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The Top Five Albums of 2019 – Nikhil's List

31 Dec

There was a lot of music in 2019 that caught my ear, but surprisingly for me, when it came to putting together a list, things came together quite easily. There are just some albums in particular that I want you to hear.

5. Ariana Grande – thank u, next

This album is my choice for the biggest surprise of the year. For someone as big, as established and as much of a star as Ariana Grande to take so large a step forward is startling but that is just what she did.

Key to this is the title track. “thank u, next” could have easily come off poorly, but she handles it with a grace and maturity that really mark the growth that we see here. Her voice was always strong, but here it’s sincere as well and that lets her keep a powerful song fully under control.

For all of the headlines of that centerpiece, the rest of the album is just chock-full of ideas and well-executed ones at that. She’s kittenish in “make up” and sneering in “bloodline”, fun in “NASA” and imperial in “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored.” The music goes from hard to soft and back again and does it with flair. Her voice is nothing short of stellar.

Ariana has done a lot over her career to reinvent pop, but this is the album that guns for the top. It’s fun, it’s exciting and it looks effortless doing so, just like Ariana Grande herself.

Read our full review here.

4. Jamilia Woods – LEGACY! LEGACY!

From a no-caps album, now we pick up a full caps one and the difference is clear. Where Ariana was free-flowing and so honest, this album is clearly the product of immense thought, but is no less sincere for that.

Jamilia Woods takes a panorama of black excellence and uses it as a lens through which to examine current events and herself and makes spectacular music in the process.

It’s just such a smart album. There are some arrestingly clever lines here. I love the starkness of “Are you mad? / Yes, I’m mad” and the cleverness with which it is twisted in the magnificent “BASQUIAT.” It’s even preceded by the equally noteworthy “MUDDY,” which has a beautifully dirty blues-rock riff reminiscent of its namesake.

LEGACY! LEGACY! does a lot and does it all with awe-inspiring levels of quality and an astonishing coherence as well. This is an unquestionably ambitious album and one that pulls off that ambition dazzlingly.

Read our full review here.

3. Tyler, the Creator – IGOR

Continuing the theme of all-caps records, we have Tyler, the Creator with IGOR. With 2017’s Flower Boy, it seemed like Tyler had found his voice and IGOR continues that clarity. He has matured and that maturity has brought focus to his always prodigious talent.

The uniqueness that defined him is as strong as ever, but he’s somehow more versatile now as well. He can go hard in “NEW MAGIC WAND” or soft in “GONE GONE / THANK YOU” with equal ease and he’s still able to drop thought-provoking beats and unexpected sounds in at every point.

This is the best version of Tyler, the Creator that we could have hoped for and the realization of all of his promise. This is scintillating, singular music and quite easily one of the best albums of the year.

Read our full review here.

4. Kanye West – JESUS IS KING

There are some Kanye albums, like Yeezus or MBDTF where you know that they will be the album of the year as soon as they come out. JESUS IS KING isn’t that kind of album. I would have been shocked to see it place this high when I reviewed it.

And yet, on coming back to it, it’s just better than the other albums on this list. Listening to “Closed On Sunday” after a while, it just hits you that this is really strong music. It’s no surprise that going back to gospel would work well for Kanye, but to his credit, he’s done a lot more than just the gospel beats of his early work or even the heavy gospel of “Ultralight Beam.”

He committed here to the idea of Christian music. This is not the most sophisticated take on religion, but it is honest and personal and true and so manages more real commentary than any amount of sophistry. Talking about fighting with his father or the quickness of Christian disdain for who he is are topics that many would avoid, but that’s not what a Kanye album does.

It’s in the music that the most interesting ideas emerge though. The choir playing against hard bars in “Use This Gospel” and then the following Kenny G solo that goes back into the beat is the kind of thing that you would just never see anywhere else. The military-grade choir in “Selah” is undeniable. Even in terms of rapping, Kanye has taken a step forward. Something like “Follow God” showcases things that he just could not do before.

JESUS IS KING is a new stage in Kanye’s career and while it may not be as immediately promising as his first set of albums or as groundbreaking as 808s or Yeezus, it’s still fascinating music and some of the best of the year.

Read our full review here.

1. FKA Twigs – MAGDALENE

With MAGDALENE, one finds oneself immediately reaching for superlatives. Gorgeous, intricate, a masterpiece all come to mind and are all apt. There’s just so much of note here.

First of all, the production is stellar. There are just so many small details here. There are little sounds everywhere, little evocative fragments that build out a cathedral for her voice to fill. It’s ethereal as always, but so very strong. There’s an intensity here that almost scalds as it enervates.

