The Fortnightly Playlist, 2019 Favorites, Part 2: 10-1

My 2019 top 10. Let’s dive in! Here’s yer playlist:

10. The New Pornographers – In the Morse Code of the Brake Lights
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Carl Newman said that when this album started coming together he questioned himself saying, “Are there too many songs using car metaphors?”, and then decided “Maybe people will think it’s a concept album.” Well, concept album or not, this album grabbed and held my attention more than the last few records from the group. Something you’ll note in this top 10 (and really in the top few from last week’s list as well) is that I really feel there are no weak tracks on this record. This album grabbed my attention with the first couple singles, but held it because of the strength throughout. One thing that The New Pornographers have always been sneaky good at is knowing how to open and close an album. The first track and the last track are always the perfect way to open and close the album, respectively. Things like that go a long way to making a great record. It also helps that they really hit the sweet spot, and gave us a murderer’s row of great songs on this one.

9. The Highwomen – The Highwomen
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In terms of supergroups, this is about as good as it gets. Each artist is a rising star in her own rite, and the entire album is just bursting with the talent of Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Amanda Shires and Maren Morris. The first thing that hits you with this record is the vocals. The interplay and the harmonies of four stellar vocalists is absolutely beautiful, and it’s something special and rare in modern music. Beyond the vocals though, is a richly layered sound of guitars, piano, organ, violin. It’s a warm and soulful sound sound, and the songs are filled with positive messaging. Initially, I was most struck by “Highwomen” and “Crowded Table”, but the entire record is so good and more recently I’ve really been loving “Old Soul” and “Wheels of Laredo”. Also this year, the group contributed to the soundtrack for the movie “The Kitchen” with an incredible cover of Flletwood Mac’s “The Chain”.

8. Mark Lanegan – Somebody’s Knocking
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Mark Lanegan gave us a modern rock masterpiece this year. It’s dark and brooding, but it is not without hope and beauty. Lanegan has never been one to stick with a formula though. While there is plenty of his low rasp over fuzzed-out guitars, there is also much more electronic elements in this record. There are some bold connecting lines to New Order and Joy Division on this record. “Penthouse High” could easily be considered Lanegan’s love-letter to New Order. If you were to hear that song without his recognizable vocal, then you could mistake it for a New Order b-side you hadn’t heard. This could come off as cheap mimicry if not for the context of the album. Somebody’s Knocking easily shifts gears from 80’s to 90’s to 00’s to 10’s, and all in this context of Mark Lanegan’s unique touch and perspective.

7. Shredders – Great Hits
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Is this an album or an EP? I’ve heard EPs longer than this, but this is so sharp that it had to make the list. Doomtree these days is mainly operating in 2 main entities in my mind. There are still other side projects from Sims, Paper Tiger and Lazerbeak, but the two main operators right now are Shredders and Dessa. Where the full crew Doomtree albums are huge, Shredders is a leaner project. P.O.S. and Sims have been the two most prolific rappers in Doomtree, and so 2017’s debut, Dangerous Jumps, saw them trading bars in over some of Lazerbeak and Paper Tiger’s sharpest, fastest beats. I loved that record, and it narrowly missed my top 10 that year. What Great Hits does that Dangerous Jumps didn’t is that it sharpens the focus of the subject matter. There’s a cohesive message that comes through, especially on “Suburban Base”, “Vanilla ISIS” and “Ayeyayaya”. P.O.S is one of my favorite rappers, but I think this record is Sims at his finest. Their contrasting styles both hit top of their game. Sims is sharp and fast, P.O.S is aggressive and hard-hitting. If you get a chance to see these guys live, then take it. They are fast-paced and engaged like few others are, and they are super chill to hang out with after. If this was longer than 7-songs and a 20 minute run-time, then it could have landed above 7.

