2019 Booklist

My ten favorite books I read in 2019; naturally, given recent tendencies, more than half are memoirs:

10. Tracey Thorn, Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia
Thorn’s third memoir reconciles her past and present, with her teenaged diaries serving as a revealing jumping-off point. Ever perceptive, relatable and just a little wry, she details how she initially rejected a provincial life in favor of urban bohemia, only to eventually find a solid middle ground while also remaining a pop star (albeit a most unconventional one.)

9. Wiebke von Carolsfeld, Claremont
Full disclosure: I’m friends with the author, a German-born, Canadian-based filmmaker (Marion Bridge, The Saver). Her debut novel has all of the intuitiveness and empathy of her films; it also excels and engages both as a family kitchen-sink dramedy and via the rich sense of place in which she depicts downtown Toronto.

8. Susan Orlean, The Library Book
Only Orlean would probably think to write an entire book about the main branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, and only in her hands would it come off so personable and far-reaching. Anyone who’s spent time in a library whether as an employee or a patron will appreciate the lyricism Orlean locates in an underrated but vital municipal institution.

7. Hanif Abdurraqib, Go Ahead In The Rain
Following last year’s great collection of essays, Abdurraqib tightens his focus to an entire book about legendary rap group A Tribe Called Quest. Such is his talent and original approach to criticism/memoir that, even if you’re not familiar with the music here (like me), it’s not difficult to get wrapped up in the twin tales being laid out of artist and fan and how each one informs the other.

6. Ben Folds, A Dream About Lightning Bugs
Folds is so utterly himself—musical prodigy, everyman iconoclast, thoughtful goofball—that his own, often rollicking account of his gradual and relatively unusual rise to semi-stardom never plays a false note. Recommended to aging Gen-X-ers, power-pop admirers, recovering workaholics, divorced parents and terminal smartasses.

5. Andrew Sean Greer, Less
A witty comedy of errors that subtly reaches back to such luminaries as Wilde, Waugh and Wodehouse, it also somehow feels of the moment. Following his hero across several continents, Greer’s light touch, combined with an ever-so-slightly acidic demeanor proves irresistible—as complete and satisfying as, say, a Carson McCullers novel, only more generous.

4. Andrew Blauner (Ed.), The Peanuts Papers
How could a collection of essays about Peanuts, one of my favorite things ever, not end up in my top five? These thirty-odd pieces dissect Charles Schulz’s work in a myriad of directions, from comic precedents and critical analysis to memoir and even stylistic parody. All of it conveys that, twenty years on from its creator’s death, the potential Peanuts contains remains endless.

3. Guy Branum, My Life As A Goddess
Branum does not suffer fools gladly, which always makes for a refreshing, readable memoir; that he mostly avoids archness and navel-gazing makes for an uncommonly honest one as well. Whether dishing about former boss Chelsea Handler or writing frankly about obesity, he’s curious and stimulating instead of settling for bitter and bitchy.

2. Ruth Reichl, Save Me The Plums: My Gourmet Memoir
Reichl’s best book since Garlic and Sapphires, which also happens to be her last work-centric memoir, this is her long-awaited account of her ’00s stint as a editor-in-chief of the now shuttered magazine Gourmet. Previously an outsider to the industry, she provides a fascinating assessment of its politics and inner workings that, over time, turns into a requiem for a fading profession—with recipes, of course.

1. Amy Rigby, Girl To City: A Memoir
I didn’t even know this singer/songwriter, best known for her plucky 1996 solo debut Diary of a Mod Housewife, had written a memoir until I checked her blog a few weeks after it came out. And like Diary did for her music, this proves she’s a natural writer as well. Spanning mostly from her move to Manhattan from Pittsburgh at age 17 in the late ’70s to Diary’s release, Rigby both depicts a lost New York and completely nails the exhilaration and anxiety of being young and on your own and desperately wanting to create art and partake in culture when the everyday world makes it challenging to do so. It gets the top spot here because, more than any musician’s memoir I’ve read in the past few years, I’d recommend it to anyone, even if they’ve never heard a note of Rigby’s music.

