Best Albums of 2019 (so far)

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Best Albums of 2019 (so far)

Josh Lefkowitz, Staff Writer

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     2019 is not even halfway over yet, and we have already seen the releases of many phenomenal albums. A few artists have dropped great projects this year, notably Ariana Grande with the depressingly catchy thank u, next, Anderson .Paak with the soulful return-to-form on Ventura, and Vampire Weekend with the adventurous Father of the Bride. With these mainstream releases, it can be easy to ignore the abundance of albums released that may not appeal to a wide audience, but deserve the same attention. Today, we will be taking a look a several releases that I believe to be the best so far of 2019, in no particular ranking order.

 

Billie Eilish: When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?

     First is the debut studio album from Billie Eilish, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?. While this album has mainstream appeal, this “little album that could” takes sharp detours away from cliched tropes, and breaks every modern trend, making this an unpredictable and exciting first album from this seventeen year old indie-pop artist. Her influences are wide, ranging from the indie songwriting styles of her contemporaries such as Lana del Rey and Lorde, as well as electronic rhythms of the SoundCloud trap scene and previous collaborators, like Denzel Curry. She portrays love and heartbreak, and relays her own personal opinions about controversial topics including religion and drug abuse with a wisdom and maturity beyond her young age. She writes her own music and produces with her brother Finneas for a dark, edgy take on millenial pop that has smart, lovely ballads and hard, aggressive bangers.

     One standout track is her lead single, “when the party’s over”. This song tackles the loss of a friend who treated her like something more. Her vocals are passionately quiet, as she sounds like she is crying on the pre-chorus of the song. The production is very minimal, layering chorus-like background vocals on top of ambient bass tones, Eilish harmonizing with herself to a melody that is just as catchy as it is heartbreaking saying, “I could lie, say I like it like that”. This is referring to her treatment by this person as a lover who in reality only wants to be friends. These may seem like sophomoric topics, especially given her age, but she brings it down to a level that is relatable to anyone who has been mistreated and betrayed by someone they love. The smooth flow of the track makes it out to be not unlike a contemporary ballet of sorts, with its ¾ time-signature to the quiet piano chords and arpeggios moving with Eilish’s emotions.

     It’s easy to write her off as someone who is too young to be discussing in depth and so openly about her passions, but I recommend giving this album a chance. This is a smart indie-pop album that is different from anything else in the mainstream right now. This is by no means a perfect album, as some of the vocal effects on the track “8” and the interludes from clips of The Office on “my strange addiction” come off as immature and unnecessary. But Billie Eilish is still a blossoming artist, and this is still one of the best projects released this year so far, mainstream and underground releases included. If her debut album is this good, one can only imagine where she will be in ten years.

 

Favorite Tracks: “bad guy”, “when the party’s over”, “bury a friend”, “ilomilo”, “goodbye”

 

James Blake: Assume Form

     James Blake is an electronic music producer who has produced for artists like Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, Travis Scott, Vince Staples, and Jay-Z, but has also made a career for himself as a solo artist, from his excellent self-titled debut showcasing his fusion of blue-eyed soul with electronic R&B, to his equally great sophomore LP Overgrown, where he begins to develop songs with more structure and form, most notably the lead single “Retrograde”. His follow-up to that album, The Colour in Anything, was thoroughly disappointing, as its moody and heavy tones and themes on top of a formless and aimless concept made this album unenjoyable and hard to swallow. Looking back on Blake’s discography, the title of his fourth LP, Assume Form, is extremely fitting, as he has perfected the songwriting structure displayed on Overgrown, improved upon violently depressing emotions while still challenging the listener, and retaining the trademark sound from his debut LP. This is easily Blake’s best album, as he writes excellent pop and R&B songs that are able to be integrated into the mainstream well without sounding like he is selling out. His music and lyrics are honest and raw, and it is easy for the listener to move with the melodies to his feelings openly recounted to the audience.

     One of the most interesting and lovely tracks on the album, and one of the best songs of the year, is “Into the Red”, a ballad dedicated to Blake’s girlfriend Jameela Jamil. The term “into the red” refers to debt in financial speak, and he is using this theme to show how she brought him up when he was at his lowest point, going into debt in order to support him when he needed it. The track opens with lush violins that transitions into an autotune verse atop minimal trap beats and a light banjo melody from a synthesizer. The chorus features Blake’s crooning falsetto singing, “She doesn’t buy anything for herself, but for me she goes way…into the red.” By the end there is a chaotic overlap of layers of violin, synthesizers, 808 rhythms, and harmonies on top of harmonies to show him building himself up from nothing at the beginning of the song because of the love of his life. Themes of loyalty, trust, and sacrifices, are made lively through Blake’s emotion pouring through his vocals and his production, and its original concept keeps the listener entranced by his story.

