A slightly late post, here’s my favorite ten albums of the year!
BBHF — Mirror Mirror/Family
Formerly known as Bird Bear Hare and Fish (and known as Galileo Galilei, prior to that), BBHF used their two releases of the year to explore two different approaches to music-making; with Mirror Mirror offering listeners more mellow, sleek, synth-driven sounds, while Family sees the group return to the trademark rock sound every iteration of the group has come to be known for. As if meant to be flipsides to each other, both EPs showcase a group versatile enough to easily go from melodies they’re comfortable with to numbers with newfound energy to them, all while never compromising their rich emotional performance. Though not necessarily released with the intention of contrasting two musical landscapes, both Mirror Mirror and Family work greatly as displays of the groups really cohesive musical identity, and as a testament of the musical synergy the group mastered since their Galileo days. Don’t fix it if it’s not broken had never felt more fitting when describing a group.
Jenny Hval — The Practice of Love
Masked under a ‘90s-tinted trance that invests the album in what, in the words of the artist, could be described as “an almost deceptive ease”, The Practice of Love was conceived with the idea of exploring love as a place, rather than as a feeling. This place is complex, and not always sweet, as shown in the lyrics delivered by the singer (and her many guests) that deal with feelings of magnified intimacy, losing your place in a world full of love that seems to overlook you, and even a confessional sense of longing that manages to survive past heartbreaks; with love being portrayed under such nuanced tones, every moment in the album manages to convey a clear message, its 38-minute length feeling like each second serves a clear purpose within Hval’s concept. Despite fundamentally being an electronic release, the album’s approach to synths never reaches danceable levels, opting instead for an avant-garde, contemplative sound that creates a guiding sense of gentleness that will accompany listeners throughout the entire listen. Underneath its lush exterior, The Practice of Love hides a cerebral listen whose real strengths come from its quality as a poetic exercise in removing one’s own masks, and in learning how to take back the things that have been burned down by the commonplace that is love.
Madeon — Good Faith
Before the release of Good Faith, my relationship with Madeon’s output was, at best, superficial, being most familiar with his remixes and collaborations, and with the fact that he is a well-known presence in the EDM scene. His sophomore effort, Released after a break from touring, sees the French DJ making an active effort in incorporating his personal journey into his music. Curiously enough, this is achieved by taking a more, mature and slightly subdued approach to pop-anthem making, with vocals presents but often being pushed to the backseat of a slew of colorful, electronic compositions that create a candid and atmospheric listen that easily alternates between manic instrumental hooks and big, soaring moments that make the record trade-off the usually sleekness associated to EDM for a more grounded, even if occasionally slightly out of world, experience. Turning personal experiences into music is far from an uncommon practice, but Madeon’s approach to it resulted in a vivid collection of tracks that, without ever compromising their massive, feel-good approach, manage to carry an intimate sense of warmth to them.
Slayyyter — Slayyyter*
As a genre, one of pop’s most defining strengths comes from the ability to revive past sounds and trends. Slayyyter’s debut mixtape is no stranger to this idea, but her approach to it has a slightly unique twist to it: instead of incorporating more glorified sounds and influences from past eras, the pop singer took it upon herself to bring back the early 2000s aesthetic in the raunchiest of ways. Backed by producers like That Kid, Ms. Cheeseburger, and the ever crass Ayesha Erotica, the self-titled release flirts between saccharine and vapid pop numbers like Mine or Touch My Body and more aggressive, and obviously Britney-indebted, club tracks like Candy. All of this translates into fourteen tracks that feel both like a love letter to the TMZ era of celebrity scandals and like they could take you from an inane chick flick to a shady party you really didn’t want to be at, but with music you still really enjoy. Equal parts glossy and trashy, Slayyyter’s commitment to celebrating a far too soon gone era of pop culture translates into a release that not only is incredibly fun, but that also irradiates an understanding of what exactly makes it so fun in the first place.
