by Pete Mazzaccaro
I would normally follow the critical convention of calling this a “best of” list, but that would be dishonest. To be candid, I simply don’t feel like I’ve listened to enough popular music this year to make that sort of judgment.
What I can do, however, is list my own personal favorites. There have been a lot of good records released this year, and these are all worth a listen. I’m pretty confident that many of these will not be on any “best of lists” you’ve encountered from other critics, so consider this list a bonus.
So here are my five favorite records of 2019 in no particular order:
Bad Plus – Activate Infinity
The Bad Plus, a Jazz trio from Minneapolis, burst onto the jazz scene in 2000 with their debut “These are the Vistas,” which boasted production by Tchad Blake, a producer best known for working with pop and rock acts like Pearl Jam and Elvis Costello. That record was noticed for excellent versions of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.”
“Activate Infinity” is the second record the band has released since founding pianist Ethan Iverson left and was replaced by Mt. Airy’s own Orrin Evans. And while the instantly recognizable pop covers aren’t here, the band’s own compositions play up to its strengths – inventive, playful and compelling. These are hard things to come by for traditional, acoustic jazz groups in 2019. The Bad Plus continue, nearly 20-years later, to make a good case for the vitality of the form.
Karen O & Danger Mouse – Lux Prima
Danger Mouse has had one of the most remarkable careers of anyone involved in music over the last 15 years. The number of important artists he’s worked with is remarkable and he’s quietly, in the background, engineered the sound of acts including Gorillaz and Black Keys while running many of his own partnership projects like Gnarls Barkley and Broken Bells.
Early in 2019, Danger Mouse teamed up with The Yeah Yeah Yeahs vocalist Karen O. for the remarkable “Lux Prima.” The nine-song record owes a lot to English trip hop, particularly Portishead. It’s a danceable but ultimately relaxed set of excellent tracks that blend contemporary and antique pop sounds with plenty of reverb. It could very well be the killer soundtrack to a film that was never made.
The National – I Am Easy to Find
Brooklyn chamber rock band The National returned with an album that was developed in part as a film project. Somewhat stuck on recording a new record, the band sent fragments of songs to director Mike Mills who in turn created a film following the life of a woman from birth to death.
“I Am Easy to Find” is The National in typical form. It is a smart, multi-piece band that’s as comfortable with guitar noise as it is with a string section. Of note on the album was the significant contributions of more than half a dozen female vocalists who add much to Matt Beringer’s signature baritone.
The result is a suite of terrific songs that live up to the band’s best work.
Sebadoh – Act Surprised
Like his Dinosaur Jr. bandmate, J. Mascis, with whom he reunited to reform the seminal ‘90s band more than 10 years ago, Sebadoh’s Lou Barlow has found himself in the best form of his career. Barlow has been busy, not only with a constantly touring and recording Dinosaur Jr, but with a 2015 solo record (“Brace the Wave”), a 2013 reunited Sebadoh album (“Defend Yourself”) and this year’s excellent “Act Surprised.”
You’d never guess Barlow is 55. He and longtime Sebadoh partner Jason Loewenstein* are equal parts noisy and joyful on these 15 new indie rock gems. While Barlow never had the chops of his Dinosaur Jr. partner, Mascis, he’s a good songwriter with an ear for melody and a solid lyricist. “Act Surprised” is surprisingly fresh – a vital entry in the storied indie rock band’s influential discography.
Durand Jones & The Indications – American Love Call
In October I used this column space to recognize the work of a trio of contemporary soul bands working in the more traditional rhythm and blues sounds of ‘60s and ‘70s artists like Marvin Gaye, the Temptations and Curtis Mayfield.
My favorite of that group, Durand Jones and The Indications’ “American Love Call,” has remained in heavy rotation for me since I discovered it. As I wrote then, “the album is a 12-song masterclass on classic soul songwriting and performance, with perfectly produced string arrangements and horn section support.”
Earworm of the Year: Chemical Bros. “Got to Keep On”
The Chemical Bros. returned with a strong 2019 record, “No Geography” and released a handful of singles, the most hook-worthy ear worm of which was the disco infused “Got to Keep On.” It’s ridiculously infectious. One listen and you’re likely to find yourself singing it to yourself for the rest of the week.
Liner Notes is a regular column on music from an admittedly Gen X point of view. Feedback on the column can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org
*An earlier version of this column accidentally misnamed Jason Loewenstein as David Loewenstien.