“I’m learning to fly, but I ain’t got wings … Coming down, is the hardest thing.” – Doris
In December of 2019, as the other blogs were hastily publishing their Best-of-the-Year lists, your friends at The Blocland refused to cave to the demands of this 21st-century “EVERYTHING NOW” society! And now look at you. Locked away. Alone. Shriveling. But oh, what’s this, riding into your town like Geralt of Rivia, rescuing you from the monster that is yourself? That’s right, jump through this portal to better days with the The Blocland’s thoughtfully curated collection of the Best Albums of 2019. Be well, wash your feet, and no sloppy kisses with strangers. – Cooolin
Album-cover reimaginings by Saul Wright
10. Big Thief – U.F.O.F.
I scared the shit out of my dog the first time I listened to U.F.O.F. I had gotten my vinyl copy in the mail a couple days early, and couldn’t wait to give it a spin, so I popped it on. The volume was low, so I turned it up. And then again. And then again. And just as I thought I got it right, the sound cut out, so I turned it up again. And then, Adrienne Lenker unleashed a scream so loud I was afraid my neighbors may call the cops. As I got the situation under control and the record rolled along to the title track, it was very clear: This album isn’t just a statement, it’s a hostile takeover.
In a lot of the press surrounding U.F.O.F., the band repeatedly asserted that they were doing this for the love of the music, and that if the fame disappeared tomorrow, they would be perfectly content. With all due respect, that’s bullshit. No one moves to a bigger label makes an album like U.F.O.F., then just casually drops a successor just a few months later, solely because of artistry; Big Thief are out to conquer the world. Frankly, that’s exactly what they should be doing, because they’re one of the few bands out there that can compete for the throne. And while Two Hands was the, “look what we can do without even trying,” album, U.F.O.F. is a band obsessing over every single detail, knowing that this album will be their arrival on the big stage, a declaration of war on the rest of the indie-rock titans.
There was a 20-minute video released at the same time as Watch The Throne back in 2011, and the moment that has stuck with me was one of Jay-Z, in the booth, doing the line, “Spent about a minute, maybe less on it,” over and over again, making it clear he spent much more than a minute on it. That had to be the scene daily during the recording of U.F.O.F. Every chime is at just the right note in “Open Desert.” The infamous guitar suspended from the ceiling to create the guitar effects in “Jenni” must have been tested a hundred times, to ensure they had just the right sound. Even a sparse song like “Orange” feels immaculate, like the musical equivalent of a Swarovski crystal. This obsession over detail allows the band to control the narrative to the finest degree and create a work that firmly establishes their place in the canon of rock music.
After a defining album like U.F.O.F., it is natural to speculate on the band’s future and attempt to create a narrative around the band and the album. Big Thief, however, refused to allow even the external narrative to define the record, pivoting to Two Hands before most of us were finished digesting U.F.O.F. The band was very clear: U.F.O.F. is our coming-out party, and no one is going to spoil this moment for us. The inevitable backlash to their coronation began soon after U.F.O.F. came out, but even critics had little to muster beyond, “I don’t like them, don’t @ me about it.” Big Thief meticulously crafted a record to make a statement and left the haters with nothing to say. Hell of a coming-out party. – California
9. FKA twigs – MAGDALENE
It was hard not to get swept up in FKA twigs. Experiencing “Two Weeks,” the accompanying video, and LP1 in 2014 didn’t feel so much like glimpsing into the future. It felt more like examining the blueprints drawn up by a woman determined to shape it herself. Right from the start, twigs was splitting the difference between the experimental and accessible like Autechre infiltrating Sade. Clattering electronics, stoned r&b, and the kind of synths science fiction soundtracks beg for all seamlessly coexisted in a twigs banger.
Finally, FKA made good on the promise of LP1 and M3LL155X by evolving the project into an entity unknown to electronic music or modern science. Distorted vocal lurches, tasteful noise, and glitchy beats serve as textures that only heighten the potency when FKA turns to Kate Bush and piano ballads. On Magdalene, confidence exists within vulnerability, sexuality is a means of connection, and the avant-garde is just another word for pop music. The biblical title fits. The next decade will be created in FKA’s image. – Lobster Man
8. Inter Arma – Sulphur English
There isn’t a band on Earth as difficult to describe as Inter Arma. The Richmond, VA quartet are tied to sludge metal, but that association was a stretch even in the early days. How is this band even speaking the same language as Crowbar or Eyehategod? Peppered throughout nearly every Inter Arma song are touches from different corners of metal coming together to form something beastly, confounding, and often beautiful. Somehow Inter Arma manages to sound familiar while also existing outside of our understanding of metal. The heft may come from churning psychedelia. The drone may be the result of knotty, Gorguts-ian riffing. Inter Arma billed Sulphur English as their death metal album, but that constraint only forced them to take things even further.
