This year has already given us a great Beyonce live album, Jenny Lewis’ L.A. stories, Springsteen’s western adventure and great releases from up and coming artists like Stella Donnelly, Weyes Blood and Jamila Woods. Here’s our unranked rundown of the year’s most noteworthy releases.
Born in Houston, nurtured in Minneapolis, Lizzo drops Cuz I Love You on the edge of turning 31. (She was born just a few days after Prince dropped “Alphabet Street,” which may help explain her superhuman levels of Paisley Park-dom.) It’s a flawless major-label debut, after she grabbed ears with her indie gems Lizzobangers and Big Grrrl Small World. No filler here — just 33 minutes of twerk-core, hip-hop self-love anthems, torchy soul ballads, plus the occasional moment where she busts out her inner Tull to play flute hero. Lizzo’s woodwind muse, Sasha Flute, has its own Instagram, becoming the most iconic axe to rock the hit parade since guitars like B.B. King’s Lucille or Neil Young’s Old Black.
There have been times throughout Bruce Springsteen’s career when California has called. He named a song for the state after his parents moved there in 1971, and he’d return to it, in life and writing, repeatedly, chasing his dreams like Steinbeck’s Tom Joad. Western Stars(out June 14th) is the latest visit: a lushly orchestrated set of throwback, country-tinged folk pop that, despite some resemblance to previous works like Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad, sounds like little else in his catalog. Frankly, its sheen is off-putting at first. But once you settle in, the set reveals some of Springsteen’s most beguiling work ever.
Recorded with the help of her older brother Finneas in their family home in Los Angeles, it’s an album full of dressed-down avant-pop with D.I.Y. immediacy and intimacy that can still hold its own amid Top 40 maximalists like Ariana Grande and Halsey. Eilish’s sound is hyper-modern, but still feels classic; evoking another Billie in history, she sets the jazz-aware swing in her vocals over skittering trap beats and doo-wop piano asides. Yet for reasons that are unclear — perhaps her taste for the macabre, or her aesthetic as a tomboy par excellence — Eilish’s roguish pop has lead to a double life on the male-heavy rock and alternative charts.
Father of the Bride is so zealously detailed and meticulously contoured that you easily sink into its inventions: the whirl of country picking, surf-guitar twang and classical interlude in “Harmony Hall”; the loopy hip-hop of “Sunflower” with its creeping-vocal riff; the Soweto-like bounce and AutoTuned-Beach Boys-style chorale in “Flower Moon.” But this is ear candy loaded with trouble. Frustration, helplessness and romantic crisis come just like the songs, in grenade-like bursts, as Koenig delivers bad news like the “wicked snakes” in “Harmony Hall” (“Inside a place/You thought was dignified”) with disarmingly clean-cut vocal brio.
In the Netflix documentary Homecoming, her diligent, meticulous preparations for such a show as a performer and a creative director offers insight into the type of hard work it takes to be Beyoncé. As the behind-the-scenes footage in the concert film progresses, her role as director comes with the particular challenge of translating the energy of the massive performance, not only to the live audience but to the people either watching the show’s livestream or even the just-released concert film. Listening to the live album version of Homecoming, which was dropped as a surprise-release on all streaming platforms the same morning as the documentary, it’s clear that Beyoncé and her musicians met the call. —Brittany Spanos
It is a long rock & roll tradition: writing songs about the high price of success in exhaustion, sanity and lasting relationships. Modern-rock stars Cage the Elephant take a turn on Social Cues, their fifth studio album. And the bill comes due with a vengeance. “I was promised the keys to an empire,” singer Matt Shultz claims in the opening garage-rock sprint “Broken Boy.” But he is already lost and fried in the next track, the title song. “I don’t have the strength to play nice,” Shultz admits against a tightly wound mix of dirty-glam keyboards and space-cowboy steel guitar. “People always say/Man, at least you’re on the radio,” he notes in the chorus. It sounds like cold comfort. If this is an old story, Social Cues is a dynamic, uncommon telling by the Kentucky-born band
Like Flower Boy, Tyler’s new album IGOR is an album for the summer months. It’s a rich and messy mélange of R&B, funk and rap that carries a luminous sheen and a bittersweet undercurrent; lyrically, Tyler traces the emotional journey of being the odd man out in a love triangle. “Your other one evaporate, we celebrate/You under oath, now pick a side,” he raps on “New Magic Wand.” On IGOR, Tyler seldom acts as the character he plays in the “What’s Good” music video, in which he vigorously shadowboxes while wearing a blonde bowl cut wig and a two-tone pink suit. Much more often he’s wounded and vulnerable, weighed down by real emotional labor.
