The 10 Best Albums of September 2019

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The 10 Best Albums of September 2019

Between robotic pop, glitchy hip-hop, heartwarming country and storming noise rock, September really delivered the goods. The Highwomen put out an album-of-the-year contender in the form of their self-titled debut, Girl Band may have dropped the noise-rock release of 2019 and Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard released her first solo album, which defies the constraints of genre. We’re still waiting for Kanye to make his return, so assuming he doesn’t drop something earth-shattering in the next 24 hours, these were our 10 favorite albums of September.

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

10. Alex Cameron: Miami Memory

Gone are the days where Alex Cameron portrays the seedy guy at the bar who you try your best to avoid. On Miami Memory, Alex Cameron plays, well, himself: a mature forthright Australian musician in his late-20’s who is, above all things, in love. This record, his third studio album, is a sincere ode to actress Jemima Kirke, Cameron’s partner of the last three years. (Yes, that Jemima Kirke: “Jessa” from HBO’s Girls). Miami Memory is blunt, sometimes explicit and in classic Cameron fashion, incredibly theatrical. Alex Cameron gives us a peek into his world, a neon, kitschy dreamland where no one matters more than Jemima Kirke. In the most literal sense, this album is a love letter. Sonically, Miami Memory is as lush and gaudy as the city of Miami. No two songs are alike, and with each listen new layers are unlocked. Though it’s his third album, Miami Memory feels like we’re meeting Alex Cameron for the first time. This is the real him, not a perpetuated version masked by character. While unexpected, it’s not jarring in the least bit. It’s a warm introduction, one filled with familiarity with help from Cameron-world mainstays Roy Malloy, Kirin J. Callinan, Holiday Sidewinder and more. —Annie Black

9. Vivian Girls: Memory

Vivian Girls are returning to a music world far different from the misogynistic melee that met them on the Internet prior to their 2014 breakup. The biggest names in alternative music these days include a roster of formidable women—Mistki, Angel Olsen, Snail Mail, the list goes on. This doesn’t mean that the sexism which dogged Vivian Girls has been purged from indie and DIY scenes—far from it—but being a give-no-fucks band made up of women is thankfully no longer the anomaly it once was. Vivian Girls inspired groups like Potty Mouth to take to the stage, and now the punk trio find themselves in a community much more welcoming than before, in no small part due to their influence. That said, their new album, Memory, is a perfectly adequate addition to the band’s discography: Neither a huge departure from their earlier work (much of it is reminiscent of their moody sophomore LP Everything Goes Wrong) nor a disappointment to their legacy. Vivian Girls’ haunting three-part harmonies remain a mainstay of their sound, nearly droning on opener “Most of All,” but light and airy on later tracks like “Your Kind of Life” and “Lonely Girl.” Many of the LP’s dozen tracks are drenched in a darkness that has always permeated Vivian Girls’ songs, and is fitting considering the album’s sobering subject matter, from toxic relationships to mental health. —Clare Martin

8. JPEGMAFIA: All My Heroes Are Cornballs

JPEGMAFIA dropped one of the year’s most off-kilter and fun rap albums of the year out of the blue this month. On the first listen, it feels a bit discombobulated, even disconnected. But upon repeated listens, the pieces start to come together, miraculously so. The Baltimore rapper’s signature wild production and sound effects, which span voiceovers, static and warps, mesh with his intense delivery to a satisfying end. All My Heroes Are Cornballs toggles between ambience and hi-fi insanity. Highlights include the riotous album opener “Jesus Forgive Me, I Am A Thot,” in which JPEGMAFIA plays with AutoTune and shouts out David Byrne, the low-key “Free The Frail,” which hosts Canadian musician Helena Deland for the final chorus and outro, and the minute-long “BasicBitchTearGas,” which features a smooth sample of TLC’s “No Scrubs.” If it wasn’t already apparent, this album proves JPEGMAFIA’s musical knowledge and influences are broad. All My Heroes is a glitchy, neon-tinted journey. —Ellen Johnson

