The mere existence of 100 Gecs excepted, 2019 was a fantastic year for music, worldwide and locally.
Following is “Popular With Us 2019: Buzz Bands LA’s Albums of the Year,” an unwieldy list of L.A. artists who caught our ears and wouldn’t let go. As our year-end lists have tended to be over our 11 years, it’s light on pop, heavy on rock and includes some positively genre-bending releases. In the Top 20, the common denominator is strength of artistic voice.
Speaking of rock, and we often do, 2019 was such a banner year that we’ve included a Rock Addendum — 30 (!) more albums that didn’t make the Top 20. You’ll recognize some of the artists, but you could also discover something you didn’t know was out there. In fact, the good stuff came so fast and furious this year that we probably forgot something here, despite best intentions.
Support the artists by clicking on the album titles to purchase their work. Also find links to the album streams on Spotify. Album capsules written by Kevin Bronson except where noted.
Bring on 2020 …
There’s no shortage of L.A. indie-rockers doing variations on psychedelic pop/rock/folk, but few have created a document so lush and cinematic as singer-guitarist Dylan McKenzie and bassist Jonathan Schwarz. Their debut comes a full seven years since their first release; its handcrafted feel owes to the production of Tim Carr and Gregory Uhlmann of Fell Runner, as well as the duo. Serpentine melodies, strings, aching harmonies and rich imagery added up to an uncommonly understated beauty. Enjoy this one in quietude.
||| Recommended track: “Your Ghost” • Stream on Spotify
The young post-punk trio of Izzy Glaudini, Lola Dompé and Halle Saxon bob and weave to the Motorik beats of forebears such as NEU!, Can and Suicide, and they take a refreshingly minimalist approach in doing so. Their ennui comes at one temperature — icy cool — and their disdain for the “machinery of modern life” (from the title track) arrives like an impassive narration from Joy Division. Do we find their austere, hypnotic songs invigorating simply because of the wretched excesses of commercial music? “Signal” is certainly the antidote, a sign that somebody is watching and quite possibly numbed by it all.
||| Recommended track: “Calling It” • Stream on Spotify
Taking into consideration both the sophomore album and the September single “Ambrosia” (in baseball terms, the home run after the album had loaded the bases), Rosie Tucker had quite a 2019. Alternately wry, funny, sad and poignant, Tucker’s songs play out like journal entries, and the album, produced by Wolfy, has a welcome, unvarnished splendor that doesn’t get in the way of Tucker’s distinct voice. It recalls some of the twee-pop torchbearers (Talulah Gosh, Tiger Trap) who reminded us that you don’t have to be loud to be punk.
||| Recommended track: “Fault Lines” • Stream on Spotify
Raw, real and straight outta Long Beach, the six-piece collective was already on the European charts by the time their album got a U.S. release in April. (And it might not be long before a follow-up is ready.) All sounding like it’s coming out of grandpa’s old hi-fi, “Wargirl” rumbles through garage-rock, post-punk, Afro-beat, girl-group pop, psych-funk and dance music untouched by modern gimmickry, all touching on timeless themes of relationship struggles, identity and empowerment. If there’s one album on this list that begs to be in your vinyl collection, this is it.
||| Recommended tracks: “Mess Around,” “How You Feel” • Stream on Spotify
Leave it to Tyler, the Creator, to go all Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood for his sixth solo album. Oh, it’s all relative, of course — he’s as subversive, smart and profane as ever, but even more than 2017’s “Flower Boy,” “Igor” sounds so … warm. “Are we still friends? / Can we be friends?” he croons on the album closer, which features an appearance by Pharrell. Playboi Carti and Charlie Wilson join in on “Earfquake,” an R&B croon that in tectonic terms is one of those gentle rollers. Like most of “Igor,” it carries more of an afterglow than aftershock.
