the corner crafting something entirely new.
11. Glen Hansard: This Wild Willing
This Wild Willing was something completely unexpected from Hansard. For the past couple of years, this Irish folk troubadour has been silently crafting some incredible slices of music. However, This Wild Willing eclipses everything he has accomplished thus far. It’s a staggering, grand album, each song-every little adventure-as gorgeous and exciting as the last. “Don’t Settle” is a triumphant declaration that has held a lot of personal meaning to me this year. “Weight of the World” is a breathtaking slice of rambling ambience and “Who’s Gonna Be Your Baby Now” is easily one of my favourite vocal performances of the year. The way the romantic “Fools Game” explodes in its final moment is simply breathtaking. If this is where folk music is heading in the next decade, please, sign me up.
10. Big Thief: U.F.O.F.
Brooklyn’s Big Thief is a folk/pop act that has been on my radar since the release of their sophomore effort, Capacity, in 2017. They were a band that was always on the edge of their true potential and U.F.O.F builds on that promise in a way that caught me completely off guard. It’s reminiscent of the more traditional folk records that have come out this year (“Cattails) but it’s also incredibly versatile and innovative. The way the t/t ebbs and flows, “From”‘s off-kilter melodies, those absolutely gorgeous low notes on “Betsy.” There’s a sense of familiarity mixed with a yearning for adventure and mystery. I’m more than confident in calling it one of the best folk albums of the decade.
9. Courtney Swain: Between Blood and Ocean
If you’re familiar with the post-rock band Bent Knee you’d also be familiar with Courtney Swain’s chaotic, genre-bending style of songwriting. I enjoyed the new Bent Knee record well enough this year, but it was Swain’s latest solo effort that completely stole my heart. Between Blood and Ocean is fantastically unpredictable, from the beautifully ominous “Sweet Snow,” the funky, rock bite of songs like “I’d Kill” and “Don’t Look At Me,” to the explosive “White Trees,” a pop song laced with warbled vocal effects and synthesizer. It’s messy and disorganized and it absolutely knows it, which only makes it all the more exciting every time I hit play.
8. John Van Deusen: (I Am) Origami Vol. 3 A Catacomb Hymn
I feel like I’ve been waiting for years to hear a Christian market release like this again. Deusen released a beautiful and lyrically reverent worship offering last year so I wasn’t expecting to hear him go down this pop/rock-leaning direction. I’m at once surprised and ecstatic at the result. “Whatever Makes You Mine” fires away with some ferocious power-chords and yelled vocals. “Social Sucker” is one of the most euphorically catchy and lyrically biting songs I’ve heard from CCM in some time. It’s all fantastic. This record has single-handedly turned Deusen into my favourite songwriter in modern CCM going into the next decade.
7. Laura Stevenson: The Big Freeze
In an interview with Fader Stevenson made this note on the title of her latest record,
“Something about the big freeze just spoke to me. It’s so lonely, infinite, beautiful, and sad, but that’s the way life is.”
This couldn’t be a more perfect summary for this gorgeous, aching record. It’s a record that’s lonely yet at peace with itself. It’s immensely sad but, for reasons I’m not sure I even understand myself, I find it endearingly beautiful. There’s an endless, painful longing but there’s this peace in acknowledging it as if we know that this terrible feeling means the story isn’t over. It’s infinite and unknowably vast but knowing that the next step, no matter how small or insignificant it may be, even exists at all is something to rejoice for.
6. Origami Angel: Somewhere City
Who would have predicted that a small emo band that released a pokemon Gameboy soundtrack on Bandcamp would then go on to release one of the best emo records I’ve heard in years…..in the very same year? Somewhere City is freakishly good, drawing from midwestern emo and pop/punk that has a very similar ring to early Relient K (though don’t expect anything religious here). I’ve grown somewhat tired of modern emo and punk drawing from the same well over and over again, but Somewhere City is full of charm, superbly well-written melodies and out-of-left-field twists, and a genuinely emotional backbone. In the scope of its genre, it could very well be a modern classic.
5. Prince Daddy and the Hyena: Cosmic Thrill Seekers
Speaking of modern punk classics, the hilariously named Prince Daddy and the Hyena also released a masterpiece in the genre with the epic space adventure that is Cosmic Thrill Seekers. This is angsty, adolescent punk in its rawest form. It’s depressed, messed up, confused and disillusioned. The vocal performance is one of the ugliest sounds I’ve heard in music but it’s impossible not to love it. It’s so over the top and it just embodies the carefree spirit of punk music. It’s also the most innovative and ambitious record to come out of the genre since Jeff Rosenstock’s Worry, so yeah, I love this.
4. Great Grandpa: Four of Arrows
Remember the 90s? It was pretty much the best decade for music there ever was. This record thinks the same. It wears its style with the same sass artists like Sixpence None the Richer, The Cranberries, or Alanis Morissette displayed back in their day. We’ve been saturated by so many artists striving for the same success Phoebe Bridgers had a couple of years back that somewhere along the line, it all became a blur. And then this humble little group comes along out of nowhere to eclipse practically everyone who has ever lent their voices to indie-rock/folk since. If these folks don’t blow up after this something is terribly, terribly wrong with the music community.
3. Bill Callahan: Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest
Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest is an album about contentment and the mystery that comes after. Something so beautifully human can only be sung the way Bill does here. It’s pastoral, wandering, and beautifully understated. It may be a rather uneventful venture during the first couple of listens but give it a little time and those lyrical nuggets, along with Callahan’s warm, fatherly vocals, will move the soul. “True love is not magic, it’s certainty.”
2. Copeland: Blushing
If you’ve read my write-up for this record my adoration towards it needs no introduction. I awarded it with a 5-star rating on release and my thoughts haven’t changed in the slightest. Blushing has only gotten richer and more rewarding with time. It’s a heartbroken and desperate portrait of a man that’s realizing his love is drifting further than he can reach. The music is as wistful as it is intoxicating and the dreamy, blurry visage that Copeland wraps this record in is utterly spellbinding. Yet every time I hear it it gets a little bit sadder.
And now I present to you, lovely reader, A Diverse Sound’s Album of the Year for 2019…..
1. Jimmy Eat World: Surviving
I’ll be honest, Surviving had my AOTY slot filled as soon as it was announced. Jimmy Eat World is my favourite band of all-time. They’ve helped me through a lot of the rough, uncertain, and confusing periods of youth and Jim’s lyrics continue to inspire me and shape me as I enter adulthood.
“I’m gonna say it loud / Never define yourself by choices others make….you’re never alone in pain.”
Surviving is everything I love about music. It rocks hard, it’s ambitious (hello “Congratulations”), it lifts the spirits, it understands the confusion of youth, it’s love-struck, and it resonates with the human condition. When many of my favourites disappointed me this year, my boys came back just in time to remind me of why I fell in love with music in the first place. I would have adored this record just as much if I had heard it at twelve. This band has become a major part of my life and this record is no different. I guess it really is true that some things just never change. Thanks for everything, Jimmy. You guys rock.