Words by Luke LaBenne
Luke LaBenne is an Off Shelf contributor and co-host of the Best Song Ever Podcast, where he and his cousin/co-host play and discuss their favorite new music. He is an avid music consumer and musician who writes about music on his own site The Volt and makes his own music under the name Indie Darling.
Natalie Mering began her career in the noise rock scene and much of her previous work has been largely experimental. Titanic Rising is her most accessible and most relatable work to date. This album sounds like it’s from another time, her voice sounds like it would be at home in a 60’s folk song or a classic Broadway musical. She brings a similar theatricality to the instrumentals with songs building and swelling into tidal waves of gorgeous orchestration. As the title suggests, this album finds her on a search for purpose, a quest for redemption. This album feels nostalgic yet forward facing, as we witness a seemingly sunken vessel rising from the depths.
Back when the term DJ actually meant a turntablist, DJ Shadow established himself as one of the greats. Over the course of his career he has worked with some of the best names in hip-hop, and he asked most of them to appear on this record. The first disc of this double album contains some of Shadow’s most engrossing instrumental compositions in recent memory. The second disc features hip-hop royalty from every era from De La Soul, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah and Inspectah Deck to Nas, Pharoahe Monch and Run The Jewels. These seasoned wordsmiths spit over some of Shadow’s finest compositions. This album should really take up to spots on the list because it’s two finely crafted records for the price of one.
While many artists clean up and polish their sound as their career goes on, Ezra Furman finds success in making his sound messier. While Ezra has a knack for 50’s influenced doo-wop and tender folk, he’s perhaps at his strongest when he’s screaming over fuzzed out punk. While this album’s charm is it’s wild and frenetic style, it feels like the deftest blending of Ezra’s various styles. This controlled chaos feels like a timely battle cry or pleading prayer reflecting on injustice, mental health, and cultural trauma. This album packs one hell of a punch and offers a friendly voice to scream along with in solidarity.
In addition to appearing on Vampire Weekend’s new album, odd future alum and producer-extroardinaire Steve Lacy released his phenomenal debut album this year. This album took me by surprise and quickly became a musical addiction. Nothing else sounds like album, Lacy creates an otherworldly musical playground. These songs are colorful psychedelic bursts driven by Lacy’s mind-bending guitar work, versatile vocals and all manner of wild effects and elements that create a one-of-kind atmosphere throughout the album. This debut affirms that already sneaking suspicion that Steve Lacy is an unbelievably inventive talent that we should keep an eye on.
This veteran indie-rock band underwent one of the most surprising musical reinventions of 2019. They traded their signature album art of a hazy polaroid for a bright cartoonish picture of the earth and the music similarly seemed to break all boundaries set by their previous work. Many of the songs are unrecognizable, whether it’s the 90’s pop-rock vibe of “Harmony Hall,” the breezy beach feel of “This Life,” or the all out wacky funk of “Sunflower.” They’re assisted throughout by two tremendous musical talents Danielle Haim and Steve Lacy, with the accompanying visuals directed by Jonah Hill. Fans and critics had mixed reactions to this album, but love it or hate it this album shows an established band breaking the mold and taking risks with a bold new creative vision.
On her previous releases Twigs established herself as an impressive avante-garde artist, but none of her past work seemed to be as effective as her sophomore full length. She blends brooding electronics and hip-hop elements with operatic swells and overlapping vocal melodies. Channeling the figure of Mary Magdalene who’s story was distorted by the patriarchy, Twigs will not accept that and pens her own origin. She examines the traits she shares with Magdalene: loving, loyal and true to herself and expects the same from those who are deserving of her love. Twigs has endured a lot of pain, both emotional and physical, and the result is an artist and album that are incredibly strong.
Omoiyari is a Japanese word that, “refers to the idea of creating compassion towards other people by thinking about them.” With this thought in my Kauro Ishibashi looks through the lens of the past to create a poignant meditation on our ominous present. This album is a call for empathy, yet this call is made through the very personal stories of friends and lovers torn apart, people driven from their homes. Certain songs play like pieces of a symphony while others sound like sea shanty folk songs. Ishibashi brilliantly channels his own family history, the historical struggle of his ancestors and those parallels of our modern age into a saga of love, empath and resilience.
Fourteen years and ten albums into their career, the beloved British indie-electronica ensemble reach new heights and perfect their unmistakeable sound. Whether it’s driving danceable house jams or shimmering synth pop serenades, each song offers outlandish and impressive electronic compositions with ear worm hooks and affecting lyrics. Since Hot Chip’s music is always fun and at time humorous you may not expect how emotionally and socially weighty this album is at times. The albums fun and lightness underlines it’s thesis, a call to civility, a “Melody of Love” that offers of a “remedy” to fill your life with warmth and color.
2 LITTLE SIMZ – Grey Area, (AGE 101 MUSIC/AWAL Recordings Ltd.)
The third album from hip-hop wunderkind Little Simz finds her at peak performance. This album has the greatest diversity in production from song to song: fuzzed out rock, bouncy synthpop, driving grime and smooth R&B ballads are blended and contrasted making each new song an adventure. Simz confidently and cojently delivers expertly crafted rhymes with seemingly effortless execution. She touches on topics from substance abuse, lost loves and friends and examines her own faults and strengths. She is courageously vulnerable and boldly braggadocios. Walking the line between playful and powerful, bringing some light to life’s grey areas.
The sophomore album of the orchestrated indie-rock outfit finds them polishing the unique sound they established on their self-titled debut. Grand and gorgeous arrangements of strings and horns punctuate the elaborate guitar work of Max Kakacek and the warm vocals of Julien Erlich. This album is about relationships, chief among the relationship of that creative duo at the center of the group. This album explores how people and their relationships shift and change over time, with some falling apart and some standing strong. The shifting and soaring instrumentals underscore this bittersweet sentiment, the fear of the unknown and the hope of possibility.
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