Top Ten Albums of 2019

There are years when my yearly exercise in ranking albums is fairly easy. That was decidedly not the case this time around. Maybe I can attribute the added challenge to the high number of releases that spoke directly to me, or maybe I simply did a better job this year of exposing myself to more music (the This Week’s Model feature absolutely introduced me to artists I would have otherwise missed). Whatever the reason, my affection was spread so evenly across these records — and a few more that hover just outside of this group of ten — that I can imagine jumbling the list and still feeling satisfied with the ranking.

Well, the album at the top might need to stay the same, no matter what.

fka

1. FKA twigs, Magdalene On her second full-length effort, FKA twigs continues her mission to turn pop music inside out, exposing the vulnerable networks of nerve underneath the surface. The sense of adventurous invention is so pervasive and the level of intricate craft so astonishing that Magdalene positions twigs as a worthy successor to Kate Bush. The album’s crystalline beauty is often breathtaking.

etten remind

2. Sharon Van Etten, Remind Me TomorrowSharon Van Etten took five years between albums, exploring different parts creative  opportunities during the interim. Returning to her day job, Van Etten is vividly renewed. The songwriting, performance, and production on Remind Me Tomorrow are all exemplary, exuding purpose and mastery. The album sounds stronger each time I listen.

better

3. Better Oblivion Community Center, Better Oblivion Community Center This surprise collaboration between Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers is a master class in indie rock songwriting. Easygoing melodies combine with clever, heartfelt lyrics, and the two performers deliver the songs with an endearing eagerness to share. The aw-shucks charm is endless.

sleater center

4. Sleater-Kinney, The Center Won’t Hold — There were plenty of fans and music writers who seemed to relish disparaging the latest from Sleater-Kinney, a situation I find utterly baffling. Produced by St. Vincent, The Center Won’t Hold finds a great band exploring new territory while maintaining the core of their sound. This is what smart evolution sounds like.

angel

5. Angel Olsen, All MirrorsLush and seductive, Angel Olsen’s fourth studio effort is a wise extension of the glum, grand artistic thesis gradually perfected across her previous albums. The songwriting remains piercing, and Olsen’s measured command of her distinctive sound is a pure astonishment.

jenny line

6. Jenny Lewis, On the Line — On the Line is Jenny Lewis’s strongest set of songs since her Rilo Kiley heyday. The material is romantic, melancholy, and relentlessly clever. It’s crisply produced and sung with offhand emotion that ideally suits the album’s tone. It’s music for one last somber skate around the roller rink.

big hands

7. Big Thief, Two HandsTwo Hands is full of spare, folk-inflected music that is somehow both fragile and steely. The album is one of two released by the Brooklyn band Big Thief within a matter of months in 2019. Remarkably, the other one is nearly as strong.

vagabon

8. Vagabon, Vagabon Featuring splendid, elegant neo-soul from a performer who radiates charisma, Vagabon’s self-titled album locks into a sly, intoxicating groove so good it prompts a pang of heartbreak when it’s over.

eilish asleep

9. Billie Eilish, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? A delightful weirdo, Billie Eilish offered a debut album that is fiercely of the moment, taking modern pop styles and warping them to her inspired whims.

emily reo

10. Emily Reo, Only You Can See It Pristine pop songs for now people, crafted by a multi-talented artist with a clear-eyed point of view and an enviable talent for hooks. Emily Reo’s album is equal parts sweet and tangy. It feels like a gift.

Previously…

Top Ten Albums of 2011
Top Ten Albums of 2012
Top Ten Albums of 2013
Top Ten Albums of 2014
Top Ten Albums of 2015
Top Ten Albums of 2016
Top Ten Albums of 2017
Top Ten Albums of 2018

Now Playing — Uncut Gems

uncut gems

It is an odd, daring experiment to build a film around a protagonist who unfailingly does the wrong thing. In Uncut Gems, Adam Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a New York City jewelry store proprietor whose skill at garish hucksterism is matched only by his compulsion to gamble away every modest stack of riches that comes him way, certain that windfalls are out there for the taking. As the film begins, Howard is beset by problems, the most menacing of which arrives in the form of hired goons insisting debts are coming due. But Howard also has a rock the size of a generous hunk of bread. Imported from Ethiopia, it contains black opals, and Howard is certain the stone will deliver him a payday of over a million dollars.

