Better late than never, Tom Geraghty takes a deep dive into 2019 with his favourite 10 releases. There’s indie music, there’s dance music, there’s sad indie music, and there’s sad dance music. What else did you expect?
10. Men I Trust – Oncle Jazz
Dreampop and ‘indie’ music crossed paths some time ago, and there’s more than enough bands around doing their best Chromatics or Beach House impressions to demonstrate that fact. Hell, most of them sound good, and there’s plenty of examples of the dream pop bleed into more mainstream indie to prove that it’s certainly winning over vast swathes of fans. None, however, sound quite as good as Canadian trio Men I Trust, who’ve refined and perfected the formula down to a delectable slice of electro-funk crunch on the vastly sweeping Oncle Jazz.
Perhaps the most defining feature of the album – and maybe not one that should be a surprise given the title – is quite how smooth and slick this album is. Grooves akin to the neo-soul revival of late are abundantly clear from the very opening track, with bass lines that take centre stage from the offset. Lushious synth swirls and laid back bass jams are everywhere on Oncle Jazz, lazily sinking you into a comforting blanket of warmth. By no means a short album, the greatest compliment I can give is that at no point over the 24 track run time do you feel bored or like Men I Trust recycle ideas. Each song is fresh and inventive, and Oncle Jazz is filled with creative songwriting that constantly meshes genres like indie, funk, dreampop, soul, psychedelia, and jazz. This is an album you want to spend time with, to sink your teeth into and relish every moment of. Men I Trust are certainly ahead of their contemporaries when it comes to uncompromising vision, and Oncle Jazz is a jewel of an album that feels meticulously crafted and filled with loving care. Expertly produced, beautifully mixed, Oncle Jazz is a true world of its own, a small bubble of laid back paradise waiting for you, and you’d be a fool to not dip even one toe into its waters.
9. Big Thief – Two Hands
Big Thief are unstoppable. Over the last few years, the band has quietly dominated the indie-folk spectrum with an array of fantastic albums. Two Hands, the second Big Thief album of the year (!), is practically a victory lap to remind us just how fucking good they really are.
Described by the band as the more immediate ‘earth’ twin of U.F.O.F., Two Hands is a tour de force of live takes, a rawer sound and a more frantic anger at the numerous injustices of the world. If anything, Two Hands is a form of therapy for lead vocalist and songwriter Adrianne Lenker. ‘Hand me that cable/Plug into anything/I am unstable/Rock and sing, rock and sing’, she sings with immeasurable tenderness on album opener Rock And Sing. But what shines through is not her anger, but her desperate need to try and understand the injustices of the world. These are measured, controlled songs that deal with crises we should all care about as much as Adrianne & Big Thief do – loneliness, being deserving of love, protection, violence, personal anguish, and of trying to simply ‘figure out the answers’ on a micro and macro scale. ‘Talk to the boy in me, he’s there’, Lenker sings on Cut My Hair, in one of the most hauntingly poignant lyrics of the album. Small moments exist on such a massive scale that even the tiniest moments of honestly feel like huge universal revelation.
Of course, Big Thief is not just Adrianne Lenker, but at this point in their juncture the band is a fully formed family that ebb and flow together. Shoulders and Two Hands demonstrate the shimmering chemistry the band have cultivated together, creating fuzzy moments of emotional highs for Adrianne to embellish. And this is all before we get to Not, arguably the best song of the year and a contender for song of the decade. Not is the closest we’ve ever gotten to a freak out jam from Big Thief, and boy does it deliver to the point that Two Hands is essentially built around that track. Just over 6 minutes of ever-building guitar wail, cacophonous drums, and dissonant guitar shrieks lay the pace for Lenker to spit venom over, listing all the things it’s ‘not’: the crowd, dying, laughing, lying, food, etc. Ending with a hefty guitar solo bolstered by some typically fantastic drumming from James Krivchenia, Not is an undeniable show of force that will surely be remembered as a classic for years to come. Hell, even the album has to take a rest after the song, taking a 10 second gap of silence as if to recover from the snowballing weight of its ever growing frustration. And this wasn’t even the best Big Thief album released this year.
