Looking Back At Some Of Our Favorite Pacific Northwest Albums of 2019

2019 Countdown, Features

With 2019 finally over, KEXP's Digital Content Team reflects on some of their favorite Pacific Northwest Records of the year. This list is not a definitive ranking of albums, but highlights of a few records our writers loved in 2019.

As we bare witness to the dying gasps of another decade, it’s difficult to not think about how both our region and the grand landscape of music has changed. It’s nothing you haven’t heard before. The convenience of streaming is threatening to entirely replace the physical album format. As far as revenue goes, albums are becoming advertisements for touring and merch. Capitalism continues to swallow our larger cities and spit out the bones, Big Tech continues to chase away our artists because they are finding it more financially difficult to live here. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera; yet we continue to stubbornly persevere.

The Pacific Northwest hasn’t had a monolithic, primary sound since the days of grunge, and even that was mostly due to widespread cultural perception. The 2010s have been emblematic of this point, and 2019 itself reflects the diversity of sounds coursing through the often grey skies here. Whatever your favorite flavor is, there’s a huge chance you can find it in our backyard -- anthemic indie-rock (and all its itinerant sub-sub genres); emotionally intelligent pop-punk; pulsating, jazz-inspired dance music; ruminative folk-pop; pretty much every style of hip-hop your imagination can conjure. 

Being tucked away in the upper left-hand corner of the continental 48 gives us enough space to siphon our outer influences and turn it into something singular. Whether it’s earthy or otherworldly, welcoming or kind of standoffish, it’s extremely safe to say none of the music on this list would be what it is without the influence of the Pacific Northwest. Therefore, we humbly present to you the music that has played us out of this long, weird, difficult decade. -- Martin Douglas

Black Belt Eagle Scout - At The Party With My Brown Friends

Last year, Katherine Paul was in mourning. In her 2018 debut, Mother of My Children, (which also on our top PNW record list) the Portland-based musician unpacked the myriad of hardships she’d been dealing with over recent years including an intense breakup, the death of her mentor, Geneviève Castrée, and the egregious invalidation of and crimes against Indigenous Americans during Standing Rock. This year, things seem to be looking brighter for Paul. 

On her sophomore record, At the Party with My Brown Friends, Paul is softened and sunny, a warm feeling of genuine love radiating out of her. Love for her friends, her girlfriend, her mother. The people who, if you’re lucky, are a source of strength during hardships.  Instead of standing on protest lines, she’s picking flowers, exploring beaches, and running her fingers through her lover’s hair. As they (sort of) say, the best protest is a life well-lived. Or, as Paul said in an interview with KEXP at Thing Fest, “I think the best way to support one another is to have an open heart and just to be nice to one another.”

Once again, Paul is a one-woman band, handling everything down to production. Less dynamic than Mother of My Children, Paul’s reverb-drenched vocals and stripped-down instrumentation, consisting primarily of gentle strumming, makes ATPWMBF feel like stepping into a hot bath after a long day. Which is probably exactly what she needed after all the anguish and anger of recent years. You can’t change the world without first taking care of yourself.  - Jasmine Albertson 


The Black Tones - Cobain & Cornbread

No artist on this list has a better elevator pitch than The Black Tones: A black blues-rock band par excellence helmed by twin siblings whose daddy was a bank robber. The only way this story could have been more delicious is if it were reported that frontwoman Eva Walker (also the host of KEXP’s local music temple Audioasis) sold her soul to the devil to be bequeathed her signature wail. “Hello Mr. Pink,” titled after the theft deterrent of dye packs, thrashes through the farmer’s corner and skips rocks while Eva’s guitar gently weeps through its end. Who needs friends when you’re crazy? Better yet, who needs friends when you have a family?

Eva and her younger brother Cedric (younger by the span of ten minutes) bang their way through their eight-song debut collection with the sort of chemistry you can only expect from people who have spent their lives together. (Sorta like the White Stripes if, you know, Jack and Meg were actually related.) They cycle through a set of indelible tunes tying together a host of assorted topics -- family, sex, death, racism, salvation, arachnophobia -- like the disparate pieces of the story were always meant to blend. Exceptional single “The Key of Black (They Want Us Dead)” almost sounds like it was born in the crowd of a civil rights march, while “Rivers of Jordan” -- a traditional African-American spiritual complete with handclaps and harmonica -- is beamed from the sort of soul-stirring blues the genre of rock ‘n roll scribbled its style from.

