Top 15 indie albums of 2019

  • Copeland, “Blushing” Contributed photo

Staff Writer
Published: 12/25/2019 9:42:38 PM

15. Bon Iver,

“i,i”

Genre: Indie pop, folk, R&B, electronica. For fans of: Kanye West, James Blake, Fleet Foxes.

If your music taste was anything like mine in the late 2000s, then you, too, fell under the sensual spell of Wisconsin-based singer/songwriter Justin Vernon’s multi-range vocal performances of topics ranging from heartbreak to isolation to eating candy bars.

From his humble beginnings recording a folk-influenced breakup album in his father’s hunting cabin to his collaboration and friendship with pop culture icon Kanye West, Vernon’s artistic passion and vision matured alongside his popularity. Despite his lumberjack aesthetic (beards, flannels, beanies) being at an all-time high, however, Bon Iver abruptly began an indefinite hiatus in 2012.

Flash forward seven years and we now have our second Bon Iver comeback record. Ignoring genre preferences and nostalgic bias, the past two releases by the newly recharged outfit boast a newfound sense of confidence. Similar to some of Sufjan Stevens’ work, such as “Ads of Adz,” the album “i,i”  successfully combines the contrasting sounds of delicate chamber folk with harsh electronics. Vernon’s soul-filled vocal performance, as well as his signature usage of string and horn sections, compliment this sonic shift with ease.

While the average listener may find these elements to be surprising and abstract at times, repeated listens welcome the realization that everything at the core of this record is Bon Iver through and through.

14. Starflyer 59,

“Young in My Head”

Genre: Alternative rock, indie rock. For fans of: Pedro the Lion, Diiv, Swervedriver.

In the early ’90s, Starflyer 59 served as the alias associated with Riverside, Calif. resident and multi-instrumentalist Jason Martin. Martin served as the unsung hero for the Shoegaze genre and the underground Christian music scene with his earlier works including 1994’s “Silver,” 1995’s “Gold” and 1997’s “Americana.”

Despite never gaining commercial success outside of the niche audiences previously described, Martin continued firing out top quality records throughout the next two decades and eventually adopted a more linear take on indie rock along the lines of his fellow underground Christian alumni David Bazan (Pedro the Lion).

Martin’s 15th and latest LP under the Starflyer name presents the most humble, straightforward version of the artist ever recorded. “Young in My Head” is comprised of simple, catchy rock n’ roll riffage and lyricism that mostly dwells on his back catalog, past relationships, family and his career as a whole.

While looking in the rearview mirror may be commonplace for an aging artist, Martin executes this form of writing in the least pretentious way imaginable and offers a heartbreaking yet fun look at becoming a poster child for what is now known as “dad rock.”

13. Steve Lacy,

“Apollo XXI”

Genre: Indie pop, R&B, funk, soul, hip-hop, funk. For fans of: Tyler the Creator, The Internet, Thundercat.

Known mostly for his contributions to the R&B/soul collective known as The Internet, 21-year old Compton resident Steve Lacy turns heads with a stunning debut solo LP. Recorded and produced almost entirely by himself, “Apollo XXI” sees Lacy blending the sounds of 1970s-era funk and R&B with the more modern sensibilities of low fidelity indie rock popularized by artists such as Mac DeMarco. Lacy matches his stellar guitar licks with an explosive falsetto vocal performance equipped with lyricism ranging from his religious upbringing, relationships and sexual identity. 

In a sea of up and coming artists, be sure to add Steve Lacy to your watch list.

12. Blushing,

“Blushing”

Genre: Dream pop, shoegazing. For fans of: My Bloody Valentine, Lush, Slowdive.

After releasing a handful of singles and EPs, Austin-based dream-pop outfit Blushing showcases a vibrant collection of hazy, glowing tracks on their debut, self-titled LP. Each song offers a striking contrast between the ethereal vocal performances of guitarist Michelle Soto and bassist Christine Carmona and the lush yet pummeling instrumentation the band presents.

“Blushing” does not necessarily reinvent the wheel for the modern revival of the scene that celebrates itself, but it does demonstrate how strongly the Texas quartet has mastered the channeling of its sound. Expect big things from these young artists in the years to come.

11. Gang Starr,

“One of the Best Yet”

Genre: Hip-hop, rap. For fans of: A Tribe Called Quest, Big L, M.O.P.

