Real talk now, folks. You’re going to read a lot of year-end/decade-end listicles this week. People love these kinds of lists, but there’s a fatal flaw to most of them: there are ten entries (at least).
How is that a flaw? We can only speak for ourselves, but the average top ten has six to seven confident choices, two or three maybes that could fall straight off the list in a stiff breeze, and that one lowly entry that we had one good week with, and didn’t think about again until…we had to make a year-end list.
MusicTAP is flipping the plan on its head. Four writers. Four albums. One criterion. Are you going to listen to this album again in 2020? How about 2030? Did this become a lifetime favorite or did it just fill a temporary need? If it is the latter, it didn’t make the cut.
Cool – so what did?
Craig Ellis Bacon: Devin Townsend has gone from strength to strength since releasing the first volumes of the Devin Townsend Project in 2009. This builds on an already-lauded corpus, so, the short history of his career is that the music just keeps getting better and better. It also keeps getting more and more Devy, and Empath represents the culmination of both trends.
The songs are not so much what you’d call confessional; rather, they are personal in the sense that they express the relation between a person and their world. Just being is an exhilarating cacophony, and Empath amplifies that truth.
The openers “Castaway” & “Genesis” throw in pretty much every sound and feeling available—it’s an ‘everything and *two* kitchen sinks’ approach—and the album just opens up the throttle from there. Yet, the sound is clearer, more breathable, than anything else Devy has done. Legendary upon arrival, Empath is a reference point for Dev’s career, for the progressive metal genre, and for the year in music 2019. Poor 2020, you’ve gotta follow this.
Rob Ross: This was a year of much slimmer pickings for me; I’ve bought less albums/CDs/boxsets than I have in the past and have been revisiting a great deal more of my own musical upbringing. But of the new releases I’ve heard/received in 2019, the one that has stood out to me above most others is Zed For Zulu, the second album from Those Pretty Wrongs.
To briefly refresh, Jody Stephens and Luther Russell are the duo who make up Those Pretty Wrongs; this is their second full-length album, released in September. The most important aspects of this record – and why I love it so much is it has an immediate warmth and depth that makes you embrace it from from the first listen. Especially when you consider it visits themes such as communication (or the lack thereof); the ever-present past or the question of the future, inevitable death or imminent re-birth.
Among the track highlights: the sweet melancholia of “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight” has the listener enveloped in the richness of both the melody and the arrangements – and the harmonies will give you chills. The pop-ness of “Ain’t Nobody But Me” is instantly classic – a perfect mix of chiming guitar, tempered by a crisp acoustic guitar underneath and catchy as anything; the Beatle-esque/baroque chord structure of “Hurricane Of Love” is a marvel, with simple and tasteful acoustic guitars and perfectly balanced winds and keyboards (a sort of Klezmer clarinet solo is wonderfully unexpected) – minimalist beauty at its best. “You And Me” showcases the guitar mastery of Luther Russell, both in his acoustic maneuvering and the timbre of the riffs from Chris Bell’s Gibson ES-330/Hi-Watt combo; “Life Below Zero” is, one of those Big Star Third moments – a mixture of wonder and sadness, with yearning guitar arcs. That “great time” vibe is easily conveyed in the McCartney-ish “ragtime” of “Undertow”, which is buoyant and bouncy and (joyfully) unexpected.
From a “critic”‘s standpoint, it’s a giant musical leap forward. It’s smart, confident, interesting and thoughtful. But from the personal view, it’s human. It touches you; moves you. And it’s rare at this time in history that a piece of music can move me. This one did and it’s lived with me for the balance of the year.
Justin Vellucci: It’s an ugly, vicious thing for an ugly, vicious year. And, yeah, there might be bigger chart-toppers from 2019 or “better” market-researched deep-cuts out there polished to within an inch of their life, but I’m tipping my hat and giving my Hall of Fame vote this year to a series of explosions from Pittsburgh. 2019’s anti-record, the noise that keeps clattering in my head as we near 2020, is TRVSS’ Absence.
I thought noise rock was trudging along on aging bones when The Jesus Lizard trotted out for a reunion tour in 2009. Man, was I wrong. Bands like Microwaves, Elephant Rifle and Exhalants – and others – all prove there’s a vigorous and venomous second-coming in the works. And that says nothing of the San Andrean impact of Absence, which seemingly came out of nowhere this fall.
Absence is the rock n roll your momma warned you about: pounding, tribal rhythms, sensually throbbing bass and barbed-wire guitars lashing out at the ears and every other which way they can lunge. Then, there’s the barked leads of frontman Daniel Gene, who sounds at times like he’s fronting Fugazi and at other times like he’s guiding Truman through the Manhattan Project. On “Late Night Monologue,” his screams are coming from so deep in his belly, you can hardly make out what he’s saying. “The North” is a stop-and-start wet dream, a coition ignition mission. The intro to “Detroit, Etc.” is skin-blistering, aluminum guitar work at its finest. “Shockwaves” and the fast-on-its-feet slash-punk of “Vis1ons” are the songs Tomahawk wish they wrote. (On “Vis1ons,” in particular, the jackhammer-rhythm section of bassist Jake Pellatiro and drummer Neal Leventry soars mightily.)
Absence is 2019’s finest noise-rock record, without question, but it’s also a snapshot of America, in all its warts and broken-empire glory, as it sulks to the seething, snarling gallows. I only hope we resurrect and remain as pissed off and vigilant in 2020 – now there’s an Election resolution I can endorse.
Dw. Dunphy: The guiding principle of our list this year is: will this album matter to me in 2020? In 2025? Is this a record I will still be telling people about beyond the window of these 52 weeks?
There are several 2019 albums that maybe have been more ornate or ambitious than Starflyer 59’s Young In My Head, but none that got me and my current situation so completely. It’s not like Jason Martin hasn’t written about the subject of getting old before. Heck, the 2003 SF59 album was called Old! But Young In My Head is a different animal, as it focuses not so much on being older, but on how fast it all crept up, all the minutes and opportunities gone to waste, all the family and friends that we saw only yesterday (ten years ago), but are lost to us now. All those things we wanted to fix but never had time to, and now those options are forever gone from us. Further, that sense of trying to reclaim that which we still can because we now feel the calendars whipping past us in an existential wind tunnel. We can’t grab any of them, only watch them blow by and hope we did not betray them through indifference.
It helps that Young In My Head is a good, solid rock album, but what makes it stand out – unlike so many 80 year old rock stars with more metal in their hips and knees than in their vaults, still hitting on teenage girls like they want that – is that it is about subjects stardom actively fears: mortality, its accursed process, and Time’s Arrow going only one way. That makes it a lot braver than 90% of what came out in 2019. Sadly, it will likely make it braver than 2020-2030 as well.
What Was YOUR Album Of 2019? Continue the conversation in the comments section. We’d love to hear what album most affected you in 2019.