6. Making Movies – Ameri’kana
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This album made a late run for me, and certainly earned a spot in my top 10 favorites. Making Movies offers a spirited blend of Rock, Cumbia, Psychedelia, Son Cubano, and Americana that also makes sure its message is heard. The Kansas City quartet earned some Latin Grammy nods this year, and I would expect that it’s not for the last time. The guest appearances on this album from Flor de Toloache, Ruben Blades, Frankie Negron, and others are fantastic. What Making Movies offers is a confluence of many different styles from across Latin America as well as styles pioneered in the US, and they do it beautifully. This album is a must-listen.

5. L’Orange, Jeremiah Jae – Complicate Your Life With Violence
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L’Orange’s collaboration with Solemn Brigham, Marlowe, was my #3 last year, and now here is L’Orange again. The North Carolina-born producer constructs his album in a cinematic fashion using samples of old radio dramas, jazz and blues records and black-and-white films to piece together a plot and dialogue, and this time he’s paired up with Chicago rapper, Jeremiah Jae. The pair have worked together before on 2015’s The Night Took Us In Like Family, and it’s a pairing that work well. It’s clear that L’Orange thinks of each record in terms of fiml-genre. He’s basically said as much on his twitter as he discusses his albums as “my crime-drama record”, “my Western record” etc. This is a boot-camp war film riddled with scandal and maybe some madness thrown in. Personally, my highlight here is the artfully-done Elmore James samples on “Cool Hand”.

4. Black Pumas – Black Pumas
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Wow, did this group just come out of thin air this year? Apparently Eric Burton’s soulful vocals came from a combination of church, musical theater and a lot of busking. I think from the first time I heard “Colors” on the radio it was always going to be among my favorite songs of the year, but then listening to this in full I found there wasn’t a single weak link. The entire record, every song, is flat out amazing. It’s a warm, soulful overall sound that immediately gets you moving and singing along. How often do you here a song for the first time and feel like you need to sing along by the end? “Colors” remains among my very favorite songs of this year, but it’s also a good representation of this beautiful album. I love every aspect of this album. The soulful vocals, the bright guitars, the warm organ and rhodes piano, and the tight rhythm section. Can you ask for a better debut?

3. Malibu Ken – Malibu Ken

Don’t rest your eye on that cover too long. Yikes. This is certainly one of the weirder releases of the year, and I’d expect no less from this pair. Aesop Rock’s notoriously nasal wordsmith work combined with Tobacco’s effects-drenched production is a match made in… well, maybe not heaven exactly. There’s a blance they’ve had to strike here. If it were up to Tobacco’s tendancies, then Aes’s voice would become unrecognizably distorted by the layers of effects. Thankfully, the raps aren’t lost in the mix, and Aesop Rock’s lyrics have been running through my head a lot this year. The weird factor will undoubtedly turn some away from this project, but there’s so much to value in Aesop’s acrobatic wordplay and broad vocabulary being paired with Tobacco’s unconventional and distortion-soaked mixes. There’s great hooks in this record too, and thoughts that stick with the listener. There’s been some serious hours spent listening to this one in 2019.

2. Ibibio Sound Machine – Doko Mein
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If you know of an album this year that had more in terms of sheer energy, then I’m open to it. London-based Ibibio Sound Machine took my listening by storm this year. This slab of West-African Funk and Psychedelia mixed with modern alt-rock electro was amazing. Eno Williams powerful vocals and captivating stage presence were among my highlights this year, and seeing this band live in a packed-out High Dive in Seattle was one of my top moments of the year. The band is tight together, but still loose enough to improvise through their set. It’s hard to pinpoint particular pieces of this group to highlight without just listing all the members, and saying what they bring to the group. I’ll try though. Eno Williams energy up front is incredible. She runs the show. The rhythms of Jose (drums), John (bass), and Anselmo (percussion) keeps the groove driving. Those two things are the biggest factors to the group for me. Add that Alfred Bannerman is a phenomenal guitar player, and that the horns-section is absolutely blazing (and they layer in excellent contributions on keys as well), and now I listed everyone anyway. Love this album, and it could have been my favorite of the year if not for an absolute legend giving us a new classic.

