What was your favourite music from 2019? There was some excellent material released this year and, in our annual wrap up of best albums, we look back on just some of the great records that dropped in the last 12 months.
1. Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell
Norman Fucking Rockwell is Lana Del Rey’s best work, a masterpiece that sweeps you away with its beautiful sounds and dazzling range of lyrical ideas. Very much an artistic product of America, while also its harsh critic, Del Rey fixes a merciless gaze on the existential angst at the heart of her nation and doesn’t flinch. Meanwhile, the sound is all dreamy seventies California, but made fresh again through the outstanding clarity of Jack Antonoff’s production. Piano, acoustic guitar and fuzz solos abound, all with plenty of reverb. Here we have an artist who unashamedly stands on the shoulders of those who have come before (for example, building ‘Doing Time’ over Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’), while also sounding remarkably assured. Norman Fucking Rockwell is quite an artistic achievement. Who knew that we would end up here when we first heard ‘Video Games’?
2. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Ghosteen
Nick Cave began the decade with Ginderman 2 and finished off with Ghosteen, two works that could not be more different, yet a testimony to the variety of Cave’s creative output. This album is a powerful meditation on grief and loss, as Cave and long-time collaborator, Warren Ellis, redefine contemporary music with sprawling compositions that defy convention. As a singer (and an artist), Nick Cave has never sounded so vulnerable. Ghosteen is a breathtaking listen, both painful and cathartic.
3. Michael Kiwanuka – Kiwanuka
When Michael Kiwanuka delivered his majestic second album Love and Hate three years ago, it was hard to imagine that he would go one better with its follow up, and yet Kiwanuka does just that. While the previous work located its heart in classic sounds, the material here updates the retro stylings with more contemporary landscapes, thanks in part to the creativity of Danger Mouse’s production. The album makes for a rich, immersive listen, centred by Kiwanuka’s soulful voice and excellent songwriting. Check out our live review of Michael Kiwanuka from earlier in the year.
4. Thelma Plum – Better in Blak
It took a while for Thelma Plum to deliver her debut album, but it was sure worth the wait. Recorded at Abbey Road and even featuring a collaboration with Paul McCartney (as well as Paul Kelly and Gang of Youths’ Dave Le’aupepe), this is an excellent LP full of outstanding moments. Plum’s writing is thoroughly engaging; she touches on important, sometimes political, themes, but these are always approached from the perspective of the personal. And despite much of the serious subject matter, there are also touches of real humour. Plum has a fantastic voice, carrying the material amidst some nicely layered arrangements that are a step beyond her previously released singles and EP. She also has a fine sense of melody. Better in Blak is not just an excellent debut album, it is an outstanding record on its own merits. Read our live review of Thelma Plum from this year’s WOMADelaide here.
5. The National – I Am Easy to Find
I Am Easy to Find is an ambitious project: the soundtrack for a short film, a host of guest vocalists and characterised by its large scale sound production. That it all comes together so cohesively, makes this quite an achievement and some of the best work The National have done. The group of female vocalists who collaborate across the album (Lisa Hannigan, Gail Ann Dorsey, Sharon Van Etten, Kate Stables and Mina Tindle) really set this apart from the band’s other work, particularly as they are not used as backing vocals but driving many of the songs. They make a very effective contrast to Matt Berninger’s baritone, adding further depth to the material. With this record, The National have done something very interesting with the album format, making I Am Easy to Find an unfettered success.
6. Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride
Following a six year break, Vampire Weekend return with their fourth album, Father of the Bride. The whimsy and playfulness of the previous outings are still part of the band’s DNA, but there’s also a new maturity, indicative of an unforced evolution in the outfit. Bursting with musical and lyrical ideas, Father of the Bride is a sprawling work that makes for a hugely satisfying listen. The catchy ‘Harmony Hall’ is one of the best songs of the year, but there are many other highlights: the otherworldly ‘Rich Man’, the infectious rhythms of ‘This Life’ and three duets with Danielle Haim spread across the record.
7. Sampa the Great – The Return
Sampa the Great lives up to her name on The Return. Much more than a hip-hip album, the palette draws on world music, jazz, soul and gospel, making this a rich and textured tapestry. With such a mix of genres, the production needs to be spot on and it is, sustaining the material over its 78 minute duration. Challenging orthodoxies, Sampa insightfully covers a range of significant themes. This is inspiring and thoughtful stuff, and a real artistic achievement from an important, emerging voice.
8. Olympia – Flamingo
On her debut album, Self-Talk, Olympia demonstrated her great skill as song-writer, but she has backed it with an even better follow up in Flamingo, a collection of excellent, engaging songs. Adding to the indie rock toolkit of the first outing, there are some new sounds here, especially using a little more synth. Her songs are catchy, with an excellent sense of melody, but there’s also some real complexity to the construction. And she uses her affecting voice so well, capturing the mood of the material, which is both serious and hopeful. Read our live review of Olympia here.