Through my experiences as an avid music listener, there are very rare circumstances where I can view an artist’s posthumous material as anything more than a greedy cash grab on behalf of the label that distributes it. My opinion has always been that the work that goes into crafting a full length album requires a certain level of effort, dedication, skill, precision and organization that only a living person can exemplify. “One of the Best Yet," however, illustrates one of these rare circumstances.

Comprised of rapper Guru and producer DJ Premier, Gang Starr revolutionized the East Coast Hip Hop scene from the mid-’80s until Guru’s passing from cancer in 2010. Premier’s uniquely jazz-influenced production served as the ideal backdrop for the passionate, unwavering, skilled flow implemented by Guru.

“One of the Best Yet” honors Guru’s legacy in the most fitting, tasteful way a posthumous album can. From DJ Premiere’s precision in selecting appropriate unreleased material from the late rapper to his successes intertwining Guru’s flow with modern-day artists such as J. Cole, this record is anything but a cash grab. The duo’s seventh album illustrates a seamless marriage between modern and old school rap and reminds listeners of the impact Guru had on hip-hop in general.

10. American Football,

“LP3”

Genre: Indie rock, post-rock, art rock, math rock, emo. For fans of: Owen, Mineral, Explosions in the Sky.

In 1999, an Illinois-based trio known as American Football accidentally crafted an indie rock masterpiece. The group’s self-titled record, now known to fans as LP1, gained a strong cult following over the years despite the members’ swift shift of attention towards other musical projects into the early 2000s.

Guitarists/bassist and singer Mike Kinsella (also known for numerous other efforts in the midwestern emo scene such as Cap’n Jazz and Joan of Arc) began writing more intimate, acoustic-based music under the alias Owen. Over the years, Kinsella’s lyricism began to veer away from the emotional, angsty stylings of his previous work and began to delve more into self-deprecating, tongue-in-cheek humor. 

In 2014, American Football shocked the internet when they announced dates for their first performances as a band in 15 years as well as a new planned album’s worth of material. 2016 saw the release of the second self-titled record known to fans now as “LP2.” Despite still maintaining some of the subtle instrumental intricacies of the landmark debut, reception for the three piece’s sophomore effort seemed generally lukewarm as the album seemed to have more in common with Kinsella’s recent solo work than the classic angsty poetry found in songs such as “Never Meant,” “Honestly” and “But the Regrets Are Killing Me.”

2019’s “LP3” remedies all of these issues with a more instrumentally-driven, atmospheric sound that captures the emotional energy found in the 1999 opus but applies it to the modern-day circumstances of the members involved. The album boasts eight sprawling movements of pristine guitar work, lush vocal melodies, gliding basslines, jazzy drum work and features guest performances from artists such as Haley Williams (Paramore) and Rachel Goswell (Slowdive). 

Twenty years can significantly alter the way a person perceives the inevitable emotional turmoil life brings, and the group’s third full-length LP accurately applies the same filter to a more experienced form of coping. 

9. Nick Cave & The

Bad Seeds, “Ghosteen”

Genre: Ambient, electronic, spoken word. For fans of: Swans, Tom Waits, The Birthday Party.

Hailing from Australia, Nick Cave made his debut into the music world as the vocalist of the punk band The Birthday Party in the late-’70s and early-’80s. Soon after the group’s disbandment in 1983, he formed a new project under the name Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. Since then the group has released 17 full-length records and still actively releases new music and tours to this day.

In the summer of 2015, Nick Cave’s 15-year-old son Arthur unexpectedly passed away after falling off a cliff near Brighton, England. This traumatic event laid the foundation for the alluring, powerful and emotional opus we now know as “Ghosteen.” Cave’s haunting, poetic vocal delivery rips at the listener’s heartstrings with every murmured syllable and provides a stunning 

yet seamless juxtaposition to the ambient, instrumental backdrop.

I strongly recommend this album for any parent that has lost their child or anyone dealing with loss of any sort. After hearing about the death of Arthur, I had assumed that Cave would throw in the towel and quit music altogether. Instead, he allowed his grief to become the canvas for a masterpiece and one of his strongest releases to date.

8. Night Sins,

“Portraits in Silver”

Genre: Synth-pop, new wave, electronic dance music. For fans of: Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, Sisters of Mercy.

