Kaya Wilkins is just like you. Well, sort of. She enjoys Netflix and vegan peanut butter chocolate ice cream; she fights jet lag, experiences yeast infections, and she summons introverts such as myself to her “Zero Interaction Ramen Bar.” All of these facets are wrapped up in Wilkins’ penchant for light, luminous melodies. The Norwegian-born, New York-raised artist is fully realized on Watch This Liquid Pour Itself, her Jagjaguwar debut and second album under the Okay Kaya moniker. Recorded mostly by Wilkins herself, she collaborated with producers Jacob Portrait (Whitney, (Sandy) Alex G) and John Carroll Kirby (Solange, Kali Uchis) in order to further her vision. Inside its 39-minute runtime, Watch This Liquid Pour Itself presents forms of wetness through the lens of oceans, rivers, and ponds. The water in this universe is not of rebirth or revitalization, though, even when Wilkins misleads you so.
What a year. At times, it seemed as though I’d never had enough music to listen to. Then, at the busiest times of the year, I felt like I had fallen dreadfully behind and wouldn’t find my way back to consuming new music the way I did at the beginning of 2019. It’s also a year that found me diving into discographies of artists I should have devoted myself to much sooner: from Portishead to R.E.M. to mewithoutYou. It’s been another delightful year for music.
After much thought and almost giving up on creating my End of 2019 list, I have finally chosen my favourite music from the past year. Some albums have landed as honourable mentions, particularly if they were released too late (sorry, Harry Styles!), or I just couldn’t move these albums around again. To be honest, I simply don’t watch enough movies to warrant a favourite list of films. Same case with television (although, I’m marginally better there). I hope you find some music that connects with you the way it has with me. Without further ado, here are my top 30 albums of 2019. Plus, some equally special honourable mentions!
Michael Barrios is in his San Diego bedroom, sitting by the window. His long-time partner, Daisy is beside him. Above her head are polaroid pictures tracing their four-year-long relationship. All of Barrios’ musical equipment is scattered across the floor, including his newest synth pad. There’s a disco ball above the bed. He’s a softly spoken, passionate man, and it’s been two years since his last interview.
It’s been three and a half years since the release of Barrios’ debut album under the No Hope Kids moniker, Our Time Apart. Next year will see the unconventional young artist make his return. With this upcoming release, he’s changing the name – although, he hasn’t gained much hope. Planning this currently unnamed new project (there are some cool album titles in play), returning to being in a long-distance relationship, and juggling full-time jobs with it all hasn’t been easy. But you can count on those experiences popping up throughout the album.
I often wonder if Ian Curtis had any idea of the legacy Joy Division would have on musicians young and old. I wonder if he predicted the emergence of a platform like Tumblr, where teenagers who heard “Love Will Tear Us Apart” one time subsequently purchased Unknown Pleasures banners and proudly hung them over their bedroom doors. Curtis ripped open the door for artists keen on expressing the inner turmoil bubbling beneath the flashing lights and glam rock tunes of the 80s, with his lyrical emphasis on alienation and loneliness. Radiohead, The Smashing Pumpkins, Interpol and Danny Brown (his fourth album, Atrocity Exhibition is named after the Joy Division song) are just a handful of artists who wouldn’t have evolved into the artists they are without the fleeting existence of a little post-punk band from Salford, England.
Now, New York-based electronic artist Chris Stewart has released his third album under the Black Marble moniker, Bigger Than Life. The album follows 2016’s It’s Immaterial, which was labeled as an “Ian Curtis-garage dance party you’ve never been to” by Kristin Porter at SLUG Magazine. With comments like that, Stewart left himself nowhere to go but up. More coldwave than his post-punk roots, Bigger Than Life hosts another dance party, adding a bit more polish without depriving us sad suckers the melancholia we so crave.
Bodega burst onto the post-punk scene in July 2018. Teeming with style and homages as overt as The B-52s and Gang of Four, the Brooklyn-based band’s debut album, Endless Scroll displayed an intelligent, witty group with a fully formed catalog of ideas. “Your playlist knows you better than a closest lover,” sings Ben Hozie on “How Did This Happen?!,” a biting take on the guilt of “the cultural consumer.” In “I Am Not A Cinephile,” Bodega challenges the systems of imperialism, racism, misogyny, and capitalism that allowed the universe of Alfred Hitchcock to be filmed. Co-vocalist Nikki Belfiglio channels riot-grrrl energy in an ode to female pleasure in “Gyrate.” Album highlight, “Truth Is Not Punishment” has two appearances (Long and Short) on the band’s new EP, Shiny New Model.
Endless Scroll quickly established Bodega as a band that questions oppressive systems, male idols, and consumerism. After a year of touring, the making of Shiny New Model marked a series of firsts for the band. It’s the only recording session they’ve had in a studio, the first recording with new drummer Tai Lee (previously a performer in the show STOMP), and the band handled production for the first time. On Shiny New Model, Bodega presents a new bunch of questions. This time around, there’s even more ground to cover.
