music / Columns

The Best Albums Of 2019 – So Far

August 16, 2019 | Posted by David Hayter
Thom Yorke Anima

A little later than scheduled – an Italian holiday, Elton John and a bachelor party have intervened – comes 411 Music’s annual half-year report on the state of the music industry.

For my money 2019 has been an excellent year for albums – there’s a whole host of records who just missed the cut who may well appear on our annual Top 100 countdown – but it’s fair to say 2019 has been short on narrative. The continued dominance of Ariana Grande and the emergence of Billie Eilish are perhaps the biggest stories in pop (alongside another disastrous year for Madonna), but the other genre’s are lacking real headline material (at least in studio).

…But fear not, if 2019 has failed to capture your imagination as of yet, a new Tool album is right around the corner.

Now let’s get down to business.

American Football – 3 (Indie Rock)

It’s official. We’ve reached the point where the reformed American Football have effortlessly surpassed their prime years. Of course, their comeback LPs (2&3) cannot recreate the impact of their debut. These delicate and beautifully observed insights into insecurity will spawn no scenes nor set stage for a generation of emo headliners, they are a more personal delight. American Football 3 offers tender lingering music that plays around the sorrowful margins on human existence stumbling upon slivers of beauty as they exorcise their demons.

 

Ariana Grande – thank u, next (Pop)

“Sadly, thank u, next fails to scale such lofty heights with any regularity. Most of the songwriting follows in “imagine’s” image: it is tender and thoughtful, slight and spacious, but lacking the psychological brutality of the great confessional records. Not that it matters, while Ariana Grande can’t hope to meet the impossibly high standards of “ghostin” or the wild enigmatic creativity of Sweetener, what stands in their stead is a thrilling, endlessly pleasurable and wonderfully understated collection. thank u, next is a supremely easy listen born of ungodly difficult conversations. It has its ear to the streets, but its gaze cast inwards towards stability, reconciliation and personal growth.” Read Our Full Review

Baroness – Grey & Gold (Metal)

They are just that damn good. There’s no two ways about it. Baroness might wrong-foot their fans and critics alike, but there’s no denying the ambition, intricacy and melodic power of Grey & Gold. Part of the joy of Baroness’ work lies in the journey: a drowned Led Zep riff (“I’m Already Gone”) blossoms not into a blast of scuzzy retro rock, but a billowing stadium-sized emo lament on emotional distance. “Torniquet” is almost a direct reversal. After threating to produce a whimpering acoustic exercise in insularity, the track rapidly gains muscularity and a steely sense of purpose as it drives a course through an ocean of crashing waves. For all their technical wizardy and tonal nuance, Grey & Gold thrives on a sense of adventure: so take John Baizley’s hand, safe in the knowledge, that your in for one hell of a ride.

 

Big Thief – U.F.O.F. (Indie Folk)

At the absolute opposite end of spectrum to Baroness come Big Thief, a Brooklyn quartet taking expansive psych-folk and refining it down into something ornate, magical and undeniably intimate. There’s a lot going on on this LP, but you’d be hard pressed to notice it, because Big Thief coax the listen into a phone booth or down to sleep beside the campfire. There’s hardly a inch between the listener Adrianne Lenker even as the music dustily dances in the desert or ethereal floats towards the stratosphere. Big Thief are, at their absolute best, charged by humanity itself. Their music is organic, honest and gently immediate as if it is being performed live on a sunlight patch of grass.

 

Billie Eilish – When We Go To Sleep (Pop)

“When Lorde, that other great teenage superstar, unleashed Pure Heroine it was almost too perfect: an immaculate blend of disenfranchised posture and strong willed poignancy. It seemingly boxed the artist in, leaving her nowhere to turn, trapped by her own rhetorical and innate completeness (she would deftly escape this dilemma on her second album).  Eilish finds herself in almost the exact opposite situation. Her control of aesthetic, tone and mood is equally masterful, but the loose ends of her sound and intricacies of her song writing have yet to be resolved. This project stands thrillingly incomplete. This formula could be refined, perfected and, in future, made whole – or Eilish could simply kick it to the curb, chase trends and evolve in an as yet unforeseen direction (as is the want of youth).

