As usual, the past 12 months have seen the release of excellent albums from both veterans and newcomers, and also some surprises. Here are the 20 that Classic Rock writers deem the best.
For the full Top 50 Albums of 2019, including in-depth features on many of the albums and artists included, pick up the end-of-year edition of Classic Rock.
20. Diamond Head - The Coffin Train
While the whole affair is still solidly rooted in the Brit-metal of the Bronze label era, expansive stormers like Shades Of Black and Death By Design sound more like latter-day Soundgarden than like any other NWOBHM band still in operation.
There’s an almost proggy complexity to this album’s songs, but the hooks, flash and the sheer wall-melting, roof-rattling riff majesty of mainman Brian Tatler are all still in place. Overall this is a fine addition to the DH legacy.
19. Tool - Fear Inoculum
Clocking in at more than 80 minutes across nine songs, three of which are instrumental interludes, Fear Inoculum is a hypnotic prog odyssey – Tool taken to their logical conclusion. The title track opens proceedings, Tool’s characteristic tabla and polyrhythms looping over and over as Maynard James Keenan sings of exhaling his contagion.
This reference to the breath flows into Pneuma (from philosophy: a person’s vital spirit, soul or creative energy), where he sings, ‘We are one breath, one word, one spark’ – a return to the theme of interconnectivity they explored on 2001’s psychedelic Lateralus.
For all the seriousness, there’s Tool humour at play, too. One interlude is a Danny Carey drum solo wrapped in brilliantly warped electronics – named Chocolate Chip Trip. The interlude that closes the album, Mockingbeat, features chirping birds and recalls the crickets at the end of first album Undertow.
Fear Inoculum is an intricate record that calls for you to reserve judgement until you’ve been fully immersed. It might be long (running to 86 minutes) but it’s a worthy investment of your time.
18. The Allman Betts Band - Down To The River
While they’ve orbited like satellites around each other for several years, it was inevitable that Devon Allman (son of Gregg) and Duane Betts (son of Dickie) would come together to share a peach. Fifty years after the original Allman Brothers Band started out in Florida, the two men (now in their forties) retain a familiar template.
Allman provides the soulful grit, Duane the sweet stuff, while old-timer Chuck Leavell puts in a shift on keyboards. Song-wise they’re better at atmosphere than resolution and the album has elements of smoke-and-mirrors round the edges. Still, there are good moments. The title track evokes Al Green and Bobby Bland, while Autumn Breeze has a revivalist fervour.
Much of the rest is heavy on nostalgia; they’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. Allman’s swampy funk is the dominant force, while Betts handles the catchier melodies. Significantly, the best track is a cover of Tom Petty’s Southern Accents, here treated as a piano ballad. And in case you’re wondering: yes Duane Betts is named after Duane Allman. The family that plays together…
17. The Defiants - Zokusho
Comprising members of the current Danger Danger and the same band’s former lead singer, Paul Laine, The Defiants not only made the melodic hard rock album of 2016, they also performed one of the same year’s most rock‘n’roll gigs, with a spectacularly refreshed Laine brattishly hurling a bottle of Jack Daniel’s across the stage at the Rockingham Festival in Nottingham.
Now the band are back to reclaim their crown. A decade after the Revolve album, with the group ruling out new recordings and including a cameo from Steve West on drums, Zokusho (Japanese for ‘sequel’ or ‘next chapter’) is as good as it’s gonna get for starving fans of D2. And, believe me, that’s pretty bloody good indeed.
From Love Is The Killer to the finale of Drink Up!, these 11 tracks stand head and shoulders above anything else likely be heard within the genre before the end of 2019.
16. The Magpie Salute - High Water II
Siblings: you can’t live with ’em, you can’t chop off their heads and boil them in tar. So former Black Crowes guitarist Rich Robinson instead decided to stick one to his gobshite elder brother and ex-bandmate-turned-antagonist Chris Robinson by forming a band that does pretty much the same job without him.
High Water II was recorded in the same sessions that produced The Magpie Salute’s debut album, High Water I (duh!), though like that record it could easily have been laid down at any point during the Crowes’ 90s heyday – or 25 years before that.
If the tight gospel boogie and brothel-house piano of Gimme Something sound kind of familiar, well, it’s not as if Robinson’s original band were brimming with originality.
