The 10 Best Albums of October 2019

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The 10 Best Albums of October 2019

What’s scarier than Halloween on Thursday? The fact that we’re barreling to 2019’s bitter end faster than I can say Polachek. Thankfully this month delivered plenty of new albums to assist us in soaking up the final quarter of the year, including the triumphant pop record by the aforementioned Caroline, comeback records from longtime favorites like Nick Cave and The New Pornographers, the second showstopper of the year from indie rock’s finest Big Thief and the masterpiece from one of our favorite rockers/singers/humans, Angel Olsen. See below for all our favorites from October 2019.

Here are the 10 best albums of October, according to Paste’s music critics:

10. Danny Brown: uknowhatimsayin¿

Danny Brown always seemed immortal. His trilogy of critically acclaimed releases—2011’s incendiary XXX, 2013’s decadent Old and 2016’s staggering prog-rap opus, Atrocity Exhibition—found the Detroit MC repeatedly self-destructing, masquerading the references to his childhood traumas with an infinite supply of party pharmaceuticals and charisma. Every time he sounded like he was truly on the brink, he’d return, and usually messier, drunker, funnier. His music got better. He was invincible. Maybe. It’s a relief that Brown sounds mortal on his new album, uknowhatimsayin¿. He sounds healthy, if in a high-cholesterol way. He looks it, too—watch his new talk/sketch comedy show, Danny’s House, and you’ll be presented with a nearly unrecognizable figure, complete with a malleable gut, a newly-complete set of pearly whites and an unpretentious fade. He looks like he’s about two shakes away from buying a convertible and getting a divorce. While no song sounds the same, they all exude a similar meditative energy, a far cry from the manic bombast that, to this point, defined the rapper’s discography. There are no bangers on the album, but there aren’t any sleepers either; fans that just want a XXX 2 will likely be disappointed. On the album’s superb title track—a Y2K-reminiscent downtempo groove—Brown sounds like he’s finally broken out of the cycle that once made his music so intoxicating. It’s a departure, but a vital one. “If it wasn’t for that, wouldn’t be this / Know what I’m sayin’?” —Harry Todd

9. Common Holly: When I say to you Black Lightning

Although Common Holly’s sophomore album, When I say to you Black Lightning, is engaging from its very opening notes, its thesis statement doesn’t arrive until four songs in: “I think we’ve been measured out for pain since birth,” Brigitte Naggar sings on the woodwind-flanked folk rumination “Measured.” The album, a thrilling experiment in shattering the boundaries between folk, rock and occasionally punk, examines the human capacity to receive, cope with and deliver trauma. A huge leap from Naggar’s 2017 debut, Playing House, Black Lightning is rife with minimally detailed yet fully rendered character sketches, and Naggar’s deftness at seamlessly weaving dissonant guitar lines into her riveting stories elevates her music well above much of the crowded folk-adjacent field. —Max Freedman

8. The New Pornographers: In the Morse Code of Brake Lights

What a difference a decade makes. Almost 10 years ago, The New Pornographers, the band behind one of the best recorded catalogs of the 2000s, released its least enjoyable album, Together. After three near-perfect records out of the gate (2000’s Mass Romantic, 2003’s Electric Version and 2005’s Twin Cinema) and another that’s still really good (2007’s Challengers), the forgettable back half of Together (and a couple clunky arrangements) felt like a potential first step into a downhill slide. A decade later, The New Pornographers are back on an upward trajectory as the 2010s come to a close. Carl Newman and his motley assemblage of power-pop heroes have not only just released their third straight outstanding album, In the Morse Code of Brake Lights, they’ve continued a killer second act and cemented themselves as one of the great bands of the era. In the Morse Code of Brake Lights is the second consecutive New Pornos album without a handful of songs written and performed by Destroyer’s Dan Bejar, who contributed tunes to each of the band’s first six records. Some will argue his presence is missed—that the band now lacks the variety it once had. That may be true, but the trade-off is worth it: After years of feeling like an experiment, then a hobby (albeit a very productive one) and then a band pulling in a couple different directions, The New Pornographers now have coalesced around Carl Newman and his singular vision. Twenty years into their existence, they seem stronger than ever. —Ben Salmon

7. Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds: Ghosteen

Grief transforms you. It rearranges molecules, builds them anew. Its power is such that it “occupies the core of our being and extends through our fingers to the limits of the universe,” as Nick Cave wrote in a 2018 edition of his email newsletter. “Within that whirling gyre all manner of madnesses exist: ghosts and spirits and dream visitations, and everything else that we, in our anguish, will into existence.” It has undoubtedly transformed Cave. In 2014, the musician’s legacy seemed fairly settled: A godfather-of-goth lifetime badge, his mid-career pivot into romantic balladry, the late-career rebirth as mustachioed preacher of Grinderman sleaze, his legendary prickliness around critics and fans. Cave’s best songs often seemed to occupy distinct characters or guises—the death-row inmate (“The Mercy Seat”), the sinister raconteur (“Red Right Hand”), the blues-slinging incel buffoon (“No Pussy Blues”)—yet since the devastating loss of his 15-year-old son, Arthur, in 2015, Cave himself has been stripped bare. He has, to quote a phrase from “Jubilee Street,” been transformed. In his music—and his increasing desire to communicate directly with fans, both through the newsletter and his unmoderated Q&A events—the artist conveys the enormity of his grief with surrealist wisdom and brutal candor. Ghosteen, Cave’s devastating new double album, is the culmination of that transformation. —Zach Schonfeld

6. Vagabon: Vagabon

Halfway through Vagabon’s 2017 debut Infinite Worlds, Lætitia Tamko stepped away from her guitar. The song, “Mal a Laise,” was an exercise in atmosphere, with droning synth loops layered over reverb-heavy vocals murmured in both French and English. It stood at odds with the guitar-centric indie rock production that defined the rest of the record: It was a detour, but it almost felt like a homecoming. Maybe it was. Tamko’s sophomore effort, the self-titled, self-produced Vagabon, is a more formless affair, a cosmic journey through synthetic sounds, lush orchestral suites and lyrical self-realization. The result is an ambitious album overflowing with generosity and empathy, warm in production and rich in theme, even if it largely lacks the punch that made Infinite Worlds so immediately memorable. But homes are made to shelter aspirations, dreams, fears, anxieties, hopes, doubts. Homes are sanctuaries, and that’s what Tamko has created with Vagabon. —Harry Todd

5. DIIV: Deceiver

It’s easy to oversimplify the path that recovering addicts must take toward rehabilitation. From the outside, the objective is simple: Stay clean long enough and the monkey on your back eventually hops off. But the reality is that breaking the cycle of addiction is a Sisyphean endeavor that keeps those undergoing it in an eternal state of recovery—only those on the inside can fully understand its tribulations. Zachary Cole Smith—the central voice behind DIIV—has long been on the inside of addiction. After the group released their sophomore album, Is the Is Are, Cole entered a long-haul inpatient treatment for heroin addiction, a struggle that became public in 2013 when he and his then-girlfriend Sky Ferreira were busted for possession. Cole’s experiences in rehab became the inspiration for the group’s latest record, Deceiver, and while the album displays the group’s darkest sound yet, it also ends up being their most earnest. The wider, dynamic sound texture across Deceiver is one of the most apparent improvements from past records with a clear, crisp approach that avoids sterility. The album’s epic closer, “Acheron,” shows just how much life good production can breathe into a song when it explodes into a gigantic finale of fuzz. The sound matches the scope of blackgaze contemporaries like Deafheaven—who DIIV have toured with—without crossing the threshold into metal. Nonetheless, the lush, sometimes crushing instrumentation speaks to the daunting task Cole has undergone to restore himself. —Hayden Goodridge

