My Favorite Records of 2019

The last year of this decade was my least favorite, as far as music goes. I’m not quite sure why this was the case, but I think it might have to do with it being the busiest year of my life. It turns out having two children takes up a large portion of your life. So I don’t know, maybe I was just tired a lot or wasn’t able to sit down with a lot of records and give them my time. Whatever the case, I still found stuff that got the juices flowing, so here it is.

Fresh — Withdraw

I found my favorite record of the year through a winding road — Erica Freas of my old faves RVIVR posted about how she’s living in London and working for Specialist Subject Records. Knowing she has good taste, I followed the link to that label’s Bandcamp, randomly clicked on Fresh’s Withdraw, and then a ray of sunshine came down upon me to tell me I had made the right choice. Sometimes the universe leads you in the right direction.

Fresh hit that sweet spot for me where they fall somewhere between emo and punk — melodic and tender but also raw and loud. They do a whole lot stylistically within a short amount of time, but it’s never scattered or inconsistent. Kathryn Woods sings like someone who wants to do good and be happy — and most of the time she is — but she can access those parts of herself that tells everyone to get lost. On “Revenge,” this dichotomy is captured perfectly as she sings until her voice breaks: “I am valued, I am loved. I will get revenge on everyone who’s done me wrong.” Sounds like a good life plan to me.

Pile — Green and Gray

Due to my previously mentioned life obligations as a dad, I go to way less shows than I used to. Last month, Pile was here in town. I had heard one song, knew they were probably good, but I just couldn’t make the time to get out of the house and go.

I MESSED UP. I really screwed the pooch, folks. Mere weeks later, after Pile had come and gone, I finally gave Green and Gray a listen and was just bowled over. What an inventive, daring, endlessly interesting rock record. Apparently Pile used to a bit more on the noisy end of things, like a more erudite Jesus Lizard, but now they’ve found a mode where they can play more quietly, do some genuine singing, yet still have this tinge of uneasiness weave through the proceedings. It’s not a sense of doom, but it’s approaching doom, and it comes about solely from nifty songwriting and making just the right choices in guitar tone. I listened to this record three times in a week and I never do that. It’s special.

Ithaca — The Language of Injury

How nice is it to hear young people doing the old “chug chug chug WEE WEE WEE” thing?? So nice! For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, that’s a style of hardcore from long ago. Ithaca are British folks who brought it back but are totally doing their own chaotic take on it. Djamila Azzouz leads the charge with her voice and her damning lyrics. And man, that breakdown at end of “Impulse Crush” is the type of sound I live for.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds — Ghosteen

Contrary to what I and many others believed, Nick Cave’s 2016 record, Skeleton Tree, was not about what we thought it was. In 2015, Cave’s 15-year old son, Arthur, fell from a cliff and died. This unimaginable tragedy was assumed to be the underlying focus of Skeleton Tree’s mostly somber mood, but it turns out Cave had written most of that record before his son’s death.

A few years removed from that incident yet obviously still feeling every ounce of the grief, Cave met up with his Bad Seeds to make Ghosteen and finally give voice to what he had been going through. But unlike most Bad Seeds records, which veer wildly between piano balladry and noisy rock’n’roll, Ghosteen is mostly just Cave and his bandmate Warren Ellis, who builds these songs using synthesizer, loops and various instrumentation. But there is only significant percussion for about one minute of the record’s 67. What we get the rest of the time are gorgeous soundscapes providing a lush meditation on not just grief, but the love that awaits us before, during, and after grief. Cave isn’t constantly singing about his son, but when he is, you know it and you feel it. I admit this isn’t the Bad Seeds record I wanted, but it’s the only Bad Seeds record that makes sense right now, and for that, I love it.

Druids — Monument

2019 saw my very good friends in Druids take their band to its highest point yet with this excellent EP. I told them that this is what I wish Baroness had evolved into — not as unrelentingly heavy, but still heavy, bringing in lots more melody, but not turning into a wimpy metal band just a few shades heavier than Linkin Park. Druids is doing it right.

