Just six months into a great year in music, we’ve seen strange, galactic records from R&B innovators Solange and Flying Lotus. In the crowded field of hip-hop, emerging talents like Denzel Curry, Little Simz, and Zelooperz have separated from the pack—not to mention Tierra Whack, whose five singles widened the view of her singular, surreal world. In indie and rock, it’s been a year of big returns: The National and Vampire Weekend both seemed to herald compelling new eras as bands, while Sharon Van Etten, Jenny Lewis, and Weyes Blood issued ambitious, arguably best-yet works of their own. And any other year in pop, an album like Ariana Grande’s Thank U, Next would easily reign through December, but 2019 is the year 17-year-old Billie Eilish interrupted to ask, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?. If 2019 ended here today, we’d already have a satisfying list of albums of the year. Luckily, there’s much more to come, but here are 30 or so that have stood out so far.


LPs

Benny Sings, City Pop

The past few years have seen a resurgence of interest in “city pop,” the Japanese subgenre of sprightly, polyglot ’80s pop. On his album of the same name, Dutch R&B artist Benny Sings reclaims the concept from YouTube compilations and vaporwave samplists, crafting a stretch of lithe, funky pop cuts held together by his translucent voice and categorically masterful musicianship. It’s the singer’s sixth album, but first for Stones Throw, a setting that helps clarify his secret ingredient: This stuff knocks, like Steely Dan had they come up on beat tapes. More than anything, though, it’s Benny’s guileless attitude that makes the album so imminently listenable. City Pop is the rare album designed to be as intelligent as it is enjoyable, and it succeeds wildly. [Clayton Purdom]

Big Brave, A Gaze Among Them

Does it take courage to write songs as long, loud, and monolithic as the four beefy epics (and one instrumental interlude) that make up Big Brave’s titanic fourth album? If “brave” is debatable, there’s really no disputing the truth in advertising offered by the first word in this Montreal trio’s pipe-divided name. A Gaze Among Them is big as hell: in the immensity of its pounding drums and distorted guitars, and in the supersized emotion of frontwoman Robin Wattie’s voice, which rises—from a ghostly croon to an impassioned bellow—with the squall of the music crashing dramatically around it. Thankfully, the melodies banged out at top volume by Big Brave are XXL, too; the tunefulness assures that this variably classified fusion of drone, noise, and doom metal is pleasing, not just damaging, to the ears. [A.A. Dowd]

Andrew Bird, My Finest Work Yet

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The title for this Andrew Bird album may be tongue-in-cheek, but it’s also an accurate assessment of the music that makes up his latest solo outing. His composition is as intricate as ever, even if the multi-instrumentalist abandoned separators and headsets to capture all manner of notes, strings, and vocals rising up to meet each other in this collection of protest songs, erudite commentary, and the occasional love song. There’s a loose narrative, which the whirling whistles and echoes of “Sisyphus” demand we pay attention to; then the album marches toward a confrontation in the ’60s-inspired “Proxy War” before settling down for a long rest in “Bellevue Bridge Club.” Bird’s always displayed great passion and skill, but there’s a fieriness to My Finest Work Yet we’ve not heard before—the artist’s creative crest finds him at his most outspoken and melodious. [Danette Chavez]

Jade Bird, Jade Bird

Calling Jade Bird an Americana artist is both reductive and limiting. On her self-titled debut full-length, the English singer-songwriter barnstorms through rock ’n’ roll, folk, and country without regard for pesky genre divisions. “Uh Huh” is ragged, freewheeling indie rock in the vein of Courtney Barnett; the brisk standout “Side Effects” and the hollering folk number “Love Has All Been Done Before” resemble rustic Fleetwood Mac; and “17” is a fragile, piano-and-strings ballad that captures the essence of heartbreak. As the latter song implies, Jade Bird’s lyrical depth and emotional acuity also help it transcend labels. “I Get No Joy” cheerfully admits that happiness can sometimes be elusive, while the stunning closer “If I Die” is a stark piano ballad in which Bird asks people to be brave as they mourn and remember her after (a hypothetical) death: “Put me in words, not hallelujahs / They come from the heart and they’ll ring true.” [Annie Zaleski]

