Best albums of 2019: #1 Better Oblivion Community Center “Better Oblivion Community Center”

Back in 2017, Phoebe Bridgers’ debut album, “Stranger in the alps”, just eked its way into my top ten albums for the year. Since then, however, the album has grown in my esteem and if I had to redo the list, it might find its way a few spots higher. Bridgers, herself, has also become a bigger name, her indie cred seemingly as impervious as her keen ability to write songs and to turn any project she has a hand in to gold. Last year, for instance, she formed a supergroup of sorts with two other indie ‘it’ ladies, Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus, and released a six song EP under the name “boygenius”. She also seemed to be popping up quite regularly in my social media feeds and in news items on the music sites I frequent with other one-off collaborations, live performances or otherwise. Then, out of nowhere, this past January saw her announce a project with Conor Oberst (!) and the immediate, digital release of the eponymously named “Better Oblivion Community Center”.

To be honest, Oberst has never been a favourite of mine, though I have tried many times, sampling his solo work under his own name or the Bright Eyes moniker, and even his early punk band Desaparecidos. Yet when I gave this album a go, it sounded like his voice had found a home next to Bridgers’, and I immediately set myself to work trying to find a copy of it on vinyl. It wasn’t an easy task. With the usual pressing woes and delays and the seemingly incredible demand for it, the record wasn’t easily found. But that only made my success in finally obtaining it that much more sweet. Since then, it’s quite likely the new wax that has frequented my platter the most this year.

“Better Oblivion Community Center” is more than two like minded indie folk singer/songwriters working together. Despite their differences in backgrounds, experiences, and age, their work on this album suggests they are bringing the best out in each other, stretching each out of their collective comfort zones. Backed by usual collaborating musicians from both camps, along with contributions by members of Dawes and Yeah Yeahs Yeahs, Bridgers and Oberst have produced a ten song collection that sometimes does but doesn’t always jive with either of their past works. Yet all of it is great.

Have a listen to my three picks for you below and give me your thoughts.


“Service road”: Oberst starts this one off, singing solo over an introverted acoustic strum. “You should really call your brother. Someone put up a picture where he can’t stand.” This leads credence to the theory that it was inspired by his brother, who basically drank himself to death. But Oberst isn’t alone here. Bridgers joins him after the first verse and like you’ll find elsewhere on the album, their voices are stunning together. They sing as one, much like they wrote all the songs, and in this way, they are stronger, giving hope to the universal grief. And man, when Bridgers sings “who are you” at the choruses, it sends shivers.

“Didn’t know what I was in for”: Track one on the album was also the first one written for the project. Bridgers sings the first two verses of the song, it sounding very much like something off her solo album, struggling with herself and everything she sees around her. “My telephone, it doesn’t have a camera. If it did I’d take a picture of myself. If it did I’d take a picture of the water and the man on the offramp, holding up the sign that’s asking me for help.” And again, it all changes when, this time, Oberst joins her, and you realize it’s going to be very different this time around. The acoustic that is so prevalent at the beginning seems to take a backseat to the highly affected guitar effects that had threatened to be mainly decoration, the drums kick in and there’s momentary bliss. Yeah, it all seems so hopeless again at the end but there is something so thrilling in it all.

“Dylan Thomas”: The project’s second single and first to be released off the record also happened to be the final one written for it. By both accounts, it came the easiest. Named for a Welsh poet by whom there was a book in the house the album was recorded, the song is a catchy kick at the state of politics. Indeed, it is much like the showboating politicians they are raking, using shiny confetti to thinly obscure their message. It’s a jangly rocker. It’s a fun song to bop to. It’s Oberst and Bridgers singing together as they do through most of the album, a two-pronged assault, each highlighting the other’s text in bright yellow. In the end, it’s about getting all too comfortable with the uncomfortable. “I’m getting used to these dizzy spells. I’m taking a shower at the Bates Motel. I’m getting greedy with this private hell. I’ll go it alone, but that’s just as well.” …And with that, happy new year folks!