7. Sturgill Simpson: Sound & Fury

Sound & Fury is a brute strength record, full of needle-in-the-red guitars and vocals pushed to the edge of distortion, and sometimes past it. There has already been a lot of buzz about how this is Sturgill Simpson’s “rock” album, which is true enough, but it also misses the point: Though his 2014 breakthrough Metamodern Sounds in Country Music pegged him as a latter-day country traditionalist, Simpson was neck-deep in blues and soul on A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. It’s more accurate to say that while ’70s-style outlaw country music was a starting point for Simpson, he’s not willing to let it box him in for the sake of other people’s expectations. In fact, he seems to enjoy upending expectations. In that regard, Sound & Fury succeeds. If there’s an overarching theme, it’s that these 10 songs are loud to the point of blaring, and Simpson loads them up with musical touches from other styles and eras that are so prominent that he might as well be pouring them over your head from a bucket. The thunderous guitar riff powering “Best Clockmaker on Mars” makes room in the bridge section for a keening synthesizer part right out of Dr. Dre’s early-’90s toolkit, while the fast, twitchy beat on “A Good Look” would have gotten club crowds moving in the late disco era. There’s enough of that kind of borrowing on Sound & Fury that you can almost play spot-the-homage: a Keith Emerson keyboard vamp here, maybe, or a Prince drum fill over there. —Eric R. Danton

6. Charli XCX: Charli

Although Charli is described as British pop auteur Charli XCX’s third studio album, it’s really her seventh album-length project. Charli has released four mixtapes in addition to her studio albums True Romance (2013) and Sucker (2014), so to call Charli merely her third studio album isn’t just deceiving—it ignores the very existence of the quietly revolutionary 2017 “mixtape,” Pop 2. The guest-stuffed, career-peak Pop 2 was a record in all but name. It presented Charli as a savant of futuristic synths, fanged digital programming, actually good AutoTune, and bionic bangers and ballads. Charli executive produced Pop 2 alongside PC Music’s A.G. Cook, who helped her fully access the cyborg aesthetic she’d been crawling towards for years. “We wanted it to feel like a complete restart,” Cook told The FADER upon Pop 2’s release. If Pop 2 was indeed a restart, then Charli is the thrilling next step on the journey. Across 15 songs and 50 minutes, Charli consistently matches the addictive, robotic bombast of Pop 2. Charli is a more-than-worthy follow-up to arguably the decade’s best pop release. —Max Freedman

5. (Sandy) Alex G: House of Sugar

At the southern tip of Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood, there’s an imposing structure on the Delaware River that somehow looks equal parts parking garage, hospital and convention center. The building is none of these things, but it’s just as overwhelming as each one of them. It houses SugarHouse Casino, a dystopian abyss of colorful images leaping forth from slot machines and laser-bright ceiling lights hovering over card tables where gamblers can earn $150 in blackjack, lose it and swear off gambling forever (which may or may not have happened to this writer). Philly resident (Sandy) Alex G’s newest album, House of Sugar, his third for storied label Domino (and eighth or ninth overall, depending on who you ask), is named for this casino. As unsettling as its namesake, the newest record from Alex Giannascoli at times improves on the inscrutable, circuitous experimentation of his Domino debut, Beach Music. At other times, it refines the accessible but still characteristically sauntering country-lite of Rocket, his masterful second album for the British indie label. In other words, House of Sugar sounds like a middle ground between the two albums that preceded it. —Max Freedman

4. Chelsea Wolfe: Birth of Violence

As Kurt Cobain famously alluded when he sang that teenage angst had served him well, popular music has conditioned us to interpret certain expressions of emotional distress through an adolescent lens. Genre-bending singer/songwriter Chelsea Wolfe has been giving audiences an alternate vantage point since her career got off the ground at the start of this decade. Wolfe has always had a way of dignifying moods that we might otherwise refer to (with a touch of condescension) as “brooding.” But with her sixth album Birth of Violence, she makes her most convincing statement to date, reminding us once again that angst is not the exclusive province of young adults. Where so much of the so-called darkness in music falls into the realm of stylized affectation, Wolfe’s presentation doesn’t allow for one-dimensional readings and doesn’t fall prey to self-parody. She has always shown keen awareness in her portrayals of emotional states like apprehension and grief. On Birth of Violence, though, woundedness becomes a launching pad for regeneration just as Wolfe’s musical vocabulary seems to be gelling more than ever before. Because of Wolfe’s newfound ability to communicate so much more with less, you could call Birth of Violence a tour de force—only Wolfe has mastered the art of eschewing force altogether. —Saby Reyes-Kulkarni

