As the year draws to a close, Local Spins asked some musicians and readers to make their picks for best albums and songs of 2019 – a diverse roster, indeed. Listen to music from all of the featured artists.
Last week, it was Local Spins writers. Today, we give some West Michigan musicians and readers a chance to showcase their favorite albums and songs of 2019.
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As folks get ready to celebrate the arrival of the New Year, we look back at some of the music that created their soundtracks and packed their playlists. Scroll down for those selections, listen to tracks from all of the artists and browse their picks for best concerts of the year, too.
And ICYMI, check out the Local Spins Critics’ Picks for Best Music of 2019 here, which we published the day after Christmas.
THE MUSICIANS’ AND READERS’ PICKS: BEST MUSIC OF 2019
JACK DROPPERS (Jack Droppers & The Best Intentions)
1. Michael Kiwanuka, “Kiwanuka” – This record flows together like one complete story and it is almost essential to listen to it in its entirety. In a world so desperate for hope, Kiwanuka is not an optimism record, but one of profound hope amidst the struggle.
2. Better Oblivion Community Center, “Better Oblivion Community Center” – Rarely do collaborations help songwriters who are well established create something equally impressive as their own catalog. However, this is not a Phoebe and Conor B-sides record, this is a mine full of gems.
3. Bruce Springsteen, “Western Stars” – Pensive, melancholy and moving, this record is either the antithesis or the sequel to Springsteen’s early catalog as it portrays waking up from the false narrative of the American dream.
4. Tobe Nwigwe, “Fouriginals” – Saw Tobe play Detroit this fall after three months of listening to his stuff every day, it was one of the most incredible shows I’ve seen live.
5. Maggie Rogers, “Heard it in a Past Life” – Pure pop perfection.
TOP LOCAL SONGS
1. Phabies, “Spacecraft Sattelite” – I might be biased (3/5 of the Best Intentions are in Phabies) but I have loved every Phabies song thus far and this one is extra fun.
2. Dawning, “Rose Lights” – When Aaron and crew play this one live, you are taken to a land of reverb and nostalgia that you might just stay in for a whole week (or however many times they loop that catchy chorus).
3. Joose the Conquerer, “Sim Simmer” – I’ll admit that I am not in the know about the GR hip hop scene, but ever since I saw Joose perform at Revolve records a couple of years ago, I’ve been hooked.
4. Brother Elsey, “Fast Train” – This is an incredibly catchy sing-a-long (or hum-a-long) anthem. Also, Stephen Norregaard is one heck of a music video director.
5. Van Lente, “If You Knew Him” – Van Lente did a video with our friends, Dogtown Studios, for this song and oh my, it is quite haunting and beautiful. I can’t find any music on Spotify but hopefully, this one is recorded soon.
BEST CONCERT: Jordan Hamilton at Michigan House in Austin, March – I saw a lot of great shows that I was expecting to be great this year. However, I always cherish loving shows where I had no expectations. With that said, when we went down to Austin with Michigan House and Jordan Hamilton opened up the showcase, I was blown away not only by his songwriting, musicianship and voice but by his presence on stage. He had just had his cello broken by an airline and he had a less than ideal time slot at the show, yet he poured out a set list of gratitude, love and incredible music. (Note: Jordan Hamilton headlines Local Spins’ Michigan Mondays concert at Listening Room in Grand Rapids on Jan. 27. Admission is $5; details and tickets online here.)
DUTCHER SNEDEKER (Earth Radio, Blushing Monk, Mark Lavengood)
These options reflect my personal listening habits for the year based on releases that I kept coming back to in my weekly listening habits. They are also not in any particular order.
1. Isaiah Sharkey, “Love Is The Key (The Cancerian Theme)” – This album is one of my go-to plays on long car rides, and with all of the traveling I did this year it made for some groovy trips. Isaiah Sharkey boasts credentials with dozens of high-level artists: D’Angelo, John Mayer, Patti Labelle, The Clark Sisters, Cory Henry & The Funk Apostles, Chris Dave and The Drumhedz, and Paul Simon, to name a few. On “Love is The Key (The Cancerian Theme),” Sharkey skillfully flexes his singing, guitar playing and writing abilities on a collection of tunes that sonically lie somewhere at the intersection of D’Angelo, Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye. There is a classic soulful flair that is spiced with gospel, jazz, blues and funk that confidently showcases the wide variety of talents Isaiah Sharkey possesses, and reinforces why when his name is involved on a project, you know it’s going to turn out great.
