Chorus.fm’s Top 25 Albums of 2019

It’s easy for end-of-decade years to become an afterthought in terms of the music they produce. Most music publications dropped their “best albums of the decade” features in early October. At Chorus.fm, we held off until December 9th. Still, when you spend months of the year reflecting on past years, and on the albums you loved from throughout a whole decade, the music from the year you’re currently living in can get overlooked, forgotten, or short-changed on listening time.

I suppose we were guilty of that sin ourselves, as our “albums of the decade” list ultimately lacked a single entry from 2019. Call it anti-recency bias, or maybe just an occupational hazard of having to start planning and compiling these lists months before any readers actually lay eyes on them. But therein lies the beauty of still being able to revert to old routines: to end the year with a proper tribute to everything it had to offer on its own.

And 2019 certainly had plenty of riches to offer, from old favorite bands delivering some of their sturdiest albums in years, to one of the strongest slates of debut talent I can remember getting in a single 365-day timeframe. Taking in the scope of a decade and all the music it gave us is a fulfilling experience; it’s certainly something I invested a lot of time in this year. But there’s also something wonderful about being past that now, and about being able to take things day by day again: week by week, release day by release day, album by album. Making lists is fun, but listening and discovering will always be the greatest parts of being a music fan. Here’s to the 25 albums that we discovered, listened to, and loved most in 2019. [CM]

Craig Manning’s Top Albums of 2019

I wrote a lot of album blurbs in 2019. If you’re reading this post, you probably already know that 1) I’m an insane person, and 2) my big writing project this year was a rundown of my 200 favorite albums of the 2010s. I concluded that project in mid-December, around the same time that everyone else in the music criticism world was sharing their “Best of 2019” lists. For a few days, I debated not even writing up a list this year. I was so emotionally exhausted after pouring so much of myself and my life into that end-of-decade piece that I just couldn’t see myself sitting down to do it all over again—albeit, on a much smaller scale. But then I started delving back into my favorite 2019 albums, albums that I maybe hadn’t spent enough time with in my race to relive a full 10 years of music. And then I started making late-year discoveries, new albums I’d overlooked that excited me greatly. Ultimately, I decided I couldn’t let a year end without the big-list ritual that I have followed every year since 2011.

I did give myself some extra leeway this time, though. Instead of going to 40 albums, as I have for the last several years, I stuck to 30. I also opened the door for late additions (and for the corresponding deletions they would require). The resulting list is not at all what I expected it would look like even two months ago. It’s a list loaded with exciting new talent and with albums that I can’t wait to spend more time with, brushing up against records I’ve already listened to hundreds of times, from artists I’ve loved for many years. I can’t say it’s my favorite end-of-the-year list that I’ve ever made, but it might be the most unexpected. I could feel my music tastes yearning to shift and grow in new directions while compiling this collection of 30 albums, which is frankly a very exciting place to start a brand-new decade. So bring on the 2020s! But first, here are my 30 favorite albums of 2019.

Chorus.fm’s Top 50 Albums of the 2010s

new-best of the decade

2020? Are you sure?

It seems like just yesterday that I was combing through the AbsolutePunk.net boards, reading the 2009 end-of-the-year lists that crowned records like Manchester Orchestra’s Mean Everything to Nothing and Thrice’s Beggars among the finest releases of the year. A lot has changed since then—in music, in our lives, and with the state of the world—but here we are again 10 years later, taking stock of another ending.

There have been a lot of endings over the past decade. Bands we loved have called it quits. Staff members who gave countless hours of their time writing for this website have moved on to other things. AbsolutePunk had its own sunset in 2016, relaunching as Chorus.fm that spring. And yet, a lot of things have lived on, too. Our love for music, certainly, is alive and well. The vibrancy of this community as a place to talk about bands and share things you love with like-minded souls has persisted, too. And some of us have been here for a very long time, watching the state of the music scene and the world at large shift from behind our keyboards, the headphones in our ears playing us the latest thing that might get our hearts racing like our old favorite records always have.