While multi-instrumentalist Kyle  Kimball is best known as the drummer for the Philadelphia-based rock band Nothing (and for his previous dabblings in the punk and hardcore scene with groups such as Salvation and Mother of Mercy), his artistic outlet that deserves your attention the most is Night Sin s. Under this moniker, Kimball pays homage to the electronic sounds of the ’80s (with additional guest musicians) by channeling acts such as Depeche Mode, Psychedelic Furs, New Order and many more.

“Portraits in Silver” illustrates  a shift in Kimball’s songwriting approach prioritizing the use of synthesizers and beats over the full band sound found in his previous three solo records. This shift allows Night Sins to pursue a more accessible, dance-driven sound while still maintaining a solid footing in the dark, eerie nuances of his previous work.

7. Swervedriver,

“Future Ruins”

Genre: Alternative rock, shoegazing. For fans of: Ride, My Bloody Valentine, Diiv.

Despite releasing masterpieces “Raise” and “Mezcal Head” on Creation Records in the early ’90s, Swervedriver’s take on blending the pulverizing walls of sound exemplified by acts such as My Bloody Valentine with the alternative-rock-sounds of The Smashing Pumpkins was sadly overlooked. 

Decades later, the English quartet returned with an absolutely stunning comeback record titled “I Wasn’t Born to Lose You” — exceeding all of my exceptions of what a comeback record should be with a solid footing in the band’s established sound but enough subtle experimentation to make it unique and interesting.

“Future Ruins” plays it a bit more safe as a sophomore comeback release, but at this point, Swervedriver has accomplished everything the band sought to do. 

6. Have a Nice Life,

“Sea of Worry”

Genre: Experimental rock, post-punk, post-rock. For fans of: Godspeed! You Black Emperor, Boris, Planning for Burial.

Over 10 years ago, Connecticut residents Dan Barret and Tim Macuga accidentally crafted a sonic masterpiece called “Deathconsciousness” under the name Have A Nice Life. Its 85 minute runtime encompassed numerous genres such as lofi, industrial, shoe-gazing and drone and contained some rather unorthodox recording techniques such as tracking guitars in a bathtub. The LP slowly developed a cult following through no means beyond online messaging boards and word of mouth as the duo had no intentions of making music either of their careers. 

The low budget, raw sounds of “Deathconsciousness” sparked curiosity in fans of what the two-piece band was capable of in a more legitimate studio setup. 

“Sea of Worry,” the group’s third and most recent LP, answers this question to some degree yet also illustrates an entirely different songwriting approach. Instead of carrying a large track-list that seamlessly crosses genres throughout its runtime, Have a Nice Life seems to keep a cohesive sound with each track and implements its signature stylistic transitions numerous times within a single song. 

“Sea of Worry” sees a band that knows and is comfortable with itself.

5. HEALTH,

“VOL.4: SLAVES OF FEAR”

Genre: Noise rock, industrial, electronic. For fans of: Silversun Pickups, Crystal Castles, Godflesh.

Have you ever lain in bed wide awake in a cold sweat for countless hours wondering what the whiny croons of Brian Aubert (Silversun Pickups) would sound like combined with a backdrop of harsh, explosive industrial metal along the lines of Godflesh? Me neither, but luckily the LA-based noise trio known collectively as HEALTH give listeners a glimpse of this on their fourth full length record.

Known for providing scores and singles for video games (Grand Theft Auto, Max Payne 3, Need for Speed) and movies (Wasted on the Young, Atomic Blonde, 13 Reasons Why), HEALTH are no strangers to the craft of taking listeners on a high stake sonic journey and VOL.4: SLAVES TO FEAR stays true to this concept. 

The dramatic juxtaposition of lush, melodic vocals gliding over pummeling electronics creates an unlikely accessibility for the three piece, and I genuinely wouldn’t be surprised if “FEEL NOTHING” (the album’s lead single) became a nightclub anthem in the coming years despite its horrifying, pessimistic lyricism and haunting subtleties. 

4. Swans, “Leaving Meaning”

(stylized as “leaving meaning.)

Genre: Experimental rock, post-rock, post-punk, goth rock, folk, drone. For fans of: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Slint, Throbbing Gristle.