Honorable Mentions: Ottessa Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation; A.M. Homes, Days of Awe; Emily Nussbaum, I Like To Watch; Kate Atkinson, Life After Life; John Hodgman, Medallion Status; Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room

Here’s my complete 2019 Booklist, with titles in chronological order of when I finished reading them (starred entries are books I’ve re-read–8 this year, which is twice as many as in 2018!):

  1. Susan Orlean, The Library Book
  2. Kate Atkinson, Case Histories
  3. Abbi Jacobson, I Might Regret This
  4. Rachel Kushner, Telex From Cuba
  5. Jon Ronson, The Psychopath Test
  6. Robert Christgau, Does It Feel Good To Ya?
  7. Geoff Dyer, Otherwise Known As The Human Condition
  8. Fredric Dannen, Hit Men
  9. Hanif Abdurraqib, Go Ahead In The Rain
  10. Merrill Markoe, What The Dogs Have Taught Me
  11. Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent*
  12. Ottessa Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation
  13. Elizabeth McCracken, Bowlaway
  14. Curtis Sittenfeld, You Think It, I’ll Say It
  15. Michelle McNamara, I’ll Be Gone In The Dark
  16. Tracey Thorn, Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia
  17. A.M. Homes, Days of Awe
  18. David Sedaris, Dress The Family In Corduroy and Denim*
  19. Paul Myers, The Kids In The Hall: One Dumb Guy
  20. Ruth Reichl, Save Me The Plums: My Gourmet Memoir
  21. Guy Branum, My Life As A Goddess
  22. Peter Heller, The River
  23. Clarice Lispector, Complete Stories
  24. Tim Kreider, We Learn Nothing
  25. Brian Raftery, Best. Movie. Year. Ever.
  26. Frank DeCaro, Drag: Combing Through The Big Wigs of Show Business
  27. Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere
  28. Ani DiFranco, No Walls and the Reoccurring Dream
  29. John Waters, Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder
  30. Emily Nussbaum, I Like To Watch
  31. Rob Sheffield, Love is A Mixtape*
  32. Haruki Murakami, The Elephant Vanishes
  33. H. Jon Benjamin, Failure Is An Option
  34. Andrew Sean Greer, Less
  35. Ramin Setoodeh, Ladies Who Punch
  36. Bob Stanley, Sleevenotes
  37. Leslie Marmon Silko, Almanac of The Dead*
  38. Douglas Coupland, Eleanor Rigby
  39. Kurt Vonnegut, Slapstick, or, Lonesome No More!*
  40. Kate Atkinson, Life After Life
  41. Ben Folds, A Dream About Lightning Bugs
  42. Tom Spanbauer, The Man Who Fell In Love With The Moon*
  43. David Crabb, Bad Kid: A Memoir*
  44. Wiebke von Carolsfeld, Claremont
  45. Richard Brautigan, So The Wind Won’t Blow It All Away
  46. Andrew Blauner (Ed.), The Peanuts Papers
  47. Patti Smith, Year Of The Monkey
  48. Amy Rigby, Girl To City: A Memoir
  49. John Hodgman, Medallion Status
  50. Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping*
  51. Lindy West, Shrill: Notes From A Loud Woman
  52. Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room
  53. McDonnell/O’Connell/de Havenon, Krazy Kat: The Art of George Herriman
  54. Vince Aletti, The Disco Files
  55. Alan Bennett, Untold Stories

Favorite Albums, 2010-19

Until recently, I was set on counting down my fifty favorite albums of this decade, as I did for the last one and the one before that. However, given that I’ve spent years writing extensively/exhaustively about favorite albums, including eleven from this past decade, I’m weary of saying much more on these long-players. So, in two weeks I will count down my fifty favorite tracks of the decade instead. I don’t buy into the death-of-the-album hysteria that began with digital downloads and seems to have swelled with online streaming, but I will argue that the technology often allows for a single or an album track to make a deeper, obviously more immediate impact than a thirty-to-seventy-minute-long collection of songs.