*This review was written before Slayyyter’s racist tweets, which greatly diminished my interest in supporting her, were uncovered. While I think she owes it to the black community to do more than just post an apology tweet I also found it a bit dishonest to not have an album I listened to nonstop since its release on this list (also I had no time to come up with a replacement review so, yeah).
Shiina Ringo — Sandokushi
Part solo effort, part duet album, Sandokushi has Ringo perform a series of numbers that seamlessly drift between the extremes of jazz and rock, while also interesting new flavors to the rich melodic style that became a trademark of hers along the decade. Opening with drone-like chants that gradually flourish into an intricate electro-orchestra number, the record gracefully conjures genres like bossanova, honky tonk, and even visual-kei, into a listen that alternates between the grandiloquence expected of Ringo’s performance, to more minimalist, entrapping moments. Be it because of the new things added to the mix, or because the constant presence of collaborators, there is an everpresent strangeness to this album, with every track showcasing not only a penchant for sneaking little details into what are already rich compositions but also different sides of Ringo’s vocal performance, which feels notably more versatile when comparing each duet in the record to each other. While this is undoubtedly a Shiina Ringo record, the new flavors in it seem to hint a playful desire to push into limits beyond the elegance that has now become inherent to her music, something that could bear interesting results were she to push it further.
The culmination point of years of planning and tying together different concepts (both visual and musical) Sandokushi showcases a Shiina Ringo who openly embraces more global sounds and influences, all while meticulously revisiting some of the key aspects of her career.
(As a sidenote, Ringo also dropped a compilation of some of her greatest career highlights this year, a release that not only has the usual merits of a compilation (working as an introduction point to the artist and serving as a chronological revision of their career), but it also includes her song The Sun&moon, which enlists the help of Utada Hikaru and is undoubtedly one of the most stunning releases of the year.)
Friendly Fires — Inflorescent
For their first album in eight years, Friendly Fires decided to fully commit to the dance sound that made up half of their previous releases’ musical identity, thus turning this record into a collection of lush, tropical-inspired electro bangers that would perfectly fit in any summer party. In what is probably the product of some conscious effort (that can occasionally invest the album of an artificial, still-life quality), Inflorescent turns lyrics about changing plans, missed romantic opportunities, and feelings that eventually fade into dancing into lush tracks often led by relaxed synth hooks and carefully placed guitars. There’s a slight irony to the idea of coming back from such a long break with an album that is essentially the musical equivalent of a luxurious beach vacation, but this album’s newfound life makes is clear the band’s time off the studio was for the better. More than a return to form, Inflorescent sees the UK-based trio finally embrace their musical strengths to their fullest.
Dempagumi.inc — Wareware Wa Dempagumi.inc Da
Released on the very first day of the year, Ware Ware wa Dempagumi.inc da marks the end of an era for the group, with it being the final release featuring longtime member Nemu Yumemi. Built around the concept of an intergalactic journey gone slightly off, the album intertwines the group’s usual themes -such as giving your all despite hardships, making the most of summer (even if the heat gets unbearable), and learning to treasure momentary happiness- with a playful sense of alien wonder around human emotions, with lyrics presenting the group as brings who struggle to understand what exactly is what causes people to experience particular emotions. Musically, this is presented via a collection of songs that go from their usual hyper-energetic take on electro-pop to more organic melodies, often reminiscent of amusement parks. This musical back and forth, however, seems to have the intent of solidifying the album’s concept, with center tracks FD3, DEMPA ROCKET GO!! and Moonlight Densetsu (yes, the Moonlight Densetsu) working as examples of the way Dempagumi can take the same idea -in this case, emotion-tinted space adventures- to completely extreme opposites. A fun effort by a Dempagumi.inc that had some issues gelling together, this album finds a -maybe a bit too- comfortable middle ground between their by now trademark hyper sound, and more organic, live band-friendly numbers. Despite this, the album’s commitment to its space journey concept manages to not only invest the listen with an extra layer of cohesion but it also leaves listeners, especially fans of the group, with a neat teaser of a future that still holds endless possibilities.
