This old song and dance. Every time, this is my personal favorite column of ours to be part of our bevy of year-end content. To quote my past self, the inherent and irredeemable “flaw of end-of-year music journalism content is that lists discussing stuff from the past year often forget to mention that a lot of music discovery happens later…the limitation of year’s-end recollection to solely discussing albums that came out that year has always seemed a little ridiculous to me.” The discovery of music is a lithe, atemporal, beautiful phenomenon that seems ridiculous to chain to an arbitrary length of time like a calendar year. Of course, reflection on a year makes sense, and I would never suggest that end-of-year content is bad in of itself, but to not acknowledge this flaw or attempt to circumvent it in some way seems like shooting all of us in the foot.
Thus, the origin of this list. The entries here follow one simple rule: album choices cannot be from this year. Whether that comprises stuff we’ve missed from recent years for one reason or another, or classics in their respective genres that we never got around to checking out, the albums that were eligible for this selection were all of the ones not released in 2019. So, with that simple rule in mind, take a look at our favorite discoveries of 2019. Enjoy!
Bladee – Red Light (2018)
The common joke both among and about fans of Bladee and other artists in the “drain gang” collective is that every recommendation of his music involves the words “he sucks, but you get used to it.” This is way more accurate than I would ever care to admit. Make no mistake, I really, really, like his, but it honestly does just suck until you get used to it.
Breaking down Bladee’s music into its component characteristics, it’s not hard to see why this might be the case. His music could be charitably grouped into either cloud rap or alternative r&b, but doesn’t fit neatly into either; it’s a cold slush of lugubrious autotuned vocals and ethereal, crystalline trap instrumentals courtesy of producers Whitearmor and Yung Sherman. BLadee mumbles his way through most of his songs with little energy, always sounding tired and morose to the nth degree. His lyrics are hard to appreciate – when you can even understand them, that is – without a keen ability to take exceptionally stupid puns and cliche sad lyrics at face value. Without prolonged and repeated exposure to Bladee, it is very hard to understand why anyone would actively choose to listen to his music.
But then you listen to it and, like some depressed cranial parasite, he starts to find his way into your head. The first thing to sink its hooks in are the instrumentals, which tend to be unbelievably catchy. A melody gets stuck on loop in your brain and you find yourself listening to whatever song you heard again, despite his unbelievably lackluster vocal performance. Then, after enough listens, you start to warm up to Bladee himself in all his strange and off-putting and idiosyncratic glory. The monotone, deadpan delivery starts to serve two purposes: first, it tempers his incredibly dumb puns – and I am talking stupid, the opening lyric on the whole album of Red Light is “still in the night, I should be knighted” – and second, it undercuts the ridiculous self-seriousness of his melancholy. You start to realize that where before there was nothing but a weird Swedish dork making boring songs about drinking even though you’re sad, there’s now an indelible and mystifying personality winking from behind it all, completely in on how ridiculous and, in some bizarre way, endearing the whole thing is.
Red Light is a stand-in here for all of Bladee’s releases, as it’s certainly the one I’ve listened to the most. There’s some bizarre alchemy at play here, some extremely potent magic being conjured up to make this music listenable and beyond. I’m not sure I could point to a single quality, even, but at some point the parts become a beautifully cohesive and unique vision of pop music that defies any expectations of any genres it technically belongs to. Hey, it sucks, but I definitely got used to it.
Gotsu-Totsu-Kotsu – Where Warriors Once Dreamed a Dream (2016)
A few weeks ago, beautiful human Simon posted about this bad boy in one of our shared channels. It had samurai committing acts of violence on it, and was described as death metal, so I figured I’d give it a shot. Am I ever glad that I did, because my first exposure to the Japanese institution that is Gotsu-Totsu-Kotsu was an absolute revelation, and without question my most prized find of the year that wasn’t released on this trip ‘round the sun. So this is half a review, and half a Simon appreciation post. Because they’re the best.
Simon… thank you. Your taste is unmatched, and my indebtedness rises anew each morning.
