Sunday, June 30, 2019

the top albums/songs of the midyear - 2019

So for one of the first times when I'm making this midyear retrospective, I have to introduce a major caveat: I'm putting together this list before listening to the long-awaited return collaboration between Freddie Gibbs and Madlib. Make no mistake, I want to hear it and it'll probably get a ton of praise from me given how much I loved Pinata, but it's also going to be a project I'll need time to process and I don't want to rush a review before the midyear and risk delays, so if you're wondering why that's not here, that's why.

But it's also important to highlight that even if that album is as amazing as I hope it'll be, it would face some stiff competition this year! I highlighted last year how even despite getting a pretty reasonable spread of albums it was easy to put things in position, and I wanted to say it'd be same here... until I truly took a look at how many truly stunning albums we've gotten in the first half of 2019! Country has delivered in spades, underground hip-hop is firing on all cylinders, I've got solid cuts from rock and punk and metal, and even pop and R&B have given me some choice cuts. As such, this is one of those years I've had to make some painful cut to whittle this list down to twelve albums and twenty-four songs outside those albums, and just like last year, I have to stress just because an album didn't make this midyear list is no guarantee it won't make the year-end, or that positions won't evolve or change. Also - and I feel this important to emphasize - if you're expecting to see some big name critical darlings here... well, suffice to say 2019 has been a year where I'm flying down a very different path than many mainstream critics, so if you're looking for certain albums... go check to see if I've reviewed them, that's all I'm saying.

And given that this is the sixth one of these lists I've assembled, I've got twelve albums, twenty four songs not otherwise on those albums, and let's start with...

12. Not gonna lie, the fight for this slot was stiff, and I'll admit I'm even a bit shocked this was the album that won out, mostly because a lot of this artist's work I need to be in a very specific mood to process and appreciate. And I'm not sure if it says more about the year I've had that for the first time this guy has made a list of mine, but the more I heard it, the more I was convinced it was worth it.

12. 'Hiding Places' by billy woods & Kenny Segal
Best Song: 'a day in a week in a year'

To me, billy woods has built a twofold reputation for himself: impenetrability and what you do understand tends to spook you a bit - not so much horror but his plainspoken approach to the decaying fractures in mainstream society that most of us want to gloss over. But when Kenny Segal gave him his most diverse and accessible set of production to date, billy woods reveals the emotive core and a slice of personal stakes that may have been long-buried and hit like a ton of bricks. Not only did he deliver one of his best ever songs in 'a day in a week in a year', it showed a billy woods who might be comfortable in his spiderholes, but is willing to make a bit of space if you want to duck in with him. Moody, introspective, and forcing you to confront privilege and poverty in a way that is designed to strike raw nerves, nevertheless it was exactly what I needed in 2019 - excellent stuff.

11. Not gonna lie, the fight for this spot was intense as well, and really was between two women in country: one who was a pro who delivered some of the best tearjerkers of her career with her best album in decades, the other between a relative no-name where I think I might have given her the most exposure. We'll be getting to both of them after a fashion on this list, but in the end, I have to give props to indie talent.

11. 'Into The Blue' by Alice Wallace
Best Song: 'Elephants'

If you're an indie country fan and you don't know Alice Wallace by this point, you need to catch up. Not only is she one hell of a singer - and I'd argue she doesn't even flex her most impressive yodeling skills on this project - as a songwriter she has both a keen ear for nuance and the hooks to back it up. More to the point, The Blue was a showcase of versatility, skipping from smoked out southern rock and soul to more acoustic country folk, and not only was she convincing in every lane she tried, her album's main metanarrative was in chasing new experiences. It's the rare project that makes you want to root for its own success, and Alice Wallace is the sort of talent where it's absolutely convincing that she'll get there and rip your heart out along the way. Phenomenal work, absolutely worth the slot she claimed on this list.

10. We're sticking with the indie scene, and we're actually considering an EP here, one that I discovered on Bandcamp by accident - not the only project of that ilk on this list, just so you know. But this is an artist who has the presence and talent to be way bigger than she is, but also the writing that's guaranteed to make some people balk. And yet...

