JGILBERT’S BEST OF 2019
In the Year of someone else’s Lord, we count the end of 2019 and the end of the decade. For we adherents to metal culture, the end ot the 10’s and the beginning of the 20’s should be taken as an opportunity to reflect on where we came from and re-evaluate where we’re going. For me, that means a commitment to moving forward, pushing boundaries, and breaking out of the limitations and shortcomings of our shared past. A decade ago, I was more excited than ever for the state of metal music and the potential in its future. Many of those hopes turned out to be misplaced; The Faceless and Cynic were unable to follow up on Planetary Duality and Traced in Air in meaningful ways; Mastodon were from the absolute top on Crack the Skye and absolute slop on their subsequent releases; the entire djent movement went from sounding new and different to sounding all the same within a couple short years. That’s not to say that the decade was a total bust; I’ve been delighted by the explosion of math rock bands like CHON and Covet; the trad metal renaissance from Ghost and The Devil’s Blood to Sumerlands and High Spirits and the re-emergence of classics like Diamond Head and Angel Witch; and especially by the sludge, grind, and noisecore resurgence we’re enjoying right now with artists like Primitive Man, Full of Hell, and Gnaw Their Tongues. Combine the wave of exciting and innovative energy with a visibility and respect in the mainstream that we’ve never experienced before (at least, not in this way, but that’s another article…) and it’s actually a pretty good time to be into metal. But I feel that the importance of basing our excitement and our inspiration around those things “new” and “innovative” cannot be overstated as we move into the next decade. Instrument-based music as a whole is a dying art and the sun is visibly setting on the age when the electric guitar was the choice instrument of Western popular music. It is going the way of the violin, the piano, and the accordian; of chamber music and the polka; and if we want to remain a relevant and worthwhile artform in the new decade, we will need to commit to moving ourselves and our vision forward. There is a place for the traditional ways of our culture, but those should be foundations to build new ideas upon, not blueprints for how to remake old ideas. With that in mind, here are my favorite releases from the past year:
10) Big|Brave – A Gaze Among Them
This is the kind of band that I get excited to show to my normie friends. Big|Brave are taking risks and experimenting with the ingredients in metal’s spice cabinet to come up with new flavors that are somehow familiar; I remember having a similar feeling a decade ago when I first heard Red by Baroness. There are elements of stoner, drone, and post-metal here, and that’s not exactly new, but it is a rare experience for me to hear a band who clearly loves Isis this much without making me want to turn it off and just listen to Oceanic instead. With records as good as A Gaze Among Them, Big|Brave make me proud to be one of the voices advocating for new sounds, new ideas, and most importantly, new members to join our community and break up the monotonous blocks of “straight white men in black shirts”.
9) Crypt Sermon – The Ruins of Fading Light
So I’ve just spent all that time espousing the virtues of progress and then I turn around and nominate an album that sounds like it could have come from the previous century? The Ruins of Fading Light is an example of how cliche tropes can be refined and re-applied in a new context and, when done PROPERLY, still kick ass. The Ruins of Fading Light contains everything I ever wanted in a classic metal record turned up to eleven. The leads are fluid, virtuosic, and vivacious. The riffs compel fists to raise and pump like pistons in some infernal rock machine. Crypt Sermon reminds us why we’re here and doing this metal thing; because we all heard a record like The Ruins of Fading Light once and it changed our lives. Let’s get back to that feeling.
8) Tomb Mold – Planetary Clairvoyance
Tomb Mold do for old school death metal what Crypt Sermon has done for classic metal: created a masterclass in reminding you why you loved this style in the first place, while creating a place for those styles in a modern setting. Planetary Clairvoyance never misses a step, and the live show is fantastic. For more thoughts on Tomb Mold, you can check out my coverage here on Moshpit Nation.