I don’t have a neat little bow to tie around the 2010s to commemorate their impending conclusion. It’s been a chaotic decade in a lot of ways. It’s certainly been the most chaotic music era on record. The way we listen to music has changed. Entire formats have shifted. Trends have sprung up and others have died. Artists have reshaped the way that music is written, recorded, packaged, released, shared, and marketed. And perhaps most importantly, there’s just been more: more music making its way into the world on a weekly basis; more ways to hear it all; more ways to discover; more ways to think about what art can do, both in our personal day-to-day lives and to the world that we live in.

Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that our list of favorite records from the 2010s is a bit chaotic in its own right. It’s a smorgasbord of genres; a kaleidoscope of emotions; a place where massive pop superstars can coexist with the bands that really feel like they are ours, the ones that have been so foundational to this community and its unique musical identity. The list is also a testament to how much opinions on music can change over time. Some of our former Album of the Year winners are missing entirely; other albums have grown in our estimation, swimming to the forefront as, we think, the foremost artistic achievements of the past decade. Ask us again in two months and we might see things differently. For now, it’s time to put our pencils down and close the book on this chapter.

To everyone who is reading, or to anyone who has played a part in the AbsolutePunk/Chorus.fm story over the past decade, we say thank you. What a long, strange trip it’s been. Here’s to another 10 years of music mending broken hearts. [CM]

Interview: Zach Lind of Jimmy Eat World

Jimmy Eat World

A week out from the release of Jimmy Eat World’s 10th full-length studio album Surviving, I spoke with drummer Zach Lind about how the band makes albums now versus 10 or 20 years ago, working with producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen, crafting a setlist with 25 years of music to choose from, and ranking the band’s beloved discography.

Review: Jimmy Eat World – Surviving

At least on the surface level, the title for Jimmy Eat World ‘s 10th full-length album feels like a proclamation. Surviving. Not many bands know quite as much about surviving as Jimmy Eat World. They’ve weathered a lot over the years: getting dropped by their first major label; being (incorrectly) considered a one-hit wonder by many; being a part of a genre and a music scene that most critics have always written off; touring with Third Eye Blind, apparently. Perhaps the most impressive thing they’ve survived is time. When I first started seriously listening to Jimmy Eat World, they’d been a band for ten years and were about to release the follow-up to their breakthrough LP. Fast-forward a decade and a half, and the band is celebrating 25 years and ten albums. They’ve kept the same four-person lineup since 1995 and have released a new album, like clockwork, every three years since 2001. And they remain as beloved today as they ever have been—a go-to “favorite band” for seemingly every person who follows them.

Review: The Menzingers – Hello Exile

The-Menzingers-Hello-Exile

The last time we heard from The Menzingers, they were fretting over getting older. “Where we gonna go now that our twenties are over?” frontman Greg Barnett asked repeatedly on “Tellin’ Lies,” the opening track from 2017’s After the Party. If that album had ended with its title track, Barnett would have had his answer (and the band could have feasibly had their happy ending). “After the party, it’s me and you.” The record proved to be a growing-up narrative that culminated in a love story—or so it seemed. But the last song on that record was actually “Livin’ Ain’t Easy,” where life was likened to a continental breakfast where they’re always out of coffee.

Hello Exile is essentially that line blown up into a widescreen, cinematic experience. The party is way past over, and so are your twenties. This time, youth and young adulthood have been replaced by the next chapter, and it’s one where things don’t seem quite as black and white as they used to. “How do I steer my early 30s?/Before I shipwreck, before I’m 40?/ Ain’t it a shame what we choose to ignore/What kind of monsters did our parents vote for?” Those are some of the first lines that Barnett sings on “America (You’re Freaking Me Out),” Hello Exile’s disillusioned opening track. A lot of this record is about trying to pretend that you’re younger than you are, or trying to get back to those golden days of youth—back when you had no cares or responsibilities. Right off the bat, though, “America” tips the record’s hand, because how can you get back to that place of innocence when the whole nation seems to be going to hell? Later, on the terrific “Strain Your Memory,” Barnett pines after a girl with a simple proposition: “Can you strain your memory back to the times/When trouble wasn’t always on our minds?” It’s a nice thought, but it’s not always that easy.

