It’s been a year of double albums, retrospectives and optimistic introductions—in between we’ve set the record straight with Taylor Swift, campaigned for change with Greta Thunberg (via The 1975 and Fatboy Slim), and gone back to basics with Bruce Springsteen.
While it’s always a difficult task to generate an objective overview of a year in music, we still believe in the power of doing so. Once again, we cast our eyes back and memorise the highlights; this is our 2019: Albums of the Year longlist.
Nominations and reviews by Chiara Strazzulla, Charlotte Holroyd, Callum Mitchell-Simon and Jill Guthrie.
YAK – Pursuit of Momentary Happiness
I have always had a soft spot for the rather unique brand of madness that YAK embody as a project, and this second album from the band came out in February and has stalwartly kept its place at the very top of my most played and/or favourite records of the year. A more mature counterpart to their previous outing, it is cutting, quirky, occasionally whimsical, fiercely biting in places, disarmingly emotional in others, and stunningly original and sincere throughout. It has wailing guitars, a kind of scratchiness of sound that hails all the way back to the golden years of the Sixties while preserving a fully contemporary voice, and – rarest of things these days – a production that is clever, smooth and never too intrusive.
It is a clever album in the way that it gains momentum immediately and maintains it as it goes on, allowing for the slower, more reflective tracks to be a place where one can pause to catch their breath and be lulled by the music (some unexpected chords stand out) before jumping right back in. It tackles themes ranging from the fiercely political to the intimate, making them appear almost as the reflection of each other. It also, at certain points, just indulges the temptation to be gleefully demented – something that used to powercharge rock music once and is not seen as often as it should now.
YAK’s frontman Oli Burslem is an arresting presence when seeing live, and his charisma translates perfectly to the record, with urgent vocals and passionate riffs alike. The more meditative sections of the album have an immersive quality that is the perfect counterpart of the more aggressive ones, and the whole is cohesive, charming, challenging and just a bit trippy. The band appears to currently be on hiatus (according to their own somewhat cryptical end-of-tour announcement) but they certainly have been one of the most striking quality voices in British music this year.
A song recommendation: ‘Fried’ – The third single released from the album is surreal and merciless, an alternative rock powerhouse with great vocals and some nostalgia woven in.
The Murder Capital – When I Have Fears
There’s been so much good music coming out of Ireland, particularly in the punk/post-punk department, and The Murder Capital stand out for their ability to transcend the boundaries of genre and tap into the potential of raw emotion. The title of this album is a perfect example of the openness with which this band can approach potentially difficult subjects, and a good descriptor of what is to come over the 44 minutes of this record. It is an intense listening experience which requires a moment of pause and consideration to be fully appreciated, with an immersive, layered sound which reveals new nuances on each repeat listen.
This is a band with a very distinctive voice, in more ways than one. Vocalist James McGovern has an impressive range of expression, going from mellow and soothing to vibrating with emotion. Gabriel Blake on bass creates a thrumming thread that runs from song to song, connecting the different parts of a record that is very much best understood as a whole. The end result feels deeply personal, and capable in turn of striking very intimate chords in those listening. Where distortion all of a sudden rears its head, it feels earned, not a simple gimmick to catch the listener’s attention. The overall feeling is that this is a record with a story to be told, rather than a simple collection of songs.
With When I Have Fears being so mature, it is easy to forget this is The Murder Capital’s debut in the studio; it shows a control of the long player as a form that is uncommon even in more experienced bands. Whether they will manage to maintain this lucidity of voice and daring in their choice of content and form remains to be seen, but regardless of that, this is a stand-out record showing that immediately aiming high can be a very rewarding strategy when it is executed with honesty of feeling and enough – yet not too much – confidence.
A song recommendation: ‘More Is Less’ – A live favourite for good reason, with a haunting lilt to its sound and a very relevant message in today’s frantic society, and a remarkable rhythm section.
Plague Vendor – By Night
Plague Vendor are far from newcomers to the harder sections of the rock and punk scene, and this third studio album not only maintains the high quality and level of challenge we have learnt to expect from them through time, but actively builds on it, revealing itself as by far the most internally coherent of their long players so far. Following its title, it is not hard to imagine the album as a narrative unfolding through a night, start to finish, bringing the listener, quite breathless by the end, from the falling of dusk to the earliest lights of dawn. It is an album that very much feels like a trip, at times bad, at times good, constantly intense, hammering, breathless, with a sound that manages somehow to capture the sweaty-sticky feelings of certain nights on the town. It has pounding drums, hypnotic bass, and a guitar sound that is not scared of devolving into a guttural screech when it needs to.