More about that in two weeks. I will never stop loving albums and ranking my favorites, but compared to the past two decades, nothing from the 2010s has hit me so powerfully as Automatic For The People, If You’re Feeling Sinister, Apartment Life, Since I Left You and Riot On An Empty Street did upon arrival. Of course, I first heard all those records in my 20s and it’s only natural that as I age, I should grow more critical and less susceptible towards the new, especially in how it relates to an already established artist’s body of work.

However, I still firmly believe in the possibility that my favorite album (or song) of all time might be something I haven’t yet heard. At the end of 2009, I knew nothing of Laura Marling, Nicole Atkins, Field Music, The Clientele or Future Islands, even though they all had records out. Then, there are the new talents that emerged and are represented below: Christine and The Queens, Natalie Prass, Michael Kiwanuka, Lana Del Rey, Haim—all of whom I suspect will continue releasing vital music in the next decade.

As for the list below, I struggled a bit with the order, for everything’s prone to change from month to year to day. Thus, I focused on albums I could see myself most wanting to listen to again and again, even after having already heard them dozens of times. Home Counties fulfills such criteria more strongly than anything else I could think of—I’m not sure if it’s even Saint Etienne’s best or second-best (or even fifth-best) album, but its breadth and scope effortlessly draws me in; as a reaction to Brexit, it’s also one of the more timely albums here, certainly up there with Running Out of Love, Record and My Finest Work Yet as something that one could’ve only conceived of in the past three-to-four years.

Some surprises here and there: Edge of the Sun not making 100 Albums but placing so high as it became one of my most-listened-to records ever; Random Access Memories‘ stature in my mind slipping somewhat, as its retro-isms still delight but no longer innovate; a handful of records from the first half of the decade showing up, despite not making my half-decade list in 2015 (most notably Tales of Us, Transference and The Voyager); only three artists (Saint Etienne, Tracey Thorn and Hot Chip) appearing more than once, as opposed to Sam Phillips, who had three slots in the ’00s list.

In any case, at the end of this particular decade, here’s how I’d rank my favorite albums from it:

  1. Saint Etienne, Home Counties
  2. Emm Gryner, Northern Gospel
  3. Calexico, Edge of the Sun
  4. Jens Lekman, I Know What Love Isn’t
  5. Destroyer, Kaputt
  6. Tracey Thorn, Record
  7. The Radio Dept., Running Out Of Love
  8. Roisin Murphy, Hairless Toys
  9. Andrew Bird, My Finest Work Yet
  10. Marina and the Diamonds, Froot
  11. Daft Punk, Random Access Memories
  12. Laura Marling, I Speak Because I Can
  13. Christine and The Queens, Christine and The Queens
  14. Raphael Saadiq, Stone Rollin’
  15. Nicole Atkins, Goodnight Rhonda Lee
  16. Natalie Prass, The Future and The Past
  17. Florence + The Machine, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
  18. Holy Ghost!, Work
  19. Hot Chip, One Life Stand
  20. Field Music, Open Here
  21. Tracey Thorn, Love and Its Opposite
  22. Goldfrapp, Tales Of Us
  23. The Clientele, Music For The Age Of Miracles
  24. Robert Forster, Inferno
  25. Michael Kiwanuka, Love & Hate
  26. David Bowie, Blackstar
  27. Saint Etienne, Words and Music By Saint Etienne
  28. Janelle Monae, The ArchAndroid
  29. Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel…
  30. Robyn, Body Talk
  31. Imperial Teen, Now We Are Timeless
  32. Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell
  33. Lana Del Rey, Norman Fucking Rockwell!
  34. Pet Shop Boys, Electric
  35. Belle and Sebastian, Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance
  36. Jill Sobule, Dottie’s Charms
  37. Alison Moyet, Other
  38. Sam Phillips, World On Sticks
  39. Future Islands, Singles
  40. Spoon, Transference
  41. Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires Of The City
  42. The New Pornographers, Brill Bruisers
  43. Hot Chip, In Our Heads
  44. Fitz and The Tantrums, Pickin’ Up The Pieces
  45. Rufus Wainwright, Out Of The Game
  46. Tegan and Sara, Heartthrob
  47. Haim, Days Are Gone
  48. St. Vincent, St. Vincent
  49. FFS, FFS
  50. Jenny Lewis, The Voyager

Oh, Tannenbaum…

The Tree, a few years later. Note the garlands!

