There is no real way for me to write about the music of 2019 without writing about the year 2019 itself. If you’ve been living in the world for the past twelve months, then you know this year has been tumultuous at best for several reasons as conflicts over climate, politics, human rights, and other issues have seemed to escalate on a weekly basis.
For me and my family, however, this year was quite the roller coaster on a personal level as well. We lost my mom in the spring and welcomed our new son in the summer. So as full of joy as we’ve all been over the addition to our family, everything has been tinged with sadness over knowing just how much my mom would have loved meeting her grandson and fussing over him the way she did when our daughter was born nine years ago.
I guess what I’m saying is. I hope you’ll forgive me if there were times this year when music took a backseat to other events. I also hope others will forgive me if there were times when I became hyper-focused on music as a way to tune out other events.
It’s been a rough year and a joyous year. It’s been a year full of songs and a year full of silence. It was 2019, and these are some of the albums that helped get me through it.
While you read what’s ahead, here’s a playlist with a couple of songs from every artist on the list to play as a little background music…
My Favorite Albums of 2019
10. Jason Ringenberg – Stand Tall
It was late February when I got to host Jason Ringenberg on WDVX’s Tennessee Shines just a few weeks after the release of this record. My daughter wanted to come to the show because she loves Ringenberg’s Farmer Jason persona. My parents came along to the show because they were in town after keeping my daughter in Kentucky for a few days while Knoxville schools were closed for a flu outbreak. Jason was about halfway through “John the Baptist Was a Real Humdinger” from this album when I looked out in the crowd and saw how Ringenberg was equally captivating the generations of my family before and after me with his engaging performance and biblical rave-up. My parents both talked after the show about how much they enjoyed the show, and my daughter was on cloud nine because he played her request of “Punk Rock Skunk.” It was a perfect night… and the last night I ever spent with my mom. I will always hold Ringenberg… and this album that showcases his personal brand of twang and fire as well as any in his catalog… in a special place in my heart for that night.
God Bless Jason Ringenberg… and The Ramones, of course.
If you like that, try this: Jason Hawk Harris – Love and the Dark
If twang is what you’re looking for, this label debut from new Bloodshot Records artist Jason Hawk Harris is one worth looking into. Inspired in part by the loss of his own mother, Harris’ album is one that struck a particular chord with me when it came along this fall. The chaos and catharsis of songs like “I’m Afraid” and “Cussing at the Light” contrast perfectly with the more contemplative “Phantom Limb” and “Blessed Interruption” as the album runs through all the stages of grief from anger to acceptance.
9. Our Native Daughters – Songs of Our Native Daughters
“Black Girl Banjo Magic” is the phrase Our Native Daughters co-founder Rhiannon Giddens often uses to describe the music made by the folk supergroup she formed with Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell. That’s as accurate a descriptor as one can find, I think, for this collection of women who came together in 2019 to use narratives of enslaved African-Americans… specifically, African-American women… to help trace the lineage of the banjo and parts of American folk music back to their African roots. Songs like “Mama’s Cryin’ Long” may be difficult to digest for the stories they tell, but that is also the exact reason they are necessary to process. Songs of Our Native Daughters is a powerful work from four extremely gifted songwriters and performers who are telling stories that need to be heard in today’s world. Stories that have been overlooked for too long.
If you like that, try this: Lula Wiles – What Will We Do
Lula Wiles are label mates with Our Native Daughters on the Smithsonian Folkways label. I was very much looking forward to hearing this album from Isa Burke, Eleanor Buckland, and Mali Obomswain after catching a bit of their Americanafest set in 2018. I was not disappointed at all by the trio’s socially conscious songwriting or soaring harmonies. “Shaking as it Turns,” it turns out, became one of my favorite songs of the year.
8. Yola – Walk Through Fire
First of all, I would like to say thank you to the folks at the AMAUK for putting Yola on my radar by honoring her with their UK Artist of the Year award in January of 2017. Yola hadn’t yet hit the States at that point, but we started spinning her UK EP at WDVX later that year. It probably came as no surprise then to our listeners when she seemingly took over the world this year with her debut, Dan Auerbach produced, full length album Walk Through Fire. Yola blends elements of soul, R&B, and country into this powerful album that has drawn more than a few comparisons to classics like Dusty in Memphis. I knew Yola had created something special with this album when one of my (non-musical) co-workers at my day job started quizzing me about her after hearing an NPR feature story and seeking out her music. Such is the power of Yola.