2. Pedro Martins, “Vox” – I first heard about this Brazilian-born guitarist through a video with Genevieve Artadi (KNOWER), where they were collaborating together on some music. His effortless command of the guitar in a way that blends jazz guitar with his South American roots instantly captured my attention. This year alone he has performed on shows with Kurt Rosenwinkel, a well-respected jazz guitarist who has praised Pedro Martins for his music. It’s emotionally driven music that dances around expectations harmonically and melodically, and songs like “Quem Eu Sou,” “Sertao Profundo,” and “Horizonte” remind us that music is such a deeper form of communication than any language barrier could prevent. There is a spirit in his voice and playing that is infectious, and it motivates me as a musician and writer to capture the human condition in such a powerful way.
3. Esperanza Spalding, “12 Little Spells” – Always the creative force, this album was written and recorded during a residency at a castle in Italy. To promote the album, she released 12 videos, each one conceptually linking to the tracks that were crafted around different parts of the body. There’s funk, there’s jazz fusion, there’s soul and a defiant spirit of creativity. This isn’t the Esperanza from Radio Music Society, nor is it the alter ego in Emily’s D+Evolution, but rather a joyful blending of those two identities with newly harnessed creative energy. Songs like “Thang (hips),” “Touch in Mine (fingers),” “Dancing The Animal (mind),” and “You Have to Dance (feet)” show just how diverse an Esperanza Spalding album can get. There is a reason why she is composing with jazz legends like Wayne Shorter and touring with others like Joe Lovano and Jack DeJohnette, she’s a force to be reckoned with and has easily earned her place among the legendary craftswomen within American music.
4. Moonchild, “Little Ghost” – Nestled between layers of soothing synths, grooving key bass, and tasteful drumming are Amber Navran’s smooth, soft vocals that steep your listening experience in a warm, comfortable bedding of sounds. Whether you hear them with headphones, in a club venue, or on their recent Tiny Desk Concert, there is a strong spirit of neo-soul flavored with so many delightful electronic textures. Every member doubles (sometimes triples) on instruments, allowing a touring quartet to cover keyboards, horns, vocal harmonies, guitar and drums with electronic pads. Production aside, there are some great tunes I haven’t been able to keep out of my weekly playlist, like “Money,” “Too Much To Ask,” “The Other Side” and “Get To Know It.”
5. Jacob Collier, “Djesse Vol 2.” – Folks who know me know that I love watching this guy work. Mid-20s, signed to Quincy Jones’ entertainment label, his debut album was entirely tracked and mixed in his room and won two Grammys, and he is somehow the catalyst for so many genres of music communities and sounds interacting. Just look at his current live band, and you’ll find people from all walks of life that are multi-instrumentals and talented musicians on their own. He has a way of capturing so many moments in expressive, often daunting projects, as “Djesse Vol 2.” is part of a four-volume album that has both a sonic and chronological timeline to each phase. This album boasts a host of guests, from British indie-pop artist Dodie to acoustic virtuosos like Chris Thile to iconic guitar wizards like Steve Vai. Each tune is crafted in a way that highlights Jacob’s many interests and talents while also serving the collaborators, from intimate backbeats with Lianne La Havas on “Feel” to bossa nova ballades with MARO on “Lua.” Diving into some live streams on the Logic Pro sessions behind his Grammy-nominated tracks yields a delighted Jacob gleefully sharing how sounds and textures are crafted, from banging on pots and pans to micro-tonal voice-leading. It’s a beautiful thing to watch someone so eager to learn and so motivated to create and collaborate, and if you have yet to hear his music, this is a wonderful place to start.
Local Mentions: “Oracle Bones” by Patty PerShayla, “Lushh” by Lushh, “If You Ask” by Saajtak, “Home” by Billy Strings, “Stranger” by Tunde Olaniran
Other 2019 Mentions: “Ribbons” by Bibio, “Expensive Magnets” by Expensive Magnets (Pedro Martins/Genevieve collaborative EP), “Mordial” by Car Bomb, “Let Love” by Common, “Ventura” by Anderson .Paak, “Zdenka 2080” by Salami Rose Joe Louis, “Minimalist” by Yakiv Tsvietinskyi, “When I Get Home” by Solange, “Wonderment” by Zach Brock/Matt Ulery, Jon Deitemyer, “Fuck Yo Feelings” by Robert Glasper, “Changes” by Neal Francis
JOHN NOWAK (Desmond Jones)
1. The Avett Brothers, “Closer Than Together” – The Avett Brothers returned to their songwriting roots with this record. With less production and layers than “True Sadness,” there are multiple songs on this record with primarily just guitar and vocals. Easy to imagine yourself in their living room during the writing sessions. Especially with the insight from their 2017 documentary, “May It Last.” Warning: bold and long overdue political statements.
