Setting the Record Straight
IN THIS PHOTO: Little Simz (whose album, GREY Area, is one of 2019’s finest so far)/PHOTO CREDIT: Vicky Grout
2019 and the Dominance of Female Artists
ONE can forgive me for repeating a subject…
IN THIS PHOTO: Julia Jacklin/PHOTO CREDIT: Nick McKinlay
but I feel the ongoing imbalance and sexism in the music industry juxtaposes the sheer weight and depth of music being made by women. There is, as I have said before, a sense of moving in the right direction relating to gender inequality and improvements – if some areas are slow to reform, others (such as festival bills) are starting to strengthen and tip the scales. I still think there is this lack of awareness regarding women in the music industry. In a recent piece, I argued how many radio stations still have too many men on the playlist and, with such great female artists past and present, why is that the case?! Also, this year has been an immense one and that needs to be reflected. It is not just the more visible mainstream where women are dominating this year. I keep up with what is happening in Country music in the U.S. There is a real problem, regarding radio stations and attention, getting women to the forefront. There are so many strong female Country artists having to fight for prominence because it (the genre) is so skewed towards men. Getting back to the subject at hand and, when we list the best albums and singles of this year, I think the majority has been made by women. A couple of recent singles that have spiked my attention are Sampa the Great’s Final Form and Sleater-Kinney’s Hurry on Home. The Center Won’t Hold, Sleater-Kinney’s tenth album, is coming soon and finds the majestic St. Vincent handling production.
Sampa the Great has more material coming soon, but I was blown away when I first heard Final Form – it is a song that packs in so much and has such a vibrant, raw soul. It is confident and cool; it is cultured and vulnerable. It is my favourite single of the year and, looking forward, I think we will see more revelations and year-defining cuts from women. Whether it is the mysterious SAULT – a female-led band where not a lot is known about them – or the excellent Hannah Cohen, there is something fantastic happening right now. In fact, Hannah Cohen’s new album, Welcome Home, has received warm applause – it is her first album in four years. AllMusic, in this review, highlighted its merits:
“Contrasts between likewise light, billowy sonics and clean snare and guitar tones fill the space beneath Cohen's ethereal, yearning vocals with elegant texture on the majority of the album. She does strip things back, though, midway through the album on the existential cabaret ballad "What's This All About." It offers one of Cohen's more haunting melodies with only time-keeping piano chords as accompaniment. Later, "Return Room" features just voice and arpeggiated acoustic guitar until gentle, sustained synths reinforce the repeated "I won't let you down" before the song evaporates into the ether. Cohen's voice maintains the album's consistently floaty quality through these sparser tracks, making for a relentlessly dreamy set that's lost in thought and desire”.
IN THIS PHOTO: Billie Marten/PHOTO CREDIT: Katie Silvester
Charlotte Adigéry is another really great name to watch. She released the Zandoli E.P. earlier this year and it has received praise. Her music deals with everything from sexual experiences and spectrums to a call against despair; an embrace of hope and finding light. These varied and deep subjects are scored with incredible vocals and highly memorable lyrics. I think Adigéry is one of these women who will be making music for years to come and, in a music landscape packed and competitive, she stands ahead. Not only have there been some great E.P.s and singles from women in music but, crucially, the album output has been fierce! I am torn between Billie Marten’s Feeding Seahorses by Hand and Jamila Woods’ LEGACY! LEGACY! as the finest L.P. of the year. I was the first (I think) to review Marten’s sophomore record and I was, like many, mesmerised by her exquisite voice and songs. A broader and more mature/political album than her 2016 debut, Writing of Blues and Yellows, Feeding Seahorses by Hand is the young, Yorkshire-raised teenager moving to London and addressing the wider world. The Line of Best Fit, in their review, summed up the album perfectly:
“This collection of softly sung songs forms nothing short of a gentle and reserved masterpiece. It would have been easy for Marten to have made this record with the same restricted tool set she used on her debut, however she opted for a riskier route that has certainly paid off. Throughout the album Marten refuses to place restrictions on herself, but manages to never go too far, and add more to a track than it needs.
On Feeding Seahorses, Marten has managed to skilfully navigate a true artistic tightrope by developing and building on the sounds of her minimalistic debut, without losing any of its original essence. Nothing is lost, only gained”.
