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The Best Music of 2019

Vampire Weekend, Rapsody, the Real Vocal String Quartet, Brookfield Duece, Y La Bamba, Big Thief and more highlight our annual list of notable recordings.

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Ben Goldberg

Good Day For Cloud Fishing

Even by the standards of the multifariously creative Berkeley clarinetist/composer Ben Goldberg the album Good Day For Cloud Fishing offers a vast and delectable feast for the mind and ears. Musically it's a spacious, conversational trio session with trumpet great Ron Miles and ingenious guitarist Nels Cline, but the project is designed as an encounter with the epigrammatic poetry of Dan Young. Goldberg includes 12 cards in the CD box with the poems that inspired each piece. While the trio recorded the music, Young was in the studio writing new poems inspired by the music (each "exit" verse is featured on the back of the card with the initial "entry" poem). The push and pull of verse and improvisation work together in strange and wonderful ways. — Andrew Gilbert

Big Thief

Two Hands

Big Thief is a rock band that veers from hardcore, post-rock noise to folky, contemplative ballads. Adrianne Lenker, the band's main songwriter, lead singer, and rhythm guitarist is an imposing performer. On stage, she's the band's focal point, but on record, she shares the spotlight with the avant-garde guitar noise created by lead guitarist Buck Meek and the relentless rhythms generated by James Krivchenia's drums and Max Oleartchik's bass. The songs on Two Hands are all driven by mid-tempo grooves that intensify the impact of the music and Lenker's apocalyptic lyrics. The album is divided into a pair of five-song suites — half of them long-time crowd favorites, unrecorded until now, and half ominous new compositions, inspired partly by our current political situation. — j. poet

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Brookfield Duece

America's Orphans

All too often, the Oakland rap scene is pigeonholed as strictly about the "Hyphy" culture, with its manic bass, over-the-top gear, and distinct slang. But that overlooks more lyrical, contemplative artists like Del Tha Funky Homosapien, Lyrics Born, The Hieroglyphics, The Coup, and many others. Only now are people beginning to accept the cosmopolitan flow of Brookfield Duece. Duece's tracks are often low-tempo and low-key, and his baritone is slow and contemplative. Unlike many of the new styles of delivery, he focuses on a polysyllabic lyricism that leans heavily on alliteration and meter. His method reflects the golden age of hip-hop, but is sprinkled lightly with Town embellishments. He calls his rapping style East Oakland Southern Flow, and it's not to be slept on. — D. Scot Miller

Bryan McPherson

King's Corner

With digital streaming platforms and social media connecting everyone (and especially people who would rather not be connected), it may seem like a folk music troubadour would be a relic of the past. But former East Bay based singer-songwriter Bryan McPherson is the voice we need right now. He was heavily involved with the Occupy Oakland protests and expressed its rage and hope brilliantly in 2015's Wedgewood. This year, he followed up the album with his most intimate, and perhaps most singer-songwriter-y album to date: Kings Corner. The songs started (mostly) as much of his early, unrecorded work from over a decade and a half ago, that were never properly released. He intended to record these songs to give away to fans, but as he worked on it, he realized the songs could use work and be a legit album. These songs deal with drug addiction, death, grief, and overwhelming sadness. They hit hard and still resonate. — Aaron Carnes

Carly Rae Jepsen

Dedicated

You might have missed it, but pop music has changed in the past decade. The genre has mutated with the help of some of indie music's greatest minds like Rostam Batmanglij, Ariel Rechtshaid, and Dev Hynes working behind the scene creating subtly complex, artsy collaborations with pop singers. Carly Rae Jepsen was one of the first to embrace this shift head-on. Rather than attempting to recreate her 2011 mega-hit "Call Me Maybe," she's been diving into '80s infused love-sick synth-pop, hovering just below the mainstream with brilliant ultra-catchy pop tunes. Her latest, Dedication, is the full expression of pop as art. Her songs are never too deep beneath the surface, opting for arena-huge emotions and infectious earworm melodies. Yet, it retains the charm of a musician operating outside of the music industry, writing the kind of lush arrangements she feels deep in her soul. — AC

Davina and The Vagabonds

Sugar Drops

A piano player, songwriter, and bandleader, Davina Sowers draws on the catalogue of the Great American songbook for tunes that combine the pop sounds of the past with the blues and jazz she grew up with. On this recording, her usual band is augmented by a handful of session players that help her explore the music of New Orleans, with hints of girl group R&B, jazz, reggae, swing, and early country music in the mix. Sowers' impressive vocal style has hints of Billie Holiday, Maria Muldaur, and Janis Joplin in her delivery. Standouts include "Bone Collection" a syncopated second line strut, "No Matter Where We Are," a country meets reggae hybrid and "Magic Kisses" a swinging tune that sounds like it was lifted out of a Las Vegas lounge in 1950. — jp

