ALBUMS I LOVED
Big Thief - U.F.O.F. & Two Hands
It's almost as enjoyable to hear Lenker, the primary songwriter, talk about her philosophy and her connection to her bandmates as it is to listen to their consistently wonderful and gently boundary-pushing music.
I've combined these two albums into one list item because they're flip sides of the same coin: spirit and earth, ethereal and corporeal, unknown and known. If you've heard their earlier two albums, you might be put off a little: there aren't any smash hits like Masterpiece on here, nor any doomed ballads like Shark Smile. These albums are a little blurrier, shadows and gleaming bits of light floating past. At times the songs sound less like early Big Thief than they do Adrianne's solo releases: lyric focused, strange sprawling structures, a bit rougher around the edges.
At these records' cores, though, the soul is the same true soul. On U.F.O.F., there are sadness-tinged love songs like Orange and an ode to a dead relationship or dead loved one, Terminal Paradise, recut from Adrienne's solo discography. On Two Hands, rollicking rockers like Forgotten Eyes and the titular track nestle up against the tender and painful Wolf and a live staple for the band, Not, a song that builds momentum and tumbles towards its conclusion like a meteor.
Whether you're a devoted fan (and I don't know anyone who listens to Big Thief but doesn't consider themselves one) or a newcomer, it's worthwhile to spend some time close to these records. Let them, and they'll grow on you.
Kim Petras - TURN OFF THE LIGHT
Easily the best collection of club pop songs this year began as a Halloween-themed mixtape, which I think gives it a willingness to experiment that I sometimes miss in Petras's more standard stuff. The hooks on tracks like There Will Be Blood, Close Your Eyes, and Tell Me It's a Nightmare are as good as anything in her discography, and the most adventurous moments, like the interlude o m e n and the German verse in In the Next Life, not only pay off but fuck harder than basically anything I've ever heard.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Dr. Luke was one of this record's producers. The fact that he gets a cut of every stream and sale is a terrible blemish on what would otherwise be a huge favorite of mine.
Sufjan Stevens & Timo Andres - The Decalogue
A forceful, sometimes opaque album. Delicate and opinionated piano music for ballet. One moment of particular transcendent beauty: the track V.
Weyes Blood - Titanic Rising
A 10/10, perfect, totally wonderful album. A ton of variety and not a single bad song. By turns upbeat, dreamy, contemplative, creepy, explosive. One of the most beautiful and evocative album covers of the year to boot.
Andrew Bird - My Finest Work Yet
I appreciate Andrew Bird's esoteric trips and darkly introspective weirdness, so it surprised me how much I enjoyed this: a bouncy, ascerbic, and delightful return to form packed with ironic turns of phrase and endlessly engrossing little musical details. Bloodless is a legit political statement, a State of the Union address that is somehow equal parts ominous and encouraging. Sisyphus is freewheeling and also political, a common thread here. My favorite is Manifest, a disco-inflected ode to fossil fuels. You could blast it and joyfully sing along without ever realizing how apocalyptic it is.
Nivhek - After its own death / Walking in a spiral towards the house
Moody, spacious, and minimalist. Lovely and meditative.
M83 - DSVII
A world all of its own. Cinematic, strange, and cheesy. I really appreciate M83's willingness to do absolutely whatever they want when they could easily have made a career pandering to fans of Midnight City and selling songs to car companies.
DSVII is spacious and upbeat, steeped in the memory of 70s space western epics. Flutes, pianos, and shimmering picked guitars float over crashing post-rock drums and synths ranging from contemplative sweeps (Mirage) and buzzing pads (Colonies) to swelling vox (Taifun Glory) and precise, retro little bleeps (Oh Yes You're There, Everyday). It's wonderful background music, and the choice tracks (Temple of Sorrow, Mirage, Hell Riders) are great fun and even occasionally thrilling. This album is easy to love.
Thom Yorke - Anima
Detuned synths lying motionless in a cold desert fading in and out of life
Foxes in Fiction - Trillium Killer
A swirling dream-pop masterpiece. I had the privilege of seeing Warren perform some of these songs earlier this year, and I felt totally transported, like I was physically present in the green holographic world of his back-stage projections. These songs are complex and really special, crafted with care and an ear highly attuned to odd harmonies and little additive details.