In regards Jamila Woods, LEGACY! LEGACY! is a tribute to legends and icons who has inspired her. This Pitchfork feature allows one to see all the songs broken down and explained. I love the blends of Neo-Soul and Soul/R&B; the warm-yet-powerful vocal coming from Woods and the way one immerses themselves in the songs. I recommend people get the album as it is enormously impressive and accessible – one does not need to know about Woods’ subjects to appreciate the songs. Little Simz’s GREY Area is another album that has been dropping critical jaws. In an exciting and bold year for British Rap/Hip-Hop, Simz is standing ahead of the pack. Her flows and lines are wonderful; her sheer confidence and passion is electric…and one is helpless to resist the effect! I would not be shocked to see GREY Area walk away with the ‘best album of 2019’ award from all critical outlets. In fact, in most genres, women are showing more bravery, intentional and quality compared to the chaps. I have mentioned a great female singer-songwriter, Billie Marten, but one has to also mention Julia Jacklin and Sharon Van Etten. The latter’s album, Remind Me Tomorrow, is a personal and arresting collection of songs. On this album, Van Etten wanted to reconcile light and dark and create something fresh. Remind Me Tomorrow is an extraordinary album from one of the world’s best songwriters. I have been a fan of Julia Jacklin for a while and, on Crushing, she has poured her heart and soul out.
Crushing is definitely in my top-ten albums of the year and, again, the critical reception has been very encouraging. Rolling Stone were deeply impressed by Crushing:
“Jacklin seems fascinated by corporeality and consciousness, the ways in which she can learn from and communicate with her own physicality. On “Body,” an overwhelming sensory experience leads to new emotional awareness: “I felt the changing of the seasons,” she sings, “all of my senses rushing back to me.” By the very next song, the standout “Head Alone,” she’s disputing Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” formulation, employing clever metaphor to center her bodily existence: “Give me a full-length mirror/So I can see the whole picture,” she pleads. “My head alone gives nothing away.”
When Jacklin isn’t waxing philosophical on mind-body duality, she’s simply showing the special way she processes the world around her. The result is a profound statement that stands as an early candidate for this year’s strongest singer-songwriter breakthrough”.
Not only are female solo artists dominating: the female-fronted band is doing sterling trade! Hands Off Gretel are one of the most-talked-about bands of this year and I recommend you check them out. Another couple of female-fronted bands that are making waves are Amyl and The Sniffers and YONAKA. Different in terms of style, the former’s eponymous album has been getting some positive press. They were formed in Australia and offer something visceral and scintillating.
IN THIS PHOTO: YONAKA/PHOTO CREDIT: Press
YONAKA are more Pop-Punk based but, once more, their latest work has been hitting the mark – Don’t Wait ‘Til Tomorrow has won its fair share of positive reviews (this NME review is one such example). If you want toms great Pop then Billie Eilish and Ariana Grande offer very different worlds. The former’s album, WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?, has been thrilling people and, from a teenage artist, it is extremely mature, developed and striking. NME, when reviewing the album, could not find fault:
“There’s little to plausibly fault on the record. Previous singles are included sparingly (2018’s ‘When The Party’s Over’ and ‘You Should See Me In A Crown’), and there’s a real level of intrigue waiting on every song, partly as only two new songs (‘Bury A Friend’, ‘Wish You Were Gay’) got a pre-release. It’s an album that moves with purpose and knows when to hold the listener tight, or grab them by the scruff of the neck and drag them into her world. That said, one nitpick is the pacing towards the end, with the final three songs – ‘Listen Before I Go’, ‘I Love You’ and ‘Goodbye’ – providing an melancholy end close to an otherwise thrilling album.
‘When We All Fall Asleep…’, then, ticks all the boxes for a memorable and game-changing debut album. It’s enjoyable and familiar, but retains Billie’s disruptive streak. It’s a brave and resounding first step for an artist with bags of potential and over the next decade, you’ll no doubt see popular music scrabbling to try and replicate what this album does on every level. There’ll always be copycats, as Billie noted on her 2017 song of the same name, but none will be able to reach these heights any time soon”.
IN THIS PHOTO: Ariana Grande/PHOTO CREDIT: Theo Wargo/Getty Images
Aside from her not being a fan of different cases – in terms of lettering – Ariana Grande’s thank u, next has also won hearts and plaudits. It is a very solid and eclectic Pop album that is a lot deeper and more nuanced than a lot of what her rivals produce. Whilst male-led guitar bands are still being favoured as festival headliners, I wonder why Grande has not been considered as an alternative – in this country, at the least. Other terrific 2019-albums from Stella Donnelly (Beware of the Dogs) and Solange (When I Get Home) show what variety and mesmeric vibes there are emanating from female artists. This is not to say the men have been lacking this year – top albums from Dave, James Blake; Loyle Carner and Slowthai will all be hustling for that albumof the year nod – but I think women in music are leading. Maybe it is because their work is more personal and real; perhaps it is their sheer weight, clout and passion; maybe it is the fact there is a tangible air of change in the air – whatever it is, I feel 2019 is a year where we have to recognise the brilliant women in music! Before I finish, I want to mention the other albums and singles created by women; those that are owning 2019! I shall come to the other artists on my mind but, with Madame X out, Madonna is very much in the spotlight. Following a couple of less-than-her-usual-best records, Madame X is a brilliant and genre-hopping return-to-form.
