Music

The 50 Best Albums of 2019 So Far

As we head into a brief summer publication break to enjoy the summer sun for a few days, it's the perfect time to take stock of the year in music so far. PopMatters returns to our normal publishing schedule on Monday, 8 July.

As we head into a brief summer publication break to enjoy the summer sun for a few days, it's the perfect time to take stock of the year in music so far. This is shaping up to be a year of ground-breaking, cross-genre pollination, much of it underpinned by a keen awareness and aversion to rising racism, xenophobia, and populism. These are 50 albums that cut across the musical landscape, highlighting the impressive diversity of great music in 2019.

Areni Agbabian - Bloom (ECM)

It takes a special talent to garner a personal endorsement from the ever-innovative jazz pianist Tigran Hamasyan, but Areni Agbabian comes by it honestly. For over six years, Agbabian has sung with Hamasyan, collaborating with him on several albums and many more live tours. On new release Bloom, she draws from Armenian folk performances, classical choral music, and improvisatory jazz, only to defy all expectations for every single one of these genres as she puts forth a repertoire of pieces impossible to define and easy to dissolve into. - Adriane Pontecorvo

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LISTEN: "Patience" / "Petal Two"

Big Thief - U.F.O.F. (4AD)

Big Thief's U.F.O.F. is an almost perfect album, "with the windows wide", as "Cattails" has it, blowing a cleansing breeze of fresh spring air through our musty winter halls, all while leaving us as blank as if we were newborn ciphers and scratching our heads as if we were grizzled and bewildered elders, none the wiser for all of our tempestuous experience. Wide open and utterly oblique at the same time, these are, to paraphrase the immortal Tim Buckley, songs to the sirens. The best music is often the kind that refuses any label. This is that music. - Rod Waterman

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LISTEN: Bandcamp / "Century" / "UFOF"

Cherry Glazerr - Stuffed & Ready (Secretly Canadian)

The term "noise pop" may be an inherently and deliberately kitschy oxymoron. But if any band makes the case that the two disparate forms can achieve synergy, it's Cherry Glazerr. With Stuffed & Ready, the Los Angeles band's third LP, this tapestry-like amalgamation of contradictory genres is at its most palatable, a bristly and savage exterior with a sugary core that helps it go down easy. A feel of apocalyptic joy, of reveling as corrupt pillars and institutions crumble into chaos, pervades the record. Frequently, simmering rage is given voice in incendiary instrumentation, with a righteous fury lashing out and narrators refusing to kowtow. - Cole Waterman

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LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: "Daddi" / "Wasted Nun"

Stef Chura - Midnight (Saddle Creek)

If Stef Chura's debut LP Messes was an appetizer, Midnight is the teased main course. The former 2017 record comprised a bevy of 1990s-twinged, pop-inflected garage rock, anchored by Chura's sinuously sneering vocals, that was instantly rewarding while promising something bigger. Midnight fulfills that promise, Chura having honed and expanded its predecessor's strengths. Broad in scope, its 12 songs cover a range of moods, tones, and energies. Emerging from and tethered to the same nucleus, the songs' varying styles could initially seem competitive with one other, but on repeated listens, it becomes clear how precisely woven the songs are in the complete tapestry. - Cole Waterman

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LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: "They'll Never"

Dave - Psychodrama (Neighbourhood Recordings)

British rapper Dave has had a career year with his album Psychodrama being nearly universally lauded. The Guardian went so far as to call it "the boldest and best British rap album in a generation". Such enthusiastic phrase is well-warranted as Dave (a.k.a. David Orobosa Omoregie) has created an emotional album of devastating honesty and self-reflection. Based around the general concept of attending a therapy session to work out his issues, Psychodrama brilliantly addresses the ravages of racism, poverty, and austerity on Britain's Black community and how they can literally cause people to be sick. The subject matter is difficult but vital to discuss, and Dave has created a monumental work of hip-hop art with this loose concept album. It's not a record to blast from the car with the bass pumping hard, but a contemplative, sit-down-and-listen-to-it album that requires you don't miss a second. - Sarah Zupko

WATCH: "Lesley" / "Streatham"

DAWN - New Breed (Local Action )

DAWN's New Breed is packed with sounds, from the incessant electronic dance beats that propel her music forward to her inclusion of spoken word lessons about the Black Indians of New Orleans that thread the various tracks together. Because this is dance music, DAWN's lessons are meant to be moved to instead of just heard. She produced most of the record and intended the music as a soundtrack to some serious cavorting. The lyrics suggest life can be carnival, if you let yourself go. The instrumentation reinforces this message with a corporal, even carnal, insistence. The instinctive need to boogie cannot be denied. - Steve Horowitz

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LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: "New Breed" / "Sauce"

The Drums - Brutalism (Anti-)

