Check these out before you make your year-end lists.
2019 will almost definitely go down in history as the year of Billie Eilish, Lizzo, and Lil Nas X.
These newcomers were so omnipresent throughout the year that it's almost hard to associate 2019 with any other artist. But don't be fooled—the year came with plenty of underground and independent releases that deserve their time to shine, too.
While there were countless underrated albums this year, we've rounded up just 20 to listen to just in time before you make your year-end lists.
Empath, Active Listening: Night on Earth
On their debut full-length album, Active Listening: Night on Earth, Philly noise-pop quartet Empath deliver microdoses of breakneck adrenaline in their buzzing synths, thrashing drums, and the vocals of lead singer Catherine Elicson, whose conversational yells surmount all the bustle. Their music is unkempt and unhinged, but each track is tethered in their own addictive melodies. The album isn't meant to be easily digestible; it's meant to drown out the world.
Helado Negro, This Is How You Smile
On Roberto Carlos Lange's sixth album as Helado Negro, anxiety, love, and power—or lack thereof—all culminate into a sublime, soothing piece of work. While Lange's musical foundation is subtle electronica, this album also employs dashes of acoustic guitar and a Latin flair, though no element is overbearing. Gentle and intimate, This Is How You Smile gives space for your worries, while also offering a giant sigh of relief.
Mannequin Pussy, Patience
Marisa Dabice is heartbroken and furious, but on her punk band Mannequin Pussy's third album, she's making progress in moving on. Patience doesn't wallow in the pain of her abusive relationships: It offers a catharsis, one that admits "yeah, this sucks," before willfully moving on. Patience is broad and expansive, spotlighting Dabice's seamless belting of choruses as much as her enraged growls. It'll make you want to cry as much as it'll make you want to set your ex's stuff on fire.
PUP, Morbid Stuff
So many pop-punk bands luxuriate in their own sorrows that, when groups like PUP offer counterarguments like "Just 'cause you're sad again, it doesn't make you special at all," it feels like a harsh kick to the shin. PUP are clearly depressed and angry, though as Morbid Stuff exemplifies, not without an analytical lens. They're aware of their problems, which is the first step to healing from them; Morbid Stuff invites you to do the same, with a tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation and some of the year's most massive hooks.
Weyes Blood, Titanic Rising
Judging only by the grandiose compositions of Weyes Blood's music, you might not guess that her fourth record, Titanic Rising, is largely an ode to an impending downfall. The album is stunning, intricate, and majestic, but not without singer-songwriter Natalie Mering's convoluted, almost apocalyptic concerns on her own metaphorical sinking ship. Like peak cinema, it is both gut-wrenching and brilliant.
Control Top, Covert Contracts
In case you haven't heard, the current political climate isn't so great. Like their most notable punk forebears, the twisted depths of government and society are of Control Top's highest concerns, and Covert Contracts covers a lot of ground; capitalism sucks, the patriarchy sucks, and there are crooks on both "the left and the right." There's truth in it all, but at least with Control Top's noisy, kinetic instrumentation and singer Ali Carter's sneering proclamations, the band creates an open space for these complaints.
Charly Bliss, Young Enough
Young Enough embodies a joyful, euphoric purge of pain, led by the songwriting and inimitable vocals of Eva Hendricks. She channels betrayal and anxiety into ecstatic power-pop; it shimmers and bursts with ginormous melodies, but always remains grounded in reality.
Japanese disco-punk band Chai embody cuteness on their own terms. The Nagoya quartet dismiss the beauty standards of their home country on their second album, PUNK, while lacing blasts of bubblegum pop and electronic samples into their bombastic drums and driving guitar riffs. Empowerment is the new black, and with Chai, earnestly loving yourself has never sounded so much fun.
black midi, Schlagenheim
black midi aren't for everyone, but that's OK, because they don't want to be. Their debut LP, Schlagenheim, is an opus of the young London guitar band's idiosyncratic, suspenseful, and overblown brand of indie rock. Driven by mathy, knotty drums and Geordie Greep's theatrically peculiar voice, above all, black midi are weird—but not weird enough to detract from their sheer talent.
Slowthai, Nothing Great About Britain
Newsflash: The United States isn't the only country with issues. Just listen to Slowthai, the distinctive, edgy Northampton rapper who assures us that Britain isn't just screwed up: There's nothing great about it at all. He calls out Queen Elizabeth by name, denoting the harsh lines between the elite and poor, furiously pleading for a resolution between his gritted teeth. By album's end, we have to consider: Maybe there's not much great about Britain after all, besides Slowthai himself.