It is an album I expect to see challenging for this year’s best and, as The Line of Best Fit explain, it is good to have Madonna back at her most evocative and provocative:
“Her provocateur credentials are revitalised to an extent on Madame X, with socio-political themes embedded in its essence and current societal discord interpreted through an inimitable dystopic lens. A chameleon-like reputation for reinvention is secured and self-referenced, as she occupies various personas, such as a head of state, a freedom fighter and a spy in the house of love. This consistent transience extends beyond its premise to a multilingual scope; fluidly flitting between English, Portuguese and Spanish, delivering lyrical wit with an economy that has proved a definitive trait of her oeuvre”.
A near-namesake of Madonna…Madonnatron, is a band well worth exploring. I have just featured the band - but they are getting a lot of buzz from radio stations and fans alike. Their new album, Musica Alla Puttanesca, is a bounty of colours, instant tunes and wonderful images. The band have such a tight connection and, like YONAKA, there is a bit of Pop-Punk happening…but Madonnatron throw even more into the mix. I love what they are throwing out and, not only are they are one of the most exciting bands of 2019, but they have the potential to become festival legends. I am also a huge fan of Honeyblood and their album, In Plain Sight, crackles with energy and brilliance. Listen to the album in full and you will see what I mean! Stealing Sheep, again, are a band I have recently feature; their new album, Big Wows, is a stunner. Bright, danceable and wondrous tracks; this is a band that we need to embrace – bringing the fun but, with it, a mix of the serious and personal.
If we want to talk about album that have defined 2019 then one must include Weyes Blood’s Titanic Rising into the conversation! It is one of my favourites and is a gorgeous, spellbinding record that stays with you long after it has finished. This is what Pitchfork had to say about Titanic Rising:
“The truth that lies beneath Titanic Rising is that love blossoms and love wilts. This law of nature is mirrored in the emotional arc introduced by “A Lot’s Gonna Change.” “Everyone’s broken now/And no one knows just how,” she murmurs on the monumental “Wild Time.” The songs are more stoic and elegant even when Mering sings of apocalyptic imagery like a “million people burnin’.”
But Mering’s business is not of misery, but of faith. She suggests dystopian images, but insists that with action, beautiful results are possible. Titanic Rising comes full circle with the instrumental closer “Nearer to Thee,” which borrows the string arrangement from “A Lot’s Gonna Change.” The song’s title alludes to the hymn that the Titanic’s house band supposedly played as the ship sank. Here, as it was then, Weyes Blood can’t help but offer one last breath of hope as she gazes towards an uncertain future”
Other great albums by women this year include K Á R Y Y N withTHE QUANTA SERIES – one of the more ‘outsider’ albums but one that is full of interesting moments and ideas. Jenny Lewis, too, has produced a swaggering and epic-as-hell album with On the Line. It is a breakup record that, instead of looking for sympathy and dragging you down, lifts you up with its defiance and strut. The reviews (for On the Line) have been incredible and Lewis is one of the best artists out there right now.
IN THIS PHOTO: Cate Le Bon/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Although a few men will feature in the end-of-year lists regarding the best albums, I think artists such as Cate Le Bon and Holly Herndon will be up there. Le Bon’s album, Reward, is a masterful work that is hard to put into words, such is the quality on display. Herndon’s PROTO has been turning critical eyes and is a record you definitely need to own! I have been mentioning top albums from women but, adding to terrific singles from Sampa the Great and Sleater-Kinney, one must acknowledge Róisín Murphy and FKA twigs. Murphy has put out a few singles this year I think but her latest, Incapable, is one of her very best offerings ever. I love the way Murphy goes about her business and how nuanced her music is. You listen to Incapable and it is so different to anything else out there! The same is true of FKA twigs’ Cellophane. Lizzo’s hotly-desired album, Cuz I Love You, is definitely one of 2019’s biggest and most alluring reveals. It is packed with stunning songs and the sort of physicality only Lizzo can provide! Vulture, in this positive review, gave their take:
“Lizzo resists labels, both creatively and quite literally in the second verse of the food/sex rap workout “Better in Color.” You don’t have to try to figure out how to file her music, her gender, or her sexuality. You just have to watch her work. Cuz I Love You is a playground for a phenomenal talent reaching the peak of its powers.
