As much as I like reading them, I’ve never enjoyed making end of year lists. No matter how long I dwell on it, I’m never content with the picks or the order, and it feels utterly futile and insincere to stand by them when I know full well that I’ll change my mind in five minutes. (Today I’d include less than half of my picks from my mid-year list).
And while it’s a meaningful exercise to reflect on the best new albums to come out each calendar year, those records are a small piece of the pie that is my annual musical exploration.
My listening doesn’t rise and set with the weekly delivery of new releases, but rather the artists, albums and songs I discover (and rediscover) organically through friends, articles, books, record stores, streaming services and radio, which thankfully don’t restrict themselves to any date.
In that spirit, here are five musical discoveries that have defined my year.
The Majesty of David Berman
It was May. I was playing billiards in a dive bar in Portland when I heard some music that sounded new to me yet eerily familiar.
“That sounds a lot like Pavement, doesn’t it?” I said to a friend. He agreed. “And is that Stephen Malkmus singing backup?”
We Shazam it. Silver Jews. Of course! The band that birthed Pavement. How had I not gotten into these guys before?! I had just discovered one of my favorite band’s had a twin, and I immediately dove into classic records like American Water and The Natural Bridge.
As chance would have it, Silver Jews mastermind David Berman would release his first album in over 10 years—under the new moniker Purple Mountains—only two months later. What a treat!
And then a month after that he was dead. Fuck.
While it pales in comparison to the loss of a beautiful human life, it really sucks to fall into love with an artist just in time for them to break your heart. But I’m sure grateful to have found him.
The Gold Mine of Brazil
I’ve long been aware that the country of Brazil has an astounding musical legacy. I’ve dipped my toes in over the years, but 2019 was when I really dove in head first.
Some due credit goes to 2019 reissues like Caetano Veloso’s seminal 1968 self-titled (Third Man Records), Jorge Ben Jor’s super psychedelic Africa Brasil (Vinyl Me Please), and the outstanding compilation Jambú e Os Míticos Sons Da Amazônia (Analog Africa).
From there the doors opened to a bottomless treasure trove of mindblowingly good music, from Bossa Nova (1964’s Getz / Gilberto) to Tropicália (Gilberto Gil’s 1968 self-titled and Gal Costa’s 1972 album India) to Música Popular Brasileira (Lô Borges and Milton Nascimento’s 1972 collab Clube Da Esquina), to contemporary offspring like Boogarins.
The best part is that I’ve barely scratched the surface. I need to learn Portuguese.
The Mecca of SXSW
I had dreamed of making the pilgrimage to South by Southwest for well over a decade, but 2019 was the year it finally happened. It did not disappoint.
Having attended dozens of music festivals, I’ve nearly burnt myself out on their artist du jour lineups, overpriced drinks, endless port-a-potty lines and exhausting crowds. SXSW is everything those events aren’t.
With literally thousands of artists descending upon the city of Austin, Texas over a single week, you can’t walk 50 feet without hearing exciting, largely undiscovered live music blaring out of every bar, restaurant, cafe and music venue.
Without a festival badge ($1395!? no thank you) I was resigned to attending the hundreds of unofficial showcases, and I couldn’t have been happier about it. There was something so revitalizing about seeing so many diverse artists and bands playing short, vivacious sets to intimate, openminded crowds. And as soon as one show was over, there were a dozen others within a five block radius. It was endless. It was insane!
Thanks to SXSW, I saw unforgettable performances by Black Midi, The Beths and Broken Social Scene, not to mention scores of other bands I’ll never know the name of. The cherry on top: I met freaking Nardwuar!
If I can help it, I’ll be back every year.
The Legacy of Chicago
Aside from launching Mini Music Critic as a website back in May, my biggest project of 2019 turned out to be one of the coolest things I’ve ever helped create.
This year, I collaborated with some talented and inspired people to make a podcast about some talented and inspired people.
Place In Sound is a podcast about music and cities, and we spent our first season investigating the music of Chicago, connecting the city’s current hip-hop scene to its history, politics, mass migrations and more.
I wrote the entire thing, in addition to co-producing and steering the editing process. My friend, L.A. disc jockey extraordinaire Anthony Valadez, voiced the story and conducted interviews.
Along the way I discovered more music than I could have imagined, from jazz and blues greats of the early to mid 20th century (Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, Sun Ra) to house music (Frankie Knuckles), indie rock (Liz Phair), hip-hop (Common, Kanye West, Chance The Rapper) and beyond.
If you want to check it out, it’s only four episodes long, and each one is better than the last in my opinion.
The Hustle of Discogs
As I wrote about back in April, I’ve been collecting vinyl records for over a decade, and this year my collection tipped over the 1000 album mark (and then later the 1100 mark). When you buy records at the velocity I do, you end up with a sizable stack of albums you already have, never play or simply no longer want.
When I found I could no longer squeeze all my records into my already generous shelving, I decided it was time to give my collection the ol’ Marie Kondo treatment and make some room for new albums that actually spark joy.
While the quick solution would have been selling them in bulk to a record store, they can’t give you anywhere near the price your LPs are actually worth (after all, they have to make a profit when they turn around and sell it to someone else). I’ve been doing this long enough to know Discogs is where the real dealing happens.
Although it was a somewhat fatiguing affair setting up my seller profile, listing the records I wanted to be rid of, and figuring out a system for shipping, it soon became pretty painless. And now that I’ve got the hang of it, it’s fun as hell!
A lightly used copy of Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s Lie Down In the Light: $12. A sealed copy of Manchester Orchestra’s A Black Mile to the Surface: $29. My duplicate copy of Gorillaz’ Demon Days: $49.
In just a few months I’ve made a couple hundred bucks off albums that were just taking up space on my overcrowded shelves. I’ve been shocked to find how much some of my unplayed album are worth, and I’ve had some fun conversations with the record nerds I have sold them to.
If you’re interested in joining the hustle, here are a couple guides I found helpful for getting started. My Pro Tip: save the boxes you receive from ordering records online, which can easily be reused.
Ryan is a writer, editor and vinyl collector currently based in Los Angeles. He started Mini Music Critic in 2017.