When I was young, I loved browsing through the elaborate, backroom display of colorfully glowing, completely trimmed artificial Christmas trees at Stein’s Garden Center and Gifts. However, to actually bring one of those imposters into our home was entirely out of the question—we required the vigorous smell of pine wafting through the air, a splintery trunk dabbed with sticky sap and a ring of fallen, brown needles gradually accumulating all over the vintage Lionel train set I’d inherited from my Great Uncle Eugene. A real tree was as essential a Kriofske Holiday Tradition as iced and decorated sugar cookies in dozens of shapes, strings of multicolored lights criss-crossing the front windows looking out on 12th Street, or even presents from Santa on Christmas morning.

During the first or second week of December, usually on a early weekend afternoon, my parents and I would drive to a nursery or garden center—not local chain Stein’s, but usually somewhere out in the boonies to look for and bring home the Perfect Christmas Tree. Often these places would crank up the charm to justify their lofty prices. You’d walk in the front door and be gobsmacked with the smell of cinnamon and spice and the sound of carols and hymns; within seconds, you’d spot a dispenser of free hot cider to sip out of tiny styrofoam cups. I recall one place even had a real life nativity out back: a wooden enclosure housing a donkey, a foal and perhaps a Saint Bernard or a Golden Lab one could pet, pose and take photos with on a bed of hay.

Eventually, my father had it all figured out: the best tree to get was a Fraser Fir. It appeared full and robust, but its chief attribute was its most practical: firm but not too stiff, it had branches practically tailor-made for hanging ornaments onto them. Every year after our first Fraser Fir, we settled for nothing less. It cost more than the average balsam or spruce you could pick up at one of those parking lot tree emporiums that seemed to pop up all over town every November, but such durability and dependability was worth the extra scratch.

If my mom ever suggested, “Bob, maybe we should spend less on The Tree this time?”, my father would only have to remind her of the Christmas when I was in third grade. I have many fond memories of this year: I still sincerely believed in Santa, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever aired on ABC for the first time and A Christmas Story had premiered in theaters (to a generally muted response, but after that first viewing, my parents and I thought it was the Best (and funniest) Christmas Movie Ever.)

Still, not everything that year was as magical as fresh fallen snow or piping hot mugs of cocoa teeming with mini-marshmallows. For one thing, we’d waited a little longer than usual to pick up The Tree. Christmas was less than two weeks away and rather than make the trek out to one of our preferred places, my parents opted for a nursery closer to home. It was altogether fine for tree-shopping, cider and carols intact (but no living nativity); their selection might’ve been sparser than usual, but I can’t entirely blame that for what we picked out; I can only assume my parents wanted to get a tree right there, right then and not spend a fortune on it.

Nothing about The Tree we purchased looked especially askew in the nursery’s outdoor lot; it was only after we brought it into our home that we noticed something was off. Sure, it was slightly crooked, but my dad could easily fix that by sawing a little off the top or bottom. Only in the artificial light of our living room (extensively rearranged, by the way, so we could make space for it) did we notice The Tree seemed a little… barren. Not a pathetic “Charlie Brown Tree” by any means, but certainly something less hardy than we were used to.

“Maybe that’s just the bad side,” my mom suggested. “Let’s turn it around.”

If anything, the other side was even worse, with wide gapping spaces fully noticeable throughout the towering, triangle-shaped conifer before us. Undeterred, my dad turned it back around again and with my mom’s assistance, began stringing the lights—an annual ritual I knew to stay away from. As they wrapped each subsequent string around The Tree, my parents’ frustration with each other would mount and seethe until one of them would verbally explode at the other; from there, the arguing would persist until the last string was strung.

Hundreds of multicolored lights improved the tree somewhat but any sense of satisfaction dissipated upon the hanging of the ornaments, for this is where we discovered this tree’s fatal flaw: with such weak and flouncy branches, the heavier ornaments just slid right off. You’d put one of the wooden Three Wise Men or a miniature picture frame enclosing one of my baby photos on a branch and could practically hear the descending slide whistle sound as it immediately fell off and onto the floor.

