As we approach the midway point of 2019, it’s time to reflect on what the best music of the calendar year has been thus far.
At this point, The Musical Divide has reviewed over 50 albums and EPs this year, with many of them finding a spot on this list. As far as quality is concerned, 2019 has been an odd year, mostly because of the enormous amounts of debut projects and/or artists who didn’t really cross any critical radars prior to this year. Sure, there have also been veteran artists who have slightly let me down, but it’s always nice to be caught off guard by fresh new talent. The year seems a bit stronger than average thus far, but the pure volume of projects released does seem lower than usual, perhaps an unfortunate sign of the demise of the album concept. Thankfully, the second half of the year already looks to feature some potentially exciting projects.
In order to qualify for this list, the albums and songs listed here have to have proper reviews on this website. Just because something hasn’t been reviewed or featured doesn’t immediately indicate a lack of interest, either. After all, there are still six months left in the year to cover whatever needs covered.
Also, keep in mind that initial ratings given to albums in their reviews are not necessarily indicative of what I think of them today. Thoughts and opinions can change with time, and this list slightly reflects that.
As for the structure, I’ve ranked my 12 favorite albums of the year thus far, dispersing my favorite songs from albums that didn’t make the list at various points along the way. Remember, too, The Musical Divide is constantly updating a list of favorite albums and songs throughout the year here.
Before we begin with the albums, let’s take a look at the first batch of songs from albums that just missed the cut for this list:
- John Paul White – “James” (from The Hurting Kind)
- Caroline Spence – “‘Til You Find One” (from Mint Condition)
- Alice Wallace – “Echo Canyon” (from Into The Blue)
- Vandoliers – “Cigarettes In The Rain” (from Forever)
On with the albums, starting with ,,,
12. Country and soul music haven’t sounded this good together in quite some time:
Yola – Walk Through Fire
Best Songs: “Ride Out In The Country,” “Lonely The Night,” “Faraway Look”
The first of many debut albums on this list, Yola’s Walk Through Fire is likely the best one in raw form. Yola’s powerhouse performances are essentially what make this album what it is, but the addition of strong hooks, catchy melodies and the sweet, ‘60s production to back it all up certainly doesn’t hurt. There’s a cool confidence to this album that makes it sound relaxed and natural, and it’s certainly one of the most pleasing albums to listen to on this list.
11. I’d still say this is this next singer’s weakest album to date, but as a testament to how great it still is, it made this list:
Robert Ellis – Texas Piano Man
Best Songs: “Father,” “Lullaby,” “Passive Aggressive”
Considering Robert Ellis released his newest album on Valentine’s Day, you’d think it’d be a sweet, tender affair. Instead, Ellis’s warped, almost philosophical style of writing rips away the veneer to establish an album that only grows more darker and depressing as it wears on. No, this isn’t out of the ordinary for an Ellis album, but he continues to captivate the listener with melancholy melodies and strong showmanship. My biggest complaint still, however, is asking why “Topo Chico” is on here at all.
10. To be honest, when I initially reviewed this next album, I expected it to cool on me as the year progressed. Instead, it only grew on me with every listen:
Flatland Cavalry – Homeland Insecurity
Best Songs: “Come Back Down,” “Ashes,” “Pretty Women”
It’s rare that you come across an album with both style and substance, but Flatland Cavalry succeed on Homeland Insecurity. Honestly, it’s the one album here where I find a new lyrical gold nugget I hadn’t noticed before every time I give it another listen. The quintessential Texas sound gives it a warm, comforting atmosphere while still managing to gut you all the same with something like “Pretty Women.” It’s an album mostly centered around anxiety and insecurities (as you could guess from the title), but as far as their music career is concerned, Flatland Cavalry have nothing to worry about.
And now, here’s the next batch of songs from albums that didn’t quite make the cut:
- Gabe Lee – “Last Country Song” (from farmland)
- Ryan Bingham – “Wolves” (from American Love Song)
- Molly Tuttle – “When You’re Ready” (from When You’re Ready)
- Emily Scott Robinson – “Delta Line” (from Traveling Mercies)
9. We haven’t had a crunchy, swaggering outlaw-style country album like this in quite some time, and it’s most definitely welcome to the format:
Ben Jarrell – Troubled Times
Best Songs: “Daddy’s Prison Radio,” “Big Iron Train,” “Troubled Times In A Tribal Town”
Ben Jarrell’s Troubled Times is simply a well-balanced effort filled with heartbreaking stone cold country songs (“Daddy’s Prison Radio”), songs with big, crunchy, swaggering attidues (“Big Iron Train”), and songs about well … conspiracy theories in “Black Helicopters” because why not? Producer Preston Tate White helps to give this album a nice modern crunch with the instrumental tones to keep it from being a pure throwback ripoff, and I’ll say it again – I’d love to see more artists or bands use the final track of their album to essentially list off their liner notes. Troubled Times, all-in-all, is likely one of the funnest projects in quite some time.
