Top Ten Albums of 2019

Happy New Years, Everybody! Here’s my favorite albums of the year!!

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

Watching the 17 year old’s dominant performance on Saturday Night Live, one would find it hard to believe that Billie Eilish’s break out LP was released just earlier this year. While she’d found some success before, WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? Rocketed the young singer/songwriter into the stratosphere and sent ripples into the world of pop music.

Hits like “Bad Guy,” and “You Should See Me in a Crown,” continue to flood the airwaves months after their release while clever cuts like “Wish You Were Gay,” show the true lyrical abilities of Billie and her brother Finneas. Above all else, however, it’s Finneas’ production work which sets this album apart. The entire album is drenched in a bass-heavy, nocturnal mix and accented with a smattering of unique vocal and instrumental effects that make for a very intriguing listening experience. This is certainly not the most experimental record of the year, but it’s one of the more daring projects to hit the mainstream of pop music in quite some time.

9. Tyler, the CreatorIgor

After an enjoyable but under appreciated early career, the Odd Future member reinvented himself in 2017 with his ambitious fifth release, Flower Boy. The record saw Tyler portrayed in a much more vulnerable light, coming out as gay and writing heavily personal lyrics which eschewed his trademark vulgarity for more honesty and candor. Igor followed in much the same vein and, while it’s much less groundbreaking, the record also has a much clearer vision than its predecessor.

The album charts some unexplored territory with a unique blend of Motown and neosoul sensibilities and modern, electronic instrumentation. Some synthesizers are even somewhat abrasive, particularly in the latter half of the LP. It’s also perfectly paced, with a gentle blend of danceable hits like “EARFQUAKE” and thoughtful cuts like “ARE WE STILL FRIENDS?” Ultimately, IGOR is a brave blend of styles which takes no prisoners in its forging of a brand new sound.

8. 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 leaves 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.

7. JPEGMAFIAAll My Heroes are Cornballs

JPEGMAFIA has long been a titan in the world of experimental hip-hop. His fantastic Sophomore album Veteran topped many year end lists in 2018 thanks to his unique flow and willingness to explore difficult and controversial topics quite fearlessly. While his first two albums were ambitious in their own right, they certainly couldn’t have prepare fans for All My Heroes are Cornballs.

This record is certainly not for the faint of heart has Peggy shifts rapidly between flows and instrumentals with little concern coherence or even track divisions. Despite the experimental style of nearly every cut, the record is still packed with catchy, genuinely enjoyable moments. The title track, for example, is one of my favorite hip-hop tracks of the year, as is the lead single, “Jesus Forgive Me, I Am a Thot.” Ultimately, JPEGMAFIA manages to keep listeners hooked on listenable hooks and interesting lyrics while remaining unflinchingly experimental on nearly every song.

6. HozierWasteland, Baby!

After his 2014, self-titled debut, Hozier was one of the most beloved artists in the music industry and a personal favorite of mine. 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 as a nearly perfect follow up. 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.

5. 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. The carefree nature of the record bleeds through from the writing to the production and creates and extremely intimate final product. Ultimately, Cash Cabin Sessions feels like a relaxed night with friends, which also happens to sneak in some genuinely brilliant commentary on life from a true troubadour in Todd Snider.

4. 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 pens heartfelt lyrics and performs them with show-stopping power. Tracks like “imagine,” and “ghostin,” are simply breathtaking while other cuts like “needy,” and “break up with your girlfriend, im bored,” are just a blast.

The production on the album is certainly impressive, sporting wonderfully placed harmonies, simple but effective beats, and great vocal tuning, all of which is dripping in nocturnal mistique. 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, and a testament to the creative depth of pop music as a genre.

3. The HighwomenThe Highwomen

The formation of country supergroup, The Highwomen, had been rumored for quite some time before the release of their self-titled debut in the latter half of 2019. Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Maren Morris, and Natalie Hemby formed the group as a female answer to the classic group, The Highwaymen and their sound seems to have be reminiscent of the same era.

Virtually every part of this project works in every way. The chemistry between the four women is phenomenal with airtight harmonies and excellent interplay between vocal lines, Dave Cobb turns in one of his best performances to date on the production end, and the instrumentals are the perfect blend of nostalgia and organic creativity. Its strongest point though, comes in the seriously powerful lyrics, written primarily by the four women with the help of friends like Jason Isbell and Ray LaMontagne. Cuts like the title track and “If She Ever Leaves Me,” are some of the most powerful pieces of writing in the last decade and they elevate this record to a whole new height.

2. Xiu XiuGirl With Basket of Fruit

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. The track tells the true story of a lynching in the American South with powerful, excruciating honesty.

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 record 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.

****HONORABLE MENTIONS****

  • Joy Williams – Front Porch

DefeaterDefeater

Little SimzGREY Area

meth.Mother of Red Light

Charli XCXCharli

****HONORABLE MENTIONS****

1. ToolFear Inoculum

When I look back on 2019 a decade from now, I will always remember it, first and foremost, as the year when the 13 year wait finally came to an end. I have tried and failed many times to separate my personal opinions of the band and simply listen to this objectively as a new album, but it will always be the album that brought my long wait to a close. In many ways, however, Fear Inoculum is all the stronger for this connection.