One of the many strengths of this record is that virtually every song in it could easily make a successful single. Listened from top to bottom, the album is a restless cavalcade with a distinct sense of unity and development, but it is also possible to jump in at any given point and get a shorter, but equally satisfying, rush. Both ways of experiencing it are equally intense, and it is a versatility not often seen in records in this genre of music. There is no weaker link in its ten songs: from old-style punk punches to almost-psychedelic tracks with irregular tempos and even a hint of country suggestions, everything in it vibrates with the same visceral energy.
By Night is one of those albums that have the uncanny ability of feeling shorter than they actually are. It isn’t simply obsessive, it feels like an obsession, giving a perfect portrait of that addictive frame of mind where one simply can’t stop. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why it keeps feeling fresh even after a good number of listens. A very tight package of a record with some ambition behind it, showing the highest degree of maturity and precision this band has achieved so far.
A song recommendation: ‘All Of The Above’ – Though most songs in this record deserve a standalone listen, this is the one that sums up the general mood of the whole album the best: pounding, relentless, almost out of control.
King Nun – Mass
It’s always an especially exciting feeling when one is confronted with a young band which is clearly well rooted in the history of rock music as a whole and unafraid to go, dip into it, and recover those bits that feel more relevant, then build them into something personal, gutsy, and full of new energy. In this recent debut – first out in October – King Nun are doing pretty much that. The London quartet have by now made a reputation for themselves for their explosive stage presence and indulgence towards noise, but their sound has undoubtedly grown with time and experience, and there is much more to them than sheer noise (though there is something delightful in the way that they clearly just draw pleasure from making the amps scream). Here they go back, in many ways, to the very origins of punk before it was even called punk. Aided by a minimalist production which knows what sections are supposed to sound rough, this album feels like it could have very well come out in the days when Iggy Pop was releasing his first solo albums, and a different set of London kids in leather jacket were coming up with something new and daring.
Yet Mass also feels new and daring in its own right; it has spunk and confidence, a quickfire series of short and punchy songs that go straight to the point and still manage to be more than simple bursts of angry sound. One may well go into the record expecting it to be energetic, abrasive, even angry, but not touching; yet touching is a mood that King Nun manage to capture effectively, sometimes within the space of a couple chords and some choice lyrics. The album can get dark in places; it does so without a particular taste for excess, when and were needed. It is acerbic and heartfelt, much like the mood of the times we live in.
As can be expected from a debut album from a fairly young band who capitalise fairly heavily on stage charisma, Mass is also not perfect. There is room for growth and there are a couple tracks where one can feel that more could have been done with that material. But in a way these imperfections add rather than detract to the charm of the record as a whole. It has a feeling like a snapshot, candid, without artifice, and more powerful because of that, aside from showcasing a great deal of promise.
A song recommendation: ‘I Saw Blue’ – With a first couple lyrics that perfectly exemplify the nonchalant, cutting humour this band is capable of, a memorable riff, and plenty of energy, this song is perfect for the stage and an excellent example of King Nun’s brand of noise.
Avalanche Party – 24 Carat Diamond Trephine
A late addition to the best of 2019, but without doubt deserving of a place, this is another debut testifying, if more evidence of it was needed, of the exceptional health of the British music scene right now. Avalanche Party are another high-energy band with a reputation for explosive live shows, something that can be challenging to preserve in a studio record, but that is captured perfectly here. Not only that, but the album capitalises on the fact that studio recording presents less constraints and limitations to become fully experimental, in places, with its sound, cultivating subtlety as well as intensity. 24 Carat Diamond Trephine is an intensely quirky album; not only it doesn’t quite sound like anything else, but its different parts can sound starkly different from each other. A side effect of this is that the album as a whole can feel sometimes a little disconnected, but this doesn’t take away from the overall quality, as there is a feeling that this is by design, and it creates an atmosphere where one is never sure what’s going to come next, keeping the listener perpetually on their toes.
