Friday, July 24, 2020

McQ's Best Of 2019 Vol 2 - Best Albums Left

With Nancy going so expansive with her 2019 selections, and because she and I had so much overlap this year with our personal favorites, I tweaked my traditional Best Of The Best approach this year to focus exclusively on standout 2019 albums Nancy left out.

But unfortunately, as I alluded to in the preamble to the write-up for Nancy's mix, the cream of 2019's album crop skewed really dark - dominated by real-world themes of fractured relationships, grief, racism, suicide, and physical abuse. 

So this is far from the most light-hearted or energetic of our annual Best Of The Best mixes I've thrown at you over the years, but I do feel that with the exception of those albums Nancy highlighted and a small sexset of albums that felt better served residing exclusively on our upcoming genre-specific mixes - Thee Oh Sees epic, psych-rock as jazz Face StabberBlack Midi's promising noise-a-thon debut SchlagenheimRapheal Saadiq's soulful exploration of  his brother's tragic life Jimmy LeeHelado Negro's warm and gentle Latin/electronica fusion This Is You SmileSleaford Mod's latest rap-rant Eton Alive, and former Beta Band frontman Steve Mason's eclectic solo outing About The Light - all of 2019's other best albums are represented here. 

So gird yourself for a rewarding, but at times very heavy, listen.  Here's the Spotify link.

About The Songs/Albums/Artists on this mix:

1. FAITHFUL SERVANT FRIEND OF CHRIST - Lingua Ignota: We open, fittingly enough in this COVID summer of 2020, with a desperate prayer to St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes, sung by a surging chorus of the once truly devout.  Let's hope St. Jude is more responsive to our pleas than he is to those of the brutalized female protagonists in Rhode Islander Lingua Ignota's (aka Kristen Hayter) overwhelming exploration of the trauma of physical abuse CALIGULA (Strong Recommend, McQ's #4 album of 2019).  A no-holds-barred, "de-phallisized" goth-metal revenge fantasy for female survivors from a two-time survivor of domestic abuse herself, Hayter draws upon all her horrific experiences, all her anger and depression, and all her skill as a classically trained musician and opera-caliber vocalist, as well as past century historic atrocities like the Salem witch trials, to call to account all those who allow such suffering to continue to exist, from perpetrating men, to the enabling, male-centered tenets of the Judeo/Christian religions, to even God him/her/itself. Loaded with spine-chilling primal screams, dark, dense string arrangements that sound nothing like metal but feel exactly like metal, and lyrics that mirror the gaslighting, demoralizing arguments abusers use to hold their subjects in check (when not espousing a violent end for those abusers), this is no album for the easily disturbed or offended, without question the toughest listen of 2019. But as an unrelenting, emotionally honest experiential presentation of the pain, rage and enduring despair male violence against women propagates, CALIGULA may have no equal in recorded music.

2. That's Just The Way That I Feel - Purple Mountains: Lightening things up musically, but in no way contextually, we turn next to McQ's #1 album of 2019, Silver Jews' frontman David Berman's musical return after a decade-long societal drop out Purple Mountains (Highest Recommend). An immediate critical darling, reviewers, disarmed by the album's abundant self-deprecating humor and rich, warm musical tones (all provided by indie-outfit Woods) fell over themselves praising the album, suggesting it as proof that Bermen, a life-long battler of depression, had finally gotten control of his demons. In hindsight, they couldn't have been more wrong. Purple Mountain's warmth and sense of calm wasn't fueled by triumph, but a peaceful acceptance of defeat. Less than a month after the album's release, Bermen was dead by his own hands. Purple Mountains the album was, quite literally, his suicide note. And yet, as awful as sounds, and as sad as some of the lyrics do hit (All My Happiness Is Gone's opening line of "Friends are warmer than gold when your old / But keeping them is harder than you might suppose" gets me every time.), there wasn't a more vibrantly alive and human album released in 2019, from one of those well-intentioned but awkward misfits who no longer felt pressure to be anything but completely honest, and wanted to set the record straight with his fans and loved ones before he passed.  The album contains "it wasn't your fault" mea culpa's for his beloved mother (I Loved Being My Mother's Son) and estranged but still cherished wife (She's Making Friends, I'm Turning Stranger), ruminations on what lay at the heart of his malaise, be it the utter lack of meaning (Margaritas At The Mall) or the way artificial societal and personal narratives have warped our appreciation of everything (Storyline Fever), and a few reassurances that it wasn't all pain and heartbreak for him along the way (Snow Is Falling In Manhattan). But starting things off here and on the album is That's Just The Way I Feel, Berman let's us know, in his so humorous fashion, just how he wasted those ten years he disappeared. 

