Most music is created and quickly forgotten. That doesn’t mean it’s not good or important; it’s simply the tragic nature of art. A select few albums become enduring classics, working their way into the permanent soundtracks of our lives. Everyone’s soundtrack is different, and that’s a beautiful thing. There should be no judgement.
Come in close. I’m going to tell you a secret. Closer. Alright, that’s close enough. There’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure in music.
As a reformed pretentious music snob, I can proudly say I’ve been liberated. Sure, I’ll still jam out to Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust or Paul’s Boutique by the Beastie Boys, but I’ll guarantee you this as well. If you’re in my car and any song from The Black Parade by My Chemical Romance comes on, I will crank it up and subject you to the worst version of captive-karaoke you have ever experienced.*
Here’s a fun fact. For the first time since 1986, vinyl records are set to outsell CDs this year. That is wild! Rarely does technology move in reverse, but in the case of physical music the utility factor became obsolete.
CDs (and cassette tapes previously) were an evolution from vinyl due to their utility. It was easier to listen in your car or haul your favorite tunes over to a friend’s house. Nowadays, most everyone has access to unlimited music on their cell phone, tablet, or laptop. But along the way, we learned something interesting. People still want to own music in physical form. I know I do.
It’s actually a nice technological compromise – test drive on streaming services, and, if you really like the album, buy it on vinyl. Purchasing a vinyl album is also a great way to support your favorite artists at live shows. The king is dead, long live the king!
Let’s dig in to this year’s crop. Here’s hoping you find some vinyl-worthy albums on the list. As always, for each highlighted artist I like to post an official music video wherever possible in an effort to keep the artform alive.
Tobe Nwigwe – THE ORIGINALS
Like me, Tobechukwu Nwigwe had big dreams of playing NFL football. Unlike me, Nwigwe actually had the talent to make his dreams materialize. That is until a freak foot injury ended his promising career at the University of North Texas. Luckily for us, Nwigwe rose from the ashes of despair like a Mean Green phoenix to reinvent himself as a hip-hop superstar. THE ORIGINALS steers clear of cliché rap themes like getting paid and getting laid. Instead, he has the audacity to spit fire songs about positivity, love for his wife, and faith in god. I know, weird. It gets weirder. THE ORIGINALS isn’t an album. It’s a running compilation of songs and accompanying music videos, with a new ORIGINAL added each week. With help from his producer (LaNell Grant) and wife (Fat), Tobe Nwigwe is blazing a unique trail. I strongly encourage you to follow him down the rabbit hole.
If you like this, you might also dig: Little Simz – Grey Area; clipping. – There Existed an Addiction to Blood; Denzel Curry – ZUU
Lankum – The Livelong Day
In a word: stunning. In The Livelong Day, Irish folk band Lankum fashioned the most emotionally powerful album of 2019. Each song is a reinvention of a classic Irish tune. The production is sparse, relying mainly on vocal harmonies and bare-bones acoustic arrangements. The result is an addictive, haunting sound that pulls you close and demands full attention. This one’s not going to wow your friends at parties**, but you owe it to yourself to give it a serious listen.
If you like this, you might also dig: Kate Tempest – The Book of Traps and Lessons (spoken word); Rhiannon Giddens & Francesco Turrisi – There Is No Other; Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Ghosteen
SAULT – 5
Not much is known about SAULT. Maybe they’re from the UK since they dropped an album through London-based Forever Living Originals, but who knows. And honestly, who cares. This is a great album. It’s a delicious bowl of infectious funk, hip-shaking disco, and groovy R&B tracks. It’s a little bit Jackson Five, a little bit Aretha Franklin, and a whole lot of fun. If this one doesn’t have you dancing, you need to get your soul checked.
If you like this, you might also dig: Patience – Dizzy Spells; HÆLOS – Any Random Kindness; Tinariwen – Amadjar
Jamila Woods – LEGACY! LEGACY!
Chicago artist Jamila Woods isn’t just a great singer. She’s an all-encompassing force of performance art (as showcased by the “Hogwarts meets Chicago’s South Side” video below). LEGACY! LEGACY! is a true work of art. Each song is a tribute to a different cultural icon, from James Baldwin to Frida Kahlo to Muddy Waters. Woods brings history to life in an effort to inspire a better future. In the words of the great Nina Turner, “Hello, somebody!”