Caroline Polachek — Pang
Enveloped in a sense of mysticism and refinement, Caroline Polachek’s first album under her full name is the product of a careful exercise in combining experimental and classical sensibilities, all while ensuring she was the entity the music focuses on. Placing her voice at the center of things, the album’s new-age, borderline ambient arrangements develop into a sequential listen that earns its sense of corporeity thanks to Caroline’s rich vocal performance, which easily go from her melismatic delivery of verses to stylized, heavily autotuned riffs. The record’s sequential nature is taken up a notch thanks to the presence of Caroline the songwriter, whose heartfelt lyrics (often about the most mundane, intimate realizations) carry an impeccable sense of grandiloquence to them. The triumphant closure to a cycle of group activities, as well as more experimental releases under pseudonyms, Pang is an exciting endeavor that sees the artist expose bits of her own heart, all while developing a unique sound that allows her to turn her own emotions and experiences into beautiful musical vignettes. Fitting to its title, this release often feels like a sharp spasm of new life, one that makes Caroline’s future as solo artist one to look forward to.
Philosophy no Dance — Excelsior
Notorious for their penchant for bringing together philosophical concepts and retro-inspired numbers, Dance for Philosophy took things up a notch with their third album. Compiling together three brand-new songs and nine, previously released, digital singles, Excelsior can be partially described as a great exercise in planning ahead, with absolutely everything on it conveying a great sense of sequentiality that makes the listen absolutely fresh from start to finish, no matter how much the concept of a particular track might borrow from a past era. In addition to this, the level of attention to detail put into every single one of these tracks ensures listeners will find something unique on each of them: whether it is the synths on Free Your Festa, the combination of keys and bass in Pharresia, or the slightly daunting R&B crescendos in Heuristic City, each of the songs included on this release skillfully showcase different aspects of the different genres DFP built their musical identity from.
From their very beginning, Philosophy no Dance have positioned themselves as one of the most musically committed groups in the active idol scene, delivering releases that seem to do nothing but push both their unique retro charm, and the general quality of their music, upwards. Much fitting to its title, Excelsior takes this standard to a new level of quality, delivering an album that radiates a sophisticated charm product of the way its impeccable production brings together rich vocal performances and smooth tunes, making it both the best idol album of the year and their best release to date.
Carly Rae Jepsen — Dedicated
Carly Rae Jepsen’s first full-length release in 4 years faced the pressure of being compared to the much-beloved E•MO•TION (much like this album was once inevitably compared to Call Me Maybe), a comparison Jepsen she, in my opinion, managed to navigate through by honing in her musical strengths into a listen that trades some of the sweet infectiousness from her previous record in order to add new levels of refinement into her songwriting. From the moment the hyper-polished Julien starts playing, it is clear the singer hasn’t turned away from the synths that define her more recent output, but she has given them room to breathe by integrating more organic elements, such as the percussions in For Sure, into the mix. Alternating between ’80s reminiscent numbers and more modern-sounding cuts, the album seems to be driven by the idea of having the best time possible. This fun, lighthearted sound, however, is faced with lyrics that reflect on Carly’s fixation with love, which often makes the singer the subject of sudden pangs of vulnerability. Fundamentally a record about love (both for herself and for her idealized romantic interests), one of Dedicated’s main strengths comes from the way the Canadian songwriter now is able to turn her lyrics into both an exercise in self-commentary and a healing device to her followers, something that invests this release in a human sense of self-assurance that adds an extra layer of humanity to the glossy and lively sound of the album.
A more streamlined effort than its critically acclaimed predecessor, Dedicated feels like Carly’s attempt at turning her take on stylized, dancefloor-ready songwriting the defining trait of her musical identity. All these factors made me grow more and more attached to it with every listen, with the album eventually becoming my favorite, and most listened to, release of 2019.