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.
Sudan Archives – Athena
Loop violinist extraordinaire Brittney Parks (better known as Sudan Archives) picked up the instrument in fourth grade and self-taught her way to a new level, blending lush electronic, R&B, and hip hop swagger while maintaining African fiddling technique. Athena is the first full length following a pair of EPs, and it’s a powerful debut with groovy bass lines, cascading vocals and strings always present, beautifully, in many different forms. The LA singer/producer integrated an array of talent on the record—from Washed Out and The xx producer Rodaidh McDonald to jazz and rap artists. Catch her at Sleeping Village on March 4, 2020.
– Jessica Nikolich
Taylor Swift – Lover
“Cruel Summer” was recently named one of the top songs of 2019 by Rolling Stone– interesting choice from a record packed to brim with standout moments. The 7th studio album from America’s pop sweetheart is just another in the line of undeniable home runs, and offers some of the same flavor as the other entries in her current streak of blockbusters that began with 2014’s 1989. Offering Swift’s longest track list to date, 18 songs compared to 1989 and Reputation’s 16 and 15 respectively, Lover is a feature length album in every sense of the word—with Swift globetrotting from her home in New York (“Cornelia Street”), to the homeland of boyfriend Joe Alwyn (“London Boy”), to the candy-cobbled streets of her pop imagination (“ME!” and “You Need to Calm Down”).
Swift proved herself a master of the album closer on Red, with the sweetly hopeful “Begin Again,” (she would do the same on 1989 and Reputation with “Clean” and “New Year’s Day”) and similarly sticks the landing here—the beautiful “Daylight” is cinematic in its melodic summation and painterly prose, leaving Lover shrouded in a sincere melancholy. And though her singles have always dominated the conversation about the merits of her songwriting, it’s these deeper cuts that provide the real insights, and are the true continuation of the project Swift began with her self-titled debut—an unprecedented chronicle of the infatuations and maturations of one young woman’s American life.
– Matthew Nerber
TNGHT – II
TNGHT is the enigmatic project of Hudson Mohawke (Ross Birchard) and Lunice (Lunice Pierre), two veteran producers with credits on Kanye West’s Yeezus as well as a song featuring Captain Murphy, the rap alias of Flying Lotus. These two talented producers took the world by storm with the release of their self-titled EP in 2012, which fused festival-style electronic club music with the “trap rap” flavor that was bubbling to the surface at that time. After the success of their EP, as well as their follow up single Acrylics (2013), the two seemingly disbanded – Lunice and Hudson Mohawke went their separate ways to release respective solo projects.
TNGHT has returned just as mysteriously as they disappeared, however, with the release of their new EP II – which sees the dynamic duo picking up right where they left off (and definitely promising to make just as many waves in electronic music as their debut project did). Across the track listing, Mohawke and Lunice fuse dance-floor friendly rhythms with a buffet of oddball music production styles. The song “What_it_is” contains a swaggering drum line reminiscent of a mid-2000s Timbaland or Pharrell beat, peppered with some quirky autotuned vocal chops and a pulsing synth stab. “First Body” sees the two experimenting with reggaeton – and though the rhythm is quite distinguished from the rest of the track list, the fun, colorful and slaphappy vocal samples and horn stabs remain consistent. The album closes out with the monstrous “Gimme Sumn”, an EDM- inspired trap beat over a squealing automated synth. This particular song serves as a perfect closer to the 24-minute opus – TNGHT chooses to leave this album in a fiery display of their most grating, strange, and shifty sounds to date.
– Jack Cates
Tyler the Creator – IGOR
No one Tyler the Creator album is the same. Everyone feels like a departure from his departure from his, well departure album. He seemingly has something completely new to say with every passing album. With his last two, Scum Fuck Flowerboy and IGOR, Tyler is treading to more honest, soul bearing ground and it’s honestly been refreshing. Flowerboy married his harsh rap flow with more personal lyrics, but IGOR eschews anything that sounds like Tyler for a more soulful, R&B laden, funk edge. It’s a strange album from Tyler about love triangle that is just not going his way. “EARFQUAKE” has him awkwardly crooning as best he can along to a vibing instrumental. His rapping on the album is parse and when he does raps it feels like spoken word odes more often than not. IGOR is weird, completely unexpected, and succeeds when it absolutely shouldn’t.
Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride
Who would’ve thought that Vampire Weekend, the band that blew up the blogs in 2007 with their weird mix of afro beats and literary allusions, would be the one indie outfit that not only survived the 2010’s, but developed into critical and mainstream darlings? When Father of the Bride dropped in May, it topped the charts– the band’s third consecutive release to debut at number 1. Not bad for the wacky double album, and the first Vampire Weekend disc without producer/founding member Rostam Batmanglij.
But even when Batmanglij was adding his classical-inspired flair and ornate production to the first three albums, the heart of the band was always Ezra Koenig, with his wry, schoolboy poetry and undeniable melodies. Father of the Bride‘s singles were drip fed to fans early in 2019, giving us a taste of the band’s first new music since 2013. The instantly hummable guitar of “Harmony Hall,” the lo-fi cool of “Unbearably White,” and the woozy lullaby of “Big Blue” were accompanied by bold, new-agey graphics that would eventually reveal Koenig’s mission statement– a jamband reboot of Vampire Weekend’s core values, a sort of primary color facsimile of the punk politics of Contra and the grim religious ponderings of Modern Vampires. And bassist Chris Baio and drummer Chris Thomson remain, for my money, the band’s MVPs– Father of the Bride’s 18 tracks never lose their groove because of the coolest rhythm section in the biz.
