Lana finally got her overdue roses (did anyone listen to Lust for Life last year?), Phoebe Bridgers made Conor Oberst and Matt Berninger into sidekicks, and Tierra Whack continued to not miss on a song, but Big Thief stole the biggest prize – my heart. Applauding the band for releasing two landmark LPs in a year is still selling them short. Adrianne Lenker is on an unparalleled run of songwriting, and the band’s performances, live and on record, are those of a group locked into a wavelength most artists don’t touch in a lifetime.
Lana Del Rey
Track of the Year
“Hire” isn’t the most groundbreaking song of the year, nor is it necessarily even a song of this year, considering the recorded version was released as a single in late 2018. But the definitive version of the song is Girlpool’s live KEXP performance in 2019. Songwriter Avery Tucker called it a song about being in a state of “no real awareness for anything other than this feeling.” Tucker laughs at their own nebulous description, but it’s spot on. “Hire” is a pure expression of feeling, one that knocked the wind out of me the first time I watched it. Many of my favorite all-time songs are perfectly engineered maximalist works, but the best song for me this year was the one that reminded me of the miracle a great artist can wring from a guitar and a feeling.
Sharon Van Etten “Seventeen”
(Sandy) Alex G “Summer Sky”
Angel Olsen – All Mirrors
How many ways can you spin a breakup album? I don’t know, but I promise you haven’t heard this one. All Mirrors was written in acoustic seclusion, Bon Iver-style, months before it was rearranged and recorded with an orchestra. The resulting album finds Olsen baring her soul while walling off the listener with strings, creating the impression that Olsen is singing in a house of mirrors, seemingly close but utterly unfindable. If you stumble through the glass, you’re at turns assaulted by noise and dazzled by light, but ultimately disarmed by the intimate album closer, one of the great showstoppers of the decade.
Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Bandana
Billy Woods & Kenny Segal – Hiding Places
Purple Mountains – Purple Mountains
Best New Artist
Fontaines D.C. announced themselves to the world this year with their debut Dogrel, an LP that marries fresh-faced song structures with good old-fashioned soul. Songs like “Big” and “Boys in the Better Land” jolted me like a kick to the teeth in a way straightforward guitar-driven rock rarely does nowadays. More intriguing to me are the songs which act as an antithesis to the purposefully thin bravado of “Big”. Dogrel is the distillation of being cool, young, and alive in a world that is grinding up the working class faster than ever. I can’t wait for LP2.
Pom Pom Squad
Favorite Show of the Year
Big Thief @ 9:30 Club
Days before the show at 9:30 Club, Adrianne Lenker posted a video on Facebook explaining that the band wouldn’t be playing an encore by default every night. It had to feel organic, like the band truly wanted to go back out for a few more, and to force it was damaging. That search for pure expression, a throughline for the band, made their show unforgettable and inimitable. Their staging, just four humans almost close enough to touch each other, underscored that commitment. No flourish preplanned, just radical presence. The setlist, the virtuosity of the musicians, the energy – untouchable. It made the encore even sweeter.
Angel Olsen @ Lincoln Theater
Bill Callahan @ The Miracle Theater
Childish Gambino @ Austin City Limits
DC Artist to Watch
Rob Stokes followed up his 2018 LP Live at the Heartbreak Hotel by launching a project called October ‘71, a talented group of musicians including D.C. legend Sir E.U. The resulting four-track release, Episode IV, is a hazy, cigarette-stained kaleidoscope that is completely diverged from anything I listened to this year. There is some kind of hard-boiled detective story baked into the album, but even without fully comprehending what was going on, I fell in love with the overwhelming production and the hot-cold balance between Stokes and Sir E.U.