It’s a bit corny to talk about the idea of “summer bringing the heat,” but humor me on this one, because the last three months boasted so many great records, it was tough to whittle the list down to just 25. Below, we’ve got occult hip-hop, psychedelic Afrobeat, powerful soul, socialist post-punk, and so much more. These are the Best Records of Summer 2019.
A lot of musical artists lay claim to occult imagery, but few make it feel so alive, so animated, as Backxwash. And a lot of witches cast spells by incantation, but the Montreal-via-Zambia rapper’s hard, quick, clever delivery isn’t your ordinary simple mantra. Able to call up protection, healing, and destruction in the same breath, she spits over bouncy rock riffs, her voice amping up to a well-placed scream (“Devil in a Moshpit”) and calls out posers over a sinuous beat (“Foundation and Face Tattoos”); yet, she’s also able to be surprisingly tender both toward herself and her lovers on the piano-driven “You Like My Body The Way It Is,” inverting a lot of the common ways trans people speak about our physical selves. (Inversion, of course, is also a magical practice.) I think about the line “Baphomet of this fag shit,” from the noisy, excellently nasty opener “Don’t Come To The Woods,” a lot; the famous Sabbatic Goat and the other figures of the Baphomet in art portray it, of course, as both masculine and feminine, binary and non-binary, containing the universe’s multitudes in one figure. How comfortable Backxwash is rapping her sorcery in any number of different sonic environments, how she’s able to conjure lyrical imagery so fierce and precise, indicates that she is indeed her own Baphomet, and that her artistic magic is absolutely, manifestly real.
The debut album from Sam Barker is the rare sort of album that’s memorable not because of what it is, but rather what it isn’t: an intoxicating, but rigidly-constructed techno album, containing almost no drums. You’d think that draining the genre of its commonly-accepted lifeblood would result in a ho-hum listening experience—what’s rave music without a beat, after all? But for this U.K. upstart, such additional sonic space is just an invitation for a different, more liminal forms of pleasure, like the blurred ballet playing out in the margins of “Hedonic Treadmill,” or the soothing, circular whorls that drift about “Models of Wellbeing” like neon mist. There’s a world of possibilities floating out there in techno’s aether, just waiting to be explored, and with Utility, Barker proves himself worth of a seat in the cockpit.
Brand New Adult
Brand New Adult, the latest album from Dutch artist BEA1991, is fun. The playful alt-pop record was aided with guest production by Dev Hynes, a long-time collaborator of BEA1991. On “my own heaven,” she coyly sings, “She needs an awkward mix of blatant adventure and security,” which sums up the tongue-in-cheek vibe of Brand New Adult. Hynes lends his bass playing on “did you feel me slip away” under BEA1991’s ethereal voice. The piano-heavy “the dream” feels pensive and the electro “360 perfect timing” is a hopeful track. Overall, Brand New Adult plays like an experiment. BEA1991 tries on, and takes off many hats on this album but still manages to make it feel like a cohesive narrative. BEA1991’s approach to making lively alt-pop is refreshing. Brand New Adult plays like an invitation to the chillest party in town.
Chastity Belt circle the wagons tighter on their self-titled fourth LP, the most insular effort yet from a band who’ve always presented themselves as a self-contained unit, huddled together as the world around them continually fails to deliver real love or meaning. Working alongside producer Melina Duterte of Jay Som for Chastity Belt, the Seattle group imbue dial their songs down to an ambient serenity that’s similar in feel to vocalist and guitarist Julia Shapiro’s recent solo record, Perfect Version. The placid surface is further emphasized by Shapiro’s lyrical tendency to repeat hokey truisms to herself, something she softly cops to in the brutally self-critical but sonically soothing “Drown.” The deepening musical bond displayed by the band members on Chastity Belt offers the one glimmer of hope on a record about giving up. The mature and supportive chemistry on Chastity Belt suggests that, if there is any way to be saved from disappearing completely in a lonely world, it’s through the healing energy of the group hug, or, in this case, the rock band.
