In My Ear – The 2019 Playlist

We back! Man, it’s been more than a hot minute since I’ve posted on this here blog. What can I say? Life got busy and there’s only so much late-night posting and content creation this body and mind can stand.

But, after putting the blog on ice for the fourth quarter of last year, I’m blowing off the cobwebs, wiping the dust from the keyboard, and playing some catch up before moving onto 2020.

First up, the annual In My Ear Playlist. Except for celebrating albums (i.e. really great albums that I listened to often and in full, versus just singles or individual tracks), I don’t do rankings or ratings. Overall, this is just a list of the songs, records, and artists who resonated with me the most over the course of 2019 and put out the best music I heard.

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In My Ear 2019-Quick-Hit Reflections and Themes

  • Hip-hop and R&B artists/communities continue to be en fuego.
  • E.g. Anderson .Paak. That dude was everyone and I rocked with everything he put out.
  • I like country music?
  • Genres don’t matter much anymore.
  • Artists are feeling very introspective…and I found myself gravitating to those who did it quietly. A safe harbor?
  • Vulnerability. There were a lot of artists who released incredibly personal records this year. It’s heartening that they felt the space and support to do so.

In My Ear 2019 Album Picks

Mahalia – Hide Out

I’m spending the next couple of posts catching up on some September releases that I’ve been spending time with. Mahalia‘s debut album Love and Compromise is at the top of the list and, in particular, the lead track Hide Out — a song swollen with swagger, defiance, and self-determination.

Mahalia’s story is worth reading up on. Signed to Atlantic at just 13, she’s steadily released stand-alone singles and a few EPs while continuing her studies (and, you know, being a teenager). Now, at the ripe-in-her-career-but-still-young age of 21, she’s released a robust, polished, dynamic pop R&B record chock full of killer songs.

The tracks are sonically and musically diverse; there’s dancehall beats, jazzy riffs, dead-on-style classic 90s R&B joints, neo-soul melodies, and on. But, in a testament to the intelligence of the record’s production, the power of Mahalia’s soulful vocals, and the firm grip she has on her own personal sound, the songs sound cohesive as an album. There’s no sense of over-reach here.

That’s evident from the first moment of the first song, Hide Out, which starts with a defiant quote from Eartha Kitt pulled from an amazing and inspiring interview segment of the 1982 documentary “All by Myself: The Eartha Kitt Story”). The track swells quickly on the hum of a backing gospel choir and then thrums to life with a beat drop at :24, all before Mahalia clocks in with rich, sultry vocals that take to task the poor soul stepping out on her.

The lyrics and music are fierce. A straight ahead pounding drum-kick-snare beat drives a relentless momentum, while Mahalia’s relatively flat delivery and frank lyrics lace the track with a cool, collected anger. While the song’s subject is a cheating partner, the true meaning and discovery here self-reliance and self-love. Hide Out will add steel to your spine, grit to your teeth, and a determined half-step to your gait as you walk — eyes up, ready to take on all comers. I have yet to feel anything but awesome listening to it.

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Rapsody – Eve / The Highwomen – self-titled

Released two weeks in the end of August/early September, I have fully folded myself into these two remarkable records — Rapsody‘s Eve and The Highwomen‘s self-titled deubt. They are both worthy of an individual post and many more words added to the glowing reviews and public response they’ve already received (and which are well worth your time reading).

But, I immediately and instinctively wanted to write about these records together — not just to make the sorts of connections across styles that I love to make (I love me a diverse playlist!), but to elevate their artistic similarities and the moment in time these albums occupy in their respective genres.

In the context of a music industry that remains largely a man’s world, women are killing it artistically. The vast majority of the most creative, innovative, intelligent, compelling, and stone-cold talented artists I follow are women. And, they are regularly carving out space for others to be authentic and brave and brash and truthful toward the powers that be.

All of that feels even more real with these two records because they are demanding recognition and space in the especially deeply male-dominated cultures of country and hip-hop music.