Chris Robinson has snarkily called The Magpie Salute “a Black Crowes tribute act”, which is both on the nose and the best compliment he can pay them.
High Water II isn’t The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion, but it might just be By Your Side. In the absence of anything else, we’ll take it.
15. Status Quo - Backbone
A month before he passed away in December 2016, Rick Parfitt, who was forced to sit out Status Quo’s proposed final electric shows due to failing health, graciously stated in an interview with Classic Rock that if the band should decide to continue without him in the long term, “it’ll be with my blessing”.
Francis Rossi has said the band knew that any new material “had to be seriously good”, aware that they’re now “an easier target than ever”. And with contributions from vintage-era songwriting partner Bob Young, with Backbone they sound like they’ve come out fighting. Waiting For A Woman is a deceptively laid-back opener with a fast-acting vocal melody, which, for this writer (braced for the worst) passed an essential litmus test for a Quo song by inspiring involuntary foot tapping.
Of course, Parfitt’s absence is conspicuous, and always will be. But for those still on board, Backbone is a strong, upbeat, feelgood Quo record, which adds to their legacy rather than defacing it.
14. Beth Hart - War In My Mind
Beth Hart has had a troubled past, one she has to battle with on a daily basis, fending off the demons with religion, meditation – and music. From her father’s abandonment at an early age, to the loss of her sister – the latter she addresses on the richly poignant Sister Dear – she is clearly sitting on a volcano of trauma. And it rumbles palpably through this album.
You can hear it on the tremulous, Nina Simone-esque title track, or the raw frankness of Bad Woman Blues on which she crowns herself the ‘Queen of pain’. Despite all this, there are times when you wish that the tussle and agony of these songs would buckle their structures, tear through the fabric of the production, mess up the often orthodox stylings.
The vocoderised effects of Let It Grow are promising but give way to a more conventional approach; there are moments when she threatens to go full-on power ballad. Thankfully, however, I Need A Hero is not a cover, but a minimal but affecting self-examination; ‘I am so thirsty but won’t drink the water’.
13. Beaux Gris Gris & The Apocalypse - Love & Murder
She’s a blue-bobbed backwoods pixie from a broken home. He’s a bearded British journeyman best known for The Hoax. The Anglo-American coupling of Greta Valenti (vocals) and Robin Davey (guitar) seems an odd formula, but it’s proved combustible, in both their more rocking Well Hung Heart and this new blues project.
Opener Heartbreaker is a decent enough rattle-and-shouter, but stick with Love & Murder for better. Cyclone is like Django Reinhardt contemplating the end of the world. Louisiana Good Ride sways like a Boardwalk Empire flop-house. Thrill Me is hypnotic, that song title repeated in a dead-eyed sotto voce the whole way through.
Then comes the real hot streak, with the country-blues Stones-stagger of Don’t Let The Bastards Drag You Down and Baby Baby, whose raging outro defies the producer to hit ‘Stop’.
Finally there’s Have Mercy, a soul belter on the tightrope between Aretha Franklin’s Respect and the Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want.
12. The Black Keys - Let's Rock
In general, the blues comes in two distinct textures: gritty or smooth. Otherwise it’s a pretty inflexible beast. If you’re going to stick with it, you pick your flavour and dig in. Ohio’s Black Keys broke arenas by plotting a middle course, glossing up the feral blues of the White Stripes for the ad-sync crowd, and five years apart working on solo projects hasn’t made Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney any more inclined to dismantle and reimagine their winning formula.
Recorded live in Auerbach’s Nashville studio, ‘Let’s Rock’ is a marginally lower-fi return, but still sets out to cohere the root of the White Stripes, T.Rex and slick Eagles country rock around immediate choruses as moreish as molasses-flavoured bubblegum. Previous dabblings with electronics, in league with their ex-producer Danger Mouse, are confined to synthetic electro-rock rampage Go and the bits of Shine A Little Light that resemble Hall & Oates.
Instead we’re holed up in a Nashville bar dusted in glitter rather than sawdust. Lo/Hi is probably the first Bolan-gospel take on the ups and downs of alcoholic manic depression to destroy the Billboard rock chart, and southern blues rockers like Under The Gun, Get Yourself Together and Breaking Down (complete with sitar riff) are as infectious as mad cowboy disease.
