Well here we are. Another top ten in another year. Some of this year’s choices surprised even me, and I’m the guy doing the choosing. I had a hard time with this list because while a lot of stuff got my attention, not as much grabbed me in a way that I thought it was a top-ten contender. But those that got there got there in a big way–some of them released within a week or two of compiling the list! As in past years, I’m about to be WAY too wordy about it, but in brief, here’s the list.
Top Ten of 2019:
- Amanda Palmer – “There Will Be No Intermission”
- The Who – “WHO”
- The Cranberries – “In the End”
- Leonard Cohen – “Thanks for the Dance”
- Guided By Voices (three releases/tie) – “Zeppelin Over China,” “Warp and Woof,” & “Sweating the Plague”
- The Get Up Kids – “Problems”
- Joe Jackson – “Fool”
- Eli “Paperboy” Reed – “99 Cent Dreams”
- The Hold Steady – “Thrashing Thru the Passion”
- King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard – “Infest the Rats’ Nest”
Favorite Concert of the Year: The Who in St. Louis back in May. But seeing Cheap Trick for the first time in maybe close to 10 years was a lot of fun, too.
As I said, this year had a LOT of releases I liked but only some that were ever really in the running. As the year wore on I started to get worried that I might not even have ten. Maybe I’d only be doing a top 5. But the list eventually rounded itself out and I’ve even got another ten I want to talk about below, making it a “top 20” of sorts, even though the latter 10 aren’t really in a particular order, and I’m going to be very brief about them. But first the top ten.
Even though it wasn’t a release I was initially very excited about and even though I knew there was a Who album coming later in the year, Amanda Palmer’s “There Will Be No Intermission” knocked me on the floor the first time I heard it and I don’t think I’ve ever gotten back up. It’s very sparse–some songs being only piano and vocal or her signature ukulele and vocal–and that’s part of the appeal because it vastly helps the delivery. But what’s really going on here is some of the most gripping lyrics I’ve heard in several years, delivered by a woman who goes back and forth between nearly shouting and nearly crying at every line.
Calling it an “emotional listen” is a massive undersell. This album sets a new standard for self-revealing lyrics as Palmer (AKA “Amanda Fucking Palmer” to fans) writes about being unsure of if she’s a good parent in “A Mother’s Confession.” And it also sets a new standard for how to address abortion not only as an artist, but a friend in “Voicemail for Jill.” I can’t honestly say that I’m going to listen to it a lot because it’s genuinely devastating in places. But I can say this is hands-down the most important thing that came out all year. That the cover is Amanda in the nude, raising a sword above her head is a perfect metaphor for the work she did here. And it’s also the most Amanda Fucking Palmer album cover I’ve ever seen.
It’s of some surprise to me that anything in the world could’ve placed higher on a Derek Brink Top Ten list than a new album by The Who but the Palmer album is untouchable just in terms of social relevance. Nevertheless, in at #2 is The Who – “WHO.” In their first album since 2006’s “The Endless Wire” (which apparently was written exclusively for me) The Who returns with a corker! The first time I played it, I played it as loud as I could stand it and the low end of the album is so present it shook the room. They mixed this like they MEANT it. Less thematic than some of their best known work and with really only one track I might consider skipping (the last one), it’s an explosive, meaningful listen that is 100% The Who. (As a side note–I can’t believe I’m saying this–but I prefer the standard edition to the one with the bonus tracks!)
Daltrey’s vocals still soar above the mix like no other singer could hope to do. Townshend’s backing vocals still add a ton of depth and his guitar still screams almost as loud as Roger–maybe sometimes louder. And the current band does a great job keeping it all together, but still leaving enough room that it all might fall apart at any moment. And that’s why we love The Who–the music sounds like it’s dangerous. Though it just barely didn’t reach the top spot, “WHO” will definitely be the album that I listen to the most from the year’s releases. I have so much more I want to say about this one, but for the sake of space, let’s move on.