Even being produced by Jack Endino not too far from the muddy banks of the Wishkah, Cobain & Cornbread is still more soul food than weather-beaten flannel, the sound of rock ‘n roll music being reclaimed for the direct descendants of its creators. Rock ‘n roll music is black music through and through. - MD 


Seaan Brooks - Keep The Peace

“The Tacoma community is built DIFFERENT... we have ZERO Copy Cats,” Seaan Brooks tweeted at the beginning of the year. He’s the right person to be delivering this message as well. The Pacific Northwest is a terribly difficult region to define by any sort of sound, and PNW hip-hop especially proves this. You’d be pressed to try and find two rappers who sound alike. And in this spectrum of endless creativity, Brooks has emerged as one of the most exciting, vital voices in the scene. 

The local rapper has been on a hot streak since releasing his debut When All Else Fails in 2017. He sounded self-assured and pristine on 2018’s Heaven Only Knows, riding the momentum to his best work yet with Keep The Peace. It’s an album that embodies life in Tacoma, but his message and delivery are palatable no matter where you hail from. Brooks has the tenacity of Section.80 era Kendrick Lamar but with a decidedly Northwest sensibility, fighting to tell his city’s story with namedropping his neighborhoods and local fashion retailer ETC. Keep The Peace feels like a confession of everything he’s seen and done so far. And while it is his best work so far, it feels like an origin story. Brooks has fire lit inside of him and it won’t be long before it burns beyond Washington borders. - Dusty Henry


Chastity Belt - Chastity Belt

Any time Chastity Belt releases a new record, I find myself writing about how much they’ve grown from the album before. And it’s always true. When the band emerged in 2013 with their impeccably titled debut, No Regerts, the quickly became a local favorite with songs like “Seattle Party” and “Pussy Weed Beer.” Their humor was an asset to bolster their catchy songwriting and woozy arrangements. Through 2015’s Time To Go Home and even more so on 2017’s excellent I Used To Spend So Much Time Alone, the band began to turn further inward. The humor was still there but steeped more in self-defeating observation. Sometimes when things feel like they’re going wrong, you need that levity to break it up. 

Their 2019 self-titled album feels like the culmination of everything that came before it. Working with producer Melina Duterte (aka Jay Som), the band’s sound has never been so enveloping. There’s a tenderness to their sound that’s always been there but brought out to the forefront on this release. Julia Shapiro’s songwriting has never been so insular; genuine, relatable soul-seeking as she parses through visions of the past and the foggy future. 

It’s a special thing to feel like you’re growing up alongside a band. If you were a 20-something who found the band when they first came out*, the band’s arc of albums reflects the same highs and lows of trying to find your footing in a world that increasingly doesn’t make sense. Chastity Belt’s music is cathartic in how it expresses the best, worst, and muddled times. This latest album finds the band looking back at the halcyon days of aimless driving along to scratched CDs (“Ann’s Jam”) to contemplating the pain of the present (“Rav-4”). There may be no other band working that could write a song called “Pissed Pants” and have it be a meaningful, poignant closer. Through the static feedback and sanguine riffs, Shapiro sings, “You can have everything you've always dreamed of, but first you've got to get out of your head.” It feels like a bit of closure for the Chastity Belt we’ve known this far, seeking through meaning in a nonsensical world. - DH

 *(Ed. Note: it me)


Death Cab For Cutie - The Blue EP

Okay, hear me out. The Something About Airplanes era has long been dead. The perfection of Transatlanticism has a slim chance of being repeated. Hell, even the Narrow Stairs era could be done. Either we’re gonna cry ourselves to sleep over the fact that Chris Walla’s gone or we’re gonna get over it and accept the Death Cab that exists today. I push you to choose the latter because they’re actually rather good. 

