This page collects album reviews for 2010s artists whom I’ve only reviewed one or two albums. In 2018 I started covering new albums regularly, so this page is very heavy on the last couple of years of the decade.
(Sandy) Alex G | Michaela Anne | Big Big Train | black midi | Weyes Blood | Richard Dawson | Erika de Casier | Lana Del Rey | Stella Donnelly | Billie Eilish | Sky Ferreira | FKA Twigs | Fontaines, D.C. | Glass Beach | The Highwomen | Julia Holter | Michael Kiwanuka | Miranda Lambert | Cate Le Bon | Mdou Moctar | Octo Octa | Caroline Polachek | Jessica Pratt | Purple Mountains | Maggie Rogers | Little Simz | Solange | These New Puritans | Tyler, The Creator | Sharon Van Etten | Kanye West | Nilüfer Yanya
(Sandy) Alex G
House of Sugar
Philadelphia’s Alexander Giannascoli, known as (Sandy) Alex G, is a product of the Bandcamp self-promotion era. He’s been self-releasing albums of bedroom pop for a decade, building a profile. House of Sugar is his eighth album, and unlike his earliest records, it has its own Wikipedia page, a CD release, and has cracked the Billboard top 50.
House of Sugar is named after the witch’s house in the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel – the first single is also named ‘Gretel’. Musically, (Sandy) Alex G plays deconstructed bedroom pop, often with prominent acoustic instruments like guitar and piano. There’s a distinct, homegrown flavour to his records, even as they become more professional sounding.
House of Sugar features a blend of song-oriented pieces like ‘Gretel’ and ‘Southern Sky’, and more atmospheric pieces. ‘Gretel’ and ‘Walk Away’ have an indie pop flavour, based around acoustic guitar. The bonus track, a live ‘Sugarhouse’, is strangely reminiscent of Springsteen with its impassioned vocal and saxophone backing.
House of Sugar seems unassuming at first, but gradually reveals its charms.
Country songwriter Michaela Anne moved from Nashville to California to record her third album, hoping to capture a Southwest-noir atmosphere. Desert Dove is neither alt-country or mainstream country, but instead it’s a throwback – it’s pure 1970s country, sometimes like the gentle vibes of Emmylou Harris and other times like the smooth country-rock of the Eagles.
There are shades of Lindsey Buckingham in the climactic guitars that close ‘I’m Not The Fire’ and ‘Someone New’, while the chorus hook of ‘Child of the Wind’ recalls the Eagles’ ‘Already Gone’. The musical tropes are well worn, but Michaela Anne’s strength is her sincerity; she sounds great on the ultra-stripped down material like ‘Be Easy’ and ‘One Heart’.
Michaela Anne can connect emotionally with her gentle delivery on lines like “who are you to say what’s too much love to take for one heart?” It’s easy to take her side, she’s like an awkward outsider with lines like “I have a lover but in time he’ll go away/How could he love me when I act out this way?”
Desert Dove is heavily indebted to 1970s country and country-rock, but it’s charming enough to have a life of its own.
There’s some post-punk edge to Black Midi, but their experimental rock is convoluted and arty, drawing on the intricacies of math-rock. The roots of math-rock include the progressive rock of King Crimson and 20th century classical like Steve Reich, but more specifically Black Midi recall the guitar interplay of Kentucky post-rock combo Slint.
The four members of Black Midi are young, but nonetheless there’s a lot of instrumental firepower. In particular drummer Morgan Simpson is a virtuoso, but Schlagenheim is full of great riffs courtesy of guitarists Geordie Greep, Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin, and bassist Cameron Picton. Before recording their debut Black Midi recorded a live album with experimental rock legend Damo Suzuki, former vocalist with Can.
In contrast to their instrumental prowess, the group’s vocals are less convincing – Greep’s voice is cartoonish, while Picton’s voice is plainspoken and low key. It’s hard to know what vocals would work ‘well with this convoluted music, but the reason to listen to Black Midi is for the sophisticated instrumental interplay and headbanging riffs, and not the singing.