Album highlight “The Atavist’s Meridian” starts as sweaty basement hardcore before it’s quickly punctuated by pulsating free jazz drum fills and swallowed by secede buzz. “Stillness” makes good on the promise laid out on “Where the Earth Meets the Sky” and presents Inter Arma as the nexus between Neil Young and occultists bent on forcing you to see God. The purest death metal move comes on “Citadel” when the band channels Gateways to Annihilation era Morbid Angel while filling in the negative spaces with haunted leads. All throughout Sulphur English is the creeping sense that things are about to go sideways. And that’s exactly where this band thrives. Each successive release only proves how vital Inter Arma are to the metal landscape. Sky Burial forced them onto the map. The Cavern demonstrated a boundless curiosity. Paradise Gallows showcased their ambition. Sulphur English cemented them as metal’s leading band. – Lobster Man
7. Big Thief – Two Hands
Whenever a band releases two albums in the same year, every music publication must justify that move by reassuring you that, no guys, they’re both really good. They’ll then proceed to write 80% of their write-up on how the two records are different, and they’ll inevitably finish by asking some version of the question, “Is this band the best band working today?!” A key element that tends to get lost in all the platitudes is how well the music stands on its own. Which, in the case of Two Hands, is a fucking travesty.
The most incredible element of Two Hands is just how little of it was a surprise. A high-quality NPR live concert has them playing “Shoulders” at South by Southwest over two years before Two Hands was even announced. Check the comments section of any article announcing the album, and you’ll see anonymous users recounting their experiences hearing the band play over half the album live before it had been recorded. Big Thief are a portrait of a band unable to sit still, as if they had been locked away for decades, fine-tuning their craft and creating masterpieces (pun intended) they never dreamed would see the light of day. Two Hands is Big Thief’s best work because it best captures that energy, that chaos, that inability to sit still. It reaches out, grabs you by the lapel, and forces you to pay attention.
At a live show just after Capacity was released, Big Thief dedicated a large portion of their set to a song none of us had heard before. Adrienne Lenker, normally a person consumed by her own thoughts on stage, seemed done fucking around. She and the band unleashed a cacophony of fury upon the unsuspecting listeners that everyone immediately knew was the best damn thing the band had ever done. Of course, two years later, we’d come to call that song “Not,” and it is still the best damn thing the band has ever done. The song feels like an anthem for millennials too cynical for “Love It If We Made It,” raging against the late-stage capitalist hellscape we inhabit with a sense of urgency that the band had only hinted at before. If Big Thief were to disappear tomorrow, “Not,” would be the exclamation point on one of the best four-album runs of all time.
Two Hands is full of tracks that would make career highlights for other bands. Every easy-listening artist of the 90’s wishes they could write a track half as good as “Replaced.” A slightly reworked “Forgotten Eyes,” would be hailed as a powerful return to form if it had been a Wilco song. Throw a trap beat over “Those Girls,” and give it to Ariana Grande and it goes straight to #1. Okay, that’s a stretch, I’ll admit, but the fact that it isn’t out of realm of possibility entirely is crazy. Two Hands is an urgent, powerful album from a band in total control of the indie zeitgeist now. One listen to Two Hands and you’ll realize that there’s no need to ask the question of whether Big Thief are the best band working when the music speaks for itself. – California
6. Oso Oso – basking in the glow
In my foolish quest to listen to as many albums as possible in one calendar year, I tend to forget why music brings me so much joy in the first place. The eager super-fan in me is replaced by the cold, calculated mind of a critic, devouring noise like it’s a numb academic exercise. I recognize “good music,” yet instead of engaging with it, I’m debating where it will end up on my year-end list.
It’s a wretched habit – but Oso Oso’s basking in the glow broke the curse. It digs up some visceral emotions somewhere in the spectrum between reckless, youthful optimism and a very millennial sense of melancholy. I can’t describe the feeling that bubbles to the surface when I listen to the title track or “the view” or “impossible game.” I want to scream for joy along with Jade Lilitri on the chorus of “morning song” – “But now I know what I want / I’ve been singing this song all month / I wanted something / Yeah but something’s like nothing” – yet at the same time, I swear I’m on the verge of breaking down.
I could wax poetic about the power of music, catharsis, how music can bring out the weirdest feelings and memories and emotions, but you don’t need me to explain it to you. There’s nothing like finding a piece of music – an album, a song, or even a fleeting moment on a song – that resonates with you in a way you can’t describe, takes your “critics cap” and throws it into the flames because c’mon man … just let something be special for once.
Needless to say, basking in the glow was the album I needed this year. – Cooolin