9. Gary Clarke Jr – This Land
This Land is the best work to date from Gary Clark Jr., gathering together the elements that have worked so well for the artist before, but also moving in bold new directions. While previous outings have demonstrated great prowess with a guitar and his song-crafting abilities, they always felt a little tethered to the blues legacy of his forebears. The blues aesthetic remains, with excellent guitar work all over the record, but This Land draws in a seamless mix of synth, sampling, hip-hop, funk and reggae. And it really works, with stylings old and new yielding something that feels both critical and contemporary. Read our full album review here, along with a review of his live performance at Thebby from earlier in the year.
10. Ezra Furman – 12 Nudes
On his latest album, Ezra Furman turns to punk, a form that really suits the times. While there has always been a sense of existential dread at the heart of Furman’s work, there was always something reassuring to the indie rock packaging. But here we find the artist screaming at the injustices of the world and punk is the perfect vehicle for this. The sax and organs are mostly absent, with songs pared down to guitar, bass and drums against the urgent, rough vocals, and consistently coming in at two to three minutes. Furman does still manage to work in some great melodies and engaging hooks, though. 12 Nudes is another thoroughly satisfying artistic step in one very interesting career. And we can only hope that some of these tunes end up in the background of the next series of Netflix’s excellent Sex Education.
11. Julia Jackin – Crushing
The intimate and raw songwriting on Crushing shows that, with only her second LP, Julia Jacklin is just getting better as an artist. The music has a refreshing honesty that’s missing from a lot of recording. The production is minimalist and natural, allowing Jacklin’s piercing, beautiful vocals to arrest the listener against the simplicity of the arrangements. There are changes of pace though, from the pulsing, reflective opener, ‘Body’, to the more upbeat alt-country rhythms of ‘Pressure To Party’ two tracks later. Crushing is a sublime and moving break-up record. Check out our live review of Julia Jacklin from WOMADelaide earlier this year.
12. Karen O and Danger Mouse – Lux Prima
Lux Prima is an example of where a collaboration really works. Aside from very occasional glimpses, Karen O leaves her Yeah, Yeah, Yeah sound to one side in favour of a dreamy, atmospheric soundscape. The record reminds us that she has one of the best voices in the business, but here it is transported to new surroundings courtesy of Danger Mouse’s precise production that makes cohesive use of sounds old and new.
13. Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars
Every few years, Bruce Springsteen wanders away from the E Street Band to make an album. These are usually intimate, stripped back outings, but not in the case of Western Stars, with its lush orchestrations, cinematic landscapes and interesting cast of characters. We venture well away from New Jersey in an exercise pure Americana that borrows heavily from the sound of seventies California, with songs that reveal themselves over a number of listens. Springsteen plans to re-unite with his band and release new music next year, but we are thankful he took a journey through Western Stars first.
14. Aldous Harding – Designer
Aldous Harding is a unique talent who walks her own path, defying categorisation. Wonderfully idiosyncratic, carefully layered and enigmatic, Harding’s songs are beautiful artistic expressions. With an eccentric performance persona to rival Kate Bush, Harding will be a must-see act at WOMADedalide. But be sure to immerse yourself in the strange beauty of Designer before you catch her set there.
15. The Saboteurs – Help Us Stranger
It’s great to hear Jack White playing in a band again as he re-unites with The Saboteurs (or The Raconteurs as they are known everywhere else in the world), after an extended break. The outfit enforces a discipline on White that was missing on the experimental but occasionally brilliant 2018 solo record, Boarding House Reach. Help Us Stranger, is certainly swirling with ideas, but it’s all packaged up in accessible, attractive song construction, with most of the 11 tracks running between 3 and 4 minutes. The album is unashamedly retro, revelling in big guitar riffs and classic rock swagger. The band boldly announced via Twitter in March they had “just finished making the rock & roll album you’ve been waiting for”. They were pretty well right.
16. Sharon Van Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow
Remind Me Tomorrow finds Sharon Van Etten in career best form. It’s a bigger, more complex work than she has delivered previously. Sonically, Van Etten pushes beyond her singer-songwriter trappings, with lush synths, driving beats and expansive choruses. This is a superb collection of songs, with Van Etten’s voice adapting to the emotional demands of each piece and finding just the right balance between darkness and hope.
17. Blood Red Shoes – Get Tragic
The story goes that English indie-rock outfit Blood Red Shoes had a messy break-up following their fourth album, before patching things up and emerging with a pop record, Get Tragic. A broken arm to guitarist/vocalist Laura-Mary Carter around the time of recording also meant that the album ended up being far more electro in nature than previous outings. Whatever angst and frustrations the duo endured leading up to and making this LP, the results speak for themselves, collaborating with producer Nick Launay to deliver one of the year’s best offerings.
18. Holy Holy – My Own Pool of Light
Holy Holy have really honed their sound with My Own Pool of Light, an album with first-rate production where everything feels like it is exactly in the right place. But it’s much more than just the sound of the album that makes this such a success, with excellent songwriting at the heart of the material. From the opening melodic hooks of ‘Maybe You Know’, to the disarming beauty of ‘St Petersburg’ that closes the record, this is a great selection of songs from the Australian duo.