8. The National – I Am Easy To Find
I Am Easy To Find is an album inspired by Mike Mills’ short film of the same name, just as Mike Mills’ film is inspired by the album I Am Easy To Find. Sound confusing? The two were developed in lieu of the other, borrowing ideas and themes to help shape both the album and the companion film. Perhaps the best way to describe the pairing is through Mike Mills’ creative vision: the director influenced The National in both arrangement and content, adding extravagant choral and baroque instrumentation to the usual laboured perfectionism of the band. The result is a looser, expanded album from the sad dads of the scene, a collaborative vision that throws away the refined rulebook of ‘The National’ and injects a fresh dose of inventiveness to proceedings.
Along with the expanded vision of Mills came The National’s first incorporation of female vocals, with long-time focal point Matt Berninger taking a backseat to the illustrious talents of Lisa Hanningan, Sharon Van Etten, Mina Tindle, Gail Ann Dorsey, and Kate Stables, all representing (in some small part) the identity of the female protagonist in Mills’ film. When Gail Ann Dorsey’s voice first pierces through the fog of You Had Your Soul With You, I Am Easy To Find feels like an altogether different kind of National album, or rather a re-genesis of what The National should sound like. And whilst some atypical slow songs remain (Quiet Light, Hairpin Turns, Light Years), the undoubted draw of I Am Easy To Find rests in the instances where The National buck the trend with Mills’ aid and alternative female vocal identities. Roman Holiday is a poignantly beautiful interpretation of Patti Smith, melded in harmony with Gail Ann Dorsey’s gravelly vocals. Oblivions remains the subtle standout of the album, delving into the personal oblivion caused by love. Then there’s the expanded musical segues, an indulgence prevalent in the latter half of the album that enlists The Brooklyn Youth Chorus to create an exaggerated and cinematic delight.
In amongst all the reimaginings of what The National are expected to sound like, I Am Easy To Find remains underpinned by the hallmarks and characteristics that the band have become famous for. Bryan Devendorf’s unmistakable drumming patterns permeate the newfound choral flourishes, the Dessner brothers add delicate intricacy to instrumentation and Berninger continues to spit abstract thesis statements in melancholy: ‘I know I can get attached and then unattached to my own version of others’, howls Berninger during The Pull Of You, in the most direct assertions of what I Am Easy To Find is about. Identity frames the album; the way you perceive yourself, who you are, how others see you and how easily you can lose yourself without the help of others. There exists a disconnect between the self and the world around, and perhaps now more than ever it’s easy to feel lost, surmise The National. ‘If you wanna be alone then come with me’, sings Berninger on longtime fan-favourite Rylan, before launching into ‘Rylan, you should try and get some sun/ there’s a little bit of hell in everyone’. Existence is dark and terrifying, and everyone carries at least some small part of feverish fatalism within their core. With I Am Easy To Find, Mills and The National are not shying away from that fact, nor are they providing a resolute answer. Rather, they are offering an alternative solace that focuses on the relationships made with others, the small moments of outreach that can pull someone back from a dark place, scrutinising the aspects that make us human and relishing in them.
7. Octo Octa – Resonant Body
Octo Octa makes and plays party music. Anyone who has seen one of her DJ sets can testify to this – a jubilant mix of rampant acid, thumping 909 drum patterns and clattering vocal samples. But more so than other DJs and producers, Octo Octa brings a sheer energy to proceedings. This isn’t the sort of dance music that will inspire countless think pieces on the nuances of an ethereal synth pad. This is the sort of music to make you lose all inhibitions and dance long into the night, away from judgement. Fun and fearless, Resonant Body builds on this ethos of making straight up jacking dance music, borrowing from every corner of dance culture and creating an incredibly well crafted LP of dance floor heaters.
Classic house beats underpin most of the tracks on Resonant Body, perhaps most notably in Spin Girl, Let’s Activate, a propellant track that harks back to the seismic 1994 Hardhead anthem ‘New York Express’ released on Strictly Rhythm records. Squelching 303 acid bassline and piano house slow down from the danceable to a chugging beat before rampantly accelerating. It’s the sort of stuff that makes dancefloors explode; a perfect hybrid of classic influence with modern flourishes that knows what an audience expects and plays with such expectations perfectly. Elsewhere, similar styles of jacking house fill tracks like Move Your Body that indulge in a more hardcore ethos, as well as the ‘vibey’ Deep Connections that plays out like a moodier rebuild of I Need You.
