I have reviewed more than 20,000 albums over the decades. And several hundred more in the past 12 months alone. But at the end of the day — and the end of the year — I’m a music fan like anybody else. I love certain albums for the same simple, subjective reasons as everyone — be it a catchy melody, a hooky riff, an irresistible beat or a clever lyric. Obviously, those criteria don’t always have anything to do with topical relevance, artistic originality, musical complexity, or any of the other qualities that might matter to a critic. All of which is a long way of saying that the discs below (presented in alphabetical order) aren’t necessarily the most significant, important or “best” (whatever that means) albums of 2019. They’re just my favourite ones. Give them a spin; they might be yours too. To read the full reviews and listen to the music, just click on the cover pictures.
The Bird & The Bee
Interpreting The Masters Volume 2: A Tribute to Van Halen
WHO ARE THEY? The L.A. indie-pop duo of dreamy chanteuse Inara George (whose father was late great Little Feat frontman Lowell George) and keyboardist Greg Kurstin (whose work as a Grammy-winning superproducer has sorta overshadowed his own songwriting and performing career).
WHAT IS THIS? Just what it sounds like: A lovingly lighthearted (and guitar-free) tribute album to the unbridled musical glory of California arena-rock hedonists Van Halen, as fronted by the one and only David Lee Roth (sorry, not sorry, Sammy Hagar). For those keeping score at home, this is also a sequel to their likeminded 2010 tribute to moustache-pop kings Hall & Oates.
WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? First and foremost: Abso-freakin’-lutely awesome! George and Kurstin (along with studio musicians, old pals and VIP guests like Beck) transmogrify VH classics such as Runnin’ With the Devil, Panama, Hot For Teacher, Jump and Unchained into synth-fuelled pop, rock and jazz masterpieces — while reverently recreating virtually every helium-huffing shriek, fretburning lick, hyperkinetic drumbeat and vocal ad lib. To quote George quoting DLR: Oh. My. God.
There Existed An Addiction To Blood
WHO ARE THEY? The experimental underground Los Angeles hip-hop trio of rapper Daveed Diggs — better known for his acting roles in everything from Hamilton to The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt — and producers William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes.
WHAT IS THIS? Their third studio outing in five years is also a deeply creepy, multi-layered concept album inspired both by the horrorcore rap of acts like Geto Boyz and Gravediggaz, and bloody ’70s cult movies like Ganja & Hess.
WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? On the surface, these skittery beats, ominous basslines, plinky keyboards and gruesome tales could be the soundtrack to an independent horror movie. Dig deeper and it’s impossible not to see that these depictions of looming danger, relentless terror and sudden violent death are also the story of contemporary African-American life.
Drivin N Cryin
Live the Love Beautiful
WHO ARE THEY? The hard-hitting, shape-shifting southern alt-rock vets fronted by singer-guitarist Kevn Kinney.
WHAT IS THIS? The 34-year-old band’s breathtakingly powerful and devastatingly thought-provoking ninth studio album — which just so happens to be their first full-length since 2009’s The Great American Bubble Factory (which was followed by a series of EPs).
WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? Their biggest, fullest creation in decades — if not their entire career — thanks in no small part to producer (and singer-songwriter) Aaron Lee Tasjan. He expands and bolsters Kinney’s politically charged lyrics and pointed vocals with multiple layers of jangling paisley guitars and psychedelic keyboards when it’s called for — and strips things down to the bare bones when it isn’t.
“I‘m gonna be big!” announces Fontaines D.C. frontman Grian Chatten on the first track of his band’s misleadingly titled debut album Dogrel. One assumes he’s being sarcastic. But he’s not wrong. Relatively speaking, of course. The three-year-old Dublin post-punks are already the toast of the town back home, and this strong showing should earn them plenty of critical kudos and at least cult-level popularity on this side of the pond. A lot of that is down to everyman Chatten, whose brash bark, accented delivery, acerbically poetic lyrics (“Money is a sandpit of the soul”) and urgently repeated choruses ground these 11 songs — and follow in the abrasive footsteps of everyone from John Lydon to Sleaford Mods’ Jason Williamson. But the band’s angularly clanging guitar lines, grimly chugging Joy Division basslines and relentlessly thumping beats certainly don’t hurt their chances.
Frontier Folk Nebraska
WHO ARE THEY? You might think their name gives away their game, but you’d be a sucker: Contrary to all verbal cues and logic, Frontier Folk Nebraska are not outlier folkies from the wide prairie — they’re scrappy indie-rock journeymen from the Cincinnati area. Go figure.
