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.
Kaina – Next to the Sun
Chicago singer Kaina seems to live her life by the principle of when you have more than you need, build a longer table, not a higher wall. After a few singles, an EP, and guest spots with Sen Morimoto and Saba, Next to the Sun is that new longer table (and it also proves once again that Sooper is one of the best labels in the city, pushing boundaries and always relentlessly creative). The album pays homage to her Latin heritage throughout with salsa and jazz beats, a fresh twist that separates the album from other contemporary R&B and soul music, but without overly relying on the move. Kaina’s dreamy vocals make the already appropriately haunting “Ghost” even more ominous. The infinitely catchy “Could Be a Curse” includes a Spanish verse and features Morimoto (singing in Japanese). It’s a standout single, despite the doom and gloom of lyrics like “Lay in my bed, lay in my bed / What if I die here, holding my breath? / Could be a curse, or is it the day?”
“Green” ends the album, as a closing track should, leaving you wanting more, as if in the middle of a sentence. As stated on her website bio: “I think ‘Green’ is the piece that connects it all for me,” she says. “I feel alone a lot, but I also know that it took so many people for me to exist and collectively, us as generations have seen many days and times and ‘moons.’ I am always connected even when I’m literally far away, or even lineages away — or my history has been taken from me, or I didn’t get to learn it.” Out of this detachment grew stronger desire to make fulfilling connections. Connections to people and to the world. This album is a natural album. It’s full of sky and grass, of water and the moon (y la luna), the sea, the ocean, the stars, clouds, and shadows, and the sun. Shadows caused by the sun. It’s about the contradictions that are inherent in the world, of opposites attracting. And the contradiction of being a person means being so small and simultaneously so vast.
– Andrew Hertzberg
Marina – Love + Fear
Marina, formerly known on stage as Marina and the Diamonds, released Love + Fear when she was 33 and her message was one of acceptance and maturity. The evolution of Marina began with angsty The Family Jewels, which transitions between challenging her current state and then celebrating the outlaw lifestyle. This arc includes “Are You Satisfied?”, “Obsessions,” “Guilty,” and “The Outsider.” In 2012, Marina gave us Electra Heart, which is the alter ego she embodied with wigs, midcentury baby doll dresses and a facetious embrace of gender inequalities. On her 2015 album Froot, Marina accompanied her operatic vocals with personal growth and exploration of her sound. And here we are in 2019 with Love + Fear, where she’s grown into herself and learned from past mistakes; learned to enjoy things without questioning. On this two-part album, Marina honors nature literally with songs like “Handmade Heaven” and “Orange Trees.” And unlike before when Marina hyperbolized on bad luck and mistakes, Marina shares her love for others and laments her previous internalizing.
– Elif Geris
– Pearl Tiffany Shin
Angel Olsen – All Mirrors
Like Sharon Van Etten’s 2019 banger, Remind Me Tomorrow, All Mirrors is filled in at the hands of producer John Congleton. It’s a richly layered, orchestral-fronted soundscape that can be challenging to digest in one sitting (opener “Lark” and closer “Chance” are six-minute slow burns.) But on headphones or on stage, it’s a masterpiece of drama and intrigue where new discoveries can be made with each interaction. Angel Olsen’s no stranger to risk-taking, and here she is bathed in it, owning it entirely. Give “New Love Cassette” a go, cranked up a few more notches over your limit, and see where your mind goes. Check out our review of the last time she was in town!
– Jessica Nikolich
Orville Peck – Pony
The Canadian country crooner brings an air of mystery with his fringed mask and sultry, sunken voice lilting like slow, deliberate waves over each track. He also notoriously keeps his true identity under wraps. Peck started in punk but has made a 360-degree turn, fully committing to a country persona we can all tip our hats to. For a debut record released on Sub Pop, it’s expertly crafted and sweetly serenaded—the perfect soundtrack for solitary commuting or hazy late-night gatherings to wind down to. The echoey guitar, on reverb steroids, steers the course straight into a dusty desert sunset. Dim the lights, kick your boots up, and enjoy the ride. Take a look at our coverage of Orville Peck’s concerts at Empty Bottle and Lincoln Hall!