Ani Cordero’s El Machete began taking shape after the Brooklyn-based, Puerto Rican musician had a dream in which she used a wooden machete to fight off people who were attacking her. The title has real-world significance as well: it’s a reference to the Puerto Rican resistance group Los Macheteros, and a nod to the political nature of Cordero’s own music: The bouncing “Pan Pan (Sin Mantequilla)” depicts people scrounging for crumbs while corrupt government officials feast; the jittery “Pa’ Poder Vivir” talks about demolishing the world the way you would knock down a house, and rebuilding a society that’s safe for women. She pairs these potent ideas with music that is boisterous and euphoric. The title track is a whirling, cumbia-derived dance number, cut in two by a blistering guitar solo; “Noche Entera” is a creeping excursion into global bass, with a winding vocal melody and gentle cascades of guitar; “Yo No Vine a Jugar” is lurching funk with a bleary, reggae-like horn chart. Cordero has made an album that pairs defiance with jubilance—a hands-up dance party at the end of the world.
In an interview with Whitney Wei for our Certified series, DJ Haram—born Zubeyda Muzeyyen—explained how the concept for her newest EP Grace was informed by the book Islam, Arabs, and Intelligent World of the Jinn. The book, by Amira El-Zein, details the lives of metaphysical beings known as Jinn, who figure heavily into Islamic literature. Not only do certain songs on Grace correspond to certain figures in the Jinn, but those figures also seem to mirror the sound of the record as well—which feels both ancient and mystical at the same time. Grace incorporates traditional instruments and melodies—piping flutes, darbuka drums—into electronic music that strongly emphasizes the fantastic. Take the springy opener “No Idol,” where a flute line bounces along the rubbery beat like a wood nymph hopping from stone to stone, or “Gemini Rising,” where minor-key, neon-futureworld synths spill down over rugged percussion. In fact, it’s Muzeyyen’s skill at worldbuilding that makes Grace so absorbing. Everything here—from the raucous “Body Count” with its gunshot bass beat to the flickering “Candle Light,” with its hectic drumming and icy synths—feels of a piece, a carefully mapped journey through a surreal landscape. Plenty of artists use traditional regional instruments in contemporary settings, but Muzeyyen actually makes them sound natural in the context of the song, rather than awkwardly crowbarred in. Like the stories that inspired it, Grace feels both fantastic and mystical, a world unto itself flooded with light, life, and color.
Before this summer, Dorian Electra was known primarily for their work with others: specifically a standout appearance on Charli XCX’s Pop 2 track “Femmebot” alongside Mykki Blanco. (To wit, they’re touring together at the same time that I’m writing this.) Flamboyant, Electra’s gender-fucking, speaker-busting marvel of a debut, changed all that, in the gayest manner possible. The relentless, occasionally-ostentatious bubblegum-bass arrangements (“Mr. To You”), the playful use of gay-culture tropes (“Daddy Like,””Adam & Steve”), the empowering affirmations of queer love and non-binary pride (every song, basically) — it all amounts to a set of bangers made for the queers, by the queers, but still enjoyable to everyone: a safe space immortalized on wax for our dancing pleasure, as well as the music world’s greater benefit. Daddy like, indeed.
If you paid only passing attention to the latest EP from the Nigerian-Canadian musician Debby Friday, it would be easy to mistake it as a work of pure nihilism. For one thing, there’s the title, which captures both a longing for annihilation as well as the legendary final scene of Thelma & Louise. Then there’s the sonics: grim, thumping industrial music with fat smears of blue and purple synths, foregrounding Friday’s demanding, Grace Jones-y voice. And then there are the lyrics—”I love everything that seeks to destroy me,” Friday groans before the album is even two minutes old. But dive in deeper, and you begin to realize the message is much more complicated. She ends “Tear the Veil”—the same song with that lyric about loving self-destruction—by repeating “Kill the shame. Kill the shame.” In “Fatal,” over a queasy throb that calls to mind Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer,” she shouts, “This rebellion! Taking me higher!” Indeed, it’s rebellion that’s at the core of Friday’s music. In an interview with Loud and Quiet, she talks about using her aggressive music as a way to confront the aggression she experiences daily as a queer black woman; in that context, the music on Death Drive scans less like fatalism and more like weaponry. Even the songs without lyrics, like “Good and Evil,” which features little beyond a wriggling, distorted-to-hell synth line and frenetic drum & bass-y percussion, feels like a person beating her Roland into a sword. On the album-closing collaboration with Chino Amobi, Friday’s voice sounds almost uncannily like PJ Harvey’s, as she twists the gospel format into a murder ballad about killing God’s son. As the song goes on, the chaos builds, static swarming in from every corner like a cloud of hornets, as a distorted voice lays out what could be the album’s summary statement, positioning abnegation as rebellion, and encouraging a conversion of a person’s “absence within the world to a critique of worldliness in general.” Death Drive is pleasure, rage, creation, and destruction stirred into a molotov cocktail of sound.
