by InRO Staff Feature Articles Featured Music

Top Albums of 2019 (So Far)

July 10, 2019

We’ve decided to do something a little different this year for our 2019 (so far) lists; instead of a formal poll, we’re using this as an occasion to plug some of the most positive stuff that we’ve written this year, with just a few fresh write-ups on albums we either missed covering or haven’t gotten to yet . We had our films list last week, and now we’re onto the albums we loved so far this year, ordered below by release date. Several of these titles have been covered before, in our many columns, including hip-hop releases from What Would Meek Do? (Sada Baby’s Bartier Bounty, Rico Nasty’s Anger Management, and DJ Khaled’s Father of Asahd); Americana from Rooted & Restless (Todd Snider’s Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3, Lauren Jenkins’s No Saint, and Reba McEntire’s Stronger Than the Truth); and a wide variety of world samplings from Foreign Correspondent (Higher Brothers’ Five Star, Fennesz’s Agora, and Otoboke Beaver’s Itekoma Hits). Even with the large selection of albums present on this halftime list, these are just barely scratching the surface of the 2019 releases that are worth checking out — so more take this as a sampling of what the year has offered us so far, and will hopefully continue to offer over the next six months.

“The Imperial‘s songs form a revisionist western in album form, one which touches on liver disease and debts, manual labor and heartbreak — and one that’s mournfully crooned by lead singer Amy Boone, and shaped by a sextet of instrumentalists, who capture the sound of modern Americana. Across the album’s ten tracks, the Delines present sincerely compassionate portraits of flawed characters as viewed through many different perspectives, offering a variety of outlooks on life at the edges of society; the closest point of comparison might be the films of American director Kelly Reichardt.” [Read Tanner Stechnij on The Delines’s The Imperial]

“Suffice to say, the city needs new blood — and so, enter Sada Baby, an eccentric (to put it mildly) smack talker from the East side of the city who’s as likely to spit some insane boast (pick your favorite from his latest mixtape, Bartier Bounty, but I’ll go with: “Pull up on your fam, dump my mag in your birthplace”) as he is to break out into some insane dance to out-stunt everyone in the room (“I will do a Harlem Shake with the Draco”).” [Read Paul Attard on Sada Baby’s Bartier Bounty]

“It’s often said of dynamic live acts that their albums don’t fully prepare you for the concert experience. That’s undoubtedly true of Tedeschi Trucks Band, the polymorphous jam band whose gigs are alit with barnstorming virtuosity. Then again, you could just as easily say that the muscle of those live shows is inadequate preparation for the group’s albums, each one a thoughtfully-arranged, multi-layered mélange of American roots idioms. Signs may be their most sophisticated record to date, and also the most contemplative.” [Read Josh Hurst on Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Signs]

“Rest assured, What It Is features some of the cleverest writing of his career, sometimes deployed in favor of sardonic topicality, sometimes to support love songs as poignant as anything on Lovers and Leavers. It’s the fullest flourishing yet of Carll’s gifts, an album that is by turns wry and reposed, situated in the rich storytelling tradition of Texas troubadours like Guy Clark and Rodney Crowell, yet distinct in its style and in its point of view.” [Read Josh Hurst on Hayes Carll’s What It Is]

“And then there’s “Open It Up,” Higher Brothers’ most ambitious track to date, balancing swagger and melancholy and finding the group working their strengths: Melo’s variegated vocal, DZ’s desperate wail, Ma Si Wei’s ability to wend his vocal around acid guitar riffs. “I’m the teacher / now pay attention / class is in session,” instructs Ma Si Wei, just before firing off the refrain. Higher Brothers have only just begun to open that shit up.” [Read Joe Biglin on Higher BrothersFive Star]

“What’s especially exceptional about Good at Falling is how assured and interconnected the project is from song-to-song; highlights like “Follow My Girl,” “Everybody Hates Me,” and “We Talk All the Time” all break out into explosive choruses that are danceable, while still retaining a melancholic ennui. But it’s Bain’s songwriting that really makes her standout: “I saw myself an intellectual,” she prophesies in “Lilo,” a roving, wordy song about drifting away.” [Read Tanner Stechnij on The Japanese House’s Good at Falling]

