2019 Albums of the Year; 20–11.
20. Nivhek — After its own death / Walking in a spiral towards the house
This record feels like sitting through a religious gathering, a mass in a cathedral made of crystal and glass and gauze and dried branches. It goes on for startling long periods of time wherein you’ll hear instruments and voices and voices as instruments. You’ll be locked in conversation with your own thoughts for points in time that feel stretched out infinitely, examining and calculating singular instances. You’ll focus. This is like one stripped down step away from Sigur Ros, eliminating the choral vocals that guide the stream of consciousness to an outer place that shimmers in the color of Aurora Borealis and instead lines a dim fire with bells and runes, a minimal sonic environment that disassembles you.
19. American Football — LP3
Another band locked into a state of Legacy by their debut LP. American Football’s second record proved that their initial release wasn’t simply a fluke. The musical chemistry represented by Kinsella and Co. is a marvel to behold, one which feels like watching a troupe of acrobats work in tandem with one another without skipping a beat or having a misstep. Guitar notes collide and ricochet like fireworks, forming controlled and beautiful blossoms amidst explosions. Back to back, some of the cameos by Hayley Williams and Elizabeth Powell add a sweet nectar of voice to Mike’s already glossy and effortless contribution. Lyrically, this record pummels you with self reflection and the observations that we are accountable for so many of the faults and failures that we experience. It goes a step further, constantly acknowledging the burden that he has been on family and friends around him. With age, the music has become less chaotic and more siphoned, a clear vision of the way that we have let others down. This doesn’t ask for forgiveness but instead reaches out and wants someone to know that HE knows: “Hey, this was my fault. And I deserve nothing in return.”
Check Out: Every Wave to Ever Rise
18. Year of the Knife — Ultimate Aggression
I love how this record begins with simply the letters of the band name and some counting. Then pure, frenzied breakdowns. Such utilitarian, pristine commitment to the craft. This record gives me the same feeling I have while watching skate or bmx videos. I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but I know it’s either going to feel cool or feel painful. They have unironic parts that precede breakdowns, those “chuggy-chug-chuggy-chug”s that exist in desolate space that make you say “oh, SHIT” because you know things are about to go absolutely mental. This record might take home the award for Most Accurate Album Title of the Year. Some brilliant riff odes to all time greats. I believe Dimebag would be proud of so much of the work present here.
Check Out: Blue Lies
17. Hikes — Mahal Kita
Meditations Via Noodling Guitars
The moment I first heard Extra Mile, the second track on this record, I instantly knew it was going to be a special one. The way the singer’s voice rested right on that brink of a feminine bloom and a higher register male vocale hit me square in the Favorites portion of my brain. And the guitars, boy. The spiderwebbing and basket weaving of the notes as they dashed in and out of lively tree trunks in a forest clearing is spritely and beautiful. Big and boisterous and round but pulling back enough to have pinpoint precision. There is a personal eye-contact intimacy here, like shared secrets. I found throughout the album that there feels an almost traditional asian influence in the way some of the dancing notes play with each other. I think they somehow found a way to extract the sound of dreams with that little bent note they use on Aurora as well.
Check Out: Aurora
16. Seizures — Reverie of the Revolving Diamond
Hardcore With a Heart of Jazz
When I first heard this album, I couldn’t find a rung on which to climb the ladder of its process. But the more I thought back on what this album contained, I adored it. It conceptually was exactly what I want albums of this level of aggression to be. It never stops spinning and moving, and most importantly evolving. The timings are all over the place, the songs are arranged like ransom note clippings. And jesus, do they attack. The frames that they arrange are absolutely beautiful and show meticulous attention to detail of the heart. Conversely, the elements of aggression show the same orientation to nuance and refinement, but they are air tight fists and gnashing teeth. There is a level of genuine fury here that stings, that repels. In a genre that often relies on the gradual build up (and the quality and success of this portion) of and the payoff thereafter (and the quality and result of this portion), this record takes a little bit more of a “shut up and listen” approach, not always paying off in direct and climactic reward, but grand scale gratification.
Check Out: In a Valley of Twilit Meres
15. Billie Eilish — When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
Dark ASMR Pop
Billie Eilish was a character in all of our lives this year. Whether it was advertising Bose headphones on our IG feed, hearing “Bad Guy” on the radio, or just wondering “who is this dead-eyed young woman on our pop star television program?”, she was in front of you. All year. And what’s more, her album is actually very good. I don’t know if I ever landed on anything from it that I loved, but the sound from front to back is fantastic. Something new and different and while there are hooks and well-written songs, they still ride along in the back of your mind without throwing themselves in your face like a product. They’re an environment all their own. Her love of pixelated post-production adds a genre all of its own to the songs. I think that’s the one thing that brings it all together for me. The sound on this record makes you feel like you are directly inside her mind, her thoughts revving through a neon black highway with TRON-esque street lamps popping up on the horizon every few miles or so. There is that visceral deep pulse that used to be found so interesting back when dubstep was exploding, but it’s used in a much more interesting fashion. Far more restraint, used with a lot more of a special feeling. There are a lot of moments in this record where she backs off from the sensual assault and stands back, emerges from a liquid spotlight and takes on the same kind of psychic drilling that Fiona Apple is capable of, singing directly to your cortex.