In between all these dancefloor bangers rests the experimental Ecstatic Beat, a tour-de-force breakbeat that is – simply put – destructive. Octo Octa’s ability to chop drums with real energy shine throughout the album, but equally as impressive are the electronic synth flourishes. Can You See Me? is perhaps the perfect DJ set closer, a hands in the air end of night spectacular that drives home just how in tune Octo Octa is with the club scene. Hitting the perfect combination of anthemic and bittersweet, Can You See Me? is a powerful affirmation of self confidence in both Octo Octa’s ability to craft club music and in her own life. Resonant Body is an album extremely attuned to the club, both in message and in extraordinarily powerful production. Socio-politically aware, the latest from Octo Octa is a delight – thumping, urgent, and necessary.
6. Have A Nice Life – Sea Of Worry
On their debut release, Dan and Tim created a sprawling doctrine that charted the depths of depression, despair, and hopelessness. Deathconscioussness – as they described it – begged a question: ‘What is the point?’ With their third full length release, Have A Nice Life came from an alternative angle. Both settled with families in their respective lives, Sea Of Worry examines the flipside of relative happiness – the unease and the anxiousness that accompanies, the fears of an ever-evolving world and the new question that it provides: ‘When will this end?’
Sea Of Worry is a divisive HANL record. It’s immediately clear from the surf goth-rock title track and album opener that Sea Of Worry is poised in a different direction. Their most immediate release to date, gone are the brooding drum track industrial interludes and anguished screams of prior albums, replaced with more traditional song structure that is both melodically catchy and polished. Dracula Bells shines with a production quality that simply isn’t associated with the band, with percussion shimmering in an antithesis to the muddied harshness of an atypical HANL track. Yet Sea Of Worry still exudes all the cornerstones of what makes HANL so seismic: agitated lyricism, existential reflections, religious imagery, gloomer fuzz metal and a heightened focus on almost every aspect of their craft. This album could very easily slip into the ‘corny’ territory: after all, what’s more worthy of an eye roll than a shoegaze band called Have A Nice Life sampling a sermon on the all-encompassing severity of Hell? But it is a testament to their enduring songwriting prowess that Sea Of Worry navigates such broad and tricky concepts with deft respect.
Sea Of Worry doesn’t cash in on such concepts as a gimmick, but examines the feelings and conflicting thoughts in a muddled world. ‘I know nothing’ is the resounding premise of album highlight Lords Of Tresserhorn, with the realisation that adulthood doesn’t alleviate the inherent unease of life. As the album progresses, Sea Of Worry devolves in form and style, trading the polished catchiness of early tracks in favour of drawn out meditations on the secular and spiritual. The anger dissipates into further questions, further ruminations and further restlessness. Life may be a more stable affair for both Dan and Tim, but the questions of life that plagued them still exist. But what sets Sea Of Worry apart from its predecessors isn’t the anguished questioning of why life is so difficult, but something darker: realising that those questions will never be answered.
5. (Sandy) Alex G – House Of Sugar
Alex G is the most consistently excellent musician of this decade. From self-released beginnings to signing with Domino records, (Sandy) Alex G has always experimented and pushed the boundaries of what a DIY ‘indie’ musician can sound like. Ask any fan and they’ll give you a different epoch of the musician they prefer: the country stylings of Rocket, the Elliot Smith indebted DSU or the quirky experimentalism of his (exhaustingly huge) unreleased catalogue. But there are hallmarks of Alex G in every release. Pitch shifted vocals, electronic interludes, sardonic instrumentals, hauntingly simple lyricism that devastates in few words. And whilst all these link the musician’s albums, the standout theme of his work rests in his ability to capture lives and stories, to incorporate the real and the fictional into one world. House Of Sugar is a storybook, one that unfolds like a diary that documents life, death, love, heartbreak – and cows.
Love, loss, and addiction are at the core of House Of Sugar, and it soon becomes difficult to work out what exists in fiction and what’s based on reality. Hope tells the (true) story of death from addiction, ruminating on the fentanyl crisis from a home on Hope Street, a beautiful dichotomy that details the simplistic draw of Alex’s songwriting. There’s stories of relationships, of knowing you’ll leave someone (just not exactly when), of holding people, of doing bad things, of overindulgence, of always losing to your vices. Framed around the SugarHouse Casino, as well as drawing inspiration from Hansel and Gretel in Gretel, House Of Sugar lends itself to interpretation with common themes of selfishness and self-destructiveness, told with such an ungodly knack for melody that you can’t help but find the album to be anything other than enticing.
