5 Overlooked Albums of 2019 (so far)
We're about halfway through 2019, and as the halfway mark is a good time to catch up on the masses of albums released this year so far, we recently published a list of 7 great metal and hardcore albums from 2019 you may have missed and now here's a non-metal list of five great 2019 albums that we overlooked during the first half of 2019. "Overlooked" is a tricky word to define when it comes to the way we consume music in the streaming/twitter/etc era, but in this case we're just using it to mean albums that we haven't highlighted enough -- or at all -- here on BrooklynVegan. Some of these albums have been mentioned on the site before, but none have been reviewed by us. Maybe they're new to you too, or maybe not, but they're at least all a bit more under-the-radar than the new Vampire Weekend and Sharon Van Etten records. (Both of which we love!)
Read on for the list. What albums do you think have gone overlooked this year so far?
Between his solo projects and his many collaborations, prolific underground NYC rapper billy woods can be pretty hard to keep up with, and almost everything he puts out is good. But if you're not one of his diehards that's up to date on all of his work, Hiding Places -- his 2019 collaboration with LA producer Kenny Segal -- would be an excellent place to check in. It's one of his best projects to date, and one of 2019's best rap releases so far. Segal's production often favors a psychedelic, modern update on classic hip hop, but it can branch off into atmospheric minimalism ("A Day In A Week In A Year"), hard rock ("Speak Gently"), UK electronic beats ("Toothy"), and more, and woods tackles all of it with his booming, bassy delivery that sounds menacing from start to finish. woods loads the album with memorable one-liners (the best of which has to be "I don't wanna go see Nas with an orchestra at Carnegie Hall, which never stops being funny, no matter how many times you hear it), and though he avoids pop-friendly hooks, the songs quickly stick with you. He raps with such a clear focus that he can make you pause whatever you're doing and listen closely, and this happens song after song. It's the kind of album where each new track gets you as excited as the last. It's just 12 lean songs with no filler, and it always leaves you wanting more.
Between the Country is 29-year-old Kentucky singer/songwriter Ian Noe's 2019 debut album, but it sounds like it could be a lost folk/country album from the late '60s or early '70s. It's gotten more than a few comparisons to Nashville Skyline-era Bob Dylan and John Prine, both of whom Ian cites as influences (along with Neil Young, Dwight Yoakam, Tom T. Hall, and others), and the latter of whom Ian will be opening for later this year. And when Ian sings old-soul lines like "It was a dog den where good men were rare," it's not a put-on; it's what he grew up surrounded by. "That’s the language. It’s the language I grew up with. It’s the way family would talk and how they’d tell old stories. It always appealed to me," he matter-of-factly tells Rolling Stone. You probably wouldn't actually mistake Between the Country for a lost '70s album though, as the gorgeous production by Dave Cobb (who works with likeminded artists like Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires, Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, and Ian's former tourmate Colter Wall) makes the album sound strikingly modern. It's got that perfect balance between the fresh and the familiar, the kind where you feel like you've already known the album your whole life on first listen but it still feels like a gift you just unwrapped. The Dylan and Prine comparisons are easy to notice, but there's also a '90s alt-country vibe to Between the Country. Ian cites Lucinda Williams' 1998 alt-country classic Car Wheels on a Gravel Road as an all-time favorite, and I'd say some of these bare-bones, melancholic songs could appeal to fans of stuff like Bonnie "Prince" Billy and Songs:Ohia too. And while -- like those artists -- Ian writes the kind of songs that can silence a room with just his voice and guitar, sometimes his songs are even more effective when he takes advantage of collaboration. When he harmonizes with backing vocalist Savannah Conley on songs like "Letter to Madeline," it's truly breathtaking.
