From hip-hop to punk rock to pure pop to avant electronics, there is quite a lot the critics missed in the last six months
As 2019 reached the halfway point, it’s that time again: to bitch and moan and complain about the best music that didn’t make all the big midyear lists.
Here are ten of the most melodically satisfying, lyrically original, rhythmically propulsive works that show the album format is nowhere near flatlining, whether it’s the taffy-pulled futurism of 100 gecs or the highly precedented, still in-their-own-class PUP.
Let’s hope these rack up far more accolades in the next six months.
Club Nites (Mint)
This Vancouver quartet is one of those superb correctives: The slovenly, riff-crazed Be Your Own Pet to Parquet Courts’ Yeah Yeah Yeahs. That is, just as Parquet Courts have cleaned up their sonics to the point that Danger Mouse can take credit, here comes a parallel timeline where their two-chord groove becomes a dissonant harmolodic rainbow splatter and they drunk-sing “TV Party” instead. And just as the Austin-to-Brooklyn boys are starting to really focus on saying something about the world, these kids are hermetically sealed inside their localized rage, for the “Content Jungle” and its “total flow of endless poses,” for theory-spouting poseurs who go to the club but don’t dance, for follower-counters who can’t see “this clout shit is pretty funny, man.” And even though their frantic, often unpredictable bluster sticks to guitar-bass-drums, that last one goes out on a crazed sax solo.
Malibu Ken (Rhymesayers)
No one doubts Aesop Rock’s considerable gifts for deploying the English language the way a Benihana chef does shrimp. But on Malibu Ken, Tobacco of Black Moth Super Rainbow proves himself at least as virtuosic and dynamic with his vocabulary of synths (check out the Revenge of the Nerds-level twinkling riffs on “Save Our Ship”) and by taking over the backing tracks, frees up the lyricist for his most musically pleasurable album since his 2001 breakthrough Labor Days. The constantly bending and warping textures for once evoke a particularly engaging NES game (almost literally in the intro for “Sword Box”) played with the gusto of someone youthful enough to “make a mean suicide Big Gulp,” and for once you can really follow Aesop’s imaginative fables, like the one where an eagle eats a cat on webcam “like it’s a fucking churro.”
It’s always a great sign when a quality punk band’s slow ones are the best ones. Grian Chatten, the same striking Dubliner who opens Dogrel by evocatively declaring “My childhood was small / But I’m gonna be big” rises over the spacious glow of “Roy’s Tune” like mist to opine “I like the way they treat me but I hate the way they use her” and adorns “Dublin City Sky” with a folk melody worthy of Shane McGowan himself, a frontman with whom Chatten shares not just his thick accent but a flair for uncomplicated images that speak shattering decibels. And their most anthemic tune, “Boys in the Better Land,” isn’t the only thing here that owes local declamatory great Jinx Lennon. They’re gonna be big.
Open Mike Eagle
The New Negroes Season 1 [Original Soundtrack] (Comedy Central)
How many alt-rappers do you wish would have to explicate their convictions instead of mumbling them in abstraction? That’s the beauty (and challenge) of longtime underclass hero Open Mike Eagle’s most to-the-point album ever, carefully edited into existence by the necessities of his Comedy Central standup and rap variety show. Plus, the TV budget expands his guest options considerably; he can now afford MF Doom, Danny Brown, Method Man, and recent BET awards performer and all-around 2019 winner Lizzo. Skewered topics include debt that dogs you into the afterlife, paperwork to file for sexual consent, and racism’s big comeback as told via celeb-gala commentators (“performing best in the poor regions and expected to win big this awards season”). But best of all is “Woke as Me,” a more-progressive-than-thou battle with Phonte (“I don’t just rock the bells / I rock the bell hooks”) and the rare social-justice satire that comes down on the right side of history.
I’ll Show You Stronger (Rhyme & Reason)
Loads of burgeoning artists have circular dream-pop structures but far too few live up to the second word in that hyphenate. That’s not a problem for the relentlessly tuneful Alyse Vellturo, who reimagines Tegan and Sara’s no-nonsense hook-bombs ignited with jangling reverb that honors the late Dolores O’Riordan and underrated Brooklyn minimalists Beach Fossils at once. Some of her cleverly recalled problems even recall the unsparing domestic details of the great Amy Rigby, who also features into Vellturo’s gulping voice. Few albums this year contain a fireworks display like the jaw-dropping run from “You Didn’t Even Make the Bed” to “Stay” on I’ll Show You Stronger. And few will.
