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Best Albums 2019

Our annual top 20 plus more

Photo: LTTL

By Rob Dickens

Introduction

Welcome to our Best Of Vol VII.

I am writing this on the penultimate day of the year.

I like to leave my final evaluation of the year’s music until the very latest because (1) I insist on taking up the maximum time to get to hear as much music as possible and (2) the last two weeks around the holidays tend to be quieter as a lot of publicists and record labels have packed up, thereby allowing me to clean out the Listening Through The Lens inbox to a degree unachievable at other times of the year. Hence it is a very good time to reflect on the past twelve months.

The most obvious feature of this year’s Best Of is the proliferation of the product of female performers, either in solo form (7), part of a duo (2) and groups (2) and this trend is particularly apparent in the lower reaches of the Top Twenty. In fact only one male group appears in this year’s edition.

Stunning music from so many quarters this year, where debutants, Kentuckians and female ‘supergroups’ loom large.

I hope you enjoy this list. As usual, I welcome feedback. Oh, that reminds me…during the past twelve months I sought some comments on a particular music forum of our list of music festivals in the USA. To be honest we are pretty proud of what we have developed over a few years and countless hours of work to bring a service for artists, industry reps and punters. The first response was just three words:

“This list sucks!”

So, after that, I can take anything! Let us know your thoughts – drop a comment below, stick a note on our Facebook, Instagram, Twitter feed or email us (the inbox has slimmed right down, remember!) – team@listeningthroughthelens.com

Departure Lounge

Neal Casal – Photo: LTTL

Vale to these notables who left us in 2019

Andre Williams – his work reviewed here

Art Neville, The Neville Brothers

Daniel Johnston

Daryl Dragon, The Captain and Tennille

Dick Dale

Donnie Fritts

Dr John

Ginger Baker, Cream

“Greedy” Smith, Mental As Anything

Hal Blaine, ‘Wrecking Crew’ drummer

Harold Bradley

Ian Gibbons, The Kinks

Jimmy Johnson

Larry Taylor, Canned Heat

Leon Redbone

Mac Wiseman

Martin Armiger, The Sports

Neal Casal, The Cardinals, Hard Working Americans

Paul Barrere, Little Feat

Pegi Young

Peter Tork, The Monkees

Ric Ocasek, The Cars

Robert Hunter, Grateful Dead lyricist

Roky Erikson

Scott Walker

Donnie Fritts (L) and John Paul White – Photo: LTTL

Missed Flight

A few selections that have been lauded elsewhere didn’t make their way across our desks. They have accordingly been set aside from our top 20 but deserve some recognition here. We will pursue these titles in the light of the new year:

Kendall Marvell, Hard Time With The Truth

Buddy & Julie Miller, Breakdown on 20th Ave. South

Various, Come On Up To The House: Women Sing Waits

Various, Country Music – A Film By Ken Burns (boxed set) [*the two-CD set is far, far too brief]

Hiss Golden Messenger, Terms Of Surrender

Angel Olsen, All Mirrors

Runaway June, Blue Roses

Dyson Stringer Cloher, Dyson Stringer Cloher

Late Arrivals

Some albums came to me rather late…

but that don’t mean they’re not great!

Here’s a few titles released before 2019 that are highly recommended:

Larry SparksThe Lonesome Sound of Larry Sparks (1998), Old Homestead Records

The AccidentalsOdyssey (2017), Masterworks

John R MillerThe Trouble You Follow (?), Independent

Jesse TerryNatural (2017), Jackson Beach Records

Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The RealSelf-titled (2017), Fantasy

LuceroAmong The Ghosts (2018), Liberty & Lament/Thirty Tigers

From The Cockpit

Sierra Hull – Photo: LTTL

Plenty to look forward to as the announced new releases are piling up, ready to fill our post-holiday stockings:

Marcus King (solo), Randall Bramblett, Sam Doores (The Deslondes), The Secret Sisters, The SteelDrivers, Drive-By Truckers, The Lone Bellow, Devon Gilfillian, Paul Kelly, Della Mae, Fruition, The Haden Triplets, Ida Mae, The Wood Brothers, The Weeping Willows, Dustbowl Revival, Miss Tess, Tami Neilson, Nora Jane Struthers, Rose Cousins, Freya Josephine Hollick, Steve Scott, Tracy McNeil, Sonny Landreth, Kyshona, Sierra Hull, The Grahams, Ron Pope, The Lil Smokies, John Moreland, Caitlyn Smith, The Mastersons, Supersuckers.

