The 10 Best Albums of August 2019

The end of summer sounds like this.

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The 10 Best Albums of August 2019

The forthcoming Labor Day weekend means many things: a day off, the unofficial end of summer, no more white pants or shoes, bad barbecue playlists, the start of college football and, most importantly for us, the chance to reminisce on another month of great music. August brought a haul that included a bedroom pop artist’s ascent to stardom, the welcome renaissance of singular artists like Bon Iver and Sleater-Kinney and a killer new indie-rock album. Find all our favorites from this month below.

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

10. Whitney: Forever Turned Around

Whitney’s debut album, Light Upon the Lake, came out on June 3, 2016. It was the kind of record perfectly suited to early June, its sunny guitar riffs personifying the promise of summer: the parties, the road trips, the romances. The now indie classic began with an ode to loneliness on “No Woman,” but it quickly transitioned into something more hopeful, the search for golden days on the open road in a “trash heap two-seat” with nowhere to go. The duo, made up of Max Kakacek and Julien Ehrlich, reveled in the unknown and found happiness in spontaneity. In contrast, Forever Turned Around, the Chicago band’s follow up (which finally sees the light of day today, Aug. 30) embodies the very end of summer. That auspicious romance didn’t quite work out the way they had envisioned it when pulling out of the driveway—it’s now dissolving right in front of them. Lyrics like “You’re still a friend of mine while you’re drifting away” (“Friend of Mine”) or “Tears are falling one by one / I can feel you giving up” (“Giving Up”) have replaced the wide-eyed optimism of their debut. Forever Turned Around is the reality to Light Upon the Lake’s expectation—summer is over and with it, the fling that defined it. —Steven Edelstone

9. Clairo: Immunity

After years of releasing demos on SoundCloud and Bandcamp, including songs under the name DJ Baby Benz, Clairo has dabbled in everything from pop and rap to R&B and indie. One sonic trajectory is clear—her music has increasingly shifted away from hazy sketches and bloomed into hi-fi recordings. Immunity retains her past dreaminess via noodling synths, but her vocals are now at the front of the mix. She might not have fashioned herself as much of a singer before, but her silky voice is the lifeblood of this album. Clairo is at her best when her heartbreakingly relatable lyrics match up with her unfettered vocals and enthralling choruses. Songs like “Bags” and “Feel Something” are at their core, great pop songs. It’s hard to believe that two years ago, the artist behind some of 2019’s most luxuriant pop tunes was a Syracuse freshman. It’s when Clairo leans into her more vibey, loungey sides that her music can appear interchangeable with other trendy new subgenres. Immunity is a smoothly-produced pop record about queer relationships—there’s no discounting the value of these stories in the lives of queer people and the population at large. Her sultry confidence and steadfastness, even in the face of anxieties and insecurities, is empowering. Immunity has just enough unforgettable glimmers to justify Clairo’s buzz. The question is whether listeners who weren’t already head over heels for her previously released music will hop on board too. —Lizzie Manno

8. Ezra Furman: Twelve Nudes

Like a lot of people, Ezra Furman has been alarmed by the “broken world,” as he calls it, that has emerged over the past few years. It shows in his music. Though the Oakland singer has long channeled his disaffection into his songs, he’s never done it with as much immediacy as on Twelve Nudes. Furman’s latest is the rapid-fire follow-up to his 2018 album, Transangelic Exodus, and in many ways, it’s the jagged flip-side. Though Transangelic Exodus was also a reaction to the regressive shitstorm swirling outward from Washington D.C., the album had a certain polish. By contrast, Twelve Nudes has a punk edge that is chaotic and raw, made in a hurry with a first-thought, best-thought sensibility that sprays psychic shrapnel in every direction. It’s also catchy as hell. He uses humor as a cover while exploring his gender fluidity on “I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend,” a slower song with a torchy vibe. Instead of following the example of his responsible friends seeking jobs, or his intellectual friends seeking truth, Furman is attempting to lure a love interest, leering ever so slightly as he promises to blow his hetero-leaning crush’s, er, mind if he can overlook Furman’s “less than ideal” physical characteristics. It’s a brash come-on from a singer with enough confidence to say what’s on his mind, and the talent to express it in songs you want to listen to over and over. Twelve Nudes is loud, sometimes sarcastic, often pointed and invariably entertaining. The album is the work of an artist with a keen sense of his own capabilities, and it’s a fitting soundtrack to a world in turmoil.—Eric R. Danton