‘953’ explodes out of the gate with its heavy guitar riff and complex time signatures, while the tense and repetitive riffing of ‘Bmbmbm’ suddenly explodes into chaos. The intricate guitars of ‘Western’ recalls the interplay of Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew on King Crimson’s Discipline.
Black Midi are barely old enough to vote, but there’s already impressive virtuosity and head-banging riffs on Schlagenheim.
Big Big Train
Most bands release their most loved records within their first decade, then gradually lose key members and slide toward irrelevancy. Big Big Train have somehow done the opposite – the band were formed in 1990, but 2009’s The Underfall Yard was the album that gained them significant attention in the progressive rock community. Greg Spawton is the only constant member, and he’s since been joined by key personnel like former XTC guitarist Dave Gregory, former Spock’s Beard drummer Nick D’Virgilio, and vocalist/flautist David Longdon.
It’s arguable whether there’s anything progressive about Big Big Train’s progressive rock. The oft-cited point of reference is 1970s Genesis, and Big Big Train share many traits – notably a penchant for acoustic pastoralism and Longdon’s husky voice which recalls Peter Gabriel.
The title of twelfth album Grand Tour refers to wealthy Europeans taking a Grand Tour of the continent, taking in art and science. Lengthy suites like ‘Roman Stone’ and ‘Voyager’ provide the progressive heft, although often the shorter pieces are more effective. ‘Novum Organum’ is a beautiful pastoral opener, while ‘Theodora in Green and Gold’ is also lovely, featuring D’Virgilio’s prettier vocals. Whereas most of the arrangements could have come from a 1970s prog-rock album, ‘Alive’ adds a modern sheen that works well.
Contemporary progressive rock is like a small alcove of modern music, beloved by committed acolytes but overlooked by most music fans. Grand Tour feels like a museum piece, due to both the musical style and the theme, but there’s plenty of excellence all the same.
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.
English folkie Richard Dawson is onto his sixth album and pushing forty, but he’s certainly not a household name. Instead, he’s beloved by music critics but too much of an acquired taste for most. His folkish guitar playing is rough and electric, while, inspired by Mike Patton, he throws his voice around wildly. Dawson’s music is also reminiscent of American blues weirdo Captain Beefheart, or even the charming and meandering songs of Robert Wyatt. Born in Newcastle upon Tyne, he plays almost all of the instruments on 2020, but the focus is on his propulsive and raw guitar playing.
Dawson’s previous record, Peasant, focused on medieval life. 2020 is clearly focused on modern life in Britain. The album opens with the prosaic lines “Open your eyes, time to wake up/Shit, shower, brush your teeth, drain your cup” from ‘Civil Servant’. Dawson’s songs on 2020 are often focused on lengthy narrative; the UFO sighting of ‘Black Triangle’ is eight minutes long, while ‘Fulfillment Centre’ runs longer than ten minutes.
‘Jogging’ is built around a pounding rock riff and sweetens his sound with synths, giving Dawson’s music more universal appeal than usual. ‘Black Triangle’ is also built around a dark and heavy riff, perhaps not surprising for someone who spent hours watching Iron Maiden videos as a teenager.
2020 is more accessible than Dawson’s previous work, with his partner educating him towards pop music. But it’s still very much outsider music; ‘Two Halves’ tells the story of a child playing football, harangued from the sidelines.
The focus on lengthy story-telling can limit the replay value of 2020, but it’s still an accomplished record, with its rough-hewn and anxious stories of modern life.
Erika de Casier
Copenhagen producer and vocalist Erika de Casier released her debut album Essentials in 2019. Of all the releases covered on this post, past me would have loathed Essentials the most. It’s a collection of mellow tracks that often sound like throwbacks to around the turn of the 21st century, recalling acts like Aaliyah and Janet Jackson. Chill R&B is a good description – de Casier’s gentle voice rides nicely over the smooth music. There’s also some trip-hop in the mix, while the single ‘Do My Thing’ features a 1990s G-funk flavour.
Particularly, past me would have hated the airy lyrics. Clearly, a Marxist diatribe wouldn’t have suited the mellow arrangements, and de Casier has her moments of lyrical insight – one common motif is putting the phone down, surely good advice for this era.
