Friday, July 24, 2020

McQ's Best Of 2019 Vol 1 - Nancy's Favorites!

2019 was a weird music year. 

Crazily lopsided, it was an unbelievable year for high quality singer/songwriter-styled efforts, a very good year in contemporary R&B and dark-as-night art-rock, but then depressingly tepid everywhere else - subpar in hip hop, uninspired in both mainstream rock and contemporary pop, and simply abysmal in indie, the worst year for that broad genre since I began doing these collections in 2004. 

And because so many of the year's very best records came in that bleak, depressing art-rock category, we're going to flip the switch here for 2019, just as we did for 1969, and let Nancy's warmer, crowd-pleasing instincts ease us into 2019's brighter moments first before hitting those potent but difficult titles in later mixes over the weeks that follow

So here then, music fans, for your Fourth Of July weekend listening pleasure, is Nancy's most expansive Favorites effort yet, two and a half hours of exceptional songs from 2019's sunnier and/or more heartfelt side.

Here's the Spotify Link. Enjoy!

Now, about the Artists/Albums/Songs on Nancy's Mix:

1 & 2. Crazy In Love & Freedom - Beyonce: Nancy launches things off with the spectacular opening minutes of Beyonce's legendary 2018 Coachella show (the last Coachella Nancy & I attended), which has now been captured for all posterity in a Netflix documentary and 2019 soundtrack album of the same name, Homecoming (Solid Recommend). Whether or not the concert was the best live show of all time, as many in the press have posited, is debatable, but as a cultural statement steeped in black tradition and as a piece of deeply thematic, thoughtful musical theater, the show, built around the concept of hanging in the stands with students and fans for a Friday night football game at a southern HBCU, has had no equal on the Coachella main stage (at least over the 11 years I attended), and probably never will. Best of all, hanging in the bleachers with head-cheerleader Bey, was the band, a brass-and-drumline-powered monster that fueled the show's every uptempo number with an unbelievable adrenaline rush, and lent every one of her many hits a fresh new feel, all perfectly demonstrated by Nancy's selections here.

3. Morning In America - Durand Jones & The Indications: While the University Of Indiana - Bloomington campus is not the likeliest of birthing places for a retro-soul band devoted to recreating the sound and feel of Marvin Gaye's and Curtis Mayfield's/The Impression's classic late 60s/early 70s work, I'll take 'em from wherever I can get them when the results are as good as Morning In America here from the band's sophomore full-length effort, American Love Call

4. What About Us - Gary Clark Jr.: Nancy and I were lucky enough to catch this talented blues-rocker with friends at the Hollywood Bowl just a few months before the concert world shut down. In the show, he debuted much of the material from his latest, much more socially conscious-minded album This Land (Mild Recommend), and What About Us was a definite standout. 

5. Shine A Little Light - The Black Keys: After a half-decade of hit records, festival heading gigs, and unrelenting touring, by 2014, the Ohio blues-rock-duo of Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach were understandably wiped-out and had to take a break. But five years later, following a period of relative rest spent mostly with side-bands and producing albums for other artists, the Keys finally returned in 2019 with "Let's Rock," (Solid Recommend), an encouraging effort that, while not on par with career peak full-lengths like Rubber Factory, Brothers or personal fav El Camino, proves there's still plenty of life left in the duo's sturdy three-minute blues-single formula. Much to my chagrin, Nancy gobbled up not just one but two of the album's best songs, starting here with its take-no-prisoners lead single Shine A Little Light.

6. Sunny Love Song - Bob Mould: Nancy has never gravitated towards noisy, hard-hitting punk, which is why it's always been surprising what a soft spot she has for Bob Mould.  But maybe that's because Sugar's Cooper Blue was such a ubiquitous soundtrack presence at the bars and parties we hung out in while having the time of our lives in downtown Chicago in our early twenties, and taken in that context, I guess it's not that surprising that Nancy's grabbed the best song from Mould's latest release, 2019's fine, Cooper Blue-like Sunshine Rock (Solid Recommend).

7. This Life - Vampire Weekend: In what was easily the most dreadful year in indie-pop since I began doing these mixes in 2004, one indie-release stood head-and-shoulders above everything else: Vampire Weekend's Father Of The Bride (Solid Recommend). And while the sprawling Father Of The Bride isn't nearly as consistent as the Columbia University band's two best efforts (2008's eponymous debut and 2013's sophisticated stunner Modern Vampires Of The City), it's one of the few 2019 releases in any genre that's best songs are straight-up showstoppers. Nancy's grabbed two of those showstoppers here, starting with This Life, and we'll hit two more on our upcoming Vol 4 - All Things Indie.