11. Tedeschi Trucks Band - Signs
Signs showcases an ensemble at their confident peak, whether on the gospel-charged funkery of Walk Through This Life or the torch ballad All The World. Susan Tedeschi has an earthy but seductive rasp. She’s not nearly as knowing as Bonnie Raitt, but she’s every bit as impassioned as Beth Hart and more vulnerable than both and when she turns political on the environmental anthem Shame (‘Don’t you wonder what’s in the air?’) she’s plausible.
Derek Trucks, meanwhile, is the blues guitarist of his generation, and together they’re a formidable team. They lose their way when they amble in pub-rock fashion on the gormless Hard Case, but for the most part they’re as focused as they’re inspired.
10. Big Big Train - Grand Tour
A quarter of a century into a career that really seems to have gathered momentum only over the past half-decade, Big Big Train leave English fields behind on The Grand Tour, venturing to Italy to celebrate science, art and literature in the manner of – one presumes - 18th-century explorers rather than Jeremy Clarkson and co.
Musically their course hasn’t deviated much, although The Florentine kicks off with some delightfully jaunty acoustic guitar before reverting to type, but everything is so beautifully constructed that the lack of real deviation is its own reward.
9. Bruce Springsteen - Western Stars
If his last album of original material, 2012’s Wrecking Ball, acted as an accomplished update of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street stampede, Western Stars – melodically up there with his finest collections of down-home tear-jerkers – brings a rich new texture to his more reflective forays.
The tormented lovers fleeing for the wilds with the weight of broken affairs on their shoulders on Tucson Train and Chasin’ Wild Horses, or haunting the shut-down Moonlight Motel chasing memories of trysts they enjoyed there, do so with a certain grace thanks to vaporous arpeggios and crashing crescendos that could soundtrack a Jurassic Park.
8. Stray Cats - 40
A quarter-century after their last studio album – and a decade since the trio played together – this record is a renewal of vows (read: more of the same). The vibe will be instantly familiar to anyone who’s dipped a toe in their back catalogue; well-worn rockabilly tropes abound.
But it’s a credit to the line-up’s combustible chemistry – they tracked the album live on the floor in Nashville – and Brian Setzer’s twinkle-in-eye storytelling that these songs feel fresh and often thrilling.
7. Gary Clark Jr - This Land
Led in by dirty guitars, hip-hop beats and Doctor Who sound effects, the Texan spits a seething attack at those who resent a black man making it big: ‘Nigger run, nigger run, go back where you come from/Fuck you, I’m America’s son/This land is mine.’ Also his, it seems, is every genre within it. Clark has stressed his desire to operate outside route-one blues, and this album has a restless curiosity.
6. Rammstein - Untitled
On Untitled, the band whose motto could be “Laibach and enjoy it” plough their usual furrow – repetitive, thrilling riffs, growling, horrible vocals, bursts of electronic rhythms, lyrics about alienation, emotion and (sometimes literal) consumption. The brief is followed with a surprising thoroughness, as if the band are reminding themselves who they are.
Opening tracks Deutschland and Radio are run through with a synthy pulse, while there are moments of balladry, considerations of sex (Sex), foreignness (Auslander) and, on the moderately epic closer Halloman, human creepiness, in a song where a young girl is offered some chips, and presumably not in a good way.
5. The Who - Who
The limply titled Who is a crisp set of songs, shrewdly finding the sweet spot between serrated and slick. Roger Daltrey, for his part, sounds vibrant, the odd, affectionate antipathy between writer and singer once again lending their interface an edge. D Sardy (known, worryingly, for Oasis and Noel Gallagher) co-produces with Townshend.
Some over-buffed patches call to mind the growing Hollywood trend of digitally de-ageing actors, yet generally this sounds, whether by fluke or sweat, like The Who have sounded (when playing new songs) since John Entwistle died. Crucially, it doesn’t go too gently.
Ball And Chain addresses Guantanamo Bay, the near-epic Hero Ground Zero (with an intro nod to Baba O’Riley) smirks that ‘every rock star wants to make a movie’, Street Song sails on a skittering electronica base. Then there’s a later lilt into acoustica for Break The News and the flamenco-tinged She Rocked My World. Rockin’ In Rage, a bilious confessional – ‘I feel like a leper, like handing my cards in’ – offers a field day for Pete-psychoanalysts.
