Which is quite lucky for her really – everyone else has probably noticed that 2019 has been one of those years destined to go down in history as interesting – and we all know the value of interesting times. Obviously 2019 will go down as the year of almost continual elections, it’s also the year that proves that we can’t laugh at the USA for Trump anymore. I could make a list of every error, missed opportunity and decision to shoot ourselves in the foot – but really there’s no point is there? Hard times, they say, bring forth good music – not everyone may see that as a positive trade-off, but there’s certainly been some amazing music through 2019. I’ve even managed to hear some of it. So this is a personal view, will very much reflect what I’ve heard and seen and is liable to ridicule by myself mere days after it gets published. Except for The Delines – if 2019 has had one true saving grace then it is the return of The Delines. There’ll be three lists soon – top 10 songs, top 10 albums, top 10 gigs – and The Delines will feature in all three, but thanks to restraint only once per list. Ridiculous, I know. I may have to cheat, just a little.
What a year of gigs – and some of the finest performances and nights aren’t in the gig list below because they were during the three nights of the AmericanaFest – two nights of band showcases and a celebratory awards night all in the freezing cold but beating heart of Americana that is downtown Hackney. It’s the close proximity of so many venues that are just the right size that has made Hackney the otherwise perhaps unlikely host to this ever more important musical event. So many bands and artists – impossible to see them all. Some duff, some good and enough of the superbs to make it a memorable event. The Hanging Stars gave an epic set, John Oates was surprisingly good and engaging with a rootsy take on country-blues, Carson McHone was great and Birds of Chicago melted away both the cold and all cynicism with a perfect set.
And it has been a year of legends – Graham Nash at the Americana Awards, Tom Paxton at Cadogan Hall amazingly still touring and wowing the audience even with a voice ragged with a cold, and Van Morrison was a star turn at the celebration of 65 Years of Rock Island Line and the British skiffle boom led by Lonnie Donegan. Out at The Stables there was the chance to catch Al Stewart with a full band, and also the underrated Rutles who, for a spoof band, wrote some of The Beatles best songs. And talking of legends, the return of The Paisley Underground in the form of albums and tours from both The Long Ryders and The Dream Syndicate, as well as the celebratory collection ‘3 x 4‘ (featuring The Bangles, The Three O’Clock, The Dream Syndicate, and Rain Parade) was something to celebrate.
As ever there was an endless stream of albums – who would say “too many”? But yes it’s hard to keep up with it all. Poor me. So the list below has deliberately excluded such fine releases as Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review box set, and The Grateful Dead’s almost endless complete Giant Stadium box. There are a few that are bubbling under – Judy Collins’ ‘Winter Stories‘, with Jonas Fjeld and Chatham County Line was a surprising gift of a beautiful seasonal collection, whilst Mavis Staples was righteous on ‘We get by’. The new album ‘Compass‘ from Norrie McCulloch was most welcome, as was the second album from Canada’s Jen & John – perfect folk revival songwriting and delivery. Another notable second album came from Lydia Ramsey. And if Sturgill Simpson is an odd omission from the album list then that’s more due to not having really given it enough time yet than any concerns about the injection of synthesizers into his mix. Who else? Well, Jason Tyler Burton presented a rock-solid album of great stories on his ‘Kentuckian‘, then there’s Steve Earle, and the multi-artist celebration of Topic at 80 featuring re-imagined well-known songs in a compelling way. I could go on, but time is brief.
Wake up to this
Are these the finest ten songs of 2019? Well, right now they are. Tomorrow? Who knows?
1. Holly The Hustle – The Delines. pure Willy Vlautin from the first line “Her dad bred quarter horses that would never win”, and
Amy Boone’s vocal is just perfect for the delivery.
2. The Torch Committee – Josh Ritter. ‘Fever Breaks’ had several angry songs about the direction that the USA is taking – this was the most disturbing of all.
3. Psychedelic Country Soul – The Long Ryders. It’s been a great year for Paisley Underground adherents, and the Long Ryders presented here their manifesto for music.