At the beginning of September, Benny G & co. released a collection of five tracks titled The Blue EP. Continuing the lush sound unveiled last year on their first Walla-less record Thank You For Today, the EP strips just a smidge of the shiny pop pristineness of the previous record for more texture and grime - somehow moving both forwards and backward. Album highlight “Kids of ‘99” is probably the best example of this “return to form,” featuring an intricate syncopated drum pattern interlocked with a winding fingerpicked guitar riff and backed by nostalgic lyrics about kids that died in the ‘90s. If that’s not old-school DCFC then I don’t know what is!

It has its misses. “Before the Bombs” gets more than a tad corny with its message of battling bombs with love. It may be well-intentioned but it feels a bit too U2 to me and I can’t handle the idea of Ben becoming Bono. But I have faith. Actually, more than that, I have an excitement about the band that was my first love growing and changing and continuing to push themselves and hopefully remain my forever love. - JA


Dogbreth - Ever Loving

Dogbreth frontman Tristan Jemsek has referred to his band’s music as “power-kindness,” which is a far more accurate descriptor than I could provide with a million words and over a decade of experience in describing music. Throughout its myriad personnel combinations, the band has somehow retained its gentle spirit, with Ever Loving being its most sonically expansive release without losing the tenderheartedness Dogbreth has built quite the reputation from.

Field recordings and sound collages fill space between songs about bundling up but not being able to stay cool and wanting the person you’re with to think you’re funny. The guitar solo of “Two Plastic Spools” rips into its place after a few bars of yawning feedback, ripcord riffs coexist snugly with lyrics dwelling on self-doubt and debt crouched in addictive melodies. “When You Call My Name” (a gorgeous songwriting contribution from guitarist Bil Palmer) sounds like the Field Mice covering the Replacements. The vocals of “Like a Gift” are almost buried in the din of distorted guitars (to marvelous effect). Somewhere in an alternate universe “Need More Time” -- an ode to showing up to work a tad late, leaving a tad early, and trying to satiate a VHS addiction -- would be an arena-busting self-care anthem.

Taking stock of the ephemera of old keys and ex-partners’ pets, Ever Loving is sweet and nostalgic without cloying pandering, musically adventurous without being indulgent. It’s a gorgeous document surveying all the things you have to leave behind to grow into the person you’re meant to be. - MD


Dude York - Falling

Falling in, falling out. A theme courses through the undercurrent of Dude York’s excellent fourth full-length, arguably the best of their career so far. Though in an interview with the band, they told me they eased back on the narrative they were originally going for, the story is still easily traceable. From the sugar rush stage of a crush to the self-renewal of some perspective and a familiar chord progression, Falling is like Rumours without the intraband relationship drama and cocaine abuse. 

Throughout its thirteen exhaustively melodic songs, Seattle’s most emotionally intelligent pop-punk trio craft their individual and collective gifts and present them to the world. Peter Richards has a way with subverting love song cliches in a way that will make your ears perk up, as does Claire England with her razor-sharp lyrical specificity and talent with melody. On drums, Andrew Hall’s timing is as precise as a metronome, which allows him to pound away at the kit with thrilling patterns at any tempo and toss away complicated fills when it is least expected. 

When it’s all brought together, it results in a wondrous tapestry of images and feelings: Cuddling up and binge-watching The Bachelor, sitting on your hands so your thumbs aren’t free to text, the sharp pain of heartbreak feeling like a broken bone, the kiwi aftertaste of a kiss, taking a minute to walk the emotions off. Someone I loved once told me pop-punk is the internal language of youth. In the heavily postered bedrooms of teenage America, there has to be a generation of thoughtful youngsters processing their feelings through this exceptional collection of catchy, lightly punky tunes. - MD


Flying Fish Cove – At Moonset

The debut album from Seattle quartet Flying Fish Cove opens with the toy-like chimes of what sounds like a child’s Playskool piano. It’s a fitting beginning, warning you that shit is about to get twee as fuck. 

Formed just a couple of years ago from members of iji, Sick Sad World, and Guests, Flying Fish Cove is fronted by songwriter Dena Zilber whose soprano voice is a perfect complement to the orchestral-tinged melodic pop. That first track “Johnny Paper” is also an apt introduction to the LP as it features guest vocals from Greta Kline of Frankie Cosmos, who shares a similar dichotomy of sweet sounds mixed with somber lyrics of heartbreak. And, finally, the song sets the tone for the rest of the album with its nod to the ‘70s folk classic Puff The Magic Dragon, interjecting a running theme of fantasy and storybooks. 

