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This year, the Boston area’s musical output made it especially difficult to whittle down a list of its “best local albums,” which is a cool problem to have. It also means that while I had every intention of creating a standard Top 10 list, I wound up writing about 15 records. Mostly full albums, but also two standout EPs — it seemed antiquated to rule them out when streaming platforms are the go-to audio format these days.
Beyond that, these releases aren’t ranked in any particular order; they’re all just really, really good, for a variety of reasons that don’t make much sense to compare. A number of the records on this list stood out due to their treatment of political topics: fewer general burn-it-down anthems, more lyrics that tackle systemic problems in specific, evocative terms. Others fly against expected genre conventions to powerful effect. If there are any common factors in play across the board, it’s the overall songwriting, originality, and musicianship, but even then, they’re dialed in wildly different configurations across hip-hop, pop, rock, folk, and electronic music.
The Michael Character, 'Silver Bells, Kid'
Do you believe in life after punk idealism? “Silver Bells, Kid” finds The Michael Character bandleader James Ikeda on the cusp of 30, trying to figure out what it looks like to grow up without selling out. It’s a brainy, occasionally reverb-drenched folk-punk quest that kicks off with a thorough roast of Ikeda himself, in which he observes that — 12 albums and EPs deep into The Michael Character’s existence — he’s gotten so lost in trying to write the perfect song, run the perfect house show, and keep up his all-too-important scene cred that his priorities have gotten scrambled in the process. Over the rest of the album, he takes a hard look at everything from DIY politics to U.S. politics, considering new ways to focus his energy: go back to grad school, dive into more activism, settle down in the suburbs. The album doesn’t end with any immediate decisions to satisfy his newly updated adult-punk outlook, but if nothing else, the search yielded some of his sharpest work yet.
Following the accidental viral success of her YouTube hit “Pretty Girl” and early EP “Diary 001,” it seemed that Clairo (also known as Carlisle, Massachusetts native Claire Cottrill) was on track to keep creating quirk-perfect, ultra-relatable bedroom pop. Instead, she ditched the lo-fi trappings and embraced label resources and big-name collaborators, working with Rostam to translate her understated style to a more polished minimalism. The resulting sound winnows songs like “Alewife” and “Bags” down to their souls, and the songwriting is strong enough that they don’t need much else.
Lord Felix, 'In Bloom, Forever'
You know that start-of-summer sense that anything could happen? It exists at the beginning of “In Bloom, Forever,” for a handful of slick, danceable songs, and then it goes away and never comes back. Lord Felix is a bit of a romantic, and as a longtime crush starts to look his way, everything seems easy at first. Dangerously close to love, even. But abruptly, someone else catches her eye, the romance is crushed, and Lord Felix is flung into what he titles “The Worst Summer Ever,” bitterly recounted over the chords of Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets.” It’s a moment of musical cognitive dissonance, setting up the back half of an album that pairs more subdued beats with the kind of jealous personal unraveling that warrants a fleet of “Dude, are you doing okay?” texts. There’s no neat resolution or sense of closure; the album ends in a particularly dark chemical stupor. Lord Felix seems to have bounced back — he’s released three high-energy EPs since then — but first, he turned the whole experience into one of the most exciting debuts of the year.
Pile, 'Green and Gray'
Pile’s early full-band albums and shows were built around hurtling rock melodies and post-hardcore-ish explosions, but catharsis isn’t their only trick; on 2017’s “A Hairshirt of Purpose,” more restrained arrangements brought contemplative lyrics to the fore. “Green and Gray” shows the band making the most of the tension between both elements, letting thrumming rhythms build until a razor-edged solo rips over the top or Rick Maguire’s controlled-blast holler rattles the song to its foundation. More direct songwriting heightens everything, taking the brain-excavating to new depths on tracks about solitude, anxiety, and aging, but also taking fury to new heights on “The Soft Hands of Stephen Miller,” the band’s most pointedly enraged song to date.
Camp Blood, 'Camp Blood'
It’s difficult to describe Camp Blood without resorting to extremes. The industrial hip-hop duo of Haasan Barclay and Shaka Dendy shares their name with a 1999 straight-to-video slasher film; that intensity is intentional. Their self-titled debut EP booms with the abandon of a subwoofer about to blow, paired with ferocious vocals on tracks about racism and violence, particularly in the South. From incorporating a “Smell ya later!” refrain over the aortic throbbing of “Aerosol” to revising the chorus of Drowning Pool’s 2001 “Let The Bodies Hit The Floor” on “Hogweed,” it’s full of unexpected, inventive details that make sense in the context of their hardcore- and punk-inspired delivery.
Somos, 'Prison on a Hill'
Glossy, anthemic rock albums aren’t often known for their political critiques, but Somos’ third release uses propulsive guitars and bright, new wave-y synths to energize songs with an antifascist undercurrent. A number of tracks take the perspective of young soldiers entering the military, unprepared for the scale of destruction they’re exposed to and expected to participate in when it’s too late to turn back. Others address additional elements of vulnerability under capitalism, often with more frustration than false hope. All together, it’s a chilling, deeply compassionate listen, with arrangements and lyrics working together as a reminder that the views at the album’s core aren’t so radical when the stakes are taken into account.
Rah Zen, 'Upon The Apex'
In July, producer and beatmaker Rah Zen released “Upon The Apex,” a hazy alien landscape of offbeat, hypnotic electronic textures and hip-hop experimentation. A majority of the tracks are instrumental or close to it, but they offer little solitude; instead they’re populated by wordless yowls, rattling chains, and clipped, pitch-shifted vocal samples. Occasional contributed verses (3Deity on the burbling “Incandescent,” Kadeem on the heavier, lurching “New Beginnings”) tend toward the surreal, adding dimension and completing the otherworldly atmosphere.
