TOP 100 SONGS OF 2019!!
Written by Chris-R on December 31, 2019
As another year comes to a close, my yearly opportunity to play tastemaker arrives again. There’s a fantastic array of music here, 2019 was a very different year than years prior and we’ve had a wealth of great music to appreciate. I took the liberty of searching high and low for the most worthwhile excerpts from this year in music.
These are selections for the INFORMED music listener.
Scroll below to read what I have to say about each of the top 100 songs, along with the Spotify playlist featuring every track.
Before diving in, let’s quickly glance at some of the notable music happenings this year
🔴A lot of this year’s best-of list skews young, it seems that teenagers are leading the newest direction of music right now. A lot of songs that made the cut were from debut albums.
🔴Pop music finally matters again. The genre is climbing out of its slump and there’s been a renewed interest from the public consciousness. The biggest music-centric talking points this year were all about the Billboard Pop charts and who was setting records on there, who were making their debuts on there, and who was rivalling who on the charts.
🔴Spotify & streaming at large has a much bigger say in making superstars than radio does and playlisting is now one of the most vital things for a musician to take part in.
🔴Tool released their long anticipated fifth album Fear Inoculum and Jai Paul has finally returned with new material. Both are considered to be a very big deal.
🔴There has been increased interest in music biopics after Bryan Singer’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” was a blockbuster success against all logic. 2019 saw the floodgates open as numerous music biopics were released, ranging from Elton John’s own “Rocketman”, the love letter to Bruce Springsteen fandom “Blinded By The Light“, yet another installment of Beatles idolatry from director Danny Boyle of “Slumdog Millionaire” and “127 Hours” fame in the movie “Yesterday”, and Netflix pays a truckload of money to Mötley Crüe so they can present their vision of their autobiography “The Dirt”.
🔴Speaking of which, Mötley Crüe backtracked their “Farewell Tour” from 2015 and are currently sharing a bill with Def Leppard, Poison, and Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. The group confirmed the tour by shredding their previous contract that barred them from performing under the Mötley Crüe name ever again after the Farewell Tour was finished. That tour cost $450 a ticket.
🔴The Library of Congress added the albums Superfly by Curtis Mayfield and Jay-Z’s The Blueprint into their database along with standalone singles “Soul Man”, “September” and “La Bamba”.
🔴Get this: I released my very own debut studio album this past summer! The album is called Temperatures Rise and it was recorded at L.A. Soundlabs with producer Dave Trumfio and I’m very pleased with the final product. A couple publications had shared their reviews of my music which was very exciting of course. Click HERE if you’re interested in checking it out on Bandcamp. It’s also on Spotify, Google Music, and Tidal if that’s your cup of tea.
-And the domestication of the dog continued on unabated.
We’re counting down the TOP 100 BEST SONGS OF 2019!!
What better way is there to kick off the top 100 countdown than by starting with the bold, fuzzed-out sounds of Cherry Glazerr: a songstress communicating via her overdriven guitar and some ragged power chords. Let’s take a look at the track “Wasted Nun” taken from her 2019 album Stuffed And Ready. With this song, she takes what is already an energetic and promising enough tune and heightens it into newer terrain thanks to her grungy musicianship and the support from her bandmates who pummel their way through the track.
The song still succeeds despite being pretty darn one-dimensional at times. Cherry Glazerr is met with the very real possibility of a post-irony overload in the lyrical department. It’s music that has an unshakable sense of “I’m too good for this” at times, a self-made detachment that begins seeping into the music itself. Perhaps it’s all to a stylistic benefit, depending on whose ear is listening. And artifice = good sometimes. Still though, the song acts on its strengths when leaning on its’ melody, a melody that’s always doing just enough to keep the listener satisfied.
Bonus Fact: it took me about half a year with this album before I discovered an eye-opening tidbit about Cherry Glazerr’s vocalist Clementine Creevy. One of her significant claims to fame came in 2015 when she had involvement in recording (get this) the guest vocals to Death Grips‘ “Giving Bad People Good Ideas”; a now iconic vocal spot. That’s bound to give her some street cred in certain circles, I’m sure.
Brava, Cherry Glazerr. Brava.
IN THE CAPITAL
Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever
“In The Capital” is the work of an Indie band hitting their stride and showing no fear in letting the music listening world know about it.
The Aussie group Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever came through with a delightfully prim and proper Indie guitar album last year (a record I unfortunately came to much later after its’ release) and gave us this fantastic sampler tray of what they’ve been cooking up in the meantime. The guitar-work from the band is swift and lean, championing a tidiness in its creation instead of relying on accidental misfire.
There is a distinct push-and-pull between instruments here, each guitar has its own dedicated channel in the mix and they communicate with one another in an effective manner. It all comes together in a satisfying way that’s sure to please any fans of the style.
Behold, a gorgeous display of orchestral maturity in Indie Folk music. In immediate listening to this song, it becomes apparent that the sweeping string sections on the track are the true hero, summoning a picture painted through careening strings and singing that’s appropriately trodden with a heavy heart. All of which is presented over the flutter of an acoustic guitar strumming.
Thankfully enough, the song maintains it’s steady pace throughout and ends up almost sounding like something to be found on a latter day Dire Straits album.
Softly spoken, largely felt.
Sky Ferreira has proven herself to be quite a critical darling of the decade, garnering the majority of her praise from her colorful collaboration work. However, it can begin to seem unclear how this notice from the critics actually transitions into her own solo work. She has had more than her fair share of great memorable feature work and guest performances on other projects, but her own material may be under appreciated at times.
“Downhill Lullaby” is rich with its sound, one that’s clearly very meticulous in what it desires to get across. The orchestral cues are vast and nearly overwhelming at times. Ferreira fits snugly alongside her own music as well, her voice is incorporated very well onto the unusual backing music.
“Downhill Lullaby” is a lullaby meant to paralyze.
The Folk-lite stylings of Caamp are a real hammock filler if I’ve ever heard it. The group gets a little more electrified than usual on “No Sleep”, incorporating some traces of Blues music as they leisurely strum around their instruments.
Every now and then, a chorus will come and go: just another pitstop along the path. It’s only on these sections that Caamp utilizes any minor chords on their song. Vocalist Taylor Meier does the most heavy lifting on the track and really works to sell the lyrics, especially over the passage of
“I been up for a week
I can’t get no sleep
I lose my cool”
Otherwise, it’s mostly easy sailing and having good times until the bottom drops out. Tomorrow’s always another day away, so why stress it?
The smooth Neo-Soul stylings of Steve Lacy rarely sound like he’s exerting all that much energy. This is not an accusation of laziness mind you, but instead a way to commend him for how natural he comes across in the music that he makes.
“N Side” is the lead single from Apollo XXI, the debut solo album from The Internet‘s own Steve Lacy. The Internet, of course, are coming off a rather successful project from last year: their album Hive Mind was released to admirable approval from fans and critics alike, of which, many had pinpointed Lacy’s guitar work and vocal contributions to be key factors in the music’s success. So it’s great to see how he branches out into his non-Internet material, ever so slightly shifting his focus in his newest output.
Once you get past the drum programming’s eyebrow raising “Hotline Bling” similarities, you can begin to get into how the lax the song is. The music of “N Side” dazes off into outer space, slowly floating away and never lets feet touch back down onto the ground.
It’s somewhat rare to find that these sensual jams actually sound all that sensual in their execution, but “N Side” more than delivers on that front. His voice flows comfortably beside some light G Funk synthesizers and his vocals are front and center. The chorus is memorable and actually pretty hummable too which most certainly works in his favor.
Take a break and unwind with Lacy. You’ll thank him later.
UNDER ENEMY ARMS
Don’t say I didn’t warn you that this is an absolute banger of a track. Here’s your warning now, ABSOLUTE BANGER ALERT.
Trap Rap has only seen constant rise at this point, the genre has been a continuous breeding ground for hot and new talents. This is where “Under Enemy Arms” resides, it’s a Trippie Redd song that I actually prefer to 2018’s “Topanga”. “Topanga”, being his well regarded Trap song that was widely circulated among the Soundcloud Rap crowd.
I believe that recent material from Trippie Redd helped to fill the crushing void felt by many disappointed Playboi Carti fans this year, seeing that Carti’s highly anticipated Whole Lotta Red album has suffered from countless delays and leak after leak after leak. For Trap listeners looking for more consistency, Trippie Redd was able to pick up plenty of remaining slack.
Trippie gets tough over the sound of plastic horns and spends the track threatening to put his foes in a ditch. Adrenaline flows strong through this song; adrenaline that could be yours too.
Throw in a passing reference to Prince‘s “Baby I’m A Star” and you’ve got yourself a worthy opponent of a song.
Volcano summons up the fiery grooves of Krautrock and make it clear that they are the right band for the job. To be more specific about their style, they’re right in the middle of whatever intersection exists between Krautrock and Afrobeat, a sound that is very difficult to tire of.
The band operates in syncopated Funk attacks at nearly all times, always dancing around in an energetic unity. Their genre of choice is 40+ years removed from the current year so it is a curious and much welcomed approach to be had. Distorted keyboards and off-kilter guitar harmonies are no strangers either, they’re always providing an entertaining kinship to be had together.
Fret not, when Volcano is on the dance floor there’ll be no doubt when this volcano is about to erupt.
There’s always room in my heart (and in my music collection) for a spare acoustic number. Enter: Mandolin Orange -a songwriting duo from North Carolina whose acoustic guitar and tender vocal performances radiate strong and tell tales of safely guarded secrets.
“Golden Embers”, the opening number to their recent Tides Of A Teardrop, works as a song that is instantly understandable thanks mostly to an emotive chord sequence strummed through ever so delicately. The mood here is somber but never overwhelmingly so, it’s just enough to make the listening audience want to peer their head in and create that interpersonal connection that only these docile songs can form.
The track gradually blooms into new territory through the assistance of the group’s titular mandolin (it’s a pun, get it?) and some light percussion flourishes, soft organ chords that are held underneath the band that decay away, and pizzicato strings that enter around the halfway mark. The chords are emotive as they are brittle, soft to the touch and tempted to collapse under itself. Singer Andrew Marlin‘s vocals are confident and given further support when joined by other half of Mandolin Orange, Emily Frantz, who in turn gives her mellow reassurance to the song.
The track is comparing love lost to our flames ascending up to the heavens. In a sense, saying that what burns never returns.
Pond is one of the textbook definitions on how a Psychedelic Rock band should operate in this decade. For proof, just look at this album cover of theirs: it’s a tie-dyed neon bright extravaganza. Their music is delightful to all the senses as well, constantly drowning its’ vocals in reverb and throwing in some kooky instrumentation for funsies. The toy xylophone brings a lotta levity to the track and grants the track a great deal of personality.
The band had also gotten some significant exposure earlier this year for their faithful cover of Madonna‘s “Ray Of Light” on the cover song performance show Like A Version (way to go guys, a Madonna reference double whammy). If anything else, this should be an indicator of their willingness to steer towards smiley happy tunes and it shows the general lack of pretension to the band. Did I mention how they courageously kept the song in its’ original key?
The full album of Tasmania has much to rave about as well, it all flows very pleasantly even if it isn’t readymade to lodge into your brain. Quick and painless, the Neo-Psych sounds of Pond is a laser light party to the brain.
YOUR MAD IDEAS
Who’s ready for some synthy goodness?!
Mark Crozer digs his mitts into groovy rhythms on a song that’s driven hard by a killer synth pattern. While sonically pleasing, the track also has some quantifiable moments of neat songwriting choices, including him wisely building into some nice tension chords and occasionally switching to a 6/8 time signature. The instruments peak during the melodramatic bridge section, bringing along some other instruments into the gatefold and employs a tongue-in-cheek bit of vocal harmony.
This song is a no-brainer to recommend to any MGMT fans who are itching for more of their style. Crozer may not be playing mad scientist on “Your Mad Ideas”, but he doesn’t need to. With the creativity he brings to the table, the song basically assembles itself.
BEST CLOCKMAKER ON MARS
The idiosyncratic Country pariah Sturgill Simpson reinvents himself on his newest album, setting aside his accustomed sound palette of past and uses new sounds that are all fizzy fuzzy big and buzzy.
SOUND & FURY is the furthest he’s strayed from his Country roots and why shouldn’t he? The “powers that be” who run the Country market had repeatedly cast him to the side time and time again, frustrations have been running high and his loyalty to the genre have been running on fumes. A particular career highlight came about when the CMT awards refused to invite him to the ceremonies so Sturgill opted to play a free acoustic set right outside the venue. He’s the outlaw that Country has been craving.
It’s been made clear that Sturgill’s greatest asset as an artist is as an ideas guy. And if that’s your draw to him, there’s more than enough on his latest offering to whet your appetite. He is now fully embracing the “studio as an instrument” approach, using his powers to channel an Art-Rock posture that most clearly resembles the sonic landscapes of David Bowie’s best album Low. It’s actually pretty similar to the shift in approach Sufjan Stevens underwent when he embraced digital artifice on The Age Of Adz.
“Best Clockmaker On Mars” is a mean sounding cut from this record, snatching the feel from ZZ Top‘s 1983 digital revitalization Eliminator. But does it groove? It doesn’t have an excessive amount of varied grooves in its arsenal, but it’s got more than its fair share that are all decidedly stilted and angular. Sometimes it appears less as an offering of songs than as a collection of sounds but hey, that’s part of the fun.
It’s not impossible to see how this blending of wacko sounds could work either: look at the cult favorite album Fear And Whiskey by Alt-Country gurus The Mekons (who released a very good album this year! Listen to Deserted and its lead single “Lawrence of California” if you haven’t already.)
I could easily hear how the guitar riff on this song can get tire fast for some listeners, but I find that it never removes me from the song even if it does overstay its welcome a little bit. Plus, there’s more than its fair share of enthralling music ideas well worth the price of admission.
Sturgill has proven yet again that he marches only to the beat of his own drum machine.
-Karen O, Danger Mouse
A full album collaboration between Danger Mouse and the Yeah Yeah Yeah‘s Karen O was one of the most enticing prospects of the year. Seeds of excitement were spread when the duo released their first single together “Lux Prima”, a nine minute long song that indicates what the pairing’s sound could pose to be.
Neither one of these artists are strangers to collaboration of course. Danger Mouse has his own litany of side-projects that range from working with MF DOOM to The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and it’s impossible to forget his stint with Cee-Lo Green as Gnarls Barkley. Likewise, Karen O has appeared on numerous songs through the years, notably singing on “Song For A Warrior” from Swans‘ The Seer album and performing on a track written by David Lynch himself.
Lead single “Lux Prima” was a space-age voyage that seemed to favor Danger Mouse’s own toolkit with Karen O opting to play the supporting role. Playing tit for tat, “Woman” veers a lot closer to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs territory and it plays well for the duo because of it.
“Woman” is a word of reckoning here, as Karen O projects her femininity as an unstoppable force to behold. She projects this power over the stomp n’ grind music previously found in the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s own “Phenomena”. The groove they strike is crisper than crisp, taking some notes from the hipper side of the 60’s.
Karen O is still unafraid to uncage herself while singing and the music is all the more exciting because of it.
Here’s a treat for the Hip-Hop Heads out there. The Lost Boy is a cut above many other Hip-Hop albums from this year and has earned itself a place among the most impressive Rap debuts of recent memory.
YBN Cordae is a fresh face to the game and has put forth a valiant effort on his debut LP. “Have Mercy” has a “Big Pimpin'” styled beat and Cordae churns out massive quantities of inventive struggle bars and some real exciting wordplay. The rhyme scheme on the chorus is impressive and consistent, listen for how many persistent rhymes he puts into his flow: “three favors”, “week later”, “speed racer”, “need acres”, “need prayer”, “beware”, it’s all very well-written and rather verbose.
It can be thrilling to hear someone with his passion and raw talent rap his way across a bombtrack, so here’s to hoping that his songs only continue to get even better from this point on.
TINDER IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA
Instrumental Hip-Hop is still one of the coolest things ever and Blockhead has made that evident time and time again. On his new, unfairly overlooked album Free Sweatpants there were a good handful of enjoyable songs, many of which smartly utilized guest MCs to give further tangibility to the material. Some of which is great, but I still leaned more towards the instrumental work that was on the album.
“Tinder In The Time Of Cholera” has a backbone built from Delta Blues and it doesn’t take an expert to draw a connection between this and Moby‘s supersmash Play album which utilized a similar sampling of the genre in its creation. Like the best tracks on Play, “Tinder In The Time Of Cholera” revamps the sampled material into something more than the sum of its parts.
It doesn’t take long for Blockhead to dive deep and explore the other sounds of Plunderphonics. The brash, the vibrant, and all the dynamism of it all. It’s all good to Blockhead.
