31 Dec 2019

The List 2019

At the end of each year I make a list of the twenty albums I enjoyed the most. To be eligible, a record has to be of album length (at least ~30 mins), and contain entirely (or almost entirely) new material; live albums, cover records, and compilations are ineligible.

  1. Caterina Barbieri — Ecstatic Computation

According to her (neo-GeoCities) website, Barbieri ‘explores the psycho-physical effects of repetition and pattern-based operations in music, by investigating the polyphonic and polyrhythmic potential of sequencers to draw severe, complex geometries in time and space’. That’s a better explanation than I can offer as to how her music operates. Often sparse it still has the ability to surprise through the unexpected ways in which the rhythms play around and off each other. The 10-plus minutes of opener ‘Fantas’ is a sonic world all its own; dark echoes give birth to bright synths, which in turn make way for mellower, fuzzier tones. It’s a headphone album right down to its sonic DNA, and when I made time to listen to it that way I enjoyed it enormously.

  1. CHAI — Punk

If you’ve ever wondered what it might sound like if Nisennenmondai infiltrated the ranks of Go! Team, I have your answer. CHAI is an all-female Japanese pop-rock ensemble who make one heck of a racket. I have very little idea what’s going on in most of these tracks — the lyrics are a mix of Japanese and heavily-accented English — but it never matters. Killer bass lines conspire with super-catchy synths and a combination of live and programmed drums to make the kind of 32 minute record that leaves you desperate to find out what this all looks and sounds like live. It’s dayglo bright and not at all nuanced, and the weirdness of understanding only every fifth lyric never really goes away, but joy and enthusiasm just radiates from it in waves. And in 2019, there’s nothing more punk than that.

  1. Thom Yorke — ANIMA

Perhaps it’s misleading, but increasingly it feels possible to discern what each member of Radiohead brings to their collaborative project by examining their solo output. Ed O’Brien’s recent single ‘Brasil’ starts out folksy and grounded, before being lifted (by Colin Greenwood’s bass no less) into a different place: somewhere looser, groovier, and more danceable. Jony Greenwood’s film scores have given a glimpse of the expanse and complexity of his musical thinking. And Thom Yorke keeps making weird, dark electronica records.

ANIMA feels even more insular to me than previous releases, trapped in its own head, or else providing a release for someone who otherwise would be. It’s still seductive, and beautifully crafted, but despite knowing I was holding its composer to a higher standard, I couldn’t help but note the lack of an ‘Analyse’, ‘Harrowdown Hill’, or ‘A Brain in a Bottle’ here.

  1. Charly Bliss — Young Enough

You might remember Charly Bliss’s debut (Guppy) from my 2017 list, or the highlight of the album, ‘Ruby’, as one of my songs of that year. Their follow up is more of the same: bubblegum-adjacent melodies and an arch vocal delivery of largely diaristic lyrics. It’s fun stuff, and catchy in a lot of the right places. The playing has tightened up a little bit, and it feels as though a decision has been taken to polish the production a bit more than previously. There are still loose ends and plenty of energy, but it doesn’t feel as raw as before. Even so, I still got a lot of enjoyment out of a second helping of Charly Bliss. One listen through opener ‘Blown to Bits’ will tell you whether it might also be your thing. (PS. That track opens with a synth chord so close to the one that opens Weezer’s 1996 b-side ‘I Just Threw Out the Love of My Dreams’ that I refuse to believe it’s coincidence.)

  1. Anderson .Paak — Ventura

Anderson .Paak is an artist I’ve struggled to get a handle on. But, after dipping into 2016’s Yes Lawd!, and (unwittingly) skipping 2018’s Oxnard, I immediately vibed with the latter’s sister album: Ventura.

Opener ‘Come Home’ is like an extended title sequence, featuring some gold standard Andre 3000 bars. Then it’s on to the soulful relationship therapy of ‘Make it Better’, pairing Anderson’s rich vocals with those of none other than Smokey Robinson. From there its warm, honey-toned production, smart lyrics, and laid back beats all the way, through lead single ‘King James’ all the way until ‘What Can We Do?’ closes the record with the best Nate Dogg feature since ’21 Questions’ (2002).