Cover art for Rapsody’s album Eve

Both Eve and The Highwomen offer expansive (vs. reductive) perspectives on feminism, female identity, sisterhood, and community, but they firmly ground those perspectives in the current cultural realities of their genres. Rapsody claims the multitudes of black womanhood while speaking frankly on her personal journey to claim her own ground as a female MC in the hip-hop community. Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Natalie Hemby, and Maren Morris of The Highwomen speak to and for women directly, but with a vintage twang and through familiar topics that have animated country musicians for generations (love found; love lost; love scorned; love spurred; family; death; faith).

Cover art for The Highwomen’s self-titled album.

Both records match the diversity of their perspectives with a range of styles and musical influences. Diverse samples and beats (e.g. the sample of Phil Collins’ In the Air Tonight in Cleo) pair with live instrumentation on Eve, while a sparkling, fresh blend of classic country, Americana, folk, and vintage rock invigorate The Highwomen.

And, both records are grounded in stories. Rapsody titled each song on her record after trailblazing black women (living, dead, or, fictional), but then plays with what each of those figures represent — metaphorically or literally.

Similarly, each song on The Highwomen is a tightly-told, beautifully narrated vignette, none more so than the opening track Highwomen. Weaving together four stories of women facing persecution in their time. The first verse talks of a Honduran asylum-seeker who died trying to cross the border; the second of a healer burned at the stake in the Salem witch trials; the third of a Freedom Rider; the fourth of a female preacher.

Easily among the best albums released in 2019, these are powerful statements from female artists determined to center and assert their personal stories and the stories of others.

The August That Was

Poor, neglected blog.

It’s been crickets over here at In My Ear. Not for lack of listening to great music, mind you, but for lack of time and energy to write about it during an August that refused to calm the eff down even for a second. So it goes for this non-monetized side hustle.

But, but, but there is a bit more summer in early September in Maine! Time enough to highlight some tracks that I was jamming out to during the hectic, heady, hazy days of late August.

Ider / Wu Baby

I’ve already posted about Ider, whose record Emotional Education will surely be an In My Ear 2019 Album Pick. But, I must mention them again and call out this song because I got my 7 and 5 year old into it — meaning we listen to it all. the. damn. time. Wu Baby occupies the top spot as the most played song of my Apple Music library. Incredibly, it has not gone stale.

The Regrettes / Dress Up

The return of an In My Ear favorite, The Regrettes released How Do You Love? in August, their sophomore follow-up to their dynamite (and awesomely titled) debut album Feel Your Feelings Fool! There is a bit more range on the new record, some tighter production, and all the other stuff you’d hope to see on a band living into itself and growing from album to album. But, they remain true to their strength; smart, straight ahead, spiky pop punk .

DAISY / Day Off

Man, I just love music. DAISY was a new find for me this summer and I have been vibing with them for days and weeks ever since I heard this track. Together since 2014, they’ve put out one EP to-date. Day Off is only their second single. If it sounds a bit like The Internet, then you’re an astute know-it-all. The bandmates are friends and The Internet’s Matt Martians wrote the beat for Day Off. Fronted by Daisy Hamel-Buffa and her butter-smooth, classic-soul-sounding voice, DAISY cooks through this track. It remains at the top of my list for playing loudly on those good-feeling days.

The Good People / A Summer Night at the Symphony (feat. MXNXPXLY Family)

Another new find for me. The Good People, a hip hop duo consisting of respected NYC-area DJs, MCs, and producers Emskee and Saint, put out a record so perfect for the summer, they named it that — The Summer EP. Six tracks and 23 minutes of smooth, soulful hip-hop. They describe themselves and this album best on the track Windows Down, rhyming “West Coast laid back with that East Coast sound.” But, it’s the cut A Summer Night at the Symphony that stands out; an homge to The Juice Crew’s The Symphony and featuring fellow underground MCs MXNXPXLY that sounds equal parts classic and insanely fresh.