I love the way stories and thoughts weave together across the album. The catchy, gently swelling music is a brilliant compliment for the lyrics, which are often dark and intense, blurring the political and personal on songs like Say Yes to Violence and Antibody.
Aesthetically, this album is a delight, but there's so much depth beneath its glimmering surface. What a wonderful addition to Foxes in Fiction's powerful and lovely discography.
Xiu Xiu - Girl with Basket of Fruit
Xiu Xiu always makes me smile. This album is dense and abrasive and very lyrics-forward. Jamie Stewart sounds fucking pissed and I love it. The beats are quick and unrelenting: samples of Haitian drummers led by musician Daniel Brevil.
I also can't get over the fact that Angela Seo published her favorite and least favorite lyrics from each song. Jamie wrote this about the record's title, which references Caravaggio's painting Boy with a Basket of Fruit: "When this title is a boy it is fey and lovely. When it is a girl is worrisome and rife with danger. Male martyrs are almost always surrounded by nurses, their mothers, adoring angels and other loving disciples wrapping their crushed and holy bodies in strips of herb soaked cloth and weeping rapturously. Female martyrs are almost always depicted having their skin flayed, breasts branded or ripped off with tongs or being stabbed and they are always, always alone save for her murderers. There is never anyone by their sides celebrating their spiritual life, only fiendishly reveling in their torture of her. It is perilous to be a 'girl.'"
Bats - Alter Nature
I was shocked to find out these guys have been around for 10 years. This sounds like an album by a young band, which I mean as a compliment: it's energetic and rough and a little uneven in parts in ways that I enjoy. The sound is either especially intense but poppy post-punk or kind of gentle hardcore. I think there's a lot of crossover potential between those two fan bases here. Their attitude is what I love more than anything else. I don't know how to describe it exactly. It feels like the band are willing to go to weird, sarcastic places and then quickly snap back to sincerity and brutality, often multiple times in one song. I'm not much of a hardcore fan, but I almost wish they'd spent a little more time with that sound: my favorite parts on this record are the heavier bits like the end of Current Affairs.
Olivia Neutron-John - Olivia Neutron-John
This album sounds like if you trapped a musique concrete artist in a timeless hell with a couple drum machines and synths for a millenium and then poked a hole in the wall and recorded what came out. Really fun and uncomfortable. I do still think the best format to experience ONJ is in her like 20-minute rambling dance tracks, like 2017's Injury Train.
Liturgy - H.A.Q.Q.
A lot of people really despise Liturgy, and if that's the case for you, this album probably won't change your mind, but for what it's worth, it's a little more accessible than their synth-horn-heavy black metal midi extravaganza of a previous album The Ark Work.
H.A.Q.Q. does contain weird, tonally distinct interludes (the EXACO trio of tracks) between its transcendental metal pillars, but they're the rare interludes that go beyond merely cleansing the palette and setting the mood for whatever follows. EXACT III especially is a bright and emotionally complete unit. What we're really here for is the metal, though, and this album delivers like nothing Liturgy has released before. Composer/singer/guitarist Hendrix's melodies are unique and beautiful, the riffs and blastbeats are tight, and the stuttering glitches that break up dense passages are welcome even when they're really surprising. HAJJ, PASAQALIA, GOD OF LOVE, and HAQQ are all monster tracks, but the whole album is well worth your time. The lead single, GOD OF LOVE, is a great place to start.
This is definitely, easily my favorite black metal album of all time, and probably my favorite metal album full stop.
Blood Orange - Angel's Pulse
Dev Hynes' mixtape is by turns propulsive and relaxing, softspoken and hardheaded. It's brilliant and beautiful and although it's not too long, each song is given ample room to breathe. I wish other artists were as effective at utilizing guest artists (some tracks here have three guests, and Hynes is able to manage their time well enough that there's no feeling of bloatedness or a lack of cohesion). I love this album. It might be my favorite thing Hynes has ever done. Listen to: Take It Back, Berlin, Dark & Handsome
Toro y Moi - Outer Peace
Chaz's album Boo Boo was one of my favorite albums of 2017, but because it wasn't chillwave enough or whatever, people didn't seem to give it a fair shake. That seems to be the case with Outer Peace, too: it's less of a single unit than Boo Boo and contains more danceable content, but it's a little too moody and eccentric to win over fans of Anything In Return, Chaz's basically perfect 2013 opus. (As a side note, his mixtape Soul Trash, which also came out this year, is good fun too.) Anyway, Outer Peace feels kind of like a more accessible extension of Boo Boo. Parts of it still feel like a deranged early-morning exercise program on college radio, which I like. Try some of the lighter stuff first: Fading, Ordinary Pleasure, and Freelance.