8. Superbike - Jay Som: Just a lovely, chiming number here from LA-based, Walnut Creek born DIY-er Jay Som's (aka Melina Mae Duterte) fourth full-length for Polyvinyl Anak Ko (Solid Recommend). She's been slowly moving up the indie ranks the last few years, and getting better with each outing, so wouldn't surprise me to see her land an album near the top of the year end polls down the line. But for now, we have this fine song to enjoy.

9. Summer Girl - HAIM: One of the best singles of 2019, love the breezy nature of this so-cal charmer from the LA-born, masters-of-bass-face hipster sisters, not to mention the track's deep indebtedness to Lou Reed's Walk On The Wild Side

10. Hero - Michael Kiwanuka: For most of its seamless opening half, Michael Kiwanuka's Danger Mouse-produced third album KIWANUKA (Strong Recommend), which doubles down on that signature spaghetti-western-soul sound the duo formulated on their previous joint effort Love & Hate, plays like a serious album-of-the-year contender, until a decision to slow things way down on it's back half brings the excitement to a sudden halt. But even with that almost jarring shift in tone, KIWANUKA remains a top-10 release on the year, and contains many thrilling up-and-mid-tempo numbers like Hero here.

11. The Barrel - Aldous Harding: That singer-songwriter dominated-year alluded to above - it starts taking over this mix here, with odd-ball New Zealand indie-folker Aldous Harding's (aka Hannah Sian Top) delightfully non-sensical The Barrel representing the year's sixth best release Designer (Strong Recommend).  Much like The Barrel, the rest of Designer's so quirky gems (two more of which we'll hit upon in Vol 8 - All Things Thoughtful) suggest an emerging female equivalent to peak-form Andrew Bird (minus the heavy reliance on pizzicato strings).  

12. Hey, Ma - Bon Iver: A far cry from '08's breathtakingly straightforward, achingly earnest For Emma, Forever Again (Highest Recommend), Bon Iver's fourth release i,i (Mild Recommend) finds the Bard Of Eau Claire continuing in an increasingly electronic, obtuse, experimental direction, to significantly diminishing returns. That said, buried within all that noodling experimentation, there are still four or five numbers on i,i where Justin Vernon's elite talents with  emotion and song dynamics rise to the fore, especially on Hey, Ma, which Nancy quickly snatched up here. Now if Mr. Vernon could just find it within himself to reverse course, and get back to his linear, acoustic roots on his next outing...

13. Anybody - Burma Boy: Nancy gets worldly with Anybody, one of six singles released from rising afro-fusion/reggaeton superstar Burma Boy's (actually Nigerian Damani Ebunoluwa Ogula Rex) fourth release African Giant, a 2020 Grammy nominee and 2019 Album of the Year winner at the All Africa Music Awards 2019.

14. They Don't Shine - Tedeschi Trucks Band: This lively, gospel number comes to us courtesy of Jacksonville, Florida husband and wife blues tandem Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks, the first of two rocking songs we'll be hearing over the course of this mix collection from their band's fourth studio release, Signs.

15. EARFQUAKE - Tyler, The Creator: A surprise selection, Nancy goes with this unusual, poppy number from former rap shock master turned Frank Ocean-styled flower boy Tyler, The Creator's IGOR (Solid Recommend), the most critically celebrated (it ended up #5 across all genres in the year-end aggregate polls) and original hip hop album of 2019.

16. Tell Me Lies - The Black Keys: Here's one more from the Key's '19 release "Let's Rock", the very groovy Tell Me Lies.

17. Juice - Lizzo: A huge hit from Time Magazine's 2019 Entertainer Of The Year, Juice was actually just one of many winning tracks to be found on contemporary R&B "Queen Of Positivity" Lizzo's third full-length Cuz I Love You (Solid Recommend), the most nominated (8) album of the 2020 Grammys. 

18. Married In A Gold Rush - Vampire Weekend: Much changed for Vampire Weekend in the six years since their last release Modern Vampires Of The City. Lead singer/principal songwriter Ezra Koenig relocated to Los Angeles and became a parent. Around that same time, Rostam Batmanglij, the VW's ace multi-instrumentalist and dominant production voice up to that point in time, left the band to pursue a solo opportunities and his exploding producing career (he's been a dominant mixboard player in recent releases from Carly Rae Jepsen and Charlie XCX, among others). So a new direction for the band was warranted, and inspired his new So-Cal environs, Cohen choose to shift the band's next album Father Of The Bride towards a classic Laurel Canyon sound, and to assist in capturing that 70s vibe, he brought in Danielle Haim, the daughter of 70s studio musicians, to share vocals on three songs. All three tracks featuring Haim are among the album's standouts, but arguably, Married In A Gold Rush here is the best. 

