Across the Margin takes stock of the status of music in 2019, stopping near the midway point to offer its picks for the best songs of the year (so far)…
Gary Clark Junior – “This Land”
Gary Clark kicked the door in on 2019, releasing a fiery and poignant anti-racist (and anti-Trump) anthem titled “This Land” just two weeks into the year. In the song, the Austin-based guitarist tells the story of living on “fifty acres with a Model A / Right in the middle of Trump country” next to a neighbor who “can’t wait to call the police on me.” Expounding up the inspiration behind “This Land” on the Rolling Stone’s series How I Wrote This, Clark described the basis for the song as an encounter with a neighbor in Texas who appeared in disbelief that Clark was a homeowner, something that struck him as disconcertingly racist. The video for “This Land,” directed by 25-year old filmmaker Savannah Leah, is essential viewing, filmed in Clark’s rural Texas hometown where the song draws its inspiration, featuring an abundance of images of American racism. “This Land” is deep in that it exhibits the frustration of an American who cannot even feel at home or safe in his own country, while simultaneously displaying the raw power of Clark’s musical prowess.
Sam Cohen — “Something’s Got a Hold On Me”
New York based producer, singer, and songwriter extraordinaire Sam Cowen can be currently found on tour both opening for, and playing with, renowned singer-songwriter Kevin Morby, whose album (Oh My God) Cohen produced. Remarkably, while crafting Morby’s excellent album, Cowen — formerly of the indie rock bands Apollo Sunshine and Yellowbirds — birthed his own album entitled The Future’s Still Ringing in My Ears (co-produced by Danger Mouse). The album paints an unforgiving, and unfortunately convincing, picture of present day America, particularly in the excellent song “Something’s Got a Hold On Me.” In the psych rock, 60’s era song, Cohen describes an America where the population is “too fat to riot” and the “future has been a terrific disappointment.” There is an all-together relatable exasperation that permeates the track, particularly when Cohen laments that “something’s got a hold on me, and it will not let go.” Listeners vexed and drained by the ongoing corruption and ineptitude that currently persists in America will feel a deep measure of pacification from the camaraderie and the soothing soundscape of the song.
Toro y Moi — “Freelance”
Across the Margin had the chance to catch Toro y Moi’s performance of their new single “Freelance” in Portland, Oregon on the day their new album Outer Peace dropped. The night was a rousing production, filled with the usual recipe of infectious chillwave vibes Toro y Moi leader Chaz Bear has built his career on. On “Freelance,” Bear has layered his chillwave aesthetic with offerings of disco funk and has pivoted his sound from dreamy lo-fi to high-energy dancefloor. There’s a lot more vitality to Toro y Moi’s latest sound, especially when compared to 2017’s introspective album Boo Boo (steeped in the personal reflections of a failed relationship) and “Freelance” is an excellent encapsulation of what “indie dance” and mid-fi grooves should sound and feel like.
Better Oblivion Community Center — “Sleepwalkin’”
To create Better Oblivion Community Center you mix one part Conor Oberst and one part Phoebe Bridges and add in a healthy dose of deep human introspection. What comes out the other side of this recipe is an intimate soft rock sound well placed for these difficult and trying times. “Sleepwalkin’” is a type of song steeped in the current trend of beautiful hopelessness, akin to what Father John Misty, Mitski, or Kurt Vile are putting out, buoyed by a pair of singer-songwriters who have built a career in this vein. It seems inevitable that these two artists would come together and on “Sleepwalkin’” Bridges and Oberst’s biting lyrics intertwine with each other and show off one of the best features of this beautiful new collaboration: singing in unison. There is an energy built by this interaction, wherein their voices merge to become one, and their complementary talents serve to amplify the power behind their potent music and seemingly effortless sound.
Sunwatchers — “Beautiful Crystals”
The Brooklyn-based psych-rock band Sunwatchers crafted one of our favorite releases of 2019 with the album Illegal Moves. In their own words, “Illegal Moves is the band’s most potent blend yet; a heady potion of free-jazz, psychedelia, punk & noise rock that is both tender and ferocious; the perfect soundtrack to smash capitalism and fix our broken system thru sonic catharsis and revolution.” “Beautiful Crystals” acts as an ideal introduction to the band if not yet in the know, a driving, dynamic skronk-grooving number that emphatically highlights the power and talents of this exciting band.