Review: Sturgill Simpson – Sound & Fury

Sturgill Sound and Fury

At the end of 2016, Sturgill Simpson managed maybe the most unlikely Grammy Album of the Year nomination of the modern era, for his third LP, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. A few months later, he lost that particular award—to Adele—but did manage to walk away with a Grammy for Best Country Album. None of those things are going to happen again, and it’s not because Sound & Fury, the long-awaited follow-up to Sailor’s Guide, isn’t great. Rather, it’s because Sound & Fury 1) isn’t a country album, and 2) is even more blatantly unmarketable than its predecessor.

In a lot of ways, Sound & Fury is an anomaly in the 2019 music world. It’s the sound of a guy who was once hailed as a country music savior—first for his trad-country debut High Top Mountain and later for the experimental, boundary-pushing Metamodern Sounds in Country Music—callously tossing that mantle in the fire. It’s also the sound of an artist who was on the cusp of superstardom—maybe not quite Chris Stapleton/arena-concert-tour level, but close—walking away from it. Finally, it’s a loud, dirty, unapologetic ‘70s-style rock album—the kind that absolutely no one makes anymore. The guitars are so loud and so prominent that they sometimes threaten to drown Sturgill’s voice out entirely. Not that he’d probably mind.

Review: Noah Gundersen – Lover

Noah Gundersen Lover

I’ve interviewed Noah Gundersen two times in the past and both conversations centered around his restlessness concerning his art. The first time I spoke with him, ahead of the release of 2015’s Carry the Ghost, he told me how his debut album, the previous year’s folk-steeped Ledges, no longer reflected who he was or the music he wanted to make. In 2017, when we chatted about his audacious, adventurous third LP White Noise, it was the songs from the spiritually fraught Ghost that he was ready to move on from. “I just think I’m perpetually dissatisfied, which can be really frustrating,” he said. “But it also drives my creativity and my desire to do better and to make things that are better than what I’ve made in the past.”

On his fourth record, titled Lover (and released on the same day as an album by Taylor Swift that shares the exact same name), Gundersen seems perhaps more comfortable with letting his restlessness slide than he ever has before. The collection is at once both unique from everything he’s ever made previously and packed with songs that call back to previous moments from his catalog. There are raw acoustic songs that feel ripped from the cloth of the traditionally-hewn Ledges. Lead single “Robin Williams,” with its fractious electric guitar chords, plays like a twin to Carry the Ghost’s first single and lead-off track “Slow Dancer.” “Out of Time” initiates flashbacks to the Radiohead influences that blossomed all over White Noise. The entire Noah Gundersen toolkit, it seems, is fair game on this album.

Review: The Dangerous Summer – Mother Nature

Expectations can mess with your mind as a music fan. We all have favorite bands, but there’s a weird sort of contradiction where those favorite bands are also the ones most likely to disappoint us. Hearing a new record from an unfamiliar artist and having it blow the doors off your mind is a wonderful kind of madness, but it’s also impossible to replicate. Loving an album means accumulating baggage with it—the baggage of years and memories and emotions entwined with the songs. When the next album from that same band comes along, it’s easy to feel let down. Even if the record is good—even if it’s great—expecting it to recapture the magic of the first time is a recipe for disappointment. Virtually every band or artist that has ever made a beloved album contends with this cycle eventually, and it’s part of the reason why most bands don’t last very long. It’s also why maybe the only thing more exciting than having that lightning bolt moment with a new band is hearing one of your favorite artists raise the bar, change the game, and shatter every expectation you had of what their music could sound like, circa right now.

Mother Nature, the fifth LP from The Dangerous Summer, is that kind of album. It takes a band that previously felt like a faded version of its glory days and breathes immense new life into their sound. It makes you excited for this band again, and for what their path might look like going forward. It creates spine-tingling moments of pure catharsis, but in a different way than this band did on their previous beloved albums, 2009’s Reach for the Sun and 2011’s War Paint. And it immediately makes reservations for whole lot of windows-down, sunny-day drives this summer. It’s the right album, at the right time, from a band a lot of people had written off or counted out. And it feels fucking great.