Therein lies the joy of both adolescence and WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP… It is a strangely coherent flirtation with aesthetic perfection that never quite stumbles upon artistic resolution. From the eye-rolling girl who deadpans “duh” at the outset to the straight-faced romantic who’s found reworking Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” on “I love you”, every syllable of this LP is undeniably Eilish, but who or what she actual is remains to be seen. For the time being, she’s sumptuously insincere in her admittedly selfish over-sharing attempt at honesty.”

 

Boogie – Everythings For Sale (Rap) 

Five years after “Bitter Raps” singled out Boogie as a potential superstar, comes Everythings For Sale: the debut studio album from the dexterous and perma-depressed Compton rapper. “I’m dead inside”, Boogie might be incredibly intricate when he writes his rhymes, but his despairing postures are obvious in the extreme. From sullen Instagram filters to brooding emo shrugs, Boogie offers a smorgasboard of modern sorrow. The sad boy with soul, the intellectual crushed by the weight of his knowledge, Everythings For Sale could do with an injection of joy at times, but it remains a monument to stripping every cloud of its silver lining.

Western Stars – Bruce Springsteen (Country Rock)

It’s never too late for a change. Western Stars is less a gaudy new get up, than a slick new fabric in a familiar design. It fits perfectly, accentuating what was already exquisite. Ditching the booming crescendos of the E Street Band without delving to the stark and lonesome depths of Nebraska, Western Stars rides its luscious orchestral arrangements towards richest, most refreshing and strangely reassuring pop music The Boss has produced in a decade or more.

 

Caroline Spence – Mint Condition (Country)

Romanticism has always been essential to both country and folk. Caroline Spence explicitly understands this fact, but like all great songwriters she knows that it is crucial, while embracing tradition, not to succumb to trite nostalgia. With this in mind she deftly plucks at our heartstrings in familiar patterns before unleashing a singular lyric so unique and so true it instantly elevates her above a crowd of doomed romantics.  “My favourite things are tired and worn/A dog eared book, with the cover torn” and that’s an apt reflection of Mint Condition, by scuffing up the edges of some classic American songwriting staples Caroline Spence uncovers a poignant voice of her own.

 

Charlie Marie – Charlie Marie (Country)

“Just because you wear a Stetson and you say you were made in Texas, doesn’t mean you’re Country and Western/But, baby if you can walk the line, I’ll let you take me home tonight, wearing nothing but your bolo tie”. After an opening couplet like that, how could I hope to avoid falling head over heels in love with Charlie Marie. This is ballsy brash songwriting that does not flinch, hide or obscure itself. Charlie Marie actively wants to be a star. On her debut five track EP she is taking no prisoners – whether it’s a spunky single, a dustbowl ditty or a billowing ballad, Marie’s music bears the hallmark of a perfectionist who wants every lingering guitar strum or pithy put down to be immaculate in its impact.

 

Charly Bliss – Young Enough (Indie/Synth Rock)

Young Enough is a goading onslaught of irrepressible hooks backed by Eva Hendrick’s razor sharp eye for narrative detail. Power pop and synth rock are genres that are often expertly recreated as an act of 70s/80s hero worship, but that sense of retrospection never threatens to blunt Charly Bliss’ onslaught. Young Enough is proudly present tense: these are the struggles and torments of wild young woman smashing her way through relationships – this isn’t a homage, this is a god damn car crash. Lucky for us, this game of hormonal rock ‘em sock ‘em robots is underwritten by some of the year’s most infectious and impetuous choruses.

 

Dave – Psychodrama (Grime)

““I’ve got a flame in my mind that I’ve got to fire fight”. This is Psychodrama’s core tenet. Dave is being driven slowly insane by the pressures of providing for his fatherless family while his friends die in the street or serve time. His blessing and his curse is that he’s shrewd enough to scrutinize his environment. The pressure to constantly convey a brutalistic masculinity and the weak cultural excuses for domestic abuse are remorselessly critiqued, but so are the societal traps: racism both overt and intentional as well as unconscious and institutional. In this sense, Dave sitting on psychiatrist’s couch is eerily reminiscent of that other great image in UK rap canon: a teenaged Dizzee Rascal slouched alone in the corner, just sitting and watching his world burn. This, after all, is the greatest tragedy: to be so aware, so proactive, so “woke”, but so helpless to change any of it.

So what’s a young man to do? The answer, according to Dave, is the same as it ever was: work harder, work smarter, work better (“I didn’t get 99 marks in English, cause I was faking it/I got 98, cause I don’t know what a vacation is”).”