Faye Webster, Atlanta Millionaires Club
Though the title of her debut album might call to mind the high-profile rappers she photographs (Offset and Lil Yachty among them), Faye Webster crafts R&B with a sweet southern flair. Her music is introverted and simplistic, mixing modern jazz and soul with classic country elements like slide guitar. Her featherlight vocals exude a sense of loneliness throughout, as though she feels like a fish out of water in her own home; but as the listener, she helps you feel less alone.
Florist, Emily Alone
It's an easy crutch to call female singer-songwriters vulnerable, as if writing from the depths of one's expansive emotions is a revolutionary task for someone as small-brained as a woman. But Emily Sprague, the leader of the band Florist, is truly vulnerable to a shocking degree. As you might guess, she wrote and performed Emily Alone all by herself. The acoustic folk she created in her solitude—albeit small—is breathtaking and arresting. She might be singing about herself, but it's chilling how deeply the listener can relate.
Kelsey Lu, Blood
Kelsey Lu is not only a cello master, she's an innovator. She implements her main instrument throughout her debut LP, Blood, as a vehicle for her melodies, one that makes her chamber-pop feel both rooted in traditional foundations and soaring with modern textures. The project is exquisite, weaving classical orchestration into contemporary R&B, disco, and pop, until the result is uniquely Lu.
Black Belt Eagle Scout, At the Party With My Brown Friends
From the get-go, Katherine Paul wants you to know that she's an indigenous queer woman eager to make waves. That identity might not be explicitly stated in her second album, At the Party With My Brown Friends, but the theme of resistance underscores her songwriting: She demands to be seen, but not tokenized. At the Party is soft and exquisite, but not without putting up a fight.
Oso Oso, Basking in the Glow
Whatever wave of emo revival we're on these days—seriously, I've lost count—Jade Lilitri is steering the ship. Under his Oso Oso moniker, the Long Island singer-songwriter crafts emo-tinged pop-punk that's undeniably catchy. His choruses soar as he contemplates what it means to be happy while navigating his newfound success. When he proclaims "now I know what I want" on high-flyer "A Morning Song," you can't deny he really means it.
Club Night, What Life
It's easy to compare Oakland quintet Club Night to a plethora of predecessors, though they're not limited to one vein of indie rock. They can evoke the poppy ecstasy of groups like Los Campesinos! and Ponytail as much as they call to mind emo pioneers like Cap'n Jazz and the Promise Ring—often in the same song. Because of their wide-spanning influences and the unique way they blend them, Club Night are tricky to put in a box; if anything, they exist in a box entirely their own.
Jamila Woods, LEGACY! LEGACY!
Reference points comprise much of Jamila Woods' LEGACY! LEGACY!, but not without careful consideration. Each track on the Chicago singer-songwriter-poet's second album is named after a notable artist of color who's inspired her somehow in her deeply introspective, yet highly political R&B. Woods straddles the line between a tumultuous past and an unwritten future, her vocals are airy, but never compromising her rage.
Little Simz, GREY Area
Being in your 20's is a confusing time. UK rapper Little Simz makes this era of uncertainty the thesis of her album GREY Area, her razor-sharp, rapid-fire delivery invoking a similar sense of thoughts spilling over and over. Backed by unassuming production, GREY Area feels like watching Little Simz working through a 300-piece jigsaw puzzle on her own, if observing such a task could be so thrilling.
Sudan Archives, Athena
Athena is a character referenced so often that her meaning can often dissipate in the saturation. But Sudan Archives' new album, Athena, reinvigorates this meaning, exhibiting just as much strength and tenacity as it does sheer beauty. Hip-hop production, pop-leaning melodies, and grand violin parts (courtesy of Sudan Archives, herself) amount to a project worthy of its namesake.
MIKE, Tears of Joy
Bronx rapper MIKE doesn't make bangers. Tears of Joy is an ode to his late mother; accordingly, the 20-song album is incredibly evocative and poignant. MIKE's twisted samples, deep vocals, and home-spun quality evoke alt-rap torchbearers like Earl Sweatshirt. But as somber as the project is, there's still a relieving sense of healing as MIKE spits about his own grief.
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Let's take a look at Nazi-inspired fashion.
Villains always have the best outfits.
From Darth Vader's polished black space armor to The Joker's snazzy purple suit, bad guys always seem to show up their protagonists in the fashion department.
Way more handsome than Batman. static.giantbomb.com
But could there possibly be a real world equivalent to the type of over-the-top villain fashion often found in fiction? It would have to be sleek and imposing, austere and dangerous. Probably black.
Maybe it's him. Maybe it's fascist ideology.
