The Best Albums of 2019, #20-01

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#20: (Sandy) Alex G – House Of Sugar

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Irrepressible, off-the-wall, and more than a little absurd, indie musician (Sandy) Alex G has made a career out of two things since dropping his debut in 2014: being as prolific as Ty Segall and being even more willing to play whatever the hell has come into his head in the last five minutes. House of Sugar marks his first album not put together in his bedroom but it keeps the manic, playlist-on-shuffle feel of his previous music. There’s just MORE of it – more instruments, more voices, more ideas.

#19: Black Midi – Schlagenheim

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Math rock at its worst is pretentious, chaotic, and devoid of any significance beyond the bird call of “Look at me! Look at how virtuoso I am!” At its best, it gets you sweaty, keeps you moving, and makes you wonder what the hell you took before you put the album on. Black Midi is the latter, coming across like Ought never disappeared up their own asses or The Mars Volta never…I don’t know, formed I guess.

 

#18: Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Bandana

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Gary, Indiana’s one claim to fame was always the Jackson Five. Beyond that it’s been largely a blue-collar industrial city, and with the collapse of manufacturing it’s become the ultimate decaying Rust Belt city, a crime-ridden wasteland of poverty and crumbling infrastructure. Freddie Gibbs comes from there, and the rough, working-class sense of humour he brings to his tales of crimes and bad behaviour are what brings him into the A-tier of modern rappers. What pushes him into the top 5, of course, is the presence of God’s Own Producer, Madlib; like their previous collaboration, Pinata, Bandana simply bangs in a way that a billion hungry rappers could only dream of.

 

#17: Fontaines D.C. – Dogrel

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The D.C. stands for “Dublin City” and Fontaines D.C. are Irish to their fingertips. Dogrel functions primarily as a way of mourning old Irish cultural tropes and societal feelings that have been plowed under by modern existence. The band is up-front about their love for poetry, working class fury, and the touchstones of post-punk: Sixties garage rock, American rockabilly, the Clash, the Strokes. It’s punk in a way that has not been championed for some time, which in itself tracks with the band’s unstated mission.

 

#16: Malibu Ken – Malibu Ken

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Whether or not you like Portland-by-way-of-NYC’s Aesop Rock has always depended on what your thoughts are on an MC who is – and this has been quantitatively analyzed – possessed of the largest vocabulary in the game. Some people like the insanely wordy flow that he uses, others find it preachy and pretentious. It doesn’t help that there are big parts of his records where he seems to go out of his way to be both. Malibu Ken, then, is a project that allows the better aspects of Aesop Rock to shine – the aspects where he is revealed as one of the all-time great storytellers in hip hop, and also the aspects where he’s actually funny. The secret, it seems, is to get the right producer to bring those aspects out; in this case that producer is Tobacco, whose day job is in Pittsburgh’s psychedelic funtime band Black Moth Super Rainbow (and who did the killer theme song to HBO’s Silicon Valley). Blasted on sugar, the two of them create synth-heavy odes to Satanic panic murders, cats having unfortunate encounters with eagles, and how every plant that comes into the apartment dies. If you’ve slept on Aesop for years, now is your chance to come home.

 

#15: Sir Babygirl – Crush On Me

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Criminally underlooked in a lot of these stupid year-end round-up lists, Sir Babygirl’s debut record is – as the latest edition boldly claims – utterly biconic. A celebration of poppy alt-rock, the chaos of youth, and living your best queer life, Crush On Me doesn’t overstay it’s welcome but it does inject some much-needed life into alternative circa 2019. Honestly, this needs to be spelled out: Kelsie Hogue has a way with melody that puts a lot of their contemporaries to shame.

 

#14: Chromatics – Closer To Grey

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OK, OK, it’s not Dear Tommy. I have come to believe that said record is never going to come, and if it does it’ll be the duo’s Chinese Democracy – a piece of vaporware that, when it finally does emerge, will be crushingly disappointing. We have Closer To Grey, though, and Johnny Jewel insists that it’s not the same record with a different name, so who knows. Either way, Closer To Grey is a bang-on great Chromatics record, full of those classic Italo-disco grooves, powerful synth work, and giallo-film atmosphere for miles.