Charly Bliss, Young Enough

2017’s Guppy was such a concentrated blast of grunge-era fuzz and churn that it was almost a shame to see Charly Bliss hauling so many keyboards around at the start of 2019. The klaxon cry of “Blown To Bits” proved quickly that the new equipment hadn’t prevented the Brooklyn quartet from making a racket, nor has frontwoman Eva Hendricks given up on smuggling intricately articulated anxieties into the band’s sugary melodies. Young Enough kicks off with the year’s catchiest song about a nuclear false alarm, and the tracks that follow steep the weirdo bite and monster hooks of the group’s debut in the airy synthpop of singles “Capacity” and “Chatroom.” That stylistic swerve is at its best and most affecting on the title track, an anthem of personal growth that demonstrates just how far Charly Bliss has come since Guppy. [Erik Adams]

Denzel Curry, Zuu

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Denzel Curry has always carried a strange sort of curse: His albums are invariably good, but overshadowed by a single or two of such hydrogen-bomb intensity that the rest can’t help but feel flat. Rather than buck that trend, the new Zuu leans into it. Early pacesetters “Ricky” and “Wish” go so blisteringly goddamn hard that the listener practically needs the remaining 80% to dial it back, if only a notch or two. It helps that Curry’s a better, more intuitive emcee than ever, ditching the pad and pen to construct his rhymes more loosely in the booth. The hooks hit harder, the jokes connect cleaner, and his punk-rock howl is more pointed. Long-time production duo Fanatik N Zac’s reverent Miami-inflected productions allow the rapper to ditch any lingering vestige of the Soundcloud scene he helped found, in the process sounding more like himself than ever. [Clayton Purdom]

Kyle Bobby Dunn, From Here To Eternity

Kyle Bobby Dunn goes long on his latest LP, though that shouldn’t be a surprise for fans of the Canadian drone composer. From Here To Eternity, Dunn’s first new LP in five years, buzzes and sighs across 18 tracks that total more than three hours. That gives his glacial, enveloping compositions ample time to evolve, shudder, and flourish in ways that run a gamut of emotion, whether it’s grief, relief, resignation, or confusion. Stars Of The Lid and William Basinski are easy analogs, but there’s a sense of tragic, inevitable collapse on songs like “Le Stationnement De Finders” that summons the early, dramatic ambient work of A Silver Mt. Zion. Dunn’s work is harder to parse, however, his consuming blend of acoustic and electronic instrumentation not intertwining so much as congealing—to change a track is like tuning into a radio station comprising in-process sounds without beginning or end. From here to eternity, indeed. [Randall Colburn]

Billie Eilish, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?

“Think you’re so criminal,” Billie Eilish whisper-sneers in her chart-climbing bad-girl anthem, “Bad Guy.” Intentionally or not, the line lands like a nod to another wild-child chanteuse who blew up at 17 playing the villain. But if Fiona Apple was confessing, Eilish is taunting: There are equal traces of Tyler The Creator in her creative DNA—not just in the baggy fashion sense she directly attributes to the rapper, but in the mixture of bravado, self-loathing, and wit that informs her lyrics, and in the spooky haunted-house minimalism of her production. When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? bends these influences and more into something distinctly irresistible, capturing a full spectrum of teenage identity crisis, from rule-this-town attitude (“You Should See Me In A Crown”) to self-destructive confusion (“Bury A Friend”) to the touching, funny vulnerability of “Wish You Were Gay,” a wobbly waltz about desperately trying to rationalize unrequited affection. In the end, Eilish just sounds like herself. To which she’d probably respond, hilariously: “Duh.” [A.A. Dowd]

Flying Lotus, Flamagra

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Flamagra is the latest testament to Steven Ellison’s unending abilities as a shapeshifting jazz-funk alchemist, with the power to blend not only genres, but entire galaxies. The sixth studio album from Flying Lotus and follow-up to 2014’s You’re Dead! is something of a celestial opus, a sprawling 27 tracks that skitter across immense swaths of nebulous space. At times the primordial goo can be tough to wade through, but the album’s more cohesive moments possess a powerful glow worthy of Ellison’s thematic premise for the album: “an eternal flame sitting on a hill.” A tightly-looped gallop drives the weirdly catchy “Actually Virtual,” featuring Shabazz Palaces, while instrumental “Remind U” is a transcendent, fluttery crescendo of piano keys that nudge toward the outer limits of space. Through spasming fits of rhythm in “Pilgrim Side Eye” to the Dilla-inspired beat-loops scattered throughout, the album is staggeringly varied without a singular focal point. Flamagra is held together, ironically enough, by a remarkable sense of weightlessness. [Adam Isaac Itkoff]

Ariana Grande, Thank U, Next

Ariana Grande is currently at a creative and commercial peak—after all, it’s a power move to reunite (most of) N ’Sync at Coachella—in large part thanks to her musical vulnerability. Released mere months after 2018’s stellar Sweetener, Thank U, Next is a declaration of emotional independence from any number of things that might bring someone down: mismatched exes (the hit title track), societal expectations (“Fake Smile”), feeling bad about asserting yourself (“7 Rings”), and a suffocating relationship (“NASA”). The album’s music—a cohesive blend of soulful R&B, ’90s hip-hop, and atmospheric electro-pop—is also laser-focused on forward motion, as it pairs its winking throwback references with sleek, modern production. Empowerment-championing pop can very easily devolve into insincere bluster—but Thank U, Next is a resonant, relatable rumination on how to bounce back from personal trauma while still honoring deep personal wounds. [Annie Zaleski]

Cate Le Bon, Reward

It’d be easy for an album made in isolation to sprawl into unruliness and incoherence, but the year Cate Le Bon spent alone writing Reward was grounded in serious discipline: Out in England’s mountainous Lake District, the Welsh singer-songwriter and producer (Deerhunter) enrolled in an intensive woodworking course, only playing the piano in the evenings to keep herself company. And you can hear the effect throughout her finely crafted fifth album—in its smart, architectural arrangements, in the dovetail joints where odd-time riffs and melodies meet. Le Bon channels a stir-crazy energy into an eccentric, precise vision on Reward, with songs that manage to feel both intimate and removed, pushing and pulling between warm psych-pop sensibilities and a minimalist, art-punk edge. [Kelsey J. Waite]

Jenny Lewis, On The Line

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“Turn up the stereo / Till everything rattles,” Jenny Lewis sings midway through On The Line. And it should be taken as a directive for how to listen to the singer-songwriter’s fourth LP: This is rich, referential folk-rock that bangs like hip-hop—not just in the insanely punchy drum production of songs like “Do Si Do” or “Red Bull & Hennessy,” but in the soulful pick-up of the chorus and the rumbling bridge of melancholy piano number “Dogwood.” It’s no surprise, then, that Beck was On The Line’s primary producer, one in a stacked roster of collaborators (including Jim Keltner and Ringo Starr) that Lewis enlisted to flesh out these boozy, imagistic songs about losing a parent and a longtime love. This is some of Lewis’ best work, a dreamlike swarm of hard emotions filtered through Americana—clicking ruby slippers, smoking Marlboro cigarettes, crying like Meryl Streep—that musically calls up greats like Carole King, Chrissie Hynde, Stevie Nicks, and Lucinda Williams. [Kelsey J. Waite]

Little Simz, Grey Area

Rare is the rap song that keeps listeners guessing, never mind the entire album that does so. With Grey Area, British rapper Little Simz transforms from a one-to-watch spitballer to a multifaceted maestro. She spends the entirety of her third album doing 90-degree turns in each song. In a particularly strong streak, a grimy bass beat straight from the sewers is followed by an intimate piano number fit for a jazz lounge, and then a finger-plucked guitar number with orchestral strings follows suit. Maybe it’s because she tapped collaborators like Little Dragon and Michael Kiwanuka instead of fellow emcees, but her clouded flow feels menacing. Simz is serious, and it’s hard to look away. Whether it’s the Stillness In Wonderland follow-up you expected or it’s your introduction to Simz, Grey Area objectively sees the 25-year-old claim a huge piece of rap’s current landscape—and she’s rightfully not sharing it. After all, she’s her own best friend. [Nina Corcoran]

Lizzo, Cuz I Love You

Looking back, “Juice” was more than an infectious bop; it was the melodic equivalent of Lizzo planting her flag into 2019 and claiming the year as hers. Beyond an explosive arrival to the mainstream’s consciousness and a successful turn at Coachella, her debut LP, Cuz I Love You, was a raucous paragon of self-love. While Lizzo is billed primarily as a rapper, tracks like “Heaven Help Me” flex core-shifting power vocals that speak to her versatility. Cuz I Love You shouldn’t feel radical; we’re well past the time to allow folks of all genders and body types the space to openly love themselves. Still, Lizzo took a once-in-a-lifetime moment—her biggest release to date—to create a collection of battle cries against anyone or anything that dares to stand in the way of embracing yourself to the fullest. If you don’t necessarily need that brand of encouragement, then that’s cool, too—it’s still a parade of bangers. [Shannon Miller]