“I realized fantasy was always my escape from this pain in reality — and so I used those themes in the song to share those stories, too — it’s magical escapism as survival,” Zilber said in her March interview with KEXP. “I was very inspired by the book Anne of Green Gables because the character Anne in that book also uses her imagination in this way to make her world more loving, beautiful, and hospitable. Fantasy is magic and it can be a tool for emotional survival, too."

At Moonset is that perfect escape with its playful, bouncy, sunny songs that would sound right at home on now-defunct ‘80s label Sarah Records, home to similar bands like Heavenly and Even As We Speak. The band also released an EP this year titled En Garde. At this pace, I can’t wait to see what they bring in 2020. - Janice Headley 


Great Grandpa - Four Of Arrows

In my somewhat humble opinion, Four Of Arrows is the best local record of the year. Great Grandpa have always been pretty great and their 2017 debut Plastic Cough was an incredibly strong collection of well-crafted plucky grunge tunes but the currently part Seattle, part Milwaukee-based band have pushed themselves to unexpected heights on their sophomore release. 

Rather than continue down the road of ‘90s-inspired rock, the band looked to bands like Big Thief and (Sandy) Alex G as the direction they wanted to go. The former is especially prominent on Four Of Arrows. Not many singers can evoke the same emotional resonance as Adrienne Lenker but Alex Menne is one of them. The songwriting has also skewed more Big Thiefian, losing the bratty jokes on Plastic Cough to hone in on vulnerable real-life stories and hard-won lessons. The mostly folk-tinged arrangements are incredibly dense and varied, no song sounding alike and each one taking so many different melodic turns that they never quite end up going where you expect. 

A pivot from grunge-tinged to folk-tinged is a massive leap and really shouldn’t sound this seamless this quickly. Its success is indebted to many factors, a few of them being the band’s skillful ability to collaborate on songwriting which keeps each track fresh and unique, Alex Menne’s incredibly unique and affecting vocals, and local producer Mike Vernon Davis’ desire for the band to “Go slow, big choices” when helping them record the album. For Great Grandpa, slowing down seems to be the best choice of them all. - JA


Guayaba - Guayaba Presents… Fantasmagoría 

Ever since Guayaba released their explosive debut Black Trash, White House, we’ve been anxious to hear what they would do next. On that release, Guayaba proved that they could rap with ferocity and sing with remarkable tenderness and make it work effortlessly. Their sophomore release Fantasmagoria doesn’t just show us more of these skills, it takes bold and inspiring artistic leaps. 

It takes a master to be able to write a sweeping opera-style opus reflecting on death and trauma while weaving in everything from hip-hop and Bossa nova to metal and the avant-garde. But Guayaba does just that and does it all in 26-minutes. Guayaba bears their soul, opening up on the hardest to express feelings – contemplating fate, destiny, and barriers that feel unsurmountable. It’s in this remarkable transparency that Fantasmagoria comes together so perfectly. It moves from song to song like a dream, or maybe more aptly a nightmare. Moments like the sublime “Killing Jar” find Guayaba using their whole arsenal of talents to not just pull back the veil but to rip it from the ceiling. 

Fantasmagoria is nothing short of an artistic triumph. The array of influences and stylistic choices merge to confront the darkness. Sweeping symphonic arrangments and fiendish trap beats all unite under the guidance of stellar vision. - DH


Lisa Prank — Perfect Love Song

I hate to use all those “rock journalist” clichés about “evolution as an artist” yadda yadda, but dang if it isn’t true for the latest album from Seattle’s own Lisa Prank. Perfect Love Song is Prank at her strongest, both as a songwriter but also as a person who just went through “Lifetime movie level heartbreak,” as she puts it. 

On her latest LP, even the sound has matured as she recruits her roommate (and bandmate in Who Is She?) Bree McKenna on bass and trades in her Roland MC-505 drum machine for human Tom Fitzgibbon. She also enlists the services of Rose Melberg, known as the “Queen of Indie-pop” thanks to her long-time association in now-influential bands like Tiger Trap, The Softies, and Go Sailor, to name a few. With Melberg on production (and backing vocals) and her friends behind their instruments, the songs shine brighter than ever with a fuller, more polished sound, as cliché as that seems. (But it’s true!) 