8. Up next, a smart, accessible, modern country album that’s lived criminally under the radar:
Lauren Jenkins – No Saint
Best Songs: “No Saint,” “Give Up The Ghost,” “Blood”
While country music has shifted back to a more organic presentation with the rise of certain artists, we’re not getting a full neotraditional revival anytime soon. What if, however, there was a project that could bridge the gap between history and modern professionalism? Lauren Jenkins’s No Saint is one of the best pop-country albums in recent memory, with Jenkins being an insanely talented vocalist in her own right. Her smokier delivery compliment the darker tones of the album quite well, and for a mainstream country album, it’s amazing how deep songs like the title track and “Blood” hit. Still, with its modern touches in the production and melodies, it provides something that’s both accessible and well-written. In other words, it’s the kind of music that should definitely find a wider audience.
And now, another batch!
- Randy Houser – “Evangeline” (from Magnolia)
- Cody Johnson – “Monday Morning Merle” (from Ain’t Nothin’ To It)
- George Strait – “Some Nights” (from Honky Tonk Time Machine)
- Dee White – “Rose Of Alabam” (from Southern Gentleman)
- Jake Owen – “River Of Time” (from Greetings from … Jake)
7. Midnight Motel is the album (seemingly) everyone swears is this next singer’s best album. I’d have to disagree, and my argument is this next album:
Jack Ingram – Ridin’ High … again
Best Songs: “Shooting Stars,” “The Sailor & The Sea,” “Desperadoes Waiting For A Train”
I understand the criticisms for Jack Ingram’s latest album – it runs long, it’s lacking the same spark of Midnight Motel, and it’s absolutely loaded with cover songs – I just don’t agree with them. More so than ever, Ingram sounds like he’s having a blast with these songs, showing how simply having charisma can make an album filled with covers not such a bad thing. Still, there’s an original cut here called “The Sailor & The Sea” that’s reason enough to seek out this album. More than that, however, Ingram is redefining the album listening experience, trading in any attempts to polish where it goes wrong in favor of releasing an album that just sounds fun, natural, and most importantly, like an Ingram album.
6. She claimed this would be her most country album yet, but an even better statement would be to call it one of her best albums yet:
Reba McEntire – Stronger Than The Truth
Best Songs: “The Clown,” “The Bar’s Getting Lower,” “Cactus In A Coffee Can”
Ironically, while the sonics of Stronger Than The Truth are certainly different from recent previous Reba McEntire affairs, the underlying core elements of what’s made her music stand the test of time are still here. Stronger Than The Truth goes for drama and songs filled with emotional stakes, just as McEntire’s best songs do. This time around, however. Between the title track, “The Clown,” and “The Bar’s Getting Lower,” McEntire has crafted some of her best songs right here on this record. Sure, her legacy is secured, and she could have put out whatever else she wanted to for the rest of her career. But Stronger Than The Truth is the work of a legend still in their prime focusing on delivering her best music possible.
5. In terms of well-crafted albums and excellent sequencing, this album is fairly hard to beat:
Austin Meade – Waves
Best Songs: “Waves,” “Mountain Past,” “Pay Phone”
I’ve used adjectives like “fun” and “comforting” to describe many albums on this list, but I can’t necessarily say the same for Austin Meade’s Waves. Right from the get-go with a track like “Pay Phone” establishing a Breaking Bad-esque narrative, this album is heavy. It’s also an album where Meade finally feels comfortable as an artist, bridging a gap between country and rock with songs that lean into their burnished tones. It’s an album that constantly feels like it’s on the edge of burning out, and the songs only get better as they go along, ending on that final cathartic note with the title track where everything comes to blows. In terms of its mood, Waves, ironically, may be the best fitting album for the year thus far.