     Assume Form is a nearly flawless album, only bookended by two tracks that are not as interesting as the middle section itself, where the best of Blake’s talents lie. It is a captivating listen filled with groove, sadness, and awe-inspiring production that make this project one not to be missed.

 

Favorite Tracks: “Mile High (feat. Travis Scott & Metro Boomin)”, “Into the Red”, “Barefoot in the Park (feat. Rosalía), “Where’s the Catch? (feat. André 3000), “I’ll Come Too”

 

Marissa Nadler & Stephen Brodsky: Droneflower

     Marissa Nadler, one of my favorite gothic folk artists who released one of the best albums of last year, For My Crimes, has collaborated with progressive rock musician Stephen Brodsky to create one of the most unusual albums I’ve heard this year, Droneflower. This LP’s title could not be more representative of the album itself: drony, minimalist, subtle instrumentals with flowery vocals and melodies that are just as chilling as they are engaging. It’s a radical idea to mix folk music with prog-rock, but Nadler and Brodsky play off of each other well, with Nadler’s spectre-like vocals supporting Brodsky’s eerie instrumentation that is so simple, but so effective in raising the hairs on the back of your neck.

     Several of these tracks are mostly instrumental, including the two part suite “Space Ghost”, which features a breathy, ghostly quality that is signature to Nadler’s voice behind notes plucked out on a piano in a repeating motif with a descending melodic line abruptly changing the key from minor, to major, then back to minor again, and it repeats several times in the song, setting up the tone throughout the album as suspensefully patient while beautifully and serenely ominous.

     Most of the songs on this LP were originals written by Nadler and Brodsky, but there are a two covers, one of which is of the Guns N’ Roses song “Estranged”. This track is especially unusual because the original track is a heavy and punchy ballad that has been reinvented for this album into something more reflective. Brodsky plays a simple guitar line on both an acoustic and an electric guitar, as Nadler is singing about the acceptance of unrequited love and navigating life around brokenness, complementing each other’s melodic vibes with a hypnotizing melancholy. While it is the longest track on the album, it is engaging throughout.

     At only 30 minutes, this album can easily turn away or bore new listeners with its slow and unusual rhythms and chord repetitions. However, this LP takes patience to understand and appreciate the nuances that make both Nadler’s and Brodsky’s performances emotional and moving. I recommend listening through a few times because I guarantee you will be captivated by the beauty of Droneflower.

 

Favorite Tracks: “For the Sun”, “Watch the Time”, “Space Ghost II”, “Estranged”, “In Spite of Me”

 

Nu Irth: Dead Planet

     Nu Irth is a hip-hop trio consisting of two emcees Star BBY and Jaden Castro and producer Hologram from Connecticut, whose new EP has less than 1000 listens on Spotify. But make no mistake; their obscurity does not reflect their talent and potential. I first discovered their single “Paradigm” on popular youtuber Anthony Fantano’s YouTube series Reviewing Your Music, which introduced their spacey, psychedelic trap sound that is wholly unique from the popular trap scene now. I was excited to discover that two months after that YouTube was posted, Dead Planet was released, and it did not disappoint me. It consists of three tracks, all of which are epic in length, soundscape, and lyricism, and it makes me interested to hear where these guys will go in the future.

     The first two tracks stand out as nothing short of brilliant. “Paradigm” consists of an extremely memorable hook, two solid verses delving into topics of self-reflection with strong wordplay from Castro and an infectious flow from Star BBY, and astrological motifs in both lyrics and production that make the track sound almost alien in a way.

     “Destruction” is just as brilliant and sticky, with Star BBY’s verse questioning faith and self-confidence through cryptic imagery and storytelling detailing self-destruction, while Castro picks up where Star BBY left off and spits a mad verse calling for the destruction of his competition and the obstacles faced when getting to where they are today. Hologram’s production should be praised for this track, as he fuses 808 trap rhythms with trumpets and spacey synthesizers all in a minor key that mirrors the lyrical destruction described in the track as eerie classical violins enter and the glitzy trap beats cut out.

     “Creation” is a nice track if you’re in the mood for a vibe, but its 8 minute run time can be a bit tiresome and it seems to just be an outlet to show the talents of Hologram’s lowkey production style, as Star BBY and Castro hardly have a strong presence in the song aside from another strong hook and a short verse each.

     Still, I would recommend checking this EP out, especially for the first two tracks. Nu Irth deserves more attention than they currently have and if they keep releasing projects as mind-bending as Dead Planet, they will have a bright future ahead of them.

 

Favorite Tracks: “Paradigm”, “Destruction”

 

Other great releases you should check out this year:

GREY Area – Little Simz

Hiding Places – Billy Woods & Kenny Segal

Titanic Rising – Weyes Blood

It Wasn’t Even Close – Your Old Droog

The Juice: Vol. I – Emotional Oranges

Wiaca – Sundays

U.F.O.F. – Big Thief

In League with Dragons – The Mountain Goats

 

 

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