FREEwilliamsburg’s Top 25 Albums of 2019

There is something bittersweet about writing a Top 25 albums post at the end of a decade marked by so much change in music, the way its distributed, and the way it’s reviewed. The last thing I wanted to do, was rehash how algorithms have created our own individual musical vacuums for the thousandth time, but then we sat down to put this list together! This was the most challenging list to assemble to date, and I realized upon further reflection that our shared favorites had been diminishing a little more with each passing year. I was reminded again of the impact access and technology-driven curation have had on people’s discovery and enjoyment of music, for better or for worse.

Also – I lied. The last thing I wanted to do was not to talk algorithms, but it was to talk about the waning relevance and influence of music blogs in general. The landscape has changed dramatically over the past decade through both the consolidation of voice and verticals, and the emergence of podcasts, playlists, Twitter and the aforementioned algorithms. I won’t taint this post with those prospects, but what will say is that I think we need thoughtful music journalism now more than ever. People want to know the stories behind the barrage of new music we’re all hit with each day. Someone needs to make sense of the madness. It is in that spirit that we trudge onward, and present to you our Top 25 albums of 2019.

25. JPEGMAFIA – All My Heroes are Cornballs
LISTEN: “Beta Male Strategies

All My Heroes are Cornballs might not be the best record of the year (though one could certainly make a strong case), but it is unquestionably the best snapshot of the cultural and sociological landscape of 2019. It’s an album made by and for the perpetually online, and the experience is something like scrolling through Reddit, in both the brevity of Peggy’s fragmented narratives and for the juxtaposition of themes. Ever the digital provocateur, Peggy both celebrates and lambasts nerd culture (shoutout to Sami Zayn), often from a position of gender fluidity – almost assuming the role of the “gamer girl.” He refers to himself using the kind of language “beta males” on the internet often use to degrade women (thot, slut.) This positioning creates a mechanism for the exploration of the toxicity in these digital spaces, while also critiquing its vapidness and vanity (“BasicBitchTearGas”, a re-working of TLC’s “No Scrubs”.) Sonically, All My Heroes is less aggressive than last year’s (also incredible) Veteran, with more of a deconstructed pop rap and trap sound (the approach – not the sound – is similar to that of PC Music), employing glitches and chopped up autotune as callbacks to prior releases. It is an album with no analog, in that it very clearly operates in a non-analog, digital realm, and that there is no other album out there quite like it.

– Peter Rittweger

24. Drugdealer – Raw Honey
LISTEN: “Honey

It was a year where the smooth, throwback sounds of 70s AM radio creeped its way into many releases. Weyes Blood’s superb Titanic Rising channeled The Carpenters and Carole King. Bruce Springsteen reincarnated the chamber rock of Glenn Campbell with his excellent record Western Stars. Whitney brought us another falsetto-filled America record (whether we wanted it or not). Our favorite of the lot came from the Michael Collins-fronted band Drugdealer. Raw Honey is the second Drugdealer record and is filled with syrupy AM radio vibes from start to finish. Stand-out track “Honey” features the aforementioned Weyes Blood on vocals. Another highlight is “Hey There Lonely” which has the carefree exuberance of a George Harrison track. Raw Honey is as sweet as its title and was a real treat this dark year.

– Robert Lanham

23. Drowse – Light Mirror
LISTEN: “Shower Pt.2
I wouldn’t necessarily say that we’re living through a full-on slowcore revival right now, but it certainly feels like there’s been a renewed interest in the atmosphere-rich/BPM-poor genre lately. One of the better acts in today’s scene is Drowse, the one-man project of Portland’s Kyle Bates. He’s been fusing ambient music with elements of shoegaze and the aforementioned slowcore with stunning results since 2013. Light Mirror, his best work to date, occupies the icier end of the slowcore spectrum, home to records like Codeine’s Frigid Stars, but there’s a good amount of folky rural psychedelia a la Flying Saucer Attack to melt the frost from time to time. The Flenser put out a bunch of great records this year, but I’m comfortable calling Light Mirror their best by a long shot.