Sweetener was an ambitious artist crafting a self-consciously wide-scale pop statement and, coming just six months later, Thank U, Next turns out to be her best album yet. Thank U, Next is just a woman and a mood, taking that mood out for a drive until she pedal-to-the-metals it right off a cliff. What a glorious pop rush it is—the album version of one of those emergency break-up karaoke sessions with a few therapeutic hours of Mary J. Blige and Toni Braxton songs. “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored” is a perfect song title in the tradition of Britney’s “Get Naked (I Got a Plan),” with Max Martin and a clever interpolation of the ‘NSync deep cut “It Makes Me Ill.” It’s the perfect way to end this album—after crying her tears and screaming her screams and feeling her feels, Ari flirts with the bartender on her way out, ready for more punishment. This is one of the year’s best pop albums so far, even in a 2019 that’s already turning out to be a great one for new music. Thank U, Next makes you suspect that the best Ariana is yet to come. –Rob Sheffield
Lewis’ vocals were tracked in Capitol Records Studio B, the room christened by Ol’ Blue Eyes in 1956 when he gesticulated at the sessions for (Frank Sinatra Conducts) Tone Poems Of Color, her piano chords fingered on the same keys that voiced Carole King’s Tapestry. The music indeed feels touched by King’s white-girl Laurel Canyon soul, but maybe more by Harry Nilsson’s tender, hooky wit. Lewis channels Brian Wilson’s sun-kissed doo-wop on the title track — with a sly pun on letter-sweaters and a winking reference, perhaps, to “Caroline No” (here “Caroline, uh”). Elliott Smith gets namechecked on “Heads Gonna Roll,” the Go-Go’s perky new wave shines from “Rabbit Hole,” Fleetwood Mac’s heady harmony-builds bloom on “Red Bull and Hennessy.”
Solange carries her history like a talisman. It’s there to remind her — and us — how to remain grounded while moving forward. With When I Get Home, she pays tribute to her roots in Houston by presenting a therapeutic and transfixing scrapbook that seamlessly brings together the past and the future of her home. With 19 songs the clock in at under 40 minutes total, Solange’s tribute takes an unusual form. She offers brief but potent statements; over half the tracks are under three minutes and each one bleeds into the other like watercolors on her canvas. Every moment, beat, sample and feature feel carefully constructed and articulated, and for Solange, that’s just her default mode of creation.
Van Etten started out playing hushed, disgruntled folk rock, so she often gets tagged as an “indie” artist. But she’s always had bigger things in mind for her music. Her fantastic new album, Remind Me Tomorrow, ups her ambitions even further, pushing toward a grand, smoldering vision of pop. Van Etten’s previous LPs rode a sepulchral slow-burn. This music is just as expansive, but the songs are sharply sculpted. “No One’s Easy to Love” is a hazy intimation of regret with a head-slap groove; on the hot single “Comeback Kid,” Van Etten sounds like an imperious Eighties MTV avenger, punching her way through gossamer synths and Phil Collins-huge tom-tom rumble. “Jupiter 4” is like a torch-ballad version of the interplanetary jazz David Bowie explored on Blackstar.
Colombian star Maluma’s fourth studio album is a Hail Mary of sorts. Inspired by “angel numbers” (a repetitive sequence deemed auspicious by spiritualists), 11:11 sees Maluma betting on a future — not just in his home turf of reggaeton, nor in Latin music — but in pop at large. It’s most evident in his features: among them Madonna, Ty Dolla $ign, and one of the original Latin crossover kings, Ricky Martin. But there’s room for unsung talents, too: Panamanian newcomer Sech, imparts his R&B tenor on “Instinto Natural” while Colombian diva Farina gets her close-up in “Puesto Pa’ Ti.” Maluma meanders from the dancehall-inflected “No Se Me Quita,” breezes through the English-language club jam “Tu Vecina” and breathes cool into the classic salsa sound in “Te Quiero.” But for a guy who’d hoped to shed his rep as a single-genre artist, Maluma shines brightest in his reggaeton tracks.
Girl is where Morris makes her pop move. She’s stretching out musically, going for more of a Selena Gomez-Camila Cabello vibe. She got a taste of the Top 10 last year with “The Middle,” her surprise EDM hit with Zedd and Grey, which clearly whetted her pop appetite. The high points on Girl have major emotional reach. “A Song for Everything” follows in the style of “My Church,” as she sings about music memories: “What’s your time machine?/Is it Springsteen or ‘Teenage Dream’?” (Weird footnote: Morris yearns for the good old days “back when Coldplay still played clubs.”)