Where Warriors Once Dreamed a Dream is, first and foremost, an epic death metal journey in almost every sense of the word. Containing 12 blisteringly effective tracks that clock in at just over an hour in length, this is death metal in CinemaScope, and it’s glorious. Drawing on eastern compositional influences as its central motif, this record also has a geographical and regional feel that is simultaneously inviting and insular, creating a collection that is both accessible and singular at once. The performances… good god. These musicians are out of their minds in the best way possible, churning out some of the most aggressive and voluminous riffage you’re likely to hear in a death metal record, well, ever. The bass work throughout is simply bananas, propelling these compositions through some proggy territory that never derails the absolute gravy train of death metal riffs. It’s an insane release, and one of the best in the genre I’ve heard in a long time.
If quality death metal is your game, Gotsu-Totsu-Kotsu are playing it better than you, and the only choice you have is to join them in their insane journey or suffer the consequences. A half-dozen listens through this bad bad boy and I’m nowhere close to unlocking its intricate riff landscape, and that aspect alone makes its extensive runtime justifiable. Got on this shit immediately if you’re even remotely interested in all things death.
Acid Death – Hall of Mirrors (2015)
Since I’m fond of slipping sneaky twofers into these sorts of things, I’d be remiss if I didn’t take the time to acknowledge that 2019 is also the year that Karnivool’s Sound Awake (one of the best albums of 2009) finally clicked with me. This is a relatively recent development, however, largely bolstered by the band’s phenomenal performance at the Good Things festival in Brisbane last week, and when it comes to new old discoveries of 2019, there was really only one clear choice.
Acid Death are a band seemingly custom made for me. Their blend of progressive death and technical thrash metal is perfectly tailored to my tastes. Yet, despite them being around since the early 1990s, they somehow completely passed me by, until their most recent effort, Primal Energies (one of the best thrash metal albums of the year), finally caught my attention.
The band have a formidable back catalogue which I’ve enjoyed delving back into. Every single one of their albums has its own unique take on the band’s sound to recommend it; Pieces of Mankind (1997 is essentially a death metal album, Random’s Manifest (2000) is more technical, while Eidolon (2012) is packed with crunchy grooves. It’s the more progressive leaning Hall of Mirrors, however, which I’d argue is the band’s magnum opus, and one of the best-crafted thrash/death metal records of recent years that I (nor many others, seemingly) had heard about, until now.
Cross the hard hitting, technical grooves of a modern thrash metal band like the recently returned Sylosis with the off-kilter riffing of early, progressive death metal acts like Death and Athiest, throw in some occasional power metal grandiosity, and Hall of Mirrors is what you get. If that doesn’t sound great to you, then we have very different tastes and I see no hope or joy in your future. If it appeals, then I can confirm that Hall of Mirrors is every bit as good as it sounds, and you need it in your life this instant.
Parkway Drive – Horizons (2009)
Really I should be writing about metalcore in general, but I did have a particular affinity for Horizons this year. It connects to a lot of metal that was popular when I was starting to do deeper dives into the genre back in high school. Metalcore was big with the metalheads in my town. Bands like Killswitch Engage, Chimera, and several others. Horizons feels like those records to me but without some of the emotional drama that some might describe as “cheesy”. It’s all just engaging riffs to me that makes me pay much closer attention to what the song is trying to say.
But really, 2019 was about re-discovering metalcore. I was one of those people I often decry. One of those “DEATH TO FALSE METAL” types who just writes off bands who are even popular enough to make music videos. As if popularity somehow negated quality. Sure, that can sometimes be the case but not all the time. After a long discussion with Josh during our mailbag post, I reconsidered my position on metalcore after several recommendations and some sifting through my old CD collection. And it turns out that metalcore satisfies a lot of my music requirements.
What really draws me in the most is the feeling of nostalgia I get from metalcore sounds. Not so much the memories that it brings up (though there are quite a few of those, shout outs to Tyler and Cheatham!) but more about the relatable feelings I get. Listening to The End of Heartache gives me those memorable teenage feelings of loss (that aren’t true loss because you’re a teenager and don’t know fuck about shit yet). Listening to Lamb of God reminds me of the true frustration only teenagers feel when you’re on the losing end of an unfair power dynamic with authorities. But on top of all that is a new age of thrash metal combined with modern musical and metal tropes. These are good records and bands doing unique things and bringing metal into the new millennia.