Finally, here’s the last batch of songs:
- Charlie Marie – “Rhinestones” (from her second self-titled EP)
- Farewell Angelina – “Ghosts” (from Women & Wine)
- Hayes Carll – “Be There” (from What It Is)
- Kylie Rae Harris – “Twenty Years From Now” (from her self-titled EP)
- Infamous Stringdusters – “Planets” (from Rise Sun)
4. There hasn’t quite been something this trippy and creative this year like this next album:
Rod Melancon – Pinkville
Best Songs: “The Heartbreakers,” “Westgate,” “Cobra”
Rod Melancon albums continue to be strange affairs, but that’s what makes them so great. Pinkville deals with the usual topics you’d except from him – psychological destruction, murder, crime and all sorts of other fun topics. The difference between Pinkville and other past Melancon projects, however, is its consistency. There’s a razor-sharp focus to what Melancon establishes here, with moments of (his version of) levity in between like the Tom Petty tribute of “The Heartbreakers” never distracting from its story. In terms of the instrumentation and production, it’s also his most exciting project to date, settling all in with its darker tones to craft songs that sound exactly the way they should (“Rehabilitation,” for example sounds about as hazy and psyched out as you’d hope it’d be). It’s trippy, it’s non-conformist, and it’s Rod Melancon – again, it’s just the way it should be.
3. This isn’t just a southern-rock album, it’s an excellent tribute to the entire movement:
The Steel Woods – Old News
Best Songs: “Rock That Says My Name,” “Without You,” “Southern Accents”
Jack Ingram isn’t the only one facing criticism for including an insane amount of cover songs on his latest project. When it comes to the Steel Woods and Old News, however, that’s largely the point. Old News is a southern-rock tour de force that manages to salute fallen idols in both rock and country while also showing the Steel Woods improving in every single way. The lyricism pulls from the same southern-Gothic style of their debut album, but it feels more focused, with songs like “Wherever You Are” and “Without You” being some of the most well-written songs of the year. The performances are more electrifying, the production is darker and grittier, and despite the album’s length, it never feels like it’s wasting a single moment. Plus, the band even throws in a little Easter egg to their fans by framing “Anna Lee” as the prelude to “Della Jane’s Heart” from their last album. This, by and large, is an actual album.
2. Ranking these next two albums was incredibly difficult. Apart from one song on each album, they’re pretty much perfect, and strangely enough, they’re both formed around conversations regarding their respective land:
Ian Noe – Between The Country
Best Songs: “Letter To Madeline,” “Between The Country,” “Dead On The River (Rolling Down)”
I’m certainly not the only critic singing praises for Ian Noe, and there’s a good reason for that. Sure, the folk styling and comparisons to Townes Van Zandt and Bob Dylan certainly help to attract attention, but what makes people stay for the show, so to speak, is Noe’s brutally good lyricism. Dark, bleak, and depressing only really begin to scratch the surface of it all, and Noe is the kind of writer who will place his listeners in the scene with him to watch every event unfold. Dave Cobb mostly stays out of the way when it comes to the production here, lending all the space needed for Noe’s straightforward, menacing tone and stories about desperate characters barely surviving.
1. For those who’ve been following this blog since the start of the year, you know what’s coming next:
Charles Wesley Godwin – Seneca
Best Songs: “Here In Eden,” “Seneca Creek,” “Windmill (Keep On Turning)”
Every time I listen to Charles Wesley Godwin’s Seneca, I’m in awe that it’s his first album. What’s continuously kept Godwin’s album appealing and among the best of the year is its scope. The situations are often framed in early 20th century folklore, but the album sounds exactly like an album of this magnitude should sound like in 2019. Far from a throwback act, whereas other artists often show their influences through their work, Godwin stands in a league of his own. Whether it’s the sound of a crow at just the right moment on “Seneca Creek,” the cry of those horns at the climax of “The Last Bite,” or the lonesome echo of “Sorry For The Wait,” every moment here feels perfectly crafted and intentional. And capturing that atmosphere is important given the album’s focus on Godwin’s native West Virginian land. In some ways it’s an honorable tribute to his ancestors, and at other points it’s honor out of fear of what disrespecting the land can do to a person. At any rate, the tone is always reverent, and the focus paints the picture of a huge open world that many of us don’t know firsthand. Yet Godwin invites us into his world, if even for just a little while, inviting us to draw our own interpretations. And as for mine, at this point in the year, Charles Wesley Godwin’s Seneca is the best album of 2019.