Chicago r&b poet Jamila Woods generated her first major who is she?! moment beside Chance the Rapper in the “Sunday Candy” video by Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment; her LP debut HEAVN answered that question a year later with a personal set of gospel-tinged rap-soul hybrids. Her new Legacy! Legacy! views the personal through a lens of cultural history. Songs are named for giants: “MILES,” “ZORA,” “EARTHA,” “BALDWIN,” “BASQUIAT,” and if the connections aren’t always obvious, they’re always inspired. But like her last record, Legacy! Legacy! is about community, about legacies as heritage but also as that which is forged on the ground in the moment.
The 21-year-old’s Atlanta roots allow her to effortlessly coalesce R&B with indie-folk. This is especially true for “Pigeon,” in which the steel guitar is joined by quirky keyboard chords to create a beat reminiscent of TLC’s “Waterfalls.” “I used to make my bed/but now I see no point in it,” she sings. On the seductive “Flowers,” she’s joined by Father, the Atlanta rapper from local label Awful Records that helped jump-start Webster’s career. “Why won’t you come here to visit? Why do you only speak of it?” she asks over saxophone in “Come to Atlanta,” begging a lover to come to the city where Webster started it all. “I only want that with you.”
Aldous Harding uses oddness as both lure and armor. You can see it in her performances, which suggest a neurodiverse lexicon of emotions in her facial tics and physicality. And you can hear it in the language of Designer, her quizzically beautiful third LP, where she pivots artfully from folk eccentric to pop eccentric. Harding’s from Christchurch, New Zealand — a far-flung spot that, before becoming yet another poster town for racist violence, was best-known for its thriving indie-rock community in the ‘80s and ‘90s, with bands like The Bats and Bailter Space, and the touchstone Flying Nun label, Harding’s first home. The singer’s got range, and she plays in it like a sandbox, pushing her contralto up to Kate-Bushy highs and Nico-conjuring lows. She also has an inviting sense of melody, seemingly rooted in the folk traditions of the British Isles, but which opens up on Designer with lilting grooves suggesting other islands, Caribbean and South Seas.
If last year’s Oxnard was Anderson .Paak’s version o Outkast’s Speakerboxxx – a shape-shifting hip-hop LP steeped in eccentric R&B — its sister LP, Ventura, is his The Love Below, an eccentric R&B record tilting towards hip-hop. Ventura even begins with an André 3000 cameo, a memorable one at that, the MC-emeritus navigating grown-ass relationship trials (aging, hair dye, relationship counseling) on verses that move from trot to canter to gallop to warp-speed: “Amazing how time can run/away from us/I’m no nun/you’re no priest/but I promise hon/You’re goin’ to see a phenomenon/Come with me like it’s Ramadan.” The benediction caps “Come Home,” a lavish slow jam that otherwise has .Paak pleading with his own beloved amidst angelic soul choirs. And it sets the tone for an LP that’s in large part about a rather un-pop concept: the sustained, sometimes unsexy effort necessary to create something lasting, whether it’s social change or a healthy relationship.
Four albums in, the notion of Jepsen coming out with a “mature” album would be anathema to all that is Carly Rae. And she seems more than happy holding the mantle of cheerful, mid-tempo pop-rock for her generation – a great American tradition passed down from the Monkees to Wilson Phillips to Hanson. The downside is that when your fans expect you to bring the hooks, you better bring them. Jepsen doesn’t appear constrained by those expectations, maybe because pop’s two main ingredients — melody and melodrama — come to her naturally. But with all its polish and production, Dedicated can sound less like an artistic benchmark and more likethrowing gum drops at the ceiling to see which ones stick.
Death Race builds on Juice’s instinct to distill emotion rather than tell a story. On the opening track “Empty,” he gestures towards the affected nihilism of his 2018 debut album Goodbye and Good Riddance and uncorks the incredible eye-roller, “My world revolves around a black hole / the same black hole that’s in place of my soul.” Death Race is rife with clunkers like these but its 22 tracks also constitute an unmistakable step forward for Juice WRLD’s sadboy aesthetic, which has now become broader and more richly textured. The album’s most compelling moments are Juice’s realizations that his money won’t solve his problems: “It’s been months since I felt at home / But it’s okay ’cause I’m rich / Sike, I’m still sad as a bitch,” he sings matter-of-factly on “Fast.” On “Robbery,” he offers the reverse humblebrag, “One thing my dad told me was, ‘Never let your woman know when you’re insecure’ / So I put Gucci on the fur / And I put my wrist on iceberg.” These admissions provide a grounding context for his emotional distress that his previous work has generally lacked; here, he appears less of an avatar of suffering and more like a human.
On I Am Easy to Find, the indie standard-bearers have reconfigured themselves with multiple women’s voices at the LP’s core, a portion of the roughly 77 musicians that temporarily explode the band’s quintet. They pull it off without diluting their National-ness. The lyrical and formal suggestion, explored throughout the record, seems to be that it takes two to tango, and despite the canyon that separates our perceptions, however gendered, we all share vast tracts of emotional territory, and are capable of deep empathy. Whether we act on it is another story.
