Archive for December 2019

The Top 10 Albums of 2019

December 15, 2019

#10: Cate LeBon/ Reward

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While the fifth album from the Welsh musician is a heavy offering, there may not have been a more relaxing and effortless album released this year. From the lifted atmospherics that kick off dreamy opener “Miami” to closer “Meet the Man”, LeBon’s uniquely styled baroque pop songs shine. There’s a catchy sentimentality behind the melodic repetition of the chorus on highlight “Daylight Matters”, which comes complete with well-orchestrated bursts of saxophone. “Home To You” is equally peaceful and calming with its chiming electric guitar riff, combining a playful sigh with a soaring melody through the coda as she repeats “Last time for all time.” LeBon executes heartfelt ballads like “Sad Nudes” with grace and elegance, while unexpectedly pushing up the energy with the jabbing synths on “Mother’s Mother’s Magazines” and “Magnificent Gestures” to maintain innovative balance. Theatrical in delivery yet nuanced, edgy and refined, Reward is an album to drift away to.

#9: Helado Negro/ This Is How You Smile

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Roberto Carlos Lange’s sixth album as Helado Negro carries a gentle, relaxing vibe that echoes with lyrical optimism and sun-drenched electronic folk sounds. Lovely, rich piano keys kick off the light and airy opener “Please Won’t Please”, while darker, more ambient organ synth notes permeate the bilingual lyrics on “Fantasma Vaga”. But it’s the astonishing centerpiece “Running”, with its warm, circular vibraphone riff and soft, intimate bass line combined with rolling, dream-like percussion that holds the album together beneath the melodic repetition of its chorus. After that, “Seen My Aura” is as bouncy and beach-party ready as anything here before the back half of the album takes a decidedly calmer turn, including lovely staccato vocals and gently plucked banjo on “Sabana De Luz”, as well as the bittersweet but soothing chords on the penultimate track “Two Lucky.” This Is How You Smile certainly doesn’t lack for social commentary, as its author sheds light on the realities of living in today’s America as the son of Latin immigrants, but great lines like “That brown won’t go/ Brown just glows” sure seem to indicate a positive outlook about the possibilities.

#8: Purple Mountains/ Purple Mountains

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In the aftermath of beloved songwriter David Berman’s tragic suicide, his final recorded album as Purple Mountains takes on new meaning. The juxtaposition between the often upbeat melodies and decidedly dark lyricism demonstrates a man at the end of his rope. Lines like “Things have not been going well/ I think that I’ve finally fucked myself” create a jarring contrast with sunny folk rock guitar, and that’s as if chorus line titles such as “All My Happiness Is Gone” “She’s Makin’ Friends, I’m Turnin’ Stranger” don’t get the picture of loneliness across clearly enough already. Aside from numerous bouts with narcotics addiction and the death of his best friend in 2015, Berman had been separated from his wife Cassie before his death, and “Darkness and Cold” documents that heartbreak, howling lines like “The light of my life is going out tonight/ With someone she just met/ She kept it burning longer than I had right to expect” over a mournful folk guitar riff. The cynical imagery of “Margaritas at the Mall” is depressingly relatable, while “I Loved Being My Mother’s Son” is a touching tribute to the singer’s late mother in a world which he despises his lobbyist father. Taken in full, clues abound on this record that Berman had simply had enough with this world, and it stands as a foreboding harbinger of his untimely death.

#7: Solange/ When I Get Home

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Experimental time signatures, acid jazz and funk elements combine with short, random guest rapper cameo spots over the course of a playful album that doesn’t take itself too seriously or strive to be congruent. The dreamy, submerged lounge piano on “Down With The Clique” stands in total contrast to a song like “Stay Flo”, with its hypnotic chimes and hip hop groove. The shapeshifting “Almeda” is as innovative as anything released this year, with electronic piano keys adding melodic contrast to the rolling trip-hop percussion as Solange chants “Brown skin, brown face, black skin, black braids” into the de-escalating piano key breakdown, complete with a Playboy Carti cameo verse for good measure. Perhaps the most striking aspect of this effort is how well it melds jazz with R&B. “Time Is”, for example, uses an isolated piano key with dark bass synths that would feel right at home on a Thundercat album, before the key switches to major for the more melodic coda. The scaled harmonies of “Jerrod” melt seamlessly into the catchy, carefree “Binz”, which gyrates with punchy synths as half-sung, half-rapped vocals glide beneath lifted, high-pitched harmonies, all ending in less than two minutes. This ends up sounding almost like a warm-up track, but the elements blend perfectly to create one of the best moments on the album. It’s a bit all over the place, yet When I Get Home amounts to greater than the sum of its parts upon repeated listens.