Many things can be said about Jamila Woods‘ second album LECACY! LEGACY!. In fact, numerous publications are weighing in and have already been discussing what its lasting legacy might be. Some writers are even confident enough to declare it a top-tier album of the entire decade despite its recency. This discourse around the music is interesting to observe and I think it is a worthwhile album to get people talking about.
I chose to extract the album’s first song “BETTY” for my best-of, a ghostly work of Neo-Soul that displays the album’s general themes and feel. Indebted to Jazz, the opening chords of “BETTY” sound like a rendition of Dave Brubeck and his “Blue Rondo à la Turk”, repurposing its general essence to Jamila’s advantage. The album also garnered praise for how she titled each song after an important figure of female African American empowerment and its importance both to herself and to larger society. Coincidentally enough, rapper Rapsody utilized the exact same tactic on her album this year Eve, both albums even intersect with separate tributes to Jazz singer Nina Simone on the respective tracks titled “NINA”.
While her essential message is the current style and very in hock to the times, Jamila infuses some larger credibility to her meaning than her peers do. She’s very well-equipped to handle this type of subject seeing as how she actually graduated with a BA in Africana and Theater & Arts studies. When the song isn’t riding miles high, it settles down into crispy trap beats that float around the swimmy mix. There is something hard to deny about how Jamila’s singing just cuts through like a heated dagger when she strikes.
-(Sandy) Alex G
Contrary to its title House of Sugar, there are relatively few moments on the record that actually stick -which in large part, actually is its magic. There is this general detachment from reality that these songs operate on, it’s a practice of pointillism in audio form that eventually becomes a synecdoche of something great.
You can tell that (Sandy) Alex G is more comfortable as a behind-the-scenes songwriter than he is as a main attraction, his best work often comes from when he is contributing major stylistic elements to songs from the likes of Frank Ocean. An odd sound here, a vocal tweak there, these surreal add-ons are his signature. On his own material, he can sometimes sound like he’s a feature on his own song. Funnily enough, it surprisingly doesn’t take away from the experience as much as it gives another layer to it. Think of Dr. Dre being the presiding force on his records while still keeping a distance from the mike.
The whimsical hodgepodge of music is excellent on “Gretel”. In appreciating House of Sugar, it’s like appreciating the Disney’s original “Alice In Wonderland,” the plot is threadbare but its excellence is in the freewheeling anything-goes happenings that go on. House of Sugar is largely fantastical and comprised of vignettes stretching into a grander frame.
SLAVES OF FEAR
It’s a good time to be an Industrial Metal fan. Sure, the genre may have seen its better days (it’s not the 1990’s anymore), but there’s still plenty of bands testing the waters and waving their freak flags high. One of which is the band HEALTH, a group who’ll reliably be turning the volume knob to maximum at any given opportunity.
From their fourth album Slaves Of Fear, the song of the same name is a foray into the bleak and melancholy, sounding off some digital punching bags and loud tribal slams. The track raises intrigue from it’s opening bar where the bass begins dribbling between both channels Pink Floyd “One Of These Days” style and is further adorned with modulators that could justifiably be described as deep-fried.
Another slight subversion to be found is in the singer, a singer whose voice is a little more clean-cut than you’d usually come to expect from the genre. The vocalist sounds like if the Cigarettes After Sex guy shaved his beard, subsided on nothing but a steady diet of Whole Foods purchased ricecakes for a month and then slammed back a bottle of spiked kombucha on his way to the recording studio.
The band has had some notable appearances in recent years, too. College yahoos might remember their spot on the “Eric Andre Show“, performing an extreme set of music while simultaneously preparing a meal of health food. Cuz why not. They contributed a full soundtrack to video game Max Payne 3 for some reason. And to my chagrin, it’s been brought to my attention that this very song has seen some notoriety through use in the Netflix original “13 Reasons Why“.
The risks and general style that’s being presented here brings to mind a similarly approached music experiment turned unfortunate that was released by Metalcore band Bring Me The Horizon in 2019. This hackneyed, sometimes dreadfully exhaustive band had infamously released music this year that has completely and utterly alienated their core fan base with an overnight lane switch into an Electronic/Metalcore hybrid music that absolutely NOBODY wanted. Their genre already had such a narrow bubble of relativity, so anything not directly pertaining to their kneecapped world of listening interests would have no choice but to be forcefully ignored anyway.
When the HEALTH album works in measured doses, it’s easier to comprehend the several reasons why their music works while Bring Me The Horizon’s amo album does not. The core of HEALTH is Industrial, through and through. amo seemingly tried to sightsee this new style with limited context clues around them. Their angry fans that were lacking the suitable vocabulary to describe the bands’ new sound were calling out that the group was going “Pop” like the band was selling out. What? “Sunbather 2.0″ this is not; which was CLEARLY what the band was aiming for by the way. They were totally aiming to rub elbows with that elusively hip and snooty Pitchfork crowd. The project was self-impressed to absolute fault and ends up as a solipsistic jerk-off. Stay tuned, word through the grapevine is that The Black Eyed Peas are going IDM.
The production on “Slaves of Fear” and by proxy its parent album is grimy, intense, and true to its’ namesake: fear-inducing. The group makes for a bass heavy track that keeps the percussive nature of the instrument intact and pummels its way through speakers and into insane asylums.
M FOR MUSH
Lomelda finds creature comfort through her own 6-strings and lays down some opaque music fragments worth venting over. On her newest album M For Empathy the vast majority of its songs use a singular approach in music-making where she almost always focuses on the solitary nature of its creation methods.
With a tight closet mix, it brings home how personal the song and album is to herself. It’s practically the sound of listening to a teenage girl strum her guitar alone while reciting diary prose. Dead air swells in the background to further add to the voyeuristic nature of the track. Lomelda thrives in unusual chords voicing on nylon acoustic, reminiscent of Phil Elverum‘s plucked stylings from any of The Microphone‘s best.
Simplicity is not the be-all end-all, but it sure can be a great jumping off point. With “Slow Burn”, it is through a quiet, yet continual throbbing sense of self-assurance that guides Jenny Kern into places of poignancy. Moving forward mostly from her soft guitar picking, the chords are delicate and each vocal passage delivers the proper emotional response.
Kern chose a pleasantly beyond-reaching chord progression to root herself down to, which is then explored further through beautiful fingerpicking. As the track marches along, the sturdy drums accompany our artist into the early gasps of a new dawn.
Author’s note: If this song piques your fancy, stick around to see which artist/song I’ve declared #2 song of the year because it’s one of remarkably similar construct.
THE SOFT HANDS OF STEPHEN MILLER
Whenever I need some reassurance that rock music is still treading new ground, I check up on what the Math Rock genre is cooking up. If they are still stitching together some weird bizarro-land music over there, then that means there will still be plenty new excitements to go around. And if Pile‘s “The Soft Hands of Stephen Miller” is anything to judge by, then it looks like all systems are going ahead at full throttle.
The band turns a wonky, already non-genteel guitar passage into the song’s main music idea. The band strikes with all the irregularity you could hope for: pay attention to how the drums solo in and out of sections with ruthless carelessness, playing with the brute power brought on by defiance of scheduling.
After the halfway mark when the band collapses into abysmal whirlwinds of recklessness, our singer stretches his poor larynx into a literal death rattle. Or maybe he’s got just something lozenged in the back of his throat from lunch earlier. Who knows.
The band attains that ideal cross-section of chaotic and propulsive; thrashing the listener around with an uncannily good time.
AGE OF THE TRAIN
-International Teachers Of Pop
All aboard the Synthpop Express: your conductors for the evening are the International Teachers Of Pop.
Amidst the doom and/or gloom to be found in catchier music from the year, “Age Of The Train” is mercifully chipper, always keeping itself buoyant and upbeat.
This is a heavy-duty keyboard reliant band, and the sounds they decide upon are lovably retro and let us say… kitsch. You’re all but forced to dance when the boom-bow-wow keyboards come in, it’s irresistible.
The song draws to a close with fantastic style as well, culminating in a cluster of voices singing 5-part harmony, swelling up and bringing the song to a triumphant close.
IDOLS (WE DON’T EVER HAVE TO SAY GOODBYE)
“Idols (We Don’t Ever Have To Say Goodbye)” strikes a pose soon as it’s starts, wisely leading off with the bass player setting the song up. The rest adapts into a cool grey tone, using music that is intuitive and loosely played. The song is light but still has its dark moody implications from its’ delivery.
Pete Yorn is now entering his second decade as an artist and I feel as though he’s adapted very well to the times. Many listeners still have the fondest memory of him from his debut album Musicforthemorningafter, that featured himself playing the bulk of instruments on the project.
As a song, “Idols (We Don’t Ever Have To Say Goodbye) is audience pleasing and can be readily introduced into most any Indie playlists.
How much more can be said about Snarky Puppy at this point in their career? They’ve been established as the ruling commanders of their respective Jazz Fusion corner, largely brought on by their general refusal to deviate from their established playbook which has understandably left many fans of their scene cold. There are a million discussions about what the benefits of this new breed of “Berkeley Jazz” actually are, I won’t waste time in telling what you probably already know. This fusion-lite style they’ve come to dominate has some room for improvement but Snarky Puppy are still at the top of their game at this moment.
For an instrumental band, they sure do have a way with song titles. The new album has a song called “Bigly Strictness” and has quickly become one of my favorite spoonerisms. Let’s look at the first track from this new album, lovingly titled “Chonks”. The band is set into motion through a gritty clavier thudding alongside brash in-pocket drums that would sound at home in 311‘s discog. The band sets up a pretty airtight groove on this one, set with string patches and wishy-washy wah guitars that peck away in the background. It almost begins to resemble something that Fishbone would have attempted. The horn passages are pretty alright too, as they are given some worthwhile material to work around with.
The talent on display here is big leagues ahead of what Chon has been working at this year with their languid bunt of an album. And while I don’t necessarily reach for Snarky Puppy’s previous output all that much, I simply can’t turn away when I feel a group of their calibre has turned in some worthy music.
I’M AFRAID OF AMERICANS
Yeah, I hear the complaints already. It may be a cheap move to include a cover song onto the list. Especially when an artist just attempts to cover the incomparable music of David Bowie. His 1997 “I’m Afraid Of Americans” is so immediate and vicious that you’d believe that just any ole group of guitar playing numbnuts could perform it, no matter how toothless the band is and let its amazingness still shine unaltered. Presumably, the song just works in any form.
This being said, I think that BONES brings something new to the table and their choice to cover this song in specific was an inspired decision from them. As of now, BONES definitely has potential as a band. Even if that is potential that has yet to be fully delivered in their own work. However, their qualities are put in the best light when given a choice song to give their interpretation of. There’s little shame in a new-ish band using a cover song to accentuate their finer qualities. Look at the first ever hit from CCR, they had a real success with their adaptation of “Suzie Q”.
The group deck their song out with electronics scattered all about and they pump up the gain when needed. BONES’ singer uses her snark and punchiness as a vocalist to keep the dry sarcasm of its lyrics intact. The high-rate tension of “I’m Afraid Of Americans” does not get diluted either, in fact, it gets a slight update with ferocious guitar soloing courtesy of Carmen Vanderberg. Interestingly enough, the song takes more cues from Nine Inch Nails‘ Trent Reznor (the co-creator of the song alongside Bowie) than anything else, the synths are buzzsawed and lethal.
The UK BONES may be shouting their fears of America, but there is little doubt that us Americans could use some more of their music.
As longstanding Indie-Dance heroes, the creators in Hot Chip have time and time again demonstrated the utmost importance of letting the beat build.
“Hungry Child” starts out modestly enough with some husky vocals and a respectably brisk layer of synths, but soon enough all these extra pieces to the puzzle start filing in place. All of which is benefited from a refusal to let up the four-on-the-floor drumming. This is an easy recommendation for any fans of the Screamadelica school of Electronic Dub to dance floors.
The song’s oft-repeated “A moment like a heart attack” is particularly telling of what it’s trying to get across. A simple declaration of “It’s momentary” as this moment ends and another one might begin.
True to the name “Simple”, Jay Som finds the power in simplicity.
Relatively simple, that is. The song is concave at its base but the musicians are aware enough of its construct to present some novel ideas. Among the earliest in the song is a cutesy drum kit that’s dressed up with a bitcrusher effect and the guitars do everything in their power to conjure up question marks.
The singer is understandably a big element to the song, she squeezes out every bit of tenderness that she can. The song reaches another level while the string section is warming up, giving the illusion of a further depth to this already cavernous sounding song.
The song ends in a larger place than it’s humble beginning implied, and it rides out on an admittedly pretty radical groove near it’s finish.
ON THE SQUARE
Hey, broken clocks can still work twice a day, right? That’s the working theory for this fantastic song that came from a real clunker of an album.
Some have assessed that “On The Square” is one of the diamonds in the rough of the to be found from the dud album Here Comes The Cowboy. This song establishes a strong tone and holds to it all while giving off the usual Mac DeMarco appeal.
Mac DeMarco’s instrumental work is more expressive this time around, making certain that the minimalist arrangement fits alongside the music like a hand in glove. It’s also very easy to enjoy the detuned synth patterns that occasionally drop in, DeMarco can work a detuned keyboard like few others can.
The music draws the necessary amount of attention to itself in just the right way, not expressing flash, but instead maintaining a reliable sound. Through the power of minor piano chords, lethargic drums and letting the bassist take the reigns as bandleader, the song gets its merit from what it provides just as much as from what it willingly excludes.
The world is a mad, mad, mad, mad, place. It can be easy to lose your head in the headlines of the world and find that the only one you can trust is yourself. But when when isolation is what you got, you’d worry that your sanity may start to slip away from you.
Going outta your mind is at the gist of “Sanity”, recanting how our narrator struggles with his lonely years without an object of his desire. Depending on which section he’s singing, he’s alternating between mad in love and madly loveless.
The artist here is Nick Murphy, perhaps known more widely known under his nom de plume Chet Faker. “Sanity” works its magic with a piano lick that is just killer. The production ties everything together into a neat package, rife with embellishments and instrumental goodies. Nick Murphy has excellent range control when it comes to his singing, it was a wise move to make him a selling point to the song.
You’ve got to be crazy not to like this one.
INTO THE FOREFRONT
For a song titled “Into The Forefront”, singer Yves Jarvis does a marvelous job of blending into the background. This cut in particular stands as the strongest on his album The Same But By Different Means, an often intriguing collection of thought fragments and some all-telling loose ends that sometimes coalesce into something truly special.
There is quite a bit of material packed into this song’s brief runtime, and its numerous moments of quality are all presented without self-impressedness, making them almost easy to accidentally look over. More often than not, when something is introduced, it exits just as fast. The track’s highlight is its nylon-string guitar line, a guitar that’s busy cycling through mellow chord shapes while the keyboards do the rest of the communicating. While mysterious, the guitar chords do shape into a tangible mood and direction. As previously noted, the track is also elevated through crafty instrumental flourishes, whether it be a Country pedal-steel, finger cymbals, or a Beatles-styled tambourine shaking.
Yves Jarvis’ exit to the song is pleasant yet unceremonious, as should be expected. And why wouldn’t it be? He just knows you’ll find your way back to his song anyhow.
Lightning Bug presents a headstrong vision that is combatively Lo-Fi and always keeps its secrets close to the chest.
“Vision Scraps” is a mangled dreamscape song from October Song, an album that I really wish would have gotten some more notice. It’s got these small Sonic Youth prone quirks and some inspired variety in its songwriting. This track uses squelching waves of guitar to paint its’ scenery, leading to a wonderfully dizzy effect. The singing is gorgeously serene as well, bringing a Blinda Bucher half-awakeness to the microphone.
SWEET BUT PSYCHO
Let’s give a round of applause to Pop freshman to the class Ava Max, who’s breakout hit “Sweet but Psycho” has become the sleeper hit of the year.
“Sweet but Psycho” is a much-needed return to senses from what has been an undeniably dull time for mainstream Pop. This track throws it back to the days of impactful melodies, glossy aesthetics, and some bright, BRIGHT production timbres. There is an unmitigated sunniness to the song which works to make it a joy whenever it comes on. This song even charms its way to the more dudely types, I’ve seen some stiff upper lipped listeners give hesitation to changing the channel if this one is on.
This song is holstered by its production sound, boasting its’ throwback sound to an obvious reasoning: Ava Max’s music largely stems from some of the finest Pop producers of this past era. “Sweet but Psycho” clearly evokes past chart successes used in previous outings such as Katy Perry with her dark synth “Dark Horse” and the similar electro-induced mania of Britney Spears‘ big comeback “Circus”. All that said, “Sweet but Psycho” still finds its’ foothold as an original song with its own personality.
