There’s a lot that I’ve been grateful for this year, and I am happy to report that 2019 has been a pretty solid year for yours-truly (if not the world at large). I took up running, which meant I took up heavy music again, and I got slightly better at speaking Chinese, even if I couldn’t use the language to tell you much except that I enjoy running. And, as the twelve months before them, and the twelve months before those twelve months, the last twelve months have brought good music. As I do every year, I’ve compiled a list of my favourites – not the best, just my favourites. You can find the said list below, which I hope is one you might approve of. I’ve included Bandcamp links where available, but all of these records are available on major streaming services. I’ve also written a little about each, which is something I failed to do last year. Have a browse, and have a grand 2020. Until next December, Craig.
75) The Menzingers – Hello Exile
The most reliable band in punk-rock, dialing it down somewhat. [Listen]
74) Kevin Abstract – ARIZONA BABY
A step forward for Abstract, an amalgam of creative ideas.
73) Clairo – Immunity
An honestly-honest and instrumentally inventive debut.
72) Holding Absence – ST
A debut worth waiting for, searing highs, emotional blows.
71) Mitsume – Ghosts
One for the office, polished and mellow Japanese indie.
70) Pine – PINE
Catharsis. Catharsis. Catharsis. A searing first LP. [Listen]
69) Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes – End of Suffering
A little bit less “Frank,” but still very “Frank.”
68) Big Thief – U.F.O.F
The first of two exceptional 2019 LPs from Big Thief, sky-reaching. [Listen]
67) Anna Flyaway – Tomorrow I Will Take a Knife to Your Confidence
The only record from 2005 on this list. An immensely pleasant surprise. [Listen]
66) Jimmy Eat World – Surviving
LP number and Jimmy Eat World know exactly what they’re doing.
65) Lucy Rose – No Words Left
Lucy Rose at her heart-swelling best, “No Words Left” is a treasure of a record.
64) Noah Gundersen – Lover
Criminally overlooked, Gundersen improves with each new release.
63) The Black Keys – “Let’s Rock”
Terrible artwork, excellent rock and roll. Never a band to disappoint.
62) Wish You Were Here – I’m Afraid of Everything
Stick To Your Guns frontman strips it back on a very humbling listen.
61) Maggie Rogers – Heard It In a Past Life
Contains some throwaway tracks, but remains a debut worth waiting for.
60) Harmony Woods – Make Yourself at Home
Melodies and hooks that lodge themselves in your brain for days. [Listen]
59) Bad Books, Kevin Divine & Manchester Orchestra – III
A quite-perfect trifecta, this their best collaborative LP.
58) Chelsea Wolfe – Birth of Violence
Atmospheric and stripped-back, Wolfe’s dark-folk lingers. [Listen]
57) Forests – Spending Eternity in a Japanese Convenience Store
Just an excellent time, really. Noodly guitars, gang vocals, a bit of a mind-melter. [Listen]
56) Locket – All Out
Like old-school Mayday Parade but louder, a healthy, heartfelt throwback.
55) Origami Angel – Somewhere City
A band destined for big things. A sonic and dense listen that constantly rewards. [Listen]
54) PUP – Morbid Stuff
Toronto’s favourite sons return bold as ever, and did you really think this wouldn’t slay? [Listen]
53) Russian Circles – Blood Year
Instrumentally majestic. A mammoth and uncompromising record. [Listen]
52) Somos – Prison on a Hill
A band that deserve much more praise, Somos have hooks that sink. [Listen]
51) The Dangerous Summer – Mother Nature
A focused and ambitious fifth LP. “Virginia” a real highlight. [Listen]
50) Foals – Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Part 2
The best year of Foals’ career, the second of two excellent 2019 LPs.
49) Bon Iver – i,i
Glitchy and affecting, but with weak moments littered throughout.
48) Greet Death – New Hell
Album centerpiece “You’re Gonna Hate What You’ve Done” is something quite special. [Listen]
47) La Dispute – Panorama
Their penchant for storytelling has yet to diminish – totally absorbing. [Listen]
46) Norma Jean – All Hail
A bruiser of a record, eight records in, Norma Jean are still swinging and landing.
