Published Dec 04, 2019
10. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Over the last few years, Nick Cave has been through a spiritual journey brought on by a devastating loss. The sudden, accidental death of the Australian singer-songwriter's 15-year-old son, Arthur, has radically reshaped his perspective on life and humanity, transforming the way he engages with his audience and his approach to writing. Out of all that emerges Ghosteen. While the magnificent Skeleton Tree was haunted by that loss, this is the first to face it squarely and peel back the endless layers of grief. You'd think that would make Ghosteen a deeply sad experience (and it often is), but its emotional complexity, cinematic scope and surreal, undeniable beauty are enough to welcome you on this journey — one that is startlingly blissful and intensely rewarding.
9. Better Oblivion Community Center
Better Oblivion Community Center
Better Oblivion Community Center launched with a recruitment campaign, promising "care and service catered to find your own better oblivion." What seemed like a dystopian support group was revealed to be a new supergroup composed of Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers, with a masterful folk-rock debut. The pair deliver empathetic tales about modern anxieties and existential distress, honouring the support group concept by offering moments of solace amid the adversity: "I'm fine with what I've lost," "I feel so proud now for all the good I've done." Sonically evoking that theme, the pair expertly place soothing harmonies and purposefully sparse instrumentals within their otherwise burgeoning soundscape. At the height of their musicianship, Oberst and Bridgers offer compassion at the end of a trying decade.
8. Weyes Blood
Weyes Blood is quite the expert when it comes to creating sonically hazy dreamscapes, and Titanic Rising is no exception. The ten-track album is Natalie Mering's fourth full-length LP and arguably her most articulate and fully-formed. Musical influences range from the Carpenters to Joni Mitchell ("Everyday" sounds like it could be a '70s smash hit, despite the lyrics detailing adventures in online dating), yet Mering is still able to maintain an individual identity separate from her inspirations. It takes a special kind of artist to combine soft-rock sensibilities whilst paying homage to a certain '90s film starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, but Weyes Blood does it seamlessly.
7. Purple Mountains
Purple Mountains looked like the start to an unexpected second act for David Berman, a decade after abruptly retiring his beloved Silver Jews. Instead, it was a coda: less than a month after the album's release, the poet and songwriter died by suicide. It's impossible not to hear overwhelming sadness and isolation on tracks like "All My Happiness is Gone" and "I Loved Being My Mother's Son," but there remains a lingering undercurrent of hope. Before he passed, Berman gave the world one last collection of heartfelt, twanging rock tunes coupled with the most direct songwriting of his career, filled with the type of melancholic quips that stand among his best. It's a sad, but encapsulating, farewell to one of Gen X's most singular songwriters.
Ultimately, PUP's Morbid Stuff takes everything that the band has done so well over the years and perfects it to a tee. While the album as a whole is a clear representation of how PUP has matured, it possesses just enough adolescent reflection to keep you coming back for more. Every single track on the album expertly navigates different facets of mental health in the most candid and honest way possible. Morbid Stuff sees PUP at their most confident, yet most vulnerable. It's an album for both the angsty youth and the apathetic young adults that they grow into.
5. Sharon Van Etten
Remind Me Tomorrow
While her music has always delved into deeply personal territory, Sharon Van Etten's fifth full-length album does with a sharpened, unapologetic sense of confidence; her most powerful songwriting to date, paired with John Congleton's synth-heavy production, merging to conjure a sinister, maximalist storm that she sits comfortably, and unhesitantly, in the eye of. From the indestructibility of youth on the anthemic "Seventeen" to the blunt album opener "I Told You Everything" that sees her divulging a traumatic past — without giving away the subject matter — Remind Me Tomorrow is filled with timeless tracks meant for dancing, screaming, laughing and weeping in equal measure.
4. (Sandy) Alex G
House of Sugar
Alex Giannascoli's music sounds like it wouldn't work on paper—what with his pitch-shifted vocals, genre-defying tracklistings and ragged guitar playing. But over the past decade, he's risen out of the bedroom and up indie rock's ranks to become one of the most enigmatic and inspiring artists of his generation. His eighth studio album, House of Sugar, is his best yet, mixing all too familiar tales from most people's 20s (the death of a friend in "Hope"), sweet and sour sonics ("Gretel"), and stories that blend fiction with reality to create an album that's worth endlessly puzzling over.
3. FKA Twigs
On Magdalene, FKA twigs has found the perfect balance of glorious, heartfelt popsmithery and bold, crackling experimentalism. Where recent EPs skewed towards abstract avenues of musical thought that weren't always interested in clear payoffs, Magdalene puts the emotional arc of the songwriting first, but doesn't restrain her wilder production instincts by any means. Not since Björk has an artist danced between genres with such wowing finesse, incorporating aspects of any style that supports the intent of her alchemical avant-pop art. Magdalene is a magnificent achievement and shining example of the magic unfettered artistry can weave in the hands of a singular talent.
Scott A. Gray
2. Angel Olsen
Some artists just get better as time goes on. Angel Olsen has always been talented and multifaceted — contemplative lyrics have been a touchstone of her work since 2012's Half Way Home, as have shape-shifting arrangements — but, with All Mirrors, her fourth full-length studio album, she reaches a place of transcendence. A 14-piece orchestra adds swelling drama to sparkling synth (first track "Lark" is a standout), as well as quiet grandeur to songs like "Endgame," where Olsen finds empowerment in heartbreak and solitude. It provides additional compass through a deep exploration of Olsen's emotional landscape, thick with revelations of love and realizations of self. Complicated, cathartic and sublime, All Mirrors is Olsen's best effort yet.
1. Lana Del Rey
Norman Fucking Rockwell!
Right from the electrifying opening line of Norman Fucking Rockwell! — "Goddamn, man child. You fucked me so good that I almost said 'I love you'" — Lana Del Rey has listeners in the palm of her hand.
On her fifth record, Del Rey covers reggae-ska band Sublime, name checks Sylvia Plath, and, like always, litters her album with Americana references. But on Norman Fucking Rockwell!, the clearest demonstration of Del Rey's talent to date, she sidesteps the hollow mopiness of her previous recordings and delivers meticulously cutting lyricism whose appeal is undeniable. Between the minimalist piano ballads like "Happiness is a Butterfly" the soft-pop of tracks like "Mariners Apartment Complex," and the sprawling, near-10 minute, psychedelically textured pop song "Venice Bitch," Del Rey crafts a record that will stand the test of time.
But perhaps the most emotionally striking quality of Norman Fucking Rockwell! is how stubbornly hopeful Del Rey is despite the painful heartache that she describes throughout. "Fuck It, I love you," she resigns, clinging to the possibility that the feeling will be returned. And in the album's closing moment, she sings, "hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have. But I have it." Goddamn, Lana Del Rey.
Check out more of Exclaim!'s Best of 2019 lists here.