Denzel Curry – ZUU (Rap)

This isn’t the album I, as a big Denzel Curry backer, wanted or expected. Just one year after the mind melting angst and oddness of the brilliant Ta1300 comes ZUU: a brazen banger and a mainstream love letter to Florida. In short, Curry has abandoned the alien and awkward in favour of the stone cold reality of the street. This might sound regressive on the surface, but Curry attacks every project with such anger, energy and lyrical dexterity that even the most conventional rap record of his career to date, might just be his best. Brilliantly, while ZUU is the kind of album capable of conquering the charts and the clubs respectively, it doesn’t make a single concession to trap. This is hard-edged hip hop. Remarkably, amidst this bristling onslaught Curry captures the warmth of both a sun soaked state and the grimy shadows of a life spent sweating on the hard concrete of a jungle that men like Curry are not supposed to escape.

 

Devin Townsend – Empath (Metal)

Let’s not pull punches: Devin Townsend is not my bag – and that’s okay. He is a true marmite artist capable of dividing fans and critics alike. No one doubts his technical skill, nor compositional ambition. It is truly is a matter of taste. Devin is either an insightful genius or he’s the epitome of cringeworthy naffness. Empath has all the attributes requisite to send me running for the hills, but, for some bizarre reason, all those over earnest lyrics, preposterous compositional choices and the myriad of never ending portentous crescendos – they just work. Perhaps, after all these years of me feeling that Devin Townsend offered too much of everything and too little restraint, what I really needed was MORE OF EVERYTHING, LESS RESTRAINT and MORE THEATRICALITY. Truth be told, Empath is a genuinely enjoyable listen. It makes me smile, against my better judgement while leaving me asking (and singing) why, WHY, W H Y ? ? ?

 

Emily Scott Robinson – Traveling Mercies (Country)

Traveling Mercies is an album destined to pass so many people by. On the surface it lacks the perky punch of modern country and Americana. Emily Scott Robinson is not short of beautiful or crafty lyrics, but she has no interest in punchlines. Instead, Traveling Mercies is charged by an introvert’s understated, observational eye. Robinson thrives when she details empty spaces and tragedies so mundane as to be barely remarked upon. She focuses on the spaces lost between the wide-open road and the bustling towns (“this is the America that the interstate left behind”). Wistful, but never wimpy, Emily Scott Robinson thrives on the innate believability of her words. This isn’t Carrie Underwood’s stadium sized vengeance or Kacey Musgraves’ subversive stab at superstardom – Traveling Mercies is painfully honest and, with the right airplay, it could forge an intimate connection with a legion of likeminded souls. With songs as good as “The Dress” and “Shoshone Rose” she cannot be written off.

Employed To Serve – Enternal Forward Motion (Metal)

If you get the chance, go and see Employed To Serve live, you will not regret it. They were one of the undoubted hightlights of an excellent All Points East line up this year (more on that come our end of year lists) and a large part of their live prowess comes from the brilliant Eternal Forward Motion. Employed To Serve’s latest album feels thrillingly present tense, for all it’s rich grooves and carefully constructed pummellings, this record feels like it is being played live in your eardrums. The vocals have a wonderful first take feel. They are scratchy and desperate, the perfected constrast and set up for those gloriously elastic headbanging bass grooves that arrive seemingly without warning. Eternal Forward Motion is one of those crafty little albums that manages to throw you into the heart of maelstrom in its opening seconds, leaving you unanchored and overwhelmed – it feels utterly chaotic, but upon reflection you realize you are being careful guided from one extreme of barbarity to the next.

Fontaines D.C. – Dogrel (Rock)

April might just be the month of great albums by artists who couldn’t care less if you can list their every influence. From The Strokes and surf-pop to The Fall and Joy Division, the sonic signatures may be overt, but I dare anyone to listen to Dogrel and mistake Fontaines D.C. for anyone else. Proudly poetic and wearing their Dublin drawl like a badge of honor, Dogrel is less the sound of the streets than the voice of an underlying tension ping-ponging around each and every one of us. There’s a needling tension to these deliciously observed post-punk ditties – and ditties is the word. Whenever Fontaines threaten to billow out into something more ambitious or alien, there’s an unmistakable earthy reality check – a flat goading note or sarcastic snarl. Dogrel is one of those brilliant albums that alludes to something great, some sort of hope on the horizon, but that lives and breathes in a suffocating boredom of life spent watching the world go by – or as they put it: “You’re a cluster of nothing…how do you go about living, as a relic from a dream”.