The song has a fun theme to it It’s essentially a power-fantasy of being a combo of “She-Ra: Princess of Power” and the titular subject of Hall & Oates‘ “Maneater”. I imagine Ava’s low-concept inspiration comes from whatever mid level thrills and non-romance she most likely found from bargain bin DVDs, probably something on the level of “All About Steve“. It’s a cute and enduring enough frame to wrap a song around and helps inflate singer Ava Max’s durability as an artist.
Speaking of Ava Max herself, it’s obviously a bit early to speculate as to what her star qualities may be but I’m hopeful that she’ll be able to hang in there despite her follow-up single “So Am I” failing to register en large, landing with a thud and had garnered a general malaise from listeners. At least on her signature song she has many impressive moments, including a nice Mariah whistle note at the song’s climax.
Nevertheless, “Sweet But Psycho” is Pop music at its most recognizable and works in the way that only a pop song can.
OUT IN THE PARKING LOT
Allow me to steal an oft-quoted Jazz mantra and repurpose it for the state of modern Country music: “Country music isn’t dead, it just smells funny.”
Don’t let the radio stations fool you, Country is not on its’ last breaths. If confirmation is needed, then look no further than Steve Earle‘s nostalgic, heart-on-his-sleeve album from this year. It should be of little surprise that Earle is pumping out some A+ music whilst his genre of choice is in dire straits, since his heyday in Country was the 80’s: inarguably the absolute worst era for the genre up to that point. There’s reason why clear lines are drawn leading from 50’s Rockabilly, to 60’s Nashville Country and its litany of cowboy balladeers, and to the 70’s success in charting radio alongside Soft Rock MOR and a grittier Outlaw Country scene. Following the 70’s is a gap-toothed embarrassingly blank spot, only to be rescued by the 1990’s nearly inexplicable Contemporary Country boom thanks to the likes of David Allen Coe, Alan Jackson, and the literal best selling artist of all time Garth Brooks (look it up. The 90’s was weird, y’all.)
Defying the odds, Steve Earle’s debut album Guitar Town pushed hit songs to radio stations and gave a reliable persona for Country crowds to latch onto. It’s tempting to look back and chuckle at how he was received at the time, many contemporary listeners were put off by his material and perceived it as supposedly Country heresy.
At the age of 64, Earle is Country royalty at this point, and his recent material is no frills Country music for the soul. “Out In The Parking Lot” is rooted down with standard Country chord build and has a definite bite to its twang. Earle approaches the microphone with a gruff attitude and sticks true to his guns. There isn’t shortage of tricks up his sleeves, he even pulls out a reversed guitar solo on this track. With decades of life experience and a grizzly David Letterman beard, Earle is the wise man singing his songs down from the mountain.
WHAT IS THIS?
What a long strange trip it’s been for the experimental and always enigmatic band Swans. Led by the one and only Michael Gira, the collective has seen many peaks and valleys from their constant reinventions, ranging from ruling the underground and sometimes even reaching above it.
Swans of course, has one of the most varied career arcs of any experimental band out there, a history that against all odds has debatably reached it’s absolute height 30 years into their career with the releases of their legendary trilogy of albums this decade. leaving meaning. is the first time Gira reformed the band since the trilogy’s conclusion, returning with promise of Swans finding new ways to terrorize and exploring another chapter to the larger Swans legacy.
On paper, their new album definitely looks like a new Swans album -what with its 1 hr. 33 minute runtime and tracks titled “The Hanging Man”, “My Phantom Limb” and such –leaving meaning. still sets a considerable distance between it and it’s predecessors.
“What Is This?” comes near the backend of the record, a time in the tracklist when Gira doesn’t have anything left to prove and instead shoots for something else entirely. There is an effort to use these tactics to find a higher beauty, and the music really shines when allowed to. When all of its’ pieces are set in motion, the song can be really touching -albeit while Gira sings about tearing apart flesh and doing … unspeakable things to the sun. All of it is part of the larger Swans flavor.
There is much to like about “What Is This?”, leaving behind no doubt as to why it is a captivating listen.
Louis Rafaï has released some of the most serene and expressive music I’ve heard all year.
Out from the haze of tomorrow emerges harp sounds and running stillwater. “Réve II” presumably takes a page from “Heroes”‘ side 2 foray into Ambient music as it has just a few repeating sounds to utilize, each one giving new information and purpose to the track. The most effective music element is the shrill koto arpeggiation that appears, plucking some off-notes and budding into a full chord strum. Rafaï sings in several different languages on other tracks, helping to increase the worldliness felt by the music itself.
Additional detail can be found from the supporting instruments (is that a bassoon I hear?), it isn’t a stretch to call this piece meditative. The track ends with an uncanny, almost nightmarish chord , one that’s unsure of tonal quality and resonates the track to a confusing but unabashedly profound rest point.
There’s a chance this could border into that New Age deadzone if that’s a common gripe you might have, but I believe there is more than enough to dignify this composition to be something quite exquisite.
I AM A VERY RUDE PERSON
Critics were very impressed this year with Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke‘s solo album ANIMA, with many declaring it his most successful collection of solo material to date.
Thom Yorke has an identity made up of computer crashes and Korg sinkholes. “I Am A Very Rude Person” is among the most traditional of songs from his newest material, as it houses a bass-led groove, his signature mumbled lyric delivery and a snappy backbeat to work off of. Naturally, the track title is pure Yorke, fitting snugly alongside similar songs in his solo inventory á la “Youwouldn’tlikemewhenI’mangry”.
Anima was created with intermittent help from partner-in-crime Nigel Godrich, the long term producer to Radiohead and commonly known as the 6th ‘Head. Much like the band’s creation process during the Kid A/Amnesiac days, Yorke would often send hours of unfiltered music segments, sample patches, and occasional song fragments for Godrich to rummage through and decode into something that would be worth expanding on. This is absolutely believable when listening to the finished product, small song ideas are developed and mixed with other forms of bizarre tinkering to create something bolder, something new. This feels as though these songs would have been felt at home on Radiohead’s 2011 rhythm induced The King Of Limbs album.
The song’s coda appears to have the tinkering of Jonny Greenwood in its’ instrumentation, using his signature guitar sounds, in this case being a brittle randomized arpeggiator that adds enormous colorization to the whole song. Welcome back to Radiohead offshoots, where the keyboards sound like guitars and the musicians spend oh so much time to make the guitars sound like keyboards again.
I believe it is fair to call this instrumental cut from German musician Torky Tork a piece of “Stankface Electronica”. The track delves into a mind melting synth display and uses breakbeat Hellscapes in some creatively delightful ways.
Low-end is where the track likes to live, with a bass-boosted keyboard acting as the track’s unmovable bedrock. Keys loop in and out at precise moments, eliciting a sense of controlled pandemonium. “The Descent” is not entirely devoid of rhythm either, crashing Trap drums enter and fade to the track and grant this song a unique pulse.
In an alternate universe, Danny Brown could’ve been rapping over top of this piece, there is a manic fury conjured up on “The Descent” that is very entertaining.
YOU DON’T KNOW
2019 was an unquestionably solid year to be a rapper from outside the US. Among a variety other strong rappers from the U.K., Loyle Carner provided a fairly unique sound to the genre. The evocatively titled Not Waving, But Drowning doesn’t mar itself down with aggro- music, nor does it wrap itself in politique, all while using rapping that’s glossy smooth.
“You Don’t Know” is a mellowed posse cut, Carner and some friends emcee alongside a lowkey instrumental and each trade off a respectable amount of bars. Loyle himself sticks to a sturdy flow and rarely concerns himself with any forced virtuosity, he holds a pocket and keeps it tight. It never falls into any “lyrical miracle” type of bars. His accent does provide a nice flavor to the overall track, further complemented by his tight flow and his enjoyable phrasing. Guest singer Kiko Bun also delivers a velvety texture to his sung chorus, effectively tying the track together into a neat package.
Each track from the album sifts solidly from one to the next, making for an enjoyable chill-out rap album. If you’re looking for new music that’s just left-of-center, this may be the pick for you.
Wand has the type of scattershot accomplishments that reminds you of the 90’s penchant for Psych trials and tribulations (Olivia Control Experiment, anybody?), making music that shoots for the moon and doesn’t pay mind to where it lands so long as it’s among the stars.
“Wonder” has distorted music that is large and outstretched. It understandably works its magic from the band’s chemistry and how they work off of one another. The track twists itself into a stupor and settles back down into cloud cuckoo land.
-Eagles of Death Metal
Eagles of Death Metal are a band that you just like to have around. They make it easy to like them, they’re always off in the background doing their own thing and cranking out some fun and reliable rock music. This year, they released an EP’s worth of cover songs and I took the plunge. Lo and behold, I found a fantastic party anthem in their rendition of the beloved song “Family Affair”.
Now, if you’re a less sophisticated man like myself, you may have also incorrectly assumed that it’s the Sly and The Family Stone Funk classic that they would be sinking their teeth into, a #1 single that has since proved it still has legs to stand on. Nope, instead they instead are covering the Mary J. Blige banger of the same name that was produced by Dr. Dre.
My overlooking of the Mary J. Blige‘s song is an err on my fault, that’s on me. Her self-righteous rumpshaker “Family Affair” was not just a worldwide smash but has been identified by Billboard to be the 99th most successful song of ALL TIME in their charts. High standards to live up to. Luckily, any of the bombastic energy found in the original is expertly replicated in this new rendition.
This cover version works in large part to its instrumentation, everything is played with enthusiasm and the band all has plenty of room to start bouncing off of each other. The muted guitars deliver the groove with an undeniable cool factor that makes you want to slip on some shades and nod the night away.
It can be difficult to pinpoint why this is an effective cover, while a surface-level look at Weezer‘s cover album falls flat. The Teal Album, of course, spawned a number of paint-it-by-the-numbers covers worthy of any number of eyerolls available to give. I’d like to single out their embarrassing rendition of TLC‘s “No Scrubs” as their worst, as the band takes a song that has equal levels of crazy, sexy, and cool to it and ends up mocking it in the process. Rivers Cuomo and the boys approach the beloved 90’s romp with the same amount of self-awareness and tact as a frat of drunken collegebros struggling through Alanis Morissette hits on Karaoke Wednesday. Just for the joke of it all. It’s staggering to compare this Weezer cover to “Family Business”, the difference is night and day: you’d roughly get the same results if you held the band Modest Mouse at gunpoint unless they record a 50 minute tribute CD of Destiny’s Child music.
So there, covering 90’s R&B isn’t a perfect science but these gentlemen in EoDM did just a bang up job. Feel free to add this to any Jock Jam/Party playlist, it’s bound to get people onto the dance floor. And if you got beef, it’s your prob, not mine.
-Durand Jones & The Indications
If you’re pining for an authentic Soul experience, look no further than Durand Jone & The Indications. The music that Durand and Co. put forth is sure to entice any obedient R&B/Golden aged Soul devotees. Durand is talented and passioned with his vocal contributions and the music has buttery smooth instrumentation that is just begging to be pressed onto wax.
The man of the hour is Mr. Jones of course, who delivers an earnest plea to any heavens that wish to hear his cries. His passionate singing may register with anyone who’s been enamoured with Charles Bradley‘s rise. Durand’s fantastic singing is given extra gravitas from minor-tinged strings that have a penchant for dramatics, practically lifted straight from the great Teddy Pendergrass.
As Pop music is currently undergoing a well-deserved revitalization, it’s almost impossible not to single out Ariana Grande as the ringleader to this new age of sophisticated, supremely personal Pop music.
Ariana is releasing new music after coming off the end of a year that could only be described as tumultuous for the singer. After capping last year with the track “Thank u, next”: a song that appears to only be growing more and more emblematic of its time, she pushed out an entirely new collection of songs only months after her Sweetener album in a nearly unprecedented move in the industry. The album appeared on store shelves as early as February this year and it became one of the first widely buzzed albums of the year. Seeing as how a handful of its tracks are still in heavy radio rotation as we speak, its impact has not diminished yet.
Regarding the non-singles of the record, “bloodline” is a fantastically catchy song filled with focused songwriting quirks. It should go without stating that the production is going to be immaculate, a slice of studio magic achieved with grande bucks and beaucoup spending. Ariana, the album’s star, is always perfectly in center of the mix with every small turn of phrase highlighted by the beatmakers working for her. She doesn’t go full bubblegum here though, as there are shadowy undercurrents that constantly appear in each song. Traumas and coping are common themes of the record, and the music is subsequently moody to match.
The best trick this song has to offer is the rubbery trumpet keys, supplemented by a slinky bass that is EQ’d to juuuust the right spot to give extra gravitas. Don’t forget that impossibly popular 123-123-12 rhythm that permeates all hit songs these days, it’s that tropical flavor borrowed from Dancehall music.
We’re lucky to have a time where we can have an Ariana type who presents as the real over-exuberant Popstar image while still falling on genuinely light and breezy songs. The songs are all incredibly listenable with plenty of room left to breathe.
The Norwegian band Bokassa have unleashed a fantastic set of adrenaline pumping tunes unto the world. The album Crimson Riders is among the finest that Heavy Metal has to offer this year, with several tracks that showcase the band’s talents. There is a little bit of something to enjoy for nearly every Metalhead out there.
My personal favorite is the track “Vultures”, a killer track with sharp guitar leads and a distinct band to play it. While the music is temple throbbing like you’d hope it’d be, the band thankfully comes through with a beyond hooky chorus that is sure to set lodge into your memory banks.
Throw in a “woah dude” saxophone solo, and you’ve got a recipe for a fantastic Rock song.
What good is a “Loud Mouth” without a sharp tongue to accompany it?Kristin Hersh punches out the competition on this cut, riding out a trippy song into some really cool territory. And when I say it’s “trippy”, I mean it: the song is always cycling around a 9/8 groove that constantly trips over itself and immediately picks itself back up, making for a very fascinating rhythm to center the song around.
She’s travelled quite the distance from her origins in Throwing Muses, and some more distance from her spellbinding premiere solo effort Hips and Makers, a fantastic solo record that is mostly acoustic and Folk oriented. Honestly, whatever prompted Kristin to make that record in 1994 seems to be where Jenny Lewis and her newest music endeavors have stemmed from as her work post-Rilo Kiley steps alongside a quite similar path.
Hersh’s vocals here are cryptic and laced with menace, perfectly suiting the grimness in the music underneath her. The music is given further decorations by some jovial sleigh bells and phaser guitar settings. She gives into the madness and willingly follows the sludgy whirlwind down the spiral.
DIAL THE RINGS OF A TREE
Thank god that Snapped Ankles are breathing some new life into Synthpunk music. Synthpunk is a cool and inherently contradictory and cool genre. “Synthesizers can’t be Punk! Shut up and play some Kraftwerk already…” But it proves to be a fruitful and unique take on the genre that few others seek out.
“Dial The Rings On A Tree” is filled with wonderfully bizarre sounds and a band camaraderie that ventures the track into an interesting headspace. The main synth riff is neat enough, but the fact this riff trades off with their guitarist increases the effectiveness overall.
Rapsody has consistently been a landmarker for Conscious Rap at its best and most thoughtful. As mentioned previously on this list, her newest album Eve takes its song titles from strong figures of black female empowerment, and Rapsody works to make its significance a strong one. She had one of the most important verses in rap this decade with her showstopping bars on Kendrick Lamar‘s “Complexion (A Zulu Love)”, laying down one of the most unique performances on the entire To Pimp A Butterfly album which was the best album released from the 2010’s. Few lyrics this decade were as compelling as her claims to
“The new James Bond going to be blacker than me. Black as brown hazelnut, cinnamon, black tea, and it’s all beautiful to me.”
A highlight to “Ibtihaj” is D’Angelo‘s contribution to the song, where his usual tenor singing is pitch shifted lower into an unfamiliar sounding timbre for the Neo-Soul singer. Eve also takes pride in utilizing some recognizable sampling, “Cleo” flips the already haunting “In The Air Tonight” into something even eerier, and Rapsody finds some traction in a beat constructed from Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man”.
Rapsody navigates the track with ease and leaves no mistake over who this song belongs to. Her raps are impactful and leave a lasting memory of why she’s a force to be reckoned with.
William Tyler is on a journey with acoustic guitar in hand, setting out to explore the farthest depths of his instrument. There is quite the sensation of distance travelled through his playing.
“Rebecca” is very peaceful and works to bring out the likeness of a sunny day. There is no shortage of solo guitar music being made but it rarely feels like something that merits much attention. Simply put, while a lot of it doesn’t seem all that expressive, William Tyler works to set a scene and make his acoustic excursions worthwhile.