In case you missed them, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. Chromatics “Closer to grey”
9. Elva “Winter sun”
8. The Twilight Sun “It won/t be like this all the time”
7. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds “Ghosteen”
6. The Soft Calvary “The Soft Calvary”
5. Orville Peck “Pony”
4. Ride “This is not a safe place”
3. Tallies “Tallies”
2. The National “I am easy to find”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

Best albums of 2019: #2 The National “I am easy to find”

Two years ago, while counting down my best albums of 2017 list, on which The National’s seventh album, “Sleep well beast”, appeared at number three, I mentioned how at four years, it had seemed like an eternity had passed since their last record. I also talked about how the band always seemed to be pushing the boundaries of what they can be, experimenting with their sound and yet keeping things recognizably The National. And for that, they deserved all the accolades that were heaped upon “Sleep well beast”, landing it on pretty much every year end list (not just mine), and garnering it a Grammy for their efforts.

So back in March when they announced on Toronto’s indie rock radio station and then news spread that a new album was forthcoming in a few short months, it almost seemed too soon. Not that the news was unwelcome by any means, it was just surprising. And it wasn’t even your typical 10 song release, no, it was a true double album, epic, at over an hour in length. It was released in conjunction with a short, 27 minute long film with the same name, starring Alicia Vikander, the same actress that graces the album’s cover, directed by Mike Mills, and whose score is made up of pieces of variations of the songs from the album. The band has said that the album is not exactly a soundtrack for the film and that the film was not based on the album. They were made separately and yet, if you watch the film, which I avoided doing for many months, you can see the influence each had on the other. And also, listening to the album after watching it becomes quite a different experience. It is hard not to see those same images at certain songs and place with them certain meanings and moods which were not necessarily there before.

Indeed, I loved “I am easy to find” before watching the accompanying film but afterwards, it became more complete. Featuring the vocal work of a variety of established female singer/songwriters, from Gail Ann Dorsey to Kate Stables to Sharon Van Etten, throughout the album, it seemed just another experiment at first, but now shows to be even more compelling and heartbreaking. It’s as if the different artists are giving voice to this imagined woman, a ghost, duetting with Matt Berninger and sometimes even taking over, as if he just didn’t have the voice to speak for her.

“I am easy to find” is a complete album, a story, a narrative to be followed from beginning to end, even if it’s not really linear and not necessarily clear. And yet, the songs for the most part can be taken, in and of themselves. The three tunes I’ve picked for you to sample are wonderful examples of this. Enjoy.


“Quiet light”: Talk about heartbreaking. “Quiet light” is about recovering from a breakup, surviving the night when the distractions of the day aren’t there to hide away from the void. “But I’m learning to lie here in the quiet light, while I watch the sky go from black to grey, learning how not to die inside a little every time I think about you and wonder if you are awake.” The instrumentation is an interesting dichotomy of the irregular drum beat, like a hammering, broken heart, set against the gentle brushes of fingertips on the piano keys. This is all interspersed with the random sounds you hear in the middle of the night, the creaks and groans of your empty house, along with the sinking screams of an orchestra’s string section. And, at times, long time Bowie collaborator, Gail Ann Dorsey joins Berninger singing the crushing vocals like a teasing ghostly remembrance.

“Not in Kansas”: If you think this track is long at just under seven minutes, let it be known that it could’ve been even longer. According to Berninger, there are 17 further stanzas that we’re cut from the finished product. It makes me wonder what further could’ve been referenced. As it is, the meandering stream of consciousness namechecks R.E.M., The Strokes, Bob Dylan albums, The Godfather films, and Neil Armstrong. And of course, twice during this random journey, the lilting guitar and Berninger’s baritone are interrupted by the angelic choir of Kate Stables (aka This is the Kit), Lisa Hannigan, and the aforementioned, Dorsey, raining beauty on the litany of pop culture. “Not in Kansas” is a trip I’d take any day.

“Rylan”: In an interview with Pitchfork, talking about “Rylan”, Matt Berninger said this: “Often the recorded versions [of songs] sound the way someone looks when they’re ringing the doorbell to enter the party; they’re all buttoned up and stiff. They don’t really become themselves until they’ve been there a few hours and loosened up.” This is a song that was originally written almost ten years ago, during their sessions for “High violet”, but never recorded, save for YouTube videos in which it was performed live. Yet it has become a fan favourite of sorts, after years of breathing organically, and making appearances on many a set list. It appears The National finally found a home for it and man, does it sound great. Machine gun drum beats and ominous bass lines and synth washes, Kate Stables providing her ying to Berninger’s yang, and a string orchestra finale giving the sadness some uplifting support. Brilliant.


