Top Ten Albums of 2019, So Far…

2019 is halfway over! Let’s take a look back at some of the best music we’ve already heard this year!

10. Little SimzGREY Area

With the endorsement of genre icons like Lauryn Hill and Kendrick Lamar, Little Simz has long been one of the most exciting up and comers in all of rap music. On GREY Area, she finally finds her potential in a very real way. Tracks like “Boss,” and “Selfish,” defy the gender stereotypes inherent in much rap music by bringing explosive attitude and bombastic flow to every bar. Her complex schemes and enthralling storytelling give this album a ton of replay value beyond the initial punch each cut delivers.

Beyond Simz herself, the instrumentals carry on much the jazzy influences of her earlier work, but filtered through elements of trap and East Coast boom-bap. GREY Area fixes nearly every short coming of earlier albums while diving into new, more daring sounds. Perhaps most importantly, this LP will leave listeners with a growing since of excitement for the upcoming career of one of the most the impressive artists in all of rap music.

9. Billie EilishWHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?

Yet another promising young star who hadn’t quite found her stride yet, Billie Eilish was finally able to merge her dark, unnerving reputation with a genuinely strong sound on WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? Cuts like “Bad Guy,” and “Bury a Friend,” have been smash hits and catapulted Eilish into the cultural zeitgeist. This newfound attention is entirely deserved too, as this is one of the more unique and groundbreaking releases in modern pop music.

Her vocal performances are quite strong, as are her lyrics, but the true breakthrough here comes in the instrumentation and production. The bass-heavy mixes broke with current trends of bright, upbeat styles. Instead, several tracks are nocturnal and daring to the point of being scary with bizarre vocal layering and effects building on this quite effectively. I do have my complaints, particularly on the technical side of the production, but this album is nearly as groundbreaking as the artist behind it, and for that, it must be mentioned among the best of the year.

8. American FootballLP 3

American Football has one of the strangest histories in all of music. The math rock/shoegaze four piece debuted in 1999 with a self-titled LP that is, to this day, one of the most respected works in all of the midwestern emo scene. They then disappeared for 17 years before returning in 2016. This year saw the release of their third LP, a much more matured version of the swirling, technical style which made their debut such a classic. Tracks like “Uncomfortably Numb,” and “Doom In Full Bloom,” have been regular listens since I first heard them and nearly every cut has something to offer.

With LP 3, American Football revisited much of the sound that brought them to prominence in the first place. Spacey guitars are layered five and six times over and they use the simple bones of their songs to build a truly engrossing experience on nearly every song. The album has been criticized as bland by many, and while I understand where that comes from, I would say that it rather gives a listener the opportunity to find the bright points themselves. LP 3 is a gentle storm of complex guitars and vocals and a must hear for fans of the once great midwestern emo scene.

7. DefeaterDefeater

Defeater is a hardcore band from New Jersey who’s every release since 2008 has followed the same storyline of a struggling family in 1940’s America. This self-titled entry is the fifth in the saga and it is just as brutal and heartfelt as ever. The band’s ability to find compelling melody among constant, crushing instrumentation sets them apart from many of their hardcore contemporaries and makes what would normally be a difficult listen quite palatable even to casual fans.

Defeater doesn’t bring anything groundbreaking on this album and, in fact,  retreads the sound that was much more popular about a decade ago, but the charm comes in the tight, thrashing performances from every single member. The drums on a track like “Atheists in Foxholes,” or the vocals on “List & Heel,” are absolutely fantastic but they still stand on overall well written parts from every member. All in all, Defeater is a brutal but perfectly paced entry into a fascinating storyline which continues to deliver excellent moments.

6. Tyler, the CreatorIgor

A long time rap star and founding member of the rap group, Loiter Squad, Tyler has been known as a fowl mouthed, punk rapper since his debut 2011. That all changed with 2017’s Flower Boy in which Tyler came out as bisexual in addition to crafting a genuinely impressive exploration of sexuality, masculinity, and the culture around him. IGOR continues many of these themes, telling the story of Tyler learning to get over a bad relationship and grow as a person.

Sonically, IGOR is bizarre to say the least. In my review, I referred to this style as “industrial Motown,” and to some extent, I think that’s still the best way to describe it. Songs like “EARFQUAKE,” and “RUNNING OUT OF TIME,” are groovy and danceable, but also feature a bass-heavy, abrasive production style that is just fascinating. This, paired with excellent lyricism and a manic pacing that never lets a listener stop to breath, makes for one of the most interesting projects of the year thus far.