19. Don't Know How To Keep Loving You - Julia Jacklin: Among the amazing crop of contemporary female singer-songwriters that have emerged around the globe over the last decade, I'm not sure any of them do drama as well, or with such a sense of life-or-death urgency, as Sydney, Australia's Julia Jacklin, and that sense of high drama permeates every note of her fabulous release Crushing (Strong Recommend, the year's fifth best release, and the best 2019 album represented here on Nancy's mix), perfectly embodied here by the anguished Don't Know How To Keep Loving You 

20. Seventeen - Sharon Van Etten: A slightly more veteran presence on the female singer/songwriter front, Sharon Van Etten mixed things up to impressive results on her excellent 2019 release Remind Me Tomorrow (Strong Recommend), embracing a number of unusual electronic, experimental, and in the case of Seventeen, harder rocking approaches to make the album, if not her best, then definitely the most interesting and varied effort of her career.  

21. The Greatest - Lana Del Rey: Runaway 2019 winner of the year end critic's album polls, Lana Del Rey's Norman Fucking Rockwell (Strong Recommend) is a definite career high point, and like Vampire Weekend's Father Of The Bride, her most Laurel Canyon-inspired effort yet. At times on this exceptional record, it feels like Joni Mitchell is right there in the studio with Del Rey, whispering inspirations as Lana records. And of the album's many top tier numbers, Nancy has chosen to run with the album's mid-tempo centerpiece and biggest hit, The Greatest.

22. One More Time - Bedouine: Continuing, but far from done, with 2019's seemingly endless singer-songerwriter parade, Nancy next taps the delicately chill One More Time from Syrian-American Azniv Korkejian's equally delicate and chill sophomore full-length under her Bedouine moniker, Bird Songs Of A Kill Joy (Mild Recommend). 

23. Get Well Soon - Boy Scouts: This gentle indie-rocker comes to us from Oakland DIY bedroom-artist Taylor Vick's major label debut as Boy Scouts, Free Company (Mild Recommend).

24. Not - Big Thief: Brooklyn's Big Thief was on fire in 2019, releasing two high caliber full-lengths, and while their second 2019 album, the looser, jammier Two Hands (Solid Recommend) was the lesser of the two efforts compared to the subtle, Radiohead-caliber precision and invention of the indie-whisperers first release U.F.O.F. (Strong Recommend), it definitely had the top track in the so urgent Not, which wasn't just one of Nancy and I's favorite tracks of 2019, but a top-ten mainstay on most year-end best songs lists, and one ex-President Obama's 2019 favorites as well.

25. Highwomen - The Highwomen: The brainchild of activist, fiddler extraordinaire, and Jason Isbell spouse Amanda Shires, The Highwomen was Shire's attempt to raise the profile of female artists (not to mention their perspectives) in country music by creating an all-female play on the 1980's all-male country supergroup dream team of Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, The Highwaymen. Little did Shires know (or maybe she knew all along) that she - along with her partners in feminist crime Maren Morris, Brandi Carlisle, and Natalie Hemby - were about to become one of the biggest acts in country music in 2019 with their self-titled debut (Solid Recommend). To celebrate this accomplishment, Nancy's tapped two songs from the record and placed them back to back.  First up, the album's title track, an impassioned ballad that pays tribute to the accomplishments, strength, and moral courage of great women of the past, and then...

26. Redesigning Women - The Highwomen: ...the album's spunky lead single, a song that pays tribute to the wondrous, tireless day-to-day accomplishments of modern woman in this multi-tasking present (though I think many would assert its been this way for women all along). 

27. Hold Me Anyway - Wilco: Though unassuming and quiet in nature compared to most of the other tracks featured on this mix, Hold Me Anyway comes off almost as a relative barnburner compared to the rest of subtly experimental soft rock protest songs that make up Wilco's thoughtful, reflective eleventh studio album Ode To Joy (Mild Recommend). 

28. What I Remember - Patty Griffin: It's really just not a Nancy's Favorite's mix until the Patty Griffin songs start to land towards the end, and her 2019 edition is no exception. This year sees Nancy teeing up two from 2019 full-length Patty Griffin, starting with the old-school flamenco torch song What I Remember.