3. Cellophane - FKA Twigs:  Raised Catholic, British multi-media sensation FKA Twigs finds deep parallels between a present-day society that would have her significance and life diminished in the same way Mary Magdalene's (likely historical Jesus's wife) significance has been altered and denigrated in biblical rewrites over the centuries by male-led churches in MAGDALENE (Strong Recommend, McQ's #8 Album of 2019). Those parallel's peak painfully on album closer Cellophane, Pitchfork's top song of 2019.  Hounded unrelentingly by racist British tabloids and Twilight fanboys who couldn't stand to see their white-knight, vampire-in-chief actor Robert Pattinson head-over-heels in love with a multi-racial provocateur, Cellophane perfectly captures the desperate devastation that comes from trying to please those who will never be satisfied with who or what you are, no matter how hard you strive to gain their acceptance. 

4. Boys In A Better Land - Fontaines D. C.: My favorite song from my favorite rock album of 2019, Fontaines D.C.'s tuneless but literate, Dublin-cherishing punk debut Dogrel (Strong Recommend, McQ's #3 album of 2019). Love the timeless motorik groove to this one. 

5. Offence - Little Simz: My favorite hip hop track of 2019 from my favorite hip hop album of 2019, versatile Brit grimer and Jay-Z protege Little Simz's GREY Area (Strong Recommend, McQ's #11 album of 2019).  Alternating between smooth, feminine R&B like Selfish, and swaggering hip hop tracks like Boss, Therapy, and Offense (best couplet - I'm Jay-Z on a bad day / Shakespeare on my worst days) anchored to cool as f*** left field minimalist beats, GREY Area is one of rap's few potent front-to-back listens in a somewhat lean year for pop culture's dominant genre. 

6. Bright Horses - Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds: Bright Horses isn't the best song on Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds' Ghosteen (that would be the album's emotionally crushing fourteen minute closer Hollywood, McQ's #1 song of 2019), nor is it the coolest (that being Leviathan), but as a song that perfectly encapsulates the style and theme of the album as a whole, there is no better track. Still reeling over the accidental death of his fifteen-year-old son in 2015, Cave is no longer the broken man of 2016's Skeleton Tree, but now a soul struggling to make sense of life in the aftermath and move beyond the numbing, lingering fog of grief. And central to the album's narrative thesis is the very human tendency to drift into fantasties as a means to push through such emotionally difficult times, even though one knows on a rational level it's all nonsense. Here, on Bright Horses, Cave wrestles with that dichotomy, seeing metaphoric signs of his deceased son everywhere he looks, only to call bullshit on his hopeful wanderings moments later, only to fall back into wishful fantasy once again.  And lingering in the background, ready to wash forward at a moment's notice, is the album's secret weapon, its astonishing backing vocals, which crest and fall in uncontrollable fashion just like the waves of grief and spirits reaching out they are meant to emulate. There's no question Ghosteen (Highest Recommend, McQ's #2 album of 2019) is a downer, but it's also beautiful, poetic, and unflinchingly honest, and there wasn't a more note-for-note artful, purposeful, and skillfully executed album in 2019

7. Dexter & Sinister - Elbow: Elbow's been better before (in the case of peak aught's titles like Leaders Of The Free World, The Seldom Seen Kid, and Build A Rocket, Boys, significantly better), but as far as warm, arty, old school Brit-rock goes, with subtly inventive tunes like My Trouble, Empires, The Delayed 3:15, White Noise White HeatOn Deronda Road, and knotty, shifting prog-opener Dexter & Sinister profiled here, the enduring Manchester outfit's eighth studio release Giants Of All Sizes (Solid Recommend, McQ's # 26 album of 2019) still wins the best in category award for 2019. 

