It seems fitting that a decade as tumultuous as the 2010s should end with a year so full of contradictions, progress and stagnation. Music, however, was far from stagnant.
From all the year’s great music, I selected five albums that moved me most, and might just inspire you in the new decade ahead.
Clairo - Immunity
By all accounts, 2019 has been a great year for pop music, and per usual, it’s women who are absolutely running the game. Well established talents like Carly Rae Jepsen, Taylor Swift and Lana Del Rey all released remarkable efforts, but new voices have also been killing it. Voices like Claire Cottrill, better known as Clairo.
“Immunity,” her debut album, is dreamy and catchy and melancholic, all simultaneously. She writes gorgeously about the life-saving power of friendship on opener “Alewife,” and has one of the best closers of the year in “I Wouldn’t Ask You.” In the nine songs between, she uses pop and electronic elements to chronicles the trials of growing up and falling in love.
On “Closer to You,” she captures power of attraction a simple mantra, “The things you do/Only make me want to get closer to you.” She may be just 21, but there’s only upside ahead of her.
Flight of the Conchords - Live in London
Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant once famously asked a crowd in New York City’s Madison Square Garden (right in the middle of “Stairway to Heaven,” no less) if anyone remembered laughter. That was in 1973, and in 2019, no album did a better job of reminding listeners of laughter than this live album from “the almost award-winning fourth-most-popular folk duo in New Zealand.”
Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie reunited after several years of solo work in 2016 for a massive tour, culminating in this album, recorded in October 2018 at the Eventim Apollo in London. The duo is joined by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (multi-instrumentalist Nigel Collins) as they stretch out and play with classics like “The Most Beautiful Girl (In the Room)” and “Carol Brown.”
But it’s the new songs that really pack a wallop - “Summer of 1353” is a hilarious play on the idea of chivalric romance, while album highlight “Seagull” spins lyrical analysis and meta commentary into the easiest (and most fun) sing-along of the year.
The Hold Steady - Thrashing Thru the Passion
While New York’s The Hold Steady hasn’t quite reached the peaks of their classic run during the first decade of the century, Craig Finn and company can still casually flatten you when they put their mind to it. And Finn has released four solo albums this decade, each of them proving in their own way that he remains the best rock lyricist working.
“Thrashing Thru the Passion” was recorded in a piecemeal fashion as the band toured, and half the tunes were released as stand-alone singles in 2018. But it still contains some of the band’s best work of the decade, with Finn tossing off lines like, “They said everything’s perception but that’s not really right/Let’s all try to tell a little truth tonight,” and “The dress she was wearing made a nice case for natural selection.”
The penultimate track, “The Stove and The Toaster,” contains not only one of my favorite lyrics of the year, but also a wish for all of us in these fractured times - “I hope I still know you when this is all over.”
Lucky Daye - Painted
David Brown, who records under the name Lucky Daye, makes soul music in the style of artists like Curtis Mayfield and D’Angelo - expansive and drenched in atmosphere. And his self-assured debut provides an exciting look at all the different directions open to him.
Opener “Roll Some Mo” was rightfully nominated by the Grammys for Best R&B Performance, and has a sensuous hook augmented by lush strings. He gets spacy and love-drunk on the nearly 8-minute “Love You Too Much,” taps into hip-hop on “Karma” and goes for swooningly romantic on “Misunderstood.”
There’s no exact placing of Lucky Daye in R&B, and that’s to his benefit. He has nothing but room to create.
Night Moves - Can You Really Find Me
Minneapolis’ Night Moves makes music that needs the open road to have the full effect. The guitar work and synth atmospherics breathe best with towns and landscapes sliding by the window, and vocalist John Pelant has more than a little Stevie Nicks in his emotive lyrics.
The songs on their third album sound like the tunes you’d hear in the background of a neon-lit, hole in the wall bar. But it also shows group trying on new styles - “Keep Me in Mind” has some Byrds-level harmonizing, and “Mexico” is built to be sung along to with the wind in your hair.
Using these familiar elements, Night Moves are making classic rock for a new generation.
Clarke Reader’s column on culture appears on a weekly basis. He can be reached at Clarke.Reader@hotmail.com.
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