7. Sleater-Kinney: The Center Won’t Hold

There is no room for nostalgia in Sleater-Kinney’s reunion. The band’s excellent 2015 reentry point, No Cities to Love, was not exactly a rote run-through of past glories. And the trio (now duo) did not spend 2017 going around playing Dig Me Out on some obligatory 20th anniversary run. It barely even feels like a reunion at this point—how has this band not always been here, making its bass-resistant racket and soundtracking our slide into right-wing authoritarianism? Like 2005’s The Woods, The Center Won’t Hold finds Sleater-Kinney bringing in a big name producer to jolt their routines and play more than a symbolic role in the record-making process. Except this time, the friendly intruder is art-rock maestro St. Vincent, not Dave Fridmann. And unlike The Woods, which was largely tracked live—all the better to reimagine the band’s sound as a ferocious Zeppelin-esque roar—Center finds Sleater-Kinney more inclined than ever to utilize the studio as an instrument. At its best, The Center Won’t Hold is an urgent and deliriously impolite record about powering through exhaustion, despair and the ambient dread any feminist feels pretty much constantly in 2019. Full of transformation and deserved indignation, The Center Won’t Hold is the first Sleater-Kinney album since the rest of the world started to catch up. —Zach Schonfeld

6. Raphael Saadiq: Jimmy Lee

Since his music career got off the ground 35 years ago, multi-instrumentalist singer/songwriter Raphael Saadiq has mostly steered clear of writing the tragedies that punctuated his childhood into his songs. Recruited as a bassist by Sheila E. in 1984, Saadiq landed in Prince’s touring band at the tender age of 18 and never looked back. Following his stint with Prince, Saadiq made his name (then Raphael Wiggins) as the primary lead singer, bassist and in-house producer of the iconic R&B/new jack swing outfit Tony! Toni! Toné!, who landed a number one hit right out of the gate with their gospel-tinged 1988 single “Little Walter.” All these years later, Saadiq finally rips the band-aid off all of that accumulated grief on his fifth solo album, Jimmy Lee. Named after one of Saadiq’s late older brothers, Jimmy Lee gives us a vivid sense of who the flesh-and-blood Jimmy Lee was—a hopelessly addicted heroin addict but also far more than just that. In recent interviews, Saadiq has spoken about his brother’s life having been ruled by the drug as far back as he can remember. So it’s no surprise that the album opens with a rock-bottom cry in the form of “Sinner’s Prayer,” where Saadiq pleads “God, help me make it” over a pinging guitar arpeggio that’s haunted by keyboards and immediately recalls Andy Summers’ guitarwork on the moody Police classic “Tea in the Sahara.” Saadiq has clearly turned a corner into an unpredictable headspace. His new edge, combined with his prodigious production and instrumental chops, bodes well as far as what might come next. Hopefully, he’ll venture as far out as he likes while stopping short of self-sabotage next time. —Saby Reyes-Kulkarni

5. Bon Iver: i,i

Nearly everything about Bon Iver’s excellent 2016 album 22, A Million was inscrutable: the glitchy sonic turbulence, Justin Vernon’s effects-treated vocals, song titles rendered in numbers and symbols. Though an expansive ensemble helped Vernon make 22, A Million, the tension between turmoil and vulnerability made it seem like a solitary endeavor by an artist who was trying not to be seen while figuring out how to live a public life. If you have the patience to drill deep enough into i,i, the bright spots are incandescent. A three-song segment in the middle turns out to be the heart of the album, balancing musical and technical proficiency with the wringing, open-hearted emotion that made Bon Iver’s earlier work so mesmerizing. The mini-suite begins with “Hey Ma,” where a pinging sound at its start makes room for guitars and subdued strings, then synths, an unobtrusive electronic beat and manipulated backing vocals as Vernon alternates between raw-boned vocals and his delicate falsetto. The instrumentation condenses into a muddle halfway through, then drops out entirely for a few bars to emphasize Vernon’s voice. For all its considerable musical acumen, i,i still feels clinical at times. Though Vernon and his compadres demonstrate great facility with songwriting—and even more with constructing disparate parts into a whole—their emphasis on structure sometimes comes at the expense of emotional impact, which makes for an album that is objectively dazzling, but not always easy to love. —Eric R. Danton

