The trouble with sitting down to compile a list of the best “indie rock” albums of the year, is that it is incredibly difficult to say what constituted “indie rock” in 2019 definitively. Naturally, you’d assume it’s a handy label for indie guitar bands who stick to writing indie guitar songs. The trouble is that few artists were doing that this year. In 2019 “indie rock” felt more like a guitar-led free for all with artists drawing from an ever-widening musical well. So here we have albums that blend in everything from synthpop to post-punk, to folk and even to hardcore to the point where the parameters of genre simply melted away.
There lies the joy in lists like this one. Choosing the albums involved a good deal of second-guessing and debate as to whether this or that could legitimately fall under the banner of “indie rock”. Ultimately, the albums that make up our top ten could easily appear on any number of genre lists, but grouped under the slightly reductive banner of “Indie rock”, there can be little argument that this is simply one hell of a list. Enjoy. – Paul Carr
10. Marika Hackman – Any Human Friend [Sub Pop]
The differences between We Slept at Last, Marika Hackman’s 2015 full-length debut, and her latest offering, the terrific Any Human Friend, aren’t infinite, but they’re certainly noteworthy, and shed light on the artistic transformation of the 27-year-old British singer-songwriter. The differences are mainly two-fold. The music is more in line with traditional alt-rock and retro new wave, with only a husk of her folk influences remaining. And lyrically, Hackman has torn down any remaining walls that prevent her from singing with complete and occasionally shocking honesty.
For both Hackman and her listeners, this transformation is a win-win. She bares her soul in a truly liberating fashion, and the listeners are treated to both lyrical catharsis and the aural satisfaction of a full band’s thump. On Any Human Friend, Marika Hackman proves she is an artist unabashedly dedicated to laying her emotions out for the world to see. Whether the subject is sex, love, equality, or heartbreak, Any Human Friend offers up the perfect combination – lyrics to make you think and music to make you move. – Chris Ingalls
9. Stella Donnelly – Beware of the Dogs [Secretly Canadian]
The Australian singer-songwriter Stella Donnelly first gained momentum in 2017 with her lovely acoustic track, “Boys Will Be Boys”.” In her sweet voice, Donnelly recounts a friend’s traumatizing experience of sexual assault and critiques patriarchal society for condoning male predatory behavior. On her debut album, Beware of the Dogs, Donnelly continues to tackle similar issues, such as sexism, inequality, prejudice, and failed romantic relationships but does it with wit, sarcasm, and self-deprecating humor. It’s hard not to chuckle when she sings, “my mum’s still a punk, and you’re still shit” in the breezy “Season’s Greetings”, or to empathize with her existential dread in the bouncy “Die”. But it’s the opening track, “Old Man”, that best encapsulates the essence of the record. It sounds deceptively simple and catchy, but Donnelly’s lyrics cut deep. She warns the eponymous old man that his time is up: “You grabbed me with an open hand/ The world is grabbing back at you.” It’s an anthem suited for our #MeToo era. – Linnete Manrique
8. Kevin Morby – Oh My God [Dead Oceans]
Kevin Morby’s epic new album (his fifth, remarkably) is, by his own admission (if not confession) a “non-religious religious record”. It is a frankly dizzying experience that takes no little unpacking. Oh My God is an album of seeking and discovering, of affirming and negating, loss and redemption, of musical and spiritual exploration, tribute and invention, and often of running to stand still in an act of extended meditation. For all these reasons, it’s quite fascinating and at the same time, utterly exhausting. The album’s massive ambition, which announces itself immediately, continues unabated until the dying fall about 50 minutes later. While Morby’s earlier concepts might have seemed somewhat looser and more liberated from the self-imposed constraints of such a project, Oh My God also feels like the apotheosis of his multivalent approach to the construction of music and myth. He is truly at the top of his game, and one can only stand in awe of this accomplishment. – Rod Waterman
7. Balthazar – Fever [PIAS]
Sometimes, a break is all you need. That’s the lesson to be learned from Fever, the fourth studio record by the Belgian indie rock outfit Balthazar. Over the six years between its founding and its full-length debut, the band worked the small-venue grind throughout Europe, diligently promoting their music and releasing small samples of what was to come on their debut album Applause. But following Thin Walls, the members of Balthazar did what so many bands need to do to revivify their sound: they took a step back.
Building upon the style of the first three Balthazar records while also drawing from the creative founts of Devoldere and Deprez’s solo work, Fever culminates everything successful about the band’s sound that’s thus far been established, while also embellishing lesser-explored facets of that sound, with great success. But Fever is proof to all those who fret about rock’s demise that there’s plenty of creative gas left in the tank, particularly when rock musicians take the time to branch out and expand their sonic ranges. Balthazar have been a good rock band for a while, but with Fever, it’s shown that they can become a great one. – Brice Ezell
6. Mark Lanegan Band – Somebody’s Knocking [Heavenly]
Since 2012’s Blues Funeral freed Mark Lanegan (as Mark Lanegan Band) from any expectation of what a Mark Lanegan Band album should sound like, he has continued to forge an ever more rewarding musical path. With every album, he has sought to explore more of the musical touchstones that influenced him, always finding new musical avenues to duck down. On Somebody’s Knocking, he looked more towards New Order, Depeche Mode, and the early 1990s British dance scene for inspiration, and it proved to be an easy and comfortable fit.
