There should be no such thing as a “Best Of List”. People like what they like, and who is to say what was the best of anything for any given year? In the case of sites like Pitchfork and Stereogum, their year end best album lists should be titled “These Are The Artists Whose PR Companies Gave Us The Most Free Stuff”. The others, like this one, should simply be called “Our Favorite Albums Of The Year”. Because that’s all these are. Here at the Niche we don’t claim to know what’s best, nor do we claim to have listened to every note of music released in 2019, and we will fully admit to straight up ignoring most of the records appearing in the top ten on the other sites. Because most of them just aren’t of any interest to us. But we did enjoy a whole bunch of records this year, and the ones we can remember are listed and blurbed to death below. These are in no particular order, alphabetical, genre, or otherwise. Nor do we pull the age-old cop out “Best 2019 Metal Albums” or “Best 2019 Albums You Haven’t Heard Of”. A fave album is a fave album, after all, and they’re all here mashed together as they should be, no matter the genre or level of popularity. The playlist just might annoy listeners greatly with its hard-stop genre jumping, and here is to hoping it does since this would then be crowned as the only end-of-year-list to ever have any effect on anything or anybody.
Batushka – Hospodi (Poland)
There are really only two genres in the current musical landscape with enough grass roots fanaticism to truly be free. With thousands of dedicated message boards, fan forums, Reddit pages, Youtube channels, and venue circuits on every populated continent, both rap and metal musicians can breathe easy knowing they don’t have to beast for Pitchfork mentions or industry acceptance. When there’s quite literally millions of people waiting to stream your next release, you can be free to create whatever it is that you feel like creating. There are no lines to toe or palms to grease or backstories to sell. This has led to incredibly rich and varied scenes across both genres, from regional cults to international phenomenons, worlds where the most impossibly obscure sub genres can rise up to take over the whole game in the space of a day. Take for example the Eastern Orthodox blackened war metal of Poland’s own Batushka. Mixing your average second-wave-of-black-metal trebly downstroke riffs with flighty Slayer leads and, most importantly, incorporating old church Slavonic chants over the lead man’s high pitched screaming, Batushka are at once entirely brutal and mind-expandingly psychedelic, pagan and secular, impossibly strange and entirely accessible. I won’t even get into all the drama with this band, but will say that I’m thankful and thrilled to live in a world where this type of weirdness can cross over into mass popularity.
Skengdo & AM – Back Like We Never Left (UK Brexit Hell)
Speaking of populist grassroots artistic freedom, how many “best of” lists will this album appear on? Most likely just this one, which is strange for a record popular enough to top the UK streaming charts and generate tens of millions of Youtube hits. If you want a clear snapshot of CCTV-eye-in-your-living-room police state dread then look no further than the thriving, yet secretive, UK Drill scene. The perpetually masked AM, one of the purest poets going, and his loveable, colorful sidekick Skengdo’s rise to the top of this forbidding heap has been typically fraught in a genre full of knife wars, decades-long drug sentences, and outright government censorship. Indeed, the reason AMs & Skengds are “back” on this record is because they had recently completed sentences handed down for their lyrics alone. That’s right, strictly for the lyrics, for their art. In America, rap artists are convicted for real life crimes using their lyrics to corroborate evidence. In the UK, it’s the lyrics alone that will get you sent down. What Skengdo & AM are up to here is outlaw art in its most literal form, but none of this would mean anything if this weren’t a fascinating and well-executed record. The duo doesn’t seem fazed at all by the horrific government censorship they’ve experienced. Right there on track one AM, who was convicted for lyrics threatening awesomely named rival South London gang The Pagans, clearly raps “I’m posted up on the Pagan block” as if he just can’t help flexing on his old rivals no matter how much jail time he may get for doing so. It’s this type of wanton glee what makes the record enjoyable, especially in a genre that can be a bit oppressive in its grim outlook. S & AM come off as triumphant, brazen, dropping banger after speaker-rattling banger as if it were the easiest thing in the world. The beats are dusted, distorted, unapologetically avant-garde, the lyrics boastful but ripe with obscure regional and cultural references and oddball side tangents. But there’s also a vulnerability sneaking in that wasn’t anywhere in sight on their previous material. Has there ever been a more paranoid track than “Trust Issues 2.0” with its spine-tingling sense of dread and pangs of romantic longing mixed with well-earned distrust? Like only the best albums, Back Like We Never Left reveals more of itself with every listen. Here’s to hoping the duo stays out long enough to follow it up.
