A mind-bending year of music gave Local Spins writers plenty of fodder for “best of” lists, including Lizzo, Bon Iver, Raconteurs, Orville Peck, Black Pumas, Lana Del Rey, Sleep and more. What were your faves?
It’s been a dizzying, mind-bending year — and that goes for music, too.
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So once again, Local Spins’ perceptive writers have gone to great lengths — with many diving to great depths — to round up the best of 2019’s releases, from singles to albums, international superstars to local heroes.
We’ve shared their “best of” lists here, along with samples of the music and videos to give y’all a robust and diverse smorgasbord of the year’s music.
Once again, you can be part of the action, too: Email us lists of your favorite 2019 albums (or songs) and you favorite concert of the year to email@example.com by 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 29, sign up for the Local Spins email list and you’ll be entered into a drawing for a Local Spins gift package.
Better yet, we’ll post your “best of” lists along with picks made by some West Michigan musicians next week at Local Spins.
While I myself don’t always make picks for best albums or concerts of the year, let me just say that Spotify claims that new albums by The Black Keys (“Let’s Rock”) and The Raconteurs (“Help Us Stranger”) topped my most-played list along with Billy Strings’ “Home” — with Canada’s The Blue Stones (“Grim,” “Shakin’ Off the Rust”) making a late run for my favorite international discovery of the year and Michigan’s Drinking Mercury (“Drinking Mercury) my favorite regional find of 2019.
As usual, I was witness to dozens of dynamic concert performances in West Michigan venues and at outdoor festivals, including Electric Orchestra (July 23) and The Black Keys (Oct. 8) at Van Andel Arena, Low Cut Connie at the Stache inside The Intersection (Aug. 8) and The War & Treaty at St. Cecilia Music Center (Feb. 24). As for standout local/regional shows: Hip hop cellist Jordan Hamilton at the Kalamazoo Fretboard Festival in March, May Erlewine on the Hill Stage and Public Access on the Barn Stage at Earthwork Harvest Gathering in September, and The Gasoline Gypsies first-ever acoustic show at GR’s new Listening Room in December topped the roster.
Now, let’s get to the meat of the matter and see what Local Spins’ experts had to say about the music year that was. – John Sinkevics
THE WRITERS’ PICKS: BEST MUSIC OF 2019RICKY OLMOS (Local Spins writer, keyboardist for Joshua Powell)
1. Brittany Howard, “Jamie” – Brittany Howard’s debut solo album is at once joyous, painful and powerful. It’s a musical time capsule into Howard’s past and a foray into her brilliant musical mind.
2. Better Oblivion Community Center, “Better Oblivion Community Center” – Better Oblivion Community Center is the best collaboration project/album of the year. Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst tap into something visceral, raw and beautifully honest.
3. Bon Iver, “i,i” – Amid a flurry of side projects and producing roles, Justin Vernon still finds time to helm the mighty Bon Iver into glorious musical revelry. This time around, Vernon combines tasting notes from previous incarnations of the moniker to create vivid and hopeful sonic imagery.
4. Billie Eilish, “When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” – Imagine having a seance in the middle of a Russian discotheque dance floor. Or being guided through a melodically lush nightmare. Billie Eilish crafts the musical equivalent of a Tim Burton film for your ears.
5. Lana Del Ray, “Norman Fucking Rockwell!” – Merciless and unapologetic, NFW! is an immediate classic. The California queen crafts ruthless vibes that are explicitly herself.
BEST CONCERT: Milk Carton Kids at St. Cecilia Music Center, Feb. 28 – The California duo unveiled a delicate set backed by a brilliant full band. Combined with hilarious storytelling and surrounded by the ambiance and stillness of a magical venue, the performance was one of the best of the year.
TRICIA WOOLFENDEN (Local Spins writer, co-host of ‘New Standards’ at 6 p.m. Sundays on WYCE-FM 88.1)
1. Lizzo, “Cuz I Love You” — In a nation bitterly divided on issues great and small, there is one thing we all can agree upon: 2019 was the year of Lizzo. Her third studio album (and major label debut) catapulted her into well-deserved fame, with its sex-positive, body-positive celebration of being one’s genuine self. Smash singles “Juice” and “Tempo” are plenty of fun, but a track like “Heaven Help Me” does even more to showcase the rapper/singer/flutist’s myriad talents. Thank you, Lizzo, for giving us someone to believe in, in what has otherwise been a Dumpster fire of a year.