1. Mavis Staples – We Get By
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Is there a musician I admire more as a person? I don’t think so. Mavis’ career has been a long and winding road that has made her integral in the development of all music today no matter the genre. Having read Greg Kot’s excellent biography of her this year, I could go on for awhile here about different aspects of her career and how she connects to Mahalia Jackson, Bob Dylan, Prince, Arcade Fire, Ry Cooder, Wilco, The Talking Heads, Sam Cooke, and on and on and on… I’ll try and center this about this record in particular. There is a little background necessary to set the stage for this amazing album. When the Staples Singers began, Pops stuck hard to Gospel. It wasn’t until encountering Martin Luther King Jr that things changed to a broader message. They built their most successful run on so-called “message songs”, that were rooted in their Gospel values, but went beyond the walls of the church and connected with people in universal ways (perhaps the way the Gospel was intended anyway, but that’s a different discussion).
All this needs to be said, as it is fundamental to Mavis’ resurgence in the last decade and a half. Mavis makes music with a message for the world as it is, and this year she connected beautifully. The album is produced and co-written by Ben Harper, who, you could say, is rooted in this Staples Singers school of thought. 2016’s Livin’ On a High Note saw Mavis singing songs written for her by various other artists, and Harper wrote my personal favorite track on that album in “Love and Trust”. The messaging of We Get By lands beautifully in part because Harper is such a keen student of this style. It’s the perfect record for this time and place because Mavis, more than many of her colleagues of Soul music, she remains very present. There’s a humility to Mavis that keeps her firmly with regular people rather than taking on soul-diva/rockstar persona. Songs of love, unity, equality and a bold embrace of change, songs that last, message songs necessary for the world we live in. Mavis Staples.

Here’s yer tracklist:
Making Movies, Ruben Blades – Delilah
Mark Lanegan – Gazing from the Shore
The New Pornographers – You’ll Need a New Back Seat Driver
Malibu Ken – Tuesday
Shredders – Vanilla ISIS
Ibibio Sound Machine – Wanna Come Down
L’Orange, Jeremiah Jae – Behavior Report
Black Pumas – Fire
The Highwomen – Old Soul
Mavis Staples – Heavy On My Mind
The New Pornographers – You Won’t Need Those Where You’re Going
L’Orange, Jeremiah Jae – My Everything is Bulletproof
Shredders – Young Bros
Malibu Ken – Sword Box
Mark Lanegan – Penthouse High
The Highwomen – The Highwomen
Black Pumas – Stay Gold
Mavis Staples, Ben Harper – We Get By
Making Movies, Ruben Blades – No Te Calles
Ibibio Sound Machine – She Work Very Hard
Malibu Ken – Purple Moss
The New Pornographers – Leather On The Seat
The Highwomen – Crowded Table
Making Movies – The Wake of the Fall (Nibiru)
Mark Lanegan – Paper Hat
L’Orange, Jeremiah Jae – Cool Hand
Shredders – Ayeyayaya
Ibibio Sound Machine – Tell Me (Doko Mein)
Black Pumas – Colors
Mavis Staples – One More Change

The Fortnightly Playlist, 2019 Favorites, Part 1: 25-11

I said something along these lines last year as well, but I’ll say it again. I’m not objective. Writing a “Best of…” just isn’t possible for me. It’s why every year people get annoyed with the Grammy’s for getting things wrong. Art effects us all on a personal level, and I just find it not in my ability to step outside my own perspective enough to say objectively what is or is not the “Best” albums of the year. These are my favorites. They are the albums that I connected with, and that meant something to me. I hope you enjoy it, and maybe you connected with some of them too.

Here’s yer playlist…

25. Sampa The Great – The Return
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Sampa the Great offered up this amazing record this year filled with soul grooves and sharp, incisive rhymes. The rich layering of vocals on tracks like “Freedom”, the bold and declaritive rapping on “Dare to Fly” and “Final Form”, and a amazing selection of guests have made this album really stand out. Sampa, born in Zambia, raised in Botswana, and now settled in Australia, brings a unique personal perspective and experience to her music.