4. Listen – Jim Lauderdale. A perfectly understated put down to those who think they are always right. Who could he be thinking of?
5. Eyes for You – Lydia Ramsey. Seventies Laurel Canyon influenced rock with beautiful vocals.
6. You’re Not Alone – Our Native Daughters. On which Allison Russell proves it is possible to sing about your family without it being sickly sweet. How she does it we do not know, but she does.
7. A Man Of No Distinction – Harrison Clock. the stand out song on the album ‘Winesburg‘, it has it all – literary allusion, a great vocal and a rolling irresistible folk-rock backing.
8. Put Some Miles On – The Dream Syndicate. Another perfect piece of Paisley Underground powering rock.
9. The Rocky Road to Dublin – Dervish featuring Brendon Gleeson. Managing to take a song as old as the hills and recorded almost as a many times and make it interesting again.
10. West 4th Street and Jones – Ralph McTell. A lovely little nod to Dylan and Suze and other loves that fell apart.
It’s over the length of an album, though, that true merit can be revealed.
1. The Imperial – The Delines. Literate luscious descriptions of lives cinematically falling apart. Perfection.
2. The Question – Anna Tivel. Anna Tivel can’t put a foot wrong – her songs hit home with an emotional punch.
3. Psychedelic Country Soul – The Long Ryders. Really? Do I have to justify the recorded return of the swaggering majesty of guitar rock that is The Long Ryders? I do not.
4. These Times – The Dream Syndicate. Been quite a year for the Dream Syndicate – and this is a typically powerful and edgy Steve Wynn song.
5. Fever Breaks – Josh Ritter. Josh Ritter delivered one of his finest albums, look back at his career and see what a big statement that is.
6. Undress – The Felice Brothers. On which the Felice Brothers engage head-on with the politics of their homeland.
7. Me and the Ghost of Charlemagne – Amy Speace. A real standout example of perfection in songwriting.
8. Espanola – Espanola. Swaggering power pop from the first moment.
9. Songs of Our Native Daughters – Our Native Daughters. It’s been a good year for banjo music, and this collaboration served up endless riches.
10. Molten Rock – VanWyck. The new album from VanWyck shows a happier frame of mind on the surface, but there are deep undercurrents.
There he wandered long in a dream of music…
Really there were so many great gigs this year that it seems heartless to leave some out. But rules are rules.
1. The Delines. In February at the Portland Arms in Cambridge they were astonishing – and at The Stables Wavendon months later they
were superbly elegant.
2. Josh Ritter, Union Chapel, London With a great album to showcase and making full use of what the Union Chapel offers Josh Ritter raised the rafters.
3. Tom Russell – 100 Club, London. Tom Russell had ‘October in the Railroad Earth‘ to showcase – but he crammed in as much earlier material as he could, god damn it.
4. Jesse Malin – 100 Club, London. Simply rocked the room like a man half his age.
5. Mavis Staples – The Roundhouse, London. Mavis Staples’ 4th of July message was one of hope and inclusion. We need that right now, don’t we ?
6. Pharis and Jason Romero, Kings Place. Somehow transformed the bare large meeting room of Kings Place 2 into an intimate gig of guitar and banjo perfection.
7. Dylan LeBlanc – Omeara, London. The latest songs from Dylan LeBlanc play up a rockier side that his earlier singer-songwriter material barely hinted at. Soaring guitar breaks were the order of the day.
8. Israel Nash – Oslo, London. January was lit up by Israel Nash’s superb take on dreamily wasted rock – impressive and then some.
9. Topic at 80 – Barbican, London. Portmanteau gigs can often feel bitty – not this one as folk star after folk star paid tribute to the longest running independent record label – and also baldy stated that folk is about the future, not the past..
10. Erin Rae – The Lexington, London. A dream of a gig with the Erin Rae’s own music sitting perfectly alongside a gem of a cover of Gene Clark’s ‘Some Misunderstanding‘.