Drive-By Truckers – Photo: LTTL

Past Winners

2018 Colter WallSongs Of The Plains

2017 Rhiannon Giddens – Freedom Highway

2016 Darrell Scott – The Couchville Sessions

2015 Chris Stapleton – Traveller

2014 Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

2013 Jason Isbell – Southeastern

Past Lists

2018

2017

2016

2015

2014

2013

Best Of 2019

20. Molly Tuttle, When You’re Ready (Compass Records)

What an incredible, relatively short rise it has been for Molly Tuttle. From lauded bluegrass guitarist to an Americana artist with much broader appeal. Having released this, her debut album, and toured extensively in 2019 (including Australia and the UK), When You’re Ready is a winner on so many fronts. The demand for her at AmericanaFest 2019 was incredible.

Key Tracks: “Million Miles”, “Don’t Let Go”, “Sleepwalking”

19. Allison Moorer, Blood (Thirty Tigers)

Blood is the first solo album in four years from the highly-acclaimed Allison Moorer. It is deeply personal, revelatory and compelling. The album is a companion piece to her autobiography Blood: A Memoir which includes an account of Moorer and her sister’s (Shelby Lynne) childhood growing up in Southern Alabama, which ended with the well-documented murder-suicide of her parents.

Key tracks: “Bad Weather”, “The Rock and the Hill”, “Blood”

(via Cooking Vinyl Australia)

18. Emily Scott Robinson, Traveling Mercies (Tone Tree Music)

A gifted songwriter who has won an American Songwriter‘s lyric contest, Kerrville New Folk Winner trophy and a Wildflower Performing Songwriter Contest win. All this before the issue of Emily Scott Robinson’s first album Traveling Mercies.

For one so early into her career, she is a keen observer of life and has an impeccable knack for penning a line dripping with imagery.

Key tracks: “Ghost In Every Town”, “Borrowed Rooms And Old Wood Floors”, “Overalls”

17. Chuck Hawthorne, Fire Out Of Stone (3 Notches Music)

Another excellent example of lyrical prowess, this time with a world-weary voice (recalling the great Gordon Lightfoot) and a great deal to say about native Americans, the land and personal vulnerability. For example, take “Standing Alone” where Hawthorne reflects: “Feel Like a Road Sign, Shot Full Of Holes, People Look Right Through You, When You’re Standing All Alone”

Read our FULL REVIEW.

Key tracks: “Amarillo Wind”, “Arrowhead And Porcupine Claw”, “Standing Alone”

(via Broken Jukebox Media)

16. Bruce Springsteen, Western Stars (Columbia)

Bruce with The E Street Band create an intense and thundery presence on record and particularly at live shows.

But for me, Springsteen stripped back and personal resonates with me even more. While so often front and centre on album art work, with Western Stars he has chosen the land and nature as the focal point. The dust, the colourful characters who work the land are revealed in all their glory with a majestic soundtrack that makes me want to revisit some classic Western movies.

Key tracks: “Drive Fast (The Stuntman)”, “Western Stars”, “Moonlight Motel”

15. Tanya Tucker, While I’m Livin’ (Fantasy Records)

The lady who is probably most famous for the hit “Delta Dawn” in the 1970’s at the age of just thirteen, Tanya Tucker returns for her first full release of new material for fifteen years.

While I’m Livin’ is largely comprised of songs written by Brandi Carlile and her band members, the twins Tim and Phil Hanseroth and they provide perfect context for Tucker’s voice which remains highly effective.

Key tracks: “The Wheels Of Laredo”, “The House That Built Me”, “Seminole Wind Calling”

14. Mike and the Moonpies, Cheap Silver And Solid Country Gold (Prairie Rose Music)

Here’s a crazy idea. Let’s plant an Austin-based country honky tonk and swing band in London’s Abbey Road studio and team them up with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Well, crazy successful that is! Moonpies’ vocalist Mike Harmeier has never sounded better and, even though there’s plenty of delightful depth in the arrangements, the songs are to the fore and glorious in their simplicity, not that far removed in some senses from Western Stars (see above).