2. Sharon Van Etten, “Remind Me Tomorrow” — Five years after her glorious album “Are We There,” Van Etten returns with another phenomenal, critically-adored effort packed with gems, not the least of which are “Seventeen” and “Jupiter 4.” Oh, and “Comeback Kid.” Also, “I Told You Everything.” You know what? Just listen to the record, top to bottom, OK?
3. Orville Peck, “Pony” — Don’t get too distracted by the pseudonym and surrounding hype (although it is pretty badass); this masked country musician has the vocal chops to back up the mysterious persona and his debut studio effort is a moody, mesmerizing win.
4. Angel Olsen, “All Mirrors” — I repeatedly consumed the haunting title track to Olsen’s excellent fourth studio album to such a degree that I feared Spotify was going to stage an intervention. But damn, if the American singer-songwriter/enchantress hasn’t done it again.
5. Black Pumas, “Black Pumas” — This refreshing, infectious debut solidifies singer Eric Burton and guitarist/producer Adrian Quesada as an act to watch. “Colors” served as my song of the summer, and my life was the better for it.
BEST CONCERT: Orville Peck at The Pyramid Scheme, Oct. 6 — If Peck sounds great on record — and he does — the warmth and depth of his voice during a live performance somehow manage to eclipse. With charisma and showmanship to spare, Peck’s triumphant debut to a sold-out crowd was the stuff of local legend. Honestly, it’s probably going to become one of those Pyramid Scheme shows that–if you missed it–you’re going to get really sick of hearing your friends talk about. And yes; it really was that good.
Honorable Mentions: Foals at Saint Andrews Hall in Detroit, April 26; Preservation Jazz Hall Band at Berklee Performance Center in Boston, Mass., Oct. 25.
TROY REIMINK (Local Spins writer, co-host of “New Standards” at 6 p.m. Sundays on WYCE-FM 88.1)
1. Lizzo, “Cuz I Love You” — Lizzo’s long-overdue superstar turn is a rare example of the kids belatedly figuring out something their 30- and 40-something parents already knew: the singer/rapper/flutist/force-of-nature born Melissa Viviane Jefferson is a national treasure. “Cuz I Love You” radiates with empowerment, positivity, vulnerability and sass, but, more than anything, joy, a commodity in too short supply in 2019.
Listen: “Like a Girl”
2. Sturgill Simpson, “Sound and Fury” — The country-rock troublemaker recorded most of his fourth album at a roadside motel in Waterford, outside Detroit, that has an average Yelp rating of one star. I have no idea why, but somehow it’s perfect. “Sound and Fury” takes Simpson’s outlaw alt-country explorations even further afield into trippy krautrock, New Wave and scuzzy psychedelia.
3. Big Thief, “Two Hands” — The ascendant indie-folk outfit released two great full-lengths in 2019 — “U.F.O.F.” and “Two Hands” — and recency bias inclines me toward the latter of the two, for which they saved “Not,” one of the most arresting rock tracks of this decade’s waning years.
4. Purple Mountains, “Purple Mountains” — David Berman’s thrilling reemergence a decade after folding his long-running Silver Jews project was ultimately a prelude to tragedy. The artist, probably the foremost lyricist of late-1990s/early-’00s indie rock, killed himself less than a month after its release. The silencing of that singular voice will forever haunt what was already a piercing collection of songs.
5. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Dedicated” — Seemingly a lifetime removed from “Call Me Maybe,” the Canadian pop queen continues her Robyn-like transformation from middlebrow hitmaker to cult-worshipped weirdo, banished from mainstream stardom to some northern hinterland where creativity flourishes, but never at the expense of a pristine hook.