||| Recommended track: “Earfqwuake” • Stream on Spotify
Named for the Greek goddess of the sea, Ioanna Gika’s solo debut is not the first album to plumb the dark waters of despair, but it certainly is one that triumphs over loss. Conceived in the land of her heritage, Greece, and informed by the 1-2 punches of family tragedy and a romantic ending, “Thalassa” fuses the classical and electronic, taking bits of the goth-pop, industrial rock and shoegaze employed by her former band, Io Echo. Gika’s stratospheric vocals, as on “Roseate,” penetrate her massive soundscapes, as if to say that despite everything, we can come out the other side.
||| Recommended track: “Roseate” • Stream on Spotify
“Some things are so simple / they’re impossible to explain,” Local Natives sing on “Café Amarillo,” one of the highlights of the L.A. quintet’s fourth album. After dalliances with au courant electronic pop on 2016’s “Sunlit Youth,” L.A.’s envoys of earnestness return to a more organic, soulful sound reliant on their signature harmonies and peripatetic rhythms. Framed by the robust production of Shawn Everett, their songs deal in the timeless: aging, impermanence, perseverance in the face of what gives us anxiety attacks. Whether “curving on the coastline” (“When Am I Gonna Lose You”), listening to “the crowd goin’ wild in the stadium” (“Garden of Elysian”) or stuck on the freeway in “a terracotta rush hour” (“Megaton Mile”), it’s anchored by California but not exactly obsessed by it. It’s just the place they’re local.
||| Recommended track: “Café Amarillo” • Stream on Spotify
File under: Albums we should have tipped you to sooner. Sidley, a steady presence as backing singer/contributor for the Bird and the Bee, Inara George’s solo work and Alex Lilly (plus a stint in the Foo Fighters), brings her accomplished vocals and (contrary to the title) outsized personality to an album of playful, torchy and classy jazz-pop. “Interior Person” would be a delight no matter Sidley’s identity, but she flies her flag straightaway: Her bio capsulizes her as “a queer jazz singer and interpreter” and she kicks off the album with the jaunty “I Like Girls.” The L.A. native is perfectly comfortable as an interpreter; the songs on “Interior Person” were authored by Lilly, George (whose label Release Me issued the album) and the singer’s wife, drumming/songwriter wunderkind Barbara Gruska (who also produced the record in a studio built in Sidley’s childhood bedroom). If you were in a corner booth in a lounge and you heard the start of “Butterfly in My Ass,” you’d get off your butt and snap your fingers … and probably laugh a lot.
||| Recommended track: “Butterfly in My Ass” • Stream on Spotify
Shannon Lay doesn’t so much write songs as cast spells. Her third full-length “August” (named for the month in 2017 she chucked her day job to devote herself entirely to music) is a mesmerizing folk-pop record full of solemnly but confidently sung meditations around the general theme of moving forward. In another artist’s hands, that might sound Pollyanna, but Lay — whose acoustic albums in 2016 and ’17 recalled the great singer-poets of the 1960s — possesses a certain comportment to go along with her singular command of both musical and lyrical language. On “August,” produced with a light touch by her longtime pal Ty Segall, we feel as if we’re overhearing the songwriter’s inner conversations. And it’s not small talk. We’re pretty sure this album (along with Bedouine’s “Bird Songs of a Killjoy” and Odessa’s “All Things”) is the path to a higher plane.
||| Recommended tracks: “November,” “Unconditional” • Stream on Spotify
The cover of Sudan Archives’ debut full-length depicts the artist as a bronze sculpture of a Greek goddess, violin triumphantly held high. And there is much to celebrate. Self-taught on the instrument and inspired by Sudanese fiddlers, West African rhythms, R&B and left-field electronic pop, the Cincinnati-bred artist, born Brittney Parks, has created narcotic songs that truly push boundaries. After crafting her early EPs herself, Sudan Archives worked with four producers (Wilma Archer, Washed Out, Rodaidh McDonald and Paul White) on the album, and the results are pristine. As she says, the album is all about duality — tug-of-wars of the heart, her relationship with her twin sister, negotiations on her own self-worth. Her voice is like a piece of silk fluttering in an uneven desert wind, always in motion but ultimately unyielding.
