20 albums you shouldn’t overlook in 2019
Consensus is a strange thing. I found myself saying that several times over the past few weeks as our December lists began to roll out — particularly so with our best of the decade rundown, a feature that sparked a heated discussion on Facebook. How were there no Mitski albums on the top 25? How did Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange make it, but not Blonde?
Here at The Key, we have a wide range of passionate music fans contributing writing and photography to our pages, and these folks have an equally wide range of taste. That makes the moments where those tastes overlap all the more powerful — if it’s an album that a great number of us agree on, it’s definitely worth listening to — but it also means the overlap is more bound to happen in relatively expected places.
I love reading ranked lists, I love putting our own together every year — it’s always an interesting exercise to compare perspectives between individuals, the group, and myself — but the thing I love more is the list we’re sharing with you today.
These are the albums that were ranked high on individual voting ballots but fell short of the top 15; these are the albums that consensus didn’t quite push to the top, but perhaps should have. We asked the folks who voted for these albums to tell us more. Some come from familiar names and might even be getting year-end accolades elsewhere; some you might be hearing about both the artist and the release for the first time here. The one thing they have in common: they should not be overlooked in your 2019 listening, so read on and turn it up.
Anderson .Paak – Ventura – (12 Tone / Aftermath)
With his 2016 album, Malibu, Oxnard, California-born singer / songwriter / drummer Anderson. Paak laid down a strikingly original melange of rapped / sung vocals and inventive musical arrangements, all baked into a line of endlessly catchy, soulful songs. A graduate of the revered Sa-Ra Creative Partners camp, Paak and the sound he introduced on Malibu would point to several exciting new directions in the continuum of R&B music.
After years of struggling with homelessness and making a name for himself underground soul and hip-hop circles, Malibu and the near-universal acclaim that surrounded it would make a way for Paak’s debut with Dr. Dre’s Aftermath Records imprint. Surprisingly, Paak’s Aftermath debut would come in the form of two distinctly different full-length albums.
Recorded at the same time and released six months apart, the albums Oxnard and Ventura are the final installments in Paak’s “beach series,” concept albums created in tribute to famous California beaches. Full of sweetly blended vocal harmonies, smoked-out atmospheric and lyrics that between the sophomoric and the profound, each beach album and the images they evoke are a fitting way of framing the sunshine-y, decadent and unmistakably West Coast character of Paak’s music.
Immediately, Oxnard opens with “The Chase”,a tune that is decidedly more flamboyant, and outrageous than anything in Paak’s back catalog up to this point. With it’s fussy, ornate arrangement that includes spy fick score-ready bass and guitar, trilling flutes and strings that recall Hot Buttered Soul-era Issac Hayes, “The Chase” is essentially a showpiece, designed to kick in the door, flaunting Paak’s flamboyant musical ambitions. Tracks like “Tints” featuring Kendrick Lamar, “Saviers Road” and the psychedelic-funk of “6 Summers” find Paak high-flying through a life where drugs, love, sex and money are all treated with equal reverence, the music, elaborate and designed with the greatest attention to detail.
Upon first glance, it is easy to view this year’s Ventura as the yang to Oxnard’s yang, but behind the sunny melodies and sumptuous vocal harmonies, Ventura reveals a narrative thread centered around relationship drama and heartbreak that is bittersweet to the core. Taking cues from classic sweet soul groups like Black Ivory, The Stylistics and The Spinners, Ventura trots out arrangements that are pristine and artful and injects them with songs that are heavy with the weight of a love gone sour.”Come Home” featuring Andre 3000 is a dreamy jam that finds Paak begging for redemption in the grand tradition of desperate, lovesick Soul singers of the past. Paak balances the album’s energy with some fine guest spots from heavyweights like Jazmine Sullivan, Smokey Robinson and more. Equally forward-thinking and steeped in tradition, both last year’s Oxnard and this year’s Ventura use soul music’s past as a launching pad from which to explore the genre’s future. – John Morrison
James Blake – Assume Form – (Polydor)
New year, New James. 2019 started off well with the release of James Blake’s fourth full-length album Assume Form. The London-born producer is well-known for elegant piano ballads as well as futuristic electronic odysseys fusing different elements of instrumental work. His early work is seen mainly as an ode to heartbreak, loneliness, and emotional emission. Blake was a prisoner in his mind, and you could hear it in his music.