FKA Twigs was always one of those talented artists, one of those who seems an effortless polyglot in musical languages and even in dance. She does so many things so well, it just feels unfair when it all comes together this well. This is the greatest work yet of an extraordinary artist and a comfortable pick for the album of this year.

Read our full review here.

Burna Boy – African Giant

23 Dec

This is undoubtedly the catchiest album that I’ve heard all year. Burna Boy just has that ear for it that you cannot replicate. This is an album that puts you in undeniable motion.

The combination of African sounds and the Nigerian patois that run through it mix cleanly with the just-as-prominent modern pop and rap sounds to make something at once of the future and deeply connected to its roots.

In particular, “Anybody” and “Wetin Man Go Do” pull all of the pieces together perfectly. It’s a sound that’s excitingly novel in all that it brings to the table and again, it’s just very catchy.

It’s a fun album. “Killin Dem” is compulsive and “Omo” is infectious. This is, more than anything, the reason to try it out. “Secret” has the kind of chorus that sticks in your ears long after you’ve pressed pause.

It is hopefully also the sign of Burna Boy’s emergence. This is an album with impressive features. Unfortunately, neither Future nor YG show up that well. Both are just out of place on this and that dissonance is hard to break from. Jorja Smith is excellent though. “Gum Body” has a great verse from her as well as a stand-out chorus and an absolutely wonderful little sax lick in the middle. Similarly, “Secret” has a fantastic chorus and the features help an already great track stand out.

The album does lose pace somewhere around the middle and a few sounds drag for too long, but this is still the most enjoyable album that I’ve heard all year. Also, it has a fascinating aside about colonialism in Nigeria and that kind of thing automatically bumps an album up a rung.

Raphael Saadiq – Jimmy Lee

13 Dec

This album is not shy about its strengths. Right from the strong but sincere “Sinners Prayer” and its bluesy groove, you know that you’re getting into something good. By the time you get into the Prince-like “The World Is Drunk” and excellent neo-R&B of “Something Keeps Calling”, there’s no doubt left.

It finishes with fully the same strength. “Glory To The Veins” is the standout track with a dark, pulsating beat and Saadiq shows expert restraint with his voice here. For all of that though, it just grooves. “Rikers Island” moves well and the redux adds some needed profundity in an album which, while very heartfelt, is not quite original in its lyrics.

However, the album itself is just a little muddied. There are great moments in there, like the chorus of “Something Keeps Calling” or the little bit of playful piano in “Glory To The Veins”, but the whole fades a little easily, a fault exacerbated by the weak middle.

It’s still no doubt a very good, if not quite great, album. There are faults, but if you’re looking to see present-day R&B at its best, this is where you should start.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Ghosteen

8 Dec

It’s immediately apparent that this is the album after the death of Nick Cave’s son. The melancholy is beautiful and everywhere. It’s much more of an ambient album than is standard for him and, if anything, benefits from the move outside. It does however also suffer a little from what becomes a slightly unvarying sound as a result though.

However, the grief comes through poignantly throughout. In particular, the retelling of the Buddhist parable of the house that knows no death in “Hollywood” is heart-rending. It’s a touching, beautiful album and one that you will not leave unmoved.

Earl Sweatshirt – FEET OF CLAY

28 Nov

Earl Sweatshirt has built a solid pocket of rap for himself. He makes muddy, complex, punishing rap in a way that no one else even really attempts. FEET OF CLAY however may have taken it too far.

His muttered, submerged raps are as awe-inspiring as ever. He puts together sounds and words in a way that’s simultaneously muddy and evocative, like scrying in a swamp. It’s singular and cohesive and often somewhat punishing as a result. He has such complex bars with lyricism as unique as it is skilled.

The punishment was always sort of the point, but this is the one where it feels a little unjustified. The album is just too dense and lacks the reward of a “Chum” or a “Grief” to really pay off the effort. If you’re an Earl Sweatshirt fan, then you already know that you should give this album a couple of spins, but if not, this is not the place to jump in.

FKA Twigs – MAGDALENE

18 Nov

FKA Twigs has long made some of the most interesting pop out there, but MAGDALENE is a full step above her earlier work. It’s easily her best album to date and one of the best albums of the year. She’s sharper, she’s more cohesive and this album just bangs.

There are the obvious parts, “holy terrain” works very well with the Future feature. The trap beat plays nicely against her voice and Future is perfectly understated. The heart of the album is in the thousands of little moments. There’s a beautiful vocal fragment to end “mary magdalene” and the pulsations of “fallen alien” are consuming and intense.

The album even works in the much slower “mirrored heart” and it fits expertly. The feedback in it adds a surprising heft and her lyrics are cutting. Coming as this album did, after a major break-up and a major surgery, it could have easily been a sledgehammer of an album, but her restraint makes the moments that reference the turmoil all the more powerful. Her finesse here is astonishing.