||| Recommended tracks: “Confessions,” “Glorious” • Stream on Spotify
The quartet helmed by singer Nina Ljeti, a Bosnia-born Canadian who ended up in L.A, pursuing a film career, and Golden Daze guitarist Jacob Loeb arrived like a “Volcano” in September with a tidy 26-minute fusillade of bloodletting. Drawing on ’80s post-punk and the noisier side of the ’90s, the band (including bassist Fielder Thomas and drummer Bosh Rothman) kick up a storm live, and the Justin Raisen-produced album capsulizes all of Ljeti’s primitive fear and loathing. As “Jesus Did” suggests, this is outsider rock, made in the shadows of insider heaven. Convulse as you see fit.
||| Recommended tracks: “Jesus Did,” “Volcano” • Stream on Spotify
The long-awaited record from the scrappy underdogs is a rough-and-tumble affair with astringent guitars and equally biting attitude, reminiscent of the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, the Pixies and a host of others who folded their enmity into a crunchy rock sandwich and washed it down with whatever beer was on sale. The title refers to their status as tryers — they’ve been at this since 2012 or so — and the best songs on the Alex Newport-produced album (“Hardly News,” “Dangers of Convenience,” “Greetings From a Postcard” and “Turpentine”) have a brawler’s disposition and a poet’s heart. The quartet might very well be underdogs forever, and let’s hope they always sound like it.
||| Recommended tracks: “Hardly News,” Greetings Froma Postcard” • Stream on Spotify
If the apocalyptic album title doesn’t set the tone for Feels’ sophomore album, there’s this brilliant verse from opening track “Cars”: “All smiles DJT / War dogs on the street / The land of the free / One nation under fraud,” Laena Geronimo sings, adding just the right amount of acidity to the final word. You’d think more rock bands would have stepped up as social commentators the past couple of years; thankfully, thankfully Geronimo, Amy Allen, Michael Perry and (the now-departed) Shannon Lay did. A mix of post-punk and garage-rock, with stinging lyrics and licks worthy of the riot grrrl artists of the past, “Post Earth” assails the present. The world is burning, and while we’re enjoying our last dances, the people in charge are worrying about whiter teeth. As for the future, the title track wryly wonders about “the one percent’s new life on Mars.” If only they’d leave sooner.
||| Recommended tracks: “Post Earth,” “Car” • Stream on Spotify
The dynamic duo is back with a sequel to 2014’s “Piñata,” firing on even more cylinders this time around that guest verses from legends Black Thought, Killer Mike, Pusha T and Yasiin Bay feel less than. Beat Konducta Madlib’s menagerie is diverse in both worldly curated samples and drum beats ranging from sparse to boom bap to trap, while Gibbs jumps all around it with big strokes of gangsta shit-talking and gruff storytelling. — Andrew Veeder
||| Recommended tracks: “Crime Pays,” “Education” • Stream on Spotify
Jenny Lewis could sing the phone book and people would get the feels. On her fourth album and first in five years, the revered L.A. singer-songwriter does much better than that, weaving sketches of flawed protagonists with poignant confessionals into some ’70s/’80s classic rock finery. Backed by A-listers Beck, Ringo Starr, Don Was, Benmont Tench, Jason Falkner, Jim Keltner and (the now defrocked) Ryan Adams, it is — like the single suggests — equal parts Red Bull and Hennessy. It can be sipped or simply thrown down, and you’ll be left with the rare hangover you can stand.