King Gizzard and The Lizard Wizard — “Boogieman Sam”
We at Across The Margin are entirely convinced that the Australian psych-rock band King Gizzard and The Lizard Wizard are poised to be one of the biggest rock bands in the world. Releasing their fourteenth album this year (five in 2017 alone!), Fishing For Fishies, this exceedingly prolific genre-bending rock outfit continues to move their sound forward and generally proceed to rock the F out. “Boogieman Sam” is one of the stand out tracks off their latest album, a bluesy, buoyant track rife with harmonic honks, boisterous drums, and a lively spirit we just can’t get enough of.
Freddie Gibbs, Madlib — “Crime Pays”
When 2019 commenced, there were few albums we were as excited to get our hands on than the forthcoming collaboration (entitled Bandana) between Gary, Indiana rapper Freddie Gibbs and the brilliant producer Madlib. While we still are waiting for the follow up to their collaborative, critically-acclaimed 2014 album Piñata, a few singles have dropped already, whetting our appetite and making it clear one of the better hip-hop albums of 2019 is nearing. The latest song the duo has shared is “Crime Pays,” a banger that exhibits how well Gibbs and Madlib work together, as Gibb’s precise and assailing flow glides smoothly over Madlib’s lush, alluring production. June 28th, the just announced release date for Bandana, cannot come soon enough, with an album that features Pusha-T, Killer Mike, Yasiin Bey, and Black Thought.
Anderson .Paak — “Come Home” (feat Andre 3000)
Selecting just one track off singer, rapper, songwriter, record producer and multi-instrumentalist Anderson .Paak’s latest album, Ventura, proved to be a trying task, as the whole project fashions itself a magnificent testimonial to Paak’s remarkable talents. Ultimately, “Come Home,” was just too brilliant to pass on. “Come Home” is the soulful commencement to Ventura, setting the throwback vibe for the album aptly. It’s the recounting of a lover’s quarrel, and its groove is one that harkens exquisitely back to Motown’s heyday. Excitingly, “Come Home” is capped off by a rapid-fire verse from one of hip-hop’s living legends: Andre 3000.
Strand of Oaks — “Ruby”
Strand of Oaks, the rock project helmed by songwriter and producer Timothy Showalter, released a remarkable album this year entitled Eraserland. Showalter describes the ten songs that comprise the album as being about “existing and continuing on, a testament to the hope that even if we feel like we are disappearing, there is that glimmer of light.” Backed by My Morning Jacket’s rhythm section, Eraserland is a splendid achievement and the stand out song “Ruby” is the feel-good peak of the album. Described by Showalter as “the happiest song I have ever written, “Ruby” is anthemic, rock and roll at its very finest, a song seemingly constructed for summertime indulgence.
Kevin Morby — “No Halo”
Singer-songwriter Kevin Morby’s latest album, Oh My God, is a towering achievement for the talented and driven artist. On the album, the artist takes established styles of spiritual messaging — sermons, preaching, prayer — and through his music bends them to his will, as if he is a 21-Century preacher commandeering the traditions of the Sunday pulpit. Channeling the ghosts of Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed on the first single released “No Halo,” Morby seeks to convert his flock to his current way of thinking. While a pleasing piano melody plays over a driving staccato of clapping and percussion, Morby sings of being a boy with “no rooftop to [his] joy.” Sprinkle in the alluring seduction of a flute and some sultry saxophone spilling forth from the darkest corner of Heaven’s most intimate jazz club, and one can get a sense of the intoxicating gospel Morby has crafted on this song, and the greater album. There is a sense of Morby trying rather ambitiously to connect his childhood to the greater pull of eternity, as if he could discover the thread that ties us all, and the greater universe, together via a song. “No Halo” is a deep and spiritual dive for the transcendental artist and a strong example of what it takes to forge an album of the year.