45) Craig Finn – I Need a New War
Finn’s best solo record. No-one captures the day-to-day of American existence better. [Listen]
44) Better Oblivion Community Center – ST
The dream team of Bridges and Oberst really works. A record with excellent songwriting, but also one that doesn’t quite consistently meet expectations. [Listen]
43) Microwave – Death is a Warm Blanket
Long live Microwave. Record is a blast, their best yet. [Listen]
42) Slingshot Dakota – Heavy Banding
An immensely generous record, overflowing with love. [Listen]
41) Stella Donnelly – Beware of the Dogs
All I listened to for two weeks after its release. Tongue in cheek, on this list. [Listen]
40) The Tallest Man on Earth – I Love You. It’s a Fever Dream
At this point in his career, the world’s tallest man can do no wrong.
39) Have a Nice Life – Sea of Worry
Doesn’t quite meet the heights of previous efforts, but still delivers. [Listen]
38) Knocked Loose – A Different Shade of Blue
I get it now. A record to soundtrack the angriest of running sessions. [Listen]
37) glass beach – the first glass beach album
Hopefully not the last. [Listen]
36) Marika Hackman – Any Human Friend
A powerful example of self-ownership, Hackman shines. [Listen]
35) Billie Eilish – WHEN WE FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO
Lavishly produced, and pleasingly refreshing dark-pop. Worthy of its plaudits.
34) Ithaca – The Language of Injury
Heavy as hell, and another home run for Holy Roar Records. [Listen]
33) Playburst – Positive Jams
A fitting title for an exuberant LP of tight Midwest-inspired emo from Malaysia. It only takes a minute. [Listen]
32) Queen of Jeans – if You’re not afraid, I’m not afraid
Beautifully weird, and weirdly beautiful. A real charmer. [Listen]
31) The Japanese House – Good at Falling
“You Seemed So Happy” a standout, gorgeously mellowing. [Listen]
30) girlpool – What Chaos Is Imaginary
An album of changes, but certainly not chaotic. Fuzzy and dreamy. [Listen]
29) Josienne Clarke – In All Weather
Immaculate folk, with an abundance of heart. [Listen]
28) Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride
The same band, but a little different, still writing irresistible music. The soundtrack of the summer.
27) Florist – Emily Alone
Showcasing exceptional songwriting, this is a record that transports. [Listen]
26) Mount Eerie – Lost Wisdom, pt.2
Further meditations on death, but now alongside divorce. Everum affects. [Listen]
25) Prince Daddy & the Hyena – Cosmic Thrill Seekers
An epic space-rock-opera, as creative a punk record as you’ll ever find. [Listen]
24) Sharon Van Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow
Sharon Van Etten’s best record – New York City dedication “Seventeen” a highlight. [Listen]
23) Charly Bliss – Young Enough
Playful, heart on your sleeve power-pop, totally irresistible. See title track and “Under You” and then see the others until the grin proves unshakeable. [Listen]
22) The National – I Am Easy to Find
A grand and cinematic masterpiece, which keeps a listener seated under the credits roll. The loudest moments are in the small moments – “ticker-tape, ticker-tape.”
21) slowthai – Nothing Great About Britain
If this the sound of Britain in 2019, it’s very much fitting. Visceral and potent. [Listen]
20) State Faults – Clairvoyant
After six years out of the game, State Faults are at the top of their game. Catharsis hard to come by, but well earned by the end.
19) Tyler, The Creator – IGOR
Overlooked for Grammy AOTY, which is fairly criminal. An ambitious, genre-bending record, and one which finds Tyler at the height of his powers.
18) BROCKHAMPTON – GINGER
A record about coming to terms, GINGER is full of tight hooks, creative rhymes, and a collective, collaborative wholesomeness. Offers something new on each listen.
17) Angel Olsen – All Mirrors
If “My Woman” was Olsen entering the spotlight, “All Mirrors” shatters and then reassembles it. A stunning LP.
16) Big Thief – Two Hands
Look no further than Not for the song of 2019. Big Thief are poetry in motion, Two Hands a warm, immensely absorbing record. Believe the hype.