4. Caroline Polachek: Pang

A handful of pop songs in the past decade—think “Teenage Dream” or “Run Away With Me”—bottle the lightning feeling of whirlwind love perfectly, the sound of a saxophone horn or a vocal swell sublimating the yearning of a new romance. Pang, Caroline Polachek’s first album under her own name, stretches out that feeling, eking out the intricacies of feeling simultaneously liberated and trapped by the feeling of being overwhelmed by someone else. It’s a big task, but Polachek might be the ideal candidate, an indie darling who shaped her last band Chairlift’s twee-pop origins into big-budget, emotional cinema to brilliant effect. The most sublime moments on Pang match the all-cylinders feeling of falling into new love, each neuron so stimulated by the feeling that they threaten to overload and collapse entirely. The divine title track is, at once, twee and lustful, as if The Postal Service were tasked with making a quiet-storm track—the base feeling of unexplored love compounded with each touch of the skin. By the end of Pang, Polachek has fully opened up to the headrush of new love—both in the chance that it could devastate, and the very real possibility that it could result in something transcendent. “The parachute, I’ve got to trust it now,” she sighs on album closer “Parachute,” her voice weightless, at ease. It’s a relief, for her—and for us. —Joshua Bote

3. Clipping.: There Existed an Addiction to Blood

Far from fiction, Clipping.’s latest album, There Existed an Addiction to Blood, turns the framework of horror on its head. Fear runs rampant across each track, but instead of channeling nightmares through imagination, the L.A. experimental hip-hop trio show us the terrifying nature of our own kind. There Existed an Addiction to Blood is the deranged culmination of everything Clipping. have been experimenting with—but not quite nailing down—over their previous two albums. Here, they’ve given their most focused project, all while exploring the darkest corners of humanity over envelope-pushing industrial production. With a carefully constructed chaos, Clipping. throw us into their torturous musical realm and boldly ask us to find the art in fear. —Hayden Goodridge

2. Big Thief: Two Hands

Big Thief has amassed a large and devoted fanbase the old-fashioned way: by releasing four astonishingly good albums in just three-and-a-half years, by touring relentlessly and seemingly without rest, by Instagramming a lot of photos of themselves grinning and embracing each other in various bucolic settings. In 2019, much of Big Thief’s ethos feels like a throwback to the LP era: the prolific output (think Creedence circa 1969-1970), the album-stream-as-vinyl-sides, the band’s creative intimacy and affinity for recording live with minimal overdubs. Which is appropriate, since this band’s razor-sharp songwriting has always felt somewhat adrift in time, belonging as much to the 1970s or early 2000s as it does to the present. Two Hands does not dramatically depart from the mesmerizing folk-rock fusion of U.F.O.F., but its best moments emphasize the band’s gnarled electric energy, particularly on the career highlight “Not.” When an artist releases two studio albums in one year, it’s customary for critics to grumble about hubris, usually accompanied by the suggestion that the two separate releases should have been whittled down into one. Often—as with Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience and its turgid sequel—this charge is accurate. With Big Thief, it won’t be. Both records stand as outstanding and individual statements from a band operating at some rare creative peak. Both records deserve to exist, and we’re fortunate that they do. —Zach Schonfeld

1. Angel Olsen: All Mirrors

From her very earliest recordings, Angel Olsen has mined drama from her relationships with physically present but psychologically absent partners. Across her often-brilliant catalog, the Asheville singer/songwriter has sung candidly about staying with these partners despite recognizing their awful qualities. Her fascination with this unhealthy dynamic, in addition to her unmistakable, showstopping vibrato, has tied her songs together across multiple genres, from haunting lo-fi folk (2010’s Strange Cacti EP, 2012’s Half Way Home) to scorching rock (2014’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness, 2016’s My Woman). Olsen still deals with bad partners on her fourth album, All Mirrors, but this time around, she escapes their destruction and finds not just happiness, but catharsis. She narrates her journey alongside a 14-piece orchestra, with string co-arrangement from Ben Babbitt and conductor-arranger Jherek Bischoff (and co-production from the ever-busy John Congleton, who also co-produced Burn Your Fire). Her newfound embrace of violins, violas and cellos elevates her shadowy, often synth-infused rock to extraordinarily goosebump-inducing heights, making All Mirrors her third consecutive (and likely best) masterpiece to date. —Max Freedman

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