#6: Angel Olsen/ All Mirrors

angelolsen_allmirrorsThe fifth studio release from the solo artist is a career topping departure from her previous style, integrating dark tones of anger and resentment with lush production elements that feature elaborate string arrangements and crisp percussion samples. All Mirrors is immediately bruising from the onset, as gripping opener “Lark” recaps a breakup, starting softly before exploding into chaotic thrusts of percussion as Olsen’s voice leaps an octave higher and culminates into manic, repetitive chants of “Dream on!” Shimmering synths on the title track emerge as a clear highlight here; perhaps the only thing more striking than the production quality is its immaculate attention to build and timing as a sudden shift from major to minor key illuminates its stunning crescendo. Counterparts “Spring” and “Summer” are equally impactful while delivering contrasting tones, the former with its whimsical wisdom impartation over glitzy piano synths and processed vocals while the latter carries its ominous, propulsive percussion that starts and stops over regretful lyricism (“Took a while but I made it through/ If I could show you the hell I’ve been to). There’s a theatrical and deeply dramatic atmosphere present throughout this record, but it’s never more evident than on the bittersweet closer “Chance”, which ends it on a heavy note, showcasing Olsen’s impressive vocal range as she effortlessly switches between a deep, commanding baritone and a piercing falsetto.

#5: Thom Yorke/ ANIMA

anima_ThomYorke.jpgJust as Thom Yorke’s breakup with longtime partner Rachel Owen manifested itself as a dominant theme throughout Radiohead’s impeccable album A Moon Shaped Pool, the specter of her subsequent death hangs over ANIMA, easily the best solo offering yet from the Radiohead frontman. Never is this more apparent than on the standout centerpiece “Dawn Chorus,” as Yorke captures the fragile essence of awaking into a painful reality- that fleeting moment where you recongnize that your dreams were not real, but that your consciousness is. Yorke’s practically spoken-word vocals communicate a sense of loneliness and acceptance over its muted keyboard synths to create a virtually perfect song. It’s not all doom and gloom though, as the swanky and aptly named groove “I Am A Very Rude Person” features Yorke destroying a competing party with his turntable to provide some tonal balance. The seven-minute “Twist” is the most epic moment here in terms of scale (are those the cheering kids from “15 Step” again?) while the anxiety-inducing “Not The News” attaches a haunting echo as Yorke’s trademark falsetto switches back to a lower octave. Taken in full, ANIMA is an essay in stripped-down production, as most of these songs succeed on the strength of their own simplicity, often relying on only one or two notes of synth that crash in and out like waves, without any apparent inclination to converge into any grandiose denouement.

#4: Big Thief/ Two Hands

bigthief_twohands.jpgRaw, austere and honest, the surprise second album of 2019 for the New York based quartet was an essential counterpart to the spring release of U.F.O.F. There’s not a single weak moment throughout these ten effortless tracks. The snarling centerpiece “Not” combines its memorably melodic sing-along chorus with a guitar solo that absolutely shreds, complete with some of the most directly simplistic and honest lyrics you’ll ever hear, and that comes on the heels of the anthemic “Shoulders”; you’d be hard pressed to find a better combination of back to back tracks on any record this year. Elsewhere, Two Hands is most compelling as a result of its restraint. Thematically, less is more here as the lullaby opener “Rock and Sing” and the nonchalance of delicately gorgeous closer “Cut Your Hair” serve as bookends. In between, we can hear lead singer Adrianne Lenker calling out commands beneath the sweet falsetto of “Replaced”, almost as though we’re listening in on the band’s rehearsal, while the dark, brooding “The Toy” creeps every so gently along. Lenker’s trademark vocal strain over the word “needs” within the lyric “Everybody needs a home and deserves protection” carries highlight “Forgotten Eyes”, an instant classic as so many of this band’s songs seem to be in a year they completely dominated.

#3: Lana Del Rey/ Norman Fucking Rockwell!

LanaDelRey_NormalFuckingRockwellThe sixth full-length album from Lana Del Rey is both timeless and cinematic over its ambitious fourteen tracks, dense with understated, lovely piano chords and string arrangements beneath her trademark blasé vocal delivery. There’s depth, warmth and complexity to the generally subdued and restrained nature of this record, as Del Rey crafts songs draped in nostalgia and autobiographical substance. Early stunner “Mariners Apartment Complex” is a sweeping highlight, beaming with melody and a powerful escalating vocal as Del Rey delivers nautical lyrical metaphors like “You’re lost at sea, then I’ll command your boat to me again.” The nine and a half minute opus “Venice Bitch” builds with patience and precision over a simple repeated guitar chord progression before the percussion and electric guitar distortion kicks in midway through, content to take a back seat again as this key track lingers effortlessly beneath its own weight. Speaking of Venice, there’s reference to Del Rey’s general obsession with her adopted home of California throughout the album, from the falsetto of the gorgeous “Fuck It I Love You” to the aptly named “California,” a wistful and yearning elegy for parties past. To that end, there’s even a somewhat inexplicable cover of Sublime’s reggae cliche “Doin’ Time” shoehorned in here as an homage, and somehow, it slaps. Ballads like the bittersweet and borderline apocalyptic “The Greatest” find Del Rey at her most affecting complete with horn and string arrangements, while the back to back tear-jerking combination of Del Rey’s soaring vocals on the tender “Love Song” and the rich orchestration on “Cinnamon Girl” tear an emotional hole directly through the album’s midsection. It all ends on an optimistic note with a raspy falsetto on the perfectly placed “Hope Is A Dangerous Thing”, which is as spacious and bare bones as can be, balancing a simple piano line with a delicate, poetic vocal delivery. With Norman Fucking Rockwell!, Del Rey demonstrates her impeccable penchant for songwriting.

