It almost never fails.

When my spirit is bruised and beaten by the world, or — more likely — dragged down by the foolishness of my doubts and the feebleness of my faith, if I reach for my faithful iPod and press “Play” on my playlist of five-star songs, I am saved by beauty, by creativity, by truth.

I am as thirsty for music during these dark days as I am for bright rays of sun through Seattle’s infamous malaise. It seems that my desire to hear new songs grows greater as I grow older.

I have no favorite genre: I’m drawn to whatever feels challenging, whatever is characterized by a spirit of discovery, whatever has an energy that suggests the artist is leaning into ideas that they can’t sufficiently express. As the world seems tired, out of ideas, and maddeningly prone to repeating the worst mistakes of history, great music reminds me that there are, as Hamlet said to Horatio, “more things [at work] in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.” And so great songs, whether they’re about glory or trouble, give me hope.

I gave substantial attention to more than 60 albums this year — not as many as last year, due to the fact that I taught more than full-time hours and often worked 14- to 16-hour days on the University campus. It’s hard to concentrate on great songs when you’re looking at a stack of 80 five-page essays that need to be thoroughly marked up within 48 hours. My commute becomes, as a result, the best time for immersing myself in new sounds and for singing the poetry of great lyricists.

If you’re new to reading my lists, here’s what you should know:

Since I was 13 years old, I’ve concluded my year by producing a package of recommendations — mix tapes, at first, and now playlists and blog posts. When I was a child, full of pride and ambition, I called these lists “The Best of….” Now that I know a little more about art, I know that while we can say a few things here and there about excellence, our experiences with art are extremely subjective and personal, and that our relationships with each work changes over time in regard to our experience, our understanding, our beliefs, our questions, our preferences, our fears, and our social and historical context. So I wouldn’t dare to presume and say what the “best” movies or albums of the year are. I’ve yet to meet anyone who can reliably make such a judgment. But I’m happy to share testimonies about the works that have inspired and rewarded my attention during this twelve-month span.

As always, I’m grateful to the Looking Closer Specialists — particularly Laure Hittle and Timothy Grant, two generous donors who faithfully make this website possible. Their generosity and those who make smaller donations along the way keep this site alive and enable me to continue my adventures in the wide, wild world of music and movies.

Here, I’m sharing a long list of “Honorable Mentions” — albums I played frequently and found rewarding. I highly recommend them all, and I suspect that I will grow more attached to some of them as I find more time to appreciate them. But these are just the “Honorable Mentions.” In my next post, I’ll count down my 25 Favorite Recordings of 2019.

Irresistible New Sounds

Three of the most exciting new sounds booming through my car stereo wove snippets of conversation and clips from other media to spice up their mix. But they couldn’t be more different as aural experiences.

If you’ve heard the bands Alabama Shakes or Thunderbitch, then Brittany Howard needs no introduction. But this is her first solo record, and it feels like an introduction, or at least a full realization of just how much Howard has to offer. This is a record fusing hip-hop, funk, and jazz with soul that recalls James Brown, rock-and-roll that recalls Prince, and gospel that has something to teach the Church. Named for Howard’s sister Jaime, who died while only a teenager of retinoblastoma, Jaime resonates with more passion than its often-fleeting tracks can contain. If anything, I wish the album was longer, and that the songs were longer and more exploratory.

Brittany Howard


Billie Eilish

When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?

If you lived on Planet Earth in 2019, then Billie Eilish probably needs no introduction either. Her music was ubiquitous. It was the best thing, in my opinion, about the two movie trailers it energized. But Eilish can’t successfully play as background to anything; she’s the main event. She’s very young, and her lyrics sound like the poetry of a pushy high-school kid — but that’s not a complaint; it’s part of her charm. And the music, produced by her brother Finneas, is relentlessly surprising in hit plays against the conventions of mainstream pop. In a world of noise, a hush attracts attention, and she knows how to work it. I hope she’s surrounded by good people; I want to see her grow up to write songs as surprising in their lyrics as they are in their irresistibly surprising sounds. Whenever her songs come on, I can’t interrupt them.