Save for album opener ‘El Dorado,’ quite possibly the most ambitious track and a perfect example of this research of a middle ground between punk-brand energy and auditive oddity, the album is made up of short tracks, but with the kind of structure and switching of sounds that normally require more playing time to be achieved. This in itself is a marker of quality of songwriting. It is complex music which doesn’t lose any of its landing power to its complexity, not an easy feat to achieve for a band on their first long player. The mood of the album also changes with its variety of soundscapes; it is scathing in places and dreamy in others, providing an additional texture that is not always present, or possible, in the band’s live outings.
Here too, the fact that this is a debut is felt, albeit not in a negative way. The overwhelming impression is that, in approaching the tracklist and structure of the record-to-be, the band had plenty of ideas, more than could be made to fit in it, and had to pick some and sacrifice others. Because of this, the album feels in a way as if it’s part of a whole that doesn’t exist yet. It comes across as an intriguing piece of a puzzle not yet fully revealed, and as a promise of a future enterprise that I am eager to discover.
A song recommendation: ‘Howl’ – This song is a poster child for the Avalanche Party brand of sound: both direct and complex, it is an instant classic, with gritty vocals, clever guitar lines, and packing a solid punch.
Billie Marten – Feeding Seahorses By Hand
Three years after the critically-applauded release of her debut album, Billie Marten follows up with Feeding Seahorses By Hand. Once more an enchanting collection of artistic independence, bewitching voice and instinct. This time round no emphasis is placed on studio polish, rather potently does the technique of recording to four track tape allow the songs perfuse agency to capture every rustic imperfection, tonal variation and ambient in-the-room flavour—and the effect is incandescent. Literally no other procedure could have achieved or matched the palpable textures imbued. It’s a masterwork disguised in sheep’s clothing.
Marten displays absurd maturity in abundance on Feeding Seahorses…, delving into tricky topical issues for the first time, she adeptly scoffs at the idea of a politician’s role in today’s world, on ‘Betsy,’ whilst also deploring the outrageous proportion of power one man can hold. ‘Cartoon People’ offers a fictional appraisal of Donald Trump from the perspective of his daughter, it’s a bold statement as album opener but furnishes clear intent and raises the alarm in a gasp of succinct, anxiety-inducing burden. ‘Vanilla Baby’ expresses Marten’s mounting sensitivities, the tension between how you perceive yourself and how others perceive you, the volume of opinions that circle round day-to-day and grate upon your own sense of self. ‘Toulouse’ is an attempt to document the characters of daily life, gathered from her days working in a pub in the Big Smoke and the endless bouts of people watching endured, it’s a delightful twist against Marten’s often more inward musings.
The melodic upbeats of this album provide great distraction from the melancholy settled in Marten’s pale tones and wispy oral range. Her voice on this album operates at peak resonance, flirting between floaty highs and plunging lows. It’s miraculous in every way, the positive reinforcement of an infinite gift. Billie Marten is still very young in age and in career but with work this precise and immaculate, it’s hard to imagine her taking a different path.
Whenyoung – Reasons To Dream
From the first track until the last, whenyoung’s debut album effervesces pure, gorgeous, affecting melody. It’s not just lyrics that wield power here; every drum hit, zippy guitar line, throbbing bass part, fiery vocal refrain and resounding synth drone is significant. Contrast works its immeasurable gift into each song, coaxing a flurry of high points in amongst admissions of penetrating candour, sobering finality and existentialism.
Thematically Reasons To Dream is extremely diverse, but look a little closer and you’ll see that actually the subject matter is more cohesive than most. Discussing the human condition through a multitude of lenses, the tracks offer candid, personal perspective from the feeling of disassociation, world weariness, picking each other up when our emotions get the best of us, and largely just offering a genuine dialogue about living a mindful existence. Wider focus also frames the occasional song, speaking of political and social injustices: ‘The Others’ / ‘Blow Up the World’ / ‘Blank Walls’.
The album fuses the trio’s varying influences with their Irish heritage and adopted home of London, a sense of activism pervades throughout carrying with it a vibrancy and tautness of audible potency, intertwined with a grand spectrum of sentimental heart and ambitious wall-of-sound production. The big city has definitely played its part in collaging the dialogue as well as the soundscapes, the times we live in definitely focuses the mind on its relevancy, melancholy and dislocation, too, maintain a steady grip in the album’s verses. Like with all sad things, a sense of community and understanding is born out of the worst—whenyoung’s Reasons To Dream is no different. In fact, its impact is boundless. An upbeat joy to listen to, with the profound pulse of anguish to carry it home.