The nonsensical synth-punk of last year’s “Dekadonden” teased the return of fun for idol group Shiritsu Ebisu Chugaku (better known as Ebi Chu) after an emotionally intense year riding out, respectively, the death of one member and the graduation of another. Their comeback album of sorts, MUSiC, makes good on that promise by presenting a wide variety of pop thrills. The idols breeze through a “Bohemian Rhapsody”-esque mini-opera, an adrenaline-fueled punk anthem, and a cutesy slice of bubbly synth-pop — and that’s just the first three tracks. Ebi Chu tackles these new musical styles for a purpose. Not only do they aspire to expand their palette, the idols constantly work to find a new identity with each new template, as if they’re rebuilding the group from scratch. “Donten,” in particular, sounds like a track from a wholly different idol group, exploring an adult relationship more complex than any of their songs about love and romance. That gloomy cloud of heartbreak quickly parts thanks to “Dekadonden,” with its loud, silly hooks shaking you awake. The motivation behind the constant refresh of sound, and mood, from one track to another on MUSiC is articulated by a key lyric from album closer “Sing Along, Sing a Song”: “It’s OK to fall as many times as you want/ Gyan gyan gyan, it’s OK to cry / Even if you get stuck, all you got to do is keep trying.” Ebi Chu takes on this idea again and again on MUSiC — to rediscover that spark that got them so excited to sing in the first place. Ryo Miyauchi

“Just listen to the opening “Give Up the Ghost,” where a high-and-lonesome pedal steel winds its way through thunderous drums and a fist-pumping chorus, gestures equally suited to a honky tonk or an arena rock show. Such blurred lines fill the album: “You’ll Never Know” is the kind of flinty, diaristic pop that made Taylor Swift a star; “All Good Things” is a big-footed stomp that crackles with twang and distortion; “Makers Mark and You” is a smooth and smoky ballad in the vein of Norah Jones.” [Read Josh Hurst on Lauren Jenkin’s No Saint]

“That Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3 is perhaps his strongest album is both a testament to Snider’s attention to his craft, and to what’s going on in the world today. Some of Snider’s targets are obvious — it will surprise no one that he goes hard after our current sitting president and his administration — but his masterful use of language ensures that the jokes always land, even if they don’t land where they initially seem like they’re going to. “Talking Reality Television Blues” is a piss-take on country music’s recitation sub-genre, with Snider going on a rambling journey through the history of television that accounts for everything from the moon landing and the advent of cable to The Real Worldand The Apprentice. While it could easily have turned into a “Get Off My Lawn” screed, Snider takes a, ‘Can you believe this shit?‘ stance.” [Read Jonathan Keefe on Todd Snider’s Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3]

“But Fennesz is a musician who’s generally less concerned with his arrangements’ intellectual capacities, and more with their ability to transcend a synthetic state and capture something human. To put it another way, Agora isn’t so much a work that centers on stylistic transformation as it is one of emotional progress.” [Read Paul Attard on Fennesz’s Agora]

“At times sparse, and at times luxuriant, Staples’s sad, salacious compositions permeate Denis’s films like a tormented wraith — and the same is true of his High Life score. But since the Pattinson-starring film is also Denis’s first big budget feature, there’s potential for Staples’s music to reach a new and wider audience.” [Read Greg Cwik on Stuart A. StaplesHigh Life OST]

“It’s only here when it becomes clear what kind of trick Weyes Blood has played; she’s enraptured her listener with a beautiful soundscape, level-headed and understanding lyrics, and a silky voice, but her album is, of course, about total destruction. The idea of the Titanic returning from the deep takes on a much different meaning when Mering eulogizes rising tides and a generation stuck in a cycle of nostalgia. Titanic Rising is an album full of contradictions, but it also seems to offer a prescription for contemporary life: fix yourself before everything goes to hell.” [Read Tanner Stechnij on Weyes Blood’s Titanic Rising]

“And on Stronger Than the Truth, since she’s not bearing the burden of kowtowing to radio programmers, McEntire enjoys the freedom to lean hard into her love for, and facility with, traditional country music. This album is easily her most stone-country record since the mid-1980s, but that isn’t what makes it perhaps the finest album of her career. Instead, it’s the exceptional set of songs she’s chosen to record: This is an album that trades in quintessential genre tropes of love and loss, filtered through the lived-in experiences of McEntire’s age.” [Read Jonathan Keefe on Reba McEntire’s Stronger Than the Truth]

“Rico’s lyrical playfulness (referencing Driving Miss Daisy, “Deflate-Gate,” and Adele) constantly plays against frenzied, variegated vocalizations, proving reminiscent of  Danny Brown’s XXX-level of unhinged. Where the first half of the album delivers the pure fireworks suggested by the titular use of “anger,” the back end references the “management”— and that’s not entirely unwelcome. The swaggering flow she adopted while interpolating Jay-Z’s “Dirt off Your Shoulder” (“Hatin’”) gets reinterpreted in the soothing “Relative” (“Number one like uno / kick your ass like judo / dogs fuck around and bite your ass like Cujo”).” [Read Joe Biglin on Rico Nasty’s Anger Management]

“On first listen, U.F.O.F. can sound almost inconsequential, all of the quietude and gentleness swirling, eddying; but the dexterity of delicacy rewards close, introspective listening. It’s an album about nature and otherness, yes, but also emotion, memory, the fantastical.” [Read Greg Cwik on Big Thief’s U.F.O.F.]