The wise course of action is to sit tight and see how the potentially life-changing situation plays out. That doesn’t work for Howard. He’s a hustler with no off switch, and the film revolves around his mounting desperation as he buckles himself into situational straitjackets beyond his meager escape artist capabilities to extricate himself from. Sibling directors Benny and Josh Safdie craft the film with a clear intent to transfer the tension Howard feels to the audience, pressing in tightly on Howard’s anguished face and thumping the soundtrack to almost unbearable levels. It’s bravura filmmaking, so relentlessly pushy that it becomes exhausting in the wrong ways. Although the character sketch is rendered with narrative consistency, the trials of Howard come across as screenwriting machinations rather than a wholly believable progression of events. There’s no suspense in waiting for the other shoe to fall when there’s a relentless downpour of footwear.

The most notable choice in the film is the casting of Sandler, making one of his occasional attempts at more substantive fare than his usual inane comedies built on obnoxious clamor and cartoon logic. As was the case with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, released almost twenty years ago, the new film provides the strange sensation of seeing Sandler basically play his signature onscreen persona in a serious way. Howard is a troublesome man-child with no regulator on his temper who also fumbles into moments of wounded vulnerability, all of which somehow makes him appealing to attractive women. With no finessing, that same description could be applied to any number of roles churned out under Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions banner. Sandler is suitable, but also can’t find a way to push deeper into the role. As a result, the baggage he brings makes Uncut Gems feel too much like a version of his typical movie where the slapstick happens to leaves a mark.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #592 to #589

that petrol emotion

592. That Petrol Emotion, End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues (1988)

That Petrol Emotion recorded their third album knowing that a major change was looming. At the outset of their time in the studio, guitarist and co-founder John O’Neill announced his intention to leave the band. A former member of the Undertones and a sharp songwriter, O’Neill’s fingerprints were all over That Petrol Emotion’s music, and his presence was a major factor in the band receiving attention in the first place. In addition to the uncertainty about where the band could go in the future, everyone had to deal with the awkwardness of working with someone who’d already declared his intention to walk away, like waiting out an apartment lease with an ex-boyfriend whose already started dating around.

Unsurprisingly, the music press at the time largely declared the resulting album, End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues, to be a confused affair. Some deep knowledge of the band’s troubled waters backstory might have held some sway on opinion, because the album is a perfectly fine assemblage of chattering pop-rock, bearing influences from the British and Irish scenes of the time, with a dash of the more bubbly U.S. acts romping across college radio playlists. And several tracks — incuding “Sooner or Later” and “Here It Is… Take It!” — sit nearly on the leading edge of the emerging Madchester sound that would soon make flaring stars out of the likes of the Farm and the Charlatans. “Tension” has nifty bullfrog synths to open the song, followed by a jabbing beat, and “Goggle Box” is frothing pop lunacy.

For many, the most notable song on the album was one of O’Neill’s parting shots. “Cellophane” musically employed an Irish folk lilt and lyrically addressed the conflicts in Northern Ireland (“In a world and in its sounds/ In any street in any town I go/ There’s a wreckage of desire/ Of feelings never hired or sold”). It was a topic O’Neill had largely avoided previously, disappointing those who sought fiery points of view from their Irish rock. It was as though his expectation that he’d no longer be a part of That Petrol Emotion mandated the creation of the one song that had previously been missing.

 

metro music

591. Martha and the Muffins, Metro Music (1980)

Placeholder band names can stick around. After Ontario College of Art classmates David Millar and Mark Gane assembled a band, they looked to their lead singer, Martha Johnson, and opted for the name Martha and the Muffins, believing it to be temporary. It wasn’t. Within a couple years, Millar left the band and a second Martha was added to lineup (Martha Ladly, who played a few different instruments and contributed vocals). The group was six members strong when they recorded their debut full-length, Metro Music.