10. '-' by Jetty Bones
Best Song: '"better"'

Jetty Bones is the sort of emo act that in the current third wave of the genre I'm stunned we haven't heard more. Blending indie pop song structures and hooks with fiercely nuanced and emotionally rooted content that shows an arc of recovery that's so well-structured and confrontational with its empathy that even though it's just six songs, it sticks with you. And while Kelc Galluzzo still has a touch of the theatrical, it's such a unique voice for this content and overloaded with raw charisma that you can't ignore her. Let me stress that it is incredibly rare I put EPs on this list, and yet when it comes to thematic cohesion, melodic structure, and just attention to the fine details you have an artist destined to get big - hell, ten to fifteen years ago I could see her laying claim to mainstream pop! Maybe it's that sentiment that pulls me back to "-" again and again, but for this project, it's certainly worth it, and that full length album can't come fast enough!

But before we move on, a couple songs from albums that did not make this list, but absolutely deserve attention

From the album Magnolia, 'Evangeline' by Randy Houser.

From the album Tallies, 'Easy Enough' by Tallies.

From the album Love Train 2, 'Lost In London' by Asiahn.

From the album Remind Me Tomorrow, 'Seventeen' by Sharon Van Etten.

From the album Assume Form, featuring Andre 3000, 'Where's The Catch' by James Blake.

From the album Malibu Ken, 'Acid King' by Aesop Rock and Tobacco.

From the album amo, 'why you gotta kick me when i'm down?' by Bring Me The Horizon.

And from the album Moonglow, 'Lavender' by Avantasia.

Now back to the list...

9. This is the album that grew on me most in 2019 - and I'm not sure why. I know the hooks got most of the way there, but there was something just so... Canadian about its brand of firepower... yeah, I wasn't going to snub this one.

9. 'Morbid Stuff' by PUP
Best Song: 'Morbid Stuff'

Not gonna lie, this one strikes a personal chord if only because as someone who lives in downtown Toronto, the opening title track hits a sentiment you can't deny. But there's something so damn refreshing about how PUP not just roots its sound in the frenetic and anthemic Ontario punk scene, but also how the content can hit the fine line between specific and universal - and a midlife crisis for anyone who overthinks their onset of adulthood. I want to say that PUP fits in the same pop punk canon as The Wonders Years that aims to be just as catchy and earnest but also a little older, but there's something still ragtag and pugnacious about this project, where you could see them headlining festivals and then playing a dive bar in Kensington Market before drinking everyone under the table. And when it's this catchy... hell, if I only liked the closing track a little better, this would be even higher on this list - fantastic stuff.

8. And we're staying Canadian for this next entry - not quite as high on this list as I'd prefer mostly because it doesn't quite rock as much as I'd prefer... but when you write melodies this good and you have one of the best frontmen in modern pop rock...

8. 'Phantoms' by Marianas Trench
Best Song: 'Echoes Of You'

At this point, Marianas Trench are in a class by themselves - they pivoted to making a mainstream-accessible pop album and gave up a majority of their remaining edge for a coda to their last album, and they're still making this list! But frontman and songwriter Josh Ramsay has long held an uncanny knack for melodic structure and intensely nuanced songwriting that can still be catchy as all hell - and again, one of the best voices in mainstream music for sheer theatrical presence, range, and firepower. This is a man who saw the desaturated murk of mainstream pop, made the band's bleakest and darkest album to date, and somehow had it fit seamlessly. Granted, the reason it's not higher is because I really wish the arena rock side got more exposure, and we have to compare it the genuine near-classics that Marianas Trench released with Masterpiece Theater and Astoria. And no, it's not better than either of those albums - but midtier Marianas Trench is still better than the vast majority of its competition; why is this not getting all of the radio play again? Come on!

7. So of the albums on this list, this is the one for which I'm the most cautious, because it's from a genre where I don't have a ton of depth or experience - hell, I was only really turned onto this band through a live show at a festival last year. And yet...

7. 'Panorama' by La Dispute

La Dispute is the band that I think of when I say I might actually be able to get into post-hardcore - and what amazes me is how I'd argue this project is actually getting overlooked. Yeah, it's more spare and distant and atmospheric and it demands patience for its incredibly raw moments to hit as hard as they should - but that's what happens when you're on the sidelines with someone dealing with trauma, and the insane emotional complexities that come with it. And normally projects like this where I'd normally have to be in the right mood to process it and the very specific placement of its emotionality, but between the amazingly textured poetry and the intricacies of its mix and balance, it's an album that can create such a mood, and that's a dangerous power indeed. I've had more than my fair share of complicated brooding moments in 2019, and La Dispute has soundtracked the darkest of them, and while I reviewed this with my buddy Crash Thompson and I have no idea how it'll hold up for him, this is a band that is opening a door and pulling me through - and I'm along for the ride.