– Peter Rittweger

22. The Chemical Brothers – No Geography
LISTEN:Got to Keep On

Old meets new in ‘No Geography’, the ninth studio album from The Chemical Brothers. Produced using the same gear and gadgets that birthed mid-90s classics like ‘Block Rockin’ Beats’, the 10-track LP is a testament to what the British duo has always achieved best – frenzy-inducing builds and high octane breakbeats tempered with emotive melters. The journey starts with the heart-pumping (and shall we say, “pleasantly abrasive”?) ‘Eve of Destruction’ before flirting with disco and house-leaning tracks like ‘You’ve Got to Try’ and ‘Got to Keep On’, the latter of which attained instant hit status among fellow artists. Truly, it was hard to enter a club or festival grounds this year without hearing the feel good jam getting pumped through sound systems of all sizes. The album’s title track borrows its name from a famous poem by New York poet Michael Brownstein, whose calm voice is also sampled on the track – one of the album’s softer touches. For those who have been fans of the brothers since the beginning, this fresh release undoubtedly satisfies with its tried and true sound, but as a standalone piece it is starkly modern, brash and brave. Toss the map aside and let the music lead you down one of 2019’s most exciting melodic journeys.

– Megan Venzin

21. Yellow Eyes – Rare Field Ceiling
LISTEN:Rare Field Ceiling

I find it difficult to find modern black metal albums that capture the murky, atmospheric feel of the genre’s second-wave without sounding derivative, but Yellow Eyes achieve the platonic ideal of the genre on Rare Field Ceiling. It’s the production that impresses me most on the Brooklyn-based band’s fifth full-length. It’s not quite a lo-fi black metal record – rather, lo-fi tricks are deployed thoughtfully throughout, never defining the record’s sound. You can hear it in the cardboard-y sounding kick drums, in the overclocked distortion, and in the trance-inducing riffage, but it’s never a crutch for poor instrumentation – rather, another piece of instrumentation. Buzzy tremolo-picking drives the ship, but the record separates itself from others of it’s ilk by allowing blackened noise rock-inspired drones to steer it.

Bookending a number of tracks with distant, choral interludes and wind chimes was another great decision on an album bursting with them. Including them as part of a larger piece, instead of standalone tracks, encourages the listeners to fully consume them – and I do see the interludes as essential components of the record’s sound. You’d be hard-pressed to find a black metal album in 2019 that does so many interesting things (well – keep scrolling.)
– Peter Rittweger

20) Halfsour – Sticky
LISTEN: Blurred Camera Phone

Boston trio Halfsour released their charming debut, Tuesday Night Live in 2016, it was a rocking but thin-sounding affair. Three years later and with a new drummer, Sticky is a few steps up on every level, from songwriting chops to some much needed lower-end on the production. If “college rock radio” still exists as a sub-genre that worships REM then Halfsour should be filling those airwaves.

– Chris Quartly

19) Ossuarium – Living Tomb
LISTEN: “Blaze of Bodies”

You couldn’t throw a stone this year without hitting some cellar-dwelling OSDM record square in its giant cyclops eye. Fetid, Cerebral Rot, Creeping Death, Gatecreeper. It’s a bull market, as the finance bros like to say, except in this case that bull is a fire-breathing Minotaur from hell. But while the sub-genre is approaching dangerous, blackgaze levels of over-saturation, one album stood apart: Living Tomb, the debut full-length from Portland crypt keepers Ossuarium. Living Tomb begins about as ignorantly as possible (a compliment in this neck of the woods), lurching either drunk or poisoned into the bowels of its own labyrinth. Therein, however, lies an unexpected softer side—walls dripping with psychedelics as modulated guitar vapors drift off around one unexpected corner after next. It’s maybe not what you’d expect to find from modern torchbearers of bands called things like Autopsy and diSEMBOWELMENT, but there lies its knuckle-dragging genius.