New Zealand's Sarah Mary Chadwick first made a name for herself as the singer/guitarist of the grungy Batrider, but she's been pursuing a solo career since 2012 and her fifth solo album, The Queen Who Stole The Sky, is a triumph like few others. Sarah, who normally plays guitar or keyboard, was commissioned by the City of Melbourne to perform an original piece on the Melbourne Town Hall's 147-year-old pipe organ, the largest Grand Romantic organ in the Southern Hemisphere. That piece became The Queen Who Stole The Sky, which was recorded live and then turned into Sarah's new album. It's a concept that would be interesting even if the album wasn't that fun to listen to, but it is fun to listen to. It manages to have both the accessibility of her earlier work and the pure uniqueness you would expect from a project like this. On this album, I keep coming back to thinking she sounds like Amanda Palmer meets Bjork, and it's rare to even hear someone attempt sounding like that, let alone pull it off as masterfully as Sarah Mary Chadwick does. I'd like to think that comparison is at least enough to make you curious enough to listen (if you haven't already), but this is not really the kind of album you can compare to other artists anyway. Like Amanda and Bjork, Sarah Mary Chadwick is a true original on The Queen Who Stole The Sky. Not only did she have the technical skills to pull off this task, she was able to come out with a personal, emotional album in the process. The pipe organ is a grand, majestic instrument, but The Queen Who Stole The Sky still sounds intimate.
Minnesota's Remo Drive picked up a lot of buzz for their 2017 debut album Greatest Hits, which was self-released and soon became the talk of many emo-friendly online music circles. To be honest, I thought their debut was fairly run-of-the-mill, generic-sounding emo -- how many more bands with strained, nasally vocals, pop punk chord progressions, and silly song titles do we need? -- but Remo Drive quickly caught on, signed to Epitaph, and continued to expand their fanbase. And now I'd say the many people who saw potential in them were right all along. Their recently-released second album is -- in my humble opinion -- much better than Greatest Hits and a pretty huge step forward.
Natural, Everyday Degradation has much cleaner production than Greatest Hits (it was produced by Hop Along's Joe Reinhart and mixed by The National/Interpol collaborator Peter Katis), and the band's singing and songwriting is a lot stronger than it was two years ago. The album is still under the umbrella of indie rock-friendly emo and pop punk, but these songs aren't really written like emo or pop punk songs. Erik Paulson's voice sounds a lot more pristine, and his melodies hearken back to classic pop like pre-acid Beatles or early power pop like Elvis Costello. His voice has evolved from a punky yelp into a matured croon, and he's developed a real knack for songcraft that was only hinted at on Greatest Hits, and that you don't hear everyday in the punk/emo scene. If I were to compare it to albums within punk and emo, it reminds me most of albums like Saves the Day's Stay What You Are and Joyce Manor's Cody, albums where punk bands cleaned up their sound and wrote songs that rivaled the classic pop canon. (Though released 15 years apart, those albums were both produced by Rob Schnapf, whose style would probably pair well with Remo Drive too. Also, Saves the Day and Joyce Manor are touring together later this year, and if you're excited for that tour, Natural, Everyday Degradation is probably right up your alley.) Natural, Everyday Degradation is the kind of creative, artistic progression that you usually don't hear this early on in a band's career, so it already has me excited to hear where Remo Drive go next. If there are still some setbacks, the songs could be a little more musically diverse and Remo Drive could use a really strong chorus or two -- the new album may remind me of Stay What You Are but they haven't written their "At Your Funeral" yet -- but at the rate they're going, I wouldn't be surprised if they churn out a modern classic one of these days.
I'm a big fan of the new Ezra Collective album, including its show-stealing verse from UK rapper Loyle Carner, yet it slipped past me that Loyle Carner released his own great album just one week earlier. It's the followup to his acclaimed, successful 2017 debut album Yesterday's Gone, and it's yet another very special album from this rising star. If you're unfamiliar with him, it makes sense that he was on jazz group Ezra Collective's album, as Not Waving, But Drowning sounds more informed by Britain's current jazz scene than its current rap scene. With production by Kwes, Jordan Rakei, Tom Misch, and others, the album tends to combine glistening jazz keys with '90s boom bap beats, and Loyle's heartfelt, confessional lyrics are rapped in a way that's somewhere between lightly singing and spoken word. Soulful guest hooks come courtesy of Sampha, Jorja Smith (who's also on the Ezra Collective album), and more. Compared to the more fired-up UK rap albums that came out this year from the likes of Little Simz, slowthai, Skepta, and Dave, Not Waving, But Drowning is warm and quiet, touching on topics like Loyle's mother, his partner, his mixed-race identity, and toxic masculinity with pensive raps that are as tender as the lush production. Even with the rise of "emo rap," the album is fragile and vulnerable in a way you don't often hear within hip hop. It's a risk to make an album like Not Waving, But Drowning, and the album does have its fair share of detractors, but it's been met with a handful of rave reviews as well. When you inspire such strongly mixed reactions like this, you're usually doing something right.