Honorable Mentions — Barker, “Utility”; Orville Peck, “Pony”; Mannequin Pussy, “Patience”; Thom Yorke, “Anima”; Caroline Polacheck, “Pang”; Holly Herndon, “Proto”; Angel Olsen, “All Mirrors”; Sharon Van Etten, “Remind Me Tomorrow”; Lana Del Rey, “Norman F*cking Rockwell”; DIIV, “Deceiver”; Bon Iver, “i,i”
BEST CONCERT:— Orville Peck at The Pyramid Scheme, Oct. 6 — The queer appropriation of country-music tropes isn’t exactly new, but has it ever been pulled off with such commitment and such attention to craft? Peck, whose real identity is a quick Google search away, performed in full, glittering cowboy regalia behind a mask, backed by a band that sounded like they stepped right out of Nashville’s Music Row, and armed with a fantastic album, “Pony,” whose songs sound like alternate-universe Roy Orbison classics.
FAVORITE LOCAL ALBUM: Ghost Orchard, “Bunny” – Grand Rapidian Sam Hall has been making captivating bedroom pop as Ghost Orchard for years, and was picked up by the New York label Orchid Tapes for his third and best full-length release to date. On “Bunny,” his dreamy synths, driving trap beats and woozy vocals conjure a world where anything seems possible.
LIV CONATY (Local Spins writer)
1. Taylor Swift, “Lover” – In the highly anticipated seventh album by the country princess-turned-queen of pop, Swift comes out of her dark, edgy phase that was “reputation” to write about how all the different forms of love can manifest in our lives. Whether it’s announcing herself as an ally to the LGBTQ community in “You Need to Calm Down,” using a high school love story to portray American politics in “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince,” or writing a timeless but unique love song such as “Lover,” Swift proved herself as self-written pop perfection once again.
2. Bad Suns, “Mystic Truth” – The L.A. pop-rock outfit shares tunes of taking life day by day, mistakes in love, and realizing bad days will come and go in their third album. Every song having a unique composition but still sticking to the style that made their fanbase, the album was the perfect soundtrack to my summer drives to and from Grand Rapids.
3. Faye Webster, “Atlanta Millionaire’s Club” – Between the genre-bends, lyrics that cut way too deep, and the irresistible steel guitar, Webster created something so easy on the ears while also giving you the option to listen deeper, if wanted. For someone whose favorite genres are classic country and indie, it almost seems as if she created this album for me.
4. Ariana Grande, “thank u, next”– Released only six months after her Grammy-winning album “Sweetener,” Grande gets more vulnerable (and catchy) than ever in these 12 songs that she wrote with her closest friends. February being the most miserable month of the year for many, including myself, this record was the best pick-me up during the cold and dark days.
5. Leland Blue, “Leland Blue” – In their debut album, the Grand Rapids natives wrote about the loneliness that can come with touring, taking the high road, and finding new beginnings. The album is a perfect look at the complexities of the band as well as the recognizable style that they’ve created for themselves.
BEST CONCERT: Handgrenades at The Stache inside The Intersection, June 21 – The Detroit rock band performed with such precision and perfect vocals, I was surprised to learn that they weren’t a national act. They’re a tight band, while also knowing how to have fun on stage and pump up a crowd. With a new album coming out in 2020, they’re on the top of my list of bands to watch as they play more shows within the next year.
BEST MICHIGAN ALBUMS: Deep Greens & Blues, “Roll On”; Blanca Luz, “Elevators”
JOHN SERBA (Local Spins writer, creator of johnserbaatlarge.com)
NOTE: My list of 2019’s best metal records is perhaps notable for excluding that 13-years-in-the making monument to grossly overthought diddlefarting, Tool’s turgid “Fear Inoculum.” I hereby present the following with no apologies:
1. Blue Hummingbird on the Left, “Atl Tlachinolli” — Black metal — now with authentic war flutes! If you must know, the band name is a translation of Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war, human sacrifice and the sun. Metal! Part of the weirdo Los Angeles cassettemonger collective known as the Black Twilight Circle, this group urps up mean and primitive lo-fi tar-black filth, all the best nasty bits of Slayer, Mayhem, Venom, Von and Hellhammer exhumed and Frankensteined into a lumbering and vicious thing, encrusted with earth, lurking in a cave, armed with a club, hungry for battle. And the flutes are not a joke. Beware the flutes. You may not like what follows them.
