Exclaim!'s Top 29 Albums of 2019 So Far
Published Jun 12, 2019
20. James Blake
There's a quiet assuredness underlying much of James Blake's work, one that has formed the narrative core to his first three albums. But start paying closer attention to Blake's outlying outputs, such as his production credits and 1-800 Dinosaur releases, and it becomes quickly apparent that those who've attempted to pigeonhole his style have been woefully misguided.
Assume Form is a perfect storm of all of Blake's influences and idiosyncrasies. While much has been said about the positive tone the album strikes, especially in contrast with 2016's The Colour in Anything, Assume Form's greatest strength is its ability to weave together all of the disparate Blakes within a very distinct — and yes, often uplifting — palette, all while allowing his impressive roster of guest vocalists the chance to shine.
19. Vampire Weekend
Father of the Bride
In Ezra Koenig's world, lowbrow and highbrow don't exist. He's dabbled in everything from pop production (on Beyoncé's Lemonade) to anime (his Netflix series Neo Yokio) — and he's also got a weird fixation with the font Jokerman. He approaches everything with a scholar's attention to detail, channelling his passions with a mixture of irony and sincere appreciation.
This all comes through on Father of the Bride, a clipart-bedazzled 18-song opus that opens a new chapter for the project. With core member Rostam Batmanglij out of the band, Koenig explores wacky jazz scatting ("Sunflower"), white-knuckle flamenco ("Sympathy") and cheeseball country (on three duets with Danielle Haim). Throw in the heart-wrenching pop melodies of "Harmony Hall" and "Stranger," and Father of the Bride works like a mood board for Koenig's wildest tastes.
18. Little Simz
North Londoner Little Simz elevated her music this March upon the release of GREY Area, the MC's third full-length album. Working closely with producer Inflo, Simz delivered a starkly honest portrait of navigating her early twenties, rapping vulnerably about her relationships, mental health and career.
The record's deep sense of groove can be heard in the R&B-infused "Selfish," featuring fellow Londoner Cleo Sol; elsewhere, Simz juxtaposes her bars with the voices of Erik Bodin and Yukimi Nagano (Little Dragon), as well as Michael Kiwanuka. The soundscapes on GREY Area are understated when needed, yet they heighten the drama and prowess of Simz' lines, as heard on "Venom," a bass- and strings-inflected assertion of feminine rage.
In detaching herself from the fantastical themes of 2016's Stillness in Wonderland, Little Simz's songs connect in a more direct manner here, deftly conveying her fears and continuing to establish her triumphs as the singular artist she is.
17. Fontaines D.C.
Joining their brethren in IDLES and Shame, Fontaines D.C. have solidified their place at the forefront of the exceptional recent wave of post-punk exports. This April saw the Irish lads release their debut full-length; a poetic testament to the disenchantment that pervades the demise of youth, Dogrel deftly integrates both early garage/surf rock influences.
Over the record's 11 tracks, which veer between boisterous and frantic to melancholic and fragile, singer Grian Chatten's poignant storytelling never falters: "Dublin in the rain is mine / A pregnant city with a Catholic mind," he barks assertively on "Big," Dogrel's fiercely catchy opener. Elsewhere, on the ballad "Roy's Tune," the frontman gently croons: "Hey love, are you hanging on?" Naturally saturating each lyric in his thick Irish accent, the powerful juxtaposition of Chatten's vocal tones feed Dogrel's narrative.
With authentic talent and a supportive community of similarly bold bands, Fontaines D.C. are sure to be dubbed one of 2019's most important new acts.
16. Jenny Lewis
On the Line
On the Line, Jenny Lewis's fourth solo album, finds the ex-Rilo Kiley frontwoman squaring up with the past. Its 11 songs unpack complicated moments and tangled emotions with vibrant shades of pop-rock and just enough California twang.
Across them, Lewis has never seemed so in command of her craft: from the sharpened guitar-led urgency of "Red Bull & Hennessey" to the potent, anti-depressant drift of "Do Si Do," she lands poignant realizations by digging into little details of the memories she's revisiting. And backed by a team of legendary studio musicians, the music keeps pace with her lyrical feats, letting On the Line reveal itself as an essential part of Lewis' catalogue.