Kevin Abstract — “Baby Boy”
Kevin Abstract – founding member of the California-based rap collective Brockhampton (“the greatest boy band in the motherfucking world”) – latest album is entitled Arizona Baby and it most certainly has our attention. No track on the Jack Antonoff-produced album exhibits Abstract’s zest for love, his unapologetic homosexuality, and his spirit quite like “Baby Boy” (featuring Ryan Beatty), a lo-fi ballad that is as beautiful as it is telling of Abstract’s talents. Abstract is an excellent emcee, yet “Baby Boy” doesn’t find him rapping but rather crooning over a psychedelic soundscape that is both uplifting and overwhelmingly pretty.
Logic (feat. Eminem) — “Homicide”
Going toe to toe with Eminem on a track is no walk in the park, but on “Homicide,” off of California-based rapper Logic’s latest album, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Logic makes it sound easy. It is a wonder to hear these two dynamic and freakishly talented emcees go back to back on “Homicide,” their first collaboration, and the duo of fiery verses are a perfect pairing, each rappers skill set an ideal match for the others. Interestingly, and highlighting the self-deprecating sense of humor of Eminem and Logic, “Homicide” concludes with an outro from comedian Chris D’Elia, who did an impression of Eminem that went viral.
Bun B and Statik Selektah — “Basquiat” (feat Fat Joe & Smoke Dza)
Recently Bun B, one half of the southern rap duo UGK (UnderGround Kingz), and renowned producer Statik Selektah, released an album entitled TrillStatik. TrillStatik is rife with hip-hop bangers and features assists from a multitude of emcees such as, Method Man, Flatbush Zombies’ Meechy Darko, Westside Gunn, Talib Kweli, and Big K.R.I.T. to name a few. What is most remarkable about the album is that Bun B and Statik recorded the project in just under twelve hours, live streaming the entirety of the album’s creation. “Basquait,” featuring excellent verses from Fat Joe and Smoke Dza, is just one of the notable hard-hitting tracks on an album entirely worthy of your time and attention.
Steve Gunn — “Vagabond”
Brooklyn-based, singer-songwriter — and former guitarist in Kurt Vile’s backing band — Steve Gunn released a magnificent album in mid-January entitled The Unseen In Between. The lead single on The Unseen In Between, “Vagabond” (named after Gunn’s favorite Agnes Varda film) highlight’s Gunn’s remarkable finger-picking guitar prowess, while the lyrics speak to the eccentric lifestyles of those on the outskirts of society, the misfits and social outcasts. “Vagabond” has a classic, soothing vibe, and fortuitously features vocal harmonies from Gunn’s frequent tour-mate Meg Baird.
Jenny Lewis — “Wasted Youth”
On “Wasted Youth,” Jenny Lewis sings in her marvelous pop-country voice, “Why you lyin’?/ the bourbon’s gone/ Mercury hasn’t been in retrograde for that loooong, oh no.” There’s a catchy and infectious delivery to Lewis’s lyrics, the above mentioned especially. Paired with superb piano playing and a tight knit back-up band, the goodwill crafted in “Wasted Youth” is guaranteed to please. This song is sure to slide into the soundtrack to 2019’s summer, and sonicaly it offers a firm rebuttal to the strife and discontent that has been sweeping the cultural and political airwaves. However, all is not well in Lewis’s world, for the topics she covers throughout her latest album On the Line are weighty. Death, addiction, and heartbreak circle around her as “Wasted Youth” attempts to channel Lewis’s nostalgia for the light-hearted singer-songwriter vibes of the 70s and rise above all this discontent. Yet, ultimately, the song succumbs to the album’s darker side and any thoughts of a sugary sweet ending are washed away. It’s a delightful premise, to pair a light-hearted and catchy musical romp with a decidedly downturn message, and something that speaks to the playful-yet-weighty power that Lewis possesses as an artist. Just take the songs final lyrics, for example, as she pairs a vision of hopelessness with a careless shrug of the shoulders: “And everybody knows, we’re in trouble/ Doo-doo doo-doo doo…”
Lambchop — “Everything For You”
Lambchop, Kurt Wagner’s illustrious alt-country (and increasing electronic) band, followed up 2016’s stunner of an album Flotus with another deeply personal and alluring album, This (is what I wanted to tell you). While Lambchop features famed bassist Matt Swanson and pianist Tony Crow, Lambchop albums persist as deep dives into the psyche and mind’s eye of Wagner. This (is what I wanted to tell you) pairs Wagner’s understated, sharp lyrical prowess with lush, dreamy soundscapes. “Everything For You” is a soothing jaunt where auto-tuned, pacifying vocals intermingle warmly with brisk, snappy percussion and delightful keyboards riffs, and it is just one of the delightful tracks found throughout another captivating and impressive Lambchop album.