Opium Lord - Vore
No genre has better subgenre descriptors than metal. This is a black sludge album, and that's pretty much all you need to know.
Mid-Air Thief - Crumbling
Okay so this album technically came out in 2018, but it had a wide release this year on Topshelf Records with like four different wax colors, and also I only found out about it early this year, and I need to spread the word about one of the most delightful, fun, and beautiful albums I've ever heard. On Crumbling, organic strums and synthetic trills form a deeply engaging tapestry. I love every second of it. Combining sounds in this way totally qualifies as left-field experimental shit just because It Seems Like Nobody Else Is Doing It For Some Reason (except I guess Floating Points, see SOTY), but the music itself is actually really accessible. This is what pop music should sound like! We have the technology!! Please listen to this album. Dirt and Gameun Deut are my favorites at the moment, but you honestly can't go wrong.
Angel Olsen - All Mirrors
Olsen's gotten grander. Her ballads are longer and involve strings and synthesizers and beat machines. The soul feels the same to me, though. Songs like the title track are powerful and emotive and showcase not just her vocal range but a new range of sonic experimentation that I think complements her songwriting really well.
For those who aren't on board with the 7-minute ballads, there are also more lighthearted tracks like Too Easy and Spring. I knew that Chance reminded me of a specific song, but I couldn't think of the name until I read something by a person named Grimelords about how it's like her version of Sinatra's My Way. That's exactly what it's like.
Girl Band - The Talkies
Shoulderblades is an ugly, mammoth, multi-part story. Brilliant genreless repetition like in album opener Prolix and at the end of Couch Combover. Amygdela sounds like if early Preoccupations was fronted by someone undergoing torture whilst also muttering at their withdrawal hallucinations. The vibe here is complex. It's a very consistent album, but the collection of sounds and attitudes is really unusual. Caveat is a great example: a simple beat and twitching synth line turns into a lumbering mess of distortion-and back again, whenever it decides to-at will.
0 Stars - Blowing on a Marshmallow in Perpetuity
Timid singing, odd titles, and every-instrument-in-the-room textures on this album belie depth and a very warm heart.
"even though my dog barked at a baby,
i won't tell her 'no' cause that's just the way she
deals with being scared and sometimes i get scared too,
and it's bad enough without the shame
when i mess things up and you don't come over,
i go to the kitchen and eat leftovers
just because i'm sad doesn't mean it is fair to
depend on you when you're sad too"
(Sandy) Alex G - House of Sugar
With Gretel—the best song of the year—as its lead single, House of Sugar set an impossibly high expectation. Although Gretel is certainly a high point on the album, there are many more: Hope is inconspicuous but beautiful, honest, and cathartic, SugarHouse is a devastating jam, and Southern Sky whirls comfortingly from a rose-tinted verse into a chorus supposedly inspired by a dream and tinged with sadness. All but one of these songs are under 4 minutes long, but they're packed with conflict between abstract and concrete lyrics, beauty and strangeness. It's Alex G, so don't be surprised by the unexpected and often outright weird electronic flourishes and transitions throughout the record, but if you can handle its irregularities, this is easily one of the most fresh-sounding and enjoyable albums of the year.
Emily Reo - Only You Can See It
A bright, fun, and beautiful album full of bouyant vocals and strange twists and turns.
Although I deeply love the poppy stuff here (like the anthemic single Strawberry), my faves are the slower, darker, vaguely occultish songs: Ghosting, Counterspell (a shimmering sequel to 2016's Spell, one of the best songs of the year), and In Theaters, which is one of those songs that builds and builds and then has the most satisfying payoff. It might be my favorite ending of any album this year.
