It’s always hard for me to narrow down my favorite albums of the year — which is why this year I had to post them in four parts. But I’ve finally reached the end of my Gems of 2019! As always, thank you for reading, and thank you for supporting Pass The Mic this year. It really means a lot to see something that I started as a small idea grow to what it is now! And let me know, what music did you fall in love with this year?
Lydia Liza has been a prominent name in the Minnesota music scene for years. In high school, she made waves with her indie band Bomba de Luz, and in 2016 she and musician Josiah Lemanski went viral by revamping the creepy Christmas classic “Baby It’s Cold Outside” with consensual lyrics. But for years Liza had been struggling with depression and alcohol addiction, and after undergoing treatment and becoming sober, she returned this year to release the tender and powerful album, Of Unsound Mind. On many songs, Liza trades in her signature acoustic guitar for an electric, serving up searing guitar solos and a new, confident sound. The album is beautifully arranged and impressively dynamic, ranging from lush string arrangements to soft folk songs and the anthemic “Crow On A Branch.”
Sasami Ashworth has been lending her talents to various artists for years, from playing synths in the L.A. band Cherry Glazerr to creating arrangements for the likes of Vagabon and Hand Habits. But this year, Ashworth channeled her energy into her first solo album under the name SASAMI. Ashworth wields her lyrics like sharp blades, slicing to the core of vivid and often bitter emotions. She isn’t afraid to talk about the messy or disappointing parts of life, but she wraps these harsh truths in gentle blankets of sound, using her background as an arranger and multi-instrumentalist to create a stunning, textural, and visceral debut album.
It’s easy to hold ourselves to unrealistic expectations, especially when it comes to making art. But on their latest album, Great Grandpa remind us that even Tom Petty “wrote his best songs when he was 39.” Like this lyric from “Bloom,” Great Grandpa’s album Four of Arrows is patient, compassionate, and introspective. After releasing 2017’s Plastic Cough, the Seattle band took time to slow down and look inward. The result is a stunning and vulnerable collection of songs with the feel of a gentle hug from an old friend.
By the time winter rolls around, when the sky darkens at 4:30pm and I can’t leave the house without swaddling myself in layers, it’s easy to settle into a moody slump. But discovering the playful, loud, rainbow-colored EP Kudis from New Zealand’s Skux is exactly the jolt of energy I needed to shake me out of my winter funk. The EP packs explosive guitar riffs and Ayisha Jaffer’s rumbling vocals into 15 minutes of bubbly punk. Jaffer taps into a child-like playfulness on the EP’s title track (pronounced “cooties”), reminding us of our childhood fears and the monsters under the bed that still scare us as adults.
One of my favorite discoveries of 2019 has been the Minneapolis band VIAL, who charged onto the Minnesota scene with the stellar debut album Grow Up. VIAL grapple with heartbreak and the disillusionment of becoming an adult through piercing power chords and Riot Grrrl-inspired chant-like vocals. The album follows the quartet through a coming-of-age, both as young 20-somethings and as a new band finding their footing. But VIAL aren’t going to let themselves be underestimated — the band self-describes as “proudly femme in a scene inundated by masculine acts.” In the song “DIY,” VIAL sneer at the scene’s gatekeeping and elitist attitudes. “Am I not punk enough for you?” they ask with an eye roll. “You’re no fun!”
Since releasing their debut album Not So Brave in 2018, Minneapolis band Gully Boys have built a loyal Midwest following. They’ve organized their own residency at 7th St Entry, sold out shows around Minnesota, and last year were named as the state’s “best new band.” But according to Kathy Callahan, Nadi McGill, and Natalie Klemond, the group sometimes feels like “phonies.” For their second release, Gully Boys took their time to create an EP that’s as defiant as it is vulnerable, that speaks to the trio’s battles with impostor syndrome, managing other people’s expectations, and figuring out who they want to be. The band explores new textures on Phony, like the simple yet lyrical guitar riff on “New Song No. 2” and the blended harmonies of “Hear You Calling.” Gully Boys’ bare bones rock is visceral, and it’s relatable — sometimes we all feel like a phony.