Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah — Ancestral Recall
Here the visionary trumpeter takes his concept of “stretch music” — an approach to jazz that embraces its traditions but widens its scope — farther than it has ever gone before. Scott expands the future prospects of jazz using the contemporary tools at his disposal. Electronic dance loops weave through complex polyrhythms beaten on African drums, while Scott, the grandson of legendary Mardi Gras chieftain, Big Chief Donald Harrison, Sr., lets his instrument soar. The result is a melding of African and Native American musical traditions, which are rooted in rhythm, with those of the colonizer and oppressor, which are built on harmony. In other words, exactly where jazz originally sprang from in New Orleans a century ago. Poet Saul Williams, who occasionally lends his voice to the project, sums up what Scott is going for (and accomplishes) best: “Earth as my hard drive, sky as my witness.”
Brittany Howard — Jaime
An autobiographical record named after Howard’s sister who died at age 13, Jaime, oozes with sorrow, soul and outrage at injustice. Howard writes from a place of contradictions, she’s proud of her Southern identity, but as the queer daughter of a black father and a white mother, she’s well aware of the South’s ugly side. “Who slashed my dad’s tires and put a goat head in the back?” she sings, recounting childhood trauma. The struggle and anguish that Howard works through on this record — with tenderness, intensity and jagged-edged vocals that pierce you with their highs and ground you with their lows — lends depth to lyrics that might otherwise ring as hollow platitudes. “I dedicate my spirit in the service of what is good and fair and righteous every day I am alive,” she tells us, as if reciting a prayer over the pounding funk beat accompanying her on “13th Century Metal.” That’s certainly true here with this gothic-pop gem.
Lizzo — Cuz I Love You
There was no more powerful sound in 2019 than when Lizzo, her voice reaching a fever pitch, cuts through a pregnant pause on the title track of her third studio album, lets out an anguished gasp and belts, “I’m crying cuz I love you.” Comparisons to Aretha Franklin are well deserved. So much whiny ambient music came out this year, as if life in Trump’s America had finally beaten the music world frail. This album is a welcome tribute to love, struggle, perseverance and pride in oneself. It’s also a ton of fun.
Purple Mountains — Purple Mountains
With his first music project since 2008, David Berman returned with an intimate existential meditation that uses pleasantly straight forward indie rock as a vehicle for his poetry. Berman’s lyrics are straight forward too. Scenes of everyday life are coupled with ruminations on heartache. Yet, like the record’s steady rhythm, Berman remains upbeat — exemplified by “Maybe I’m the Only One for Me,” the album’s closer, where he seems to come to terms with his lonesomeness and even draw strength from it. By singing honestly and openly about his own experiences, Berman’s music might help others struggling with depression, even if he took his own life shortly after Purple Mountains’ release. The former Silver Jews frontman went on sabbatical at the end of the last decade, partly out of a sense that nothing he could accomplish would eclipse the work of his father, Richard Berman, a ruthless lobbyist nicknamed Dr. Evil. Not so. “Songs build little rooms in time,” as Berman puts it on this record. Surely the beauty he has created will outlast his father’s destructive deeds.
King Princess — Cheap Queen
With last year’s breakout single “1950,” King Princess has risen to near-icon status for a queer community eager to hear their experiences reflected in song. As her stage name suggests, Mikaela Straus revels in warping and meshing social constructs of sex and gender (she posed for Playboy in October as both a football player and a cheerleader) but her debut album isn’t explicitly a “queer record.” Straus has put out a masterful pop album through which she navigates heartache and the public scrutiny that come with fame, as well as with living openly in a straight, cisgender society. Straus’s queerness is laced through her music but we can all identify with her themes. Heartache is heartache.
Kim Gordon — No Home Record
The audio equivalent of a J.G. Ballard novel. Dark, futuristic and surreal. Gordon’s lyrics are sparse and leave gaps for you to fill in a deeper, often dystopian subtext. The former Sonic Youth frontwoman’s no wave roots are on display as ever. Yet it’s fascinating to listen while, without losing cohesiveness, the album veers through techno, trip-hop and trap territory.
Billie Eilish — When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
Despite the question the title of the 17-year-old’s breakout album poses, Eilish’s voice — wispily alternating between cynicism and coy innocence, delivered too-close-for-comfort, as if she is physically crawling into your brain — will keep you up at night while the record’s pounding bass will keep you dancing. Eilish proudly embraces her inner freak. It can be unsettling. But these are unsettling times and we’ve all got to stay awake and we might as well get freaky.
iLe — Almadura
“Armadura” means armor, but in Puerto Rican-flavored Spanish it can come out “alma dura,” or strong soul. Composed and produced in the wake of Hurricane Maria and released just in time to serve as a soundtrack to the protests that dislodged a corrupt governor from power this summer, iLe puts the full force of her soul on this record and she’s ready for battle, tackling the history of imperialism in her native land and the injustice it has suffered under the Trump administration. The singer appears on the album’s cover mounted on a pale stallion, wearing armor straight from Spanish colonial times, when the Africa-spawned bomba rhythms that infuse this record were banned for fear slaves might use them to drown out the sounds of impending revolt. Blast at full volume.
Priests — The Seduction of Kansas
The D.C.-based rock-and-roll agitators’ second record draws its inspiration from journalist Thomas Frank’s 2004 book What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America to explore the creep of authoritarianism into modern culture. The album tackles the banality of evil with energy and wit. Critical theory has never sounded so fun and loud.
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds — Ghosteen
This album might give those who can recall walking out of Birthday Party performances in the early ’80s with Nick Cave’s blood on them pause as they consider how far the singer-songwriter has traveled from his early days fronting the avant-garde punk outfit to his current incarnation as the crooner of tender ballads. But sadness is the other side of rage. A dark urgency runs through Cave’s 40-year career. With Ghosteen, his first record fully written and recorded since the 2015 death of his teenage son, Arthur, Cave delves into grief with warm synths and bass lines that are both trance-inducing and unsettling. He draws on snippets of memory, poetry and ancient myth to take us from the brink of madness to hope: “I’m just waiting now for peace to come,” he sings in a falsetto as the album draws to a close. In this mad, violent world of ours, Cave invites us to ask ourselves how we might prepare for peace.
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