At the very forefront of a massive year for UK hip-hop & grime, Dave’s Pyschodrama represents a seismic leap forward in conceptual scope and emotional intelligence from the 21-year-old London native. Yes, this is the artist who shared the stage with lucky crowd member Alex on Glastonbury’s mainstage, but Psychodrama is anything but a festival-friendly collection of bops. Instead, the album charts the MC’s progression through counselling, examining the various aspects of a young black man’s life in London which may contribute to depression and stress. It’s a fully three-dimensional project, one which is both autobiographical and allegorical. Opening track ‘Psycho’ acknowledges the latent fallacies which underline the sort of masculinity we often witness from hip-hop artists. In one breath braggadociously wanting to “take a pretty woman for a test drive” while harbouring “deeper insecurities” that the artists’ significant other will leave him for “a better me”.
Sex is just the tip of the iceberg in Psychodrama, a project whose huge conceptual scope is brilliantly realised through Dave’s dexterous lyricism and dynamic vocal deliveries. A top coming of age album fully deserving of the Mercury Prize.
Nothing Great About Britain
British MC Slowthai, with considerable help from a large scale marketing campaign, has become one of 2019’s emblematic figures in music. His debut LP Nothing Great About Britain takes a sardonic look at Brexit England, venting nostalgia and occasional rages through anti-establishment or otherwise fringe social outlooks. Sleek beats from Mura Masa and guest features from Skepta help give the album a commercial zeal. Largely an outlier in much of the sounds emerging from Uk hip-hop, Slowthai channels a near spoken word or punkish energy in his recorded material.
When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
2019’s Reeling In The Years montage should unquestionably be soundtracked by wunderkind Billie Eilish. The year has almost been synonymous with the teen pop queen When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? is the excellently-titled reason for that. Her debut album has launched Eilish into megastardom and youthful hearts around the world with its ever-changing pop experimentation, illegally infectious refrains and heaps of charismatic energy.
On When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? Eilish captures the sounds that have dominated recent years – trap, emo, bedroom pop and downtempo female-led pop ā la Lorde – and mixed it all together with a sprinkling of self-awareness and the internet-based existential angst of Gen Z. It’s an immense recipe that could have easily culminated in a mess but Eilish and her brother, Finneas, moulded into it a groundbreaking, entirely unique form. Don’t let Eilish’s age trick you, one listen to When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? and you’ll be reaching straight for the green hair dye too.
Simbiatu Abisola Abiola Ajikawo’s voice announces the beginning of the superb Grey Area with a cold-blooded statement of intent. “Me again, allow me to pick up where I left off”. The cypher carries real weight too, it feels like Little Simz’s past two albums, certainly, 2017’s Stillness In Wonderland, have been part of an artistic journey, a progression which has earned the London MC the ability to craft hip-hop to the lofty standards of Grey Area.
Interestingly, in a year where British hip-hop has furiously incorporated different sounds and genres, Little Simz excels when trading bars off a more traditionally rooted version of hip-hop. Whether that’s the R&B backdrop of the stunning ‘Selfish’, the guitars and boombap beat of ‘Venom’ or the dancehall infused ‘101 FM’, the arrangements on Grey Area speak to an artist with a deep-rooted appreciation and knowledge of the genre she operates in.
Ajikawo must be considered among the finest lyricists in contemporary hip-hop. GREY Area boasts compelling meditations on womanhood, masculinity, motherhood and youth – often within the same track. Check out ‘101 FM’ for a golden highlight.
The last in a four part seasonal cycle of Bon Iver albums, i,i represents Autumn. It’s fitting then, that the project inhabits the emotional space between the brash 22, A Million and the wintery alienation of For Emma, Forever Ago. i,i has both the joyously uplifting ‘U (Man Like)’ and the more bittersweet ‘RABi’.
Musically, Vernon remains a master at melding his folk roots with the cutting edge of modern music. Electronica, hip-hop and rock are palpable influences throughout i,i. What’s advanced is the level of abstraction in which Vernon approaches his songwriting. Some tunes, like the opening pairing of ‘Yi’ and ‘iMi’, have few if any of the traditional song parts. Vernon has cut them out in favour of a truer expression of emotion, much to the benefit of i, i’s overall quality.
Nilufer Yanya’s Miss Universe is much more than a collection of watertight pop tunes. It’s more than the underlying conceptual motifs of hypernormalisation and mental health. Miss Universe is the sound of an artist elegantly making the transition from a bedroom indie sound to high-fidelity, mainstage ready pop music. Compare 2018’s Do You Like Pain? EP, a wonderful release but no where near the level of large-scale songwriting and production on ‘In Your Head’ or ‘Tears’.
These are intricately detailed, layered anthems. Nuanced enough to be distinctly Yanya while containing that spirit of universality that all great pop artists draw the masses in with. On her debut full-length, Yanya has proved herself an absolute force to be reckoned with.
Australian indie rock musician Julia Jacklin features two years consecutively in our favourite albums of the year list. Last year for the phenomenal Phantastic Ferniture project she spearheaded and this year for her superb solo record Crushing.
