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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Hozier Is Back With a Perfect Sophomore Album

Wasteland, Baby! Is an infectious passion project from one of the brightest minds in music today which slowly sucks you in further and further in with each listen.

Hozier is an indie/blues rock artist from Bray, Ireland. He debuted in 2013 with the Take Me to Church EP, the title track of which is still his most successful song to date, certified eight times platinum in the US alone. After the massive success, he went on to drop the From Eden EP, which was equally well received and left expectations sky high for an upcoming LP. His 2014 self-titled album debut certainly didn’t disappoint, featuring represses of much of the previous two releases while adding a few fantastic new cuts. The album went double platinum in the US and six times platinum in his home country of Ireland, spawning a large tour and and netting multiple awards. Fans were left clamoring for more but were largely met with silence until the release of the Nina Cried Power EP in late 2018. Now, just a few months later, we finally have a sophomore effort from the indie rock troubadour and it absolutely does not disappoint.

Wasteland, Baby! May be a bit jarring to fans of the debut, as was the preceding EP, as Hozier has returned with a wide array of new styles and effects, and a renewed focus on the instrumental side of his music which just didn’t exist before. This is made obvious in the baselines of the very opening track, “Nina Cried Power,” in addition to “No Plan,” a few cuts later. The bass guitar works extremely hard across this record, constantly moving with purpose and played with skill.

This is also extremely noticeable in the massive instrumental pallet of this album. The violins on “As It Was” lend a gravitas to an already fantastic, folk-inspired song, while the organ  work on “Be,” and across the majority of the latter half of the record is a wonderful touch. While the first album seemed a bit more consistent in terms of tone, I much prefer the expansive pallet and exciting nature of Wasteland, Baby!

Without a doubt, however, the most noticeable change is a massive focus on percussion on nearly every track. While a song like “Movement,” or “Sunlight,” is perhaps a bit more noticeable, it’s clear that Hozier put serious time and effort into each piece of the percussion on this album and it absolutely pays off. Never once do we hear a nondescript rock beat but in stead a minimalistic but effective collections of dynamic sounds keeping the rhythm.

All this being said, the best qualities of the album are still, by far, the elements we’ve come to expect and appreciate from Hozier’s work. The guitar work is wonderful. From the rolling, picked acoustic of “To Noise Making,” to the earworm riffs of tracks like “Talk,” and “Dinner & Diatribes.” His guitar is at the center of nearly every track and that’s never a bad thing.

The lyrics on this album are nothing short of poetry. “Almost,” is a wonderfully fun tribute to love and music using several lyrics from timeless the jazz standards of acts like Sinatra and Jelly Roll Morton. “Shrike,” on the other hand is breathtaking ode to a love lost using nature as a perfect metaphor. It’s also the best track on the album and one of the best tracks I’ve heard in a very long time. The closer and title track uses powerful apocalyptic imagery to describe the act of falling in love in yet another stroke of brilliance. Genuinely every track on this album stems from a wonderful lyrical idea and executed nearly perfectly.

The absolute, undeniable highlight on this album, however, comes in Hozier’s vocals. Whether it’s the Motown and soul inspired sound of a track like “Nobody,” or the booming, blues rock of “Would That I,” or any of the other 12 cuts on this album, Hozier’s voice is a constant presence. It’s soft and contemplative when it needs to be, and smoothly powerful at the perfect moments, and it is, overall, an absolute Iron Man effort from an incredible talent.

As this album wraps up, I’m struck by what a fantastic experience it was. The pacing is near perfect, never leaving me bored over a nearly hour long runtime, every song feels essential and unique, and every risk taken on the album pays off in full. Even the singles I didn’t love in the lead up have found a comfortable home on this record and have become some of my favorite cuts. The massive accomplishment that is this LP becomes even more incredible when you realize that each and every track is written, largely performed, and produced by Hozier himself.

Wasteland, Baby! Is an infectious passion project from one of the brightest minds in music today which slowly sucks you in further and further in with each listen. It’s an instant classic and it’s the second album in Brendon’s Beats history to receive a perfect score.

10/10

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

Five Artists With Great Albums to Come in 2019

Here’s just a few of the great things to come in 2019!!