Maxo, Lil Big Man

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Maxo’s Lil Big Man is the type of record it’s easy to sleep on, trim and unflashy, just 30 minutes of plainspoken bars and dreamlike beats. (That he shares a name with a hyped rapper who debuted just last year doesn’t help matters.) The mold is certainly familiar — the rap debut as wise-beyond-their-years autobiography — but Maxo’s execution is anything but. The cover itself even seems to want to flip Illmatic inside out. Maxo’s only 23 but his mind is ontologically troubled (the very first line is, “like can I leave with the same me I came with?”). The sumptuous beats, by a roster of underground ringers, feel like throwbacks until they warp in on themselves, often mutating mid-song (“In My Penny’s”). Maxo cuts a path through these buttery beats like a more elemental Isaiah Rashad, his lines like truths excavated by hand from a shared cultural memory. [Clayton Purdom]


There’s a lot of music out there. To help you cut through all the noise, every Friday The A.V. Club is rounding up A-Sides, five recent releases we think are worth your time. You can listen to these and more on Spotify.


The National, I Am Easy To Find

There’s always been a boozy quality to The National, a whiff of whiskey floating off the mournful vocals of Matt Berninger, but I Am Easy To Find is nothing if not sober. Credit the album’s robust roster of guest vocalists, which include Gail Ann Dorsey and Sharon Van Etten, as well as a lyrical focus that embraces the existential by blurring the past and present as deftly as it does the body and soul. These meditations are evident on thrumming, soul-piercing tracks like “So Far So Fast” and the title track, but the rollicking likes of “Rylan” and “Where Is Her Head” should satiate fans looking for the rock band that won them over three, four albums back. It’s the rambling, redemptive “Not In Kansas,” however, that serves as the album’s centerpiece; that Berninger can still find new, illuminating modes of vulnerability so deep into his career is a revelation unto itself. [Randall Colburn]

Helado Negro, This Is How You Smile

Helado Negro’s This Is How You Smile is like a calm, undisturbed ocean: reflective and shimmering on the surface, but with new depths to plumb with each listen. The electro-folk artist (whose real name is Roberto Carlos Lange) was inspired by the advice offered to those in the diaspora by Jamaica Kincaid’s short story “Girl,” but his tender, inquisitive tracks like “País Nublado” and “Running” beckon rather than admonish. Lange creates gorgeous, otherworldly soundscapes to gently guide the listener away from their own perspective to better take in the experiences of others. But he pairs this sense of unmooring with engagingly straightforward lyrics and soothing synths to keep us all in his empathetic orbit. Full of Helado Negro’s most complex sounds to date, This Is How You Smile shows this is how an artist challenges himself while comforting others. [Danette Chavez]

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Anderson Paak, Ventura

Anderson Paak’s Ventura is the retro manifesto of an artist who has truly hit his stride. With a sepia-toned sentimentality that hearkens to Motown’s heyday, Paak has established his serious cross-generational appeal with a seamless, groovy step toward a more widely identifiable sound. Ventura is undeniably about love—whether it be of the romantic sort or his unequivocal ode to Black resistance with the dynamic “King James.” Solid injections from André 3000, Jazmine Sullivan, Brandy, the late Nate Dogg, Lalah Hathaway, and Sonyae Elise elevate this lovely turn. However, it’s Paak’s collaboration with the iconic Smokey Robinson, “Make It Better,” that is most emblematic of just what made him such a smooth standout artist in the first place. Ventura isn’t just a return to form; it’s an improvement upon it. [Shannon Miller]

Orville Peck, Pony

Orville Peck, a pseudonymous crooner cowboy, only released his first album in March of this year, but the space that Pony occupies is suspended somewhere between 1950s country-rock and dreamy shoegaze. That timelessness is rooted in classic influences like Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, lonesome Western highways, and young love. But even a throwback song like “Roses Are Falling”—which features a spoken-word bridge beginning with, “You know, darlin’ …”—is pure reinvention. “Dead Of Night” moves between chilling falsetto and sultry baritone, with Peck reclaiming the queerness in hustler and cowboy imagery as he recounts a love lost. Many of Pony’s best songs subvert cliches of tough Western masculinity, so even if his influences are worn a bit on the sleeve, Peck’s unexpected approach to country music is cool water in a Nevada desert. And that deep fringe mask runs deeper than a gimmick, but even if it were one, Peck has the voice and vision to transcend it. [Laura M. Browning]