Sleaford Mods – Eton Alive (UK Brexit Hell)
If the old saying “If it ain’t broke then don’t fix it” works for any bands, those would be AC/DC, Motorhead, and Sleaford Mods, whose singular brand of minimalist aggro-poetry somehow manages to be both loveable and agitating in equal measures. Over nine albums and some rapidly ascending popularity, The Mods pulled off an incredibly rare thing in modern music: a truly original sound with no real forefathers. Cue up the skittery, DJ-for-beginners beats and let the lead guy start ranting about chip shops, mate. The Sleaford duo could have very easily coasted on this rare alchemy until free bus pass age, but on Eton Alive they toss some daring tweaks into the mix which result in arguably their very best record to date. The lead ranter bloke has been toying with actual singing since Key Markets, a sing-song hook here or a melodic chant there (between burps), but there had been nothing in their hefty-and-growing discography that prepared us for “When You Come Up To Me”. For what we have here is an actual song, fully and emotively crooned and complete with what sounds like live bass and drums. Who could have guessed that Sleaford Mods, stripped of their act, would sound like Joy Division at their most beautiful and haunting? It’s easily their greatest accomplishment on wax, and I for one want a whole lot more of this spooky, wounded, post apocalyptic gorgeousness. The rest of the album finds the Mods perfecting their core formula while tossing in much-welcome experimentation, like the totally appropriate kazoo solo on “O.B.C.T.” And they even come up with the lyric of the year: “Graham Coxton looks like a left wing Boris Johnson”. Re-spect.
Royal Trux – White Stuff (’70s America)
Also back like they never left this year were Jennifer Herrema and Neil Michael Hagerty, the twin junkie angels making up the legendary and infamous, and legendarily infamous, Royal Trux. There’s really not much to say about the record beyond this: White Stuff is absolutely everything anyone would want from an RT album. Everything from the cover (the band’s name chopped out on a classic ’70s county fair coke mirror) to the leadoff track “White Stuff” (about cocaine) to “Suburban Junkie Lady” (about heroin) to the off-the-wall Kool Keith cameo to “Year Of The Dog”, which in a just universe would have been a massive hit, are only things The Trux could properly pull off. There may be a whole nosefull of drama going on behind the scenes with these two, but the album they produced is pure filthy fun.
Peter Perrett – Humanworld (Another Planet)
With just one boss move, 2017’s How The West Was Won, Peter Perrett went from a walking tragedy to a Gucci Mane-style glow up comeback kid. Or, well, old man. And The Only One was back this year with a record even better than that stunning comeback, sticking close to his comforting template of spacey, hooky power pop on should-be hit “Once Is Enough” and veering into snarling punky territory on “Love Comes on Silent Feet” (which should have been the album’s title). “Walking In Berlin” might be the second-best song Perrett has penned (you know the best one so we won’t even say it), coming on like a ray of warm sunshine slicing through a grim German winter day.
Brian Jonestown Massacre – Self Titled (Berlin)
A bringin’ it all back home album of that delicious old school prophetic BJM psych rock, but there’s a focus and maturity on display here that give these nine bangers a gloss and sheen missing from the swinging-for-the-fences “go for it”-isms of their early records. “Drained” kicks things off with a playful, almost New Order melody line of ringing acoustic major chords and a propulsive tempo that works to mask painful pronouncements such as the “I want love, but I can’t stand pain” of the chorus. While he was mostly content to strum in his younger days, Anton Newcombe has become something of an unlikely guitar god, and the off-kilter, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it solo on this track is all the proof you need. “Tombes Oubliées” is the kind of tranced-out sway that has minted the BJM legacy, and “My Mind Is Full Of Stuff” continues Newcombe’s intriguing late-period tradition of utilizing well-placed instrumental tracks to set an album’s pace. Things really kick into gear with “Cannot Be Saved”, an instant BJM classic with a circular guitar line that could be a contender for the Top Ten Anton Riffs list. The man may be a clear-headed working father these days, but in lyrics such as “Up all night, cannot go to sleep, cuz’ when I close my eyes, they’re watching me” lies proof that paranoia is a living, breathing entity which may be enhanced by certain substances but never truly dies after they’re no longer in the bloodstream. “To Sad To Tell You”, a stomping and defiant, yet exceedingly sad, blues stormer that any aging scenester will instantly take to heart, is one of the best songs Newcombe has yet to come up with. “Remember when life was fun, and you could still hang out, and people would buy what you had to sell?” Why yes, Anton, a legion of us do recall that very fondly, and not a single one of us could have expressed it any better than that.