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Dori Freeman

Every Single Star

Freeman was born and raised in Galax, Virginia, a stop on the Crooked Road Music Heritage Trail. She still lives there, proud to be part of the current crop of young, progressive Appalachian musicians. Although she listened to rock when she was younger, she was always drawn to the traditional music her family played at home. After she started writing her own songs, she sent a few of them to Teddy Thompson's Facebook page. He liked them and produced her first album, Dori Freeman, as well as this follow up. While still deeply rooted in the sounds of Appalachia and Americana, Every Single Star sees her branching out musically, while retaining the plainspoken poetry of her lyrics and simple fervor of her understated vocals. — jp

Her Crooked Heart

To Love To Leave To Live

Rachel Ries, the artist that records as Her Crooked Heart, has always been drawn to the dark side. After releasing several albums under her given name, Ries created a new persona, in an effort to break out of self-imposed musical and lyrical limitations. The songs on To Love To Leave To Live are rife with heartache, as she examines the feelings that come to the fore at the end of a long relationship. Ries takes on the subject from a woman's perspective, and says that the distance provided by her musical pseudonym allowed her to dig deeper into the ambivalent emotions that often rule relationships, feelings seldom expressed in pop music. Her arrangements move from solemn ballads like "Letters" and "Lamentation," to subtle rockers like "I Fell in Love" and "Enough." — jp

Hiss Golden Messenger

Terms of Surrender

M. C. Taylor, the voice behind Hiss Golden Messenger, got his start in the Bay Area as a member of The Court and Spark, a band with an eclectic sound that has been called cinematic folk, progressive post rock, and atmospheric slow core cabaret. Taylor includes some of those aspects in Hiss Golden Messenger, with a hint of dub reggae thrown in to expand the soundscape. Terms of Surrender also includes gospel-flavored keyboads and distorted guitar textures that intensify the aura of grief and alienation Taylor addresses in these songs. The subject matter is the conflict between family life and the time he spends on the road, playing the music that supports his family. He has no answers, but he poses the questions in a compelling manner. — jp

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Ila Cantor Encanto

Slow & Steady

On this ravishing set of original tunes Ila Cantor trades her trusty guitars for an Andean charango, a small folkloric 10-string instrument. Composing for her brilliant cast of collaborators, including clarinetist Ben Goldberg, accordionist Rob Reich, bassist Todd Sickafoose, and drummer Scott Amendola, she creates a disparate program that sometimes evokes the instrument's traditional repertoire and sometimes travels far afield, opening up mysterious new vistas. While deeply informed by her jazz training and open to improvisation, her music is largely composed, and her arrangements make savvy use of the textural contrasts between the reeds and the charango's bright hummingbird cadences. On the songs featuring her vocals, Cantor sounds confident and inviting. Lustrous and spiritually charged, it's music that hides as much as it reveals. — AG

Lana Del Rey

Norman Fucking Rockwell

I've never connected with Lana Del Rey's music in the past, but after listening to her latest, Normal Fucking Rockwell, I may need to go back and re-listen to all her old records. Everything she's known for shines bright on this record: dark, disaffected vocals, early '70s pop inspired songwriting, melancholy itself personified. She's her most confident, her bleakest, and her funniest as she hones in the soft-rock, and the depressed Beach Boys-meet-Stevie Nicks lush ballads with elegance and grace. Co-producer Jack Antonoff helps bring this record to life. The album harkens the post-WWI collective American fantasy, taking classic character and iconography and twisting them around. The line between fact and fiction is a razor think one on this album, and so is line between sadness, joy and longing. It's an exhilarating journey to traverse with her as the guide. — AC

Mary Stallings

Songs Were Made to Sing

While San Francisco jazz queen Mary Stallings has spent most of her illustrious career criminally under-documented, she's enjoyed her most prolific run in her eighth decade, a nonpareil accomplishment capped by this insistently captivating session. Sounding ageless and swinging confidently behind the beat, she puts her inimitable, blues-tinged stamp on a program full of left-field material, like the wistful Alec Wilder gem "While We're Young" and her devastating version of Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler's lament "Ill Wind." Accompanied by a top-shelf New York combo led by pianist David Hazeltine, who also wrote the arrangements, Stallings is joined on several tracks by saxophonist Vincent Herring and trumpet great Eddie Henderson, her former classmate at Lowell High School in the mid-1950s. —

Natalie Cressman & Ian Faquini

Setting Rays of Summer

At its best MPB (musica popular brasileira) is an inordinately gorgeous tradition that's both deeply rooted and expansively cosmopolitan. It might seem strange that one of the year's best MPB albums is a Bay Area production, but the extraordinary duo of San Francisco-reared trombonist/vocalist Natalie Cressman and Brazilian-born Berkeley guitarist/vocalist Ian Faquini draws inspiration directly from some of Brazil's greatest composers, most importantly Guinga. Faquini is responsible for the majority of the tunes, which feature Portuguese lyrics by esteemed Brazilian songwriters. With his expert guitar work providing a propulsive lattice for Cressman's burnished horn and crystalline vocals, they deliver one ravishing song after another. The music is so fully realized that it's all too easy to forget you're listening to only two musicians. — AG

