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2019 in Review: What We Liked in Music, Part 1

It’s been another banner year for music. There have been so many fantastic releases this year that it would be near impossible to rank them in a way that we would see fit. Instead of a typical “best of” list,  we have decided to let the Third Coast Review music team pick their personal favorite albums and we’ve listed them in alphabetical order (like we did last year). These are albums that have stood out in each individual reviewer’s mind as one that should be shared and experienced.

Take a look at part one of the list and discover something you may have missed this past year. Part two of the list is available here!

I was never really a James Blake fan in the way others around me were. I liked his first release, but something in me just didn’t get it. Then Assume Form was released, and it all made sense. James Blake doesn’t just make music; he experiences it and creates a multi-sensory experience for his listeners. With help from his star girlfriend Jameela Jamil, Blake created his best work yet, which he’s dedicated to Jamil, as well. It doesn’t take long to find the connections between his songs and his life, as the album’s written like a love letter. “Assume Form,” “Can’t Believe The Way We Flow,” and “I’ll Come Too” discuss his relationship in the most ethereal way possible, both in lyricism and production. But it doesn’t end there. In a move Blake hasn’t employed yet, he enlists R&B and hip-hop collaborations from Andre 3000, who promises a “heady-ass verse,” Moses Sumney, and Travis Scott. The album moves from delicate to measured without missing a beat.
– Sarah Brooks

BruisedRotten Codex
I’m in my thirties. I don’t go to basement shows as much as I used to. It kind of sucks. I used to be with it but then they changed what it was. Now what I’m with isn’t it. Except post-punk. That’s still it. If what’s happening with bands like Fontaines DC, Idles, B Boys, Gauche, and so many more amazing bands is any indication, people are still fucking pissed off and making noisey shit and screaming a lot and making music for the end of the world. I went to a basement show over the summer. I went to see a touring band I’ve seen many times before. I went early/on-time, because, again, thirties. And I’m so glad I did because I saw Bruised. Bruised is exactly the kind of band you want to see in a basement. That night, it felt like the ceiling would collapse at any moment – a perfect indication of what one of the best albums of the year was going to sound like.

Rotten Codex delivered on the promise I heard in that basement. Let the ceiling collapse, Bruised says. There’s no hope and no way to tell if there even is a chance for hope. “what will tomorrow bring? / pinned to a vapid dream.” Bruised aren’t here for anything mainstream, artificial, vapid, or plastic “tu vida artificial no me fascina / mire con atencion las sombras bellas, serpentinas /tu vida artificial no me fascina” You like Wire? You like Big Black? Joy Division? The Germs? You like 13 songs in 25 minutes? Dystopia? Destruction and disorder? You’ll like Bruised. And you’ll like it more with each listen.
– Andrew Hertzberg

Caravan PalaceChronologic
This electro-swing album won my year with “About You,” whose chorus includes “I don’t give a damn about you.” Caravan Palace is a group of six French happy-go-lucky, tasteful artists. Their purpose has commonly been to get audiences across the world to dance, ever since breaking into the United States and beyond. The floor of of every venue they’re in (the House of Blues being most recent Chicago stop) shakes every time these people are in town, as Zoé Colotis croons beautifully and innocently, and swing dances with her bandmate. Their energy is almost unmatched. And it comes through album after album, this time shining with Chronologic. As a mega-fan of these curious creators, I followed the releases of each single, starting with “Miracle,” yet another gleeful presentation about life. Then, I found “About You,” which was followed by “Plume,” a pretty and colorful song in which Colotis tells you she’ll take you to the sun. Each instrument has a bright personality on this album and its predecessors. What first drew me to Caravan Palace was the dissonant intertwining of guitar and scats and computerized keys in “Newbop” from 2013 album Panic. Then came the muffled clarinet quickly coming into focus in “Long Digger” of 2015’s Robot Face. These quick bars of melodies and the difficult speed of vocals themselves are enough to intrigue a newcomer to Caravan Palace. And the pace never slows for stage.
– Elif Geris

D Smoke Inglewood High
I tend to keep a safe distance from most competitive reality television (The Bachelor doesn’t count for guilty-pleasure binging, right?…) and find a particular aversion to the multi-seasoned music reality line of network sensations The Voice or what’s become of American Idol (take me back to the Kelly Clarkson days, any day). So, I was pretty suspect of Netflix’s hip hop iteration, Rhythm + Flow, complete with judges Cardi B, Chance the Rapper and T.I. That quickly changed as soon as Inglewood, California’s Daniel Anthony Farris (“D Smoke”) entered the screen during his Los Angeles audition in gray zip-up jumpsuit glory. “I know he a janitor,” Cardi chimes in before Chance course-corrects: “Bro, he a teacher.” His social activism is clear in the smartly delivered lines, but it’s the soul-gospel flare that shines (see “Honey Jack”).
– Jessica Nikolich

Say what you want about Lana; her music is maudlin, meant to be listened to in a dark room with a cheap bottle of red. It’s sad-girl indie. But there’s more to her work, and to her, than that, and this album shows that she knows it. Her most carefully constructed effort yet is found in Norman Fucking Rockwell!, her sixth studio album, and contrary to the cheeky title, the songs are chock-full of lyrics that will bring you to your knees. Start with the title track, and you’ll wilt when Lana lets out “you make me blue” as the song winds to its lonesome close. Then there’s “Mariner’s Apartment Complex,” a forlorn love song bound by distance and time. We don’t lose original Lana here, as seen with “Fuck it I love you” and “Venice Bitch,” but we see her mature her melancholy. End with “The greatest,” a song that at first listen can fit many different cultural time periods, but also pivots effortlessly to our own. The culture is lit, and if this is it, I’m having a ball.
– Sarah Brooks