Fat White Family – Serfs Up! (UK Brexit Hell)
It should come as no surprise to anyone following this family of fat whites that their newest album was a complete and utter mess, a shambles, like The Clash recording Sandinista! on smack and rocks instead of speed. On first listen you would be forgiven for thinking there was something wrong with your Spotify, that it was shuffling songs from dozens of disparate genres…smooth jazz, epic dance fusion, distorted gutter punk, shuffling rock jams, wheezy bad trip psych haze. There’s so much going on here, and the production is so muddled, that it would be easy to dismiss this monstrosity as a kitchen-sink-tossing exercise in pretension (indeed, some critics have done just this), but that would be ignoring an important fact: there are great songs to be found within this filthy grab bag if you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and dig. Leadoff track “Feet” is both ridiculously catchy and ridiculous in its dance posturing and full-tilt anarcho lyrics. “I Believe In Something Better” could have been a Brit Pop anthem in the summer of ’97 if it weren’t so off kilter. And then there’s “Tastes Good With The Money” which welcomes the greatest current living songwriter, Baxter Dury, into the proceedings with glam stomp fanfare and the year’s best chorus, which sounds like Exile-era Stones fronted by Marc Bolan. Only the FWF could make a ten track album feel like a 25 track triple disc, and I for one am still digging around in this thing and finding gems I didn’t notice the first ten times around, for example “Bobby’s Boyfriend” which comes on so stoned and dissolute it wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Ween’s Pod album. It’s a flailing failure and an absolute triumph all wrapped up into one outrageous package that won’t be fully appreciated until many generations from now.
Warmduscher – Tainted Lunch (UK Brexit Hell)
While we’re on the subject of Fat White Family, I just wanted to send a quick shoutout to FWF offspring Warmduscher who put out this deliriously fun album sometime this year. Any record that kicks off with Iggy Pop whispering, “A table for everyone, this tainted lunch, get it” is bound to be an interesting ride, and over the next 30 minutes we’re treated to an indefinable onslaught of filthy funk, dance grooves that collapse as soon as they get going, and good old fashioned down-and-out London street grime filth rock of the highest order. “50 hours a week working, just to pay my bills, on the weekend out stalking cheap thrills”. Stalk on, gents.
Weyes Blood – Titanic Rising (Gentrified LA Hell)
There’s a reason Weyes Blood isn’t as popular as, say, Phoebe Bridgers. This reason is as simple as it is sad: She concentrates on making great albums. You won’t find The Weyes Blood putting together “supergroups” or beasting for clout-worthy collabs (Ariel Pink and Drugdealer don’t get you clicks like C. Oberst, after all) or jumping on Volume 93 of the Tom Waits Covers Project. But you will find her consistently putting out ethereal, impossibly-well-executed mini-masterpieces every two years or so. Like this one. TR not only contains some of her best and most condensed songwriting, eliminating the “this is beautiful but seems to be drifting” factor that cropped up on the first two WB offerings, but look no further than the headrush hooks all over “Andromeda” to see that actual radio hits are very much a possibility in the near future for this project. Keep rising.