 

#13: Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell!

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Decade challenge: Lana Del Rey entered this past decade as a vector for sad-girl pop music into hipster indie circles, courtesy of generational shifts and a record-industry father. She finishes the decade making her case as one of America’s best contemporary songwriters, capable of wresting honest emotion from her detatched-irony persona and crafting songs that are bold and make inroads toward experimentation. I guarantee I will be listening to “Venice Bitch” ten years from now, but “Fuck It I Love You” and “Hope Is A Dangerous Thing For A Woman Like Me To Have – But I Have It” are probably also going to be on that far-off playlist. I miss New York and I miss the music; me and my friends, we miss rock ‘n’ roll.

 

#12: Glass Beach – The First Glass Beach Album

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Glass Beach are the first band that I can point to and comfortably say “this is post-emo.” Honestly, it’s a fucking mess and I mean that in the nicest way possible. It’s a little bit of everything – big band jazz, musical theatre, yacht rock, Elton John, Jeff Rosenstock, hardcore, space rock, painfully honest Casio indie bands, and fiery alt-rock guitar soloing – but it’s all smashed apart and then re-arranged in the shape of an emo album a la The Hoteliers or Modern Baseball. It suggests emo. It implies prog rock. It rolls up and smokes old jazz records. It does whatever it wants, and honestly that’s just so goddamn cool.

 

#11: Anderson .Paak – Ventura

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How do you follow up a massive record that makes your name almost instantly and drives you into the upper echelons of hip hop to do collabs with the likes of Kendrick Lamar and Dr. Dre? Well, you don’t. That heatseeker album, Malibu, was followed up with Oxnard, a record that’s fine and all but is nowhere near the heights of it’s predecessor. How you follow up THAT album, however, is how you make the bones of a long-lasting career, and that’s what Anderson .Paak does on Ventura. Is it as good as Malibu? Yes. Does it have a stellar lineup of features to guest alongside the man in question? Hell yes. Will it stick in your head for the rest of your life? Fuck yes. The difference lies in the degree of creative freedom offered by the exec; Oxnard was tightly controlled by Dre, whereas Ventura is much more of Anderson .Paak’s own baby, and the contrast between the two is sharp.

 

#10: Better Oblivion Community Center – Better Oblivion Community Center

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Decade challenge: in 2010 Conor Oberst was on the verge of retiring his long-running Omaha folk-rock band, Bright Eyes, an outfit that had taken him from the relative college radio obscurity of his youth into being a household name in the indie world by the time he was 30. That last Bright Eyes album – The People’s Key – came out in 2011 and it was by and large a let down from the heights of records like Lifted or I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. The rest of the decade was mostly silent, with the odd Mystic Valley Band gig and a random Desaparecidos record in 2015; the tour behind the latter record was cut short when Oberst developed laryngitis and retreated to Omaha, anxious and exhausted. He showed up briefly on Pheobe Bridgers’ 2017 debut, the excellently titled Stranger In The Alps, on a duet; over the next two years rumours steadily grew of a potential album-length collaboration between the two and in early 2019 that collaboration was revealed to be true, via a band called Better Oblivion Community Center that also featured members of Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Autolux. The combination of the two songwriters makes for better material from both: BOCC is much better than either of the last two Bright Eyes records and makes for stronger songs than Bridgers put out on Stranger In The Alps. It feels like a return to form for Oberst and a big step forward for Bridgers, and it contains one of the top 5 best songs of the year in “Dylan Thomas.”

 

#09: clipping. – There Existed An Addiction To Blood

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The first time I listened to this album I heard the last track and thought it was the sound of someone being eaten horribly. I was close – it’s actually an 18-minute track that is the recording of a piano being consumed by a fire. Still, the idea of it being ghouls or ogres eating people tracks, because the rest of There Existed An Addiction To Blood defines horrorcore in a way that hasn’t really been attempted in more than a decade, if at all. The songs themselves hit like a wet bludgeon, with hard beats and harder vocals; in between are the interludes, passages that sound as though they were ripped directly from squalid video nasties (which, in parts, they were). The lyrics are all scenarios that could be spun off as their own horror films, although there is an important caveat there. A lot of older horrorcore – Gravediggaz, Kool Keith, Geto Boyz, Ill Bill – gets pretty misogynistic and goes in on camp humour. clipping. eschew both, leaning in on the dark, surreal imagery described in the words and putting the listener in the position of the victim time and again. It’s unflinching, gruesome, and utterly fascinating.