In April 2017, Cate Le Bon moved to the Lake District of Cumbria, England, alone. She spent a year there, learning how to build furniture from scratch while constructing introspective songs on an old piano. Her fifth studio album, Reward, is the result of this isolation—ten sonically diverse tracks that are delicately layered in texture, accompanied by Le Bon’s swelling vocals that deliver short, surreal lyrics. “Magnificent Gestures,” a standout track that features Kurt Vile on vocals, is a trippy expedition into art-pop territory. “She was born with no lips,” Le Bon declares triumphantly. “Drip drip drips.” The hazy piano on “Sad Nudes” is reminiscent of “Love Is Not Love,” a highlight from her great 2016 LP Crab Day. But it’s hard to go back and listen to earlier albums after Reward—the enhanced instrumentation and dreamy songwriting make this the singer’s strongest album yet.
The second Charly Bliss LP has plenty of bright, bracing power-pop: “Hard to Believe” and Bleach” are New Pornographers-worthy in their quick and easy sleekness, while the That Dog-y “Camera” riffs cleverly on identity theft. It also sees the band leaning a little heavier on New Wave synthiness that was present but inchoate on Guppy. That somewhat moodier texture fits the album’s difficult subject matter. “I’m at capacity/I’m spilling out of me/Desecrated and complacent,” Hendricks sings over the mechanical beat and keyboard blips of “Capacity.” On “Chatroom,” she processes the aftermath of a sexual assault, turning pain into rage. Young Enough is poppier than its predecessor but not always as immediately catchy. Sometimes that feels intentional and it can often be a good thing, often slowing down the band’s torpedo tunefulness to negotiate trauma in real time.
In the first song on I Need A New War, Craig Finn takes up the sweep of an American life in a handful of lines — guy meets girl, maybe at a Dead show; she’s in recovery; they move to Montana. Things get “druggy” and fall apart; he pieces together life without her, finds religion, has a kid and, eventually gets ominous news from a doctor: “we’re looking at these numbers from your tests.” That’s just the first two verses — it gets sadder, deeper and more provocatively unsettled from there. It’s one of 10 songs completing an LP trilogy that began in 2015 with Faith In The Future, followed by 2017’s We All Want The Same Things. And you can look at the whole trilogy as just another chapter in Finn’s career-long musical novel, one with a Greyhound busload of hard-luck, hard-partying survivors, and a handful of casualties in the boot.
After a surprising amount of press attention for a band yet to release a full album, Philadelphia’s Empath finally drop their debut: a fierce, spacey, cacophonous, 27-minute-long LP. Like the EP and singles that preceded it, Active Listening: Night On Earth is defined by manic mood swings. Plenty of great bands bring together disparate musicians in a singular unified voice. What’s thrilling about Empath is how they resist the singular. They sound like four people who sat in a room flexing their own freaky styles until — before they realized their interests might be wholly incompatible — the chaos created its own logic. Given the influence of playlists and streams shaped by corporate algorithms (Pop Punk’s Not Dead, in case you were wondering), it feels truly punk to slot a riot grrrl style tirade (“Heaven”) next to meditative organ and guitar noodling (“IV”). What may once have been considered ADD is now the new normal.
“Angie, are you tough enuh-uff/To let it go?” asks Mary Timony over sugared electric guitar churn at the outset of Ex Hex’s latest, immortalizing a new rock’n’roll Angie with as much performative heartache and swagger as Jagger, maybe more. Ex Hex’s second album is about garage-rock thrust at its core, like prime Stones and their own debut Rips. Like that LP, it draws a through-line from the Shangri-Las to Blondie to Sleater-Kinney to, well, Ex-Hex. This time, though, pop-metal production shine adds a new meta-textual layer, conjuring visions of the CBGB Class of ‘76 upscaled to the arena rock of ’86, thanks in part to furniture maker-turned indie-rock production swami Jonah Takagi. It’s nothing but guitars, bass, and drums, but the sound is huge, bulked up with vocal reverb, choice pedals and amps.
One might think of Flamagra as the producer’s Apocalypse Now, or The Wall— it shows an artist at the height of their power, able to realize their most over-the-top imaginings, delivering a sprawling near-masterpiece teetering at the brink of overkill. The cast is full on: jazz fusion icon Herbie Hancock and P-Funk mastermind George Clinton represent for the old school; Solange, Tierra Whack, Anderson Paak, and Shabazz Palaces’ Ishmael Butler provide varying shades of the new. “Heroes” opens the set portentously, with a pitched-down cosmic jazz-cum-ASMR incantation, choirs that billow through the mix like airborne veils, and an ambient backdrop that could be the sound of a bonfire, a chorus of bubbling bongs, or a combination thereof.
