Spring

Angel Olsen’s All Mirrors was one of the highlights of last year. Olsen pretty much never disappoints. Every few years she comes out with a deeper, richer record that the last, both in music and in writing. Angel Olsen makes the kind of records that inspire usually dry and snarky music critics to reach for poetic metaphors: “Behind the parachute silk and dry ice, the smoke and mirrors, stands a record in high emotional definition, its outline becoming sharper by the second.” went Mojo’s review. It may be because Olsen has the voice of a you-know-what, or because she writes lyrics that don’t instantly fall into boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl categories. She simply defies easy description, and that’s why her records are both so hard to write about and so rewarding.

Spinning Song

Where do Nick Cave’s death songs and murder ballads come from? Besides life? Why, from folklore. One may not easily think of Nick Cave, the gutterpunk become man of taste, as a student of folk music, but there’s no older narrative than the cautionary tale, it’s the oldest narratives that inform the blues and folk music that everything else is built upon. Cave has turned to mythology and fables many times in his writing, especially the referencing the flawed gods and humans of Greek myth. He uses some of those broadly shared reference points on Ghosteen, an album soaked through, by necessity, with the very personal. He draws the connection between the myths that trace back through millennia, and the very fresh myths that have been minted in living memory; the fable of the King of Rock and Roll may have been played out by people who still live, but it formed the arc of a cautionary tale that has been played by interchanging players ever since humans first learned how to form the events of their lives into interesting and informative narratives. The lesson is we’re all very small, even the Elvises among us, and we keep blundering into the same mistakes and enacting the same tragedies, over and over, and the only thing we know how to do is keep repeating the same stories about it.

Spinning

Mark Ronson is a superproducer known for having a hand in some of the most memorable records of the past 20 years. (He helped launch the careers of Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen and Adele, among other luminaries.) His work as a solo artist hasn’t made much of an impression on me up until now. A producer’s job is to make others shine their brightest, not to have a sparkling personality of their own, and a producer’s album is usually only as good as its guest stars. However, I really enjoyed last year’s Late Night Feelings. Not least because it features a stellar collection of guest stars, from Angel Olsen to Miley Cyrus. I liked the general theme of loneliness and heartache – what Ronson describes as “sad bangers” – and the woozy, lowtempo atmosphere. I smell a divorce and/or midlife crisis behind these songs, and it makes it feel more intimate the usual ‘bunch of stars jamming together’ producer vanity record. The guest vocalist in this case is Ilsey, who is also a songwriter and producer who specializes in making other people’s records better.

Spell

Here’s a band I’ve never heard of before. Hot Chip formed in 2000, and I’ve never heard of them in all of that time. Apparently, though, their album A Bathfull of Ecstasy was one of the most acclaimed records of 2019, at least in the UK. What I find out about when I start browsing new releases. Admittedly, I only listened to this record because I liked the title, and I was expecting, I don’t know, club music or something. It’s actually exactly the kind of melodic synthpop that I love, and which I think defines the past decade for me, as far as genres go. So, yeah, definitely check out more of these guys.

The Best of 2019 (Part 3)

I skipped out last week – I was busy! – but I haven’t skipped out on finishing the rest of this list. There’s so many more records left to discover and enjoy!

1. Norman Fucking Rockwell! – Lana Del Rey

Del Rey holding out her hand on a boat around a man

Remember when Lana Del Rey was an ingenue with lousy stage presence who bombed on SNL? Neither do I. Lana has slowly been accruing accolades as her work has matured, and now she’s made the most acclaimed record of her career. She’s become one of those rare artists who can maintain an aesthetic without impeding creative growth, and she’s finally getting the respect she’s always deserved.

Doin’ Time

Mariners Apartment Complex

Venice Bitch

2. Oklahoma – Keb’ Mo’

Image result for oklahoma keb mo

Kab’ Mo’ has been quietly keeping the blues alive since the 80’s, and he’s seen interest in roots music wane and ebb. Blues-based music may be at a bit of a low tide right now, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be fresh and relevant in the hands of a master like Mo’ – and this master still has a lot to say.