Melbourne-based indie artist, Wolfjay is exhausted. The night before our meeting at Shortstop Donuts – one of artist and producer Jack Alexander’s beloved spots for coffee and a snack – they played at the inner-city venue, The Gasometer Hotel. It was one of those shows where, early on, everything seemed doomed. Luckily, the night turned out to be a success, mostly thanks to the decision of booking friends, dream-pop band Tamara And The Dreams and desert rock group Beau Lightning as support acts. Without music and Melbourne and Adelaide music scenes, respectively, blossoming friendships with Tamara or Eli of Beau Lightning wouldn’t exist.
Wolfjay is a difficult one to pin down. Listening to their latest EP, Together, out now on Sleep Well Records, they swing from laidback indie to jubilant pop in just three tracks. Teaming up with co-producer Hayden Jeffery once more, Wolfjay delivers a tantalizing cover of Julien Baker’s “Go Home.” Like many of our readers, “Go Home” turned into their go-to comfort song. It’s one of those moments that wasn’t supposed to happen. Wolfjay’s music, too diverse for genre boundaries, is “serious music for people who don’t take themselves too seriously,” softly and warmly spoken, their aim is to create art of cathartic release while acknowledging that “I’m on the same page as you.”
It isn’t often that I hear an album that feels tailor-made for me. Modern Nature’s debut album, How To Live might be it. Bounding off the tails of the twelve-minute epic “Supernature” from the supergroup’s debut EP, Nature, vocalist Jack Cooper (ex-Ultimate Painting), keyboardist Will Young (BEAK>) and drummer Aaron Neveu (Woods) climb to great heights, enhancing their already entrancing compositions with the induction of cellist Rupert Gillett and saxophonist Jeff Tobias (Sunwatchers). It’s Young’s work with BEAK> and Portishead instrumentalist, Geoff Barrow that stunningly complements Cooper’s vision for Modern Nature, blossoming into an astonishing slow-burning tension. In How To Live, the rural and the urban unite; isolation is in decline and endless beauty surfaces.
Holy Holy is no longer content with being known as “another bunch of blokes onstage rocking,” according to guitarist and producer, Oscar Dawson. With their third album, My Own Pool Of Light, they’ve banished the traditional rock music they’re celebrated for. In 2017, the duo’s sophomore album, Paint – a guitar-based album immersed in new-wave glory, peaked at #7 on the ARIA Australian Albums Chart, with lead single “Darwinism” becoming the most-played track on Australian national youth radio station, triple j. Two years later, Holy Holy is driven higher and further.
My Own Pool Of Light contains the best collection of stories in Holy Holy’s career. The propulsive bass featured in previous tracks like “Willow Tree” is much more prominent, directing the unyielding rhythm of the hit single, “Faces.” The duo, alongside permanent drummer Ryan Strathie, employs drum loops and sampled beats. For the first time, Carroll opts to pitch-shift his vocals. Holy Holy have also brought in some good friends, including Gab Strum (Japanese Wallpaper) on synths, and back up singers, Ainslie Wills and Ali Barter. From the powerful opening drums and synth-laden mourning of album opener, “Maybe You Know” to the quietly devastating closer, “St Petersburg” Holy Holy graciously shift from their past; while promising another luscious, fulfilling journey.
Tanya Batt is many things. First off, she’s a proud Gecko mum. Then, she’s a musician, an actress, she nannies, and she even works in a theatre. You wouldn’t know it by glancing at our table in the busy Melbourne café, The Hub, but Tanya Batt – who performs under the musical moniker BATTS – played a show in a packed Hamer Hall just a week earlier. Hamer Hall is one of Melbourne’s most beautiful venues, a room Tanya never thought she’d play in. Following a string of concerts as a special guest for Sharon Van Etten (“Sharon is the best. She watched my sets from the side of the stage”), Friday night saw Batt end her album launch shows with a special hometown performance.
New wave emerged in popular music during the late 1970s and reached maximum popularity in the early 1980s. Icons of the genre, such as Blondie and Talking Heads, grasped the sunnier side of pop music while adopting sensibilities of punk. In the 2000s, bands like The Killers, The Strokes, and Interpol were seemingly reviving post-punk/new wave, largely in thanks to their hugely melodic pop songs contrasted with themes of disillusionment and heartache. Now, Parquet Courts and Public Practice have taken the mantle of Talking Heads-esque post-punk, Preoccupations fill the art-punk void, but where’s the poppier side of the spectrum?
Enter Lust for Youth, the Danish new wave duo comprised of Hannes Norrvide and Malthe Fischer. Their new eponymously titled album presents eight tracks ready to be consumed on the dance floor. Seamlessly integrating contemplative balladry and voyaging through 90s Europop, Lust for Youth have crafted a superb collection of tracks that rightfully likens them to legendary new wave acts New Order and Depeche Mode.
