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The Top Five Albums of 2019

31 Dec

Another year of great music closes out today. Read on to see our editor’s picks for the best albums of the year – and be sure to let us know if you agree!

5. Peter Cat Recording Company – Bismillah

Delhi’s own Peter Cat Recording Company has been a mainstay of Indian music for a while now, but it’s with new album Bismillah – and a new record label – that they have started receiving the praise they deserve. Bismillah is, in its way, a slice of Indian life, from the glitz and glamor to the corruption and chaos, set to a dizzying array of musical styles. The album is packed with biting criticism of Modi’s India; the band personally encouraged Delhiites earlier this year to vote for an opposition party, on a music video release note no less. But even beyond the political, Bismillah is truly, wholly Indian.

Read our full review here.

4. slowthai – Nothing Great About Britain

Some art – whether it’s movies, music, and so on – truly captures the ethos of a specific place, time and people to a tee; a zeitgeist, in short. For 2019’s United Kingdom, roiling through a nation-splitting Brexit crisis, that zeitgeist is the debut album from a 25-year-old Northampton rapper, called, succinctly, Nothing Great About Britain. The album is intense, personal, and nearly flawless – a perfect slice-of-life from the wrong side of the tracks of today’s UK.

Read our full review here.

3. Fontaines DC – Dogrel

Dogrel, the debut album from Irish band Fontaines DC, is a middle-finger to those who think rock – and punk rock in particular – is dead. Over a tight, 40-minute runtime, the lads take us through Dublin life like only locals can. There’s anti-British sentiment (“He spits out, ‘Brits out’, only smokes Carrolls”); Irish legends (“With a face like sin and a heart like a James Joyce novel”); tales of cabbie woes – and that’s all on just one song. Dogrel is almost a perfect package from start to finish, and we are heartened to hear that there’s already more incoming from Fontaines DC.

Read our full review here.

2. Foals – Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Pt 2

2019 may have officially been the Year of the Pig, but for us it was the year of Foals. With two astounding, back-to-back albums over the course of seven months, the Oxford lads knocked it out of the park this year. Although Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Pt 1 had some great hits – “Exits” being chief among them – Foals really stuck their landing with Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Pt 2. The entire double album is built around the idea of an apocalypse: the emotions and the music that would come out in that not-so-far-away scenario. One thing’s for sure: when that day comes, we’ll be sure to have this record handy to soundtrack us there.

Read our full review here.

1. Ariana Grande – thank u, next

At this point, Ariana Grande is pretty much pop’s reigning queen. More importantly, she rules for all the right reasons. It’s an understatement to say that she has the voice for it; but she also offers a playful and positive view of the world despite the tragedies in her life. Like any savvy pop star, she of course sells the idea of herself to her legions of fans – the high ponytail, the thigh-high boots, the oversized sweatshirts – but unlike many others, she sells something else too: self-love. Amazingly, that self-love seems to come from within – not manufactured by some marketing execs over at her record label. With thank u, next, Ariana Grande finally takes over as her authentic, spirited, wholesome self – and turns out, a lot of people dig it. Oh, and it helps that the music is just pop gold, too.

Read our full review here.

-NP

The Top Five Songs of 2019

31 Dec

If making a great album is one unique combination of skills, making a great song is another – sometimes complementary, sometimes not – skillset. Below is a look at the top five songs that defined our editor’s year. Let us know if you agree!

5. “Tokyo Drifting (with Denzel Curry)” by Glass Animals

“Tokyo Drifting”, an unlikely collaboration between British psych rockers Glass Animals and Southern rapper Denzel Curry, is – even more improbably – the best trap song this year. Hazy beats and Curry’s swaggering verse make this the perfect soundtrack to a nighttime chase through a city that never sleeps – just as the title suggests.

This song also appears on our Nov. 2019 Monthly Playlist.

4. “Exits” by Foals

With its slightly off-kilter beats and the lead singer’s enigmatic vocals, “Exits” casts a hypnotic spell on the listener’s mind. This lead single from Foals’ Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Pt 1 also offers a trippy synth solo, cryptic music video, and much more. Don’t miss out!

This song also appears on our Mar. 2019 Monthly Playlist.

