From the Intercom: The Best Albums of 2019
Shoegaze meets gauzy dream pop in New York-based musician Lightning Bug (Audrey Kang)’s heavenly sophomore album October Song. Existing somewhere in the spectral realm of similarly ethereal musicians Tanukichan and Ana Roxanne, Kang’s own compositions are radiant, uniquely pinpointing an emotional, tangible center within the clouds of haze. Quiet moments of reflection lead to goosebump-inducing reactions: each tender song from the languishing eight-minute center “The Root” to the wispy, memory-recalling “September Song” draws out soft intimacy that is only strengthened by Kang’s whispering vocals. As the namesake suggests, the music of Lightning Bug emanates with a faint intermittent glow that only gets stronger as the album drifts on.
How can one not instantly fall in love with the ebullient music of CHAI? Since the Japanese quartet (Mana, Kana, Yuuki, Yuna) released their culturally-defiant debut album Pink a year ago, the landscape for “kawaii” has definitely shifted thanks to their audacious rebranding of the term. But on Punk, CHAI continues to go against the grain by spreading positive vibes through their raucous messages of self-love and energetic indie rock. While songs like the instant pick-me-up “I’m Me” and the self-acceptance anthem “Fashionista” are obvious testaments to CHAI’s intent to destroy all instances of self-doubt, off-kilter moments like “This is Chai” and “Great Job” take them a step above mere cheerleaders. At this point, CHAI is more than just a band–it’s a healthy mindset to live by. Though traditionally rebellious images of “punk” might not immediately align with the pink-infused image of CHAI, Punk is the most rebellious album of the year–allowing CHAI’s message of self-love to defy the sadness that society has so long ingrained in us.
The music of Los Angeles based DJ/producer Mark Redito is birthed of the Internet–whether he intended for it to be or not. Back in 2013, Redito predicted the advent of aesthetic anime music (seen today in the forms of Japanese lo-fi) with the often overlooked, but excellent Desire 願う, putting him leaps ahead of the curve. 2016 saw Redito scoring a minor viral hit with “Boba Date,” which once again captures the sugary zeitgeist of the proliferation of bubble tea stores with frightening accuracy. So it could be said, then, that Redito’s latest album Neutropical is something of a precursor to Internet hyperpop in mainstream culture (which is already, admittedly, coming true). Combining bouncy metallic bubblegum beats with weaselly, underlying EDM tunes, Neutropical is a scattershot look at how much cutesy Internet life has affected the musical narrative. On songs like the hyper-driven TOFUKU collaboration “Boyfriend” and head-turning album opener “Break Silence” with icy vocalist Shel Bee, Redito brings EDM into the future. Even on vocal-less songs like “Barrio Fiesta” and the sonically twisting, maximalist “Bluest 52,” Redito is able to channel headbanging hype through crashing beats alone. Look out world–the future is now.
For Tracy Hyde
New Young City
Limitless might be the best word to describe Japanese quintet For Tracy Hyde’s refreshing and captivating third album New Young City. Never on the 57-minute long album does For Tracy Hyde ever seem to lose steam–instead, their soaring shoegaze-influenced indie pop keeps the spiritual high going throughout the album’s 16 immaculately beautiful songs. Complete with ups and downs and everything in-between, New Young City paints pastel pictures of joyful optimism with churning instrumentals and a lead vocalist who exudes boundless enthusiasm. Any one of the songs on New Young City–from the climactic “Can Little Birds Remember?” to the rosy album closer “Glow With Me”–can be taken on its own and conjure up a world filled with hope. With its rare ability to make even the darkest of days seem that much brighter, New Young City is a staggering triumph.
Omoiyari, the fifth album of Japanese American violinist Kishi Bashi, takes place within a particularly dark period of American history. Drawing its namesake from the loosely translated Japanese word for empathy, Omoiyari sees the seasoned indie pop maestro rooting his album within the context of the wrongful internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. But while Kishi Bashi shines a light on a horrific American atrocity, the songs that fill Omoiyari aren’t peppered with anger (save “F Delano”): rather, they’re sung with a somber resilience. With Kishi Bashi’s ever-expressive, lush orchestrations and agile voice, the songs on Omoiyari are able to tug on your heartstrings by depicting love and sadness in its purest form, regardless of historical context. Love songs like “Angeline” and “Summer of ’42” come alive. Instrumental tracks like “A Meal for Leaves” gives space for mindful reflection, while its follow-up “Violin Tsunami” dreams for a better tomorrow. Folk ditty and album closer “Annie, Heart Thief of the Sea” even finds space for celebratory happiness. Hope and love, therefore, are central themes on the album–blinding out the darker implications of the subject matter at large. Even within the heavy context of Omoiyari, Kishi Bashi finds healing amongst the whirlwind of melancholic violin loops and mindful reflection.
One of the most exciting moments of 2019 had to be seeing Otoboke Beaver live at SXSW. The four-piece Japanese punk band (Accorinrin, Yoyoyoshie, Hiro-chan, Kahokiss) with all of its “fuck off,” brash attitude has to throw one of the best ear-ringing live shows I’ve ever seen–simply because they unapologetically go all in. On ITEKOMA HITS, Otoboke Beaver’s second full-length album (it’s worth noting that it’s less an album and more a compilation of scattered singles that the group has released throughout the past few years), that rabid energy is wholly encapsulated in a neatly wrapped studio package. Even here, the band’s feral rage is able to come through and burst your eardrums no matter where you are. Boundlessly aggressive hits like “Don’t light my fire,” “Binge eating binge drinking bulimia,” and “Love is Short” act as full-on assaults on your senses. Even in the album’s shortest moments (the 18 second “Mean,” for example), Otoboke Beaver refuses to ease off on the gas pedal. Rapturous and cathartic, ITEKOMA HITS is the most belligerently sharp album of the year that we can’t stop coming back to.
Jay Som (Melina Duterte) can’t make a bad song. Even after releasing various singles, two full-length albums, and an interestingly collaborative EP within the short three-year timespan she’s been around, Duterte has yet to falter. On the bedroom pop producer’s ridiculously lush third album Anak Ko, that continues to be the case. Translating to “my child” in Tagalog, Anak Ko is Duterte’s most experimentally minded and most comforting album to date. The album itself also signals a change of pace for the artist. For the first time, Duterte finds herself collaborating with countless others in the musical realm–bringing a fuller, spikier sound to her usual handstitched production. What results is an optimistic album filled with soothing harmonies and discordant ideas that expands her reach as an artist and as a producer. On heavenly songs like the chillout anthem “Nighttime Drive” and the incessantly groovy “Tenderness,” Duterte expands upon the cloudy world that very much defined Everybody Works. Chugging opener “If You Want It” and brooding title track “Anak Ko” allow Duterte to experiment with squirming chaos and before coming back to blissful grooves. Overflowing with groovy vibes and comfortably warm basslines, Anak Ko is a sunset-filled dream waiting for you to fall into its pillowy embrace.
Album standouts: The whole damn album.
Li-Wei Chu is the chief editor of From the Intercom. When he’s not editing drafts and searching for new artists to cover for the website, he loves watching cult films, cooking, and listening to his ever-growing collection of vinyl records. You can follow him on LetterBoxd and make fun of his taste in movies here!