Second Quarter Review 2019

My Top 25 Albums released in April through June

  1. Jamila Woods — LEGACY! LEGACY!

The new album from Chicago poet, singer, and educator Jamila Woods is stunning not only in the ambition and beauty of its themes, but also in the artistic focus of its lyrical content and the depth of vocal performance. It’s pretty clearly a great album any way you slice it or analyze it. Yet for me, it feels inappropriate or dishonest to write about this album through a critical or analytical lens, because over the last two years or so, Woods has become one of my most important personal heroes — the kind who focuses me and gives my life clarity just by being herself. The kind whom I refer to by her first name in sentences like, “This Jamila song gets me so hype,” or “Jamila, this isn’t a great time for me to cry but, well, here we are.”

When Jamila’s first album, HEAVN, came out in 2016, I really liked it, not enough that it broke my Top 10 Albums of the year list, but enough that I knew I needed to keep an eye on her tour schedules and future releases. My first glimpse of her true glory came when I got to see her perform in Brooklyn. Her March 2018 show at BRIC House turned out to be one of the best shows of my life (at the time, I tweeted this). I was blown away by her ability to read and ride the energy of the audience to collective spiritual heights, and being a part of that experience knocked something loose in me, lifted me up, and refocused me towards an important lesson that the stress shroud of New York had caused me to forget, namely:

I can decide how and with whom I want to spend my life; I can trust myself to recognize positive energy, and I should go out of my way to follow it and people who embody it.

So when Jamila returned to New York a month prior to the release of LEGACY, I went moderately out of my way (all the way to SoHo! I had to use local trains and eat a weird fast dinner!) to attend a LEGACY pre-listening event and accompanying interview session. I already knew that Jamila was a captivating performer, and I knew that the way she represented the power of community and the importance of self-love in her lyrics and images really meant a lot to me, especially in LEGACY’s first single, “Giovanni,” and its music video. At the interview I learned that even in a slightly more intimate, conversational setting, Jamila projects a rare fusion of humility and confidence that I aspire to, myself. But I also learned something beautifully cyclical about the making of LEGACY, which is that in order to envision and record the album, Jamila needed to learn, internalize and embody the lesson her performance retaught me a year prior. The echoes caused by this human connection to my hero, this leveling and deepening, resonated with me then, and they come back whenever I listen to this album.

In the chorus of LEGACY’s lead single “Giovanni,” Jamila sings, “my ancestors watch me / fairy tale walking,” and this line provides a fitting introduction to the concept of the album as a whole. Each track on LEGACY is named after one of these ever-present ancestors, which of course include many who have passed away, such as James Baldwin, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Zora Neale Hurston, and Muddy Waters, but also some who are still alive, such as the poets Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez. In each track Jamila visits the teachings of its namesake to create a kind of partial self-portrait, a way of focusing on one of the multitudes within herself. With this creative and powerful template as the guide, on her second album LEGACY! LEGACY! Jamila Woods learns and teaches us how to grow; how to find, maintain, and protect positive energy; how to take care of yourself; how to incorporate and live the wisdom of those you look up to; and, crucially, how to communicate to the haters that you do not have time for them — that your work is too important for that.

(For a discussion on each song’s inspiration from Jamila herself, please do yourself a favor and read this great interview feature from Pitchfork.)

2. Denzel Curry — ZUU

Well, damn if this isn’t the most bonkers lit album I’ve heard all year. At the perfect length of 28 short minutes, it’s densely packed with wisdom, wordplay, passion, compassion, and a few of the most monstrous beats I’ve ever heard. Throughout the album, Curry’s pride for his home city of Miami, and for his biological and adopted families, is palpable, heart-wrenching, and gorgeous. “RICKY” stands out as an especially strong track, as Denzel shares the good and bad of where he came from over a beat that is so fierce it should be illegal. What goes up must come down, and I have spent most of my life believing that was true, but Curry has elevated his game so high for ZUU that it feels like gravity is taking a sabbatical. Hip-hop fans, get ready to lose your goddamn minds.

3. Thom Yorke — ANIMA

Thom Yorke’s eerie third solo album is his most aesthetically focused and thoroughly enthralling. The Radiohead lead singer’s solo music has always had an electronic, somewhat minimalist bent, and his primary emotional and lyrical themes have always come back to the banality of bureaucracy, anxiety, paranoia, and how those things relate. I’m here to report that ANIMA is no exception to any of this. It’s just that this time, he combines the familiar ticking snares, sweeping strings, and bleak bloops more masterfully than ever to bring you into the audience of his weird dreams — which, if nightmares are hell, then these dreams are more like a restless purgatory, complete with frustrating side-glimpses of heaven. ANIMA’s complex syncopated rhythms bring the album to life in a way Yorke has never achieved this consistently before as a solo artist, and fans of more electronic-oriented Radiohead albums such as Kid A and In Rainbows should find a lot to love here.

4. MorMor — Some Place Else

On MorMor’s third EP, Some Place Else, the follow-up to 2018’s glorious Heaven’s Only Wishful, the music is somehow even sleepier and more reflective than before. It’s also more balanced, more cohesive as an artistic unit: when you look up at Some Place Else in the night sky, the ambient shimmer stands out more than any individual stars. But that doesn’t mean the stars aren’t each beautiful in their own right.

5. Kishi Bashi — Omoiyari

Finally, it seems, it’s here: the perfect Kishi Bashi album. I’ve been waiting for this since I first saw Mr. Ishibashi perform in 2012, and I’m sorry if I didn’t fill you in. In my defense I’m not sure I even knew I was waiting. Listening to Omoiyari for the first time was like finding out fresh squeezed orange juice exists. It was like landing in Austin and shedding a tear because I forgot how much I missed real queso, or like having strangers smile and say hello to you after you’ve lived in New York for two years. Refreshing.

Don’t get me wrong, I liked Sonderlust and Lighght (and living in New York) quite a bit, and I thought 151a (and orange juice from a carton) would always be my favorite. But Omoiyari is a revelation which combines everything that I like best from each of those albums — the emotional intensity and dynamism of 151a, the unabashedly quirky stories and characters of Lighght, and the intensely catchy spirit of Sonderlust — into a delicious, unique stew. What is this — cinnamon? Carrots? Yum. Oh my god, what? I just found out I can have as many portions as I like.

6. Big Thief — U.F.O.F.

7. Vampire Weekend — Father of the Bride

8. The National — I Am Easy to Find

9. Carly Rae Jepsen — Dedicated

10. Polo G — Die a Legend

11. Hot Chip — A Bath Full of Ecstasy

12. Anderson .Paak — Ventura

13. Another Sky — Life Was Coming in Through the Blinds

14. Tyler Ramsey — For the Morning

15. Stef Chura — Midnight

16. Bill Callahan — Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest

17. Palehound — Black Friday

18. Calexico / Iron & Wine — Years to Burn

19. Emily Reo — Only You Can See It

20. Weyes Blood — Titanic Rising

21. Bedouine — Bird Songs of a Killjoy

22. Beyoncé — Homecoming

23. Hayden Thorpe — Diviner

24. Broken Social Scene — Let’s Try the After Vol. 2

25. NOIA — Crisàlida

Honorable Mention

Barrie — Happy to Be Here

Charly Bliss — Young Enough

Jade Bird — Jade Bird

Kevin Abstract — ARIZONA BABY

Lady Lamb — Even in the Tremor

Music moves us through our lives in productive and spiritually significant ways. I write about that. More writing on The Wild Honey Pie, FRONTRUNNER, & Patreon.