3. “Dexter & Sinister” by Elbow

Much like Travis Scott’s “SICKO MODE” last year, this opening track from British band Elbow’s eighth studio album is actually several songs in one, stitched together by impeccable production quality. Over six minutes, “Dexter & Sinister” skips from bass-heavy alt-rock, to ethereal pop, to meditative guitar – apparently as a musical metaphor to Brexit.

This song also appears on our Oct. 2019 Monthly Playlist.

2. “Inglorious (feat. Skepta)” by slowthai

If there is a zeitgeist for the political minefield that is today’s United Kingdom, it is slowthai’s debut album, Nothing Great About Britain. And the core of that album – the zeitgeist of the zeitgeist – is this track, featuring another UK man-of-the-moment, Skepta. “Inglorious” is about what it means to be poor and overlooked, and how that feeling sticks with you whether your fortunes change or not. This is the essence that informs and guides the rest of the album, which sees slowthai peeling apart the layers to Brexit with snark and irreverence. Rap with the spirit of punk.

This song also appears on our May 2019 Monthly Playlist.

1. “The Runner” by Foals

 “The Runner” is Foals at their finest: cryptic lyrics, heavy-hitting riffs and sharp production turned up to the max. It’s also just great music: endlessly listenable in all moods, whether it’s on the radio or on a superfan’s 500th spin. Foals have had a great year, but this song may be their best work ever.

This song also appears on our Sep. 2019 Monthly Playlist.

Honorable mentions: “CHARLIE” by Malfnktion feat. Shayan Roy; “Juice” by Lizzo; “7 rings” by Ariana Grande

Foals – Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Pt 2

31 Dec

There are few double-whammies quite like the one that Foals dealt us this year. They released a career-defining album, Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Pt 1, in March of this year. The conspicuous “Pt 1” in the title left many wondering when the next part would be released. Little did we know that it would be a mere seven months later, with October’s Everything Not Saved Will be Lost Pt 2.

If Pt 1 produced fantastic hits like “Exits” and “Café d’Athens”, Pt 2 takes it one step further. Here, practically every song is a bonafide hit. The album opens with an atmospheric, one-minute intro called “Red Desert” – a palette of echoing synths that conjures up a mystical Marrakesh adventure, perhaps. But the atmospherics immediately segue into Foals’ best song of the year, “The Runner”. Heady, heavy and more than a little apocalyptic, “The Runner” is probably the best arena rock this year – with a killer chorus to boot (“When I, when I fall down, fall down / then I know to keep on running”).

Rather than just being the star of the first half, “The Runner” is actually the first of four absolute beastly tracks. “Wash Off”, is a powerhouse of drums and guitars that goes from frenetic to downright crazy – before all the layers convalesce into a blissful 30-second ending. “Black Bull” is a maddening, murky blitz that lends total credence to the song title (also: see music video). And finally, “Like Lightning” is almost reminiscent of the Black Keys, with Dan Auerbach-esque vocals and a sluggish, bluesy feel – but a banger nonetheless.

It’s not until the slower-paced “Dreaming Of” that the listener is allowed to catch her breath. After the brief piano interlude (“Ikaria”), we are led into the final stretch of the album, and that’s when things really pick up to an unexpected level.

10,000 Feet” is a dramatic, rock-opera version of the myth of Icarus. “Into the Surf” is a dreamy track that highlights Yannis Philippakis’ vocals and a spindly piano. But Foals have saved the best for last, with the complete masterpiece of an album closer, “Neptune”.

At ten minutes and eighteen seconds, “Neptune” is no radio-friendly hit (unlike most of the rest of the album). From start to finish, it’s Technicolor, multi-faceted and visceral; the swansong at the end of the apocalypse just as humanity finally perishes in an arduous battle. There are simply too many elements of the song to describe in words – you have to hear it with your own two ears – but we’d like to highlight in particular the driving bassline and Philippakis’ vivid vocals.

You may notice that, in the course of this review, we didn’t focus too much on the lyrics. That’s not to say that they are not important or well-written; they are both of these things. It’s just that the force of the instrumentals on this album outweighs everything else.