Review: The Dangerous Summer – Reach for the Sun

It’s funny the way that albums can mark time. How hearing the right songs at the right moment can make them sound like more than songs, or how going back to those songs after 10 or 15 or 20 years can reawaken every feeling you had when you first heard them. It’s funny, too, how the music that does those things to you might not do anything for anyone else. How something can be an incredibly meaningful and important document of your past, but just sound run-of-the-mill to someone else. Or how, if you’d heard an album a decade or a year or six months too early or too late, it might just be a footnote in your musical history rather than a symphony.

No album has ever taken me more by surprise than The Dangerous Summer ‘s Reach for the Sun. I didn’t see it coming, and I wasn’t looking for it. I had no knowledge of the band or their past work, no clue what they sounded like or what their songs might have to say about my life. I just read a rave review of the album one day on AbsolutePunk and decided to give it a shot. Ten years later, those songs still shoot shivers down my spine and choke me up, because they sound like the cusp of adulthood, and like all the friends and memories I’ve left behind in the past decade.

Reach for the Sun had remarkable timing. Its release date was May 5, 2009, just as spring was bursting into full, glorious bloom. I first heard it on May 3, in the early evening, coming out of old boombox speakers in my bedroom, with the gentle glow of the sunset streaming through my window. The day before, my sister had graduated from college. In another month, I’d graduate from high school. My parents and I had driven home, from Ann Arbor to Traverse City, that afternoon. I had a boatload of calculus homework to do and was dreading the evening. AP exams were just days away, and I needed to buckle down and focus. Certainly, I knew I needed a good soundtrack for the study session. So I downloaded this record on the recommendation of a glowing 95 percent review from Blake Solomon and loaded it onto my iPod.

Review: Maren Morris – GIRL

Maren Morris GIRL

The first time I heard Maren Morris, I knew she was a superstar.

It didn’t matter that the only music from her on Spotify was a five-song EP, or that her breakout single “My Church” was still months away from actually breaking. It only took one listen to the luxury-car-sized hook on “80s Mercedes” for me to know that Maren would eventually be all over the radio. It was only a matter of time.

Fast forward three and a half years and Maren Morris is a veritable household name. Her debut album Hero was one of the biggest crossover country LPs of the decade. She scored a number one country hit with “I Could Use a Love Song.” She guested on smashes by Thomas Rhett (a country star) and Niall Horan (a pop star), and even opened for Horan on a massive-venue tour. And then, in 2018, she did what none of her country star contemporaries this side of Taylor Swift have done: she scored a number one hit on the pop charts.

“The Middle,” a collab between Morris, record producer Zedd, and the duo Grey, was an odd coming-out party for Maren. On the one hand, her powerhouse vocal is the thing that really sells the song—which, as written, is serviceable but not great. On the other side, Morris was hitting the big time on a pop song that she hadn’t had a hand in writing—not what you’d expect from a Texas country girl who cut her teeth writing songs for other artists in Nashville.

Unsurprisingly, the song forced a debate: would Maren Morris stick around in country music, or would she follow Taylor Swift’s footsteps and pivot into pop? GIRL, her long-awaited sophomore LP, splits the difference in how it answers that question. If you’re a die-hard country fan, it probably sounds like a pop record. If you spend most of your time listening to Top 40, you’ll hear plenty of country elements in the songs—especially the first half.

The Chorus.fm Staff’s Top Albums of 2018

The Best of 2018

I don’t know how to sum up 2018. At the end of most years, it’s possible to look back and see certain themes or narratives or big ideas coming through in the music from the past 12 months. 2018 was not one of those years. Most of the industry’s biggest stars sat the year out, and music critics couldn’t agree on a consensus album of the year pick. Instead, 2018 as a music year was chaotic. It was a dozen jukeboxes playing in the same bar at the same time, one blasting a starry-eyed country album about love, the next broadcasting a rock ‘n’ roll anthem about how it would be great if the human race didn’t fuck up the chance we’ve been given to, you know, exist.

