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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Top Ten Albums of 2018

Here it is, ladies and gentlemen! My picks for the top 10 albums of 2018! Thanks to everyone for a great year, and here’s to a fantastic 2019!!

10. John PrineThe Tree of Forgiveness

2018 has been a year full of legacy records, and few were more enjoyable than that of country and americana icon, John Prine. The Tree of Forgiveness is many things, not the least of which is a masterclass in traditional country songwriting. Each track is well-formed and buries its formulaic nature in a heap of heart and wit. We even get a fun feature from Amanda Shires on backing vocals early in the record.

Above all, the album is a showcase for a beloved figure in country music. Prine’s vocals hold the character of his many years atop the charts and his guitar work is as proficient as ever. Importantly, he avoids many of the trappings of legacy record, forgoing the sad longing for the past in favor of upbeat, enjoyable stories. There are heartfelt moments, notably in tracks like “Summer’s End,” and “When I Get to Heaven,” but they’re each softened by Prine’s persistent charm.

9. Kamasi WashingtonHeaven and Earth

The follow up to Washington’s 2015 debut, The Epic, Heaven and Earth is a sprawling jazz epic which fills a nearly three hour runtime to the brim. Intimidating, right? Luckily, Kamasi finds a way to make his music relatively accessible as well. The record ranges from fun and danceable to breathtaking in scope, never really feeling like a slog, despite the length. With the jazz genre having fallen off in popularity over many years, Kamasi is bringing the sound back to the mainstream better than maybe an other artist.

The instrumental pallet is a real pleasure on this one, pulling in choirs, theremins, congos, and a multitude of horns. On the other hands, the staples of his band turn in incredible work as well. The drums never stop and utilize cymbals better than any album I’ve heard all year, the piano is reserved, yet peaking in at the most opportune times, Thundercat’s bass drives each track along with a flare and Kamasi’s saxophone is just undeniably powerful. This is a forceful but gentle sophomore project from one of the most exciting artists in the jazz world today.

8. Post MaloneBeerbongs & Bentleys

Every time I start to think that trap is fully dead with no more quality records left to be made in the style, a record like Beerbongs & Bentleys comes along to reinvigorate it. On one of the catchiest and most successful albums of this decade, Post Malone delivers one fantastic hook after another, separated by well written verses and some excellent instrumentals. Tracks like “Zack and Codeine,” “Better Now,” and “Psycho,” will likely be large parts of our musical landscape for many years, thanks in no small part to Post’s vocal performances and several well placed features. 

Perhaps the highlight of this album, however, is the production by a massive team, lead by Louis Bell and Frank Duke. Each track is so well layered and benefits from a clear understanding of the sound they’re trying to achieve. This an especially apparent on the highlight of the entire tracklist, “Stay,” which wonderfully blends folk music with trap production. In the end, it’s an extremely listenable album with high replay value which we’ll talk about for many years to come.

7. Arctic MonkeysTranquility Base Hotel & Casino

Following a long and critically acclaimed career, the Monkeys announcement of an upcoming 2018 album left me wondering if they’d continue in the vain of their traditional, blues-inspired garage rock or pull in a few outside influences. I could’ve never expected something like this. Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino takes a hard left turn into psychedelic and glam rock territory with full confidence and the new sound benefits the band well.

Alex Turner’s vocals are especially excellent here, channelling his inner David Bowie to deliver a smokey and intriguing performance on every track. Additionally, much of the band took something of a backseat, trading in the guitar heavy sound of the past for a more atmospheric tone, which means that when the guitar finally roars in, each solo is impactful and well placed. Chiefly, TBHC has a tangible space to it and feels like a sonic profile of a real place.

6. Florence + The MachineHigh as Hope

Another simple album, High as Hope is the fourth studio album from Florence + The Machine, having established themselves as alt-rock powerhouses in the previous, indie-centric era. Here, they don’t aim to reinvent the wheel, but instead craft an enjoyable piece of orchestral pop-rock. The drums are very well produced and, though the pallet leaves a bit to be desired, the majority of instrumentation is quite excellent.

All of this is secondary, however, to Florence Welch’s remarkable performance as lead vocalist. She’s remarkably powerful on tracks like “Big God,” and yet sweet and gentle on “June.” Her phenomenal control lets her bring her Irish influences to the front in the form of a multitude of tight runs and she’s so dynamic that she’s able to paint thoughtful melodies over the various tracks, never once seeming to repeat herself or run out of ideas. The group doesn’t let their ambition outrun themselves, but instead create a high quality version of the sound that’s brought them massive success.