Pile, Green And Gray

While the spacious, open-ended vibe established on 2017’s A Hairshirt Of Purpose continues to evolve throughout Green And Gray, Pile’s seventh studio album, there are also tunes like “On A Bigger Screen” and “The Soft Hands Of Stephen Miller”—knock-down, drag-out tracks so harsh and brutal they’d be just as at-home on a Stnnng record. Which is to say, this is a Pile album at its best: Expansive and exploratory, finding strong touchstones in turn-of-the-millennium Midwest post-rock while fusing elements of country, blues, and post-punk in a heady, emotionally-fraught stew. Songs pivot from the verge of collapse to cathartic elegance, while frontman Rick Maguire continues to get rawer and more revealing with each lyric. “I can count on one finger the people that can hurt me now,” he confides on “My Employer,” and that intimacy permeates even the music’s fiercest moments. [Alex McLevy]

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Pronoun, I’ll Show You Stronger

I’ll Show You Stronger might be Pronoun’s debut LP, but songwriter Alyse Vellturo isn’t new at this. A Berklee grad with experience in music engineering, management, and distribution, she possesses a deep knowledge of production that’s evident in the intricate, layered tracks of the album, a muscular collection of anthemic electro-rock. Songs like “Stay,” “Sadie,” and “You Didn’t Even Make The Bed” benefit from repeat listens, their hushed harmonies, emphatic loops, and defiant lyrics yielding new textures with every spin. But Vellturo’s songs remain approachable—cutting through the swell of her atmospheric tracks are dagger-like riffs that, on songs like “Run” and “Wrong,” climax with ecstatic solos. A thrilling debut album. [Randall Colburn]

PUP, Morbid Stuff

“I was bored as fuck, sitting around thinking of all this morbid stuff.” So begins one of the most exciting albums of the year, an 11-track Molotov cocktail of fire, bile, and cackling catharsis. Nobody can make rage and self-loathing as fun as the Canadian punks of PUP, whose singer overcame a hemorrhaging throat cyst to again shred his lungs asking, “How long will self-destruction be alluring?” That winking self-awareness works hand in hand with hyperbole and humor to both indulge and skewer humanity’s penchant for self-sabotage—“Bloody Mary, Kate And Ashley,” for example, literally folds Satan into one manic episode. “Kids” and “See You At Your Funeral,” meanwhile, embrace finality and apocalypse with a childlike giddiness. Is it a sustainable ethos? Oh, hell no. But it’s damn fun way to spend 30 minutes. [Randall Colburn]

Solange, When I Get Home

If 2016’s A Seat At The Table confirmed Solange Knowles as a creative powerhouse in her own right beyond any association with her more-famous sibling, its breakthrough success (her first No. 1 album on U.S. charts) seems to have yielded a creative freedom that defines her fourth album. A languid, jazz-dappled ode to Knowles’ hometown of Houston, When I Get Home borrows from Southern musical traditions for a sound that specifically references Houston culture (from street names to the “chopped-up” remix style of DJ Screw) but also reframes those touchstones for the next generation. Where A Seat At The Table was a statement, When I Get Home is far more of a mood, playing with repetition and tempo, and woven through with spoken interludes. Even the guest features from big names like Gucci Mane, Playboi Carti, and Earl Sweatshirt never overshadow the freeform vibe of what is clearly Solange’s distinct vision of what it means to be shaped and inspired by where we call home. [Tabassum Siddiqui]

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Toro Y Moi, Outer Peace

When most of popular music revolves around making grand gestures and riding intense-but-brief waves of excitement, an album like Outer Peace feels like a breath of fresh air. Even though it contains some of the most immaculately produced dance-pop and alt-R&B we’re likely to hear this year, Chaz Bear’s sixth LP as Toro Y Moi rejects any sort of big, exaggerated statements—rather, its appeal is in its consistent, low-key pleasures. Even at the album’s most energetic, when the disco funk of “Who Am I” or “Ordinary Pleasure” are bumping, Bear plays it cool, striking the perfect balance between dance-floor extroversion and ambient reflection. True to its title, Outer Peace is a respite from a hyperactive, overhyped world. [Kelsey J. Waite]

