Mike Luoma is a Vermont based writer and Music Director who helps curate the sound of Adult Alternative Streaming Station WBKM.org.
Really? We do this now?
After seeing first one, then another, then, suddenly, many more Best Albums Of 2019 (So Far) lists — and realizing my weird and quirky tastes weren’t quite represented — I decided to share my own subjective take on the current theme. Almost halfway through the year, so why not? Everything moves so quickly these days — maybe telling you in December about an album that came out all the way back in January is old news?
These are the ten albums I’ve been listening to the most that came out in the first half of this year, out of a whole bunch more music — 2019 is a great year so far…
10. Better Oblivion Community Center — (Self-Titled) — It was a pleasant surprise when Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers announced back in late January that they’d combined forces as Better Oblivion Community Center and dropped their debut self-titled album. This isn’t an album of duets — the two most often sing together, their voices combining in raspy harmony. And their collaboration made a certain immediate artistic sense. Though Oberst has a longer track record with Bright Eyes, his solo work and various other projects, Bridgers 2017 debut Stranger In the Alps trafficked in a similar vein of wry, confessional, observational storytelling to that which Oberst has made his stock and trade. It’s on prominent display on lead single “Dylan Thomas” where they sing “I’ll die like Dylan Thomas / A seizure on the barroom floor…” and opening track “Didn’t Know What I Was In For” where they inhabit the character who observes, “Everyone looks happy with each other/’Til they step away and say the thing they really meant/They always sound so cruel…” There’s a stark honesty and dry humor throughout, even in the perhaps fictional portraits Bridgers and Oberst paint, which rises above simple cynicism, though you might mistake it for such at first glance.
9. Petr Aleksander — Closer, Still — Petr Aleksander is Tom Hobden (of Noah & The Whale) and producer Elliot James (Two Door Cinema Club), and together, they do their own thing, creating haunting yet soothing ambient, instrumental sounds. The instrumental “A Walk On the Seabed” charmed me immediately when I first heard it late last year, a sparse, atmospheric, piano-driven meditation which still managed movement, tension and grace. Beautiful! The full-length album arrived in April, an indie classical release featuring twelve such tracks. “A View From Above” evokes soaring at lofty heights, while the title cut emulates the quiet the name suggests. Strikes me it’s hard to write about classical instrumentals… simply put, Petr Aleksander’s are atmospheric, soothing and beautiful. Sublime.
8. Aldous Harding — Designer — Speaking of haunting… the opening track on Designer “Fixture Picture” gave me chills when I first heard the song. Had that certain “something”… apparently ethereal and delicate yet possessed of an inner strength. Never mind that the juxtaposition of the two words in the title makes it almost impossible for me to say it correctly first try. I’ve been aware of her work, but the new album from New Zealand artist Aldous Harding, her third, has won me over. “The Barrel” — the lead track — grabbed my attention — was she singing, “I fear your love”? Nope, that was “feel” — I think. I’m never quite sure what her lyrics mean. They seem open to interpretation, inviting the listener to guess, and, perhaps, supply their own meanings, as part of a bigger artistic conversation in the listener’s consciousness.
7. Bear’s Den — So that you might hear me — This album’s spot in my “Best Of” was kind of guaranteed. I love the UK band’s work, and pre-ordered a signed copy of the CD. The “band” is now a duo — Andrew Davie and Kevin Jones parted ways amicably with co-founder Joey Haynes before their last album, Red Earth and Pouring Rain. So that you might hear me picks up where Red Earth left off — acoustic folk meets atmospheric synth washes and keys, synth drums and percolating percussion propelling songs of lost love, longing, fractured childhoods, and dreams both won and lost. Lead track “Laurel Wreath” led the way along with “Fuel On the Fire”, the former with a bit more power than the latter. Other standouts include late-album tune “Conversations With Ghosts”, “Fossils” and the closer “Blankets of Sorrow”. One small complaint… While I enjoy Bear’s Den’s current sound, I did prefer their earlier acoustic work, before Haynes left the band. But evolving their sound makes sense. Having come up out of the same scene as Mumford and Sons — Bear’s Den’s Jones co-founded the Communion club nights with Mumford’s Ben Lovett that grew into promotion, publishing and a record label — these last two albums seem a deliberate step away from the more acoustic, banjo-tinged tunes of their debut full-length Islands and two earlier EPs, perhaps attempting to step more out of Mumford’s shadow.
6. The Waterboys — Where The Action Is — This one just came out, end of May. Which means, as it’s made this list, that I’ve been listening to it a LOT. Oh yeah. I think of this album as Dream Even Harder. It follows shortly after An Appointment with Mr. Yeats the way Dream Harder did Fisherman’s Blues, a couple albums down the road, almost feeling like an answer to it, as if it took a release or two to wind back up again. Ever the explorer, The Waterboy’s Mike Scott often takes the band in different directions as he follows his muse, from rock to folk to traditional music, from pop lyrics to interpreting the poetry of William Butler Yeats. This time, we get a touch of the literary, with Robert Burns’ poetry interpreted (“Then She Made the Lasses O”) as well as part of Kenneth Graeme’s Wind in the Willows (“Piper At The Gates Of Dawn” — not a Pink Floyd reference). And “In My Time On Earth” incorporates Rumi via Michael Green. But it’s the rockers that grab as the album opens, kicking into high gear with the energetic title track as Scott recalls the first flush of naïve British youth taking on the world through nostalgic pop, a la Absolute Beginners. As the album unfolds it feels biographic, as the title track is followed by Scott’s tale of youthful idolation of Mick Jones of The Clash in “London Mick”. Life and love’s complexities then set in [“Right Side of Heartbreak (Wrong Side of Love)”], followed by musing on life lessons, an opening mind, growing consciousness, and the discovery of deeper love. I’m tempted to think of it as the Mike Scott Story So Far — but one must be careful not to read too much into any artist’s work, eh?
5. Weyes Blood — Titanic Rising — As a music lover, you keep your “radar” on — an awareness of many artists producing work that’s almost there — whatever there is. That certain something. Many are critical darlings. Some become personal favorites. Few actually produce next-level work. But. When they do? It can be breathtaking! Weyes Blood — the band name used by artist Natalie Mering, pronounced “Wise” Blood– has been on my radar for a couple of years. When the lead track from Titanic Rising “Everyday” came my way, I listened. It wasn’t what I expected! There were lush strings, a sprightly arrangement that recalled a late 60’s, early 70’s Laurel Canyon sort of vibe, Bah-Bah-Dah chorus voices even recalling the Mamas and the Papas. And then there’s Mering’s voice, powerful when needed, fragile at times, soaring over and through the richly layered production. “Everyday” is a beautifully built piece of art! The full album, when it arrived, proved to be just as impressive a work. Wow — Titanic Rising blew me away, first listen! It is a sit down, put on, fall into and pay attention to Album. Titanic Rising is an Experience, with a flow throughout showing care went into its crafting, and a wistful theme, the elusive and fleeting nature of Love. New resolution (“A Lot’s Gonna Change”), grows into longing and looking, stars in our eyes (“Andromeda”, “Everyday”), wondering if it will ever be found (“Something to Believe”), questioning if it’s real (“Movies”), sadly watching it fade, to maybe come back around (“Mirror Forever”). And then, the aftermath and fallout (“Wild Time”, “Picture Me Better”), and perhaps a realization that a lot didn’t change in the wistful instrumental closer “Nearer to Thee” whose melody wryly echoes the opening track. Titanic Rising is showing up on a few of the Best Of 2019 (So Far) lists that I’ve seen, and deservedly so — this is a career-making and brilliant piece of art.
4. Rodrigo y Gabriela — Mettavolution — If you’re going to cover Pink Floyd’s “Echoes”, you better be good. And you really ought to do something with it, adapt the arrangement, somehow make it your own, so it’s not just slavish imitation. Your version also should show a love of, and a knowledge of, early Floyd. Or else? Why bother? Rodrigo y Gabriela’s new cover of “Echoes” — all eighteen-plus minutes of it — checks all those boxes as it closes out their new album Mettavolution. It was also — boldly — sent out as the first “single” from the album. For those who don’t know, Rodrigo y Gabriela are a flamenco/classical guitar wielding duo who broke through with their own brand of re-arranged covers of Metallica, Led Zeppelin, and other hard rock tunes. They write their own material as well, and the new originals on Mettavolution are some of Rodrigo y Gabriela’s most mature and intricate yet soulful and spirited work yet, displaying the pair’s amazing prowess as composers, arrangers and performers, distilling the essence of their craft down into concise, focused presentations. The title track propels us into the album and “Terracentric” doesn’t let up. “Cumbe” dabbles in the more traditional before “Electric Soul” takes us dancing in the new now. It all builds up to their reworking of “Echoes” — and that, alone, is worth the price of admission.
3. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard — Fishing For Fishies — I love this band and I don’t know why. Okay, part of “why” is that they released an amazing modern Prog Rock album back in November of 2017 — and Polygondwanaland, which the band gave away for free, came out right around my birthday, like a gift! I guess I also love ’em because that was only the 4th of 5 albums they released in 2017, an amazing feat: Flying Microtonal Banana in February, Murder of the Universe in June, Sketches of Brunswick East with the Mild High Club in August, that Polygondwanaland in November, and finally Gumboot Soup on just about the very last day of December. Each of the albums was VERY different, from Polygondwanaland’s new Prog, to the jazz-rock improvs on Brunswick, to heavy metal space death Prog on Murder, to the math-rock of Banana, and the sorta catch-all Gumboot. Understandably, the band took last year off. They’ve come back this year, their fourteenth album, Fishing for Fishies, arriving in late April. “Cyboogie” led the way, a synth-tastic synth-army attack, accompanied by a wild video in which Stu Mackenzie IS a somewhat sinister synth-human hybrid, head and arms poking out of a rolling synthesizer like Davros, inventor of the Daleks, pokes up out of his rolling throne on Doctor Who. There’s an environmental awareness lurking here throughout, from the observation in the title song that perhaps the fishies don’t want to be fished, so we don’t want to fish for them, to the profane cynical defeatism and condemnation in “Plastic Boogie” — “Fuck all of that plastic …It’s gonna come and kill us …Death will come from plastic… Death will come from people…” — all to a happy little boogie number. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard enjoy juxtaposing extremes to illustrate absurdity, as heard on “Boogieman Sam” which plays with the oddness of the fact the funky music term can also describe a scary monster born of childhood horrors. There’s a lot of boogie here, for some reason. “The Bird Song”, a standout track, doesn’t boogie, but falls in alongside more their jazz-rock work with an almost Steely Dan-like melody. Yet it’s unmistakably King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard in their lyrical observance of how absurd we must appear to other creatures: “To A Bird, What’s A Plane?” It’s hard not to notice that human beings blindly and blithely destroying ourselves is a thread running throughout the band’s work. Much as I love them, the band get a bit too pessimistic and cynical for my taste at times, but I do value the reminder that we just might all be fucked, so why not have a good time and get into some great music?
