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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Todd Snider’s New LP is a Masterclass In Folk Music

With excellent songwriting, simple production, and heartfelt performances, Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3 is one of the best folk albums of this decade, and a treat for fans of Snider or the larger Americana movement as a whole.

Todd Snider is an Americana singer/songwriter from Portland, Oregon.He debuted in 1994 with Songs for the Daily Planet. In total, he’s released 16 albums, not including compilations and special editions, each finding varying levels of success, particularly among Americana fans. Perhaps his best accomplishments are his two live albums, Near Truths and Hotel Rooms and The Storyteller. He’s at his best on these projects as his intimate sound isn’t interrupted by poor production and over-instrumentation. This was a problem, especially in his early years, as the apparatus just didn’t exist to find a producer who could do the Americana and folk sounds justice. Today, however, we’re experiencing a boom in the sub-genre and a multitude of producers committed to the sound. For this, his 16th album, Todd has partnered with the great John Carter Cash for his best studio effort to date, Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3.

Perhaps the most surprising change of pace on this LP is the renewed focus on Todd’s acoustic guitar prowess. Tracks like the album’s highlight, “Like a Force of Nature,” and “Just Like Overnight,” the sparse production and arrangement leave nothing but space for Snider to fill with complicated and melodic folk riffs, which were played on the Martin guitar of the late Johnny Cash. He’s very rarely content with simple chords, and instead picks each note with intention and a strong ear that makes every cut infinitely better.

Much less surprising, however, is Snider’s razor sharp wit and penchant for quick, yet hilarious one-liners. On a song like “Talking Reality Television Blues,” he crafts a long winded critique of modern culture, beginning with the invention of radio and culminating in the election of a reality television star to The White House. “The Blues on Banjo,” on the other hand, feels like a random riff on the insanity of the world, not to mention acting as a comedic turn on the kind of simple, one-take recordings that brought early blues stars like Robert Johnson to fame. “A Timeless Response to Current Events,” closes the album as a hilarious, wordy talk blues number that mocks the formalities of government proceedings. None of these tracks are necessarily sharp-tongued, but they’ll make virtually all listeners laugh, and that’s the goal.

Aside from jokes, there are also a few genuinely impressive lyrical moments on this record. The opener, “Working on a Song,” perfectly captures the life a song inside the mind of a writer, including both the comical frustrations of feeling it so near to being finished and the heartfelt connection a writer feels to his craft. “The Ghost of Johnny Cash,” appears later on the record and it is at once haunting yet beautiful. Todd celebrates the icons of the genre with the tail of Loretta Lynn meeting the ghostly form of the late Johnny Cash for a dance in the rain.

Todd has a trend on this record of writing specific stories about figures in music history. “Cowboy Jack Clement’s Waltz,” tells the story of its namesake, a very important producer and friend of the late Johnny Cash, mainly cobbled together from stories told to him by John Carter Cash. “Watering Flowers in the Rain,” as its preceding explanation says, tells the story of a longtime roady for Elvis Presley and the frustration he felt at never taking the spotlight himself. These are some of the most interesting tracks on the album and they’re aided heavily by the spoken sections that lead into them.

Another strong addition to Snider’s arsenal is a fantastically well-played harmonica. It’s perhaps most notable on a track like “Framed,” but it’s an ever-present element of virtually the entire album. His ear for melody is, of course, the driving force behind the harmonica’s effectiveness, but the sharp and almost abrasive tone which is allowed to remain in the final mix without overly softening the edges.

Todd Snider said that recording this album was a result of a recurring dream in which Johnny Cash himself would wake him up from his resting place on the floor in the center of the Cash Cabin Studio, which is incidentally the site where Cash passed away. When Todd opened his eyes, Cash would point to the engineers booth and say “you’re missing it.” And so, Snider set out to make an album at the studio which would make The Man in Black Proud and I think he succeeded.

With excellent songwriting, simple production, and heartfelt performances, Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3 is one of the best folk albums of this decade, and a treat for fans of Snider or the larger Americana movement as a whole.

9/10

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

My Top Five Singles of February!!

From Todd Snider to Juice WRLD and everything in between, here’s a few of my favorite tracks from this month!

Field NegroRoyce Da 5’9”

After an excellent LP last year, Royce is showing quite a bit of life considering his career is nearly 20 years old. “Field Negro,” dropped early in the month and it’s one of the most politically charged tracks in his catalog. Royce jumps from specific topics like Colin Kaepernick, Kanye West, and the Super Bowl Halftime Show, to the broader ideas of race relations and the importance of standing up for one’s own race, regardless of the consequences. It’s a bold statement and a must hear for fans of lyrical hip-hop.

Like a Force of NatureTodd Snider feat. Jason Isbell

A true folk troubadour like we haven’t seen in many years, Todd Snider is one of the best live performers in all of the music industry, but has had a few struggles when it comes to capturing that magic in studio. With a new LP slated for a March release, however, he’s released two fantastic singles in preparation. The better of the two has made its way onto this list, not the least of which because of the inclusion of close friend and fellow master songwriter, Jason Isbell. While Isbell’s input seems to have been more on the writing side, the pair delivers a heartfelt and well performed cut that has me excited for the upcoming record.

PortlandEmily Hebert

Nashville based singer/songwriter, Emily Hebert released her debut single near the end of last year and has an EP in development for 2019, with her second single, “Portland,” dropping at the beginning of the month. The track has some strong pop-folk sensibilities, but the highlights of the cut and its predecessor come especially from Hebert’s fantastic ear for melody. With well written verses, an earworm chorus, and extremely intimate production, “Portland,” is sure to find it’s way into your heavy rotation and leave listeners anxiously waiting for more. 

JuiceLizzo

Lizzo is an up and coming soul/hip-hop artist with some impressive underground credentials. She has two very impressive LP’s under her belt and with a rising amount of mainstream recognition, she’s hoping that her third album, slated for April of 2019, may just be her breakout. From the sound of her latest release, she may just get her wish. “Juice,” blends elements of dream pop and funk in an excellent instrumental which accompanies a show stopping vocal performance from the powerhouse herself. The track is soaked in attitude and shows Lizzo to be one of the most exciting artists in soul music.

RobberyJuice WRLD

Following an extremely successful 2018 full of high profile features and a relatively successful album, Juice WRLD is kicking off 2019 strong with a pair of strong singles. The best of the two, “Robbery,” is highlighted by quirky piano instrumentation and an excellent vocal performance from the man himself. The track takes a few cues from the emotional, Soundcloud rap popularized by contemporaries like the late XXXTentacion, but Juice injects the sound with a lighthearted energy and a listenable melody. If this is what we can expect on upcoming projects, we’re in for a treat.

HEAR THE TRACKS: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/45yfYobxluDOlZfjVYSgtD

AMAZON LINK: https://amzn.to/2UcjS3Y