Gary Clark Jr. has spent the better part of a decade figuring out how to translate his guitar wizardry into compelling album-length statements. His first two offerings — 2012’s Blak and Blu and 2015’s The Story of Sonny Boy Slim — were steeped in a sleek, modern blues-rock production style that mostly failed to capture the thrilling dynamics of his live show. Clark’s third major-label LP, This Land, arrives as an ambitious corrective. This is the first time it’s felt like the singer-guitarist is embracing the possibilities of studio production as a creative asset rather than a nuisance. In place of copious guitar solos, we get bass synths, keyboards, and a series of programmed samples that add a convincing contemporary accent to the survey of genres (Eighties R&B, funk, rockabilly, punk, reggae) Clark draws from this time.
or Jai Paul fans, it had been a long six years leading up to the release of his “debut album.” The British artist was a breath of fresh air for R&B listeners when he dropped the singles “BTSU” and “Jasmine,” but after demos for several of his songs were leaked in 2013, he stepped back from music. On his own terms and in his own time, Paul has now officially released those leaked demos, reclaiming his stolen music and reminding everyone of his irrefutable impact on what the genre sounds like today, even in unfinished, raw, demo form.
Warmer is the Amnesiac-like companion album to Tweedy’s 2018 solo LP Warm, recorded during the same Chicago session and released in a limited run of 5000 vinyl copies for Record Store Day. If you liked Warm, you’ll like Warmer. It’s Tweedy at his most self-findingly laid back, low-key and ruminative, leavening intimate recreational folk-rock with offhanded guitar tastiness. Tweedy is backed on the album by his son Spencer, whose subtle drumming is a nice conversational compliment to everything the Wilco leader does. Lyrically, it’s our ever-shifting window into the pillowy psychology of a literate Midwestern rock guy with a little too much time on his hands — “Pushing words onto the page/Patching where the heart is frayed,” as he sings on the prettily depressive “Landscape.” He drops a funny “Cum On the Feel the Noize” reference on “Empty Head,” spools out lovely diagonal Dylanisms on “Evergreen” and lands somewhere between the Velvet Underground’s “That’s the Story of My Life” and Workingman’s Dead on “Ten Sentences.”
Nine years and five studio albums in, Mac DeMarco has staked out his territory, and the only reason it’s bigger than his couch is he needs room for a TV. The gap-toothed soft-rock prince finds himself looking for peace and quiet amidst the noise of modern times on Here Comes the Cowboy, wrestling with his what-me-worry? persona, wondering if life is better spent drifting or settling down, and scaling back his sound to a gentle pulse that’s louder than the gurgle of bong water, but not by much. These stark songs are meditative, lonely, and stubbornly isolated, like spending 45 minutes petting a cat. A static search for comfort.
Salsa turned Anthony into a million-selling star in the Nineties, and salsa is what he gives you in 2019. He doesn’t even attempt another version of 2013’s “Vivir Mi Vida,” which traded tenacity and specificity for the benign, anyone-can-chant-this qualities that make global hits. Anthony’s refusal to change with the times on Opus is unfashionable, but intelligent. Change is one of pop’s most overused and inconsistently applied narratives — many transformations are ill-advised, and change for change’s sake isn’t all that different from inertia. Anthony, on the other hand, is focused on continuity. Opus is co-produced by Sergio George, who oversaw Anthony’s masterful 1995 breakthrough, Toda a Su Tiempo.
The first thing you notice about Crux, the second full-length from Long Island metal-and-more outfit Moon Tooth, is how utterly off-the-wall it sounds. Opening track “Trust” veers from breakneck post-hardcore to festive funk-fusion, complete with slap bass and a horn section. But give the album a few spins, and you start to hear how well-built and improbably catchy these hyperactive, style-hopping songs are. Vocalist John Carbone is a revelation; more crooner than shouter, he rushes bravely into the blur, adding soaring melody and disarming vulnerability. The net result is an ingenious blend of prog geekery and pop immediacy — and the year’s most exhilarating heavy album so far. (Full disclosure: A publicist who worked on Crux has also done PR for a band I play in.) —Hank Shteamer
Washington D.C.’s Priests clearly stated their refreshingly bedrock punk-rock concerns with the title of their 2014 EP, Bodies and Control and Money and Power. Their truth-finding intensity hasn’t subsided one bit on Priests’ second full-length LP: “There’s no way to overthrow the bourgeoisie/Except tossing a hand grenade into your society,” Katie Alice Greer sings on “Youtube Sartre.” But The Seduction of Kansas follows its evocative title — an echo of Tom Frank’s 2004 critique of Republican populism What’s the Matter With Kansas — into wide-open new territory via multi-faceted explorations of what Greer calls “the manufactured mythology of Americanism.” The music fits the expansive mood, at once dreamy and pointed, suggesting a psychedelic mutation of Southern indie-rock gods Pylon’s agrarian art-disco or David Bowie’s Scary Monsters toughened up on a Factory Records budget.
