So I don’t clog up your WordPress feeds, I’ve combined 2019 album reviews for three US artists into one post. They all mine different genres, but they’ve all achieved significant commercial success this year, reaching #1, #2, and #3 on the Billboard charts respectively. Two are established superstars of their genres, one’s a new artist whose debut went to #2. Enjoy!
Jesus Is King
There’s a strong argument that hip-hop is the most significant form of American popular music in the 21st century. There’s also a valid argument that Kanye West is the most significant American hip-hop artist of the 21st century, although he has tough competition from the likes of Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, and Eminem. 2004’s The College Dropout, and its single ‘Jesus Walks’, garnered West immediate attention, and ever since he’s been able to enjoy both commercial success and critical acclaim for records like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Yeezus. West has won 21 Grammies, and his four Pazz & Jop album of the year wins is tied only with Bob Dylan.
The Pazz and Jop wins isn’t the only similarity with Dylan; in 2019 West re-affirmed his Christian faith, and released Jesus is King, a gospel album. There are many flavours of Christianity around, and West has embraced a right-wing brand; he’s embraced the prosperity doctrine, the belief that God rewards his followers materially. During ‘On God’, he comments on tax rates “The IRS want they fifty plus our tithe/Man, that’s over half of the pie”, while he applauds Chick-Fil-A on ‘Closed On Sunday’. On the other hand, West’s fevour is palpable – he’s charismatic and he owns lines like “I know I won’t forget all He’s done/He’s the strength in this race that I run.”
At 27 minutes, Jesus Is King is brief and insubstantial, but the music is generally sounder than the theology. West formed a gospel choir, named Sunday Service, and their gospel vocals often form the backdrop. West’s collision between gospel vocals and hip-hop provides a signature sound for Jesus Is King. The gospel choir of Sunday Service on ‘Every Hour’ open Jesus Is King. The vocals of ‘Water’ bookend West’s rapping beautifully, and it’s Ant Clemons’ soaring voice that provides the most interest. Improbably, Kenny G appears at the end of ‘Use This Gospel’, and his smooth sax isn’t out of place in this weird melange.
Well-known record critic Donald Trump Jr has already showered Jesus Is King with praise, labelling it an “epitome of fearless creativity”. Personally, I think it’s the weakest 2019 album I’ve reviewed on this site to date, but West’s collision of hip hop and gospel still throws out some interesting musical moments.
Heard It in a Past Life
Maggie Rogers grew up in Maryland, and she considered careers as a music journalist and as a folk singer. After a couple of folk albums, she discovered dance music while clubbing in Berlin. She started to blend folk and dance music, and while studying with Pharrell Williams at New York University, she played him a song she’d written. Williams’ reaction to ‘Alaska’ went viral, and three years later ‘Alaska’ has been included on Rogers’ debut album, Heard It In A Past Life.
For all the talk of blending folk and dance, I don’t hear a lot of folk on Heard It in a Past Life. The finished product is essentially an electronic pop album, reminiscent of HAIM’s more synthetic moments. Rogers voice is a beautiful instrument – it’s warm yet authoritative. Her backing vocals are often used as an instrument as well; ‘The Knife’ features beautifully arranged choirs of Rogers’ voice.
There are plenty of nice tunes on Heard It in a Past Life, although Rogers’ lyrics are lacking in personality. There’s lots of twenty-something romantic ennui – hardly unusual territory for pop music, but it would be nice to hear this lovely voice put to better use.
With the synthetic sounds, often the up-tempo songs sound better. ‘Give A Little’ is supposedly inspired by school anti-gun protests (“Drop your weapons, drop your guard”), but still sounds like a relationship song . ‘Overnight’ sounds closest to Haim’s template, while ‘Past Life’ is the only song that breaks significantly from electro-pop, with a sparse piano backing. The sparse live version of ‘Fallingwater’ allows Rogers’ voice to shine better than the studio take.
Heard It in a Past Life was released in January 2019, and Rogers has already released newer material – ‘Love You For A Long Time’ sounds closer to the promised folk/dance crossover. She hopefully has an even better album in her; with a great voice and some sharp melody writing skills I’ll be watching Maggie Rogers’ career with interest.
Modern mainstream country music has largely passed me by. Traditionalist artists are often pushed to the niches, and most Nashville stars owe as much to classic rock, 1980s stadium rock, and contemporary pop music as they do to Hank Williams and Patsy Cline. That doesn’t mean that the genre’s incapable of producing good music; Miranda Lambert’s a star of modern country who’s enjoyed critical acclaim for her feisty records.
Wildcard is Lambert’s seventh studio album, along with the three records she’s made with Pistol Annies. She’s produced by Jay Joyce, who brings a stadium-rock veneer to some of these songs – tracks like ‘Mess With My Head’ and ‘Locomotive’ feature over-driven guitars that sound more like Richie Sambora than James Burton.
Lambert’s personal life has been tabloid fodder for a decade. After tumultuous relationships with music stars Blake Shelton, Anderson East, and Evan Felker, she married a New York policeman in early 2019. Wildcard sometimes reflects her newfound domestic circumstances; “I’m sweet tea sippin’ on a front porch, sittin’/While my hubby fries chicken and I’m pickin’ these strings” is a couplet from ‘Locomotive’.
While these arrangements run the gamut between stadium rock and country, at least Lambert’s spirited vocals and lyrics provide an appropriate rebellious spirit. She’s bursting with personality, and her infectious stories carry the record even when the music’s overly slick. Maren Morris guests on ‘Way Too Pretty For Prison’, with witty couplets like “They don’t have rhinestone ball and chains/Lunch trays don’t come with Chardonnay”. There are classy ruminations on sex on ‘Fire Escape’, and my personal favourite ‘Pretty Bitchin” is essentially a crasser version of Pollyanna’s Glad Game.
Abetted by ace songwriters like Liz Rose and Natalie Hemby, Lambert covers plenty of stylistic ground on Wildcard. ‘Locomotive’ and ‘Mess With My Head’ rock hard, while she settles into a country twang in the mellow later tracks, like ‘Dark Bars’ and ‘Tequila Does’.
Wildcard seems to be regarded as a mid-table Lambert album, but she’s clearly a talented operator, a songwriter bursting with charisma who can overcome some predictable arrangements to make captivating music regardless.
I looked up the US chart toppers this year – forty different albums reached #1. Veteran acts like Madonna, Celine Dion, and Tool all topped the chart, as well as plenty of new acts. Before this post I’d already written about five #1 albums from 2019 – by Ariana Grande, Vampire Weekend, Tyler the Creator, Billie Eilish, and Taylor Swift.