The album’s lead single, “Echo Beach,” positions Martha and the Muffins as prime practitioners of new wave music. As the title suggests the track is tinged with a touch of surf rock, and there’s even a forecast of R.E.M.’s probing intricacy in the music. Johnson comes across as a cousin of Debbie Harry, intoning her lines with a sense of chilly enticement. Echo Beach” has the undeniable hit shimmer, at least for those territories with a more adventurous pop bent. (The single went Top 10 in the U.K. and didn’t even touch the Hot 100 in the U.S.). It’s even a fine representation of new wave because of the way all sorts of blissful pop invention is stuffed into one song, making it hard for the rest of the album to live up to the pinnacle of the opening track.

If the rest of Metro Music is inevitably a bit of a let down, the drop isn’t all that steep. The restless “Hide and Seek” and the jaunty “Monotone” are winners, and “Revenge (Against the World),”  is appropriately pointed (“I’m thinking of the times that I’ve looked around/ Searching for the great ideal/ But the human race wears an ugly face/ And cosmetics wash off in the rain”) as saxophonist Andy Haas sends notes zipping around liken drunken bumblebees. Sometimes the album suffers from some era-specific wandering around different genres, as on “Sinking Land,” which is like a ponderous prog rock epic condenses to new wave size. Mostly, though, Metro Music is a zingy charmer.

 

general hand

590. General Public, Hand to Mouth (1986)

To a degree, General Public got tripped up by their own success. Emerging from the dissolution of the Beat (or the English Beat, as they were commonly known in the U.S.) the group co-lead by Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger achieved commercial success beyond their expectations with their debut album, All the Rage, released in 1984. In particular, the single “Tenderness” became a major hit with an era-defining presence that exceeded its actual chart peaks. The tour to support All the Rage just kept going and going. And then the process of recording a follow-up album was slowed when both of the band’s principal members became fathers. General Public’s sophomore album, Hand to Mouth, didn’t exactly have a Chinese Democracy–style gestation period, but the once-hot iron was starting to cool.

As if anticipating the need to ingratiated themselves, the album opens with the vibrant, showbiz-y dervish “Come Again!” It’s a mere wisp of a song, but it also moves with a chipper friendliness that’s difficult to resist. “Cry on Your own Shoulder” is similarly smooth, while also serving as prime example of the limits of thin songwriting paired with eager-to-please production. At a certain point, the glittery charm can’t disguise limitations. There’s also a common mismatch between music and lyrics, which could create a welcome friction. Instead, the result is usually a muddled, purposeless song. “Murder” joins sickly sweet pop with lyrics about toxic relationships (“No time for cheap excuses like/ ‘He can’t help it,’ ‘She can’t help it’/ Jump out of the bed and straight into the fire/ How are you meant to stand it”) and the effect is the wrong kind of dizzying. “Forward as One” fares better by putting sharp political lyrics (“Forward as one/Not marching as to war’) to a sweet, easy beat.

General Public seem too disengaged to pull off the more complicated maneuvers of their songs. As a result, Hand to Mouth is best on a track such as the relatively simple “Love Without the Fun,” which recalls the retro swing of Nick Lowe. The impression is that the band is trying to have a good time and nothing much more, and that spirit extends to the listener. But that’s clearly not where General Public was at. Shortly after the album was released, the band called it quits.

 

rats grass

589. The Boomtown Rats, In the Long Grass (1984)

“The Irish answer is ‘I’ve been lying in the long grass,’ which means I’ve been around, but I may not have been visible,” explained the Boomtown Rats’ frontman, Bob Geldof, to Spin magazine at the time his band’s sixth studio album was released.

The title In the Long Grass was an open acknowledgment of the dire state of the Boomtown Rats’ place in the culture, and there was undoubtedly a touch of exasperation to the sentiment. The album was initially rejected by their U.K. label, and the release was held up for months in the U.S. Only after Geldof’s profile was raised considerably by his efforts spearheading the Band Aid charity single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” did the Columbia Records consent to releasing In the Long Grass, and then only with a revised track list and a mandated re-recording of the single “Dave” to make it “Rain.”