4. Jay Som: Anak Ko

They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but in Jay Som’s case, her latest LP’s album art is entirely representative of what you’ll find inside. A girl blithely dances on an edge alone in front of a beautiful, dusky sunset, suspending herself in a pose, just as Anak Ko floats and drifts from start to finish, seemingly aimless yet entirely driven with purpose. Melina Duterte’s second full-length record is an exploration in growth as an artist and as an adult, as she discovers how to boldly navigate change and progress. While this record does nothing to necessarily challenge the listener, Duterte yanks us into her world from the first, sharp, hypnotic notes of the opening track, “If You Want It,” openly calling someone out: “I see you clearly / You dance around and fuck with us / A feigned intention / Well no one needs to feel your light,” she sings. While Duterte brings in several of her contemporaries to assist on this record, she opens the album working completely on her own, reminding us of the subdued, solitary power of her last record, 2017’s Everybody Works, Paste’s #1 album of that year. There’s a confidence on Anak Ko found only in personal development, something that Duterte, now aged 25 and living in Los Angeles, has embraced. —Annie Black

3. Queen of Jeans: If you’re not afraid, I’m not afraid

It’s frighteningly easy to become emotionally invested in the bittersweet, folk-tinged indie rock of If you’re not afraid, I’m not afraid. It’s graceful yet tuneful and painfully relatable without pandering, and the production style maximizes their dulcet, intuitive melodies. Lead vocalist/guitarist Miri Devora channels her melancholia into shimmery, flowy pop with a stunningly consistent songwriting core. Their guitar riffs range from twinkling (“Tell Me”) to grungy (“Bloomed”) to crafty (“I Am Love With Your Mind”), and they heighten the payoff of each satisfying hook. Devora’s vocals flutter and sway, cascading over understated instrumentals and leading listeners out of the doldrums. If you’re not afraid, I’m not afraid, was partially inspired by the aftermath of the 2016 election and Devora’s mother’s battle with cancer, per a press release. “I found myself in fear not only of losing my mom to her illness, but of losing my space within society as a queer woman, and watching space get taken away from so many others,” Devora says. —Lizzie Manno

2. Oso Oso: basking in the glow

Why did Jade Lilitri, the Long Island, New Yorker behind one-man wonder-band Oso Oso, play and sing the chorus of his song “dig” only once during its four-and-a-half-minute running time? To understand the question, you have to appreciate the magnificence of that chorus. It comes in the middle of “dig,” bookended on the front end by a couple minutes of enjoyable pop-rock that bumps along like Pinback and on the back end by a coda that crescendos nicely, but ultimately feels unnecessary. In between is 34 glorious seconds in which the song opens up and turns its face toward the sun, bringing together peach-fuzz distortion, a reliable chord progression, a blanket of cymbals and Lilitri’s soaring vocals. “I’m still reeling from the mess I made,” he sings, as if rediscovering reality after two verses of cautious optimism. The combination of contrasting sounds and catchy melody is the stuff goosebumps are made of. Why Lilitri didn’t use such a glorious chunk of music elsewhere in the song—say, after the first verse or repeated a couple times at the end—is anyone’s guess. But it only takes a few listens to Oso Oso’s new album, basking in the glow, to recognize that questioning the guy’s songwriting decisions is an exercise in diminishing returns. He is, it seems, incapable of writing a bad tune, at least at this point in his career. —Ben Salmon

1. Marika Hackman: Any Human Friend

Female ownership of sexuality is nothing new, not since Madonna’s cone bra or Salt-N-Pepa’s declaration that their activities between the sheets are “None of Your Business.” More often than not, these sex-positive declarations exist in purely heteronormative terms, with any lady-on-lady action fetishized for male pleasure (think Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl”). Times are happily a-changing, though, and Marika Hackman’s latest LP, Any Human Friend, provides a hypnotizing case-in-point. Hackman, the folk artist turned synth-rock darling, cares only for the female gaze—the queer female gaze, that is, and more specifically, her own. This album—a treasure trove of zippy guitar hooks, glimmering synths and lemony vocals expertly curated by Hackman—is all about human connection. She hones in on her emotional and sexual connections both to herself and others post-breakup. The truths Hackman discovers along the way, illuminated by songs both inventive and entrancing, are enough to make anyone want to be her human friend (or, at least, a rabid fan). —Clare Martin

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