Tool

First and foremost, we’ll start with the most obvious choice. Maynard James Keenan announced over Twitter earlier this month that Tool had finished recording and were now only waiting on the mastering process to complete their fifth studio album. Their first release in 12 years, this album which is still yet untitled could be one of the most hotly anticipated rock albums of all time. There’s been no release date set, but it’s safe to assume that Maynard’s traditional format of Spring or Fall releases will hold steady.

When it comes to sound, it’s anyone’s guess. While recent albums have trended in a softer, more progressive direction, there is really no analog for a band as iconic as Tool returning to the spotlight after such a long hiatus. This becomes even more unique when one considers that Tool’s discography is essentially perfect, and that each member has actually been quite active outside the group, growing in their own excellent side projects. Despite the questions, though, I must simply fall back on the aforementioned perfect catalog to date, along with the incredible performances they’ve given both times I’ve seen them live recently, and say that this album will be well worth the weight.

Slipknot

The nu-metal juggernauts from Iowa have wained in popularity in recent years, but it’s worth remembering what heights they’d once reached. As a staple in the 2000’s hard rock scene and under the guidance of the legendary Rick Rubin, they were able to craft a sound which held onto much of the grit and grime of underground metal while weaving a plethora of catchy hooks and melodies that extended an olive branch to non-metal fans. This, combined with the gimmick of wearing horror masks during live performances, put Slipknot on the map.

That being said, all reports and interviews seem to suggest that the band is headed back to basics. Corey Taylor recently said that the new album will be “one of the darkest chapters in Slipknot’s history,” and that seems to be the case having heard the newest single, “All Out Life.” While the track features a bit of annoying electronic influences, the bulk was true heavy metal. Taylor’s screams are brutal and the guitar tone is the most abrasive it’s been in years. If the single is any indication, we could be in for a heavy addition to the band’s catalog.

Kanye West

Kanye West is one of the most divisive artists of all time, and he was incredibly prolific in 2018. In addition to his own solo record and an LP with Kid Cudi under the newly created KIDS SEE GHOSTS moniker, he produced multiple releases for artists like Pusha T.  He also released three non-album singles, one of which was an extended poop joke, and another was released at the Pornhub awards. Last but not least, he had a fully televised meeting with the president in the oval office. Put simply, Kanye West has placed himself at the center of our culture.

While I didn’t love the majority of his output in 2018, there is no denying the excitement of a Kanye album. While we will likely get one of the albums long rumored to be in the works, namely Watch the Throne 2, Yhandi, or Turbo Grafx 16, though there is really no predicting what could come from Ye. The one thing we do know, is that every Kanye release thus far has been miles ahead of the curve, influencing the culture for many years to come. We can expect nothing less from a Kanye record in 2019.

Hozier

Hozier rocked the music world in 2013 with two EPs which eventually coalesced into 2014’s self-titled LP. It’s an absolute masterclass in lyricism and vocal performance and has become a staple of the modern singer/songwriter scene. From there, we got radio silence for four years. Though he toured and released a few videos, there was little to no hint of a sophomore release anywhere on the horizon until, in 2018, he dropped Nina Cried Power. The four track EP was extremely well received and renewed the public fire for a new record, a request which may finally be granted in 2019.

When wondering what the album may sound like, it’s striking to think that, for all his critical praise and artistic ability, Hozier is still relatively young in his musical career. This was quite apparent on the new EP as he pulled in hip-hop and gospel influences for an entirely new sound. That being said, there are a few things we can count on with a Hozier record, namely, excellent lyrics, dark themes, and fantastic instrumentation. One can only hope for a second record that holds up  to his debut.

Richard Edwards

Aside from Tool, I’m far more excited for this album than any other. After shuttering the indie-rock group Margot and the Nuclear So and Sos, Edwards dropped his solo debut, Lemon Cotton Candy Sunset, in 2017. It was a sweetly arranged and well written contemplations on the divorce, sickness, and loss that he’d experienced in his few years between releases. He followed up with Verdugo, on the best albums of 2018, a darker approach to similar issues where he fully realized the orchestral folk sound he’d begun to experiment with.

Having announced a new release slated for 2019, there’s every indication that he could drop the best album of the year. His use of strings and other unique instrumentation has created one of the most fascinating and recognizable sounds in all the music industry. His lyricism is thoughtful and visual and considering the trend of his latest work, he seems to be on track for the best release of his career.