There are a few missteps in “home with you” and “daybed”, which just don’t do enough, but there is much more of note, like the beautiful and clever “sad day”. This is an album from an absurdly talented artist at the height of her powers and an album you don’t want to miss.

Kanye West – Jesus Is King

10 Nov

It’s a given now that a new Kanye album is going to be something of a production. Albums are promised and due dates come and go and you’re never sure what you will get until it comes. With Jesus Is King, what you get is a lot of truly excellent music and one of the more interesting albums that Kanye has ever made.

Coming in, I thought it would be a full gospel album. I expected “Ultralight Beam” extended into a complete album. Instead, although there is a very substantial gospel theme, the album as a whole is surprisingly diverse. There’s a heavy religious bent and the album is very cohesive, but my concerns about monotony proved entirely unfounded.

The album opens with a straight gospel track though, performed by the Sunday Service Choir that Kanye has toured with of late. It’s a good choir and a good way to open the album. It functions as a statement of purpose and a way for the listener to enter the mindset that the album asks for. It’s ablutionary.

It’s followed with “Selah,” which opens with Kanye rapping, but the centerpiece of the song is that same choir. Kanye has a couple of good lines (I like his biblical double-entendres), but the song is completely overpowered by the choir. It’s weapons-grade material to put into any song and it animates the song to such an extent that Kanye’s rapping after it feels completely subsumed by the echoes of that choral work. It makes for a powerful effect and one of the strongest songs of the album, but I feel that there’s space there for a better melding.

From there though, we go into “Follow God,” which really showcases Kanye’s ability as a rapper. In this and in “Hands On,” you can see technical rapping in a way that it feels that the earlier Kanye was just not capable of. He teases the chorus a couple of times in the middle of the song just to bull through it without taking a full breath and it’s dazzling. Even more interesting though is the center of the song, Kanye fighting with his father just to be told that it’s not Christ-like. The reality of spirituality is that it will be tested, and this struggle is one writ especially large with Kanye’s turn to God here. Kanye is famous for his emotionality, for his quickness to react, for his inability to think before he acts, and to see him address the struggle is valuable as it’s rare to see someone be honest and personal about how difficult it can be.

“Closed On Sunday” has a bit of the same. The Sabbath is a sacrifice as much as a respite and you can see the intent behind referencing Chick-fil-A’s decision to stay closed on Sunday out of respect for their faith. The production is sober and quiet and Kanye’s rapping is muted through most of it, which gives the music a heft that plays well with the theme and the wariness of the first verse, which then translates well into the second, often-shouted verse.

The Chick-fil-A association still leaves gristle in the teeth though. The company is far more famous for homophobia than for Sundays and to not only repeatedly reference them, but to end the song with a screamed invocation is overtly provocative. You have to expect that with Kanye, it is what he does, it gets the people going, but nevertheless I would have really liked it if he had backed it up a little. He explains “I Thought About Killing You” over the course of the song and that is why that piece is so strong, but here he simply provokes and runs, and it feels less than it should as a result.

The middle is a bit forgettable. It’s reminiscent of some of the more forgettable parts of TLoP to me, but I actually really like “God Is.” It’s just earnest and that’s nice to see. Earnestness is another of those things that’s critical to any understanding of religion, but it’s also one that people are often reluctant to center a song on just because of how uncomplicated it is. Uncomplicated is not the same as inferior though, and I like to see something straightforward every now and again.

For all of that though, “Hands On” calls out the Christians. It’s a necessary part of an album like this, it’s a good reminder that the struggle for spirituality is personal and not just subsuming yourself into a crowd. As above though, it’s also got strong rap from Kanye. His change of pace here is very clean. Again, it’s just nice to see how much Kanye has developed as a rapper. It was never his strongest suit, but his ability now unlocks a lot of musical space.

“Use This Gospel” helps close out the album well. Clipse are acceptable on it, but Kanye is great and bringing in Kenny G for a moment is very unexpected, but remarkably well done. It’s exactly the perfect sax interlude. The actual closer, “Jesus Is Lord” finishes right as it gets started, but that works well. It’s uplifting and beautiful and ends on exactly the right note.

Jesus Is King is not a masterpiece like MBDTF or Graduation and not as groundbreaking as 808s & Heartbreak or Yeezus, but this is possibly the most unique album that Kanye has ever made. I’ve never experienced anything that has quite the same thing to say about religion or Christianity. It’s sincere and honest in the way that only Kanye can be and the result is as personal as a fingerprint. It’s very good music and there’s plenty here to provoke thought, no matter what Kanye himself may have intended to say. It’s not without flaws, but it’s also just excellent music and it’s the album this year that I’m most glad to have heard.

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