Every now and then it is worth stepping back and acknowledge how actually versatile an acoustic guitar can be. Tyler possesses phenomenal technique on his instrument, moving across each line very well. All along his Goes West album he strums, picks, and frets his way across the instrument, gaining some support along the way. His playing develops in real time and doesn’t easily reside just as being background noise.
Shut up and play yer guitar.
Danny Brown is back at it again.
Some have expressed surprise that he’s now assuming the role of a rap elder statesman, but it’s actually a pretty fitting persona for him if you stop to think about it. He is older than many other youngins in the game at the moment and he has spent many a-year honing in his craft. He got a bag and fixed his teeth, he’s done a couple commercials now, and he even had Q-Tip exec. produce this new album. After the nihilistic anxiety attack that was Atrocity Exhibition I think it’s perfectly admissible for Brown to try on a different look.
The beats are courtesy of A Tribe Called Quest‘s own Q-Tip and the new music has an understandably retro sound. At times, the beats sound like they come from an Atari as they bleep and bloop underneath the rapper. Danny raps a lot more about positive change and growth, notably so on the single “Best Life”: an ode to overcoming the odds and treating yourself to the best life that you deserve.
“Dirty Laundry” is a surprisingly wordy rap track given that it relies almost exclusively on telling laundry puns. This might sound like the instantly wack track by J. Cole track “Foldin Clothes” which also used laundry talk ad infinitum. The difference is that J. Cole’s laundry-centric raps seemed to be not metaphorical or figurative in the slightest, it’s assumedly a rap track very literally about doing your laundry. Danny Brown leans into the campiness of the song he’s on and uses the song’s concept to wrangle together as many creative turns of phrases that he can fire up. It brings to mind the inventiveness of MM… FOOD from MF DOOM, where using such a narrow concept like food puns can really bring out his inventiveness.
Despite being caught underneath heaps of dirty laundry, Danny Brown comes out the other side looking fresher than ever
FULL BLOWN MELTDOWN
This was a good year to be the band PUP: the quick-witted Pop Punk band that brought forth a highly animated collection of songs that will make you want to do more than just order greasy takeout food and drunk-dial your ex again.
For me, I find the band at their most enthralling when they lash out and thrash, the razor-sharp “Full Blown Meltdown” does not disappoint. The boisterous sound they create is enhanced by some tight production, creating a palpable full-band sound that adds some even more fuel to their onslaught.
The guitars here are sharp and backed by a constant propulsion on the drums, all with some aggrandizing lyrics to boot. The band eventually evens out somewhere past the halfway mark before coming to a brutal finish. It’s the meltdown train-wrecked spectacle that you won’t want to look away from.
Among the intimidating snarls and intense jaw gnashing of their Pop Punk competition, PUP’s new album still proves that they still are top dog.
I’m always glad to be able to include a spot for successful Jazz Fusion, and “Bird Toupeé” is a treat for modern listeners everywhere. From its start, the guitar is the real hero of this song, gliding between instruments with some scale runs that are soothing in their complexity and all handled with ease and seemingly thought out.
It’s not impossible to draw a connecting line between this performance and something from Frank Zappa‘s own catalog, particularly that of Waka/Jawaka or Sleep Dirt. The entire band gets their moment to shine on this cut, never letting the overall mood of the song slip through their fingers. It’s a real sight to behold.
“Bird Toupee” is a fantastic piece of Jazz Fusion.
For my money’s worth, I think that Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys is the best album ever made. It may not necessarily be my favorite album ever, but I view it as a virtually flawless album and I’ve made no bones about it in the past.
That being said, the perceived perfection of it doesn’t leave it with an unwanted air of untouchability. In fact: it’s quite charming when artists take their swing at it. The freshest take I’ve heard in recent memory comes from The Pretenders‘ singer Chrissie Hynde, who serves up an unpredictable and thoroughly engrossing rendition at one of Brian Wilson‘s very best.
Chrissie lays some positively smoky vocals over music of a different influence than you’d expect. The band assumes form as a 70’s dub band, full of Reggae bounciness and spaciness. Yeah. The song obviously has a sturdy skeleton to build off of and the music takes its’ innate complexity and twists it into something new. Somehow, these disparate elements all blend together into something that really works. I could picture someone choosing to listen to this for different purposes than they’d pick the original, it works on some different levels. It was probably a good call to extend the songs running time by doubling its length, the original song is very short even by Pet Sounds’ standards.
Chrissie Hynde’s expert handling of this song also goes to show why her contributions to The Pretenders were so important, she refused to be boxed into any one category. She breaks free and does what she wants.
This strong-willed Indie song clings tight to it’s guitar hooks and doesn’t forget to pack a wallop. Mike Krol writes a rock song that’s as light footed as it is impactful, harkening back to a different time in the Rock landscape.
The distortion on the track gives the song a firm sense of romanticism, not too far removed from the early 2000’s flood of Indie Rockers in the vein of The Strokes, Yuck, or Franz Ferdinand. The music on display is ultra catchy and full of these tiny guitar moments that’ll keep the listener coming back for more. The songwriter is a blushing, bleeding-heart type who is conveniently hidden behind walls of guitar fuzz, just enough to attract a shell of artifice to surround himself. Case in point: the chorus of the track in which he clearly shouts “Can somebody call me an ambulance/To save me from myself?”. The steady buildup and fall down the major scale is reminiscent of teenagers riding a roller-coaster, climbing up to the top just to shoot back down for another verse.
Have no confusion, his fuzzed to Hell and back guitars/vocals are being used to heighten the catchy Power-Pop songwriting on the track. The album is named Power Chords and everything revolves back around to that style of playing. Simplicity is key, listen to the bass line that just hammers down those constant notes for you to get lost in, begging you to just get up and get lost in it’s hypnotism.
It’s a good time to be in a Psychedelic Rock band. Black Mountain have been biding their time very well, at this point they have a pretty distinguished and varied career under their belt and their recent output is up to snuff. Their Destroyer album this year was a trove of small treasures, showing this inventive band throw caution to the wind. As to be expected, some of their impulses pan out and some don’t, but it’s the ride that you pay for.
“Boogie Lover” is among the most effective songs on the record, storming out of the gate riding a unique groove and switching up the playbook often. Throwing an envelope filter on your bass player will always sound awesome and the song has heavy keyboard stabs to immediately bring the likeness of Richard Wright to mind.
Along with fellow Psych-heads in King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard: 2019 is officially the year of boogieing down.
There’s a new king in town, and he answers to the name Anderson .Paak.
.Paak is an über talented musician who is in high demand, luckily while still maintaining a speedy release schedule. We might not get another “Bubblin'”out of him for a while, but there is still no shortage of worthwhile material to appreciate.
Another year, another Anderson .Paak album, this time it’s Ventura. “King James” is a curvy, groove-centric song that is eager to please. The music is frenetic and filled with some manic musicianship, a clear indicator that it is a .Paak project. That’s not to forget the cavalcade of wildcard features he gathered. How about getting THE Smokey Robinson to appear alongside you? Check out “Make It Better” for that one, it’s a real treat.
The opening sax line and a wub bass hook you in from the start, while Anderson’s forceful personality will keep you around for the long haul. Sometimes Anderson’s own vocal contributions can go under appreciated, he brings forth another stellar job on this song with his usual slight rasp and very lively delivery.
Spirited and colorful, this is a fine example of .Paak putting his strengths in the largest spotlight he can shine.
-Tyler, The Creator, Playboi Carti
Much has been said about Tyler, The Creator‘s remarkable growth as an artist in the latter half of this decade. Many of the rapper/producer’s longstanding ride-or-die fans have expressed their amazement at his shift in trajectory, but even the most devout of his supporters would likely have never imagined he’d release an album like IGOR.
Much of the album fixates around love and love lost, some of which is stated explicitly and some is shrouded in secrecy and unheard vocals. The production tone is consistent the entire LP through and there is a definite effort to put the songwriting on a high pedestal. Despite some stiff competition, I think the track “EARFQUAKE” (which opens the album proper) stands as my favorite, possessing a unique grasp on melody and those strange production frills that have become Tyler, The Creator’s M.O.
Words come fewer and fewer on Tyler, The Creator’s projects, and the most effective lyrics here are the ones that cut directly to the chase. You feel the emotion when the music halts behind a simple plea of “Don’t leave, it’s my fault”, which is further pitchshifted and distorted for urgency and desperation. Jaunty pianos stubbornly play the minor keyed chords while a violent, buzzing synth grabs ahold of anything it can latch onto. Noises whir around in stereophonic sound, lifting the song upwards from its muddy bass and finds a unique island to stand on.
At risk of sounding like a joke, I’ll opine that Playboi Carti is the most noteworthy performer to the song. Baby-voice Carti is a fan favorite and this verse is just as nonsensical as you’d come to hope from his featured verses. He may as well have recorded his feature in Simlish language, the man is just straight unintelligible. Still, the rhythm and timbre of his part fit the song all too well, somehow. It’s that inexplicable Schrodinger’s Artistry of his that made Die Lit a work of accidental genius.
Who knows what the follow up to IGOR will look like, let’s just appreciate that we have this music to get through tough times. Music that could even stop the Earth, even if it’s just for this moment.
It’s been a while since I’ve listened to a “challenging” album that ended up being, well, actually challenging. That is something of high praise to be made of Kim Gordon‘s first solo effort outside of Sonic Youth: No Home Record, an apparent reference to “No Home Movie“. It is simply astonishing to hear someone at age 66 make music this noisy and mercilessly abrasive. This music exists outside of any trends at large and it plays by her own experimentalism.
A long road was travelled by Sonic Youth, a band who’s had been argued to be the single most groundbreaking rock band of the 1980s. Their dissolution in 2011 was upsetting but not surprising, there was surely a point where the name was stifling itself more than anything else. The members aged out of a band name that was designed for a singular moment in time. Their origins in the No-Wave scene rarely allowed any bands to age gracefully as most artists met a decisive end early on in their careers, Sonic Youth were the exception to the rule. Gordon releasing music on her own seemed like the most rational route to go, and while it stands on its own magnificently, it also shines a light on how important her contributions were to her band prior.
The beloved Alt-Rock book “Our Band Could Be Your Life” discusses the successes of Sonic Youth by stating:
“[they] were all avid consumers of rock magazines, books, and documentaries. They’d studied the mistakes everyone from Chuck Berry to Neil Young had made and weren’t about to repeat them if they could help it”.
No Home Record is entirely aware of what musical faux-pas are being brought forward, these oddities are no mistakes.
“Murdered Out” is one of the few tracks that could actually function as a rock song, a Noise Rock song at that. The music on “Murdered Out” and the album at large doubles down on what made Sonic Youth the cataclysmic band of the underground, everything up to and including walls of pure sound being done with intentionality. Song structures are used only when mandatory, otherwise going by unrestrained through most of the songs. On some tracks you’d be almost entirely forgiven for completely forgetting that Kim even played the bass guitar, everything drops out except for what’s of utmost importance to the song. It’s refreshing hearing someone who is notorious for having a hungry ear create something that clearly couldn’t have been made at any other point in time with her past incarnations.
It is hard not to deeply respect her ambition to keep pushing forward and innovate this far into her career. Her wit is sharp as ever and that fire inside is burning with intensity.
Synthpop is still alive and well, clearly evidenced when Ladytron hits the scene. The group returned with their first material in eight years with a self-titled album interestingly enough. Any self-respecting music nerd would be privy to the fact that they’ve named themselves after a classic song from Roxy Music, a cut from Roxy Music’s debut record in fact which is one of the best tracks on there if I may say so. This should set off several alarms, as it implies a band who are clearly indebted to the synth wizardry of Brian Eno, who himself has given high praise on the group.
The crisp drum patterns and inspired synth layering will surely appeal to any Kraftwerk or Depeche Mode diehards while still winning over any production hounds who live to hear state-of-the-art production for electronic styled music. There might even be some extra love to give from the fans of Vaporwave.
“The Island” doesn’t sacrifice melodic intelligence either, the melody is every bit as equal to any of the keyboard texturing that mainlines the song.
PRESSURE TO PARTY
I’ve really been enjoying reading about all the enthusiasm for Julia Jacklin that’s been springing up all across the internet. I’ve only started listening to her music this year, but it is reassuring as a listener to find there’s an audience for an album of this nature. The songs stem straight from her brain to her fingertips and you really get a sense of who Jacklin is through her penned material.
Who knew you could get so much excitement from lyric writing about mad social anxiety? The most lively track of the pack is “Pressure To Party”, an unlikely rager that is the closest she gets to a full-on Courtney Barnett moment.
I suppose it’s about time that someone wrote an anthem for the wallflower. Ironically, the song sounds inviting, like a party that everyone is invited to. I get the idea that Jacklin was be the type of kid in high school who ditched her school’s Prom and threw her own Morp anti-party in her parents basement instead. Like, a get together safe haven for her arthouse crowd to dance around to Animal Collective or something.
Is anybody else crying at this house show?
Here’s a slice of light Psychedelia that effortlessly taps into dreaminess; lifting upward to the skies themselves.
The music of this track is delicate to the senses, lilting from the get-go. “Trails” triumphs because it plays around with heavy atmosphere and finds the elegance of being a self-contained phenomenon. The track evolves in a significant manner, particularly when it’s shifting into a chorus that doesn’t explode as much as it blossoms. The stakes are raised further when saxophones are introduced to shifting its shape into something awe-inspiring.
To an extent, this sound could almost be classified as a very soft Shoegaze. Loafers-gaze, perhaps. It has an abstractness that becomes inflated with grandiosity, all culminating to a largely ethereal effect comparable to supernova.
I’d like to give a word to the wise (that’s you: the reader), and suggest that Slow Pulp is a band on the rise.
The Dream-Pop adjacent band has just a few EPs to their name but there is an incredible amount of promise to their assembly of lo-fi aesthetics, shapeshifting melody lines and some inspired instrumentation.
Of their 2019 releases, I have the most respect for the track “High”, a song that promises a couple things lyrically like hazy paranoia and stoned over-indulgence.
“High” is finely crafted, what with its’ gorgeous double tracked vocals from Emily Massey and an exquisite chord progression that unravels itself into high rises and larger-picture revelations. It is a song that gives entirely different moods when its intro is played on solo acoustic than when it’s later joined by distorted electric guitars.
The song has a handful of surprises to offer; if you think you’ve pinned this track down in its first 60 seconds then you should think again. The band favors quick-witted subversion and kickstarts the track into something special.
The Highwomen is a new Country supergroup comprised of fledgling fresh talents Marin Morris, Amanda Shires, Natalie Hemby, and Brandi Carlile, who in particular is riding a career high after her Grammy wins last year for her song “The Joke” (a song that I named my 18th favorite of 2018). The name is clearly in tribute to the revered group of Country legends The Highwaymen, although there are a few apparent differences between the two groups. For starters, it’s worth noting that the Highwomen are beginning their group while each of the artists are at their relative career high points, whereas The Highwaymen were understandably pretty deep into their varied careers at that point.
Thankfully, the group works hard to give probable cause to why they work together. Every member puts their best foot forward and they have a palpable chemistry together as songwriters and as singers. The group made a strong impression earlier this year when they performed Fleetwood Mac‘s “The Chain” on live television.
“The Highwomen” is a dark, even harrowing song and it was a very bold move to make this the first song of their career, ditto to making it their self-titled song. The subject matter is grim and far-encompassing, detailing the spiritual journeys of women facing atrocities across history whose very essence is carried on from one generation to another. The lyrics land because the wordplay is precise & humanistic and the full-group unison comes together in a way that sells the track. The thematic nature of the song is inherently female, tying itself back to beginning of all life and giving more life the world.
“The Highwomen” is a gift that keeps on giving, and is sure to stay under your skin well after you listen to it.
At this point in his long, weathered career, Bill Callahan is the residing pioneer of his Folk driven Indie sound. Whether it be from his prolific solo career or his previous material under the Smog name, he has provided countless thought-provoking tales throughout his discography.
Shepherd in A Sheepskin Vest is yet another compelling project by Callahan, who is writing more music that is full of wit and confidence than is rarely seen in modern times. Like any other greats, “Angela” has no shortage of magnificent storytelling quips. The listener is engaged with attentive imagery straight from the opening line.
“Oh Angela. Like motel curtains, we never really met.”
The lyrics are complemented by a music that travels forward in a quiet trance. Never content with fully leaning into a sadness of tone, there’s always a bizarrely hopeful and optimistic tone to go around. The interplay of instruments simulates what salvation must get like after a while. After all, this style of instrumentation yearns all the way back to the playing found on Astral Weeks 50 years ago.
There is not an unapproachable divide between music and lyrics, the two often benefit each other very well. When our singer harks that “Our love goes on” it is punctuated by inquisitive chord choices, almost like the guitar itself is raising eyebrows in unsureness when rising in pitch.