7) Cattle Decapitation – Death Atlas
One of the best ways that established artists can move into the new decade is to build upon the winning features of the sound they’ve spent their career development. Cattle Decapitation demonstrated this concept brilliantly on Death Atlas, which adds new dynamics to their traditionally punishing style and expands what a Cattle Decap record can be without erasing what it should be. Every review you’ll read of Death Atlaas says that the band have “outdone themselves” on the new record, and they truly have.
6) Alcest – Spiritual Instinct
Neige is an artist of particular interest to me and has been since his side project, Amesoeurs, went viral on metal forums upon its release. A couple years later, when Alcest was supporting Enslaved on tour, Neige told me he wants listening to Alcest to be a spiritual undertaking. “I want you to hear my music and have a supernatural experience,” he said at the time. On his new Alcest record, Spiritual Instinct, he delivers with flying colors. A decade ago, “blackgaze” was a forum buzzword that didn’t have any actual adherents; it was a label slapped on artists like Deafheaven and Chelsea Wolfe by idiots like me. Ten years later, it’s a proper musical movement with bands and artists who set out to make “music that sounds like this”. Alcest show us all that they still do it better than pretty much everyone else on Spiritual Instinct.
5) 1000 Yard Stare – Benthic
I like art that gets me out of my comfort zone and makes me “work” to consume it. I usually reserve a spot on my year-end list for something unfathomably heavy, something so crushing that even a metal extremist like me struggles to hold it in my ears. This year, I am thrilled to open my top 5 by extending that spot to a Michigan band that far too few people have heard of: 1000 Yard Stare. We’ve covered their live show and latest release here on Moshpit Nation, and you can check those out for more on this Detroit hardcore band’s reinvention into a band pushing the boundaries of “heavy” in the modern age.
4) Lingua Ignota – Calligula
Kristin Hayter is more hardcore than me. Her musical art is at once truly unique and socially meaningful as she appropriates a “phallocentric” space in music to reshape it into a space for survivors of abuse. In turning a juvenile fantasy into a mature reflection of reality, she turns the “heavy” factor up to 10, and that;s before the screaming starts. Calligula is unlike anything I’ve heard before, and its musical weight is matched; surpassed, even, by its emotional gravitas. It’s not sonically punishing the way Theories or 1000 Yard Stare are, but the palpable human emotion; the real and present trauma in the way she screams, makes Calligula difficult to listen to. But it is a good album, a great piece of art, and an important statement to society.
3) Inter Arma – Sulfur English
I hadn’t heard Inter Arma’s music at all before their set at Northwest Terrorfest 2019, and I was too overwhelmed with the frantic mayhem of the festival to really remember what they were like; 50+ bands all kinda blend together when you cram their performances into 3 hectic days. Revisiting them after the fact, I instantly knew why they were selected for a main stage performance. Sulfur English stands out among 2019 albums the entire way through. Proggy and psychedelic in ways that make it at once intriguing and disorienting, the album sets a high watermark for murky weird death metal to strive for in the new decade. Inter Arma usually display more variety of influences and sounds on their records, but this one is pure fire and fury. Musically it lands somewhere between my favorite elements of Ulcerate and Intronaut and to top it all off, the mixing and production are peerless, making for an exceptional listening experience.
2) Cloud Rat – Pollinator
If I were the type to pull a fast one, I’d count Pollinator and it’s companion “experimental darkwave” EP Do Not Let Me off the Cliff as a single release and give it the number 1 spot on this list. As is, I feel like I never shut up about this band and I figured I’d let someone else have a turn. But Pollinator was too good to knock any lower than 2nd place for me. The album is incredible front to back, and just gets better as it goes along. I have a lot to say about it, and you can check out most of my thoughts in my article here on Moshpit Nation. Cloud Rat are one of the most creative bands in metal right now, and Pollinator is the result of four years of touring, collaborating, and writing that cements the band’s legacy as the tip of avant-metal’s spear.