Gauche have it all on A People’s History of Gauche. The D.C. dance party post-punks’ debut full-length reaches Led Zeppelin I-level heights of effortless aptitude, the band’s combination of locked-in musical chemistry and clearly-defined shared vision melding together to create music that explodes on impact in a burst of righteously well-earned bravado. It’s all on display from the moment the band digs into opening track “Flash,” which is not only the longest song on the record, it also features a drum solo and a saxophone solo and vocals from pretty much everyone in the band. But Gauche can do things like that because they’re just as good as they think (know) they are. Fueled by a musical simpatico so magical that it mystifies even the band members themselves, as they told Bandcamp earlier this year, Gauche whip up an arty-yet-accessible cacophony on A People’s History… launching themselves into the stratosphere and reveling in their stardust. They never wind down, but occasionally they’ll wind even higher, as on the manic, keys-fueled “Pay Day” or disco-kissed closer “Rectangle,” which presents feminist themes in a non-abstract way. There’s not a lot of room for interpretation when bassist and singer Mary Jane Regalado howls: “Look who gets away/ White men get away.” But Gauche didn’t just come to lecture. This band also believes that creating good vibes is a valid political act, overdubbing whoops and clinking glasses to “Rent (v.)” just in case you forgot that music can be entertainment without erasing your morals at the same time.
Is there anything Brittany Howard can’t do? Between Alabama Shakes (arguably the most acclaimed and commercially successful roots-rock band of the past decade), Bermuda Triangle (her Americana trio with Becca Marncari and Jesse Lafser), her hard-edged solo project Thunderbitch, the Alabama-born, Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter, guitarist, and producer has proven herself an adaptable force of nature, as an individual as well as a team player. Jaime, her breathtaking solo debut, is the most definitive proof of that to date. With her written accounts of life pre-Alabama Shakes—which she subsequently translated into song—supplying the thematic foundation, Howard delivers a powerful (and powerfully-sung) display of profound empathy, parlaying autobiographical intimacy into unflinching social protest. “I am dedicated to oppose those whose will is to divide us and who are determined to keep us in the dark ages of fear,” she vows adamantly on album highlight “13th Century Metal,” a curious hybrid of spoken word and electronica; “I hear the voices of the unheard / Speak for those who cannot speak / And shelter the minds that carry a message.” Judging from this album, we’re in good hands.
Next to the Sun
Kaina Castillo, known simply as Kaina, has a powerful, sumptuous voice. The 24 year old Chicagoan got her start singing in the Happiness Club, a performing arts collective in the city and has honed her talent ever since. She made the rounds collaborating with other Chicago acts including Saba and Joseph Chilliams. Her debut album, Next to the Sun, is the musical equivalent of a loving embrace. The album’s daring bedroom-pop songs are soft, delicate, and introspective. “You like to keep this place so empty,” Kaina sings on the pensive opener, “House”. She picks up the pace on the soulful, seductive title track, ”Next to the Sun,” where she interrogates self-doubt: “Tell me what you think about me,” she challenges. On the Latin-jazz influenced closing song “Green,” Kaina celebrates the family and friends closest to her. On Next to the Sun, Kaina gives listeners a thorough introduction to what she’s all about.
Kaleta & Super Yamba Band
Kaleta—born Leon Ligan-Majek—is African music royalty. He’s played with not one, but two of the continent’s legendary musicians—Fela Kuti and King Sunny Adé—both of whom are known as famously demanding bandleaders who expect nothing less than excellence. That alone would be enough reason to listen to Mèdaho, on which Kaleta fronts the Brooklyn-based Super Yamba Band, so it’s even more satisfying that the vocalist and guitarist as at the peak of his powers throughout these nine psychedelic Afrobeat numbers. He lights up the surging “Mr. Diva,” his jubilant vocals darting in between big, bleary horn charts, and peeling off a dizzying guitar solo at the song’s center. But while Kaleta is clearly the album’s star, what makes Mèdaho so rapturous is the deft interplay between all of the musicians: the way Sean Smith’s bright, psych-y organ line on “Goyitò” starts out center stage, then humbly recedes into the background to make room for horns that swing and swoop; or how a brass fanfare kicks open “Super Yamba Theme” before Kaleta takes the mic and mirrors their darting cadence with a warm, soulful vocal. And while you can certainly spot classic African genres in its songs—the furious horns of Afrobeat, the skipping guitars of juju—the whole thing is bathed in a kind of soft, lysergic glow. It feels like a distant mirage that is continually changing shape—revealing new colors and patterns every time.
For You and I
London producer Loraine James’s full-length debut, For You and I, is a stunning display of James’s abilities as an artist and her sonic vocabulary, but it’s not flashy in the slightest—instead, it’s highly personal, speaking to her own experiences as a queer black person. Here, she draws on IDM, noise, jazz, and ambient sound design in equal measure. There’s the controlled, distorted cut-up of “London Ting // Dark as Fuck,” which features rapper Le3 BLACK and turns a simple wordless utterance into something that communicates volumes, and the nervous, glitchy percussion of “So Scared,” where James manipulates her own vocals: “You’re over there, so fucking scared,” she says, referring to herself—and any number of listeners. (I found my own constant anxiety, maintainer of my own carapace, rising and responding instinctively.) “Sensual,” featuring singer Theo, the album’s centerpiece, is a gorgeous, warm, gauzy love song, James’s gift for her partner. There’s her use of space on “Sick 9,” which winds a minimal beat and vocal sample into the rhythm of a post-industrial city. Each track has a distinct mood and set of imagery, but the album feels tightly, elegantly focused. James’s work resonates through the body, as immediate and physical as it is smart and heady. For music to live as much in the hips as it does in the brain is no small feat, but James makes it sound easy.
Toronto beatmaker Muxubo Mohamed (Obuxum is her given name spelled backwards) has a poet’s sensibility when it comes to producing. On her album Re-Birth, the Somali-Canadian’s style is marked by merging lyrical themes and succinct audio over soulful tracks. “Ayeeyo’s Intro/Can you feel my rage?” beings with a recording of looped narration of statistics about violence against women in Somalia. On “EQUITY!!!,” the track opens with a portion of Viola Davis’s 2015 Emmy’s acceptance speech. The brief “Black Girls Flying,” has a futuristic beat and seems like the heart of the album despite its short run time. Another standout, the amped-up “Does your blood not move?,” is also concise but memorable. Re-Birth plays like a single track, a result of Obuxum’s keen narrative skills. With Re-Birth, Obuxum reveals her unparalleled production vision.
Dancing can be transformative, especially in communal spaces, and DJ and producer Maya Bouldry-Morrison, A.K.A. Octo Octa, is clearly conscious of that. On her third full-length album, her first for her new label with her partner Eris Drew, T4T LUV NRG, she continues to develop her signature sound—a warm, immediately appealing, smartly assembled mix of house and techno, simultaneously ecstatic and intimate, music meant for nights out where sweaty abandon can turn to a sense of grounding in one’s own body, where one might arrive to the club alone but leave with a new friendship. The music Bouldry-Morrison makes is clearly referential to the history of ‘80s and ‘90s queer clubbing and activism, down to the ACT UP protesters sampled in “Power to the People,” but it does not sound mired in time—the best use of history, building the present and future with a firm and contextual knowledge of the past. There’s space for pure booty rockin here (“Imminent Spirit Arrival,” “Spin Girl, Let’s Activate!”), and space for dreamy contemplation (“Deep Connections, Can You See Me?”); Bouldry-Morrison is particularly able at showing us those two modes can be deeply intertwined. A joyful, spiritual, and necessary work.