 

#08: King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – Infest The Rats’ Nest

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The ultra-prolific Aussie prog-psych band went full-in on metal with album #2 of 2019, and the results are exhiliarting. Taking cues from the likes of Metallica, Slayer, Motorhead, Kreator, Exodus, Overkill, and Sodom, Infest The Rats’ Nest is an homage to thrash metal that still manages to keep the signature Gizzard sound intanct, a feat worthy of legend if the band wasn’t already so goddamn legendary. Considering the amount of music the band writes and plays on a regular basis, you would think that it would stop there and it would be just a collection of songs based around the thrash aesthetic but no, the thing is a concept record too. The first half details an ecological disaster taking place in the near future and the attempts to colonize Mars by and for the rich, and the second half details the attempts of some Earth exiles to colonize Venus in the wake of that ecological and economic disaster. They don’t pull any punches, either. In a year when we were warned – repeatedly – that time is quickly running out to deal with the climate crisis, in a year when warming ocean waters led to tropical storms striking early, often, and with uncommon viciousness, in a year when Europe sweltered under mid-40 degree temperatures, when the American midwest drowned under what were once thought of as century floods, when the Bahamas were destroyed by a hurricane – in a year when the band’s own homeland burned so badly that the smoke encircled the entire globe – the lead-off cry is at once horrifyingly prescient and starkly terrifying: THERE IS NO PLANET B.

 

#07: Quelle Chris – Guns

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America by the end of the second decade of the 21st Century is a nation-state awash in guns – don’t quote me on it, but there’s probably more guns than there are chickens and there is a metric fucktonne of chickens. All of these guns are, of course, contributing to the peculiarly American problem where its citizens spend an inordinate amount of time shooting each other – in the streets, in the bars, at school, at concerts, at home. It’s a country where citizens will vociferously defend – to the death, seemingly – their right to own increasingly absurd amounts of guns even while the death toll rises sharply every year. Guns is Quelle Chris’ attempt to make sense of all this violent nonsense, and especially its intersection with being a black male in the midst of it. On one hand, there’s whiteness, where (as the collage of voices indicates) a guy like Trump can shoot someone in the middle of 5th Avenue and get away with it. On the other, there’s the phenomenon of black people getting gunned down by the police for crimes such as “walking while black”, “driving while black”, and “shopping while black.” Of course, the concepts mean nothing if they aren’t delivered in a way that gets the people going, and Guns is full of catchy songwriting, big beats, and intricate wordplay that makes you stop the track and go “what the hell was that?” before rewinding it.

 

#06: Lizzo – Cuz I Love You

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Was there anyone who honestly had a better year than Lizzo? Building on the bones of her killer 2016 single “Good As Hell”, her third album got everything right. It’s equal parts throwback Nineties R&B groove, pure pop, neo soul, and that funk, combined with an aggressive sense of self that infects everyone who listens to it with the idea that they can do it too. Lizzo loves herself, and she wants you to love yourself too. The thing that drives it over the top is that she tosses it off as though it’s effortless; she just seems to naturally exude the music she creates and the persona she presents. She also spawned a bizarre online debate about weight and body positivity, where a bunch of rejects from the long-since-dead /r/fatpeoplehate cast aspersions on someone who does nightly concerts that often double as hardcore aerobic exercise routines. Honestly she’s just goddamn magic; my wife found someone (a total stranger) who was going through a toxic breakup and bought them a ticket to a Lizzo concert, which did the trick. She’s a force for healing and wonder, Lizzo for President 2020. Also if you haven’t seen her Tiny Desk Concert, figure out a way to watch that without giving NPR Music views because fuck them, Grim Kim 4 lyfe.

