Instead of my usual multi-post countdown, here are my top ten albums of the year, starting at number one. Number two is not too far behind and was my frontrunner for most of the year. All ten are pretty good-to-great and those in the Also Recommended list are all worth a listen.
1. Beth Orton, Weather Alive
After Trailer Park and Central Reservation, two striking, genre-expanding albums she made in the late 1990s, Orton continued putting out new music every couple of years. Apart from a track here or there, she often felt like an artist simply past her prime even if she rarely repeated herself, often distilling her approach into pure folk (2012’s Sugaring Season) or something predominantly electronic (2016’s Kidsticks.) Her latest studio album (and her first self-produced one) is less a reset or return-to-form than a bold leap forward. It defies categorization as much as those first two albums although it feels part of a British neo-folk tradition reaching back to Fairport Convention, John Martyn, even Everything But The Girl’s Amplified Heart. Its eight songs unfold at an unhurried pace, with Orton’s piano accompanied by murmuring saxophone, gentle polyrhythms and a haziness providing contrast to the sturdy melodic foundations. Most remarkable, though, are Orton’s vocals—now in her fifties, she exude more warmth and also mystery than before, emitting sounds both mellifluous and occasionally harsh. Since its September release, Weather Alive has proven ideal Autumn-into-Winter listening; I suspect it’ll adapt nicely to Spring and Summer as well.
2. Big Thief, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You
A double-length album in the age of maximum streaming seems like a potential folly, although with streaming comes flexibility from restrictive formats which proves a boon for this American folk-rock quartet. Their appeal has escaped me in the past (perhaps due to Adrianne Lenker’s plaintive vocals or lack of a novel angle) but here, track by track, they produce a lasting impact. Tusk of all things is the rough template, as this also kicks off with a ballad (“Change”) before branching out in 19 different directions (from the downhome stomp of “Spud Infinity” to the loping, lyrical pop of “Simulation Swarm”.) Then again, perhaps 69 Love Songs is a closer analogue (and not just because “Wake Me Up To Drive” actually resembles The Magnetic Fields)—throughout, Lenker and co. convey the intimacy of people simply playing together in a room while remaining open to seemingly limitless permutations.
3. Destroyer, Labyrinthitis
Dan Bejar stumbled upon a kind of genius with Kaputt, his 2011 yacht-rock-in-heaven opus. While he has hasn’t released a subpar album since, his latest is nearly its equal for building on the bizarro-world New Order-isms of ken and Have We Met? while burrowing further down the rabbit hole without getting lost (even with titles such as “Eat The Wine, Drink The Bread”.) Gradually building opener “It’s In Your Heart Now” only hints at the odd but appealing detours he takes, from the irresistible extended “rap”/funk breakdown of the second half of “June” to the trancelike “The States” and guitar-and-voice closer “The Last Song”. Labyrinthitis is Bejar’s 13th album as Destroyer and it still shows more potential than most acts with only three albums in their discography.
4. Stars, From Capelton Hill
This veteran Canadian indie-pop band’s first album in five years doesn’t necessarily do anything new; fortunately, it plays so well to all their strengths that it doesn’t much matter. The primary mood is pastoral and reflective—similar to 2010’s The Five Ghosts, only more consistent and confident. Still crafting music swoon-worthy enough for a John Hughes film (“I Need The Light”, “Back To The End”) or propulsive enough for a home dance party (“Build A Fire”, “Hoping”) their unforced exuberance, boy/girl vocals and chiming arrangements never grow old. Now, they further benefit from hindsight and accumulated wisdom.
5. Alvvays, Blue Rev
This Canadian indie-rock band’s first album in five years positively deepens the twee wall-of-sound approach of their evergreen 2014 single “Archie, Marry Me”. Dressing up their perfect pop instincts in reverb-heavy guitars, nimble key changes and melodies stuffed with hooks for days, their tunes’ less-than-three-minutes average duration thrills like early Ramones. Vocalist Molly Rankin’s careening tone, however, remains their most distinct feature and she sounds better than ever, whether she’s aiming for humor (rave-up “Pomeranian Spinster”, the hilarious, searing “Very Online Guy”) or heart (“Belinda Says”, a sparking tribute to the lead singer of The Go-Go’s.)
6. Wet Leg, Wet Leg
Last year’s “Chaise Longue” is one of those out-of-nowhere debut singles so sublime it could forever prove a tough act to follow; while this cheeky British female duo doesn’t exactly match it on their first full-length (which includes it), they’re far from a one-trick pony, even if their sharpest tunes (“Wet Dream”, “Angelica”, “Ur Mum”) exhibit a similarly bratty reserve. Some will balk at them singing about getting too high at the “Supermarket” and dropping Buffalo 66 references into their lyrics but name another band this buzzed-about as fully formed and disarmingly themselves.
7. Cate Le Bon, Pompeii
A Welsh weirdo who makes recordings that sound like Kate Bush 45 slooooowed down to 33 rpm, I got on her wavelength with her fifth album, 2019’s Reward; this follow-up is not so much a continuation as a refinement. Strip away the occasional goofy synth or honking sax and you’d be left with music not dissimilar to what you’d hear on Sirius XM’s Coffeehouse channel, except that Le Bon often sounds like she’s happily floating into the great beyond. Thankfully, the playfulness and humor in sweet, if slightly off tunes like “Remembering Me” and “Running Away” or even the near-anthemic “Moderation” comes through.
8. Arctic Monkeys, The Car
I didn’t care about them when they were post-Britpop breakouts in the mid-aughts or arena rawk stars about ten years ago; their transformation into spacey lounge music on 2018’s Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino also passed me by. This seventh album, however, is enough for me to question if I’ve missed anything. Apparently extending the vibes of its irony-laden predecessor, it sounds completely out of time: wah-wah guitars, dramatic strings and Alex Turner’s Bowie-esque falsetto all suggest vintage American soul but it translates as something quiet, melancholy, almost unknowable and on standout “Body Paint”, soaring and majestic.
9. Jenny Hval, Classic Objects
Probably this Norwegian’s most accessible work (I haven’t heard all of her previous seven albums, though keep in mind her breakthrough was called Blood Bitch) but by no means lesser or boring due to that—not when it has a seven-minute tone poem named after an Apichatpong Weerasethakul film (“Cemetery of Splendour”) or the prog-pop epic “Jupiter”, a clear highlight which builds to a chewy, lovely mind-melting coda. Going for ethereal and bright instead of sinister and subterranean opens up worlds for her as does the world-music percussion and dreamlike chord changes that nearly seem like second nature to her.
10. beabadoobee, Beatopia
This 22-year-old Filipino-British wunderkind got my attention when, prior to her second album’s release, she remarked, “I’ve been really getting into a band called Stars.” Given her vocal similarity to that group’s Amy Millan, it’s not too much a stretch. On Beatopia, it’s merely a jumping off point. Sure, much of it sounds like it could’ve come from 2006 (or even 1996), but the guitar crunch (“Talk”) and wistful melodies (“Lovesong”, not a Cure cover) are everything one would want from such a formulation. Occasionally, she even transcends it (the lithe bossa nova of “The Perfect Pair”.)
Alex G, God Save The Animals
Andrew Bird, Inside Problems
Angel Olsen, Big Time
Christine and the Queens, Redcar les Adorables Étoiles
First Aid Kit, Palomino
Hatchie, Giving The World Away
Hot Chip, Freakout/Release
Sharon Van Etten, We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong
Spoon, Lucifer On The Sofa
Sylvan Esso, (No Rules Sandy)
Tears For Fears, The Tipping Point
Weyes Blood, And In The Darkness, Hearts Aglow