Lizzo whoops and chortles through these beats with unnatural ease. Keeping up is like beating back the wind, like Jon Snow getting whipped through stony Winterfell peaks trying to ride a dragon. Gucci Mane can barely keep up on “Exactly How I Feel.” Lizzo is a joy, and Cuz I Love You is an impressive portfolio, showcasing the chops of a singer who nails all the notes, a rapper with alchemical control over words, and a songwriter holding nothing back. She can make lounging around in underwear sound revelatory. She can make masturbation seem like a political act. If you’re having a rough week watching the rule of law crumble, let Cuz I Love You rebuild your mettle”.
I might have missed some notable names out of this feature but, as you can imagine, it is impossible to include everyone! The fact I have to make that disclaimer is down to the sheer volume of wonderful female artists who have provided 2019 with something truly great. I have not even scratched the surface and there is one realisation that comes to mind: the fact that it is only June! Who knows what will come before the end of the year and who will be making headlines. I do think the trend of women soundtracking 2019 will continue and, with Lana Del Rey preparing to release Norman Fucking Rockwell very soon, there is plenty to get excited about. Del Rey is teasing new material and I think she will challenge the movers and shakers when the year-end album years arrive.
IN THIS PHOTO: Lana Del Rey/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
I have missed some female artists out when it comes to the best songs of the year so far - and there are articles that highlight the hottest tracks you need to investigate. Rozi Plain is an artist that comes to mind; so too does a current BBC Radio 6 Music favourite, Mattiel. There is this huge world of music from women that is, I think, broader and more exciting than anything else around. Whether you prefer the Pop of Taylor Swift or the magic of Hatchie, there is something for everyone! In fact, I have only really talked about those in the mainstream or close to it: in the underground, there are so many great solo artists, female-led bands and duos doing incredible things. I am not dismissing the men of music but, as I stated earlier, there is this sexism that threatens to linger for a while yet. I do feel there is a general belief that, as the festivals are still dominated by men, that is a reflection of quality – in other words, the men are stronger and more worthy. That has never been the case and it is especially untrue right now. From daring and brilliant young artists like Billie Eilish to great British Hip-Hop stars like Little Simz, 2019 has been an extremely rich and promising year, thanks in a very large part because of the women (of music). Caroline Polachek has a new single out, Door, which is one of the most intriguing songs of the year.
I have omitted (rather rudely, mind) to mention another of the strongest female artists in the world: the always-wonderful Kate Tempest. Her latest album, The Book of Traps and Lessons, is surely in the top-five best albums of this year so far – it is definitely in my top-five! Tempest is a polymath and all-round genius who deserves all the respect in the world. The Book of Traps and Lessons has been gathering massive love. This review from The Guardian is a typical example:
“Super-producer Rick Rubin brings a new restraint to Tempest. From the beginning of the record, the music is peeled away like orange skin, leaving a spine-chilling a capella at its centre. All Humans Too Late features Tempest’s voice alone, her stark vocal mirroring her poetic theme of isolation; humans separating themselves, not saying hello on the train platform, yelling at each other on the internet. She reckons with the crisis that humanity as a whole is facing right now (“We’re dead – all of me knows it”), reels at the magnitude of it, expresses wonder that we’re not grieving this emergency.
By the following track, Hold Your Own, simple synth chords bolster Tempest as she leans forward into a shaft of light, a new sense of optimism. Her manifesto demands that the listener stop chasing capitalist fantasies – “this whole thing thrives on us feeling incomplete” – and look for the warmth in each other instead. This energy builds towards Firesmoke, a campfire love song that reduces the rest of the world to “ripples in the middle distance” in comparison to the sight of a lover, dancing. “There is something in this tenderness that makes me want to live.” This record is a living poem that captures the angry tension of being alive in 2019: trying not to look directly at the oncoming crises, trying to love and give and dance in the midst of firesmoke”.
I expect this to continue and, as intimated, who knows what more is to come in terms of red-hot singles, albums and E.P.s! We are only (just over) half way through 2019 but, as the best and brightest releases have proven, women are very much…
IN THIS PHOTO: Billie Eilish/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
AT the forefront.