I hope you check this one out. Emily is the coolest and this album rocks.
Chromatics - Closer To Grey
Of course this came out in October. Chromatics is the only band that is allowed to use canned vinyl hiss. The first song on this record is a Sound of Silence cover and it is amazing.
Mizmor - Cairn
I try to approach new music without giving too much thought to the circumstances of its creation, but something about the idea of a mythical lone individual painstakingly crafting beautiful layered music appeals to me, whether it's Phil Elverum of Mt. Eerie, Sufjan Stevens, or this: Mizmor, some dude from Portland, OR making sick, dense black metal. Cairn is a slow, doomy, cinematic album, and maybe these qualities make it easier to notice the incredible attention to detail on individual riffs or little instrumental passages.
My favorites were Cairn to God and The Narrowing Way
Laura Agnusdei - Laurisilva
Lounge music from hell. Twin Peaks-y saxophone glides over squishy synthetic beats. Lungs Dance sounds like a block of jello having a nightmare. In all seriousness, this is an ingenious and very unique album and I enjoy it a lot. A lot of music I listened to this year attempted to merge organic and synthetic sound in a way that emphasises their similarities. Here, synthetic sounds and recognizable voices/samples/sax & flute riffs are juxtaposed, and the rift is never bridged. And it's weirdly comfortable. This is the most acidic of acid jazz.
And honestly, I just really like how wet the synths sound.
SONGS I LOVED
(singles for albums that i think outshone the album OR songs that were released not as part of an album OR just songs i heard and enjoyed. this will hopefully prevent me from including an album i don't actually love just because i really dug one song on it)
Arthur Russell - You Did It Yourself
Iowa Dream is a great collection of Russell's more accessible unreleased work. You Did It Yourself in particular is such a perfectly weird, groovy almost-pop song, a reminder that Russell was as talented a writer of hooks as he was a mastermind of electroacoustic experimentation. To explore his other side, check out another of his posthumous releases from this year, Not Checking Up.
MGMT - In The Afternoon
A gothic post-punk masterpiece that sort of follows from their excellent 2018 album Little Dark Age. This is MGMT's best era ever. My most-anticipated-2020 list is basically MGMT and Owen Pallett's Island. And probably one or two more Big Thief records.
Floating Points - Falaise
Floating Points' 2019 album Crush consists mostly of Aphex-Twin-y glitch-beat tracks that occasionally push towards something really interesting and unique. It's a great album, but the organic instruments on opener Falaise set you up brilliantly for an organosynthetic payoff that never arrives.
Honey by Drugdealer/Weyes Blood
okay, Lonely on the same album is fun, if a little silly. Lost In My Dream is also totally decent, and Fools is kind of a bop... actually, this whole album, while not totally my cup of tea, is great. If you like 70's-disco-inflected (like, Bee Gees) retro rock, sweet vocal harmonies and guitar licks, and a few indulgences (like saxophone), you'll totally dig this record. I'm gonna spend some more time with it.
Honey fucks especially though imo
Everything All at Once - G Jones
Something about this song just scratches an itch in my brain. The rest of this album is basically dubstep, and it all sandwiches this one beautiful little song. Better not to question life's gifts.
Perfume Genius - Eye in the Wall
Sandunes & Landslands - Eleven Eleven
James Blake - Barefoot In The Dark
new grimes unfortunately
Deafheaven - Black Brick
Honorable Mentions/stuff i like but other people would probably love
Kim Gordon - No Home Record
An experimental (but comfortably modern) record by the 66-yr-old Gordon, best known as a multi-instrumentalist/vocalist in Sonic Youth, a band I occasionally appreciate but can't say I love. Parts of No Home Record are noise rock-y, like Murdered Out, and others totally defy comprehension: Paprika Pony seems to have the most buzz surrounding it, which makes sense since it features both a kalimba and a trap beat. Really not a resting-on-laurels type of album. I wish more iconic older musicians made shit like this.