– Matthew Nerber
Sharon Van Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow
Sharon Van Etten’s fifth album, Remind Me Tomorrow, sweeps listeners up in her transformation–of sound and of attitude. In the five years since Are We There released, Van Etten’s gone back to school, made her acting debut, found her romantic partner and had a baby. These big life changes are manifested in the album’s assertive sound, with Van Etten’s vocals infusing pulsating ‘80s synth beats with her telltale vulnerability.
The album begins with “I Told You Everything,” the type of stripped-down song that showcases Van Etten’s voice, and for which she’s best known. Both revelatory and cryptic at once, there’s a hint of optimism that ultimately transforms into power as the album unfolds. Remind Me Tomorrow warms up with “No One’s Easy to Love” and “Memorial Day,” before launching into a high-powered “Comeback Kid,” its first single. With a catchy, sing-along chorus that evokes fellow New Jersyan Bruce Springsteen, “Comeback Kid” kicks off the album’s three-song high point.
The next, “Jupiter 4,” is a slow burn, as whirling synth notes are joined by a steady drumbeat and Van Etten murmuring to her partner that “our love’s for real.” The crescendo builds until she calls out, “I’ve been waiting my whole life for someone like you.” This determinism makes the “love so real” between her and partner Zeke Hutchins even more palpable and profound. With its fast pace and punchy lyrics, “Seventeen” sounds like an upbeat teenage anthem. But the older, more mature Van Etten checks her nostalgia with lyrics like, “I used to feel free/Was it just a dream?” and “I see you so uncomfortably alone/I wish I could show you how much you’ve grown.” After that is a dreamy “Malibu” that feels like driving California’s Rt. 1 with the windows down, followed by yet another catchy synth-pop track, “You Shadow.”
The album appropriately culminates with the most monumental life change–Van Etten’s reflections on motherhood in “Stay,” a love letter lullaby to her child. This album showcases Van Etten’s versatility as an artist whose sound evolves with her life. For longtime fans like me, it gives us a chance to turn to her music not only during our weakest moments, but also our strongest. Check out our review of her amazing Thalia Hall performance from earlier this year here!
– Valerie Nikolas
Wallows – Nothing Happens
Wallows is the boy band with a Hollywood pedigree– frontmen/guitarists Dylan Minnette and Braedan Lemasters are busy with their acting careers when not in the studio. Raised on classic rock and formerly known as The Narwhals, the trio has been playing together for nearly 10 years– pretty impressive, seeing that the oldest member is 23. Their debut Nothing Happens is packed to the brim with indie-rock gems: Take for instance the slacker-vulnerability on the duet “Are You Bored Yet?” where Minette pleads “Will you tell the truth, so I don’t have to lie?,” or his punchy, constant self-deprecation on “Scrawny”, which sees him sleeping with the lights on as he confesses a litany of insecurities to his lover, culminating in one of the more charming expletives from recent pop memory.
Whereas the band’s EP Spring was a syrupy mix of Beatles riffs, Velvet Underground flourishes, and bouncy punk poetry, Nothing Happens decidedly dips a toe into some darker waters right from the outset– Spring felt off the cuff and close to the vest, but Nothing Happens is revealing and introspective, with new shades of pain and yearning accompanying the established sound. At its best, the record feels like a grab-bag of excellent indie debuts of the past. There’s hints of Vampire Weekend’s self-titled, with the self-aware pop sensibilities and nice-guy veneer, whispers of Funeral‘s compact compositions of loss and renewal, and more than a few nods to Is this It‘s fuzz rock urgency. 2019 was a year of incredible debuts– if Wallows slipped past your radar, may I suggest letting Nothing Happens help you ring in 2020?
– Matthew Nerber
Nilüfer Yanya – Miss Universe
While photographing Nilüfer Yanya during her 2018 Pitchfork Music Festival performance, I completely lost myself in her sound. Deep and complex, Yanya’s voice struts around her sharp guitar work that keeps you going as she questions herself time and time again. It all falls on “Angels”, where the opening verse encapsulates so much of Miss Universe‘s themes and concerns “Got to learn, got to realize what this means, got to earn, got to decide who to please”. Framed around a fictional hotline WWAY HEALTH offering supposed respite from all your troubles, Miss Universe feels like on of the years most realized albums. It so fully captures the fears of a modern life with downright bangers throughout like “In Your Head“. The album closes out with “Heavyweight Champion of the World“, a song that packs all of Yanya’s potential under a bar that she surely can break through. The song tries hard to contain itself and not go beyond it’s means, knowing it’s limits. But almost as response to its lyrics, Yanya and her band destroy the song with lovely falsetto yelps and instrumentation that drives you head first through those barriers. You can check out a review of the last time Yanya was in town here.
– Julian Ramirez