2. Departure Chandelier, “Antichrist Rise to Power” — One might consider the absurd phrase “Napoleonic war black metal” an apt example of the frayed and withered end of too-many-adjective-metal genres; one might be right. But the band that labels itself such on the back cover of its debut full-length assembles hypnotic and depressive battle marches through disfigured musical landscapes comprised of hissy and tinny riffs, anguished vocal rasps and weirdly melodramatic organs. Those desiring some fresh idiosyncrasy stirred into black metal’s raw buzz, look no further.
3. Mayhem, “Daemon” — If you thought the past couple decades of Mayhem tended to be strangely overachieving and artsy — and who didn’t! — “Daemon” is a classic return-to-form record, a welcome regression to the succulent uglinesses of the past. The Norwegian allfathers of black metal’s second wave found a sweet spot between the guttural simplicity of the impeccable “Deathcrush” EP and the ghoulish intricacy of all-time genre masterwork “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas.” And we had no choice but to hail. HAIL.
4. Overkill, “The Wings of War” — This is not the best Overkill album. It’s not even the best album of the third act of Overkill’s career. But any year with an Overkill album has a leg up on any year without one. Lead screecher-creature Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth is in prime lyrical form; lifer-bassist D.D. Verni leads an on-point four-man killing-machine instrumental unit, now featuring drum lord Jason Bittner; and “Head of a Pin,” “Batshitcrazy” and “Distortion” are a forceful 1-2-3 mid-album combo, the band at the height of its considerable compositional powers. Overkill, as ever.
5. Rotting Christ, “The Heretics” — Rotting Christ is a Greek institution, an exemplar of uncompromising defiance (that band name!), and one of metal’s great cult acts. You’d think they’d sound like a Cuisinarted feast of guts and bone, but you’d be wrong as hell. For the last half of its 30-year career, Rotting Christ has written dozens of steadfast, muscular anthems, simple and mesmerizing, rooted in the rich, arcane melodies of its homeland. “The Heretics” is yet another collection of extraordinary and distinctive compositions that all but dare you to defy their addictive, epidemic qualities.
BEST CONCERT: Sleep at The Intersection, June 5 — As expectations so often cloud reality, this show surpassed all prejudgment unto transcendence. Let’s face it — Sleep plays very long songs very slowly, and if one chooses not to smoke the green-leafed substance they praise so fervently, chances are, the lower-back-pain unrest of standing-room rock shows lurks. ‘Twas not to be, for the titans of stoner doom metal proved capable of rendering even sober attendees rapt, sucked into their titanic sonic morass. “Like being swallowed by a baleen whale,” I wrote, and I stand by that. It’s not something one soon forgets.
ROSS BOISSONEAU (Local Spins writer)
1. Monkey House, “Friday” – This Canadian group plies Steely Dan’s jazzy rock territory, yet is completely original. Leader Don Breithaupt sings, plays keys, arranged and co-produced the album. And wrote it – the music is all Breithaupt originals, except “Book of Liars,” by the Dan’s Walter Becker. Approachable, melodic and pretty much brilliant.
2. The Security Project, “Slowburn” – Though it relies almost exclusively on Peter Gabriel’s music, the Security Project is not a tribute group, but treats the tunes as musical repertoire. Happy Rhodes is a perfect choice for vocalist, and the band grooves hard.
3. Mark Walker, “You Get What You Give” – Drummer Walker’s originals slot in nicely alongside material by Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane and Thelonius Monk. Great arrangements played by a lively, rotating cast, including Paquito D’Rivera.
4. IQ, “Resistance” — The veteran British prog group emerges with a new album every four or five years, and they keep getting heavier. “Resistance” takes up where “The Road of Bones” left off, with vocalist Peter Nicholls riding atop the band’s trademark dark sound, full of synths and pounding drums.
5. Tear: Reuter and Wingfield, “Secret Music” — Brian Eno coined the term “ambient” for music that, as he put it, “must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” This fits the bill, recalling Eno’s experiments with Robert Fripp, with guitarist Mark Winfield and Markus Reuter on touch guitar.
6. Richie Goods & the Goods Project, “My Left Hand Man” — Jazz and fusion bassist Goods was Mulgrew Miller’s “left hand man,” providing basslines for the pianist. But rather than sticking to jazz, this tribute to him is by turns funky, playful, jazzy, – and always enjoyable.
