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If 2019 can teach us anything, it’s that despite rapid development and decade-ending nostalgia, Atlanta music still pushes forward. It was a year that showed us a renewed understanding of the past with Shepherds’ tantalizing Insignificant Whip and Red Sea’s futuristic Sugar & Spice. In place of nostalgia, locals gave us something new to hold onto with Kibi James introducing its tropical garage-pop and Mariah the Scientist unveiling a new perspective on R&B. The city spread its sound with EarthGang and Omni signing to national record labels and Faye Webster earning widespread acclaim with Atlanta Millionaires Club, while others such as Chick Wallace, Indee Killed the Popstar and Rose Hotel kept things local and fortified their DIY cred. 

Venues underwent transition. Dakota Floyd’s Camp Hope closed. The Bakery announced new digs at Underground Atlanta, and Mammal Gallery made its triumphant return at the MET in West End. The year also signaled how the city’s music history still shapes the sounds we hear today. Cabbagetown’s music scene was memorialized with Cabbagetown Chronicles; the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra celebrated 75 years of concertos; ATL Collective rang in a decade of existence (so did ArtsATL); and activists behind 152 Nassau Street continued their fight against developers to preserve local history. 

With a new decade on the horizon, ArtsATL’s music writers culled their favorite releases of the year to properly send off the 2010s. There are only 10 releases, but it’s impossible to measure the amount of talent that defines this city among. So, without further ado, here are our top albums of 2019. — Jake Van Valkenburg

Chick Wallace: Salt [self-released]

Chick Wallace isn’t here for frills and excess — only to speak the truth, play rock songs and have a little fun while doing it. It’s this kind of attitude that underscores the band’s sophomore release Salt, in which it offers the group’s self-described “salty girl pop” with an iron fist. Following its self-titled debut, Salt is a welcome step forward in creating new, more straightforward pop-rock songs that build on Chick Wallace’s strengths as a band. Opening the record like a wrecking ball are the crashing, stacked guitars on “Salt,” further heightened with lead singer Melanie Paulos’ cutting declaration, “I want nothing to do with you.” The band’s emotional gravitas throughout the record is brought to righteous execution on the tracks “Boah” and “Arms,” courtesy of Paulos’ powerful vibrato. The moment of release comes on “Television Girl,” the band’s catchiest song to date, accented by jangly guitars and a head-bobbing chorus that’s nothing short of heartwarming. Chick Wallace’s Salt is an honest-to-god rock record and, despite the short play time, is full of emotionally resonant moments that will keep us buzzing until a full-length recording comes around. — JVV

EarthGang: Mirrorland [Dreamville/Interscope]

EarthGang’s Mirrorland pays homage to all things Atlanta — churches, strip clubs, hot wings and more — with playful lyric delivery combined with the soulful sounds of the South. Run by partners-in-rhyme Johnny Venus (Olu O. Fann) and WowGr8 (Eian Undrai Parker), the two draw inspiration from local legends OutKast and the Dungeon Family. But they aren’t looking to reinvent the wheel, rather to give nod to hyperlocal relics like the Fernbank Museum, as seen in the music video to “Up,” and Mays High School, where the two met in ninth grade, in “Down Bad.” The duo debuted in 2010 with an EP titled The Better Party and went on to release several additional singles and mixtapes, all of which received praise. In 2017, EarthGang signed to J. Cole’s label Dreamville Records and released a triple threat of EPs titled Rags, Robots and Royalty and the full-length Mirrorland. With consistent, powerful releases, EarthGang has quickly become one of the most notable hip-hop groups of the decade. — Lauren Leathers

Faye Webster: Atlanta Millionaires Club [Secretly Canadian]