 

#05: Sharon Van Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow

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Decade challenge: Sharon Van Etten has been a slow-boil sleeper hit in the indie world ever since her debut album, Because I Was In Love, came out in 2009. Remind Me Tomorrow came out at a chaotic time in her life, being recorded over the same period of time that she was A): pregnant with her first child; B): going to school for a psychology degree and C): playing a steady role in Netflix’s The OA. The album reflects this kind of “everything at once” lifestyle, hitting hard with big gestures and then retreating into calmer, more atmospheric passages. This is the same type of record dynamic that made Angel Olsen such a force to be reckoned earlier in the decade, and it works with devastating effect. Giant rock gestures – the kind that bring to mind that part of the indie culture that still loves Bruce Springsteen and Fleetwood Mac – inform tracks like “Seventeen”, “You Shadow”, and “Comeback Kid.” The moody shifting of “Jupiter 4” encapsulates the other side, the mid-tempo brooding side that feels as though it bears the weight of all of the author’s anxieties. Throughout both sides is evidence of Van Ettern’s keen sense of pop melody, which she uses to make a collection of wall-to-wall memorable tracks.

 

#04: Billy Woods & Kenny Segal – Hiding Places

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Billy Woods is the son of an English professor and a Zimbabwean Marxist, founded Backwoodz Studios, and is low-key one of the five best lyricists in the game right now. Kenny Segal is one of L.A.’s best producers and used to play the experimental hip hop Low End Theory party in L.A. back when it first started. Together they make eerie, unsettling hip hop that manages to sink barbed hooks into the listener even while it makes them feel paranoid, isolated, and weird. It’s a dark little record, full of musty nooks and dank crannies, squalid apartment hallways, and dusty abandoned mailboxes full of mail that no one wanted forwarded. Pitchfork compared it to Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein and if you’ve ever loved the despair of that album then you’ll definitely love Hiding Places. It’s a peculiarly New York album, particularly a Brooklyn that no longer exists except in the grimy grooves of the record itself: those menacing, moody drums, those fading-car synths, that wordy, verge-of-ending-it flow.

 

#03: FKA Twigs – Magdalene 

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What is beauty? What is truth? FKA Twigs finds a connection between the two in pain, and uses that pain to explore the deepest recesses of both. Since her debut album, 2014’s LP1, she began and ended a relationship with Robert Pattinson and went through surgery to remove fibroid tumours from her uterus. The emotional and physical pain present in these informs the soaring emotion and carefully combatitive musical elements found on Magdalene. It’s hard to pin the sound of the album down; she’s often lumped in with the alt-R&B movement but she’s just as much a product of Kate Bush and Siouxsie Sioux as she is Frank Ocean and the Weeknd. Honestly, the constant placement of FKA Twigs in the alt-R&B category is pretty racist, a fact that the artist herself has alluded to. Her stuff has a lot more in common with artists like Bjork than it does anything else; it’s closer to the point that no one is doing precisely what FKA Twigs is doing but FKA Twigs herself. She’s mixed-race, though, so she automatically must have to fit some sort of R&B/hip-hop shape. Here’s the truth: she fits no genre but her own, and artists after her will be picking up broken pieces of framework and fashioning something new from it.

 

#02: Rapsody – Eve

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In 2018 Rapsody, fresh off of two Grammy noms, was asked by a journalist if she felt that she came from the same cultural lineage as Nina Simone and Roberta Flack. The result of this question is Eve, a sixteen-track powerhouse where every song is named after an influential black woman that Rapsody considers a hero. Eve is also pure classic hip hop; if we accept the premise of dad rap, then Eve hearkens back to that: crisp production, killer sample choices, hard-bap drums and that stone-cold Nineties Lauryn Hill by way of the Wu type flow.  “Nina” leads the record off by showing Kanye how you properly treat a sample like “Strange Fruit”, with the seriousness it deserves; “Cleo” follows that up with the only time I’ve ever said “hey this is a great Phil Collins sample.” “Aaliyah” conjures up not only the late, legendary R&B singer but also Lauryn Hill, Mary J. Blige, and Diddy’s golden era of Bad Boy Records. Queen Latifah tears up her spot on “Hatshesput” and J. Cole adds a certain levity to his part on “Sojourner” (remember when Bill Clinton implied she was a threat to American culture? Jesus what a time to be alive). The key collaborative spot, though, goes to “Ibthiaj”, where Rapsody manages to nick the beat from “Liquid Swords”, get D’Angelo to sing the hook, AND get the GZA to guest on a re-interpretation of his own track. Guests aside, though, she steals the scene every time she appears; as with any great MC, she refuses to let the stars she attracts to upstage her and delivers line after killer line across the entire album. “Still in all black,” she spits on the woozy Herbie Hancock party of “Whoopi”, “I’m a rapper’s rapper.”