With a Grammy under his belt, James Blake’s musical talents have made considerable marks in genres like hip-hop, R&B, and pop, collaborating with A-list artists such as Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, and Jay-Z. Kanye West said in an interview with WIRED 96.5 that James Blake is one of his favorite artists. Not only was Blake a pro behind the board, but he also flourishes in his solo career.
Assume Form is different from his other records. It showcases a clear-headed Blake, one who has escaped his mental haze and into a better, more focused state. In this album, the English singer-songwriter delivers a concise and concentrated collection of thirteen unique tracks that incorporate his signature style of complex experimental chords and honeyed vocals. Assume Form is filled with gratitude to his partner Jameela Jamil and centers around the topic of intimacy. In the opening title track, he talks about Jamil, saying, “I will be touchable by her / I will be reachable.” The track is a mess of meandering vocal melodies with ambient music playing in the background, but it tells a story of change within himself.
“Into The Red” is a such a beautiful ballad wrapped in a stunning string-ensemble arrangement. You can feel the warmth of love as he sings, “And the credit goes to her as the bad days become rare.” The bilingual serenade “Barefoot In The Park” features Spanish queen Rosalía, who brings in her soothing romantic voice to complement Blake’s quivering unstable vocals. Chart-topping producer Metro Boomin brings forth his trap rhythms onto two tracks with well-known vocalist Travis Scott in “Mile High” and Moses Sumney in “Tell Them.” “Can’t Believe The Way We Flow” is by far my favorite song off of Assume Form with its shimmering and uplifting melody backed up by his lyrical work: “Nothing makes a sound / When you’re not around / You are my fear of death / You wave my fear of self.” You can honestly hear how in love James is with Jameela. Outkast’s André 3000 also made his way onto “Where’s The Catch” with his pensive lyrical work. Personally, I feel like “I’ll Come Too” and “Power” don’t get enough credit. These two tracks melt the heart with wondrous production and bring forth Blake’s impressive androgynous vocals.
Assume Form concludes with the ethereal epilogue “Lullaby For My Insomniac,” a perfect ending to a well-crafted collection of tracks that create a beautiful narrative of love and growth. From each lyric to each feature, it is prevalent that Blake took his time and poured his heart into every piece. Before, James Blake had been lost for a very long time. With Assume Form, you can tell that he is making an effort to heal. He truly is moving forward with his life and creating a life with lots of love. – Shannon Vo
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Ghosteen – (Bad Seed Ltd)
Like nothing and everything you have heard from Nick Cave in the past, the luminously lush Ghosteen comes on as a deeply mournful, migrating spirit – amorphous and cool – and as something solid, celebratory and holy all at the same time.
Perhaps its ability to mesmerizingly morph between the fluid and the frank, the sparsely elegiac and the plush and earnest, is the fact that Ghosteen is Cave & Co.’s first album written and recorded in its totality after the tragic accidental death of his teen son, Arthur.
Beyond the blunt poetry and staccato musicality of “Hollywood,” and pained lyrics such as “The kid drops his bucket and spade / And climbs into the sun,” there are wordless falsettos, hums and bleats that portray a pain that no one could know but a drained and dread-filled parent. By the time gets to that song’s finale, and its deeply breathed, repetitive lyric line, “I’m waiting for peace to come,” you’re exhausted. You can only imagine how Cave and his family feel. And yet, there is beauty to behold and wonder to be had in his thoughts of his son’s passing. “Fireflies” finds Cave intoning God and the universe with the opening stanza: “Jesus lying in his mother’s arms is a photon released from a dying star / We move through the forest at night the sky is full of momentary light.”
Other songs touch on “the King of Rock n’ Roll” (Elvis, on the track “Spinning Song”) before spiraling out to wishes of immortality and meeting beyond this life. There’s the poetry of social ills and current politics in “Bright Horses” with “Everyone is hidden, and everyone is cruel / And there’s no shortage of tyrants, and no shortage of fools.” But, even at death’s doorstep and his son’s hard demise, there is some sort of hope while questions of the soul are at hand on “Waiting for You” and its moody brand of art-gospel. “Sometimes a little bit of faith can go a long, long way,” he sings. And all you can say is “Amen, brother.” — A.D. Amorosi
The Comet Is Coming — Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery — (Impulse)
Yes, the cosmic, post-dystopia sounds of UK trio The Comet is Coming is on full display on their Impulse! Records debut, Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery, but it’s not what you may assume: while the eclectic noise-makers may be label mates with, like, John Coltrane, they’re as much Sun Ship as they are Sunn O))) as they combine seemingly disparate sounds of experimental post-rock with avant garde jazz. It’s a tapestry that only virtuoso saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings (also of equally fantastic Sons of Kemet), drummer Max Hallet (aka Betamax), and keyboardist Dan Leavers (aka Danalog) can weave perfectly, taking bits and pieces of the cosmic ephemera from Sonny Sharrock (a little space-skronk here) and bands like Unwound (a little charged, apocalyptic post-punk there), and serving it up with a deep love of electronic and house music to create something otherworldly that sinks into the fabric of human consciousness.