24. Calexico, Iron & Wine – Years to Burn
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This collaboration was thought to be done after 2005’s In The Reins, but lo and behold they’ve joined forces once more! It’s such a rich, warm, and soft sound, and Sam Beam’s lead vocals are top notch here. I really enjoy both Calexico and Iron & Wine, and it’s something special to see them work together as this sort of mutual admiration society.

23. Lemolo – Swansea
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Lemolo really captured my attention back in 2015 with her 2nd release, Red Right Return. It was music like this that made me want to start sharing and eventually writing about music. I got to see her open for M.Ward in 2016, and she is an amazing performer as well. Swansea really builds on the sound she’s established, and it’s hard to find a weak track on it. This is a truly beautiful album.

22. Dessa, Minnesota Orchestra – Sound the Bells
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Live albums, compilations and such aren’t usually included in my year-end lists, but this one checked all the boxes that required inclusion. This is such a good performance. There are a few outside choices if she wanted a best-of collection, but it is the song choices and the compositions that make this so worth it. Dessa can do so much. She is certainly the most bold of the Doomtree collective in terms of stepping new territory. This is a clear example of that. Also, this may be the best version of “Warsaw” out there.

21. Andrew Bird – My Finest Work Yet

This one made impression on me immediately with the first single that was released before the album. “Bloodless” is a six-and-a-half minute wonder in a smooth jazz groove. It sounds both classic and modern, which is something I would argue that Bird is gifted at. Somehow he manages to layer things together just right to get this vintage feel while staying rooted here and now. Andrew Bird has an arsenal of talents, and blends them all together so well. It might be easy for someone to say “oh, that’s the guy that whistles a lot”, but his skills as a multi-instrumentalist, composer and songwriter are all very visible with this release.

20. Bon Iver – i,i
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Bon Iver has steadily widened the sound palette you’d expect of the project. What started as Justin Vernon’s largely acoustic and “woodsy” project has grown steadily with each release into the huge sound that you can hear on this record. To be honest, I think 22, a Million went farther out there in the sound, and this drew things back a little (in a good way). I went through cycles with this one. I really loved certain tracks at first, but then developed new favorites. It’s an amazing record.

19. Strand of Oaks – Eraserland
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This is a release that I wrote about back when it first came out, and I’m happy to see a number of those have really stuck with me this year. Tim Showalter was so open and vulnerable about where this album came from, and I have tremendous respect for his courage. He was at a low point, and said he didn’t think he’d ever make music again after the tour ended for his previous album, Hard Love. The members of My Morning Jacket contacted him while on a gap in their own tour schedule, and basically told him they wanted to be his backing band for the next record. They got him in the studio, and he wrote most of this record in a short period of time.

18. Sudan Archives – Athena
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This was among my most anticipated albums of the year. I’ve been waiting for a Sudan Archives full-length release for awhile now. There are some massive standout tracks on this album, and she proved my anticipation was not misplaced. There are some massive standout tracks on this record with “Glorious”, “Limitless” and “Confessions”. It really ended up missing my top 10 because there were some tracks that came off as weaker for me, but I was super happy to spend some serious hours with this album.

17. Cave Clove – Dollars to Tokens EP
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Look, you see the great albums I didn’t include, and you see the great albums I already listed. I rarely put EPs in my top albums, but this is a testament to how much I enjoyed this and how highly I think of this group. I discovered them last year when I saw them play a show at Scuttlebutt Brewery along with I Will Keep Your Ghost, The Tellers, and Smokey Brights. They put on a fantastic show, and I hope to see a lot more music from them in the future. I got to hang out and chat with them a little at that show, and they are also really cool people.

16. Kishi Bashi – Omoiyari
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Okay, so how many violinists can I put in this list? Andrew Bird, Sudan Archives, and no Kishi Bashi… but each one is so totally different. Kishi Bashi really made a record that I connected with this year. “Marigolds” is an absolutely beautiful song, “F Delano” explores a personal reflection on history and the lenses we view it with, and the record closes with a folksy romp in “Annie, Heart Thief of the Sea”. I feel like it is worth mentioning that has to be one of my favorite album covers as well.

