2019 Year in Review: Favorite Albums


Here are five albums from 2019 that I really loved. Check out my lists of favorite albums from 20142016, 2017 and 2018 as well.

The New Normal by STL GLD

The Boston hip hop act STL GLD is well-regarded as one of the best groups in the area by local media. Boston isn’t a notable location on the hip hop map compared with other cities, but The New Normal should draw attention to our city. Moe Pope, Christopher Talken, and Jonathan Ulman perform songs that speak to the present moment of the Trump era, and all the political and personal turmoil that entails, but also offering a positive alternative vision. And STL GLD is not shy about getting their message out, including holding a listening party for the album’s premier in the unlikely setting of the Museum of Fine Arts. I admit that I don’t know enough about hip hop to write a thorough review, but I know what I like, and The New Normal, lyrically and musically, is worth listening to.

It’s Real by Ex Hex

This is the second album (following 2014’s Rips) from the Washington, DC based trio of Mary Timony on guitar, bassist Betsy Wright and drummer Laura Harris.  It’s got a mix of 80s punk and hardrock with touches of power pop and 60s girl groups thrown in.  There’s nothing quite original here, but it is a well-crafted collection of raging guitar solos and sweet harmonies.

The Best of Luck Club by Alex Lahey

Do you like 1980s power pop, but want to hear it from a young, contemporary artist? Australia’s Alex Lahey fits the bill on this album that just totally rocks.  She even rips out a sax solo on “Don’t Be So Hard on Yourself.” A year ago this week, I reviewed an album by Lahey’s fellow Australian Courtney Barnett, which I completely loved, and I feel just as strongly for The Best of Luck Club.  Lahey is maybe a bit less edgy musically than Barnett, but her lyrics are empowering and uplifting.  And even on the ballads the pair of ballads that close out the album – “Black RMs” and “I Want to Live With You” – Lahey express the contended domesticity of a loving relationship while still being a rock & roller.

Cut & Stitch by Petrol Girls

I have a soft spot for punk rock that features women’s voices shouting over shredding guitars.  The Petrol Girls website bears the tagline “Raging Feminist Post Hardcore from the UK and Austria” which about sums it up.  And while the shouted lyrics may not always be easy to understand, I appreciate that they’re saying important things, the emotion behind them is clear.

Cuz I Love You by Lizzo

Lizzo is one of those artists that excels in making music that fits into multiple genres – pop, hip hop, soul, funk, & R&B – so much so that her music is kind of it’s own Lizzo genre.  I was going to compare the music on Cuz I Love You to the work of Prince, and that was before I learned that Lizzo is from Minneapolis (in fact she appeared on the Prince and 3rdeyegirl album Plectrumelectrum).  The other obvious comparison is Janelle Monáe, and again there’s a direct connection as the pair performed together at Coachella last week and Lizzo interviewed Monáe for them. magazine.  What sets Lizzo apart is her joyful exuberance.  A large, black woman gets discriminated at from every angle, but Lizzo has embraced self-love, and much of the theme of this album is sharing the message of empowerment.  And she sounds she’s having so much fun while doing it.

Album Reviews: Quick Thoughts


What if I didn’t review any albums for some time and then did a bunch at once?  Again?

AlbumThe Competition
Artist: Lower Dens
Release Date: September 6, 2019
Favorite Tracks: “Two Faced Love” and “Young Republicans”
Thoughts: These songs have a lush sound reminiscent of the 1980s New Romantics.  Which is fine, if you’ve listened to all of that 35+ year old music and yearn for more. The big twist is that lyrically it is much more political than romantic.
Rating: **1/2


Album: Close It Quietly
Artist: Frankie Cosmos
Release Date: September 6, 2019
Favorite Tracks: “41st,” “So Blue,”
Thoughts: Greta Kline follows up on 2018’s Vessel with another collection of lo-fi folk rock tunes.  Her sweet voice clearly sings ruminative lyrics about growing into adulthood.
Rating: ***


Album: Crush
Artist: Floating Points
Release Date: October 18, 2019
Thoughts: This collection of minimalist electronic music from UK musician Sam Shepherd was just what I needed to hear right now.
Rating: ****

 