 

Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Bandana (Rap)

Freddie Gibbs has always left me cold, but when positioned alongside Madlib,  suddenly, I fall in love. His lyrical skills are undeniable, but so often passé – and yet, in Madlib’s hands, even an arch-advocate of the old school, like Gibbs, sounds urgent. Gibbs is absolutely locked on the beat, stacking syllables like a metronomic street-level dictionary as the sands shift beneath him. So much of Bandana’s gloriously grimy quality comes from the sequencing, offering consistency, consideration and subtle surprises. Madlib’s phase shifting sonics take Gibbs on a tour from blacked out black alleys (“Half Manne Half Cocaine”) to summery, Floridian infomercials (“Crime Pays”). Reality and fantasy collide with alarming reality, drawing out the absurdity of the fetishized life of the drug-dealing-rapper. Still, for all the complexity and real life sorrow that Bandana represents, the album is often at it’s best when Madlib queues up a buzzsaw beat and absolutely unleashes Gibbs (“Flat Tummy Tea”). Of course, nothing that’s simple and even the most direct of tracks tends to contain a pitch shift and a darkly blissful coda. Fittingly, Freddie is often his most devilish when the pace drops and most fragile when the tempo rises.

 

Holly Herndon – PROTO (Electronica)

“Despite the odd stumbling block and Herndon’s own intellectual trappings, PROTO thrives as a celebration of the human voice, which stands distorted, fractured, transmuted, but still unrivalled in its power. The philosophical underpinnings of the album and the creation of the Spawn AI will no doubt provoke both endless conversation and new avenues for exploration, but it would be wrong to consider this collection a mere thinkpiece. PROTO is, above all, a living, breathing, awe-inspiring piece of music and music making remains an art, rather than a science. Thankfully, Holly Herndon is a master of the arts (as well as doctor).”

 

Hatchie – Keepsake (Dream Pop)

Dreamy and depressive singer-songwriters aren’t exactly in short supply, it’s lucky then, that Hatchie is gifted not only with an incisive melodic air, but also a deep lying vein of optimism. Keepsake’s willingness to tap into an unfashionable optimism only serves to strengthen the nihilism and apprehension that haunts this record. The highs are all the more effecting for being earned and the lows are believably tragic, because they never feel like too-cool-for-school artifice. When, on the drifting synth slouch of “Stay With Me”, Hatchie sighs “I feel better now you’re gone/I feel nothing, I feel numb” – it’s impossible to believe her, because Keepsake exists in a world of continual subconscious second guessing and it’s utterly unsurprisingly when, a few bars later, Hatchie cries: “you’re still the one”. This sort of indecision does not result in indecisive pop music; Hatchie is letting us see what lurks behind her brave face in the most luscious and inviting of circumstances.

Inter Arma – Sulphur English (Metal)

Following up Paradise Gallows was supposed to be difficult. Not so for Inter Arma, but that’s not to say Sulphur English isn’t the result of something serious thought – or ache. The Virginia five piece have decided to jettison the beauty and occasional delicacy of their paste work in favor of outright bludgeoning brutality. On paper that’s a regression. In reality it’s an adroit manoeuvre. The band have limited their emotional and technical to the bleakest, hardest and most pitiless downward spiral of sound and spirit. Suffice to say the album slaps and slaps hard. At times, when the drums do slow their relentless onslaught, the dull thuds feel fit to carve in rib cages. On the title track, the pummelling is so intense, it verges on a subterranean scurrying, as if they’ve pounded their anxiety into bloody oblivion and are now tunnelling nilhistically into the earth itself. Remarkably, in amidst the tumult, especially on the album’s sludgy front end, Inter Arma settle upon some of their most engrossing and entrancing moments – “Citadel” is a marvel that rock fans of more faint hearted disposition should relish.