19. The Cat Empire – Stolen Diamonds
The Cat Empire are a remarkably consistent outfit, who never allow the quality of their output to dip. On Stolen Diamonds, there is both familiar sounds and the mining of new spaces. You can always expect a trip around the globe on a Cat Empire record, but the route is always unique. We are reminded that this is a remarkable bunch of musicians, and still the best band in the country. Catch them in the familiar surrounds of WOMADelaide, as they headline the opening night of the festival next year.
20. Lizzo – Cuz I Love You
In many ways, 2019 has been the year of Lizzo, who may well clean up at the Grammy’s. But this has been anything but overnight success, rather the result of many years of hard work from this genre bending performer. In fact, her Record of the Year nomination comes courtesy of ‘Truth Hurts’, a sleeper hit from two years ago that only makes it onto the deluxe version of Cuz I Love You. The album is soulful, boisterous and thoroughly entertaining. And you can catch Lizzo on the lineup of FOMO Festival next month.
21. Beirut – Gallipoli
There’s a real warmth to the lush production on Gallipoli, bringing together the best elements of Beirut on this fifth album. The organ and brass create excellent atmospherics for Zach Condon’s crooning voice to float over. This album is the perfect soundtrack to a lazy summer afternoon.
22. Du Blonde – Lung Bread for Daddy
Beth Jeans Houghton returns with her second outing as garage-glam persona Du Blonde. This time things are stripped back a little further. The songwriting is raw and confessional, with Houghton managing to be both blunt and poetic. Quite the talent, she also plays all the instruments on the album, with the exception of the drums. A completely worthy follow-up to 2015’s excellent Welcome Back to Milk.
23. Spinifex Gum – Sisters
On the debut Spinifex Gum album the Marlyia Choir (an indigenous female youth choir from North Queensland and the Torres Straight) mostly provided a backdrop to a host of guest performers (such as Peter Garrett, Briggs and Emma Donovan). But with this follow-up they take centre stage throughout. More personal than political this time, it’s just as inspiring. Check out their version of Springsteen’s adaptation of ‘Dream Baby Dream’ for something truly spine-tingling. And don’t miss Spinifex Gum perform at WOMADelaide next March, which promises to be one of the weekend’s highlights.
24. Fontaines D.C. – Dogrel
It’s the honesty and raw energy that make this debut album such a joy. And it’s refreshing that no attempt is made to mask that distinctive Dublin accent. While much of the music of 2019 aims for super-smooth production, the garage punk of Fontaines D.C. makes a virtue of the rough edges and places loud guitars front and centre of the mix. Catch the outfit at next year’s Laneway Festival.
25. The New Pornographers – In the Morse Code of Break Lights
The New Pornographers are such a talented collective with a perfect knack for putting a song together. While ‘Falling Down the Stairs of Your Smile’ is one of the year’s best tracks, there are many more gems to be found on this record. And, in great news, the band will be in town for the Adelaide Festival; check the out details here.
26. Hilltop Hoods – The Great Expanse
Hilltop Hoods deliver another top-notch album, making the most of a whole range of collaborations and re-affirming their place as one of the best acts in the country. Among the contributors, it’s great to hear from fellow Adelaide artists such as Timberwolf and multiple SAM Award winner, Adrian Eagle. Catch them as they close the Adelaide 500 final day concert next February, with support from Illy, G Flip and two emerging local acts courtesy of the Bands on Track initiative. Check out our Hilltop Hoods live review here.
27. Teskey Brothers – Run Home Slow
The Teskey Brothers genuinely sound like something transported from another era – and they do it so well. This act is one of the success stories of the year, culminating in multiple ARIA wins. When they were invited to play on Triple M Melbourne, the band not only sold out their gig at the Corner Hotel but had to add more shows that also sold out. It makes you wonder how consistent support from commercial radio for new, local talent would really help the industry. Catch the magic of the Teskey Brothers next month supporting Cold Chisel at Glenelg Beach, with details here.
28. Charli XCX – Charli
Charli XCX finds the next level through some fine songwriting, excellent production and a range of collaborations that really bring out her best. Duets with Christine and the Queens and Lizzo are among the many highlights. But be warned, there are plenty of earworms here. Charli XCX will also be part of the Laneway shows next year.
29. Temples – Hot Motion
Dripping in fuzz and melodic hooks, Temples return with more of their trademark psychedelia in Hot Motion. The production values on the record are excellent, as is the musicianship and song-craft, making for another first rate listening experience. And in great news, the trio will be here in February to play Lion Arts – don’t miss it!
30. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – Fishing for Fishies
The most prolific band in the country continue on their trajectory of genre-hopping, this time trying their hand at seventies drenched blues rock, and it’s super fun. Catch them when they play Laneway early in the new year.
Written by Matthew Trainor
Live performance photographs by Tessa Manning and Kay Cann