Pursuing Paradise – Memories (2014)
This album opens with a track titled “▄ ▅ ▆Warpdrive to the Album▆ ▅ ▄” and that tells you a lot of what you need to know about it right there. I have a complex relationship with vaporwave and its many sub-sub-genres (like futurefunk); the genre’s nostalgia reminds me too much of Mark Fisher’s structural nostalgia and our inability to imagine a future that’s not just a regurgitation of the past. But when executed well, these genres can dig so deep through the veil of the ironically manufactured past and bring forth a wild, hazy future that’s almost impossible to resist.
This is certainly the case with Pursuing Paradise’s Memories; the album uses unapologetic plunderphonics, breakneck transitions, countless samples, and even hardcore breakdowns to create a bewildering, compelling, melancholy, and daring tapestry of sounds. It certainly has more “traditional” vaporwave elements (if that term can even applied to vaporwave), using thick, saccharine synths and 80’s drenched beats. But all of that works in relationship to the sheer chaos and unravelling of structure that is the thick of the album, recontextualizing the vaporwave “basics” into this unbridled exploration of the digital mess we call our “online lives”.
More than anything, Memories is thrilling unlike any other vaporwave album I’ve heard. Where most of the genre opts for a sort of dispassionate distance, Memories dives head deep into the complex, nefarious, shadowy world of modern existence and its emotional tastes. It’s a taxing album but one that is sure to become essential to my perspective as the hyper-real unfolds further and further in my mind. And if this mini-review seems wordy or high-brow, that’s just how this album makes me feel, baby. As one Bandcamp user put it well: “This album reminds me of shit that I can’t remember”.
The Mountain Goats – Tallahassee (2002)
What do pro wrestling, goths, and Dungeons & Dragons have in common? Other than creative costumes and performative personalities, they’re all central themes from the last three Mountain Goats albums. As much as The Mountain Goats seemed tailor-made to fit my preferred style of folk, the potential gimmick-factor of these three albums – which have ushered in a bit of a late-career resurgence – kept me away until this year. Within the first few tracks of In League with Dragons, I realized how big a mistake I’d made waiting this long to check out what’s quickly becoming one of my all-time favorite bands.
What’s most impressive about frontman John Darnielle’s songwriting is how he’s able to take topics both lighthearted and serious and craft conistsent, thematic narratives on both an album and song-by-song basis. With each new Mountain Goats album I’ve bought or listened to this year, I’ve been floored by just how compelling all of Darnielle’s lyrics are, even when he’s talking about his favorite wrestlers or outlining a D&D campaign. His stories can be hilarious or devastating, though they’re always cleverly written and delivered. The band’s underlying music layers a variety of instruments atop an acoustic guitar foundation, and though each composition in their discography is relatively simple, they’re all distinct, approachable, and expertly crafted.
I could have singled out one of the many Mountain Goats records Darnielle has released over the last 30 years, but none of the albums I’ve heard has had an impact on me quite as profound as Tallahassee. Across 14 tracks, Darnielle paints a tragic narrative of a couple with a struggling marriage who moves to a plantation home in Florida for a fresh start, only to watch as their relationship and alcoholism spirals further out of control.
The beauty of Darnielle’s lyricism is on full display with the way each track works on their own and stitched together. The individual songs contain relatable stories of turbulent relationships, but they all connect to reveal a vivid concept album that feels like prime material for a film adaption. If I had to pick a favorite, “No Children” is a particularly biting track, as the closing lyrics read like a final marital spat before one of the spouse’s files for divorce:
And I hope when you think of me years down the line/You can’t find one good thing to say/And I’d hope that if I found the strength to walk out/You’d stay the hell out of my way
I am drowning/There is no sign of land/You are coming down with me/Hand in unlovable hand/And I hope you die/I hope we both die
Musically, the album sees Darnielle expanding beyond the voice and acoustic guitar formula he used on every preceding Mountain Goats album, bringing in piano, percussion, and additional instrumental variety. The tracks are excellent cuts of ’00s folk rock, but they really serve as a vessel for Darnielle to deliver some of the best lyricism the genre has to offer.
Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth (2016)
Country music may be one of the most popular genres in North America, but it’s also one of the most divisive. It isn’t at all controversial to not like country music. The genre is steeped in regional and cultural specifics that evade many audiences, and simply, it can be an acquired taste. Even for me, a native rural Kentuckian, country music was a hard sell. Despite growing up on a steady diet of Shania Twain and Garth Brooks, it didn’t take long to get (almost literally) sick and tired of the twangy and sappy music playing all around me as a child. As anyone who grew up on 90’s and early 2000’s professional wrestling can tell you, hip-hop was the antithesis of country, so that’s where I sought refuge. From there, I found nu-metal (thank you Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park!) and made my way to metal proper and never once looked back at country in any sort of fondness for the better part of two decades.
Okay, so I performed in a country-leaning band as a bassist for a couple of years, put out a demo, and played some shows. It was fun and easy, but I didn’t connect to the material at first. We even performed at least one Sturgill Simpson cover at live shows. Country music was fun and easy to play, and you could do it drunk! And people actually like it! Even then, I couldn’t connect with the material in the same way I could the music we talked about here. When fellow Kentuckian Sturgill Simpson dropped his opus A Sailor’s Guide To Earth in 2016, I had heard a few tracks and was fully aware of its critical and commercial success. Writers on this very site spoke its praises due to its psychedelic influences. Somehow, there was still a barrier in place against the style that I couldn’t explain. I just chalked it up to it simply being not for me.
But somehow, some way, 2019 was the year that the record just clicked for me. I revisited Sailor’s Guide by chance, and loved it. There’s traditional and outlaw country tones throughout, but what was most appealing, aside from the psychedelia, was the addition of rock styles and synthesizers. Surprisingly, the thing that sealed the deal on my Sturgill Simpson fandom, was an explosive SNL performance of the highlight “Call To Arms.” It’s a sight to behold; backed by a horn section, the band plays with reckless abandon. The keyboard player surfs atop his equipment. The drummer loses a cymbal. Sturgill slams his guitar into the stage with defiance. Sturgill and his band truly are something special.
From the passionate 50’s-style ballad opening the album on through a somber “In Bloom” cover to this explosive finale, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth may be the missing piece that you need in order to “get” country music. It certainly was for me, and you can catch me in Lexington, KY in the pit for Sturgill Simpson and Tyler Childers in February. By the way, even if you don’t like country, his new “steamy rock and roll” record SOUND & FURY is available now. Maybe start there and work your way back?
Pity Party – Are You Happy Yet? EP (2018)
2018 was sort of a black hole for me in all but the basest terms. It became a lost year in many areas for a small handful of reasons but now that things are on a much more level playing field I find myself working backwards through what interesting releases came out then. I stumbled upon this band at the Fest this year and came away immensely impressed but also a bit chagrined, if not outright ashamed, for not getting into them sooner. This crew does exactly the kind of punk that sits in my wheelhouse. It’s loud, tuneful, has a bit of snap and snarl, plus a relatable message, often addressing mental health and survivor topics, presented in tidy, memorable lyrical packages.
While it seems extremely gender reductive to say there is an obvious linear path from Riot Grrrl to what Pity Party are doing, it would be equally dismissive to not point to that rich legacy in trying to put this band into printed words. The other through-line to the band’s sound is the sloppy coherence that has defined the Oakland/East Bay scene for nigh on three decades now, whether that was the gleeful, broken amp sound of Crimpshrine or the jaunty punniness of the Mr. T Experience’s pop-punk or even the melodies as cars crashing together of Samiam, it all seems to be present to some degree or other in the stew that is Pity Party’s sound on this EP from last year.
That the band capably switch gears on all four of the absolute bangers on this EP between more traditional pop-punk (“Traphouse Xmas” and “Grindmother”) and mid-tempo, slightly emo-tinged rockers (“Dank Sinatra” and “Pop Song 4-Evr”) gives fans and newcomers alike a taste of what they are capable of while giving a hopeful glimpse at what might be in their future. One of the other things that make this EP great is the production value. Everything here is in its right place to highlight the band’s assets, particularly Sarah Levy’s dynamic vocals and poignant lyrics alongside Levy’s and Dustin Thieu Gill-ecki’s strong riffs that are downright addictive. If there’s any justice, we’ll have their sophomore full-length, Concrete, in our hot little hands sooner rather than later.