House of Sugar is an undeniable mess, a smorgasbord of conflicting musical styles and strange sequencing, and it’s hard to see the album as more of a sum of its parts to begin with. But what really pulls the album together is the closing track, SugarHouse (Live). A figurative ‘meeting point’, the track examines the characters and themes of prior songs and combines them in the SugarHouse Casino. ‘Baby, I’ve been a good boy/But sometimes I can’t keep it straight/Feels like I’m always waiting/For another chance to play the game’, sings Alex G in his best Springsteen impression. All the vices of life are summarised in those lines; the addiction of trying to win life and our own propensity for destruction. ‘You never really met me/I don’t think anyone has’ is a universal truth for both the characters in House Of Sugar and a genuine fact of life, made all the more resonant by Alex singing to a live crowd of unknowns. It’s a bittersweet realisation of acceptance, understanding human nature and the need to not be forgotten. House of Sugar is a collection of short stories, and like the best of them, it’s through holding a mirror up to the world at large that (Sandy) Alex G manages to provide us with some deeply unsettling truths about our own nature.
4. Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell!
‘Goddamn manchild/You fucked me so good that I nearly said I love you’
Lana Del Rey is back, taking an almost complete u-turn from 2017’s Lust For Life, dispelling the attempted mainstream pop crossover of that feature-rich release and doubling down on her own aesthetic. LDR has long been a symbol of broken America, of a Californian lifestyle gone skewed and the wreckage left in the wake of a fake dream of America. On Norman Fucking Rockwell!, Lana delves deeper into the world of jaded America, commenting on the absurdity of it all in a psychedelic tinged fever dream that washes over like a mouthful of quaaludes to numb the pain.
Since her debut, Lana Del Rey has become – for better or for worse – an icon of the gloomy balland. NFR! takes the melancholy and pain and blisses it out, not so much dwelling on the gloom (although you can be certain it’s there) but disguising it under heaps of extended instrumentation breaks and effects pedals. There’s the usual suspects: love, a failure to engage with the world at large, misguided hope. But the one thing that pulls through on top of this is of disconnect to a world that doesn’t quite match up to expectations. Venice Bitch tears through 9 minutes of trippy guitars, underpinned by a casual jealousy of a lover who is already hers. Cinnamon Girl details the need for a lover who will simply hold her without hurting her with such earnestness you can’t help but feel discomfort at the sincerity of it all. NFR! plays out like a sun-bleached Twin Peaks; an off-kilter dream that never really delivers on the promises set out. The stories are delusional, the pain exists, although which parts from the narrator are reliable or not remain questionable.
Of course, it would be absurd to comment on NFR! without giving Jack Antonoff due diligence, who is certainly making a very convincing case for being the best pop producer in the game. There’s such a polished shine to NFR! that comes from his deft touch, be it the washed out psychedelia or the haziness of a simple piano ballad. Like the beach backdrop of so many songs, NFR! ebbs and flows with such pristine glee, delivering so many special moments of grandeur within its runtime. Vocals are overdubbed to sound hauntingly spectral on songs like California, and the album wouldn’t sound nearly as monolithic if not for the combined efforts of Jack and LDR to create a unique aesthetic that truly demonstrates the best Lana Del Rey can deliver.
NFR! is a stunning album. A dream of the past come to be a nightmare in the modern age, NFR! offers a warning to protagonists who don’t know they’ve already lost the game, swallowed by a broken America that can’t deliver on its numerous promises, lost in the shallowness of excess with nothing to show for it except pain. Stunning and foreboding, NFR! is Lana Del Rey’s opus, a devastating critique of a world that always instructs you to need more, leaving nothing but jaded emptiness in its wake.
3. FKA Twigs – MAGDALENE
FKA twigs is a true visionary artist. You only have to look at her tour to see the lengths she’ll go to to achieve her artistic vision. Martial arts, pole dancing, and swordplay all feature in her live set, but all of this would mean nothing if it wasn’t for her uncompromising approach to music. MAGDALENE – by twigs’ own admission – is a breaking down of her own craft, rebuilding it from the ground up. Written in the wake of some pretty hefty emotional turmoil, MAGDALENE is a defiant and compelling masterpiece, a triumph in creative art and personal reclamation.