Album: There Existed an Addiction to Blood
Artist: clipping.
Release Date: October 18, 2019
Favorite Tracks: “Nothing is Safe,” “The Show, and “Blood of the Fang”
Thoughts: This the third album from this experimental hip-hop act from Los Angeles, and first since 2016’s Splendor & Money.  There are two great things about this album: 1. the rapid rhymes of Daveed Diggs (of Hamilton fame) and 2. the deep-textured synth sounds he raps over.  The lyrics are grim and gory, making it an appropriate addition to your Halloween party playlist.
Rating: ****

Album Review: In the Morse Code of Brake Lights by The New Pornographers


Album: In the Morse Code of Brake Lights
Artist: The New Pornographers
Release Date: September 27, 2019
Favorite Tracks: “You’ll Need A New Backseat Driver,” “The Surprise Knock,” and “Falling Down the Stairs of Your Smile”
Thoughts:

I’ve been a longtime fan of The New Pornographers but finding my enthusiasm for the Canadian band dwindling over there past few releases. This new album has everything one would expect of the New Pornographers, the unique mix of power pop and folk rock, harmonies, virtuoso instrumentation, and clever titles.  The first three songs on the album are good, but there are no standout gems like “Sing Me Spanish Techno,” “Challengers,” or “Crash Years.”  The remainder of the album is just boring.  I guess The New Pornographers and I have just drifted apart.

Rating: **

Related:

Album Review: The Center Won’t Hold by Sleater Kinney


Album: The Center Won’t Hold
Artist: Sleater Kinney
Release Date: August 16, 2019
Favorite Tracks:

  • Hurry on Home
  • Bad Dance
  • The Dog/The Body

Thoughts:

This is a new sound for the band, one that incorporates electronic instruments and an industrial music sound to its raging guitar riffs. The producer is Annie Clark of St. Vincent and her stamp on the sound is clear, although not overwhelming.  It’s not without controversy as drummer Janet Weiss announced her departure from the band over the change in direction.

The lyrics touch on the politics of being women continuing to perform as they age, defying the expectations that women in the public eye always be young and beautiful.  Similarly, these songs are steeped in the experiences being women and identifying as queer in the Trump Era even if the lyrics aren’t always explicit on that point as they are on the album’s finale “Broken.”

An experienced band and a big name producer bring with it a lot of expectations.  I’m not sure if The Center Won’t Hold lives up to those expectations, but its worth listening on its own terms.

Rating: ***

Album Review: Fongola by Kokoko!


Album: Fongola
Artist: Kokoko!
Release Date: July 5, 2019
Favorite Tracks:

  • Likolo
  • Azo Toke
  • Singa

Thoughts:

Kokoko! is a collective of artists from Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo.  They use instruments fashioned from trash to create sounds for a musical style that blends electronica with dance punk.  The synths layered on by their French producer Débruit also gives it an 80s freestyle dance pop sound.  Kokoko! makes refreshing music that functions equally well at a dance club or a political protest.

Rating: ****

Album Review: Freya Ridings


Album: Freya Ridings
Artist: Freya Ridings
Release Date: July 19, 2019
Favorite Tracks: “Castles,” “Wishbone,” and “You Mean the World to Me”
Thoughts:

Freya Ridings is a young singer/songwriter from England who joins the tradition of women with bold, powerful voices (such as Adele or Florence Welch) singing songs of love and love lost.  There’s nothing innovative on this debut album, but if you like this style of pop singing – and I do – it’s worth adding to your playlist.

Rating: ***

Album Reviews: 80s Flashbacks


Today I will review three recently-released albums by artists who were 1980s superstars.

AlbumWestern Stars
Artist: Bruce Springsteen
Release Date: June 14, 2019
Favorite Tracks:

  • Western Stars
  • Chasin’ Wild Horses
  • Moonlight Motel

Thoughts:

I’ve always liked Springsteen well enough, although my knowledge of his work is fairly superficial.  This album reminds me of the Rolling Stones’ Blue & Lonesome in the sense that Springsteen is at an age where he has nothing left to prove, and has the leisure to dive into his roots.  Nonetheless, it’s a different sound for him, especially the string arrangements. Strings can be cheezy if done poorly, but they’re are well-integrated into the songs and the stories they’re telling and complement Springsteen’s voice which is as strong and expressive as ever. Springsteen is famously from New Jersey, but here is voice is baked in the Americana of the West.