White Lies – Five
Inside the crevices of White Lies’ sprawling fifth studio album—which interestingly is their least track heavy compilation yet—lies a mecca of fascinating sonics, career-best creativity and a host of unexpected idiosyncrasies. Almost a band remade, remodelled and recharged. A good percentage of the tracks bear the longest runtimes of the band’s entire catalogue, particularly ‘Time to Give’ is the main culprit at a lengthy (but nonetheless valid) seven and a half minutes.
The album is ambitious, yet it also makes total sense. The progressive nature of Five echoes the members’ multifarious individual tastes and acts as a vessel to showcase this experimentation, a band as confident as can be expected with over a decade devoted to their craft, this record represents the accumulation of ten years-plus in the business and the yearnings and itches that follow on the path of continuous evolution. From yacht rock to brazen synth pop, to quasi metal, to prog, and back again to tried-and-tested synth anthemia, Five doesn’t slow down, nor does it get sloppy. Full pelt, decisive sing along or raging ballad—every figuration is treated just right.
Madcap frenetics detail ‘Jo?’s’ easy ascent, Eighties new wave rallies driving grooves in ‘Never Alone,’ while the epic apocalyptic drama of ‘Fire and Wings’ offers anticlimactic foreboding and destruction. Virtually every element of Five tries to push expectation, lead with maturity, carve a new voice—and genuinely the band is very efficient and believable in accomplishing this. Overall, a succinct alignment of White Lies’ instinctual traits with the presence of mind and flash of a well-oiled machine.
Field Medic – fade into the dawn
When the opening lyric of an album begins: “I need a cigarette / Those f***ers talked over my whole set / But I don’t have any time to reflect / I’ve gotta sell some shirts to try and make the rent,” you know immediately, you’re hooked. This is the first proper full-length label release for Field Medic (aka. Kevin Patrick Sullivan)—and of each of its ten tracks, a charming, unfiltered presence-of-mind glares through. The production is raw, the lyrics are too. The song lives and breathes its truth; it’s a beautiful thing to experience in the day and age of overproduced, mass market homogeneity.
fade into the dawn is quintessential emo, dressed in subtlety and lo-fi aesthetic it dances a line between country, freak folk and ambient indie. The prevailing inclination to be transparent, whether intentionally so, or by proxy of the deeply intimate nature of sharing one’s own life experience, links the artist with its listener, and potently so, to the degree that a Field Medic song is like a therapy session (for both parties). Sullivan’s subject matter interlocks inward reflection with the sobering, pain-filled reality of fantasies broken, the dream made real in the light of day. Looking specifically at a period in his life where day-to-day mundanities met doubt and anxiety, disenchantment and devotion, and redemption and release.
The record is a rollercoaster of artistic merit; pretty melodies dominate and rhythm digs in where it’s needed (live drums and lead guitar make their first featured appearances on a Field Medic work), and the three-take approach is just the DIY touch to define the lived-in, warm and fuzzy feel that each song purveys without even speaking a word of it. A release that for many maybe has slipped the radar, but one which deserves recognition (and a definite dose of praise).
Francis Lung – A Dream is U
Describing Francis Lung’s debut as a ‘concept record’ doesn’t serve the scope of its vision justice, while it is, indeed, indebted, in the best possible ways, to its proud sense of self and overriding mantra, A Dream is U takes on a life of its own—celebrating what it means to be human, to be a dreamer and all the fears in between.
Masterminded by Mancunion Tom McClung (ex-Wu Lyf), across the span of 10 tracks the artist and his equally eloquent crew of musicians transverse much more than basic emotional territory. Set in a wistful, castaway dreamscape, A Dream is U’s broad sound palette moves between chamber pop chorals, contemporary-with-a-twist, sun-dappled indie pop splendour and saccharine 1950s/’60s pop panache. Obvious signposts to Phil Spector, Real Estate and The Beatles occur—yet the record bares more than enough singularity to it that the simple fact stares you in the face: Francis Lung is a charming oddity, a one of a kind wonder.
Throughout our suspension of disbelief is tested, there are moments where reality seems all too real (no pun intended) and the feeling of life pressures bleed in and form instances of self-awareness, even when abstracted through a telescope. Yet the songwriting is all the better for it, these moments of honest human reflection and self-identification grounds the album in a way that entrusts its listener as caretaker of this intimate information. A bond that can’t be forged any other way.