-Sharon Van Etten
At the #38 spot of the countdown is the song “Hands”, an electrifying cut from one of the biggest critical darlings of the year.
Just behind Weyes Blood’s Titanic Rising, there likely hasn’t been another record this year that’s been as coveted as Sharon Van Etten‘s Remind Me Tomorrow. While the entire project is enjoyable, there are a handful of songs to be singled out as must-listen moments. Perhaps the most acclaimed has been “Seventeen”, an emotionally intelligent look at teenaged yearnings and awkwardness of youth told through the rearview of a bittersweet nostalgia. The music builds up like an Arcade Fire anthem and reaches great heights in the process. “Comeback Kid” was another certified earworm not to be missed.
My gut told me to pick “Hands” as my favorite from the album. Like most songs on Remind Me Tomorrow, “Hands” has a number of unidentifiable qualities to its making, it comes alive with a thought-provoking assembly. There is always a peculiar buzzing traveling around the mix, a sort of shapeshifting entity that infuses a controlled artifice to this otherwise personable track.
If there is anything to be singled out as the most convincing element in her music, it must be Sharon herself. Her singing toes the line of controlled politeness and an unrelenting frankness.
-King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard
I’m not going to waste much time by talking up another King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard release. We know the drill, the Australian Psych-Rock juggernauts have released 15 studio albums since 2012, including a whopping five albums in 2017 alone. In just 2019, the Gizzards have blessed us with two albums of very differing sound and genre.
On their first release of 2019, KGATLW reach levels of boogie previously unimaginable. A full 1/3 of the song’s titles have the word “Boogie” in it and the official Wikipedia page lists it as Boogie-Rock, a classification that I do not fully agree with even if it is pretty funny. On the wonderfully titled Fishing For Fishies, the band slips into a Grateful Dead meets Dr. John type of persona, exploring aspects of their band identity that may have been coat-checked in their previous outings. Fishing For Fishies proved to be the perfect music for Springtime relaxation, the songs swell and bristle at leisurely pace.
“Boogieman Sam” is a joyfully motivated song that takes you through the lands of boogie and beyond. The guitars are firmly planted onto the groove and are given a metallic slant with their amp settings. There is a wonderful guitar effect in the bridge of the song, in which the guitar is seemingly playing just barely out of sync with his delay/phaser settings, almost acting as an automatic killswitch. Their keyboardist also adds in some fantastic harmonica playing to finish the ‘drifting down the bayou’ appeal.
JESUS FORGIVE ME, I AM A THOT
Rest assured, JPEGMAFIA can still conjure up some head-turning song titles, that’s for sure. And thankfully, he can pack each of these crazy song concepts with heavy bars and a strong ‘anything goes’ ethos in his artistry.
On “Jesus Forgive Me, I Am A Thot”, the track begins with a collage of noise and frenzy: use your imagination and it’s probably what it’d sound like if you threw a microphone inside a washing machine. That is until the beat begins proper, in which there are surprises both new and old from Peggy. Like anything else he’d put his name on, JPEGMAFIA has an unflinchingly rebellious streak to his music, leaving nothing up to chance and arranging nearly everything to his music all by himself. This is the man who boasts that he “made the beat cuz I’m that good” on his own songs while rapping up a storm; his work an extension from his personality.
The best trick in his toolbag for this new album is an unusual addition to the JPEGMAFIA ouvre: melody. There are chord outlines on these songs and his sampling of found sounds are now being designated to particular pitch instead of just delegated to harsh rhythms. It’s a shock to hear Peggy soar away into an autotune falsetto for this song’s chorus, but it is that extra oomph that elevates the song into something really special.
Like many other songs in his catalog, he’s often flying by the seat of his pants. The lyrics are quick and not always concerned with registering immediately. There’s a noticeable flub on the track actually, when Peggy accidentally mispronounces the name of Talking Heads‘ frontman David Byrne, instead calling him David Bryne to better fit his rhyme. While it is off-putting each time I hear it, it does go to show just how rapid-fire he is as an artist.
It’s worth noting that this album earns its name after what has become the most overused armchair-critic buzzword of the year: “Corny”. It’s an easy descriptor that’s difficult to refute and has been tagged onto near every unpopular rapper this year: good or bad. Likewise, the promotion for this album features a variety of musicians simply saying the new music is “DISAPPOINTING”. Hearing Wilco‘s Jeff Tweedy jest his “disappointment” with JPEGMAFIA was not something I was equipped for this year, and it adds another level of entertainment tot the project.
One of his greatest strengths is his pursuit in messing with audience expectations, he refuses to be leveled down into something easily digestible for the masses. Playing into his own image, the album has a self-parody track titled “JPEGMAFIA TYPE BEAT” that plays out exactly about how you’d imagine. With another fantastic album under his belt, JPEGMAFIA proves to be one of the most innovative and self-reliant rappers around.
LAST CHANCE COUNTY
Let down by the new Sleater-Kinney album? Then you definitely shouldn’t overlook this side-project from S-K’s own Corrine Tucker and R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck. Funnily enough, this band sounds more akin to what fans would expect from Tucker, but it was released to surprisingly little fanfare. Released on the Kill Rock Stars label, Filthy Friends prove their worth with some rowdy material, including their single “Last Chance County”
Corrine Tucker’s vocals are as passionate and skyscraping as they’ve ever been, and it’s actually a relief to hear her vibrato banshee wailing be supported by a bass player: an instrument previously not available in Sleater-Kinney. You can really feel the power when she unleashes her voice on the chorus’ “Last chance for me” bit. The sing-song speech of the verses works well too, giving off a mood similar to the eternally cool “Los Angeles” from 80’s Punk rockers X. The band is having fun here as well, the right-channel guitar shreds on some some block chords and the drummer is nailing those hi-hats during choruses.
Make sure that you can give a chance to the electrifying “Last Chance County”.
-Black Pistol Fire
You can either spend your time by bein’ busy, or waste today regretting instead. That’s how Black Pistol Fire rolls, they are seemingly never hesitant to be playing live shows and be pumping out new tunes. Their turnaround process is so fast sometimes that even small production errors can sneak into their recordings (note the brief clipping at 0:09 of this song). A very small price to pay for energized musicians and tight schedule.
The electric Blues duo shake it down to just the raw essentials of Hard Rock music, favoring mean guitar grooves and punchy backbeats more than anything else. Guitarist/vocalist Kevin McKeown wields his seafoam green guitar while channelling his inner Jack White, and drummer Eric Owens clearly idolizes the work of John Bonham. Most of their most respectable qualities are found in “Level”, a sleek rocker that goes hard takes no prisoners.
At the song’s chorus, the singer shouts about taking you down to his level, betwixt some very catchy “woah-oh-oh”s, naturally. The same “woah-oh-oh”s that need to be written into just about every rock song now.
Dragging you down to their level doesn’t even register as a threat, but takes form as a challenge instead -it is presented as a fun way to kill time.
I knew that saving a spot on this list for Duster’s comeback album would be a good idea. The Slowcore heroes have been M.I.A. for longer than many of their fans have even been alive, releasing two studio albums in the 1990’s before retiring entirely. Duster had reunited recently and had even shared their plans to record new music again, announcing it’d see release in the last breaths of the year. That is fantastic news for tastemakers and music fans at large but their proposed release date was not very reassuring for people who like to rank things in a sufficient manner. Just think of all the publications who finished and released their best-of lists while letting this one slip by.
So I’ve had to spend a lot of time with this album and FAST! This album is designed to be a grower by default. Their genre is Slowcore for crying out loud, you can’t rush that. The music presented on 2019’s Duster is very easy to appreciate on its own merits luckily, even if it does understandably require some patience to fully unlock.
The album’s first track “Copernicus Crater” is a fine one to extract from the larger listening experience, it has unique sensibilities and the song structure is nowhere near laborious. The band shows that lo-fi doesn’t come exclusively from absolute necessity. Duster actually has some budget this time around and they employ some different instruments on here, while never sacrificing the atmosphere that runs deep through their music. The music is not monotonous, there’s a different flavor of the Dust on every song.
The band delivered on this comeback LP. It may be the most best rock comeback album this decade apart from Slowdive‘s return or Daughters You Won’t Get What You Want if you can really count that as a comeback. If you aren’t familiar with this group already, this may actually stand to be a fine introductory point for new listeners.
It’s a no-mans-land out there these days, and the Belgian Garage-Rock band Balthazar will magically transport you to the dry heat of the Sahara desert. Talk about a super unappreciated album from this year, there is so much imagination and sparks igniting on Fever that I can’t help but feel like people might have missed out on this diamond in the rough.
“Fever” begins with a rollicking bass line that’s sliding and groaning its’ way down the neck. Not before too long, it’s joined a series of polyphony that builds the kinetic undercurrents that run through its veins. That plunky rhythmic line that bounces around can’t help but make me think of the native from the “Down Under” music video that’s playing a set of Coke bottles with his drumsticks.
Its atmosphere brings to mind the sweeping plains of a desert badlands; rough while mightier and more expansive than the eye can see. Much like these lands, the track is built with many textures. Wheezing strings from Bollywood descend from the skies, splashing artificial rainfall onto the bone-dry grounds. The band is clever with their percussion as well, blending it with the core instruments. The song ventures to territory where a janky guitar part can steal the show, even if it’s just for a moment.
This fever is wild, this fever is chill inducing, this fever is… one of Balthazar’s own creation.
DO YOU LOVE HER NOW?
If the year of 2019 in music were to go down in the history books for anything, it might be the unforeseen return of the Neu-Hop messiah Jai Paul. His influence on music this decade has been widely mythologized and has been subject to unhealthy speculation with the common rhetoric suggesting that this entire generation of R&B has had his fingerprints all over it.
Then why haven’t more people heard of him? The answer you probably already know is that Jai Paul has released just two songs -two demos, actually, in the early 2010’s and subsequently vanished as soon as he arrived. His unexpected rise to prominence was unprecedented at the time, his two demo songs were uploaded to his Myspace page before they caught on like wildfire. It was at that time when everybody and their mothers were buzzing about this radical take on R&B with his songs “BTSTU” and “jasmine”.
This type of instant success is nearly unprecedented, I should say. This current era of music consumption has also led to the one man project Unknown Mortal Orchestra to become a true overnight sensation, when Ruban Nielson historically uploaded a track to Bandcamp and found thousands of people were circulating this music from someone who was a literal unknown, jumpstarting a fruitful music career that UMO hasn’t looked back from yet.
But this was not the case for Jai Paul. After his half-finished studio album infamously was leaked online, he abandoned the project and music altogether, disappearing back into the void. Until now, that is. Earlier this year, he had uploaded two whole new songs on streaming services, essentially DOUBLING all of his recorded output. The two tracks were “Do You Love Her Now” and “He”, along with him making his previously leaked albums available to the public under the name Leak 04-13 (Bait Ones). It seems like cheating to include BAIT ONES onto this list of 2019 songs. This is the same principle that won’t allow me in good faith to include any songs from the INCREDIBLE Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980-1990 compilation despite its 2019 release.
The two new tracks are exemplary, a true blue continuation of all the previous work we’ve known from him. “Do You Love Her Now” is R&B run through the tumble dryer, each instrument has its own space to rotate around and the product in whole becomes something fully dimensional. It’s easy to spot Prince‘s eccentricities that run through these songs, cruising at a speed ripped straight from the Sign O The Times LP. Jai Paul uses some futuristic sounds that often make the entire experience sound surreal. In terms of effectively building a song, the rhythms build in similar manner to a U2 song (don’t hate me). The other track “He” is swell too, using some bizarre timbres and an interesting utilization of his skills as a vocalist. The keyboards are minimal at times and the rhythms are barbaric and forceful.
After so many years, people had to keep asking what would new Jai Paul sound like, if it would ever happen? Now we know. It is the sound of flying high and gliding above over everything else.
EVERY WAVE TO EVER RISE
-American Football, Elizabeth Powell
In 1999, three restless boys from Illinois grabbed their off-tuned guitars and proceeded to write and record an album that was never meant for anything beyond that one summer in 1999. They promptly broke up and left behind an absent-minded masterpiece in the aftermath -a one of a kind album whose influence would only grow and snowball from there on out. This is the story of American Football, a once-upon-a-time band whose sole album would leave behind a massive footprint in the music world, further supplemented by a lasting legacy revolving around their mysterious and short-lived existence.
The debut American Football album has become the landmark album to the Midwest Emo movement (‘Emo’ being a once demeaning music descriptor that has since been retrograded into something respectable in itself. See also: the reappraisal of Disco music in recent years.). Their inventive melding of Post-Hardcore’s angular guitar interplay and Math Rock’s evocative yet surprisingly emotionally resonant odd timed rhythms are what gave the group an identity to be reckoned with, all of which was topped off by the the youthfully misunderstood murmurs of singer Mike Kinsella, previously of Cap’n Jazz. A man of few words, he sings less than 400 words total throughout the album’s forty minute runtime. While the album was virtually ignored upon release, it later found a foothold in suburban homes across America, etching its way into niche areas of Midwestern Alternative music.
At least, all of this WAS the story. For a couple decades in fact. Fast forward to the now and they’d not only gotten the band back together, but they have since added two new albums to their discography (their second album was released in 2016 and the third came out this year).
Years have passed. Entire genres created to their likenesses have formed in their wake. Internet memes featuring their signature song go viral. In Indie music lore, their post-breakup rise to legendary status can only be rivaled by 1991’s Spiderland, in that both albums reached that elusive feat where it’s sales and influence grew exponentially year by year to the present day. For a band whose absence was as integral to them as their brief existence was, what were they to do when reforming? After all, it is always a difficult and sometimes awkward task to try and recapture past glory, especially when their past work was so clearly lightning in a bottle the first time around.
This takes us to their new album. After a lukewarm reception to their comeback album in 2016, their third release finds a balance that is worth your time. The bright and shiny polyphony found in opening track “Silhouettes” is a welcoming sign, and its second song “Every Wave To Ever Rise” is what seals the deal. Mathematical layering of twinkling guitars form a dream catcher of music unto itself, weaving through time and harmony at leisure all the while being punctuated by off-time landings from the bass notes. Much of their previous lyrical content was wrapped around the fears of growing old, subject matter that an older songwriter utilize from a fresh perspective, adapting to this apparent curveball thrown at them.
New material from American Football means new opportunities to sow their seeds as influencers. Seeing how so many modern artists were influenced by the band, they were able to snag some fantastic featured artists on this album, showing the group rubbing elbows with some cool cats. More often than not, the collaborations are knock-out winners, not least of which is Elizabeth Powell of Canadian Indie Rock band Land of Talk featured on this song. Her dreamy sighs on the instrumental make for blissfully soothing vocals, turning any of her lyrics into captivating pillowtalk.
In “Every Wave To Ever Rise”, the boys in American Football are holding their trident high and choose to ride this wave to newer places.
It is wild how the big three bands of the Shoegazing genre have had such successful late period revivals. Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine, & Ride have all been showing the young whippersnappers how important they’ve been and how nobody has been able to step up to fill their spots. Whether you’re looking at Slowdive’s revelatory 2017 restart Slowdive, the long fabled follow-up to Loveless from MBV, or Ride’s soft reboot back into the game on Weather Diaries, each Shoegaze band has provided new worthwhile additions to their estate. Ride’s true reinvention may be on this most recent album, it is well crafted music that shows their worth in this modern age as well for a knack for *gasp* a sharper focus on songwriting.
Let it be known that “Forever Love” is a sharply written song, a surprising development from the loose ephemeral feel from the genre’s heyday. Its construction just feels wise. It’s the kind of laser-pointed focus grouped songwriting you could only hope for, one that came from a self-reliant rock band strangely enough. It’s irreverent melodies make it resemble that of a Power-Pop song by the likes of The Rubinoos or Raspberries even. The track has qualities carried over from their sophomore record Going Blank Again as well, creating an interesting concoctions of music past and new.
Among their peers, it seems that Ride were always the ones who remembered to write songs at the center of all their ‘songs’. Showboating effect extravaganzas are sorta the genre’s Rosetta Stone, but it’s still a relief to hear a Shoegaze band tweak the formula and try some different methods. Heck, there’s a faction of fans don’t even regard their sophomore album Shoegaze at all because it was so melodic and different.
This late-period renaissance is made all more welcomed by their already fantastic back catalog. Realistically, the band wouldn’t need to make another song again after releasing the eternal “Vapour Trail” to the world, one of the 90’s most celebrated songs.
When Ride is behind the wheel, they manifest their own future and make it for forever.
I think it’s hard to deny that black midi was the most important rock band of the year. Few if any other bands attracted the same levels of intrigue and unpredictability from their music. Simply put, they were shaking things up unlike anyone else.
