2019 has been a down year for music across the board. While there have been a few breakout hits — most notably the massive commercial successes of both Billie Eilish and Lana Del Ray — it has come few and far between. Fewer and further between than usual, I might add. Where the hell is Yandhi, or Jesus is King, or whatever the hell Kanye West is supposedly calling his new album? That’s how desperate the circumstances have become.
Typically, a distinct lack of major-label albums means a distinct surplus of really good indies. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case either. Vampire Weekend’s Father of the Bride, perhaps the most-hyped rock album of the decade, flopped in comparison to its lofty expectations. That’s not saying it’s a bad album; it’s still very good, but it also happens to be their “worst.” On the other hand, critical darling Sharon Van Etten released what could be considered her best work, but it came out in January and has largely been forgotten already.
Standard-bearers like Deerhunter, The National and Sleater-Kinney have also issued worthwhile albums in 2019, yet the only people who seemed to care were their longtime fans. It didn’t make much of an impact in the grand scheme of things. Same goes for Bon Iver.
Surprisingly, U.F.O.F. — the third album from a tiny, Brooklyn-based folk quartet called Big Thief — has been head and shoulders the best release of the year. But it probably wouldn’t have even sniffed the top five had it came out back in 2015.
Thankfully, Friday, October 4, saw the release of three new albums that will hopefully change the narrative on what has been a forgettable year of music.
Receiving the most press so far (take it with a grain of salt: at the time of writing, it’s only been 24 hours since these new releases came out) is Angel Olsen’s All Mirrors. With good reason, too — she’s been hyped as the heir-apparent to Stevie Nicks ever since MY WOMAN was released back in September 2016. Her newest album sheds the powerful, guitar-based indie rock that made her a star in favor of something even more grandiose.
All Mirrors is bigger and bolder than anything Olsen’s attempted so far, but her biggest problem has always been consistency. The sweeping orchestral embellishments that color each track often get in the way, which muddles her message and turns much of the album into a meandering mess. Nowhere is this more evident than the six-minute opener “Lark,” which starts off slow and quiet before exploding into an epic chorus. Olsen’s voice strains to be heard over the loud backing music that swallows her up.
This frustrating dynamic more or less overtakes the entire album. Even though I’ll probably end up coming around on All Mirrors — the sheer ambition should pay off with repeated listens — I’ve always been apprehensive of Olsen’s somewhat overbearing technique. Unsurprisingly, Stevie Nicks suffered from overblown self-importance too.
While All Mirrors will probably find its way onto several Best-Of lists by the end of the year, an album that may get lost in the shuffle is Wilco’s low-key Ode to Joy. It shouldn’t, though. Aside from a brief lull in the early 2010s, Jeff Tweedy’s band has been consistently delivering the goods for over 20 years now. They show no signs of slowing down.
Lead single “Love is Everywhere (Beware)” is already one of the best songs of the year — a melancholy masterpiece that ebbs and flows like the circular guitar pattern at its center. Nobody can make a song that sounds both impossibly large and understatedly small quite like Wilco. Angel Olsen would do well to take note.
Expanding on the subtle folk of their previous album, Ode to Joy still features the band’s trademark sonics — mysterious keyboards and whirring guitars and unexpected chord changes — but also contains some of Tweedy’s most direct lyrics. As he’s gotten older, his songwriting has turned more introspective.
Which brings me to Danny Brown, who is also getting older (the former crack-dealer-turned-rapper is now 38) but no less provocative. uknowhatimsayin¿ features hilarious accounts of sexual exploits, drug use and the perils of fame delivered in Browns’ typical, jaded sense of irony. But this time he’s rapping over the best production of his career.
Assisted by legendary producer Q-Tip, the eclectic beats are full of unexpected twists and turns that add an extra dimension to Brown’s manic songwriting. After one listen, uknowhatimsayin¿ is already better than his previous album. After two listens, it’s a contender for album of the year.
Brown’s uniquely profane perspective is much needed in a year plagued by unoriginality. Angel Olsen, and even Wilco, are conservative by comparison. Nevertheless, all three artists have provided a necessary spark that will hopefully carry over into the year’s remaining releases. Things already appear to be trending in the right direction: another Big Thief album drops next week.