Check Out: Xanny
14. Earth — Full Upon Her Burning Lips
Desert Wandering and a Guitar
The first record I heard from Dylan Carlson and Earth was The Bees Made Honey In the Lion’s Skull, and it set an impeccable standard that few records I’ve come across can match. It was evil in ritualistic ways, coiled in upon itself like the ripe painful heart of Man. It felt sinful like an artifact discovered in a terrible ruin. And from this rosetta stone of an album, I followed the band hungrily, waiting for the black portal to open up and pour forth wretchedness again and again. It was never particularly clear why I found a blackness here. It wasn’t demonic like metal or hellish music. Instead it had the kind of creeping terror that the homeless men asking for a light in Twin Peaks had. It had the haunting menace of Daniel Plainview. The record is primarily guitar sound carried heavily and longingly across lengthy notes and breathy rests, internal thoughts bared over studio sessions. In their stripped down state, they speak directly to you, telegraphs sent in radio silence. This is poetry in full amber notes played one at a time on gilded guitar strings. There are moments during Descending Belladonna where I honestly think I suspend all organic perspective and witness Creation. And that’s really what Earth and their entire catalog has been about for me: stretching out time to its thinnest point and seeing across it to a hundred different points outside of the exoskeleton. If music doesn’t always have to be entertainment and joy, if music can instead represent the liquid sentience of thought for you, this record needs to be in your collection.
Check Out: Descending Belladonna
13. Mannequin Pussy — Patience
Shut Up and Listen
I had this record lined up back to back with The Get Up Kids new record, and while I don’t think it sounds even remotely identical, there are some similarities in the way the songs come together. They’re fast, they’re crisp, and they have a little tinge of that same DIY style, but produced and tweaked to a more professional sheen. The similarities end there, though. There oscillates waves of both beauty and aggression that border on both the frenzy of Gouge Away and the fuzz of Silversun Pickups. This is an incredibly raw record that bares itself over and over and over again, not begging your pity but demanding your attention and once it has you engaged, it makes you want to put the energy into your heart, your mind, your spirit and charge forward and help that which needs to grow to thrive, and that which needs to be eradicated to be vanquished. It’s stunning that there is such a weaponized fury here in a subdued and tranquil space, strobing back and forth between enormous highs and visceral lows. The record ends with a long pulse of solitary thought, one which ties the entire bouquet of rage and introspect to culminate together into a woven singularity, one which allows you to take inventory of all you’ve heard and cover yourself in it, to examine it and reflect on how it’s not only this band’s journey, but your own as well. When stripped down, this is such a deeply personal record. Impossible to miss.
Check Out: Fear/+/Desire
12. As Cities Burn — Scream Through the Walls
This band deconstructed themselves over the course of their career, demonstrating one of the premier and all-time great records within the aggressive music stratosphere with their debut record, and slowly removing parts (and some of the magic with it) with each successive record. The fact that this record exists at all is a blessing. Coming back after ten years and having a strong representation on the bluesy influenced guitars, the squealing amplifiers, the dual voiced fraternity… it felt like a proper reunion. The raw anger was gone, and in its place was growth. Where there were fiery wounds, there are now skin colored callouses that boast a steely constitution. I’m thankful that this record has revealed itself as more than just a month of “cool parts” written over months between Real Life responsibilities, simply to rekindle the flame of what it was like to be in a band again. Songs like ‘2020AD’, ‘Chains’ and ‘Hollowed Out’ feel urgent and written under the power of the art’s own legs, not some hobbyist’s persevered result. There’s a strange existence of this band, one which is littered with breakups and reunions and final shows, and I think if this is their last effort, it feels right that the brothers are on the final record together, neither of them existing in the spotlight, both of them finally having their talent framed openly and equally. And if Die Contrary is the last song you’ll hear from these guys, boy, what a parting gift. Truly the amalgam of all of their previous work in one four and a half minute track.
Check Out: Die Contrary
11. Theories — Vessel
My first listen to this record was during a walk through a bunch of stores, surrounded by Average American Consumers. I had headphones on and no one could hear the frenzy that was going on in my ears and some of my reactions probably had them thinking that I was listening to the sounds of stars expanding to the point of explosion. Shock and awe and bracing for impact. Boiling water fast double bass. Fingers around your throat, spittle in your face roaring vocals. Falling into a fuming chasm, full speed, no hope of catching or slowing. I was contorting my face into shapes both in both fear and adoration. There are some parts of this record that feel absolutely punishing, coming through your headphones completely ready to disintegrate you. I can’t imagine what a live show from these guys must be like. It’s probably strobe lights and dodging limbs at the speed of a wood chipper while the sound of a magnified freeway holds you down for an interrogation. I mean, the song ‘Hospital Hangover’ threatened my life no less than three times. The drummer on this record is absolutely filthy.
Check Out: Undertow