Despite a musical career spanning nearly four decades, Michael Gira and company has managed to maintain a strong catalog that’s nearly free of blemishes and redundancies.

“Leaving Meaning” serves as the group’s fourth LP in its post-2010 comeback streak and 15th LP overall. This 93-minute experience demands mental preparation and patience as it spans across two full discs with multiple tracks that flirt with or exceed the 10 minute mark. 

Its sound embodies sprawling movements blending the likes of 1980s-era post-punk (such as Joy Division, Bauhaus, or The Birthday Party) with country and gothic undertones.

3.Flying Lotus,

“Flamagra”

Genre: Hip-hop, electronic, jazz, funk, dance. For fans of: Kendrick Lamar, Aphex Twin, Thundercat.

The Los Angeles-based producer known to most as “FlyLo” had a goliath of a challenge ahead of him following up 2014’s out-of-left-field masterpiece “You’re Dead!” While seldom in the limelight the past five years, his collaborations with well-known artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Thundercat and Kamasi Washington have not gone unnoticed. 2019’s “Flamagra” is a different kind of masterpiece and a fitting answer to the questions “You’re Dead!” left unresolved.

With this LP, Flying Lotus constructs a sprawling world of intricate, jazz/funk-oriented soundscapes and boasts a Quentin Tarantino-tier cast of guest artists. These features (which includes the likes of Denzel Curry, Anderson Paak, George Clinton, Solange, Toro Y Moi, David Lynch and many more) contribute both radio-friendly sensibilities and in some cases bizarre yet constructive complexities.

2. Chelsea Wolfe,

“Birth of Violence”

Genre: Indie rock, folk. For fans of: Emma Ruth Rundle, King Dude, Esben & The Witch.

Goth queen Chelsea Wolfe returns to her roots on her sixth studio album, “Birth of Violence.” After dabbling in more abrasive, metallic soundscapes with her past two LPs, “Birth of Violence” illustrates a more stripped down, acoustic-based approach to Wolfe’s songwriting more along the lines of her earlier works.

With this refreshed sonic backdrop, Wolfe’s latest offering remains as captivating, layered, and intimate as ever. Multiple spins of this record will bring to light many of the nuanced subtleties that were present in the forefront of her heavier material. New look, same great sounds.

1. Copeland,

“Blushing”

Genre: Alternative rock, indie pop, dream pop, art rock, R&B. For fans of: Mae, Lovedrug, Daphne Loves Derby

Even the most avid of elitist music listeners may be completely unaware of the alternate universe of Christian alternative rock/emo/pop scene that existed only in “youth group” circles at the dawn of the new millennium. While Fall Out Boy, Paramore, My Chemical Romance, and Panic! At the Disco were topping the charts, the closest thing to the limelight that Florida’s Copeland received was when the band’s frontman, Aaron Marsh, performed guest vocals on the monumental album closer “Some May Seek Forgiveness, Others Escape” on Underoath’s 2004 release “They’re Only Chasing Safety.” Unfortunately, even the most passionate Underoath fans falsely gave Aaron Gillepsie the credit for this performance and Copeland’s flawless discography has remained criminally obscure. The group disbanded shortly after releasing 2008’s “You Are My Sunshine” (my favorite pop album ever made).

As of 2019, all of the rock/emo/pop chart-topping acts I mentioned previously have reformed and have provided new fans and old fans alike with a very listener-friendly formula of arena pop. Copeland quietly re-united in 2014 as well and adjusted the focus of its music to now be centered around the band’s greatest strength: Marsh’s voice.

“Blushing” takes the hip-hop producing experience Marsh has since acquired during his time off and produces one of of the most alluring LPs ever crafted. Each track illustrates a sense of melancholic yet smooth, sensual soundscapes guaranteed to lull the listener into a magical, bedtime trance. Compared to the group’s previous offerings, this release may take multiple rotations for the listener to understand its purpose and direction, but it is worth every spin.

I can say with unwavering confidence that “Blushing” is not only my favorite record of 2019 but one of my favorite records of the past decade in general.

Thomas Leahy writes about arts and entertainment. He can be reached at tleahy@recorder.com.




Greenfield Recorder

14 Hope Street
Greenfield, MA 01302-1367
Phone: (413) 772-0261
Fax: (413) 772-2906

 

Copyright © 2019 by Newspapers of Massachusetts, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy