Congratulations, everyone. Not only have we arrived to the end of 2019 and the last decade, but we have arrived mostly in tact and mostly still human. This little operation that we call the Mainline has bloomed into something I did not really imagine at first. We’ve gotten a lot done in an extremely short period of time (our first print was in mid-July, holy shit). That being said, putting together a list of Atlanta’s best albums of 2019 wasn’t rationally on our list and we knew we would likely risk stretching ourselves too thin, burning ourselves out, or just not have the wherewithal to do it. We said we’d save it for next year.
Except that doesn’t quite sound like us, does it?
I have to give major props to Autumn James who approached me in early December (of this year, so basically yesterday) saying she wanted to compile not only a top albums list for 2019, but a track list and honorable mentions list, as well. Autumn stole my heart the first time we met and she told me of a podcast she curated with a mutual friend of ours (stay tuned—a Mainline podcast is on our radar) in which she provided extremely insightful, witty, and smart perspective to both popular mainstream music and the indie music scene. She truly does care about keeping the machine of independent and local music alive and is in it for nothing else. We—this magazine and Atlanta—is lucky to have her.
She enlisted a few other contributors to help out with this project, but she wears the hat of the brains of this operation with very little input from yours truly. Next year, we’ll have a blurb for every submission. For this run, we were able to provide substantial commentary considering the amount of time and resources allotted.
I can confidently say this list was curated to consider several things outside of the traditional analysis of what might constitute the “best records” of the year. We avoid pigeonholes and obvious guesses while truly taking into account what made us think, made us feel, and made us move. We love pushing boundaries here, and will stand up for anyone else who does the same. We love the underdog and those who are underrepresented, especially while our neighboring local publications have turned their focuses to the whitewashed mainstream, likely only interested in people pleasing, playing it safe, or even making a profit.
2019 was an outstanding year for Atlanta music and I couldn’t be happier to call this place my home. I can’t stress enough how important it is to direct time, energy, and attention to our indie/DIY/local music and art scenes. Consider it the easiest, funnest act of resistance. We’re going to need more of that in 2020 and the years beyond it. And now, behold: our top 25 Atlanta albums of 2020. —Aja Arnold, founder/publisher, the Mainline
24. Moon Diagrams
23. Dinner Time
22. All The Saints
Look Like You’re Going Somewhere
I’m Always Moving Tiny Things
20. Rose Hotel
I Will Only Come When It’s a Yes
19. True Blossom
Even If We Don’t Get It Together
14. Sweet William
Beauty As a Style
13. Red Sea
Sugar & Spice
11. Faye Webster
Atlanta Millionaires Club
Gothicism, dance music, and queerness have never quite led parallel, non-intersecting lives. This bleed-over is plainly showcased on Shouldies’ debut full-length, the cheekily entitled 🙂. This album proves that goth doesn’t have to be so dark; it can be romantic, gauzy, rose-tinted. This is proven in standout track “U Die I Die,” which offers a uniquely bright take on darkwave, or in the way Yancey Ballard’s voice quivers and lilts on the vulnerable and swooning “Queer American.” It’s like a Peter Murphy or Ian Curtis impression if those affectations—those tinges of queer anxieties and spit-and-penny confidence—weren’t taken directly from gay and trans artists of the past.
In 🙂, Shouldies largely reclaims tropes and vocal tricks we see as endemic to indie music, as if to say, “Hey, this is ours, and always was.” The band’s eclectic tastes shine through with Krautrock and techno beats layered on top of hungry punk riffs, such as in the pleading echo chamber of “Useless.” Perhaps most delightfully, 🙂 is dedicated to being fun. Despite its angst and Ballard’s meditative ramblings throughout, it never strays from the danceable, from the glitter, from the showmanship, which might be the most decidedly gay thing about it: an aggressive dedication to a good time.
“Running,” the album’s closer, takes up arms with a simple declaration armored with prickling synth: “I am strong/I am running/I am not one of you.” Shouldies exists as a testament to what post-punk has taken from queer experience, and seeks to sweat out, construct, and crush its own history on each of its debut’s three-minute bangers. Can you keep pace? — Austin Jones
9. Blonde Mom
Blonde Mom is the moniker of Andrew Olson. He’s not a newcomer; he’s an experienced musician. This isn’t even his first album as Blonde Mom, having released his New Brute EP in February 2018. It fits right alongside other ’80s-inspired, synth-heavy acts I adore in the Atlanta alternative music scene, but is made with a thoughtfulness I have rarely seen locally.
