This page collects album reviews for 2010s artists whom I’ve only reviewed one or two albums.
Weyes Blood was born Natalie Mering, in California, and grew up in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. She derived the name Weyes Blood from the Flannery O’Connor novel Wise Blood, and released her first album in 2011, following self released albums as Weyes Bluhd.
Titanic Rising is Blood’s fourth album, and it’s been a critical breakthrough for her, an early candidate for album of the year. Stylistically, it’s an unexpected choice for critical favour – at times, Mering’s rich voice and the lush studio arrangements recall a Carpenters record from the early 1970s.
Despite drawing on textures from the past, Blood’s lyrical concerns are contemporary. Titanic Rising tackles both global crises, like helplessness in the face of the climate emergency, and personal issues, like disconnectedness in the face of technology. These are dystopian themes, but reading Blood’s lyrics on paper, they’re not too different from the search for meaning and connection on a 1970s Jackson Browne record:
Everyone’s broken now and no one knows just howWild Time
We could have all gotten so far from truth
Titanic Rising houses some stunning tracks. First single, ‘Andromeda’ has a psychedelic edge – with its synth landscape and elegant melody, it’s reminiscent of Radiohead’s OK Computer. The use of pedal steel on an atmospheric track also recalls Pink Floyd.
The Carpenters comparison is justified on ‘Something to Believe’, a lush piano ballad. The stacked backing vocals and lead guitar tones are both similar to The Carpenters’ work, and the confessional opening line “Drank a cup of coffee this morning” reinforces the 1970s aura.
The pivotal track for appreciation of Titanic Rising is the sixth track, ‘Movies’. While most of Titanic Rising is warm and inviting, ‘Movies’ is austere and cold, with Blood’s voice competing with quivering synths for attention. It’s a bold artistic move. Placed in the middle of the record, it has the effect of dividing the album into two acts, and accentuates that the first half of the record is stronger than the second.
Titanic Rising features some brilliant tracks, and the collision of warm soundscapes and cold dystopian themes is often captivating.
Lana Del Rey
Norman F*****g Rockwell
When Lana Del Rey emerged with the virally successful single ‘Video Games’ in 2011, she wasn’t someone who I had pegged for a long career. ‘Video Games’ had a unique atmosphere, a cinematic ballad with nostalgic Hollywood glamour, but it pigeon-holed Del Rey into a distinctive style.
Since then, Del Rey’s worked with different producers, who’ve provided different backdrops, but regretful and languid ballads have remained her bread and butter. To give her credit, she’s worked at her craft, shaking up her sound just enough to stay fresh while continuing to write fascinating lyrics, keeping her critically and commercially relevant.
Norman F*****g Rockwell!, largely written and produced by Del Rey and Jack Antonoff, has been widely acclaimed as Del Rey’s best album to date. It manifested gradually – the excellent singles ‘Mariners Apartment Complex’ and ‘Venice Bitch’ appeared a year before the album.
Del Rey has credited the chaotic presidency of Donald Trump and worsenin g environment threats with inspiring her – NFR! explores the decay of the American dream. Typically, it’s steeped in Californian nostalgia, with references to film and musicians like Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Dennis Wilson, and the Eagles. The album is named for the painter Norman Rockwell – he serves as a metaphor for immature men.
It helps that Del Rey is endlessly interesting. Her visual aesthetic for NFR! has apparently consisted of submitting whatever photo she had on hand for her single and album covers – hence the NFR! cover shot of Del Rey with Duke Nicholson, Jack Nicholson’s grandson. She’s also exchanged words with critic Ann Powers, taking umbrage at Powers’ suggestion that Del Rey uses a persona – surely a difficult position for Del Rey to defend, given that Del Rey is a stage name (her real name is Elizabeth Woolridge Grant), and the consistent lyrical aesthetic she uses.
Jack Antonoff is largely known for his synth-pop productions for Lorde, Taylor Swift, and Carly Rae Jepsen, but here he backs Del Rey with classy piano-based arrangements. The material is consistently excellent, but at 67 minutes with very little variation in tempo or style, NFR! is less than the sum of its parts.
