We are now into July and into the second half of 2019. We thought we would take a look at some of our favourite albums of the year so far.
Written by Henry Groves (HG), Zach Spencer (ZS), Ben Norris (BN), George Smale (GS) and Harry Fortuna (HF)
Stella Donnelly - Beware of the Dogs
Following her debut EP Thrush Metal, Stella Donnelly has jumped straight into album territory with Beware of the Dogs and is staring straight into the face of and is challenging taboo more than ever. Like her previous work, Beware of the Dogs features the key aspects that makes Donnelly so refreshing to listen to; her raw and powerful vocals that tremor when lingering on notes, and her witty but honest lyricism. On a side-note, this wit translates to her live performances and if she wasn’t a musician, she would have a flourishing career in stand-up.
The album kicks off with Old Man, a song she wrote during the #metoo movement, after she saw “men who had exploited their power for so long actually being held accountable for their actions.” Donnelly’s disdain, rightfully so, runs deep in her lyrics, shaming these men in the most cutting of ways: “Your personality traits don’t count/If you put your dick in someone’s face”. This is juxtaposed with quite a jovial, Mac DeMarco-esque, upbeat riff and melody, while allowing the threat and malice of the subject matter lay just below the surface.
Similarly tracks like Tricks and Die feature a lighter tone. The former harking back to Donnelly being taunted about playing Oasis’ Wonderwall while taking aim at far-right Australian pride: “You wear me out like you wear that southern cross tattoo”.
None of her songs are without reason and if they are not looking outwards at society, they’re introspective and reflective. Mosquito is a slow, swaying break-up song featuring just Donnelly and her guitar. While Bistro covers similar ground Donnelly uses a drum machine for the first time, adding a more than welcome and refreshing element to the otherwise sombre track as she repeats the lyrics: “You walk away/You walk away/You (I) never loved enough/You’re (I’m) never home enough.
Donnelly chooses the track list, in my opinion, in a very strategic and effective way. We move from a perky song featuring the whole band to a slower, stripped back ballad allowing us to properly digest the subject of each track and appreciate it more than if it were laid out in an alternative way.
Much like Nilüfer Yanya, Stella Donnelly’s debut album is as strong a start as anyone could hope for and is without a doubt one of the most interesting artists to watch for in the future. Her charm oozes out of each song and without a doubt will continue to do so. (ZS)
Pip Blom - Boat
I always croon on about Heavenly Records releases but I’ll just say another great album from a consistently great label. I first heard of Pip Blom when they toured with Sports Team. This album is just simply packed with 10 unabashedly indie barre-chord bangers.
I don’t think there is a minor chord on this thing and Pip knows how to write such an effortlessly knockout chorus. With a long string of sly singles leading up to the album, it would be so easy to re-record the best and stick it together to make this album but instead, all 10 tracks are brand new and it just goes to show what a writing machine this group are. ‘Don’t Make it Difficult’ and ‘Say It’ are particular early highlights for me which just go to show, no matter how troubled or sidelined guitar pop albums like this can be treated, you just can’t deny a banger. (GS)
FONTAINES D.C. - Dogrel
There are so many bands who are releasing excellent punk music at the moment, but none are doing it quite as well as FONTAINES D.C.
Dogrel opens up with 'Big', a sub-two-minute powerhouse that gets you hooked from the first song. It really shows off Grian Chatten's brogue-heavy vocals, with crashing cymnbals providing the musical backdrop for his distinctive vocals. This is a true punk opener and instantly shows off FONTAINES D.C.'s quality from the outset of their debut LP.
The album does not let up at all, and during 'Too Real', the intensity only seems to increase as Chatten drawls "is it too real for yaaaa". Their ability to produce loud, intense and powerful punk songs as well as a slower, more enchanting dissatisfaction seen in ballad 'Roy's Tune'. The band turn to a fuzzy guitar riff at the beginning of 'Chequeless Reckless' as Chatten breaks down personality characterisations into what they truly are.