15. Little Simz – GREY Area
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This album just struts to center stage. It rips the mic away from whoever is holding it, and doesn’t give it up until it’s done. This is most evident in the swagger of “Boss”. That mean bass riff, and Little Simz slamming every line in your face. Perhaps even better is the stripped down arrangement on “Pressure” where her writing and rhymes really reach a summit. Guest appearances by Michael Kiwanuka, Little Dragon, Cleo Sol, and Chronixx are perfect for what the record needs. Little Simz shows her varied talents with different stylings on tracks like “101 FM” and “Flowers”.

14. Rodrigo y Gabriela – Mettavolution
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I’m a guitar player, and this record just speaks to me on that level. The Mexican duo have put out one of the finest guitar records you can find this year. I think this one was made by guitarists and for guitarists. I absolutely love it, and that’s basically all there is to say. Oh wait, one more thing… that massive, 19-minute cover of Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” to close the album is straight up jaw-dropping.

13. Sinkane – Depayse
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Take a moment to admire this album cover. If you’ve not heard this album, then know that this cover fits it perfectly. Sinkane’s music throws you into a vibrant world, and it’s bright, exciting and inviting. More than ever, Ahmed Gallab’s lyrics center around his Sudanese-American identity. His focus, more than many artists, is on the positive. There are struggles, but there is joy and celebration too.

12. Fontaines D.C. – Dogrel
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The Irish rockers initially formed after bonding with each other in the pub over James Joyce poetry. First off, it doesn’t get any more Irish than that, does it? There’s elements of that sort of romantic and quaint origin story that shine through in their punk-infused, high-energy, rough-edged sound. From the declarative opening track, “Big”, all the way through to the poetic ballad “Dublin City Sky”, there isn’t a weak track here. Lead singer, Grian Chatten’s, talk-speak delivery highlights his Irish accent and emphsizes their roots. The emphasis fits thematically with the community-rooted focus evident throughout the record. On another day this could easily have been in my top 10. Give it a listen. I fell in love with this record somewhere in between “Dublin in the rain is mine, a pregnant city with a Catholic mind” and “It was underneath the waking of the Dublin city sky.

11. Craig Finn – I Need a New War
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There was a fair chunk of this year that I thought this would make the top 10, and there was a bit where it slipped down the list forgotten. Craig Finn is just too good of a storyteller to ignore. He’s always had that storytelling aspect to his writing with The Hold Steady, but I think it comes out more consistently with his solo work. His songs are full of down-and-outers, but he humanizes rather than romanticizes. Sometimes sad, but often beautiful. Stylistically, Finn moves across a lot of different sounds here, but is rooted in folk-rock tradition.

Next week, I’ll continue with my top 10. What were some of your favorite records this year?

Here’s yer tracklist…
Lemolo – South of Sound
Craig Finn – Blankets
Strand of Oaks – Eraserland
Fontaines D.C. – Chequeless Reckless
Cave Clove – Edge of Emergency
Sampa The Great – Dare to Fly
Sudan Archives – Confessions
Dessa, Minnesota Orchestra – The Beekeeper (Live)
Bon Iver – We
Rodrigo y Gabriela – Terracentric
Calexico, Iron & Wine – Years to Burn
Kishi Bashi – F Delano
Andrew Bird – Bloodless
Little Simz – Pressure
Sinkane – Depayse
Dessa, Minnesota Orchestra – Warsaw (Live)
Sudan Archives – Pelicans in the Summer
Bon Iver – Faith
Lemolo – Swansea
Strand of Oaks – Weird Ways
Craig Finn – Carmen isn’t Coming in Today
Calexico, Iron & Wine – The Bitter Suite (Pajaro/Evil Eye/Tennessee Train)
Andrew Bird – Bellevue Bridge Club
Kishi Bashi – Annie, Heart Thief of the Sea
Cave Clove – I’m Still Tryin’
Sinkane – Ya Sudan
Sampa The Great – Final Form
Little Simz – Boss
Fontaines D.C. – Boys in the Better Land
Rodrigo y Gabriela – Echoes

The Fortnightly Playlist, December 8th, 2019

As has become my habit, there’s an uptick in posts scheduled for December as I look back on 2019. This is the last normal edition of the year for the Fortnightly, but we’ll have 2 parts looking at 2019 favorites and then an additional post that will look back on 2019 and mix in some 2020 previews.