But music years like this are thrilling for their seeming lack of structure or narrative. They are chances for underdogs to fight their way to the top, or for new superstars to be born in place of the old ones. 2018 was that kind of year for music, and it was dazzling to behold. The only option was to dive headfirst into the chaos and embrace the many disparate triumphs that came along the way. This list, of our 30 favorite albums of the year, is symbolic of that leap of faith, a wildly dynamic set of records that includes callbacks to this community’s roots, monuments to how we have grown over the years, and signposts to where we are going. It’s been a pleasure to be a part of this site for another year, and to see the way we all share the music we love with one another. This list was made in that spirit, of discovery and shared passion, and I can’t think of a better way to sum up such a chaotic year.

Craig Manning’s Top Albums of 2018

I’m never sure what to write at the outset of this post. How do you sum up an entire year in a few paragraphs? It was a big year in my life, marked by a move back to my childhood hometown and a few big leaps forward in my professional life. I was busier, which left less time for discovering new music and less time for writing about it. Still, 22 of the 40 artists on the list below have never featured on a year-end list of mine in the past, and two of my top three albums are debuts. I always like knowing that there is new talent on the horizon, artists that might morph from big surprises this year to favorite artists a few years down the line. 2018 was a wonderful year for that kind of discovery.

In terms of my favorite music, I was all over the map in 2018. I leaned a little less on country than I have for the past few years, though there are still plenty of country and Americana artists on this list. Mostly, I was looking for songwriting that spoke to where I am at this current moment in my life. A lot of what resonated spoke of nostalgia and the past, a fitting theme given that I’ve been out of high school for almost 10 years now. I thought a lot about growing older in 2018, and about the shifting chapters of my life. The music, from Andrew McMahon’s “House in the Trees” to Lori McKenna’s “People Get Old” to Donovan Woods’ “Next Year,” told me that I wasn’t alone in feeling what I was feeling. As I get further from high school, I’m constantly wondering if I’ll get to a point where I’ll stop relating to music in the fiercely personal, autobiographical way that I always have. It’s a comfort to know that hearing the right song at the right time still feels as potent and poignant as it did when I was 17.

I’m rambling, as I always do at the start of these posts. So, I think I’ll stop now and let the 40 albums listed below speak for themselves.

The Miracle of ‘Springsteen on Broadway’

10 years ago this week, I fell in love with the music of Bruce Springsteen. It happened almost by coincidence: a conversation at my uncle’s 50th birthday party that shifted toward The Boss and his legendary live shows. From there, it didn’t take much to transform me from a casual Springsteen fan to a die-hard: just a drive through the winter storm from hell, my iPod, and a little song called “Thunder Road.”

A lot has happened in my life in the 10 years since. I graduated from high school, and then college. I fell in love with a girl and married her. I became a part of her family, and she a part of mine. I moved away, and then moved back home. I bought a house, sold it, and bought another one. I chased my dreams and watched them die. I lost my grandpa. I lost my first dog, and then my second one. I had my heart stolen by a little, devious, trouble-making kitten. I started a career. I even got to see Springsteen (three times) and shook his hand (once).

Review: The Killers – Day & Age

I believe “What the hell happened?” was my first reaction upon hearing Day & Age, the third album from The Killers, for the first time. This record didn’t compute for me. It was bizarre and misshapen, a mess of ideas that never coalesced into anything that made sense as a unified work of art. It sounded to me, on first listen, like a B-sides record. If The Killers hadn’t released an actual B-sides collection just a year before, I might have wondered if the band just gotten lazy and pulled out some ideas they’d shelved for earlier records. But apparently Day & Age was the statement the band really wanted to make at that time, and what an odd statement it was.

Review: Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness – Upside Down Flowers

When Andrew McMahon announced his new LP, Upside Down Flowers, he referred to the album’s producer, Butch Walker, as a “fellow traveler.” That word choice was fitting, because if one word could describe McMahon over the 20 years that have so far encompassed his career, “traveler” is it. McMahon has made a lot of types of records over the years. He’s made emo-flecked piano rock records and sunny pop-punk records. He’s made Americana-influenced road trip records and towering stadium pop records. He’s made records about California and records about New York. He made one of the ultimate records about living young and free, followed by a record about almost dying young. He’s traversed a lot of territory over the course of eight LPs and three very distinct chapters. But he’s never made a record quite like Upside Down Flowers before, a record that is, ostensibly, about a traveler looking back and taking stock of where he’s been so far.