Young Enough (Barsuk)
On their immensely likable 2017 debut Guppy, Eva Hendricks and her ultratight supporting musicians felt like one of those ‘90s-nostalgia curios; how far could a band go when they’re routinely compared to Letters to Cleo? The follow-up’s title track, a five-and-a-half minute tour de force hooked around the phrase “crushing cigarettes just to prove a point” puts all that to rest and introduces them to the big leagues, because it sounds like Carly Rae Jepsen fronting Funeral-era Arcade Fire. That epic scope also invades the gummy opener “Blown to Bits” by letting it build out from a synth drone, drums, and eventually the sweet-and-sour guitar they’re known for. But more often, they sound like Carly Rae Jepsen fronting a far more economical alt-rock band, which is to say that brain-eating singles like “Chat Room” and “Capacity” resemble no other act in current music despite the familiar air of every tune. You could even say there should be more of them.
Morbid Stuff (Rise/Little Dipper)
Toronto’s PUP remain a case study in how to corral not just the rambunctious explosiveness of pop-punk but even its embarrassing melodramatic overkill and screeching voices without congealing into banal emo. Tools that should be easy for everyone else — gang vocals, self-disemboweling humor — are so effective in their hands that it’s only more puzzling why their peers labor so hard over simplicity. The band’s third album is their most layered yet, sweetening a standout like “Kids” with harmonized lead guitars, but their stock in trade is still meta-anthems about mega-pathos: “Just ‘cause you’re sad again / Doesn’t make you special at all” goes the shout-along first single. Just the thing for starting a mosh pit at group therapy.
1000 gecs (Dog Show)
In which the groundbreaking, duct-tape-ripping sound-design brilliance of SOPHIE and Oneohtrix Point Never is lovingly emulated, parodied, and defaced with a ska-cum-happy-hardcore tune about beating the shit out of the jockey when your horse loses at the track. Laura Les and Dylan Brady do the impossible and find new uses for Auto-Tune within the blown-out sonics and firmly disciplined songwriting of the Charli XCX-influenced eurodisco of “xXXi_wud_nvrstøp_ÜXXx” and cutesy uncanny valley-pop “Ringtone” breaking up the comically threatening hooks of “Money Machine” and “Stupid Horse.” It’s been a while since PC Music broke pop into a thousand butthurt pieces and threatened to overtake the genres it lampooned. This is the next best thing.
Beware of the Dogs (Secretly Canadian)
It’s not hard to hear why a threadbare, breathtaking stroke like “Boys Will Be Boys” deserves all the ears it can get in 2019; a line like “You invaded her magnificence” is just the devastating beginning. Not only is Donnelly one of the most critical and uncompromising new songwriters of the year, her often sparsely adorned voice is the perfect delivery system for messages we’ve all heard in less sharp and beautiful shapes. The lushly strummed, Time’s Up-themed “Old Man” is the essential opener, but “Tricks” has even tastier guitar intricacies and even more specific damnations for the male species, and don’t think a woman singing “I don’t wanna die” as a repeated refrain on the relatively chipper “Die” can’t move you to tears like the rest.
Emily A. Sprague
Water Memory/Mount Vision (Rvng. Intl.)
Burial’s just-released “Claustro/State Forest” single may be a welcome return to atmospheric brilliance six years after Rival Dealer crowned the mysterious Brit with the greatest electronic run of his generation. But the best ambient offering of 2019 is this loving, hour-and-a-half-long reissue of Florist mastermind Sprague’s 2017 and 2018 releases with bonus goodies. They’re improved by this sprawl not because longer is better but because the simulated infinity means you can start by dropping the needle anywhere. Sprague’s drones are warm, natural, and full of movement, whether it’s the percussive burbles on “Huckleberry” or the cyclically surfacing analog ripples of the amazing 13-minute leadoff “A Lake.” Generative electronics have rarely felt so tangible, as if Sprague 3D-printed an ocean.