If you like this, you might also dig: Jazzmeia Horn – Love & Liberation; Lucy Rose – No Words Left; Vagabon – self titled
Orville Peck – Pony
Sticking with the mystery theme brings us to Orville Peck. Here’s how this one played out for me:
Orville Peck: Hey, man. You like goth country crooners?
Me: What? No. What?
Orville Peck: —goth country croons—
Me (song 1): —reenacts kombucha girl—
Me (song 3): I love goth country crooners!
I was reluctant to give this album an initial listen. The anonymity. The tassel-mask. The side-show cowboy getup. It screamed all schtick and no substance. That assumption was dead wrong. The dude has real country chops. Orville Peck puts a playful spin on old school country & western. Pony might not be Merle Haggard outlaw country, but I think Roy Orbison would approve. There’s plenty of room for theatrical showmanship in country & western music. If you’re scared of that, go to church.
If you like this, you might also dig: Tyler Childers – Country Squire; Caroline Spence – Mint Condition; Cody Jinks – After the Fire and The Wanting; Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster – Take Heart, Take Care; Tanya Tucker – While I’m Livin’
Nilüfer Yanya – Miss Universe
Data doesn’t lie. My Spotify “most played songs of 2019“ was littered with Nilüfer Yanya ditties. The songs are complex, yet easy on the ears. Miss Universe is the perfect tongue-in-cheek album name from someone who quite obviously does not want to be your stereotypical princess-pop girl. The thing that immediately jumps out at you is the way Yanya changes up her vocal inflection. It creates a unique sound and adds a quirky playfulness. Her music videos and live performances add another layer through her free-flowing, “Oh, are you filming this?” dance moves.
If you like this, you might also dig: Erika de Casier – Essentials; Pond – Tasmania; FKA twigs – MAGDALENE
Pile – Green and Gray
If you’re looking for shredding guitar solos and relentless double-bass drums, you came to the wrong metal album. Pile makes prog-metal, exploring every corner of the intentionally vague genre. Their music swirls around the room, bouncing between floors & ceilings and careening down hallways. Then, when you’re properly disoriented, they smash you in the face with a monstrous, chunky guitar riff. Pile’s music feels important. Green and Gray is the band’s seventh studio album, and best to date. They set the tone with the opening lines, “No longer burdened by youth / Not burning open and raw like a wound.” Green and Gray finds the band confident, contemplative, and at the top of their game.
If you like this, you might also dig: King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard – Infest the Rats’ Nest; The Body/Uniform – Everything That Dies Someday Comes Back***; Black Mountain – Destroyer; Fontaines D.C. – Dogrel
Witchsister – Post Toasty
Each year I like to showcase at least one local album. This year I had no choice but to go with Post Toasty by Witchsister. This album is a high energy, wild ride. It’s been fun to watch the band grow and find their way over the past few years. The all-girl power band features sisters Stephanie (vocals), Stevie (bass), & Sklyer (guitar) and cousin Kelsey (drums). Their sound is a mix of punk, prog, and metal, at different points reminiscent of Glen Danzig, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Soundgarden. But don’t try to pigeonhole these girls. They have created a sound that is now uniquely Witchsister.
Other local releases you might also dig: Magnolia – Follow Me Down; Bones of the Earth – I. The Imminent Decline of Human Spirit; The Good Fear – Long Gone Brand New; Gardensnakes – self titled; Drawing Blanks – Lover in the Sky
BONUS – You can get a 2-for-1 by catching Witchsister and Gardensakes at The Smoke & Barrel Tavern on January 25th.
HEALTH – VOL.4::SLAVES OF FEAR
The fourth full-length album by L.A. trio
HEALTH sees the band continue to move toward a heavier, more industrial sound. And I am here for it. There are still heavily synthesized elements and beats that could even be considered danceable. Granted, the dancing would involve lurching limbs and flying sweat in a dark, stripped down basement club with the occasional flash of strobe lights. But I mean, who isn’t into that? SLAVES OF FEAR is a manically uncomfortable album, best summed up by the haunting chorus line in “BLACK STATIC” – “Life’s gonna break us down, I said softly to myself, ‘fuck your armageddon.'” Wonderfully depressing.
If you like this, you might also dig: Káryyn – The Quanta Series; Spelling – Mazy Fly; Priests – The Seduction of Kansas
*For particularly rowdy songs, I might body check you into the passenger door as well. Fair warning.
**This assumes you have friends and parties with said friends.
***Seems like I highlight The Body every year. I promise to stop as soon as they promise to quit releasing badass albums.