Songs like “IUD” and “Get Mad” are punk-pop perfection with Ramones-ish guitars, an excellent contrast to the sweet-as-sugar vocal harmonies, calling to mind cuddlecore bands like Cub or the punk power of The Muffs. Admittedly, some of the songs are maybe a little too polished, but it’s me, not you. (I’m old; I didn’t grow up on Blink-182.)  - JH


LIV† - Black Girl Unbothered

From Martin Douglas’ recent review of Black Girl Unbothered: “Love and sexuality is the current flowing throughout Black Girl Unbothered, as its thesis heavily relies on LIV† writing from a state of bliss and naturality. The first verse of ‘Date Night’ starts with two naked bodies, which bring the best-case scenario of any date up about two or three extra levels. The slow jam bounce of ‘43VR’ gives way to images of brown skin and silk sheets, two passengers riding down a long road with music blaring, and the pledge of getting drunk and making love. Summer dreams, tight embraces, and statements of devotion.

The parallel energies of "November 24 (Interlude)" and "Want You Bad Part 1 & 2" convey a sense of longing; one solitary and yearning, the other confident and measured. In the former, she sings softly of dreamlike getaways and healing balms before belting out her desire. The latter, over modern jazz-influenced beat sounding like Thundercat as the house musician of a Tinder meetup spot, finds LIV† spitting game to prospective lover, finding the balance between showing them she could be the one and not overdoing it. She recognizes there is a fine line she's treading but manages the tightrope with ease and grace.

Black Girl Unbothered is breezy, quietly confident, and romantic by immaculate design. It's an EP as surehanded with shit talk as it is come-ons, a release that celebrates the individuality of one very talented black woman. As the 808s bump and LIV† asserts her self-love and tries to find the love from another person most of us dream about, the singer/rapper/songwriter ascends to the next level of her craft with this gorgeous collection of songs.” - MD


Pedro The Lion - Phoenix 

For the first Pedro The Lion record in 15 years, David Bazan looked back to his childhood for inspiration. A virtuoso in the art of the concept album, his latest revolves around the first 12 years of his life in Phoenix, Arizona. Aptly titled Phoenix, the record is Bazan at his most personal and reflective, honing in on the memories, thoughts, and feelings from those years.

While in the past, Bazan has focused on outside forces like religion, corporate greed, and matrimony and how those things shape himself and others, Phoenix sees how Bazan has shaped Bazan. Yes, religion is still present (it wouldn’t be Pedro The Lion if it wasn’t) but it’s from the eyes of a child that hasn’t yet delved into what being religious really means and its actual impacts. Instead, Bazan grapples with his own experiences with loneliness, isolation, guilt, and confusion and how he as a child dealt with those feelings. Sometimes it was getting on his bike and riding as far away from home as he dared or spending all his hard-earned money on frivolous items at the gas station or succumbing to peer pressure only to wind up hurting his friend.

They’re the low stakes of being a child that we only see as such once we’re adults with so much more to lose but, as a child, your bike, your meager allowance, and your friends are the most important things in the world. Because of that, Bazan’s very personal vignettes become more universal and therapeutic. While Phoenix won’t likely beat out Pedro’s prior beloved records like Control and It’s Hard to Find a Friend as a fan favorite, the songwriting is sharp, Bazan’s voice is more full and intentional than ever, and his vision seems stronger than ever. Happy to have you back (even though you were never really gone). - JA


Perry Porter - Bobby Ro$$

It’s been an absolute joy watching Perry Porter’s ascendance into becoming the highly respected artist - both musical and visual - that he is. The news of Tacoma-based trap duo Sleep Steady’s breakup in 2017, shortly after releasing their long-awaited debut record TRUNK, was heartbreaking to me and others who had witnessed the magnanimous energy, drive, and talent of Porter and Cid Vishiz. Two years and one solo mixtape later, Porter dropped his debut full-length Bobby Ro$$ and it’s an exceptional representation of the complex and unique artist he’s become.