YBN Cordae / Broke As F**k

YBN Cordae‘s debut studio album The Lost Boy is straight fire. One of the best rap records released in 2019 IMO. Tight, taut, smart raps; solid production; a range of styles with some killer guest artists; and, throughout, bars and bars for days. Part of the YBN collective of young, talented MCs (an online game crew turned viral rap collective) who claim and champion a youth movement in hip hop , Cordae is clearly steeped in classic rap and channels some of the best of it. Broke as F**k is just insanely good….and has all kind of echoes of Nas.

Blood Orange / Dark & Handsome (feat. Tory y Moi)

Devonte (Dev) Hynes is the musician, producer, songwriter, and composer behind Blood Orange, a solo project of slinky, spacious, inventive R&B. It’s a perfect palate for the likes of Tory y Moi. Off of Blood Orange’s record Angel’s Purse, released in mid-July, the overall vibe of Dark & Handsome is what lingers for me. I still haven’t checked out the lyrics because I’m so captivated by this track’s movement. Airy, atmospheric production; discordant, buzzy synths that lend a slight underlying menace; a tight, staccato beat; and Hynes’ soprano, ear-candy vocal melody that pulls it all together. Since my first listen, I’ve returned to this track over and over and over again.

Snoh Aalegra / Find Someone Like You

Another repeat feature. I wrote and swooned about Snoh Aalegra’s first single off her at-the-time upcoming album. That album was released in mid-August — gamely titled Ugh, those feels again — and Find Someone Like You is the next track to completely slay me. But, slay me in the quietest, smoothest, sexiest way possible. The track opens with staccato piano chords straight out of a 1950s soul/jazz standard and proceeds in that vein, but with modern R&B stylings of a beat track, Aalegra’s smooth and fluid vocals, and a gospel choir finale. A breezy song that calls to mind the image of an arm outstretched from a car window, fingers moving dreamily in the wind on a warm summer night.

Spoon / No Bullets Spent

I don’t know how Spoon does it. I don’t know how they keep releasing new music that sounds *exactly* like a Spoon track — literally, exactly how you’d expect it to sound — without it ever sounding tired or repetitive. Even when they stretch out and change things up a bit, you know almost immediately that you’re listening to Spoon AND it always rocks like a Spoon song. Sure, a lot of that has to do with Britt Daniel’s distinct, raspy voice. That may make their music consistent across albums and decades, but it doesn’t alone explain how fresh they sound with each new, familiar-sounding track. And, so it is with No Bullets Spent.

Missy Elliott / Throw it Back

Speaking of consistency and awesomeness, welcome Missy Elliott back to the stage (she never really left) with a banging new EP and the single Throw it Back to bomb your stereo and blow out your subwoofer. And, welcome to my last two weeks, because this song has been on repeat since it came out August 23. Head-nodding and hypnotic, Missy commands it all with her usual effortless delivery, smart rhymes, and the bravado of a legend. “What ya doin’ now, I did for a while.” Respect, Queen.

Juls – Slow Down (feat. Agent Sasco)

With summer going by so fast and me not being able to keep up the In My Ear posting activity, I’m going to keep it extra short this week and just hit you with a sweet little song — perfect for your next backyard hang, beach picnic, or golden hour windows-down cruise.

I’m new to both of these artists: Juls, a London-based, Ghanian-born artist and one of the foremost afrobeat and afropop producers and Agent Sasco, a big-time Jamaican dancehall deejay and reggae artist.

Slow Down is just one of a number of great tracks off Juls’ latest album Colour, which is well worth your time checking out in its entirety. But, right now, as we hit the final quarter pole of summer, the title and vibe of this particular song feel just right.

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Black Pumas – Black Moon Rising

My new favorite band. Your new favorite band. Black Pumas is the stuff of legend. Grammy-award producer meets talented street busker; they hang; make some music; magic happens; and – bam – they’re catch fire and you can’t get their shit out of your brain. Which is fantastic because they are legit and awesome.