Speaking, first, as objectively as I can, this record is a masterpiece of instrumentation. Adam Jones, in particular, spends the entire 90-minute runtime frantically cramming in one explosive guitar riff after another into each track. And, of course, Danny Carey is one of the best drummers to ever live, which is further exemplified on this record. “Invincible,” and “7empest” are two of the best tracks in all of Tool’s catalog and each of the seven tracks is just infinitely creative and listenable. Maynard’s lyrics are excellent and thoughtful, the production is crisp, and the decision to narrow the album to just seven multi-movement songs was simply brilliant and totally unexpected.

All of that aside, though, Fear Inoculum tops this list because I remember where I was when I got it. I was waiting by my mailbox for more than an hour to meet the FedEx driver and dash to my CD player. I felt like a kid on Christmas opening the brilliant case and pulling out the disc. This album had me excited in a way that few albums ever have or will and it fulfilled every bit of that excitement and more. For that, Fear Inoculum is my favorite album of 2019.

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

Xiu Xiu’s Newest Release is Hellish and Fascinating

Girl with Basket of Fruit is certainly not for the faint of heart, but if you can brave this hellscape of an album, the reward is well worth your time.

Xiu Xiu is an American experimental rock outfit from San Jose, California. They debuted in 2002 with Knife Play and have gone on to release 13 studio albums with rarely a year going by without a Xiu Xiu release. Few have charted, though their Record Store Day special, Xiu Xiu Plays the Music of Twin Peaks hit number nine on the US heat charts. By and large, their work has been largely underground, though they’ve built a respectable cult fan base. David Espinoza compared their sound to a mixture of Robert Smith and Trent Reznor while Pitchfork noted a “continual poetic and romantic beauty,” in their lyricism.

Sonically, Xiu Xiu is hard to place, not the least because each of their albums vary widely in style and influence. The majority of their work can largely be placed under umbrella groupings like industrial rock, noise pop, and experimental psych, each of which do describe some aspect of what’s happening on a Xiu Xiu record. Most importantly, their manic energy, massive pallet, and disregard for traditional rules of music make for an unpredictable and unique experience. Girl With Basket of Fruit is their most recent effort and it’s the darkest and most crushing to date.

From the first moments of the album, it’s pummeling and horrific soundscape becomes extremely clear. The opener and title track features abrasive loops of electronic instrumentation at a breakneck tempo while “Pumpkin Attack on Mommy and Daddy” sounds like a soundtrack to a hellish rave with grating, high pitched tones setting a quick pace which melts away into bizarre breakdowns that will likely sound alien to even the most dedicated fans of experimental music.

There are clear looks to the past of experimental music with tracks like “It Comes Out as a Joke,” utilizing the kind of manic chaos that characterized the most insane works of artists like Captain Beefheart and Jim Morrison. Meanwhile, “The Wrong Thing,” is reminiscent of the haunting, experimental jazz works of David Bowie’s final releases.

On the other hand, the sound pallet of this album contains a fascinating duality between past and future. Take a song like “Ice Cream Truck,” for example, where futuristic lasers and hisses are intercut with guttural growls from unknown creatures, only to dissolve into a dancing baseline played on upright bass, the recording of which is left almost raw. “Scisssssssors,” on the other hand, mixes a rolling collection of latin-inspired drums and a few chilling screams with synth squeals and low, rumbling buzzes. This imbalance is fascinating and contributes to the overall sense of unease this album creates.

This sense is made far stronger by some of the most unnerving lyrics in recent memory. “Amargi ve Moo,” seem to be written by a man so unhinged from reality that he speaks on of horrendous ideas with a poetic beauty which permeates even his descriptions of collecting tumors and beheading saints. On the other hand, “Mary Turner Mary Turner,” recounts the true story of the appalling murder and forced abortion of a Southern black woman in the early 20th century with such unbridled honestly that I’ve genuinely never been more disturbed by a piece of writing.

As excellent as the album is, it seems to stumble just a bit at the finish line. The closer, “Normal Love,” has a lot going for it, namely intriguing vocal performances and well written lyrics, but the relatively simple chord progression and many of the more cliched vocal ad libs in the background completely kill the momentum of the record thus far. The song also lacks some of the cohesion that made earlier cuts so fantastic.

Regardless, Girl with Basket of Fruit is absolutely incredible. Every second of the project is daring and spellbinding. It reaches some of the darkest lyrical places I’ve ever heard a record go,  and it gets there with mind-boggling instrumentation and production.

Girl with Basket of Fruit is certainly not for the faint of heart, but if you can brave this hellscape of an album, the reward is well worth your time.

9/10

Amazon Link: https://amzn.to/2X8UrSM