Peter Doherty & The Puta Madres – Self Titled (UK Brexit Hell)
Sir Pete might only make the news these days for massive breakfasts and multiple-arrest-weekends, but the simple fact of the matter is that Doherty is a real deal artist who deserves to be evaluated on his visceral, wounded, modern-gypsy musical output alone. It cannot be overstated that Peter would be a lot better off had he never dated Kate Moss, had the red tops never caught a whiff of this dissolute character just ripe for the vulture swarms. Ideally, Doherty should be a fringe artist, a cult figure, where he could thrive on the DIY venue circuit and a small but rabid cult thirsty for his hyper-romantic, overtly poetic songs dripping with equal parts hope and fear. And this right here is the best thing he’s ever done. While The Libertines can sound a bit stale within their aging guitar rock confines, and Babyshambles existed mostly as a conduit for good ol’ fashioned rock hedonism, this record leans toward the other masterpiece in this likely lad’s pocket, his 2009 solo turn Grace/Wastelands. The vibe is straight up violin-drenched gypsy English freak folk. If Fairport Convention had recorded Liege & Lief in the black soot of London as opposed to some idyllic countryside commune, it very well may have sounded something like “All At Sea” or “The Steam” or many of the other standouts on this colorful and heartfelt platter of straight-up fantastic songs. There are so many career-great tracks here it’s kind of scary. The aforementioned “All At Sea” is a thing of ragged beauty, a jewel that’s been through the wars and is all the better for it, with Miki Beavis’ violin hovering over the proceedings like a wounded swan. While “Who’s Been Having You Over” didn’t impress me as an advance single, in the context of the record it works quite well as the lone rocker, and that psychedelic intro is like nothing one would ever expect from a Libertine. Jack Jones’ vocals on the “Paradise Is Under Your Nose” chorus are so sympathetic and loving you really have to wonder about his and Pete’s relationship. The intriguingly-named “Narcissistic Teen Makes First XI” and “Travelling Tinker” offer up wide-eyed, rambling black earth jams that wouldn’t have sounded a stitch out of place in ye ol’ weird England of 1919.The record’s final stretch, a warm churn of acoustic beauty, is a ripe, glistening jaunt that offers up some of the best first lines I’ve heard on a record this year. There’s the “Another uptight skinny white figure, sitting there with your finger on the trigger,” of “Punk Buck Bonafide” or the “Oh, please, won’t you bury mine for me” of “Lamentably Ballad of Gascomy Avenue”. And on album-standout “Shoreleave” we have the curious declaration of “I never lost control” which, although arguable on a personal behavior level, is certainly a fact when it comes to this misunderstood artist’s unfailing muse.
Drugdealer – Raw Honey (Laurel Canyon Of The Mind/LA Gentrified Hell)
I’m calling it now. In five-years-time, people who care about such things will look back on the mid 20-teens AM Gold/Mammas & The Pappas aping bands (Whitney, Diane Coffee, etc.) as one of the absolute lamest dry spells in industry “indie” culture of the past several decades. But of course there are always exceptions, and in this case that exception would be Drugdealer. The songs on RH don’t feel like a career move. The image wasn’t carefully contemplated in a PR agency board room. Mr. Drug Dealer doesn’t try to come off as the eunuch indie rocker your mother could love. Dude has obviously lived inside these songs for years, possibly since his childhood bedroom fantasies first started kicking up dust. In essence, this is how AM gold ’70s stoned out canyon rock actually sounds. And that sound is pleasant, optimist with a lovelorn edge, coffee in the morning sun music devoid of the “hey we live in L.A. here, man” posturing of the trendy mellow peers he has easily lapped on this record.