Divino NinoFoam
Dancing between timeless and of-the-moment, Divino Nino’s beatific Foam feels like a uniquely Chicago album. “Melty Caramelo” takes cues from old school R&B and soul, evoking that timeless quality to a T, while “B@D Luck” is 70s rock rammed into a modern garage rock song. All of the sounds are handled deftly by the band as they envelope you with tales of love and loss through bilingual lyrics that can just kill you in one blow. “No sé si hace horas o hace días, empezó mi melancolía” which roughly translates to “I don’t know if it been hour or days since my melancholy started”, sits in the middle of the desperate “Maria” and leaves you with a sinking feeling. But as low as that song feels, “Quiero” stands high as a near explicit declaration of love as sweet as ice cream (“Quiero un helado con sabor a tu piel”). Foam is heartfelt, mesmerizing, and memorable. You can check out our full album review here and a review of one of their live performances here.
– Julian Ramirez

Billie EilishWhen We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
Billie Eilish was the same age as Marina began releasing music when she released When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? She was only 17 when her tours transitioned from the more intimate local venues, to arenas across the world. There could be a few reasons for her remarkable and sudden rise: that her fans include a majority of tweens, that she can even attract the attention of Thom Yorke, that her music is creative. Creativity isn’t a quality Top 40 charts often flaunt but when someone like Billie Eilish appears on the charts, the demographic is ageless. Like many, I found Billie Eilish’s music when “bury a friend” had the most plays on Spotify and a friend recommended I listen to her. I listened as chills repeatedly crept down my back and felt transformed. I regressed to the time where my praise of Wednesday Addams reigned, when the wonderment of being something utterly different from oneself came over me. Critics of her music and performance with words like “cabaret” and “trying too hard.” This young woman is an artist. That effort should be expected of her. And for her, it means describing the smooth criminal in her imagination. Songs of compassion and yearning like “ilomilo,” “Wish You Were Gay” and “I love you” are sometimes overshadowed by the popular “bad guy,” “you should see me in a crown” and “all the good girls go to hell.” Billie Eilish is fantastic and young and sprightly; the negative minority should take a deep breath because there’s more coming. You can check out a review of one of her early Chicago performances here.
– Elif Geris

FlumeHi, This is Flume
Since the beginning of the decade, Sydney native Flume has been a widely recognized staple in the world of electronic dance music. His self-titled studio album (2012) and Skin LP (2016), as well as a hit remix of Lorde’s “Tennis Court”, were instrumental in pushing forward not only his personal music career, but the way people thought about the synthetic sounds that made up indie dance music. After a handful of EPs released to mixed criticism, Flume has opted to release a “mixtape” in 2019 – retaining the length and flow of his studio albums while also experimenting with the contents of the track list (including remixes as well as shorter drafts). Accompanying this mixtape was a full “visualizer” uploaded onto YouTube (starring Flume himself), which chronicled a bizarre journey into the desert in a customized Nissan 240SX. This colorful and entrancing visualizer served as the perfect optical accompaniment to the newest iteration of the “Flume” sound that many electronic music fans were highly anticipating.

Though Flume is sometimes known for popular appeal and shaping the sound of many “radio-friendly” hits, Hi, This is Flume sees the artist dabbling structurally in the experimental and instrumental. Across the soundtrack, his signature modulated synthesizers and thumping, swinging drum sections are married with the inspiration of several of his contemporaries (experimental pop producer SOPHIE is among one of the most prominent examples). Tracks like “Ecdysis”, “Dreamtime”, “Amber”, and “Spring ft. Eprom” play out as twisted synthetic symphonies, whereas vocally centered pieces such as “High Beams ft. Slowthai” and “How To Build A Relationship ft. JPEGMafia” come across as twisted, punk-inspired interpretations of hip-hop and pop songs. Though the runtime contains an incredibly diverse and winding selection of songs, the overall flow of the album tells a complete story and successfully cements 2019 as a new era for Flume.
– Jack Cates

JPEGMafiaAll My Heroes are Cornballs
The past two years have been huge for JPEGMafia – the stage name of Barrington Hendricks, a Brooklyn-born and LA-based rapper (though he most heavily identifies with his time in Alabama and Baltimore). Though his catalog spans most of the decade and includes several solo projects, it wasn’t until the release of his 2018 LP Veteran when Hendricks began to gain a much wider audience. Hot off of the trail of his 2018 release as well as a tour with Vince Staples, All My Heroes are Cornballs stands as one of JPEGMafia’s most experimental and eclectic releases, as well as one of his most realized and defiant. Drawing from a buffet of different musical influences (most notably noise punk, spoken word, acoustic rock, and industrial rap), JPEGMafia creates an energetic and passionate rap record with production that stands as well as a sound collage as it does a futuristic trap opera. Lyrically and vocally, JPEGMafia is recognized on this album (as well as all of his previous projects) by his politically leftist slant delivered with a variety of different intonations and flows. Tracks like “Grimy Waifuand “All My Heroes are Cornballs” have Hendricks softly caroling over skipping and looping melodies, whereas cuts like “Kenan vs. Kel” and “BBW” have him exploring his more acidic, rhythmic deliveries (sometimes modulating to screams and shouts). The common thread connecting these songs, however, is JPEGMafia’s refusal to mince words in his fiery-tongued verses. Discussions of racism, sexism, and xenophobia in modern America (bolstered with several modern-day references to video games, internet culture, and fellow musicians) add an important message (though controversial to some) to the audibly-pleasing soundscape created on the album.
– Jack Cates

The list of our favorite 2019 albums continues over in part two here and in part three here!

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