As Foals themselves have stated, Everything Not Saved Will Not Be Lost is two-piece locket. The two albums, when considered together, paint a picture of a Mad Max-style apocalypse: broken, wild but exciting in its own way. Both albums are great, but it’s with Pt 2 that Foals really stick their landing. And for that reason, Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Pt 2 is probably their best album so far – and maybe even one of the best albums of the year.

Lizzo – Cuz I Love You

31 Dec

We have to admit: we kind of slept on Lizzo until early this year. The pop powerhouse – born Melissa Jefferson, stage name Lizzo – has been active for a few years already. Her first two albums, Lizzobangers (2013) and Big Grrl Small World (2015), were followed by a well-received EP entitled Coconut Oil (2016). But it was this year’s album, Cuz I Love You (2019), that broke Lizzo into the mainstream – and thankfully into our playlists.

Eagle-eyed readers will be aware that Lizzo first caught our ears with her lead single “Juice”, just around the time that an interview with Ellen brought her international attention. Happily, though, despite its irresistible beat and playful lyrics, “Juice” isn’t the only great track on the album – far from it, in fact.

At her essence, Lizzo is self-confidence in all aspects – personality, body, relationships and so on. And it’s when that self-confidence takes center-stage on Cuz I Love You that the singer really shines.

Take, for example, “Tempo”, an excellent collaboration with living legend Missy Elliott. “Slow songs, they for skinny hos / Can’t move all of this here to one of those / I’m a thick bitch, I need tempo” the duo declare. Sure, it’s an anthem for body positivity, but don’t overlook the killer beat or Missy’s seamless inclusion. “Exactly How I Feel”, her collab with Gucci Mane, showcases the wholesomeness of her positivity over funky, bouncy beats. “Can’t hold back my tears, that would be a crime / ‘Cause I look pretty cryin’, oh, they ain’t tell you?” she sings in her glass-busting voice, and ironically you can’t help smiling along.

But there are of course more layers to Lizzo. On the eponymous opening track, she talks about a man that she can’t quite forget: a memory that shatters her otherwise perfect poise. “Got me standing in the rain, gotta get my hair pressed again / I would do it for you all, my friend, ready baby? Will you be my man?” she wonders, before breaking out into an earth-shattering, introspective wail: “I’m crying ‘cause I love you”.

If there’s one negative to this album, it’s that it is too short yet not tight enough. There are some flatter songs on the album, which naturally stand out on the short ~34 min runtime. On the whole, though, Cuz I Love You is a great entry into the annals of this decade’s pop music. Lizzo is on her way to becoming a pop star (Doing SNL! Those red-carpet looks! Twitter friendship with Obama!) and there’s so much more that we can expect from her in the future.

Fontaines D.C. – Dogrel

23 Dec

Fontaines D.C. are a punk band from Dublin, Ireland, whose five members met over a common love for Irish poets. On their debut album, Dogrel, every piece of that one-sentence biography rings loud, clear and omnipresent.

Dogrel does for Dublin what the Arctic Monkeys’ debut did for Sheffield: pulling back the curtain for a laddish, working-class look at a beloved hometown. Run through Dogrel from top to bottom, and you almost feel as though you’re right there in Dublin with the boys.  

There are so many great elements to the album that it’s frankly unbelievable to think that this is a debut. The most striking element is, of course, the high-energy instruments. Fontaines D.C. never take more than a few seconds to catch the listener’s attention, whether it’s the driving riffs on “Sha Sha Sha” or the wall-of-bass on “Hurricane Laughter”.

Another stand-out element is singer Grian Chatten’s vocals, blaring out blustering one-liners (“My childhood was small / Oh, but I’m gonna be big!”) in an unmistakable, irreverent and totally unapologetic Irish accent. In many songs, it’s this phrasing itself that takes center-stage. “If you’re a Rock Star, Porn Star, Superstar / Doesn’t matter what you are, get yourself a good car, get outta here,” Chatten proclaims on “Boys in the Better Land” – every word pronounced more authentically Irish than anything you’ve ever heard.