29. Show Me Love - Alicia Keys, 21 Savage & Miguel: This remixed version of Show Me Love, featuring hip hop star 21 Savage and co-written with Miguel, was the lead single forAlicia Keys seventh studio album Alicia.

30. Burning - Maggie Rogers: A 2020 Grammy nominee for Best New Artist, excitement had been building for Maryland-based Maggie Roger's 2019 full length debut Heard It In A Past Life ever since her days as a college student at NYU's Clive Davis Institute for Recorded Music, when a video of her playing an demo of her early composition Alaska for a visibly moved guest lecturer Pharell Williams went viral and started an industry bidding war for her talents. Here, that sense of promise is fulfilled with Nancy's favorite song from the new record, Burning

31. Stones - Bruce Springsteen: Boss fans would be loath to hear it, but Bruce should really think about calling it a day right here, with his beautiful, cinematic 2019 walk off into the sunset Western Stars (Strong Recommend), arguably his best album since 2006's We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, if not 2002's The Rising, if not all the way back to 1987's Tunnel Of Love. Full of rich, expansive orchestral arrangements worthy of Roy Orbison or a John Ford western, Western Stars is a big-themed, elegiac record obsessed with legacy, meaning, and how one gracefully copes with one's emotions, past history, and regrets as one's life and relationships near their end. Here, on Stones, the accumulation of past moments of weakness and their lasting impact on a long-term romantic partnership takes center stage.

32. The Fact Of Love - Joe Henry: Moving, mystical acoustic number here from veteran producer and Grammy winning alt-country recording artist Joe Henry and his 2019 full-length The Gospel According To Water

33. Change - Mavis Staples: Now 80, the indomitable gospel inspiration Mavis Staples just keeps keeping on, as evidenced here with Change from her Ben Harper-produced 2019 release We Get By

34. Light Years - The National: Owners of the most reliable sound in present day music, a sound that has produced an elite stretch of albums over the last fifteen years, The National finally shook things up in 2019 by exploring their feminine side on their eight studio release I Am Easy To Find (Solid Recommend). Every aspect of the album was created in conjunction with female collaborators, from the Alicia Vickander cover photo, to the endless parade of duets featuring the likes of Sharon Van Etten, Gail Ann Dorsey, Kate Stables, Mina Tindle, Lisa Hannigan, even the the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. And while I'd label I Am Easy To Find, especially in light of how good the band has been before, more of a fascinating stab at artistic growth than a significant accomplishment in itself, it does boast a few tremendous songs, especially closing ballad Light Years which Nancy has selected here.  

35. Something To Hope For - Craig Finn: One of the very best songs of 2019, Craig Finn's Something To Hope For is the empathetic  centerpiece to the Hold Steady frontman's appealing fourth solo album I Need A New War (enthusiastic Solid Recommend). Tackling a theme rarely explored in rock, I Need A New War is the concluding chapter in Finn's trilogy of small-scale solo efforts examining the everyday minutiae of ordinary middle-aged, middle-management schlepps, decent people sticking it out, doing their modest best, and loving their friends and family, but whose lives and careers now hold out little hope of great advancement, accomplishment or adventure. 

36. River - Patty Griffin: Question: Name the Patty Griffin album that doesn't contain at least one song that moves you to your very core? Answer: You can't! That album doesn't exist! Here's that song, River, from Patty's 2019 eponymous release Patty Griffin (Mild Recommend).

37. Moonlight Motel - Bruce Springsteen: Western Stars gentle, understated closing track. Seriously, Bruce, let Jim Brown be your guide here.

38. The Sound Of Silence - The Chromatics: Nancy loves herself some Chromatics classic rock covers.  After tapping the Lynchian synth outfit in 2012 for their killer cover of Neil Young's Hey Hey My My (Into The Black), she hits them again for their mesmerizing rendition of Simon & Garfunkel's The Sound Of Silence from the Johnny Jewel-led Portland, Oregon outfits long-awaited Closer To Grey (Solid Recommend). 

39. Lift Every Voice And Sing - Beyonce: Nancy closes the 2019 mix with the definitive moment of Beyonce's Coachella show, when Bey, after having whipped the mostly white twenty-something crowd into an absolute frenzy with Crazy In Love and Freedom, brought everything to a dramatic halt with this stirring rendition of The Black National Anthem, something probably 80% of the crowd was hearing for the very first time.

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