The last year of this decade was an easy one for me musically. There were two albums that mattered, both by women, one seventeen, one twice that age. To choose between the two as best album of the year has proven impossible, as least to me. Just when I think one has won me over, the other starts haunting me with never-ending ear-worms. Both were brilliant in completely different way, and no one else even came close.
So, the two best albums of 2019 are:
When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? By Billie Eilish
Norman Fucking Rockwell by Lana Del Rey
First the Eilish. This is the best punk album of the past 5 years. And if you don’t think of it as punk, you ain’t listening. It breaks so many rules, its as if Eilish and her brother Finneas O’Connell, who recorded this in her bedroom, don’t even know any rules exist. The bass comes across like a weapon of mass destruction. The songs themselves are deconstructed, perhaps frightened to pieces by the bass, or simply by the darkness of Eilish’s lyrics. She sings not just about what every teen fears, but about what we all fear, what we all feel. She is the voice of every generation. And if you had played this for me a year ago I would have figured it to sell a couple thousand copies as they traveled the country in a small van playing shows to crowds of 50 to 100 strong. It feels too smart, too fucking brilliant. It’s not McDonalds, as most mainstream music is. It’s a meal at Vedge in Philadelphia, with a scoop of Jeni’s Ice Cream at the end. And yet somehow it caught on. One of those rare instances when the general public got it right.
As for the Lana Del Rey: you’ve got 14 tracks that begin with the line “Godamn, man child. You fucked me so good that I almost said, ‘I love you'” and end with a song entitled “Hope is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman Like Me to Have (But I Have It),” and cover every emotion in between. The dark corners of lust and longing, of losing, of just not giving a fuck, or perhaps being destroyed by caring just a little too much. Stories worthy of Raymond Carver, she has written a masterpiece for the ages. Nothing punk here, this is a classic record which sounds as if it were produced by John Lennon in 1975. Lana’s vocals have never sounded better, bordering on jazz stylist with hints of Peggy Lee. The production, by Jack Antonoff, who should limit his duties to behind the boards and skip trying to front bands, is what Lana has been looking for since the “Video Games” single eight years ago. The build in “California” alone should have most of you awash in goosebumps. Lush, but never over-done, the album lures you into her clutches, her heartbreak, her joy, and it’s not that it doesn’t let you go. It’s your choice. And you choose to stay.
As for the best of the rest. Some really great albums that in any other year might have topped this chart. In order, they are:
Midnight by Stef Chura – this is probably the record people would have expected to top my list. Pop noise at it’s finest. Angst, feedback, anger, repeat. And did I mention those guitars? Can someone say Archers of Loaf? And it ends with the best Billy Idol cover I’ve ever hear.
Ode to Joy by Wilco – A slow burn of a record from admittedly one of my favorite bands. And while I’ve only loved one album (“The Whole Love”) since Jay Bennett was removed from the lineup, this is the other album that come closest to capturing the noisy, experimental, darkness of the three ground-breaking records to which Bennett contributed.
Inner Monologue, Pt 1 – Julia Michaels – Ok it’s an EP. But if most albums had songwriting this powerful, music would not be in such a sad shape. Michaels is best known for the songs she writes for others (including “Sorry,” which was original recorded by Justin Beiber, but turned into something amazing by Lydia Loveless). Here she let’s us into what feels like a drunken therapy session. Playful but fucked up as hell.
Better Oblivion Community Center by Better Oblivion Community Center, aka Connor Oberst & Phoebe Bridgers – I’m not sure there’s anything that Bridgers can do wrong at this point, and in this case she made Oberst relevant again, or at least enjoyable. This is a great classic pop record, all melodies and hooks, sung by two voices that work despite the fact that they shouldn’t in your head. A stunning surprise.
No Saint by Lauren Jenkins – This is the sort of record I so wish Taylor Swift would go back to making. Simple production, focus on brilliant songwriting, and a voice that’s just vulnerable enough to break your heart.
White Noise/White Lines – Kelsey Waldon – perhaps because she so reminded me of Lydia Loveless crossed with Dolly Parton. And that’s pretty damn high praise. Gutsy, dark, and listen to those guitars.
AF by Superchuck – while not a new album, it was a beautiful reimagining of one of the great records of all time, “Foolish.” Stream it, or better yet, find the vinyl and just listen from start to finish. Bravo Mac, Laura, and company. Bravo.
Only nine in all you might note. I tried. I feel as if I listened to hundreds of records. But when you push those aside and keep going back to two in particular, well, that pretty much tells you what you need to know.
Best Song/Best Music Video of 2019:
“Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish – This could not have been easier. Her “duh” definied 2019, as did the crunch, the humor, the power, and that fucking bass. If ever there was a song that got stuck in my head, and I wanted it to stay…as for the music video, it’s serendipitously chaotic and funny as all hell. One of the few music videos in recent years I can watch more than a few times and still be entertained.