With the fifth Drums album, Brutalism, vocalist Jonny Pierce continues his literal solo journey. He may be by himself, but Pierce has plenty of material with which to create his art. Written and recorded on both coasts – in upstate New York as well as a studio in Stinson Beach, California – Brutalism was borne out of a painful divorce and a difficult solo living situation in Los Angeles. The album is, in a way, a form of therapy. Focusing on his mental health, Pierce ends up with a deeply felt, lyrically dense album. The rich synthpop of Brutalism creates a catchy, instantly lovable sheen to some of Pierce's best songs to date. - Chris Ingalls

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LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: "Body Chemistry"

C Duncan - Health (Fatcat)

C Duncan's Health, is a sublime sucker punch to the senses, a radical shift in mood, vision, color, and sound that few might have anticipated after two intimate albums of pastoral dream-pop. This expanded color palette was revealed in January when gorgeous lead single "Impossible" arrived with much indie fanfare. Announcing that he had abandoned the comforts of his bedroom studio and enlisted Elbow's Craig Potter to produce his third, emotionally honest outing, was rather unforeseen. Writing and recording the album "was the biggest shift in dynamic for me", Duncan said. "Having always worked alone, it was a daunting prospect, but one I knew I had to explore." - Ryan Lathan

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LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: "Health" / "Impossible" / "Talk Talk Talk"

Justin Townes Earle - The Saint of Lost Causes (New West)

Justin Townes Earle's albums have been one musically varied and solidly satisfying release after another, and in many ways, The Saint of Lost Causes can be seen as all those previous albums distilled into one finely crafted collection. The songs all have a feel that is timeless and reverential of the past, while still moving forward along the twisted turns of America. The dozen songs are full of ups and downs – the rail-riding swing of "Pacific Northwestern Blues" is followed by the mercurial, almost cinematic "Appalachian Nightmare", the chilling tale of a junkie who kills a cop and is filled with remorse as everything comes to a close. - Chris Ingalls

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LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: "Appalachian Nightmare" / "Frightened by the Sound"

Fujiya & Miyagi - Flashback (Impossible Objects of Desire)

"Gammon" is a rare moment of revelation from the otherwise quite buttoned-up Fujiya & Miyagi, while it is also a refreshing blossoming of feeling that necessarily ventilates Flashback. But this closing statement also ingeniously contextualizes the notion of nostalgia originally suggested by the album's title, since the entirety of the gammon project, such as it is, depends on our suspended disbelief concerning the mists of time and memory. We have to believe in the good old days if we are being persuaded to turn away from modernity and head relentlessly back into the past, and this is the great lie of the cultural politics that "Gammon" (and indeed Flashback as a whole) so smartly critiques. While Fujiya & Miyagi have dealt and continue to deal in nuance, subtlety, and reserve, their finest moment here is their most direct and vitriolic statement in quite some time, and it's a startling experience for the listener. - Rod Waterman

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LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: "Flashback"

Beth Gibbons and the Polish National Radio Symphony - Henryk Górecki's Symphony No. 3 (Domino)

When discussing Symphony No. 3, Opus 36, also known as the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,composer Henryk Górecki hoped "people [would] find something they need in this piece of music". After its premiere in 1977, audiences certainly did not and widely criticized the symphony and by default its composer. However, over the course of several decades, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs gained popularity. Perhaps, though, Górecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs' time is now. The release of the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra version is an emotionally sweeping and plaintive musical depiction of despair. With Portishead's Beth Gibbons as the soprano, the composition is hoisted into modernity and emblematic of the contemporary political and social turbulence. In this presentation by Domino, audiences will realize Górecki's purpose in positioning the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs as a catalyst for empathy and change. - Elisabeth Woronzoff

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WATCH: Trailer

Rhiannon Giddens - there is no Other (Nonesuch)

MacArthur genius grant winner Rhiannon Giddens may know that we are all part of the same godhead and music from across time and space may communicate our wholeness as a species, but she also understands that on an individual level we all do get the blues sometimes. There may be no "Other", but without another person, our lives are incomplete. there is no Other invites us to do more than share our misery. It asks us to see ourselves as part of something bigger. - Steve Horowitz

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WATCH: "I'm on My Way" / "There Is No Other"

HÆLOS - Any Random Kindness (Infectious)

Wisely on their second album, Any Random Kindness, HÆLOS have decided to focus their gaze outwards, addressing themes ranging from the destruction of the planet to the emptiness and loneliness of social media. Most notably, the band have also chosen to broaden their sound, merging more live instrumentation and analogue synths into their sound and in doing so finding new musical paths to explore. The songs on Any Random Kindness take time to sink in, with hooks revealing themselves over time with the band clearly understanding the need to take risks to grow musically. The mix of the organic and synthetic is handled skillfully throughout with slowly rippling melodies suddenly enveloped by swarming crowds of busy electronics and charged live drums. - Paul Carr