If the jerking around suffered by the band seems especially rough, a listen to In the Long Grass can almost inspire one to take the side of the label executives. The songs are all over the place, from the strutting new wave of “Tonight” to the pushy “Hard Times,” which finds Geldof trying for David Bowie but coming closer to Oingo Boingo. “Up or Down” is somehow fevered, jittery, and listless all at the same time. “Drag Me Down” comes across as a misguided attempt to craft a hit and winds up sounding like some ungodly combination of Elvis Costello and Duran Duran.

Between the music biz frustration and Geldof’s burgeoning status as the activist saint of rock ‘n’ roll, the Boomtown Rats were basically doomed by the time In the Long Grass hit U.S. record shops. Though the band took the stage for Geldof’s Live Aid concert, there wasn’t much future left for them. The band broke up in 1986, and In the Long Grass was their final album.

 

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs

Outside Reading — America’s Press Conference of the Air edition

meet the press

The Christmas Eve Confessions of Chuck Todd by Jay Rosen

Earlier this week, Rolling Stone gave a platform to Meet the Press host Chuck Todd, interviewing him about an upcoming special edition of his venerable program. Todd and his producers have apparently come to an epiphany about the intellectual dishonesty employed by several of the politicians and political commentators booked as guests on his program. For those of us not drawing obscenely large paychecks as network news figures but actively paying attention to the right wing’s strategy of flooding the public  with easily debunked distortions (often propagated on Meet the Press, where the lies too often go unchallenged), Todd’s newfound astonishment is embarrassing. Luckily, NYU professor Jay Rosen writes a properly savage appraisal of Todd’s comments in the interview, detailing exactly how current stewards of journalism like Todd are entirely unprepared for the current era. More worrisomely, that lack of basic ability to meet the moment helps perpetuate the ruthless opportunists who are spreading their destructive toxins throughout society.

 

Little Women (1868, 1869) by Louisa May Alcott

little women

To the best of my recollection, I’d never previously read Little Women, Louisa May Alcott’s book that’s one of the cornerstone works of U.S. literature. It’s possible that there was a school assignment at some point, and it’s equally possible I stupidly dismissed such an assignment because it was a “girl’s book.” Although clearly pitched at younger readers, the novel is rich with offhand insight about the ways in which people move around one another, striving to make and keep ahold of connections. It often reads more like a collection of connected short stories, reflecting the time when it was written and first published. Through it all, the measured mastery of Alcott is evident. There’s no confusion as to why it’s a classic.

This Week’s Model — Burna Boy, “Money Play”

burna

For those still trying to settle on that perfect resolution to launch themselves into the new year, perhaps Burna Boy can help. About six months after the Nigerian performer’s fourth album, African Giant, was released, he’s brought out a new track to cap off what’s probably been his most successful year to date. And the song itself is specifically about not resting on amassed successes, according to a press release.

“‘No dey carry money play’ is a word of advice/stern warning to never lose the hustle mentality,” Burna Boy explains.

So for those using the flipping of the calendar to spur self-improvement, the message is clear: In 2020, never lose that hustle mentality.

Now Playing — Little Women

little women

In breaking down Greta Gerwig’s new film version of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women to its individual components, the natural starting point for evaluation is the faithfulness of the adaptation. Alcott’s novel made its bow a few decades before there even was cinema, and it was already a beloved standard when director Alexander Butler became the first to bring it to the screen, in 1917. It has been made over and over again, by formidable figures such as George Cukor, Mervyn LeRoy, and Gillian Armstrong. By official count, Gerwig’s version is the seventh to grace movie theaters, and it comes at a time when there is arguably less patience for taking liberties with the classics in adaptation. Fidelity is a selling point, and Gerwig is remarkably true to the book, often pulling dialogue verbatim from Alcott’s pages.