- Immortal Bird – Thrive on Neglect
I had always WANTED to like Immortal Bird more than I found myself honestly enjoying them in the past. They’re friends-of-a-friend and I thought their schtick had potential, but their releases didn’t grab me the way I wished they would. I’m not sure what it was that I exactly wanted from Immortal Bird, but Thrive on Neglect completely surpassed any hopes I had for the band. In a year when a lot of releases were sounding same-y to me, this one stood out in a way that none others did. Immortal Bird have a huge array of musical influences, not to mention musical tricks up their collective sleeves, and with Thrive on Neglect, they manage to play all their cards at once and win the game. It’s so good that despite my notoriety for harsh scoring, I had to award it a perfect 5/5. You can read more about that here on Moshpit Nation, but while you’re at it, you should go to Immortal Bird’s bandcamp and experienced it for yourself.
FOLLOW UP: The best hip hop/R&B of 2019
Last year I combined all my favorite releases into one list. While I hoped it would expose somebody to an album I truly believed was great that they might have missed otherwise; it resulted in a list that felt out of place on a metal website, so this year metal got its own section. In my real job, I work tangentially to the fashion industry and I’ve spent the past year working closely with hip hop fashion in particular. I was exposed to way more artists and releases from hip hop and R&B than from any other genre and here are some of my takeaways.
10) Gang Starr – One of the Best Yet
Guru has always been one of my favorite MCs and this posthumous tribute to him by his close friend and musical collaborator, DJ Premier, is a monumental piece for hip hop. As a cultural movement, hip hop is at an important crossroads: its origins are on the verge of passing out of living memory and while nobody looking at sales figures would doubt its future, tomorrow is still anything but predictable. With Guru’s passing in 2010, most people thought that was the end of his group Gang Starr. DJ Premier said he’s been sitting on unreleased Guru verses for nearly a decade since the rapper’s passing and he’s finally found the time, and more importantly the emotional strength, to put them together with new guest spots and the kind of old school beats that only DJ Premier can craft and made a record that serves as a fitting tribute to one of the all-time greats.
9) Rico Nasty & Kenny Beats – Anger Management
So goth her skin is black, Rico Nasty pisses a lot of people off and that makes me very happy. From her razor-edged “KENNYYYYYYYYYYY” kicking off the tracks to her vicious barking delivery, Rico carves out a signature sound that doesn’t ride the Stallion trend nor does it get sucked into triplet flows that won’t age well into the next decade (sorry not sorry, Migos). I have a soft spot for “bitchy Black girl” music, but Anger Management appeals to another love of mine: concept albums. I never thought I’d get to scratch both itches at once but Rico Nasty is not your typical artist. As the album explores the necessity and personal experiences of the anger Black women feel in America with the calm and composed image they are made to present to the world if they want to get anywhere with the deck so thoroughly stacked against them. You can feel Rico trying to manage her anger over the course of the album and while she might be able to squeeze the monster back in its box, it still strains at the locks and hinges in anticipation of the next time it can escape.
8) DaBaby – Baby on Baby
I don’t normally go for mainstream rappers, but there’s an undeniable charisma and charm to DaBaby. It helps that he had one of the most explosive years in recent musical memory with his breakout release Baby on Baby and it’s brilliant followup Kirk within the same calendar. Go load up the music video to “Suge” and tell me that isn’t a bop. Go on, then!
7) Jamila Woods – Legacy! Legacy!
I like the idea of “socially woke introspective rap” more than I usually enjoy the execution. Jamila Woods has been an exception to that maxim since 2016’s HEAVN which still sees regular rotation on my playlists to this day. On Legacy! Legacy! she sets aside the children’s games for a more serious talk about what it’s like to be a Black woman in Trump’s America. “Soul is what gold can be dug from the depths of ruin and refashioned by those who have true vision” and Woods’ vision is that same vision shared by so many Black women on the path from colonial subjugation to the aspirational freedom that they still can’t find in 2019.
