Some Things I Missed in 2019 (Part 1)

Given the overwhelming amount of content being put out into the world, I discover just as much new-to-me music from the past year as I do from the current year in the first quarter of any given year — normally culminating (except in 2020) with the glorious, chaotic, indie-artist fire hose that is SXSW. So, I hold off making my version of this particular list until about now; after the dust has settled a bit in Q1 and I’ve pulled out my own highlights from SXSW (even the festival that wasn’t this year), but before the traditional flood of spring/summer releases starts.

Preamble over. Here is Part 1 of a list of a handful of artists who released new music in 2019 and didn’t make it onto my radar screen until this year:

Abraham Alexander

Born in Greece to parents of Nigerian descent, Abraham Alexander moved to Texas with his family at age 11, determined to escape the racial tensions they faced in Athens. With a voice of similar tone, texture, and emotive weight of John Legend, Leslie Odom Jr., and fellow Texan Leon Bridges, Alexander’s personal biography is fertile ground for his rich blend of soul, blues, R&B, and folk. He released his self-titled debut EP last year in September 2019, which includes the gorgeous single Stay.

Amanda Palmer

I really was not familiar at all with the music and career of Amanda Palmer until I heard this 10+ minute epochal track. Known equally for her music and her Pateon-based, crowd-funded business model, The Ride song drew me with it’s simple piano melody and because it is visceral and raw and strong and delicate and bold and frightened — all at once. It feels so timely; a sense of utter resignation in the face of painful realities, but tinged with traces of the courage that will see us through to the other side. This is journalism, not editorial. Capturing what is for so many, offering no quarter but, equally, no excuses.

Audrey

Fresh and edgy and genre-defiant (on Apple Music alone, her singles are variously coded as electronic, R&B/soul, pop, and hip-hop/rap), Korean American artist Audrey released a fantastic set of singles in 2019 that flipped easily between gorgeous, soulful, effortlessly soaring vocals (on Paper) and quick-fire raps over warped beats (on Comic Sans). She is set to release a debut EP sometime this year and we can. not. wait.

Big Thief

Indie-folk/rock powerhouses Big Thief had a big 2019, releasing two albums five months apart: U.F.O.F in May and Two Hands in October. These are records that didn’t really land with me at the time, but that I expect to continually rediscover the rest of this year. The track Not is just one example of that: for all of the quietude of so much of Big Thief’s catalogue, it’s good to be reminded that they can rock really, really hard (wait for it at 3:22).

Cimafunk

Cimafunk is a Cuban singer, songwriter and producer who, on the 2019 single El Potaje track, features some legends Cuban music to sonically and physically together traditional Afro-Cuban roots music with the funk group’ s modern sound and pulsating groove. Put it all together, and your body can’t help but move and you can’t help but joyful and more free in the moment than you did before you hit play.

Conrad

What. A. Voice. The single Blue Blooded is a smart pop banger with flourishes that I tend to like: heavy, throbbing bass, mixed tempos with great swells and drops, and a clean melody line. But, really, there is magic in Conrad’s voice. Reminiscent to me of Panic! At the Disco’s Brendon Urie, Conrad instantly commands attention with his vocal strength, range, and the purity of his tone. You listen to this track primarily to hear that voice and experience what it does with each new verse and measure.

Denai Moore

A total discovery for me and another example of the incredible talent, innovation, and depth of the U.K. modern soul music scene. A British-Jamaican artist, Denai Moore mixes soul and R&B influences with folk and electronic elements in intentionally genre-bending/genre-breaking ways. To the Brink is her first new music in two years, ahead of a new album — her third — due out in July.

Dot Cromwell

A Philadelphia native, Dot Cromwell resides now in Brooklyn and makes music that makes you think. Makes you pay attention. It’s introspective, intelligent rap set over richly produced beats and lush synths. His easy flow — sometimes cutting and hard, sometimes laconic and woozy — is a clear trademark, as are the many influences (brooding trap beats; auto-tuned sing-song raps) running throughout his debut EP, Full of Sin, released last summer 2019.

Elizabeth Moen

Another voice that just slays me. But, unlike the above-mentioned Conrad’s straight-ahead power, Elizabeth Moen’s voice shape-shifts and amazes with its easy movement from hushed whisper, to smokey and sultry, to looping falsettos, and up to a snarling wail. Moen is an indie-rock/folk/alt-folk artist in the vein of Lake Street Dive and Margaret Glaspy, both groups that she’s toured with. There is also a lot of Brittany Howard/Alabama Shakes in her sound, especially in the single Headgear that pairs Moen’s vocals with crunchy guitars and a super-soulful groove. I can’t stop listening to this track.