– Coleman Bentley

18.) Sunwatchers – Illegal Moves
LISTEN: “Beautiful Crystals”

How can you not like a record whose cover features a possessed Kool-Aid man murdering Uncle Sam while battling Fred Durst, Richard Nixon, Ronald McDonald and dozens more cultural icons. The skronky psych-rock produced by this Brooklyn based quartet is as chaotic as its cover and, well, as bizarre. Stand out tune “Beautiful Crystals” finds the band channeling every genre from prog to jazz to metal. Along with Lightning Bolt’s, Sonic Citadel which should get a shout-out this year, Illegal Moves scratched our acid rock itch.

– Robert Lanham

17) Girl Band – The Talkies
LISTEN: Shoulderblades

Irish quartet Girl Band have always sounded abrasive, but The Talkies is like being on a construction site. Whether you consider this noise-rock, industrial, or whatever, it’s a monumental achievement to make a cacophony of noise so coherent. Four years after Holding Hands With Jamie, the group took a hiatus due to mental health problems, and The Talkies could well be the soundtrack to a psychological breakdown, it throbs and crashes all over the place with sawing guitar effects ringing in your ears. This description will no doubt put many off, but rest assured, this is one of the most accomplished and cathartic records you could listen to.

– Chris Quartly

16.) Kanye West – Jesus is King
LISTEN: “Follow God”
Between the MAGA hats, the narcissism, and the born again Joel Osteen Jesus-freak sideshow, we all miss the old Kanye. As always, Ye’s personal life overshadowed his work. That said, I much prefer his goofy gospel detour to his persistent dabbling with misogyny. On Life of Pablo, I tuned out after hearing this doozy:

Now if I fuck this model
And she just bleached her asshole
And I get bleach on my T-shirt
I’mma feel like an asshole

Terrible. I found it ironic that people gave him a pass for this type of misogyny, but took such exception to his religious conversion and gospel lyrics. Especially since Jesus is King has the old, beloved Kanye production and a handful of immediate classics like “On God” and “Follow God.” Fingers crossed the Jesus thing is a phase, like Dylan’s excursion with Christianity, but only time will tell with Kanye.

– Robert Lanham

15) Baroness – Gold & Grey
LISTEN: “Seasons”
It’s hard to believe it’s been a decade since Baroness’s iconic Blue Record, and another seven since the near fatal bus crash that created a bone-like break between the Savannah outfit’s first and second acts. And while age tends to mellow and smooth rock bands like it does whiskey, Baroness have managed on Gold & Grey—their most essential post-Blue output—to retain urgency and energy, all while writing one of the busiest, longest, loudest, most hook-laden LPs of their career. Gear, namely a switch to Fender guitars and amps not normally suited to high-gain metal, imbue the record with a proggy Southern twang, while the addition of Gina Gleason’s bellowing vocal harmonies give John Baizley’s melodic sense license to soar higher than ever before. Baroness may not be the newest, sexiest name on the block, but grey looks good on them after all.

– Coleman Bentley

14) Mikal Cronin – Seeker

Mikal Cronin released three near-perfect garage-rock albums every two years between 2011 and 2015, so 2017 seemed like a cruel joke when the run didn’t continue. That’s not to say the four years since III were unproductive, Cronin is one of the busiest artists around and must have played on a dozen albums in the last four years. Thankfully, 2019 has given the world a little more balance with another of his solo albums, and this time he’s leaned into his inner-Neil Young (if you had to pick a record this is closest to, it would be Neil’s best – On the Beach). Trying to get over a bout of writer’s block, he turned to the tried-and-true approach of retreating to a cabin in the woods to write, unfortunately that only lasted a month due to forest fires, and the record does come ablaze more than most, but there’s certainly an earthy quality to it. Indeed the only song that screams cabin-in-the-woods is the solo-acoustic closer On the Shelf.