“I don’t want to get bitter. I want us to get better. I want us to be kinder to ourselves and to each other.” These lines from Porridge Radio’s new single “Lilac” have stuck with me the last couple days, and been running through my head a lot. It’s this simple, beautiful thought, and it so needed to be said (or sung, as it were). I’m unfamiliar with their debut album from 2016 and “Lilac” is actually their 3rd single this year, but I’m happy to have that as my first impression of the group.

In recent years, there is a trend that has been building of covering full albums. In 2015, John Vanderslice covered David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs in full, Ben Gibbard did Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque in 2017, and I highly rated Angelique Kidjo’s version of the Talking Heads classic Remain in Light. The best of these give you a different look at a classic album while still maintaining the spirit of it. There are fine lines with this practice though, because you might be simply remaking something with the new musicians or you might not manage to capture the spirit of the original. Enter Kevin Devine. I’ve been a fan of Devine since about 2011, and I’ve written about him before on this blog (though not in much depth). Devine chose to give us his band’s take on Nirvana’s Nevermind. It’s no joke to take on a record that captured lightning in a bottle the way this record did in 1991. Devine remains pretty true to the original here. Arrangements stick to the intentional lo-fi punk of the original, and the most noticeable difference most of the way is simply that his voice is different than Cobain’s. Through much of the record, though, I wonder if it brings enough new to the surface. Where Vanderslice brought totally new arrangements to Diamond Dogs and Kidjo emphasized the African influences of Remain in Light, Devine sticks to the script much more. It offers insight to his influences more than fresh insight into the album. High points here are tracks like “Drain You”,”Lounge Act”, and “On A Plain” (tracks that offer a little more room due to not being overplayed). Overall, I liked the record, and I’m willing to indulge Devine’s expression of love for an album that is clearly significant to him. It certainly does underscore that this album is as relevant now as ever.

While I’m on the topic of covers… Miya Folick took on an intimidating one, and she hit it out of the park. Death Cab for Cutie’s “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” is about as perfect a song as has been made in the last 20 yrs, so when an artist approaches a song like this they need to be up to the task. I hear this on the radio Friday morning, and it gave me chills. Folick said of the song, “To me the greatest songs are the ones that feel like they always existed, like they were just waiting out in the ether for someone to discover them. It makes 100 percent sense that Ben Gibbard wrote ‘I Will Follow You Into the Dark’ in 15 minutes and feels like he channeled it. The song feels like a gift given to us to cope with loss and the unknown of death. It is a deeply special song, and I felt privileged to sing it.” Miya’s version of the song was released as part of the soundtrack for the Hulu series Looking for Alaska which is set in 2005 (the same year the original song was released on Death Cab for Cutie’s Plans album).

Some other favorites in this edition are Making Movies, Beabadoobee (bonus pts for a fun name), Dream Syndicate, SONS, Caribou, and DAM.

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Fortnightly Playlist:
Teen Daze – Open
Charly Bliss – Heaven
The Shivas – If You See Me
Beabadoobee – Are You Sure
Making Movies, Frankie Negron – Patria
Antibalas – Fight Am Finish
Free Nationals, Chronixx – Eternal Light
Lucy Dacus – In The Air Tonight
Dream Syndicate – Put Some Miles On
SONS – Waiting On My Own
Dogleg – Fox
Miya Folick – I Will Follow You Into the Dark
Norah Jones, Mavis Staples – I’ll Be Gone
Caribou – Home
DJ Shadow – Slingblade
DAM – Emta Njawzak Yamma
Kevin Devine – On A Plain
Porridge Radio – Lilac