Calling a group of albums “the best” has always rubbed me the wrong way; these are merely my favorites — the releases I listened to most and enjoyed.
10. Matthew J. Rolin: self-titled
I don’t hear a lot of fingerstyle acoustic guitar pickers out of Columbus, but maybe I’m just not looking hard enough. Either way, Rolin’s new album, released on Feeding Tube earlier this year, is an impressive collection of songs that incorporate noisy experimentalism without ever losing a strong sense of melody.
9. The Saturday Giant: Bytes/Blues
It took an existential crisis and the dissolution of an unhealthy relationship for the Saturday Giant’s Phil Cogley to regain perspective and realize he could live his life and play music in a way that wasn’t subservient to the ego — a discovery he documents on Bytes/Blues, his catchiest collection of arty pop-rock to date.
8. The Kyle Sowashes: I Don’t Know What to Tell You
The theme of this record from the long-running indie-rock act helmed by Kyle Sowash is a resounding, “Welp,” and there’s maybe no better word to summarize 2019. But Sowash and Co. make it fun to sing along to the personal, political and cultural carnage of the last few years. There’s also no better way to sum up development-happy Columbus than this album’s cover image — a photo of former Bernie’s door guy Ratboy in a mohawk and sleeveless tee staring at a pile of High Street rubble where the basement rock club and bagel shop once stood.
7. Brat Curse: Brat Curse II
Arguably the best power-pop band in the city, Brian Baker’s hooks come through clearer than ever on this effort. This is the group that should be selling out the Newport.
6. Brian Harnetty: Shawnee, Ohio
After spending time with Harnetty and writing a feature about his Forest Listening Rooms project, this album really came alive. The stories and the music all feel incredibly personal to Harnetty while also retaining a sense of reverence for the source material. Harnetty is a masterful listener, and he’s asking you to follow in his footsteps here; it’s a challenge I wholeheartedly recommend.
5. Sam Craighead: Self-Portrait w/ Fries
One of the more surprising local music tidbits to read in 2019 was the fact that Sam Craighead recorded an EP with half of The Fray. After this songwriter’s excellent 2017 album Tuesday Night Music Club, Craighead went in a different sonic direction, but his keen eye for detail and an emotional wallop remain (“Wondering how we navigate the world when he’s not there/Why do we have to?” he sings on EP opener “SF Blues”). When discussing some of this city’s best songwriters, don’t forget Craighead’s name.
4. Linda Trip: Sad Bangers
Taking cues from Ohio music forebears Tommy Jay and Mike Rep, John Olexovitch and Bree Frick started their own collective, amassing a pile of raw material and then culling it down to 14 tracks that jump from experimental krautrock and the Stone Roses to CDR-era shitgaze.
3. Micah Schnabel: The Teenage Years of the 21st Century
Never has this Two Cow Garage singer/guitarist sounded so much like himself (“It’s 100 percent me,” he said). Sometimes it’s uncomfortable (see the conversations with polar-opposite relatives on “Remain Silent”), but it’s always real (“Being alive is so expensive; being dead is such a lousy alternative,” Schnabel sings on “How to Ride a Bike”). As his songcraft has matured, Schnabel has been writing in a way that ensures he’s excited to hear the next word come out of his own mouth, and that excitement is not only palpable — it’s contagious.
2. wyd: Sick/Death/After
After releasing a series of intriguing singles that seemed to strike a chord with everyone who listened, this 2019 Band to Watch issued its first EP, a three-song collection that (to be greedy for a second) still feels like an appetizer for what’s to come from this trio. Carly Fratianne singing, “I wanna feel like death in your arms,” remains one of my favorite musical moments of the year.
1. Van Dale: The Visitor
“It was a hard year,” Joe Camerlengo and Lisa Brokaw sing on The Visitor’s leadoff track, summing up 2019 in plainspoken English you can’t help but pump your fist to (albeit alone and halfhearted and expressionless, i.e. The Dale Way). This record is also the first to fully incorporate Lisa Brokaw, who’s also Camerlengo’s bandmate in Blanket Boys (which also released a great EP, The Weekend, this year; look for the duo’s first full-length album to drop on Jan. 1). Everything about these two songwriters meshes perfectly, whether in the downtempo beauty of Blanket Boys or in this grunge-rock trio with Tim Horak, the numbed-out heart and soul of the band.
Closing track “Have a Nice Life One Day” came from a run-in with a confused man in blue socks at Van Dale’s practice space, and somehow this band turned the encounter into a fuzzy, crunchy, blissed-out anthem. So yeah, for many, many people this was a hard year. Van Dale knows it. But this trio also has a way of making oddball stoner wisdom feel hopeful and true. The world ain’t always bleak. You can still have a nice life. One day.