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WATCH: "Buried in the Sand" / "Kyoto"

Tim Hecker - Anoyo (Kranky)

Tim Hecker's Anoyo does not attempt so much to outshine its predecessor Konoyo, but rather shine a different light to Hecker's initial concept. Instead of providing a continuation of Konoyo's journey, the new record forms a mirror image, highlighted also in the records title, with Konoyo translating to "the world over here", while Anoyo adds some distance in that equation meaning "the world over there". The notion of placement, or displacement, emphasized on these titles is key, and it explains the main difference between these two works. Anoyo unfolds slowly through a hallucinatory rendition, but it keeps a distance from the off-kilter quality of Konoyo. - Spyros Stasis

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LISTEN: Bandcamp

The Matthew Herbert Great Britain and Gibraltar European Union Membership Referendum Big Band - The State Between Us (Accidental)

It's Saturday, the 23rd of March. Six days before the UK was supposed to divorce itself from the European Union. An estimated one million people are marching in London, asking the Government, Parliament and anyone who will listen to hold a People's Vote on this momentous decision. Meanwhile, an online petition, asking the Government to revoke Article 50, the legislation that will see the UK leave the European Union, has attracted over four million signatures. Further still, around two hundred marchers are marching from one end of the UK to London to demand we leave the European Union. And this is what is commonly known as Brexit. Or as most people across Europe now refer to it, #brexitshambles. - Jez Collins

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LISTEN: Bandcamp

Holly Herndon - PROTO (4AD)

Spawn is a two-year-old choir singer, that is, she is an AI agent that has learned to mimic human vocals. For her third full-length PROTO, Holly Herndon features what she refers to as her "AI baby" as a part of her ensemble of vocalists, developers, and guest contributors. The result of this human-inhuman collaboration is a project that not only humanizes the discourse of AI but also uses AI to understand humanity better. PROTO wonders how AI can contribute to the longstanding human tradition of shape-note hymnals, exploring the possibilities and ethics of present and especially future AI protocols in art. - Hans Kim

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LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: "Eternal" / "Frontier" / "Godmother"

Ibibio Sound Machine - Doko Mien (Merge)

Ibibio Sound Machine has never put out a weak release. The group's output is consistently both fun and finessed, the peaks and valleys largely unremarkable in that every track is a good track at the very least. New album Doko Mien continues in this same vein, blending highlife spirit, electronic pop beats, and Afrofunk brass together for an album that keeps the party going from start to finish. As frontwoman, Eno Williams is exuberant and emotive, with a voice that sounds fresh at all times. Doko Mien shows Ibibio Sound Machine's versatility as the group continues to bring Lagos and London together in new ways. - Adriane Pontecorvo

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LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: "Wanna Come Down"

Jambinai - ONDA (Bella Union)

Emerging from the peripheries is Jambinai (잠비나이). This quintet finds cross-cultural influences from traditional Korean music, post-rock, and atmospheric metal, but their ethos is certainly more complex than a forced fusion. Jambinai's latest full-length ONDA (온다) reminds that Korean music is not just mass-mediated pop and underappreciated traditional music but also something diasporic and ever-evolving. This quintet finds cross-cultural influences from traditional Korean music, post-rock, and atmospheric metal, but their ethos is certainly more complex than a forced fusion. Jambinai's latest full-length ONDA (온다) reminds that Korean music is not just mass-mediated pop and underappreciated traditional music but also something diasporic and ever-evolving. - Hans Kim

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LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: "Square Wave"

The Japanese House - Good at Falling (Dirty Hit)

The four years of maturation have led the Japanese House, a.k.a. Buckinghamshire's Amber Bain to "being more blatant, open, and frank lyrically" on Good at Falling, an album which intimately confesses her aptitude for falling in and out of love through her signature dream-like, synth-saturated musical immersions. On this record, it's the "falling out of love" which commands Bain's inner dialogue, inspired most directly by her recent breakup with ex-girlfriend and label-mate Marika Hackman. Though Bain's Imogen Heap-inspired dream pop feels light and euphoric at surface level, you don't have to dig too deep to hear the heartbreak and apathy darkening the album's mood. - Christopher Thiessen

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LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: "Lilo"

J-E-T-S - Zoospa (Innovative Leisure)

J-E-T-S is the first full-length offering from maverick producers Machinedrum and Jimmy Edgar, two artists who have made careers out of exploring the more leftfield aspects of hip-hop, techno, and house. It's an album that sees two producers finding plenty of shared musical ground, laying charges and then detonating them. Sounds, beats, and rhythms are forced together and then wrenched apart as the pair form songs from the jagged, avant-garde elements that many other producers would discard. The result is, at times, a stunningly inventive album that, thankfully, delivers on its promises. - Paul Carr