A respected watercolor painter, Porter has long been blending his love of painting and art into his musical work but he takes it to another level for Bobby Ro$$. Inspired by the beloved PBS painter Bob Ross, Porter evokes his alter ego Bobby Ross by structuring the record around color theory. Each song represents a different color in the color wheel which is categorized in a visual color theory guide included with the record that breaks down different ways to listen to the album. 

The more important theme coursing through Bobby Ro$$ than the theories and methods of art itself is Porter’s experience as a black artist. He uses dialogue soundbites from important black cultural icons like Maya Angelou, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Kara Walker to help bring to life and underscore the complicated juxtaposition of being welcomed with tepidly open arms into the galleries of the white art world, where painting is considered an intellectual activity and rapping is decidedly not, until leaving the gallery and going back into a world of pervading racism and disrespect. 

Album highlight “Birth of a Black Star” punctuates this idea by repeating the phrases “representation matters” and “history repeats itself” while Porter laments, “They cannot find places to hang our faces.” In a recent interview with KEXP, Porter told Martin Douglas, “I do feel like that's maybe one reason why we aren't really represented because the best way to get us out of history is not to have a visual representation of who we are. I think that's really what it is: it's easy to accept us because then you can always ignore us. If you don't see us in the art world, then you don't have to see us anywhere. If we're not in a museum, we're almost not real people to them.” - JA


Rocketship — Thanks to You 

Released in late October, and just added to KEXP’s rotation last week, this album is my absolute favorite local music release of 2019. From the driving bassline and girlish vocals in the opening track “Under Streetlights Shadows,” I’m immediately thrown into indie-pop-induced ecstasy, feeling just as giddy as I did 23-freakin’-years-ago when I heard their debut album A Certain Smile, a Certain Sadness, released in 1996 via Slumberland Records. (That album is regarded as canon in the indie-pop world.)

Thanks to You is Rocketship’s fourth full-length, but their first to reach the magic of A Certain Smile... (Mid-career Rocketship was defined by a more blissed-out ambient sound, hinted at on A Certain Smile... but embraced like hell on 1999’s Garden of Delights.) The revitalization would seem to be the addition of vocalist Ellen Osborn, formerly of the all-female Bee-Gees cover band, the She-Bee-Gees. But, perhaps it’s also influenced by founding member Dustin Reske’s relocation from Sacramento to Portland. Either way, the Stereolab-y droning organ of A Certain Smile... remains, but now there’s more variety: the New Order-esque guitar line in “Nothing Deep Inside”, the My Bloody Valentine-ish boy/girl vocal interplay on “I Just Can’t Get Enough of You”, the Smiths-gone-electropop style of “Broken Musicbox.” It’s a dizzying array of pretty much every music style I love, as KEXP Music Director Don Yates spells out: “shoegazer psych-rock, atmospheric dream-pop, jangly indie-pop, motorik prog, orchestral electro-pop, and more.”

Thanks to You is for all the fucked up children of the world,” Reske said in an interview with indie-pop bible chickfactor. And to that, I say, thanks to you, Dustin. - JH


Julia Shapiro – Perfect Version

Early projects of Julia Shapiro often had an underlying layer of snark, from Childbirth to Who Is She? and, of course, her main project Chastity Belt. Which is why I was a little taken aback by the stark vulnerability of her debut solo album, Perfect Version

Shapiro had a lot going on before writing these songs, as KEXP’s Martin Douglas details in this profile: “a cancer scare, a breakup, and an existential crisis revolving around her identity as the front person of a successful indie-rock band.” As she works through these issues lyrically, the music is melancholy and her voice plaintive, reminding me a bit of Snail Mail’s candid, confessional songs. Six out of the album’s ten tracks were recorded in Shapiro’s apartment, just adding to the intimacy of the project. 

Musically, it doesn’t differ dramatically from her work in Chastity Belt (in fact, the band’s most recent self-titled release feels like an extension of Perfect Version), but it’s Shapiro’s brave authenticity on this LP that draws me in. It makes me think of that Brené Brown (author, professor, TED talker) quote: “People who wade into discomfort and vulnerability and tell the truth about their stories are the real badasses.” - JH


AJ Suede - The Theology of Rhyme

After moving to Seattle two years ago and logging in more laboratory hours than Dr. Frankenstein, AJ Suede still opts to not rest on his laurels as one of the most singularly talented rappers in the city. The Theology of Rhyme -- featuring a sterling collection of sample-driven beats by New York’s Benji Socrate$ -- is Suede’s eleventh project of the past two years, brimming with his fastidiously crafted rhymes and deepening worldview. He is a stoned mystic, a seeker of knowledge nonplussed and skeptical of the power structures in place for centuries. He’s a steely-eyed microphone killer, he’s secretly a romantic.