“While still being borderline deafening, A Gaze Among Them is also a return to the Montreal trio’s more minimalist roots; Beauregard pounds the drumheads and cymbals, offering a few rolls here and there, but mostly he punishes his instrument with undeterrable tenacity. The album features no traditional bass on it (though GY!BE’s Thierry Amar plays contrabass), just sludgy, swirling guitars yawping to the empyrean sky, hoping to be heard.” [Read Greg Cwik on BIG|BRAVE’s A Gaze Among Them]

Shepherd in Sheepskin Vest is Callahan’s warmest, most affable album to date, his strumming loose and leisurely, his lyrics flowing like runnels down a hill. The images are exact but not rigorous, his word choices precise without being pretentious. “What Comes After Certainty” features two guitars that don’t initially seem simpatico, messy little solos on the periphery of the rhythm, but their looseness, their borderline insouciance, soon becomes endearing, as the players noodle together like old friends who’ve spent a brief time apart.” [Read Greg Cwik on Bill Callahan’s Shepherd in Sheepskin Vest]

“Otoboke Beaver: What is an all-female Japanese punk outfit from Kyoto? Itekoma Hits: What is a compilation of new tracks plus singles and EPs from the past few years serving as their latest album? Pretty fucking hard: How “hard” does this quartet go? In fact, Otoboke Beaver’s brand of punk has as much in common with speed metal as it does lo-fi or noise, because while the group’s overall sound is the sonic equivalent of getting a fist to the face (take, for example, the very literal threat of  “I am after you”), the density of their compositions and the technical precision of their performance is nothing less than virtuosic.” [Read Joe Biglin on Otoboke Beaver’s Itekoma Hits]

“In many ways, Khaled does aim to be a harbinger of optimism on Father of Asahd — with a carefully assembled squadron of hip-hop superstars to help him spread a message of positivity. And there’s an undeniable rush to having pre-album single “Top Off” feature Jay-Z calling for Meek Mill’s freedom, and then have the Philly rapper himself show-up twice elsewhere: first in full heartthrob-mode on “You Stay,” alongside global sensation J. Balvin and sex machine Jeremih, and then as the battered victim of a broken judicial system on “Weather the Storm,” with his rapid-fire delivery serving as the perfect counter-balance to Lil Baby’s quavering tenor.” [Read Paul Attard on DJ Khaled’s Father of Asahd]

With a discography consisting of seven albums, 16 mixtapes, and even a soundtrack for a largely forgotten remake of Superfly, it can be relatively hard to see the necessity for something as seemingly slight as Save Me, the latest seven-track EP from serial misanthrope Future. Yet, much how like this year’s The Wzrd found a way to merge the trap heavy sensibilities and melodic vocal tendencies, respectively, of 2017’s diptych FUTURE and HNDRXX, Save Me is an exercise in being concise. Across these seven tracks, our tragic hero Nayvadius is able to pack into a brisk 20-minutes what he’s usually needed an hour to accomplish: There’s the requisite trap banger with “Government Official,” loaded with hi-hats and casual misogyny; the confessional cut “St. Lucia,” with its grandiose comparisons (involving clergy men’s misgivings) and the occasional oddball inflection (the over-emphasis of the phrase “ese” in “I got one that’s Chinese, she a ten“); the sensitive musings on “Please Tell Me,” where Future’s able to delicately prance around Richie Souf’s light synths with only the most exotic of brags (“Please tell me that you do this often / French manicures when I’m golfin’”); and, of course, the go-for-broke R&B ballads that stack up with the best in the Freebandz President’s discography: ”Shotgun” and “Xannax Damage,” with the latter of these tracks seemingly cutting off halfway through as Future repeats a self-destructive mantra about how, with drugs, he “finally know myself.” For Future, his music has always been about over-telling, spilling every emotion out until there’s nothing left — for once, were left wanting more, practically begging him to go on. This is the true power of Save Me: it proves that even when one is ostensibly spinning wheels, artistically, they can still find ways to improve upon formula. Paul Attard