Nilüfer Yanya | photo by Molly Daniel | courtesy of the artist
The Key’s Year-End Mania: Julian Booker’s 22 can’t miss songs from 2019
Year-End Mania is the Key’s annual survey of the things below the surface that made 2019 incredible. In this edition, host of XPN’s Sleepy Hollow Julian Booker takes us through the songs he loved from the past year.
I’ll admit, I love making and reading year-end best-of lists as much as anyone. But as 2019 comes to a close, I can’t help but feel that attempting to rank my favorite songs or albums of the year would be reductive. As I suppose I feel every year around this time, I am overwhelmed looking back at all of the great music that has come out over the past twelve months, and how all of it has affected me in its own unique way.
At times that’s been a result of when the music was released or when I discovered it, and at times its been based on my own experiences, emotions and states of mind, gravitating towards different sounds at different times to move through my life as it’s known leading into the third decade of the 2000s. So the songs that follow are in no particular order, and may not even be my absolute favorites of the year, but they are songs that, even in their relatively young state, already mean a great deal to me, and I hope, to you, it will offer a good start to, or reflection of, music in 2019.
William Tyler-“Fail Safe” (Goes West; Merge; January, 2019)
William Tyler is a great guitar player. But there are plenty of them in the world. What makes him so special is his ability to tell a story in his playing. In the case of his fourth studio release, Goes West, that story reflects his recent move from Tennessee to California, and its best song, “Fail Safe,” seems the musical embodiment of the uprooted wonder that comes with exploring new territory, encapsulating the 2,000 miles that sit in-between his former and current home in just over 3 minutes. Not bad for a song with no words.
Jessica Pratt-“This Time Around” (Quiet Signs; Mexican Summer; February, 2019)
Upon first listen, the growth in artistry between each of Jessica Pratt’s releases (Quiet Signs marks her third studio album), may seem subtle. But her music, while pleasant to listen to even once, demands repeated attention to reveal its depth and power. And as excellent as her 2015 release On Your Own Love Again was, it somehow pales in comparison to her latest effort, a dense, affecting dream sequence that floats by in less than a half hour. Her songwriting contains multitudes, and “This Time Around” may be the best example of her significant abilities yet.
Helado Negro-“Seen My Aura” (This is How You Smile, RVNG Intl.; March, 2019)
I have a dive bar in my South Philly basement that was built in the 1940s. It’s called The Thumb in honor of my polydactyl cat, Cleveland. I remember sitting and having a drink with my partner Holly very late at night around the time this album came out, and being completely enveloped by the sadness and beauty of Robert Carlos Lange’s songs. And then right in the middle of the record comes “Seen My Aura,” which blends the heartbreak and anguish of the rest of This is How You Smile with an undeniable cool and self-confidence. Though fleeting, it’s entirely lovely.
Nilufer Yanya-“In Your Head” (Miss Universe; ATO; March, 2019)
I first heard this song at the recommendation of Kristen Kurtis, before it became an XPN staple, and in fact, before we even played it on the station. I only needed to hear it one time to become hooked, and of course, proceeded to play it incessantly thereafter. It’s easy to wear something out that way, but as the year comes to a close, I can comfortably say that I’ve never gotten tired of “In Your Head.” It’s at once a relentless plea to a lover, a shout in fear of impending insanity, and a declaration of self and strength. This multidimensionality is what made Miss Universe one of the most exciting debuts of 2019, and I’ll revel in it until we next hear from Nilufer Yanya.
Big Thief-“Cattails” (U.F.O.F.; May, 2019)
Despite my grand statement earlier about rankings and best-of lists, I am willing to admit that “Cattails” is my favorite song of 2019. Adrianne Lenker’s 2018 solo release, abysskiss, made it clear that we should expect great things from the next Big Thief album, but I’m not sure many of us could have expected two excellent records within the next year. I was listening to this song recently driving through a snowy pass in Montana at night, and my friend Hanna described Lenker’s voice as a warm blanket, and indeed it is. But I was also struck by the song’s propulsion. While pulling you in with it’s soft tones and ruminations, we are still “making good time.” Big Thief are always pushing forward, and never forgetting to remember what they’ve seen.