Also, in advance of taking my family to Des Moines’s 80/35 Festival to see Druids play, my 3-year old daughter Maggie got inexplicably way into this record. Her other favorite bands are Koo Koo Kangaroo, The B-52’s, and like, the Trolls soundtrack. But she loved the “New Breath” video, and for about three weeks just constantly asked me to play this record. I never once complained.

Gygax — High Fantasy

My wonderful pal from the Bay Area, Ben Murray, didn’t put out any records this year with his great bands Heartsounds, Light This City or Wilderness Dream. But his label, Creator-Destructor, did put out this absolutely kickass record from Gygax, which my soon-to-be-mentioned-here friend Ryan Werner described as “Thin Lizzy getting way into D&D.” Now, I am not a D&D guy in any way, but I am most certainly a Thin Lizzy guy, got me? Literally about five seconds into “Light Bender,” I was just like, “Oh yeah, THIS is my thing.” The record is only 25 minutes, but it’s packed full of riffs and boogie and all the good stuff you need.

Nerija — Blume

Shoutout to my Dubuque-area friend Ryan Werner for having this on his running Spotify 2019 list, because whoa is this a good jazz record. You heard me right — a current, good jazz record! Part of the reason I like it is because this is a really energetic, upbeat style of jazz that at times takes musical cues from swelling post-rock, like if Explosions in the Sky suddenly got super into John Coltrane. Guitarist Shirley Tetteh uses chords that would fit right onto post-rock or emo records that I dig. You might be skeptical, but I gotta encourage you to check this out.

Bob Mould — Sunshine Rock

Bob Mould turns 60 next year, and judging by how good this record is, there is no way he won’t be able to do this at least another decade. The guy was just put on this planet to write crunchy power-pop-rock’n’roll songs that burrow their way into your heart and soul. Yes, he’s older so you do get a few more toned-down songs, but then you get stuff like “Thirty Dozen Roses,” and it just boggles the mind how Mould can still be such a phenomenally aggressive musician and vocalist. I’m still so honored that a few years ago I got to talk pro wrestling with him for about 2 minutes. What a world.

Bad Religion — Age of Unreason

So here’s the deal: Bad Religion is one of my favorite bands of all time (and I don’t care who scoffs at that — I will never be ashamed!). They have been making records for nearly 40 years, yet even their last one was still really good. This one…okay, it’s not as good as the last one, or the few records before that. A couple songs really stink, a couple songs don’t do much, and it’s been made pretty clear that because they are dudes in their mid-50’s, their politics now skew more toward the centrist lib type of “the President is orange and he doesn’t care about facts” stuff, and that kind of bums me out. But when this record really does its job and the songs sound like tremendous Bad Religion songs of old, I forgive all its sins and embrace it for what it is: a solid 6 out of 10. And hey, I’ll take it.

PUP — Morbid Stuff

I resisted PUP for a long time, even giving their last record, The Dream is Over, a good listen before deciding it didn’t do much for me. But it was seeing them play “Kids” on Late Night with Seth Meyers that finally hooked me. Here was a band lauded by and coming out of the scene that I dig, playing on network TV. It was cool. “Kids” was one of my most listened-to songs of the year, and the rest of the record has tons of fantastic moments of catharsis and biting wit. Big congrats to these Canadian boys for doing what they love with no compromise and actually getting a big audience out of it.

Laura Stevenson — The Big Freeze

I had to be in a very specific mood to listen to this record, but when that mood struck me, there was no voice in the world I’d rather hear than Laura Stevenson’s. She’s a remarkable singer with a voice that knocks you over the head without being all Adele about it. Her songs can shift comfortably from solo guitar meditations to full-band rocking. She should be much more famous than she is.

Georgia Maq — Pleaser

And as long as we’re talking women who should be famous around the world, Georgia Maq, of my dear favorites Camp Cope, put out a surprise solo record at the very end of the year. Whereas Camp Cope is a punk-indie thing, this is much more of a bedroom-pop record (I think, I dunno, I’m not as up on my genres as your average Pitchfork writer). It’s based in electronic rhythms, which would normally make me run away, but the songs are good and Georgia’s voice is otherworldly, so I am all about this.