The best parts of Essentials are the lovely arrangements – moments like the busy bass-line under the smooth ‘Puppy Love’ and the tinkling synths of ‘Intimate’. ‘Do My Thing’ is more energetic and immediate than most of Essentials, although the smooth groove of ‘Rainy’ makes for my favourite track.
Essentials is well outside my comfort zone, but the mellow grooves and unassuming vocals are often gorgeous.
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.
Beware of the Dogs
Stella Donnelly was born in Wales, but moved to Perth, Australia, early enough to gain a thick Australian accent. Beware of the Dogs is her debut album, a followup to her 2017 debut EP, the exquisitely titled Thrush Metal. Armed only with a guitar, the feisty Australian woman retells tales from her catalogue of assholes, like an indie version of Lily Allen.
I have mixed feelings about Beware of the Dogs; I certainly take Donnelly’s side against the unhelpful men that she documents, but sometimes the personality overrides the musical content. Moments like the ways Donnelly pauses, then rhymes “get laid” with “muck” on ‘Tricks’ would be better suited to a stand-up comedy routine, and undersell her talent. Conversely, if you find most singer-songwriters a little dour, you may enjoy Donnelly’s animated delivery.
When the focus is on the music, Beware of the Dogs is often excellent. Opener ‘Old Man’ has a lovely acoustic riff, and it’s easier to sell the heavy message on sexual harassment – “You grabbed me with an open hand/The world is grabbin’ back at you.” Donnelly’s also a sharp lyricist – “Look me in the eye/Tell me that you’re fine/I’m not here to taste all your cheese and wine” is a cheekily effective couplet from ‘Die’.
I prefer my singer-songwriters more dignified, but you may well find Beware of the Dogs a breath of fresh air.
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.
FKA Twigs was born in Gloucestershire to a Jamaican father and English/Spanish mother; she’s complained that her mixed race has caused her to be pigeon-holed as an R&B artist. She released her first EP, EP1, back in 2012, but it’s taken her until 2019 to release her second album.
The theatrical art-pop of Magdalene is surprisingly reminiscent of Kate Bush at times – although comparing a female artist to Bush is the music writer’s equivalent of “it tastes like chicken”. Compared to the trip-hop of FKA Twigs’ debut, LP1, her vocals are more upfront in these minimalist electronic arrangements, and she’s both eccentric and enthralling.
The lead single was the minimalist ‘Cellophane’; its off-kilter feel recalls Radiohead, but it’s one of the least dynamic songs on the record. In comparison, Magdalene works best when FKA Twigs is aiming for dramatic weirdness – ‘Mary Magdalene’ and ‘Fallen Alien’ both showcase her vocal range. ‘Holy Terrain’, with its feature from Common, edges closer to mainstream pop and it’s a good fit. The mantra-like ‘Daybed’ is also effective, with its list of bizarre one-liners; “Fearless are my cacti/Friendly are the fruit flies.”
Magdalene dropped late in 2019, but it’s still featured in many end of year lists. I find it too minimalist to reward repeat listening, but at its best FKA Twigs’ theatrical art-pop is very effective.
The D.C. in Fontaines D.C. stands for Dublin City – the band were forced to modify their name due to another group with the same moniker. The five members – Carlos O’Connell, Conor Curley, Conor Deegan, Grian Chatten, and Tom Coll – have a staggering preponderance of names beginning with C, and met at music college in Dublin. They discovered a shared love of poetry, and have together released two volumes of poetry. Dogrel is their debut album, named for Doggerel, working class Irish poetry.
Vocalist Grian Chatten grew up in Dublin County, and his thick Irish accent is perfect for the band’s punk attack. Fontaines D.C. are often classified as post-punk, but their guitars, bass, and drums arrangements remind me of straightforward punk; with Chatten’s gruff vocals, they resemble early material from The Clash and The Jam. Their lyrics are less nihilistic than you’d expect from a punk band, instead laced with the touch of romance that you’d expect from poetry students (“Well, Dublin in the rain is mine/A pregnant city with a catholic mind”).