And of course, there’s the matter of the lyrics themselves – slice-of-life, working-class beat poetry about Dublin life. On “Liberty Belle”: “You know I love that violence that you get around here / That kind of ready-steady violence, that violent ‘How do you do?’”. On “Too Real”: “The winter evening settles down, the bruised and beat up open sky, six o’clock / The city in its final dress, and now a gusty shower wraps the grimy scraps”. With Dogrel, the lads tip their hats to Yeats, Joyce et al in talking about their city – all set to cheeky punk rock. (Unsurprisingly, the album takes its name from doggerel, a jagged style of spoken-word poetry.)

Finally – and this is the most impressive one – the greatest part of Dogrel is that it is chock-full of hits from top to bottom. There are honestly decades-old bands that haven’t mastered the ability to combine authenticity, killer tunes and timeless lyrics into one package, and Fontaines D.C. did it on their first try.

Dogrel is perhaps the best debut of the year, and we highly recommend you give it a listen.

Best tracks: “Big”, “Boys in the Better Land”, “Sha Sha Sha”

The Black Keys – "Let's Rock"

9 Dec

In a world dominated by global pop sensations (see: Ariana Grande, K-pop), it can often seem like rock and roll is about to doze off at the wheel. Sure, you have the occasional saviors, like Royal Blood or the more derivative Greta van Fleet, but there aren’t too many active and prolific rock and roll artists today.

Except, of course, for the Black Keys.

The Black Keys, comprising of Dan Auerbach on guitar / vocals and Patrick Carney on drums, is as lean and mean as they come. Their songs are – and have always been – loud, effortless, rollicking, and whatever-is-the-opposite-of-pretentious. They are, simply put, a good time through and through.

What’s more, this sound has largely been dependable over the band’s extensive history. The band’s first five albums – The Big Come Up (2002), thickfreakness (2003), Rubber Factory (2004), Magic Potion (2006) and Attack & Release (2008) – were released in quick succession and to moderate fanfare. But it was soon after that they really started to take off. Brothers (2010) and El Camino (2011) would top the charts of any best-of-decade blues rock albums, spawning still-ubiquitous hits such as “Tighten Up”, “Howlin’ for You” and “Lonely Boy”. While Turn Blue (2014) could be considered a slight step down, it was still a great rock album – and that’s our point. There are few, if any, other artists today with such a long-standing, consistent and beloved rock discography.

And all that back-story brings us to the ninth Black Key album “Let’s Rock!” (2019). Coming after a scary five-year gap (“Will they ever get back together?” wondered fans everywhere), the album is sturdy, no-nonsense and catchy as all hell.

It’s also, reliably, packed to the brim with top-notch bluesy hits. “Shine a Little Light” opens the album with about twenty seconds of anticipation, before kicking into high gear with a hard-hitting riff. By the time Auerbach gets to the swashbuckling chorus (“If evil lays its hands on me, shine a little light on my soul / Show me things I cannot see, shine a little light on my soul”), you know what you’re getting for the rest of the album – good old-fashioned rock and roll fun.

And it’s pretty much non-stop from there. “Eagle Birds” is bluesy perfection, equally appropriate for an exuberant road-trip or a raucous dance party. “Lo / Hi” could, and probably will, soundtrack an advertisement for a Cadillac, or a leather jacket, or a motorcycle (or maybe all of those things) – pure swagger and confidence from head to toe. “Go” is an instant rock classic, with a single-word chorus (yep, the word is “go”) that perhaps no other band could really pull off.

In between these hard-rock hits, a few songs provide some welcome contrast. “Walk Across the Water” features gentler vocals with laidback, Hendrix-like riffs – a catch of breath in the otherwise relentless first half. “Sit Around and Miss You” is rockabilly meets Revolver-era Beatles, with warm riffs, old-timey “oohs” and “aahs”, and simple-as-they-get vocals.

Bottom line: “Let’s Rock” is straightforward, old-fashioned, and just plain fun. If you’re looking for something deep or ground-breaking, you’d best look elsewhere. If not – you’re in the right place.

Monthly Playlist: Nov. 2019

2 Dec

Before we swing into the final month of the year – and the decade! – we wanted to do a quick review of a few songs that made our November. Read on below:

5. “Kiss Like the Sun” by Jake Bugg

Jake Bugg has been our radar for about the last seven years, when we covered his fantastic, eponymous debut album. Even back then, the young (1994-born) singer-songwriter had a unique sound, evocative of the good old days (think Bob Dylan) but often ratcheted up to a modern-day streetwise setting (a la the Arctic Monkeys’ debut).

