Artist: The New Pornographers Album: In the Morse Code of Brake Lights Year: 2019 Grade: B-
In Brief: This album brings back some of the sonic diversity that Whiteout Conditions lacked, especially with violinist Simi Stone upgraded to full membership. But song-for-song, it just doesn’t hit nearly as hard, and I think part of the problem is that despite all the singers in this band, we’re really only hearing the artistic voice of Carl Newman. No longer having Dan Bejar around kind of exposes his limitations as full-time band leader.
Artist: Meg & Dia Album: happysad Year: 2019 Grade: B+
In Brief: Think of this less as a reformation of Meg & Dia the band, and more as a rediscovery of Meg & Dia the sisters who loved making music together, and who now make sharp, witty pop songs with engaging riffs and rhythms. It’s sad that all the music industry B.S. ever split them up in the first place, but it feels so good to have these two back together again.
Artist: Sigrid Album: Sucker Punch Year: 2019 Grade: B
In Brief: While Sigrid’s influences are obvious and she jumps around a bit stylistically, there are some formidable pop songs here with great hooks and thoughtful writing. She makes a great case for pop music being “basic” in its sound and structure without being boring.
Artist: Billie Eilish Album: When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? Year: 2019 Grade: B+
In Brief: Billie’s full-length debut rather boldly defies my expectations of what a pop album, whether indie or mainstream, should sound like in 2019. She also busts some of my stereotypes about teenage singer/songwriters in general, and how they can communicate both lyrically and sonically in a way that comes across as authentic while still drawing in a huge and diverse audience. I didn’t expect to like this album nearly as much as I did, and now I can’t stop listening to it.
Artist: Sleeping at Last Album: Atlas: Enneagram Year: 2019 Grade: B
In Brief: While there isn’t as much interactivity between these songs as I had imagined there might be, the musical diversity and attention to detail in exploring each personality type makes it a worthwhile series of character studies. And with nine tracks exploring a consistent theme, it’s the closest thing to a traditional album that SAL has put out since the Space series during Year One.
Artist: My Brightest Diamond Album: A Million and One Year: 2018 Grade: B-
In Brief: This album further revises the MBD sound, taking Shara Nova’s already rhythm-heavy approach in even more of an electronic direction while dropping some of the more ornate instrumentation. It’s a bit all over the place, musically speaking, but I do appreciate it as a bold expression of her independence and artistic ambition.
If I could write songs like anyone in the world, I’d want to write like Vienna Teng does.
I’m sure I’ve echoed this sentiment many times in all of the reviews I’ve written of Vienna’s music over the years. And while there quite a lot of songwriters I’ve admired enough to consider them influential over the years, she seems to be the one I come back to the most consistently and remain in awe of, somehow still finding interesting little nuances I hadn’t considered before in songs of hers that I’ve loved for nearly two decades now. I knew pretty early on that I had stumbled across something special when I first heard her music – all it took was two songs performed on solo piano at an intimate live show way back in the spring of 2003 for me to first feel that tug deep within me, telling me I wanted to write something that communicated such powerful imagery wrapped in curious metaphor, and yet she was so intimidatingly good at it that I was pretty sure I’d never be able to come anywhere near it. But perhaps that’s the point. Vienna is such a restlessly creative individual who constantly challenges her own status quo. So maybe the best way to be inspired by her is to not try to mimic her at all. And therein lies the paradox.