Hype for their debut album has building since they released their single titled “Talking Heads”, plotting them on my radar as a band to look out for. Still though, their climb to relevance was a pretty meteoric one considering the unconventional nature of their material. With many pairs of curious eyes and patient ears upon them, they released their debut album Schlagenheim on June 21st of this year.
And it’s a solid first effort. The ideas these gentlemen bring to their music are worth digging into and hint that there’s so much room to build outward from here on out in their careers. The songs on Schlagenheim are often creative but not always very imaginative necessarily, but your mileage may vary. If I were pressed to pick a favorite from this album (which I am, it’s my job), I’d give it to the opening cut “953”, a manic-compulsive song with a short leash and even shorter fuse.
The song makes its presence known in its earliest measures, utilizing some sputtering guitar rhythms, slinky instrumental passes, and a breakneck tempo. And good lord, what can even be said of their singer? He sings these songs with all the energy of a ticking time bomb waiting to go off at any second. No wait, scratch that. He sounds like Jello Biafra gargling a mouthful of bumblebees. He is admirably reaching the absolute breaking point of his vocal cords, reaching the zenith of impossibly strained shouts achieved through pure willpower.
Experimental rock music is still alive and well, you just have to explore the fringes for it. Math Rock is seeing some excellent expansion and black midi demonstrate what it’s like to be in an electrifying rock band.
-Blu, Oh No
This selected song is but one chapter from the Hip-Hop collab album A Long Red Hot Los Angeles Summer Night, a pseudo-concept Rap album that sizzles with intensity and purpose. It is very possibly the best pure rap album of 2019.
Over the course of the album, the lyrics begin to expand and develop new emotional poignancies, centering around living one’s best slum mafioso lifestyle and going through ins-and-outs of gang banging and half hearted revelries. “Pop Shots” enters at the rising action portion of the tracklist, using a tense and grimy tone to heighten the stakes of the story. The narrative is simply a means to give some weight to the music, it’s all certainly enjoyable on its own when removed from the larger body. The narrative is not a make-or-break element, this is not a The Astonishing type of album bloat.
“Pop Shots” is home to virtuoso wordplay and the slipperiest flow that you can find, all of which is on top of a beat custom fit for head bobbing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are even flashes of Madlib-esque production, which is never ever a bad thing.
When you hear these shots pop, you’ll want to step back and take cover.
WAY TO THE SHOW
Let me raise the theory that Solange‘s second album When I Get Home was a victim to its’ own release schedule. As a March release, When I Get Home was the first major album of this year (barring Ariana‘s thank u next) and expectations were probably raised too unfairly for music of this nature. We were just coming off of 2018 -which one of the greatest years for music in recent memory that I don’t think we’re going to see the likes of again any time soon -and the delivered material from Solange’s follow-up to A Seat At The Table was released to a pretty tepid response.
It’s likely that this underwhelming reception was due to how the music isn’t what people were probably anticipating from her. First off, When I Get Home is kind of a heady listen and isn’t all that accessible. The music wasn’t outwardly “difficult” per-say, but it was also not music that’s very useful to the average consumer. Some critics were writing about this album like it was supposed to be her attempt at making Kid A, it was weird. Without anything in this year to compare it to, most listeners put it in the toybox and moved on, waiting patiently for different music to come out instead. Solange stood alone in her field at the time of its release. Response to the album has been warming as the year went along, leading me to feel it would’ve been better appreciated if released at the tailend of the year.
“Way To The Show” highlights some of the record’s most endearing qualities, showing Solange’s uncanny ability to blend some stuffy digital sounds into something that works as quality R&B. Her instincts as a songwriter are still sharp here. Three years after its release, “Cranes In The Sky” has already proven to be a modern classic of this era. This music’s stilted digitization actually benefits Solange’s singing by quite a significant margin. Her singing in the past can come across as rather inelegant at times over authentic instrumentation, so this shift into forced artificiality helps give the entire project a stylized feel. Much of her music touches upon the importance of her heritage and she smartly shows instead of just tells. This can be clearly seen as she’s cleverly interpolating the classic chop n’ screw sound in a tip of the hat to her Southern roots.
In particular plane crashes, the passenger loses sense of direction and is unable to tell if they are steering straight downward or directly upside-down.
The turbulence of air travel lives in this songs bated breaths. There is an unmistakable eeriness permeating “Airplane”, slowly turning itself into the phantom limb pain of recorded music.
The song works because it never explodes, instead leaving it in a dazed stupor. “Airplane” relies heavily on its bass frequency but there is something rumbling near the surface -a hidden charge to the song that slightly sears its exterior. It is the achievement of being dangerously close to tragedy and still to emerge unscathed.
JAILBREAK THE TESLA
Injury Reserve is a trio led by rapping duo Stepa Groggs and Ritchie With A T, along with their hidden weapon in their producer Parker Corey. The Arizona trio emerged this year with their first official album. Coming off the back of two wavemaking EPs, the anticipation was growing high for the collective to drop a studio album. And by most accounts, they delivered! Their usual bombastic style and expressive lyrics were all across the album, and while there might be nothing as immediately bonkers as Floss‘s best moments, Injury Reserve still puts forth its’ own treasure trove of good ideas and involuntarily hype inducing raps.
Like many other Experimental Rap artists in this modern time, a lot of their lyrics revolve around championing technology. It’s hard to tell if their bragging about making big bucks made off of Snapcash will age all that endearingly, but it sure makes for a fun ride while they’re here right now. What funnier technobabble-based daydream is there than the idea of jailbreaking a Tesla of all things. Injury Reserve fully realizes the art of taking a modern technological marvel and making it your bitch.
Beatmaker Parker Corey maximizes the industrial grind of the music by just straight-up sampling the Tesla engine roar and flipping it into something supremely menacing. Much of his production is metallic and bizarre anyway, so it seems like a good fit. The rappers go hard with a beat that grunts and shudders underneath them.
Guest rapper Aminé tops it off with a verse that takes this song from good to great. Let it be known that Aminé really spits THE bar of the year on this track when he’s throwing shade at Elon Musk’s ex-waifu Grimes, accentuated with an expertly timed mute on the beat.
“Your engine go ‘VROOM’,
My engine go _______.
Elon on them shrooms and Grimes’ voice gon’ be the GPS”.
I like to imagine that Grimes is writing a diss track on her upcoming album and that Elon is complimenting the group on his Twitter.
The future for this trio is brighter than any automotive headlights can muster.
For many fans of music, 2019 will go down as the year of Lizzo.
It’s been a while since we’ve had a Pop star so full of personality with an image clearly defined as Lizzo, so it should be no surprise in understanding why she’s turned so many heads this year. At the time of writing, America is still going through its Lizzomania, her tunes are all over the radio and the media just can’t get enough of her larger than life antics. There is a considerable irony that her breakthrough smash “Truth Hurts” was recorded way back in 2017 before finally gaining traction just this year, despite Lizzo having just released a fantastic album in 2019. To boot, her team has quietly slotted “Truth Hurts” onto the DELUXE edition of this album to course correct itself out. The humor comes from Pop radios overlooking the masterclass of Pop perfection found on her new album that is “Juice”.
That’s a reason why #STREAMJUICE went viral and became a widely circulated meme, listeners like to see their favorite personalities get their time in the spotlight when they’re deserving of it. “Juice” was not the runaway hit that it deserves to be (you savages.) but it is still the clear crowd favorite of her fandom and is very easy to see why.
She’s a pop sensation for the new times. This is a time in Pop music where its stars can owe songwriting credits to writers of funny tweets. A lot of its charm comes from its Disco-Lite instrumental, a style that is very much in vogue and picks up a lot of the residual slack from E MO TION. And of course, there’s Lizzo herself. She makes her presence as a diva immediate, even being a full on prima donna at times.
I’m not going to lie to myself and say that she’s an infallible singer, she’s not. I personally think that some of her vocals can really stunt my enjoyment of her songs actually, plenty of her shortcomings as a vocalist can become too difficult to look past. But whatever issues she may have, there are always more than enough positives around the corner that benefit her as an entertainer on whatever song she’s on.
“Juice” plays to all her best strengths. It is a song that promises to be a party that EVERYBODY is allowed into. Every sung line has its own flair of personality to it that only Lizzo herself can bring. It’s magical in the same way that karaoke is; you want to imagine yourself as someone with Lizzo’s confidence and quirk so you can easily place yourself in her shoes. That must be the only way she can get away with writing lyrics describing herself as a Goddess and all that, it’s wish fulfillment. Nothing leaves the club shooketh quite like a room-wide call and response to THAT bridge.
“Somebody come get this man,
I think he got lost in my DMs”
And the melody just slaps. Mercilessly slaps. This is a catchy, catchy song, a song that’s clearly taking a page of inspiration from legendary stars such as Cyndi Lauper, Janet Jackson, and Olivia Newton-John. After “Xanadu”, that is. It’s the fun type of merrymaking that could play at wedding afterparties or middle school Homecomings for years to come.
Grab your Tylenol before starting this one up, because once “GO” goes, it doesn’t slow back down.
“GO” is the work of a particularly industrial flavor of Electronic music. Sounds drop in and out at confusing intervals -when they appear, they are resounding off at tones that are almost guaranteed to be unpleasant. It’s Electronic music that’s overwhelmingly tense and anxious, to a degree not felt since Justice‘s headthrobbing “Stress”.
When human vocals do appear, they are warped into a descending oblivion. The disinterested, slouched speech that’s being sampled is grossly tested through methods of time-stretching. The finishes of sentences are splayed into feedbacking loops resulting in reverberating sibilance that’s later tacked onto back masked gasps that crescendo and promptly find themselves in dead halt. Suffice to say, most of its surprises are used sparingly enough to further flesh out the track.
Some readers may find these descriptors to be nightmarish or simply undesirable in their music, but others will find it scratches an itch largely missing from their routine listening. So buckle in and disengage, there’s nowhere to go and we have no time to stop.
The sibling sisters of Stonefield want to crank their amps loud and show you the mighty hand of doom.
Their recent material sees them trading in their usual Led Zeppelin influences for the darker gothic scope of Black Sabbath instead. “Sleep” is a fantastic showcase for how this heavy & colossal sound can still be so much fun when handled correctly.
The music video for this song is clever, it plays itself as an “auto-hypnosis video” and subjects you to some zany imagery to complement the song quite nicely. Freddy Freaker makes an appearance too. Slow, crashing drums are what the rest of the song orbits around, and the surrounding instruments never want to disrupt this gargantuan groove. When the vocals enter the equation, their guitars get more sludgy with the riffing acts as a pretty radical counterbalance to the singing parts. The duo lampshades all this doom and gloom they’re bringing on -it’s all for fun, just sort of a façade. Some big fat synths can’t help but bring some levity to the song.
Sleepless nights and bloodied ears are what this duo lives for.
SOMETHING TO BELIEVE
This has been a flagship year for Natalie Mering, otherwise known as Weyes Blood. Her watershed moment arrived this year with the captivating Titanic Rising, a real head turner for avid music listeners and casual toe tappers alike.
The rapturous praise for the album was instantaneous, quickly becoming 2019’s most universally acclaimed album upon its release in April and it still retains this reputation at year’s close. The record’s musicality is in how it blends the grandiosity from Orchestral Pop with a humanistic Singer/Songwriter essence flowing through, two elements that could very easily be at odds with each other. Each song pops out of its mould but never crushes underneath its own weight. If you ask any listener who’d found themselves enamored with Titanic Rising, each one is likely to rattle off different and unique highlights as their favorites. For myself, I found myself most charmed by “Something To Believe”, a touching moment of routine breaking and forethought sung from an old-soul’s perspective.
Like any Art Pop songwriter before her, she knows that the real bread and butter of her genre are those creative left-field chord switchings, choosing those song choices that land at just the right moment and leave the listener with ears perked high. The human connection is felt through her singing style, a very warm and inviting presence which helps drive each song into passionate music lover’s hearts. The music also features an almost George Harrison like affectation in its slide guitar playing, possessing the beauty and grandeur from All Things Must Pass.
In turning hardships into personal triumphs, titling the album Titanic Rising is indicative of our rising from our own personal depths and turning into the you that you always knew you wanted to become.
In the past, Britain has had a… shall we say “complicated” history with rapping.
Tantamount to the birth of Jazz, Hip-Hop has been seen as a uniquely American advent, leaving the genre pretty bottlenecked for outsiders to break into from ‘cross the pond. Not impossible mind you, just very difficult. At best, rap artists like the British Slick Rick can sneak his way into the fray, alongside Jamaican rapper Assassin whose big break came as a twofer when he was featured on Kanye and Kendrick Lamar songs just 2 years apart. Otherwise, it’s a tough game out there for non-Americans.
The closest you can find the UK finding success with rap is a surprising one. You could make an honest case of their Trip-Hop scene to be a stepping stone into rap music since it features real actual rapping while still being a distinctly English genre. The flows may not be mind blowing, but when listening to Tricky, or Massive Attack, there’s no reason to not accept it as accomplished talent.
In the mainstream sense, unfortunately, any pleas for credibility were undermined by the UKs constant charting of songs that came from terrible popstar non-rappers among the lines of Cher Lloyd of “Swagger Jagger” fame, or Jessi J …who the less said about the better. Any one of these specimens could make Fergie Ferg look like Lauren Hill by comparison. Throw in some Eurodance for good measure and people have been left discouraged to the notion of English Dance/Hip-Hop pairings. Yeah I know it’s unfair to equate a distinct, inherently American style of music to bottom-feeding pop music, but it just feels inevitable to a certain degree. After Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the line between Hip-Hop and unfiltered Pop is now irrevocably blurred.
That is until recently. Like, very VERY recently. Apart from the recent interest in Little Simz, we were also treated to Skepta, Loyle Carner, Slowthai‘s Nothing Great About Britain, and Dave‘s Psychodrama which went on to win the Mercury prize this year (An English based award, yes, but awarding the prize to a rapper was still a surprise.) The point is, this year seems like a major course correction and the possible start of something larger within the genre.
With all of that out of the way, I can start to say my praises of Little Simz. I struggle to think of a Rap song this year that had a tighter, more controlled flow than Little Simz delivers on “Venom”. It is the kind of heavily orchestrated, technical marvel in emceeing that only comes around so often. “Venom” has moments aplenty, but the most stunning is the quick turnaround after the title drop, triggering a beat switch that was queued up in the wings. This moment is one of the most immediate and involuntary jawdrops in music this year.
That’s not even mentioning the additional trials and tribulations Little Simz faces from being a talented woman in the rap game. On this track, she turns blind eye to haters, rapping
“They’ll never want to admit I’m the best here
from the mere fact that I’ve got ovaries”.
GREY Area also excels in its use of live instrumentation in a fair share of its’ production, coupled with a British accent it begins to resemble a James Bond soundtrack.
Grey matter is Little Simz’ best friend on GREY Area, walking away from the project with music that is sharp and quick on the the trigger.
After six years away, Vampire Weekend returned this year with an album full of variety and few surprises. To say that Father Of The Bride is a mixed bag is to put it lightly, the quality and style they’re presenting is scattershot all across the 18 track album.
It’s been made clear that the band took a heavy hit when Rotsam Batmanglij parted ways from the band, he’s the member who’s often been noted for his ability to ground the eccentricities of his group. Luckily he still left some influence on the final album, appearing in the studio at times and has been credited as giving creative control to a handful of tracks. At times, it can be crystal clear as to which songs had his involvement and which didn’t.
If time is kind to Father of the Bride, it might have the luck of becoming the Hail To The Thief to their discography: a mostly happy-go-lucky smattering of their work as a band that faithful fans may eventually come to enjoy for their lack of inhibitions. As for now, many say that there’s scattered gold along its track listing, opinions differing from fan to fan. As early as its first week release, I’d observed diligent fans attempting onto rearranging the album into a tighter 50 minute album, a practice that is as old as whittling the White Album down to a single LP.
Easily the best of the non-singles to the album is the wildcard “Sympathy”. “Sympathy” is not just the only song on the album with some extra pep in its step, its truly the only song that feels alive. This track is rushing with energy, just bursting at the seams with excellent ideas and unique ways to execute them. It serves a similar purpose that “Cousins” has on their Contra album, acting as an atomic bomb smack dab in the middle of the tracklisting.
Humorously enough, the track begins with “I think I take myself too serious, it’s not that serious.” being spoken. The main motif is a walking eccentricity in itself, shuffling forward at rapid speed and takes the time to begin glitching out. The production is also quirky beyond belief, including but not limited to splicing in some random consonants and taking a hacksaw to the vocals.
“Sympathy” is the singular cut that takes the most risks and every experiment pays off in spades.