– Jessica Nikolich
Joe Pug – The Flood of Color
Joe Pug released the Nation of Heat EP in 2008, a 24 minute folk manifesto that he recorded in Chicago on off nights while working a job in construction. It’s a startling, poignant debut– and a record that announced the singer/songwriter as a ferocious young talent. A decade later, Pug would return to form with The Flood in Color, a full length album that’s the same length as that first EP, but boasts a track list almost twice as long. It’s a concise batch of new songs— each number clocking in between a minute fifty seconds and just under three– and it’s this precision that allows The Flood in Color to pack such an emotional punch. By trimming the fat Pug has managed to craft some of the most mature and illuminating compositions of his career.
Early in his career, Pug proved himself a serious student of the folk tradition, touring with the likes of Josh Ritter and Justin Townes Earle, and writing records that continued the mission of Dylan and Seeger. In 2015 he launched the Working Songwriter podcast, a monthly discussion with fellow musicians about the craft– among his guests, The Milk Carton Kids, the California duo who released the critically acclaimed All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn’t Do in 2018. The group’s Kenneth Pattengale would go onto produce The Flood in Color, lending his quiet, focused style to the album– Pug credits Pattengale with encouraging the brevity of the recordings. Pug returned to Chicago’s the Hideout this fall for a two night stint, showcasing how well the new songs stand next to his established catalogue. From the dreamy album opener “Exit” to the storybook apocalypse of the title track, it’s an excellent example of a songwriter working at the top of his game, and proves the old adage still true– with The Flood in Color, less is more, and then some. Joe Pug made a few stops in Chicago last year including City Winery and the Hideout!
– Matthew Nerber
Resavoir – Resavoir
There isn’t enough space on the Internet to write about how great International Anthem is. So here’s just a little bit that will hopefully give you some pause through the infinite scroll. Resavoir is arranged by Will Miller, who although is in the band Whitney, is not an accurate RIYL signifier. The jazz scene in Chicago is vast and diverse, as seasoned as it is contemporary. It can be intimidating, but with Resavoir, Miller opens a door to any potential listener without concern for credentials.
Though often referred to as Miller’s band, Resavoir feels like a true collaborative effort with no one front and center – I can mention Akenya’s vocals and performances from Jeremy Cunningham’s drumming and Irvin Pierce’s tenor sax and the dozen or so people that make up this album, but it feels greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a necessary album in these times, which much like Kaina, is about collaboration and connection in a world trying to detach and separate and segregate and negate at every turn. Songs like the eponymous “Resavoir” sound immediately familiar even after one listen. Likewise, “Taking Flight” is a perfect soundtrack for a late-night drive or bike ride along the Lake Shore. “Escalator” features Sen Morimoto rapping through an existential crisis. “LML” ends the album with soulful optimism: “I love my life / and it’s not over / I love my friends / I love my family / I love my girl / I love my city/ I love my life / and it’s not over” – a perfect cool down to end the album with poignant reflection to take stock of what matters most in life and never take those things for granted.
– Andrew Hertzberg
Josh Ritter – Fever Breaks
Over the past two decades Josh Ritter has proven himself a consummate artist– after releasing his self-titled debut at 21 while attending Oberlin in Ohio, the songwriter has put out a steady stream of records, published an acclaimed novel, showcased his painting skills as album artwork, and maintained a loyal and growing fanbase around the world. With the new record Ritter deviates slightly from his previous playbook– since 2010 he has recorded and toured with The Royal City Band, a group of musicians that have leant their talents to Ritter’s music from the earliest days, including producer and pianist Sam Kassirer. But Fever Breaks’ liner notes are decidedly absent of mentions of frequent collaborators. Instead, Ritter employed the talent of producer Jason Isbell, the grammy award winning frontman of the 400 Unit, resulting in some of Ritter’s most personal work since 2013’s The Beast in its Tracks.
The record’s first single, “Old Black Magic,” has a dirty blues backbeat, with Ritter snarling gleefully over distortion and huge, mounting guitar licks. The rest of the album maintains this big sound, but Fever Breaks’ centerpiece, the political lament “All Some Kind of Dream,” recalls Ritter’s bright, melodic work on 2006’s Animal Years, itself a folk-rock indictment of the Iraq War. And the chilling “The Torch Committee,” which lyrically manifests the Charlottesville protests from 2017, emerges as one of the year’s best songs, and contains some of the most incisive poetry yet from one of our greatest living songwriters.
– Matthew Nerber