8. No Halo - Kevin Morby: Even though the record falls of a quality cliff on its back end, the first third of former Woods bassist Kevin Morby's fifth solo outing Oh My God (Solid Recommend), a clever merging of Dylan gospel phase and Lou Reed Walk On The Wild Side aesthetics, is so engaging I'm including a representative track on our best albums left mix nonetheless.

9. Open Desert - Big Thief: If Two Hand's Not was Big Thief's best song of the year, the subtle, sophisticated U.F.O.F. (Strong Recommend, McQ's #7 album of 2019) was definitely their best album of the year. Almost unassuming at first with its delicate, whispery textures, repeated listens will reveal U.F.O.F. to be an album of ceaselessly inventive and often remarkable instrumental intricacy. One of the best records of 2019, and almost certainly the best headphone listen. 

10. Gat Damn - Freddie Gibbs & Madlib: Arguably the year's best gangster-leaning hip hop effort, Bandana (Solid Recommend, McQ's #24 album of 2019) is the second collaboration between MC Freddie Gibbs and in-demand beat-producer Madlib, following 2014's well-received PiƱata. In truth, it was a collaboration that wasn't meant to happen.  Madlib originally created this batch of beats for Kanye West, but upon hearing them, West rejected all but one.  So Madlib got back in touch with his old partner, who has asserted repeatedly he can rap over anything, did just that over the remaining beats, and the rest, as they say, is history.  

11. 747 - Bill Callahan: As a counter to all the darkness on this mix, I give you what may be the warmest album of the year, singer-songwriter and former Smog-frontman Bill Callahan's sixth solo release Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest (Solid Recommend, McQ's #19 album of 2019). Starkly spare and quiet, Shepherd finds Callahan gently ruminating on all that has happened over the past two years in his life (marriage, the birth of his first son, the death of his mother), with a strong, reflective, positive acceptance of the circle of life suggested by the album's title.

12. Drunk II - Mannequin Pussy:  One of the best punk releases of 2019, Philadelphia-based Mannequin Pussy's third full-length Patience (Solid Recommend) is most notable for how much more balanced it is in pace and feel compared to the act's earlier, far more assaultive efforts. Here, moments of relative restraint, even quiet, are given as much attention as the band's trademark in-your-face ragers, resulting in the most dynamic record of the their career, highlighted by the fantastic, almost shoegazey Drunk II included here. 

13. Choose Go! - Chai: The most upbeat and infectious release of 2019, all-female J-Pop outfit Chai's sophomore outing Punk (enthusiastic Solid Recommend, McQ's #16 album of 2019) is a thirty-minute sugar rush of good vibes. I mean how could an album featuring songs with titles like Great Job, Curly Adventure, Wintime, Fashionista, and I'm Me be anything else. But amongst all of Punk's sunny Mario-Cart poptimism, nothing tops the joyous vibrancy of its opener Choose Go!, which represents the album here.

14. Green & Blue - The Murder Capital: The second best punk/post-punk album of 2019, Dubliners The Murder Capital's debut When I Have Fears (Strong Recommend, McQ's #13 album of 2019) is - big surprise here - a dark, heavy, depressing listen, with the entire album dedicated to the emotional aftermath of a dear friend's suicide.  Alternating between passages of raging anger and muted despondency, and deeply indebted to the sonic stylings of Joy Division and pre-War U2, When I Have Fears tackles its subject matter with fearless aplomb, and its icy guitars thrill throughout.  As representative track here, we're going with the album's emotional centerpiece, Green & Blue with its impactful midpoint breakdown where lead singer James McGovern calls out to his deceased friend repeatedly - "I felt you!"