Put A Woman In Charge

This Is My Home

Don’t Throw It Away

3. On the Line – Jenny Lewis

On the Line (Jenny Lewis album cover).jpg

This has been one of those records that everyone and their dog seemed to have been listening to all year. Jenny Lewis, of course, has been an indie rock darling for a solid two decades. With this confident and accomplished record, it’s pretty clear why.

Red Bull & Hennessey

Heads Gonna Roll

Wasted Youth

4. Only Things We Love – Blaqk Audio

Only Things We Love.jpg

There’s no lack of bands ambitiously trying to recapture the magic of 80’s New Wave, but not many of them actually do. Blaqk Audio is one that actually does, with a sound reminiscent of Human League at the height of their glory. It’s ‘reminiscent’ without sounding apish, and consistently fun, stylish and, uh, very gay.

The Viles

Muscle and Matter

Dark Arcades

5. Outer Peace – Toro y Moi

Toro y Moi - Outer Peace.png

Toro y Moi is a master of modern chillwave music, which is little bit like being a master of plating salads. That is, kind of an underrated skill set. This is eminently chillable music, in the very best way possible. Kind of like a really good salad.

Freelance

Ordinary Pleasure

Monte Carlo

6. Pony – Orville Peck

Image result for orville peck pony

“Orville Peck” is an anonymous masked cowboy who croons like the second coming of Roy Orbison. With an image that makes reference to the iconography of mainstream Americana AND to the leather-daddy underground, Peck is camp of the highest refinement. Gay cowboy jokes aside though, he’s the best throwback crooner since Chris Isaak seduced Helena Christensen.

Dead of Night

Hope to Die

Turn to Hate

7. Remember the Future – Ionnalee

Ionnalee - Remember the Future cover art.png

The Scandinavian contingent continues to dominate the electronic music spectrum. Like her peers Karin Dreijer and Aurora Aksnes, Jonna Lee uses her haunting voice and ice-wraith image to create atmospheric music that is both chilling and soothing, and ever so slightly surreal.

Open Sea

Some Body

Remember the Future

8. The Return – Sampa the Great

Image result for the return sampa the great

The future of American music is being shaped by artists all over the world. R&B, soul, & hip-hop music, all as American as fortune cookies and fried chicken, can seem stagnant if you listen to what’s on the top of the charts. Maybe it takes an African woman living in Australia to make those genres sound alive again. Sampa the Great is a Zambian-expatriate who raps about life as a border- and identity- hopping citizen of the world.

Mwana

OMG

Final Form

9. Rouge – Yuna

Yuna - Rouge.png

In a global world, we want our pop singers to be as international as our fusion cuisine. There’s a thirst for pop music that’s both exotic and accessible. Malaysian sensation Yuna is a cool fresh drink for everyone who’s been parched waiting for the next Kali Uchis. Yuna has Top 40-friendly pop chops, alright, with an eye on the global market too. She can collaborate with major-name rappers one minute and be singing in Malay a minute later.

Blank Marquee

Forevermore

Pink Youth

10. Solutions – K. Flay

K.Flay - Solutions.png

K. Flay comes off as your trainwreck bestie, the one who always fucks up the hardest but always manages to land on her feet. She might not be a very good singer, or a very glamorous person, but she’s a writer and performer who projects wounded tough-girl attitude. Each one of her records has been relatable, dirty and funny.

Not In California

Bad Vibes

Sister

The Best of 2019 (Part 2)

Here is part two (out of four) of the best records of 2019. As I said before, it’s been an unusually good year, and it’s an unusually long and diverse list. There are new works from old favorites and new favorites from new discoveries. I tried to cover as many bases as I could

1. Ghosteen – Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

A painting of a wild forest with various animals, including white horses, lions, lambs, leopards, monkeys, swans, flamingos, parrots and butterflies. Sun rays are visible through the trees and a rainbow is visible on the mountainside. Uppercase white text on top reads "Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds"; larger uppercase white text in the centre reads "Ghosteen".