The vocal arrangements, chord progressions and use of melody tap into nostalgic realms but equally showcase the artist’s unique perspective—a song like ‘Invisible’ which translates Lung’s romantic view into an orchestral rumination of understated piano and disjointed rhythm, while he sings of his non-corporal self waltzing with a lover’s shadow, is clearly utterly offbeat yet remarkably endearing and adorable. An album with many quirks but serious heart.
Michael Kiwanuka – KIWANUKA
Michael Kiwanuka’s sophomore LP, Love and Hate was the epitome of the age old “difficult second album” scenario – over four years in the making, he reached the point of scrapping an entire album worth of material, before starting from scratch alongside producers Danger Mouse and Inflo. From it came his breakout moment, when his track ‘Cold Little Heart’ was used as the theme for the excellent HBO series Big Little Lies.
For his breathtakingly confident follow up KIWANUKA, he re-teamed with the same collaborators, and the results are just sublime. Coming into his own as an artist, he thrillingly blends retro sounds from the past within a sharply contemporary context. Michael has always worn his influences whole heartedly, with artists such as Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye obvious touchpoints for comparison. On this record however, his range has vastly increased, with lush orchestrations, gospel choirs, sublime Hendrix-esque guitar work and spoken word samples, all meshing and rushing past simultaneously at times.
Instrumental interludes and breaks really add to the flow of the album as a single piece of work, and helps to enforce the ethos Kiwanuka is attempting to convey. That we take a step back from our breakneck, disposable culture of consumption, and allow ourselves to slow down and process a piece of art as a whole. A stunning piece of work.
Fontaines D.C. – Dogrel
Here is one of those near-perfect debut albums that comes along only a handful of times in a generation. Like The Strokes or Arctic Monkeys first records—where a band seems to arrive fully formed, capturing their statement of intent with a white hot clarity and energy—so do Dublin’s Fontaines D.C. with their debut, Dogrel.
Having started out as a beat-poetry inspired collective at the British and Irish Modern Music Institute in Liberties, since the start of this year they have ridden an enormous wave of acclaim to its fullest potential. Throughout this record, they channel thrilling post-punk vibes, with Joy Division-esque rhythms and levels of intensity running through the likes of ‘Too Real’ and ‘The Lotts’.
From the very first lines of ‘Big’ (“Dublin in the rain is mine/ A pregnant city with a Catholic mind,”) singer Grian Chatten uses his voice in the same way we were first introduced to Alex Turner way back when. Raw, unfiltered, his thick character-filled Irish accent imbuing their songs with a unique identity.
The band’s overall sound, recorded live to tape, is sharp and taut, drummer Tom Coll in particular proving equally dexterous and meticulous with his time keeping. They don’t attempt to push music into a new direction we haven’t heard before. Rather, they find a new definition for rock and roll, giving it a new lease of life along the way.
Having started 2019 playing club rooms to crowds of barely hundreds, they end it having scored a Mercury Prize nomination, topped several End of Year polls and cruised through a sell-out UK tour, including the 5000 capacity Brixton Academy. The best part? Their follow up LP is reportedly already in the can, with a 2020 release on the way. If this year was Fontaines D.C. taking off, we can’t wait to hear how they sound in full flight.
Julia Jacklin – Crushing
Julia Jacklin took a confident first step as a solo artist with the release of her 2016 debut LP, Don’t Let The Kids Win, packed with tender, lo-fi indie folk ramblings. Here though, on her follow up Crushing, she truly takes off as an artist.
The record begins with the devastating ‘Body,’ an account of a relationship in freefall, fully braced for the ending that approaches (“I felt the changing of the seasons/ All of my senses rushing back to me”), all set to the slow, steady march of a relentless, moody bassline. Ably watched over by Courtney Barnett’s producer Burke Reid, she proceeds to craft a perfect run of singles throughout the first half of the album, including the cathartic ‘Head Alone,’ before peaking with the one-two of anthemic ‘Pressure To Party’ and heartbreaker ‘Don’t Know How To Keep Loving You’. It’s then that a more low-key, introspective second half begins, which rewards the listener with its levels of depth over numerous listens.