2. Rachael and Vilray, “Rachael and Vilray” – This highly appreciated side project from Lake Street Dive’s lead singer Rachael Price and guitarist/vocalist Vilray has made a bigger impact than either of the singers might have thought it would. Their shared reverence for popular music from the ’30s and ’40s, Price’s unmistakable voice and Vilray’s authentic arrangements combine for a knockout, easy-listening album that takes you back to a dim-lit New York City lounge in the era of swing, crooners and jazzers.
3. Elise Azkoul, “Sweet Soul” (single) – After a run on NBC’s The Voice, Grand Rapids native Elise Azkoul is set to release her first record of original songs. Following her first single, “Coffee Baby,” “Sweet Soul” is a soul/pop anthem that culminates with a sing-along, clap-along chorus that will ear worm its way into your brain and stay there. Support this local talent, now living in Atlanta, and stay tuned for the record coming in 2020.
4. Snarky Puppy, “Immigrance” – One of the world’s most popular jazz, fusion, R&B, funk super-groups released another beast of an album and it’s just as powerful as the Grammy Award-winning ones that came before it. It’s hard to pinpoint a genre for this group led by bassist Michael League, but one listen through this album will give you a better appreciation for the extensive vocabulary and diverse instrumentation of Snarky Puppy. Recommended if you like music that hits hard and incredible drumming.
5. José González & The String Theory, “Live In Europe” – José González may be best-known for his chill, acoustic vibes and unique singing tone made famous by “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” soundtrack, but his most recent world tour was much more than that. Backed up by a 20-plus piece orchestra (The String Theory), González introduced a new energy and catalog in 2019. This album is an experience, should be listened to straight through, and is enjoyed best with someone you can share it with.
BEST CONCERT – Ghost-Note at St. Andrew’s Hall in Detroit, Jan. 16 – This was not my first time seeing Ghost-Note, but it had been over a year since I’d seen them last, and in the last two years this band has exploded on the live music circuit. They are finally getting the attention and billing they deserve. This band will make you dance and stank-face until the next week. Hard funk, R&B, jazz, fusion. Dig it.
STEVE ALDRICH (Destination Sons, WLAV-FM, The Q 94.5-FM)
1. Fontaines D.C., “Dogrel” – Arresting debut from Irish post-punks. Singer Grian Chatten creates rhythm with his words, while their guitarists serve up unexpected sound shapes. In spite of the intensity, there’s great bursts of melody here too. It’s like one of 1979’s best albums just arrived 40 years late.
2. Orville Peck, “Pony” – Where The Lone Ranger travels to Twin Peaks, where Morrissey collaborates with Roy Orbison, where an obscure Canadian punk drummer vanishes from earth and is replaced by this Wild West guitar-slinger, that’s Orville Peck. Haunting melodies, reverberated Gretsch guitars and that croon! Pretty much timeless…
3. Weyes Blood, “Titanic Rising” – She has described it as “Bob Seger meets Enya,” and while not so sure about that, what you do have is a beautiful, lush soundscape that seems to be coming from a dream. The subject matter, however, lifts it beyond mere easy listening. Still, likely the prettiest thing you could hear this year.
4. Angel Olsen, “All Mirrors” – The sparse arrangements of the earlier albums get replaced here by a more widescreen approach, a path taken after she had already recorded an earlier version of the album. The re-do proves correct, the expanded arrangements serve well her best collection of songs and her most complete vocal performances to date.
5. FKA twigs, “Magdalene” – Anyone expecting an album of edgy R&B had to be mighty disappointed, save for one track, there’s none of that here. It seems in the five years she’s been away, twigs has taken a deep dive into the catalog of Kate Bush, and is now creating new and inventive music with that vocabulary. Unexpected and brilliant.
6.Michael Kiwanuka, “Kiwanuka” – His brand of soul-folk has always had a winning formula, but he seems to have underachieved in two previous albums. Not so here, Danger Mouse is on board here to shape this ambitious song cycle that’s as impressive as Marvin, Stevie or Curtis at their finest.
7. Foals, “Part 1 Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost” – This is not so much re-invention as refinement on the first half of this double project that saw them losing a member mid-way thru the recording process. Some of the less-successful moves of recent albums are gone and it’s more back to basics here — that is, as basic as this band gets.