  1. Beirut — Gallipoli

Beirut is one of those bands that have long been on the periphery of my awareness, and which I knew I should be paying more attention to. Now, as with Spoon’s They Want My Soul (2014) and Low’s Double Negative (2018), a record has finally captured my full attention. Gallipoli is manifestly the work of creators very comfortable in their artistic skins. Lyrically and tonally melancholy, but musically expansive and exploratory, there’s a warmth at its heart that never dims even in its darker moments. Album high point ‘Gauze für Zah’ is an exemplar of the record’s broad sonic palate, Zach Condon’s drifting, melodic vocal, and the manner in which Beirut are often content to let compositions develop at an unforced pace rather than force a strict structure.

This won’t be for everyone, but it was a record unlike many others I heard this year, and I was grateful to it for bringing Beirut more squarely into focus for me.

  1. James Blake — Assume Form

This album came along so early in the year (18 Jan) that I wasn’t sure it would stick around for me, but I’ve played it fairly regularly all year. I know a lot of people call out Blake’s voice as a highlight of his work; I find it very effective (particularly in its higher register), but I would also take an album full of his giddy, kaleidoscopic sonic compositions without the vocals. In fact, the better vocal performances on this record belong to Travis Scott on album highlight ‘Mile High’, and ROSALÍA on the haunting, off-kilter ‘Barefoot in the Park’.

The tempo remains staid throughout, but there’s a range of modes here, between which Blake switches without missing a beat. I find him to be an intriguing musician, and one I can’t quite place comfortably. Somewhere on an archipelago off the coast of electronica, he’s just doing his own thing.

  1. Foals — Part 1 Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost

I had Foals’ debut, Antidotes, on release in 2008 and I was ready to file them away with other art-math-rock bands like Klaxons, whose debut (Myths of the Near Future) I had admired but not loved the year before. It’s been a welcome surprise to watch Foals grow, and their sonic palate complicate and evolve to something that I can only describe as Biffy Clyro covering The Mars Volta. What Went Down (2015) very nearly made my top 20 of that year, largely on the strength of its unassailably huge title track, and now we’re here.

Double albums are always enormously ambitious projects, and by virtue of the two halves having been released separately I have to consider them individually. You won’t find Part 2 of ENSWBL on this list: its late-October release date hasn’t allowed me time to digest it enough. Part 1 has remained on heavy rotation since March, however, and despite that I feel like there’s still plenty more in there for me to discover.

  1. Tyler, The Creator — IGOR

I’m not sure where to start with this record. The palate is hip-hop infused with jazz touches, soul, gospel, and funk. The record opens with an extended synth tone that keys you to the texture of what follows, but what follows is a shifting thing. First track proper, ‘EARFQUAKE’ was originally written for (but rejected by) Justin Bieber, so Tyler has turned it into a downbeat pean that has shrugged itself free of anything like traditional song structure. And once you’re on the ride, you have little choice but to strap in and enjoy it; this is an album in the proper sense of the word - obviously intended to be experienced as a whole. A moody melange of twilight production, treated vocals that see Tyler pushing his singing voice as much as he raps, songs that ‘end’ and then continue… twice.

Above all else it’s the sheer inventiveness of the song structures, and the compelling production that kept me coming back. I didn’t hear a finer hip-hop record this year.

  1. Wand — Laughing Matter

I’ve long wondered, sometimes aloud, why no one else makes music that sounds anything like Radiohead. My first impression upon hearing Laughing Matter was that Wand are also at least at the same dance, even if they’re moving a bit differently to the Oxford quintet.

Cory Hanson’s soft, tuneful vocals; Lee Landey’s inquisitive bass lines; Evan Burrows’s restless, inventive percussion… it all adds up to something very impressive. Add in Robert Cody’s brilliantly judged guitar - always happy to play a supporting role that makes each track better - and Sofie Arreguin’s synths adding colour and sonic texture, and you have an album that blooms into something genuinely special.

Aside from the, admittedly terrible, none-more-psych-rock album cover, the only disappointment is that the track ‘High Planes Drifter’ isn’t a cover of the 1989 Beastie Boys cut.

  1. The Regrettes — How Do You Love?

I just looked back at my list from 2017 and apparently The Regrettes’ debut (Feel Your Feelings Fool) didn’t make the final cut. That surprised me, because in retrospect it’s one of the albums from that year that has had the most staying power for me. And now I have this excellent follow-up to file right alongside it.

At heart the record is nothing more complicated than a set of relationship songs (from love songs, to break up songs and everything in between), all laid out in frontwoman Lydia Night’s smoky, bluesy vocal, underpinned by soulful bass lines and bright percussion. With the sound having evolved a hair away from the debut’s punk notes the guitar is a little bit pop and a little bit classic 50s rock n’ roll. I fully expect to be playing album highlights ‘California Friends’, ‘ I Dare You’ and ‘Pumpkin’ for years to come.

