2019, Autumn 6
As promised, my top ten songs, in no particular order, of 2019, each with a little write up of my thoughts.
It really feels like Lana Del Ray set out to write a classic with 'Norman F!cking Rockwell'.
Having cemented herself as the soundtrack to any suburban tween's angsty first-world-problems, Lana abandoned the spacey americana sound, instead filling over an hour of runtime with orchestration, and broody piano ballads. All while still clinging to that classic, mid 20th century aesthetic that helped define her.
This could be put down to her collaboration with producer Jack Antoff, the man who's been quietly redefining the world of pop music over the last 5 years. But this is, without question, still a Lana Del Ray album.
'Mariner's Apartment Complex' is the song that kicks the record into gear. And it's immediately clear, Lana's lyricism had matured from generally sad ambiguity to being as sharp as a knife.
The chorus is this tragic, sweeping melody that's absolutely timeless, rooted in its metaphor of being guided through a storm at sea, and is every bit as large.
And as we can expect from our queen of sadness, it's never quite clear who's perspective we're hearing the song from, and we're never quite sure whether this grand rescue is emotionally rectifying, or whether this lost boat at sea finds itself drifting back from where it came.
Lana whispers and repeats: 'I'm your man', and we're left to wonder how true that could be.
Maxo Kream is a storyteller at heart, and unlike so much of the posing in trap rap, Maxo delivers the gritty truth from a place of experience. 'Keeping it real' is at the heart of Maxo's sound, and in that he rises far above his peers.
'Brandon Banks' is an anthology of the lessons learnt on the streets, the allure of big money, the tragic spiral of drug use. It's an ode to the millions of lives of black men spent in the US justice system, and the confusion of life when back on the outside.
It's not the easiest listen. With no hooks, and only a handful of features throughout the entire runtime, it's mostly Maxo's straight, unfiltered bars over twitchy trap beats.
'Change' is the song I found myself returning to more times than I care to admit. Maybe it's the floaty psychedelic electric guitar and flutes on the beat, maybe it's the sheer sense of urgency the runs through every second of it, or maybe it's the unapologetic tragedy of every word spoken by Maxo.
'Change' is a song about the will to change, but being caught in the cycle of futility. It's about the change in your pocket, or how climate change is seen as nothing more than a 'damn shame' when there's nothing you can do in the face of it.
It's a tale of 'the best laid plans' – the dreams of young men who's fate is to be killed on the streets that raised them.
Rapsody is proving herself to be one of the most important figures in hip hop today. With two solid releases already under her belt, her project this year, 'Eve' is perhaps her most accomplished and focused yet.
'Eve' is an unashamedly feminist album, with every track titled in ode of different influential and powerful women of colour. The album is about empowerment through positivity, dialogue, and inclusivity. It's a celebration above all, but a celebration with a message, and she invites a huge range of artists, old and new, to make their mark alongside her.
'Ibtihaj' is named after Ibtihaj Muhammad, the olympic fencer, and in-keeping lifts it's beat straight from GZA's classic 'Liquid Swords'. The song includes what might just be the greatest feature of D'Angelo on any song, and, somehow, even the legendary GZA himself.
I might just be an absolute sucker for anything that D'Angelo touched, but regardless, 'Ibtihaj' is a beautiful fusion of the new and the old – of that smooth neo-soul sound, and the now immortalized old-school boom-bap beats. Rapsody isn't at all overshadowed, using the song as a love letter to the genre that inspired her, and the nostalgia she finds in her formative years. D'Angelo is just as bizarre as you might hope, singing in both impossibly high and low harmonies about killer bees, while GZA pays homage to his famous diss of clock radio speakers.
The combination of the three is basically mythical – it shouldn't exist, but it's every bit as good as I could ever imagine.
An FKA Twigs release is always a big deal, and 'Magdalene' is only her second full length album.
