Tag Archives: Albums (2019)

The best albums of 2019, September edition

Because this will be my last update until December, I might as well make this list, organized in rough chronological order, count. I’m less likely these days to post fifty- or sixty-entry lists when they flaunt the intensity of listening habits and nothing else.

Still absorbing: Young Thug’s So Much Fun, Megan Thee Stallion’s Fever. Newly absorbed: Dawn Richard’s new breed, a dalliance in trad R&B climaxes as squelchy and recombinant as Blackheart and her 2012 debut. And the year ain’t over yet.

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Fabulizing: Rapsody and Raphael Saadiq

Rapsody – Eve

“I could make a blind man whistle,” she raps on her third consecutive good album. Embodying a body positiveness that turns LL Cool J’s “Big Ole Butt” on its ear, honoring Serena Williams, Myrlie Evers-Williams, and Michelle Obama without reducing them to totems beside which she’ll stand, Rapsody is throwback and of-the-moment. She borrows stresses from Latifah (the Queen appears on “Hatshepsut”) and Lauryn (“Iman”), and she brings out the toughest hence smartest verses of J. Cole’s career (“Sojourner”). She and 9th Wonder manipulate a Phil Collins sample to buttress a sharp the-biz-is-wack putdown. Too long as usual, and occasionally the influences provoke anxiety.

Raphael Saadiq – Jimmy Lee

With gospel choirs signifying uplift and a rhythmic sense as instinctive as the gift of prophecy, this album Raphael Saadiq wrote in memory of his brother Jimmy Lee Baker owes little to contemporaries Erykah Badu or D’Angelo, clients of the former Tony! Toni! Toné frontman. When it works, which is about half the time, it has the feeling of walking into a Gethsemane he’s only just finished planting. Saadiq’s facility impresses and distresses: I believe he believes his agony; I don’t believe his agony. Perhaps there’s a pathos about listening to a musician whose genre hopping is his way of communicating joy now admit to the cruelty of fate (sometimes the joy brushes past me: 2008’s much acclaimed Philly soul and Motown experiment The Way I See It left me unmoved). As usual with this polymath the burrowing into studiocraft encourages the audience to follow him and also works as a hiding place: the use of space and Satie-esque piano chords on “This World is Drunk,” the swollen bass on “So Ready,” the sequencers and solo call-and-response vocals on “My Walk.” And it sounds terrific. That’s the minimum.

In ‘The Center Won’t Hold,’ Sleater-Kinney re-embrace their queerness

Skip to the album’s second half and gasp: a synth bop on a Sleater-Kinney album? After years of extracting lurches, screeches, and divebombings from their guitars, the development feels gauche. On third listen, though, the track’s abrasions turn into charms, Corin Tucker’s iron-lunged vocal a reminder that discomfort has served as Sleater-Kinney’s non-oblique strategy since 1995. The track is One Beat’s “Prisstina,” about a pretty girl into science who inspires pity, admiration, and, after she discovers rock and roll, lust. Continue reading

Thinking and dancing: Bill Callahan, Imperial Teen, Jamila Woods, Brian Eno

I’m catching up with a few albums released in the last seven to eight weeks, a couple of which I pitched to publications and include here for the sake of readers who avoid social media.

Brian Eno – Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks – Extended Edition

Most of us who write have a preferred aural accompaniment. When I Don’t choose silence, I play Brian and Roger Eno and Daniel Lanois’ soundtrack for a documentary about the Apollo flights. This remastered extended edition includes almost an album’s length of new material, most of which is middling. I reviewed it for Pitchfork here.

Imperial Teen – Now We Are Timeless

No act has written so many kids cereal slogans as Imperial Teen. The sugar isn’t artificial, though: no other act has written so many songs about being queer. Defining an identity instead of creating narratives, Imperial Teen inhabit a fictional Billboard Hot 100 top ten. The defensively titled Now We Are Timeless has less verve than its predecessors but is worth a listen.

Bill Callahan – Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest

In five albums released under his own name, The Frog Once Known as Smog has proffered gnostic insights over precisely arranged acoustic backdrops. I haven’t kept up with him since 2011’s Apocalypse. Like many straight men, he relishes marriage as the supreme fiction, an experience for which the spouse exists to trigger its mystic effects on the celebrant. Only his most committed fans will listen to every song, and about a third of this entity we once called a double album evaporates, but set the sequence on “random” and every song will offer a curlicue to remember it by. Callahan’s rueful baritone rubs against the spare percussion and un-heroic arpeggios, energizing them. The aperçus work too: “A circle does what a circle does best” and “True love is not magic/It’s certainty.”

Jamila Woods – LEGACY! LEGACY!

On her second album, the Chicagoan confronts the legacies of James Baldwin, Frida Kahlo, Zora Neale Hurston, Miles Davis and other iconic influences for the sake of a lissome, deceptively light electronic groove drawing on Sly & Robbie electrodub as much as Frankie Knuckles house. Like Erykah Badu, Woods’ thin, high, at times camp tenor adds a bemusement that stems from self-confidence about the material she writes. “There is a clear flight from blackness in a great deal of African American. In some there is an antagonistic duel with blackness. And in other cases, as they say, you’d never know,” the late Toni Morrison wrote. On “Baldwin,” “Eartha,” and “Sonia,” this duel between the synthetic and acoustic elements produces a similar antagonism; the results never stop provoking thought or getting me to move.

Adapting: DaBaby, Lil Nas X, Madonna

DaBaby – Baby on Baby

He’s confident about selling the louche like the star he wants to be; he’s so conscious about how he’ll play on social media that on “Tupac” (of course) he follows “my bitch like Jada Pinkett” with the hastily delivered “I’m the fresh prince of my city/shout out Will/no point intended.” Thanks to the unexpected sucess of “Suge,” one of the year’s best singles, his boasting isn’t pointless. Over a rattling beat “Walker Texas Ranger” finds the Charlotte native as frantic as Goodfellas’ Henry Hill the day before he gets pinched: buying a cake for his year-old daughter, flying out to Cali to meet label heads and visit his cousin Dosh in prison. Time: 2:31. That’s the charm of DaBaby’s debut: his ideas can’t sustain themselves for more than a couple minutes at a time, but he and his beatmakers make sure those ideas are tough and gnarly.

Lil Nas X – 7 EP

He’s a phenomenon with or without Billy Ray Cyrus, with “Old Dirt Road” beloved by university writing centers, kindergarten teachers, and hip grandmas at Father’s Day lunches. On the evidence of this hastily assembled EP, Lil Nas X likes guitars. At times the gratuitous raunch over beats (“Bring U Down”) reminds me of Tricky’s efforts on 1999’s Juxtapose. Blink-182’s Travis Barker even produces “F9mily (You and Me).” “It’s my time to be free,” he quavers on the piano-anchored “C7osure (You Like).” For all the talk about ceding a credit to the Kurt Cobain estate on “Panini,” I wish the results matched the title and the insouciance with which he admitted he discovered Nirvana as album sleeve and T-shirt icons (I don’t hear any but the most basic resemblance to “In Bloom,” but I’m not the one who might get sued). Like everyone in the biz this year, wannabes included, he recruits Cardi for a vivid cameo.

Madonna – Madame X

When this bundle-assisted leader tumbles from its #1 perch, fans will still remember it as her oddest album in twenty years. Two weeks after spending more time kneeling before it than a Cistercian monk at his ablutions, Madame X still sounds wack-ass and often maladroit, committed to this icon’s eccentric ideas about gun culture, Trumpism, and sex. My review for City Pages.