We exhausted the ornaments small and light enough to remain hung in no time at all. Even with these and all the lights, the tree seemed only slightly less barren than when it was unadorned. Fortunately, my mom knew more than one way to decorate or fill out a tree, having crafted a majority of our ornaments herself. The answer that year was GARLANDS. Not strings of popcorn, as she had tried the year before, her fingers left pricked and raw by the laborious process of threading one piece after another with a needle and a string; no, something simpler and more colorful.

Armed with abundant rectangles of shiny paper probably purchased from LeeWards, she strung together one looped garland after another, always alternating green and red, green and red ad infinitum. So easy to make, she even recruited me to help out. We wrapped them round and round the tree and made so many we even had a few leftover. We proceeded to put them up all over the house: along the front windows, over the archway separating the living room from the entryway, around the latter’s sole stained-glass window. Practically everywhere one looked, red and green chains accented the interior of our South Side Milwaukee bungalow.

So much red and green, it brought to mind colors from the Mexican flag—at least it did for my father. When he first saw all the garlands that had materialized, he couldn’t help but start singing the chorus of the ubiquitous Jose Feliciano standard “Feliz Navidad”. It became a running joke up through and long past Christmas Day: years later, whenever the song appeared on the radio, in a TV commercial or in a store, we still associated it with those plentiful, chintzy-but-admittedly-festive green and red chains.

***

The Tree might’ve been that year’s definitive Christmas memory if not for what happened on the holiday itself. Rather than getting together with my aunts, uncles and cousins, the three of us elected to spend that Christmas Day with only my Grandma Clara. Rather than cook a big meal, my parents decided we would eat at their favorite restaurant, Jake’s, a steakhouse across town they had frequented since before I was born. With its elegant but homey atmosphere, baked potatoes accompanied by a Lazy Susan brimming with chives, sour cream and real bacon bits, scrumptious piles of onion strings (not rings – you could order a “Hill” or a “Mountain” of ’em) and divine Shirley Temples (we always called them Kiddie Cocktails), Jake’s was one of my favorite restaurants as well.

The previous Christmas, the temperature in Wisconsin somehow reached an abnormal 65 degrees; this year’s frigid, windy, well-below-zero weather was clearly payback for that rare, good fortune. The four of us piled into the ol’ Mercury Monarch, wrapped in layers of sweaters, coats, scarves and earmuffs and around 5:30 arrived at an unexpectedly empty, darkened Jake’s. Somehow, my dad had not thought to make reservations, or even call to see if the restaurant was in fact going to be open on the biggest holiday of the year.

As we sat in the car, dumbfounded, we had to think of a plan B: if Jake’s was closed today, what fine dining establishment might actually be open? Unlike Ralphie’s family in A Christmas Story, Chinese food was not an option for us as my dad refused to eat Asian cuisine of any kind after serving in the Army in South Korea in the late ’60s and having gone through an apparently traumatic kimchee mishap.

Mentally running through a list of reputable places likely to be serving Christmas dinner to the public, my parents came up with the Hoffman House, a restaurant inside the Best Western Midway Motor Lodge up on Highway 100. We’d had Sunday brunch there before, and it was surely open for business today, being inside a hotel and all. In about twenty minutes, we arrived to a packed parking lot, which should’ve tipped us off to the harsh reality that, without a reservation, there was up to a two-hour wait for a table for four.

We all got back into the car and onto the nearby expressway, driving to the other Best Western with a Hoffman House, this one five miles away in Brookfield; sadly, the wait there was no shorter.

Cold, hungry and getting desperate, we returned to the expressway in the opposite direction towards home. On the radio, EZ 104 played the umpteenth version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” we’d heard that year, its numerous mentions of “a partridge in a pear tree” and “five golden rings” (onion strings!) not doing much to curb our appetites. Nearing the airport, we swung by Country Gardens, a picturesque little supper club on the off-chance that they might be open, but no dice. Having exhausted a short list of desirable options, including a home-cooked meal (far too late for that), it was time to be sensible and succumb to whatever was available and close.