 

Jamilia Woods – Legacy! Legacy! (R&B)

“You will never know, never know, everything and you don’t know me, couldn’t possibly” – that might be the defiant tone Jamilia Woods strikes on the brilliant “Zora”, but Legacy! Legacy! Is an album designed to let the listener in to every aspect of Woods life and cultural upbringing. This album inhabits modern multi-racial, multi-cultural Chicago warts and all – serving up lowkey banging beats and blemishes aplenty. The result of this unadulterated statement of self is confounding: a mix of utterly unabashed pride and a recognition of the sorrow her cultural was built upon. Truthfully though, for all the deep themes, enlivening self love and compositional complexity, Legacy! Legacy! is, first and foremost, a beautiful and enticing listen. Jamilia Woods singing is silky, smooth and luxurious as she slides across a raft of nocturnal jazz influenced beats. The result is something akin to tender barbwire – Jamilia is controlling her seething contempt for the sake of her own psyche, but don’t be lulled into forgetting the pain and hatred hiding in plain sight.

 

Jenny Lewis – Red Bull & Hennessey (Indie)

Whether standing alone or fronting Rilo Kiley, Jenny Lewis has always exuded an effortless mastery of the sunny Californian pop of the 1970s. Despite her incredible refinement, cool and control, On The Line represents a staggering step forward for Lewis. Not only is her blend of indie, country, commercial rock and pop perfectly pitched, but, with a vocal that thrives in the grey area between Stevie Nicks and Kate Bush, Jenny delivers the most devastating lyrics of her career to date. On The Line is not a mere aesthetic delight or a charming soundscape, it’s a record of subtle insecurities and razor sharp glimpses into a deeply personal history (“wanted to please you/My dress was see through/As I looked through your phone/I was a coward/how could you send her flowers?”). Combine all of the above with a selection of immaculate should-be-singles (“Heads Gonna Roll”, “Red Bull & Hennessey”) and you have the best album of Jenny Lewis’ illustrious career.

 

Julia Jacklin – Crushing (Indie)

It’s fair to say that Julia Jacklin could be somewhat cruelly dismissed as a Angel Olsen imitator on her promising 2016 debut Don’t Let The Kids Win. On her sophomore release, Crushing, Jacklin rejects any and all comparison as she delivers a pleasingly direct break up album. Crushing rattles and rumbles along at an impressive clip, even as Julia explores a deep and desolate ache. This is a tough balance to strike: too much pep in the arrangement would risk undermining the introspective anguish of the lyric sheet, but equally, so many album’s of this ilk have succumbed to the tedium of wallowing. Crushing delicately toes the line, allowing haunting reflections (“Turn Me Down”) and bristling assertions of autonomy (“You Were Right”) to sit side-by-side. Through the highs and lows, Crushing is tied together by Jacklin’s beguilingly off-kilter vocal performance – a star making turn if ever there was one.

 

Karyyn – The Quanta Series (Electronica/Pop)

Karyyn is perhaps guilty of a few leaden, overwrought attempts at profundity and instrumental abstraction, but these are the kind of pretentions that can be overlooked on a debut. In fact, this early in the game, Karyyn’s willingness to bend and warp the strictures of electronica are genuinely exciting. At times it can be hard to reconcile: cool post-club alienation and do-or-die straining pop vocals make for unusually bedfellows. As do chilling, subdued breaks and drum machines pummelling themselves to the point of glitching. Is she a romantic or realist, a dreamer or a depressive? Of course, we can all be both, and The Quanta Series seeks to simultaneously inhabit each state. Luckily, Karyyn has a trump card: she can get away with trying to be James Blake, Burial, Robyn and Aurora all at once, because her (and her family’s) experiences as Syrian-Armenian American’s gift The Quanta Series a deep personal resonance.

Kate Tempest – The Book Of Traps and Lessons (Rap/Poetry)

“But what’s to be done? When the only way to defend ourselves from what we’ve created is to merge with it, what can be done to stay human?” This is the core tenet of Kate Tempest most powerful album to date. Overwhelmed by anonymity and a violence, no longer creeping in at the corners of society, but running rampant. “Instead we are online, venting our outrage/Teaching the future that life is performance and vanity” – the grooves and the beats have been supressed, as Tempest lyricism incandescently rages against our new digital cage. Tempest sees a new world built to breed cruelly and The Book Of Traps and Lessons is the moment when she simultaneously stands overawed and defiant.

