Hornet’s 25 Favorite Albums by LGBTQ Artists in 2019
It’s striking how what was once narrowly considered niche music has diversified beyond the heteronormative perception of “gay music” as disposable pop (Pet Shop Boys; Bronski Beat; Troye Sivan; etc.) or nothing more than dance music for homos who can’t control their impulses. I mean, it never was, but with the proliferation of out-and-proud artists it’s strikingly apparent to even the most conservative music fan (Lil Nas X, anyone?).
Pop, and its trendy younger sister indie pop, is well exemplified below, with the debut from Kim Petras, Clarity, as a stunning exemplar. Indie rock, especially by women, also shows strongly — Marika Hackman’s Any Human Friend should be required listening for any fan of the genre. Country, or alternative versions of it, can be heard in both Orville Peck’s sensual debut Pony and Lil Nas X’s chart juggernaut “Old Town Road.”
Hip-hop, dream pop, riot grrrl, underground, grime — all are represented; and each and every one of the below represents us, and our multiplicity, to the world at large.
Here are our 25 favorite albums of 2019, each one by LGBTQ artists.
1. French Vanilla – How Am I Not Myself?
The best album of 2019 could have come out in 1979 or 1988 or five years into the future. That is to say the L.A. quartet French Vanilla — three quarters of whom are gay; the female guitarist is straight — are inspired by the past, specifically the jumpy post-punk of Essential Logic, Martha and the Muffins, and The Waitresses — while fully engaged with the contemporary struggles of identity, the increasing isolation of outliers within the patriarchy, etc.
Bear Daddy poster boy Greg Shilton anchors French Vanilla’s often manic tempos (especially live, where he dominates with the rhythmic pounding of your dream power top). Guitarist (and occasional bassist) Ali Day employs snaky melody lines when she isn’t power chording to the next rousing chorus. Bassist/saxophonist Daniel Trautfield supplies most of the hooks, especially when he’s on the sax, which alternates between the honking insistence of forebears such as Lizzy Mercier Descloux and klezmer music. And then there’s frontwoman Sally Spitz. Whether that’s her real name or not, it’s both the perfect punk moniker and somehow describes her way with phrasing. Sure, she can sing, but where’s the fun in that?
Instead, from bouncy opener “Real or Not” (and its goofy low budget video) to the circuitous sax freak out of “Suddenly” to The B-52’s surf guitar that motors the bloody but unbowed “Lost Power,” Spitz runs rampant through lyrics that signify via repetition and intensity. She squawks and squeals and flutters wherever her passions take her (sometimes the interplay between her voice and Trautfield’s sax is akin to Jimmy Page’s guitar and Robert Plant’s keen, though the effect is significantly different). And she never loses site that all the freedoms we take for granted yet are ephemeral and under attack by the alt-right should be protected and, hell yes, celebrated. Anxiety is built into their tempos, just like it’s built into the everyday news cycle that bombards us continually. And so is fun, which is the by-product of four like-minded individuals pogo-ing to a better, more utopian future or a crushing, conformist oblivion, whatever the case may be.
2. Kim Petras – Clarity
Hands down the pop release of a pretty great year for chart music. That it’s the work of a trans artist who started her transition at 13 before completing gender reassignment at age 16 is no small cause for merriment. (Her bio-pic, when it arrives years down the road of her impending fame, should be inspirational.)
At a young 27-years-old, Petras is the first trans artist in music who has a legitimate shot to become a superstar. She’s as smart and obsessed with craft as her colleague Charli XCX. She’s doesn’t stray far from the usual pop territory (breakup songs; hookup jams; love tunes). And whether on her own or with the oversight of Made in China (aka Dr. Luke aka the guy Kesha sued for sexual assault, etc.), she offers up one delectable confection after another, from the consensual green light of “Sweet Spot” to the breakup revenge of “Broken” to the love chill of “Icy.” And she opens with the title track, a boast more specific than any old school O.G. that makes it clear where she wants to be by name-checking Madonna and sounding like Ariana Grande.
3. Orville Peck – Pony
Peck, or The Gay Masked Canadian Cowboy as he will be known until the unavoidable big reveal, thrilled with this debut while also creating rampant speculation on the identity of the man behind the fringed disguise. (For the record, I hope he uses that mask the way Elton John turned his spectacles into a fashion statement.)
Peck has a big, exciting voice like Roy Orbison. His tracks tend towards twangy mid-tempo ballads (“Nothing Fades Like the Light”) with the occasional rave-up to shake up the mood (“Turn to Hate”). The moment of engagement for me came during the opening track, “Dead of Night,” wherein the mysterious stranger with the deep voice breaks into a vibrato-tinged falsetto to declare “See the boys as they walk on by” with all the yearning and lasciviousness of a cat-calling construction worker.