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LISTEN: Bandcamp / "Potions"

WATCH: "Play"

Durand Jones and the Indications - American Love Call (Dead Oceans/Colemine)

Just under a year ago, Indiana University-born group Durand Jones and the Indications released a self-titled debut rich with strong, classic soul vibes and serious funk energy. With irresistible grooves, the group let loose with swinging, brassy rock 'n' roll. It was a shot of concentrated nostalgia, one that still managed to sound fresh in 2018. Now, the group delivers yet again with their sophomore release, American Love Call. It ends up a little slower, more somber than the group's first album, music to contemplate rather than to get down to on the dance floor. The group wears this new hat well, sounding every bit as old-school cool as ever while commenting on contemporary social issues in a way that shows as much consciousness as it does musical cohesion. - Adriane Pontecorvo

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LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: "Don't You Know"

Cate Le Bon - Reward (Mexican Summer)

Cate Le Bon's Reward breaks through to an entirely new level of operation, and while it may be freely acknowledged that Le Bon's previous work, most notably Mug Museum (2013) and Crab Day (2016), was undoubtedly excellent, this new work is rather stunning in its shedding of skins and plowing of new furrows. The influences have either been thoroughly shrugged off or thoroughly absorbed, and what we get here is a frankly remarkable set of ten songs that lead us from our comfort zone almost imperceptibly to a very very strange place, and then once more out of the woods and back to more recognizable territory. - Rod Waterman

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LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: "Daylight Matters" / "Home to You"

Maps - Colours. Reflect. Time. Loss (Mute)

On new album, Colours. Reflect. Time. Loss, Maps (James Chapman) has decided to use a whole new set of tools. The most prominent being the employment of a six-piece orchestra to bring his vision to life. It's a striking sound, with each song coated in engaging, dreamy string arrangements as well as layered live drums, sweet female harmonies, chiming, folky guitar, and subtle electronics. It's a triumphantly realized album that finds him taking the concept of Pet Sounds, adding the 1960s folk-pop of the Byrds all while channeling the spaced-out rock of 1990s Spiritualized. - Paul Carr

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WATCH: "Both Sides" / "Just Reflecting" / "Surveil"

Cass McCombs - Tip of the Sphere (Anti-)

Cass McCombs' Tip of the Sphere has its fair share of groovy tunes offset by quirky, at-times baffling lyrics. If there's another musician who combines this laid-back, anything goes aesthetic with tongue-in-cheek songwriting, it's Kurt Vile, but McCombs' latest isn't as insular or hazy as much of Vile's output, instead focusing on big band instrumentation and good old-fashioned jams. It's mostly a straightforward rock record, despite the fact that McCombs' voice and storytelling more closely recall the earnest croonings of folk and blues singers. As ever, the singer is impressively chameleonic. There's not a sound in the guitar music canon that he hasn't tried to emulate. - Alex Leininger

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LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: "Absentee"

Leyla McCalla - The Capitalist Blues (Jazz Village)

Listeners should expect tenacious political and social commentary from an album titled The Capitalist Blues. Leyla McCalla, the renowned cellist and Americana/folk performer, unequivocally delivers. First receiving recognition as a member of the iconic old-time string group the Carolina Chocolate Drops, McCalla's solo career is equally rousing. Her latest release, The Capitalist Blues, is an inspired album centralizing the importance of music as an outlet for castigating society's ills. More so, each track reveals McCalla's fluency with varying musical genres ranging from R&B to traditional Haitian, rock 'n' roll to Calypso, and Cajun dancehall to zydeco. Despite the array of genres, The Capitalist Blues is a coherent and meaningful call for resistance. - Elisabeth Woronzoff

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WATCH: "Money Is King"

The National - I Am Easy to Find (4AD)

To have the courage to give your work over to others, to step out of the spotlight, to hand over significant control of the album to a filmmaker, to democratize even more fully what was already a pretty avowedly democratic and collaborative band by delegating still more authority and control, all of this could have been the cause of some growing pains and some hurt egos. Letting go is painful and challenging. Revision and editing are hard. But this particular body of work seems to have been enriched, thickened and enhanced by its own creative bravery, and the National's identity remains intact at the end. - Rod Waterman

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WATCH: "Hairpin Turns" / I'm Easy to Find / "Light Years"

Amanda Palmer - There Will Be No Intermission (Cooking Vinyl)