As it seems unlikely that there’ll be a next from The Who, this last testament, potent yet poignant, bright if not blinding, fans those late flames fruitfully. The song isn’t, quite, over.
4. Rival Sons - Feral Roots
It’s the brooding mix of urgent and mysterious tones that really pulls you in, and gives the whole album an almost cinematic quality. The Zeppelin-esque title track is a stunning embodiment of this, its acoustic lines of folky mystique trickling out before bursting into a commanding, full-on rock chorus.
Tracks that seem to be one thing have a way of surprising you (see the gorgeous chorus gear shift of Imperial Joy). Gospel backing singers appear across the record, and the soulful sway of Stood By Me merges old-school blues-and-soul warmth with Isley Brothers-infused guitar blasts.
Feral Roots isn’t Rival Sons’ most instant album yet; this isn’t a record of tracks like Keep On Swinging and Open My Eyes. It’s partly that, but it’s also an album of depth and impact that merits luxuriant poring over. And perhaps most significantly, it’s the sound of 2019’s answer to Page and Plant throwing down the gauntlet, daring the competition to make their moves. Bring it on.
3. Black Star Riders - Another State Of Grace
Goodwill goes a long way in rock’n’roll. It certainly helped get Black Star Riders off the ground after ex-Thin Lizzy guitarist Scott Gorham discovered he could use his old band’s hallowed name only for purposes of nostalgia and not as a vehicle for a second shot at the big(ish) time. Not that there was a whole lot of difference between the two bands to start with.
But Another State Of Grace is strong enough to stand on its own two feet. Soldier In The Ghetto lays on some funky electric piano that skews it closer to Come Taste The Band-era Purple than to Gorham’s old crew, while Why Do You Love Your Guns is an unvarnished old-school power ballad, albeit one that’s more interested in peace and harmony than seducing strippers into the sack, a lyrical tack that doesn’t quite make it as far the next track, the whiskey-guzzling anthem Standing In The Line Of Fire.
Black Star Riders will never escape Lizzy’s shadow, and nor should they – if you’d been a member of one of the greatest rock bands of them all, you’d be dumb as a box of cowshit to pretend anything else. And while they might not whip up the same adoration, Another State Of Grace shows that there continues to be life beyond Lizzy.
2. The Darkness - Easter Is Cancelled
With 2003’s Permission To Land debut album, The Darkness put star-jumping, crotch-thrusting rock’n’roll back in the British charts. Sixteen years later, on new album Easter Is Cancelled the Lowestoft band seem lukewarm on their legacy.
“Rock’n’roll is so uniform now,” reckons bassist Frankie Poullain. “Everybody dresses the same, looks the same, sounds the same. It’s pathetic. It deserves to die. Let’s kill the cliché. Let’s break the crucifix. That’s partly what the album is about.”
Sixth album Easter Is Cancelled puts its money where its mouth is, right from the thrilling flashpoint when a dirty Les Paul riff punctures the red-herring folksy opener Rock And Roll Deserves To Die.
Granted, there’s nothing on the album that’s quite as stadium-ready as I Believe In A Thing Called Love, but every track here is whip-smart and shout-it-out hooky. And although the musical envelope is rarely shunted with both hands, the playful writing dips, dives and never does quite what you expect.
1. The Wildhearts - Renaissance Men
It starts at full tilt with Dislocated – which in places sounds like Motörhead, until a prime-cut Gingerbridge gives it away – then crashes, via a howl of feedback, into Let ’Em Go in which a gang chorus sings about rivers of shit. Fine Art Of Deception celebrates lack of commitment with sinister yet customary honesty: ‘Don’t let my proximity mean what it may imply/I’m just working on a way to say goodbye.’
The centre-piece of the album is Diagnosis. The best and longest of the 10 tracks, it builds slowly into a rant about mental health professionals and how they let people down. Ginger launches another brutal attack, this time on the pharmaceutical industry, in Emergency (Fentanyl Babylon), but he’s funnier when referencing drugs in My Kinda Movie and closer Pilo Erection.
So, is Renaissance Men as good as Earth Vs The Wildhearts? No. On a par with Fishing For Luckies and p.h.u.q.? Close – and easily the best thing since.