  1. Floating Points — Crush

My only other touchstone for the term ‘floating points’ is a measurement of computing power: FLOPS, or floating point operations per second. And to me it feels as though there’s something apt about the name chosen by neuroscientist & epigeneticist Sam Shepherd for his musical project. Intricate, busy beats vie with dense, shifting loops for the listener’s attention; the listening experience is akin to visiting a gallery of impressionist visual art - sometimes bewildering, at points confrontational, but constantly intriguing and compelling.

There are more easygoing moments, such as ‘Anasickmodular’ with its house beat buried deep in the mix under layers of shifting sonic sands. And there are danceable moments like ‘LesAlpx’ with its room-sized bass. It’s a record that ends up feeling far more than the sum of its parts, and one I’ll likely sit down with again and again when I have a good pair of headphones to hand.

  1. Fennesz — Agora

It was an odd year for me and electronic / ambient music. I heard a lot of stuff I liked, but nothing quite hit me in the way LPs by Nicolas Jaar, Takeleave, Shigeto, Loscil, and Submerse etc. have in years past. Agora is the highest placing such album on this year’s list, and the closest thing I encountered to an experience like some of those listed above.

Agora is actually more toward the ambient end of the spectrum. Really what you’re getting here is a quartet of what I’ve spoken of in the past as aural landscapes. This kind of sonic topography has only grown in appeal for me over the years, and Fennesz is working in the same mould as Ryuichi Sakamoto and William Basinski. When I took the time to spend with it properly, I loved it. At other times it acted as slightly odd background music to several meals.

My end of year Music Replay lists Four Tet amongst my most played artists of 2019, and his studio output this year was a pair of singles. Which is to say that, unable to find truly stellar new electronica, I fell back on old favourites. Fennesz, at least, gave me something new and substantial to immerse myself in.

  1. Vampire Weekend — Father of the Bride

Without necessarily knowing it, I’ve been waiting for this record for six years. I don’t have a copy of my lists as far back as Vampire Weekend’s eponymous 2008 debut, but I’m guessing it placed high. That album — featuring the perennial modern classics ‘A-Punk’, ‘Oxford Comma’ et al — was the most effortlessly cool arrival on the musical stage since The Strokes’ in 2001. Two years later, Contra took that model and gave it a twist on tracks like the almost-too-jaunty ‘Holiday’ and the almost-too-manic ‘Cousins’. When that record placed seventh on my 2010 list I noted how pleasant a surprise it was that the band had managed to recapture the magic of their debut and replicate its infectious energy.

And then Modern Vampires of the City (2013) threw me for a loop. A little darker, quite a bit stranger, more… mature, if that’s the right word. Vampire Weekend had shifted gears on me, and despite the fact that the album still features perhaps my favourite of the band’s songs (‘Diane Young’), I wasn’t sure how to make the transition. In a weird way, Father of the Bride has returned me to its precursor with new admiration. What the band began six years ago they deliver in spades on this year’s record.

Lead single ‘This Life’ is the sort of song that sounds like it always existed, just waiting for someone to intone the magic words to bring it into being. Ezra Koenig’s always smart lyricism does the trick, and we receive another gem of a pop song as a result.

But Vampire Weekend are reaching for more here. It’s a smart decision to pair Koenig’s (still immediately recognisable) voice with a female guest, and Danielle Haim proves a perfect partner. It’s just one of several signs that the band feel assured enough at this stage to relax away from 3-minute pop-rock jewels, and explore other avenues. At 18 tracks and an hour of running time, Father of the Bride gives them plenty of room to do so, and they don’t waste a moment of it.

  1. Toro y Moi — Outer Peace

Third time on the list in a row for Chaz Bear’s one man hazy vibe machine. In 2015 What For? made 4th, and two years later / ago Boo Boo sat at 13th. In all honesty, there’s not too much to tell the albums apart; if there are musical evolutions here they’re minimal. I for one am quite happy, however, to have one of these records every couple of years – laid back beats, warm, fuzzy production, and Bear’s easygoing vocal delivery remain a tonic.