Carnage Bargain would earn its stripes for being a million times better than a garage record has any right to be in 2019, but hooray for The Paranoyds for putting brains in front of bubblegum. The L.A. band are here to please with their house show-ready mix of glossy new wave and DIY garage punk, all delivered with the cheeky raised eyebrow of pre-Lilith fair alternative girl rock, every beautifully produced track going down like cold diet soda. But the band also consistently delight with how much thought they’ve put into their songs, and the chops they bring to their playing. The Paranoyds offer up both glittery sunny California vibes and serious anti-consumerist messaging without putting their finger on the scale either way, and they do it without resorting to internet-speak or instantly dated cultural reference points. We’re all trying to be good citizens but sometimes you want to hide (“Bear”) and sometimes you’re just trying to do laundry in 103 degree heat, man (“Laundry.”) “Girlfriend Degree” lightly wheedles women who rely entirely on men—some people probably won’t think it’s funny or cool, but whatever—however the band nails it on “Courtney,” a rainbow-hued art pop ode to female economic freedom that sparkles as brightly as its protagonist.
The Cleveland post-punk group’s latest arrived with little fanfare, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t an absolute monster of an album, and my personal pick for the best darker post-punk release of the year so far. Haley Morris’s powerful-yet-nuanced vocals are front and center, as they should be; her voice is an absolute treasure, and her control over it is magnificent. (Listen to the way she pulls and twists around the lyrics of the chorus to “Heart of Gold,” or the leaps between gut voice and head voice without losing any velocity on “Try the Door.”) Guitarist Kevin Jaworski and bassist Steve Peffer cut their teeth in hardcore, and they play with the nimbleness and ferocity of such; Mark TerVeen’s drumming has a sense of effortlessness to it that belies its efficiency and precision. And the songwriting here is delightful, the pop inflection and adventurous song structures even more apparent here than on their last (very very good) album The Woods of Heaven. The edging of resolution in “The Conversation” until the last minute, with its two (!) bridges, has made it a mainstay for me when I’m DJing rock music (and a personal favorite that I love to have on repeat), and the slashing melodrama and elastic bassline of “Dancing in the Dark” make it an instant new goth classic.
David Berman should be on tour right now. The fact that he’s not feels clearly, indelibly wrong. The Silver Jews singer-songwriter, whose chronicling of his lifetime struggles with addiction, depression, and trauma, with absurdist humor and sharp poetics, took his life just weeks after his “comeback record” as Purple Mountains was released. (Critics loved the record, as they should.) If he had hung on just a little bit longer, he would have been out there, he would have been playing, he would have been connecting with people whose music spoke to our own warped brains.
In a Ringer profile leading up to Purple Mountains, this quote sticks out to me: “‘I’m not convinced I have fans,’ David told me, still on his back in bed. He was nervous about the tour. ‘In my whole life, I’ve had maybe 10 people who have told me how much my music means to them.’” There’s no way this is true—I know at least six people personally with Berman’s lyrics tattooed on their bodies in some fashion or another—but it speaks to the way deep depression can truly twist the way we perceive ourselves and the world around us. We isolate ourselves because we feel isolated—self-fulfilling prophecy. All the love people show us recedes; all we feel is a succinct pain, sharp underneath the breastbone, invisible—as if we were stabbing ourselves with an icicle. I know this because I have been on the brink too.
As with all of Berman’s finest work, Purple Mountains is charming, self-deprecating, affecting—country-rock with a deceptively light lope that keeps a keen eye toward the blandness and brokenness of the American landscape (“Margaritas at the Mall”) and toward Berman’s own suffusive depression. It’s full of the small turns of phrase that make Berman so beloved; it’s hard to imagine an observation sweeter than “She helped me walk, she watched me run, she got where I was coming from / And when I couldn’t count my friends on a single thumb, I loved her to the maximum” (“I Love Being My Mother’s Son”), or that speaks to the depressive mind and the abandonment that can take place when you’re having a hard time so elegantly as “Friends are warmer than gold when you’re old, and keeping them is harder than you might suppose / Lately, I tend to make strangers wherever I go / Some of them are once people I was happy to know” (“All My Happiness Is Gone”). Despite how lonesome he felt, and how difficult relationships may have been for him, Berman’s lyrics never felt solipsistic; there was always, beneath them, a desire to reach out. I wish he could have held on.