The Mattson 2-“Essence” (Paradise; Company; June, 2019)
One of two disclaimers I’ll offer in this article: I’ve spent a lot of time with Jonathan & Jared Mattson recently. But even before I traveled the country for the better part of two months with them, I was drawn into their latest album Paradise. The Mattson twins are jazz heads, and we spent a lot of time late at night breaking down equipment espousing the genius of John Coltrane, Stanley Turrentine, Grant Green, Ahmad Jamal and many others. What makes their work so unique is their ability to take those influences and imbue them into their approach to southern California pop. Their 2017 album with Chaz Bear (AKA Toro y Moi) and last year’s re-imagining of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme were great artistic steps ahead for them, but Paradise is, perhaps, the best example of what makes their work (forgive me) “so special, so easy.”
Mannequin Pussy-“Drunk II” & “Cream” (Patience; Epitaph; June, 2019)
After work at Boot & Saddle a couple of years ago I sat at the bar with one of my co-workers for much longer than intended and had one of those conversations where you reveal more of yourself than you typically would, and I mean that in the best way possible. It’s a rare and lucky thing to come across someone who you feel really comfortable talking and listening to without really knowing one another. At some point that night, Marisa mentioned she played in a band, they were called Mannequin Pussy. I’d heard of them, but never really listened. The next day I must have played “Romantic” and “Emotional High” at least 20 times each. But as much as I loved those songs and their accompanying 2016 album Romantic, I wasn’t prepared for how blown away I would be by this year’s Patience. Why Does Mannequin Pussy get two songs in this article you ask? Because this album really should be heard in sequence to reveal its greatest potential. It’s more pop-oriented moments (see the irresistible “Drunk II”) are only made more effective by it’s bursts of anger and catharsis (see the crushing “Cream”), and it takes both sides of the band’s songwriting and playing to give the full picture of their energy and ability. I won’t say this is the best album of 2019, but I will say that there isn’t one definitively better.
Purple Mountains-“She’s Making Friends, I’m Turning Stranger” (Purple Mountains; Drag City; July, 2019)
Putting aside, for the briefest of moments, the tragic death of David Berman less than a month after the debut of his new project, Purple Mountains, “She’s Making Friends, I’m Turning Stranger” is a loser anthem in the guise of Lee Hazlewood meets Gram Parsons country psychedelia. And if it lacks the mystery of Hazlewood’s production, or the craft of Parsons’ songwriting and delivery, it more than makes up for it in its honesty, and yes, swagger. Berman did not play the anti-hero, he was the anti-hero; a poet in a musician’s body who was never shy about his shortcomings and struggles. For those of us who followed his career with Silver Jews, it was remarkable to see Berman not only return for his first album in 11 years, but to do it in such fine fashion with an album that stands up to anything he had previously done. But the demons that haunted Berman for most of his life were still on display, and just before he was to hit the road in support of Purple Mountains, he killed himself in his Brooklyn apartment. A tremendous loss in the aftermath of this incredible gift of an album.
Jay Som-“Tenderness” (Anak Ko; Polyvinyl; August, 2019)
The first thing that caught my attention when listening to Melina Duterte’s third album (under the name Jay Som) was it’s warmth and it’s spacing: everything seems to have it’s place. “Tenderness” opens with Duterte’s voice accompanied only by a drum sample and electric guitar. And as her series of thoughts and questions leads into the song’s undeniable hook: “I’m feeling like we’ve just begun / Nothing’s ever good enough / Tenderness is all I’ve got,” the listener seems primed for a second verse. But Duterte is too savvy a songwriter to muddle the song’s perfect first two minutes–instead, she leads the recording into a thick instrumental stew of Fender Rhodes and punchy bass before returning to the chorus again and again. It’s a reminder that sometimes a song doesn’t need to be complicated to be effective, as it is, “Tenderness” is one of the best singles of 2019.
Angel Olsen-“Lark” (All Mirrors; Jagjaguwar; October, 2019)
None of us are the perfect listener. And as I approached the lead single to Angel Olsen’s All Mirrors, I admit that I expected I might hear something reminiscent of “Those Were the Days,” my favorite song from 2016’s MY WOMAN, and indeed, one of my favorite songs of that year, period. How wrong I was. Instead, Angel leads the listener on a six minute trip that more resembles a cinematic epic than it does any sort of traditional pop song. All orchestra and percussion, she delivers perhaps the most powerful vocal of her career, nearly whispering: “Wishing we could only find one another / All we’ve done here is blind one another / Hate can’t live in this heart here forever / Have to learn how to make it together” before building up to the nearly deafening finale: “What about my dreams? / What about the heart? / Trouble from the start / Trouble with the heart.” This is not the same Angel Olsen, and I hope you’re here for it.