Vampire Weekend, Father Of The Bride

“Hold You Now,” the first song on Father Of The Bride, augments a brief, bittersweet Danielle Haim duet with abrupt and distorted transitions, stray mic chatter, chirping birds, and a sample of Melanesian choir music from the soundtrack to The Thin Red Line. It’s beautiful, strange, and the ideal opening to the eclectic, odds-and-sods new album from Vampire Weekend. What’s unlikelier, that these Ivy League phenoms have become maybe the biggest name in indie rock, or that they’ve done so while growing more adventurous with each new record? Over 18 offbeat tracks, nearly half of which clock in under three minutes, Father Of The Bride tugs at the infectious essence of Ezra Koenig’s songcraft, working in his widest range of genre influences yet, from slide-guitar country to Auto-Tuned electronica to flamenco jazz. It isn’t as well-rounded as 2013’s effervescent Modern Vampires Of The City. But that’s partially because this once buttoned-up band seems to have embraced imperfection as an aesthetic value, taking unexpected turns down every harmony hall. [A.A. Dowd]

Sharon Van Etten, Remind Me Tomorrow

It’s doubtful any other album released in 2019 will be able to match the gut-punch immediacy of Remind Me Tomorrow’s opening couplet—“Sitting at the bar, I told you everything / You said, ‘Holy shit. You almost died’”—but the 10 tracks that follow do anything but dwell on the past. The pulsing beats and swooning synths that drive much of the record flit restlessly from style to style, the eerie wails of “Memorial Day” giving way to the lush goth-pop of “Comeback Kid” and the flawless ’80s Top 40 groove of “Seventeen.” But each of these searching musical cross-sections retains the deeper element of Sharon Van Etten’s slightly cracked experimentation and searching confessional lyrics, pulling the whole endeavor together and making it one of the most cathartic listens of the year. By the time she’s admitting “I don’t know how it ends,” on album closer “Stay,” you don’t want it to. [Alex McLevy]

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Weyes Blood, Titanic Rising

Titanic Rising is a movie-mad album, its head floating miles above singer-songwriter Natalie Mering’s fingers as they dance across the keys of her piano. The record’s forlorn lyrics long for blissful oblivion, and its opulent production delivers just that, enveloping the listener in a protective bubble of sound. Anthemic, confessional songwriting in the Carole King mode keeps Mering grounded, at least for a little while, on the rousing “Everyday” and plaintive “Something To Believe,” but soon enough those songs, too, drift upward on effervescent arpeggios like the ones that raise Mering’s voice like a bathing beauty in a Busby Berkeley musical on the ethereal 4AD throwback “Movies.” Mering’s eyes are similarly turned toward the skies on the cosmic “Andromeda,” whose woozy slide-guitar wobble exemplifies the record’s overall vibe, akin to the floating sensation and hallucinatory waves that appear behind closed eyelids after a long day at the swimming pool. [Katie Rife]

Billy Woods & Kenny Segal, Hiding Places

Can you imagine calling an album Hiding Places and making that the cover? The whole thing is full of ghosts and trapdoors: The first track is called “Spongebob” and it is at least partially about the apocalypse, and then out pops a razor-wire electric guitar and it ends with a recording of someone’s bank account balance for $10.22. They’re all like that. Later on Woods will decree he doesn’t “want to see Nas with an orchestra at Carnegie Hall” like he’s the last sane man alive, furious he has to issue us this reminder. Woods’ music has always been, shall we say, severe, but he made a quantum leap forward on last year’s Paraffin (with Elucid, as Armand Hammer) that continues here. Kenny Segal’s beats are minimal and unexpected, full of death-rattle percussion and Burial-level nocturnality. [Clayton Purdom]

Jamila Woods, Legacy! Legacy!

With her 2016 debut, Heavn, Jamila Woods established herself as an essential presence in R&B, much more than an associate of longtime friend and collaborator Chance The Rapper. Jagjaguwar follow-up Legacy! Legacy! pushes its predecessor’s explicit political messaging in a more ambitious yet logical new direction. Each song honors a famous creative person of color, through whose lives Woods finds her sharpest lens. “Somebody’s daddy always laid out on the street, and for what?” she viciously protests on the woozy, blaring “Baldwin.” “Don’t ever let ’em knock the way you talk / The language you evolve, your natural genius,” she commands on “Octavia,” a song appropriately galactic and synth-y for one named after sci-fi pioneer Octavia Butler. Across the album, Woods’ crystalline voice ties together genres as diverse as the figures she is memorializing, and with each word she sings, she affirms her own legacy. [Max Freedman]

