TOP 5 Indie Albums of 2019

By Steve Warren

Robert Ellis
Texas Piano Man (New West Records)

Less than a minute into Robert Ellis' brilliant effort you can't shake the feeling that he's channeling the ghost of Harry Nilsson. Who else besides Ellis, but possibly Nilsson, could manage to take the chorus "I'm fucking crazy" and turn it into a wedding-caliber love song ("Fucking Crazy")? And that's just one song in. Ellis puts down the guitar on his fifth LP and sits behind a piano for an even more relaxed vibe, and his wit still shines through just as strong with this outing. Songs like "Nobody Smokes Anymore" ("the last years of your life are so shitty anyway") and "Passive Aggressive" are among some of the best he's written in an already impressive career.

Vandoliers
Forever (Blood Shot Records)

Texas has a remarkably diverse musical heritage that spans from Outlaw Country and Rock to Tejano – making it arguable one of the most brilliantly disparate musical landscapes this country has to offer. And it seems all six members of the Dallas-based Vandoliers have soaked up every bit of those influences over the years. Their latest release, and first for Bloodshot Records, Forever, is essentially a love letter to every pocket of Texas music out there. Cramming in Americana, Punk Rock, Country and Tejano throughout the 10 tracks here for an exhausting, though remarkably satisfying tour of everything that makes Lone Star music enduring.

Trapper Schoepp
Primetime Illusion (Xtra Mile Recordings)

Over the course of just three albums, Wisconsin's Trapper Schoepp has quietly, steadily been winning over a slew of followers. That's not surprising given his knack for writing, catchy, memorable songs that stay with you long after the music has stopped. His latest and fourth LP, Primetime Illusion, is his best so far. Across 11 tracks, Schoepp has hit his stride lyrically, turning in compelling character-driven sketches backed by strong hooks and melodies. From the opening shot, the steady slow build "Shakedown" to more straight-ahead rock on songs like "Freight Train" or the brilliant anti-sexual assault track, "What You Do to Her" (with a great cameo by Nicole Atkins) Schoepp and his band take a massive step forward in their music. The record closes with "On Wisconsin," an old unfinished Bob Dylan tune that Schoepp was able to complete and share co-writing credit with fellow Midwesterner Mr. Zimmerman.

Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real
Turn Off The News Build a Garden (Fantasy Recordings)

The title track to Lukas Nelson's fifth album pretty much sums up the focus of the record; people are generally good, so let's focus on being kind to each other. And yes, it's the type of sentiment that gets one branded a snowflake in 2019, but damn it's good advice. And it sounds even better coming out in Nelson's lazy, comforting drawl, backed by one of the best bands going today. The song shows up twice on the record, first as a steady, electrified version and again toward the album's end slowed down a bit with acoustic guitar. Elsewhere there are tracks about suspicious lovers ("Out in LA") and broken hearts ("Save A little Heartache"), but the overall vibe is "let's just slow down a bit and be kinder to each other". It's hard to deny we are living in trying times, but Turn Off the News… is the perfect antidote for sanity, at least for a little while.

The Lonesome Billies
Right On Time (Stay Lonesome Records)

Who would have thought some of the best Outlaw Country-inspired music would be coming out of the Pacific Northwest? On Right On Time, their second LP and first since 2015, The Lonesome Billies pick up right where they left off, but with a little more groove this time around. Across a dozen tracks of twangy Telecaster riffs and a baritone that even Waylon Jennings would envy, The Lonesome Billies prove they deserve just as much attention as folks like Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell for making it safe to finally enjoy country music again. The Lonesome Billies are back and they've brought more hooks and a lot more funk for this go 'round.

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