Michael Kiwanuka-“You Ain’t the Problem” (KIWANUKA; Interscope; November, 2019)
I can’t help but think of Michael Kiwanuka in the tradition of great psychedelic folk singers like John Martyn and Terry Callier, equally comfortable singing within dense production as they are sitting with just an acoustic guitar. On KIWANKUKA, the singer/songwriter definitely defers to the former, with producer Danger Mouse offering a backdrop that meets somewhere in between Curtis Mayfield’s 1970 self-titled album and later ’70s west-African psych rock. It’s a remarkable record, particularly on the extended tracks “Piano Joint (This Kind of Love)” (which MUST be heard with it’s intro in-tact) and “Hard to Say Goodbye.” But it’s on this opening cut that everything starts, and Kiwanuka opens with a mission statement that focuses inward, a self-examination that leads to a search and re-birth over the course of the album’s 50 plus minutes.
Faye Webster-“Jonny” (Atlanta Millionaires Club; Secretly Canadian; May, 2019)
In 2017, I discovered Faye Webster’s self-titled album, with its stylized cover image and penchant for Fender Rhodes and pedal steel guitar (there’s that warmth again), I couldn’t figure out why more people weren’t listening to her. Fast forward to 2019, and I’m happy to report the Atlanta-based singer/songwriter is getting plenty of attention. Indie pop with a deep sense of soul, Webster is not afraid to blur genre lines (most notably on “Flowers,” a song that features a cameo from Atlanta rapper Father) into something entirely her own. In interviews, she has discussed the autobiographical nature of her songs, and there is the distinct sense that, as listeners, we are peering in on something not entirely meant for us, but rather, solely for the narrator and her subject. On a completely unrelated note, this was the house music just before torrential downpours hit Camden, NJ during night one of Phish’s phenomenal 3-night run at BB&T Pavilion this past June. And for a brief moment, I was sure that it was playing only for me.
Rayland Baxter-“Objects in the Mirror” (Good Mmornin; ATO; July, 2019)
I liked Rayland Baxter’s 2018 album Wide Awake, but it wasn’t until later that year, when I was working at the Hulaween Festival in North Florida, that I saw him live and finally got it, an experience that led to Wide Awake being one of my favorite records of 2018. So when I saw he was releasing a tribute to the late Mac Miller, I was intrigued. I knew nothing about Mac Miller. And, though it was the first song released, it wasn’t “Objects in the Mirror” that brought me into Mac Miller or Good Mmornin, but Rayland’s version of “Come Back to Earth,” the song that opens Mac’s 2018 album Swimming. From there I devoured not only Rayland’s recordings, but also Mac Miller’s entire catalogue; isn’t that all you can hope for in a tribute album? And despite my affinity for “Come Back to Earth,” it’s “Objects in the Mirror” that is the album’s crowning achievement, an example of how much two artists who exist in disparate genres and scenes actually have in common, and, above all, a loving document from Rayland Baxter to a songwriter he admired and who was taken far too soon.
Marco Benevento-“Humanz” & “Gaffiano, Pt. 2” (Let It Slide; Royal Potato Family; September, 2019)
Disclaimer #2: If you don’t know, when I’m not on the air on Sundays, it probably means that I’m with this guy. I’ve been the Tour Manager and Front of House audio engineer for Marco and his band (feat. Karina Rykman on bass and Dave Butler on drums) since 2015. I can safely say, though, that this is the most excited I’ve been to work with the band over the course of the last four years, mostly due to the fact that Marco made a pretty amazing album with producer Leon Michels that came out in September. I truly love every song on this record and feel very fortunate to have been able to see them grow while touring damn near everywhere in the country (and beyond) the last couple years, but it’s “Humanz,” which takes inspiration (along with the three “Gaffiano” instrumentals) from one of our shared musical heroes, Mulatu Astatke, that really stands out for me, and also includes some very tasty guitar from Brad Barr of The Slip and The Barr Brothers. Its mystical, it’s groovy and it may or may not have gotten it’s name from a Gorillaz record. Marco?
Jenny Lewis-“Wasted Youth” (On the Line; Warner Bros.; March, 2019)
I know, it’s not quite right to call Jenny Lewis “pop.” At least not in the sense that most people would define it. But On the Line is my pop album of the year (there I go making grand statements again). Since Rilo Kiley and her first “solo” record with the Watson Twins in 2006, every Jenny Lewis release has been an event for me. Combine that with a fortuitous trip to Red Rocks with my best friends Mike and Guido in the fall of 2018 to see her and Beck (yeah, the one when they played “Harvest Moon” in front of a giant full moon) and thus, On the Line was probably the album I was most excited to hear going into 2019. Expanding on her LA-drenched 2014 release The Voyageur, On the Line plays with the grandeur of an artist firmly in control of her craft. Fortunately, it’s not all style, as this is one of the best batches of songs that Jenny has ever released. It’s also perhaps the most personal album she’s ever put out, reflecting on her childhood, past love, and her difficult relationship with her late mother. It’s the kind of album that probably couldn’t be made earlier in an artist’s career, fortunately, Jenny Lewis’ is as strong as ever.