15. Jamila Woods
Jamila Woods' music has a message on her new LP, LEGACY! LEGACY!, on which she seamlessly fuses irresistible grooves with vivid lyrics about the African American greats who have preceded her and paved a more progressive way.
Opener "Betty" for instance, is the kind of track that would have made its muse, pioneering singer Betty Davis, grin, with thrillingly unpredictable percussive shuffle and Woods' assured singing. Woods achieves equal feats on "Zora" while singing about dining on African American staples like collard greens with a silver spoon, vividly conveying longing with drawn out syllables. "Giovanni," meanwhile, boasts dramatic dips in tempo juxtaposed with stratospheric synth riffs and equally heavenly singing from Woods.
Both as a tribute to her forbearers that sparked so much promise, and as an early testament to her own towering potential, Woods makes LEGACY! LEGACY! live up to its name.
14. Big Thief
All folk acts look to the past in some ways, but there's something about Brooklyn-based folk-rock combo Big Thief's latest album, U.F.O.F., that feels of the present — and totally eternal.
Adrianne Lenker's finger-picked guitar playing crackles with light, its interlocking broken chords perfectly complementing her repeated phrases about people, creatures and the unseen laws of the universe; the rhythm section of bassist Max Oleartchik and drummer James Krivchenia is subdued yet strong, lending a gentle push and pull that guides these songs with grace (and feels so innate it belies their Berklee training); and Buck Meek's live-wire guitar playing punctuates the album's more profound moments, awakening the listener during the hypnotic dirge of opener "Contact," and finding space alongside the interloping sonic artefacts that dot the rest of the album and seem to transcend both time and space.
A deep, dark and melancholy album emerging in a time of general uncertainty, Big Thief's U.F.O.F. feels like a cool embrace — a welcome presence (and present) from one of the best bands of our moment.
13. Snotty Nose Rez Kids
Few acts have more to say than Kitimat, BC's Snotty Nose Rez Kids. The duo of Darren "Young D" Metz and Quinton "Yung Trybez" Nyce broke out with their Polaris Music Prize-shortlisted sophomore album, The Average Savage, and Trapline follows with even more crucial challenges to power.
In a key track, "Son of a Matriarch" calls out the patriarchy that has dominated Western political structures and cultural institutions since their foundation. Even the title itself, Trapline, is a reference to social responsibility, to our reliance on the land and how it, the sea and the air must be honoured if future generations are to flourish. The trap-tinged beats are as hard-hitting and slickly-produced as anyone around, but their commitment to elevating marginalized people carries more weight than mansion-dwellers could ever realize. The skits here solidify their messages, rather than distract from them, making Trapline a complete and powerful artistic statement.
Cuz I Love You
(Warner Music Canada/Atlantic)
It takes your breath away, Lizzo's voice, on the first and title track of her major label debut, Cuz I Love You. She wails that song's opening line with no backing, and it's both a powerful and apt way to start the album, her voice bare, just her. It's how she appears on the record's cover and also the spirit in which she delivers its 11 tracks.
From sonic references like jazz, soul, funk, and trap to material that tackles sexuality ("Lingerie"), body positivity ("Tempo," on which she pairs perfectly with Missy Elliott), race ("Better in Color") and relationships ("Jerome"), Cuz I Love You is a triumphant declaration of self-love in every way.
11. Billie Eilish
When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
Billie Eilish doesn't care for labels. You could call her sound pop, R&B, electronic or some amalgam, but at the end of the day, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? is what it is: a biting, urgent, nightmare-scape with a touch of weary lovesickness. In short, the record captures the sense of being a teenager, but with self-awareness that transcends juvenescence.
Expertly produced and rhythm-driven, this debut doesn't move like an introduction or a showcase of skills, instead keeping to an aesthetic theme. By the record's end, it's as though you've walked through a hall of mirrors only to be faced once more with reality. The relief to be out, however, doesn't stop you from wanting to go back in again.