Along with co-writers Rob Marshall and Alan Johannes, he added programmed drums, synth-led grooves and Peter Hook-esque basslines to the mix and in the process, amplified whole new aspects of his songwriting. From the pumping house of “Penthouse High” to the claustrophobic “Dark Disco Jag” and the incessantly catchy alt-pop of “Night Flight to Kabul”, the album contains some of the most direct music of his career. Just like his last album and the one before that and the one before that, Somebody’s Knocking is the most vital, honest, and rewarding album of his career… until the next one. – Paul Carr
5. Cherry Glazerr – Stuffed & Ready [Secretly Canadian]
Cherry Glazerr have been a fixture of the Los Angeles indie rock scene since 2013. While their previous albums had a playful and juvenile quality to them that befit the ethos of their first record label, the Fullerton-based Burger Records, Stuffed & Ready is a more personal and mature effort. On the standout tracks “Self Explained” and “Isolation”, guitarist and lead vocalist Clementine Creevy lays bare her social anxieties, insecurities, and feelings of loneliness and self-doubt. Stuffed & Ready may be more introspective in a lyrical sense, but it retains the brash attitude and grunge sound that are embedded in Cherry Glazerr’s DNA and make them such a refreshing band. On lead singles “Daddi” and “Wasted Nun”, Creevy channels her inner feminist rage and sounds as badass as her predecessors, such as PJ Harvey, Hole, and Sleater-Kinney. Cherry Glazerr has been hard at work collaborating with Portugal. The Man and touring with the likes of Chvrches and Jenny Lewis. 2020 should be the year Cherry Glazerr becomes a household name. – Linnete Manrique
4. Big Thief – Two Hands [4AD]
On 11 October, the Brooklyn quartet Big Thief played an abridged version of their new single, the rocking six-minute jam “Not” on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. It was an enigmatic and powerful live performance, with lead vocalist Adrianne Lenker shredding her guitar, and the moment I became a Big Thief convert. The band released their third album U.F.O.F. in May 2019 to near-universal acclaim (and is now nominated for a Grammy in the Best Alternative Album category). While U.F.O.F. is a lovely collection of 12 spectral folk songs, it is also quite forgettable. It’s the kind of record that gets lost in the background.
Two Hands hits harder. It is overall rawer and more immediate. It encapsulates the barren and dry atmosphere of Texas, where it was recorded, but retains the intimate folksy vibes and evocative lyrics that make Big Thief one of the more exciting bands to come out of the Brooklyn music scene in a long time. Believe the hype. – Linnete Manrique
3. Angel Olsen – All Mirrors [Jagjaguwar]
In All Mirrors, Angel Olsen sounds and looks like a movie star. With its polished production (from John Congleton) and elegant string arrangements (from writer Ben Babbitt and composer Jherek Bischoff), All Mirrors is a beautiful cinematic piece of work that signals a departure from the lo-fi indie rock and haunting folk that characterized her previous records. It’s a bold statement from an artist with nothing else to prove. If anything, 2014’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness and 2016’s My Woman established Olsen as one of the most talented artists of her generation. The carefully arranged and busy instrumentation makes All Mirrors sound big and provides Olsen the space to show off her incredible range as a vocalist. She coos, wails, and sings about heartbreak, loss, and resignation. All Mirrors is the work of an artist maturing and fully coming into her own, and solidifies Olsen’s place in the pantheon of indie rock royalty. – Linnete Manrique
2. The Twilight Sad – It Won’t Be Like This All the Time [Rock Action]
Sometimes there exists such a special, indestructible bond between band and fan, that it can feel as if both depend on the other for their very survival. For fans of Scottish band the Twilight Sad, this has been the case ever since their brilliant, 2007 debut, Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winter. From the outset, the Twilight Sad have never been a band simply to like. No, they are a band to love, live in, and learn from. On the band’s fifth album, the Twilight Sad re-defined and re-calibrated, stripping themselves back to their core to discover what happens when they follow previously unexplored evolutionary paths.
The squalling, shoegaze guitars and brooding electronics are all present, but they are melded with fresh, sonic textures and bright, emphatic post-punk synths. Lyrically, there is a welcome directness and emotional prescience to lyrics with frontman James Graham tapping directly into those universal feelings of pain, loss, regret, and joy. With It Won’t Be Like This All the Time the relationship between fan and band is rewarded with the best album of the Twilight Sad’s career. – Paul Carr
1. Fontaines D.C. – Dogrel [Partisan]
This year was the year, Dublin boys Fontains D.C went from cult concern to everyone’s new favourite guitar band. It’s hard to believe that at the start of the year, they only had a handful of singles to their name. Now, here we are, yet another publication anointing their debut album
Dogrel as one of the defining records of 2019. It’s not hard to see why. From their barnstorming live shows to their intelligent, erudite lyrics, Fontaines D.C are the real deal.
Somehow, Dogrel managed to capture the honesty and sheer vitality of the band. From thundering, paint-peeling punk to shadowy post-punk to shimmering indie anthems, songs are forged with the strength of Irish granite. At the heart of it all stands frontman Grian Chatten. A restless ball of energy on stage, he is a singer constantly on edge, forever chomping at the bit to unload the words that dance in his mind. Inspired by the Irish masters and the beat poets, Chatten chases down the thoughts in his head and articulates them in a way that only the truly great lyricists (and poets) can. It’s an album consumed by the realities and romantic ideals of Dublin with all the pain and triumph that comes with entrusting your heart to a city. Chatten sees the beauty in the rain-soaked streets, the wonder in the winding barroom tales, and the joy in the banality of everyday Dublin life. Dogrel maybe Fontaines D.C’s heartfelt love letter to Dublin but it is also a timeless memento of a band pulling away and finding their voice. They did say they were going to be big. – Paul Carr