The song that deviates furthest from the Lana Del Rey template is ‘Venice Bitch’ – it’s almost ten minutes long, and the second half is given over to lovely psychedelic noodling.
Despite the overall quality, the album suffers from having its most memorable material clustered around the front. Along with ‘Mariners Apartment Complex’ and ‘Venice Bitch’, Del Rey’s cover of Sublime’s ‘Doin’ Time’ is also featured early. There are pretty piano ballads sprinkled throughout NFR! – ‘Cinnamon Girl’, ‘The Greatest’, and ‘Hope Is A Dangerous Thing For A Woman Like Me To Have – But I Have It’ are all diminished in impact by the album’s length.
It would be harsh to cull some of these terrific pieces to b-sides or another project, but with its lack of stylistic variation, Norman F*****g Rockwell! is difficult to digest in one stint, and it would be better served with a shorter running time. A forty five minute version of NFR! would be in the running for my album of the year, at almost seventy minutes it’s merely very good.
When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O’Connell was the first musician born in the 21st century to score a number one single in the United States. Eilish had already been building a profile for a few years, debuting on SoundCloud and building a following through singles and EPs. Her debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, was released in March 2019, after she’d already built an ardent following.
Eilish’s intensely personal and dark music seems like an unlikely fit for the top of the charts, but she’s connected with disaffected teenagers. In an era of careful PR and image cultivation, Eilish is refreshingly individual. Her songs are written about the night terrors and lucid dreams that she experiences. Eilish is charismatic and her vocals are engrossing.
There are parallels in Eilish’s teen angst and bedroom poetry to Lorde’s 2014 breakout Pure Heroine, but Eilish’s music is rawer. She’s supported by her brother Finneas O’Connell, formerly a child actor on Glee. O’Connell supplies the instrumentation, and When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? was recorded in his bedroom studio. Often the instrumentation is minimal, with O’Connell just playing a single instrument at once – the prominent instrument on number one single ‘Bad Guy’ is the synthesizer bassline.
When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? captures a range of moods – the album closes with pretty and vulnerable songs like the acoustic guitar on ‘I Love You’ and piano of ‘Listen Before I Go’. Despite the bedroom setting and use of acoustic instruments, there’s an industrial harshness to songs like ‘Xanny’. ‘My Strange Addiction’ presents Eilish’s skewed take on pop, accompanied by samples from The Office.
I’m clearly not the target audience for Eilish’s debut album, but there’s enough happening musically in her songs and productions to draw me in. She has an off-beat magnetism that’s allowed one of her insular songs to top the charts. Eilish is an important figure for legions of youthful fans, and she’s one of the most influential voices in popular music.
Night Time, My Time
Sky Ferreira is a Los Angeles songwriter, actress, and model, who gained attention through her MySpace demos as a teenager. On her debut album, Night Time, My Time, she works with producers Ariel Rechtshaid (Vampire Weekend, HAIM, Madonna) and Justin Raisen, who are able to achieve a perfect balance between pop accessibility and edgier sounds, preventing Night Time, My Time from sounding like mere designer angst. Rechtshaid and Raisen also provide most of the instrumentation, while Ferreira’s voice is an asset, rich and expressive. Night Time, My Time blends 1990s alternative rock with 1980s synth pop, so songs like the dissonant, guitar heavy ‘Omanko’ and the infectious dance pop of ‘You’re Not The One’ follow each other in the track list.
My favourite track blends the two approaches – ’24 Hours’ features a dance beat and twinkling keyboard hook coupled with vocal urgency and driving guitars. On the poppy end of things, ‘You’re Not The One’ features a memorable guitar hook over a dance beat, while ‘I Blame Myself’ is gentle and soul searching. There’s more intensity in ‘Heavy Metal Heart’ and ‘Nobody Asked Me (If I Was OK)’, while the album is at its most experimental with the dissonant ‘Omanko’, and the title track, which ends the album with a drone.