||| Recommended track: “Wasted Youth” • Stream on Spotify
“I see myself in you and that’s why I fucking hate you,” Clementine Creevy screeches at the end of “Stupid Fish,” having worked herself into a lather after an album’s worth of well-directed anger. Her vitriol isn’t reserved for gender roles (as on the acidic “Daddi”) or other external factors. She beats herself up for her own foibles, a young woman on an island (“Isolation”) who “put up cinderblocks to take away the pain” (“Self Explained”) and is tearing them down, song by song, “so I can just be” (“Distressor”). Thanks to mates Devin O’Brien and Tabor Allen and Carlos de la Garza’s production, everything comes with a deliciously serrated edge. As L.A. explodes with relevant, non-white-dude rock bands (Feels, Kills Birds, Automatic and Rosie Tucker from this list, and more in the “Rock Addendum” below) shredding norms that should have been vaporized decades ago, Cherry Glazerr leads the charge.
||| Recommended tracks: “Wasted Nun,” Daddi” • Stream on Spotify
Built around the concept of fire, FlyLo’s first album in five years burns through an eclectic 27-track odyssey of his signature warped jazz-funk. George Clinton, Miguel Atwood-Ferguson and Thundercat contribute instruments; Anderson .Paak, Denzel Curry, Little Dragon, Shabazz Palaces, Solange and Tierra Whack contribute vocals; and David Lynch contributes some David Lynch-ian spoken word. — Andrew Veeder
||| Recommended track: “Black Balloons Reprise” • Stream on Spotify
“Your pictures are a crutch / Your opinions are a crutch / Your love, your hate / Your sex, your drugs,” Spencer Petersen deadpans on “Neon Me Out,” covering just about everything on the art-punk quartet’s third full-length. Sego’s elastic dance-punk is spiked with deliciously caustic lyrics and pop choruses that may or may not drip with irony. Take “Whatever Forever” and “Shame”— as Petersen wanders a cultural, political and personal minefield, the consciousness he’s streaming is decidedly acidic — a welcome taste on a landscape where so many rockers are merely boy bands with guitars. Indubitably, Sego does not suck.
||| Recommended tracks: “Neon Me Out,” “Shame,” Whatever Forever” • Stream on Spotify
“Give me something I can see / Something bigger and louder than the voices in me,” Natalie Mering sings serenely on “Something to Believe,” a hope-against-hope moment on an album full of them. Lushly orchestrated and luminously produced (by Jonathan Rado), Weyes Blood’s fourth album longs for a time when technology had not reduced us all to code, a time when the planet was not in so much peril, when optimism was not a thing that’s rusting on the ocean floor. Comparisons to ’60s/’70s luminaries like Joni Mitchell, Janis Ian and Karen Carpenter apply, and here Mering’s pristine voice is the star 42 minutes of cinema. Follow this album’s arc all the way to the denouement.
||| Recommended track: “Andromeda,” “Something to Believe” • Stream on Spotify
Billie Eilish, who turned 18 last week, set the pop world on its ear with her debut, a collection gothic pop made in collaboration with her big brother Finneas O’Connell and so inventively produced you wonder what’s in the water in Highland Park. Eilish sings in a whispered croon, as if she’s having a phone conversation she doesn’t want her family to overhear, and the songs are relatable whether you’re 14 or (ahem) 64. When was the last time a song as left-field as “Bad Guy” reached No. 1? (Just wondering.) She asks a lot of out-of-the-mouths-of-babes questions in the opening verse of the hypnotic “Bury a Friend,” but it’s clear throughout that she is no ordinary teen, just like she’s no ordinary pop star. If one can forget about hype, the Grammy nominations, the major-media adulation, the fashion and even that Coachella moment, “When We All Fall Asleep” is an immersive experience.
||| Recommended tracks: “Bury a Friend,” “Bad Guy,” “All Good Girls Go to Hell” • Stream on Spotify
An indie rocker turned songwriter for A-listers turned podcaster turned activist, Golan saw his song cycle/passion project — over a decade in the making — released as an album and come to life as a full musical at New York’s MCC Theater, starring Tony nominee Joshua Henry. The concept album tells the story of Duran, who is on death row, wrongly convicted for shooting a man in Reno. Golan’s songs fuse folk, funk and hip-hop as his artful lyrics draw the listener through the narrative.