Sampa the Great
It’s hard to write about Sampa the Great’s dizzying, 90-minute debut album The Return, without acknowledging the album that feels like its spiritual ancestor, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Both records are genre omnivorous, touching on jazz, R&B, hip-hop, rock, and classic soul; both are autobiographical; both cast a jaundiced eye at the specific injustices and biases of the music industry. And, above all else, both are mammoth, potent, defining statements—the kind of records that get made when an artist is willing to put everything on the line. In other words, The Return is a masterpiece, easily one of the year’s best records and a tour de force of charisma, power, and drive. In an interview with NPR, Sampa details the racism she encountered upon moving to Australia, coupled with the pressure she felt to act as a representative for all of the people of color in the country—an assumption that is as unfair as it is inherently racist. She unpacks all of this over the course of The Return’s runtime, in songs that are by turns ruminative (the smoldering funk of “Any Day”) and raucous (the booming “Final Form,” which deftly samples the triumphant horn fanfare from The Sylvers’ “Stay Away From Me”). The seven-minute “Don’t Give Up” is a long, smoky sigh, with twinkling jazz piano and a languid, breathy vocal melody centered on a simple message of perseverance; and on “Freedom,” against a sparkling sweet-soul background, she issues the following edict in rapid-fire flow: “We used to think the industry was five stars/ And now we itching just to find stars/ But they was scheming when they find us/ Define us/ And now we token…/ From the beginning/ We never winning/ They want our image.” In the center of the record, she drops “OMG” a stunning fireball of a song that shows off Sampa’s tongue-twisting verbal skill and crests in a chorus of handclaps and group shouts. “Never underestimate Your Highness,” Sampa warns in the songs opening moments. The Return gives those words powerful weight.
The Center Won’t Hold
Sleater-Kinney are a perpetually misread band, apparently even by the band themselves. How else to explain the unfortunate press roll-out for The Center Won’t Hold, which paired the introduction of a words-and-guitarless sound with fashion-y photos that made this powerhouse of a band look like mannequins at Bloomingdale’s? Followed shortly by the departure of drummer Janet Weiss, the vibes around this record, their ninth, were understandably pretty bad. Then there is the record itself. The Center Won’t Hold is the work of an altogether gloomier, artier, more considered version of S-K. They strike out decisively against the machines with bold, big songs bemoaning modern life alienation and music that’s sonically richer, deeper, and more grimly industrial than ever. So, not at all punk rock or even rock at all. The Center Won’t Hold perplexes because it doesn’t sound like Sleater-Kinney, but what ever did? This band has always been a shattered mirror of moods, tones, and studious—sometimes even academic—approaches to rock music; a new lens for every record, but the parts have been more or less the same until now. Although some will miss the guitars, The Center Won’t Hold really is a natural progression for a band that was never always one thing or another, but more a ball of manic forward motion in the shape of a band (“A sonic push for energy,” as they once sang.) If Sleater-Kinney can be reduced to any one thing at all, it’s a decades long conversation between the twin souls of Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, who even now still orbit in perfect musical communion. And this much remains the same: Brownstein may be the rockstar, but Tucker (and her pipes) is the heart of the band, and the soul.