Mixing poppy hooks with a heavy guitar attack and more esoteric moments, Night Time, My Time was a deserved critical favourite that’s taken Ferreira a long time to follow up.
In 1985, four male country superstars – Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson – teamed up to make their first album as The Highwaymen. The group took their name from a song by Jimmy Webb, and the quartet also covered tracks by Guy Clark and John Prine.
Amanda Shires created a female quartet in homage to The Highwaymen, and to help female artists to gain more airplay on country radio.
“I was inspired by my daughter, I think, because she was starting to show signs of wanting to play music maybe when she grows up. I thought the worst thing that could happen is she would go for country because there are only currently two women’s voices that you can actually hear.”Amanda Shires, on Ellen
She recruited powerful vocalist Brandi Carlile and rising star Maren Morris. The quartet was completed by Natalie Hemby, perhaps better known for writing songs for Little Big Town and Miranda Lambert.
The quartet debuted at Loretta Lynn’s 87th birthday concert in April 2019, and announced their debut album. Like The Highwaymen, they use Jimmy Webb’s song as the lead-off track. With Webb’s blessing, the verses are adapted to a female perspective – guest vocalist Yola’s verse is about the civil rights activists The Freedom Riders. Here’s a live version, with Yola, Sheryl Crow on backing vocals, and Shires’ husband, Jason Isbell, on lead guitar.
The Highwomen aren’t the first female country super-group of the decade – precedents include Lambert’s Pistol Annies and the 2016 collaborative record between Neko Case, K.D. Lang, and Laura Veirs. But the stakes are higher for The Highwomen with their choice of name. It’s clear the four Highwomen don’t have the profile of their male counterparts, but The Highwomen is a very strong collaborative record.
The timeless production from Dave Cobb is an asset, and the record is book-ended by two vintage sounding songs – opening with ‘Highwomen’, and closing with Carlile’s ‘Wheels of Laredo’. With its organ intro and evocative Texas imagery it sounds like an old country chestnut, and it was covered by Tanya Tucker shortly before the album release.
In between, the members each have a chance to shine; Hemby was The Highwoman who I wasn’t familiar with before the album’s release, but she’s impressive here. She penned the group singalong ‘Redesigning Women’ – one of the albums’ weaker songs, but it neatly summarises their mission. Hemby also fronts the beautiful ‘My Only Child’, which also showcases Shire’s beautiful fiddle playing. Shires’ ‘Cocktail and a Song’ addresses mortality, and it’s also among the strongest songs here.
The Highwomen draws attention to four talented artists who are struggling for attention in a world of bro-country and big hats. The Highwomen might just be too classy for mainstream country radio in the US, but it features some of my favourite songs of 2019.
Julia Holter was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, although her family moved to Los Angeles when she was young. Aviary is her fifth studio album, and her work is on the fringes of popular music, experimental and pushing into classical territory. While her previous album, 2015’s Have You In My Wilderness, was her most accessible, edging towards more standard indie fare, Aviary is an extremely challenging album, ninety minutes of avant-garde classical pop.
Aviary dispenses with traditional rock instrumentation, and is instead centred on Holter’s piano, synthesizers, and voice. Holter’s accompanied by fluid double bass and orchestral instruments. The music’s often unplanned, giving Aviary an exploratory feel, and Holter’s cited Alice Coltrane as a key influence for the record. Even the album’s first single and easiest entry point, ‘I Shall Love 2’, is far from straightforward, eschewing hooks for shimmering textures and layered vocals.
Aviary has the potential to fall apart under its own weight, but it works because of its intrinsic beauty – Holter’s voice and piano work are pretty, and anchor what can at times be a challenging listen. Holter’s stated that Aviary is not necessarily designed to be listened to in one sitting – I’ve found that it’s fine to dip in and let its beauty wash over you for a few songs at a time.
Aviary is a brave, bold record – after a dozen listens I feel like I’ve merely scratched the surface. It’s not an easy album to digest, but Aviary may well be the record that Holter is remembered for.