||| Recommended track: “Stay Positive” • Stream on Spotify
Thirty (Yes, 30) More Rock Albums We Recommend for People Who Like Rock
From loud and in your face (Plague Vendor, Apex Manor, Jagged Baptist Club, BONES UK, Ramonda Hammer) to cerebral and experimental (Wand, Low Hum, Slip, Froth, Fell Runner) to familiar voices (Silversun Pickups, Cold War Kids, Starflyer 59, FIDLAR) to young and hungry (Hana Vu, the Paranoyds, the Regrettes), here is a heaping helping of more long-players to sample from 2019:
Apex Manor, “Heartbreak City” (Merge)
The Black Watch, “Magic Johnson”
Bleached, “Don’t You Think You’ve Had Enough?” (Dead Oceans)
BONES UK, “BONES UK” (Sumerian)
Cold War Kids, “New Age Norms 1” (CWKTWO Corp.)
Drab Majesty, “Modern Mirror” (Dais)
Fell Runner, “Talking” (Yes Plz)
Froth, “Duress” (Big Deal/Wichita)
FIDLAR, “Almost Free” (Mom + Pop)
Goon, “Heaven Is Humming” (Partisan)
Jagged Baptist Club, “Reptile Super Show” (Chain Letter Collective)
Jay Som, “Anak Ko” (Polyvinyl)
Low Hum, “Room to Breathe” (Last Gang)
Mini Mansions, “Guy Walks Into a Bar …” (Fiction)
NO WIN, “Downey” (Dangerbird)
The Paranoyds, “Carnage Bargain” (Suicide Squeeze)
Plague Vendor, “By Night” (Epitaph)
Ramonda Hammer, “I Never Wanted Company” (New Professor)
The Regrettes, “How Do You Love?” (Warner)
SASAMI, “SASAMI” (Domino)
Silversun Pickups, “Widow’s Weeds” (New Machine Recordings)
The Shelters, “Jupiter Sidecar” (Warner)
Slip, “The Cost”
Starcrawler, “Devour You” (Rough Trade)
Starflyer 59, “Young in My Head” (Tooth & Nail)
Superet, “How to Work a Room” (Rob the Rich)
Tijuana Panthers, “Carpet Denim” (Innovative Leisure)
Hana Vu, “Nicole Kidman / Anne Hathaway” (Luminelle)
Tennis System, “Lovesick” (Graveface)
Wand, “Laughing Matter” (Drag City)
Twenty more recommended releases
Devendra Banhart, “Ma” (Nonesuch)
Beck, “Hyperspace” (Fonograf/Capitol)
Bedouine, “Bird Songs of a Killjoy” (Spacebomb Records)
Bootstraps, “Demo Love” (HyperExtension)
Andrew Bird, “My Finest Work Yet” (Wegawam/Loma Vista)
Better Oblivion Community Center, “Better Oblivion Community Center” (Dead Oceans)
Will Fox, “Which Way” (Twosyllable)
Goldroom, “Plunge /\ Surface” (Downtown)
Hand Habits, “Placeholder” (Saddle Creek)
Eleni Mandell, “Wake Up Again” (Yep Roc)
Mating Ritual, “Hot Content” (Smooth Jaws)
Kevin Morby, “Oh My God” (Dead Oceans)
MUNA, “Saves the World” (RCA)
Nightjacket, “Beauty in the Dark”
Odessa, “All Things”
Ryan Pollie, “Ryan Pollie” (Anti-)
Johnathan Rice, “The Long Game” (Mano Walker)
Luther Russell, “Medium Cool”
Leslie Stevens, “Sinner” (LyricLand)
Dexter Story, “Bahir” (Soundway)
Maria Taylor, “Maria Taylor” (Flower Moon)