4. Marika Hackman – Any Human Friend
It’s a long way from Hackman’s start as an indie folk songwriter to her full-on transformation as an indie rocker, but she gives credence to that hoary old cliché about the third time being the charm on this perfectly calibrated release. While Any Human Friend begins with what might be the death throes of her old genre (“Wanderlust”), elsewhere she notches it up and just keeps going. The staccato guitar of “The One” drives the story of a second choice sexual hookup while “Hand Solo” is all about self-pleasure with its attendant video of a female hand fingering all manner of objects decorated to look like vaginas (a seashell; the folds of bedding; a slice of layer cake, etc.). She doesn’t shy away from detailing her encounters, and even goes all the way with a lesbian sex primer on the glorious “All Night”.
5. Pixel Grip – Heavy Handed
Whether this is indie pop or electro or dance or “goth-disco” as they like to call it, this Chicago trio knocked it out of the park on their debut, Heavy Handed. The boys in the band, Jonathon Freund and Tyler Ommen, do their bit to keep the sonics engaging throughout (“Tell Him Off” could be FKA Twigs on a pop bender; “Soft Peaks” convinces you of that “goth-disco” qualifier) while frontwoman Rita Lukea utilizes her flexible and eccentric vocal prowess to wring aural pleasures throughout. She uses her voice the way a great director approaches a film — she fits it to serve the material.
6. The Drums – Brutalism
Now just Jonny Pierce and his touring musicians, The Drums’ fifth record sees the “band” expanding from surf-guitar loving indie kids to professional indie poppers with keyboard hooks, insanely catchy singalong choruses, and, right, surf guitar. TBH, the shiny keyboards threw me at first until I heard how their sweetening dovetailed with the jingle-jangle of the guitars. And, like its nearly flawless predecessor, Abysmal Thoughts, the nine tracks of Brutalism embedded themselves like the insidious ear worms they are, especially the melancholy love of the title track, the metaphorical “Pretty Cloud,” and the I-want-love-but-I’ll-settle-for-sex “Body Chemistry.”
7. Tyler, the Creator – IGOR
The co-founder of Los Angeles’ hip-hop collective Odd Future, which spawned Frank Ocean and Syd as well, isn’t beholden to stylistic genre pigeonholes (or, it seems, sexuality, though whether he’s bi or gay or straight is still a mystery). His sixth solo release, IGOR, barely catches its breath as it careens from ’70s quiet storm R&B to gangsta rap to girl group harmonies, etc., often on the same track.
The template for the best hip-hop in 2019 is that there is no template; just a workable beat and whatever else tickles the writer’s ear. T,TC’s mother must have exposed him to tons of Philly soul; it’s there in the falsetto backing vocals of “A BOY IS A GUN” and “EARFQUAKE”. And he plays around with psychedelic pop (“GONE, GONE / THANK YOU”) and drone funk (“WHAT’S GOOD”) and some industrial hip-hop shit on the album opener (“IGOR’S THEME”). It’s enough to give the body whiplash.
8. Glass Battles – Glitchcraft, Vol. 1: Temptation in the Garden at Dark
Sean Augustine, the stunning redhead who is Glass Battles, could farm himself out for modeling and call it a day. So let’s count our lucky stars that he takes inspiration from his spirit animal, Shirley Manson of Garbage, and imbues his longform debut with the type of electronic-based dance rock that can play as well in a club as it will when the big venues come calling. Augustine falls squarely in that camp of vocalists who always seem too good for “rock and roll” or “pop” or what-have-you — he’s got the chops of Freddie Mercury and the deceased Queen frontman’s current stand-in, Adam Lambert, though to my ears he’s a smoother singer than either. And it’s a huge plus that he’s a bit of a nerd — the video for the industrial electropop of “Septilizine” features both the 8-bit video game concept of the album with a witchy Midsommar cult vibe. And when the mood is upon him, he can deliver an anthem like “Rebecca” that should be making Lady Gaga reach out to him when she decides to re-up her fan base with the kind of smart dance pop that made her famous. (You can stream all of Glitchcraft, Vol. 1: Temptation in the Garden at Dark at Spotify.)
9. Jay Som – Anak Ko
Even during its heyday in the late ’80s, my need and appreciation of dream pop was tempered at best. Like indie pop today, too much of it sounded overly similar and derivative. So I was pleasantly surprised by Anak Ko, the fourth release from the L.A.-based Jay Som, who melds the gorgeous vocal melodies of the best dream pop with a harder-edged indie rock that stops just short of shoegaze. While Som, the daughter of Filipino immigrants, has the type of calm, breathy voice that ruins too much indie pop for me, the stillness and precision of her singing is the perfect anchor for insistent guitars and the kind of sharp backup musicianship redolent of prime ’90s alternative. There was no better opening one-two punch in 2019 than “If You Want It” and the Liz Phair-meets-The Sundays of the, well, dreamy “Superbike”.