Oompa’s much-anticipated second release, “Cleo,” takes its name from Queen Latifah’s role in the 1996 heist movie “Set It Off,” but the album’s story is the Roxbury-based rapper’s own. It offers some reflection on the struggles of her earlier years, but more than anything, it’s about the things propelling her career these days: dizzying determination, hard work, and the knowledge of how hard she’s had to fight to get to this point. Rapping over sounds from ‘90s R&B to hints of gospel, “Cleo” shows that her technical command and writing have only grown even stronger since her debut.
Future Teens, 'Breakup Season'
Ah, the joys of dating in 2019. Surely they must exist, but Future Teens’ second full-length “bummer pop” album is about all the other stuff: backsliding ex-texts, dating app rebounds, the mundane business of taking care of yourself while everything else is falling apart. Most of the band’s songs thus far have chronicled various states of romantic wreckage, but on “Breakup Season,” they blast their way through band breakups and on-the-rocks friendships, too. Fronted by dual vocalists Amy Hoffman and Daniel Radin, the Teens offer a twangy and decidedly 2019 take on emo, updating some of the genre’s mid-2000s missteps with fresh self-awareness and perspective.
Anjimile, 'Maker Mixtape'
When life starts to feel out of control, creating anything is a form of power: You can make yourself the god of a lump of clay or a guitar or a Google doc. On EP opener “Maker — Acoustic,” indie-folk musician Anjimile goes from feeling invisible to all-powerful in the span of a chorus, responding to the question “Why don’t you do as you’re told?” with “I’m not just a boy, I’m a man/ I’m not just a man, I’m a god/ I’m not just a god, I’m a maker.” Of course, there are other methods of coping, too: You might look to astrology (“Pisces”) or just get high over the kitchen sink with a friend (“Sonja Smokes Me Out”). But sometimes it’s best to just be direct, and that’s the route Anjimile ultimately takes, ending a relationship and resolving the EP on the jazzy “Baby No More.”
Beeef, 'Bull in the Shade'
Beeef’s indie-rock jangle can be deceptive. On “Bull in the Shade,” the band’s second release, bright guitars and easygoing melodies create contagious energy, but anxiety hovers in the lyrics. “I’m So Sorry” might contain the year’s most poignant line about email management: When vocalist Perry Eaton sings, “If I turn off my email for the night, will I regret it in the morning?” he’s really getting at a bigger worry, later echoed when Sidney Gish contributes a verse: “If I stay in tonight, will I regret it in the morning?” Tracks like “Slide” and “Horse” wrestling with the same sense of change. Time passes too quickly, friends move away, and the rat race isn’t always as easy to spot as it looks. “Bull in the Shade” is an album about doing your best to stay in the moment and have a good time, even if you worry it can’t last.
STL GLD, 'The New Normal'
What does “normal” even mean in 2019? STL GLD’s Moe Pope spends almost an hour delivering his definition on “The New Normal,” and it’s a grim one: racism, deep apathy, insidious political motives, growing financial stress, the ongoing upheaval of personal stability and safety, worsened post-2016. The Arcitype’s production errs on the apocalyptic side, with ominous chimes setting the stage for booming verses and shouted choruses. But while the album deals in details, it also acknowledges that real life doesn’t always allow time for explanation. As summarized by the chanted chorus of “With Me,” “You’re either with me or you ain’t.”
Hawthorn, 'Maggie Willow'
Taylor Holland and Heather Scott of folk duo Hawthorn aren’t related, except in the context of “Maggie Willow,” their concept album about the life of an imagined, shared ancestor. Still, there are elements of real people in her character: Holland and Scott interviewed family members and incorporated the experiences of their mothers, grandmothers, and earlier ancestors in the album’s narrative arc, touching on topics like parenting, healing from trauma, and death. It’s an ambitious concept, helped by the way the pair’s voices flow together as naturally as if they were sisters, building delicate harmonies that float among fingerpicked guitars, banjos, and the occasional violin.
Cliff Notez, 'Why The Wild Things Are'
Cliff Notez is best known as a hip-hop artist, but his second full-length album, “Why The Wild Things Are,” can’t be so neatly explained. Collaging the emotional debris of a chaotic year, Notez works his way through sounds from pared-back acoustic folk and R&B to pop, hip-hop and soul. His first album, “When The Sidewalk Ends,” focused on his experiences as a black man dealing with his mental health, particularly depression; this album picks up where the previous one left off in some ways, but also sets out in defiant pursuit of a brighter outlook. At times, that means making a conscious effort to write more upbeat material as a hopeful self-fulfilling prophecy, like on standout single “Happy.” But throughout, it means having friends by his side, and the album is bettered by its deep team of collaborators: STL GLD, Photocomfort, Haasan Barclay, Optic Bloom, and Forté, just to name a few.
Palehound, 'Black Friday'
Palehound’s earlier releases were poetic puzzles that spoke through symbolism and intricate, sentence-y guitar lines, but on “Black Friday,” much of that complexity melts away to let Ellen Kempner’s storytelling breathe — which is good, because it has a lot to say. There’s “Killer,” the coolly menacing revenge fantasy directed at an abusive man, “The City,” a claustrophobic track about outgrowing your home, and “Black Friday,” a tense song about the unease of an off-kilter friendship. But the real standout is “Aaron,” a love song about Kempner’s relationship transforming as her partner transitioned, with love swelling in a chorus that shifts from “If you want me to I’ll call you Aaron/ I can, I can, I can, I can, I can,” to “I will, I will, I will, I will, I will, I will.”
This article was originally published on December 23, 2019.
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