Best Music of 2019

Sometimes a year in music doesn't pan out the way you think it will, and 2019 was no exception. How is it possible that Opeth releases a new opus, and it doesn't hit the top 5? What about Tool, with a new album for the first time in 14 years?! That should tell you how amazing and difficult the choices were this year. The honorable mention list this year is probably 50% larger than average as a result.

So yes, listen to the new Opeth and marvel how much better it sounds in their native tongue. Take note that Tool's album is like an amalgam of the styles of their entire career with no filler. Then come back and make sure you checked out all of these things as well.

Top 5 albums of the year

#5: Africa Speaks by Santana

Santana's 25th album is clearly inspired by (and a love letter to) the African continent, infused with their traditional latin flair. The fusion of styles in the album often reminds me of some of the best aspects of jazz music, and it's an album that demands to be listened to as a unit. Buika's voice is at once solid and strong, and almost upliftingly angelic. Carlos's playing style is filled with emotion in a way that nobody else can crib. There are no pop singles here, and that's just fine with me. Hardly anybody else is still making music this amazing and relevant after a half century career.

#4: South of Reality by The Claypool Lennon Delirium

It's hard to imagine a stranger musical pairing than Primus's Les Claypool and Sean Lennon, the child of John and Yoko. There's unquestionably obvious influence from both The Beatles and the oddities that Claypool brings to the mix, and on the surface it might be easy to dismiss the work as a bit derivative. For sure, the music is run through with 70's sensibilities, and lands firmly in the camp of psychedelic-infused progressive rock. That shouldn't be too much of a surprise, really, because it's easy to view the latter half of The Beatles career in the same lens, especially in contrast to their earlier bubblegum pop.

That said, there's something really appealing about this combination that now feels fresh, simply by virtue of being rooted in something so old that hardly anybody under 40 would even recognize it. There are times when I'm sure they've transitioned seamlessly from Beatles homage into Pink Floyd territory, and with the skill necessary to pull such things off and not have it feel trite or contrived. I was really enjoying my first listen through until I hit "Amethyst Realm" about mid-way through, and realized I was hearing not just my favorite song of the year, but one of my favorite songs of the decade.

#3: Norman Fucking Rockwell! by Lana Del Rey

In pop music, it's usually easy to separate the performers from the singer-songwriters. How much of what we think of as Americana as children turns out to be bullshit as adults? This album funnels the current political climate into songs about sadness, redemption, and irreverence to the idea of the facade offered to us by the titular painter. These songs go deep, and are at times difficult to process, but you have no doubt that you're getting the rawest version of Lana's living that she's ever shared.

My two favorite tracks are definite contrasts. "Doin' Time" is a solidly put together down-tempo trip-hop cover of the Sublime classic. "Venice Bitch" is a reminiscence of love lost, with a lush soundscape punctuated by her sweetly breathy vocals; at more than 9 minutes, it's certainly not your average pop song, especially considering the whole song has a video with more than 10 million views on YouTube. This is the kind of album that deserves a dark room, an excellent sound system (or headphones), eyes closed without distractions.

#2: Micro and Macro by Jinjer

I discovered Jinjer about a year ago, I think the way most people do: by their astonishing live session video for "Pisces" (from their previous studio album "King of Everything"). If you don't know anything about Jinjer, stop reading any more and go watch that video right now. I'll wait.

YouTube is unsurprisingly heavily populated with reaction videos due to the angelic/demonic dichotomy in the vocals of Tatiana Shmailyuk. Others can do this, but I can't think of any for whom the clean vocals are just so incredibly light and soulful in one moment, and then on a dime flip into crisply powerful gutturals. Most reactors question whether it's a trick, because they can't believe her ability to instantly transform. The other thing the "Pisces" video makes abundantly clear is that the rest of the band are world class players, able to perform into a variety of styles with ease and precision. Of special note is drummer Vladislav Ulasevich, whose incredible take on the song is why they ended up recording the special studio live session.

Jinjer released the EP "Micro" in January, and to say I was shocked is a bit of an understatement: you tend to think such outings (knowing a full length LP is coming later in the year) will be mostly filler. This was definitely not the case. There is not a single bad track of the five; for me, the standouts were "Teacher, Teacher!" and "Perennial". When "Macro" was released, it more than lived up to the high standards set by "Micro", with similarly gigantic songs like "On the Top", "Judgment (& Punishment)", "Retrospection", and more. The combined EP and LP clock in at just over an hour, and provide for some of the best music of 2019. Definitely listen to them back-to-back, like I usually do.

#1: Heart Like a Grave by Insomnium

In 2016, Insomnium delivered a 40 minute LP that consisted of a single song: "Winter's Gate". To me, this cemented them as one the preeminent melodic death metal bands, a mantle voluntarily surrendered by Opeth as they transitioned into a much more 70's inspired progressive rock band (their 2019 album "In Cauda Venenum" makes this year's honorable mentions).

For 2019, they added Jani Liimatainen (Sonata Arctica, Stratovarius) as a third guitarist and second clean vocalist. The change has really infused some new life into the lineup, and resulting album is full of carefully crafted lush melodeath soundscapes. This is an "at least once a week" album for me, and will be for a long time to come.

Honorable mentions

Apoptosis by Allegaeon

Walk the Sky by Alter Bridge

Berserker by Amon Amarth

Winter Ethereal by Arch/Matheos

Moonglow by Avantastia

Gold & Grey by Baroness

When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? by Billie Eilish

A Dawn to Fear by Cult of Luna

Old Star by Darkthrone

Humanicide by Death Angel

Empath by Devin Townsend

Distance Over Time by Dream Theater

Veleno by Fleshgod Apocalypse

Rhizomes of Insanity by Fractal Universe

Garden of Storms by In Mourning

Night Shift by Jenny Owen Youngs

Artemis by Lindsey Stirling

A Boat on the Sea by Moron Police

Shehili by Myrath

In Cauda Venenum by Opeth

The Verdict by Queensr├┐che

Awakening by Sacred Reich

Amidst the Chaos by Sara Bareilles

We Are Not Your Kind by Slipknot

Lotus by Soen

Verkligheten by Soilwork

When a Shadow Is Forced into the Light by Swallow the Sun

The Highwomen by The Highwomen

Good at Falling by The Japanese House

Fear Inoculum by Tool

The Valley by Whitechapel

Resist by Within Temptation

Spaces by Yosi Horikawa