5. NonameRoom 25

One of the most surprising releases of the year, Noname’s theme heavy, jazz-rap album is starkly gorgeous. Her poetry background means that every single verse is jam-packed with wordy soliloquies that rely on a softer tone and flow to fit in the timing. After finding some mainstream acclaim with a feature on Chance the Rapper’s 2016 LP, Coloring Book, Noname finally realizes her potential two years later with this album.

Themes like race, feminism, and inequality bleed through this album, boldly informing her writing throughout, as is the case with much of the art that comes out of Chicago. The drum work is nothing short of incredible, setting complex grooves throughout and leading along an impressive team of instrumentalists, all of whom sound incredible thanks to great production, especially for an independent release. In an oddly weak year for rap music, Room 25 was a thoughtful commentary on the modern world and a fun listen all in one.

4. Richard EdwardsVerdugo

After ending his supremely successful run as the frontman of the indie rock outfit, Margot and the Nuclear So & So’s and recovering from worrisome medical issues, Richard Edwards finally returned in 2017 with Lemon Cotton Candy Sunset, his first solo release which promised the release of a sister album this year. While I expected a lot from the follow up, Verdugo crushed every expectation and stands as one of my favorite Edwards project to date.

The album continues, stylistically, where LCCS left off, but this time fleshing out the unique, orchestral folk sound much better. The songwriting is excellent here as well, both in terms of lyricism and hooks, with each song taking turns sticking in your head. Richard’s vocals are simply stunning on this record, especially on the more intimate second half, with “Something Wicked,” being one of my favorite tracks in his entire catalog. Last year’s project landed in the top ten of my 2017 list, but with Verdugo, he cracks my top five for the first time.

3. Father John MistyGod’s Favorite Customer

His fourth studio record and less than a year after his 2017 masterpiece, Pure Comedy, Father John Misty has established himself as one of the foremost songwriters of this decade. While Comedy took a frigid and cynical dive into the horrors of the modern world, God’s Favorite Customer is self-reflective and contemplative. He touches on alcoholism, maturity, loneliness, and much more in a terse runtime that never once feels either bloated or underdeveloped.

Misty is one of the best lyricists writing right now, and he proves that repeatedly on this album. “The Songwriter,” is a moving tribute to the medium of songwriting itself, while “Mr. Tillman,” is a snarky retelling of his own bender is through the eyes of a hotel employee. The way he toys with metaphor, point of view, and tone is fascinating and shows him to be a seriously elite writer. Ultimately, God’s Favorite Customer may not feel quite as prescient as its predecessor, but it’s still a masterclass in songwriting and a remarkable achievement, considering the quick turnaround time.

2. DaughtersYou Won’t Get What You Want

When it came to ranking this years releases, there were exactly two albums that had a shot at the top spot and, in the end, You Won’t Get What You Want came up just a hair short. Once an extreme metal band with songs lasting about 60 seconds, Daughters had blossomed into one of the most unique acts in all of hard rock by the time of their self-titled farewell record eight years ago. Upon their revival this year, however, the band gave us one of the inexplicable music experiences of 2018.

You Won’t Get What You Want incorporates elements of doom, industrial, grunge, punk and a multitude of other sounds to craft an unforgiving soundtrack with a particularly bleak outlook on the world. The lyrics are almost poe-esque horror stories, each conveying some vague sense of impending annihilation, telling succinct tales in of themselves while also having far reaching implications on the political and social landscape of our time. It’s unpredictable, it’s engulfing, it’s terrifying, and yet somehow it’s intensely personal. Easily the best paced album of the year, Daughters slowly and methodically unveil a brutal hellscape that is every bit as sprawling as and psych-rock piece and will remain forefront in the minds of listeners long after the first listen.

1. IDLESJoy as an Act of Resistance

When it came down to it, there was just no other record that could occupy this spot. No other band has so adequately recognized the state of the world in all its glory and shame while providing a fun, singable piece of work. After bursting onto the scene last year with Brutalism, IDLES continued this year with the best punk record in 30 years. This may seem like sacrilege, but I would put Joy as an Act of Resistance up against the seminole efforts of groups like The Clash, The Dead Kennedys, and The Ramones without hesitation. It’s that good and that important.

The overarching purpose of Joy is to examine modern masculinity, worts and all, to see what is worth keeping and what needs to be changed. Short of quoting large sections of lyrics, it’s difficult to explain how well Joe Talbot addresses this topic, following as it spirals through topics like immigration, violence, racism, love, and change. The instrumentation is thrashing and powerful, but it’s somehow still overpowered by the lyricism and Talbot’s performance. In the end, having aggressively hacked away the blocks that exist in society, the record stands simultaneously as a touching celebration of the beauty in the world and a visceral attack on that which robs us of this beauty.

Joy as an Act of Resistance the first album to ever receive a 10/10 score from Brendon’s Beats, and for my money, it’s the undisputed best album of the year.