"A sellout is someone who becomes a hypocrite in the name of money"
'Liberty Belle' kicks off with just a drum beat and Chatten's groan before the guitar kicks in and the first verse is repeated. The guitar has a sort of surf-rock style whilst Chatten's vocal tone and the crashing cymbals reminds you that this is still a FONTAINES D.C. song. 'Boys in the Better Land' shows FONTAINES D.C.'s abolity to write catchy choruses into their frustrated punk style. Again, it is Chatten's vocal rhythm and style that drives this song, with the fuzzy guitar lines just adding to their impressive sound. This has already been released as a single but the faster style of the album recording makes an already impressive single sound that little bit better. The album finishes with another ballad, 'Dublin City Sky', which is another ode to their hometown.
Big things were expected from the Irish punk-quintet, but they have produced something even better than we could predict. There is no doubt that Chatten's delivery is a key part of the album's impressive sound with each song having its own identity. There is not a single song that you would want to leave out on the second listen, and this might just be one of my favourite albums of all time. (HG)
Slowthai - Nothing Great About Britain
24 year old Northampton rapper Slowthai has risen to mass critical acclaim after the release of his debut album. Ravaged from start to finish with unrelenting, blunt attacks on Britain’s current constitutional and socio-economic national crisis, Nothing Great About Britain is not merely controversial just for the sake of it. Raising issues surrounding the care sector, Britain’s role in global environmental disaster and the deluge of austerity as a result of a failed Tory government, Slowthai maintains wit and political articulation amongst the anger and jibes. (HF)
Vampire Weekend - Father of the Bride
The six-year hiatus taken by Vampire Weekend since their last album, ‘Modern Vampires of the City’, was so long as to be unbearable. When it finally arrived, Father of the Bride (initially announced as FOTB) found lead singer Ezra Koenig exploring a greater array of influences than on any of the band’s previous works. The result is an 18-track double album which sometimes feels inconsistent and strangely paced but contains some of the bands best songs.
Compared to their earlier work, FOTB represents a significant departure from Vampire Weekend’s signature Afrobeat sound: country, gospel, and Latin-infused pop are all embraced and given equal footing alongside the preppy guitars for which the band is best known. The versatility of Koenig’s songwriting here is impressive, albeit slightly distracted, like an excited child rushing through a sweet shop trying as many different flavours and varieties without making a final decision. A likely factor in this is the departure of multi-instrumentalist and founding member Rostam Batmanjili, who left the band in 2016 to focus on his career as a producer and solo artist. Although he was involved in some of the album’s production the band is now very much Koenig’s show, which has undoubtedly shaped the atmosphere and sound.
At its best, FOTB is cheery and thoughtful; the double billing of ‘How Long?’ and ‘Unbearably White’ in the album’s first half is easily my favourite segment to return to, with both songs nicely showcasing the range of Vampire Weekend’s abilities. ‘How Long?’, shimmering and cheerily cacophonous, boasts one of the best lines of any song released this year: “Why’s it felt like Halloween since Christmas 2017?” Although the title of Unbearably White is a playful acknowledgment of one of the enduring criticisms leveled at the band, the song itself isn’t a response to accusations of appropriation and privilege but a light, beautiful account of a failing relationship. What really sets it apart is Chris Bao’s bass track, which compliments the sparse arrangement and Koenig’s direct lyrics.
Many of the album’s singles have received extensive radio airplay, each displaying a different side of the bigger, members-inclusive Vampire Weekend of 2019. ‘Sunflower’ has, without a doubt, one of the most ridiculous guitar lines I’ve ever heard, and without fail every time I listen to it I find myself grinning like an idiot. ‘This Life’ is one of several songs to feature vocals from Danielle Haim and feels as though it was custom made for Radio 2.
Taken as a whole, Father of the Bride is the sum of its parts. Although lyrically it doesn’t match the honest contemplations of mortality that ran through Modern Vampires or the acerbic wit of the band’s debut, it encapsulates the mood of the present. (BN)
Nilüfer Yanya - Miss Universe
Miss Universe is the long-awaited debut album from the London-based artist, and it couldn’t be better. The album starts with an answering machine-like recording of Yanya welcoming you to WWAY HEALTH, the fictional care-centre the album seemingly takes place in, before throwing you head first into In Your Head, an abrasive pop bop perfect for summer road trips.
The spoken word Muzak interludes are scattered throughout the album, there are five in total, and after the first should feel like a gimmick that quickly wears off. However, Yanya uses them in such a way that she injects some humour into the album while tying it all together with the overarching themes of being told you’re not enough, in a plethora of ways. This is most obvious on Safety Net where Yanya seems to denounce her beauty with the genuinely heart-breaking lyrics: “Because I’m not good looking/I’m not good looking”.