As its title indicates, Giddens’ latest is a musical bridge-building project, with the 42 year-old North Carolinian singer merging her excellent banjo playing with Turrisi, who draws on polyglot North African, Middle Eastern and Italian traditions in his accompaniment. It’s hard not to take the record’s title as a commentary on her own singular musical interests, which encompasses everything from classical music to 19th century minstrelsy to contemporary country and folk-roots. With its mix of originals, covers and traditional songs, Giddens’ latest encompasses the disparate strands of her heritage like nothing before, blending the canon-recasting interpretations of her 2015 solo debut Tomorrow Is My Turn with the historically-minded storytelling of her 2017 opus Freedom Highway and this year’s Songs of Our Native Daughters, a black feminist roots reclamation recorded with Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell and Amythyst Kiah.
For the first couple years of her career, Rico Nasty worked to develop her “sugar trap” style — melodious, Lil Yachty-indebted sing-song flexes on top of beats that sounded like souped-up versions of the Barney theme song. Her career trajectory changed course one night in late 2017, during her first-ever studio session with producer Kenny Beats. They reunited this January for a five-day session that yielded their new collaborative project Anger Management. Across nine tracks and 18 minutes, they attempt to achieve the catharsis of primal scream therapy and to trace the emotional arc of anger management, from rage to calm, as a way to explore new tones and evolve their musical relationship. “The expression of anger is a form of rejuvenation,” Rico raps on “Sell Out.” “I’m screaming inside of my head in hopes that I’m easing the pain.”
“Can I be basic with you?” Norwegian singer Sigrid Raabe offers on her debut LP. In a moment where many aspiring pop artists pile on heroic pretensions, the idea of aspiring to normal-ness is refreshing, especially since the music that undergirds her lyrics is anything but basic – part openhearted acoustic confessional, part elated dancefloor gusher. Sigrid can recall anyone from Robyn and Dua Lipa to Maggie Rogers and Regina Spektor, sometimes in the same song. She first got attention with her tough-talking 2017 single “Don’t Kill My Vibe,” a European hit included here, and she later lent a cover of Leonard Cohen’s synth-doom classic “Everybody Knows” to the Justice League soundtrack. On her debut LP Sucker Punch, she smooths out strange moods into glistening songs, making for top-shelf coffee shop synth-pop.
The Vallejo, California hip-hop quartet SOB X RBE are basically a 21st century version of d’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers. They rap ceaselessly about defeating men in gun duels and seducing their girlfriends. Their signature icon (other than a ski mask) is the crossed swords emoji. And the title of their new album, Family Not a Group, is a less poetic analog of the Musketeers slogan, “All for one, and one for all!” Family Not a Group marks a collaboration between SOB X RBE and Hit-Boy, the savvy producer (“Niggas in Paris,” “Backstreet Freestyle”) whom Juice WRLD’s A&R recently brought in to spruce up Death Race For Love. Hit-Boy takes a different tack than the DJ Quik-influenced, sample-heavy beats of SOB X RBE’s 2018 breakout albums Gangin and Gangin II; rather, he hews closer to sounds like the detuned pan flute synth of “Paramedic,” the group’s feature on the Black Panthersoundtrack, and uses the sparse, melodic bass thumps of California rap as a needle to weave together R&B and trap elements.
Michigan’s Stef Chura is a formidable triple threat: intense singer, bracing guitarist, revelatory songwriter. You can hear Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs in her side-eyed snarl, Cat Power’s coiled intimacy in her quieter moments, Jack White and PJ Harvey in her modernist take on primitive instrumental violence and Nineties guitar-twisters like Silkworm, Pavement and Modest Mouse in the way her songs can often mutate and stretch beyond where you expect them to end up. But chalking up Chura to the sum of any sonic signposts doesn’t nearly do her second album justice. In every chirp, croak and holler, in every athletically mangled solo, she’s discovering her own voice, finding her own way to rewrite her world, and fool it too.