Faye Webster’s Atlanta Millionaires Club is a love letter to A-Town and a few (name-dropped) crushes. Webster nails pining boredom with gawky, smitten confessions on “Right Side of My Neck,” crooning “I wonder if you got home / but we just said goodbye / you looked back at me once / but I looked back two times” over a restless bass line interspersed with her trademark pedal steel. The song’s daydreamy hook is a portrait of infatuation, a familiar realization for anyone recalling an old flame: The right side of my neck still smells like you. On “Flowers,” Webster trades her usual silken countrypolitan sound for sleepy hip-hop beats, accompanied by a feature from former Awful Records labelmate Father, to whom the song pays homage. More than any feature or lyric, though, it’s Webster’s effortless marriage of such unlikely genres that paints a sonic story of growing up in the Atlanta area: the inescapable trappings of Americana folk meshed with the city’s richly infectious, windows-down R&B groove. — Lindsay Thomaston

Indee Killed the Popstar: The Climb [Indee Music]

Jennifer Zuiff, better known as Indee Killed the Popstar, describes her debut EP as “a healing record — in a hip way.” It’s executed through enthralling ballads, heartfelt lyrics and a deep understanding of music theory. While The Climb is her first record, music has been in Zuiff’s life since birth. As the daughter of a Russian concert pianist, Zuiff spent most of her youth training to sing opera and classical works. After a vocal injury at age 19, her career took a stylistic shift, and she began experimenting with new genres and sounds. Boasting a superhuman vocal range and the blending of classical instruments — harp, clarinet and cello — with the traditional live performance setup, she’s blazed a path of her own in the DIY community. The Climb is a collection of songs Zuiff wrote over the past four years, featuring her previous vocal student, Olivia Knight, on “Coolest Kid” and a recognizable guitar solo by Chelsea Shag on “California,” which bleeds with the soul and passion of the ’60s. Zuiff’s confidence, care and ease in combining multiple genres has affirmed her as one of the top artists in Atlanta. — LL

Kibi James: Azúcar [self-released]

On Azúcar, Kibi James refines its tropical garage pop with heartbreak ballads, sugary-sweet melodies and enough woozy passages to make the entire effort feel buoyant. Building off the hazy lo-fi vibes of its Bandcamp demos, the beloved DIY quartet traveled to California to record with psych-pop band Sugar Candy Mountain. The product is startling — Azúcar is laden with lush production and a renewed sense of direction, a far cry from the scrappy yet earnest band that debuted in 2018. The group incorporates Latin-inflected grooves, serpentine riffs and a keen sense of songwriting that lulls the listener in with singer/guitarist Maria Gonazales’ whispery delivery. Clocking in at five tracks, the record is an intimate affair, from the heart-fluttering pop of “Baby’s Gone” to the Spanish-sung psychedelia “Cada Día,” as if Kibi James itself has crept into your subconscious to soundtrack your lovesick daydreams. — JVV

Mariah the Scientist: MASTER [RCA Records]

Against her parents’ wishes, Mariah the Scientist ditched biology at St. John’s University in New York to pursue chemical reactions elsewhere: the recording studio. It’s a good thing she did. The R&B singer’s sly, I-know-something-you-don’t-know approach and slick vocals make MASTER a debut that introduce’s the singer’s penchant for discerningly tongue-in-cheek lyrics and mesmeric tracks. The album’s fierce lead single, “Beetlejuice,” paints a lover through the lens of the infamous silver-screen trickster, foiling Mariah’s desire to bow to lustful spontaneity against her better judgment. Fans of the Tim Burton film will catch that Mariah’s cleverness includes the title exactly three times during the song. The follow-up single, “Reminders,” convinces any remaining skeptics of the 21-year-old’s talent. It takes a darker turn, exploring Mariah’s inability to kill something toxic spread across an 1980s synth-pop backing that falls somewhere between Phil Collins and Stranger Things. Abandoned beakers and petri dishes aside, MASTER is a cohesive 10-track tale that proves this up-and-coming artist has the bittersweet grounds between intoxicating temptation and manipulation down to a science. — LT

Omni: Networker [Sub Pop]

