At the precise halfway point of 2019, The Mic’s editor-in-chief takes a look at the standout releases of the year so far.
10. Fontaines D.C. – Dogrel
A raucous and highly-acclaimed debut from the Dublin upstarts, Fontaines D.C.’s Dogrel is a raw and hard-hitting look at aspiration and adolescence in the context of working-class Ireland. The opening track Big instantly outlines the band’s intentions – “My childhood was small/But I’m gonna be big” whilst album highlight Boys in the Better Land captures the frustration of a humble upbringing with gritty realism – “If you’re a rockstar, pornstar, superstar doesn’t matter what you are/Get yourself a good car, get outta here.” Dogrel is at its best when it allows frontman Grian Chatten to rant and rave about injustice and inequality in his distinctive Irish cadence, and despite its barebones three-piece instrumentation, the debut is a confident mission statement firmly placing Fontaines D.C. as one of the most exciting up-and-coming post-punk bands.
9. Kevin Abstract – ARIZONA BABY
The leader of the ‘world’s biggest boyband’ follows up 2018’s turbulently received but rewarding iridescence with an album which captures Kevin’s sprawling mindset during this transitional period for the band. With sleek yet experimental production mixing jazz samples with moody beats, ARIZONA BABY is littered with highly personal introspective cuts and bass-y anti-bangers. Peach and Georgia make for compelling and sweet guitar-driven tracks which are among some of the most pop-leaning in Abstract’s discography, the former featuring Brockhampton members Joba and Bearface in a dick-tingling outro for ‘hampton fans. The most emotive moments come when Abstract is allowed to reflect on his newfound place in the spotlight with his trademark unorthodox flow – on Corpus Christi he breaks taboo by referencing departed member Ameer Vann, while on American Problem he raps “I was breaking the rules/I was a flaming faggot/That’s what the principal called me/Not to my face but I felt it.”
8. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Bandana
Dropping on the last Friday of June and thus a last-minute addition to this list, the second collaborative album from Indiana rapper Freddie Gibbs and one of the most acclaimed hip-hop production minds of all time, Madlib, is a brooding and complex piece of work. Many of the instrumentals depart from Madlib’s signature jazzy, sample-based production style to create grimy yet intricate backdrops which compliment Gibbs’ hard-hitting lyrical and vocal approach. The feature list here really steals the show – the track Palmolive features Killer Mike and Pusha T, undoubtedly two of the most seminal MCs of this century, the latter dropping the line “Obama opened his doors knowing I was a criminal” as if it was just lying around in his extensive lyrical archives. Even Anderson .Paak brings it beyond his usual customary excellence, delivering an uncharacteristically haunting hook and verse on Giannis, soundtracked by Madlib’s muddy piano riffs. The bold standout rap album 2019 desperately needed, expect Bandana to be higher up this list come the end of the year.
7. Malibu Ken – Malibu Ken
The ultimate hip-hop record for weirdos, the debut collaboration between rap’s Shakespeare Aesop Rock and elusive electronic producer Tobacco is abstract and psychedelic whilst simultaneously down-to-earth, at least in the mind of your everyday sociopath. Featuring a series of inventive and unconventional synthwave-like instrumentals, Malibu Ken is certainly its own self-sufficient entity in the world of contemporary hip-hop. Lead single Acid King is an immersive recount of the satanistic murder of Gary Lauwers by Ricky Kasso in 1984, yet it is accompanied in the tracklist by the humorous but equally eccentric Tuesday which opens with the lyric “There’s something you should probably know before we go too far/My neighbour found a mushroom growing inside of my car” before going on to existentially consider the relationship of nature with the modern human lifestyle. Undoubtedly the most hilarious song of the year so far, Churro explores the welcomed reintroduction of a pair of eagles into Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania which were discovered on an installed webcam livestream to be feasting on a neighbourhood cat. It’s difficult to capture the absurdity of this album with conventional words and sentences, so simply giving it a listen is the best way to explore its glorious idiosyncrasies.
6. Ariana Grande – thank u, next
You can read my full review of it here so I won’t go too deeply into this one but essentially it’s a gloomy yet catchy gaze into the mind of Ariana Grande following the death of ex-boyfriend Mac Miller and the Manchester attack in May 2017. Sometimes shallow and materialistic and sometimes deeply insecure, the emotions expressed throughout this record always feel heavily justified and legitimate, despite its position as the biggest pop album of the year so far. The 12 song tracklist is stacked with bangers, from the insanely catchy NASA to the late-night club anthem bad idea, yet each play a different role in reflecting the tumultuous mentality of the singer. Equally compelling are the low-key cuts which de facto propel Grande beyond merely being a singles artist – the progressively desperate ghostin detailing a relationship crippled by longing for a former partner and a former self. If none of the above do it for you, break up with your girlfriend, i’m boredhas replayability out the wazoo in its understated trap beat and infinitely sticky vocal melody.
5. Denzel Curry – ZUU
Following the release of 2018’s ambitious TA13OO, it would seem to many that the days of Florida rapper Denzel Curry’s aggressive trap banger albums were firmly in the past. That is absolutely not the case on ZUU, yet Curry still produces an album to rival TA1300 whilst expanding on the ideas of his earlier career. This is a Miami rap album which knows exactly what it wants to do: soundtrack every reputable summer party, and it achieves this to the Nth degree. The starting point comes with the beats, which are far more inventive and versatile in comparison with his earlier style. Lead single RICKYfeatures the best steel drums in a rap song since 50 Cent’s P.I.M.P. whilst following track WISH boasts a strangely glitzy synth line which sparkles over Curry’s assured braggadocio – “You might be the n***a that’s gon’ probably wine and dine her/I’ma take her home only using one liners.” Remarkably, the majority of the album’s concise 29-minute length was freestyled, showcasing Curry’s impeccable ear for melody which gives him a snappiness beyond his contemporaries. Closing the album out is the absolutely disgusting P.A.T., a chaotic, moshpit-inducing and downright nasty closer to an album that is impossible to stay still to.