The veracity to which Jacklin approaches her songwriting is unparalleled. Be not fooled by the often subdued arrangements on this record. A voice, guitar, piano and a rhythm section is all Jacklin needs to blow the listener wide open. ‘Body’ typifies the intensity of Crushing beautifully, in many ways the perfect opener. This slow burning five minute epic details a toxic relationship, one which leaves Jacklin wondering years later if her ex would still be malicious enough to hurt her. The repeated refrain of “I guess it’s just my life/ And it’s just my body, ” is genuinely devastating.
So we’re dropped into the rest of the album, armed with the historical backdrop that makes Jacklin uncomfortable with intimacy (‘Head Alone’) or become lethargic to the idea of romance at large (‘Don’t Know How To Keep Loving You’). Crushing traces Jacklin’s journey to empowerment, for herself and from the ghost of romance past.
U.F.O.F. / Two Hands
2019 was Big Thief’s year. The American folk-rock band, fronted by the larger than life Adrianne Lenker, released two full-lengths, the acoustic U.F.O.F. and the electric Two Hands, the celestial and the earth twins. We couldn’t pick between them: both should be considered together. A sort of inverted take on one another. The earthy sound palettes of U.F.O.F represent the more introverted, reflective side of this particular coin.
Tracks like ‘Cattails’ or ‘Orange’ are dreamy odes to love both present and past. We’re never quite sure where fantasy begins and reality ends throughout U.F.O.F. Lenker speaks of finding “you there in your country flair / Middle of the river in a lawn chair” (‘Cattails). It’s a surreal image, laden with empathy and a trademark bohemian affection. So too with ‘Orange’s’ “Fragile means that I can hear her flesh / Crying little rivers in her forearm”, an ocean worth of imagery in a single couplet.
Two Hands , with its wailing guitars, is happy to deal more so in the here and now. Lenker rejects her own woozy rhetoric on opening track ‘Rock And Sing’, asking “Why’s that mean anything?” to the sublime “I am that naked thing / Swimming in air”. ‘Not’ remains one of the year’s very, very best tracks. A starched blue denim rock tune boasting one of the exhilarating guitar solos I’ve heard in an age. Both U.F.O.F. and Two Hands stand as masterclasses in modern folk-rock.
Tyler, The Creator
The year is 2019, Tyler, The Creator has crafted one of the most popular albums of the year around a bi love triangle. He’s done this entirely on analogue synths and gear. IGOR has a distinctly grainy, muddy production quality. Take the bass line on ‘RUNNING OUT OF TIME’, likewise that on ‘PUPPET’. Some take ire to this but the warmth and richness of that analogue sound is unlike that of any modern chart-topping hip-hop album in memory. Another token example among many of how Tyler is one of the genre’s most boundary-pushing artists.
He is the first rap artist ever to have a Billboard number one that’s entirely self-written, mixed and produced. While few would argue that he’s undeserving of such an accolade, it’s hard to define IGOR as a straight-up hip-hop project. Tyler’s influences clearly include vintage Soul (‘A BOY IS A GUN’), modern pop (‘GONE, GONE/THANK YOU’) and industrial sounds (as heard in the synth work on album opener ‘IGOR’S THEME’).
Nobody knows what Playboi Carti is saying in ‘EARFQUAKE’ and Kanye is doing old man vocals on ‘PUPPET’. These two quirks are among my favourite of the many on IGOR, they matter too. Tyler is confidently growing further into the role of grand orchestrator, directing huge productions and collaborations, with every release. Hip-hop is king and Tyler is one of the best to ever do it.
Lana Del Rey
Norman Fucking Rockwell!
There was something of an inevitability about the outcome of Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell!. In the year running up to the album, the often dismissed and misunderstood pop singer offered glimpses into a new stage of her career – one that stripped back the glamour and melodrama that she had become so thoroughly associated with. A series of deeply humanising singles built towards the eventual release of an album mired in authenticity and raw feminine energy, an album that finally presented Del Rey in her most actualised artistic form. NFR! packs a serious emotional punch – the tragic feminine persona she presented throughout her back catalogue is finally contextualised by delving into the inner struggles and demons of a woman mistreated by the man she loves. Lyrically her most impressive work to date, Del Rey veers between raw emotional vulnerability and self-referential witticisms – “Goddamn, man child/ You fucked me so good that I almost said, “I love you” has to be among the top opening lyrics of any album this year.
Del Rey’s depiction of womanhood is a breath of fresh air on NFR!. As an artist who’s often been painted as anti-feminist and critiqued for her perceived glorification of female subjugation, Del Rey challenges those perspectives by posing the question of what we accept as the ‘right way’ to perform femininity and feminism. In an era when sloganeering pop singers offer seemingly hollow feminist empowerment to the masses, Del Rey has crafted an album that waves a banner for the women who are left unseen and voiceless. She does this whilst taking control of her own narrative and refusing to be what is projected upon her. Few lyrics this year feel as honestly empowering and affirming as “you took my sadness out of context / At the Mariners Apartment Complex / I ain’t no candle in the wind” and this authenticity is exactly what pop music in 2019 needed.