And we’re moving somewhere a lot safer, though also in many ways sadder, as we come to my choice for #3 in The Cranberries – “In the End.” It’s sad because this is definitively their final album, following the untimely and accidental death of lead singer and principle songwriter Dolores O’Riordan in 2018. Thankfully she’d done enough work on the new album before passing away that the rest of the band was able to complete it. And it stands as a wonderful tribute to her life and work. Sad and sweet lyrics that were always her forte, but become much more poignant with her passing. Catchy hooks that have kept fans tuned in ever since the first time they heard “Linger” (or “Zombie” or whatever). This is a perfect Cranberries record. If they had to go out, this was a good way to go. We’ll miss you forever, Dolores.
Another person we’re going to miss forever is Leonard Cohen, whose new/final album “Thanks for the Dance” also came out this year. (This list gets sad in that way.) When I first heard about it I was afraid it would be a cobbled together “outtakes” album, but the Cohen family assured fans that this isn’t an album of leftovers but is instead “the master’s final collection of songs.” And thank goodness for that. It’s a chilling and moving farewell from a poet and writer who has done more to shape my philosophy than any theologian. I don’t know if it’s an entry point for anyone who doesn’t know his work…I think it works better if you have a relationship with Cohen’s songs and then view it as a goodbye letter. But it is haunting and beautiful. And I regret that I bought it on CD instead of vinyl. (Might have to correct that.) Sparse with the main thrust of the mix being Leonard’s deep, soulfully sad voice, it wraps around the listener the way a final hug before getting in the car for the long drive home should.
But let’s cheer up a bit… I’m cheating with my choice for #5. Because I’ve had to number them “5a, 5b, and 5c.” Because that’s really the only way to deal with Guided By Voices, who’ve released three full-length albums this year in “Zeppelin Over China,” “Warp and Woof,” and “Sweating the Plague.” Of the three, “Plague” is the best and most focused in my opinion. But all three are good rock albums invoking tones of Bowie while still being rooted in 90s lo-fi. And really if you took all three, brushed away the chaff and made a compilation of just the BEST songs off each album, you’d have one fucking GREAT one. So that’s how I’m justifying putting all three into one entry on the list.
In at #6 is The Get Up Kids with their new record “Problems.” I’ve been a Get Up Kids fan for probably close to 20 years. Followed them through their hiatus and into the reunion. Didn’t love the first album after they got back together, but I love this one. Part of the appeal of the GUK’s for me is that their lyrics often seem to intersect with specific details in my own life that they couldn’t have possibly known about. And that’s all over this album. It’s punky but also sentimental without ever losing its sense of fun. Good stuff.
One of the albums I wouldn’t have imagined being on the list or even imagined BUYING when the year started without being prompted comes in at #7. I’ve never been too big a Joe Jackson fan, previously only being familiar with 80s radio single “Is She Really Going Out With Him,” but that all changed this year with the release of “Fool.” It turns out my brother Dave is a huge Joe Jackson fan. He told me recently that Joe Jackson is to him what Elvis Costello is to me. So I get it. He highly recommended Joe’s new one and I gave it a shot…and it shot into the top 10. The thing that blows me away about it is that the mix sounds like you’re right there in the room with the band at ANY VOLUME. Trust me, that’s hard to do. The songs bounce back and forth between fun and lighthearted and deeply serious but all sound like they’re from the same spirit. That’s hard to do too. Clearly still rooted in 80s structure, but feeling wholly modern in tone, “Fool” is a big winner for me and has made me dig deeper into Jackson’s back catalogue. Thanks for the recommendation, Dave.
One of the other big surprises of the year was Eli “Paperboy” Reed’s “99 Cent Dreams.” I obtained it because I signed up for YepRoc records’ “Completist Club” where they send you everything they put out on the label for the year. I ended up being very underwhelmed by not only many of the releases but also by the service of the label and empty promises made…but that’s a different subject. What did knock me off my feet was Reed’s latest release. Rooted in a different generation’s danceable pop music, Reed is a throwback to a time I hope music can revisit again soon, where people actually enjoy listening to it. Fun and upbeat retro-rock that had me bouncing up and down while I did my dishes the first time I listened and has been a fun one to go back to ever since.