On The Line
Jenny Lewis has been a fixture in indie rock for two decades, firstly with Rilo Kiley and then a solo career. Even before her music career Lewis was a public figure; a child actress who debuted in a Jell-O commercial and appeared in numerous TV series and movies, like 1989’s The Wizard.
The switch to music was justified – Lewis is a gifted writer, and her vocals are gorgeous, honeyed and clear. Her voice carries some of the same gravitas and wisdom of a previous generation of hard-livin’ country singers.
2019’s On The Line is Lewis’ fourth solo album. Lewis lives near Laurel Canyon, and On The Line is a lush, singer-songwriter record that reflects the location. Lewis utilised vintage equipment previously used by Carole King. The stately I-V-IV chord sequence of ‘Hollywood Lawn’ echoes Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s ‘Helpless’.
Lewis’ piano and vocals are supported by a stellar band, including drummers Jim Keltner and Ringo Starr, Beck, Don Was, Jason Faulkner, and Ryan Adams. Longtime Tom Petty sideman Benmont Tench turns in a wonderful organ solo on the opening ‘Heads Gonna Roll’.
Lewis had a lot to write about – leading up to On The Line, she dealt with the end of a twelve year relationship with songwriter Johnathan Rice and the death of her mother. There are references to both events liberally scattered among the lyrics of On The Line. “You thought I was your muse/But all along it was you” is a cutting line from ‘Dogwood’, while ‘Little White Dove’ deals with her mother’s hospitalisation.
Addiction and desire are common themes for On The Line. Lewis’ mother struggled with a heroin addiction, and ‘Wasted Youth’ features the line “I wasted my youth on a poppy.” The first verse of ‘Party Clown’ recalls “I was a girl in a black Corvette/Getting head in the shadows”, while lead single ‘Red Bull and Hennessy’ proclaims “I’m wired on Red Bull and Hennessy.”
Most of these songs are introspective and based around Lewis’ piano, but she varies the formula just enough to keep things interesting. ‘Little White Dove’ rocks hard, despite containing some of the record’s most personal lyrics, while closer ‘Rabbit Hole’ is an upbeat singalong.
Amazingly, I’d never caught up with Lewis’ work previously, and I’ve dived back into her work with Rilo Kiley and her previous solo records. On The Line is a great record on its own terms, musically lush and lyrically honest.
Ilana (The Creator)
Born in a nomad camp, Niger’s Mdou Moctar first came to prominence after the release of his debut album, 2008’s Anar. Its songs were hugely popular throughout the Sahel region of Africa, traded on cell-phones. Thanks to the compilation Music from Saharan Cellphones: Volume 1, Moctar became known outside of Saharan Africa. In 2015, Moctar starred in the movie Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai: Rain the Colour of Blue With a Little Red in It – the story of a young man who rebels against his conservative upbringing to play rock and roll. Tuareg has no word for purple.
2019’s Ilana (The Creator) is Moctar’s fifth album, but his first to feature a full band. It’s surprising he’d never recorded with a band before, as his searing electric guitar is clearly suited to a rock setting. Moctar’s playing evokes a lot of different influences – the desert blues from the Tuareg region of Africa, 1960s acid rock like Jimi Hendrix, as well as the tapping of Eddie Van Halen.
Moctar addresses both politics and spirituality on Ilana (The Creator). The lyrics of the title track translate as “Our heritage is taken by the people of France / Occupying the valley of our ancestors” – Moctar has criticised France’s exploitation of Niger in interviews, noting that France has prospered from Niger’s uranium, while many parts of Niger remain impoverished. Music was a frowned upon occupation for someone with Moctar’s conservative Muslim upbringing, but he’s won over local religious leaders with his songs of respect, honour, and tradition.
Moctar’s main selling point is his scintillating lead guitar. He plays left-handed on a Fender, mixing desert blues and western influences like Prince into a psychedelic stew. Moctar’s guitar shines on the centrepiece song from Ilana, the heavy riffing of ‘Tarhatazed’. It’s more than seven minutes on record, but here’s a 2018 live version that stretches out even further.