No one else sounds like FKA twigs, and that in part can be put down to twigs’ approach to music that isn’t exactly dissimilar to MBDTF-era Kanye West. Enlisting a huge number of hella-talented producers (Hudson Mohawke, Skrillex, Koreless, Arca, 0PN, and most crucially, Nicolas Jaar), FKA twigs carves out an experimental electronic album from some of the finest producers of the genre. The result of such an approach are songs like sad day, the closest any artist has ever come to sounding like Kate Bush in scope and grandiose vision. Rattling drums, throbbing bass, gentle piano chords and a general maximist approach make the high points of MAGDALENE sound fucking earthshattering. fallen alien is maniacally frantic, leaning fully into the murkier side of bass music, filled with skittish anxiety. Nothing sits still for too long on MAGDALENE, no typical verse-chorus-verse structure, no single instrument hangs around for more than a few bars. This is an unfurling story that jutters and violently throws you from place to place. This is, put simply, one of the most original sounding albums in years – both musically and in sound design.
And, at the heart of it all, rests twigs trying to make sense of her pain. Haunting falsetto vocals accompany unbridled pain and unimaginable lows. ‘It’s all for the lovers trying to fuck away the pain/but I’m never gonna give up’ she sings on mirrored heart, lamenting romantic breakups with a defiant need for perceveirance. And just try and listen to cellophane without feeling completely moved by the frank honesty of twigs’ pain. ‘Why don’t I do it for you? When all I do is for you?’ is gut wrenching to the point it makes me feel uneasy in my stomach, but the final refrain is damn near destroying: ‘They’re waiting, they’re watching us/they’re hating, they’re waiting/and hoping I’m not enough’. Even just a glimpse of the shit twigs’ has been through is enough to make anyone with a shred of empathy share her pain, and to come through the other side with an album as brimming with emotional and creative honesty as MAGDALENE is a damn impressive feat. But to reaffirm yourself as one of the most original and complete contemporary artists around is something else entirely, and MAGDALENE does exactly that.
2. 100 gecs – 1000 gecs
Music is at a weird juncture. For whatever reason, this decade has shied away from typical song structure and instrumentation in favour of wacky as fuck, abrasive, incredible sound design and production. Why make a song with nice chords when you can make one with sound design that’ll slap you round the head, drag you into a ditch and leave you for dead? At least in some part, artists like Arca, Death Grips and the PC Music roster have been responsible for this shift, which some call ‘post-genre’. Enter gecs, where nothing seems to matter, everything is a meme, production is absolutely top notch and you get called a ‘little piss baby’ on just the second track of an album.
How does one critique 1000 gecs? What do you talk about? Do you talk about the rejection of genres, the all-encompassing approach that covers everything from speed ska to grindcore to Jack U riffs to mumble rap? Do you lament about what this means about music, about whether we live in an age where passing references to familiar genres is enough to raise a smile? Is that what music is now, just a brief touching on cornerstones of concepts, one that’s ridiculous enough to compute but not too far removed that it’s completely absurd? Do you talk about ‘zoomer’ culture, about how music is now more viral memes than drawn out conceptual albums? Is Tik-Tok and social media more responsible for an artist’s success than their actual music?
Am I just old, trying desperately to reclaim my youth by liking what the kids like? What does it mean about me and the state of music in 2019 when one of my favourite lyrics is, ‘I might hit the weed, I might hit the boof’? What if one of the best songs of the year literally has the lyrics ‘Stupid horse, I just fell out of the porsche’, followed by an autotuned scream? How do you make sense of an album that is the equivalent of taking a speedball and sitting inside a washing machine? Am I just so fucking sick of the world that when Laura Les dons a surgical mask and Dylan Brady jumps around a stage wearing a witch hat I can’t help but smile at the simple joy of it all? Is the world floating so far from comprehension that the nonsensical is easier to digest than reality? Is 1000 gecs just an album of pure abstraction of ideas, taking concepts and distilling them, removing them so far from context that they are, in their own right, unique? What does it all mean? And why do I love it all so, so much?