Surely jazz has seen a powerful, own-voice resurgence in these post-Kamasi Washington days, where indie kids have started to seek out and unearth gems like Comets, and performers like Angel Bat Dawid, Mansur Brown and Philly’s own Ooloi have found a way into venues as far flung as punk basements and international art galleries. It’s on Trust in the LifeForce, with its wild, anarchic push for a musical utopia on dancey, hypnotic tracks like “Summon the Fire”, that proves The Comet is Coming is the perfect band to represent the amalgamated new movement. “Blood of the Past”, the album’s lurching, monstrous middle cut that features a stoic, dark, yet hopeful spoken word piece from British rapper Kate Tempest, is an eight minute sprawl of a track that opens portals into the Comet’s world. Swirls of distorted analog synth, Shabaka’s pained yet soulful sax, and Betamax’s primal drumming collide into a song so powerful it’s no more an anthem than it is a nova. On both “Astral Flying” and “Timewave Zero” we have, well, jazz songs, sure, but it’s the kind that Moodyman would drop mid-set to annoy trainspotters, the kind of jazz we need in an ever shifting, ever changing world. Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery asks you to dream with it, imagine new worlds, and above all remain mystified. — Alex Smith
Cub Sport – Cub Sport – (self-released)
Cub Sport started out as Cub Scouts, an Australian pop group that played fun synthy songs and had a penchant for Destiny’s Child medleys at shows. A few years ago, Cub Scouts changed their name to Cub Sport and not long after, members Tim Nelson and Sam “Bolan” Netterfield let the world know they were a couple. Nelson has since written songs about his evolving identity as a queer person. The band’s 2019 self-titled release no longer reflects the trepidation and anxiety that surrounded the songs in their previous album Bats. Cub Sport is a confidant and more importantly, blissful, album about love, self, and being supportive. The song “Party Pill” likens finding out his crush likes him back to getting high: “Said he thinks he likes me and my world stood still / And my eyes grew wider than a party pill.”
Having followed the band from their beginnings, it’s beautiful to see them all becoming more assured of who they are as artists and people. The song “I’m Not Scared,” sums up the latest chapter for Cub Sport: “I am changing every day / I want you here for that.” Cub Sport is an ode to metamorphosis and seeking strength from your friends and community to be your true self. – Maureen Walsh
FKA twigs – Magdalene – (Young Turks)
There are a undoubtedly lot more people who know who Tahliah Barnett is now than there were five years ago when she released her masterful debut album LP1. Alas, a lot of those people might not necessarily know her for her music so much as her tabloid fodder romance with Twilight star Robert Pattison. To make matters worse, in the wake of that high profile relationship’s end, the artist known as FKA twigs found herself beset by fibroid tumors that threatened her ability to perform, potentially petrifying public perception of her as a famous girlfriend in the process.
But twigs persevered, drawing inspiration from the Biblical Mary Magdalene to reclaim herself and her narrative as she recovered. Her triumphant sophomore album chronicles that reclamation in epic yet incisive fashion, stepping out of the tabloid page and into The Sensual World. Indeed, twigs finally evolves into the Kate Bush comparisons that have dogged her for years, then transcends them as she both asserts and celebrates her womanhood over sumptuous, celestial compositions. All of this while never shying away from vulnerability.
The album’s first single and closing track remains the peak demonstration of her unique sensibilities to date. “cellophane” strips her sound and her soul bare for all to see. “They’re waiting and hoping I’m not enough” she laments at song’s end. By album’s end, however, all anyone should be waiting for is to see what heights she can scale next. – Rob Huff
Girlpool – What Chaos is Imaginary – (Interscope)
Avery Tucker and Harmony Tividad are two planets caught in each other’s gravitational pull. And when those planets align, the cosmos quakes with their creative energy. Girlpool is the hero indie rock didn’t know it needed, disrupting the scene since their start in 2013. Their latest album What Chaos Is Imaginary sounds transitional and experimental. It is the shedding of snakeskin, the rupture of a moth’s cocoon. The work maps personal growth, describing in surreal imagery what it feels like to forge a new identity.