15) Great Grandpa – Four of Arrows
“Go slow, big choices” seemed the mantra for LP2. Big choices for sure. A huge step away from 2017’s “Plastic Cough,” but superior in every way, “Four of Arrows” oozes heart and sincerity.
14) James Blake – Assume Form
Blake’s crowning moment, four records in, “Assume Form” is optimistic where previous efforts have wallowed, soars where others only peaked their heads. Nothing is lost, plenty is gained.
13) Jessica Pratt – Quiet Signs
Jessica Pratt is a diamond. The records beauty is in its minimalism, its hushed, early- spring morning dew sounds, like just waking up to traces of sunlight on frosted glass. Despite its abundant lightness, it carries an otherworldly weight, and I am rapt to be burdened by it.
12) Employed to Serve – Eternal Forward Motion
If label counterparts Rolo Tomassi released the best heavy record of 2018, Employed To Serve delivered the best of 2019. A crushing, but highly focused record, channeling its anger through lyrics which shed light on those who deserve a voice as loud as Justine Jones’. A landmark release.
11) Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell
I get it now. Lana Del Rey is good, this record is good. Lyrically doom-ridden and instrumentally golden, it cushions while questioning. Still a little long though, yet is undoubtedly at its best when taken as a whole.
10) Copeland – Blushing
Unfolding like a fever dream in progress, Copeland’s sixth LP, and first since 2014, is a highly-focused, lucid record. From the opening ebbs of “Pope,” there seems a conscious effort to put a listener under some kind of spell, the cinematic soundscapes and cushioning vocals here almost hypnotic in convergence. It’s an easy spell to fall over, and you aren’t truly snapped out of it until the end of “It Felt So Real,” when the female voice of the opener returns to pull you back to the surface. On emergence, things seem to have shifted somewhat, like waking up unaware which season it is. Blushing is a sinkhole record, but what you find amidst it’s layers is something truly beautiful. That sonic beauty often overshadows a heavy narrative, in which frontman Aaron Marsh ruminates on the highs and lows of a relationship, the fragmentary sense of place discovered in recollection. Think “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” as a series of musical vignettes. It becomes so easy to get lost or to wander, but Blushing never loses sight of its direction. On sweeping closer Waltz on Water it all comes together in a harrowing, haunting, and truly stunning finish. You’re left a little shaken, but you feel better. Kaleidoscopic, Blushing is one of 2019’s finest-produced records. Enjoyed with good headphones and a quiet room, it’s a floatation tank experience. An absolute joy, and one that continues to seduce long after it has finished.
9) Carly Rae Jepsen – Dedicated
2019 may go down in history as the year I decided to give pop music another chance. I was perhaps heading that way in 2018, enraptured by records such as Christine & The Queens’ “Chris,” but I committed to the genre a little more this year. If you’d told me back in January that I’d be spending most of my November listening to a Carly Rae Jepsen record, then I probably would have laughed. Ah, the fool I would have been. Dedicated, Jepsen’s third record, is an immensely “listenable” listen. It’s pure, undiluted pop, something to dance to, something to brighten the most Scrooge-like of moods. It’s joyful and upbeat, uncompromising in the way similar releases might be. Dedicated rejoices in the sunlight of “pop,” wearing its disco influences bold and bright. A record of singles, there are plenty of standouts here: opening track “Julien” jives and flaunts with the best of them; “Want You In My Room” perfectly captures the giddy excitement preceding a date, while closer “Party For One” is an unabashed anthem of self-love. Meticulously produced, with lyrics that offer a surprising amount of depth, Dedicated is a gold standard pop record. The simple fact that it managed to warm the cold dead heart of this jaded twenty-five-year-old is testament to its power. I danced. Hell yes did I dance. <3
8) Bellows – The Rose Gardener
Some context: it is 9AM, and the weather outside is something quite miserable. Further beyond the localised weather, things are equally dismal. Boris Johnson won the election that took place yesterday, and that’s all the news I have it in me to read. I turn, amidst all of this grey, to The Rose Gardener, and things gain some colour. The opening notes of “Housekeeping” bleed out of the speakers on my laptop, dance up the walls like vines, and everything seems altered for the better. I find that, I too, “love this body, even when it hurts.” That’s the amount of comfort to be found in Bellows’ fourth record, which, at its heart, is one of perseverance, trying to take for something that is doomed to end in disappointment. There is acceptance, and there is a push for growth, a strive towards optimism despite the daunting number of reasons to be pessimistic. It all slow-dances in the forest of its own vision. The Rose Gardner is expansive a lush, a divinely sub-tropical record, one which tries its hand at a few different styles across four parts, and masters each of them. There are louder moments (“Denouement”), gorgeous melodies (“Rosebush”), and indie-pop gems (“Judgement”), and each song rewards in a slightly different way. For every grey morning, there is a remedy on The Rose Gardener – a reminder that things are not so bad (even though they kind of are).