Check back next Tuesday for album #1. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. Chromatics “Closer to grey”
9. Elva “Winter sun”
8. The Twilight Sun “It won/t be like this all the time”
7. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds “Ghosteen”
6. The Soft Calvary “The Soft Calvary”
5. Orville Peck “Pony”
4. Ride “This is not a safe place”
3. Tallies “Tallies”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

Best albums of 2019: #3 Tallies “Tallies”

At some point in the mid-2000s, I was in a Chapters perusing the music magazine racks while my wife was looking at cookbooks and I came across an American-based indie music magazine called “Under the radar”. I found myself flipping through it slower than I normally would a music magazine so when my wife found me (rather than me finding her for once), I was still only halfway through it. She suggested I buy it and I offered no resistance. And then, I bought the next few monthly issues. For the next Christmas that rolled around, I received a two year subscription from Victoria. When that expired, I called in to renew it for myself and I distinctly remember the woman I talked to who took my order happily telling me that they (the people behind the magazine) loved Canadians. I have since had a few annual digital subscriptions for my iPad and these days, I still check their website regularly and all because they have always seemed to have their finger on the pulse of music that I like.

This past January, a month that the music world is still typically waking up from its holiday hangover, I had a visit with my friends at “Under the radar” and wouldn’t you know, there was a review, front and centre, of the self-titled, debut album of this new Canadian band, Tallies. The review mentioned them in the same breath as Alvvays, another favourite of mine, and a couple other Canadian bands of whom I hadn’t yet heard. So I duly went over to Spotify to have a perusal of the album (as well as music by the other two) and immediately heard and agreed with the reviewer’s comparisons to the jangly dream pop of Cocteau Twins and (especially that of) The Sundays. It goes with saying that I purchased it on vinyl the next time I was out at the record stores.

I tell this story because I find it funny, the roundabout way you sometimes have to travel to discover music from your own backyard. Tallies were formed by the couple of Sarah Cogan (vocals/guitar) and Dylan Frankland (guitar) while they were attending Algonquin College right here in Ottawa. They added drummer Cian O’Neill and bassist Stephen Pitman and relocated to Toronto, where they recorded this debut. And yeah, “Tallies” is another good reason why we should still be excited about the indie music being made here in Canada.

Tallies have been described as shoegaze but I would place them more as dream pop, and yes, there is a difference. There’s plenty of jangle and twinkle and rays of sunshine, and man, is it easy on the ears! Have a listen to my three picks for you below and let me know what you think.


“Not so proud”: First off, I’ll drop this one right here and let that peppy, tip-tappety-tap-tap drumming set in. I’m thinking within a second your head will be bopping. Just in time to let the washes upon washes of tinkling guitars flutter down upon you like sparkling confetti. The crisp production is like a vacuum, allowing these lovely sounds to echo all over the place and then, Cogan starts in with her vocals. She’s singing about uncertainties and the different shades of greys and not having the answers or the endings to any story, happy or otherwise. Yet, you can’t help but want to get up and dance and sing along just as breathlessly.

“Mother”: The rhythm section gets a bit of a workout on this second track and guitars jangle all over the place, almost feeling like they’re on holiday in the Caribbean. Yeah, things are a bit meandering in the verses but they pick up substantially at the choruses and the drums get just that much more frantic. And through the joy and bliss and Cogan’s sweet honey vocals, her lyrics are wistfully relaying the varying stages of a relationship between a mother and daughter. “Don’t fill your holes with sorrow, ‘cause you’ll never be left alive.” Good advice, that.

“Trouble”: And much like that last track (and others throughout the album), the opening number seems to be exploring the pitfalls of growing up, ready or not. “Heights with no means to escape. Soaring coasts mixed with the rubble. Mind’s eye forms fields of gray. No subtle fears, no grounds for trouble.” And here more than anywhere, do we get a lot of noise, a lot of static, impenetrable, perhaps, save for the soaring and ringing vocals of Cogan, sounding very much a Harriet Wheeler doppelgänger. The naivety and exuberance breathes life into an interpretation of backward admiring tunes. Just lovely.


Check back next Tuesday for album #2. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. Chromatics “Closer to grey”
9. Elva “Winter sun”
8. The Twilight Sun “It won/t be like this all the time”
7. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds “Ghosteen”
6. The Soft Calvary “The Soft Calvary”
5. Orville Peck “Pony”
4. Ride “This is not a safe place”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.