Let's call a spade a spade. From an aesthetic standpoint, the Nazi SS outfit is very well-designed. The long coat tied around the waist with a buckle portrays a slim, sturdy visage. The leather boots and matching cap look harsh and powerful. The emblem placements on the lapel naturally suggest rank and authority. And the red armband lends a splash of color to what would otherwise be a dark monotone. If the Nazi uniform wasn't so closely tied with the atrocities they committed during WWII, it wouldn't seem out of place at Fashion Week. Perhaps not too surprising, considering many of the uniforms were made by Hugo Boss.
Pictured: A real thing Hugo Boss did. i.imgur.com
Of course, today, Nazi uniform aesthetics are inseparable from the human suffering doled out by their wearers. In most circles of civilized society, that's more than enough reason to avoid the garb in any and all fashion choices. But for some, that taboo isn't a hindrance at all–if anything, it's an added benefit.
As a result, we have Nazi chic, a fashion trend centered around the SS uniform and related Nazi imagery.
History of Nazi Chic
For the most part, Nazi chic is not characterized by Nazi sympathy. Rather, Nazi chic tends to be associated with counterculture movements that view the use of its taboo imagery as a form of shock value, and ironically, anti-authoritarianism.
The movement came to prominence in the British punk scene during the mid-1970s, with bands like the Sex Pistols and Siouxsie and the Banshees displaying swastikas on their attire alongside other provocative imagery.
Very rotten, Johnny. i.redd.it
Around this time, a film genre known as Nazisploitation also came to prominence amongst underground movie buffs. A subgenre of exploitation and sexploitation films, Naziploitation movies skewed towards D-grade fare, characterized by graphic sex scenes, violence, and gore. Plots typically surrounded female prisoners in concentration camps, subject to the sexual whims of evil SS officers, who eventually escaped and got their revenge. However, the most famous Nazisploitation film, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, flipped the genders.
The dorm room poster that will ensure you never get laid. images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com
Ilsa was a female SS officer and the victims were men. She spent much of the movie wearing her Nazi uniform in various states, sexually abusing men all the while. As such, Ilsa played into dominatrix fantasies. The movie was a hit on the grindhouse circuit, inspiring multiple sequels and knock-offs and solidifying Nazi aesthetics as a part of the BDSM scene.
Since then, Nazi chic fashion has been employed by various artists, from Madonna to Marilyn Manson to Lady Gaga, and has shown up in all sorts of places from leather clubs to character designs in video games and anime.
Lady Gaga looking SS-uper. nyppagesix.files.wordpress.com
Nazi Chic in Asia
Nazi chic has taken on a life of its own in Asia. And unlike Western Nazi chic, which recognizes Nazism as taboo, Asian Nazi chic seems entirely detached from any underlying ideology.
A large part of this likely has to do with the way that Holocaust education differs across cultures. In the West, we learn about the Holocaust in the context of the Nazis committing horrific crimes against humanity that affected many of our own families. The Holocaust is presented as personal and closer to our current era than we might like to think. It is something we should "never forget." Whereas in Asia, where effects of the Holocaust weren't as prominent, it's simply another aspect of WWII which, in and of itself, was just another large war. In other words, Nazi regalia in Asia might be viewed as simply another historical military outfit, albeit a particularly stylish one.
In Japan, which was much more involved with WWII than any other Asian country, Nazi chic is usually (but not always) reserved for villainous representations.
OF COURSE. i.imgur.com
That being said, J-Pop groups like Keyakizaka46 have publicly worn Nazi chic too, and the phenomena isn't limited to Japan.
In South Korea, Indonesia, and Thailand, Nazi imagery has shown up in various elements of youth culture, completely void of any moral context. For instance, in Indonesia, a Hitler-themed fried chicken restaurant opened in 2013. And in Korea, K-Pop groups like BTS and Pritz have been called out for propagating Nazi chic fashion. Usually such incidents are followed by public apologies, but the lack of historical understanding makes everything ring hollow.
So the question then: is Nazi chic a bad thing?
The answer is not so black and white.
On one hand, seeing Nazi chic on the fashion scene may dredge up painful memories for Holocaust survivors and those whose family histories were tainted. In this light, wearing Nazi-inspired garb, regardless of intent, seems disrespectful and antagonistic. Worse than that, it doesn't even seem like a slight against authority so much as a dig at actual victims of genocide.
But on the other hand, considering the fact that even the youngest people who were alive during WWII are edging 80, "forgetting the Holocaust" is a distinct possibility for younger generations. In that regard, perhaps anything that draws attention to what happened, even if it's simply through the lens of "this outfit should be seen as offensive," might not be entirely bad. This, compounded by the fact that Nazi chic is not commonly associated with actual Nazi or nationalistic sentiments, might be enough to sway some people–not necessarily to wear, like, or even appreciate its aesthetics, but rather to understand its place within counterculture.