With Brexit, Trump, and a growing concentration of the world’s wealth in the hands of the elite, conditions are certainly ripe for a new wave of political punk. In ‘Boys in a Better Land’, Chatten quotes a driver who “spits out “Brits out””, over a stomp that recalls The Stooges. ‘Liberty Belle’ recalls the straightforward British punk of the late 1970s, but the lyrics are noticeable articulate, with lines like “of the marriage of the socialite’s money to another one’s land”. The closing ‘Dublin City Sky’, is a distinct change of pace, a folk inflected piece that recalls The Pogues.
Like a good punk album, Dogrel prospers due to its visceral energy – a forty minute jolt of thoughtful momentum.
the first glass beach album
Back in the 1990s, it felt like Beck was totally post-modern, blurring the lines between genres on projects like Odelay. Los Angeles band Glass Beach take this approach about six light years further on their debut album. They ignore genre boundaries and change gears abruptly multiple times during the course of a single song.
“the sound of glass beach is a fusion of our diverse range of influences including 1960s jazz, new wave, early synthesizer music, and emo, but all presented with the harshness and irreverence of punk music. we embrace the trend towards genrelessness caused by the increasing irrelevance of record labels and democratization of music brought about by the internet and enjoy playing with musical boundaries even to the point of absurdity.”Glass Beach
Glass Beach launched their career with grandeur – many bands start with EPs, but Glass Beach simply released an hour long debut record. It paid off – they gathered enough momentum that they’ve now received the attention of taste-makers like Pitchfork and TheNeedleDrop.
There’s extreme diversity on the first glass beach album, but much of it has roots in the late 1990s and early 2000s. There’s more than a hint of emo in the vocals of Casio Dad. The first half of ‘Neon Glow’ is driven by pop-punk energy, while the second half builds from ambient noodling into acoustic indie pop, before lifting in intensity for the climax.
Sometimes Glass Beach’s vocals fail to match the grandiosity of the music – the vocals are malleable to keep up with the intricate melodic twists and turns, but can grate after a while. Nevertheless, the first glass beach album is one of the densest records I’ve ever heard – there’s so many ideas here, and it’s worth listening to see if some connect with you.
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.
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.
Cate Le Bon
Cate Le Bon was discovered by Super Furry Animals front-man Gruff Rhys, opening for him on his 2007 tour. She’s since released a string of well-received records. Leading up to her fifth album, Reward, Le Bon spent a year living alone in the Lake District. In daylight hours she learned to make wooden furniture and at night she composed on her piano.
By the time of Reward, Le Bon’s music still has vestiges of folk, but the predominant flavour is minimalist chamber-pop. Half of the tracks don’t have a regular rhythm section, instead backing Le Bon’s vocals with saxophone and guitar melody lines. The results are often distant from the mainstream of popular music, recalling Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps.
The unusual arrangements are pushed straight into service from the outset – the opener ‘Miami’ immediately launches into a hypnotic arrangement. The single ‘Daylight Matters’ is much more straitlaced, with a rhythm section, but the saxophone and guitar leads still provide an off-kilter feel. Closer ‘Meet the Man’ recalls Bowie’s Berlin-era with its cavernous and arresting vocal, backed with snatches of saxophone.
Michael Kiwanuka was born in London to Ugandan parents who escaped the Idi Amin regime. He began his career as a session guitarist, then as an indie-folk artist. Now on his third album, Kiwanuka’s morphed into a soul performer with a retro sound that recalls Bill Withers and Otis Redding. It’s a natural fit for Kiwanuka’s warm voice.
Adding to the retro feel, there’s a touch of psychedelia to some of these arrangements, like the swirling riff on ‘Hard to Say Goodbye’. The punchy horn chart of ‘Living in Denial’ sounds like it’s straight from a late 1960s Stax single.
The punchy production from Danger Mouse sounds great, and Kiwanuka’s voice is warm and velvety. The songs aren’t always as memorable as those of the record’s influences – in particular, Kiwanuka’s lyrics often seem perfunctory, with personality-free couplets like “Don’t hesitate/Time heals the pain/You ain’t the problem.”
