BEST OF 2019: Non-metal albums

Chelsea Wolfe (photo by Ben Chisholm)

If I had enough time, I easily could fill another site with writing about music that’s anything but heavy metal. I know just about everyone else out there also have interests that go beyond ruthless heaviness, and it’s important to keep an open mind about what we consume musically. So, as much fun as I have compiling the 40 metal records of the year, this piece is just as exciting for me. These are presented in alphabetical order, 10 of my favorite non-metal albums of 2019.

BIG THIEF, “U.F.O.F.”/“Two Hands” (4AD): It can almost be assumed that if Big Thief put out a record, it’s going to end up somewhere on my annual list of best non-metal albums. Only this year, the band released two full-lengths, both completely different from each other in sound and spirit, and both of them are magnificent. First up was “U.F.O.F.” in May that gave us “Contact,” “Jenni,” and “Cattails” on a quieter, more reflective record. “Two Hands” arrived in October, and it’s raw and rougher with standout cuts “Forgotten Eyes,” “Cut My Hair,” and “Not,” which is one of their best songs ever. Oh, and Adrienne Lenker is a force to behold, as usual.

JACKIE COHEN, “Zagg” (Spacebomb): Not quite sure what Jackie Cohen’s got to do to get noticed around here, and her debut full-length “Zagg” really should have put her over the top. Weirdly, the tastemaker sites largely ignored this gem of a record that goes all over the place. It’s catchy, fun, rowdy, romantic, and … weirdly worried about melanomas? It takes a few shots for the album to settle in, but it is impossible to avoid once you take on “Caught in a Feeling,” rumbling “Get Out,” breezy “Too Cold to Cry,” and island-flavored “Chico” that’s a blast and also kind of ridiculous. Listen to Jackie Cohen, already!

THE HOLD STEADY “Thrashing Thru the Passion” (Frenchkiss): It’s been a pretty interesting past few years for long-running rock band the Hold Steady. They welcomed back keyboard player/backup vocalist Franz Nicolay, who’s an absolutely vital cog, and they started slowly releasing new music. This year, we got their seventh full-length “Thrashing Thru the Passion,” an absolute return to form for them that contains some of their catchiest songs in years. Add to that vocalist/guitarist Craig Finn revived more of his talk-singing approach, which has been missing for years, and the rest of the band fires through “Denver Haircut,” “You Did Good, Kid,” “Entitlement Crew,” and great closer “Confusion in the Marketplace.” Cool to have them back in form.

MANNEQUIN PUSSY, “Patience” (Epitaph): Philly punk band Mannequin Pussy stepped up in the world this year as they put out their great Epitaph debut “Patience,” that’s a whipping mix on infectious rock, hardcore hammering, and dreamy playing. Vocalist/guitarist Marisa Dabice is an absolute force on these songs, mixing heartbreak, desperation, anger, and frustration into these songs that run the gamut of sound and emotion. “Drunk II” is the standout, a song about drowning one’s broken heart in alcohol, but there are plenty of killers here “Patience,” “Cream,” “High Horse,” and, naturally, “Drunk I.”

SASAMI, self-titled (Domino): Sasami Ashworth spent time playing keys for Cherry Glazerr, which turned out to be a pretty vital role. But she had more to her than that, as proved by her arresting debut record that is one of my most played this year. Her psyche-minded rock is emotional, earnest, and honest to a fault, and there are songs on here—“I Was a Window,” “Free,” “Jealousy,” “Turned Out I Was Everyone”—that climb inside you and make you confront the hurt and disillusionment in your own life. She’s a rare talent, and she’s just getting started.

SHEER MAG, “A Distant Call” (Wilsuns RC): Their music might sound kind of cock rock-ish on the surface, because it feels so fucking fun. But dig deeper, and there are themes of self-doubt, employment issues, sadness, and the ruthless political structure delivered by this tight-as-hell band. Singer Tina Halladay is in complete and total command on these songs, and her power is impossible to deny when she and the band are ripping through “Steel Sharpens Steel,” “Hardly to Blame,” “The Killer,” and “Blood From a Stone.” Just a smashing record front to back.

STRAND OF OAKS, “Eraserland” (Dead Oceans): Timothy Showalter wasn’t treated so well by some of his fans and definitely the media after his last two records “Hard Love” and the sort-of make-good “Harder Love.” Those records are fine, by the way. But the torment and depression he felt is all over “Eraserland,” one of his best records to date and a collection that can challenge “HEAL” any day of the week. I had a depressing year that wasn’t fun and where I saw some people I care about fall by the wayside. It was confusing and painful. “Eraserland” was there to pick me when I needed it most.

FAYE WEBSTER, “Atlanta Millionaires Club” (Secretly Canadian): While she’s often labeled a folk singer, Faye Webster is far more than that on her third record “Atlanta Millionaires Club,” which is an absolute ear worm. She lets in strains of R&B and hip-hop onto this excellent collection that has stuck with me from the moment it arrived. This 10-track, 31-minute record has so many highpoints, but the mid-album run of “Johnny,” “Kingston,” and “Come to Atlanta” provide the heart to one of this year’s biggest breakout surprises.

WEYES BLOOD, “Titanic Rising” (Sub Pop): A friend of mine who hadn’t yet gotten into Weyes Blood asked me to describe the sound, which was easy since I’m prepared for this: Imagine Karen Carpenter making a record in outer space. “Titanic Rising,” their fourth, is the watershed moment for this project led my Natalie Laura Mering, and from the word go, it’s impossible not to get swept up into her cosmic folk that can make the inside of your face numb. Tracks such as “A Lot’s Going to Change,” “Something to Believe,” heartbreaking “Picture Me Better,” and  “Andromeda,” one of the best songs of the entire year, are shooting stars on a record filled with high points.

CHELSEA WOLFE, “Birth of Violence” (Sargent House): Chelsea Wolfe seems to have lived a multitude of different lives ever since her debut “The Grime and the Glow” landed nearly 10 years ago. On “Birth of Violence,” one might think on the surface that Wolfe is delivering another metallic barnburner, and emotionally she is. But these are stripped back, largely acoustic songs that are haunting and full of her power, making this one of the best collections in her arsenal. From “The Mother Road” to “American Darkness” to personal favorite “Deranged for Rock n Roll” to “Little Grave” Wolfe brings more of her personal shadows, delivered in a disarming presence of an album.

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