Saints and Sebastian Stories

This was one of 2019’s biggest surprises. My friend Carl-Eric Tangen, who built my website and serves generously to keep it running smoothly, also works as a music promoter, and he came to me with this record full of genuine enthusiasm. I’ve learned to trust him, and that trust sure paid off here: This Norwegian folk-pop duo — Jenny Marie Sabel and Eirik Vildgren — has a unique sound and a shared imagination that makes things feel deeply personal. For a sense of what you’re in for, read this review at Pitchfork:

With the creativity of a bedroom recording and the polish of studio production, these 13 songs often feel like sketches. Found sounds and samples create a sense of familiarity, even when the music meanders. “Dice,” the first song Sabel and Vildgren made together, swaps out traditional percussion for the sounds of cutlery and clinking dishes. “Television Land” arrives with a bizarre prelude from a family friend (both the friend and the track are dubbed “Big Bruce”) before interpolating Bette Midler’s classic “The Rose,” referencing the Brad Pitt baseball drama Moneyball, and incorporating a surprisingly jazzy groove into its climax. The left-field references complement the music’s found-art aesthetic without really clarifying anything.

Original Soundtracks Overlooked as Albums

Music Inspired by the Motion Picture Roma

Two playlist-style soundtrack albums captured and held my attention time and time again this year. One barely registered with critics, as far as I noticed. The other was a blockbuster, and yet the conversation about it had more to do with the dissatisfying movie for which it served as merchandising, and that’s a shame — it was a pretty great collection of wildly imaginative tracks.

I wasn’t the biggest fan of last year’s critically acclaimed film Roma from Alfonso Cuarón. It was visually impressive, deeply personal, and often moving, but almost every scene distracted me with its formal ambitions and I wasn’t drawn in to the point of believing what I was seeing. This collection of songs, on the other hand — overseen by legendary producer T Bone Burnett — is loaded with tracks that would have been standouts on any of these artists’ solo releases. It features Patti Smith (reimagining an early song), Beck, Laura Marling, Ibeyi, and the year’s breakout pop superstar Billie Eilish. Why isn’t this showing up on any other favorites lists?

And then there’s Beyoncé, who makes headlines whenever she shows up at anything.

And she deserved headlines for her contribution to the critically maligned remake of The Lion King that was described as the “live-action” version. (Give me a break.) It wasn’t her voice for an animated character that mattered — it’s that she hosted a musical party that deserved much higher marks than the movie it supported.

As with last year’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, here’s a hip-hop hullaballoo that is suitable for all ages and that stirs up genuine excitement. There are strong threads of gospel in this weave of styles and melodies. Listen closely.


The Lion King: The Gift


I can’t say I fully grasp what’s happening in these records yet. I haven’t moved beyond the enchantment of their music to wrestle with their often cryptic lyrics yet. But the sounds were substantial enough to make these two records major events as I drove through grey Seattle days.

Weyes Blood

Titanic Rising

Speaking to Pitchfork, Natalie Mering says, “I want to make sure everybody feels like they deserve to be alive. I hope you could have a smile during the apocalypse.” As Weyes Blood, on the album Titanic Rising, she taps deeply into a David Lynchian dreamscape of sound, giving voice to longing and vision in fantastical musical and lyrical vocabularies. The one that connects with me most immediately is “Movies” (of course). But then there’s “Nearer to Thee,” a reference to the hymn that the musicians on the Titanic played as it sank, which best clarifies the needle-drawn thread of dread and darkness that runs from song to song.

James Blake

Assume Form

I seem to remember that NPR’s Bob Boilen, a few years ago, described James Blake as “the future.” That certainly seemed possible when I heard his breakout single “Retrograde” in 2013, a song that still feels fresh and innovative. But now we have an album that lives up to the potential of that track — song for song on Assume Form, this “forlorn balladeer” strikes a perfect balance of inspired playfulness and aching sincerity. I can’t decide if my attention should be on the cryptic (and sometimes clunky) lyrics or on the relentlessly experimental sounds, but more often than not the latter wins out.