Alex Lahey ‘s brand new album, The Best Of Luck Club, couldn’t come at a better time. Released on the eve of the Australian federal election, Lahey confronts the pains of millennial struggles through her universal approach to songwriting. She seamlessly integrates the personal and couples it with anthemic, searing pop-punk melodies. Like her stunning debut, I Love You Like A Brother, Lahey demonstrates that she holds numerous smashing hooks under her belt. The Best Of Luck Club picks up where Lahey left off, but races forward. There’s more ballads, unexpected instrumentation, and the lyricism we’ve come to know, and love is even greater.
“I’m going back to my roots” is a statement that we often hear in today’s musical landscape. Sometimes, it happens following a commercial dud of an album. Occasionally, the back to my roots album comes after rigorous stadium touring, yearning for simpler beginnings. Or, it’s a deflection from a “bad” image, resulting in cleaning up one’s act. For Steven Wilkinson, artistically known as Bibio, Ribbons is a sequel to the structured storytelling of his 2016 album, A Mineral Love.
With Ribbons, Wilkinson steps away from the ambient electronica of 2017 album, Phantom Brickworks. That doesn’t mean he’s ditched the intelligent dance music that defined past releases. In fact, the touches of synthesizers serve to elevate the gentle nature of Ribbons. On 28 February this year, Wilkinson took to Twitter to discuss the new album, divulging that it’s “an album made very much in admiration of nature, yet through a tinted window of manmade escapism. Recalling the beauty in nature and the sadness of seeing it spoiled.”
Julia Jacklin doesn’t want to be the type of artist that preaches to her listeners. Her sophomore album, fittingly titled Crushing, is full of dialogues that Jacklin herself has with her family and friends. Crushing is a story, one where the Sydney-based artist discusses her bodily autonomy. Don’t Let The Kids Win, Jacklin’s 2016 debut album, was existential but sometimes unsure. Now, she’s self-assured. She’s finding space for herself in a cluttered indie rock scene. With only two albums under her belt, Julia Jacklin is already rising as one of Australia’s finest songwriters.
Montreal-based singer-songwriter Peter Sagar formed his solo project, Homeshake, after leaving Mac DeMarco’s live band in 2014. Sagar found himself fatigued and “at a creative dead-end” with guitar, in turn constructing luscious bedroom-pop and lo-fi R&B. The fourth album under the Homeshake moniker, Helium, out today, is a superb showcase of an artist rebuffing the usual pigeonholes in genres, textures, and soundscapes.
Folk-tinged indie rock is renowned for beautiful lyrics, intricate melodies, and stunning collaborations. It’s a style that’s held the spotlight inside indie circles for years, with good reason. Current stars such as Sharon Van Etten released her fifth album; Remind Me Tomorrow, just weeks ago. Van Etten goes for soul-crushing while experimenting with haunting, cinematic synth-led tracks. Last year’s For My Crimes by Marissa Nadler is equally haunting, albeit in much more subtle light. Just last week, Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst teamed up as Better Oblivion Community Center, delivering their intimate debut album that showcases both of their unique types of storytelling. Here enters Tiny Ruins, originally a moniker for New Zealand singer-songwriter Hollie Fullbrook.
Subsequent to the release of debut full-length, Some Were Meant For Sea, in 2011, Tiny Ruins opened for Fleet Foxes and toured internationally with Beach House. Cass Basil (bass) and Alexander Freer (drums) later made Tiny Ruins an ensemble, in turn recording the second album, Brightly Painted One, in 2014. Tiny Ruins were bestowed Best Alternative Album for Brightly Painted One at the New Zealand Music Awards in late 2014. Tiny Ruins wistful new album, Olympic Girls, out today, is the next big indie folk album of 2019.
Gang Of Youths are Australia’s biggest success story in years. The Sydney-based band formed in 2012 and has enjoyed a steady stream of success, be it selling out larger and larger venues or recipients of critical acclaim. Flash forward to now, when Gang Of Youths had to announce a whopping 21 dates (all sold-out) for their Say Yes To Life Tour, with eight sold-out dates at Melbourne’s iconic Forum Theatre alone. Last year, the band received seven ARIA award nominations for their brilliant #1 album, Go Farther In Lightness. They won four of them (Album Of The Year, Best Group, Best Rock Album, and Producer of The Year – for Gang Of Youths & Adrian Breakspear). They even supported the mighty Foo Fighters for seven nights in the US during the band’s Concrete and Gold Tour last month! So, Gang Of Youths’ Say Yes To Life Tour is a big deal; for the band and their loyal, growing fan-base. It’s an absolute triumph: a homecoming for our dearest indie rock band, and a celebration of positivity and growth.