Key tracks: “Cheap Silver”, “Danger”, “London Homesick Blues”

13. Kelsey Waldon, White Noise/White Lines (Oh Boy Records)

I saw Kelsey Waldon live in February 2018 and have to say that she did not make an immediate impression on me. White Noise/White Lines has righted the ship, so the speak.

She hails from Kentucky (there are four Kentuckians in this list evidencing the rich musical vein emanating from the ‘bluegrass State’ these days) and is a rare signing to John Prine‘s Oh Boy Records.

Chickasaw Tribe chants and a voice mail recording from her father add to the rustic charm of this rugged country outing. She believes every word she sings.

Key tracks: “My Epitaph”, “Run Away”, “White Noise White Lines”

(via Cooking Vinyl Australia)

12. Tyler Childers, Country Squire (Hickman Holler Records)

Tyler Childers’ 2017 release featured in our Best Of The Year and his follow-up is no less impressive.

This Kentuckian again turns to producers Sturgill Simpson and David Ferguson and his songs contain a beguiling mix of unmistakable opinions and allegory.

Rising above it all, his voice like a tuneful siren in the dead of night.

Key tracks: “House Fire”, “Ever Lovin Hand”, “All Your’n”

(via Sacks and Co)

11. Ian Noe, Between The Country (National Treasury Recordings/Thirty Tigers)

The front cover prepares us for what lies within.

Recorded at the famed RCA Studio A in Nashville with now legendary producer Dave Cobb, Ian Noe‘s offering gives us a series of folk anthems. Noe is from Eastern Kentucky and possesses a strong, matter-of-fact voice akin to a young Dylan. The songs are colourful and serious – bank robbers, train crashes, small town tragedies – and possess a lyrical economy that enhance their appeal.

A new star is found.

Key tracks: “Barbara’s Song”, “Letter To Madeline”, “Dead On The River (Rolling Down)”

10. Billy Strings, Home (Rounder)

The man who is challenging the norms of presenting bluegrass and broadening its brethren returns with his second album Home.

With his astounding guitar playing, his sounds-older-than-he-is holler and his strapping energy and collaborative punch, Billy Strings opens our ears to something fresh and raw.

I caught this Michigan-born, Nashville-based musical blunderbuss at AmericanaFest this year and, although his set was plagued with sound problems (now THAT doesn’t occur much in Nashville!), it was a joy to behold.

His songs are personal and he has more history to draw on than you would expect from someone his age. Another home run (pun meant) from this exciting performer.

Key tracks: “Away From The Mire”, “Home”, “Highway Hypnosis”

9. Over The Rhine, Love & Revelation (GSD)

Over The Rhine are the husband-and-wife team of vocalist/guitarist Karin Bergquist and pianist/guitarist/bassist Linford Detweiler.

Don’t expect any car chase music here. Vocally, Bergquist has the sweetest and most plaintive voice imaginable and that meshed with Detweiler’s precise playing leaves us with a product that is gobsmackingly slow, soulful and gorgeous.

Key tracks: “Los Lunas”, “Love & Revelation”, “May God Love You (Like You’ve Never Been Loved)”

8. Hayes Carll, What It Is (Dualtone)

On the cover, Hayes Carll looks pretty pissed off. A steely gaze, rolling up his sleeves, dark clouds at his back.

Actually this, Carll’s sixth release, is much more upbeat that his previous effort as he moves from post-divorce to the joys of a new love (co-producer Allison Moorer). Take “Times Like These” where he declares: “I just wanna do my labour, love my girl, and help my neighbour”.

Plenty of wit and insight here as his A-level catalogue grows.

Key tracks: “Jesus and Elvis”, “Fragile Men”, “I Will Stay”

7. Mandolin Orange, Tides Of A Teardrop (Yep Roc)

Formed in 2009 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina with songwriter Andrew Marlin (vocals, mandolin, guitar) and Emily Frantz (vocals, violin, guitar), the duo released their sixth album this year.

The gentle swaying melodies belie the pain and loss in the narratives, but somehow it consoles rather than depresses. Like a therapy session where shared experiences comfort and solutions seem possible.

Key tracks: “Golden Embers”, “When She’s Feeling Blue”, “Time We Made Time”

(via Red Eye Worldwide)

6. Patty Griffin, Patty Griffin (PGM)

This Grammy winner (and multiple nominee) gives us her tenth outing in a twenty-year-plus career.