Ultimately, one's views on Nazi chic likely come down to their own personal taste and sensibilities. For some, Nazi chic is just a style, an aesthetic preference for something that happens to be mired in historical horror. For others, the shadow of atrocity simply hangs too strong.
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"Vagabon" is a testament to fear and her ability to forge a path through that fear by having faith in oneself and one's community.
Can you remember the first time you understood that there was something powerful about music, something that could affect you far more deeply than patchworks of sound and rhythm should be able to?
Laetitia Tamko, who goes by the stage name Vagabon, recalls this very moment.
She was three, she told NPR, living in the Cameroonian city of Yaoundé, attending a gathering called a reunion. Standing in the middle of a circle of twenty-five women, the normally shy little girl was moved to enter the circle and began dancing.
On her sophomore album, Vagabon, Tamko conjures the kind of communal, ritualistic flow state that one imagines inspired her to join that dance so long ago. Vagabon is both tightly wound and expansive, concise and yet full of vast and rich internal spirit. In that, it resembles the collage-like yet cohesive songcraft of Frank Ocean, who was an early influence for Vagabon, though the album resists comparison, instead existing in a space of its own.
Vagabon - Water Me Down (Official Video) www.youtube.com
Lyrically, it blends millennial themes—a love of astrology, glitchy indie inflections—with much older influences that range from house to hip hop, African music to synth-heavy dream pop. On the first track, "Full Moon in Gemini," which was apparently actually written during a full moon in Gemini, Tamko sings with a rare kind of gentleness, placing her tender vocals over glistening strings. "Past the mad river / and the mountains / I wrote this about." Refusing to stay within any boundaries of genre or sonic expectation, Tamko orchestrates an expressive beat and bassline beneath the strings, giving the song a wry, subversive edge. It almost sounds like she's grinning, though sometimes a smile also means bearing teeth.
A similar progression happens on the quietly stunning "In A Bind," which begins with a folky finger-picking pattern that grows more processed and reverb-heavy as the song goes on. The song sounds like the last night before the inevitable end of a summer love affair; it would work perfectly in one of those montage movie scenes that follows a protagonist post-fling, leaving some idyllic countryside for city streets and watching the leaves skitter over the pavement as fall settles in.
Tamko produced the album herself, and you can hear the deliberateness with which each effect and instrumental part was added. Throughout the process of making the album, Tamko was very open about her insecurities about the music, frequently taking to Twitter to confess her fears that all the fans she gained from her first album wouldn't follow her as she explored new styles. Considering the amount of insecurity that plagues most artists even when they gain extensive recognition, it was surprisingly refreshing to follow Tamko on her confessional journey.
As expected, her fears were unfounded, as the album is delicate, experimental, fresh, and full of life. But if you're listening for it, you can almost hear the fingerprints of her self-critical thought loops playing out in the music. It's not hard to imagine the late nights she must have spent trying to perfect each sound, while simultaneously trying to release that desire for perfection.
If music is a map of the psyche, Vagabon's sophomore album is a lovely terrain to walk, if a solitary one. "I tend to be in isolation in general — I'm a homebody, I'm a nester — and because it's a part of who I am, my character, my personality, it's bound to trickle into the actual contents of the music," she said. Still, that's not to say that she's disengaged from the world around her. The album constantly mixes compassion and fierceness, braiding self-love with love for others. "All the women I know are tired," she sings on "Every Woman." "But we're not afraid of the war we brought on." It's a rallying cry that forgoes contrived feminist tropes and instead brims with truth.
Vagabon - Every Woman (Official Video) www.youtube.com
Sometimes she returns to more traditional indie roots, like on "Wits About You," but she uses them to express a message of solidarity that's somewhat rare in the Frankie Cosmos sphere of indie music in which she made her name. "I was invited to the party / they won't let my people in," she sings through a fog of grainy processors. "Well then nevermind, nevermind / we don't want to go to your function." From there, the song opens up; the mist falls away and clear waves of sound flow through, its bell-like clear tones and beat flowering like night-blooming jasmine.
Like much of her music, the album is warm and inviting, if protective of its tenderness. Tamko has spoken about wanting Vagabon to be a community, a place where people can come together in service of their own growth. Still, she seems aware that she was never meant to be part of the crowd—she is still that same little girl that leapt into the center of the circle of women. "I guess what I'm trying to say is that this album is me doing whatever the f*** I want, because I can do whatever I want, you know?" she said at the end of the NPR interview.
As a frontwoman and producer who maintains complete control of her own musical output, her own independence and autonomy may be her most generous gift of all. Vagabon sounds like the beginning of a journey through genres and into a growing sense of personal power. While perhaps not a conclusive journey in and of itself, Vagabon is a window into one of the most open hearts in music today.
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