If you like that, try this: Black Pumas – Black Pumas
While we’re on the topic of albums that evoke classic era’s of soul and R&B, let us also focus a bit of attention on the Austin, TX based duo Black Pumas. Adrian Quesada and Eric Burton are the duo behind this retro masterpiece that came together when producer Quesada recruited singer Burton to work on some tracks he had been putting together in the studio. The collaboration was obviously successful as the Black Pumas are nominated alongside Yola in the Best New Artist category at the 2020 Grammy Awards.
7. Molly Tuttle – When You’re Ready
In 2017, Molly Tuttle became the first woman to ever win the coveted Guitar Player of the Year Award from the International Bluegrass Music Association. She won it again in 2018… as well as the Instrumentalist of the Year Award from the Americana Music Association. So we all knew Tuttle had chops. What I’m not sure we all knew, exactly, was just where those chops could take her sound beyond her bluegrass roots. While Tuttle still evokes the likes of Alison Krauss on the album’s title track and lets her bluegrass fingers fly across the frets on the lead single “Take the Journey,” she also covers new ground on the driving “Light Came in (Power Went Out)” and the easy blues of “Messed With My Mind.”
If you like that, try this: Lillie Mae – Other Girls
While we’re on the subject of artists who made their name due to their mastery of a specific instrument, let’s turn our attention to Lillie Mae and her fiddle. As an in demand side musician, Mae has recorded with everyone from Jack White to Polly Punkneck, and she has started to make her name as solo artist over the past few years as well. Her debut album Forever and Then Some made my list of favorite albums in 2017, and she has taken yet another step forward with her latest effort.
6. Sturgill Simpson – Sound & Fury
I’m not quite sure how we got here. I mean, I know Sturgill Simpson has said many times that he was never solely a country artist, and he has proven that over and over again since the release of his decidedly country debut album High Top Mountain. In that time, his sound has continued to stretch the boundaries of the very genre he was at one point supposed to “save.” This time, though, he’s taken his promise to consistently reinvent his sound to a whole new level. Sound & Fury is a hard rock, disco, industrial album that only stays vaguely connected to anything country simply because Simpson just can’t hide the Eastern Kentucky mountains in his voice. Oh yeah… and the album also serves as the soundtrack to a trippy anime movie Simpson produced for Netfilx in tandem with the record. We simply don’t have anyone else like Sturgill Simpson, folks.
If you like that, try this: Robert Randolph & the Family Band – Brighter Days
Look. I tried to find another hard rock disco anime soundtrack to pair with Sound & Fury here, but that unfortunately just isn’t a thing. Instead, I thought I’d feature an artist who is renowned for bringing sound and fury with his playing. Robert Randolph is the guy. When Randolph fully gets going on his sacred steel guitar, he brings an intensity that is unmatched by any other artist on this list. Bear witness to the Holy Ghost fire Randolph breathes into tracks like “Baptize Me” and “I’m Living Off the Love That You Give,” and tell me that I’m wrong.
5. Michaela Anne – Desert Dove
Caroline Spence – Mint condition (tie)
Making these lists is hard. At one point, I had both of these albums in their own individual slots. Then, as I was trying to pair them with other albums for the “If You Like That, Try This” segments, I realized that they were really the only two albums that could be paired with each other. At that point, I couldn’t really decide who to give this actual slot to… so… here we are.
What each of these albums represent is yet another step forward for two outstanding songwriters whose work I’ve been tracking closely over the last half of the decade. These are the third solo albums for Michaela Anne and Caroline Spence, and also mark major indie label debuts for both artists. Desert Dove is Anne’s first effort for Yep Roc, while Mint Condition is Spence’s debut for Rounder. As an added coincidence, Spence’s album was released on my birthday (May 3), and Anne’s came out on my wife’s birthday (September 27). How could I possibly separate the two?