With resignation but also a hint of relief, my father pulled into Denny’s parking lot.

My dad tends to revisit the same four or five restaurants again and again (a proclivity I increasingly recognize in myself as I age.) For awhile, Denny’s was one of them, the place we usually dined at after church on Sunday morning (and plenty of Saturday mornings as well.) Earlier that year, en route to said restaurant in the backseat of our car, I once complained, “Argh, we always go to Denny’s for breakfast; Denny’s, Denny’s, Denny’s, Denny’s, Denny’s, Denny’s, DENNY’S!!!” Back then, my parents soundly ignored my rant; now, we were having our Christmas Dinner there. Given how hungry we all were, I knew to keep my mouth shut.

I no longer recall exactly what I ate at Denny’s that Christmas. I imagine my dad, sensing the utter disappointment in my face, told me to order whatever I wanted on the menu, so I probably had the Fried Shrimp (as fancy as the restaurant chain got.) I’m sure someone at the table ordered a Turkey Dinner and perhaps slices of Pumpkin Pie with whipped topping for dessert. The four of us sat in our circular, olive-vinyl seated booth overlooking Mitchell Field, the icy wind howling outside as yet another version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” (this one instrumental!) played overhead, occasionally interrupted by the resounding Ding! of a sign dotted with lit-up numbers, notifying waitstaff whenever an order was ready.

We didn’t dare try to eat out on Christmas Day again until my parents visited me in Boston decades later (and you can bet we made reservations well in advance.) We still reminisce over the year we had a crummy tree and dinner at Denny’s and yet—like all the Christmases of my youth, we were together and in the end, we didn’t go hungry. This particular Christmas was far from perfect, but in retrospect, it was still pretty great.

2019: Could This Be A Forgery?

2019 was kind of an amazing year for singles and tracks—so much that I thought about doing another countdown in addition to my top ten albums list. However, with the end of the decade approaching, I need to save some brain cells to assess that in a few weeks, so instead, here’s the annual playlist.

The first two songs are my favorites, both by new artists and completely out of left-field. Orville Peck is a queer, fringed-mask Canadian cowboy crooner, while Kelsey Lu is a Charlotte-born, African-American freak-folk original. Peck’s vocal on “Dead of Night” blatantly recalls Roy Orbison, Morrissey and Chris Isaak but when he shifts into his higher register on the chorus, it gives me chills like nothing Roy or Chris ever did (and like the Moz hasn’t in decades.) “Poor Fake”, on the other hand, instantly achieves soulful dancefloor splendor when the beat kicks in at 0:34 and approaches Kate Bush-levels of delightful eccentricity in its subject matter (counterfeit art) and bonkers spoken-word section.

Other discoveries this year: Cate Le Bon’s pleasant/peculiar avant-pop where at times her vocal recalls no one so much as Patti Smith (!); Weyes Blood’s own brand of avant-pop, as if Aimee Mann and Brian Eno had a daughter; Steve Lacy’s Prince-meets-Daryl Hall comedown; Maggie Rogers’ compulsively singable declaration of desire; Yola’s retro-baroque-complete-with-harpsichord-soul (“Faraway Look”, an inspired choice to conclude the rebooted, fourth season of Veronica Mars.)

Albums that nearly made my top ten (Vampire Weekend, Hot Chip, The Divine Comedy) are represented by their best songs, as are spottier full-lengths that were slight let-downs (Jenny Lewis, Marina (now “and the Diamonds”-free, to her detriment), Carly Rae Jepsen, The New Pornographers.) Also, more tracks not attached to an album at all: Sufjan Stevens’ released-for-Pride-month chillout anthem, another superb Jessie Ware single (when is that fourth album coming out?), an orphaned Florence + The Machine song preferable to anything on last year’s High As Hope, and best of all, another fantastic, delirious disco epic from Roisin Murphy, who actually released two of ’em this year—the other’s called “Incapable” and would also be here if I didn’t limit this playlist to one song per artist.