10. Cub Sport – Cub Sport
Though they haven’t accrued the same level of a fan base as Years & Years or Troye Sivan, this Australian indie pop band has grown exponentially over their three releases, with this year’s eponymous release the best in show. While they share the same echoing vocals and production compression as most other contemporary indie pop bands, I think it does a disservice to classify them as such. They are pop artists, meaning their ambition is more universal (hence the references above to Years & Years and Troye Sivan). Singer Tim Nelson and keyboardist Sam Netterfield fell in love after starting the band — they are now married — and love is first and foremost on their minds (“Butterflies” perfectly captures that first moment when we let go in love). And the psychology of coming out on, duh, “Come Out” is as honest and specific to Nelson’s experience as we’ve yet had from a pop band.
11. Brittany Howard – Jaime
It was a matter of time before the Alabama Shakes frontwoman stepped away from her band, into the solo spotlight. And though I miss her band’s basic rock template — we haven’t had a bluesy singer as good as Brittany Howard since the demise of Janis Joplin — her solo debut is a weird little wow. It’s bracingly personal (the record is named after the sister she lost in childhood) and overtly political. “He Loves Me” is about the complicated relationship between the black and gay Howard and a religious right that’d much rather exclude her; “Stay High” is about love and weed (and the love of weed!); and the truly out there “13th Century Metal” is the type of rock and roll and soul screed we haven’t heard this powerfully since the late ’60s.
12. Sleater-Kinney – The Centre Won’t Hold
Yes, I’m sad about the departure of drummer Janet Weiss from this iconic riot grrrl trio, and I hope her leaving was not occasioned by the change in direction (and claims of a sell-out by longtime fans). Produced by St. Vincent with a squeaky sheen (i.e., keyboards!), the initial catchiness of these 11 tracks apparently confused a lot of people, yet even when they seemed louder and faster and grungier, their tunes were memorable, as they are here. And for those that believe they’re not as tough as they once were – which is only natural for anyone in their late forties – I would direct your attention to the fierce and unstoppable title track.
13. Ezra Furman – Twelve Nudes
From the gay outlaw sprawl of Transangelic Exodus to the succinct rush of Twelve Nudes, the gender fluid Ezra Furman continues to confound expectations while expanding his musical palette. Think of it as the difference between a great, thick novel and the streamlined pleasures of an expertly rendered short story. His voice is still an adenoidal whine that will turn off most people, but Furman is one of the best underground artists we have. (“Thermometer”; “I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend”)
14. BROCKHAMPTON – Ginger
The diversity of this collective sets them apart from other contemporaries in that they look more like the world around us than not, and it’s reflected in their sound. Put together by gay rapper Kevin Abstract (who’s Arizona Baby, also out this year, is worth your time), who wanted a modern “boy band” that wasn’t squeaky clean (or all white), their fifth release in two years(!) is their finest. Until radio gets wise to them, which should be inevitable, they’ll remain the adored cult act they’ve become. (“BOY BYE”; “SUGAR”)
15. Loraine James – For You and I
Grime/electronica/jazz producer from London offers up a skittish 11-track release that’s inspired by her recent relationship. “I’m in love and wanted to share that in some way,” explains James. “A lot of the time I’m really scared in displaying any kind of affection in public. … This album is more about feeling than about using certain production skills.” (“London Ting // Dark As Fuck feat. Le3 Black”; “Glitch Bitch”)
16. SOAK – Grim Town
17. Kele – 2042
The Bloc Party frontman’s fourth solo release may be his most personal, written in the wake of the birth of his children and the unravelling of a civilized world. (“Jungle Bunny”; “Between Me and My Maker”)
18. Saro – Die Alone
19. King Princess – Cheap Queen
Mikaela Mullaney Straus is being marketed as a pop star, but one listen to her debut and you know that this genderqueer gay artist is blue-eyed soul for the indie pop crowd. (“Tough On Myself”; “Prophet”)
20. The Japanese House – Good at Falling
21. Lil Nas X – 7
The other gay cowboy on this list, only Lil Nas X is black and, also, not much of a cowboy. His single with Billy Ray Cyrus, “Old Town Road,” was inescapable and groundbreaking. The other tracks on his EP are more pop and hip-hop than boot-scootin’ or lasso twirling. (“Panini”)
22. K. Flay – Solutions
23. Mika – My Name Is Michael Holbrook
His fifth release is a consolidation of his strengths, and based on the clean narrative lines of his best tunes, I suspect that Mika may soon be branching out into musical theater… (“Sanremo”; “Dear Jealousy”)
24. Kindness – Something Like a War
Adam Bainbridge dba Kindness came to his solo work as a DJ/producer, but he’s learned a lot since his 2012 debut. Three albums in, he’s got the ear of Robyn (amongst others), who shows up to lend her voice. (“The Warning feat.Robyn”; “Raise Up”)
25. The Irrepressibles – This Time I’ll Let Go of the Fear
It’s been seven long years since the release of their sophomore record, Nude. I’m so grateful that Jamie McDermott is back with his hyper-romantic chamber pop (expanded into indie synth territory here) that this three-track EP makes our cut of 2019’s best. (“Calling for Change”; “Forbidden”)
What do you think of these favorite albums of 2019? What release was your favorite of the year?
Featured image of Orville Peck by by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Dior Men)