And yet Gerwig’s Little Women is also immediately notable for the way it scrambles those pages. Alcott follows strict chronology in moving through the story of the four March sisters and those in their orbit, making one sizable leap forward in time at the halfway point. Gerwig moves back and forth between the two major time frames of the novel, finding the characters alternately in the throes of childish impulse and easing into the demands of young adulthood. Other cinematic storytellers using such a device often scramble events according to where they believe the dynamics of the plot best suit the needs and interests of the audience (when Tarantino has done it well, in Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill: Volume 1, this is what he’s pulling off). With Little Women, Gerwig instead does it by feel. She might be shrewd and tactical in her decision-making, but the effect is to swoop scenes together according to their defining emotions. It’s easy to believe that the film is assembled the way Gerwig holds it in her heart, reconfigured after years of rereading and internalizing.

As much as the film feels like a pure expression of Gerwig’s relationship with the book, her enthusiasm manifests in a way that is expansive and generously collaborative. She assembles a wonderful cast and creates the room for them to incisively build the characters. Gerwig’s Lady Bird lead, Saoirse Ronan, has the plum role of Jo March, and works marvels with her adeptness at shifting back and forth between bravado and vulnerability, and sometimes showing how both divergent sensations exist in the same space at the same time. Eliza Scanlen captured Beth’s decency and fragility, Timothée Chalamet aches through the slow growth of next-door dreamboat Laurie, and Tracy Letts is vividly alive in a small role as Jo’s publisher. More than anyone, though, Florence Pugh commands the screen, playing Amy with a stirring forthrightness and blazing creativity.

Every scene is staged with an easy deftness and beauty, which builds up the internal credibility of Gerwig’s approach to the narrative until she takes an especially ingenious pivot in the closing scenes. Little Women, Gerwig’s film, is truest to Little Women, Alcott’s novel, by operating in a sort of dialogue with it. The movie ends as a celebration of storytelling itself, a testimony to the specialness of the original work. In doing so, Gerwig solidifies the certainty that she, too, is an uncommonly talented creator. Gerwig’s work is also destined to thrill, inspire, and endure.

Now Playing — Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

star wars skywalker

It’s difficult to weigh in on Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker without rhapsodizing on the entirety of the intergalactic saga George Lucas launched over four decades ago, seemingly with a guilelessness that would quickly be eradicated by unexpected merchandising riches. That’s a natural impulse, I suppose, given the relentless marketing aimed at reminded the masses that this new film, officially Episode IX for those who prefer to tally them such, is the final, no-foolin’ conclusion of the epic story begun with a little thimble-shaped robot charged with delivering a video message. Maybe more pertinently, The Rise of Skywalker, as envisioned and executed by J.J. Abrams, is engaged in active conversation with every Star Wars film that has come before it. For better or worse, it’s also overtly communicating with — and perhaps beholden to — the fan base

Abrams returns to the core Star Wars series after relaunching the ongoing story with the deliberate echo The Force Awakens and ceding the screen to the superior — and exhaustingly controversialThe Last Jedi. His thin plot rehashes much of what’s come before, most notably a simplistic conflict of good and evil, with plucky heroes and proudly malevolent villains. There are gentle callbacks to what’s come before, especially other outings that landed in the third position of segmented trilogies, accidentally arguing that there might not be much of a difference between reverent and slavish. A consensus is already forming that Abrams overly acceded to squeaky wheel fandom in wiping away much of the ingenious deconstruction introduced by writer-director Rian Johnson in The Last Jedi, but Rise of Skywalker smacks more of churlish reasserting of earlier bad ideas that were kindly, deftly replaced by improvements. Johnson took Abrams’s inventions and made them better. Abrams misguidedly puts the discarded pieces back in place, contorting the narrative beyond all reason to do so.

On its own, though, The Rise of Skywalker is a reasonably engaging space adventure. Freed from the heavy baggage of the franchise’s preeminence in entertainment culture, it might be possible to find attributes in the archetypal storytelling. That doesn’t forgive the base mechanics of the film too often being executed in a manner that surprisingly clumsy (several action sequences are edited into a confusing hash of images), and the apparently sincere desire to give the whole sprawling endeavor a proper sendoff doesn’t automatically instill genuine emotion. If I was occasionally entertained, I was rarely moved. In trying to please a fervent few and ruffle no one, Abrams made a film devoid of passion. The hope is stale.