One of this year’s best songs is also one of its simpler ones. There isn’t much about this song that’ll make your head spin around, but it instead is overflowing with likability that you can’t help but appreciate it all.
“Green Eyes” is a song that is refreshingly spry. The entire production is tinny and homely, due in part to the drum sound that’s been conjured up. The snare tuning distinctly a 1970’s one, which is coincidentally one of my favorite sounds in all of music. The bright melody driven nature of the song can lead it to be considered as Power Pop if you wish to do so. There’s always sigh of relief to be had from each of its clever chord changes, each more satisfying than the last.
Let’s not forget Chris Cohen either who grants the song some lackadaisical vocals with catchy melodies for days.
NIGHTS THAT WONT HAPPEN
Purple Mountains is a record of sly-hearted, bitter poetry set to music from one of Indie music’s most celebrated minds. The album has unfortunately taken on a seperate life after tragedy, becoming seen as artist David Berman‘s self-penned eulogy.
The Purple Mountains moniker was a much appreciated return to form for the musician and it seemed to signal a sea change of what to expect from the respected figure. Without beating around the bush any more than necessary, it is understandably difficult to write about this album without having some level of assessment to the looming shadow of its’ circumstance, its author David Berman succumbed to death from depression less than a month after its’ release. The words are heightened, and warmth shines through despite the melancholic subject matter that Berman is not hesitant to broach.
I’d seen the anticipation for Berman’s return build up a head of steam for some time now, this new name for his music as “Purple Mountains” was his first major recorded output in a decade’s time and his absence had been sorely missed. For those unaware, David Berman built a formidable impression on Indie music at large with his group Silver Jews, a music project largely identifiable by Berman’s witty ramblings over the strumming of his guitar. Specifically, his album American Water is considered a stone-cold classic to the many kindred souls who found solace in Indie Folk, and has since become an essential pillar to this vein of songwriting at large. Berman set the stage for expression through music for the proceeding eras to come, and anyone whose found themselves encapsulated by the thinkpiece via guitar method of musicianship; think of your Father John Mistys and Sun Kil Moons of the world, you can most likely trace it back right here.
Anywho, the material of Purple Mountains is challenging in a sense, yes, but it operates on a different level than you may expect. It’s a chance to say goodbye through celebrating the mundanities of modern life. The record’s shining accomplishment in my opinion is the showstopper “Nights That Won’t Happen”, a declaration of life lived and nights spent.
The music is chilling and the vocals wrap around the song in a pillowy manner. The song’s message can be sized down to the incredibly moving lyrics:
“The dead know what they’re doing when they leave this world behind
All the suffering gets done by the ones we leave behind”
Afterwards he begins lamenting the nights that won’t happen with one another ever again. It is difficult to not be moved on some level from this performance.
Sad yet? What about the major key ditty “All My Happiness Is Gone” that has lyrics like “The end of all wanting is all I’ve been wanting” peppered in. Or a similarly played song by the name “Darkness and Cold”? That being said, it is rare where these themes halt the music into a mopey mess, the songs are full of life and smile-inducing energy.
Keep in mind, that critics were raving about this album since its release: this is not an attempt to play catch-up after the fact, it is just worth noting that the record adopts a new poignancy after Berman’s eventual curtain call. I hate to do this sort of thing: place too much emphasis on the untimely death of an artist onto the music itself, but it’s nearly impossible to turn a blind eye at these lyrics and not begin to take them at face value rather than speculative poeticisms.
Purple Mountains is a brilliant capstone to it all, any songwriter worth their salt would be proud to call this their own. And perhaps Berman had the greatest gift a musician could hope for: he had the opportunity to pen his own requiem.
BEWARE OF THE DOGS
Stella Donnely has been selected as this year’s Indie guitar gal (last year’s recipient was fellow Australian Sidney Gish with her album of suspiciously similarly title No Dogs Allowed), Stella has won over a devoted audience with her “take no prisoner” storytelling and no frills approach to music making.
Much of her music finds strength in privacy. In both her music and lyrics, there is constantly a power of self to be found, a rather inspiring slant for the songwriter to attain. I’d strongly recommend watching her NPR Tiny Desk performance to get a better read on her, she is unaccompanied and her unique tendencies as a musician are on full display.
Her singing can be sweet as honey or fueled by vitriol at any moment’s notice. Stella is a three-dimensional character on her record who doesn’t really play by the rules just because it’s the easy thing to do. Stella takes a super risky move by starting the album off with a song that’s so bitter and vindictive. “Old Man” tackles impossibly heavy subject matter and Donnelly doesn’t shy away from anything in her lyrics. Whether or not it’s the “right” move for a debut can be debated, but it is certainly a power move and displays her willingness to fly off the handle.
The title track “Beware Of The Dogs” is a slice of fried gold. With capo clamped on tight, Donnely strums through some very spacious open chords before settling on a unique mood. She sings with a unique calmness, allowing the music she wrote to do most of the talking. The chorus is magic on its own, with a singsong melody and lyrics that are real evocative. Once you listen just a couple times, you just can’t get that tune out of your head.
This dog won’t hesitate to bite back. Beware.
-Charli XCX, Christine and the Queens
Charli XCX has had one of the more mesmerizing character arcs of music this decade: starting the decade as a daring Pop starlet and ending the 2010’s as the avant-bubblegum duchess of the future, Charli XCX has had one of the more mesmerizing character arcs of music this decade. Before arriving at her new destination of Experimental Pop, casting the waves of avant-futurism through playfully nihilistic beats.
She had began the 2010’s by making crafty Pop music that was plenty serviceable, occasionally even attention-grabbing. Her early songs couldn’t shake that new-car smell attached, and there was always a possibility that she could just be the flavor of the month. This is not a diss to her older music, much Pop music operates this way and she was just playing the field as expected. With hindsight on our side, it can be seen that there was indeed an interesting persona hiding underneath the club anthem tomfoolery. I can attest to her “Boom Clap” being one of the most captivating Pop songs of its time, and she was clearly the reason that the ill-advised “Fancy” was carried to the top of the Billboard charts.
42 years after the meteoric “I Feel Love” all but guaranteed that Dance music and Pop at large would never be the same again, ripples of sugar-coated experimentation has been taking prominence in recent times. In desire to etch out a new place for herself, she took a sharp turn into what’s commonly being dubbed Bubblegum Bass, otherwise known as PC Music. This genre is basically a full deconstruction of shiny bubblegum Pop music, turning it dark and experimental through tampering the artists’ voice, lacing in harsh noises, and fully embracing the uncanny valley effect that the brightest of Pop music innately has. The result has led to some vivid walls of sound of this modern age and transformed music styles that were turning something old hat into something fresh and bold.
This brings us to what is already set to go down as one of the more iconic EPs of the decade, her Vroom Vroom EP. She’d released a followup to it named “Pop 2” which basically says it all about what her intentions were. There was Pop music beforehand, sure, but this is the beginning of a new age with Pop TWO. Everything before her was just a passing phase. Its final track titled “Track 10” was the promise of what you need to know about why the crossroads of Pop music and experimentalism is so rewarding.
Her first studio release since adopting this new persona has been fascinating to say the least. The timing is just right, as it seems the world of Pop music at large has finally caught up to what she’s been putting out.
“Gone” is one of the most accomplished songs on this album and in her discography thus far. The minimal assembly of the song leads you to believe that everything you are hearing is of utmost importance to the track. Just the essentials here. Even before her PC Music transformation, Charli’s key asset as a singer was her immaculate melody building and unique phrasing which is fully explored in “Gone”. Her singing brings plenty of tension and mystery.
The chorus is ridiculously catchy, travelling in constant circles around the beat and providing a tense, urgent atmosphere to the song.
A phenomenal appearance by Christine and the Queens further benefits the song, her voice morphs perfectly alongside Charli’s. Neither singer tries to overpower the other but instead they work in perfect tandem, showcasing each artists’ individual quirks in the process. Charli has notoriously been an artist who works best when collaborating, and the chemistry here is fully apparent.
The track closes out with a glitched out ProTools spasm before shutting to a close. Charli has been dubbed the Popstar of the future for years now, it seems all the more likely that this is a future that has yet to come. When she pushes forward, the music world at large plays catchup. Whether it be 2019 or the far off year of 2999, there will only be one XCX.
At the onset of this year, I had one band in particular pegged to be the new “it” band to watch. This band was Crumb, whose expressive blend of Trip-Hop, Dream-Pop, and Jazz-ish tendencies seemed poised to ride in on undercurrents of cool and take the mainstream in a true underdog manner. The band was promising, the music was hipper than hip itself, and I wanted to be there in the front row when they made their big splash.
At last, their awaited debut album Jinx released this year and many couldn’t help but feel they might have dropped the ball. Dare I say, they jinxed it. Not that the actual music itself faltered, no sir, but the band made a couple cardinal sins that have diluted the impact of their debut LP. Basically it boils down to the album’s ridiculously scant runtime of only 27 minutes, further diminished by the band oversharing many of its songs as pre-album singles. The other songs were great too, but there was little to pick apart from its full release.
The album is great song after great song, every track of theirs oozes with other-worldliness to it. “Nina” is among the best of the best on Jinx, and the band puts their quirks on full blast. Among the first things you’ll notice is it’s absolutely incredulous drum pattern. The drumming sounds outright manipulative on the track, you can’t expect to build an entire song off that pattern …can you? It should be a crime to use a drumbeat like this, what with its rampant kick drums that thud away and its locked in bass pattern, it’s a drumbeat that demands attention and seems too dangerous to use effectively. From lesser songwriters, it should be a battle against all things that are good taste. But the band pulls it off with stride: justifying their clunky, otherwise gaudy rhythm.
As the song rolls along, we are greeted with the sultry vocal stylings of Lila Ramani who delivers her vocals with a fittingly narcoleptic delivery reminiscent of a long-lost Hooverphonic song. She glides atop the workings of vintage synthesizers and serene guitar passages. The band’s music avoids pigeonholing despite showing their willingness to showcase their influences, everything coalesses into something special and gives off a unique identity for themselves.
The sound is part Cocteau Twins, a dash of Stereolab, and 100% magic.
HURRY ON HOME
It’s difficult to discuss the newest entry in Sleater-Kinney‘s discography without addressing the elephant in the room, or more specifically, the drummer who has left the room. For anyone who’s been living under a rock (how’s the rent on those? Does it get cold at night or is it pretty cozy?), the Oregon-bred threepiece Sleater-Kinney has released a new album to follow up 2014’s No Cities To Love, their first record in ten years since their initial dissolution.
Ahead of its release, the new album was shaping up to be a distinct line in the sand separating their previous material from this new direction they were taking on. A large factor was their decision to hire St. Vincent‘s Annie Clark as producer. Clark is a more than capable producer of course, her work on St. Vincent has some fantastic audio engineering, but much like her own music, she can be a little too personality driven which led some S-K fans to express their doubts.
These fears were seemingly proven when only a month before The Center Won’t Hold‘s release, drummer Janet Weiss announced her resignation from the band. This was a shock to fans since her drumming was integral to the band’s sound. Losing a band member is never easy, but removing Weiss from Sleater-Kinney is akin to band amputation, the group has had critics dub them to be the best three piece in music since Cream.
Still though, the show must go on and it is still worth celebrating new music. The Center Won’t Hold became a very untidy release, but it was preceded by genuine excitement and raised expectations from lead single “Hurry On Home” which is the closest the band resembles to their signature sound on the finished record.
“Hurry On Home” is a moment where the production actually meets the songwriting department halfway, highlighting particular aspects of the song itself and fills it in instead of drowning the band out. St. Vincent’s production flourishes and subtle songwriting encouragements show a different angle to Sleater-Kinney and you can start to understand why the band believed this to be a winning formula.
Carrie Brownstein takes the reigns as lead vocalist on this track and punctuates the song with her usual forcefulness. The second verse in particular is a dagger to the heartstrings, possessing a grit to it that is difficult to match. The guitars are menacing and bassy akin to S-K’s best material and it takes several listen to fully realize how many different riffs they cram into this song, each guitar part is different than the last and they all work perfectly together. For whatever it’s worth, this is also one of the most expressive drum tracks on the album too.
“Hurry On Home” doesn’t rush along, but instead takes its time in its decisions.
This album Drift Code is a fantastic contribution to Art-Rock, Post-Rock, and Chamber-Pop that you most likely have not heard. The music works in mysterious ways and the entirety of each song has every single fibre of its composition moving together like a giant Rube Goldberg machine.
“Judgement Train” is the sound of being held captive in a dark, cavernous and smokey room. The train of judgement is the one bringing you to our own judgement day, a heavy theme attached to music that is more than fitting of it.
Some readers may already be confused by the name Rustin Man: who/what is that? The answer is that Rustin Man is a one-man band, it’s a moniker for Paul Webb who was previously bassist of the Synthpop band turned experimental Talk Talk. As a depressingly serendipitous turn of events, the same year that Talk Talk bandleader Mark Hollis passed away was the same year that bandmate Paul Webb releases his first album of original material.
Up until this point, the only music given the Rustin Man name was a one-off collaboration album with Portishead‘s own Beth Gibbons. Since this was the first album to use the Rustin Man name, and for at least a decade at that, many listeners simply questioned “who?” and treated it as a Beth Gibbons solo affair. For what it’s worth, the album mostly pays off, it is a satisfactory album with nice chemistry between the two artists and has a handful of easy to recommend tunes. Listen to the chorus to “Tom The Model” if you have not already, it’s fantastic.
The music of “Judgement Train” winds-up like a toy before taking off in some direction or other. Webb’s voice has a noticeably aged quality, not too dissimilar from David Bowie‘s final albums. Actually, Bowie was only 11 years older than Webb while recording his last album. This unlikely voice helps give an authority to the music, this unstableness can add some extra dramatics to the song. There is not a hair out of place in this material, each and everything gets a chance to make some noise on these songs. The rhythms are inventive and often go for off-kilter arrangements and the instruments themselves choose unusual timbres that sculpt the music into something special. He even drags in a Euphonium for a song.
This is music that could very be remembered as a minor classic in due time, but why wait for the rest to catch up when you can enjoy it now?
Fighting against the rest of ANIMA‘s claustrophobia, “Dawn Chorus” is smack dab at the bottom of this pit, it’s the act of glancing up to approximate how far of a fall it’s really been.
The music is positively narcoleptic. Most of it is led by woozy synthesizer chords with Thom Yorke playing his lonely song directly in the eye of the storm. It is a game of playing stagnant: wringing out any sentimentality through the smallest of movements. Despite how sedentary the song is, there ARE those little moments of changes. There are those times when his vocal melody alters the notes, it feels like a micro quake in the song. A lazy keyboard that sounds like it couldn’t be bothered to wake up stirs behind Yorke’s vocals. Things that are so small cause a big disruption here.
Sleuths of the Radiohead fanbase can finally receive their closure on the mystery surrounding of the elusive “Dawn Chorus” title. Before the release of their 9th LP A Moon Shaped Pool, the band had silently created a new company “Dawn Chorus LLP” for unknown reasons, whose name would later be scattered in unassuming places on the Radiohead website. Many assumed they were hinting at the then unannounced LP9. Not much had been heard since then but many fans were still left wondering.
The term dawn chorus refers to birdsong, the chirping birds’ mating calls and melodies that all tether together into one great sound. This would generally be peaceful sounds worth welcoming but to Thom it is just
“A thousand tiny birds singing
It’s a bloody racket
It’s the dawn chorus.”
Who cares if there’s a sun shining outside if my heart is filled with cold and shadows? In a mood this delicate, the littlest things can mean the most. “Dawn Chorus” is work of beauty, a man’s vocalization of grief and retribution into a sullen soft spot.
OLD TOWN ROAD -Remix
-Lil Nas X, Billy Ray Cyrus
This song is going to age stranger than any other song from this decade.
Where do I even begin when talking about this song? No other song this year has dominated more conversations, thinkpieces, playlists, or overall brain space than the remix to “Old Town Road”, a cowboy Trap song about riding horses. I don’t even think it’s really worth discussing where the song stands at this current time, that ship has long since sailed. If I had an opinion worth saying, I should’ve said it in April – the song has been picked clean by now.
The funny thing is, I quietly put this in consideration for my Tracks of 2019 way early this year, well before the remix came out. I found it just a couple weeks before Billboard struck it from their Country charts and that whole fiasco happened. For a couple weeks, I was on the verge of removing it entirely but there was something that kept me from doing so right away. When stripped of context, the song is quite unassuming: it’s a Trap song just shy of two minutes that has Red Dead Redemption 2 on the mind. I wondered if I could even place it on a year end list -probably somewhere in the early, early part of the list. Fast forward to now and it’s officially in my top ten of the year, whoops.