– Chris Quartly

13. State Faults – Clairvoyant
LISTEN: “Planetary

If there’s ever been a crossover modern screamo record, this is it. Packing most of the punch of Saetia with all of the bombast of Thursday, Clairvoyant comes off like a greatest hits collection of tracks for any fan of any era and style of emotional hardcore music. The songs are just that good. Every single goddamn song on this record is fodder for a craft-brew drunk sing-along at a 20th anniversary tour in 2039. If I had to pick a few favorites, I’d go with: “Planetary” (which would not sound out of place on an old Saosin EP), “Sleeplessness” (feat. a killer drunk gang sing-along outro section), “Contaminature” (sounds like a Blood Brothers song but with more traditional vocals) and closing track “Cemetery Lights” (which ends exactly how you’d think this record would end.) Clairvoyant definitely wears its influences on its sleeves, but every single one of these songs is executed flawlessly. If you’re an oversized emo kid like I am, then give this one a shot. You won’t regret it.

– Peter Rittweger

12.) Kevin Morby – Oh My God
LISTEN: “No Halo
Kanye wasn’t the only artist with a great, religious record this year. Kevin Morby’s Oh My God is more about spirituality and the human condition than God, but in baring his soul lyrically Morby has crafted his best record to date. Moments will remind listeners of Blonde on Blonde era Dylan, but Morby has fashioned his own distinct sound with a series of great releases in the last decade. The former Woods member has distinguished himself as one of the best songwriters of his generation and with Oh My God his talents continue to grow.

– Robert Lanham

11) Falls of Rauros – Patterns in Mythology
LISTEN: “New Inertia”

For years, Falls of Rauros have mined the works of Winslow Homer for visual inspiration. T-shirts, album covers, design language—the signposts that lead listeners to a band without ever hearing a second of their music. With their fifth full-length Patterns in Mythology, however, Falls of Rauros make more than merch from their kinship, capturing in metallic form the wet, rocky, barren grandeur of coastal Maine. Adorned in “Sunlight on the Coast,” an 1890s work by Homer himself, Patterns in Mythology is to Falls of Rauros what 2017’s Heartless was to Pallbearer: A soaring, shackles-snapping transcendence of categorization and genre. Once the “proggy black metallers from Maine,” Falls of Rauros have become a rock band in the purest sense, weaving screamo, Cascadian black metal, and soaring David Gilmour worship into an emotive, singular entity that can’t be mistaken for or attributed to anyone other than Fall of Rauros. And what higher compliment can you give a band than to deem them finally, completely themselves?

– Coleman Bentley

10) White Reaper – You Deserve Love

If there’s one thing I look for every year it’s an unadulterated, no holds barred fun pop-rock record and the best of those this year is White Reaper’s You Deserve Love. Two years on from The World’s Best American Band (which also happened to land at #10 on our list that year), the band are now on a major label (Elektra) but there’s no sign of any pitfalls that sometimes come with a major-debut, the band have always been pop. You Deserve Love is a triumph of harmonised guitars and anthemic choruses, if there’s any change then it’s a little more Thin Lizzy as opposed to Cheap Trick, so turn the volume up and have a good time. If you’re equally at home in the mosh-pit or a two-step sway, this is the record for you.

– Chris Quartly

9.) Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell!

We hate to opt for the obvious in our end of year tally, and yes, Lana was on everyone’s’ list, but Norman Fucking Rockwell! was simple too good to ignore. With great tracks like “Doin’ Time” and “Fuck it I Love You” this is hands-down Lana’s strongest. Sure, some have grown tired of her retro, 60s diva persona and breathy vocals, but the strength of the songs found here earn the exclamation in the title. A great and moody pop record, Rockwell is her magnum opus.