Runners Up for Best Song of 2019:
“Fuck It I Love You” from Lana Del Rey
“Lullaby” by Kalie Schor
“Anxiety” from Julia Michaels
“Dylan Thomas” from Better Oblivion Community Center
“Don’t Know How To Keep Loving You” by Julia Jacklin
MOST DISAPPOINTING ALBUM OF 2019:
Western Stars by Bruce Springsteen – Never have I used the words boring and overproduced to describe a Springsteen record (Hell, I have a dog name Springsteen, I love his music), but this is a cluster fuck of mediocrity. It’s as if he set out to make a bad James Taylor record…and succeeded.
BEST NARRATIVE FEATURE:
Her Smell from director Alex Ross Perry – it’s taken 42 years, but this might finally be the perfect punk rock movie. And Elizabeth Moss turns in the bravest performance I’ve seen since the combined cast of “Dogtooth.” It plays like an like a two-hour existential guitar riff from the fingers of the Sex Pistol’s Steve Jones. Watch, don’t turn away, and you will see what indie film is supposed to be.
BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE:
Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice from directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman – a nearly pitch perfect rock doc that portrays the importance of Ronstadt in the history of rock and roll without ever side-stepping her humanity, her drive, her independence, and her voice.
Fleabag – This is Seinfeld or I Love Lucy quality TV with no censorship. As good as any season of any show in the history of the medium. Brash, funny, and yet the genius that is Phoebe Waller-Bridge will still get you to cry, And she got to fuck a hot priest. What more can you ask for in television? Nothing!
BOOK OF THE YEAR:
My favorite book that I read this year is a paperback release of a book from last year…but still I can’t stop thinking about Sigrid Nunez’s stunning The Friend. If you happen to love dogs AND great literature, then this is probably your dream read.
And for those of you who love smart mysteries, or thrillers if you will, please check out the vast collection from author James Sallis. I read Sarah Jane this year, and though it is his 18th novel, it was my first exposure to Sallis. These are slender volumes filled with damaged people who are doing their best to get through one shit-storm day after another. I look forward to reading them all.
As for the rest of my 2019:
The highlights of 2019 were honestly my two vacations with my wife Kris. With the exception of missing our dogs, the aforementioned Springsteen and his kid sister Dylan, our week at the Wilco-currated Solid Sound festival at MassMOCA, and again seeing Wilco twice in one day (first at Grimy’s New & Pre-Loved Music, then at the Grand Ole Opry) in Nashville as an anniversary vacation in October were blessed breaths of relaxation, amazing music, and great food with the person I most love on this planet.
Also doing the first reading of my original story “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” at the opening of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum & Library, and having the story then published in the So It Goes literary journal, was an honor. I have long credited Vonnegut with lighting the creative spark in me. And rereading “Cat’s Cradle” this year I understand why. It’s like putting on “London Calling” or “Exile on Main Street,” it never gets old.
I was also very proud of what we were able to accomplish with NHdocs: the New Haven Documentary Film Festival. In it’s sixth year we screened over 110 films, and had Michael Moore as our special guest. It doesn’t get much better than that. But then again, stay tuned for NHdocs2020.
As for my feature films…
Pizza, A Love Story – finally complete after 11 years. Playing film festivals (who would have thought a film about New Haven apizza would pack houses in Alabama, Arkansaw, Washington!!!), and currently working on distribution. Everyone will be able to hold a DVD in their hand by summer. Updates/screenings here.
Seniors, a Dogumentary – Our happy animal rights documentary opens on March 5th in Nashville and will also be on DVD later in the year. Updates/screenings here.
Where are you, Jay Bennett? – my 6th rock doc will also be complete this year. Finishing it up now, and just beginning the film festival submission process.
FACTORY – we’re about halfway through film interviews for our look at the crazy life behind the New Haven Clock Company building.
Normal Valid Lives – this film is finally coming together with its new editor. We’re looking for grants, and figuring out what the next interviews will be.
And we’re about to announce our next documentary subject soon. Keep watching the social media pages…but here is a little hint:
Thank you to all of the people who collaborate with me on my films, NHdocs, and other projects: Dean, Chloe, Katherine, Brianna, Haley, Colin, Mira, Sam, Max, Tony, Cassandra, Ed, Lindsay, Jay, Fred, Scott, Diane, and another Scott, and others I’m sure I haven’t named. I could not do this without you. Let me repeat that louder: I COULD NOT DO THIS WITHOUT YOU!
As for writing, my long-in-the-works literary deconstruction of The Replacements Let It Be album, from which the above-mentioned short story derives, will be published. It’s a different sort of novel, a collection of short stories, all connected with the same lead character at different stages of her life, and yet like an album, you can read them in any order, on shuffle-play if you will. Stay tuned…
As for music in 2020 we can expect new records from Archers of Loaf and Lydia Loveless, so I’d say next year’s list writes itself!
In the meantime, be well, hug your dog, share a drink with people you love and respect, eat good pizza, drink hot coffee, laugh, rock, play it loud, try not to let the political climate get you down, and be kind to everyone you meet (no matter what side of the aisle they’re on).