I’ve been waiting for a band like The Sonder Bombs to come along. The four-piece from Cleveland, Ohio has assembled an immersive collection of tracks to make up their debut album, Modern Female Rockstar. The band promises to change up the scene with their brand of unrelenting, socially conscious pop-punk – with the ukulele as a main star! Pop punk hasn’t been this fun, or sounded this important, in god knows how long. Modern Female Rockstar is urgent, shimmers, and explodes. With “Title” and “Twinkle Lights,” The Sonder Bombs join peers in UK riot grrrl group Peach Club and punk rock band Dream Wife, as well as Australian rockers Camp Cope and Courtney Barnett in penning tracks that carry hefty messages – these phenomenal artists relentlessly and publicly condemn sexual assault. But, The Sonder Bombs don’t forget to have some fun along the way, allowing their songs to revel in quickly found assurance.
Transatlanticism is my favorite album of all time. Death Cab For Cutie’s fourth album, released fifteen years ago today, is the band’s second concept album. Transatlanticism centers itself around long-distance love, with both its strengths and downfalls. Ben Gibbard, the band’s soft-sung lead vocalist, lyricist, and guitarist, penned the term “transatlanticism” to express the unfathomable emotional space between two young lovers. The distance Gibbard discusses feels impenetrable. Transatlanticism sees Death Cab For Cutie experimenting with soft-loud dynamics (“Transatlanticism”, “We Looked Like Giants”), perfecting the gorgeous quiet track (“Lightness”, “A Lack of Color”), and witnesses them pushing themselves to go all-out and produce the flawless pop song (“The Sound Of Settling”). Completing all of this is the efforts of guitarist, co-writer and producer Chris Walla. Walla’s lo-fi production is perfect for Transatlanticism. Fifteen years later, and Transatlanticism still sounds incredibly rich and indulgent, yet also warm and intimate.
“When they take me down the corridor, they’ll secure my wrists with ties” Marissa Nadler croons in “For My Crimes,” the title track and album opener of the American songwriter’s eighth album. Nadler takes on the perspective of an individual on death row in a songwriting exercise, pleading to not be remembered for their crimes. The opening title track is a seemingly simple song. It’s not even close. “For My Crimes” – per the album’s press release, is labeled as “a sweeping, vaguely Southern drama of voices, strings, and acoustic guitar, that walks the line between character song and personal indictment by metaphor.” – I couldn’t agree more. The song brings listeners into a haunting atmosphere shaped by eerie backing vocals from Nadler’s friend and collaborator, Angel Olsen, clear and emotive acoustic guitar, and swells of strings. All these elements combined create a sprawling, remorseful story. In For My Crimes, Marissa Nadler seeks hard truths through turmoil. The album follows Nadler as she ponders whether love is strong enough to get past numerous struggles, from the distance to falling out of love. Nadler’s delicate, mesmerizing voice alongside gentle plucking of the acoustic guitar and layered strings form an unforgettable collection of songs to add to an already impressive discography.
Mitski Miyawaki (mononymously known as Mitski) is a powerhouse. The Japanese-American artist is only 27 years old, and her new album; Be The Cowboy is her fifth album in six years. Her 2016 album Puberty 2 was released to universal critical acclaim, single “Your Best American Girl” landed on multiple “best songs of 2016” lists, and starting in March this year, she joined Lorde as an opener for the New Zealand artist’s Melodrama World Tour. To say that Mitski has been having a hard working, busy, few years is an understatement. Within Be The Cowboy, there’s a new central focus for Mitski: the loneliness that accompanies a young woman as she relentlessly tours to continue being a musician for a living. Of course, her words are as sharp and powerful as ever. There’s no one who has so effectively mastered the art of explosive, endlessly fascinating songwriting. She switches between personifying fictional characters, while a number of tracks follow her relationship with music (“Geyser” and “Remember My Name” spring to mind) rather than other people, or herself. This is undoubtedly Mitski’s most ambitious album yet, and also the culmination of all her past work. The album has an unbelievable amount of musical ideas wrapped up inside it, and in any other artist’s hands, it might not work. Be The Cowboy is only 33 minutes long – only three songs are longer than two and a half minutes, but it all flows beautifully. All the ideas are anchored by ethereal vocals and haunting lyrical gems. Just looking at the singles, it’s clear that Mitski is confident in making yet another sonic departure. Take second single “Nobody”; an infectious disco-pop banger that’s nothing like anything else in her discography. Album opener “Geyser” is bombastic and combines the piano and organ found in her first two records, Lush and Retired From Sad, New Career In Business and joining them is the crashing, distorted guitars that defined her breakout album, Bury Me At Make Out Creek. Final single “Two Slow Dancers” is a gorgeous, nostalgic piano ballad. There’s no one who tackles nostalgia and loneliness like Mitski.