WHAT IS THIS? Their half-dozenth full-length release (in addition to a handful of singles and EPs) and — believe it or not — a loose concept album/song cycle about embracing adulthood without abandoning your inner geek. If you can imagine Drive-By Truckers and Low-Cut Connie joining forces on the soundtrack to your quarter-life crisis, you’re on the right track.
WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? A record whose sonic blend of youthful energy and mature craftsmanship dovetails seamlessly with its thoughtful lyrical introspection. A disc that is leagues above the average indie-rock offering. And an album that makes you want to listen to everything they’ve recorded in the past — and everything they record in the future.
A Pathetic Youth
WHO ARE THEY? A raw-powered, vaguely grungy punk power trio from the seaside resort of Littlehampton, England.
WHAT IS THIS? A reissue of their deservedly acclaimed 2018 indie album — which might as well be brand new, since you probably never heard it anyway (but trust me, you really need to).
WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? Neither pathetic nor apathetic. Not by a long shot. Granted, these lads don’t reinvent the punk rock wheel with their jagged power-chord riffs, walloping drums, snide lyrics and barbed-wire vocals. But their surprisingly strong melodies and magnificent anthemic choruses put a rousing new spin on things. And ultimately, they deliver the goods so enthusiastically and effectively that they’re guaranteed to win you over (and bowl you over).
Queen of The Pill
WHO ARE THEY? A ferocious garage-punk power trio hailing from Bern, Switzerland (of all places), The Jackets are fronted by mascara-loving female singer-guitarist Jack Torera — and deservedly endorsed by celebrities and tastemakers like Alice Cooper, Rodney Bingenheimer and Little Steven.
WHAT IS THIS? Their fourth collection of throwback basement-band nuggets loaded with thumping crash-bash drums, razor-slash guitar licks and high-powered vocals — all produced by garage-rock royal King Khan and mixed by Detroit indie vet Jim Diamond.
WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? Thanks to Torera’s booming pipes and the band’s searing, hotwired energy, Queen of the Pill comes off a little like Karen O fronting a steroid-jacked reunion of The Seeds with Jack White on guitar.
Imagination & The Misfit Kid
WHO IS HE? The British singer-songwriter and producer who was born with the far more pedestrian handle of Tim McKenzie — and who holds the distinction of being one of the few artists signed to Simon Cowell’s record label without having to whore himself out on a TV talent show.
WHAT IS THIS? The 30-year-old multi-hyphenate’s jaw-dropping sophomore disc and first solo album since 2012’s Electronic Earth — though he’s hardly been idle since then. This year alone, he released an album with trippy pop supergroup LSD (which also features Sia and Diplo), composed music for HBO’s provocative teen drama Euphoria, contributed to Kanye West’s Jesus is King, and earned five Grammy nominations for the Lion King soundtrack cut Spirit. Phew.
WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? Both halves of its title, taken to the max. A loosely autobiographical work, Imagination & The Misfit Kid’s handle refers to the destructive collision of art and commerce — which Labrinth has struggled with over the past while (and which partly explains the long delay between discs). But he’s clearly emerged none the worse for wear, based on this shapeshifting futuristic fusion of pop, hip-hop, R&B, soul, blues, funk, gospel, electro and more — all sweetened, massaged and filtered through his richly layered, sublime production and topped with pointed lyrics about love, art, faith, success and the danger of getting what you wish for. Bottom line: If he had released this a couple of months ago, he’d most likely be up for at least twice as many Grammys.
Jennifer Herrema hasn’t forgotten how to get the party started. Or how to act like a damn rock star. “This is the way it’s supposed to be / Push me on a cart through the duty free / Hangin’ out and playin’ all across the land / Tellin’ everybody we’re the greatest band,” the Royal Trux frontwoman enthusiastically yowls on White Stuff’s opening title cut. As opening lines go, it’s not bad. Especially when you consider this is Herrema’s first album of new studio material with guitarist and former creative/life partner Neil Hagerty in nearly 20 years. And while they might not have earned the right to reclaim that ‘greatest band’ title yet, there’s no denying White Stuff is a helluva start. Not because Herrema and Hagerty sound as good as they used to — but because they sound just as cruddy, weird, and completely bereft of fucks to give as they’ve always been.