Upside Down Flowers is the most outwardly nostalgic album that McMahon has ever made. He’s written about the past before, but never in such detail or with such a storyteller’s eye. The first song on the album is called “Teenage Rockstars,” and it’s an unabashed tribute to McMahon’s bandmates from the Something Corporate days. The second song is called “Ohio,” and it vividly recounts the drive that transplanted his family from Ohio to the west coast—right down to the band that was playing on the car stereo. Listening to these songs feels like sitting next to McMahon on a couch, flipping through a photo album of old polaroids and hearing him recount the adventures and misadventures depicted in each. It’s a kind of intimacy we haven’t heard from him before.

Review: Butch Walker – Sycamore Meadows

Few albums can put a smile on my face as quickly as Sycamore Meadows.

That’s probably an odd thing to say, since Sycamore Meadows is not, by most metrics, a happy album. Butch Walker’s fourth solo LP was birthed in part from the California wildfires that destroyed his home, most of his possessions, and the master tapes for every song he’d ever recorded up to that point. The songs catalog breakups, painful journeys of self-discovery, and the record business being irreversibly fucked. The album’s last track is a sobering piano ballad that bears one of the most emotional vocal performances Butch ever put on tape.

And yet, Sycamore Meadows still makes me smile.

Interview: Matt Nathanson Is the Most Nostalgic Guy in the Room

When Matt Nathanson started writing his new record, he had a vision. He wanted it to be political. He wanted it to be uplifting. He wanted to inspire his listeners to see a brighter future.

The songs that came out of him had other plans.

Sings His Sad Heart, the follow-up to Nathanson’s 2015 LP Show Me Your Fangs, is personal instead of political, sad instead of uplifting, and lost in thoughts about the past instead of looking forward to the future. It is a complete contradiction of the album that Nathanson wanted to make. And yet, it’s also the most at home he’s sounded on a record since 2010’s breezy Modern Love.

Then again, Nathanson has always been an artist defined by his contradictions. He’s a riotously funny and jovial live performer who makes crushingly sad records. He’s a guy who exudes confidence and charisma onstage but admits he isn’t very confident as an artist. And he’s a songwriter who’d name the happiest song on his record “Sadness.”

When I spoke to Nathanson in August, I called him “the most nostalgic guy in the room.” It’s a role I often find myself playing: the guy who digs through TimeHop every day and sends pictures and “remember this?” messages to old friends, or the guy who spends entirely too much time thinking about people he lost touch with, wondering if they ever think of him too.

Review: Jack’s Mannequin – The Glass Passenger

“Even if your voice comes back again/Maybe there’ll be no one listening.”

The morning I climbed into my car to drive myself to the first day of my last year of high school, those lyrics punched me straight in the gut. I was reeling from a broken heart, given to me by a girl who’d occupied my mind all summer long. A few months earlier, she would have been walking the same high school halls that I was driving toward that morning. But she’d graduated and was now two hours south, probably waking up for her first day of college classes. Things hadn’t worked out between us, and if I’d been smart, I would have realized three months earlier that they were never going to. I didn’t, and now I was nursing a few fresh wounds and the prospect of facing down one last year of high school without her and without all the other friends who had left this town behind. “Crashin” was the song playing on the stereo, but it was a line from Andrew McMahon’s previous album that might have been most appropriate: “Hold on/It’s gonna be a hard day.”

Review: Ruston Kelly – Dying Star

Dying Star

“I’m so glad that chapter of my life is over.”

Ruston Kelly tweeted those words out while introducing “Faceplant,” one of the (many) pre-release songs from his full-length debut album, Dying Star. They could just as easily be applied to the album as a whole, which exorcises a boatload of demons over the course of 14 beautiful, despairing songs. It’s a heavy listen: Kelly doesn’t try to glamorize his portraits of heartbreak, nor is he anything but candid about his personal struggles with addiction. Kelly overdosed in early 2016 and ended up in rehab. Later that year, he released his debut EP, called Halloween. He’s been building buzz ever since, and seems poised to explode with Dying Star. He also fell in love, getting married earlier this year to country music star Kacey Musgraves.