7. John Basile, “Silent Night” — All right, yes, it’s a Christmas album, but it’s full of surprises and jazzy solos. Basile programmed the backing music and played guitar atop it, often improvising along the way. You’ve never heard “Silver Bells” or “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” like this.
BEST CONCERT: Jon Anderson at 20 Monroe Live, Aug. 8 — The once and forever voice of Yes bolted the Anderson-Wakeman-Rabin version of the band in favor of a solo outing and backing group, which brought a trippy, jazzy, and sometimes reggae-ified lilt to both classic Yes material (“Long Distance Runaround” the best example) and his solo work. At 75, his voice is still in great shape, and most of the songs benefited from the new arrangments and expanded band, with horns and two keyboardists.
DEVIN DELY (Local Spins writer)
1. Vampire Weekend, “Father of the Bride” — Instead of attempting to duplicate the success of 2013’s “Modern Vampires Of The City,” Ezra Koenig decided to try something new. The result is a joyful, hour-long musical exploration that breathes new life into one of the biggest indie bands of the decade.
2. Bon Iver, “i,i” — Justin Vernon’s fourth full-length record as Bon Iver is all at once beautiful, haunting, serene, and cryptic. It’s the sort of record that begs to be listened to from start to finish, and a poignant work of art that tugs at the heart in inexplicable ways.
3. The Raconteurs, “Help Us Stranger” — The Raconteurs hasn’t released an album since 2008, but you wouldn’t know it by listening to this record. They sound as fresh as ever, dishing out a set of pure rock and roll that’s both fresh and familiar.
4. Half Moon Run, “A Blemish in the Great Light” — Half Moon Run’s third record is a meticulously crafted and well-written effort that finds the Montreal band exploring every corner of the vast musical landscape it occupies.
5. King’s Kaleidoscope, “Zeal” — This Seattle-based group refuses to be tied down by genre labels. They continually push the boundaries of where their music can go, and they’re raising the bar for other Christian artists in the process.
6. Coldplay, “Everyday Life” — Coldplay’s triumphant return to the spotlight features some of their most relevant music in years. Coupled with their iconic performance atop the Amman Citadel in Jordan in November, the release of this album feels like a historic event.
7. Anderson .Paak, “Ventura” — Anderson Paak’s music is perpetually caught between the past and the present. He’s just as comfortable sharing the mic with J. Cole as he is with Smokey Robinson, and on this record he’s able to find that sweet spot once again.
8. Sturgill Simpson, “Sound & Fury” — Instead of creating another outlaw-country masterpiece, Sturgill Simpson opted to raise two middle fingers to the constraints of expectation and release “Sound and Fury.” It’s a volatile, daring, and unapologetic record that’s also accompanied by a bloody thrill ride of an anime film.
9. Foals, “Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost – Part 1” — Rhythm and repetition have always been essential to Foals’ sound, but those traits are even more noticeable on this two-part release. “Part 2” was released later in the year, and it’s a fine album, but it pales in comparison to its predecessor.
10. American Football, “American Football (LP3)” — Twenty years after quietly releasing their debut album and then disbanding for 15 years, the godfathers of midwestern emo are back to making music. This album is a mature evolution that explores new territories while still staying true to its roots.
Honorable Mentions: Black Pumas, “Black Pumas”; Tyler Childers, “Country Squire”; Thom Yorke, “ANIMA”; Mike Mains & The Branches, “When We Were in Love”; Wilco, “Ode to Joy”; Snarky Puppy, “Immigrance”; The Skinny Limbs, “Seafarer”; Wallows, “Nothing Happens”; The National, “I Am Easy To Find”; Caamp, “By and By”
BEST LOCAL/REGIONAL ALBUM: Winnow, “Light the Match” — If this EP is any indication of what’s to come from Joey Frendo and Jared Meeuwenberg, then 2020 will be an exciting year for this Grand Rapids-based group.
BEST CONCERT: Pinegrove at The Majestic Theatre in Detroit, Sept. 9 — This was not only my favorite show of the year by far, but one of the greatest shows I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. The audience felt completely unified by the music.
Copyright 2019, Spins on Music LLC