Death-metal albums don’t get more cataclysmic than Planetary Clairvoyance, Tomb Mold’s highly-anticipated, sci-fi-inspired monolith of an album released in July. Anarchic odes to alien doomsday weapons (“Resurrections”) and colliding planets (“Planetary Clairvoyance”) give way to ambitious trypthcs that portend the end of days—from the first signs of decay, (“Beg For Life”) to the moment man goes extinct, (“Cerulean Salvation”), and at last, the capital E-N-D (“Heat Death”). The Toronto quartet have never shied away from exploring astral-gazing grandeur in their songs; last year’s debut Manor of Infinite Forms, featured on our list of the Best Metal Albums of 2018; presented death metal’s festering conventions in a similar light, prioritizing soaring riffs and luminescent solos over the usual grit and spit. Their tactics prove much more focused this time around, though, with the band adding psych jams, classical-guitar breaks, and even pregnant pauses into their deafening artillery. Tomb Mold are a band who can’t be contained; it makes sense they’d shoot for the stars, and hit a bullseye.
Tropical Fuck Storm
Tropical Fuck Storm aren’t so much a band than they are a traveling circus, raised on a diet of Captain Beefheart, Wikileaks, and Dadaism. “Instead of pointing out something going wrong, you just ape the shit out of it,” the Australian band’s co-founder Gareth Liddiard said of their approach in a recent Bandcamp interview. “We’re just dealing with the weird and ridiculous.” Those last two adjectives, “weird and ridiculous,” sum up the frenzied feel of TFS’ Braindrops, an album which, much like their debut A Laughing Death In Meatspace, treats the existential horrors facing humanity—gentrification and decay, global warming and upswells in fascism—as the pinnings of a carnivalesque, psychedelic nightmare that’s also pretty damn catchy. Personality-filled insanity abounds everywhere you turn: “The Planet of the Stawmen” and “The Happiest Guy Around” unfold as extended, funky dance macabres, all jeering harmonies and tipsy Afrobeat rhythms, while the sparse, sprawling “Maria 63” is a delusional ballad concerning an alleged Nazi witch being hunted down by Israeli assassins in South America. It’s a lot, I know, but just go with it — and thank me later.
To answer your first question: yes, Versus is still around. Also yes, they have a new record. It’s called Ex Voto and it’s a sci-fi concept record full of future world stuff like interstellar travel, suspended animation, and some sort of God-like figure to whom the band makes the occasional appeal for life or death. It’s very existential. But it’s also a really good Versus record, perhaps one of their best, a precise yet playful update on the indie lifers’ cerebrally jangly sound. But rather than gazing into the void with dread, as many bands of their vintage seem to be doing, Versus sound brightly optimistic here, not least of all because Ex Voto is also filled with genuine bangers, like the swoopy “Moon Palace,” which features a strong lead vocal from Fontaine Troup and Richard Baluyut’s creative, restless guitar playing, just as remarkable as you remember.
Brooklyn-based performance artist, Yatta, is a force to be reckoned with. Their latest album, WAHALA, is an ecstatic journey through mental health, family, and immigration. “I sing the blues so well because I need it,” they sing over steady strings on “Blues”. Album opener “A Lie,” sets the tone about grappling with the reality of being a first-generation immigrant: “For my parents, survival was having food. For me, it’s having my feet planted on the ground and hoping no one notices when my brain flies away.” Haunting guitar strings and simple hums make up the melancholy “Sullivan Place,” and Yatta interperses the joyful chirping of birds into the deceptively dark “Francis,” a song about police brutality. “You look like my brother” they repeat over a disparate track made up of field recordings. WAHALA’s mixture of electronic, noise, ambient sounds, and stream-of-consciousness lyrics is something to behold.
avery r. young
Avery r. young is making unapologetically Black music. Hailing from Chicago, the multi-hyphenate has been an anchoring force of the city’s art community for nearly two decades. Young’s album tubman. melds funk, soul, jazz, and house to create a distinctive sound that young calls, “sousefunk.” The theme of paying homage courses through tubman. Album standout, the gospel-anchored “lead in de wattah” is a rumination on the Flint water crisis. The title track, “tubman.,” is dedicated to singer Jamila Woods, a former poetry student of young’s. The the down-in-the-Delta funky “get to know a nina simone song,” references Simone’s classic “Mississippi Goddamn,” and its contemporary importance. “Today be the answer,” young croons on the soulful “tchala.” Written in part to accompany “neckbone,” young’s book of visual poetry, tubman. serves as a roadmap through the people and influences that young holds dear.