 

Kevin Abstract – ARIZONA baby (Rap)

Brockhampton’s sound will always be bigger and better suited to global conquest, but it’s hard to imagine Kevin Abstract ever releasing anything this powerful or profound as part of a collective. This is the sound of one man laying it all out there, risking castigation and humiliation respectively, with all the over-earnest abandon that made his sophomore album so divisive. But where American Boyfriend was defined by its wilful amateurism and a distinctly teenage sense of self-seriousness; ARIZONA baby is defined by an incredible depth of musicianship and a tender and thoughtful approach to very adult emotions.

Sure, Kevin will always be a wilful over sharer, but by encapsulating the security and support of a truly loving relationship he has not only captured something profound, he has presented something genuinely new in mainstream rap music. He’s not bragging, he’s not saying what he thinks we want to hear, he’s embracing his own state of mind and finding his sense of self in the arms of another – and, frankly, that’s beautiful.”

 

Little Simz – Grey Area (Grime)

It’s been a long time coming, but GREY Area was well worth the wait. Little Simz has been a stand out on the UK rap scene for so long, it almost felt as if her moment had passed her by. Mercifully, we no longer have to discuss Simz’s potential while hoping she’ll somehow put it all together, her peak has arrived. In producer Inflo, Simz has found her perfect partner in crime. His dark edged, rump-rattling beats and ear grabbing samples are the perfect backdrop for Simz daggering lyrical onslaughts. Better still, she finally has a producer adept enough to zig when Simz zags – and boy does she zag. Flickering between hard edged self-aggrandizements and stories of the struggle to smooth, soulful, circumspect reflections on loss and confusion. Whatever Simz turns her hand to her delivery remains immaculate.

 

Lingua Ignota – Caligula (Post-Rock/Metal)

Kristin Hayter, the Rhode Island woman behind Lingua Ignota’s already impressive output, is writing and releasing some of 2019’s most important and down right gruelling new music. Caligula, like All Bitches Die, is concerned with living in the wake of domestic abuse. This is no fists in the air statement of pride, nor is at happy ending per se, this is complex post-rock employing everything from metal to folk to mine the fissures of her fractured psyche. What Caligula does so brilliantly, as it excoriates everything from societal pressures to passive religious oppression, is building monuments to pain. Not merely the brutally of abuse and physical visceral misogyny, but at the disgust at being mistreated, ignored, brushed under the carpet and told that you are wrong (both in fact and mentality). Kristin Hayter’s compositional skills and vocal control are staggering as she wades across the river Styx while tearing her vocal chords to shreds. At times, Caligula is so raw and unflinching, it makes The Plastic Ono Band sound like My First Album by Peppa Pig.

 

Mannequin Pussy – Patience (Punk)

Their punk roots remain in tact, but Patience is the sound of a band intuitively spreading their wings. The Philly punks might be shifting their center of gravity towards something more tender and ornate, but there’s nothing forced or unnatural about the transition – and it’s this sense of balance that is key. They can switch dolorous drifting indie to screaming scattergun punk without raising a single eyebrow. This is holistic songwriting: whether Marisa Dabice is cooing “wish I was someone else” or screaming “I fought, but I did not win”, everything is in its right place.

 

Miley Cyrus – She Is Coming (Pop)

After her astonishing set at Glastonbury there’s a sense that the penny has finally dropped for Miley Cyrus. Rather than lunging from one half-thought conception to the next, she’s going to embrace her artistic schizophrenia and give her audience Dolly, Zeppelin, Hannah Montana and the twerking trap chaser all at once. In short, Miley’s wants to have fun on her own wildly contradictory terms – and that’s what She Is Coming represents. No neutered balladry or focus grouped imitations, Miley is content to kick out the jams: be they love songs to drugs, odes to her mother or a riotously transparent attempt to create a lip sync for you life anthem for Ru Paul’s Drag Race.

 

Nulfier Yanya – Miss UNiverse (Indie)

The album might be littered with a series of playful faux-corporate commercials, but that’s as close as Miss Universe comes to anything resembling either structure or sonic coherence. That might sound like a recipe for an over ambitious mess, but Nulifer’s staggeringly rich and perpetually deceptive vocal manages to curate and co-ordinate a tour of skeletal alternative, bristling indie, brooding and shimmering synths (respectively), smooth Sade-isms and jagged drop out slackerism. The result is a magnificent jumble: every track feels like a confessional, highlighted by cripplingly frank admissions, but also a sense grandiose songcraft. This is an artist capable of producing pristine pop or arena-ready-rock, but who wants to explore the scratchy hollows and claustrophobic intimacy of her own bedroom.