8. Slowthai, “Nothing Great About Britain” – Real-life tales of UK working-class life, told to a soundscape of punk and grime. While The Streets have been down this road before, and to some degree, Sleaford Mods, Tyron Frampton pulls no punches on this overdue debut album.
9. Sleater-Kinney, “The Center Won’t Hold” – Controversy! The team-up with St. Vincent sure raised a lot of eyebrows when announced, and the results were were even more unsettling for many. Glammed-up looks and sound sent some fans over the edge, not far behind the exit of drummer Janet. But a band has a right to grow and experiment, and this album really is a major break-through and a courageous move.
10. Elbow, “Giants Of All Sizes” – The semi-official People’s Band of England seems to have taken their foot off the gas on two previous albums, perhaps in fear they could turn into Coldplay. This one restores a welcome return to a balance of art and commerce, and sits well with their earlier, now-classic albums.
BEST CONCERT: Orville Peck at The Pyramid Scheme in Grand Rapids, Oct. 6 – Taking the stage, quite fittingly, to Bob Dylan’s “All The Tired Horses,” the masked one and his band, Toronto’s excellent Frigs, showed they could not only master the soundscapes of the album, “Pony,” but actually better it. Who could imagine the goth-leaning Frigs tearing their way, pedal to the metal, thru covers of George & Tammy’s “Something To Brag About,” Gram & Emmylou’s “Ooh, Las Vegas,” with the normally Siouxsie-influenced singer, Brea Salmena, re-imagined as honky-tonk cowgirl queen? Ending with a joyous romp thru Bobbie Gentry’s “Fancy,” the sold-out crowd left buzzing, likely one of the greatest shows you were ever going to see. Yep, it was that good.
CHAD WEDEVEN (Earthwork Harvest Gathering)
I’ve dived so deep into the rich and varied local scene that I can only think of a small handful of new national acts I bought this year. Here’s my shot at this.
1. Darcy Wilkin, “Bristol” – If this got national distribution it would be Americana album of the year. After 21 years cocooned in the Corn Fed Girls, Darcy steps out on her own and hits it out of the park with astute, sometimes harsh but always humane glimpses of lives led in quiet desperation. Stellar production by Joe Newberry. Wait till you hear “Waiting For The Wildflowers,” just, wow.
2. Borr McFerrin, “Bottle Makes Three” – Years in the making, this duo album takes their country folk sound and blows it up widescreen, the sound of lives lived hard but kind. Trains, booze, horses — well-worn Americana topics, but served up with heart, harmony and go-for-broke brio.
3. August, “Bloom” – I bought this one at Sandra Effert’s release show after they played a great opening set. First spin: ‘Oh, this is nice, inoffensive soulful pop.’ Second spin: ‘Oh wow, are those women sisters? Those harmonies?’ Third spin: ‘Bailey Budnick is the best under-sung drummer in this town, check those jazzy fills and off beats.’ Fourth and fifth and more spins: ‘Oh damn, this is album of the year, isn’t it?’ Like a Vox Vidorra with less weighty subjects on its mind. That’s not a diss; we need this sort of music as soundtrack to a well rounded life.
4. Earth Radio, “Mother’s Breath” – The most exciting sound in West Michigan heads for outer space, and it shows few signs of coming back till they retrieve all our lost soul singers and prog heads.
5. Guided By Voices, “Sweating The Plague” – Robert Pollard is a personal hero, parlaying a teaching career into perhaps the biggest cult following in music. His band’s third album of the year, 32nd overall, actually finds new sonic territory to explore, with perhaps the most skilled lineup of a 36 year odyssey. Rawk!
BEST CONCERT: “TIME OUT: An Evening of Songs and Stories” with Katie & Sav of the Accidentals and Kate & Emilee of The Crane Wives at Mendel Center in Benton Harbor, Feb. 15 – In which all the tissues were required, on stage and off. This special show, first of a three-night run, was just what it says on the tin: four young women elaborating on what their songs mean to them. It got really real, really fast, to the displeasure of some, to the bleary delight of others. So much candor about anxiety, depression, disease and doubt. And a lot of really good tunes. Emilee stuck to mostly unreleased material again, and Kate had a few new ones as well. Katie had a great song about watching a meteor shower with her mom, cancer diagnosis looming over her like a celestial question mark. Sav had one called “Marrow,” about a sick baby, that had us all bleary-eyed. In my top 10 shows ever.
Copyright 2019, Spins on Music LLC