5. HozierWasteland, Baby!

After his 2014, self-titled debut, Hozier was one of the most beloved artists in the music industry. Unfortunately, his DIY style and insistence on keeping a small circle of influence meant that this LP was followed by relative silence for half a decade. Finally, Wasteland, Baby! Arrived and it was largely perfect. His lyrical work on “Almost,” and the softness of a track like “Shrike,” were everything fans had hoped for and more, but there were also some interesting changes.

Percussion, which had been mostly ignored on the debut, took a front seat on this album with constantly creative decisions and a tendency toward more natural percussion sounds. This also saw a much harder turn toward political writing on cuts like the opener, “Nina Cried Power.” All told, Wasteland, Baby! Doesn’t quite top the excellence of its predecessor but it is still, without a doubt, fantastic. Hozier has a power in his voice that is almost breathtaking and combined with his instrumental talents and creative arrangements, I’m left very excited for future releases.

4. Bruce SpringsteenWestern Stars

An undeniable legend of rock music, Springsteen has always been somewhat hit or miss for me. His sound generally rotates between the indulgent style of records like Born in the USA and more somber storytelling of albums like Ghost of Tom Joad. I’ve always much preferred the latter, but Western Stars finds a way to synthesize these two like few previous Springsteen efforts have. “The Wayfarer,” and “There Goes My Miracle,” are some of my favorites, but every track on this album is impressive in its own right.

The ethos of this LP is Bruce’s attempt to recreate the sweeping, stringy sound of 70’s country music, specifically that of Western soundtracks and, in this, he absolutely succeeds. The massive instrumental pallet means that there’s a surprise waiting around every corner, making the relatively slow pacing much more bearable. Beyond this, Springsteen’s voice is aged perfectly and his lyricism is both moving and clever. Western Stars is yet another masterpiece from The Boss himself.

3. Ariana Grandethank u, next

Ariana Grande has long been considered one of the queens of modern pop music and thank u, next is her best work to date. This is her second release in a six month period and though sweetener was impressive, this record takes her sound to brand new heights. Following a string of personal tragedies, Ariana writes heartfelt lyrics and performs them with show-stopping power. Tracks like “imagine,” and “ghostin,” are simply breathtaking while other tracks like “needy,” and “break up with your girlfriend, im bored,” are just a blast.

The production on the album is certainly a highlight, sporting wonderfully placed harmonies, simple but effective beats, and a nocturnal fog drenched over everything. Easily the highlight, however, is Grande’s fantastic vocal performance across every second of this album. She has an awe-inspiring power which is mixed perfectly with soft, emotional moments and she even reaches up into a few whistle tones from time to time. All in all, thank u, next is just a masterclass in great pop music lead by one of the most impressive vocalists in the world today.

2. Todd SniderCash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3

Todd Snider was an early progenitor of the lyrically focused, folk inspired style of country which has overtaken much of the genre today. While he had a handful of strong live albums, he’d always struggled to find his stride in studio releases. That changed this year when he partnered with John Carter Cash, the single most exciting producer in country music today, and dropped this brilliant LP. Tracks like “Workin’ On a Song,” and “Like a Force of Nature,” are certainly highlights, but its just an overall enjoyable listen from front to back.

As I said, John Carter Cash is the best producer in country music today and he lives up to that title on this project as he brings a warm simplicity to every cut. Snider’s vocals certainly won’t knock a listener off their feet, and neither will his instrumentals, but the record is really more than the sum of its parts. Ultimately, Cash Cabin Sessions feels like a relaxed night with friends, which also happens to sneak some genuinely brilliant commentary on life from a true troubadour in Todd Snider.

****HONORABLE MENTIONS****

  • Cuz I Love You – Lizzo
  • ZUU – Denzel Curry
  • Front Porch – Joy Williams
  • Social Cues – Cage the Elephant
  • Dedicated – Carly Rae Jepsen

****HONORABLE MENTIONS****

1. Xiu XiuGirl with Basket of Fruit

At first, I wasn’t sold on placing this album at number one. Admittedly, I haven’t found myself revisiting this record nearly as much as others on this list, but, on the other hand, there isn’t one single album on this list and very few albums in my life that have left the kind of lasting impact on me that was left by Xiu Xiu’s Girl With Basket of Fruit. In terms of highlights, if you listen to nothing else on this album, I must suggest that you hear “Mary Turner, Mary Turner,” provided you have the strong stomach to handle its violent subject matter.