Orville Peck – Pony (Country)

Well this was an unexpected delight. Canadian Orville Peck certainly knows how to make an impression with his Cowboy hat and boots contrasted with a selection of simultaneously alien and erotic long fringed masks. With a dead eyed stare he’s equal part idolater, fashionista and subversive. Pony perfectly reflects his look. On one level, it’s a glorious reassertion of core country aesthetics: big sweeping stories of resilient, harden men formed from the grandest of natural environments. On the other hand, it’s a coy inversion: is this a celebration of an outdoorsman’s virtues or just thinly veiled eroticism? Are these glorious tales or shameful stories of violence and repression? Of course, the latter idea isn’t new to country itself, but Pony remains noticeably other. Buoyed by a grand baritone that fliters between Roy Orbison, Matt Berninger and any number of 80s goth stars, the album toes the line between country, camp eroticism and 80s indie without succumbing to the conventions of either. Pony is a strange, but pleasing beast: a defiantly masculine response to Anna Calvi, perhaps?

 

Rival Sons – Feral Routes (Rock)

Scott Holiday remains one of my favorite interviews, he’s relaxed, charismatic, cool and a natural storyteller. Exactly what you want in a modern lead guitarist. Last time we spoke he bristled with contempt at the “classic rock” label attached to his band and if 2014’s Great Western Valkyrie showed Rival Sons open ended potential, then Feral Routes shows how successfully they’ve not only mastered the rock cannon, but bent it to their will. Unlike Greta Van Fleet, imitation is not the aim of the game. Rival Sons embrace the grand American expanse and continually ask questions of what could yet be, not merely what has been before. They tease the listener with the familiar, only to veer off into a psycheledic, intergalatic or power pop direction.

 

Sigrid – Sucker Punch (Pop)

Now let’s not deny what is blindingly apparent. Billie Eilish has leap frogged Sigrid as a teenage prodigy and pop phenomenon and Sucker Punch is not the second coming of Lorde’s Pure Heroine. For many, this realization proved so disappointing that they have subsequently overlooked 40 minutes of slickly composed, arena ready and yet pleasing idiosyncratic pop music. If Sigrid is guilty of any sin, it’s over-ambition. There is a tendency to belt and bang, which disguises the subtle heart and nervous humanity that is Sucker Punch’s greatest asset.

 

Sharon Van Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow (Indie)

Sorrowful and intimately observed, it’s tempting to say that the song remains the same as Sharon Van Etten sharpens her lyrical focus, but that would miss the point entirely. Remind Me Tomorrow is born of grand conceptions, charged by ambition and carried by a dexterous artistry that sees Etten master a host of new aesthetics. Don’t worry, there’s plenty of dwelling and recrimination (although her lyrics are more forgiving than in the past), but there’s also a thrilling injection of propulsive, glittering 80s pop and horizon chasing expansiveness. Remind Me Tomorrow is Van Etten biggest, broadest, best self.

Slowthai – Nothing Great About Britain (Grime)

American rap fans often roll their eyes when British grime artists try to claim that there’s no connection between rap/hip hop and grime. While this is of course far fetched, even if the scenes roots lay in Jamaica, the point is that the UK scene is proudly DIY and wilfully amateurish. Northampton’s Slowthai is perhaps the embodiment of this ethos, performing in his pants, wildly idiosyncratic and dripping in irony, the hottest new rapper in the UK bears the influence of Mark E. Smith more clearly than Dizzee Rascal (even if it’s the later he shouts out). His debut album is a thrilling blast of post-punk anarchy energy directed at Broken Britain in an age of austerity and political pandering.

 

Stella Donelly – Beware The Dog (Indie)

“It’s easy to read Beware Of The Dogs as a right-on ravaging of a sexist society (and the music industry in particular), but this diminishes Stella Donnelly’s achievements. Using a dreamy palette bolstered by considered synths, Donnelly is more than just an arch storyteller; she’s our crafty companion. Less a tour guide and more a life partner, someone capable of wrapping her arm around her listener’s shoulders and steering them through the world, peeling back the curtain at (in)opportune moments. Breezy, funny and at times shocking, Stella never runs short of careful observed and cunningly rendered material charged by either woe or revenge. Her greatest weapon remains her deadpan, the ability to drop out of key into a flat speaking voice to deliver the deathblow.”