My favorite track is the last one because I spent a lot of my 2019 keeping my wife company through difficult years of insomnia. Blake’s voice rang true here as a voice of experience.

Exhilarating Original Scores for the Last Days

Here’s a band that played as if their lives — as if all of our lives —· depended on it. I turned this up, perhaps a little too loud, perhaps a little too often. Don’t ask me to describe their sound — just dive in and be amazed.

And just as my ears stop ringing, I learn that they’ve released a follow-up. Already! I haven’t even listened to it yet!

The Comet is Coming

Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery

Favorite Bands Restlessly Expanding Their Sound

Both The National and Sleater Kinney showed a sense of ambition and adventure this year, expanding their palette and refusing to rest on familiar sounds.

Sleater Kinney’s record is full of raw and righteous anger, just as we’ve come to expect. And in their lyrics, they’re partying like it’s 2099. But the record, for all of its thrills and highlights, seems so heavily influenced by St. Vincent, who produced it, that it feels a bit too familiar. (I love Annie Clark’s music, but Sleater-Kinney were strong enough as they were. I’m all for evolution, but they didn’t need to accessorize with so much of St. Vincent’s sound.)

The National, by contrast, come up with some of their most surprising innovations and, for me, some of their most affecting lyrics. At this point, it’s my favorite of the two sonic upgrades. I rarely hear “Not in Kansas” without singing along, and I inevitably tear up when they veer into singing the chorus of R.E.M.’s “The Flowers of Guatemala,” one of the most important songs to me of my college years.

Also worth mentioning: Director Mike Mills (Beginners, 20th Century Women) made a short film to accompany the release, and it starts Alicia Vikander.

The National

I Am Easy to Find


The Center Won’t Hold

Acts of Gratitude

There were quite a few records made in tribute to giants of art and culture this year. One tribute album of covers was such a great idea, it’s amazing it hasn’t been done before. The other two featured formidable African American artists honoring giants who have influenced them. I can sing along and savor the first; the second and third demand my full attention, both in the imagination of the music and the layered allusions and references of the lyrics.

Come On Up to the House: Women Sing Waits

Jamila Woods





Essential Sounds From Around the Globe

I graded a lot of essays while listening to these records. The language barrier is a problem I can’t easily solve, but the beauty of the voices and musicianship make these extravagant soundtracks that lift my spirits and make long hours at the laptop into medicine for the heart.

The Good Ones

Rwanda, You Should Be Loved



Steady Hands

These artists remain favorites over many albums. And while these records may not have floored me like some of their previous releases, they were strong enough for me to keep them in steady rotation. And their high points are very high indeed.

The louder I play Wilco’s new record, the more I find to admire. What sounded simplistic and quiet at first blooms into deep complexity when you crank it up.

Beck’s record feels like the midpoint of Sea Change and Midnight Vultures, and thus a record made to mark some time while he looks for something new and surprising — but I’d be lying if I denied being grateful whenever it comes on.


Ode to Joy



For the Love of Guitars

Steve Gunn

The Unseen in Between

Bruce Cockburn

Crowing Ignites

A Voice from the Great Beyond

Let’s wrap this up with something special. While this album is too short to register as one of my 25 favorites of 2019, it’s an extraordinary surprise: an album of new songs — unreleased recordings! — by Leonard Cohen. And if that weren’t a big enough surprise, get this: It isn’t just the lyrics, which are astonishing. It’s the music. While the music on many of the last Cohen records served as little more than scaffolding for his voice, the music here is good enough to make you wish that his past records might be reinvented with his voice being set to new arrangements by all-star lineups of musicians.

For the full story on this release, check out NPR’s interview with Adam Cohen (Leonard’s son).

Leonard Cohen

Thanks for the Dance