Pharmakon - Devour
The rare album that makes me forget about my tinnitus. A dense cloud of distortion and sharply biting microscopic needle creatures that settle around your shoulders and block out all light. Fucking awesome. Listen if you enjoy oppressive painfully pulsing sound textures of industrial noise blanketing completely incoherent screaming.
clipping. - There Existed an Addiction to Blood
This is a tough one for me because there are things about this album I can't stand, but many more things I absolutely love. The inventiveness of the production on Run for Your Life, Daveed's absurdly skilled delivery on Blood of the Fang, the harsh noise and musique concrete combining delightfully with rap on songs like La Mala Ordina; all of this is extremely exciting. I really love the last track Piano Burning, an 18-minute recording of, yes, a piano burning. The thing is, clipping.'s lyrical content is more or less the same here as on 2013's Midcity mixtape. It's ultra-violent, filled with graphic descriptions of gang violence and torture, which is fine, but just not something I'm that interested in listening to more than once or twice. They've branched out elsewhere (on their previous album, Splendor & Misery, and on the recent EP The Deep), but to me, it's unfortunate that this super cool and thoughtful album is lyrically (at least, on the surface) just a collection of descriptions of people being murdered. I don't really have any interest in reading more into it than that, because I regret pretty much every time I try to pay close attention, either because it's gross and boring or because it's embarrassing (The Show, for example).
I want to emphasize that as horrorcore goes, the writing here is mostly very good. The rhyme patterns like at the beginning of Story 7 are genius. It's just not for me, I guess.
I'm gonna keep listening to a few songs, though: Nothing is Safe, La Mala Ordina, Run for Your Life, and Blood of the Fang are excellent.
Field Whispers - Fire-Toolz
The Warm-Body is a great song. Hyphen- (and parenthesis-) heavy vapor/pc music/new age/ambient jazzy synth stuff. really nice.
Caroline Polachek - Pang
every r/indieheads dude: i like slide guitar now
probably the best vocal performance of any album I heard this year, Polachek is just ludicrously good. listen to Insomnia
Danny Brown - uknowhatimsayin¿
When most artists release an album of outsized acclaim, you can with some certainty expect them to mimic its acclaimed qualities later on in an attempt to reach the same level of success. Danny Brown is not most artists, though, and no one who knows him would count on a retreading of the ground covered in Atrocity Exhibition, Danny's nearly perfect 2016 album.
uknowhatimsayin¿ is more lighthearted and, I think, a little less ambitious (it's 13 minutes shorter, with more consistent track lengths; there's no "Really Doe"), but not to its detriment. The features are less head-turning than AE (up-and-comers JPEGMAFIA and Obongjayer, the understated genius Blood Orange, and Run the Jewels, the most overrated act in hip hop), but they all fit in neatly. Tracks like Belly of The Beast and Negro Spiritual prove Danny could still rap over a washing machine or musique concrete or fucking whatever.
The lyrics are less dense, the beats less experimental and strange, but the lighter energy is kind of nice. Atrocity Exhibition could've lost three or four tracks, but this album feels juuuust right.
HTRK - Over the Rainbow
Soft, ambient, moody. Reminds me of William Basinski's Watermusic II, but this album is less repetitive and a little less weird.
It's background music for people who hate background music. It's delightful and ignorable. Very nice.
Blarf - Cease & Desist
Shockingly decent plunderphonics/noise album from Eric Andre, who it must be pointed out attended one of the most prestigious music colleges in the world.
Ryan Lott - Pentaptych
Beautiful, prickly modernist string compositions.
Cereal Killer - The Beginning & End of Cereal Killer
Empath - Active Listening: Night on Earth
Ithaca - The Language of Injury
Mannequin Pussy - Patience
Swan's Chamber - Swan's Chamber
Avey Tare - Cows on Hourglass Pond
Men I Trust - Oncle Jazz
Charli XCX - Charli
Black Midi - Schlagenheim
Michael Kiwanuka - Kiwanuka
Methyl Ethyl - Triage
Bill Callahan - Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest
Better Oblivion Community Center - Better Oblivion Community Center
Twin Peaks - Lookout Low
Holly Herndon - Proto
Laurel Halo - DJ-Kicks
Earl Sweatshirt - Feet of Clay
Nihiloxica - Biiri
Wet Fruit - Wet Fruit
Night Bus 4: Memory of Night Bus by CFCF
When Hyperballad hits, you will understand.
A halfhearted AOTD list, in order this time1-The Age of Adz
thanks for reading. the world is abundant.