It’s tough living up to comparisons to legends like Withers and Redding, but Kiwanuka’s voice has too much soulful gravitas to be dismissed as mere pastiche.
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.
I’ve always struggled with dance music – usually I prefer the human aspect of vocals and lyrics, although I enjoy the beauty of classical music and the musical personality of jazz players. Octo Octa has a more human side than most dance music, giving me a way in. Maya Bouldry-Morrison is a transgender DJ whose music expresses joy.
I don’t have enough knowledge of dance music to describe Resonant Body, so I’m going to quote some writers who do:
“Octo Octa has a way of mixing cream-crop 90’s ambient coolness to a most wild neu-queer club metric without being frantic, building layers of release with precision.”Sunni Johnson
It’s loaded with retro-rave pumpers such as Spin Girl, Let’s Activate!, where acid flavours shift into a climbing piano house jam that tempts a third summer of love….. But it’s in the nature-driven tranquility of sole ambient cut My Body Is Powerful and the affirming vocal samples on spiralling single Can You See Me? where Octo Octa manifests the record’s intent, championing and validating her community.Tayyab Amin
I’m never going to be a huge fan of dance music, but there’s enough happening on Resonant Body to hold my attention.
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.
San Francisco-born musician Jessica Pratt learned guitar playing along to T. Rex’s Electric Warrior. With her hushed vocals and finger-picked guitar, Quiet Signs feels akin to the early 1970s folk and freak-folk scenes, and Pratt has been compared to Joan Baez and Sibylle Baier.
It’s almost always vocals that keep me from enjoying artists that I should theoretically like – I can’t stand Peter Hamill’s vocal histrionics for Van Der Graaf Generator, and I don’t enjoy Jessica Pratt’s pinched and mannered voice. With such a minimal sound, Pratt’s voice is at the centre, and it’s difficult to get past.
Aside from the vocals, there’s plenty to like. I appreciate how the first two songs start with identical chords, except ‘Opening Night’ is played on the piano and ‘As The World Turns’ on guitar. The production is gorgeous, surrounding Pratt’s voice with ambient prettiness. Pratt’s tunes are often very good; the upbeat ‘Poly Blue’ is an excellent change of pace with a creative chord sequence, and songs like ‘Here My Love’ are pretty.
I found it difficult to enjoy Quiet Signs, but if you don’t mind Pratt’s mannered vocals there’s a substantial record here.
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.
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.
Little Simz is a London-based rapper, singer, and actor with Nigerian heritage. Grey Area is her third record, but her first since 2016 and a critical breakthrough. The larger budget allowed her to use live musicians, and her socially conscious hip hop is surprisingly eclectic – there’s a jazz inflection to some tracks, and a neo-soul feel to others.
Unlike Simz’ idol Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Grey Area is too edgy for crossover mainstream success. Her vocal delivery is loaded with bite in the feminist anthem ‘Venom’ -“Never givin’ credit where it’s due ’cause you don’t like pussy in power/Venom.” The opening pair of tracks are also filled with bile – on ‘Boss’, Simz declares that she’s “a boss in a fucking dress”.
Grey Area visits neo-soul territory in the closing two tracks, and they add some nice diversity. ‘Sherbet Sunset’ is my favourite track; the keys and chorus give it a neo-soul feel, as do Michael Kiwanuka’s guests vocals on the closer ‘Flowers’.
A charismatic vocalist backed by great production – Grey Area is a terrific record.
When I Get Home
The younger sister of Beyoncé, Solange Knowles hit her stride with 2016’s excellent A Seat At The Table. That record utilised a conventional neo-soul palette, with hits like ‘A Crane in the Sky’. When I Get Home is a much unusual record, experimental R&B built around repetitive song structures and short running times. Solange has cited the repetition of Stevie Wonder’s The Secret Life of Plants and Steve Reich as influences, and they make sense as touchstones for this record.