Part of what makes this album sound so different is that it is the first the band has released since Tucker’s transition. His voice has dropped voice into a lower tenor, changing the core of the songs. Where on previous albums the two singers’ voices blended indistinguishably, now they oppose each other, octaves apart. There are separately composed Tividad and Tucker songs, the two trading off on lead vocals. “Hire” finds Tucker submerged in the purgatory between memory and dream, while in “Lucy’s” he looks back on a co-dependent relationship.
Chaos explores a range of tones and textures. The band incorporates more dream pop elements, skittering drum machines and synth organs merged with distorted, crunchy guitars. Edges have softened– the unclenching of jaws and unfurling of fists. On the title track, Tividad’s delicate soprano weaves silken melodies over a swell of violin strings. The lyrics describe watching someone retreat into their head, disappearing into the imaginary: “Got your meds and your sky / You plant the moon in someone’s eyes / I loved him and his violence for the pretty view / rehearsed a strange reality.” Girlpool wades between worlds, articulating the acute pain of transformation. – Mariah Hall
Great Grandpa – Four of Arrows – (Double Double Whammy)
In the short-attention-span ever-scrolling timeline of 2019, the amount of pressure on young musicians with a bit of buzz has got to be staggering. Great Grandpa’s Al Menne sees this as well, and they put it into perspective on the opening lines of “Bloom.” “I get anxious on the weekends, when I feel I’m wasting time. / But then I think about Tom Petty and how he wrote his best songs when he was 39.” There’s something to be said for going hard, pushing yourself to be the best at all times; and there’s also something to be said for stepping back, allowing yourself to just be you, and letting the pieces fall together as the universe intends.
An affable indie rock band from Seattle, Great Grandpa released its second album, Four of Arrows, this autumn, and it’s a warm and contemplative collection of idiosyncratic pop, gritty rock, warm and inviting melodies, and touching lyrics that feel equal parts personal and relatable. Menne unpacks the pain of losing a loved one to alzheimer’s while also reflecting on an uncertain desire for connection and common ground in the sweet pop gem “Mono No Aware.” They channel the emotional turbulence of loving someone you know you shouldn’t on “Digger.” They reflect on mistakes and forgiveness on the cathartic “Dark Green Water.”
Carrying the torch of a pervious generation of introspective Pacnorthwesterners like Mirah and Death Cab for Cutie, Great Grandpa is at once the continuation of a lineage, and an exciting new voice of their own, moving at a measured pace all their own as well. – John Vettese
Steve Gunn – The Unseen In Between – (Matador)
Despite bolting for Brooklyn soon after graduating college in 2001, Steve Gunn proved he still maintains his Philly roots on The Unseen in Between. Not only that, but he got personal about it. The album includes a standout track called “Stonehurst Cowboy,” an ode to both his late father and the neighborhood he grew up in, Stonehurst, which is a little-known area near SEPTA’s 69th Street Transportation Center in Upper Darby. It’s a songwriting technique that’s a departure from his previous albums, which mostly consisted of fictional storylines. But for Gunn, that’s what it took to grow as a songwriter, and it’s partially what makes this album even better than his previous ones.
In addition to showing off his lyrical versatility, the album reinforces Gunn’s exceptional ability to create characters in a fictional story. “Luciano,” a song sung from the perspective of a deli owner’s cat who watches his owner prepare for the workday, is a perfect example. “Vagabond” achieves the same success in creating an imagined reality, except sung in the third person instead of the first. The narrator in Gunn’s song follows the life of a vagrant travelling the country meeting starving artist friends and working odd jobs in graveyards to get by.