Amanda Palmer has always demanded our attention and will go to extremes to get it. Case in point: she stands defiantly nude on the cover of her new album There Will Be No Intermission. But with every one of the record's ten primary songs clocking in at over five minutes, she wants even more: she demands our time. Give her the time; pay close attention; it's worth the ride. The record is comprised of those ten songs each separated by a brief instrumental interlude and they show Palmer at the top of her game. She has always been one of our strongest songwriters, going back to Dresden Dolls, but her proclivity to release just about everything she creates in warts-and-all abandon sometimes obscures that fact. Palmer can be great when she's spontaneous, but when she takes her time and really crafts a song, she's damn near incomparable. - Ed Whitelock

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LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: "Judy Blume"

Plaid - Polymer (Warp)

British duo Plaid have long been one of the most innovative and forward-thinking names in electronic music. Pick any album from their long career, and you're met with intricate rhythms, glitchy IDM beats, and wonderfully cerebral diversions that seemed to toy with the very notion of space, depth and time. New album Polymer is no different but, conversely, also a very different beast from anything they have done before. There is an edge to the record that takes the music in bold, previously unexplored new directions. Inspired by modern themes of environment, synthetics, mortality, and human connection every light, playful element is counterbalanced by something altogether darker - like black, rain clouds slowly enveloping a clear blue sky. - Paul Carr

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LISTEN: "Maru" / "Recall"

WATCH: "Dancers"

Pom Poko - Birthday (Bella Union)

One of the oddest characteristics of Birthday, the debut album from Norway's Pom Poko, is perhaps what makes it so attractive: a refusal to commit to one specific influence or style. While they enjoy mining a late '80s/early '90s bubblegum-punk vibe, that aesthetic works hand-in-hand with some stunningly virtuoso musicianship. Imagine Robert Fripp, giddy on club drugs, joining forces with a reformed Sugarcubes. Picture the laser-focused math-rock precision Battles jamming with Deerhoof. If that type of dichotomy sounds positively insane on paper, wait until you hear it. - Chris Ingalls

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LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: "Crazy Energy Night"

Jessica Pratt - Quiet Signs (Mexican Summer)

Jessica Pratt is as formidable as she is taciturn on Quiet Signs. Following the acclaimed release of On Your Own Love Again (2015), the LA-based folk artist reestablishes herself as an evocative singer-songwriter. Teasing out musical abundance from simple instrumentation, lyrics, and vocals, Pratt concertizes complexity and nuance. Quiet Signs is a staggering work of hushed beauty. "Aeroplane" is arguably Quiet Signs' standout track. An organ doses the song in psychedelia while the single cymbal crash contrasts with Pratt's honeyed vocals. She describes peering out a tiny plane's window overlooking a cityscape. At this point, she begins to understand a greater perspective. - Elisabeth Woronzoff

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LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: "This Time Around"

PUP - Morbid Stuff (Rise)

Morbid Stuff is an album that revels in the cynicism and self-doubt of modern living. It's the sound of Vancouver-based band PUP forging rousing, anthemic punk from the most jagged rocks mined from the depths of frontman Stefan Babcock's psyche. A nihilistic party where heartache and pain dance with numerous partners like self-loathing, shattered dreams, anxiety, and hopeless inadequacy. Still, a party needs a soundtrack and PUP provide the best one they possibly can. Somehow, spinning hummable hooks and catchy choruses from the suffocating web of one's own misery, PUP find something positive in the pain - before surrendering to the realization of just how ridiculous life really is. - Paul Carr

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LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: "Free at Last" / "Kids"

Jordan Rakei - Origin (Ninja Tune)

Origin is singer, multi-instrumentalist and producer Jordan Rakei's follow up to his superb 2017 album Wallflower. Musically, it's a vibrant and deftly blended mix of smooth jazz, classic soul, and cool funk with a sprinkling of 1990s R&B and hip-hop. If blending all of those disparate elements wasn't ambitious enough, Rakei also ties the songs on the album around a single unifying theme - that of our slow, submission to, ever more intrusive, advancements in technology. As a result, lyrically, Rakei casts his net a little further on Origin, drawing on his wider anxieties and fears about the effect technology is having on the human experience. Fortunately, these broadly dystopian themes don't detract from the wonderfully vividly rich, hook-laden songs as Rakei wrenches himself clear of his comfort zone to dazzling effect. - Paul Carr

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LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: "Minds Eye" / "Say Something"

Sinkane - Dépaysé (City Slang)

Sinkane's funky Life and Livin' It, full of upbeat pop stylings and bright, bright color, came out in 2017, mere weeks after the signing of Executive Order 13769, a ban on travel from several predominantly Muslim countries, including Sudan, one of the nations Sinkane calls home. On his new release Dépaysé, Sinkane puts justified outrage over this and systemic discrimination in general to music. Appropriately, the tone has shifted away from feel-good to fighting back, with direct messaging against hatred, state-sponsored or otherwise. Lyrically, it's a deadly serious album. The musical stakes are higher, too - but the sounds are no less engaging, and maybe more soulful than ever before. - Adriane Pontecorvo