Kaytranda

To be fair to myself, super-producer Kaytranda’s latest record Bubba came out in mid-December, 2019 and so it was easy to “miss” last year. Chock-a-block full of guest appearances (including from In My Ear favorites SiR, Mick Jenkins, and Masego), there are beats and vibes and joints for days on this record. So many good sounds, but the earworm award for me goes to 10%, featuring another In My Ear favorite Kali Uchis.

Alina Baraz – More Than Enough

I’ve been a fan of Alina Baraz’s ever since her 2015 debut EP Urban Flora, a project created in partnership with Danish producer Galimatias. I come back to this record over and over again. It’s absolutely hypnotic, with Baraz’s breathy vocals draped over beats that, in her hands, all seem to burn hot and slow like embers. She stands out among other pop R&B artists — and draws me in, helplessly — because of that combination of gauzy vocals and atmospheric production.

Since Urban Flora, she’s released a handful of singles and a second EP (2018’s The Color of You) building up to the release yesterday of her gorgeous debut full-length record It Was Divine. This is a record for after hours; one to sink into late at night. It is starkly intimate and hazily ethereal in equal measure, which matches perfectly with the album’s subject of love in all its forms (timeless and breathless all the way to painful and confusing). The songs lean less on electronica and more on 90s era melodic R&B, but the result is the same: a quiet-storm sensuality and a decidedly aching quality that makes for a captivating listen. A guest appearance by Nas doesn’t hurt either.

It was Divine is also is an album that has the quality of an album; more than a collection of tracks, but songs planned to fit together in a certain way. Straight away, however, I was taken with More Than Enough because it is the song that reminds me most of her earliest EP and what I felt hearing Baraz for the first time — utterly entranced, sexy as hell, and transported somewhere else to just drift along.

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#10YearThrowbackThursdays (2010) – Brother Ali, The Preacher

A new segment on In My Ear! On the occasional-to-maybe-regular Thursday, I’ll be digging into my archive and featuring tracks that were in my ear (and on my annual playlist) a decade ago. First up, the year was 2010…..

Brother Ali. This man right here is one of my favorite rappers, musicians, artists, poets, thinkers, and human beings.

And, of all the #10YearThrowbackThursday tracks I’ve featured thus far, this is hardest to get my head around that it came out ten years ago. Ali’s style and flow from then still feel so fresh now. And, unfortunately, all of the topics he raps on (the complicated nuances of racial and cultural identity; persecution of Black people; persecution of poor people; politics and power; etc.) remain pervasive and insidious today.

The Preacher is one of the standout tracks for me off the record Us, Ali’s fourth studio album when it came out. It’s an album chock-full of stories. One of Ali’s endearing gifts is his clarity as a storyteller. He populates his raps with richly-wrought characters and imbues his music with an abiding humanity.

But, as any good storyteller will tell you, it’s all in the delivery. And, Ali delivers straight fire — to me, he is a perennially underrated talent who can go toe-to-toe with any rapper in sheer skill, freestyle, and vocal dexterity. On The Preacher, he sets asides the stories, makes himself the subject, comes out of the gate hot, and doesn’t let up for the entire 3:23.

Y'all been violating the rapper code/ 
Can't just walk around here acting bold/ 
Got to earn respect to brag and boast/
Skills get you that not swag and clothes/
Chin might get tapped, I crack your nose/
Fall back before y'all collapse/
Me, I'm an artist all a y'all are acts

Man, I wore this track out.

Brother Ali is marking the anniversary of Us as well with a special edition vinyl you can order. You can also find him touring (well, he was before and expects to be back out after the COVID-19 pandemic) on the 2019 release of his seventh studio album, Secrets & Escapes.

Us by Brother Ali

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Thundercat – It Is What It Is

“Your favorite musician’s favorite musician.”

“A virtuoso on his instrument.”

“A latent superstar.”

“The coolest bass player that ever walked the Earth.”

All of this in reference to Stephen Bruner (aka Thundercat), a self-described comic book and video game nerd who writes songs about his cat, traffics in complex, proggy mash-ups of cosmic funk, experimental jazz, and slow jam R&B, and who — with his new record It Is What It Is — has delivered an album remarkably in step with a world reeling in the face of a global pandemic and gnawing uncertainty.