His sparkly debut, unfortunately, was followed by a rather middling series of three albums, with the last being released in 2017. Happily, though, it looks like Jake is making a foray back into music. On the new track “Kiss Like the Sun”, the Nottingham lad taps into a sort of amalgamation of the jangly tunes of a Feist track, and the rollicking bluesy good times of the Black Keys. We loved it, and hope there’s more to come.

4. “holy terrain” by FKA twigs

“holy terrain” is, in our opinion, the stand-out track from FKA twigs’ overall brilliant album from this month, MAGDALENE. Over a glitchy trap beat, twigs’ airy voice seems to speak of a soon-to-be love-hate relationship in its tumultuous early days. “Will you still be there for me once I’m yours to obtain? / Once my fruits are for taking and you flow through my veins?” she asks, hitting about ten emotions and twenty notes on the way. Her lover, here played by rapper Future, doesn’t have a great answer: “Throw loads of gold on you just to fall asleep, yeah / I hope you never take my love, yeah, in vain, yeah,” he answers, putting materialism and love in doomed equal footing. Ouch – good luck, folks. If you loved this track, be sure to check out our full review of MAGDALENE.

3. “Tokyo Drifting (with Denzel Curry)” by Glass Animals

Florida rapper Denzel Curry seems to be having a Brit-heavy collab year. After a joint track with British rap’s reigning king slowthai earlier this year, Curry has a notable stint on “Tokyo Drift” by British act Glass Animals.

For those who are new to Glass Animals, the four piece creates essentially a genre-bending musical mix of pop, R&B, trip hop, and everything in the middle – think Mazzy Star meets Portugal the Man over woozy electronic beats. On “Tokyo Drifting”, the dizzy trap beats and disorienting lyrics do indeed bring to mind a fast, nighttime drive through the glittering streets of Tokyo. And the best part, honestly, is Curry’s fast-and-furious verse right in the middle.

2. “Don’t Look at the Sun (Or You’ll Go Blind)” by Pond

So we’re cheating a little bit here: “Don’t Look at the Sun (Or You’ll Go Blind)” by Perth-based psych rockers is technically a song from their debut, Psychedelic Mango, way back in 2009. However, the song was rerecorded and released as a single on their Sessions live album from earlier this month, so we are considering it fair play.

With the heady reverb and thick basslines, “Don’t Look at the Sun” right from the outset sounds a lot like Tame Impala. We know we make that comparison that a lot – Tame is a solid reference point for lots of new music – but in Pond’s case, the comparison is not accidental. Pond and Tame Impala enjoy a revolving door of Perth-based musicians that play pretty much across both bands, including Kevin Parker himself, who used to drum for Pond. Basically, it’s no accident that “Don’t Look at the Sun”, with its groovy breaks and Doppler-effect vocals, feels like it would fit right in on Lonerism.

If you liked this song, we highly recommend you check out Pond’s 2019 album Tasmania – the eighth (!) full-length album from the good folks Down Under.

1. “Arabesque” by Coldplay

Like the Pond song earlier, this one is a little bit of a cheat too. As our avid readers would no doubt recall, we mentioned “Arabesque” as the paired single with “Orphans” in last month’s Playlist. However, since both songs feature on the band’s new album Everyday Life, out on November 22nd, we are once again considering this fair play.

Everyday Life overall is imbued with the mystique, romanticism and inimitable beauty of the Mediterranean-meets-Middle-East – the broad swathe of countries across the culturally complex top half of Africa. In fact, the essence can be summed up precisely by the name of this very song, “Arabesque” – a little Arabic, a little French, and many other things too.

On “Arabesque”, Chris Martin and the lads do justice to this complexity with a jazzy, bilingual track that elicits a Casablancan air of exotic joie de vivre. The lyrics themselves are not complex: “I could be you, you could be me / Two raindrops in the same sea,” sings Martin across English and French, perhaps speaking to the ultimate commonality in the basic human experience. But it’s the delivery – the band at their liveliest and most exuberant – that really makes the song for us. The best way to experience this song is through its accompanying live music video (which, in fact, was released this month, so I suppose we get points for that?):

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