(In what used to be an annual tradition, and hopefully will become one again, we present a year-end list of favorite Not-Metal albums by Joseph Schafer (whose NCS moniker was BadWolf). Joseph is a former NCS writer, ex-Invisible Oranges editor, current contributor to Decibel, Noisey, and Consequence of Sound, and a principal co-conspirator in the production of Northwest Terror Fest.)
Sorry it took so long. Last year, the usual hustle and bustle of the holidays totally occupied my time. If you think about it, it’s hard to think of a worse time of year for Listmania than the apex of social and familial pressure that is the end of the year— not to mention the horrid weather that blasts most of the United States as I write this. Regardless, after an abnormally tumultuous 2019, and my decision to skip Listmania the year before, I took the time to outline, as before, my favorite non-metal albums of the year.
Some of these choices should be familiar to anyone who has read my list in years past – I tend to err on the side of my favorites, most of the time. The artists who created five of these choices have turned up on these lists before.
Still, some of my favorites disappointed me this year. I expected to like Carly Rae Jepsen’s follow-up to Emotion more than I did. I also thought for sure Nick Cave’s Ghosteen would make this list, but I found its wall of synthesizers too tough to scale.
It would have been easy to fill its slot with metal-adjacent acts who put out decent records this year, such as Chelsea Wolfe or Hexvessel. With one exception, I opted not to do that, either.
Curiously, I think it’s been a great year for mainstream pop, which seems more adventurous than it’s been in the past decade. We’ll see if that trend continues in 2020. Until then, here are my ten best not-metal records of 2019.
Billie Eilish – When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
You had to be living under a rock this year to escape “bad guy,” LA youngster Billie Eilish’s unstoppable hit single. The one where she talks about fucking your dad. The one that has no chorus, just a cheesy synth arpeggio and an unstoppable bassline. Eilish isn’t even drinking age, but she and her sole collaborator (her older brother) have created a dark pop debut which somehow blends Marilyn Manson-style goth shock with a gender-neutral modernity and a healthy dose of Frank Sinatra-style classic crooning. It’s not all as good as the debut single, but then again, what is?
Boy Harsher – Careful
This post-punk duo slid into my list at the last moment. I’ve only just heard Careful recently, but it secured a slot by tapping the vein in me left by an adolescence worshipping The Lords of Acid’s hypersexual industrial. Boy Harsher take similar sounds and bend them into something more subtle and dangerous, but no less fun.
clipping. – There Existed an Addiction to Blood
This isn’t my first time on this site espousing the merits of LA noise/industrial/hip-hop fusion act clipping. and likely won’t be the last. I expected the band to collapse after emcee Daveed Diggs’ new career as an actor took off (see him in Velvet Buzzsaw and especially Blindspotting) but he still has time to spit bars over John Carpenter samples and weave his intricate, twisted horror-short narratives in time-warping verse. There Existed an Addiction to Blood isn’t quite as conceptual as their last album, but it still delivers claustrophobia with aplomb.
Danny Brown – U Know What I’m Sayin?
Detroit rapper Danny Brown’s gone from underground phenom to reliable critical darling and festival draw over the last decade. U Know What I’m Sayin? finds Brown at his least cartoonish, sporting few of the experimental beats of The Atrocity Exhibition and mercifully less of the nasal wailing that typified XXX. Even buttoned-down, Brown is a formidable emcee and insightful observer of the human condition. Don’t skip “3 Tearz” for a great Run the Jewels guest slot.
Drab Majesty – Modern Mirror
NCS’s own Islander turned me on to Drab Majesty. The post-punk duo made a big impression on him in Iceland, and there sure is some kind of cold black metal remove in Deb Demur’s monotone vocals. The music itself, however, weaves hooky ballads over layers of sublime synth. The whole thing feels like smoking a joint, holding your loved one’s hand, and watching a pollution sunset. They kill live, too.
Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Bandana
Gibbs and Madlib collaborated earlier this decade on the celebrated Piñata album, and frankly neither’s been so good since. A sequel was inevitable but credit where credit is due, the dynamic gangsta rap duo didn’t just try to repeat their earlier success. Bandana pushes Madlib out of his vintage ’70s sample comfort zone into more synthetic territory. Gibbs sails these choppier waters like a plundering dragoon, balancing the two personas of ‘hardened drug dealer’ and ‘concerned father’ with novelistic wit.
Lana Del Rey – Normal Fucking Rockwell!
Hip-hop’s own Nancy Sinatra clone has come a long way since Born to Die and Ultraviolence. Albums since have shown her softening her attack, sharpening her wit, and exploring ever-more-subtle instrumentation, and frankly I didn’t love it. The artist formerly known as Lizzy Grant lost me for the past few years, but found me again with her newest record, a feminist explosion of modern pop steeped in Astral Weeks-era Van Morrison psychedelia. A cover of a Sublime song shouldn’t be this good, but here we are.
Lizzo – Cuz I Love You
Everything I said about Billie Eilish’s ubiquity goes double for Lizzo. The twerking flautist’s message of body positivity and self-empowerment are aimed at young women with body image issues, but her appeal is universal. Lizzo’s secret weapon is a deep aptitude for funk grooves — she did hang out with Prince for a while, after all. Songs like “Juice” cannot be denied, and Lizzo’s full of them.
Tyler, the Creator – Igor
This should come as no surprise. Tyler, The Creator could shit on a cracker and I’d at least lick it. However, his second record after pivoting into an R&B focus (and since coming out of the closet) feels more comfortable than its predecessor Flower Boy. Tyler presents himself as producer first, singer second, and rapper third on incredible songs like “Earfquake” but doesn’t shy away from bringing a little of his old nastiness back on “What’s Good” – his best track since “Domo 23” in my opinion.
Vaura – Sables
One of my great joys this year has been getting to know Josh Strawn, vocalist of New York prog metal-goes-goth outfit Vaura (also featuring Kevin Hufnagel of Dysrhythmia, Gorguts, and more, as well as Kayo Dot’s Toby Driver). More than just a nice guy, Strawn’s a powerful singer, and his Sisters of Mercy croon elevates the band’s sophisticated New Romantic-as-played-by-Rush sound into a realm equal to its obvious influences. Having one of Peter Gabriel’s producers behind the boards doesn’t hurt, but a song like “Espionage” could command my attention as a Casio-only demo, such is its quality.
As a bonus, I thought I’d leave you with my most-played song of the year. Though I’ve not been the biggest fan of her prolific and critically esteemed career, I always listen when Jenny Lewis releases new music. This year that persistence was rewarded with “Red Bull and Hennessey”, a delightful slice of flippant post-breakup pop with Fleetwood Mac-ish swagger.