Black Moon Rising, the lead single off their debut self-titled album released a couple of weeks ago, is just one of a host of golden tracks.

As other commenters have noted, Black Pumas doesn’t stay in the retro-soul box you want to put them in on first listen. The record spills over the side with modern production flashes, drum loops, and fresh-sounding guitar and keyboard licks. While they command their own unique sound that merges classic soul, gritty rock, and vintage-era funk, there are hints of current influences from Dan Auerbach, to Danger Mouse, and even Khruangbin.

Black Pumas is having a moment. And, we’re all better for it.

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Kate Tempest – Holy Elixir

Kate Tempest’s new record The Book of Traps and Lessons feels like one of the most important artistic and political statements out in the ether today.

Not one to shy away from tough topics or fear speaking her peace or shirk the weight of a storyteller’s responsibility to hold good and evil, truth and falsehoods in close companionship, Tempest focuses her angst, intellect, philosophizing, and fury on everything that — in the quiet moments of the day or night — unsettles you too. Rising authoritarianism. Massive economic and social inequity. The foreboding of feeling trapped in a system you don’t have access to or even a handle on. Humanity outpacing the world’s resources. Climate change. An age of technological advancement and social disconnect. The sense that things are deeply, fundamentally flawed.

Aching legs, pounding head
I can’t wait for the weekend
I’m staying in bed
In the mouth of a breaking wave
In the mouth of a breaking storm
Shaken, thinking something is coming
The sky’s an unusual colour
The weather is doing unusual things
And our leaders aren’t even pretending not to be demons
So where is the good heart to go but inwards?
Why not lock all the doors and bolt all the windows?
All I am are my doubts and suspicions
I against you against we against them
This is how it begins
And this is how it will end.

~Three Sided Coin

As I listen to this record, I am in awe of how much Tempest’s sharp poetry and intricate wordplay speak to that part of me — deep inside my head and in my gut — that wrestles with the great questions of our time. I relish in the places this record takes me because it feels like I am engaged in a dialogue at the root of things. How do we make it through all of this?

Holy Elixir is a standout track for me because it displays Tempest’s expansive imagery, the complexity and directness of her poetry, and the musicianship that deepens the impact of her words. She levels-up her patented blend of spoken-word/hip-hop fusion, creating a pulsating, atmospheric soundtrack with rich, dank electronic beats and stripped-down, piano and string arrangements.

There are no answers here. But, Tempest’s way of articulating her own questions and of naming what we are facing feels galvanizing. I am not buried in despair; not buoyed by hope. Rather, I am steeled for the fight. And, for joining in common cause with those who listen to this album and nod their heads to the rhythms and the rhymes of an artist who is looking behind the curtain of the world around us.

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Santana – Batonga / Bembele (feat. Buika)

50 years ago (good lord), Carols Santana played Woodstock and launched himself and his band into the stratosphere. Now, at age 71 and with 24 previous albums under his belt, he’s released his latest record, Africa Speaks — and it is crazy good.

While I deeply respect Santana for his passion and his absolute commitment to a life consumed by music, art, and spiritualism, I am like many who have struggled to keep pace with his output and his explorations. Some hits; mostly misses for me over the years. I know that he pays no mind to critics (nor should he) or to popular appeal (financially and on account of on his “legend” status, he doesn’t have to). He’s operating at a different level and with a different calling. In a recent interview with NPR, he says:

Everything’s new to me, with purity and innocence. Every second. It’s all in how your heart perceives things, to create fresh, new. But you must have a consistent thirst to remain with innocence.

Thankfully, this time out, that thirst and unbounded creativity resulted in Africa Speaks–a dynamic, potent, sonically diverse, pulsating record. The tone of Santana’s guitar is as piercing and fiery as ever; his riffs, crisp and clean; his solos, as shredding. But, it all takes on new life and energy when set against the “sounds, rhythms, and melodies of Africa,” the self-described and apparently intentionally big tent theme of the record.

