By Coleman Bandy
This year’s best releases so far point to a shifting musical landscape where artists are defying traditional genre classification and producing unique, singular records that combine disparate genres like indie rock, hip hop, R&B – sometimes all in the same song. Take Vampire Weekend’s ‘Father of the Bride’, an album that makes room for Grateful Dead-indebted jams, tear-jerking epics, and jazz scatting. Yes, scatting. Seriously. Even Natalie Mering of Weyes Blood, once beholden to her piano and beautiful falsetto, is now writing synth-based electro ballads that continue to push her artistry forward. With the year’s best music blurring these boundaries, the rest of 2019 looks to be just as exciting. Here are the best albums from the first half of 2019.
10. Jessica Pratt — Quiet Signs
Quiet Signs is fittingly a terse and sparing record, and it’s all the better for it. Paired down to just Pratt’s voice and an acoustic guitar, the album’s best songs resemble the wide-open country, a space often evoked by Pratt’s mournful lyrics. Like a David Lynch movie set in the expanse of rural America, Quiet Signs is a surreal dreamscape that simultaneously bewitches and pushes you away, supplying just enough of a soft melody to keep you coming back for more.
9. Vampire Weekend — Father of the Bride
Six years after Modern Vampires of the City, still the band’s best record, Vampire Weekend finally released its fourth studio album in May. Father of the Bride is a difficult record, a double album containing some of the group’s best and worst songs alongside each other. Lead single “Harmony Hall” and the beautiful “Unbearably White” rank with the former, while “My Mistake” and “Stranger” could easily have been excised. That’s the curse of the double album: if Ezra were as talented an editor as he is songwriter, perhaps Father of the Bride could have reached the heights of its predecessor. Regardless, it’s an excellent album by a band that always surprises.
8. Thom Yorke — ANIMA
Thom Yorke’s first two solo albums lack the depth and narrative ambiguity of his band Radiohead’s work, but starting with last year’s Suspiria soundtrack and now his newest and best solo release, ANIMA, Yorke has begun to find his voice. A mostly electronic fever dream, ANIMA is surprisingly emotional and subtly melodic. Songs like “Dawn Chorus” and opener “Traffic” easily rank alongside some of the best tracks Yorke has written. While his music still keeps you at an arm’s length, ANIMA is nothing short of a triumph.
7. Cate Le Bon — Reward
Welsh singer Cate Le Bon has always been a good songwriter. Her first album, Me Oh My, came out ten years ago, and she’s adopted a different style with each release: first folk, then soft rock, later jazz-fusion. Her most recent album, Reward, is a successful fusion of all these disparate styles. Where Le Bon once used blaring saxophones and orchestral flourishes to prop up her music, new songs like “Daylight Matters” and “You Don’t Love Me” are perfectly produced indie rock gems that don’t overwhelm. Reward is the culmination of all Le Bon’s hard work.
6. Bill Callahan — Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest
Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest is Bill Callahan’s best album in 20 years. The prolific country crooner has clearly found a surge of inspiration in domesticity; the man who once sounded so sincere singing about the wide open road finds a new poetry in settling down. Since his last record, Callahan got married and started a family. These new tracks describe his wedding day, the sunrise, writing, sex with his wife. For once, Callahan sounds more at peace than restless.
5. Solange — When I Get Home
Solange Knowles’ newest release will inevitably be compared to her 2016 masterpiece A Seat at the Table, an expansive R&B kaleidoscope that features contributions from a slew of influential musicians across a variety of genres, from Lil Wayne to Dirty Projectors’ Dave Longstreth. It’s hard to escape the shadow of an instant classic, but in this case, the comparisons are apt. When I Get Home is a victory lap, an experimental collage of sounds that isn’t altogether different from its predecessor. Tracks like “Dreams” and “Almeda” make this much clear: Solange is still at the top of her game.
4. PUP — Morbid Stuff
PUP’s relentlessly catchy third studio album Morbid Stuff is an overt and self-aware shriek into the night. Its nihilistic lyrics contrast with the upbeat, blissed-out melodies: “I was bored as fuck, sitting around and thinking all this morbid stuff, like if anyone I slept with is dead,” sings Stefan Babcock on the title track and album opener. On paper, it seems depressing and immature, but listening to the record is a thrilling, cathartic experience that can inspire anyone to scream away their worries.
3. Jamila Woods — Legacy! Legacy!
Jamila Woods seems older than 29. Legacy! Legacy! is uncharacteristically mature for such a young artist, an ambitious leap forward from Woods’ solid debut album Heavn. Legacy! can be equally enjoyed on headphones and the dance floor, an upbeat R&B anthem that contemplates its place among the greats. Each song is named for an influential black artist: Betty, Sonia, Zora, Eartha, Miles. Jamila is already carving her name into the zeitgeist.
2. Weyes Blood — Titanic Rising
Natalie Mering has steadily grown as an artist over the past decade, but Titanic Rising is her big breakthrough, a baroque masterpiece of twinkling piano and silky Stihl guitar. Produced by the great Jonathan Rado, Mering’s newest record as Weyes Blood finds the singer on top of her songwriting game, with tracks like “Andromeda” and “Movies” as good as anything you’ll listen to this year. It’s beautiful but also dark and ominous, a celebration of life and an ode to the unknown.
1. Big Thief — U.F.O.F.
I’ve been singing praises of Adrianne Lenker’s fantastic folk-rock group Big Thief for years, but I still wasn’t prepared for the game-changing U.F.O.F., the best album of 2019 so far and one that likely won’t be beat by year’s end. While the band’s previous records stole from artists like Joni Mitchell and Jeff Tweedy, U.F.O.F. seems to draw from the earth itself, with songs like “Cattails” and instant classic “Orange” recalling a soft summer morning. It’s more Walden than Wilco, a stunning statement that transcends its influences and finds Big Thief finally embracing its limitless potential.