– Robert Lanham

8) Horse Jumper of Love – So Divine

Slowcore as a genre has been fairly stagnant for a while, seemingly unable to move on from the greats such as Codeine, Red House Painters, Bedhead who are long gone, and while the odd band has gotten back together (Duster), there have been precious few acts worth whispering about. Boston quartet, Horse Jumper of Love, are bastions of hope for those of us who particularly lament that Mark Kozelek has forgotten how to sing and write a melody. So Divine knows when to sparkle and when to collapse and it might be the prettiest sounding album of 2019; if you’re the kind of music fan who hears beauty in the saddest music, then the album will live up to its title. Our combined top 25 albums list is a beautifully democratic process, but this would be my personal #1.

– Chris Quartly

7. Uboa – The Origin of My Depression

Easily the most visceral piece of music released this year, Australian musician Xandra Metcalfe’s harrowing LP The Origin of My Depression, released under the moniker Uboa, is a nightmarish jaunt into the depths of misery that will sound familiar to anyone unfortunate enough to struggle with persistent feelings of sadness – and even more familiar to anyone who has ever struggled with their gender identity. The album’s centerpiece, “An Angel of Great and Terrible Light,” embodies the album’s misotheist central thesis – that it’s impossible to feel God’s grace while struggling with the emotional and physical pain of transitioning.

Uboa explores that concept, and a vast terrain of extreme sounds (elements of dark ambient, death industrial, powerviolence and black metal are interspersed throughout), over forty agonizing minutes. There are some truly terrifying moments on the record – the blood-curdling screams and harsh noise wall in the last couple of minutes of “Lay Down and Rot” and the hypnotic chanting on “Please Don’t Leave Me” exploding into anguished death industrial immediately come to mind. The Origin of My Depression is not an every day listen, but it is definitely one of the most powerful and emotionally affecting things I’ve ever heard.

– Peter Rittweger

6. Blood Incantation – Hidden History of the Human Race

Hype is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s an accomplishment in itself. On the other, you can’t have a letdown without expectation. Blood Incantation’s Hidden History of the Human Race is the year’s most-hyped metal album. It is also emphatically, unequivocally NOT a letdown. The follow-up to our favorite metal album of 2017, Starspawn, Hidden History exceeds its predecessor in almost every way. The big riffs are bigger. The spaciness, spacier. It’s only four songs, but somehow manages to ratchet up the ambition ten-fold. While many classic metal bands made their name perfecting ostensibly the same album (see: Metallica 2-4), Blood Incantation have forged a new path, a perfect blend of virtuosity and honesty, stargazing prog and flesh-melting death metal. Suffice to say, alien abduction has never sounded so appealing.

– Coleman Bentley

5. Slauson Malone – A Quiet Farwell 2016-2018

It was a banner year for hip-hop, and New York City lead the charge, powered by a prolific run from the rappers and producers in the closely-knit local squads Standing on the Corner and the sLUms Collective. It felt like there was another genre-bending instant classic in my “New Releases for You” every other week; MIKE’s Tears of Joy, Medhane’s Own Pace and Caleb Giles’ Under the Shade were all considered for this list, but the clear standout from a superlative run of post-Some Rap Songs tapes was Slauson Malone’s surreal sound collage A Quiet Farwell 2016-2018.

Malone, whose real name is Jasper Marsalis, approaches the record like a jazz musician (unsurprising – he’s the son of Wynton Marsalis: virtuoso trumpeter, composer, teacher, and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center), recycling and repurposing compositional elements, lyrics and samples (even reimagining entire tracks: Smile 1, Smile 2, Smile 3, Smile 4) across a collection of sonic vignettes, which are best consumed as a whole. The experience is not unlike J Dilla’s Donuts, and that goes beyond sequencing and structure. There’s a sense of warmth and melancholy to Malone’s faded memories, just as there are in the tracks Dilla penned on his deathbed. It feels like it’s only dawn in New York for this sound, and we may look at A Quiet Farwell 2016-2018 with a similar reverence when the day draws to a close.