2. Darlingside — Look Up And Fly Away (EP*) — And then there’s the sunshine, light and optimism of the new EP from Darlingside. If King Gizzard bums you out, put this one on next, it’s gorgeous and soul-lifting stuff! Some may quibble over my inclusion of an EP in this list, but Look Up and Fly Away features five incredibly solid tunes, all killer, no filler, as they used to say. As I know of many albums that can’t boast five solid tunes, I’m arguing the quality here outweighs the quantity and merits its inclusion. It may be BS, but this is my list, so… there. I love Darlingside — they’re great people as well as amazing musicians. Birds Say from 2015 is one of my all-time favorite albums. Much as I enjoyed 2018’s Extralife, and will never fault a band for experimenting and stretching themselves creatively, on that one occasionally the technology seemed to intrude a bit, or maybe just more than I would have liked, the bleeps and blurps sometimes distracting from the beauty of their voices in harmony and the more traditional instrumentation. Those sounds nearly disappear on the new EP, and the beautifully blending voices of Don Mitchell, Auyon Mukharji, Harris Paseltiner and David Senft emerge front and center, propelled by percussive play on traditional instruments. There is something sublime and harmonious, sunshine-filled and summery about the whole EP that recalls Brian Wilson’s Beach Boys at their best and most transcendent, but not slavishly so — and Darlingside’s lyrics are more evocative in their tales and imagery, and certainly more ranging in subject matter — though “Paradise Bay” could stand alongside any of those summer songs of old. And speaking from experience, both it and the title track mix seamlessly into “Good Vibrations”… Apropos to its title, Look Up & Fly Away is an uplifting work. It raises the spirits and shines like the summer sun. We can all use more of that these days.
1. The Claypool Lennon Delirium — South of Reality — Imagine the music made if John Lennon joined Pink Floyd when The Beatles broke up. Without really being fair, true or accurate, that kind of describes the sound of The Claypool Lennon Delirium. You see, though, they’re somehow more than that, because that doesn’t quite encompass the Les Claypool-quirkiness of the thing, nor the esoteric magick Sean Lennon vibe throughout their work. All of that is here on South of Reality, served up in a wonderful psychedelic, progressive rock soup. Claypool and Lennon have given us a red and violet lava lamp of an album, colored blobs of glowing, transcendental awareness pushing up through clearer goo, exploding open in waves of expanding perceptions. “Blood and Rockets: Movement One — The Saga of Jack Parsons, Movement Two — Too The Moon” was my introduction to the album. Mindblowing! Parsons is a curious figure, a follower of “The Wickedest Man Alive” Aleister Crowley and friend to a pre-Scientology L. Ron Hubbard — check out my article if you don’t know Jack — and Claypool and Lennon do an able job concisely relaying his tale in this Beatle-esque song. Part two is heavily reminiscent of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” — and I don’t care. Sean Lennon embraces his DNA here, in a way, channeling his Dad, not ripping him off so much as building on his legacy. And it’s only a part of The Claypool Lennon Delirium’s palette — “Easily Charmed By Fools”, another lead track, is clearly a Claypool concoction, for example, given Les’ driving bass work and snarling vocals. “Amethyst Realm” could fit into Floyd’s early outré. And the sitar-like guitar — and humorous recitation of “Psyde Effects” in the outro — in “Cricket Chronicles Revisited: Part I Ask Your Doctor — Part II Psyde Effects” makes it just a great psychedelic jam, perhaps recalling one of those food bands, like the Electric Prunes or Strawberry Alarm Clock. I kid a little, but not about the sound.
Like so many on this list, South of Reality has a coherent feel, a sense of a theme, and a flow that makes it a true Album — a work, a creative piece, a whole, presented as such. As much as any other quality, that is an important criteria for me in determining what makes my list of Best Albums, either So Far or for any given year. Sure, a great album can just be a great collection of songs — some of these here are just that. But I love to celebrate the ones that take it a step further, and show a respect for the album as its own thing.
That is my list of my Best Albums Of 2019 (So Far) — a subjective look, of course, at the music of the first half of the year. Your mileage may vary. Hopefully, I’ve turned you on to something new you’ll love.