Having faithfully listened to all her work, 'Magdalene' is the album that finally made me understand what the hype was all about. Combining R&B with some light touches of hip hop, all oozing with an unquestionably British 'trip hop' style production, and you have a collection of songs that somehow go hard and soft at the same time.
'Sad day' might just be FKA Twig's biggest accomplishment. A hook that gets caught in your head, and one that couldn't better suit her ghostly vocals. It's all held up by twitchy, glitch-like percussion that often cuts right through the wash of ambient sounds.
Every aspect of the song sounds slightly artificial, slightly sped up or tuned down, like it's being heard from some old, alien recording format.
It's strangely haunting, but it's unquestionably pop.
Nick Cave is a hard one to pin down. A career spanning 40 years, and more than twenty studio albums behind him, it's very possible he still hasn't made his best work.
His age certainly isn't making him stale, if anything his music has grown deeper and deeper into itself. 'Skeleton Tree' was released three years ago now, and some are heralding it as a modern classic. I'm not so sure, but then, I like Nick Cave the most when he's not trying to be too clever.
'Ghosteen' ultimately is an album reflecting the sudden death of Nick Cave's son in 2016. It's painful, overlong, breathtaking, and unresolved. How can you write something that's so personal, and still designed to be shared? It's a task I imagine is impossibly hard.
'Bright Horses' feels like the entire album, perfectly condensed into just five minutes. The low humming of the melody could almost be a war cry. Nick Cave's lyricism is nothing short of being poetry, as he explores how the world is revealed to him for what it really is.
'And horses are just horses', Nick Cave sings, and it's terrifying how simple that statement could be.
Blu & Exile defined themselves in the 2000s as the kings of West Coast Hip Hop. Exile's lush, soulful beats seemed like they were put on this earth for Blu to rap over, with his witty, wise-guy demeanor, and seemingly endlesss attention to detail in every line delivered effortlessly. He might just be my all-time favourite MC.
The duo unfortunately have a rocky relationship. And while each have other collaborations they've worked on over the years, it's like Blu just isn't Blu without Exile, and visa versa.
So you can understand why I was so excited to hear that their 'True & Livin' EP' would finally break a seven year hiatus. Just three songs in length, I can only hope it's a sign of things yet to come.
While it's no leap of innovation, the two have clearly spent their years apart honing their crafts, and enter this release doing what it is they do best.
The titular track is the standout, if only for how smooth it is to listen to. It's the perfect song for a sunny May day in the city. Blu lets the song be a celebration of day to day life, the power of change, and how far we've come. It's a reminder, one that in today's climate we all often need, that there's so much to be proud of in this world, and there's no shame in sitting back and appreciating the good things in the life.
The true, and the living.
'Big Thief are the best band in the world right now' is a sentiment I've seen more than once. It might be true.
Rock bands are a dying breed, and even the big ones at the moment are really just moniker's for a single figure-head. Maybe bands are in dire need of reinventing what rock music is, instead of reiterating the innovations of the past, or maybe a world obsessed with social media needs single personalities to attach themselves to.
Big Thief surprised everyone with two full length albums this year. 'U.F.O.F.' is the longer, more sophisticated album, while 'Two Hands', labelled by the band as the 'sister album', is the rougher and more lighthearted entry.
As a result, 'Two Hands' is the more listenable of the two, packed with great tunes that hold up perfectly on their own.
And while most are applauding 'Not' as their greatest song to date (and they might not be wrong), a song that's just bursting with raw energy – 'Forgotten Eyes', the much softer addition, is that song that's stayed with me.
It's the soundtrack to any ending of every american indie movie ever made. It's wistful, with that uplifting sense that there's so much more left to experience after the goodbye. The chasing rhythm of the song gives it that sense of marching, off and onward, to whatever the future holds.
It's the looseness of the instrumentation that gives Big Thief that unique twang, and 'Forgotten Eyes' puts it at the forefront.