The album builds up to the listener being told to “please give up” in the final jazz-influenced interlude and then proceeds to its epilogue, Heavyweight Champion of the Year. The sparse instrumentation for the majority of the song may make it feel like an odd choice for the finale, however the build-up to the climactic final chorus is the ultimate pay off. Her voice raw, telling and occasionally impish, keeps you on your toes while she showcases her range in a way that immediately arrests you and won’t let you go, not that you want it to. Percussion seemingly comes out of nowhere for the crescendo, perfectly accompanying Yanya’s voice, guitar and synths.
Something tells me that that ‘tricky second album’ won’t be so much of an issue for Yanya, who seems more sure of herself than ever, even when experimenting with genres she hasn’t touched before, and this can only bode well for the future. (ZS)
Black Midi - Schlagenheim
Really did not expect to enjoy this as much as I do. My flatmate hates it. I missed their set at Great Escape last year but my band's (The Family Chain) guitarist came out of it saying Black Midi might just have been the best thing he’s ever seen. I didn’t expect them to bring out an album so quickly but this thing captures so concisely why these lads are so interesting. I’m sure I’m not the first to say it but it reminds me of being shown Slint back in uni and thinking how enthralling, other worldly and wide awake this music is.
Opening with the crushing ‘953’ that displays just how much force and power the rest of this album is going to bring. One of the most interesting ingredients in Black Midi’s sound is Geordie Greep’s vocals. It’s a voice that is hard to describe but is such a rich contrast to the reems of very masculine masculine masculine singers in indie rock at the moment. This thing is such a captivating listen and if you dedicate some time to take the journey through the whole thing in one sitting, you won’t be the same again on the other side. (GS)
Gus Dapperton - Where Polly People Go To Read
Indie hero Gus Dapperton (real name Brendan Rice) finally released his debut album in April after building a respectable buzz around himself with a series of EPs that established him as a prominent figure in the indie scene. The kind of music that Rice makes is indisputably indie pop; the kind that makes you want to dance around the room like a young Morrisey, or pursue a questionable new hairstyle. The 80’s flavours are all there, but beneath Rice’s retro stylings beats a contemporary heart in touch with the present. All of his music is a statement, and his debut album, 'Where Polly People Go To Read', is a warm ode to inclusivity.
The album never quite captures the slick indie-pop spirit of his early singles, but Rice’s strengths on 'Polly People' lie in his ability to connect with the listener through melodic hooks and intensely emotional vocal deliveries. The massive post-chorus bridge on 'Fill Me Up Anthem' is incredibly powerful, with Rice inviting the listener to share in his heartbreak and Schadenfreude. As a willing poster boy for the emotional turmoil and confusion of finding love as a blossoming adult, his music is at its best-providing catharsis and escape.
'My Favourite Fish' is another song that I wasn’t initially too keen on, but after repeated listens I adopted it as a listening companion for my January car journeys and promptly fell in love. The gentle octaves played on acoustic guitar give the song a sense of quiet beauty, while the lumbering synthesiser, seemingly on loan from mid-70’s Pink Floyd, goes surprisingly well with Rice’s mantra. 'Eyes For Ellis', another standout, pulls one over on the listener by abruptly decreasing in tempo two-thirds of the way through the song, surprising and delighting in equal measure.
The tracklisting on 'Polly People' is chronological, with each song appearing in the order it was written. Rice has previously said that it follows a year in his life, and the loves and heartbreaks endured by him and those around him. As an honest depiction of his experiences, it has great merit in being both bold and very, very listenable. (BN)
Childcare - Wabi-Sabi
Whereas the other two albums I’ve put forward here have been out for a few months, 'Wabi-Sabi' was only released the other week. In that short time, however, it’s rapidly become a firm companion. In some ways it’s exactly what I’d imagine a good guitar album should sound like in 2019; indie rock very much alive and well for Childcare, who debut here fully-formed and thrashing
Formed in 2016 by Ed Cares, who at the time was one of west London’s most sought-after male nannies, the band felt fully formed and cohesive, which is uncommon for a relatively new group. Early single Dust already had a distinct sound that carried a sense of ominous threat and precision, employing vivid gastronomic imagery tempered by pulsing grooves and some downright fantastic guitar. It sounds like something you’d dance to as the world ended. The choral harmonies and intensive use of delay that characterise Dust reappear throughout the album, and although none of the songs reach the same levels of intensity there’s a kind of measured maturity that permeates throughout.