Sharon Van Etten — “Seventeen”
New Jersey native Sharon Van Etten’s latest album, Remind Me Tomorrow, finds Van Etten returning from a five year musical hiatus and releasing her most bold and arresting testament to her phenomenal talents yet. Taking stock of her life, at a point in time where Van Etten’s star has begun to justly soar, Remind Me Tomorrow hosts a slew of songs that examine her journey through life and the wins and losses amassed along the way. One of these songs, “Seventeen,” displays a deeply introspective Van Etten as she reflects on her teenage years living in New York City (“I used to be free, I used to be seventeen”) while hinting at the woman she will one day become (“I know what you’re gonna be, I know that you’re gonna be”). While lyrically contemplative and nostalgic, “Seventeen” roars with the confidence and fervor of a fully realized artist and human.
Andrew Bird — “Bloodless”
Seasoned songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird’s presumptuously (and aptly!) titled latest album, My Finest Work Yet, is brimming with reactionary lyrics to the worriments of our modern times. By far his most political album to date, Bird — like so many artists in the Trump/Climate Crisis era — felt compelled to transform his frustrations into art, and the first single released from My Finest Work Yet, “Bloodless” embodies the triumphant result of this desire. “Bloodless” recounts what he sees as a bloodless civil war, where those in power are profiting from our worry and devisiveness, and where “the best have lost their convictions, while the worst kee sharpening their claws.” While My Finest Work Yet, and the weighty track that is “Bloodless,” delve into despair, there is still so much hope and optimism abounding, or as Bird explains, “we can turn this ship around, but need to step back and be honest with ourselves about what’s happening while it’s still relatively bloodless.”
Trey Anastasio — “Ghosts of The Forest”
Phish frontman Trey Anastasio embarked on a project of the heart and soul this year, crafting an album that is an expedition through the hurt that accompanies loss and the perspective that can be gained through that bereavement. Aided by Phish’s drummer Jon Fishman, and long-time collaborators Jennifer Hartswick, Celisse Henderson, Tony Markellis, and Ray Paczkowski, Anastasio dubbed this project Ghosts of The Forest and went to work crafting an album that acted as an ode to his lifelong friend Chris Cottrell, who died in early 2018. The title track off the album serves as the entryway into this profound, often dreamlike world where the stages of grief are conquered through song. “Ghosts of The Forest” whisks listeners into a world rife with anguish and confusion, but where catharsis and a celebration of life ultimately comes into existence.
The National — ”Light Years”
Upon the completion of 2017’s remarkable Sleep Well Beast, and the lengthy tour in support of the album, The National were poised for a breather and some time spent recuperating. This was not to be. Inspired by famed director Mike Mills (20th Century Women), who reached out to the band regarding a collaboration centered around the story about the lifespan of a woman (which has been made into a short film), The National went back to work on their eighth studio album I Am Easy To Find. I Am Easy To Find is as deeply affecting an album we have come upon in many years, one where a collection of remarkable female vocalists (including Sharon Van Etten, David Bowie’s band member Gail Ann Dorsey, and Pauline de Lassus) are folded into The National’s signature sound with stunning results. The concluding track on this meticulously crafted masterpiece, “Light Years,” is one we find ourselves continually returning to again and again. It’s a heartfelt journey that confronts the distance all too often found in relationships, where sometimes even while near, we reside “Light Years” apart.