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LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: "Everybody"

Sleaford Mods - Eton Alive (Extreme Eating)

Sleaford Mods' Eton Alive is tremendous fun, and tremendously funny, without ever coming across as a novelty turn. At the same time that there is an underlying tone of sinister threat that never fully materializes into an all-out assault. For all the larger-than-life cartoonishness that Jason Williamson's vocal persona might suggest, this is a remarkably subtle and nuanced experience, both musically and lyrically. This is a kind of poetry, and a kind of beauty, after all. Brexit (let us look forward to the day when we no longer have to speak of this blight) may be this album's context and its backdrop but what we might be getting here is ultimately a form of contemporary elegiac lyricism rather than full-fledged social polemic. Perhaps that is a more useful and rewarding reference and access point for this remarkable piece of work.

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WATCH: "Discourse" / "Kebab Spider"

Slowthai - Nothing Great About Britain (Method)

As the Brexit debacle steams ahead full force, many British artists have been releasing projects interrogating what it means to be British, as well as critiquing the state of UK society that allowed Brexit to win the vote. Slowthai is a Northampton rapper with a clever wit and a deep social conscience, and on his new album, Nothing Great About Britain, Slowthai picks apart all the various strands of social and political decay. With rising income inequality, decreasing class mobility, fears over the health of the National Health Service, threats of war and economic meltdown, it's no wonder Slowthai grounds his critiques in real-world problems. Nothing Great About Britain has the beats and production for sure, but this is very much a thinking person's hip-hop record that pushes the genre forward. - Sarah Zupko

LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: "Doorman" / "Gorgeous" / "Inglorious" / "Nothing Great About Britain"

Solange - When I Get Home (Columbia)

The theme of When I Get Home is, of course, home. For Solange that technically means Houston, which here means collaborations with Houstonians like Devin the Dude and staggered beats from the chop-shop of DJ Screw. The connection is much more obvious in the black cowboy fantasia of the album's visual component, which debuted in nine venues in that town from her mom's old hair salon to the only black-owned bank in Texas. But the music itself feels like a sort of cocoon enclosing the singer. It doesn't use reverb and distant samples in the way ambient music does, to suggest the world opening up around it. It leaves great amounts of space between the beats, as A Seat at the Table does, and then ties up the ends with searching synth chords (jazz band Standing on the Corner backs her for much of the album). The sense of engulfment is uncanny. - Daniel Bromfield

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WATCH: "Almeda" / "Binz"

SPELLLING - Mazy Fly (Sacred Bones)

Emerging from the experimental underground is the bourgeoning star Tia Cabral, aka SPELLLING. She comes from the flourishing Oakland scene that is "queerer, browner, and more femme", as Bandcamp calls it. On her latest full-length Mazy Fly, Cabral applies her mystical aesthetic to imagine a better, otherworldly future. While conceptualizing Mazy Fly, Cabral "was struck by the way the same technologies that have given humans the ability to achieve utopian dreams of discovery have also brought the world to the precipice of dystopic global devastation". Perhaps, this thought can be understood through Afrofuturism. This cultural lens is more than a simple mesh of black aesthetics and science fiction. Rather, the theory reads current "progress" as misguided and deceptive, preserving and concealing longstanding oppressive systems, such as racial capitalism; the aesthetic is conscious of this fallacy, but also, it interacts with and modifies it in the past, present, and future to imagine a better world. - Hans Kim

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LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: "Under the Sun"

Swindle - No More Normal (Brownswood Recordings)

The old saying "coming together is a beginning; staying together is progress; working together is success" would serve as an appropriate axiom for the new album from London-based producer, Swindle. His second album, No More Normal is an album about joining together. About finding the common bonds and the shared experiences that connect people, and uncovering the shared musical affinities that can be fostered to create powerful and lasting music. Swindle has always been an artist that can find the connective tissues between genres, but here he also twists the connective fibers between people to create something strong and enduring. Taking hip-hop, jazz, grime, soul, and R&B he adeptly brings in a myriad of special guests who help him to suture together the common musical threads within disparate genres to create something genuinely unique. - Paul Carr

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LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: "Coming Home" / "Drill Work" / "Reach the Stars"

Test Dept - Disturbance (One Little Indian)

Fiscal austerity. Income inequality. Joblessness. The looming threat of nuclear war. It is an ironic statement on the fragility of human progress that many of the worst socio-political phenomena which characterized the early 1980s (and were adopted as themes by bands like Test Dept) appear to have returned, despite the ostensible progress one would have hoped the world would have made in the intervening 40 years. If it seems our political world is stuck in a never-ending tape loop that simply becomes more worn-out with each rotation, it falls to Test Dept to provide a soundtrack for the renewed struggle. Just as the forces of socialism and anti-austerity resistance surged back into prominence in the UK and elsewhere, so Test Dept has emerged musically resurgent with Disturbance. The album is reminiscent of much of Test Dept's earlier work, yet new enough to excite, and succeeds both as a concept album as well as a collection of well-crafted tracks. - Hans Rollmann