Wilco – Ode To Joy (Chiraq)
This is the year’s bravest release. No seriously, hear me out on this. Let’s say you’re Jeff Tweedy. Imagine it for a moment. You have it pretty much made, right? You’ve got your Summerteeth and Hotel Yankee Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born under your belt. You’ve got nothing left to prove and everything to lose. You’ve been accepted into that elusive lib elite paradise of late night talk shows and Parks & Rec cameos and politely reviewed autobiographies tied in with confessional folkie solo albums about how sober and drama-free your life has become. You’re fucking IN, man. And the gameplan from her on out is simple. Or it should be. Just alternate delicate folkie coffee-shop Wilco releases (Wilco Schmilco) with “adventurous” ones with cats on the cover (Star Wars), and maybe toss in the occasional low stakes acoustic solo venture about how you’re off the pills and watching the Netflix with the fam while munching tortilla chips. And yet, after not one but two of those solo middle age comfort albums last year, named Warm and Warmer no less, what Tweedy has delivered for this year’s big Wilco opus is something far, far colder. The music is so skeletal and stripped down that these songs could easily be mistaken for demos. The drums have been pushed to the forefront, only they seem beamed in from a different album entirely. Alternately loud and grating and way offbeat, they push against what are otherwise cryptic, shrugging folk shuffles, turning them inside out. This is the most psychedelic Wilco has ever sounded, but it’s a simple and understated form of psych many miles from the bombastic “Check it out, bro, a mellotron!” posturing on Summerteeth. Where their critics and fans wished for a Sgt. Peppers, the Wilco boys have delivered a John Wesley Harding instead. OTJ finds Tweedy back on his disaffected grind for the first time in years. There’s domestic strife in the aftermath of snow storms (“Bright Leaves”), metaphysical longing galore (“Quiet Amplifier”) sugary Byrds laments with a surprisingly bitter aftertaste (“Love Is Everywhere (Beware)”) and on “White Wooden Cross” and “We Were Lucky” two stunningly pure lost love ballads. “Eight tiny lines of cocaine, left on a copy machine, in the empty corner of a dream, my sleep could not complete” goes just one fever dream verse on gorgeous closer “An Empty Corner”. And when Tweedy whispers “You’ll never change” over and over on “Bright Leaves” you get the sense it isn’t meant as a compliment. Hats off to him for following his instinct even if it leads directly against the current of where his life is supposed to be at the moment. With Ode To Joy, Netflix dad night is officially over.
Lil Durk – Love Songs 4 The Streets (Fulton County Jail)
The pain and transcendence of 1930’s rural blues is very much alive and encoded within the dna of today’s autotune-heavy rap world, and look no further than tracks like “RN4L” and the title track from this Durk banger to bear witness. To my ears, there was no more emotional moment this year than when LD’s voice breaks on the former, “It’s not a letter to the streets, it’s just a love song, lost Baby D to these streets, can’t believe my cus gone” as if the line is more than he can even handle singing. And then there’s the hard tracks, ones like “Weirdo Hoes” that are so violently visceral, feral even, that you can’t even imagine they’re coming from the same person who was just waxing eloquent about justice reform (“Free all my ****** that’s locked up, Obama done changed that one law so they gonna’ pop back up”). It is this duality that lots of people can’t take when it comes to rap artists. “Are you good or bad?” they scream from the rafters. So shout out to Durk for unapologetically proclaiming, “I’m both.”
Thurston Moore – Spirit Counsel (UK Brexit Hell Expat)
You could be forgiven for not knowing Thurston Moore is on a bit of a roll lately. Bro puts out a lot of shit, after all, and he’ll never escape “that sound” he and Kim created with Sonic Youth that will trap him until the day he checks out and on into infinity. And yet his last record, Rock N’ Roll Consciousness, was a surprisingly spiritual-leaning mystery mind trip hymn, and with Spirit Counsel he takes that thread and just absolutely sprints with it off into hour-long immersive instrumentals that fluctuate between shimmering bliss and raging noise onslaughts. It seems that Thurston has entered the “I’ll just do whatever I want” phase of his later-career, and it’s those of us who dare to delve into these types of difficult offerings that benefit.
DIIV – Deceiver (Gentrified LA Hell)
You know that feeling when you haven’t seen your dipshit little cousin in years and, when you do come across him at some family function, you realize he’s grown and could probably take you? Well, that’s most likely the feeling bands like Ride had when they got to the 3:45 mark on “Horsehead”, the opening track on lil’ shoegaze cousin DIIV’s new record, and those stacked riffs really kicked in.
L’Épée – Diabolique (Paris/Berlin)
Any Francophiles out there? Well how about this: The Limiñanas walk into a bistro and run into Emmanuelle Seigner, who introduces them to Anton Newcombe, who may not be French but did record an entire soundtrack for a non-existent French new wave film, and they promptly form a band called L’Épée and it sounds like if Serge and Bardot had hired The Velvet Underground to back them up on “Bonnie & Clyde” and they name the resulting album after a cult 1955 Clouzot thriller. Sold? Then cue it up. No idea what I’m talking about? Then leave it.
Young Dolph & Key Glock – Dum and Dummer (Graceland)
Behold the “Dark Side Of The Moon” of southern trap.