By turns fragile and defiant, Jacklin is a highly emotionally intelligent songwriter, who wears her heart openly on her sleeve. Musically she sticks to a tried and tested approach, but it’s lyrically where she really excels, and, like her contemporary Courtney Marie Andrews, allows us into an intimate space to forge a unique, unforgettable connection.
Luke Sital-Singh – A Golden State
Earnest singer-songwriters can seem to be ten to the dozen in today’s cultural landscape. So much so that a real treasure can sometimes slip through the cracks, not quite receiving the acclaim and exposure it justly deserves. Luke Sital-Singh’s gorgeous third effort, A Golden State is one such release, a work of real passion and craftsmanship.
Despite a recent move from Bristol to L.A., from which you might expect him to branch out musically, instead he takes a stripped back approach to his sound. He delves instead into his song writing, finding moments of genuine emotional clarity and nuance that in lesser hands would resort to cliché and sentimentalism.
His outlook here touches on subjects such as the prospect of children on ‘Raise Well,’ as well as mortality on the incredibly moving ‘The Last Day’ (“I think I would love the simple things/ Like holding hands and noticing/ The way the wind moves in-between/ And how I never saw you ageing”). His voice is authentic and moving throughout, being able to switch from a soft whisper to an impassioned howl on the turn of a coin. His songs have always strived for a deeper meaning, and like his greatest influences such as Damien Rice, Joni Mitchell and Bruce Springsteen, here they long to leave a rich, strong emotional resonance with the listener.
Stella Donnelly – Beware Of The Dogs
Welsh-Australian singer songwriter Stella Donnelly truly impressed us with her debut LP, Beware Of The Dogs released back in March. Here she presents a fierce battle cry against misogynism in the wake of the #MeToo movement, all the while wrapped up in bittersweet, sharply observational indie-folk pop.
She presents several fearless statements against male abuse throughout the album, with tracks like ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ and album opener ‘Old Man’ bringing to the fore her outspokenness and powerful activism. She also makes potent statements on the state of Australian identity on the likes of ‘Tricks’ and title track ‘Beware Of The Dogs’ (“There’s an architect/ Setting fire to her house/ All the plans were there/ But they built it inside out”).
Donnelly’s deft ability is in being able to mix big real-world issues alongside smaller everyday observations. Her quirky sing-song style is at once warm, engaging and relatable. She comes across as an incredibly open performer, who has you on her side from the start. For someone so early on in their career, this is a mature, nuanced piece of work, designed to engage both the head and the heart in equal measure.
Billie Eilish – WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?
“Step on the glass, staple your tongue…” Have you heard of Billie Eilish? If not, then “try to wake up”. Since her second album release in March, this 17-year-old homeschooled kid has more or less become a household name. WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? took Eilish from well-known status to an iconic ‘artist of the decade’ over the course of the year, which is everything she wanted.
WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP has been praised for its subject matter, songwriting, vocals, and overall cohesive craft. At the end of a decade that saw great uniformity in the pop-electronica craze, Eilish helps unravel genre restrictions. She is often commended for her unique personality, and her refusal to fit inside anyone’s box, and her music greatly reflects that.
Born Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O’Connell and raised in L.A.’s Highland Park neighborhood, she formed a musical partnership early on with her older brother Finneas O’Connell, with whom she writes and records nearly all of her own material. Produced in O’Connell’s bedroom, the album has an intimate and ‘real’ quality that compliments the wide use of styles and Billie’s celestial vocals that soak into the walls.
Often assuming a unique persona for each song, when writing, she draws on a combination of personal experience and fictional situations, exploring another’s perspective. The result is something audibly and visually captivating. WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP is largely inspired by lucid dreaming and night terrors, making its home in a moody ambiance. Dealing with an array of topics, Eilish hones in on visceral sentiments and striking images, like that of black spilling from her eyes until it covers the floor.
The album goes seamlessly from the quirky, pop-trap number-one-hit ‘bad guy’ to industrial, hard-hitting sounds in ‘you should see me in a crown,’ the choral piano melodies of ‘when the party’s over,’ and minimal electronics in ‘bury a friend’, which is told from the perspective of a monster under your bed. It even features an audio sample from The Office in ‘strange addiction’. End-capping the dreams and nightmares, is a sequence of farewells, reading ‘listen before i go’, ‘i love you’, ‘goodbye’. The latter, a send-off for the album, Billie’s voice quietly echoing a line from each song in reverse, until it is rewound.