And since we're at the halfway point, how about a few more songs that deserve attention from projects that didn't make this list...

From Wasteland, Baby!, 'Sunlight' by Hozier.

From Sucker Punch, 'Sight Of You' by Sigrid.

From It's Real, 'Another Dimension' by Ex Hex.

From Chekhov's Gun, 'Actually Happening' by Last Sons.

From WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO, 'when the party's over' by Billie Eilish.

From Stronger Than The Truth, 'In His Mind' by Reba McEntire.

From Guns, featuring Denmark Vessey, 'Box Of Wheaties' by Quelle Chris.

And finally, from Ventura, featuring Andre 3000, 'Come Home' by Anderson .Paak.

Second half of the list, let's get started with...

6. This is another project where a part of me just has to compare it to what came before, especially as I wouldn't argue that it does more of the same just as well. At the same time, though...

6. 'Forgotten Paths' by Saor
Best Song: 'Bron'

At this point I'm stunned that Saor stuck the landing again. I loved the blend of atmospheric black metal and Celtic folk of Guardians back in 2016, but the fact the band could resurrect damn near the same formula for a few songs and still remain this melodically satisfying with better lyrics than I think they'll get credit is a wonder to behold. I'll admit the majority of this just won me over on melodies alone across the pipes and strings and surging guitars that speak to a part of my soul I'm fairly certain is not part of my cultural heritage at all - I don't think any of my background is even from the British Isles - but the level of progressive organic flow across this album sings to the heartstrings in a way I've not heard replicated. And that's one reason I'll continue to put Saor on this list: it's so damn unique in its sound and melodic power that I'm not sure there's an easy substitute - and that's high praise indeed.

5. When I found this project on Bandcamp, I had no expectations it'd wind up this good or this high on my list - the debut of an act that had built a bit of buzz in their home country but nothing on this side of the Atlantic, with a brand of indie folk rock that you could argue has long been out of fashion, and yet...

5. 'Wiaca' by SUNDAYS
Best Song: 'Shade Of The Pines'

Wiaca was the sort of project that hit me like a bolt of lightning, taking all of my usual distrust for acoustic Mumford-esque grooves and willowy vocals and then pairing them with some of the best melodic hooks of the year! SUNDAYS is another band I think has serious crossover potential from the remarkably well-balanced mix - seriously, the basslines on this album will not get enough credit - to solid lyrical poetry to a thematic arc that deconstructs the good guy love story in a way that doesn't come across as preening or self-serving - and when half of the album could be singles on their own merit, that's an incredible plus. Yes, it gets a bit sleepy and low-key at spots, but that's the lovestruck emotional balance for which I'd argue the band could deserve some credit, and for once it feels earned. Again, this was a Bandcamp fluke for me, but SUNDAYS delivered one of the best debuts of 2019, and in a just world we'll hear a lot more from them.

4. ...look, I gave you all plenty of warning last year, and you're out of excuses.

4. 'This Was Supposed To Be Fun' by Epic Beard Men
Best Song: 'Shin Splints'

I honestly struggled a bit where to place Sage Francis and B. Dolan's much-hyped collaborative project, which might have sacrificed some of the fiery polemics of their debut EP for more diverse song structures, an wider instrumental palette, some terrific guest performances, and literally some of the funniest and yet insightful hip hop of 2019. It is a rare balance to behold when you have songs that are overstuffed with wit and phenomenal comedic timing, to say nothing of more quotable lines than any project I heard this year, but also show the sort of challenging societal commentary that might even hit some fans deeper than they expect. No, it's not quite as dark or mindblowing as either man's best, but you're talking about two men in emo rap who have delivered legit classics, and yet with this, they found a happy medium, and while the song might bait expectations, it's fun as all hell. The majority of you bitching that hip-hop has been slow or underwhelming in 2019 haven't heard this album - fix that!

And before we get our final three, let's have eight more songs that deserve attention from albums that didn't make this list...

From No Geography, 'No Geography' by The Chemical Brothers.

From Amidst The Chaos, 'Poetry By Dead Men' by Sara Bareilles.

From Divided By Darkness, 'Angel & Abyss' by Spirit Adrift.

From Dedicated, 'The Sound' by Carly Rae Jepsen.