When I Get Home was written is about Solange’s hometown of Houston, Texas. As well as Wonder and Reich, the record is also musically shaped by the chopped and screwed hip-hop of Houston. The most memorable lines are in ‘Almeda’, a song named for a district in Houston; “Brown skin, brown face. Brown leather, brown sugar. Brown leaves, brown keys. Brown creepers, brown face. Black skin, black braids.”
Repetitive grooves coloured with retro keyboards fuel tracks like ‘Stay Flo’ and ‘Way to the Show’. The approach of mixing programmed beats with live bass and keyboards gives the music personality, and song snippets like ‘Things I Imagined’ and ‘I’m A Witness’ are tuneful.
It doesn’t quite match the excellence of A Seat At The Table, but When I Get Home is a worthy follow-up that takes Solange’s muse in a more esoteric direction.
These New Puritans
Inside The Rose
On their fourth album, the official lineup of These New Puritans is two twin brothers: Jack and George Barnett. From England’s Southend-On-Sea, the band have released four albums starting with 2008’s Beat Pyramid. The group’s music is textural and a little dark – their emphasis of percussion and orchestral instruments recalls late-period Talk Talk.
The New Puritans’ strength is their production and arranging skills. Even though they bring other vocalists to complement him, Jack’s vocals are a little monotone, which does suit the unsettling music. But their arrangements are often wonderful.
It all coalesces on the spectacular opener ‘Infinity Vibraphones’, which is built around interlocking vibraphone parts. The lyrics build in intensity, culminating with this great couplet: “Down here in hell we’ve got everything you need/We’ve got carbon and mercury/We’ve got iron and iodine/Platinum, radium, hydrogen and uranium.”
The record’s other long track, ‘A-R-P’, is also a winner, undergirded by an unsettling electronic whine and more vibraphone. Despite Jack Barnett’s limitations as a vocalist, he hits hard with “this is the place where the trees are on fire”.
With its wonderful arrangements and dark unsettling atmosphere, Inside The Rose is often gorgeous.
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.
Sharon Van Etten
Remind Me Tomorrow
New Jersey singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten took five years between albums after 2014’s Are We There. She gave birth to her first child, worked toward a psychology degree, and guest-starred in Netflix series The OA. When she returned with Remind Me Tomorrow, she changed her sound; while working on the ambient guitar soundtrack for Strange Weather, Van Etten grew tired of guitar, and turned to piano and synthesisers. Accordingly, Remind Me Tomorrow is based around piano, as well as organ and synths.
The advance singles in particular highlight this new aesthetic. ‘Jupiter 4’ surrounds Van Etten’s voice with spacey soundscapes and ominous drum machines. The most loved song is ‘Seventeen’, Van Etten’s reminiscences of her own youth; “I see you so uncomfortably alone/I wish I could show you how much you’ve grown.”
The key tracks are clustered in the centre of Remind Me Tomorrow. On the quieter tracks at the conclusion, the arrangements are more restrained – ‘You Shadow’ swings along gently with Van Etten playing organ.
Remind Me Tomorrow is a departure for Van Etten, and earlier records like 2010’s Epic and 2014’s Are We There might be a better starting point.
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.
West London’s Yanya released her eclectic debut album in March 2019, building on from several EPs. Her parents are both visual artists and she comes from a Turkish, Irish and Barbadian heritage. She grew up listening to her father’s Turkish music and her mother’s classical, but gravitated to the guitar in adolescence. She rejected the offer to join a girl group formed by Louis Tomlinson, instead electing to forge her own musical path.
Yanya’s distinctive, chunky guitar is often at the centre of arrangements, while her husky voice navigates a lot of territory on her debut – she combines angular indie rock like ‘In Your Head’ and ‘Paralysed’ and the smooth Sade-like sounds of songs like ‘Melt’ into one impressively coherent whole.
Yanya admitted that the album’s series of narrative tracks about the fictional agency WWAY (We Worry About Your) Health was tacked on at the end of the creation process; they detract from an otherwise impressive debut album. Nevertheless, Yanya’s ability to create a coherent album from diverse elements is staggering, and she’s the most intriguing new artist I’ve heard this year.
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