Her vocals wrap around each song in a soft, gritty contrast that is full of nuance and impeccable timing. Her brand of songwriting is truthful and intimate, edgy, dark, and playfully ironic. It balances perfectly on the edge of a knife, where she likes to keep her audience.
Sorcha Richardson – First Prize Bravery
Sorcha Richardson has been a staple of our musical library since her beautifully minimal hit, ‘Petrol Station’ in 2015. Now four years later, her much awaited debut album has finally arrived and we just want to stay here forever as it plays. First Prize Bravery was undoubtedly worth the wait.
Sorcha’s music has always been steeped in something personal, built around hushed electronic nuances and minimal soundscapes that occupy the small spaces where time stops. First Prize Bravery is much the same, but with fuller sounds and a heightened quality of polish and songwriting that she has crafted over the years.
Written at a crossroad, where one chapter ends and another begins, every song captures a moment, beautifully encapsulating the last ten years. With a dream, an 18 year-old Sorcha moved from Dublin to New York, and LA in between – this album representing the recent end of her time in big cities and a return to what was once familiar. The nostalgia tucked between the music and her experiences results in a feeling like you know the album as you would know Sorcha herself.
Storytelling in lyrics has always been one of her strongest suits, and First Prize Bravery is brimming with it – and if you want even more, each track she has posted on YouTube is accompanied by a small snippet about the songs’ writing and their meanings. Written mostly in her last year in New York and the first few months back in Dublin, the album plays like a memory resurfaced, or a dream. Walled with lilting cadence, interesting inserts of recorded sound, and carefree tonal hues of guitar, percussion, and sweet melody lines of piano, her musical craft remains humble and poetically-driven by the simplicity of everyday things.
The album opens with a soft reflection of love in ‘Honey’ with delicate lyrics and a singular voice that lulls the listener into her dream, “I watched you move around the room / You’re more magnetic than the moon.” Interspersed with more upbeat tracks like ‘Don’t Talk About It’ and ‘High In the Garden,’ the collection boasts a range of sounds and sentiments; ‘Oh Oscillator’ and ‘Red Lion’ particularly standing out. And then there is title track ‘First Prize Bravery’ that perhaps says it all, as the “saddest and most complex song on the album,” as Sorcha deems it.
Wistfully nostalgic and beautifully crafted, the album has a soul of its own, and we can’t get it out of our minds.
Calva Louise – Rhinoceros
Calva Louise began the year with a knockout album drop that questions the modern corrupted mainstream, calling our generation to arms. As their first studio album, Rhinoceros is full of heated and riotous numbers that bore into the collective rebellious spirit and absurdity of our time.
Since their pleasantly boisterous debut in February, Calva Louise has enjoyed a myriad of praise, sold-out tour dates, and the recent end-of-year release of their new EP Interlude For The Borderline Unsettled, which is heavily rendered in electric riffs and screaming vocals.
This multicultural trio pulls inspiration from all corners of the globe, as Venezuelan frontwoman Jess leads with an unapologetic guitar and vocal set, while Ben of New Zealand lays down a steady drum beat, and Frenchman Alizon picks an ever-changing path of bass lines and thundering rhythms. Ever the rebels themselves, Rhinoceros plays as an anthemic cry to the coming-of-age and the urge to be unique that we all feel in early adolescence. Holding their own, the sentiment is something that we have come to expect from this group of riotous individuals over the last year.
Inspired heavily by 1950’s Avant-garde playwright Eugène Ionesco and the likes of Voltaire and his work Candide, Rhinoceros weaves into its core an awareness of the satirical state of life and the humorous optimism of reality. It plays with themes of conformity, culture, morality, and parody, and boasts a fuzzy kind of grunge-pop that is held up with scuzzy, overdriven punk riffs and an unpredictable cadence.
In the process of boldly questioning who you are and who you want to be, the album is chock-full of melodically driven stand-outs, such as singles ‘Outrageous’ and ‘Getting Closer’, and anthemic numbers like ‘I Heard a Cry’ and ‘Out of Use’. Softer tracks like ‘Wondertale’ and ‘Down the Stream,’ and Spanish tune ‘No Hay’ add a steady balance to the album, while maintaining the vibrant energy of the group.