Strictly from a musical standpoint, however, the albums also have something to share. Both are blueprint albums for roots leaning singer songwriters and stand up favorably to any landmark effort you can cite from the genre. For examples, look no further than the title track from each album. In doing so, you’ll find Anne’s sympathetic ode to a “lady of the night” she met at a bar in California and Spence’s haunting collaboration with Emmylou Harris. You’ll also see why I couldn’t pick just one of these albums to highlight.
4. Purple Mountains – Purple Moutains
This is the album that both caught me completely by surprise and hit me squarely where it hurt in 2019. David Berman had essentially been retired from music following the release of the final Silver Jews (his previous band) record in 2008, and was completely off my radar when his new project Purple Mountains hit in July. In fact, if my Program Director Katie Cauthen hadn’t been so insistent that I alert her when it arrived at the station, I may have overlooked it completely. As it was, however, I stumbled onto the album around its release in mid-July and was completely sucked in by the juxtaposition between Berman’s troubled lyrics and shimmering production.
Berman, it turns out, was inspired to return to music partly by the death of his mother, and I found solace in songs like “I Loved Being My Mother’s Son” coming so soon after losing my own mom in the Spring. I found a manner of peace in his darkness. Unfortunately, Berman was tangled a bit too deeply in that darkness and took his own life in August, less than a month after the release of this album. In that context, songs like “Nights That Won’t Happen” or “All My Happiness is Gone” paint Berman as less of a kindred spirit and more of a tragic one who tried to escape his demons by exorcising them for all of us to hear in his songs. Sadly, Berman’s return as Purple Mountains also served as his goodbye.
If you like that, try this: Bark – Terminal Everything
Coping with death is, unfortunately, a big part of life. For Knoxville husband and wife artists Tim and Susan Bauer Lee, who record together as the duo Bark, the last couple of years have brought a lot to cope with. Tim and Susan each lost a parent in the year leading up to this release to go along with a handful of friends from their decades as touring musicians. Instead of focusing on the pain of those losses, however, the Lees seem to see the terminal nature of our existence as a reason to celebrate the time we have. This is a beautiful (and rocking) album that serves as a perfect counter to the record listed above… a ray of light to combat the dark.
I also recommend checking out the EP Strange Beauty from First Aid Kit. The two song digital release was recorded by sisters Klara and Johana Söderberg as a tribute to David Berman and pairs the title track, an original song written shortly after news broke of Berman’s death, with a loving cover of the Silver Jews song “Random Rules.”
3. The Highwomen – The Highwomen
When Amanda Shires accidentally announced the formation of an all-woman country super group called The Highwomen live on the air at Louisville, KY’s WFPK in January, the project immediately became my most anticipated release of 2019. When the album finally arrived in September, it somehow lived up to all of my expectations with Shires, Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, and Maren Morris sharing songwriting and vocal duties nearly equally across the record. Songs on the album range from the celebratory (“Redesigning Women”) to inclusive (“If She Ever Leaves Me”) to humorous (“My Name Can’t Be Mama”), but the undeniable centerpiece of the collection is the Highwomen’s reworking of Jimmy Webb’s classic Cash/Kristofferson/Willie/Waylon hit “The Highwaymen.” The quartet worked with Webb to write gender swapped verses that tell the stories of forgotten women from America’s past. A guest verse featuring Yola as a Civil Rights era Freedom Rider only adds to the gravity of the song.
If you like that, try this: Tanya Tucker – While I’m Livin’
In many ways, Tanya Tucker had become a forgotten legend of country music over the last couple of decades, but she reminded us all in a big way in 2019. For her first album of new material in 17 years, a 60-year-old Tucker worked with producers Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings for as vital a work as any she recorded in her early career as a teenager. Want proof? Look no further than the four Grammy nominations Tucker landed for this record, including nods for Best Country Album and Song of the Year (with Carlile and Phil & Tim Hanseroth).
2. Jade Bird – Jade Bird
There’s no way this is a 2019 release, right? I mean, the first single, “Lottery,” was released all the way back in January of 2018. In fact, three songs from this album were first released in 2018. The full album, however, did not arrive until April of this year. When it did, it became a fixture in my car during early morning drives taking my daughter to school. We spent a good deal of time trying to decipher the rapid fire lyrics to “I Get No Joy,” and sang along loudly once we did… to that song, and others. The twelve songs on this album check in at just over 35 minutes with most songs coming in easily digestible three-minute chunks of roots-pop perfection. Jade Bird is a powerful vocalist with an ear for hooks who made a huge impact with this debut. I very much look forward to seeing where she goes from here.