Ilana isn’t all epic rock jams – Moctar’s also excels in mellow territory. ‘Anna’ still has a psychedelic flavour, but it’s accompanied by a gentler groove.
In an era where mainstream rock music has often felt predictable and stale, Moctar might just be the guitar hero that you didn’t know you needed.
Caroline Polachek grew up in Connecticut and was formerly the vocalist for the indie-pop duo Chairlift, who had a surprise hit in 2008 with ‘Bruises’. She’s previously flirted with a solo career, releasing albums under the aliases Ramona Lisa and CEP, but Pang is her first record under her own name.
Pang is recorded with producers from the London collective PC Music, as well as New York producer Daniel Nigro. It’s a similar crew that’s produced recent records from Charli XCX and Carly Rae Jepsen, but Polachek favours artier, spacier music. The tone of Pang is dominated by ethereal art-pop, although it also features straightforward pop moments.
According to an interview with The Guardian, Polachek experienced adrenal rushes that interfered with her sleep. She referred to them as “pangs” and attempted to recreate the feeling in her music – the project was initially planned as warm and folk-tinged. Polachek also compares her experience making Pang to Joni Mitchell’s Hejira – at the end of a marriage, she felt a need to escape from New York.
Unusually, the most obvious pop hooks are buried towards the end of the record. ‘Door’ was the first single, and it’s a pretty and meandering melody, with meditative lyrics like “Who is the you who I sing to/When the house is empty?” ‘So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings’ is the most overt pop song, with its memorable “Get a little lonely” hook and Polachek’s excitable gasps.
The more ethereal songs sound surprisingly like Enya, although more conventional reference points are Imogen Heap and Bjork. Songs like ‘Look At Me Now’ and ‘Go As A Dream’ are gorgeous, with Polachek using her lovely voice to emote pretty tunes.
Pang presents Polachek’s pop sense and more ethereal moments in a unified fashion, and it’s one of my favourite records from this year.
The saddest story in 2019 popular music probably belonged to David Berman. The former leader of Silver Jews had taken a ten year hiatus from music, during which he sought to undo the damage to society caused by his father, a prominent alcohol and tobacco lobbyist. Berman also had other struggles, losing his mother, separated from his wife and facing substantial credit card debt, but emerged with the acclaimed Purple Mountains album in July 2019.
While I’d heard of Silver Jews through their association with Pavement, I’d never listened to Berman’s music until after his passing in August 2019. While Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich were initially part of Silver Jews in the early 1990s, Berman’s music is closer to alt-country – Berman’s doleful voice sometimes recalls Townes Van Zandt.
Berman tried working with The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach and Destroyer’s Dan Bejar, but eventually recorded with Jarvis Taveniere and Jeremy Earl of Brooklyn folk-rock band Woods. Purple Mountains isn’t about hooks – it’s more about Berman’s emotionally naked story telling.
Berman’s songs dissect the recent events in his life – losing his mother in ‘I Loved Being My Mother’s Son’, and his estrangement from his wife on ‘She’s Making Friends, I’m Turning Stranger’. Sometimes Purple Mountains is unbearably raw – on ‘Nights That Won’t Happen’, Berman sings “All the suffering gets done by the ones we leave behind.”
Because there are nine sadly restrained songs, the bouncy tune stands out – ‘Storyline Fever’ has a lively guitar hook, and Berman’s singing is more animated – “You got storyline fever, storyline flu/It’s filtering how everything looks to you.”
I didn’t have any connection to Berman’s music before his death, but I imagine it’s difficult for long-term fans to listen to. I would have hoped that getting these stories down on paper would have helped Berman, but Purple Mountains is like listening to an extended suicide note. It’s deservedly regarded as one of the best records released this year, but it makes for uncomfortable listening.