7) Martha – Love Keeps Kicking
Where would be without Martha? Probably in the exact same place, but everything would be slightly sepia-tinged and less fun. I named Martha’s last LP, Blisters in the Pit of my Heart as my AOTY in 2016, and Love Keeps Kicking is a more-than-worthy follow-up. Packed full of the hooks that make the Durham outfit as irresistible as they have always been, whilst also pushing further their ability to tell stories through their lyrics, the record shows some solid growth. Timely as ever, affecting and rousing, Martha remain a shining beacon of light within the UK scene. Love Keeps Kicking is very difficult to shake once you’ve heard a couple of those choruses, an absolute joy, and consistently big feelings abound.
6) String Machine – Death of the Neon
Death of the Neon is a difficult record to pin down, but is all the better for its slight absurdities. For those who’ve been followed indie-rock / emo-revival trends over the last few years, it’s a record that sounds both familiar and very new, taking a lot of what makes recent genre stalwarts such as Foxing accessible yet perplexing, and offers a different spin on that strain. String Machine are a band in very good company, in this regard. I was turned onto this record by the highly-knowledgeable folks over at The Alternative , and fell for it pretty hard shortly thereafter. Death of the Neon is a whimsical record both sonically and lyrically, all eight-legged dogs, birthday wishes, killer cars, and heavy mist. It inhales and exhales in a wholly organic way, the many complicated elements here forming a cohesive whole that gravitates between the off-kilter, avant-garde storytelling of Neutral Milk Hotel and the ensemble instrumental foliage of The World is a Beautiful Place… It’s a dense, canopied record, but its many layers never really get in the way of the heart that emboldens the record so. It sounds like a labour of love, from the heavy-weighing climax of “Pit of the Peach” to the rollercoaster that is the “Death of the Neon (Pt.1, 2 & 3).” The nine songs here, and their many faithfully-honed intricacies, create a picture, pastoral and pivoting, and it makes for a record that sucks you in and swirls you around. It’s just really good, is what I’m trying to say.
5) American Football – LP3
Like many twenty-somethings who bought a record player in their teens, I have a particular affinity for American Football, a band who soundtracked many late-night post-college sad-jams and went on to soundtrack many more pleasant pastimes once I escaped that rut. Over two decades into their career, LP3 is, unsurprisingly, the bands third LP, and is also their best to date. The evolution of the Illinois outfit here, especially from LP2, is hugely noticeable, the musicianship on their latest record a push into new territories. The haunting melancholy still lingers, the guitars are still crisp and clean, and a weary sense of apathy still stretches itself across these songs like a picnic blanket set down in the backyard of an empty home, but LP3 manages to confidently hit majestic high after majestic high. It’s a morose, plaintive listen, vocalist and guitarist Mike Kinsella reflecting on middle-age and fatherhood, the “allure of inconsequential love” (“Silhouettes”), but these more somber reflections are expressed with subreme grace. They’re also very patient reflections; with the majority of songs coming in at over five minutes, and two over seven, there’s room for real development, for tracks to unfold and take shape. See opener “Silhouettes” which rises from a misty flower-bed and then blooms gloriously. LP3 features some stellar guest performances also, most notably from Hayley Williams of Paramore, who contributes a delicate accompaniment on the standout “Uncomfortably Numb” – as good as “emo” could get in 2019. LP3 is a record that ignores the band’s own grand mythology while simultaneously moving beyond it. It’s tormented and introspective, but it’s also incredibly beautiful. Add to the equation exceptional production, and you’re graced with one of the most transformative listens of the year. There are moments on this record (“Heir Apparent”), (“Every Wave to Ever Rise”) that sound like masterpiece paintings, every second considered, every small detail lending resonance. It’s an impeccably crafted product, undoubtedly American Football, but also more than they’ve ever been. LP3 never fails to stun; I am happy to be stunned.