I don’t know. I can’t make sense of it all. Maybe that’s why I like it all so much. Maybe the absurd makes more sense in 2019 than the normal. Maybe Laura Les and Dylan Brady are geniuses, with such an uncanny knack for catchy melodies and slamming hooks that the album is genuinely musically proficient. Hell, ringtone might be the best pop song of the year. gec 2 u and hand crushed by a mallet are actually fucking slammers of songs, the latter of which merges label head Diplo’s pop leanings with a fucking drum ‘n’ bass breakbeat. Look, this album is fun. I hated it on first listen. I loved it on 30th. I’m now well into the 100s. My girlfriend described it as ‘abhorrent american EDM’. She’s not wrong. But fuck, this is single handedly the most fun I’ve had listening to an album this decade. I don’t know what it means, I can’t make sense of it, I don’t know if I’m part of the joke, I don’t know if I am the joke. But I also don’t really care. 1000 gecs is an absolutely fantastic album that makes me love life, and nothing else really matters.
1. Big Thief – U.F.O.F.
Every once in a while, an album comes around that absolutely floors me. Even so, no album has quite affected me in the ways that U.F.O.F. has. Big Thief exude empathy – from the way they play live together, practically touching, to the content they write songs about, every part of the Big Thief ethos is about understanding and acceptance. The most symbiotic band around as of now, listening to a Big Thief record has always felt a bit like listening to one beautiful shared creation rather than a sum of its parts; a masterclass in reactionary kinsmanship that finds strength in the relationship of its musicians. U.F.O.F. is not just an album about accepting the things that we cannot know, framed around well established sci-fi tropes (U.F.O.F. stands for ‘UFO Friend’), but also a demonstration of the benefits of understanding through the medium of a perfectly executed album.
U.F.O.F. sounds like nothing else. On first listen, it would be easy to dismiss the album as your standard indie/folk album – intricate and delicate acoustic guitars, softly sung vocals, backing instrumentation that never intrudes. But from the very first moments of Contact there’s an offkilter enchantedness to the formula, an alien feeling of familiar but different. Taking the Jodie Foster blockbuster of the same name as inspiration, Contact deals with escaping stasis through the act of empathy – whether that empathy invokes pain or happiness. Mirrored by the shrieking wail of an electric guitar, the song lurches into life, perfectly matched by skitterish drums and bassline. The discordant tone continues well into U.F.O.F., dwelling on the fluidity of existence and of moments been and passed. Overdubs add to the spectral quality, utilised perfectly in Cattails to further the beauty of the unknown that U.F.O.F. considers. And, for my money, those three songs are the strongest trio of opening songs this decade.
But in between such moments of cosmic wonder is the grounded and the human. Women’s names litter Adrianne’s lyricism, from the Jodie Foster referencing Contact to Jenni, via Cattails’ ‘Caroline’ and Betsy. Jenni, the penultimate song on the album, kicks like a mule, discarding the folk formula entirely in favour of a slowcore shoegaze anthem that bustles with fuzzy guitar tones and garage pedals. ‘Jenni’s in my room’, sings Lenker in the refrain; for every moment of spiritual questioning on U.F.O.F. there is a story of the personal, albeit treated with the same levity as the larger meditations on life. As far as Big Thief are concerned, these are one and the same, all moments of interplay that help construct life as we know it. There’s a wonderous beauty in the way Big Thief approach songwriting, invoking both spectral moments of simplistic beauty and an inherent uneasiness at things not yet known.
This is perhaps the best way to describe the album: one that presents itself as familiar enough to be recognisable, but alien enough for intrigue. It’s that intrigue that the album leans in to so heavily, desperately trying to understand and make sense of the senseless. And, like the subject matter of the album, the more time you spend in the world of U.F.O.F., the more you see the intrinsic beauty in its every moment – be they moments of morose existentialism or tiny details of life, like driving into a city. Musically and lyrically, Big Thief have created an opus seeping with subtle nuance that delivers its overwhelming desire to form a relationship with the unknown. Even the moments of pain are formed around Adrianne Lenker’s focus on liminal ideals, of transitions and change – take the acceptance of death as a trail to a future tranquil afterlife in Terminal Paradise, for instance. Moments pass, things change, and at the end of the day, these are the only true facts of life. Nothing lasts forever, and that’s okay.