Nick Cave continues to explore an emotional landscape of grief and hope, grappling with the death of his son and how, in the aftermath of a life-changing tragedy, to move forward as an artist. It is both depressing and as bracing as a dive into frozen water.

Spinning Song

Bright Horses

Ghosteen Speaks

2. Heard It In a Past Life – Maggie Rogers

HIIAPL Maggie Rogers.jpg

There’s a huge amount of competition when it comes to bright electropop, but Maggie Rogers made a strong impression with her debut. Featuring catchy hooks, smart writing and the singer’s image of earthy glamour, it’s a record that feels very now.

Alaska

On and Off

Light On

3. Help Us Stranger – The Raconteurs

The Raconteurs - Help Us Stranger.png

Like a lot of fans, I’d just about given up hope that Jack White would bring The Raconteurs back together. But here they are, and it sounds like no time has passed. Except for being, of course, a little bit older and wiser, it’s the same folksy roots rock than we expect from a Third Man product.

Sunday Driver

Help Me Stranger

Now That You’re Gone

4. I Am Easy To Find – The National

The National - I Am Easy to Find.png

The National has become a go-to for emotionally fraught ballads about love and bruised feelings. This is another perfect album for crying and contemplating the futility of life.

I Am Easy to Find

Hey Rosey

Hairpin Turns

5. Ilana (The Creator) – Mdou Moctar

Image result for ilana (the creator)

Every year, thousands of records are released by artists all over the world that never connect with audiences outside their own local niche. But every once in a while an artist emerges who transcends genre. Mdou Moctar, of Niger, combines Taureg and Berber musical traditions with psychedelic rock reminiscent of Hendrix and Santana, making a melting-pot of an album with global appeal.

Kamane Tarhanin

Tarhatazed

Anna

6. In the End – The Cranberries

A rock band made up of children performing in front of a pile of junk

The Cranberries were one of the definitive alternative rock bands of the 90’s, but in the decades since, they had largely been forgotten. It took the death of singer Dolores O’Riordan to get them back in the spotlight, and this posthumous album is a reminder of why they should, by all rights, have stayed popular.

All Over Now

Wake Me When It’s Over

The Pressure

7. The Lion King: The Gift – Beyonce

The Lion King The Gift.png

The Lion King remake may have been an exercise in gratuitous CGI, but bringing Beyonce on board was the best decision the Disney studio ever made. Bey’s companion album couldn’t be further away from the schlocky show tunes Elton John and Tim Rice cooked up in 1994. Leaning on uptempo Afropop, it showcases messages of positivity, courage and empowerment that are accessible enough for kiddos who loved the movie and sophisticated enough for adults who love Beyonce.

Brown Skin Girl

Spirit

Bigger

8. Love + Fear – Marina

A greyscale photograph of Marina gazing into the camera. Above her, the album's title and her name are placed in black lettering.

After a short hiatus, Marina Diamandis dropped the “Diamonds” from her stage name, and moved in new, more intimate direction. Ditching the high-fructose pop she became famous for, Marina focuses on the songwriting chops she never got enough credit for. This record may not be uptempo enough for Froot lovers, but fans will recognize a more mature version of the vulnerable/witty singer, and will luxuriate in her amazing vocals.

Handmade Heaven

To Be Human

Superstar

9. LSD – Labrinth, Sia & Diplo

Labrinth, Sia and Diplo Present... LSD.png

I love it when huge pop stars follow up their huge successes with something totally unexpected. Sia had a very great couple of years, and she followed up her string of hits by forming a supergroup with Labrinth and Diplo. Like the best supergroups it brings out the best in the supers. It’s the irreverent, fun, one-off album that keeps superstars from taking themselves too seriously.

Genius

Audio

Thunderclouds

10. No Treasure But Hope – Tindersticks

Image result for no treasure but hope

I have never listened to Tindersticks before and have now idea who they are or what they’ve been doing, though they’ve apparently been doing it since 1991. But I stumbled across this record in my research, and loved its eccentricity and romanticism.

