Experimental Melbourne duo Squaring Circles step out of the ether on their debut record, Motion. A swirling, slow motion kaleidoscope of free form jazz, textural psychedelia and analogue electronica, Motion is Squaring Circles’ attempt at capturing and embodying the spirit of musical spontaneity, an eight track exercise in throwing genres and moods up against one another in cathartic collision. Motifs, melodies and rhythms gradually reveal and release themselves across the record’s meditative runtime, hypnotically dissipating as soon as they develop. Motion is music at its most immersive, an invitation to step into Squaring Circles’ deliberately slow and pensive ether, to pause and consider what surrounds us.
West London singer-songwriter Nilüfer Yanya delivers her debut full-length, Miss Universe. Loosely tied together by a satirical self-help programme called WWAY HEALTH, Yanya approaches her debut LP as a collection of short stories which explore the anxieties that emerge from living in a world where advertising and social media saturate your life with promises of wellness and self-care. Unlike those industries, the songs on Miss Universe purposefully evade concrete answers in favour of appreciating ambiguity, a series of elliptical emotional riddles that suggest resolution but never reach it. On Miss Universe, Yanya proves that she works best in the emotional and musical spaces in between, her precise-but-shabby melting pot of scuzzy 90’s indie rock, smooth jazz and guitar-driven soul emerging from these spaces as something uniquely new. Adorned by an endlessly malleable voice that sits somewhere between Nina Simone, Sade and the suburban drawl of King Krule, each of Nilüfer’s sparse, minimal compositions throughout the record play as mini-masterclasses in doing a lot with not much at all. With her ability to convey mood through idiosyncratic tones and a style of performance that focuses on emotional affectivity over technicality, Yanya shows a deep affection for everything human with her vulnerable, intimate and emotionally evasive debut.
Five years on from their cult classic of a debut, Sydney’s Low Life reemerge with their second LP, Downer Edn. Overflowing with sludgy, pummelling melodies, Downer Edn sees the outfit return with an expanded lineup, more polished production and a wider sense of ambition while their visceral, defeatist punk remains characteristically tattered and frayed at the edges. Away from the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House and far from the beaches of Bondi, Low Life offer a subversive view of their hometown, one which brings to light the griminess and the seediness, the gritty realities that underlie the glittering iconography of life in Sydney. It’s this guttural desperation which pulsates throughout the streets and an eternally rotating cast of troubled characters who populate the city which colours Downer Edn and, in Low Life’s world, gives the harbour city its spirit – as well as its everlasting capacity for redemption.
Solange Knowles makes her long-awaited return with her fourth studio record, When I Get Home. Three years after her generation-defining LP, A Seat At The Table, Solange offers us a love letter to her hometown of Houston, Texas. It is an album which is more interested in moods than songs and more invested in being able to feel rather than carrying out the emotional labour of expressing everything. Images of black cowboys and candy paint, the woozy sounds of chopped and screwed music and disembodied voices of hometown rappers float through the record as Solange pays homage to the musical traditions of Houston while also establishing herself as part of that legacy.
Always the auteur, she combines unhurried tempos and unconventional song structures with spiritual jazz and psychedelic soul influences to create her most dreamlike collection of songs yet, a hypnotic and immersive reminder that home is much more than a physical place. Meditative and therapeutic, When I Get Home speaks to the importance of self-care, ditching the world-weary lyrics of A Seat at the Table for a record which feels freer, more liberated and unburdened by the white gaze. With When I Get Home, Solange extends a balm to people of colour everywhere, granting the necessary chance to rest somewhere away from the painful realities of a world opposed to your existence, offering support, safety and hope at the end of a long day.
The prolific and prodigious London MC Little Simz breaks through with her third LP, GREY Area. Fierce and unapologetic, GREY Area is a wide-ranging look at being in your mid-twenties, of fighting to find your own place in the world from the peripheral spaces of society. Along the way, Simz navigates themes of gender and race discrimination, death, mental health and therapy with an eclectic but deft range of stylistic influences. Having stripped away the knotty poetic concepts of her previous releases, GREY Area is Little Simz’s tightest, most focused and strongest record, a bold, swaggering distillation of her raw talent. With her unparalleled wordplay and endlessly dexterous flow, Simz doesn’t just escape narrow and reductive pigeonholes on her legacy-defining third album – she eviscerates them, proving that she’s more than a political artist, more than a female rapper, more than a grime MC, as she takes her place in the pantheon of hip hop greats.