But what really separates Gunn from the pack actually isn’t his prose; it’s his musicianship. With the help of a local folk-influenced acoustic bluesman Jack Rose, who sadly died of a heart attack back in 2009, Gunn mastered his fingerpicking chops on both the electric and acoustic guitar in his youth, a skill he’s improved upon even more since that time. It’s not common for great lyricists who are also skilled musicians to fly so under-the-radar, like Gunn has. But that’s what happens when you occupy the unseen space in between. – Tom Beck
Michael Kiwanuka – Kiwanuka – (Polydor / Interscope)
Michael Kiwanuka may not have been on your radar in 2019, and if he was, you may have thought this album was a nostalgic re-issue. A child of the 90’s with roots inexplicably planted two decades prior, his voice reminiscent of 70’s soul icons like Bill Withers and Richie Havens. While his previous albums have leaned more towards Withers’ folkier wisdoms, (2016’s single “Black Man in a White World” being an exception) this third album, Kiwanuka, feels like a cinematic-soul exploration of the raw boldness of Havens’ 1969 Woodstock performance of “Freedom (Motherless Child).” Between shouts for “Freedom!” and the repetition of the phrase “motherless child,” Kiwanuka reminds us that the most important word in the song is “Sometimes.”
Self-titled albums are either subtly name recognition ploys by debut artist or, in this case, a reclamation of personhood by an established artists seeking to document their personal and musical growth. With “You ain’t the Problem,” the dark comedy begins with taunting background vocals giving way to a bouncy verse that lead to wondering if it’s him or us that he’s talking about. “Your quirks could be someone else perfection,” he said in an interview for NME. “Rolling” showcases producer Danger Mouse’s dark psych-soul sensibilities with hauntingly hopeful production juxtaposed against Michael’s morbidly realistic lyrics: “No tears for the young. A bullet if you run away. Another lost one. Like father like son, we pray.”
“Piano Joint (This Kind Of Love)” is a beautifully cinematic love song given time to grow and develop with an introduction, littered with nostalgia inducing string orchestrations by Rosie Danvers, and an angelic choir. Fueled by the story of Fred Hampton and other outspoken black revolutionaries who were killed before their time, “Hero” asks what it takes to become legendary as a black man in America. “Am I a hero now? To die a hero, Is all that we know now.”
Unlike any other album this year, Kiwanuka fills our need for a folk-soul 70’s inspired artist in 2019. – Koof Ibi Umoren
Ari Lennox — Shea Butter Baby – (Dreamville / Interscope)
Ari Lennox is an old soul with youthful sensibilities. On her debut album Shea Butter Baby Lennox croons like a woman who has lived a full life, decades and decades over. At only 28 years old, Lennox has gotten the R&B world abuzz with her mature vocals but messy 20-something subject matter.
If you were a fan of SZA’s CTRL, but found it too experimental, Shea Butter Baby nestles slightly to the right of SZA’s last release.
The title track is a sexy dadydream of a love affair that was so good that Lennox threw caution to the wind when she made sex in an alleyway, by a trashcan, sound like the most ideal escapade. Both Lennox and the featured J. Cole have the power to create a severe longing in the loins.
Another track on the album deserving of a highlight is “New Apartment.” Here, Lennox muses over her new apartment sans roommates. Here she has the space to hang around naked, not clean up, and not socialize. The song is a celebration of solitude. This song is for the girl in her late twenties who has figured it all out, or at the very least, at the precipice of figuring it out. It feels like finally making it.
Towards the end of “New Apartment,” in a skit, Lennox has a moment of realization where she finds that existing in solitude in her new place is not as good as it seems; she needs people. This skit, while playful and cute, is one of many that add a humanistic undertone to the album. On other skits, she’s concerned about the doneness of a pot of garbanzo beans. On another, Lennox tells all the men who are in the recording studio at the moment, that they need to leave because shit is about to get real sexual and and nasty. This particular narrative tactic gives the listen a deeper look into just who Lennox is. What we find is that she is deeply sexual, but also refreshingly goofy in flawed. She is all of us. – Melissa Simpson
Lingua Ignota – Caligula — (Profound Lore)
Kristin Hayter’s pain is an opera.
Releasing her second LP under the handle Lingua Ignota (a phrase that suitably translates to “unknown language”), the singer, songwriter, and composer has crafted an unflinching and ambitiously arranged examination of violence and power titled Caligula, its tyrannical namesake the perfect embodiment of Hayter’s thematic work. Her experiences as a survivor of domestic abuse and the highly tested threshold of her suffering are presented here in multiple acts, this burden manifest as an orchestrated purge combining elements of classical music, folk, and black metal. Midway through the second act of “Do You Doubt Me, Traitor,” Hayter screams, “HOW DO I BREAK YOU!?!?! BEFORE YOU BREAK ME!?!?!,” exhibiting a level of anxiety and desperation that is shockingly honest and appropriately extreme.