Another one I’ve been returning to a lot since it came out is The Hold Steady’s “Thrashing Thru the Passion” which came in at #9. Dumb title aside, it touches all of the beats that I’ve loved on THS’s other releases, all in one package. Meaningful lyrics, uptempo rock songs you’d die to defend, and some quiet moments you’ll ponder over your glass of whiskey (or whatever’s your poison). Part of me feels like the album should be ineligible because half of it came out as singles the year before, but I’m overlooking that because there’s enough new material to justify it and also because shut up.
And that brings us to the final record in our top ten, which came out of nowhere for me and for a whole bunch of other people too. I’ve heard of King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard in past years, but had assumed them either to be a jam-band (aka a waste of time) or a throwback 60s revival that I might like but not enough to get into. Turns out they’re a weird group that is trying to explore as many genres as possible as quickly as possible. They’ve only been together since 2010 with their first album coming out in 2012, and “Infest the Rats’ Nest” is their 15th album (and second this year). On this album, they delivered a full on thrash-metal record that comes very close to being a masterpiece. Evoking early (“before they sold out”) Metallica, Slayer, and others, this album shreds from moment one, and it was very nice to hear as a long time metal fan who’s grown disenchanted with a landscape of good bands with silly corpse vocals that suck.
TEN MORE (Briefly):
So that was the top ten, but I’ve got several more I just want to briefly talk about because I don’t think I have anywhere else in most cases. There’s no particular order to this, but if it helps you to think of them as 11-20, go nuts.
- Son Volt – “Union” – First Son Volt album I’ve liked since the “reunion” (which is just Jay Farrar using the name with none of the other original members). Back to the folky tone that I fell in love with. This was at #10 before King Gizz and the Wiz Liz Fizz Bizz Kidz fell into my hands.
- The Highwomen – “The Highwomen” – (This is the ONE where I won’t be brief.) I WANTED this to be in the top ten. I really did. And maybe it SHOULD be… It’s an important record for women in rock and country (mostly country) and I really, really like it.
The Highwomen is a more or less “supergroup” formed by Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, and Maren Morris in the tradition of Cash, Nelson, Jennings, and Kristofferson forming The Highwaymen, after which this group is lovingly named. And…that’s actually the problem for me. Because no matter how great the record is, I would struggle with putting a “supergroup” that I know isn’t anyone’s primary focus on the list. (Damn Yankees wouldn’t have made it in the 90s, either.) But also…to open the album they do a version of “Highwayman” changing it to “Highwomen” (not a word!) with new lyrics focused on their own gender and struggles. and it’s just kind of a shrug of the shoulders for me. Plus, “Highwomen” sounds like a drug reference (which it isn’t) and that’s problematic.
But all that aside, the primary thing that made me move this off the list was pretty simple. When you compare the lyrics on this one which are basically, “I’m a wife and mom with a job” to the lyrics on Amanda Palmer’s record, it’s clear in a heartbeat which one makes the list and which doesn’t. And once you’ve made that decision…frankly I just liked the stuff that DID make the list more. BUT I really do like “Highwomen” and I’ll be listening to the album for years to come. And believe me I’m THRILLED about the success they’ve been enjoying. It’s just that the above reasons are why it didn’t make the list, and on this one I really felt the need to explain it.
- The Specials – “Encore” – One of the few ska based acts I stand by. They hadn’t put out an album in 18 years and I consider “Encore” a pretty strong comeback.
- The Pixies – “Beneath the Eyrie” – Like it a lot and it’s the Pixies sounding like the Pixies, with more involvement from Paz than on prior records. We all know the band is just Black Francis’ (or Frank Black or Charles Thompson) solo act now…but “Beneath the Eyrie” belongs in your collection if you’re a fan.