Sophie Allison was born in Switzerland and grew up in Nashville. She self-released indie guitar pop as a teenager on Bandcamp, While she records with a band, Soccer Mommy is effectively an alias for Allison.
disinterested, drawling voice and uncertain blend of bravado and emotional vulnerability recalls 1990s alt-rocker Liz Phair, although Allison wasn’t born when Phair was in her prime. Allison herself names Taylor Swift and Mitski as influences; Mitski’s guitar-rock like ‘Your Best American Girl’ is a good reference point musically. Allison’s lyrical imagery and story telling isn’t unlike Swift’s, although lines like “I want to be the one you’re kissing when you’re stoned” are more comparable to Phair than to the clean-cut Swift.
Sophie Allison had previously self-released solo albums recorded in her bedroom. By the time of 2017’s Collection, she had started working with a full band, and reworked some of her back-catalogue; Collection consists of two new songs and six re-recordings.
While the barely out of her teens Allison is still learning her craft on Collection, it’s an enjoyable compilation. Her rhythm guitar playing is creative and propels these songs, pushing against her laconic vocals. Her lyrics are more generic than they’d be later – the most memorable song is ‘Death By Chocolate’, where Allison declares “You smell like cigarettes/And how chocolate tastes/It makes me wanna die.”
2018’s Clean demonstrated that Allison was capable of much more, but her 1990s-flavoured rock and vibrant rhythm guitar are already entertaining on Collection.
2018’s Clean is Soccer Momy’s official debut album, released at the age of twenty. The previous year’s Collection was enjoyable, but Clean is at a different level artistically. Allison has blossomed into both a strong lyricist and an extremely creative guitarist. Her rhythm guitar is the dominant feature of Clean, whether she’s playing unusual, droning riffs like ‘Cool’ or distinctive rhythms like the scratching, tentative ‘Flaw’ and the sparse, acoustic ‘Blossom’.
Opener ‘Still Clean’ features the record’s most memorable imagery, comparing a former lover to a carnivore.
In the summer
You said you loved me like an animal
Stayed beside me
Just enough to keep your belly full
Then you took me down to the water
Got your mouth all clean
Left me drowning
Once you picked me out your bloody teeth
Second track ‘Cool’ is notable for its guitar work, both the droning riff that opens the song and the bizarre ending where the guitars de-tune, leaving the song hanging on an ambiguous note. The focal point though, is ‘Scorpio Rising’, where Allison’s prettiest melody is matched by an arrangement that ratchets up the tension, ending in a squall of feedback.
Clean is a ridiculously assured album from a 20 year old. Allison’s dual skills as a writer of creative guitar riffs and evocative lyrics constitute a strong arsenal of talent.
Tyler Gregory Okonma, better known as Tyler, the Creator, has enjoyed a rapid career evolution over the last decade. He started as a brash teenager, gaining attention with his provocative lyrics for hip hop crew Odd Future. Along the way, he’s toned down the controversy and enhanced his skills as a producer. 2017’s Flower Boy was a critical favourite, and Igor continues Tyler’s hot streak. Igor documents a love triangle between Tyler, Tyler’s boyfriend, and Tyler’s boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend. Comedian Jerrod Carmichael provides narration.
While Tyler started as a rapper, there’s as much soul and R&B on Igor. Tyler’s the only credited producer on Igor, and he’s like a mad scientist, blending and hopping between genres; the title Igor, referencing Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant, is perfect and fitting. It’s filled with vintage synth sounds, skittery beats, and surprising twists.
There’s plenty happening on standout track ‘A Boy Is A Gun*’ even without Tyler’s vocal – there’s jazzy piano, Solange’s backing vocals, and sample from ‘Bound’, a #47 hit for Ponderosa Twins Plus One in 1971. Tyler’s terse vocals are a jarring contrast with the track’s lushness. Lead single ‘Earfquake’ was initially offered to Justin Bieber, while Rihanna was asked to provide backing vocals. Both refused, and the song was retained by Tyler. ‘Earfquake’ injects a lovely melody with raw immediacy. The six minutes of ‘Gone, Gone / Thank You’ are often gorgeous, especially the cascading synths that cap off ‘Thank You’.
Even if you’re not usually a hip hop fan, it’s worth spending time with Igor to witness a talented auteur creating an idiosyncratic blend of hip hop, funk, and soul.
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