4) FKA twigs – MAGDALENE
Nobody in the universe is making music the way that FKA twigs is making music. I use “universe” here, because this is music that may well have been sent from the stars. Grounded in reality though, and inspired throughout by the historic figure of Mary Magdalene, a woman whose life legacy was diluted and reshaped by the men who turned to scrutinise her, MAGDALENE sounds like a powerful reclamation of self. Written during a period of FKA twigs’ life in which she was recovering from uterine surgery and caught firmly in the headlight glare cast upon celebrity relationships by the media, her sophomore LP draws on these experiences and using them to erect a monument to her own identity. A towering achievement, MAGDALENE is determined and focused in its construction, a living, breathing embodiment of the artist at its center. twigs, though, isn’t just at the center of the LP, she is the LP. Bolstered by immaculate production, which is equally as absorbing when restrained (“Mirrored Heart”) as it is when full-blooded and loud (“Fallen Angel”), this is a mammoth effort. It’s a consistently interesting listen, partly because of the production, but also because of the way twigs uses her quite unique voice. She flaunts across these tracks, graceful and poised, mixing in yelps, croons, highs, lows, a dizzying tapestry of sounds and styles. After somehow finding the capacity to piece together the narrative, the production, the intense fusing of the two, you find that MAGDALENE is quite comfortably in a league of its own. See singles “home with you”, and “holy terrain” as a clear show of twigs’ power, and then finish off with the tender delicacy of “cellophane,” which is a small nudge away from shattering. That song in particular, that heartbreaking finale, still returns to me often, such is its nature, and it remains the final piece of the puzzle that is MAGDALENE, completing something particularly incredible. A mesmeric listen.
3) Oso Oso – Basking in the Glow
Oso Oso make it seems oh so (oh so) easy. On Basking in the Glow, the bands third LP, songwriter Jade Lilitri delivers more catchy and hook-filled scoops of sun-soaked catharsis, but better. There isn’t a single misstep here, every track memorable, elevated by an internal narrative that struggles between wallowing and waking to something better (a God, maybe). It sounds effortless, as if these songs were always meant to sound like this and to stick the landing like they undoubtedly do. There are excellent singles here, such as “Impossible Game” and “The View,” buoyant but with an undoubtedly cool level of restraint, but every track finds a way to stand-out. If I’ve found myself cycling aimlessly through my library this year, nine times out of ten I land on Basking in the Glow and bask.
2) The Twilight Sad – It Won/T Be Like This All the Time
The Twilight Sad have been a band in operation for over a decade now, and on their fifth record, you sense that they sound the way they were always destined to sound. Not that prior records have been lacking, or underwhelming, (2007‘s Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters remains a brilliant yet under-appreciated debut, 2014’s No One Wants To Be Here And No One Wants To Leave a simpler but no less affecting listen), but the band have never sounded this focused, or this confident in their own purpose. From the offset, It Won/T Be Like This All The Time feels like a culmination of all that makes The Twilight Sad The Twilight Sad, possessing a cohesiveness that elevated it above all over guitar records in 2019 for this listener – by some distance, also. It pulsates and writhes like a stricken animal, thick electronics and sections of droning instrumentals and industrial synths, threatening to scratch anything that gets too close. It is quite the beast, and requires multiple listens to really unwrap. There’s simply so much going on. Amidst all this noise, vocalist Stephen Graham delivers lyrics much more direct than on past records, and lyrics which are frequently bleak and unsettling. Death, abuse, threats of suicide, it’s all very macabre. A lyrical theme of abuse runs throughout, on many occasions we hear of punches thrown, and at times it becomes hard to find any light here, any respite amidst the crushing weight of it all.
