'Tis the season to make lists. Everyone's making a list, so we made one too. OUTSIDELEFT'S Top 20 LPs from 2019... Here's another part of the list... 15 - 11...
15. Yola - Walk Through Fire
Produced by The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, Yola's debut album brims with classic retro soul and country vibes, her sumptuous voice tinglingly Aretha-like at times.
Opener 'Faraway Look' evokes Jimmy Webb's finest achievements, with a few subtle references to MacArthur Park, (listen out for that Harpsichord, that dramatic horn section and, of course, the mention of a cake...). As her voice soars through the unfolding story you feel yourself drawn into the drama.
There are moments of personal tragedy in the lyrics, the title track is both a reflection on an actual fire that damaged her home and an abusive relationship. Yola has known hard times in her life (poverty, homelessness) the message though is one of finding hope and inner strength.
That theme of self-assertion and moving on is captured exquisitely in the stunningly soulful rendition of 'Goodbye Yellow Brick Road' that closes the record. It's one of those rare moments when someone breathes new life into a song you've always known and transforms it into something magical.
14. Leonard Cohen - Thanks for the Dance
I've always been a little sceptical of posthumously produced records. Somehow, I'm always conscious of the fact that the artist is not in the room (or any room for that matter), not able to insist that the band all try for another take, not able to scream insults at the drummer...
None of those fears are realised on 'Thanks for the Dance'. Although it was assembled from fragments of vocals and poems by Cohen's son Adam, it feels as tangibly real as its predecessor 'You Want It Darker'. It is not a postscript to that album as much as its companion piece.
On 'The Goal' Cohen suggests that that he is '...settling at last, accounts of the soul.' It is a theme than runs throughout many of the songs here. Past loves appear to be more vivid than ever before. 'Moving On' reflects on the small details of a person who is no longer there. However, it's the lover’s reflection and final acceptance of what has passed on the title track that is the most heart-rending moment here. The presence of Jennifer Warnes on backing vocals recreates a familiar and unbearably poignant touch.
'Thanks for the Dance' concludes with the short poem 'Listen to the Hummingbird' - and Cohen's final meditations ('Listen to the mind of God, don't listen to me). A profound end to an evocative and touching album.
13. I Found a Place - Bonnie 'Prince' Billy
Will Oldham’s first album as Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s in eight years (he’s been busy with other projects), begins with a delirious swirl of plucked guitars, banjos and clarinets. ‘New Memory Box’ is a warm welcome, indicating that a transformation is on its way ‘…no more to be lonely, no more to feel small’ he observes. Will’s life has changed (marriage, children), and he appears to be in a good place.
That sense of belonging, of feeling solace in a loved one, continues with the sweet contemplation of ‘Dream Awhile’. Elsewhere, ‘Look Backward on Your Future, Look Forward to Your Past’ is such a remarkably simple acoustic number that you’re left wondering if it hasn’t existed since time in memoriam if it wasn’t for the fact that the protagonist seems to have stumbled out of Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska’
Oldham’s knack for creating perplexing similes and metaphors is delightfully indulged on the single ‘Squid Eye’ (…baby I’ll dive right in as if I were Aquaman’s kid/ I could be Ariel’s kin, Cuz I’ve got the eye for the squid). Oh, and don’t try and look for clues by following the official lyric video, you will feel extremely ill afterwards.
However, it’s the hushed strumming and prophetic lyrics of ‘This is Far From Over’ that is the most emotional offering here (‘Though half of life has gone for good and we haven’t acted as we should…’ and that’s just the opening line). He’s trying to offer advise to future generations in a complex and deteriorating world. Trying to navigate a way through the mess.
‘I Found a Place’ sees Bonnie 'Prince' Billy finding joy in life but being aware of the darkness in the shadows. Listen closely.
12. billy woods + Kenny Segal - Hiding Places
billy woods actually released two truly great collections this year. Stylistically lowly-lo-fi mesmerising and sonically minimal both. We kind of plumped for ‘Hiding Places’ since we can't include both that and ‘Terror Management’, they won't fit into the list. But we can talk about ‘Terror Management’. The outstanding ‘Western Education Is Forbidden’ is a must hear. Scary and funny and scary.
‘Hiding Places’ is a billy woods' collab with LA based producer Kenny Segal and sonically it seeks the bottom rung. A lot of things happen on this record that you've rarely heard before. I'd say so much happens that only Kenny Segal can hear. Beginning with Spongebob... amazing. billy woods’ rhymes are intricate and, of course, no matter what's going on around him it's his charisma that pours from the grooves. I want to mention JPEGMAFIA as a kind of lo-fi contemporary maybe, making me think while rap owns most everything on the High Street, the left field has much to be admired.
11. Esther Rose – You Made it this Far
Earlier this year, Outsideleft scribe Ancient Champion greeted the prospect of a new album by Esther Rose with the following rhapsody:
‘When Esther Rose sings…the sound you hear is the frisson you felt when you first heard the likes of Laura Cantrell, Telisha Williams of the Wild Ponies, Lucinda Williams and, way back when country greats, like Patsy Cline. Hearing Esther Rose is like hearing those voices for the first time, every time’.
When her second album - ‘You Made It This Far’ was released, it lived up to all our expectations. And then some. A delicately strummed acoustic introduces us to ‘Always Changing’, a touching soundtrack for Rose’s plaintive ruminations ‘...I ain’t afraid of pain, it’s alright, what’s her name?’ and then the sadness of a sympathetic slide guitar guides her through her lonely thoughts as she watches lovers in public and wonders about how happy their lives truly are.
There’s fine fiddle playing on the gorgeous ‘Sex & Magic’ as well as the irresistible twang of ‘Handyman’ but it’s the quieter moments that really shine. ‘You Made it this Far’ concludes as it began with just an acoustic guitar and the heart shuddering honesty of Roses voice on ‘Don’t Blame it on the Moon’. As opening lines go ‘I hope you’re worth all this heartache/she said, outside the bar at 2am…’ may be one of the most piercingly direct that I’ve heard in a very, very long time. A classic.
Jason Lewis is a Birmingham based music, movie and arts obsessive. Jason's encyclopedic knowledge of 80s/90s Arts films is a debt to his embedded status in the Triangle Arts Centre trenches back then.