Being art as a device for Hayter’s personal exorcism, Caligula captures a fascinating duality built from rage and melancholia. While experience has informed this piece, Hayter’s talent has made it possible, enabling her to shriek throughout the length of the requiem-esque “Butcher of the World” and the doom-laden strut of “Day of Tears and Mourning” while offering some melodic respite with tracks like “May Failure Be Your Noose” and the minimalist piano ballads “Fragrant Is My Many Flowered Crown” and “Sorrow Sorrow Sorrow.” It’s a varied listen, moments of grace and vulnerability agreeing with its uglier, more threatening selections.
Caligula is a cohesive and masterful achievement. While that would ordinarily be something to celebrate, its existence lies solely upon the cruelty inflicted on a human being. With that said, it’s possible that Caligula should not only be consumed as an artist’s expression, but as evidence of the damage humans can inflict upon each other and how lasting that damage can be. – Sean Caldwell
MARINA – Love + Fear – (Atlantic)
It’s been nine years since Marina & The Diamonds confirmed that she’s definitely not a robot on her debut album, The Family Jewels. In 2019 with her fourth album, Love + Fear, not only has she dropped “and the Diamonds,” she has grown further into her artistry. After taking a few years off and reflecting on self-doubt and bouts of depression, MARINA returned with abundance. “Each side was meant to be listened to on its own,” she says about releasing the Love portion on its own before the full double-length record. This stems from the theory that she explored in the making of this record: humans can only experience two paramount emotions, love and fear. With love comes optimism, hope, desire, and joy; and fear draws in anxiety, pain, hate and anger.
The juxtaposition of the double sides is apparent even if you don’t realize you’re listening to two parts of a bigger whole. On Love, tracks like the danceable and hopeful “Handmade Heaven” and “Baby”, opposing the more sorrow filled tracks on Fear. “I wanna move on but I’m just too afraid,” she says on “Too Afraid”, and the harsh words that follow in “You”: “Everyone thinks you’re a star but underneath we know just what you are.”
Trying to let something go is difficult, and pushing yourself to do so is even more unbearable. One could easily say that this is a basic break-up album; she wrote the first half when she was in love and the second part when it all fell to pieces. So whether you believe that the meaning behind this album is that simple, or if you’re interested in the psychology of emotion, there’s no denying the raw sincerity this album has to offer. – Rachel Barrish
The Menzingers – Hello Exile – (Epitaph)
On their latest record, Hello Exile, Scranton-via-Philadelphia punk outfit The Menzingers deliver an out and out homage to their hometowns, each song dropping specific references from moments in lives of singers and songwriters Greg Barnett and Tom May. The lyrics carry the band’s typical narrative-style and drip with personable reflections stemming all the way to high school and back. Hello Exile is eloquently produced by Will Yip, with a soundscape that manages to attain just the right amount of grittiness without transforming the record into a full-on angsty punk rock project. The blend of rough-and-tumble vocals and a melodic blend of acoustic and electric guitars puts this album at the top of The Menzingers’ releases for how it defies their signature heavy sound.
Standout tracks like “Anna,” “High School Friend,” “Hello Exile,” and “Strain Your Memory” are all laced with sweet memories of Philadelphia, and you feel firmly planted in the singer’s shoes while you listen. The lyrics are simple but vivid, and the life that’s pictured for you feels like it could even have been your own.
This album is an incredibly cohesive listen from beginning to end, and the narrative is evident and feels fulfilled by the end of the last track. The motifs of love, loss, aging, and letting go of vices give the listener a sense of resolution, though the message is clear that the plot isn’t fixed. Just as the Menzingers seem to be cycling through their sound, the theme of Hello Exile tells a realistic story that life doesn’t stand still, either. – Emily Herbein
Kevin Morby – Oh My God – (Dead Oceans)
Nothing is more frightening than the blank page. We all know it, the taunting, torturous canvas demanding to be filled. But sometimes all you need is the right prompt and next thing you know you’re splashing paint on every corner of the canvas. This is how Kevin Morby uses religion throughout his excellent fifth record, Oh My God, as less a higher purpose than an immaculate playbook. Morby is an admittedly secular man, but that doesn’t mean he can’t mine spiritual world for both grander meaning and impeccable hooks.