'Omega Grey', the first proper song on the album after opener 'Inhale', brings the listener in with a taut, insistent guitar line that owes a debt to Interpol, although Interpol were rarely this punchy, or this articulate. Their ideas never hang around or outstay their welcome, and longer songs such as 'Champagne Brain' progress and evolve, continuing to surprise the listener. Sharing of vocal duties between Cares and bassist Emma Topolski keeps the sound varied; on the album’s best songs, which are almost all of them, they convey a strange juxtaposition of strength and fragility
Not only is the album musically competent, the lyrics are pithy, often thought-provoking, and sometimes outright hilarious. It sounds like Cares has committed himself to fight the good fight; on 'Man Down', he confronts traditional notions of masculinity with lyrical mores and self-deprecation: “I know that you’re a man and a man knows best/but sometimes we all need to man down.” On 'Getting Over You' he dresses up in his ex-girlfriend’s clothes and walks around the house in her shoes to pretend she’s still with him, which is absurd but also strangely touching.
'My Psychotherapist Says', the penultimate track on the album, carries a sober melody with a wan smile, somehow the most affecting song on Wabi-Sabi despite only being a minute and a half long. Carried by Cares’ voice and a gentle backing guitar, it epitomises the band’s ethos; the knowing, self-aware allusions to royal figures and an implicit tenderness. (BN)
Spinn - Spinn
Perhaps overlooked by most, SPINN’s debut is a particular favourite of mine so far this year. Inundated with typical generic indie tropes, at a first listen it is possible to dismiss the album as inoffensive yet too conventional. However, the Merseyside four piece have found their niche and refined it so impressively that it comes as a surprise that they’re in such an early stage of their career. Whilst delving into the deeper topics such as toxic masculinity in ‘Shallow’ and ‘Notice Me’, overall SPINN is a necessary dosage of indie optimism with upbeat tracks ‘Sunshine’ and ‘Keep Dancing’ being particular highlights. (HF)
Loyle Carner - Not Waving, But Drowning
Loyle Carner’s sophomore effort has propelled him to even greater heights since 2017’s Yesterday’s Gone. Immersive from the offset, Carner brings us an introspective album woven with tear jerking poetry and carefully selected features from the likes of Tom Misch, Sampha, Jorja Smith, and of course his mum. A genuine bloke with a talent for storytelling, Carner is able to soak his own personality into every lyric. From the opener ‘Dear Jean’ he blurs the boundary between what is literature and what is music, crafting hip hop beats and merging them with retro soul influences, the experimentalism is rife but at the same time holds the right amount of subtly. (HF)
Lizzo - Cuz I Love You
If the past year has been anyone’s to own it’s been Lizzo’s, who’s third album has safely solidified her as the new queen of pop, soul and hip-hop. In an album that’s all about self-love, empowerment and sex she never fails to surprise and excite on every track. She confidently moves from one style to another while ensuring it never feels forced or disconnected.
The album opens with the title track Cuz I Love You and starts with Lizzo belting out the lyrics “I’m crying/cuz I love you” acapella before thrusting you into the epic, horn-heavy break-up ballad, setting you up for what’s to come, and it only gets better. Her voice and range are completely unparalleled and unrivalled by anyone else in the charts.
Juice is the album’s most accessible song, guaranteed to pique anyone’s interest, it did for me. At bare minimum it will have you tapping your foot along while nodding your head rhythmically, and at best living your best life dancing in front of a mirror declaring your love for yourself.
Throughout the album you’ll find it impossible not to fall in love with Lizzo and her palpable charisma as she ends Like A Girl with a blunder she gets away with, shouting: “Shit, fuck! I didn’t know it was ending right there”.
As I said, learning to love yourself despite any imperfections or self-perceived ‘flaws’ is the biggest theme in the album and is a true asset its tone. It touches on the subject so frequently, and in such a way, that by the time the album draws to a close with the slow, soulful and swooning Lingerie you have a chance to reflect on everything while Lizzo sings directly to you about a euphoric night. (ZS)