Thursday, December 12, 2019

Favorite Albums of 2019

Despite longstanding label tension that nearly led Tei to scrap the project, La Linda refuses to become a frustrated record. Rather, she juggles rawness and romanticism over a smooth fusion of Latin pop and rhythm and blues. More importantly, however, Tei Shi seems more confident in her abilities and more comfortable in the professional musician lifestyle, which surely can be given credit in part for this record's roomy production and upfront lyricism. And given the circumstances, it is most important to hear Tei Shi command her own work. If this record is any barometer, she certainly seems to have course-corrected her childhood dream from veering into a nightmare.

Don't Feed the Pop Monster has something that Broods' previous records weren't allowed to contain: A free-spirited philosophy, without intentions to capitalize on a singular sonic vision. Whatever intensity the band extracts from their tangled framework of mixed emotions, the music matches in either ironic uptempo beats or bare, soothing production tactics without a finishing cohesive pop glaze. The record was written and recorded independently within the lag between record contracts, allowing the Nott siblings to figure out where Broods truly belongs in the pop music landscape. And despite how comfortably they fit in the slipcovers of their past musical lives at the time, it turns out that they thrive in uncontrolled eccentricity.

How we feel about Charli is irrelevant to its creator: "CHARLI IS A 5 STAR ALBUM AND I’M A SUPERNOVA," she tweeted in all caps, certified Cher style. As someone who could both curate a vibrant electronic carnival like this record and write a number-one song for America's favorite manufactured couple who kiss in the strangest possible fashion in the same year, she is probably more qualified than any of us to dish out a title like supernova. Although she will surely continue to peak over the hedges into the mainstream's tabloid wasteland, Charli has provided concrete evidence that she belongs in the absurd musical realm she birthed with Pop 2. When Charli revs into overdrive on her namesake record, the payoff is a potent hit to senses – even if those moments are fragmented with some occasional meandering that kicks her into neutral.

Bain splatters realization, heartbreak, and healing across Good at Falling, a 13-track memorial of her relationship’s demise ("We Talk All The Time," "f a r a w a y," "somethingfartoogoodtofeel") and her depression's destruction ("You Seemed So Happy," "Everybody Hates Me"). The record's opening track recounts her relationship's beginnings: Deep, commanding drums match the excitement of the quick flame. While the fire is sparked in an instant on "Went to Meet Her (Intro)," its embers cool to ashes slowly through the record's run. Much of Good at Falling copes with the finite existence to everything as an unavoidable fact of life, but by the record's finale, a stripped version of "I Saw You in a Dream," Bain finally accepts the thought of it. And as painful as it was for her to translate into song, the emotional processing of it all is absolutely stunning.

Out of habit, the word "pang" rolls off the tongue with a certain spurt of emotion – by nature, it’s an unexpected exclamation. And as a record, Pang embodies its namesake. Polachek commands each track and emotion with the same intensity as the most effortless one: "Pang!" Sticky melodies, intelligent musings, and her rippling voice smooth the roughest corners of the aggressive PC Music production philosophy, making Pang an accessible – and vital – stepping stone into the ambiguous “future of pop music.” This very well could be a pivotal moment for Polachek, putting an end to the musical soul-searching she has undertaken throughout most of her career. Whatever mission statements she unrolled in the past, she fulfilled them all well – but what she captures on Pang, a show of arms in her musical wisdom and adventurous intentions, is something downright incredible.

Though it is the leading touchstone of every written piece about her, Maggie Rogers' unexpected thrust to fame courtesy of that Pharrell Williams co-signature is arguably the least interesting thing about her. Rogers knows her way around a song, and for that matter, the industry. She wrote her own business plan and contract with Capitol Records, and she co-produced her debut record, Heard It In a Past Life, alongside the team of big names. And despite the fact that "Alaska," now sounding quaint and strangely underdeveloped among the other tracks here, appears on the record to remind us all how we first heard of Maggie Rogers, Heard It In a Past Life is largely the composition of Rogers' legacy within her own time frame and on her own terms: An imperfect legacy of evolution as she continuously readjusts her center through self-awareness.

In some ways, there seems to be a bit of dichotomy between Carly Rae Jepsen and the concept of dedication. She told interviewers that she wrote over 200 songs during sessions for her last record and nearly another 200 for Dedicated, and the long process of whittling tracks down to an album involves pool parties, voting sessions, and arguments between friends. And after all that fuss, Dedicated itself still isn't quite sold on the idea of commitment, finding itself caught in moments of both doubt ("Too Much," "Happy Not Knowing") and bliss ("No Drug Like Me," "Want You In My Room," "Feels Right"). But if there is one thing to which Carly Rae Jepsen is dedicated, it's her craft. She understands pop music on a deeper level than most – its composition, its irresistible appeal, its versatility, its underestimated complexity, and when it's written with as much care as the cuts on Dedicated, its power.

Two years after the release of About U, a beautiful portrait of a conflicted Gavin caught in reflection, MUNA still explores similar ideas, and their variant of cool synthpop is still committed to a strangely successful marriage to warmer acoustic rock... but this time, they go harder. As the meeting place for the band's self-awareness, sharpened songwriting, and upfront narration, Saves the World is a brilliant call for personal recovery that leads by example. As MUNA jams out, they stretch from consuming heartbreak ("Who," "Navy Blue") to nonchalant relaxation ("Good News (Ya-Ya Song)," an early '00s rock-chick nostalgia blast). Although it seems the record's flamboyant title doesn't mean to refer to the literal globe, Saves the World does seem to have been an outlet to heal aspects of the band's personal universe. And perhaps if more folks were to confront their doubts and patch up their wounds in this fashion, maybe – just maybe – we could all move together toward saving the world at the large.

Because her music rests upon the boundary lines of so many genres, Jillian Banks is hard to categorize in an era of music discovery reliant on popular playlist real estate and auto-generated suggestions. While she doesn't emerge from the broad pool of alternative pop and experimental rhythm and blues on III, she exercises new methods to stretch her music well beyond expectations – in ways that are fresh and unpredictable, sometimes to a fault but never to the point of absolute exhaustion. Early in the record, she insists we call her "that bitch," an utmost term of endearment in the social media age. And every moment thereafter, she proves why she deserves no less than that title.

An absolute triumph for Lana Del Rey as she extends her hand to guide a troubled partner, lead single and career highlight "Mariners Apartment Complex" foreshadowed the newfound peace displayed across Norman Fucking Rockwell! She seems more comfortable to experiment as a major label recording artist than ever before – especially for the woman who wanted to retire after her first record. It seems like a fever dream for Lana Del Rey to boast a confident record titled Norman Fucking Rockwell! that opens with the line, "Goddamn, man-child. You fucked me so good that I almost said, 'I love you,'" and closes with an understated ode to rebellion like "Hope is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman Like Me to Have – But I Have It." But in a world that's burning quickly, an unexpectedly refreshing record like this feels even more essential than ever before.

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