Sunday, December 8, 2019

My 19 Top Indie Music Albums for 2019

'Tis the time of the season to look back upon the year that just transpired and, for no reason, to say some things were better than others.

Actually, that is complete bullshit. I could probably list 1900 albums of music that were cool in some way and came out during the past calendar year. These sort-of random 19 albums were just ones that happened to catch my attention at some point, and that I felt were worthy of inclusion to note what sort of music I was vibing to at various points in 2019. Speaking of which: while you'll note some commonalities in the song samples below, I'm more and more of the opinion that we live in a post-genre world now. Granted, while you won't find much in terms of hip-hop or country or Top 40-style pop, these indie artists and bands all have their own sound going on. If you force me to use the words that people use to help define this stuff, it ranges from psych rock to bedroom pop to shoegaze to indie folk to dream pop, but none of that really matters. What matters is that I like it.

Note: these are presented in alphabetical order only; the whole "ranking of art thing" is not something I'm into, ever.

Big Thief: Two Hands

I discovered Big Thief by getting into their singer/guitarist Adrienne Lenker with the release of her solo album last year. Being a creative musician who doesn't get to spend as much time on music as I'd like, I'm a bit jealous because this year, the band put out not just one but two albums, and they were both really pretty damn good. The second of those two, Two Hands, rates special mention with its solid nature in both songwriting and production.

Bill Callahan: Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest

Drag City
There's something amazing about Bill Callahan's voice alone. That low and dry vibe seems so lacking in emotion that for whatever reason, it ends up having the opposite effect. Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest is Callahan's first new album in over five years and it's just really great. He's really come a long way since his lo-fi work in Smog, and he's really getting into that class of writer that reminds me of Townes Van Zandt or Tom Waits. Really good.

Black Belt Eagle Scout: At the Party With My Brown Friends

Saddle Creek
Her name is Katherine Paul, goes by KP, grew up on a reservation in Washington State, and she's cranked out her first two albums in consecutive years. Interesting fact: I usually scoff at statements like, "bringing a voice to queer Indigenous experiences", and yet I can't think of another musical artist who fits that description, so mission accomplished. Plus, I just really enjoy these songs. I don't know if they are supposed to be for me, per se, but I hear something in them that merits special mention among the best of the year.

Cate Le Bon: Reward

Mexican Summer
This Welsh lady is super impressive, and her latest album is super interesting from standpoints of songwriting and production and arranging and performance. Whenever a musician does something that I'd never consider doing, I feel compelled to wonder where it came from, and sometimes question if I might like trying it too. That's a really good sign, and I get that from Reward. Super coincidental side note: Cate co-produced the Deerhunter album that you'll find on this list below.

Chastity Belt: Chastity Belt

Hardly Art
Co-produced by Jay Som (the second time on this list that one of my favorite artists of the year worked with another one), Chastity Belt's self-titled fourth album is a little less raucous and a little more dreamy and introspective than their previous efforts, but I think it's fantastic. I've been a fan for quite awhile (and have covered their music) and it's always difficult to say exactly what it is about this PNW-based band that I enjoy so much... but I do, I do.

Crumb: Jinx

Rough Trade
So, first, you gotta know I have a predilection toward psych pop of any kind, having been an early adopter to bands like Tame Impala, Unknown Mortal Orchestra and many others. When I heard this full-length debut by Crumb, I recognized a whole lot of things I liked right away. It was one of those, "I'm listening for the first time but I'm singing along" moments. And I just really like Lila Ramani's voice for some reason. I don't need to explain why. The whole album is great.

Deerhunter: Why Hasn't Everything Already Disappeared?

Speaking of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, I saw them a couple of times, and one of those times was along with Deerhunter at Pappy & Harriet's in Pioneertown, CA. It was during the week between the two weekend shows of Coachella in 2016, and I deeply enjoyed both bands. Why Hasn't Everything Already Disappeared? isn't my favorite Deerhunter album -- that would be either Halcyon Digest or Fading Frontier -- but it's solidly good, and both Bradford Cox and Lockett Pundt are super interesting songwriters in their own distinct ways.

Desert Sessions: Vol. 11 & 12

Do I like everything that Joshua Homme does musically? Um, yeah, I'd have to say yes. From Kyuss to Queens of the Stone Age to Them Crooked Vultures and more, the dude is one of the key voices of my generation. As most of you know, I have this affinity toward the desert... especially the high desert and the Joshua Tree area where the Desert Sessions projects have been recorded. This particular set of albums features Josh along with a cast that includes Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top), Stella Mozgawa (Warpaint), Carla Azar (Jack White), Jake Shears (Scissor Sisters), and a cavalcade of others making this Desert Sessions release as unique and interesting as any of the volumes before it.

