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2019's Top Albums: Lizzo, Springsteen, The Who, Highwomen and more...
According to Nielsen Music, sales of "equivalent album units" that's what we call em nowadays were up 13 percent during the first half of 2019.
While it's a streaming, song-oriented music world, albums still remain the highest pinnacle of creative expression, the mark that an artist is here for keeps, not just cashing in. A great single can indeed be a work of art in its own right, but a collection of songs that cohere and elevate a body of work across the course of a half-hour, 45 minutes, an hour or more is a rare accomplishment that must continue to be treasured and lauded.
There was a heady selection of those this year, showing that the album format is still vibrant. These are 2019's best dozen, followed by some worthy runner-ups.
Black Pumas, "Black Pumas" (ATO): This soulful Austin, Texas, duo came with a strong pedigree, including Grupo Fantasma, and wound up with a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist. Its fusion of soul and funk with Latin flavors has a slow-burn ferocity that's genuinely entrancing and wholly original.
Robert Ellis, "Texas Piano Man" (New West): The Texas singer-songwriter made a major move for his fifth studio album from acoustic guitar troubadour into a kind of white-tuxedoed Americana Elton John, albeit more "Tumbleweed Connection" than "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." A dramatic but wholly successful transformation.
The Highwomen, "The Highwomen" (Elektra): Supergroups are usually (and wisely) to be approached with caution, but this teaming of Brandi Carlie, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires delivers with an empowered 12-song debut, bolstered with guest appearances by Yola and Sheryl Crow and songwriting collaborations with Miranda Lambert, Ray LaMontagne and Jimmy Webb.
Ida Mae, "Chasing Lights" (Thirty Tigers): The British husband-wife team of Chris Turpin and Stephanie Jean left their alt.rock band Kill It Kid and immersed themselves in the music of the American rural South. On their debut, produced by Ethan Johns and recorded in England, the couple sounds like the grandchildren of Son House or Charley Patton, paying homage to their Delta juke joint roots while carving out their own fresh path.
Lizzo, "Cuz I Love You" (Nice Life/Atlantic): Believe the hype. The Detroit-born singer's uber-confident third album is strong from start to finish and merits every accolade and accomplishment that's come in the wake of its April release up to and including those field-leading Grammy Award nominations. Good as hell, indeed.
Jon Regen, "Higher Ground" (Ropeadope): The singer, songwriter and keyboard magazine editor worked with Matt Johnson of Jamiroquai on this eclectic set that stirs together pop, jazz, R&B and even New Wave influences with literary quality lyricism and a wealth of guests, including members of Duran Duran, the Police, Tom Petty's Heartbreakers and more.
Rising Appalachia, "Leylines" (self-released): You could render everyone blotto with a drinking game tied to the voluminous influences and styles this rootsy, sister-led Atlanta troupe takes on and that's exactly what makes its latest release so engrossing, and keeps us coming back for more.
Bruce Springsteen, "Western Stars" and "Western Stars: Songs From the Film" (Columbia): Hot off his hit Broadway show, Springsteen channeled his inner Jimmy Webb on this latest stylistic pivot and wound up with one of his most engaging albums yet. The live performances on the latter are arguably even better, riding the performance energy that's so much a part of Springsteen's stock in trade.
Tanya Tucker, "While I'm Livin'" (Fantasy): The country veteran's first release in nine years was more than worth the wait. With younger admirers Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings producing and Carlile's teaming writing most of the 10 songs, Tucker tucks into their energy and sings with refreshed fire that's still blood red but rising.
Various Artists, "Come on Up the House: Women Sing Waits" (Dualtone): It's a simple equation great songs (and Tom Waits writes some of the best) and great voices equal musical glory. And here the likes of Patty Griffin, Aimee Mann, Rosanne Cash, Joseph and eight others give Waits' tunes the sublime delivery they deserve.
The Who, "WHO" (Interscope/Polygram): These guys hoped to die before they got old; we're glad they didn't. The remaining duo's first new album in 13 years, and only the second in 37, is a sincere and insightful document of warriors in their mid-70s trying to understand and be relevant in a different world while still making some pretty fiery rock n roll.
Yola, "Walk Through Fire" (Easy Eye Sound); This Best New Artist nominee has actually been around for a while, singing for Massive Attack and her own Phantom Limb. With a pen as tremendous as her voice (and that's saying something) and empathetic production by the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, "Walk Through Fire" brings Yola into her own with a British spin on classic Americana styles.
Some Others Not To Miss: Hayes Carrl, "What It Is" (Dualtone); G&D (Georgia Anne Muldrow and Declaime), "Black Love & War" (eOne); Durand Jones & the Indications, "American Love Call" (Dead Oceans); Harlem Gospel Travelers, "He's on Time" (Colemine); Nils Lofgren, "Blue With Lou" (Cattle Track Road); Grace Potter, "Daylight" (Fantasy); Sturgill Simpson, "Sound and Fury" (Elektra); Harry Styles, "Fine Line" (Columbia); Tool, "Fear Inoculum" (Tool Dissectional/Volcano/RCA); Vampire Weekend, "Father of the Bride" (Spring Snow/Columbia).
Five (+1) Musts From the Vaults: The Beatles, "Abbey Road: 50th Anniversary Deluxe/Super Deluxe Edition" (Apple/UMe); Bob Dylan, "The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings" and "Travelin' Thru, 1967-1969: The Bootleg Series Vol. 15" (Columbia/Legacy); Jimi Hendrix, "Songs For Groovy Children: The Fillmore East Concerts" (Experience Hendrix/Legacy); Prince, "1999 Deluxe Edition" (Warner/Rhino); Various Artists, "Motown: The Complete No. 1's" (Motown/UMe).
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