Santana’s guitar chops and compositions aside, my personal appreciation and love for this album rest largely in that African musical palette he is drawing from. And, more specifically, from African music delivered and given voice as it is on the record by singer Buika, especially on the standout tracks Batonga and Bembele featured here. Born and raised on the Spanish island of Mallorca, as the child of African immigrants, María Concepción Balboa Buika (known as Concha Buika or Buika) is a force of nature. A seasoned veteran singer with a dedicated following, Buika features on vocals for all 11 tracks–singing in Spanish, English, and Yoruba with an intensity, power, and authenticity without which Santana’s admittedly respectful and purposeful homage to the continent might resonate less.

The combination of these two artists and the production talents of Rick Rubin is pure magic. Africa Speaks has to stand as one of Carlos Santana’s best records in years and, to me, near the top of his ever-growing, diverse catalogue.

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Feature Photo: Maryanne Bilham

Free Nationals (feat. Mac Miller and Kali Uchis) – Time

Free Nationals released this track today and, um….there was no way I was going to post about anything else. Free Nationals (Anderson .Paak’s backing band and one of the best live soul/funk/R&B groups on the planet right now) + Kali Uchis (my top “I’m-not-a-huge-fan-of-pop-radio-R&B-but-I-love-her” female vocalist) + Mac Miller (his first posthumous release) = Awesomeness.

Even if it sounded bad I was going to tune into this track. But, of course, it sounds fantastic. Melodically tight out of the gate, with Kali Uchis singing the chorus backed by a strummed acoustic guitar, and then picking up 30 seconds in with a Free Nationals / Kelsey Gonzalez classic, butter-smooth, on-the-one bass line.

That bass groove drives the song forward, accented by glittering synth, electric guitar, and trumpet riffs and graced at the top with Uchis’s layered, slightly ethereal vocals. It cruises along at a steady, head-nodding clip…and then Mac Miller tucks in with his verse.

Man, I miss Mac Miller. I was oddly affected by his passing (which I wrote about last September) and so I feel conflicted hearing his familiar, distinctively raspy voice again. Happy to be vibing along to his vocals and amazing flow again, even as I know he’s no longer here and I’m listening to a single moment frozen in time. He raps:

“Look at me watering seeds, it’s time to grow / I get out of control when I’m alone”

Damn, Mac.

I found myself wondering how it must be for his family and close friends; the courage it must take them to allow Free Nationals to release this song with the subject matter of letting go of love, which is guaranteed to feel haunting and sad for them even as it is likely what he would have wanted and keeps his memory and legacy alive for the rest of us. Respect.

After another chorus and verse by Kali Uchis, the track shifts keys and winds down with horns and a warped fade. Front-to-back, this track is just one smooth, effortless, R&B groove. You don’t so much listen as you sink into it.

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Mannequin Pussy – Drunk II

Spotify’s data indicates that this song has been streamed 337,702 since it’s release about a month ago. I account for a significant percentage of that total because Drunk II has been repeatedly blasted at full-volume in my car, in my earbuds, in my spouse’s Bose Quiet Comfort noise-canceling headphones (shameless plug; I love them), and into my poor, throbbing ear drums.

I’m new to Mannequin Pussy, a Philadelphia-based punk band formed in 2013 and set to release their third full-length album this month, June 21, titled Patience. Drunk II is the lead single off the record. The band has earned a reputation for raw, raging music that can deliver tightly-crafted, melodic hooks in the midst of the sound-and-fury of blistering, thrashing punk rock.

Similarly, their lyrics are as intimate and vulnerable as they are defiant. Like on Drunk II, (which, is simply a brilliant break-up track), when lead singer Marisa Dabice rages “I still love you, you stupid fuck” before the plaintive chorus, “And everyone says to me / ‘Missy you’re so strong’ / But what if I don’t want to be.”

This song’s crisp production and tight blend of power and fragility is compelling as hell.

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Feature Photo: Marcus Maddox