From pop idols to indie rock surprises, Sacha Robinson and Connor Bluemel give their rundown of the very best music this year had to offer.
BILLIE EILISH — ‘WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?’
SR: Amidst the sea of indistinguishable fodder that constituted the 2019 contemporary pop landscape, Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas produced the rarest of things: a pop album of singularity and substance, merging uniquely Gen-Z presentation with a genuine grasp of musical classicism. On ‘Xanny’, gothic voice manipulation is underpinned by a beautifully traditional chord progression filled with devastating blue notes, as if Burt Bacharach is providing the accompaniment. Although Finneas’ production serves as a welcome respite to the loudness war, it is Eilish herself that steals the show with her brooding yet subtly expansive vocal timbre and investable personality. The ‘voice of a generation’ phrase is usually a transparent marketing ploy, but considering Eilish is singing at, for and because of a certain age group, the enormity of her resonance is hardly difficult to comprehend. It would be remiss of me not to mention ‘Bad Guy’, the most audaciously brilliant alt-pop manifesto since Lorde’s ‘Royals’ and easily the most unforgettable pop moment of the year. On track four Eilish recommends we see her in a crown, and after this record, such an image is entirely fathomable.
LANA DEL REY — ‘NORMAN FUCKING ROCKWELL’
SR: Lana Del Rey has quietly been the decade’s most influential pop star, re-contextualising a moodier, more introspective pop music and ushering in a range of disciples—including Billie Eilish, Lorde, Sky Ferreira and Halsey—that would go on to dominate the mainstream. Essentially, alt-pop is now just plain pop, with even the most hedonistic of pre-Lana pop artists drastically altering their sound to suit the prevailing shift in tone. With this in mind, Norman F***ing Rockwell! sits authoritatively at the summit of Lana’s catalogue. The defining fruit of her labour, NFR! is a sophisticated, nuanced synthesis of personal and political themes, set to fourteen acoustically-oriented accompaniments and drenched in gorgeously bittersweet Americana. Vocally, her improvement is stark: she’s confident, mature and highly expressive. What was once irritatingly thin, now womanly and seductive. Much has been made of where NFR! stands in the current climate of ‘woke culture’, but whether it is an elegy to nebulous American mythology or an endorsement of all things new and progressive, the album proves it possible to be both and more.
VAMPIRE WEEKEND — ‘FATHER OF THE BRIDE’
SR: Upon first listen, it is easy to dismiss Father of the Bride as twee, but that is exactly what makes the album charming—it is knowingly lightweight in a world of such deafening vitriol. In typical Vampire Weekend fashion, the arrangements are delightful: ‘This Life’ reimagines ‘This Charming Man’ as sun-drenched yacht-rock, ‘Harmony Hall’ is a faithfully polyrhythmic ‘Speaking In Tongues’ update, and ‘Sympathy’ renders continental guitar-strumming and pitch-manipulated voice choirs perversely funky. The collaborators (Steve Lacy and Danielle Haim, respectively) are judiciously chosen to elaborate upon the album’s mood, the former bringing a virtuosic pizzazz to the jam-oriented cuts, the latter a harmonically immaculate companionship to Koenig on his more thoughtful compositions. Thus, the record’s main success is established: FOTB is whatever you want it to be, working both as a dabble in personal and societal comment. A thoroughly enjoyable antidote to such serious affairs.
JULIA JACKLIN — ‘CRUSHING’
CB: Following her 2016 debut ‘Don’t Let the Kids Win’, Australian singer-songwriter Julia Jacklin returned in 2019 with her second album ‘Crushing’. Although her debut album provided an enjoyable slice of indie-pop, Crushing sees Jacklin contribute a unique, original and classic record, fully demonstrating her talent as a singer, songwriter, and lyricist. This has not gone unnoticed, bringing her critical acclaim and even a recent appearance on stage with Lana Del Ray. Crushing’s songs are immaculately constructed. Like a great novelist, Jacklin employs canny observations and detailed imagery to build engrossing stories into her music. Opening track ‘Body’ exemplifies this, articulating the relief of escaping from a toxic relationship, only to deal with the poisonous remnants it has left behind. In some of the most immediately captivating album-opening lyrics in recent memory, she sings: “The police met the plane/They let you finish your meal/I know you’d like to believe it, baby/But you’re more kid than criminal.” Other songs find Jacklin grappling for space and perspective, creating legitimate pop bangers in the process. ‘Pressure to Party’ is a highlight in this regard, partnering insightful and poignant lyrics with an infectious melody. The album’s climax does not come in the form of pop hooks, pervading the album is genuine heartbreak, the apogee of which comes in the stunning ‘Turn Me Down’, showcasing Jacklin’s wonderfully idiosyncratic lyrics and the full range of her vocal capabilities.
PUP — ‘MORBID STUFF’
CB: Since their 2013 debut, PUP has shown a knack for translating feelings of frustration, dislocation, and genuine anger into catchy yet hard-hitting punk rock songs. As a result, the band has earned legions of fans around the world, who in turn provide some of the most passionate and energetic crowds in the business. In 2019’s Morbid Stuff, the Toronto quartet tackles depression and existential crises with humorous self-deprecation and relentless energy. Lead single ‘Kids’ finds frontman and lyricist Stefan Babcock explaining: “I’ve been navigating my way through the mind-numbing reality of a godless existence.” But as he goes on to confide, he is “embraced the calamity with a detachment and a passive disinterest”. With lyrics such as these, Babcock sums up the world view of countless teens and twenty-somethings, who have struggled to find their place in a seemingly remorseless world. In a similar fashion, ‘Scorpion Hill’ sees the song’s protagonist down on his luck, having dark thoughts and fearing for the future of his family under modern economic pressures, ultimately providing an insightful social commentary in the process. Morbid Stuff might have some heavy themes, but through these dark tales PUP and their fans are able to achieve catharsis. As Babcock himself put it in an interview with Fader: “When you stumble across the only other person on the face of this godless, desolate planet that thinks everything is as twisted and as f***ed up as you do…the world starts to seem just a little less bleak. But only slightly – it’s still pretty fucked up to be honest.”
EZRA FURMAN — ‘TWELVE NUDES’
CB: On his latest trip to Seattle’s KEXP studio, Furman played two songs none of his fans had heard before. The tunes were direct and punchy, shirking the ‘high-concept’ of previous material. Under questioning from host Cheryl Waters, Furman revealed: “I always knew that a time would come that I would have to make my own all-out punk record and the time has arrived, 2019.” The result was Twelve Nudes, a collection of eleven straight-from-the-heart punk songs, clocking in at a furiously paced 27 minutes. As one might expect from such an album, much of Twelve Nude’s lyrics are political in nature. On ‘Evening Prayer aka Justice’, Furman laments the political inactivity of his youth – “I wasted my twenties in submission/I thought I was outside the system/But I was rolling over for wealth and power/As if they really cared about me” – and implores the listener to take action: “If you’ve got the taste for transcendence/That translates your love into action/And participate in the fight now/For a creed you can truly believe.” Elsewhere, Furman – who uses both male and female pronouns – explores his queer identity. The song ‘I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend’, which he has described as “a romantic song of transgender longing”. It provides personal and moving subject matter, as well as a brief change of pace from the punk sound of other tracks. As Furman acknowledges on the album’s final track, in the face of political upheaval and bigoted ignorance: “What can you do but rock ‘n’ roll?”
This article is part of our one-off edition of IQ Magazine, out from November the 29th 2019. Pick up the magazine on campus in our InQuire distribution bins in Keynes, Co-op, the Templeman library and other locations on campus.