Sydney singer-songwriter Julia Jacklin lays herself bare on her heart-wrenching second record, Crushing. Written in the desolate aftermath of a broken relationship and coming off two years of incessant touring, Crushing is Julia Jacklin reclaiming her own body, exploring various forms of agency, autonomy and alienation, as well as how people can embed themselves within our bodies and minds. As she excavates her personal biography with raw lyricism and melancholic alt-country compositions, Jacklin’s mature and refined songwriting treads a fine line between the universal and the painfully specific. With Crushing, she understands that trying to untangle someone from your life happens in small steps, in between the emotionally contradictory moments of brutal honesty and self-reflection, somewhere between confusion and clarity, regret and relief, doubt and resiliency. Julia Jacklin finds this all within herself on her devastating and redemptive second record, an album which we’ve all, in our own ways, also lived through.
Tubist Theon Cross bursts forth from London’s burgeoning jazz scene with his debut full-length, Fyah. One quarter of the Mercury Prize-nominated group Sons of Kemet, Cross uses his solo debut to showcase his skills as a composer, working alongside saxophonist Nubya Garcia and drummer Moses Boyd to deliver a series of groove-driven tracks that evoke images of sweaty dancefloors and bustling, late night jazz clubs without sacrificing the musicality of Cross’ arrangements. Revitalising the long-maligned instrument, Fyah is a journey through London’s vibrant cultural history threaded together by the rumbling low-end of Cross’ tuba, dipping in and out of grime, Jamaican dub, afrobeat and dancehall in an exuberant and joyful document of the diaspora, celebrating the traditions and the evolutions of Afro-Caribbean music. One of 2019’s most vital sounds, Fyahis not just a triumph for Theon Cross but for London’s new jazz community as a whole.
Californian folk singer-songwriter Jessica Pratt returns with her tranquil and exquisite third album, Quiet Signs. Swapping the lo-fi machinery of her home recordings for a professional studio, Pratt folds new colours into her already refined sound, with flickers of flute, organ and piano embellishing her whisper-soft vocals, ghostly tape hiss and barely-there nylon guitar. Quiet Signs is a deliberately small album, one that rewards close and repeat listening as Pratt’s tender vocal melodies glide through hypnotically unfurling compositions that she seemingly conjures up out of nowhere only to recede back into the ether just as quickly. A record firmly out of time and place, Quiet Signs is Jessica Pratt’s respite from the noise of modern life, an insight into an elusive, tucked-away world with the power to, for a brief moment, draw us out of our day-to-day, slow down time and stop the world spinning.
Sydney post-punk trio Married Man have released their debut full-length, Hard Bargain. Produced by Straight Arrows’ Owen Penglis and Total Control’s Mikey Young, Hard Bargain is an airtight collection of nine nocturnal tracks that sit somewhere between serene and smoldering. Blossoming from the solo project of singer-songwriter Sarafina Pea into a full-blown three piece, Married Man harness their swooning guitars and mystical layered harmonies to infuse their blissfully bruised dream-pop with the wired tension of post-punk. Lush, atmospheric and fiery, Hard Bargain is a fever dream, an otherworldly collision between heavenly and haunting, that announces Married Man’s arrival with a remarkably cohesive debut.
New Jersey singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten returns from a four year hiatus with her fifth studio album, Remind Me Tomorrow. Written during a period in which she walked away from music to study for a degree in psychology, take up acting and become a first-time parent, Remind Me Tomorrow surveys those lost years of Van Etten’s life while blowing her songwriting up with a widescreen ambition and a newfound confidence. Working with St. Vincent’s producer John Congleton, Van Etten pushes her sound into new territory with a self-assured progression, edging away from her guitar towards piano, ghostly synths and spacious, ambient soundscapes – a sound designed for midnight hours spent driving through the deserted streets of New York City. A testament to music as a coping mechanism for filtering out the dysfunctional mess of life, Remind Me Tomorrow is Van Etten’s masterpiece, her most atmospheric and expansive but accessible and emotionally piercing work to date.