Rating: ***


Album: Absolute Zero
Artist: Bruce Hornsby
Release Date: April 12, 2019
Favorite Tracks: none stand out, but they’re all decent
Thoughts:

The less-famous Bruce had his biggest hits at the beginning of his career in the 1980s, and probably for most people that’s all they know about him.  In the 1990s, Hornsby toured with the Grateful Dead and created new albums with a jazz fusion sound.  When I lived in Williamsburg, VA, his hometown, he was a local celebrity and people exchanged stories of Bruce sightings.  I saw him in concert several times and have always thought his music sounds far better in live performace than on an album.  Neverthless, over the past 15 years or so I’ve failed to keep up with his career – until now.  This album uses elements of classical, jazz, and avant-garde music with Hornsby’s virtuosic style.  Jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette guests on some tracks as does Justin Vernon of Bon Iver which gives it some NPR Music cred.  It’s a creative experiment with dissonant sounds and juxtapositions, but I don’t think it’s something I’ll want to return to.

Rating: **1/2


Album: Originals
Artist: Prince
Release Date: June 7, 2019
Favorite Tracks:

  • 100 MPH
  • Holly Rock
  • The Glamorous Life
  • Wouldn’t You Love to Love Me?
  • Nothing Compares 2 U

Thoughts:

Prince, of course, is deceased and will no longer be releasing new music.  But his famous vault will be mined for music for the forseeable future. Following up on Piano and a Microphone, 1983, and collects mostly unreleased versions of songs Prince wrote as demos for other artists. So now we can hear Prince’s take on songs like “Jungle Love,” “Manic Monday,” and “The Glamorous Life,” which were hits for The Time, The Bangles, and Sheila E.  A number of these songs were crafted by Prince for his proteges in the Minneapolis scene so they’re not familiar to me, although the most bizarre of the songs that are new to me is “You’re My Love,” which Prince wrote for Kenny Rogers!  The demos exude Prince’s hard work and musicianship and would’ve been good enough for Prince to release himself.  On the other hand, there are things the other artists brought to these songs that I think Prince was aware was needed.  This album is enjoyable, but I think it’s worth more for historical/musicological study than for just listening for fun

Rating: ***1/2

Album Review: Keepsake by Hatchie


AlbumKeepsake
Artist: Hatchie
Release Date: June 21, 2019
Favorite Tracks: Without a Blush
Thoughts:

This is the first full-length album from Australian singer-songwriter Harriette Pilbeam, who records under the name Hatchie.  The songs are lush and dreamy and a suitable soundtrack to a lazy summer day.  The sound is reminiscent of early 90s bands with ethereal female lead vocalists like The Sundays. I really liked her 2018 EP Sugar & Spice, but the songs on Keepsake don’t packe the same punch with the exception of “Without a Blush.”  A lot of songs suffer from a repetitious nature where they start with a good groove or lyric but it becomes grating as the song goes along. The song “Obsessed” is a good example of this.  I was looking forward to this album but I don’t think I will be revisiting it.

Rating: **

Album Review: Cut & Stitch by Petrol Girls


AlbumCut & Stitch
Artist: Petrol Girls
Release Date: May 24, 2019
Favorite Tracks:

  • Big Mouth
  • Monstrous
  • Weather Warning
  • Naive

Thoughts:

I have a soft spot for punk rock that features women’s voices shouting over shredding guitars.  The Petrol Girls website bears the tagline “Raging Feminist Post Hardcore from the UK and Austria” which about sums it up.  And while the shouted lyrics may not always be easy to understand, I appreciate that they’re saying important things, the emotion behind them is clear.

Rating: ****

Album Review: Reward by Cate Le Bon


Album: Reward
Artist: Cate Le Bon
Release Date: May 24, 2019
Thoughts:

Welsh singer Cate Le Bon sings ethereally over lush arrangements in her newest collection of art pop.  The reviews are good but it doesn’t resonate much with me.  Typically, quiet and minimalist music appeals to  me, but this album just feels, well … boring.  I hate giving a bad review, so don’t take my word for it, and see if it is more Reward-ing for you.

Rating: **