- The National – “I Am Easy to Find” – This album is everything that “Sleep Well Beast” wasn’t. The prior record was okay, but nothing special. This one is special. That the album cover evokes memories of “High Violet” and the title, memories of “Trouble Will Find Me” is very very appropriate.
- Bob Mould – “Sunshine Rock” – Really good, punky listen with the vocals buried so deep in the mix you can’t make them out. If Bob could fix that, we’d have a top ten record here. (But that seems to be how he likes things mixed now… “Beauty and Ruin” and “Patch the Sky” aren’t much better mixed.)
- The Muffs – “No Holiday” – Coincidentally and depressingly released about a week after bandleader Kim Schattuck died, it’s a heck of a send-off. If it weren’t her final album, I’d say it was a little too long and would benefit from losing some of the losable songs…but with things how they are, I’m glad everything is on it.
- Dream Theater – “Distance Over Time” – Been a DT fan for close to 30 years. This one doesn’t disappoint.
- Tegan & Sara – “Hey, I’m Just Like You” – Fun pop music with a little bit of the acoustic tones that have been missing from their last few albums. Danceable but with a little more depth than you might expect.
- Mary Prankster – “Thickly Settled” – First one Mary’s put out since 2004 (or more like 2002 since the 04 release was a live album). Good return. The music is fun and energetic. But…she’s lost some of her lyrical edge. From the woman who brought you “Mercyfuck” and lyrics like, “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck / You’re not my problem, I’m my problem” having a record you could pretty much safely play in front of your kids or grandmother is a little disappointing. But that said, I still bought a shirt.
Stuff I liked but don’t feel the need to talk about:
These are just honorable mentions…
- Tyler Childers – Country Squire
- The Rubinoos – “From Home”
- Eleni Mandell – “Wake Up Again”
- Mandolin Orange – “Tides of a Teardrop”
- Michaela Anne – “Desert Dove”
- Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real – “Turn Off the News (Build a Garden)”
- Willie Nelson – “Ride Me Back Home”
- The Alarm – “Sigma”
- The Mountain Goats – “In League with Dragons”
- Over the Rhine – “Love & Salvation”
- Refused – “War Music”
- Last in Line – “II”
- Neil Young – “Colorado”
Stuff I Didn’t Like (and I feel like I need to explain why):
- The Minus Five – “Stroke Manor” – One of the YepRoc releases. The leader of the band suffered a stroke and was told he’d never perform again. While in recovery he wrote this album. Which is a FUCKING AWESOME STORY. I wish I felt the same about the album. I really, really do. Because that was a miracle and I wish him nothing but the best.
- Jenny Lewis – “On the Line” – I’ve liked a lot of stuff from Jenny’s career going back to Rilo Kiley. But this one fell short. Very short. My abiding memory of it is, “I fell in love with a poppy, doot doo doo. Just because.” And when the most memorable song on the album is that unintentionally fucking stupid, that taints the experience. But I also seem to be the only person I know who feels that way about this record, with most hailing it a masterpiece. Maybe my feelings will change on it over time.
- Devin Townsend – “Empath” – I wanted to like this so badly it hurts because I think Devin is brilliant. But between a VERY quiet, uneven mix and songs that just don’t ever seem to focus, this one was a miss for me. (It genuinely sounds like he just plain forgot to master it. It’s demo-tape levels of quiet.) But I bet I like the next thing he does.
- Bruce Springsteen – “Western Stars” – It’s not BAD…but it sounds like he wrote a movie soundtrack (because he did) and just didn’t finish the songs (because he didn’t). Most of them just kind of stop before they go anywhere and would benefit from the full E Street treatment. But I bet I like the next thing he does, too.
- Slipknot – “We Are Not Your Kind” – Corey Taylor’s current mask is a perfect metaphor for this album. It does the job, but there’s a little too much of it and I was hoping for something else.
- Frank Turner – “No Man’s Land” – I seem to like every other album with Frank. This is one of the ones I don’t. It just doesn’t seem to have his usual energy or wit. But maybe it’s me.
Okay. I’ve rambled on long enough. Hope that was fun. Tell me your list sometime, too!