6) Tyler, the Creator – IGOR
Tyler is one of the most unique personalities in black culture right now. He turned hip hop on its head in 2017 when he effectively came out as gay with an album called Scum Fuck Flower Boy (renamed just Flower Boy after demands from the label for a title they could actually sell). Flower Boy represented a huge departure from Tyler’s homicide raps on yesteryear and he’s doubled down on that musical evolution with IGOR; a dreamy, wistful exploration of Tyler’s famous artistic side and his complete inability to maintain personal relationships. Tyler is adept at challenging the definition of hip hop and finding unique spaces between rap and R&B and with IGOR he demonstrates his mastery of that craft.
5) Danny Brown – Uknowwhatimsayin?
Detroit’s own Danny Brown is an oddball and an outlier in hip hop. He was in mis mid 30’s when his career took off –in a genre dominated by young artists where most people past their 20’s are “washed up” or even “grandfather to my nuts”. On Danny’s new record, he’s also sober, another rarity in hip hop, although one that is becoming more and more accepted as the opioid crisis continues to destroy lives and careers. On Uknowwhatimsayin?, Danny wonders what his life could have been like if he’d never made it as a rapper, if he’d never gotten sober, if he’d never escaped the dirty underbelly of Detroit. What would that life be like? Brown has a series of educated guesses, but he explores them with a certain removed sense of horror as a mature and sober adult with serious commitments to his daughter and his career.
4) Dreamville III – Revenge of the Dreamers
The creation of the third Dreamville record is a modern legend. Charlotte, NC artist J Cole sent out an open invitation on Twitter for a ten day writing and recording marathon that ended up featuring over 100 different rappers, musicians, singers, producers, and other creatives to culminate in a monster of a compilation album. The guests range from the super-famous to the hot-right-now and even extends to people that executive producer and Dreamville head J Cole insists “you’ve never heard of… so go check them out and support them.” After a 2018 where it felt like every rap album was too long, Dreamville put out 18 delicious tracks with dozens of artists and it still left fans hungry for more.
3) Sampa the Great – The Return
Australia is not where most people turn to look for hip hop and R&B. Typically associated with American blackness, these styles are still as much rooted in African music as the people who created them. Also claiming African origins, Sampa the Great was born in Zambia, raised in Botswana, and now lives in Melbourne. The Return is a search for belonging in a world that treats her like an outsider until the realization that home is within ourselves. The album takes influence from modern R&B as much as it does from the folk traditions of Sampa’s familial past and makes for a hip hop record that contains all the elements that make the artform compelling: danceable beats, socially and emotionally introspective lyrics, chill vibes; and combines them with outside influences to create a hip hop record that sounds truly global.
2) Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Bandana
Madlib might be the single best hip hop producer working right now. His previous collaboration with Freddie Gibbs, Piñata, made enormous waves and brought mainstream appeal to both artists. The hunger for success may have subsided, but in its place is an effortless cool confidence to experiment with song structures and compositions that make Bandana stand out among all the releases of the year–any genre. Madlib’s beats paint a false nostalgia for a 70’s that never really happened, a sort of Black Funk Vaporwave, stitching together forgotten soul songs with old TV and movie clips to make an otherworldly vibe that serves Gibbs’ abstract cocaine rap style like the rapper’s alter ego serves white. Bandana sounds like a piece of art more so than most hip hop albums ever have in an age when hip hop artists have largely abandoned artistic merit and the album format as a whole, and for that alone it deserves praise. It’s also a dream to listen to.
1) Solange – When I Get Home
If you made it this far into the list of things you probably don’t care about, I’ll let you in on a secret: When I Get Home was the best album I heard all year. Solange continues to leave minds blown and heads spinning with her abstract soulful art-jazz. Not content to make an astounding blend of R&B and jazz, When I Get Home was also released as a feature-length art film. The amount of hard work and dedication, not to mention the sheer level of talent involved in making something like this leaves me consistently struggling to describe just HOW GOOD Solange’s art is, and this record might be her best yet.