As such, lyrically, the record teeters between life and death, and does so instrumentally also. Frequently, Andy MacFarlane’s guitars consume everything else, so dense as to become oppressive, so thick a soundscape as to become claustrophobic. If It Won/T Be Like This All The Time is against a wall, then so is its audience. It’s a sensation that comes from repetition, be it repetition of those instrumental barrages, or Graham’s constant questioning (this is a record full of questions). As a listener, you are being challenged, the finger is pointing at you. Confrontational, but with the intent to turn your head instead of forcing it into the ground, The Twilight Sad exercise all strength here to simply keep moving forward. The fact that they do it with such power, such confidence, is cause for praise bordering on gratuitous. It Won/T Be Like This All The Time leaves a listener breathless, dizzy with the scope of it all, a postmodern, post-punk pastiche, and it is absolutely exhausting – but exhausting in the best possible way. “It’s just another heartache to me,” Graham repeats on penultimate track “Let’s Get Lost,” and I look at the record in the same way. It’s not an easy listen, but it is an exceptional listen. The Twilight Sad have never been better than they are here, and here they are absolutely devastating.
1) Laura Stevenson – The Big Freeze
And so we reach the big one, or, more appropriately, The Big Freeze. I’ve been trying to work out how to write about Laura Stevenson’s fifth record for some time now, and I haven’t yet worked it out. I’m hoping it comes to me; consider these reflections in real-time. I’ve been trying to find the words for a while, because The Big Freeze has been my favourite record of 2019 for some time. I don’t think there was ever any doubt.
I’ve been somewhat familiar with Laura Stevenson for a few years now, but had never devoted a great deal of time to her music. I liked 2015‘s fuzzy Cocksure, and remember buying it on vinyl in a record store in Malmo, Sweden, after deciding that I was in Sweden, and should, therefore, buy a record. I found Stevenson’s, which I had on my iPod, and purchased it, but it never held rotation the way it’s follow-up has. The Big Freeze is a special record, one from an immensely talented songwriter, singer, and musician. Stevenson’s voice, sweet like honey but possessing a low, reedy quality, haunts, and when paired with the frequently crushing lyrics here, the result is absolutely sublime. For a more-familiar listen than myself, The Big Freeze, on first listen, would have been a record marking a departure from the rock and roll swagger of Cocksure and previous releases, and opts for something far subtler, with minimal orchestration and clean, crisp guitars. Stevenson’s voice comes to the forefront, her lyrics a poetry pamphlet, and for thirty-three minutes, repeated an innumerable number of times this year, has held my fully transfixed.
Unlike any other record in 2019, The Big Freeze has worked its way under my skin and stayed there. There are many reasons for this, but separating them seems to dilute things somewhat. Primarily, what draws me in here, is Stevenson’s honesty in songwriting, the manner in which she writes about herself and the world around her. It could be the oceanic sense of distance that stems from opener “Lay Back, Arms Out,” or the unflinching approach Stevenson takes to documenting her experiences with self-harm on “Value Inn,” which is so stark, so bleak, yet is also so gentle instrumentally. The suggestion that one may be falling apart has never sounded so totally whole. Those waves that Stevenson sings about in the verses, they are the guitars breaking over her voice in the chorus, those lights and fluorescence the shimmer of her own voice in the dark. It’s visually and sonically striking, and it also means that only two songs in, The Big Freeze has your full attention. You’re locked in that Value Inn also, but you are not there alone. So you go deeper and, in doing so, are immediately embraced by “Living Room, NY,” a song so large and so painfully human that it tugs at you from all directions. This third track contains my favourite moment of many favourite moments on The Big Freeze – when Stevenson sings the title, knowing all the weight it carries. I’ve broken out in goosebumps just thinking about it. Both intimate and somehow universal, “Living Room, NY” swells towards a magnificent finish, and on its finishing, I have to take a minute or two to pull myself back together. Like many songs here, it is heart-breaking in delivery, unfathomably vast. Like a deep ocean, you sink, and then somehow end up floating. That Value Inn room loses all of its gravity, everything spirals, coalesces, and then the air-con clicks on, and sets you back down on a hard mattress. Three tracks in, just three tracks, I am both reassured and a little broken. Also, I find that I do not know how to write about fourth track “Dermatillomania.”
Here we skip ahead, to birds, to “the teasing blink of a plane.” I will write about birds – “Hawks” specifically.