Hunt Sales Memorial
Get Your Shit Together
You might not have heard of Hunt Sales — but you’ve definitely heard him play. He was the hard-driving, big-swinging drummer who laid down the unforgettable bouncing backbeat on Iggy Pop’s immortal single Lust For Life. And that’s just the most high-profile credit in a decades-long career that has included stints with David Bowie and Tin Machine, Todd Rundgren, Los Super Seven and countless others. Sadly, his story has also included decades of heroin addiction — which finally came to an end last year. And now that he’s got his shit more or less together, the 64-year-old son of comedian Soupy Sales has delivered Get Your Shit Together, his long-overdue solo album. It’s precisely what you’d expect from a hard-bitten survivor like Hunt: A ragged, rugged, rough-and-tumble blast of old-school rock ’n’ roll laced with soul, blues, R&B and glam. Between all the aggressive guitars, in-the-pocket drums and growling horns that share space with Sales’ raspy wail, this sounds like the best solo album Keith Richards never made — though it also shares DNA with everyone from Rod Stewart and T. Rex to Johnny Thunders and Alex Harvey (along with Iggy and Ziggy, of course).
Sampa the Great
WHO IS SHE? Zambian-born, Botswana-raised, Australian-based rapper and singer-songwriter Sampa Tembo — who has also spent time in California, just in case you didn’t think she had enough stamps on her passport.
WHAT IS THIS? Her first proper album after a pair of critically lauded mixtapes, The Return is also an outstanding disc that simultaneously lives up to its title even as it marks the much-welcome arrival of a fully formed, groundbreaking artist — and one who easily lives up to her descriptive handle.
WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? Music that crosses as many borders (sonically and stylistically speaking) as she has in her actual travels. On 19 cuts that range in length from nine-minute epics to 54-second vignettes, Sampa fuses hip-hop and rap, neo-soul and R&B, funk and Afrobeat with casual confidence — then adds rich melodies and topical, uplifting lyrics voiced in an urgent rap, a mellifluous croon or an understated rasp. Despite the multi-culti origins, the mesmerizing and magnificent results exist in a world of their own.
WHO IS HE? The Syrian wedding singer, farmer and international dance-music phenom who never seems to be seen or photographed without his trademark headscarf, dark glasses and moustache — though if I’m being honest, even after seeing him live I’m still not 100% convinced his entire career isn’t one incredibly elaborate Sacha Baron Cohen performance.
WHAT IS THIS? His ninth North American release (the first five were compiled from hundreds of live tapes released in his homeland) and second issued by Diplo’s Mad Decent label — which should tell you how hip this guy is if nothing else does.
WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? The coolest (if not only) Syrian dance album you’re likely to hear this year, Shlon fuses slinky Middle Eastern belly-dance grooves and traditional instruments with thumping techno beats and synthesizers. Meanwhile, grainy-voiced baritone Souleyman is supposedly singing love poetry penned by collaborator Moussa Al Mardood, though I’m gonna have to take their word on that.
Weezer (The Teal Album)
“The thing that pisses me off is when critics say that it’s all a big joke,” Rivers Cuomo told me several years ago. “When they say I’m intentionally making fun of certain kinds of music, or I’m making fun of my fans … It’s so frustrating for me because I put so much work into the records. No one would put that much effort into a joke!” Of course, that doesn’t prevent Cuomo (and presumably his Weezer bandmates) from enjoying themselves now and then. Which is most assuredly what they’re doing on this surprise-release covers album. Presumably inspired by the viral campaign urging them to cover Toto’s Africa — and the wave of jubilation that resulted when they finally did (after playfully troll-covering Rosanna first) — this savvy 36-minute crowdpleaser takes the concept, um, all the way. Not only does it include faithful renditions of Africa and other ’80s pop chestnuts like Everybody Wants to Rule the World, Take On Me and Billie Jean (but not Rosanna, unfortunately), it also joyfully jumps genres and generations by tackling Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, The Turtles’ Happy Together, ELO’s Mr. Blue Sky, TLC’s No Scrubs and Ben E. King’s Stand By Me. That’s an impressively wide swath. But Cuomo and co. cut it with lovingly detailed expertise, recreating most of these familiar hits right down to the drum fills, effects and background harmonies — while subtly adding their signature serrated guitar tones to the mix here and there just to mark the territory.
If you’ve never heard of The Wildhearts, I pity you as I would the village idiot. And I am willing to bet you’re from North America. For some reason that I’ve never been able to fathom, these fearsomely fantastic British hard-rawk rebels have never been able to get any traction on this side of the Atlantic, despite being deservedly beloved in their homeland. Well, here’s your chance to do your small part in making up for that. The long-overdue Renaissance Men is the on-again, off-again band’s ninth album and first new LP in a decade. It’s also a balls-out blast of wall-to-wall punk and metal that’s as good as anything they’ve ever released.