 

The Steel Blossoms – The Steel Blossoms (Country)

Nashville duo, Sara Zebley and Hayley Prosser, waste no time making an impression. Album opener and tone setter, “You’re The Reason I Drink”, is coyly delivered, but acid tongued slice of kitsch country. Like an obnoxiously picturesque postcard with a razor sharp edges: The Steel Blossoms are paper cut dispensary in all but name. Trouble is, the melodies and arrangements are so alluring and comforting in their simplicity that you’ll find yourself lulled into their traps over and over again. Be warned no matter how safe you may feel, there is always a twist (“I’d be the heroine, instead of letting heroin, win”).

 

Thom Yorke – Anima (Electronica)

Thom Yorke’s solo career remains a mixed bag. When inspired he can summon a depth of uneasy venom capable of sending shivers down government minister’s spines (“Harrowdown Hill”), but more often than not he’s happy to obtusely shimmer, shake and vibe his way to the middle of road (AMOK). Anima is refreshing. Even stripped of its dazzling visual element (Paul Thomas Anderson’s Netflix mini-movie), Anima has a subdued and skittish beauty. Yorke is as guarded as ever, his sonics (despite a stately gloss that suggest he’s been listening to Tim Hecker and Nicholaas Jaar among others) remain dated and amateurish, but this project is nevertheless charged with an alien intimacy – suggesting that Yorke is actively inviting us into his middle aged ennui, rather than erecting noodling walls.

 

Tyler, The Creator – IGOR (Hip Hop)

So it’s safe to say that I slept on IGOR. Upon release I found it distinctly mediocre. Tyler was vibing and gushing out his emotion in a performative, but passionless dance of painfully contrived maturity. Strangely, as time as passed on by, my opinion largely hasn’t changed. IGOR is still overt, obvious and clumsy, but after having the chance to live with the album as an artefact I’ve come to cherish that clumsy looseness. Quite simply IGOR bangs. It is too cute and too clever. Tyler obviously knows exactly what he’s doing even when he feigns that he doesn’t, but by god, for some inexplicable reason it rings true. Tyler has created an overly emotional and impetus album for those of us who cannot separate thinking from feeling. Oddly, by emphasising his greatest weaknesses (singing and thoughtfulness) and sideling his most well honed talents (wordplay and intensity), IGOR stands as a wonderfully vulnerable statement of pure lovestruck confusion and stewing in your subconscious.

 

Vampire Weekend – Father Of The Bride (Indie)

“Ezra spends so much of this album playing the hapless putz who almost accidentally stumbles into tender romantic poetry, that it’s impossible to shake the feeling that he is in fact falling into a pitiless trap. He’s clearly been heartbroken (“My Mistake”) and that memory informs both his highest highs and his most earnest commitments going forward. This unease never makes for an uneasy listen. Father Of The Brides is an uplifting creative cavalcade, but it does paint the picture of a man who wants to wholeheartedly commit, but who can never quite let go. Still, for all his ache and apprehension, Vampire Weekend are determined to live in the moment and Father Of The Bride is still defined by joy. It might be fleeting, but it’s not false – or, as Ezra so beautifully puts it: “I can’t carry you forever, but I can hold you now”.”

Weyes Blood – Titanic Rising (Indie)

Obfuscation can be a curse in avant garde circles. In the search of more interesting ideas, fresh takes and exotic soundscapes artists often feel pressured to obscure, scuff up or over intellectualise their melodies and lyric sheets. On Titanic Rising, Weyes Blood rejects any and all unnatural affectations to pen forty minutes of divinely sung and wonderfully straightforward psych-folk. That’s not to say her creations are plain, far from it, but they are imbued with an incredible sense of both immediacy and scope that comes from looking the listener dead in the eye and baring her soul. It might sound like a cliché, but it’s impossibly tricky to pull off. It is ever so easy to sound trite or wish washy. Any coward can hide beneath an arty filter and take the indirect approach. It takes a special kind of talent to convince an entire audience with a solitary unadorned note or a single line that you are, in fact, the real thing – and believe me, Titanic Rising is even better than the real thing.

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David Hayter