Notable Releases of the Week (12/13)
The year and decade continue to come to a close, and the year-end and decade-end lists keep coming (including my list of my favorite metal albums of 2019 that’s up on Invisible Oranges). Also coming is more and more holiday music, and speaking of the holidays, we’ve got a Vinyl Me, Please gift guide that you might want to check out if you’re looking for a gift for the music lover in your life.
Though list-making season can make it feel like the year is already over, it isn’t, and this week has a handful of worthy new albums. I picked four that I highlighted below, but first, a few honorable mentions: the first Eddy Current Suppression Ring album in ten years (that you can read more about in Bill’s Indie Basement), City Morgue, the surprise Atmosphere album, Oath of Cruelty, Annie Hart, Jasta (of Hatebreed), Harry Styles, Daniel Lopatin’s Uncut Gems soundtrack, and the St. Vincent remix album.
Read on for my four picks below. What was your favorite release of the week?
December in the music industry is a time when a lot of us are thinking more about what albums we loved most throughout the year than thinking about new albums, and that task is made a little easier by most artists choosing to release their albums between late January and Thanksgiving. This year, list-making season intensified because it’s also the end of a decade, so there’s even more catchup to play and more deadlines that both the listmakers and the artists have in mind. But there’s usually at least one truly great album that comes out in mid to late December, lists be damned. Stormzy’s Heavy is the Head is one of those albums.
Heavy is the Head may come at the tail-end of the year, but there’s no way Stormzy will be excluded from the narrative of 2019 music. He dropped lead single “Vossi Bop” (which closes the album) all the way back in April, and it topped the UK charts and has long been in the conversation as one of the year’s best rap songs. A handful of other singles came in the months that followed, so even though Heavy is the Head is only sneaking in now, it arrives feeling almost like a greatest hits. And it’s one of those albums where the non-singles already feel on par with the already-established hits, and the previously released songs take on new life within the context of the album. “Vossi Bop” struck me like a jolt of lightning upon arrival, but the full brilliance of the gorgeous, gospel-tinged “Crown” — which came out in June — didn’t reveal itself to me until I heard it sandwiched between “Audacity” and “Rainfall.” (Though my experience may not necessarily be a common one. That song hit #4 over in the UK… obviously plenty of people got it right away.)
And even though Stormzy only released one album before this one (2017’s widely acclaimed Gang Signs & Prayer), he is sure to be cemented as one of the decade’s key artists too. Skepta may have spearheaded the grime renaissance, but Stormzy became the first major leader of grime’s new school, and — especially with 2019 being the year that the grime renaissance is really starting to infiltrate the US too thanks to hugely buzzed-about albums like the debuts by slowthai and Dave — Stormzy’s influence feels greater than ever. The timing couldn’t have been better for him to finally follow Gang Signs & Prayer, and for his followup to feel so instantly satisfying. Like his debut, HITH is split between the hard-edged rap songs and the delicate, melodic, R&B/soul songs (and some of the in-between), and Stormzy remains a pro at both sounds, and at weaving both sounds together. Sometimes the prettier songs are aided by some more traditional belters like R&B/soul powerhouse H.E.R. and recent Mark Ronson collaborator YEBBA, but Stormzy himself often proves to be nearly as good at singing as he is at rapping. (As far as the guests go, I could probably have gone without Ed Sheeran showing up on the otherwise great “Own It,” which also features Afro-pop trailblazer Burna Boy, but if his presence gains Stormzy even more fans, then more power to Stormzy for featuring him.) HITH is diverse lyrically too, with all the boasts and shit-talk matched by plenty of sentimental moments, and just a hint of a political side here and there too (“Fuck the government and fuck Boris” remains one of 2019’s iconic one-liners). From the album cover to several of the lyrics, Stormzy crowns himself the king of grime again and again, and with this wide a musical scope and this enjoyable and replayable of an album, he just might earn the title.
In case you’re unfamiliar, San Jose slowcore trio Duster were initially around in the late ’90s and early 2000s and broke up after releasing just two-full length albums on the now-defunct Up Records (also formerly home to Built to Spill, who Duster’s Jason Albertini was a member of at one point), and some other miscellaneous releases, and they broke up without leaving much more than a minor mark. Years after calling it quits, though, Duster became an unlikely influence on a handful of modern indie acts, including (Sandy) Alex G, Snail Mail, and Girlpool. They finally reunited late last year and played shows opening for some of those modern bands they influenced, and then the Numero Group treated their discography to a box set rerissue earlier this year. It also turned out that Duster weren’t just in it for the nostalgia; they decided to write a new album — their first in 19 years — and it arrives today. The new self-titled LP is probably the most high-profile and anticipated Duster release ever, and considering how much they’ve impacted the current indie zeitgeist, they probably could’ve gotten away with just releasing a new album that sounds exactly like their first two. So it’s even more amazing that Duster not only exists, but sounds totally new for them. It’s still in the same orbit as the first two Duster albums, still full of slow-paced songs that pull you into a daze rather than hit you with instant satisfaction, but the daze feels different this time around. Duster feels more overtly psychedelic and a little less straightforward than the music Duster released during their initial run. They were always spacey, but they now sound more trippy and claustrophobic than they did the first time around. On this album, Duster don’t sound like they came back to capitalize on their long-overdue acclaim. They sound like they want to keep pushing their music in new directions, just like they did during their initial run. They almost sound as intentionally out of step in 2019 as they did in 1998. It’s thrilling and unexpected, and it makes Duster feel as essential as the band’s two classic albums. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take another 20 years for this one to catch on.
Free Nationals have been Anderson .Paak’s talented backing band for a while, and last year they started releasing their own singles with other lead vocalists, and now they’ve turned all of those singles and a handful of other tracks into their debut album. I don’t know if Paak’s songwriting style rubbed off on Free Nationals or if they were always a bigger part of his songwriting than we knew, but this album is cut from a pretty similar cloth as Paak’s own material — classic soul, funk, and R&B filtered through a modern hip hop lens and played with rich, live-band instrumentation. Paak is one of the vocalists, and he’s part of an all-star, multi-genre cast that also includes the late Mac Miller, Kali Uchis, JID, Syd, Kadhja Bonet, Daniel Caesar, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, T.I., Conway, Westside Gunn, and more. From UMO’s psych-pop to Chronixx’s modern-day reggae to Conway and Westside Gunn’s ’90s New York rap revival, all the guests’ various styles are represented on this album, but they’re all weaved into Free Nationals’ sound in a way that always keeps the album sounding cohesive. It still feels a bit more like a collection of singles than like a super focused album, but they’re all good singles and they make for a record that’s very easy to throw on in almost any situation.
On a very similar note to the Free Nationals record, Kaytranada’s sophomore album Bubba has arrived — two and a half years after his great debut 99.9% — and it also works an all-star, hip hop/R&B friendly cast into one unique world. This album also has Kali Uchis on it, plus Pharrell, Tinashe, GoldLink, Charlotte Day Wilson, Estelle, Mick Jenkins, SiR, VanJess, Masego, Iman Omari, and others, and their combined star power makes Bubba an especially great listen. But even with that star power, it still always feels like Kaytranada himself is in the driver’s seat. His inventive production — with its thick rubbery basslines, bubbling psychedelic atmospheres, and kinetic drum patterns — would make this album a winner even without all the guests.