4. Jake Owen – Greetings From…Jake
An album I’ve probably played more than the rest of this top 10 combined, Greetings From is a masterclass in how to make a country pop album in the post-bro country era. Every track could be a single, every hook will stick in your head at some point and every song has a different topical direction. It’s far from the deepest album in this list, in fact it’s likely one of the most shallow, but it’s produced with a pristine concision making it the undisputed soundtrack album for a sunny day. There are so many highlights in the tracklist – the laid-back island groove of Drink All Day, the intimate acoustic naturality of Made For You and the crude no-fucks-given attitude of Damn to name but a few. To top it all off, Señorita is the perfect pop song and would decimate the Shawn Mendes song of the same name if it were released by, say, Justin Bieber. Listeners unaccustomed to pop country will likely cringe on first listen, but it is impossible to dislike this album. It’s just so damn charming.
3. Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride
The long-awaited follow up to 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City, Father of the Bride sees Vampire Weekend at easily their most conventional since their debut, yet it is consistently surprising and innovative. Opting to embrace more western tones than its world music-influenced predecessors, FOTB combines elements of country, folk, 90s post-grunge and electronic music into a versatile and well-crafted pop-rock album. First single Harmony Hall sees frontman Ezra Koenig expertly simplify the current state of political discourse into a beautiful piece of folk-pop – “Anger wants a voice, voices wanna sing/Singers harmonise ‘till they can’t hear anything” whilst the equally conscious Sympathy is a damning indictment of religious geo-politics, charged by Native American-like drums, handclaps and a rampant woodwind outro. The range of topics covered by the album is equally as varied as the instrumental styles, yet the tracks flow into each other with ease. Rich Man subverts the typical ‘successful man is sad despite being wealthy’ narrative as Koenig kicks back and enjoys his privileged place in society to a backdrop of jangly clean guitars and strings, whilst the Haruomi Hosono-sampling 2021discusses the race between heartbreak and longing and the passage of time in the natural world. Its lengthy runtime could do with cutting a couple of tracks, but Father of the Bride is easily Vampire Weekend’s best album, with memorability spread across its 18 diverse tracks.
2. Billie Eilish – WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you have to be familiar with Billie Eilish six months into 2019. Love or hate the oversized clothing and energetic, edgy live performances, WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP will be considered a landmark pop album of the 2010s, and rightly so. It’s hard to believe no-one had truly mastered the minimalist, trap/emo-pop trend until 17 year-old sensation Billie Eilish (and highly influential brother Finneas) came along. bad guy deserves every bit of acclaim it gets – the thudding bass drum accompanied by mesmerising finger snaps is as heavy as it is sparse and that iconic drop has no right to go as hard as it does considering the bouncy keyboard line and the hypnotic, whispery vocal melody which precedes it. But there’s way more to WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP than bad guy – all the good girls go to hell takes more inspiration from 90s west coast hip-hop than it does any pop superstar of the last 10 years and you should see me in a crown features a defiant bridge protesting male entitlement – “You say ‘come over baby,’ I think you’re pretty/I’m okay, I’m not your baby/And if you think I’m pretty, you should see me in a crown.” Deeper into the tracklist, listen before you go balances a breakup with suicidal depression on the point of a pin, making for a near-unsettling listen despite Eilish’s gorgeous vocals and the dreamy pianowork. One could pick any number of these tracks to discuss in detail; they’re so masterfully and intricately crafted, the production as crisp as the morning dew – but it’s really worth a front to back listen with some proper headphones on. Regardless of whether Billie maintains her popularity or fades into obscurity, I have no doubt that her debut album will be considered a pop classic in years to come.
1. Better Oblivion Community Centre – Better Oblivion Community Centre
An enigmatic collaboration between two heralded singer-songwriters, Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers, Better Oblivion Community Centre is an abstract, discreet yet exceptionally human exploration of mental health in the context of an increasingly predictable and monotonous world. Opening track Didn’t Know What I Was in For seems at first to be a light and dreary folk song, but upon more listens reveals scathing social commentary – “My arms are strapped in a straight jacket/So I couldn’t save those TV refugees.” The instrumental pallet of the album is largely charted territory for the singer-songwriters – most of the tracks fall within the folk-rock/country venn diagram, so it’s really the songwriting and lyricism that stands out about Better Oblivion Community Centre. Dylan Thomas and Sleepwalkin’ perfectly play on the age discrepancy between the two songwriters, the former focussing on the mutual desire to escape monotonous life between the unlikely pairing, whilst the latter sees Bridgers gorgeously illustrate the relationship between a dreamer and a grounded individual’s response to the 21st century western world – “You like beer and chocolate/I like setting off those bottle rockets.” The crown jewel is Service Road, perhaps the most personal song of Oberst’s expansive discography, which candidly discusses the passing of his brother Matthew who, in Oberst’s words, ‘basically fucking drank himself to death,’ from the point of view of a distant sibling – “You should really call your brother/Someone put up a photo where he can’t stand.” Bridgers’ voice soars above Oberst as if calling from the heavens, repeatedly asking the question which runs throughout the album – “Who are you?”