Cate Le Bon-“Daylight Matters” (Reward; Mexican Summer, May 2019)
I’ve written, “Cate Le Bon is criminally underrated” a couple of times and deleted it. But it’s true. The only conversation I can recall having about her this year was with someone working behind the counter of The Bottle Shop in South Philly who was playing Reward in the store (I also found a Roberto Bolano book on a bench nearby that day, but that has little to do with this). Like her two previous releases, 2013’s excellent Mug Museum and 2016’s Crab Day, Reward is a lovely set of yearning melodies warped through Le Bon’s own sense of woozy indie rock. And while lines like ” Why do they stick when your lips read like stone? / Mouthing the lines, returning the air / And I’m never gonna feel them again” could be hard to ascertain, she brings them into focus with the repeated chorus: “Love you, I love you, I love you, I love you / but you’re not here / Love you, I love you, I love you, I love you / but you’ve gone.” It makes me feel like Le Bon is leading me one step from the edge only to offer a hand at the very last moment, and I admit, that’s intoxicating.
Whitney-“Giving Up” (Forever Turned Around; Secretly Canadian; August, 2019)
“No Matter Where We Go” from Whitney’s 2016 debut Light Upon the Lake might have been the purest piece of power pop since Big Star released “September Gurls” in 1974 (awaiting the complaints on that one), and, not surprisingly, their penchant for melody is still well in tact on the follow-up, Forever Turned Around. But their sound has softened just a bit, enough in fact, that the horn break in “Giving Up” is actually one of the record’s most energetic moments. But that’s not a criticism, rather, they’ve more fully developed a sound that is altogether inviting, which, mixed with an even better set of songs than its predecessor, makes Forever Turned Around an ideal record to listen to anytime, but was particularly suited for late summer and early autumn.
Esther Rose-“Don’t Blame it on the Moon” (You Made it This Far; Father/Daughter; August, 2019)
“Don’t Blame it on the Moon” is just Esther Rose and a guitar. I didn’t think a whole lot of it upon first listen. I liked it, but it took time to get deep enough into Rose’s character study of a conversation happening outside of a bar late at night to sense the empathy and understanding that she gives her subjects: “I hope I’m worth all this heartache / outside the bar at 2 a.m., again / I thought I saw the writing on the wall but it was lying / Why does flying feel like falling down if you can’t tell the sky from the ground?” It’s kind of a rare thing in 2019 to hear a narrative like “Don’t Blame it on the Moon,” spare and to-the-point, it should be recognized.
Aldous Harding-“The Barrel” (Designer; 4AD; April, 2019)
Last year, Aldous Harding teamed up with her ex, fellow New Zealand singer/songwriter Marlon Williams, for the remarkable “Nobody Gets What They Want Anymore,” a heartbreaking song sung by, presumably, the two people about whom it was written. When she returned with Designer in the spring, it was with lead single “The Barrel,” something entirely different, with lyrics like “Looks like a date is set / Show the ferret to the egg / I’m not getting led along / the barrel.” Yes, Harding’s lyrics can be difficult to penetrate, but like many great songwriters who eschew the linear, she uses sound and image to offer the listener the opportunity to decipher her code, and no where on this record is that done better than in “The Barrel.”
Crumb-“Nina” (Jinx; June, 2019)
I’ll be honest, I’ve spent more time than I anticipated writing this and I’m beginning to feel a little delirious, so what better song to end on than the psychedelic, and frankly, slightly disorienting “Nina” by Lila Ramani and the New York quartet, Crumb. Full of Fender Rhodes (are you sensing a theme yet?) and well-placed synths, Crumb’s surprising debut, Jinx, grooves in a way no other record this year does–downtempo anxiety floating somewhere in the ether. On “Nina” she sings, “Nothing makes much sense you’ll see / Ripe fruit lands close to the tree / All this time won’t set you free / Take away the water, all that’s left is honey,” perhaps leading us to the idea that in a time full of so much confusion and uncertainty, every once in a while, it’s worth reveling in the weirdness.