Simply put, this project is horrifying. Xiu Xiu is an experimental group and this album pushes music to its outer most limits in the most brutal way possible. The sound pallet is gut wrenching, frontman Jamie Stewart’s vocals are often nightmarish, and the album itself seems to be influenced by everything from grindcore and death metal to traditional reggae and samba. To listen to Girl with Basket of Fruit in one sitting is to be bombarded with an unflinching look at existential horror. It may not have the most replay value of any album this year and it certainly wasn’t the most enjoyable experience I’ve had with an album this year, but Xiu Xiu’s hellish masterpiece is the most daring, the most challenging, and above all the most memorable record I’ve heard thus far this year.

AMAZON LINK: https://amzn.to/2UbiiiB

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Ariana Grande Raises the Bar on Pop Music with Fifth LP

Thank u, next is perfectly paced, expertly produced, and packed to the brim with fantastic performances, setting a new measurement for what we can expect from Ariana and the pop genre as a whole.

Ariana Grande is an R&B/Pop singer and actress based in New York City. She began her career in the Broadway Musical 13, but found her footing on the national stage with the role of Cat Valentine on Nickelodeon’s Victorious. After showcasing her vocal abilities on the show, she would go on to break into the world of pop music, taking it by storm with 2013’s Your’s Truly, which debuted at number one and went platinum. After 2014’s My Everything went double platinum and 2016’s Dangerous Woman went platinum, she seemed to have established dominance as one of the most successful pop acts of the day.

She’s notable for remarkable control over her whistle notes, an impressive range, and a smokey tone that has worked especially well as she’s continued to incorporate hip-hop elements into her production. She dropped Sweetener in 2018 to very positive reviews, including from myself, and quickly announced that we could expect a second record within just a few months. Over that time and shortly before the 2018 release, her public image seemed to carry some baggage as her long time boyfriend and recent ex, Mac Miller tragically passed away in 2018, and Grande also split with then fiancé, Pete Davidson on less than amicable grounds. While I’d be more than happy to leave all of this information out of a review of her music, she seems more than happy to leave it in as this and more is addressed on her newest release, thank u, next.

First and foremost, Ariana’s vocal performance on this record is absolutely fantastic. Just listen to tracks like the opener, “imagine,” where she even reaches well up into her whistle tones or “bad idea,” where her belt and ability to switch between chest and head voice characterize an excellent chorus. She’s already well known as one of the more vocally talented pop stars in the industry today, and her performances on thank u, next do nothing but showcase that further.

The songwriting on the album is also quite impressive. Songs like “NASA,” and “makeup,” take fairly basic ideas from pop music and write about them from really unique angles. This is a lyrical trick she uses over the entire record, not to mention extremely personal lyrics on “ghostin” where she sings about her remaining love for the late Mac Miller and the effect it has on her other relationships, or the title track where she speaks to her many past relationships, boldly calling them all out by name, and speaks to her need to focus on her self in the future.

Even beyond lyrics, Grande has an incredible talent for writing incredibly catchy hooks and choruses. On the track “fake smile,” for example, her flow and melody is remarkably singable, as is the hook on the surprisingly sexual “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored.” She’s got such an ear for writing these choruses that keep listeners dancing through the entire runtime.

Best of all, though, is the production. There are specific examples like the layered vocals on “needy,” or the creative stereo image on “in my head,” but the entire album is a pure masterpiece of pop production. The attention to detail on vocal tuning and the overall mix is perfect and allows the producers to craft lush and dynamic instrumentals that surround the listener with a mix of organic instrumentation and well placed, nocturnal trap influences.

Admittedly, there are issues. “7 rings,” while benefiting from a great Sound of Music reference, suffers from the odd, Soulja Boy-inspired flow on the verses which pulls a lot of the momentum out of the track. Additionally, “bloodline,” is probably the weakest track on the record as the instrumental never seems to find its footing and features an awkward horn section. Luckily, these problems are extremely singular, and have virtually no effect on the rest of the album.

With her fifth release, Ariana Grande has not only established herself as the best of the mainstream, pop acts but raised the bar on pop music as a whole. While artists like Katy Perry and Taylor Swift have tried to incorporate trap and hip-hop influences with abysmal results, Grande has succeeded with flying colors and piled on further layers which her contemporaries simply can’t match.

Thank u, next is perfectly paced, expertly produced, and packed to the brim with fantastic performances, setting a new measurement for what we can expect from Ariana and the pop genre as a whole.

8/10