The works of Socrate$ cycles between ebullient, elegant, sometimes mournful piano (“I Had To,” “Past Tense”) and beats like “Paper Chase,” astral, psychedelic jazz beamed in on the same plane as wherever Sun Ra came from. It’s a wide landscape for Suede to unspool his thoughts into rhyming words. On Theology, he reminisces his cardio conditioning by jumping fences, he rebukes Zionism and asserts freeing Palestine and his incarcerated friend Dizzi Slick, he offers a few sonic shoutouts to Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, he skips paying bus fare, he compliments his lady by saying she’s “badder than [his] habits.” He suspects being under government surveillance.

In the middle of “Extended Family,” he offers a little prayer of affirmation: “I separate myself from all the fuckery / I separate myself from all that isn’t me.” He’ll give you your flowers, but you have to buy the vase yourself. - MD


Y La Bamba - Mujeres 

Y La Bamba has been a fixture in the Pacific Northwest music scene throughout the decade, consistently returning with records that feel more reverent and enlightened than the last. They’ve been so consistently great, that I wonder if they’ve been taken for granted for just how magnificent their material continues to be. Mujeres only solidifies this fact, delivering the group’s most jaw-droopingly stunning work yet. 

From the opening moments of “My Death,” the band creates an undeniably intoxicating atmosphere. Songwriter Luz Elena Mendoza flexes both her lyrical prowess (both in English and in Spanish) as well as her penchant for dreamy, dazzling musical arrangements that balance lo-fi charm with hi-fi decadence. It’s an album of searching – looking through family histories, personal experiences, and the quest for spiritual healing. There’s romance and sorrow in her stripped-down performances on “Una Letra” and “Follow Your Feet,” and thrills in the guitar gazing of “Cuatro Crazy” and “Lightning Storms.” Beyond just being one of the band’s best works so far, Mujeres stands as one of the most purely beautiful releases to come out of the PNW this year. - DH


Yu Su - Roll With The Punches

Vancouver B.C.-based producer (now residing in China) Yu Su has been causing a stir with her live underground performances and scant mixes and singles. Roll With The Punches gives us the clearest view of Yu Su as an artist yet and does not disappoint. The record gives light to Yu Su’s brilliant approach of mixing off-kilter, bursting beats with ambient synths and surprising, industrial-like samples. 

Yu Su’s music takes time to get to where it’s going. There’s no rush to reach a dramatic climax. Her tracks build gradually, like the hypnotic tinkering of “Tipu’s Tiger” that lurches in with hypnotic arpeggio and slowly weaves in with a watery guitar riff and booming, distant percussion. She creates the world in front of you so seamlessly that you don’t even realize how immersed you are until the track ends. It’s pure sonic wizardry that serves as a reminder of the magic that occurs when a producer is fully in their element. - DH


Zebra Hunt – Trade Desire

The first time I heard Zebra Hunt, I refused to believe they were from our own backyard. The jangly guitars and catchy pop melodies echoed the “Dunedin Sound”-style of music championed by iconic New Zealand label Flying Nun Records, natch. It’s a comparison that has followed the local band since they formed in 2012, but one they clearly embrace, citing The Clean and The Chills as influences. They even covered Australian pop-legends The Go-Betweens during their set at the 2015 Capitol Hill Block Party.

With their latest and third full-length Trade Desire, they don’t stray from the winning formula of catchy, chiming guitar lines and earnest, expressive vocals. I mean, why mess with a good — nay, great — thing. But, they sound invigorated and inspired, making this album a joy to listen to. Opening track “See Through You” kicks off like a Twerps track; the triumphant “Don’t Say Anything” call to mind New Jersey’s answer to jangle-pop, The Feelies. Zebra Hunt takes some of the best of the ’80s and lovingly craft fantastic pop songs for today. - JH

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