Go here to listen to my favorite tracks of 2019 on Spotify:

  1. Orville Peck, “Dead Of Night”
  2. Kelsey Lu, “Poor Fake”
  3. Vampire Weekend, “This Life”
  4. Robert Forster, “No Fame”
  5. Bat For Lashes, “Kids In The Dark”
  6. Tegan and Sara, “Hold My Breath Until I Die”
  7. Jenny Lewis, “Wasted Youth”
  8. Steve Lacy “Hate CD”
  9. Deerhunter, “What Happens To People?”
  10. Marina, “Handmade Heaven”
  11. Andrew Bird, “Manifest”
  12. Belle & Sebastian, “Sister Buddha”
  13. Cate Le Bon, “Home To You”
  14. Raphael Saadiq, “This World Is Drunk”
  15. Of Monsters and Men, “Wild Roses”
  16. Calexico & Iron & Wine, “Midnight Sun”
  17. Roisin Murphy, “Narcissus”
  18. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Want You In My Room”
  19. Lana Del Rey, “Norman Fucking Rockwell”
  20. Cigarettes After Sex, “Heavenly”
  21. Chromatics, “You’re No Good”
  22. The New Pornographers, “Falling Down The Stairs Of Your Smile”
  23. Guster, “Don’t Go”
  24. Jessie Ware, “Adore You”
  25. Holy Ghost!, “Heaven Forbid”
  26. The Divine Comedy, “Absolutely Obsolete”
  27. Weyes Blood, “Everyday”
  28. The Mountain Goats, “Younger”
  29. Hot Chip, “Spell”
  30. Yola, “Faraway Look”
  31. Alex Lahey, “Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself”
  32. Florence + The Machine, “Moderation”
  33. The Dream Syndicate, “Bullet Holes”
  34. Maggie Rogers, “Burning”
  35. Sufjan Stevens, “Love Yourself”
  36. Michael Kiwanuka, “Piano Joint (This Kind of Love)”
  37. Sharon Van Etten, “Seventeen”
  38. Charly Bliss, “Chatroom”
  39. Imperial Teen, “How To Say Goodbye”
  40. The National, “Light Years”

Best Albums of 2019: # 1

1. Andrew Bird, “My Finest Work Yet”

If you’re at all familiar with Bird, you suspect the bold title of his 14th (!) album is not entirely a ruse. With a back catalog so steeped in ambiguity, it’s hard to discern whether he’s playing a sly joke on himself or being utterly sincere. What further complicates matters is that, after a few spins, it’s apparent that this is his best album in over a decade, up there with The Mysterious Production of Eggs (2005) and Armchair Apocrypha (2007).

Ever since seeing him in concert about nine years ago, mesmerized by how well he alone held an audience while creating layers of melodies and textures out of a masterful use of tape loops, I knew Bird had a great album in him, which made the relative anodyne stiffness of his subsequent releases so disappointing. Happily, My Finest Work Yet takes a different approach as it was recorded live to tape by Bird together with four other musicians. Sonically, it’s warmer, jazzier and more immediate than just about anything he’s previously done while aesthetically still sounding like himself, his violin-playing and whistling intact, fleshed out only by a rhythm section and more piano than usual.

However, there’s another new wrinkle—while his lyrics are still full of metaphor and wordplay (rhyming “You were inhabited” with “I wasn’t having it” in “Olympians”), his themes are more overtly political. “Bloodless” ponders a post-election “uncivil war”, “Archipelago” notes, “We’re locked in a death grip and it’s taking its toll” and “Fallorun” confronts the “tone-deaf angry voices that are breathing in your ear.” From the myth of “Sisyphus” to the down-trodden populace of “Don The Struggle”, both the personal and collective effects of this country’s growing divide are clearly on his mind. Fortunately, he makes stirring music out of it—rather effectively on “Manifest”, which references climate change but also impermanence and awareness of one’s surroundings, filtered through a crystalline melody that could be right out of the Great American songbook.

Bird even approaches something like catharsis on rousing finale “Bellevue Bridge Club” where he sings the line, “By any means necessary” over and over, vowing to change the mind of a lover, a rival or perhaps just someone apathetic. Again, ambiguous enough to be any of those three options, but expressed with conviction and the idea that something is at stake.

