Across the Margin concludes its rollout of the Top 50 Albums of 2019 with The Top 10 Albums of 2019…
10. Steve Gunn — The Unseen In Between
The Brooklyn- based guitarist Steve Gunn has been our radar for some time now. From his earliest self-titled release, and forward through his days playing along Kurt Vile as a collaborator and member of Vile’s band, the diverse influences that shine through his work, and his pinpoint, entrancing finger-picking, are persistently awe-inspiring. We’ve been waiting for that break-out album that would display, in all its glory, Steve Ginn’s extreme talents and songwriting virtuoso to the masses. With the release of The Unseen In Between this past January, that time has arrived. The Unseen In Between fashions itself as Gunn’s most personal album to date, highlighted by the deeply affecting tribute to his late father on the song “Stonehurst Cowboy.” The production on the album by the wondrously gifted Jim Elkington is impeccable, leading to a visceral, intimate feel. Once within Gunn’s grasp, from the commencement of the alluring “New Moon,” and unto the buoyant, driving “Vagabond” (featuring vocals from Meg Baird), and beyond, there are countless intricacies both musically and lyrically to explore. Described by fellow rocker Ryley Walker as a “big-city, small-detail approach,” Gunn’s latest album is a celebration of the moments in life that are often overlooked, as well as the people that are sadly dismissed in our society (See “Luciano,” a song about a bodega store owner and a cat). A revered stalwart in the New York City music scene already, Gunn is the sort of guitarist that could quickly become a legend in his own time, and The Unseen In Between is an immense and highly impactful step in that well-earned direction.
9. Sharon Van Ettan — Remind Me Tomorrow
New Jersey native Sharon Van Ettan’s latest album, Remind Me Tomorrow, finds Van Etten returning from a five year musical hiatus and releasing her most daring and arresting testament to her phenomenal talents. Taking stock of her life, at a point in time where Van Ettan’s star has begun to justly soar, Remind Me Tomorrow hosts a slew of songs that examine her life’s journey and the wins and losses amassed along the way. One of these songs, “Seventeen,” displays a deeply introspective Van Ettan 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,” as well as the entirety of Remind Me Tomorrow, roars with the confidence and fervor of a fully realized artist and human.
8. Strand of Oaks — Eraserland
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 on an album that sounds right as rain all year long.
7. Purple Mountains — Purple Mountains
A devastating loss rocked the music community this year with the heartbreaking passing of singer-songwriter David Berman. Before he left us, and ten years after the celebrated frontman of the Silver Jews announced his retirement from music, Berman graced eager fans with a tremendous project under the moniker Purple Mountains. Produced by Jarvis Taveniere and Jeremy Earl of Woods, Purple Mountains found Berman as sharp and cutting with his songwriting as ever. Frankly speaking, Purple Mountains — a truly majestic and profoundly introspective album — has become hard for us to listen to, as many of the themes found on the album are struggles that Berman dealt and are presumably why he is no longer with us today (depression, lost love, isolation, etc). Yet Purple Mountains is a stunner, and a deeply honest album that floored us with its candid reflections and stunning imagery. David Berman was a genius, one of the greatest songwriters of all time. His work — Purple Mountains and the six Silver Jews albums that preceded it — is a catalog we will celebrate forevermore. R.I.P. David, and thank you for bearing your soul, and gifting us with beautiful, relatable, and heart-wrenching music.
6. Michael Kiwanuka — KIWANUKA
Michael Kiwanuka exists in a space all his own within the world of modern music. He represents nostalgia and his art harkens back to greats before him such as Richie Havens, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin (and in his sound he carries their spirit.). This year Kiwanuka released what many view as his magus opus, the self titled Kiwanuka. Building upon his tremendous work that came prior, Kiwanuka manifests itself as a reflective piece of art that perfectly blends early 70’s singer-songwriter rock, late 70’s soul, and contemporary British pop R&B. A fascinating tactic Kiwanuka employs on the album is the use of an introductory interlude to preface a song. The method to which they are placed and used really completes the project. “Piano Joint (This Kind of Love)” has a wildly spiritual intro that seamlessly transitions into the song itself, which starts with a simple kick-drum and numbing yet empowering piano chords. The song is written to be a pop, love ballad, yet when delivered with Kiwanuka’s 70’s soul influence the song proves to be even more poignant and specific. “Hero” has an intro that starts with a somber piano background that transitions into a guitar-rich, quick-paced anthem reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along The Watchtower.” The tonal difference from the intro to the full song shows that its lyrics can be contemplative and discouraging as well as commanding and hopeful. These two songs, and their intros, connect the albums’ tones while showcasing multiple perspectives on similar ideas.1
5. Angel Olsen — All Mirrors
Angel Olsen talents are astounding. The American singer-songwriter continually impresses us with the scope and quality of songs she releases. Her music is epic in its range, wildly introspective, and evocative in its boldness, strength, and authenticity. On her latest album, All Mirrors, these facets to her talents are multiplied to infinity. The album’s opening track, guided beautifully by a 12-piece string section, showcases the raw power and emotion of Olsen’s music on full blast. If ever there was a song to set the tone for an album, the opening track “Lark” is that offering. But the intoxicating magic doesn’t end there. All Mirrors second song, the self-titled “All Mirrors,” continues the sonic goodwill earned previously and propels the album into orbit. There’s an additional eight songs on All Mirrors, all competing for the title of “best song on the album,” and we have to admit it is hard to choose just one, as they are all standouts. “Too Easy” reflects echoes of early Stereolab. “New Love Cassette” finds Olsen offering her love up to some abstract spectre of a being while powerfully fuzzy strings soar over an infectiously droning bass beat. We could go on and on with our well-crafted accolades, but trust us in our position that this is Angel Olsen at her best, backed up by an orchestra of dreamy stings that add an alluring depth to her already illustrious sound.
4. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib — Bandana
When 2019 commenced, there were few albums we were as excited to get our hands on than the collaboration album, entitled Bandana, between Gary, Indiana rapper Freddie Gibbs and the brilliant producer Madlib. In late June the follow-up to their critically-acclaimed 2014 album Piñata was unveiled and to say that it delivered on expectations is a gargantuan understatement. The first single released, “Crime Pays,” was an exceptional tour de force, exhibiting just how well Gibbs and Madlib work together. Gibb’s precise and assailing flow glides smoothly over Madlib’s lush, alluring production to spirituous effect. The respect that the two have for each other is endearing and to hear them speak about each other it is obvious they both know they are working with the cream of the crop at their craft. For example, Madlib claims that Freddie “raps like a damn saxophone: his smooth cadence, his flow, he’s crazy like Charlie “Bird” Parker and all them cats.” Brimming with Gibbs’s brand of braggadocio thuggery, Bandana features assists from such heavyweights such as Pusha-T, Killer Mike, Yasiin Bey, and Black Thought, and emphatically places Freddie Gibbs amongst the best of the best emcees on the planet. The duo claims they already have another album near completion that will complete a trilogy, a fact that has us beside ourselves with excitement.
3. YBN Cordae — The Lost Boy
The debut album, The Lost Boy, from North Carolina native YBN Cordae stopped us dead in our tracks. With a dexterous, seasoned-sounding flow, and an uncanny ability for vivid storytelling through rap, it was unfathomable to us, after the first few front to back spins, that this was Cordae’s coming out party. Wearing his heart on his sleeve across all fifteen tracks on the album, Cordae appeared to be making peace with his past in order to prepare for what is most certainly a bright future ahead. On “Wintertime,” Cordae comes clean about all the “skeletons in our closet from a shady past,” and on “Family Matters” he opens up about his families’ baggage in order for there to be “no more sufferin’ in silence.” Cordae, it appears, wants us all to know exactly who he is, a feat he pulls off with precision throughout the weighty, but fun as fuck, The Lost Boy. The 15-track album contains six features, and they are all remarkable. Chief among them are Cordae’s pairing with Anderson .Paak on the party starter “RNP” and the soulful ride that is “Bad Idea” with Chance The Rapper. All in all, The Lost Boy isn’t simply the best debut album we came upon all year, but the best hip-hop album we came upon in all of 2019.
2. Neal Francis — Changes
There was a reoccurring theme we noticed in contemplation of so many of our favorite albums of the year. That is, we noticed a strong familiarity with the music, as if it were an echo from the past overtaking us. Whether it was albums by the Fruit Bats, Michael Kiwanuka, or the Black Pumas, while indulging there were moments of almost deja vu where we could swear we had been in that sonic moment before. Yet, the soundscapes were simultaneously novel and current, and blazing with a brand new energy. This is certainly the case with Chicago-based musician Neal Francis and his funky, soulful, familiar-feeling album, Changes. Neal Francis was a young piano prodigy who by the age of 18 could be found touring with Muddy Waters’ son, honing his ivory skills. Now 30 and seasoned, and after forging a winning, recent battle with drugs and alcohol, Francis is ready to let it all hang out. On an album steeped in New Orleans soul, early 70s rock n’ roll, and Chicago blues, Francis pays tributes to all his musical influences while weaving an auditory narrative that is all his own. Changes has become our go-to house (office!) party album, and one of the best albums top to bottom we’ve heard all year — a true masterpiece.
1. Sturgill Simpson — Sound & Fury
Sound & Fury, the fourth full-length album from country music outlaw Sturgill Simpson, tops Across the Margin’s list of best Albums of 2019. The albums songs, woven together smartly by a car-radio flitting through stations as we imagine Simpson barrels down some dusty, sun-burnt American road, dance from glam to synth to dance-floor rock thrillers. The fact that Simpson is our guide on the Sound & Fury’s sonic journey only serves to draw you deeper into the music, and to educate you more fully on the talents that Simpson possesses. There’s an effortless to Simpson’s music, an ability to chameleon-like slip from one genre to another while somehow staying firmly rooted in the country-westen ethos. And that is what is most appealing about Simpson’s music, looking at him, and listening to him speak, it is easy to build up the misconception that he’s “just another country western singer”. But this prejudice could not be farther from the truth. From the infectious dancehall jams of “Sing Along” to the fast paced tempo of “A Good Look,” to the synth-laced “Make Art Not Friends,” where Simpson sings: ““This town’s getting crowded / The truth’s been shrouded / I think it’s time to change up the sound,” it’s more than apparent that Simpson is an artist striking out on his own. He’s upending generations of ideals and concepts of what a country music artist can be, blurring the lines between genres in the process, and it’s so refreshing and necessary in this day in age that we can’t not place it at the top of our 2019 list. The music, and its implications, are just that good.
- All album reviews written by the staff of Across The Margin except the Michael Kiwanuka review, written by Miki Hellerbach. [↩]