Omni’s dynamic and meticulous post-punk grooves have earned it widespread acclaim, so when the band announced it had signed with Sub Pop earlier this year, it came as no surprise. Omni has always been a step ahead of the pack. On its major-label debut, Networker, the band ditched its tried “jittery” and “wiry” signifiers for a more melodic and refined approach without losing its edge. Bursting in with “Sincerely Yours” and “Courtesy Call,” Frankie Broyles’ signature guitar work is on full display, cutting like a razor at some points while edging on the jazzier side at others. With the band’s newly ironed-out sound, Broyles’ riffage takes on a lyric quality that complements singer and bassist Phillip Frobos’ vocals. The band waxes introspective on our digital obsessions (“Skeleton Key”), stagnation (“Flat Earth”) and the downfall of constant connection (“Present Tense”). With newly polished production and refined songwriting chops, Networker sets a new standard for the range and scope of what Atlanta music can be. — JVV

Red Sea: Sugar & Spice [Truly Bald Records]

Since its debut, Red Sea has made a name for itself as a genre innovator. With the one-two punch of its 2015 debut releases, Yardsticks for Human Intelligence and In the Salon, the esoteric art-rock quartet ushered in a new chapter of Atlanta music with choppy grooves, toying with conventional songwriting like clay. Four years later, the band released Sugar & Spice in February and effectively launched its sound in an alternate dimension. Trading guitars for electronic effects and post-punk for electro-pop bliss, the songs here sound like they’re being invented and perfected as you listen to them. “Steam” conjures some sort of mutant R&B; “Jumprope” grooves with a left-field approach to house music; and elements of Jamaican dub find their way into the gleefully indulgent “Before Your Eyes.” It’s a record that teeters along the line between synthetic and human, begging the question whether one is more real than the other. By the time the last note plays, it’s hard to say what exactly happened, but whatever it was, it was entirely Red Sea. — JVV

Rose Hotel: I Will Only Come When It’s a Yes [self-released]

You know that moment an hour or two into a road trip when the initial anticipatory energy has worn off, the early 2000s hits playlist has been exhausted, legs are cramping a bit and everyone just wants something dreamy to accompany the blurring landscapes and highway hypnosis? Rose Hotel’s I Will Only Come When It’s a Yes is a viable contender. Shimmering with vocal references to Joni Mitchell and Karen Carpenter, front woman Jordan Reynolds reimagines her signature lo-fi musings over honey-sweet trumpet solos and jazzy cadences that lend a sleepy western quality to her bedroom sound. “Nearly old enough but too young to understand / Time isn’t slowing down and I see wrinkles in my hands” reflects Reynolds on “10K,” a deceptively upbeat contemplation of how it feels to be too grown up or not grown up enough. It’s that whiplash of wistfulness that serves as the record’s central artery, pumping a sort of summer- and winter-appropriate melancholy until its final swell. — LT

Shepherds: Insignificant Whip [Arrowhawk Records]

It’s been four years since Shepherds released its full-length debut, Exit Youth, but Insignificant Whip was worth the wait. Singer and guitarist Jonathan Merenivitch’s warm voice yearns to tell the truths of the present, including topics of Catholic guilt, baby boomers, YouTube comments and Tupac. “The record is an examination of a culture that is rapidly changing,” he says. “So many ideas that we once held dear are being rethought. I had to consider what about those ideas brought us to the point where we had to rethink them.” The group, which consists of Merenivitch, May Tabol (guitar and keyboards), Adrian Benedykt Switon (vocals and percussion), Vinny Restivo (bass and keyboard) and Ryan York (drums), provides a full-bodied sound that transcends the minimalistic approach in Shepherds’ previous work. Produced by Athens-based Drew Vandenberg (Of Montreal), the nine-track record nods to modern American fear and anxiety through noise-rock sounds drenched in synth pop. In a time when the truth is often questioned, Insignificant Whip provides a grounding sense of honesty, regardless of how dark it may be. — LL

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