Were the pandemic not to have happened, I don’t know that It Is What It Is would have registered in this way for me. I would still be writing about it for its musicality, sophistication, ideas, and sheer funkiness (more on this below). But, dig beneath the outrageous bass riffs and effortlessly smooth flow, and you hear an artist wrestling with serious stuff that feels really on point these days– loss, grief, inequity, uncertainty in facing the future, and, ultimately, some hard-earned acceptance of these as constants to be borne, not necessarily shed.

Like on Existential Dread, a trim 52 second interlude and one of a few tracks where he directly confronts a feeling that he acknowledges set in when his best friend Mac Miller died in 2018 of an accidental overdose.

Sometimes existential dread / Comes ringin' through loud and clear /
I'll adjust and simply let it go / I guess it is what it is / 
I'm not sure what's coming next / 
But, I'll be alright as long as I keep breathin'

Or, like on Miguel’s Happy Dance where he sings,

Do the fuckin' happy dance / Even when you're really fuckin' mad... / Even if you're really, really sad / You can probably be worse / 
Just have that sink in for a while

Or, like on standout single Black Qualls, where he and guests Steve Lacy, Steve Arrington, and Childish Gambino present a meditation on what it means to be a young, black American (particularly, a professionally and financially successful one):

There's nothing wrong if you got it / 
I'm not livin' in fear, I'm just bein' honest.../ 
If we don't talk about it, then who will?.../ 
I don't need your co-sign / 
'Cause I'm young enough and old enough, both at the same time.../
The box you tried to throw me in don't fit me no more, no 

Musically, this does not feel at all like a weighty record. In spite of the serious topics, it flows — sometimes, even sparkles — with a warm tone, hook-y melodies, and seamless production. The songs are complex, but accessible; driven by Thundercat’s incredible solo bass technique, but not dominated by it; and featuring plenty of his trademark humor, zaniness, and individuality. See another favorite track, Dragonball Durag, for perhaps the best combination of all of these elements.

Between the expected virtuosity and the multiple lyrically pitch-perfect moments for the chaos we face now, this is a record that strikes you right away AND gets better the more you sit with it. Thundercat said that this record is him “trying to figure it out.” What better time to do so with him?

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J Balvin – Colores

Anyone remember the “White People Dancing” sketch from The Chappelle Show? It’s a hilarious segment around Dave Chappelle’s comic hypothesis that all people and cultures can dance, but simply respond to different musical instruments. (Comic perhaps, but he ain’t wrong IMO.) Chappelle has John Mayer slay on solo electric guitar in a corporate boardroom and a chic Manhattan restaurant. The white people go nuts and break out their name-your-mid-90s-rock-music-festival moves. He and Mayer go to a Harlem barbershop where everyone is either Black or Latino and where Mayer is told to “Shut the fuck up!” But, the Black folk go wild and start a freestyle cypher when Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson from The Roots starts drumming. The Latin people don’t move much until “Sanchez,” an electric piano players starts in, and then they immediately start dancing.

What’s my point here? I think of that sketch whenever a reggaeton beat drops because, if I were in the sketch, reggaeton (OK, and funk bass) would be my instinctual body-moving jam. You can go ahead and make the easy joke about the white guy needing a heavy downbeat to move to. But, good god, there is no denying the visceral pull of a classic reggaeton dancehall rhythm.

And, so I am 100% *here* for reggaeton royalty J Colvin’s fantastic new record Colores, starting right off the first song and lead single Amarillo (trans: Yellow).

What I like most about this record is how straight ahead, stripped down, and focused on the beat it is. With 10 songs clocking in at 29 minutes, there seems to be an intention to keep things simple. Lead with the beat, keep the rhythm gentle but still urgent, and layer Balvin’s easy, almost lazily delivered vocals on top.

This is definitely a pop-forward record; drawing from club and dance pop more than the dank hip-hop influence and genre-bending origins of early reggaeton. But, despite the trim delivery and very Latin pop-polish of the record, Balvin has enough ideas here to give each track it’s own unique vibe and identity. The sonically sunny quality of the perhaps ironically titled Gris (trans: Grey); the Drake-inspired R&B slow jam vibe of Rojo (trans: Red); the interplay between a distinct synth bass line and crisp, staccato percussion hits on Blanco (trans: White).

I’ve had this album on repeat since it dropped last week. It’s a smooth listen to vibe out with in chaotic times.