Quite unexpected at the top of the year, there is nothing quite like Calva Louise in the mainstream, having made their place comfortably in the punk genre. Rhinoceros is an explosive debut, effect-heavy with homemade pedals and silky guitar work, and a wonderfully strategic vocal set that leads the listener down paths that go awry. Rhinoceros culminates in a refreshing ending that is something wholly authentic and DIY-punk.
The Regrettes – How Do You Love?
How Do You Love? is the sophomore album of this L.A. power-pop four-piece, detailing the most emotional aspect of our human condition – love – and it’s executed with no regrets. Coming off a very successful 2018 that saw the release of their critically acclaimed EP Attention Seeker and a dominated festival scene, the group has taken that momentum and hit 2019 with an upbeat chronicling of the rise and fall of relationships. But it’s not a bad thing – quite the contrary.
How Do You Love? is more or less a personal reflection of leading frontwoman, the 19-year-old Lydia Night, who wrote most of the album from personal experience with various relationships, and the story they synchronously tell. The result is a collection of fun, relatable songs that speak to the innocent, romance-struck adolescent in us all. The Regrettes’ sound is uniquely their own, saturating the album with a mix of punk, garage-pop, ‘60s doo-wop, riot grrrl, and a hint of surf rock.
Many artists tackle the subject of love in small doses, but in this case, the album reads from beginning to end as a narrative that calls out all the stages of infatuation and falling in and out of love. Beginning with a spoken poem that introduces the theme, Night asks, “Are you in love? / Do you feel it in your spine? / Shaking, waking, tearing, breaking / Taking its sweet time.” Lyric heavy and aggressively brash, the first few tracks, like ‘California Friends’, are consumed by infectious, bubbly melodies that resemble the rush of butterflies in meeting someone new.
Elation quickly turns to uncertainty, as the honeymoon phase ends and ‘Stop and Go’ hits the breaks to contemplate the trajectory of the relationship. Night’s cadence steadily becomes harsher from here on out, the music following suit with thicker, at times manic, guitar riffs and bold drum lines. With each track, the album comes closer and closer to the breaking point, playing with the emotions of disappointment, yearning, hurt, acceptance, and everything in between. With the decision to leave, Night builds to a breakup in ‘Has It Hit You?’ that is anything but bitter. The album ends on a high note that is reflective of the entire journey. Despite being singled out, trying not to look at other couples in love, Night moves on with newfound bravery in how she loves, while simultaneously asking How do you love?
Girlpool – What Chaos Is Imaginary
The hazy blur of drum machines, synth and strings lead down the rabbit hole of Girlpool’s synonymous voice in their third studio release, What Chaos is Imaginary. Quite a different animal than their previous album releases, Chaos showcases the growth and depth of their musical language and the changing flow of life in between.
California duo, Tucker and Tividad, met on the edge of adulthood and music quickly became of their friendship. Much of their early work is youthful, loud, and searching, all done up in a punk-rock dressing. From the simplicity of that time in their creative careers, the duo has steadily gone through a dynamic change with each new release. Likened to the evolution of one’s self as you grow older and discover who you are and who you’re not, leaving one world behind for another, Girlpool’s musical journey has brought them to a reflective point.
What Chaos is Imaginary is blatantly an indie-dream, filled with meditative melodies, carefully placed notes, and restless vocals forming around lyrics that explore the chaos of being alive and one’s place within the mess it creates. Surreal and heavily poetic, these 14 tracks carry a weight that has matured from Tucker and Tividad’s relationship. The album comes together in a shared commonality this time, rather than the nested vocals we are used to hearing from this duo.
Having spent time apart working on solo material, the two have brought back their experiences and it has resulted in something intimate and calculated. Distorted guitar melodies texture the album, underlaid with drums and synth, all the while switching between tempos of quiet reflection in tracks like ‘Where You Sink’ and ‘Pretty’ to agitated exploration in tracks like ‘Hire’ and ‘Chemical Freeze’. The biggest difference perhaps, is the marked change in Tucker’s now-tenor voice up against Tividad’s usual sweet, high vocals, and how it has affected the overall sound of their music. The two now play off each other in a new range of harmony and dimension.
The blurred consciousness of Chaos, and Girlpool’s new yet familiar voice sinks into the imagery of “Rehearsing what’s reality” and “What chaos is imaginary”.