2019: A Hundred Percent

by Jason Warburg

It was a year in which I was reminded more than once that music is a healing force, or can be if we let it. It’s a time out from day to day concerns, an opportunity to visit a different part of our brain and let art take over. One thing about every single artist whose work I’m about to highlight—they didn’t hold back. They gave you a hundred percent of their truth, whether they chose to pair it with three chords or a 13-piece prog orchestra. As a listener, that’s all I can ask.


Ready For Prime Time Award

Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real – Turn Off The News (Build A Garden)

You might assume the pressure was on after Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real collaborated first with Neil Young (on a studio album and tour) and then with Bradley Cooper (as co-writers and on-screen band for his character in A Star Is Born)—that’s two big breaks in a row, so you’d better come through, right? The thing is, Nelson and band appear to be entirely immune to pressure, delivering a new album that’s both thoroughly relaxed and deeply musical, not to mention their strongest work yet.


Yeah I Said It Award

Gary Clark Jr. – This Land

One of several albums I might have reviewed this year if DV colleague Daniel Camp hadn’t beaten me to it, This Land (and especially its title track) is Gary Clark Jr.’s blistering response to the rampant racism being exposed to the world in the current American moment. By turns poignant, unmerciful, earthy and virtuosic, this album features one of his generation’s finest singers, songwriters, and guitarists speaking from the heart and holding nothing back.


R-E-S-P-E-C-T Award

The Highwomen – The Highwomen

Another one where my review would have been four words long: “What Daniel Camp said.” Four of country music’s leading female singer-songwriters teamed up for a powerhouse album that makes clear from the first note that the music and the message are one and the same. It’s icing on the cake that the songs are as sharply drawn and compelling as “The Highwomen,” “Redesigning Women,” “My Name Can’t Be Mama,” and “If She Ever Leaves Me.”


Adversity Builds Character Award

Tedeschi Trucks Band – Signs

An absolutely terrific album produced by a band that’s also a family in the midst of grappling with one devastating loss after another; first mentors Bruce Hampton and Gregg Allman, then bandmate and musical inspiration Kofi Burbridge. Could I relate? You bet I could. And interviewing the exceptionally talented, gracious, and kind Derek Trucks was one of the highlights of my year.


Renaissance Band Award

Fastball - The Help Machine

Not many bands experience a creative renaissance around their 25th anniversary—but then Fastball has always been something of an outlier. The effervescent power trio still best known for two-decades-ago hit “The Way” kept plugging through the lean years, only to re-emerge with 2017’s outstanding Step Into Light and this year’s excellent The Help Machine. They remain one of the very best power-pop bands on the scene, pairing earworm riffs and melodic hooks with lyrics that are sometimes insightful, sometimes witty, and more often both at once.


I Think I Missed Again, Oh Award

Becky Warren -- Undesirable

Once again, one of my favorite listens of the year was an album that I missed when it first came out a year or two before. This time around it was Becky Warren’s captivating 2018 release Undesirable, a concept album about homeless people in Nashville “populated by distinct, artfully sketched characters whose lives and flaws and joys and pains Warren brings to life against a backdrop of confident, powerful roots-rock that’s equal parts Lucinda Williams and Tom Petty, while at times achieving the sheer impact of early Springsteen.”


Prog Album of the Year

Big Big Train – Grand Tour

At some point in the future this award will undoubtedly go to someone other than British progressive rock collective Big Big Train—but it will probably be because they didn’t issue an album at all that year. Grand Tour took the Anglocentric focus of the group’s last several albums and turned its gaze outward, exploring history and legend, science and art, from ancient Rome to the stars. From the vibrant single “Alive” to the expansive epic “Voyager,” Grand Tour was yet another triumph from a band burgeoning with talent and imagination.


Indies of the Year

It was another great year for independent music, and rather than rank these favorites, I’m choosing to highlight all three as Indies of the Year. In alphabetical order:

Joe Goodkin – Paper Arrows

After wowing me with the spare magic of his EP Record Of Loss, Joe Goodkin returned to his own songbook to deliver elemental solo renderings of songs from his former band Paper Arrows. “In stripping his music down to its essence, Joe Goodkin has stripped away all artifice; there’s nowhere to hide and Paper Arrows is all the more powerful a statement for its nakedness.”


Pete Mancini – Flying First Class

Singer-songwriter Mancini followed up his excellent 2017 solo debut Foothill Freeway with this year’s more expansive model of Americana. On Flying First Class, “Mancini explores a rich palette of sounds across these nine tracks, infusing each with an authentic love for roots music and the tools it offers to tell tales of people facing down troubles of all kinds with little more than heart and grit to get themselves by.”


Waterslide – Flicker EP

Musical chameleon. Proud iconoclast. Studio wizard. Witty wag commenting on human foibles in the modern age. Mark Doyon is all of these things. Again setting aside his Arms Of Kismet moniker for the sweeter and more psychedelic leanings of Waterslide, singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist-producer Doyon “packs a cinemascope vision into a 19-minute package like a magician pulling a five-bedroom house out of his hat.”

Honorable Mention

Eight more enjoyable listens from 2019, again in alphabetical order:

Big Lazy – Dear Trouble
Another moody, evocative soundtrack-to-an-unsettling-dream from the instrumental trio that puts the noir in surf-jazz-blues music.

The Black Keys – Let’s Rock
The Keys have reached a point career-wise where delivering a new album risks unintentional self-parody. The thing is, that thing that these two guys do together? They’re really good at it.

Elbow – Giants Of All Sizes
How can a band that’s this subtle, this reliant on brooding atmosphere, so often manage to captivate me? I suspect that mystery is one reason I keep coming back.

Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors - Dragons
I enjoy Drew Holcomb’s warm, sincere folk-rock even more when he stops trying so hard to be authentic and just does it, as on this album’s highlight “You Never Leave My Heart.”

Darren Jessee – The Jane Room 217
Hotel Lights frontman, Ben Folds Five drummer, and underappreciated songwriter Jessee steps out with an acoustic-plus-strings solo album that’s both penetrating and wistful.

Jimmy Eat World – Survival
Of all the albums emo-rocking Arizona quartet Jimmy Eat World has issued since their 2001-04 heyday, this one might be the Jimmy-est, full of anthemic angst, ringing riffs and urgent ballads.

Keb’ Mo’ – Oklahoma
Oklahoma is full of everything you’ve ever loved about Keb’ Mo’: earthy charm, penetrating insights, and superb guitar playing from a genuine American treasure.”

Bob Mould – Sunshine Rock
It’s usually fun getting to know an artist I’ve heard about for years but never spent time with before. My Bob Mould education may have started late, but it's going well so far.

"Hey, Look, It’s A New Springsteen Album" Award

Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars

I’m a fickle fan of acoustic-troubadour Bruce. Nebraska was epic and Ghost Of Tom Joad had its moments, but Devils & Dust left me cold. Western Stars falls into that broad middle range; it’s an okay-to-good album from a guy with no real reason to care what anyone thinks anymore.

Maybe It Was In The Vaults All These Years For A Reason Award

Foreigner – Live At The Rainbow '78 (DVD)

“Hey! Decent video of a full live concert with Foreigner’s original six-man lineup! Someone’s gonna want that.” Increasingly Desperate Record Industry Marketing Dude has a point, and fans of Foreigner may well enjoy this slice of late-’70s arena-rock life. That said, it’s never a good thing when Ye Olde Reviewer Dude describes the resulting spectacle as an answer to the question “What makes Spinal Tap funny?”

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