If any more evidence that much of the best music today can be found in the margins beyond top 40 pop, look no further than this list of stellar albums from 2019 that went unnoticed by the vast majority of music fans.
It was a battle just to narrow the field to the 25 albums that made this list (and that total doesn’t include three albums I initially included in this column, but decided they were so strong they belonged in my separate overall top 10 albums column). It was an especially good year for power pop, as four albums in that genre made the top 10 on this list.
Hopefully some of these albums will eventually bubble up and gain more notice. The playlists for a lot of people would be richer if that happened.
Here are my picks for the year’s best overlooked albums:
1) Amoeba Teen: “Medium Wave” — Taking a cue from “Sgt. Pepper’s-era Beatles, Amoeba Teen, on its third album, “Medium Wave,” dresses many of its tunes with horns, strings or other less obvious additional instruments, helping to create a well-rounded pop album that is frequently a bit darker than the music makes it feel. The songs would be solid even with more minimal instrumentation, but the horns add color to “Babycakes” (one of the tunes that’s darker than it at first seems), while “Wandering Bullets,” is considerably enriched by the strings that augment the song. And the melancholy album-closer, “Save,” is a model of what a few added touches — a synth part here, a guitar lick or harmony there — can do to take a song to another level. This is one of those albums that takes a couple of listens to absorb, but it’s an uncommonly smart and consistently strong power pop album.
2) Mikal Cronin: “Seeker” — A frequent collaborator with Ty Segall, Cronin’s fourth solo album, “Seeker” is an ambitious work, often featuring full-bodied arrangements complete with strings and horns. The stars, though, are the songs themselves, which almost unfailingly feature strong vocal melodies. But rich instrumental passages and solos that supersize songs like “Feel It All,” “Fire,” “Lost a Year” and “I’ve Got Reason” bring a grand and dynamic feel to “Seeker,” helping the album make good on Cronin’s lofty intentions.
3) Rosalie Cunningham: “Rosalie Cunningham” — Think Fiona Apple meets the Flaming Lips meets Yes and that hints at the sound Cunningham has created on her first studio album. Having previously been in the bands Ipso Facto and more recently Purson, Cunningham’s solo bow has a good bit of psychedelia in its sound, as well as a rather whimsical, almost cabaret/vaudevillian personality to many of the songs. And songs like “Dethroning of the Party Queen,” “Riddles and Games” and the 13-minute “A Yarn From the Wheel” take enough twists and turns and have enough instrumental fireworks to appeal to prog rock fans. The sound, though, is decidedly more pop than hard rock, as Cunningham builds hooks a-plenty into the songs, making the album a fascinating, entertaining and musically unique experience.
4) Beth Bombara: “Evergreen” — This St. Louis-based Americana artist has really come into her own on her three most recent albums, a 2015 self-titled release, 2017’s “Map & No Direction” and now “Evergreen.” Here Bombara presents a nicely balanced set of ballads (“Does It Echo?” and “All Good Things”), sturdy mid-tempo tunes (“Tenderhearted,” “I Only Cry When I’m Alone,” “Anymore”) and a few rootsy songs that rock a bit more (“Growing Wings,” “Criminal Tongue” and “Good News”). Strong vocal melodies and perceptive lyrics anchor the songs, but smartly chosen instrumental parts add color and richness to these consistently worthy 10 songs.
5) The Anderson Council: “Worlds Collide” — Blending brisk, hearty rock, ‘60s-ish pop and a good bit of psychedelic rock, the smart stylistic blend of “Worlds Collide” is matched by the songcraft shown by the band on this, its fifth album. Every song here is a winner on this generous 16-song set.
6) Bryan Estapa: “Sometimes I Just Don’t Know” — Estapa isn’t breaking any ground here, as his rootsy, no-frills brand of pop immediately brings to mind the likes of Tom Petty, the Jayhawks or the Gin Blossoms. But his songwriting is so strong that “Sometimes I Just Don’t Know” works like musical comfort food, as songs like “Another Kind of Madness,” “Like the Cruel” and “No Ordinary” deliver one rock-solid hook and heartfelt lyric after another. In a couple of earlier eras, Estapa would have had a real shot at FM radio play and significant success. But hopefully he’ll still find an audience that appreciates his well-crafted and accessible rock songs.
7) Redd Kross: “Beyond the Door” — On “Beyond the Door,” founding members Jeff and Steven McDonald and their bandmates show their command of a number of hook-filled power pop variations. Echoes of early ‘70s pop/rock (Big Star, the Raspberries) flow through “Ice Cream Strange and Pleasing,” while “Party Underground” adds a little bubblegum to the rock sound. The title song has a classic chord sequence that could make Cheap Trick envious, while “Fighting” is a hard, rocking gem. Forty years into its career, this underappreciated band is as vibrant as ever.
8) Luther Russell: “Medium Cool” — One of Russell’s newest projects in his nearly 30-year career is Those Pretty Wrongs (see honorable mention), a collaboration with Jody Stephens of Big Star. Maybe it follows that his latest solo album, “Medium Cool,” has a distinct Big Star influence, both stylistically and in the guitar tones Russell favors. Tunes like “Deep Feelings” and “The Sound of Rock & Roll” (both chunky mid-tempo rockers) and “Corvette Summer” (which is propelled by a driving bass line) take multiple turns, both in melody and intensities, giving listeners plenty to sink their teeth into. On “Can’t Be Sad,” Russell rides a propulsive guitar riff and big vocal melody to create a standout track. Another of the album’s best songs, “Sad Lady,” is a funky soul tune with a couple of show-stealing vocal parts. This is high-level pop songwriting, and “Medium Cool” gets better and better with additional listens.
9) Menzingers: “Hello Exile” — This sixth album from this excellent punk-pop band represents a bit of a shift in their sound. The kind of hard-charging, highly catchy and already more creative-than-your-average punk tunes are still there, but the songs “Portland,” “Strawberry Mansion” and “London Drugs” evoke the gritty rock of Gaslight Anthem. “Anna” balances a poppier melody with plenty of punch. “Last to Know” slows the tempo while flexing plenty of heft. The material is varied enough that “Hello Exile” transcends the punk label. Best to simply call it rock and roll — and an excellent effort from a group that has yet to achieve nearly the popularity it deserves.
10) ANC4: “ANC4” — Helmed by Roger Arvidson, ANC4 is no one-trick pony when it comes to guitar pop. The group rocks crisply on “It Don’t Matter” and brings a touch of country to “You Can Call Me Darling.” “No More Words,” with its ringing guitars, could have been lifted from a Byrds album, while horns brighten the song “Winner.” And those are just a few of the treats on this strong, nicely varied album.
Honorable Mention: Faux Co.: “Radio Silence”; Braddock Station Garrison: “American Radio”; Austin Plaine: “Stratford”; Lolas: “A Dozen or Seven Tapestries”; Richard Turgeon: “Go Deep”; Scott Gagner: “Hummingbird Heart”; Kyle Craft: “Showboat Honey”; Pup: Morbid Stuff”; Sugaray Rayford: “Somebody Save Me”; Rob Laufer: “The Floating World”; Dan Israel: “Social Media Anxiety Disorder”; Mike Daley and the Planets: “All It Takes is One”; Those Pretty Wrongs: “Zed For Zulu”; Chris Knight: “Almost Daylight”; Mike Krol: “Power Chords.”