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#10YearThrowbackThursdays (2010) – Broken Bells, The High Road

A new segment on In My Ear! On the occasional-to-maybe-regular Thursday, I’ll be digging into my archive and featuring tracks that were in my ear (and on my annual playlist) a decade ago. First up, the year was 2010…..

Man, this song was all over the place in 2010. Following Brian Burton’s (aka Danger Mouse’s) awesome collaboration project with CeeLo Green, Gnarles Barkley, he teamed up with The Shins front man James Mercer to form Broken Bells. They released their self-titled debut album in 2010, with The High Road as the insanely catchy, indiepop gem lead single.

Cover Art, Broken Bells, Broken Bells

This is not a song I associate with any particular memory: a place, a person, a moment in time. It doesn’t do that for me. What it does is evoke the same feeling and emotion of seeing a close friend for the first time in years. There’s a sense of immediate comfort and intimate familiarity. Kind of a warm glow.

It helps that this track *totally* holds up 10 years later.

#10YearThrowbackThursdays (2010) – Band of Horses, Ode to LRC

A new segment on In My Ear! On the occasional-to-maybe-regular Thursday, I’ll be digging into my archive and featuring tracks that were in my ear (and on my annual playlist) a decade ago. First up, the year was 2010…..

Alright, so technically, Ode to LRC was released on Band of Horses‘ 2007 sophomore album Cease to Begin. But, ten years ago, I was less immediately dialed into new releases (2010 was only three years removed from the first iPhone and, to my mind, still early days of streaming, on-demand music) *and* I liked Cease to Begin a whole lot better than the record that Band of Horses’ actual released in 2010, Infinite Arms.

Blah, blah, blah…technicalities aside, I was listening to this band a lot in 2010 and, specifically, this track (along with No One’s Gonna Love You also off Cease to Begin). Starting right off with the power chords, the song features all that I like about Band of Horses: straight-ahead, guitar-driven, roots-y indie rock, a deft mixture of tempos and pacing, a great sense of melody, and lead singer Ben Bridwell’s distinct vocal tone.

Lianne La Havas – Bittersweet

Looking for a proverbial port in the storm that is swirling around us all right now? Look no further than Lianne La Havas’s smooth new single Bittersweet. The topic isn’t particularly cheery (personal renewal and a fresh start after a failing relationship) but the vibe is relaxed, the beat is steady, and La Havas’s trademark vocals soar. It is a song to get lost in, which feels like a particular blessing at this moment in time.

As a big, big fan of La Havas, what is more exciting perhaps than her dropping this single is the promise of a new album sometime this year, her first since she released her sophomore record Blood in 2015. That album remains in heavy rotation for me. And, having seen her tour on that record (fun fact: the cover image on In My Ear’s Facebook page is from that show!), I hope a new album also means a new tour because La Havas is one of the best, most natural live performers I’ve seen.

For now, I am more than happy to ride out to this excellent track.

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Katie Pruitt – Loving Her

With the release of her debut album, Expectations, last Friday, a well-done NPR feature interview with her on the same day, and national tour dates starting up in March, whatever secret there was about Katie Pruitt is now out.

A singer-songwriter in the the modern/alt-country vein (with plenty of folk and rock influence), Pruitt has a gorgeous voice, a gift for lyrics, and a story to tell. As written up in the NPR interview and on her website, the record documents and tells Pruitt’s coming of age story centered on the frustration and shame of growing up gay in the Christian South — and the self-acceptance, personal grit, and mix of toxic and deeply loving relationships that result from her journey to-date.

I first discovered Katie Pruitt last year when I heard the early single Expectations from the upcoming album of the same title. That song landed on the In My Ear 2019 Playlist and was a true standout song for the year for me, with a guitar line and vocal melody wonderfully reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac and straight-ahead lyrics that detail the complicated battle for self-worth and belief.

Wasn’t getting much out of life at all / Was scared to jump so I was scared to fall…./ I learned that fear is just the false belief / That there is nothing you can do

But, since the record’s release last week, I’ve been listening to Loving Her on repeat, which was another advance single. A beautifully lilting, gently picked, almost delicately sung song, it stands as one of the bravest, most quietly badass tracks I’ve heard in recent memory.

If loving her hurts, then I'll keep on hurting 
If it means staying true to who I am...
You can shake your head 
You can clench your fists 
You can judge, hold a grudge 
You can just be pissed
You can say it's wrong
You cay say a prayer
While you're doing that, I'll be over there
Loving her

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