Despite all the extra mayhem surrounding this song, let’s just take a moment to acknowledge that if a song works, the song just works. Somehow, against all odds, “Old Town Road” is an accidental masterclass of earworm songwriting and surprising depth just underneath the surface. Probably the most bewildering thing about Old Town Mania was that I could get vastly different reads on the same exact song depending on which month I listened to it.
A Country styled Hip-Hop song is not completely unprecedented, technically. You could go back to Will Smith‘s country club romp “Wild Wild West” of course, or look back at the somewhat forgotten “Ghetto Cowboy” by Mo Thugs that was 1999’s 87th highest charting song. Heck, I’ve actually thought that Kid Rock‘s “Cowboy” tapped into some kind of sound that hasn’t been fully explored since.
But still, there’s something about this song that feels pretty fresh. Flipping a Nine Inch Nails Darkwave beat into something Country tinged will always be confusing to me. And I love that Trent Reznor‘s biggest contributions to music this year extended entirely from the Cyrus family: Poppa Billy Ray rapped about Maseratis and sportsbras over NIN music and his chipmunk voiced princess Miley Cyrus made a hit song out of a squeaky-clean rewrite of “Head Like A Hole” on her “Black Mirror” episode. I would love it if this means Trent is now buddy-buddy with the Cyruses. This is indeed a disturbing universe.
In the internet age, you can become a literal overnight sensation. The Grammys will give you an Album Of The Year nomination for an EP that has “Old Town Road” on it twice. This new wave of music stars are all young, hungry teenagers and I’m sincerely am looking forward to seeing what this new class will do with music in this next decade.
-King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard
It is heresy to just make a cameo appearance in the Heavy Metal genre. If you play Metal music, it’s ride or die, no room for posers. Well, that’s what makes Infest The Rats Nest so interesting as an experiment. King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard are proud tourists in the world of Metal and they slapped together a wholly convincing Thrash Metal album. “Planet B” was the first song released from this project and it threw the fanbase off guard for a multitude of reasons, not least of which was that it came off the back of the Fishing For Fishies album which was a mellowed out La-Z-Boy companion.
“Planet B” is exhilarating straight from the opening blastbeats. Singer Stu Mackenzie actually has a pretty gnarly metal grit for this kind of music. The real telltale sign of this song’s success is that that I’ve heard this song played on regular Hard Rock/Heavy Metal radio, and it fit snugly aside the Testament and Megadeth that was playing alongside it. The production is super dated and cardboard-ish, expertly replicating the charm of Metal’s most classic works.
The hardcore lyrics have an interesting slant as well. Using real world terror to their brutal advantage was definitely their own decision but it works surprisingly well. What’s scarier than real life? “Planet B” continues the environmental messages found on Fishing For Fishies, conjuring up a doom riddled world of post-apocalypse from manmade disaster, threatening that after the manmade perish of Earth, that there is no Planet B. Which eventually turns into a song cycle about classism where the rich begin inhabiting Mars instead, but the original message still stands strong anyway.
“Drunk II” crafts a world seen by a glassy-eyed drunk and makes it actually sound really enchanting. So much of the song’s charm comes from the incredibly curt lyrics and the realer than real delivery given from the band. The vocals cut through the red tape of social etiquette and lambasts anybody who will stick around long enough to hear it.
Much praise was given to the opening track on Lana Del Ray’s critical opus this year and its cheeky, blunt lyrics that begin the album:
You f–ked me so good that I almost said
‘I love you'”
But my enjoyment of that track was bogged down by hearing nearly the same sentiment done on “Drunk II” earlier this year, which was done lightyears better, frankly.
“I’ve been going out almost every night
I’ve been drinking everything I can get my hands on
I pretend I have fun
And do you remember the nights I called you up?
I was so f–ked up, I forgot we were broken up”
The message is further felt through its vocal melody, smartly leaning on Indie-Rock mannerisms and often having key lyrics land on a major 7th leading tone, indicating a constant sense of uneasiness in the lyricist. These ingenious lyrical quirks work to disarm the listener and leave a lasting impression. These moments all add up as the track goes along, and it becomes very clear that the song is a real force of personality. It’s only in this state of somber drunken recollections that our singer can refer to herself by name:
“And everyone says to me
“Missy, you’re so strong”
But what if I don’t want to be?”
If she wasn’t calling her own name, then she’d be lying to herself like any other time.
The production itself is massive and gorgeous too, somehow contradictory in how it gives lushness while still retaining all the bite given by the band. A minor gripe would be that the production swallows up the guitar solo performed at the end, which is actually a pretty powerful solo in its own right. The solo is put in a pretty awkward spot in the mix that almost suggests the band trying to sweep it under the rug, which I hope isn’t the case because the guitar soloing is adventurous and makes the song more colorful.
Mannequin P*ssy has made their name synonymous with a high water mark in 21st century Riot Grrl music. I’m eagerly waiting for their peers to meet them onto their level.
After 13 years of wait time, I am beyond pleased with this new Tool album. I understand completely any reservations that longtime fans may have had with the new material, but for me personally, I found that it played to all the elements I most enjoyed from the band.
The crux of it all is that a lot of people get very different things out of Tool’s music. Unrelated to their talents as a group, I’ve spent years wondering how they got as popular as they’ve been despite having a very uncompromising sound. Tool is most likely the only Progressive Metal band your average listener can name, and yet they air next to Papa Roach on the radio. Their music is multi-purposed; it’s cerebral and weird for the artsy crowds and yet it still sounds loud, heavy, and angry in an unironic way that could win over an entirely different group of listeners.
One thing was certain, any direction they would go in their new material was going to leave some fans high and dry. I don’t like the idea of being guilted into not liking this new album. In fact, I’ve been finding it to be a rather contentious opinion to hold Fear Inoculum in high regard. As far as I am concerned, Fear Inoculum played to their most interesting tendencies as a band. Very least, it explored the aspects of Tool that I wanted them to most. Most of it comes from the meditative, free-flowing psychedelia of Lateralus and they approach it in a new and unfamiliar way. Fear Inoculum finds power in it’s resistance, it takes the road less traveled and the journey becomes the focal point.
Tool turned into a Post-Rock band so gradually, I hardly even noticed. The second track on the album “Pneuma” is a great dissertation of what I love about it. Check out the built-up intro section, nearly any other band would’ve been forced to undergo to a build and release but this song just gradually shifts into the next section without abiding by these expectations. It plays with time as a construct in itself, not being bound down to any necessities in form or structure.
It also shouldn’t be a shock that this is the lengthiest song of the 100 on this list, but Tool utilizes this time to the fullest extent. Even Maynard himself takes a backseat for much of Fear Inoculum, the songs roll by on their own and Maynard just jumps in whenever he sees fit. “Pneuma” is also a rare example of an actual chorus on the album, even if it takes a long time to get to it. The song is able to reach its heights by the time it wraps up but it feels like an appropriate destination by song’s end.
When thinking about Fear Inoculum, Pulp Fiction’s “$5 Milkshake” scene comes to mind. That’s a pretty good milkshake. I don’t know if it was worth 13 years but it’s pretty good.
I did not originally want to put Billie Eilish on this list, and I never would’ve even imagined putting her music in my top 5 of the year. But boy, oh boy did I have to go on a journey with this Billie Eilish phenomenon before I could eventually reach my own consensus. I imagine that many other listeners went through the same throes this year, so let’s talk about it. Here’s how I learned to stop worrying and love Billie Eilish music.
Anyone who knows me well would be able to recant the personal hurdles I’ve gone through before this album’s release. Her rise to prominence was massive and instantaneous, and I thought it was complete malarkey. Internet message boards echoed with the calls of “industry plant” because there was hardly any other way to explain her sudden rise. The image she presented herself as was pandering to the lowest denominator it seemed, she’s taking advantage of the national trend of edgy and depressed teens which is like shooting fish in a barrel. It’s the most obvious pose in the world to take right now, of course it would sell well with modern audiences. It’s seemingly music calculated to be exactly the right thing at the right time, picking up right where Lorde left off before choosing to make music that was unprofitable.
Put simply, I was not a fan. No not even that, I couldn’t stand her, not in the slightest. Every single thing about her proposed music, her persona, and a ridiculous PR push just turned me off. But I kept saying one thing: “let’s wait for the full album”. Wait for her to put her money where her mouth is; wait for her put up or shut up. While I swore I would go in with an open mind (and I did), I obviously was at least partially waiting for her music to collapse under the ridiculous expectations put on it. Either subliminally or even superliminally, it was “let’s wait for the full album”.
I was proven wrong in record time. She and her team must have felt the pressure cooking because her album begins with the best song she has ever made. There is no better mission statement than “bad guy”. To say she puts her best foot forward with this track is understating it, this is the encapsulation of everything she’s worked for as a recording artist. The style is instantly recognizable from its onset and Billie projects a personality that’s actually interesting.
That cringy personality from her press junkets rarely, nay, NEVER gets in the way of the actual music itself. It plays as a calculated pastiche of a Horrorcore type even, her threats are cartoony and gutbusting at times. Her persona threatened to be dull as dirt or super tryhard, her playing it subtle wasn’t something I thought would even be a realistic option.
I can see some people letting the overplay of this song start to rot away its individuality. While I am grateful that the music is the real deal, I’m still aware that she would have been a big deal regardless. She’s got a good head on her shoulders and seems to be among the few mainstream musicians who lives for creating music. The enthusiasm that she and her brother FINNEAS put into the music is impossible to ignore.
This is everything you could want from a Vampire Weekend single.
All of their best traits are rolled up into one big bundle to enjoy and is sure to leave any fans satisfied. There’s something special about this song right from its opening acoustic guitar riff, a riff that quickly became one of the year’s most iconic moments for the instrument. Perhaps the band knew this themselves too, as they uploaded a 2 hour loop of the song’s acoustic riff onto YouTube shortly after the song’s release.
The dominant theme of the song is propelled by the mantra
“I don’t want to live like this
but I don’t want to die”,
a lyric that touches a raw nerve and is instantly relatable: the sentiment of youth living in this era. This lyric itself is an interpolation of Modern Vampires Of The City’s “Finger Back”, so it’s interesting to speculate as to why this line may ring more true in current climate.
The band has never shied away from wearing their influences on their sleeves, of course. They’d addressed their reputations of being culture vultures of “world music” yet again on “Unbearably White”, readily addressing the repurposed influences of their music. “Harmony Hall” is not an exception to the rule, it very clearly treads the same water set by Grateful Dead and Paul Simon but it never turns into a problem. I’m fine with them aping Paul Simon if they can keep returning with material of this magnitude.
When all is said and done, “Harmony Hall” is a very easy song to enjoy that refuses to tire itself out. Looking back years down the line, this may be seen as the crown jewel of this era of the band.
-Gary Clark Jr.
You’d think that we would have much better political music than we do right now.
And I’m trying to be fairly non-partisan here. No matter what your affiliation, we can agree that these are generally tough times right? People are angry, fed up, or stressed out, and this usually leads to worthwhile trends in music. These societal strifes used to lead to massive movements in music to coincide along with, but this generation of music wasn’t that fortunate. We did not get a “Rock Against Reagan” styled resurgence this generation. Who’s kidding, even “Rock Against Bush” would’ve been more welcomed than whatever’s going on now. Nobody wants to make important music right now, times are so bleak and dire that why should anybody even bother writing about it? Social media makes writing about current happenings moot and a 24 hour news cycle threatens to make any issues related song insta-dated.
The difference is this, Gary Clark Jr. writes with passion. He has fire in his belly, there’s enemies he wants smitten. He wants to rile people up with his music and he mostly succeeds with this explosive track right here. “This Land” grabs attention from the very first second it begins and everything that’s being displayed is larger than life.
Devoted readers of my blog may find this track echoes my #1 pick of last year: “Plastic Hamburgers” by Fantastic Negrito, as this track is continuing that amplified modern Blues sound with charged lyrics. There are several reasons why I would willingly decide to listen to one song instead of the other, they each stand apart from each other fine but there are these similarities that run deep to the core of both songs.
Gary Clark Jr. still knows to place emphasis on the actual rock music he’s laying down, the urgency of his guitar plays alongside his bloodshot bandmates and gives credibility to the whole affair. There’s a certain seriousness to this song that could only work with a full rock band playing it, the dread and trepidation just wouldn’t read otherwise. The band seems aware of this fact and knows just the right times to amp it up or dial it back down.
Gary Clark Jr. is doing everything in his power to write music that justifies its own existence.
“placeholder” is the most moving piece of music released all year.
Hand Habits occupies a headspace filled with this old world mysticism told through lyrics that can be downright soul harrowing. The lyrics battle the pains of being temporary, struggling with what is meant to last and what instead passes us by in the nights.
“And this is where I doubted you
And endless compromise
To say that you told me the truth is to tell each other lies
Oh, but now you are a placeholder
Blinded by desire
Oh, now you’re just a placeholder
For someone wasting time”
“placeholder” is a melancholic song that can still rescind back into itself just as it flourishes out to a major quality. Is this what people usually get from listening to Big Thief‘s music?
The song can still prove to be lush in small pockets, swelling of vocal harmonies and minutiae of small guitar trills come to highlight. Hand Habits has a more than accomplished guitarist in their own right, it’s a welcomed background sensation to the main attraction, the tag team to its immaculate songwriting. All of which is bolstered by a chord sequence that is simply transcendent.
This is the song this year that I find to be 100% breathtaking, it stops me dead in my tracks every time I listen to it. This song is very impressive and I can only hope that Hand Habits will continue to grow as a songwriter and as a person from here on out.
DEAD OF NIGHT
Here it is: my absolute favorite song of the year.
“Dead of Night” doesn’t sound much like anything else from 2019, it’s almost a song that seems to exist outside of time altogether. Some have decreed Orville Peck to be an amalgamation of early Country music and 90’s Shoegaze, perhaps lazily so. While on paper, these genres seem to be incompatible as it gets but there is actually a convincing argument made here for what common ground they may share. Dissecting this music down to its spare parts seems like it would dampen the experience but this is music that works outside of whatever contexts brought it to life.
Peck supplements himself with vintage, earnest vocals that are distinctly Western and reminisce back on the days when Roy Orbison captured the heart of the nation with a golden croon. Wavery tremolo guitar vibrates gently behind the scenery set by Orville, while his milk and honey baritone stabilizes the song. The drums are implicative of a Dream-Pop reworking to “Be My Baby”, sneaking in a dose of nostalgia into this supremely comfortable song.
Not that it’s necessary for enjoying the song, but it is also worth realizing that Orville Peck has his own idiosyncratic persona. Peck has made himself a person of intrigue due to his hidden identity: the musician never appears without wearing a specialized mask over his face. He performs with it, he interviews with it, he poses for his album covers with it. Nobody knows what Orville Peck looks like without his signature mask and a cowboy hat on. People have also drawn considerable attention to the singer being openly homosexual, despite not being openly known to anybody at all. So what were the odds that his album was released just before Lil Nas X got his big break? This has been a baffling year for what is now being called “Yee-Haw Culture” and now Orville Peck and Lil Nas X are both the faces to the LGBTQ+ branch. What in tarnation?
Homosexual cowboys have appeared in Country music before, even if just barely. Little Big Town reached #1 on the Country charts with “Girl Crush”, a song that inexplicably found a way to turn the focus of a lesbian relationship back to that of a man. Willie Nelson also wrote a ditty called “Cowboys Are Secretly Fond Of Each Other”, check that one out if you haven’t already. And if you’re an idiot then you also probably know about Grant MacDonald and Wheeler Walker Jr. but they probably don’t count.
The item of affection in the lyrics to “Dead of Night” brings to mind a genderbent version of a Brian Wilson “California Girls” escapade. The melody is perfect and engaging, the music behind him never ever overshadows where the action is. Genuine emotion shines through all the one-off genre pairings being presented and you can easily imagine how a song of this construction should fall apart when under anybody else’s care. The song structure helps drive home the passage of time felt through the lyrics so there is always an ongoing sense of progression. The boundless nature of this music is every bit as good as anything found in Slowdive‘s eternal song “Alison”.
The song comes to a satisfying conclusion just before including a sly nod to its supposed Country roots with a bouncy banjo line, wrapping a bow onto the entire song. A masterfully placed button to put a stop to this wild ride.
You say “go fast”, I say “hold on tight”.
I hope that you enjoyed reading! I certainly had a lot of fun working on it, I’ve been looking forward to it all year ’round actually. Click below to revisit 2018’s best-of list.
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Thanks to C. Cord for drawing the thumbnail.
Here’s the link to his Instagram for original art: https://www.instagram.com/carson_cord/
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PS. It only took minimal restraint to not put “Money Machine” on here.
See y’all next year!