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Young Nudy & Pi’erre Bourne, Sli’merre

Young Nudy is an objectively cool rapper: a) he sounds like Gucci Mane, b) he has an entire mixtape series named SlimeBall, and c) his mascot appears to be Chucky from the Child’s Play movies. But the appeal of his work, particularly the new Sli’merre, is not Nudy but rather producer Pi’erre Bourne, one of the most exciting beatmakers working today. Bourne is the sonic architect behind many of Playboi Carti’s most enduring tracks, and Nudy takes a similarly reverent approach, letting the flutes of “Mister” link up with its spring-loaded drums, and crooning softly over the spy-movie intrigue of “Extendo.” A full-length stretch of Bourne productions can feel like a playground, a funhouse, a Keita Takahashi video game, and the maturity charted over from the SlimeBall series to here is astonishing. And that Jamie Foxx vocal drop he peppers throughout his tracks might be the most sublimely silly flourish in contemporary rap. [Clayton Purdom]

Zelooperz, Dyn-O-Mite/Wild Card

In a review of last year’s excellent and infuriatingly Twitch-only Bruiser Brigade mixtape, this very publication called Zelooperz “a poor man’s Danny Brown.” Consider this an official retraction. While the Detroit emcee shares Brown’s occasional nasal inflection, they’re united much more by the elasticity of their flows, their taste in avant-garde productions, and their heart-rending biographical candor. Across two LPs so far this year, Zelooperz flexes his range. Wild Card is a stretch of dissonant, nightmare reveries, collapsing into reality with the devastating closer “52 Pick Up.” The more recent Dyn-O-Mite favors hard-knock boom-bap, with thick pockets of dust rising from the grooves. The most head-turning moment is probably “Easter Sunday,” which features Earl Sweatshirt’s only verse released thus far this year, but it’s “The Boys” which best illustrates Zelooperz’ talent. He raps like he was born inside the beat. [Clayton Purdom]


Non-LPs

LPX, Junk Of The Heart

On the four-song Junk Of The Heart, Lizzy Plapinger (a.k.a. LPX) delivers on the promise of her earlier work, announcing herself as a pop artist of the highest order. Since her very first single, “Tightrope,” Plapinger has pushed at the edges of pop music’s glossy strictures, her voice the means by which she adds a sometimes-harsh, sometimes-cathartically explosive grain of rough intensity to the massive beats and call-and-response anthems of her music. Each of these rock-pop songs brings something different, be it the liberatory, embrace-the-mistakes vibe of “Black & White,” the eternal adolescence of “Might Not Make It Home,” the confessional angst of “Falling To Fall,” or the fist-in-the-air joy of “Give Up The Ghost.” LPX is as vital and compelling a pop artist as you’ll find, and this EP is just the latest proof. [Alex McLevy]

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NCT 127, We Are Superhuman

Thanks to the cursory six-track We Are Superhuman, burgeoning South Korean pop group NCT 127 has wholly established its command of both traditional and experimental pop sounds. Though this may be the group’s fourth mini album, it’s the first to center a serious tonal shift toward the more melodic side of the genre while still managing to rest comfortably within NCT 127’s wheelhouse. “Superhuman,” a title track and killer video that is a veritable collage of electro-pop, synths, hip-hop, and jazz, is easily one of the best songs of the band’s discography. And yet, it’s the summertime groove “Fool” that intelligently leans on the talents of all the members rather than just a few. In particular, Chicago native Johnny is granted the space to flex his skills as a rapper, and his spirited flow and confidence meld flawlessly with the breezy track (which is, ironically, about having a lack of confidence when approaching a crush). We Are Superhuman is a viable reintroduction of a group that isn’t afraid to question and test its own boundaries. [Shannon Miller]

Whack History Month

Though she hasn’t dropped an official album this year, eccentric 23-year-old rapper Tierra Whack did get us to celebrate “Whack History Month.” Each week for five weeks, the Philadelphia lyricist released a new track that showcased her tremendous versatility: the smooth R&B track “Wasteland,” “Clones,” “Gloria,” “Only Child,” and the final, mercilessly boastful installment “Unemployed.” Accompanied by a deliciously dark music video featuring the massacre of potatoes, Whack’s commanding bars and sharp wit make her presence so exciting. Whack History Month demonstrated just why she is so hard to define: The only evident through-lines in all five tracks are her fearless approach and authenticity, regardless of the sound. [Shannon Miller]