Donnelly’s gently conversational singing and acerbic drollery evokes a vaunted lineage of indie-rock real-talkers from Jonathan Richman and Belle & Sebastian to Courtney Barnett and Free Cake For Every Creature; musically she recalls the spare, strummy charm of K Records champs like the Softies or the cocktail-hour prettiness of Ivy. But Beware of the Dogs is a triumph on its own terms, going from high point to high point as she maps the pains, pleasures and anxieties of her personal patch of twentysomething bohemia. The combination of humor and craft means she always makes it out of the most harrowing situations looking like a hero
Malkmus played all the parts on Groove Denied himself, using, among other things, Ableton software, a Moog, a mellotron, and “E drums with addictive drums.” Key influences, according to a recent Rolling Stone interview, include the Human League, “Louie Louie” and – hey, why not – the cantina scene in Star Wars. There’s a satisfying sense of discovery to the more electronic tunes, of a laid-back icon finding new ways to make noise after the kids have gone to bed. Mostly instrumental opener “Belziger Faceplant” burbles along before opening up into hard-grooving electro-funk; “Viktor Borgia” is arch, circa-1982 synth-pop; the swirling “Forget Your Place” sounds cool through headphones. It becomes more guitar-heavy on the back half. “Rushing the Acid Frat” sounds like homemade Nuggets while the striking “Ocean of Revenge” is a catchy, softly-rocking sketch in which a Scottish sharecropper gets hanged for axe-murdering a Mississippi plantation owner. “Love the Door” is best described by the man himself: “Kind of like a stereo ad, cocktail jazz thing, but with bad vibes and a weird time signature.”
If you don’t know Supa Bwe, you know his sound. The 29-year-old Chicago rapper has championed a combustible blend of hip hop, pop-punk, and R&B and helped carve out what would become a fertile, crowded lane occupied by younger stars like Lil Uzi Vert, XXXTENTACION, Trippie Redd, and YNW Melly. And yet, Supa is still constantly producing personal stylistic flourishes that no other artist could possibly replicate. On “Rememory,” from his new EP Just Say Thank You, he enlists Chance the Rapper to craft a dewy, electric piano-driven lullaby in which Bwe bounds in from left field and snatches the mic, instantly turning the track on its side with his singular singing voice—the sweet, sticky, Auto-tuned caterwaul of a lovesick feral cat. Just Say Thank You features production that is often slower, quieter, and sparser than that of Supa’s 2017 debut album Finally Dead and leans all the more on his feline wail to sustain its energy.
California’s High Desert is heavy with rock history. It’s where country-rock icon Gram Parsons had his corpse cremated by friends; where an Irish band found a name and cover image for a great LP; where Jim Morrison dropped acid and made a movie. Now The Mekons — those zany, erudite and beloved British punk-country-reggae-rock survivors — join the processional with Deserted. As always on Mekons LPs, there’s grim humor. “Weimar Vending Machine” salts puns (“Iggy pops up in Berlin”) into a delightful Bowie tribute that greets the heart of darkness with Eno-esque synth squalls, boozy hollers of “the priest is gone!,” and a laundry list of delirious end-time visions: “Mankind snivels, footprints stretch /Across tattered meadows bloom round in circles of sex/ a snakes eye blinks staggers and dims/ A bubbling cauldron of sad lonely beans/ A dirty vest.” (Hey, at least there’s sex.) As bad as things look, beauty, especially in the natural world, ultimately wins out.
The latest Mountain Goats LP invents a sonically rangy genre Darnielle calls “dragon noir,” a merger of sorts, as the name suggests, of fantasy and crime fiction. It’s less conceptual than thematic, often honing in on tales of heroes gone to seed. The title track is a beautifully sad country-folk tune sung in the voice of an over-the-hill wizard, making emo arrangements with himself as he prays for dragon reinforcements to show up and make him look good again in the eyes of the people he can no longer defend. Darnielle works a similar sense of sunset reflection into songs like “Doc Gooden,” which picks up the career of a once-great pitcher as he slogs through his final tour of the majors, and “Passaic 1975,” the grim lament of a Seventies rocker slipping into blood-coughing, lyrics-forgetting self-parody. It should go without saying that Darnielle, steadfast champion of marginalized music worlds, would never play a song with a Hobbit-rock title like “Clemency For the Wizard King” for laughs. That doesn’t mean these songs aren’t funny, but he brings real empathy and concern to every character he creates.
Todd Snider’s an ace word guy — his lyrics are razor sharp, unsparing, hilarious, and surprisingly tender — so this bare-bones acoustic LP is a fine idea. Punchlines fly from the get-go (there’s no Vol. 1or 2), with humanity the usual butt of the jokes, though Trump’s a target, too. Take “Talking Reality Television Blues,” a tribute to Dylan (see “Talking John Birch Society Blues,” “Talking World War III Blues,” etc.) and Woody Guthrie before him that draws a line from Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theatrethrough MTV, Fox News and The Apprentice, dissecting the talking blues trope along the way. Snider likes meta: see also “Working On A Song,” an extended koan that frames the life of a Nashville writer from 22-year-old newbie to a greying bard, still staring at a half-empty page. “The Ghost of Johnny Cash” conjures an encounter (supposedly true) between Loretta Lynn and the late man in black at Cash’s old mancave, which Rick Rubin helped transform into a studio during the American Recordings sessions, and where this album was cut.