Much of the material was recorded in Griffin’s home studio with the sessions co-produced with Craig Ross.

The musical texturing and nuancing, the arrangements and the profound songs of love and connection are simply outstanding.

Patty Griffin is one of the great American singer/songwriters.

Key Tracks: “Where I Come From”, “Coins”, “Boys From Tralee”

(via Cooking Vinyl Australia)

5. Josh Ritter, Fever Breaks (Pytheas Recordings)

Fever Breaks is the tenth album from a guy who doesn’t look old enough to have released so many. Another recording completed at Nashville’s RCA Studio, the ten-song collection was engineered by Matt Ross-Spang whose imprint is writ large on this and so many other recordings.

The album is full of compelling and urgent material with pointed lyrics and features contributions from Jason Isbell and members of his band The 400 Unit.

Ritter recently collaborated heavily with Bob Weir on the latter’s Blue Mountain project and has written a New York Times best-selling novel Bright’s Passage. 

Key tracks: “Old Black Magic”, “The Torch Committee”, “Silver Blade”

4. Our Native Daughters, Songs Of Our Native Daughters (African American Legacy)

One of two significant women supergroups to impress in 2019. My initial reaction to four banjo players recording together was a little wary, but I needed to have more faith.

Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell (Birds of Chicago) and Amythyst Kiah who comprise Our Native Daughters decided to draw on 16th, 17th and 18th century tales of black womens’ struggles and resistance and bring them to a wide-stream and modern audience.

Powerful and confronting. “Mama’s Cryin’ Long” is particularly challenging to sit through, so vivid it is.

Key tracks: “Black Myself”, “Mama’s Cryin’ Long”, “Quasheba Quasheba”

3. Sturgill Simpson, Sound & Fury (Elektra)

Sturgill Simpson likes to keep us guessing, transforming himself so as not to be able to be pinned down or classified.

For Sound & Fury, we are greeted with an image of a muscle car and explosions. There’s an accompanying animated film on Netflix with this music as its soundtrack.

Sonically through the album there are rapid tempo and mood shifts, interludes, intense keyboards and wailing guitars with Simpson’s growling vocals buried a little deep in the mix.

It IS a country record but sure doesn’t sound like one. It is bold and further proof that Sturgill Simpson’s trajectory is completely in his hands and no one else’s. It is good to be on that journey with him.

Key tracks: “Sing Along”, “Make Art Not Friends”, “Fastest Horse In Town”

2. The Highwomen, The Highwomen (Elektra)

Supergroup number 2. A collaboration between Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires which was produced by that man again, Dave Cobb.

“Anyone can be a Highwoman,” says Carlile. “It’s about banding together, abandoning as much ego as humanly possible, holding one another up and amplifying other women every chance we get. Shoulder to shoulder. One push, one love.”

With these artists pulling in the one direction, magic will probably ensue and it does on this collection. Gorgeous harmonies, well-constructed original songs (Jimmy Webb, Jason Isbell, Peter Levin and Lori McKenna help out on songwriting) and the mood is contagious.

Key tracks: “Highwomen”, “Redesigning Women”, “Wheels Of Laredo”

1. Yola, Walk Through Fire (Easy Eye Sound)

The feel-good story of the year.

Yola Carter was born into poverty, banned from making music when young, survived a house fire (but not without stress damage to her voice), lived homeless on the streets of London, then joined British band Massive Attack and supported James Brown.

The turning point was going to Nashville and teaming up with producer Dan Auerbach (The Black Keys).

You can read my full review where I said back in January – ‘This is a truly remarkable album. An epic. It sweeps up stunning arrangements, well-crafted songwriting and masterful session playing, with Yola’s commanding and glorious vocal presence to give us, and I say this with the utmost confidence and prediction, one of the great musical joys of the year. It stands proudly beside some of the classic releases from Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield.

I stand by every word.

(via Big Feat PR)

OFFICIAL YOLA SITE

That’s it! Again, we welcome any comments – drop a comment below, email team@listeningthroughthelens.com, add a line in our Facebook, Twitter or Instagram feeds.

Bring on 2020!

More music adventures await.

***

Our annual top 20 plus more

Our annual top 20 plus more

Our annual top 20 plus more

Our annual top 20 plus more

Our annual top 20 plus more

Our annual top 20 plus more

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Author: Rob Dickens

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