If you like that, try this: Jade Jackson – Wilderness
These two artists have more in common than just a first name. Jades Bird and Jackson share an ability to wrap strong writing in even stronger hooks and have the vocal chops to match those other elements. “Bottle it Up” is one heck of an earworm, and one of my favorite tracks of the year.
Both Jades were also heavily featured in my daughter’s listening mix this year… so I thought now would be a good time share her Top Five records from this year. They’ve all been mentioned on this list already… it seems she inherited my good taste.
My Daughter’s Top 5 Favorite Albums of 2019:
1. The Highwomen – The Highwomen
2. Jade Bird – Jade Bird
3. Caroline Spence – Mint Condition
4. Michaela Anne – Desert Dove
5. Jade Jackson – Wilderness
1. Orville Peck – Pony
I’ll be honest. The first time someone reached out to me about this record, I ignored it. Completely. The email was from a major publicist I don’t work with that often, and I felt like it was pushing the mask more than it was pushing the music. My brain filed the whole thing away as nothing more than a gimmick, and I moved on.
Then the emails kept coming, and the positive reviews, and a mountain of tweets, and phone calls from a more trusted music promoter, and friends saying, “have you heard this Orville Peck guy?” Under all of that pressure, I relented… and I’m glad I did. Eventually, the album I expected nothing from became my favorite release of 2019. (Funny how that happens sometimes.)
The first thing that strikes you when listening to Pony is Peck’s voice. It’s equal parts Isaak and Orbison, and its baritone tremolos soar over backing tracks that drip with pedal steel while also somehow invoking The Cure (Long time listeners of The Americana Pulse know how much I love it when Americana artists reference Robert Smith). It’s so entrancing that by the time you’re a few bars into the spacey album opening “Dead of Night,” all thoughts of masks and gimmickry have already started to fade. Then, when “Buffalo Run” rolls along a few tracks later in all of it’s twangy New Wave glory, the whole thing… masks, music, all of it… starts to come together completely as part of the bigger picture of everything Peck is presenting with this project.
Though Peck is very up front about his love of country music and his place as an openly gay performer working in that traditionally conservative genre, everything else about him remains… well… masked. Like a musical Mandalorian he has yet to reveal his face in any of his public appearances. He also dodges any questions as to his true identity (Orville Peck is a stage name) or attempts to dig too deeply into his origins as an artist. As Peck told the L.A. Times in September, he keeps those details close to his chest because that way, “everyone gets to decide a little bit what I mean to them.” It reminds me a lot of Michael Stipe’s reluctance to discuss the inspiration behind early R.E.M. songs, preferring instead for the listener to connect to the music through their own experiences. In a way, the mask allows the audience to uncover more about the man and his music than any soul bearing interview could achieve.
What kept me coming back to Pony again and again in 2019, even after my initial reluctance, was that there was so much to uncover. Musically… Lyrically… Conceptually… It doesn’t matter how many masks Peck wears as a performer. It’s how much each repeated listen reveals that matters.
If you like that, try this: Karen & the Sorrows – Guaranteed Broken Heart
With Americana’s explosion in popularity over the last few years, the genre has been surrounded by ongoing conversations about inclusion and making the community around the music a space where artists and fans of all colors and creeds can (perhaps in contrast to other mainstream genres) feel welcome and have their voices heard. Part of that conversation as it pertains to queer artists came to the forefront this year with a claim that The Highwomen’s “If She Ever Leaves Me” was the, “first gay country song.”
The truth is that while it does seem to be undergoing a bit of a growth phase, country music has a long tradition within the LGBT community. That tradition and growth were both chronicled beautifully in this Rachel Cholst article from a few years back in Wide Open Counry that I often cite. Karen Pittleman of Karen & The Sorrows was a large focus of that piece two years ago, and has only claimed a larger slice of the spotlight with the release of her second album with The Sorrows, Guaranteed Broken Heart. The title track is as country as anything released in 2019, and this record deserves a spot in your playlist from the year that was.
And… Since you made it all the way to the end… here’s a full playlist of all the albums and artists mentioned above.