Aseethe — Throes

My old band Monstro played with these guys over a decade ago when they were a slightly different iteration of their band, and the evolution they’ve made since then is staggering. This is a supremely heavy doom record, played with confidence and grim comfort in the eventual heat death of the planet. There is little hope to be found here, and hey, maybe that’s about right.

Yugen Blakrok — Anima Mysterium

This South African rapper made her name guesting on a song from the Black Panther soundtrack, but I wouldn’t know that because I don’t watch comic book movies, which are for babies. Let me know if you read this deep and got to this insult that I possibly don’t even mean! Anyway, I enjoy intelligent, downcast, artsy hip-hop that doesn’t need glossy production or mush-mouthed rapping to get by. This is the real stuff.

meth. — Mother of Red Light

In yet another case where I was woefully unaware of a great band playing my town, meth. apparently played Des Moines last year to about five people. This is a travesty, as meth., despite their unfortunate name, are one of the coolest hardcore bands I’ve heard in a while. There are remnants of Daughters-esque mind-bending high-pitched chord squeals, followed by very heavy explosions of sound, along with unsettling periods of more quiet noise rock. The lyrics seem very evil, as does the whole vibe. I LIKE.

Coilguns — Watchwinders

And let’s keep the weird hardcore thing going with Switzerland’s Coilguns, an almost impossible-to-describe band that pulls inspiration from Meshuggah, Fugazi, and anything in between. I only got to listen to this record once, but it left such an impression that it’s going in the list.

Inter Arma — Sulfur English

Kind of doom, kind of folk-metal, kind of hardcore…it’s a lot. Oh boy, is it a lot. There are moments on this record that evoke the literal sound of the planet exploding. I don’t always enjoy that, but something about how beautifully Inter Arma composes these songs makes it okay for me.

Pelican — Nighttime Stories and Russian Circles — Blood Year

I put these two records together for two reasons: one, I saw them together in Iowa City in 2007 (with Young Widows — my goodness, that was a tight show). Two, they have both been around forever, they both kind of do the same style of heavy post-rock with metal leanings, and they’re both somehow still making quality records and holding a steady audience. I appreciate them, and also think of them as almost the same band, so here we are.

Young Indian — Hangover

I’ve already mentioned him twice in this piece, so why not a third time — my Dubuque friend Ryan Werner has a truly awesome band called Young Indian, and they put out this EP that is as good as math rock in 2019 can be. Ryan and Micah Schreiber do lots of that cool fretboard finger-tapping that I have been too lazy to learn in my nearly 25 years of playing guitar, so good on them for being better than me and writing great songs with their excellent skills.

Employed to Serve — Eternal Forward Motion

Good friends with the previously mentioned Ithaca, here are some more angry young Brits doing some great hardcore, with this stuff a little more on the techy metalcore side of things. Great riffs and occasional doses of melody abound. Keep it up, you Brits, and keep fighting the goddamn Tories!

Kublai Khan TX — Absolute

What you need to know about this band is that they are very heavy, they have lots of mosh-inducing breakdowns, they do not have choruses with singing, and they yell lyrics like, “Truth be told, I don’t even fucking like you, bitch,” and “Every day I meet more people — the more I know, the less I like.” Put this on at the gym or wherever you exercise and get IGNORANT.

Honorable Mentions:

MakeWar — Get it Together

Kills Birds — Kills Birds

Pissed Regardless — Imperial Cult

Refused — War Music

Off With Their Heads — Be Good

Torche — Admission

Black Pumas — Black Pumas

Pure Bathing Culture — Night Pass

Titus Andronicus — An Obelisk

Fuming Mouth — The Grand Descent

Oozing Wound — High Anxiety

Horseburner — The Thief

Danny Brown — uknowhatimsayin

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