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LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: "Speak Truth to Power"

Katie Toupin - Magnetic Moves (Symphonic Distribution)

As great a band as Houndmouth is, you can't fault Katie Toupin for itching to strike out on her own. After five years with the acclaimed alt-country band (where she shared the spotlight with three other musicians), she left in 2016 to pursue a solo career. That in itself isn't unusual; the fact that she's made a solo album that's so wide-ranging – compared to the Americana stylings of her old band – is the pleasant shock that listeners will likely experience with her brilliant new record, Magnetic Moves. The eclectic nature of Magnetic Moves is a major factor in what makes it work so well. "Run to You" manages to incorporate reggae, folk touches, and a soaring chorus without ever seeming overly busy. The heart-on-sleeve balladry of "Someone to You" has a classic country sheen, and Toupin's flawless pipes – think Amy Winehouse without the twitchy phrasing – give the song the feel of something tumbling out of a roadhouse jukebox. - Chris Ingalls

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WATCH: "Magnetic Moves"

Turning Jewels Into Water - Map of Absences (FPE)

Drummer/producer Ravish Momin and electronic percussionist Val Jeanty join forces as Turning Jewels Into Water to perform an exercise in merging the past with the present. The duo's vision was already showcased in part with their debut EP, Which Way Is Home?, and they now return with a complete offering in their debut record Map of Absences. Given the background of the two musicians, it comes as no surprise that this record is built around the percussive dimension. Using cutting edge percussive tools, including smart triggers, drum pads, and MIDI controllers, it is the duo's vision to augment the acoustic drum kit. It is through this exploration that Turning Jewels Into Water find a place where the ritualistic origins of music and rhythm meet with the digital realm. - Spyros Stasis

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LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: "Dark Waters Rushing In"

Vanishing Twin - The Age of Immunology (Fire)

There is a certain sense that the Vanishing Twin's sound is coming to us from both the past and the future at the same time in order better to capture a more resonant feeling of our current Zeitgeist. That they manage to exist in equipoise while in the midst of so many proliferating uncertainties is a striking balancing act, and it is therefore appropriate that their sound is neither fish nor fowl – jazz but not quite jazz, popish, but certainly not "pop" as we know it (or as we have ever known it), avant-garde in the sense that it's odd, but also oddly redolent of a certain nostalgia (for music that used to sound like the future, as so much of the nouveau-retro Broadcast and Stereolab sounds manage to pull off), at the same time that it is all quite uncannily accessible. The Age of Immunology is the rare album that arrives full of what might topple over under the weight of its (potentially pretentious) baggage, but which instead delivers a new world of experience beyond any category, musical or otherwise. - Rod Waterman

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LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: "The Invisible World" / "Magician's Success"

Sharon Van Etten - Remind Me Tomorrow (Jagjaguwar)

On her past albums, Sharon Van Etten explored fraught relationships and the fraught nature of the way people interact with each other. It started with something deeply personal (her debut Because I Was in Love stems from her life with an emotionally abusive ex-boyfriend) and has slowly evolved into something more universal with each subsequent album. But something interesting happened in the five years since her last album: between starting a family and pursuing new interests outside of music, Van Etten seems to have grown beyond the one-on-one dichotomy of those early records. That growth, and the reassessment of priorities that follows, is very much evident on Remind Me Tomorrow. The album casts off Van Etten's previous work as a prelude and finds her changing things up as both a composer and a lyricist, and the result is something truly astounding. - Kevin Korber

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LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: "Seventeen"

Adia Victoria - Silences (Canvasback)

When a voice as fresh and distinct as Adia Victoria's comes along, it is a rare occasion. Rarer still is the advent of an original signature style that is both iconic and versatile. On her sophomore release Silences, Adia Victoria raises the stakes. As before, she draws from a sonic palette evocative of the American South, albeit a broader one; cosmopolitan notes of swing and jazz crooning add a measured quantity of polish and pop sensibilities to her rural folk sounds. It makes for a nice array of textures, and even the slickest moments have sharp edges, a complex profile from start to finish. - Adriane Pontecorvo

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WATCH: "Different Kind of Love" / "Dope Queen Blues"

Faye Webster - Atlanta Millionaires Club (Secretly Canadian)