Released in late Sept. 2019, Tangerine by Blonde Mom is an album I totally missed until a few weeks ago. It wasn’t until I started asking my friends what their favorite albums from Atlanta musicians were in 2019 that Tangerine was suggested to me. I instantly loved it, and had to learn more.
Tangerine subverts many of the preoccupations of current electronic music. The sounds aren’t overly produced; instead, it is raw and spacious, allowing the album to have a personal, handmade quality. Blonde Mom expertly uses austere, digital sounds to craft deeply sincere music. Every song is uniquely soft and kind in spite of its sterile and methodical production. This is aided by incredible vocal technique employed by Olson, in which his beautifully layered, Beach Boys-esque vocal harmonies feel breezy and effortless.
Tangerine is playful and child-like at times, while tender and lush in others. Yet, it never diverts from its primary theme of sweetness. — Autumn James
8. Solar Flower
On the first day of the year in 2019, the heavens opened up, and self-identified “heavy petal music” up-and-comers Solar Flower graced us with its debut album You Are. This could be no coincidence, as the album stands as a perfect accompaniment to the celebration, rebirth, and renewal of another rotation around the sun.
In a record that draws indisputable influence from ’60s psychedelia, Solar Flower is never tie-dyed, hot-boxed, hippie nonsense. Instead, it is a new pensive incarnation of neo-psych rock. Every move on the album feels like an intentioned homage and subversion of the conventions of hard rock, most notably in Dorothy Stucki’s airy vocals that provide consummate elemental balance to the stone heap of distorted guitar throughout You Are.
It is also entirely possible Solar Flower is actually a group of beings who have transcended their previous forms—the group includes drummer Rob Sarabia of Mutual Jerk and Dasher as well as collaboration from Bo Orr of Arbor Labor Union—and were reborn to create You Are as their manifesto on how to do the same. Regardless, it is a worthwhile trip. — Autumn James
Vol. 2 may be an EP that clocks in at under 10 minutes, yet it stands as strong proof that Hanzo is not just a producer with tracks on his resume that have gone gold, but an artist in his own right. The record begins with a message that Hanzo is masterful at crafting songs with the immediate hit (and our top track of the year) “SuperBloodWolfMoon.” Things ease into a more mellow catchiness with “Down 2 Ride,” “French Doors,” and “Dirty Forces.” Vol. 2 solidifies Hanzo as a hitmaker.
But the most compelling thing about Hanzo is that he is Awful Records’ resident nice boy. And not in the way that it’s his schtick. He delivers nothing but heartfelt honesty, and there is a marked lack of machismo in Hanzo’s body of work. Maybe the vast majority of men have left something to be desired, but it feels special to find lyrics throughout Vol. 2 like, “You know I’ma check if you alright,” “Hoping everything with you been good, love,” and “I hope you had as good a day as mine/I hope you know that you been on my mind.” You get the sense that Hanzo is just a chill guy that would probably be really nice to you. That type of relatability brings charm and ease to every one of his tracks.
While 2019 was a busy year for Hanzo—with the release of Vol. 2 and multiple stand-alone singles, a number of notable producer credits, and his signing to Awful—it’s clear his career is still building into something much bigger. Hanzo is most certainly the one to watch in 2020. — Autumn James
6. Night Cleaner
All the Saints frontman and guitarist Matt Lambert moonlights under the solo moniker Night Cleaner, which began as early as 2011 to catch all of Lambert’s musical urgings and impulses that didn’t succinctly fit in the sonically fueled, grungy, rock ‘n’ roll ATS sound. Night Cleaner’s debut release arrived in 2015 with the Sketch for Winter III: Green Sleeves EP followed by the Even EP in 2018, both via Geographic North. This year, Lambert modestly, quietly, and nonchalantly graced us with a full-length entitled Warrior, released via State Laughter in April 2019. There was so little hype and buzz around this release that it is somewhat confounding, but that’s Lambert’s style. The man consistently produces and creates too much music for us to keep up with; it’s crazy. In regards to Warrior, Lambert says, “We didn’t go at it long enough to make anything happen. Just one show at Wonderroot and a Kurt Vile show at the Earl. It was really just one crazy summer and one recording session. Good times.”