Morby is far from the first folk-adjacent songwriter to look toward gospel music for inspiration and he does so unapologetically. The album’s first single, “Oh My God” is Baptist-church jaunt, adorned with rolling piano melody, the lyrics, “won’t you release me”, and a steeple stirring outro, with Morby as the resident preacher. Sure, there holes to punch if you wish — the repetition of well-worn phrases, the lack of any real searching depth — but it becomes obvious the further along we get on Oh My God, that depth was never really the point. This is an album about feel not about heady lyricism. Oh My God is without a doubt the most free and unrestrained we’ve ever heard Morby, an impressively prolific songwriter, and much of that can be attributed to the upfront nature of the subject matter.
The songs people sing in church are not new, but they continue to be sung, and whatever your view of organized religion, there is something to be said for that repetition. – Sean Fennell
Purple Mountains – Purple Mountains – (Drag City)
Purple Mountains can be measured in time: the 26 days it lived alongside the best of David Berman’s catalog, and every day after Berman’s suicide. We were given less than a month of time to consider it as the beginning of a new project from Berman, to think of it as another personal work from one of indie rock’s best lyricists.
Before his death, Purple Mountains came off as lyrically clever and eloquent in its simple country rock hooks. When Berman sings “This kind of hurting won’t heal,” in the album opener, “That’s Just the Way that I feel,” it comes off as him just being his usual flippant self even if he’s never been known for optimism. Before his death “Margaritas in the Mall” felt like Berman was being a bit tongue-in-cheek about his own struggles with addiction. Now the sentiment of each of these songs is just the opposite. In fact, Purple Mountains is eerily frank these days and difficult to grapple with.
Deeply personal is an understatement, rather it’s now crushing. The quiver in Berman’s voice is ever prevalent as if he’d known his demise was impending. The wayward “She’s Making Friends, I’m Turning Stranger,” and country twang of “Maybe I’m the Only One for Me,” is now nearly unbearable when applied to its intelligent songwriter alone and still bringing these songs to life, obviously heartbroken beyond repair. If Purple Mountains exists forever in the shadow of its creator’s death, then if nothing else, it allows him to exist, too, with his craft on display masterfully. – Brian Wilensky
Maggie Rogers — Heard It in a Past Life — (Capitol Records)
Maggie Rogers’ journey from college student to pop star culminated with the release of her debut LP Heard It in a Past Life in January. Such rapid success must be exhausting — not only was the songwriter still figuring out how to navigate a high-pressure industry, but there was the added expectation to live up to her single “Alaska,” which went viral while she was still studying at NYU. Rogers even shared in a statement that because her career was taking off so quickly, “I wasn’t always sure how to make all this stuff [her music, that is] feel like me.”
Instead of giving in to the pressure, Rogers took her time making Heard It in a Past Life, and her careful approach paid off. The album’s 12 tracks show a songwriter at ease as she examines her own experiences and channels them into lighthearted synth-pop. Rogers’ songs are precise, revealing her careful attention to detail, but still carry a looseness that invites the listener to sing and dance along. Since “Alaska,” Rogers’ sound has progressed to the point where the sparser song’s inclusion on the album almost feels out of place, overshadowed by the more dynamic and heavily-produced singles “Light On” and “Fallingwater.” And as carefully crafted as they are, some songs could have actually benefited from less production — and fewer big-name producers. Laura Snapes points this out in her review for Pitchfork, writing that “It feels symptomatic of the fate of young female pop producers not to be trusted with their own voices.” Rogers is at her best when she doesn’t invite too many collaborators into her space.
