The Year In Underrated Albums
Kala O’Toole Jey on Lily Allen’s No Shame
Lily Allen has always been a contentious figure in the music world. Not one to shy away from public gaze, her undeniably straight-talking, no-bullshit attitude, is often a surprising contrast to her soft- toned music which can encompass everything from her breakdowns to her break-ups. However, Lily’s diversity in music hasn’t always been one of her strongest selling points, with her last album Sheezus being depicted as anti-feminist and receiving widely condemning views.
Her latest album No Shame employs her usual techniques of drawing crowds in, whilst simultaneously showing a level of vulnerability that indicates a different sense of maturity. The release of her own autobiography coincided with her tour and perhaps Lily is tired of the relentless pressure to conform. Her open desperation to achieve success in this album often results in her exposing her own struggles in agonizing authenticity. The rawness is difficult to digest- it’s difficult to know whether to empathise or sympathise throughout the album.
One thing for sure is that her music demands utter attention and appreciation. Tracks such as ‘What You Waiting For?,’ ‘Family Man’ and ‘Everything to Feel Something’ perhaps speak for themselves in their entirety. The album expresses deep relationship regrets as well as the heartbreak that comes with moving on. However, in typical Lily fashion, she makes no apologies for how she handles the messiness and complexities of her life. Her formidable performance of ‘Apples’ from the album, at the Mercury Music Prize, demonstrates a sort of raw authenticity that is difficult to translate to text, as it requires one’s own viewing, as words seem limited in their definitions. Regardless of whether you enjoy Lily Allen as a performer or not, this album deserves more recognition than it has garnered. As if we can’t recognize the power of depicting such emotional hardship, what is after all the point of music, if not to make us feel something?
Matthew Derwin on Yung Lean’s Poison Ivy
I’ve been a massive fan of Yung Lean since I was nothing but an angsty youth – which I still am, of course – and his music soundtracked a sizable portion of my teenage years. He’s disgracefully underrated, yet his status as a rap pioneer is undeniable. It’s been difficult for him to shed the image of a novelty act that he was reduced to after his early tracks, like Hurt, went viral on YouTube. 2017’s Stranger was a groundbreaking entry in his discography, refining his sound into something that finally felt cohesive after years of fairly disjointed, albeit highly unique releases. Poison Ivy continues this trend of distilling the signature Lean combination of strong production and his slurred, over-the-top lyricism into a neat package that clocks in at a tidy 23 minutes. While it doesn’t quite have the staying power of his previous albums, it’s an important marker for the direction he’s going in.
The opener, ‘happy feet’, starts the album off strongly, firmly reinforcing that Lean hasn’t lost his signature charm with namedrops of both Harry Potter and Jim Carrey. While the lyrics never quite reach the lofty heights set by Lean’s past zingers, such as ‘green bitch call me Yoda’, there are still a healthy amount of pop culture references to be found. Split track ‘bender++girlfriend’ is undoubtedly the highlight, opening with a classically cheesy line – ‘got robotic instincts like I’m Bender’. The ethereal beat of ‘bender’ hearkens back to past tracks like ‘Leanworld’ and ‘Yellowman’. It smoothly transitions into the vaguely eerie ‘girlfriend’, where Lean’s voice is heavily reverbed as he sleepily mumbles about the song’s titular subject. The production is absolutely stellar as always, with excellent work from the sole producer, WhiteArmor, who seems to be blessed with a Midas touch when it comes to making memorable melodies.
Niall O’Shaughnessy on Studio Barnhus’ Volym 1
As the all-powerful editor of this section, I can excuse myself for selecting something that’s not strictly an album. Studio Barnhus is an oddball house and electronic label out of Sweden, originally founded by Axel Boman and Kornél Kovács. Volym 1 is an LP compilation that deserves a mention because of its isolated situation in the landscape. As dance music has traditionally struggled with embracing the album format, a release as ambitious and idiosyncratic as Volym 1 has arguably struggled to gain traction both on and off the dancefloor.
In terms of the heavy-hitters, Studio Barnhus friends and family like Baba Stiltz, DJ Koze and John Talabot contribute tracks along with the above-mentioned founding members. On ‘L.O.V.E.’, Baba Stiltz dives further into the heady, rhythm’n’blues stuff that he first introduced on this year’s Showtime EP. John Talabot’s ‘the Change’ is a continuation of the considered, simmering grooves seen on 2017’s The Night Land LP with Axel Boman.
It’s not unfair to say that the veteran features on Volym 1 stick to familiar paths- understandably saving ambition for their own projects. Luckily, label newcomers like Off The Meds and Sofia Kourtesis are able to hold their own in such esteemed company. ‘Currency Low’ by Off The Meds is a standout, not only because it’s a hip-hop track on a dance compilation, but the instrumental is a tantalising mix of jazz piano and washed-out hi-hats.
Studio Barnhus has always been a self-aware label (it’s a given if you’re willing to drop Whigfield’s ‘Saturday Night’ mid-set) and Volym 1 makes sense as a singular artistic statement. Despite the categorisation as a compilation, the tracks are thoughtfully sequenced and cement the label’s status as the leading light in leftfield house.
Muireann O’Shea on Serpentwithfeet’s Soil
Serpentwithfeet is a Brooklyn born experimental gospel artist. A mainstream reference point for his music could be to call him the lovechild of Frank Ocean and Florence Welch; his musicality drips with religious fervour and hypnotic vocals. His lyrics feature strong subversion of religious imagery, like is often seen in Hozier’s music. In particular, he uses biblical imagery to describe intense romance between two black men.
His lead single ‘Cherubim’ is the best example of this. The reverb on the vocals multiplies his voice until it sounds like an entranced crowd, mesmerized by a cult leader, shaking to the heavy drum beat. The lyrics further this imagery as he sings, ‘I want to devote my life to him, I want to sing like the cherubim.’ The cherubim, or cherubs, are devoted messengers of God, often depicted as winged children, but biblically described as having no set form or gender. Serpentwithfeet’s album is built upon these themes; that love is a heavy weight to bear, but a fulfilling labour at the same time, that love is genderless and fluid and everlasting and that is an undying devotion, like that of an angel’s to God.
Like religion, serpentwithfeet sees a duality in love, that there is the relationship between two people, be that god and a devotee or two black men, but also a wider version of this relationship. In ‘fragrant’, he sings of seeking out connections with all his lover’s ex-partners in order to feel less isolated; love includes all past loves. While, in ‘bless ur heart’, he discusses that a relationship that had ended would continue to live on in time within the people that tell your story. Love, like religion, should be an instrument of connection, not isolation.