– Peter Rittweger

4) Blessed – Salt

While this year’s Canadian indie-darlings are Montreal’s Corridor (whose record, Junior ranks in my own personal top-25 for the year) it’s British Columbia’s Blessed, that should walk away with the crown. The quintet quietly self-released debut album Salt in April, and it’s a record that demands to be listened to with a keen ear. The production is immaculate, whether the band’s focus is on sparse atmosphere or technically layering each player pummeling their respective instrument, something pops out each time. It’s an icey record that seemingly changes with air temperature, a masterclass in mixing pace and style from short and punchy numbers like Thought and Pill, to the proggy polyrhythms in album closer Caribou. Landing somewhere that’s in the middle of a venn diagram featuring all the best rock bands that have come out of the great white North over the decade.

– Chris Quartly

3. Sturgill Simpson – Sound & Fury

Imagine Neil Young’s Trans for a dystopian here and now that wasn’t panned upon release, but welcomed with open arms, and you’re well on your way to understanding Sound & Fury. Like all Strugill Simpson albums, Sound & Fury is a collector’s item—a one-off thing that the he will never make again. 2016’s breakthrough A Sailor’s to Earth was a lounge-y ode to fatherhood. 2013’s High Top Mountain a mostly acoustic tribute to the Williams and Waylons before him. Sound & Fury, meanwhile, is a revved-up rock n’ roll rabble rouser, devouring guitar strings and highway in equal measure. Sure, it might be Simpson’s most immediately gratifying album, but thanks to multi-dimensional production and the Nashville disruptor‘s winning charm, it keeps giving up the goods listen after increasingly inebriated listen.

– Coleman Bentley

2. Liturgy – H.A.Q.Q.

We’ll level with you. We thought the days of Liturgy as an influential, innovative black metal force had passed us by. Aesthetica was over even before DBA and 285. Liturgy’s last full-length, 2015’s The Ark Work, and Hunter Hunt-Hendrix’s other projects, like Survival, we’re rife with experimentation and humbling musicianship, but, for better or worse, weren’t black metal. Black metal Liturgy was a relic, consigned to the sands of time and the all-consuming NYC music machine. Hell, even H.A.Q.Q. itself—the band’s monumental new full-length and the most ambitious piece of local tremolo theater since Yellow Eyes once stalked these streets—is billed as something of a side-project, creative spillover from Hendrix’s upcoming opera, as it were.

But you wouldn’t know any of this in vacuum. In a vacuum, Hendrix’s scratchy yalp wouldn’t be music to your ears, because in a vacuum, it would have never left. In a vacuum you would hear the serpentine bursts of distorted guitar slithering through a symphony of harp, piano, strings, and digital destruction, and assume they had always been there, just like that. In a vacuum, the tangled, glitchy web of revelatory black metal—a referendum of Hendrix’s sexuality, mental health, and faith that plays out like a charred, jilted version of Age of Adz—is the sound of a once-in-a-generation band operating at the peak of their creative powers. And perhaps the vacuum is right. Perhaps that’s exactly what it is. But as always, the reality is infinitely messier and infinitely more interesting.

– Coleman Bentley

1) HTRK – Venus in Leo / Over the Rainbow

Melbourne’s HTRK put out not one, but two amazing releases in 2019, Venus in Leo and Over the Rainbow. We loved them both so much, we’ve decided to let them share our top spot this year. Following the death of their bass player in 2010, the band is now a duo and have all but abandoned their industrial music roots. Though melancholy and minimalist, their music has become warmer and more generous than the gloom of their Factory-inspired early recordings. Where Venus in Leo, reminded us of the XX, only darker, Over the Rainbow is an ambient soundtrack to a Scientology documentary that channels Eno and Boards of Canada. This underappreciated band provided a gloomy, yet vital soundtrack to distressed times.

– Robert Lanham

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