Can we go back to the minute we skirt through the rain,
hanging, halting, suspended like hawks under planes?
Can we say it’s unending and I’ll say the same?
Remind me when my mind, it starts to go.
The seventh track on The Big Freeze is only ninety seconds long but stretches on into eternity. Those birds, cast free of the land, I listen to this song and I find that I can see them. There’s a strong sense of clarity seeping throughout this record, despite all of the emotional turmoil. Dirty beaches, pristine oceans, birds above both. What Stevenson does so well here, is she makes every song a snapshot, lends every line resonance. If you listen just closely enough “Hawks,” you hear the radiators of Stevenson’s childhood home (where the record was recorded) hissing. It’s a small space, you sense, if you extended your arms, you’d touch faded wallpaper. If you push delicately, probe a little, the wall threatens to let the world back in. You don’t want to yet. Cocooned within it, The Big Freeze invites you to listen closer, and rewards each and every time. It could be the way that “Hawks” leads so beautifully into the quietly huge “Big Deep,” which then leads into the transcendent “Low Slow.” The second half of the record, from “Hawks” onward, blurs spectacularly, like a montage it rushes by, giddy as a child, but you hardly notice its speed, quite lost in the cinema of it all. “Low Slow” is a slideshow, it is majestic. Here, Stevenson’s voice takes on a whole new dimension – powerful, uncompromising, absolutely mesmeric. During the final minute, it trembles, rises like those hawks themselves, so finely tethered, so close to parting. “Brace yourself and fall into the air” she sings at the death, climbing up the octaves like they are the stairs she references in the first verse. What she reaches at the top is a panoramic view – everything glows impossibly, candlelight in a vacuum.
I reel myself in, just as Stevenson does, when the record closes with “Perfect” – a meditation on the passage of time and the occasionally overwhelming sensation of being present. We find her three minutes from the closing notes, sitting in the driveway of her childhood home, reflecting on the summer she tried to break a Guinness world record. What’s admirable is not that ancient attempt, but the way Stevenson lets it vibrate so vividly in the current moment, the past meeting the present, the world unchanged but also completely changed. Amidst all that change, amidst all the darkness of time’s passing, there’s still hope, still light, even if it needn’t filter in past pulled shutters. “I’ll be alright by myself tonight” she tells her listener, tells herself, that last line and everything built up across the nine tracks prior shifting once more into focus. It is too much, right then, and I edge close to tears, fight them back, like I am that child, and not an adult trying to write about music. What The Big Freeze does, is it makes everything it touches and addresses so totally apparent, so visible. It peels the wallpaper right off, it lifts the lid, and the world is allowed to rush back in. As Stevenson sings on the opener, “there’s a sweetness to that.” It is understated, it is triumphant.
It is five days until Christmas, it is cold in this apartment, but I am warmer just for thinking about The Big Freeze. It radiates heat, I get closer, I curl up inside these songs and make myself small. It has seeped inside the cracks of my year like water, and provided life to soft moments, elevated everyday mundanities. Walking around the lake with it feels somehow like affirmation, every coffee shop a train station. I look back on my year, just after “Perfect” draws to a close, and it has been an easy-enough year. I have spent the entirety of it living in China, often doing things by myself, half the world away from family and close friends. I have seen places I never expected to see and have done things I had never expected to do. I have stayed in my fair share of “Value Inns,” stared into my fair share of mirrors, and I have thought a lot about my Grandmother, who passed away last year when I was also elsewhere. I have known that I wouldn’t likely be returning to my own childhood home during these twelve months and have maintained relationships through computer screens and WhatsApp messages. The time difference means I am not very good at this, and sometimes there is a sense of isolation. There haven’t been many lows. I guess that, more than ever, I am grateful for artists like Laura Stevenson, who pour so much of themselves into their music, who are capable of making something so beautiful that it makes this twenty-five-year-old isolationist feel so close to something so enormous. More than any record in 2019, The Big Freeze has made me grateful, it has made me feel whole.
I think that I have written about The Big Freeze, if not necessarily the way I intended to, but it was hard to write about The Big Freeze. If I fail to do it any justice, I would like you to know that I want so badly to do it justice. It is so much bigger than any words here could make it sound.