His finest work yet? Increasingly and against all odds, I’d say so.

“Manifest”:

“Bellevue Bridge Club”:

Best Albums of 2019: # 4, 3, 2

4. Imperial Teen, “Now We Are Timeless”

Last year, I wrote, “It would not surprise me to hear about a new Imperial Teen record tomorrow,” and what do you know, less than a year later, I did. Their sixth album (and first in seven years) does not supplant their fourth as the one to get, but it rocks more convincingly than their fifth and that they’re still making vital music 23 years after their debut is no small accomplishment. They’re undeniably wiser now, but not entirely wearier, for their passion remains most palpable. Every track here is vital, with “How We Say Goodbye” a perfect, three-minute power-pop song surpassed by nothing else I’ve heard this year.

3. Robert Forster, “Inferno”

Initially, the title seems misleading: now in his early 60s, Forster approaches age with even more grace and resolve than those relative youngsters in Imperial Teen, rarely more lovingly than on the blunt but uber-catchy “No Fame”. “Remain” even offers this nugget of wisdom: “I did my good work while knowing it wasn’t my time,” sung, as always, in his inimitable Brisbane twang. But as one parses the piano-pounding title track, the insistent “I’m Gonna Tell It”, the content but not taken-for-granted “Life Has Turned A Page” and soaring closer “One Bird In The Sky”, his fire continues to vividly color all his hopes, desires, laments and epiphanies on this, his best-sounding record (outside of his classic Go-Betweens stuff) to date.

2. Holy Ghost!, “Work”

Earlier this decade, I curtly dismissed this NYC synth-pop duo as cheesy 80s revival stuff, so how is their third album (and first in sixth years) any different? Are they less cheesy this time out (for the sound is decidedly more-of-the-same) or have I come to terms with my inner self-hating retro nerd? Perhaps the wheel on this kind of stuff has just spun around again, but I would be lying if I didn’t say I’ve had more fun listening to Work than any other album in a long time. The hooks, from airy, downbeat “Heaven Knows What” to giddy, Human League-high “Heaven Forbid” (plus epic single “Anxious”) are all razor-sharp; that new ones still reveal themselves after multiple spins only encourages me to keep moving this album further up this list.

Best Albums of 2019: # 7, 6, 5

7. Calexico & Iron and Wine, “Years To Burn”

A surprise, belated sequel to their last collaboration, 2005’s In The Reins EP and something of a career-reviver for both bands. Predominantly acoustic, it finds Beam and Burns/Covertino on the same wavelength even as their differences are readily apparent. The former’s folk songs and the latter’s jazzier and structural experiments (like the three-song suite on the second half) end up melding into a consistent, at times shimmering whole. Reserved and reflective but not aimless or necessarily laid back, its sturdy presence seems to serenely reverberate right out of one’s speakers (or earbuds as the case may be.)

6. Michael Kiwanuka, “Kiwanuka”

Working again with Love & Hate producer Danger Mouse, I feared an inferior follow-up; fortunately, Kiwanuka again subverts expectations by going further baroque (seven-minute-long “Hard To Say Goodbye”) while also moving closer to a song-suite approach, with one track nearly bleeding into the next like ’70s Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder. And yet, he remains a singular talent—retro-influenced, for sure (“Piano Joint (This Kind of Love)” sounds like 1974 in all the best ways), but his sensibility and lyricism both feel present and firmly of the moment. Like # 9 on this year’s top ten, it requires patience, but it’s also easier to get lost in.

5. Lana Del Rey, “Norman Fucking Rockwell!”

As I hoped for last year when it was announced, her fifth album ended up her first great one. It’s still a bit too long (I would’ve preferred 10 or 12 instead of 14 tracks) but by stripping down her velvet noir to the bare essentials, she allows her ever-sharpened songcraft to be heard and deeply felt. “Mariners Apartment Complex” is still tremendous, but the title track (with its lovely Fiona Apple-isms), “The Greatest” and “Fuck It I Love You” aren’t too far behind, and I even appreciate the lengthy, wonky “Venice Bitch” in this context. Sure has come a long way since that infamous SNL performance.