Still, let’s not discount the fact that Maggie Rogers seems fully confident in her identity as a musician and assume that her voice is clouded by overproduction. The clarity of her self-reflection is noticeable throughout Heard It in a Past Life, but one of the album’s best moments comes in the closing track “Back in My Body,” as Rogers draws us into the moment. Overwhelmed, she’s considering running away from it all, but then reassures herself — and us — that “this time, I know I’m fighting.” It’s the work of an artist so grounded in her vision that we know her music will always be uniquely her own. – Sarah Hojsak
(Sandy) Alex G – House of Sugar – (Domino)
When looking back on this era of music in the future, it might be said that Alex G was emblematic of the exact sort of fandom that grew out of the internet. Although big names like Clairo and Billie Eilish were born and bred in the midst of meme culture, Alex G is one of its fulltime residents, despite rarely making much clamor on any sort of social media (probably for the better). Instead, his fans are the sort who dredge YouTube and Reddit for bootlegged videos of his concerts and unreleased demos. Following the release of his 2017 album Rocket and having been featured in a Frank Ocean track, House of Sugar is his first record to be released to as wide an audience, and manages to expand on his sound while maintaining the trademarks that made Alex G so inscrutably fascinating in the first place
House of Sugar deals with themes that have throughout Alex G’s discography, including lamentations of drug abuse and a connection to animals and nature. Throughout, Alex G fuses folk structures with DIY synth sounds and heavy distortion to create disorienting sensation throughout, which only serves to highlight the horror Giannascoli portrays in the corruption of our natural world. House of Sugar borrows its name from several locations, notably the SugarHouse casino in Fishtown and the story of Hansel and Gretel. On House of Sugar, Alex G flips the script of that tale to illustrate the sickly sweet nature of our most commonplace vices. – Sam Kesler
Vagabon – Vagabon – (Nonesuch)
In 2017, New York’s Lætitia Tamko took her project Vagabon into the DIY scene spotlight with the scrappy but profound indie rock record Infinite Worlds, a spirited set in step with early releases by Hop Along and Mitski. On tour supporting that record, Tamko accompanied herself with as sampler textures, but not to such an extent that could have predicted the bold turn she took on her self-titled album.
Released this fall, Vagabon casts guitar rock to the wind and immerses itself in moody synthesizer tones, skittering trap beats, and the warmth and texture of Tamko’s voice. She sings of running from fears, of finding herself and finding solace in a world of fleeting connections — it’s a record of personal discovery set in the future pop continuum of Sampha and James Blake.
“Flood” shakes and sways with uncertainty, a sense of slightly modulating pitch creating an aural unsteadiness to match Tamko’s quandry: “Even if I could have it stop without you,
I’ll start without you.” The club bump of “Water Me Down” was written spontaneously in the aftermath of personal rejection, and very quickly outlined lessons learned: “I’ll take my time, next time and i’ll do it right.” And the riveting “In A Bind” opens on gentle acoustic guitar plucks and a tentative vocal, but swells to immeasurable highs with swirling atmospheres, a glorious gospel choir, and meditative reflections.
Vagabon is a varied and eclectic set that has a lot on offer, but delivers in a big way; it shows tremendous growth for Tamko as a writer and artist, and as her last record suggested in name, presents us with an expanse of worlds to get lost in.
– John Vettese
Wild Flowers of America – Lost In The Salvation Army – (JAC World)
At its core, music is simple stuff. Learn a couple chords, have a half-decent sense of rhythm, don’t sound like a feral cat in heat when you sing – or do, whatever – and you’ve got yourself a band. The actual process of making music, however, can be so much more complicated.
Consider Wild Flowers of America: the Philadelphia power pop group led by t-shirt maven, artist, and rocker Perry Shall just released their debut five years after their first show…and with a backing band made up of some of the finest musicians in Appleton, Wisconsin. Also there was a four year hiatus in there where the band was so far back on the back burner that it was barely in existence. It happens!
Well worth the wait, Lost in the Salvation Army is an incredibly catchy and enjoyable album with more hooks than a tackle box. Shall and the band wear their influences on their sleeves, proudly riffing on Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, and The Plimsouls. The resulting record is one of the best of 2019, ten fantastic pop tunes in a row that basically dares you not to enjoy every single second of music.
While this is a review of the album and it’s certainly important to note just how good the musicians on it are – and you can’t go wrong with members of Tenement and Dusk, that’s for sure! – it’s just as crucial to talk about the group Shall assembled to play these songs live. The Philly native has been in bands since he was a teenager, most notably the hard rock trio Hound with Chris Wilson and Pat Hickey, and he drew on his history in the city to put together the local version of the Wild Flowers.
Despite being seven people (expanded from the four on the record), the band manages not to be a cacophony or a mess, which is testament to its members and to Shall as bandleader. That’s three guitars, bass, drums, keys, and a backup singer. While the keyboard isn’t necessarily an integral instrument when it comes to the genre – though plenty of power pop groups have them – it shines bright in these tunes.
On top of writing and recording the songs and putting together two different bands to play them, Shall has also teamed up with local photographer and director Bob Sweeney to make a bunch of music videos. You should check those out because, like the music, they’re also really fun. Here’s the one for “Freak on the Street”. – Yoni Kroll