If you didn't know our current era was rife with referential genre stylings used in pursuit of a genre-less pop sensibility, listen to Faye Webster's Atlanta Millionaires Club. Steel guitar that's as Hawaii as it is Nashville opens the first song, "Room Temperature". She croons in a state of somnambulant loneliness and stasis, pondering the meaningless of everything, even of the emotional signals (tears) she uses to express that meaninglessness. The 32-minute album is filled with moments like this, of bleak tenderness (or tender bleakness) mixed with dry humor and a gorgeous array of moody instrumentation. Lust and nostalgia for it, pain as a fact of life; this is the stuff of a million break-up albums and late-night jukebox soul ballads, and she damn well knows it. - Dave Heaton

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LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: "Flowers" / "Room Temperature"

Weval - The Weight (Kompakt)

There is a beautiful set of paradoxes inherent in Weval's second full-length album The Weight, involving light and darkness, light and heaviness, art and pop, and other polarities too numerous to mention. But for all of the diametrical oppositions this suggests, there is a terrific synthesis that ultimately resolves all of those polarities into a wonderfully interwoven sequence of instrumental and vocal music. All of this might sound rather pretentious in a way that the album itself isn't; it's fully accessible and deceptively easy to listen to without in any way even remotely approaching easy listening territory. There are many twists and turns of sound and feeling as the album progresses, and the overall effect feels both hermetic and inviting at the same time. This is a world of sound that is simultaneously closed off and self-contained while also seeming to invent and invite a community of listeners and participants who are welcome to roam around inside the scene it has created. - Rod Waterman

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LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: "Someday"

Jamila Woods - Legacy! Legacy! (Jagjaguwar)

Every artist looks to mentors as paradigms of motivation and exemplars of creativity. Chicago-based musician, Jamila Woods, is especially appreciative and indebted to those who inspired her art and forged the cultural path she is currently walking. Her recent release, the aptly named Legacy! Legacy!, is more than an album: it's an homage. Each track on the album is named after a cultural icon who inspired Woods and shaped her identity as an artist and individual. Reveling in the legacies of artists, activists, writers, and musicians, Woods positions Legacy! Legacy! as a genuflection of gratitude. More so, the album ensures the cultural icons' impact is concertized within the contemporary moment. Woods, herself, a poet, singer, activist, and teacher, casts Legacy! Legacy! as a beacon for a type of self-empowerment informed by the predecessors who built and shaped culture. - Elisabeth Woronzoff

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LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: "Eartha" / "Giovanni" / "Zora"

Nilüfer Yanya - Miss Universe (ATO)

Though it gives off tints of London Grammar, Sampha, and Cat Power, Yanya's voice resembles most the rounded, echoing timbre of Korean electronic artist CIFIKA. Like CIFIKA, Yanya conveys heaviness with her voice that imbues it with emotion and authority. It effortlessly shifts between Miss Universe's plethora of tracks, which touch upon lo-fi indie rock, R&B, and jazz without quite landing in any camp. On one track, she hops along to a sample of Kelis' "Millionaire", while in the very next she puts the "slow" in "slow burn" on the observationally devastating "Melt". Instead of locking itself into prescribed notions of success, emotions, or companionship, Miss Universe establishes truths and solutions of its own, on its own. Like Yanya's career, it exists and succeeds through sheer force of will. - Mick Jacobs

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LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: "Heavyweight Champion of the Year" / "In Your Head"

The Yawpers - Human Question (Bloodshot)

Human Question is a direct assault on the listener that demands attention. This is a record made for lifelong FM-radio listeners, because its sounds evoke snatches of Led Zeppelin, the Who, Aerosmith, Black Crowes, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, R.E.M., Green Day, and even U2 in the masterful kind of way wherein these moments of familiarity tease and pass while building into a whole that is undeniably unique. "Power trio" can be a fraught term in pop music, evoking the perpetual myth-building of Cream, the progressive excess of Rush, or the sterile pop precision of the Police, but the Yawpers bring true power to the term. They can sound like anything or anyone they want at any given moment yet never lose their identity. The Yawpers are a great American rock and roll band and Human Question is one of this year's most accomplished releases. - Ed Whitelock

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LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: "Earn Your Heaven" / "No Going Back"

Yola - Walk Through Fire (Easy Eye Sound)

"Discovered" by the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach after he viewed a video of her performing in a Nashville bar, he produced British singer and musician Yola's debut record Walk Through Fire for his Easy Eye Sound label. Auerbach and a team of musician's compliment and back-up Yola's endearing vocals and the beauty is clearly written and performed on each track. Sincerity and care are present in her vocals and the connection they deliver for the listener, resulting in an album that grows in strength in an engaging manner as it progresses. Each track is unique and offers a particular emotional and musical feel that blends its overt soul and country styles seamlessly. - Richard Driver

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WATCH: "Faraway Look" / "Ride Out in the Country"

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