From I Am Easy To Find, 'Oblivions' by The National.

From ZUU, featuring Kiddo Marv, 'WISH' by Denzel Curry.

From A Different Kind Of Human, 'The River' by AURORA.

And finally, from Too Mean To Die, 'Settle For Being Used' by Karly Driftwood.

Almost there, folks, so now let's get to...

3. There are a lot of debut acts on this list, I realize that, and while I might not have been aware of the full hype with this one, I knew it was there. I also had very high expectations given the pedigree of the affiliated acts and the producer - but I did not expect him to succeed like this.

3. 'Between The Country' by Ian Noe
Best Song: 'Between The Country'

I've long held the opinion that the best country albums accumulate a body count, and Ian Noe's Between The Country is perhaps one of the most grisly, textured, and gutwrenching projects I've heard from the genre. It takes serious stones to go as dark as this project does, not flinching from oldschool outlaw fables and storytelling, to the fading wastes of middle America where said fables are all they can grasp. It's a bleak project, make no mistake about it - which is weird to say about how infectious it can be! The melodies are rooted in old-school sounds but never feel like a blatant throwback, and the production is damn near perfect in giving them and Ian Noe the space to breathe and hit, where gunslingers might get cornered and trains might derail in a bridge collapse, but he's going to make them love songs anyway! I'd say there's a certain hangdog charm to this album, but it runs deeper than that - there's an organic core and intensity that makes these tunes so compelling, that almost feels reminiscent of the same feel I get from early 90s Nick Cave; he commands the room by his presence. Yeah, I'm not sure what the future holds for Ian Noe, because I can see mainstream Nashville run screaming in the other direction, but this is something special.

2. On the flip side, this EP is the sort of project I'm a little stunned hasn't blown up in the mainstream just yet. The sound is there, the unique presentation is there, the hooks are there, all you need is the right push... and everyone thinks I discovered this from VanossGaming. No, folks, this came from my continued and altogether questionable listening to the Joe Budden podcast, and by now, you should know who they are.

2. 'The Juice Vol. 1' by Emotional Oranges
Best Song: 'Personal'

At this point, Emotional Oranges have so firmly built a potent niche that it's not a question of 'if' they'll be come big, it's 'when'. Not only are they working the mixed gender R&B pairing, they're integrating that dynamic into the writing, and not just that, it's also mature and progressive and remarkably challenging in its emotionality. And when you couple it with organic grooves, a wealth of layered guitar and killer hooks... look, R&B does not have to be as wise as this EP is to get success, but the fact that Emotional Oranges are already there speaks insane volumes about their long-term potential. Nearly every song here is a standout, not content to just nestle within one, smoked out trap groove, and if they keep up the momentum, you're going to be hearing more than just one volume. As it is, this is some of the best R&B I've heard in the 2010s... so what could be better?

1. Really, ever since I heard this, a bar was set. A baton laid down a few years ago has been picked up, and I'm not sure there's an act that's come close. And yes, we're going back to indie country, because if you're talking about names that you want to have heard yesterday...

1. 'Traveling Mercies' by Emily Scott Robinson
Best Song: 'The Dress'

So yes, I'll admit I was one of those guys who got a little exasperated when Kacey Musgraves left her darker, more charged side of country on Same Trailer, Different Park for the warm traditional affectations of Pageant Material and then the pop country of Golden Hour. I like both of those albums, don't get me wrong, but they didn't hit that emotive nerve that truly resonated - hell, Kacey's husband Ruston Kelly managed to hit it with Dying Star more than she did last year! But Emily Scott Robinson is in a class by herself - not only did she not have the major label backing support, production and cowriters Kacey had at her best, Robinson can go toe-to-toe with a project like Traveling Mercies, and I'd argue she might be better overall. The attention to the smallest production details is stunning, the lyricism can get as dark as... well, the rest of the indie country on this list, but also bring a light touch, variety and flair that doesn't need to nestle within cutesy turns of phrase - lived in experience, a consistent and powerful sense of empathy, and a string of terrific hooks will do that for her. Again, this came out of nowhere for me, and if it wasn't for the indie country blogosphere rightly losing their minds over this, I wouldn't have heard it and you probably wouldn't have either. But right now, it's the album to beat in 2019 - Traveling Mercies, thus far the best project released this year. We've got six months to go, and I can already hear competition - and they've got a long road to climb.

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