The music industry has never been as prolific as it is now, making it difficult to track everything
But there are several unknown gems to be found in last year’s album releases
At the beginning of every year, I am filled with the fear of having missed out, or, if you like that socmed acronym, FOMO. The fear is of having missed out on good music released during the year that just ended. Paradoxically, even as album sales have declined steadily over the past few years, more so with the rise of music streaming services, the number of albums released each year has burgeoned, making it humanly impossible to check out everything you may want to. So each time a year winds down and a new one begins, I try to rewind through the months gone by to see what I might have missed.
It’s by no means an exhaustive exercise, although it can be exhausting . But it always throws up some hidden gems that somehow slipped notice. Here are six albums (caveat: one of them is not a true full-length) of 2019 that you may have missed but which are worth checking out:
Oh Sees are an uncommon band. For one, ever since they got together in the late 1990s, they have been changing their name: They have been known as Orinoka Crash Suite; then simply OCS; followed by, variously, The Ohsees, The Oh Sees, Thee Oh Sees, and now, Oh Sees. But the San Francisco-based band has released more than 20 albums. Their sound is a hybrid of raw grunge rock and psychedelic rock. They experiment a lot but their distinctive unfettered guitar riffs make their music unique. For relentless, Frank Zappa-esque lead solos and long, trippy songs, check out their latest full-length, Face Stabber, especially the track Scutum & Scorpius. At 14-plus minutes, it’s a guitar lover’s delight.
Born in Alaska, Quinn Christopherson, 27, came out as transgender two years ago and his 2019 song about that experience, Erase Me, is the single that drew critics’ notice. He has fractured vocals and deeply intimate lyrics (I got so used to pulling the short stick/ I don’t know what to do with all this privilege/ Cause I got a voice now/ I got power and I can’t stand it/ And nobody interrupts me/ And nobody second guesses my opinions/ And nobody tells me I can’t do it). Christopherson is yet to release a full-length album but his singles—besides Erase Me, there’s Raedeen, about a sister who died presumably of drug-related causes, and Mary Alee, about his grandmother who was his pillar of strength when he transitioned—are tracks that ought not to be missed. If downtempo melancholia is your thing sometime, Christopherson is the man.
Melina Duterte, born to Filipino immigrants in the US, performs as Jay Som. A multi-instrumentalist who records her songs at home, Som is able to craft dreamy pop songs that she sings soothingly, against a rich multilayered sonic backdrop, all of it created by her. It’s a DIY technique raised to perfection. Although just 25, she has released three albums and 2019’s Anak Ko (“my child" in Tagalog) is one that wafts soothingly over you with its approachable lyrics and low-fi tapestry of instrumentation. Som says she makes “headphone music". And she’s pretty darn right.
One phenomenon in contemporary music is artists who can creatively blur genres. Australian singer-songwriter Julia Jacklin blends alternative country music with indie pop and delivers her songs unfiltered—sometimes ambient sounds are left in on her recordings; and her own sighs and breaths sometimes surface in her songs. But her songs are intimate narratives. Her sophomore album, Crushing, is themed on breakups—but though it has its darker moments, it’s never sad. It’s hopeful yet also confessional. On Pressure To Party, Jacklin sings about the stress of getting back to normalcy after a relationship ends but makes it so lively and amusing that it is, in fact, not stressful.
The music of Hiss Golden Messenger, a band driven by the creative force of its leader, M.C. Taylor, has elements of blues, folk and good old-fashioned rock. The band has released eight albums over the past decade, and the latest, Terms Of Surrender, is a find. It’s almost a cliché that creative artists often do their best work in the aftermath (or in the throes) of personal crises but this one, written after the loss of a loved parent and the recurrence of Taylor’s depression, is truly a hidden gem. It isn’t, however, the usual set of mopey songs you would expect. True, there are the dark moments but Taylor also talks of love, his children and of emotional healing. On days that you have more than just a touch of the blues, this is what the doctor ordered.
Amanda Palmer, singer-songwriter, pianist and performance artist, spent time busking as a living statue in many parts of the world. She identifies as bisexual and is married to the author and graphic novelist Neil Gaiman. She has also been one half of the erstwhile duo The Dresden Dolls, who described their music as “punk cabaret". Her solo work is equally theatrical.
Her latest album, There Will Be No Intermission, is piano-driven, long (78 minutes; 20 songs) and personal, looking at the tumultuous year that 2019 was—but from an intimate perspective. So themes such as #MeToo, and her own struggles as a woman, are dealt with in lyrics that can sometimes sound like abstract poetry. It’s not an easy hook-filled set of songs; the words deserve attention in the song A Mother’s Confession, for instance, where she bares all about her own weaknesses as a parent.
These six are certainly not an exhaustive list of great albums that you may have missed last year but they are certainly ones to check out before the new releases of 2020 get going.
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.