15. BASQUIAT - Jamila Woods: Born out of a teaching exercise in which Chicago poet, activist, and singer/songwriter Jamila Woods instructed her Young Chicago Authors students to find a poem that spoke to them, rework it to incorporate an element of personal history or reflection, and then cover it musically, LEGACY! LEGACY! (enthusiastic Solid Recommend, McQ's #22 in 2019) is the end result of Woods and her frequent Chicago collaborator (rappers Saba & Nico Segal and producer/DJ Slot-A) taking on that exercise themselves. With each song named after and partially about a prominent artist or activist of color, LEGACY! LEGACY! is a thoughtful, eclectic R&B/hip hop amalgam that uses these great's accomplishments and/or point of view as a launching point for a many-angled, contemporary exploration of race and identity, but always (even when yelling "Shut up mothers*****, I don't take requests" as on MILES) with a gentle touch. Ironically though, on an album where the majority of songs are dedicated to female icons, it's the few songs dedicated to male influencers - MUDDY, MILES, GIOVANNIBALDWIN, and our representative selection BASQUIAT here - that provide the record's biggest highlights. 

16. Movies - Weyes Blood: One 2019's best reviewed records (#6 in's year-end aggregate and McQ's #12 album), Portland singer-songwriter Natalie Laura Mering's fourth outing under her Weyes Blood moniker Titanic Rising(Strong Recommend) plays like the great lost Joni Mitchell album, if that album had been produced by an avant-pop maestros like Brian Eno or The Flaming Lips - gorgeous, lush orchestral pop inflected with experimental touches and underscored with a pervading sense of present-day doom. Several of the album's songs scored high in the year-end polls as well, especially singles Andromeda and Everyday, but my favorite among favorites has always been the album's most electronic track, the worshipful Movies.

17. Lesley - Dave: Signed by Drake all the way back in 2016, with several hit singles already to his name, British grime artist Dave (aka David Orobosa Omoregie or Santan Dave) took his own sweet time to get is debut album right, and the end result was my second favorite hip hop release of 2019, PSYCHODRAMA (enthusiastic Solid Recommend, McQ's #17 album of 2019). Anchored around fictional psychotherapy conversations meant to mimic those his brothers were forced to partake in while in prison, PSYCHODRAMA is a deeply personal, big-themed album broken into three acts reflecting on environment, relationships, and social compass, and it's in the social compass section of the album the Dave drops this almost overpoweringly tragic number about a casual acquaintance caught up in an abusive relationship. Basically Eminem's Kim if Eminem were trying to be as empathetic and socially responsible as possible rather than every parent's worst nightmare, it is the most narratively gripping song on this mix, and one hardest songs to shake in 2019 

18. Bad For The Boys - Alex Cameron: Australia's lyrical heir apparent to the acerbic, button-pushing musings of Randy Newman, Cameron's third full-length Miami Memory (Solid Recommend) finds the synth-rocker examining the lives of another collection of characters living on societies margins, but this time seeking out the good in them as well as the bad. That said, Cameron's rapier wit is always just a quick stoccoda away, as on this humorous take on a bunch of classic bros struggling to adjust to their new #metoo reality.

19. Symbols Of Joy & Eternity - Sundara Karma: Symbols Of Joy & Eternity is probably the fifth or sixth best song on Brit outfit Sundara Karma's winning, lively, Speaking In Tongues meets Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), sophomore art rock outing Ulfila's Alphabet (Solid Recommend, McQ's #20 album of 2019), but the song fits perfectly here, giving this mix a little boost of joy and energy to go out on before hitting one last emotional closer, and the album itself was one of the few genuinely worthwhile indie-rock releases of 2019. 

19. Tonight - Angel Olsen: We'll need to wait another year or two to make a full assessment of Chicagoan Angel Olsen's at times achingly beautiful All Mirrors (Solid Recommend) because she recorded this song-cycle on the power of raw emotion twice, first in an absolutely threadbare DIY folk-fashion (yet to be released), and then second with the backing of a full band and a twelve-piece string section, which she then decided needed to be the version to come out first. If I'm being honest, even with all the rich orchestration, there's a lo-fi feel to much of All Mirrors production, similar to the lo-fi vibe on her earlier outing Burn Your Fire For No Witness, that works to the album's detriment, which is why I've got it rated significantly lower on the year (#25) than the critical aggregate (#6). But where those mix issues are less noticeable, as on the torch songs Endgame and the even better Tonight included here, the emotional impact is spellbinding.

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