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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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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