DIIV: Deceiver

Captured Tracks
This album was probably my surprise of the entire year. I'd heard DIIV plenty of times before but nothing off their first two albums really jumped out at me as being outstanding. Deceiver is something else entirely. It's darker, sonically and lyrically. It's grungy. It's powerful. I honestly love every song and can listen through this album start to finish and want to put it on again. I'm trying not to pick favorites on this list, but if I were, this would be a pretty easy choice.

German Error Message: Mend

German Error Message
This is not the first time German Error Message made one of my year-end lists. He's a Nashville-based indie songer-songwriter named Paul Kintzing and he's definitely a special talent. I like the softness of his songs. I like the way he patiently takes his time to let songs build and swell. I also like the fact that it's not easy to pigeonhole him into any of several subgenres. But his folky, somewhat ambient bedroom pop is done superbly, and Mend is a great example of his work for people who have yet to check him out.

Girlpool: What Chaos Is Imaginary

If this album seems familiar to readers of my blog, that's because I dedicated an entire post to it when it came out earlier this year. The topic of the post was a deep dive into the musical perspective of Cleo Tucker's gender transition; they had recorded the demo as a female, but the album was recorded after Tucker's transition to male. Fascinating stuff. What I didn't do at the time was talk about how What Chaos Is Imaginary is a simply outstanding album regardless of the story behind it. The music of Cleo and Harmony has matured tremendously since the first time I saw them on an NPR Tiny Desk concert in 2015. This album deserves its position on many of this year's "best of" lists, including mine.

Great Grandpa: Four of Arrows

DOuble Double Whammy
This is the second album from this Seattle-based indie group, but like a lot of young bands, they seem to have matured after going through some shit. That's usually when I get my greatest enjoyment out of a band, so if you're worried about the pain you're going through as a songwriting musician, just know that others will probably benefit from your fucked up situation. Yay!

Jay Som: Anak Ko

I really don't have enough good things to say about Jay Som. I somehow got into her music super early, flipping through music on Bandcamp one day in 2015 and finding her demos. I've followed her progress as a writer and producer ever since -- she creates her albums by herself in her home studio. It's really no surprise, for me anyway, that she wrote Anak Ko during a retreat to Joshua Tree. Assuming she doesn't burn out, I can promise more excellent stuff in the future from this young and super talented artist.

Marika Hackman: Any Human Friend

Sub Pop
I have to admit, my first exposure to Marika Hackman was via the rather lascivious nature of the video for her song "Hand Solo", an ode to female masturbation. But it was enough to pull me into this album which is going to hit many year-end "best of" lists. I like her vibe- er, the mood of her songs... poppy but dark, which is always a trigger for me. By the way, if you note that a lot of LGBTQ artists seem to make my lists every year, that's because a lot of them seem to make really fucking great music. There you go.

Pixx: Small Mercies

I stumbled across Hannah Rodgers, aka Pixx, right as she started out with the outstanding debut EP she released in 2016 at age 19, and her follow up LP was cool but a little too electronic for my own tastes (let's face it; I like guitars). With this year's Small Mercies, she's found this hybrid of indie rock while still keeping her newer electronic influences, and I think it's her best yet... with likely much more to come.

(Sandy) Alex G: House of Sugar

I guess I'm late to the (Sandy) Alex G trip; House of Sugar is the seventh album from this Philly-based singer-songwriter. But holy shit, it's great. Much like a couple of the artists listed above, Alex records himself at home, which is where he's most comfortable, but despite getting the "lo-fi" tag early on, I find a lot of the stuff on this latest album to be quite sophisticated from a production standpoint. "Gretel" is up there in my favorite songs of the entire year.

Sasami: Sasami

It's always kind of neat when I find an artist with which I'd been previously unfamiliar, and then became aware that I'd enjoyed them previously without even knowing it. That's the case with Sasami, who (unbeknownst to me) was a member of LA-based grunge band Cherry Glazerr for a couple of years. Her self-titled solo album is excellent. It hits all the right buttons for me, with spacious synths, shoegaze guitars, and wistful vocals. Totally dig this.

Wand: Laughing Matter

Drag City
Wand is another band that I'd been aware of for some time and enjoyed, but never to the point that I'd considered them one of the best of the best. Laughing Matter is something else entirely; it's sophisticated yet human, tight and clean while raring its head to be grungy and dirty. I am supremely impressed and feel like I still have a lot of time to spend listening to and absorbing this fantastic record.

Weyes Blood: Titanic Rising

Sub Pop
Natalie Mering has one of the most beautiful voices I've ever heard; her rich, vibrato-laden alto puts her in a class with Karen Carpenter and few others. You can consider her sound schlocky or overly sentimental, but I find that her music comes from a place of genuineness and truth. And, like I said, it's just beautiful, and that's reason enough for her to once again make my list of the year's best.

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