Musically, their latest portends a bit of a change-up. Cuomo primarily composed The Black Album on piano, and brought in Dave Sitek of experimentally minded indie-rockers TV on the Radio to produce. But even if he primarily composed on pan flute, it’d still be what it is — another edition of their signature precise, poker-faced California pop-rock. There’s some predictably trollish tongue-in-cheek teen-angst (“Zombie Bastards”), and a glam jeremiad on the wages of stardom (“The Prince Who Wanted Everything,” which comes with allusions to the actual Prince that seem a little off for a jaunty joke song; too soon, Riv). On “I’m Just Being Honest” the crown he wears is heavy indeed; over a guitar grind that shimmers like alt-rock radio circa 1995, Cuomo sings about living in a personal hell of his own creation, where bad thirsty musicians bug him at his gigs looking for feedback on their CDs: “I had to quit/Your band sounds like shit,” he intones. He’s a five-star dude in a one-star world; that may not be enough to earn our sympathy but on most of The Black Album he’s still holding our attention.
On the gospel-R&B legend’s new album, We Get By, Ben Harper serves as Staples’ newest collaborator, writing and producing a series of defiant declarations of peace, justice and heartbreak. From the charging electric blues of “Change” to the modern soul protest of “Brothers and Sisters,” Staples further refines the type of socially conscious artistry she rediscovered on 2017’s If All I Was Was Black, in the wake of horrors like Charlottesville and Trump’s child-separation policy. But Staples, who lost her sister Yvonne last year, is at her best here when she’s exposing a rare vulnerability or further bolstering (and commenting on) her own mythology. Folk ballads like “Heavy on My Mind” and “Never Needed Anyone” find the singer bruised and bleeding with grief as she wrestles with loss and loneliness. “Now all that we are,” she moans on the former, “is the living ghost of our youth.”
Santana launched their career half a century ago with a cover of Nigerian percussionist Babatunde Olatunji’s “Jingo” and now, for their 25th album, they’ve created a love letter to Africa. Although Africa Speaks sounds undeniably like a Santana album, with Carlos’ fiery guitar bursts and reedy-voiced singer Buika’s Spanish-language exclamaciones, it explodes from the start with African rhythms and a unique freedom to the way the group plays the songs. The tracks on Africa Speaks unfold more like jazz tunes, finding their way as they go.
Taken line by line, the conversational lyrics of Natalie Mering, aka: Weyes Blood —pronounced “Wise Blood,” a moniker taken from the Flannery O’Connor novel — seem straightforward, sober, and frequently inspirational. We hear from someone who “drank a lot of coffee today,” who recognizes that “some of us go astray,” who wants “something to believe.” Someone who tells a lover “we love our love.” Someone who believes “you’ll learn to get by/ cause you got what it takes.” But as they pile up, these statements turn cryptic, contradictory, and uncertain, as romantic optimism is swept up in waves of doubt and realist pessimism.
Big Thief’s third album UFOF creeps up on you. Unlike their previous LPs — 2016’s Masterpiece and 2017’s Capacity — on which sweet-n-sad folk-rock wrapped you in a warm embrace, UFOF sends a shiver down your spine in its simplicity. The album is 43 minutes of gentle, crackling coos from singer-songwriter-guitarist Adrianne Lenker about what lurks in the unknown (the final “F” in “UFOF” stands for friend). The impact is so quiet you might miss it, but it’s revelatory enough that you can’t escape it. Songs that deal with signature Big Thief themes of love, loss and longing, asking listeners to step into the abyss with them, to come along for the ride as the band searches for a higher meaning.
Karen O and Danger Mouse have described their first-ever collaborative album Lux Prima as a “shared destination,” and by the sounds of it, space is their place. The nine-song LP is a lush journey down the milky way of their rock ’n’ roll sensibilities, meaning a bit of the signature rough-around-the-edges heaviness in Karen O’s voice converging with Danger Mouse’s star-gazing, atmospheric production. The LP starts off ambitiously: the nine-minute title track is like a space-rock “Sicko Mode” as the tempo and even entire energy of the song changes every couple minutes: it starts off deceivingly as a drifty instrumental before unfolding into a sunburst before settling into a smooth, hypnotic R&B burn. The album shifts between extra-terrestrial disco (“Turn the Light”), seductive rock teases (“Leopard’s Tongue”) and anthemic pop blitzes (“Woman”). But the genre explorations are tied together beautifully with the overarching synth-washed camp of their otherworldly dreams.