Warrior was released in physical form on cassette tape only, with each tape custom designed with metallic purple star stickers and different inner sleeve designs. This offering is by far Lambert at his best, but it should be noted that he did not do it alone. The tape features an array of Atlanta indie rock vets, including Frankie Broyles (Omni, ex-Balkans), Cyrus Shamir (the N.E.C.), Valentina Tapia (Big Ded, Celines), and Chris Kauffman (Gringo Starr, Sovus Radio), illuminating the dark corners of the often overlooked and minimized realms of influence. In Warrior, Night Cleaner seamlessly blends elements of ’60s pop sensibilities with dub, psych-rock, and Western with his collaborators, proving all these pieces can work together in a harmonious existence.
This album is a long con, too. The tracks featuring Tapia and Kauffman were actually initially recorded under the pseudonym Warrior in 2011 and remained hidden for about eight years. In an effort to keep things simple while bringing the recordings to light, Lambert included them in this Night Cleaner release and named the album Warrior.
Do not enter the next decade without having listened to this nearly decade-long curation of distilled musical collaboration, experimentation, and talent—smash that play button below and enjoy the ride into the ’20s. — Aja Arnold
5. Warm Red
The Way Felt Feels
The Way Felt Feels is an expert display of self-editing and controlling chaos. It is a playful, almost silly, take on heaviness and hardcore without feeling novel. Every part is keenly sharp and technical, but the composition leaves space for each instrument’s strength to be known. It evokes the Wipers, Wire, and Urinals while never becoming overly referential.
If you’ve been an enthusiastic participant in the East Atlanta music scene for several years, you could easily make a six-foot-high stack of cassette tapes filled with homogenous, local post-punk. Not to say some of the acts in this hypothetical tape tower haven’t been talented or well-received; they have, and post-punk has become a main export of the scene. However, there is nothing formulaic about Warm Red’s tactilely titled debut The Way Felt Feels (released Jan. 26, 2019 via State Laughter).
Warm Red has made its name known through numerous performances of the record this past year, an experience the recordings of The Way Felt Feels doesn’t fully capture. Live, they are perfectionists, somehow cultivating a raw, frenetic energy with nothing out of place. Drummer Jacob Armando and bassist Stephen Lewis serve as the most precise backbone to guitarist Bryan Scherer’s polished, yet energetic technique. But it is in these shows we get to see the unique star quality of frontman Tony Gary: an absolute powerhouse of a performer; singing each song like he’s throwing an unbridled tantrum.
This is undoubtedly just the beginning for Warm Red, and we will all be patiently awaiting what’s next. — Autumn James
New Cold Dream
With everything we have endured this past year, sources of empathy and catharsis feel increasingly hard to find. In comes New Cold Dream, TWINS’ latest full-length (released via 2MR Records on Oct. 25, 2019) glaring through the darkness like a beacon in the heavy fog. I didn’t want to come right out and say it at first, but I’ll say it now: this is some of the best shit we’ve heard in electronic/dark synthpop since Violator-era Depeche Mode. Hell, this was my soundtrack for all my rituals since Scorpio season. Like Violator, there is a beautiful contrast to TWINS’ latest offering, and yet, something remarkably stable and ceremonious about it.
New Cold Dream is crushing in its poignancy and execution, satisfyingly catapulting us between melodic trances and heart-throbbing drum in the entire play-through. The album alternatively pulls us in just to send us flying again in this celestial and emotionally swamp-like journey. Matt Weiner, the man behind TWINS (aka That Which Is Not Said), brings us home in the album closer “Left Behind,” probably the most elegant declaration of human condition we’ve come across all year. The kick to all of this? While Weiner brings us home from this otherworldly journey, that home is dark, cavernous, and empty, leaving us wanting more. Put this shit on repeat and you’ll barely notice. — AA
3. Sequoyah Murray
Before You Begin
What is pop? This decade has been marked by a Herculean undertaking of figuring that out—from collectives like PC Music pushing the genre to its most maximalist to artists like Frank Ocean redefining what a pop star can be, it seems like pop experimentation is rote by now.