The Onyx

Black Girl Magic

Musically, The Onyx sound is effervescent, a combination of funk, soul, hip-hop, and R&B, with subtle hints of "world musics" ranging from reggae to afrobeat that reflects the unique sounds of Oakland's diverse population. In their album's title track, "Black Girl Magic," a sensual keyboard lick is followed by a hypnotic snare before the perfectly blended vocals even begin. The harmonies could be coming from a gospel choir, but the hip-hop interludes give it a feel of grit and determination true to the form. The group's diverse influences shine through in every song it does, which makes it difficult to categorize them, an asset in today's cookie-cutter world of contemporary music of all genres. Sonically, spiritually, and politically, The Onyx represents with an Oakland flair. — DSM

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Pup

Morbid Stuff

The only punk worth listening to these days is riddled with anxiety and depression, probably a reflection of the times we find ourselves in. To that end, Pup may have released the cream of the crop for anxiety punk with its latest record Morbid Stuff. The Canadian four piece go all-in by entertaining their darkest thoughts in catchy shout-along punk songs: "I was bored as fuck/Sitting around and thinking all this morbid stuff/Like if anyone I've slept with is dead." They didn't invent the happy sad juxtaposition recipe in punk rock, but this album will make you forget about all past contenders, especially with those gang vocals shouting out every ounce of darkness in cathartic fashion. The record is furious with emotions, anger being at the top of the list. But there's something so joyous about releasing your anger at the top of your lungs. — AC

Rapsody

Eve

2019 would not have been 2019 without Rapsody's Eve. Since dropping this summer, The North Carolina native's inescapable album infiltrated every club, car, and play-lists of heads all over the country, and with good reason. Along with her proven mastery of lyricism and wordplay blazing over tracks mostly produced by the legendary 9th Wonder, and with cameos from D'Angelo, Rza, Queen Latifah, and others, Eve was also a concept album focusing on powerful black women throughout history. Beginning with Eve (which gains resonance in context), Oprah (Winfrey), Nina (Simone), and (Pharaoh) Hatshepsut are paid tribute with hard-hitting, thought-provoking tracks that flow seamlessly together, but all could stand-alone. With Eve, Rapsody showed herself to be a class act who can create a classic album. Cop it. — DSM

Real Vocal String Quartet

Culture Kin

The idea behind Berkeley violinist Irene Sazer's Real Vocal String Quartet was to showcase a bevy of brilliant and stylistically polyglot young women string players who were also accomplished singers. The project's latest incarnation doesn't so much abandon that concept as radically expand it. The RVSQ's new album Culture Kin is a dauntingly ambitious international project featuring Sazer's new RSVQ bandmates Sumaia Jackson (five-string violin), David Tangney (cello), and Sam Shuhan (bass) in collaboration with musicians hailing from San Francisco's far-flung sister cities. The often breathtaking pieces feature Brazilian percussionist Roberta Valente, Cote D'Ivoire vocalist Fely Tchaco, Barcelona cellist Marta Roma, Sicily's Laura Inserra on the metallic Hang drum, and Irish vocalist Máirtín de Cógáin. Each track offers a tantalizing glimpse at a promising new musical realm. — AG

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Skip The Needle

We Ain't Never Going Back

Many have miscategorized Skip The Needle's music as "funk" or "punk." This has been a problem for women who rock since The Runaways, Heart, and many others, who have made amazing rock records only see them eclipsed by the likes of Jon Bon Jovi. Add being a queer person of color, and the mainstream's impulse to re-define and re-categorize amps up to the nth degree. The group's debut album, We Ain't Never Going Back, shatters these categorizations as each track is a proclamation of space, history, and a call for liberation. Both Skip The Needle and its debut album are amalgams of influences that pay homage to rock and roll even as it expands its parameters. Expect more from this hard-hitting band in 2020. — DSM

Vampire Weekend

Father of the Bride

Father of the Bride shouldn't work. Lead singer/primary songwriter Ezra Koenig channels his inner Graceland and other boomer guilty pleasure records into a masterpiece of a record that sounds uncomfortably sincere while also straddling lots of tongue in cheek musical shenanigans at the same time. Vampire Weekend has always taken influences that can best be boiled down to "Caribbean" and crafted indie-pop magic from them. But Father of the Bride, the group's fourth LP, is its most overtly "world beat" record, and one that expresses pure joy at times, while also marinating in sadness. On the wistful "Harmony Hall," you'll find yourself bopping along to the song's carefree groove, while Koenig sings "I don't want to live like this/but I don't want to die," a reference to a 2013 Vampire Weekend song "Finger Back," and overall relatable, if not totally a downer of a thought. — AC

Y La Bamba

Mujeres

Y La Bamba, the project of Portland based musician Luz Elena, has always been a moving target. Though in general, she's used the moniker to express her inner world, while also exploring her Latinx heritage and create pictures that embody her mystical, spiritual view of the world. 2016's "Libre" is the best example here, where she sings in English and Spanish, and echoes deep bliss and wonderment, all while connecting to the traditional elements of Mexican music. Mujeres is her quietest, most internal and most musically diverse record. It also feels like her most stripped down, rawest expression of herself, with no tricks pulled. Stylistically, she explores everything from post-punk to experimental ramblings to electronic music. Her singing is oddly hushed. She explores complex feelings of what it means to be Latinx in the United States in 2019, as well as her difficult family relationships. Nothing is off limits. — AC

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