#2: FKA Twigs/ Magdalene

twigsPerhaps Tahliah Barnett would have been better served to hold off for a couple of months and release her second full length record as FKA Twigs at the start of a new year and decade, given the forward-looking sense of ambition and limitless possibilities for the future of music that her first offering in five years carries. It’s difficult to pinpoint the single element that makes Magdalene such an exciting album, between the immaculate production quality of its beats, precise attention to melodic timing, and of course Barnett’s otherworldly soprano vocal range. But following a tumultuous recent personal life that included a highly publicized relationships and breakup with actor Robert Pattinson as well as the removal of uterine fibroid tumors, there are moments of anger, pain and loss throughout these nine concise tracks. Thematically, the Catholic-raised Twigs focuses on female empowerment through the story of the album’s namesake Mary Magdalene as the subdued church music and repetitive vocal scales on hypnotic opener “Thousand Eyes” serve as a perfect tone-setter, while the title track concludes with an explosion of organ synths. Highlight “Sad Day” alternates between a whispery vocal and propulsive percussion samples, perhaps the most striking of any of the beats here. A haunting piano riff reminiscent of Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song” opens the stunning centerpiece “Fallen Alien”, which escalates into chants of desperation and paranoid shrieks before culminating into a massive coda of cascading synth beats. Gorgeous R&B ballads “Mirrored Heart” and “Daybed” seem like relative comedowns after that album-defining bruiser, but not without their fair share of complexity, as the former melts into a blast of distorted synths at its conclusion, while icy whispers and subtle strings that lurk beneath bass lines that build and swell on the latter might have felt right at home on Sigur Ros’ (). There’s an impressive amount detail and nuance as it pertains to song structure and build across the board here, as each track ends at its highest point. But in contrast, it’s the raw, stripped down simplicity and vulnerability of closer “Cellophane” that brings all of it together. An essay in sorrow, Twigs’ voice cracks and strains showcasing an incredible octave range above two repeated piano chords.

#1: Big Thief/ U.F.O.F.

BigThief_UFOFHow can we tell when a band is incredibly, unequivocally on top of its game? While some artists understandably spend a half a decade fine tuning new music between releases, Big Thief is in the zone, delivering two massive and essential albums in 2019 that both rank among the year’s very best. Of the two, it was the band’s first release that resonated the strongest, preceding the raw, honest and concise nature of Two Hands with a collection of intimate, lush and spell-binding folk rock songs. The delicate whisper of lead singer Adrienne Lenker is simultaneously calming and foreboding over the minor chord strums of opener “Contact” before suddenly shapeshifting into a snarling guitar solo, a jarring juxtaposition indeed. While serving as an attention-grabbing tone setter, it’s also somewhat of a red herring, as the rest of U.F.O.F. is defined by its restraint and elegance. The incredibly pleasing nocturnal vibe of the title track could seemingly go on forever and expand, but instead concludes with an element of no-frills nonchalance. There’s a flawless and precise folk dynamic on “Cattails”, which glides along effortlessly beneath Lenker’s ever-so-slightly strained and discordant vocal. Lyrical imagery abounds throughout as she belts out lines like “And I find you there in your country flair/ Middle of the river in a lawn chair/ With your wrinkled hands and your silver hair/ Leaving here soon and you know where.” The truly quieter moments really shine, as Lenker’s vocals crack on the bittersweet “Terminal Paradise”, while the rich, peaceful and lullaby-like “Open Desert” is arguably the single prettiest moment here. The melody of “Orange” is as simple as it is affecting, while “Century” evokes shades of Stevie Nicks. But it’s on the stunning penultimate track “Jenni” that the band comes together to realize its full potential. Weighty yet understated, an ominous mood permeates the fuzzy shoegaze guitars that lay beneath Lenkner’s elfish whisper. There’s a moment here towards the end where everything stops and a single guitar chord rings out for what seems like half a minute, building tension before layers of distorted guitars swell into its coda. As the musical spectrum shifts more and more away from traditional rock music, U.F.O.F. was a revelation in 2019.