Despite this, Sequoyah Murray’s debut full-length Before You Begin (via Thrill Jockey Records in Sept. 2019) somehow manages to surprise. Here is a true mold-breaker, a fearless and self-concerned effort. It’s all in the titles: Before You Begin asks us to slow down and take it all in before the album begins with the haunted choral opening salvo that is the opening track “Here We Go.” It’s Murray’s warning not to himself, but to us, the listeners. He knows what is about to happen and has it all figured out; he just wants to make sure we are buckled in and ready for it.
“I’m not afraid,” he tells us on the elusive and striking “Blue Jays,” before the thrumming of electronic strings blooms into a flock of cooing drums. Often compared to Arthur Russell, Murray excels in the blend of experimental composition and eclectic interests that are quintessentially him: the polyrhythms of West Africa, the cavernous mysticism of Hildegard von Bingen’s medieval melismas, and the improvisational wit of Atlanta’s jazz and hip-hop scenes.
He beckons us to slow down on “Let’s Take the Time.” He wants us to get it, he wants us to keep up, and he’s polite enough to spell it out for us. Really ruminate on this one—suck out all the saccharine swells and deep wells of self-analysis. Before You Begin is evocative unlike many artists fifth release, or tenth, or twentieth. It’s living proof that some things can’t be taught—they’re extracted from within. — Austin Jones
Alright. I’ve finally come on board the Omni train, and for real this time. And that’s all thanks to the trio’s latest and third full-length album Networker.
Released via Sub Pop on Nov. 1, 2019, Networker is arguably the best album to come out of Atlanta this year—at least out of Atlanta’s indie rock scene. Further, it’s one of the best Atlanta’s seen in quite some time. On the surface level, the reasoning as to why is fairly obvious: the production is superb and the songwriting reflects that of seasoned players who have tweaked and refined their process in a way that only trial, experience, and error could accomplish. But beyond that, Networker is a win for Atlanta on deeper levels, starting with the fact that we haven’t seen a band in this scene break since the hey-day of the Black Lips and Deerhunter in the early 2000s.
Omni has seen imminent and steady success since its 2016 debut De-luxe and its 2017 sophomore album Multitask, both out via Chicago-based label Trouble in Mind. There was definitely something compelling about these predecessors, but I could never put my finger on what it was and stood by as multiple media outlets immediately labeled it as “post-punk revival” and gushed over Omni’s sound, with Philip’s deadpan vocals hovering over Frankie’s frenetic and melodic guitar riffs.
But then came Networker in all its gush-worthy glory. Fuck Gang of Four, Devo, and Wire. Try to not draw comparisons to Hall & Oates, Steely Dan, Paul McCartney, and more importantly the motherfucking Balkans (#neverforget) while listening to this masterfully crafted and thoughtfully executed record. Listen from start to finish, with the title track and closer “Sleep Mask” showing Philip and Frankie probably at their most calculated yet vulnerable. If you haven’t fallen for Omni yet, you’re about to fall hard. — AA
The follow-up to 2018’s Awful Swim, Father takes us on another debaucherous ride with his latest release, Hu$band. Released on Awful Records in October, following the debut of singles “A lot on ur plate” and “Handful,” Hu$band reminds us that Father is delightfully obscene to the core. This is immediately noticed and encapsulated in the album cover: a strangely-illustrated, hentai-esque portrait of Father and a Kawaii anime dream girl.
Coming in at just six songs, Hu$band packs a tremendous punch. Every song could easily be a single and is its own miniature party. Father plays the role of an outrageous mischief-maker fueled by absurdity, but he somehow remains extremely likable. You want to be invited to the party that constantly surrounds Father, even if it gets out of hand by the end of the night and turns into a shit show.
The instrumentals of Hu$band waffle between two distinct moods. It is gentle, dreamy, and twinkling in soundscapes like “ICEMAN” and album opener “Joestar.” Alternatively, it is straight-up sinister with beats that are hard as hell, as in “Handful,” which is listed as one of our top tracks of the year. There really is no in-between. However, the lyrical content never changes to match any shift in instrumentation. Father is constantly pure with over-the-top raunchiness accompanied by wit and self-awareness. It is his specialty.
There is no better time than now, the beginning of a new year, to have Father’s Hu$band on repeat. It provides us with an excuse to let loose, be unapologetic, and be a real handful. — Autumn James