 

#01: Tyler, The Creator – Igor

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OK but seriously: decade challenge.

On Christmas Day, 2009, Tyler, the Creator released his first album, the infamous Bastard mixtape. That album caught a fire on the internet, garnering a ton of downloads, the idolization of 4chan’s /mu/ community, and a bona fide buzz single with “French!” Tyler and his Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill ‘Em All hip hop and skater collective became a genuine movement, for good or ill. In numerous articles on edgy culture sites, Tyler and the group were hailed as the “/b/ Generation” (where said article had a featured image where Tyler was flashing his dick surreptitiously) and in some circles as the new Wu Tang Clan. While the group didn’t spawn nearly as much witty unpredictable talent and natural game as the wilds of Shaolin, they did spawn three genuine breakout stars: Earl Sweatshirt, Frank Ocean, and Tyler himself. There was a period of time when they were huge online. I was an evangelist for the group after the first time I heard Bastard (thanks /mu/), repping not only Tyler and Earl but also B-listers like Domo Genesis (honestly “Rolling Papers” is still the best weed banger of the decade), Casey Veggies, and The Internet (who still fucking kill it, witness last year’s “Burbank Funk“).

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Subsequent albums for Tyler, though, failed to capture the same spark; Goblin tried a little too hard to be as edgy and controversial as Bastard and while Wolf was somewhat better, Cherry Bomb seemed more like an excuse to blow out the distortion with a heavy dose of compression. There was a time, mid-decade where I considered him to be an also-ran of the whole OF scene, but then he put out Flower Boy and something seemed to shift in his music and in his artistic persona. One of his more controversial aspects had always been his free hand with the f-slur, peppering it in long after even his most hard-bitten gangsta cousins quietly dropped it. Tyler in the latter part of the decade, though, seemed to casually ease into his apparent bisexuality. He was, at one point, linked romantically to Jaden Smith on Twitter, although the extent to which this is real is questionable. As he loosened up his fluidity, he also loosened up his sound; Flower Boy was more playful than previous Tyler records, while also being a lot crisper.

Igor, though, is leaps and bounds beyond Flower Boy in that respect. The record is a collection of synth-heavy, bass-thumping tracks, and every single one slaps. “Igor’s Theme”, “What’s Good”, and “New Magic Wand” recall the hard-edged production of Cherry Bomb but with more control and a weird sense of maturity, and a great deal more melodic precision. “Earfquake” and “A Boy Is Not A Gun” have a blissfully stoned gait that stake out new vocal territory for the artist; in fact, it’s really the willingness to go beyond the bounds of being a “rapper” and moving into the sort of part-rap, part-alt-R&B singing style that the 2010s will hopefully be rightfully known for: stuff like Kendrick, Frank Ocean, Anderson .Paak, Dre’s own Compton, Drake, Cudi, et al. That’s not to say that Tyler doesn’t bring intricate bars anymore; his corkscrew verses on “Puppet” prove that he still has the wordplay and technical ability to stake a claim for greatness. It’s just that Tyler has figured out the zeitgeist, rather than trying to set it, and now he’s using that to bounce ahead of his contemporaries.

The first time I saw the “Yonkers” video I was floored; nothing else on the unfortunately sophomoric Goblin matched it but at the time very little in hip hop matched it, either. Tyler had the chops to be great, right from the beginning, but it’s only how that he’s at a level where he’s comfortable enough to actually do it.

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