Adrianne Lenker is best when she steps up from the twee vocals she's known for. With this instrumentation, it would be so easy for her not to and remain in her shell, but instead she rises above it, and gives an unforgettable performance.
Billy Woods is an enigma. An MC defined by his anonymity, his spoken-word style delivery and abstract lyricism, and unfaltering ability to sound absolutely pissed on everything he records. He's always been on my radar, with a huge body of underground albums released nearly every year of the last two decades, but despite a few highlights, he's never quite found his footing.
'Hiding Places', his collaboration this year with LA producer Kenny Segal, finally gave him the space and sound he needed to create his masterpiece. It's an absolutely harrowing record. It perfectly reflects its album artwork – crumbling and suburban, riddled with a claustrophobic sense of poverty. It's that creeping, unshakable heat that riots are born from.
'It's not the heat, it's the dust' Woods repeats throughout the album – the world this record occupies is so arid and dead that's it's becoming difficult to breath.
'Spider Hole' is the first song where I couldn't believe what I was hearing. The rumbling distortion that resonates in your chest, the distant and darting electronic signals, the thunderous distorted guitar and jazzy piano, all come together to form the most dissonant, unshakable song released this year.
'It's just me in the spider hole, that's the best part' Woods shouts, almost laughing, at the song's apex, and it's revealed what the song is about at heart – being the unfortunate king of our own hiding places.
With the release of 'I Am Easy To Find', The National have seemingly immortalized themselves. Is it possible at this point for The National to release a bad album? Or have they found a formula they can keep reusing?
No album is perfect, and there's certainly been a decline since their 2013 release 'Trouble Will Find Me', but The National are proving themselves to be pure, middle-class comfort food. Never terribly exotic, but just the right balance of fruitiness and sophistication.
The zest of the new album is the deliberate decision to have a female voice at the heart of almost every song. Perhaps it's in keeping with the '#MeToo' movement that's rightfully pierced western culture, or perhaps the band realized they were all boring old men with a platform. Either way, it's a decision that almost always feels masterfully woven into the songs, and never just a cynical attempt.
'Where Is Her Head', for me, is the center piece of the album, launching us from the slightly naff first half of the record into the immediacy of the second. I've always loved songs that have a single rhythm and melody, and allows itself to ride confidently on, unchanged, throughout the run time.
The song is repetitive almost to the point of being hypnotic, with the snare hitting on the same beats every time, and the fluttering vocals of Eve Owen.
The song is almost certainly about obsessing over a woman, but I think the song is much more beautiful when you listen from the angle of a parent under constant worry of the wellbeing of their child. It's chaotic, monotonous, and utterly gorgeous.
Brockhampton defined themselves with a DIY aesthetic that became threatened by their $15 million record deal with RCA. Couple that with the departure of one of their lead vocalists on accusations of abusive relationships, and the sheer force of their momentum from 2017 – having recorded and released three, full length studio albums in the space of six months – seemed like it had grinded to a messy halt.
Their release this year sought to amend the lukewarm reviews of their 2018 LP, by returning to their roots. 'Ginger' proved polarizing — despite applaud from some critics, it didn't have the bedroom produced awkwardness I love about their prior records.
What it is, is a more mature album, and perhaps no song is a greater testament to that than its opener 'No Halo'. The infectious acoustic guitar beat acts as the foundation of the whole song, as each of the group's members take turns to riff over the top in their own signature style.
Brockhampton have always been guilty of lacking cohesion. Rarely are their songs about anything in particular, built from different verses from different members, with lyrics about whatever each of them . In 'No Halo', however, this incoherency somehow works to it's benefit.
'I'm sure I'll find it', the chorus claims as it's mantra, and each of it's sections feel like a different cry for help, a different sense of loss, as the camera changes its focus to each one of them. Each member gives potentially their best performance to date, resulting in what is the most complete sounding Brockhampton song of their careers.
It really feels as though the 'boy band' have grown up, and it only took them two years.