Pinky in the Daylight

The Amputees

For the Beauty

The Best of 2019 (Part 1)

I don’t know if there was just something in the water than made 2019 a particularly inspiring year for music, or if it was my ears pricking up more than usual, but it was a very good year for music. I certainly went out of my way to hear more, and as a result, I’ve had to pick more favorites. From old geezers doing what they do best, to new-establishment favorites, to newly-discovered talents holding their own; from huge stars to obscure imports; in every genre and all over the map – it’s just been a really good year for music.

  1. Androgyne – Gyasi
Image result for gyasi androgyne

Full disclosure: Gyasi is my brother. But even if he wasn’t, this would still be one of the best records of the year. Because nobody plays glam rock like they really mean it anymore.

All Messed Up

Tongue Tied

Nightcrawl

2. Better In Blak – Thelma Plum

Better in Blak by Thelma Plum.png

Thelma Plum is an Australian whose Indigenous heritage gives her songs of everyday pain, heartbreak, and insecurity a depth and social consciousness that puts her ahead of her peers.

Better in Blak

Not Angry Anymore

Clumsy Love

3. California Son – Morrissey

A close-up picture of Morrissey's face in front of a pink and blue background. The artist name and album title are written over the left side of his face in all caps.

Morrissey keep on being a bad person, and I keep telling myself to stop putting him at the top of all my playlists, but then he keeps making records that I love, and I loved every weird minute of this weird record. So Morrissey stays.

Some Say I Got Devil

Morning Starship

Lenny’s Tune

4. Chronologic – Caravan Palace

Image result for chronologic caravan palace

Electro-swing is one of those technologically enabled hybrid genres that don’t get much love or publicity, but Caravan Palace has always shown that putting together the best parts of disparate genres like jazz and EDM actually makes the world a better place.

Miracle

Plume

Waterguns

5. Cry – Cigarettes After Sex

Cigarettes After Sex - Cry.png

I discovered this Texas-based dreampop group based entirely on their sexy name, and guess what, they’re the new Rhye. As in, a homely guy with the voice of an angel, singing pantie-dropping songs of ambient sadness.

Kiss It Off Me

Heavenly

Falling In Love

6. Cuz I Love You – Lizzo

Lizzo - Cuz I Love You.png

Lizzo was, hands down, the biggest breakout star of the year, and not just because she takes up space (though that’s part of her appeal too.) It’s just that she’s everything we want and need in a pop star, and her album couldn’t be more perfect.

Juice

Tempo

Cuz I Love You

7. Daylight – Grace Potter

Image result for daylight grace potter

I don’t know how I’ve never listened to Grace Potter before. I don’t even know if this is among her better work. But I know that it fills my need for roots rock.

Back to Me

Desire

Every Heartbeat

8. A Different Kind of Human (Step 2) – Aurora

Aurora - A Different Kind of Human (Step II).png

Representing the Scandinavian faction is Aurora. With her appropriately icy vocals and cryptic imagery, she’s an aesthetic package, and her record is highly conceptualized, ambitions, grandly orchestrated.

Animal

The Seed

The River

9. Eve – Rapsody

Rapsody - Eve.png

Rapsody is the antidote to every hoodrat female rapper who talks about stripping, hustling and beefing with rivals. With each track named for a legendary Black woman, from Nina Simone to Afeni Shakur, Eve is a collection of poetry about the embattled lives and deep strength of Black women.

Nina

Afeni

Ibtihaj

10. Free – Iggy Pop

Iggy Pop - Free.png

Iggy Pop is already rock’n’roll’s most unexpected survivor, but even more unexpected, he’s one who still loves what he does and fearlessly jumps in entirely new directions. For the Godfather of Punk, a new direction might mean a horn section or a reading of Dylan Thomas, but then, he’s always been deeper than his antics led us to believe.

Loves Missing

James Bond

Dirty Sanchez