3. Brittany Howard: Jaime

On spoken-word breakdown “13th Century Metal,” Alabama Shakes frontwoman Brittany Howard repeats, over and over, “We are all brothers and sisters.” This sentiment of union is a thread that runs throughout Jaime’s 35 minutes, but Howard’s debut solo effort is also deeply personal. “I wrote this record as a process of healing,” Howard wrote in a personal essay upon the album’s announcement. “Every song, I confront something within me or beyond me. Things that are hard or impossible to change, words and music to describe what I’m not good at conveying to those I love, or a name that hurts to be said: Jaime.” She’s referring there to her sister Jaime, who passed away as a teenager. But as Howard also wrote, “The record is not about her. It’s about me.” These are love songs (perhaps written for her wife Jesse Lafser, with whom she recently moved to small-town New Mexico), spiritual songs, songs about the past, songs about the future and songs that react to and make sense of our present moment. On Jaime, Howard beautifully reckons with her personal past and shatters soul, rock and blues norms in an album that should go down as one of the most daring and inventive of the year, maybe even the decade. —Ellen Johnson

2. Girl Band: The Talkies

Cecil Day-Lewis, poet and father of the eccentric actor you are definitely familiar with, wrote a poem about Ballintubbert House, the Irish country manor where he was born in 1904. Over a century later, Dublin noise rockers Girl Band took over the space to birth their sophomore LP, The Talkies. “In many ways the idea behind the album was to make an audio representation of the house,” guitarist Alan Duggan explains. More than anything, though, their newest music speaks to a state of mind, one that’s quite pervasive these days: an apocalyptic anxiety, a dread that seeps into your bloodstream and quickens your heartbeat. Their acclaimed debut Holding Hands with Jamie was largely derived from vocalist Dara Kiely’s own mental health, including a post-breakup psychotic episode. Around that time, the group cancelled tour dates for their first LP due to health issues. Now they’ve returned, and are ready to revisit the gray matter floating between our ears. Perhaps this album is called The Talkies because in comparison, all other music may as well be from the silent film era. Unlike black midi, Girl Band isn’t trying to put on airs. Their noise rock is arguably more accessible, a term often used pejoratively but meant as positively as possible here. The Irish group have distilled their music into what noise rock is about at its core: waves of sound that convey emotion effectively, and lyrics that feel at once indecipherable and evocative. There’s little noodling here, which isn’t to say that The Talkies is stripped down, but rather, Girl Band trims the fat where other bands fail to. —Clare Martin

1. The Highwomen: The Highwomen

On The Highwomen, the group’s debut album and flagship statement in a female-forward country movement that’s stirring up chatter in Nashville and beyond, these four artists dare to imagine every kind of life for themselves. Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris, Amanda Shires and Brandi Carlile, easily four of the most talented people in the greater Americana sphere, explore every facet of femininity and humanity and how they exist alongside each other, from the beautiful and hard-won to the ugly and downright messy. Work, family, children, straight romance, queer romance, shitty men, imperfect women—it’s all there, made more impactful by the expertly played fiddle, drums, electric guitar and the voices of many. These are songs that scream, “We are here, and we have something to say,” but The Highwomen isn’t just some topical social statement that won’t hold up in a few years—this album was not built uniquely for 2019. While it’s absolutely and unapologetically meant as an addition to the discourse on inequality and lack of diversity that’s been ruling Nashville and country music (country radio in particular) for decades now, it’s also a country classic, no matter which way you spin it. —Ellen Johnson

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