Not many things in life are certain — birth, death, taxes … and my top 10 album list for 2019 will be different from any other best album list you see this year.
This makes sense in a year where there was no consensus best album and I ran across a few under-the-radar releases — especially in the power pop vein — that went unnoticed by major outlets. Here are the 10 albums (plus 15 getting honorable mention) that stood out for me this year:
1) Weyes Blood: “Titanic Rising” — Natalie Mering (aka Weyes Blood) is no stranger to writing lovely classical-tinged pop songs. But on her fourth album, “Titanic Rising,” Mering takes her talents to a new level. The album opens with one of her prettiest songs yet, “A Lot’s Gonna Change,” a string-laden ballad with as heavenly a melody as one is likely to hear. There’s a lot more of this sort of beauty where that came from. With her crooning vocals leading the way, Mering follows the lead of the opening track and unfurls several more stunning orchestrated ballads “(Andromeda,” “Something to Believe” and “Picture Me Better”). A couple of peppier tunes — such as the Mamas & Papas-ish piano-pop tune (“Everyday”) and the folkier, but still lush “Wild Time” — enhance the flow of the album while still boasting the ample melodicism of the other songs. “Titanic Rising” is a sterling work, the rare album that shows just how much impact can be generated through the sheer force of melody.
2) Lizzo: “Cuz I Love You” — Lizzo has gotten lots of attention for championing the beauty of plus-size women, but her most powerful statement is still “Cuz I Love You,” her third album. This diverse effort ranges from “Like a Girl” and “Soulmate,” a pair of outsized hip-hop/soul-flavored female empowerment anthems, to the title track, a powerful rock/soul/hip-hop hybrid, to the shimmery rocking soul hit “Juice,” the tangy Prince-ish rocker “Crybaby” and the huge soul ballad “Jerome,” featuring Lizzo’s supercharged vocal. “Cuz I Love You” is up for eight Grammys. Expect Lizzo to take home plenty of hardware thanks to this stellar album.
3) Sleater-Kinney: “The Center Won’t Hold” — One of the biggest challenges for veteran bands is how to progress musically while retaining their identity. Sleater-Kinney, with the help of producer St. Vincent, meets that challenge and then some on “The Center Won’t Hold,” a brave and supremely satisfying album. The title track immediately announces that something new is afoot on “The Center Won’t Hold,” with a clangy, industrial opening segment that then gives way to a more familiar, intensely rocking finish. “Can I Go On” is a keyboard-centered tune with a poppy bounce (despite its less-than-cheery lyrics), while “Ruins” uses synths and electronics to create a spooky feel. There’s almost a goth feel to “Bad Dance,” which with its mechanical-disco beat and cinematically stacked vocals, is unlike anything in Sleater-Kinney’s catalog. Even the few songs that feel more like prototypical Sleater-Kinney (“Hurry on Home” and “Reach Out” feature creative sonic touches that invigorate the songs. Sleater-Kinney sound re-energized on “The Center Won’t Hold,” an album that opens a wealth of possibilities for where this great band goes from here with its music.
4) Armchair Oracles: “Caught in Light” — This has been a good year for guitar pop/power pop, and “Caught in Light” from Norway’s Armchair Oracles, was my favorite such album. With songs that generally stay in mid-tempo territory, Armchair Oracles bring just a hint of Laurel Canyon country to a pop sound that applies an appropriate amount of crunch with unusually strong, often winsome melodies. If you’re a fan of Big Star or the pop-leaning era of the Byrds, you’ll want to catch up with “Caught in Light,” a power pop album in a class with the genre’s all-time best releases.
5) Aida Victoria: “Silences” — Victoria describes her music simply as blues. But her second full-length release, “Silences,” suggests that her definition of the blues is far more varied than popular perceptions of the genre. In fact, “Silences” evades categories, touching on chamber pop, atmospheric and dreamy pop, rootsy yet textured blues-laced rock and points in between. Whatever styles “Silences” evokes, it’s all compelling, a bit idiosyncratic (in the best ways) and a truly singular work. From the opening track, “Clean,” whose string lines strikingly frame Victoria’s wispy vocals, to the rumbling, tumbling rhythms that drive “Pacolet Road” and “Different Kind of Love” to the spooky yet enticing tones of “Dope Queen Blues,” this is a beguiling, strikingly original album.
6) Junior League: “Adventureland” — Here’s another standout power pop album that came and went with little notice this year. On “Adventureland,” Junior League blends crunchy guitar riffs and strong vocal melodies on such rocking gems as “Town in a Box” and “This Decay,” while putting a little new wave into “Have Faith in Yourself,” “Falling in Love” by adding Cars-ish synths.
7) Michael Kiwanuka: “Kiwanuka” — The third album from Kiwanuka finds him bringing together soul, R&B and psychedelic-ish guitar rock in unique and surprising ways, cutting a wide musical swath along the way. “You Ain’t the Problem” mixes touches of Curtis Mayfield-ish soul with edgy rock. There’s also stinging rock mixed in with soul in “Hero.” “Living in Denial” reaches back to classic soul with its bright horns and backing vocals. “Piano Joint (This Kind of Love)” is a stark and lovely piano-based ballad that builds from near solo to a lush finish, complete with strings and choir-like backing vocals. “Hard to Say Goodbye” is a cinematic swirl of orchestral pop, rock, jazz and resists categorizing. A couple of songs feel a bit unfocused, but “Kiwanuka” is a bold and very successful piece of work.
8) Miranda Lambert: “Wildcard” — Few country artists have maintained a level of excellence that Lambert has achieved over the past decade-plus, and “Wildcard” lives up to the standard she has set. Lambert still shows the feisty personality that has characterized much of her music (on songs like “White Trash,” “Holy Water” and “Way Too Pretty for Prison”), but she sounds quite content on songs like “Bluebird” and “Pretty Bitchin’ “ (which humorously sums up her good life). Musically, “Wildcard” is fairly diverse, with songs that include the adrenalized rock of “Locomotive,” a perky blend of pop/rock and country on “It All Comes Out in the Wash,” some pleasantly rambling acoustic country-rock on “Track Record” and even a pretty rough-hewn ballad in “How Dare You Love.” With “Wildcard,” Lambert keeps coming up aces.
9) Vampire Weekend: “Father of the Bride” — Vampire Weekend continues to solidify its sound on “Father of the Bride,” dispatching some of the band’s quirkiness while still coming up with infectious pop songs that show uncommon creativity, individuality and playfulness. On “Father of the Bride,” the band’s songwriting is stronger than ever and just as catchy, making this Vampire Weekend’s most cohesive and convincing effort yet.
10) Titus Andronicus: “An Obelisk” — After a side trip into rootsier music on 2018’s “A Productive Cough,” Patrick Stickles and company come roaring back to their punk roots on “An Obelisk,” whose 10 relentlessly rocking and lyrically potent songs made for the best punk rock album I heard this year.
Honorable Mentions: Jamila Woods: “Legacy Legacy”; PJ Morton: “Paul”; Jenny Lewis: “On the Line”; Tanya Tucker: “While I’m Living”; Tedeschi Trucks Band: “Signs”; The Highway Women: “The Highway Women”; Tyler, The Creator: “Igor”; Reba McEntire: “Stronger Than the Truth”; Bruce Springsteen: “Western Stars”; Billie Eilish: “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?”; Southern Avenue: “Keep On”; Lana Del Rey: “Norman ... Rockwell”; Sturgill Simpson: “Sound and Fury”; Taylor Swift: “Lover”; Nikki Hill: “Feline Roots.”