‘Ordinary Pleasure’ is an effortlessly catchy celebration of art and life in general (and the video’s fun); ‘Who I Am’ is a danceable minimal gem; and ‘Miss Me’ is all space and mood. But the album’s high point for me remains ‘Freelance’, with it’s weird Animal Collective-inspired vocal tic, and typical TyM lyrics mixing the prosaic & profound:

No more shoes and socks, I only rock sandals
I can’t tell if I’m hip or getting old
I can’t hear you, maybe you could change your tone
People tend to listen when they see your soul

  1. Jimmy Eat World — Surviving

OK, here’s the formula: first you make sure you have one of the year’s best album covers, then you sequence the album so that you start with a statement-of-intent title track, then you start that track with one of the most Jimmy Eat World guitar riffs imaginable. That’s how you kick off a rock record that will get my attention in 2019, and it’s also how you make your return to this list after more than a decade. Don’t get me wrong, 2016’s Integrity Blues wasn’t a bad record, and there were things to like on Invented (2010) (I barely remember Damage (2013) however; I’m not 100% sure that album exists). But it’s been a long time since Jimmy Eat World made a record that felt genuinely great, and the excellent news is that Surviving is as good an album as they’ve ever made. I still play Clarity (1999) & Bleed American (2001) a fair bit, and I can see myself adding this LP to that rotation.

Take, as just one example, ‘All the Way (Stay)’ - the kind of heartfelt, keenly urgent rock song this band are uniquely capable of writing on their best days. This is a record that suggests those are not all behind them.

  1. Sigrid — Sucker Punch

Last year Robyn dropped an album called Honey that didn’t make my list, but has grown on me quite a bit since. I mention that here because on Sucker Punch Sigrid is working side by side with her Scandinavian sister in the dance-infused electro-pop mines, and boy is she digging out some jewels.

The album’s title track is a crystal clear, simple slice of joy. ‘Mine Right Now’ feigns innocence for its first 30 seconds and then hits you right in whatever part of your brain responds to synth-driven anthems. And those are just the first two of a dozen near-flawless, glittering pop gems. There are tracks like ‘Don’t Kill My Vibe’ and ‘Level Up’ that are unafraid to dive into more personal, emotional lyricism, but I dare you not to sing along after you’ve heard them a couple of times.

There are no tricks here, just an assured, lilting vocal style and a cache of catchy tunes produced as simply as you like. That will get you in the top five only if you bring the songwriting goods, and Sigrid’s basket is full. More please.

  1. Madison Cunningham — Who Are You Now

This was an album that captured me right from the first listen: simple arrangements — rooted in country / folk / bluegrass — and a voice that sounds like clear running water. I was reminded of the stark beauty of Laura Marling’s debut, with a shade of something sharper, à la Jenny Lewis (see eg. the development of ‘Song in My Head’ for a good example of the mix).

There’s a lightness and a freshness to the album that belies some of its lyrical weight, with Cunningham’s voice effortlessly somersaulting over (deceptively complex) acoustic guitar. ‘Something To Believe In’ features an expressive piano arrangement as an exception to prove the rule. This lightness of touch mixed with often stark emotion has secured the record a Grammy nomination in the category of ‘Best Americana Album’, which feels richly deserved even if I’m not sure of the category definition.

Released in summer, this has really come into its own for me as the days got colder and the evenings longer.

  1. Jade Bird — Jade Bird

First you have to get over the voice: it sounds like it’s that of a seasoned folk-rock trooper who has been on the road since the 70s with a pack of Marlboros tucked in her sleeve, but it actually belongs to a 22 year old from Northumberland.

Once you’re past that you can enjoy some of the most enjoyable, well crafted voice-and-a-guitar songs I’ve heard in quite some time. Like a louder, brasher Laura Marling who sounds like she might have a knife in her boot, Bird lays out beautiful, impassioned stories of love and loss one after another as though it’s easy to do. The voice or the songwriting would likely place this record on this List, but the combination has it at number two because it’s nothing short of magical.

Sliding up four notes in the final moments of ‘Side Effects’, shifting from fragile to indomitable on ‘My Motto’, or somehow conveying both regret and strength in the same line: “Are you sure you wanna do this now?” (‘Ruins’). There’s also a key change on that last song (in fact the album’s opener) which just about kills me every time. And those are just the first examples that come to mind.

‘Uh Huh’ & ‘Good at It’ are a kind of one-two punch of an update to Alanis Morisette’s ‘You Oughta Know’, and in fact the comparison feels apt. This is top tier songwriting and one of the most compelling deliveries I’ve heard in some time.

  1. Taylor Swift — Lover

It seems to me that each of the past few years when putting together this list I’ve mounted a case for one straight-ahead pop record or another. (Tove Styrke’s Sway (#13 last year) being the most recent example.) It felt inevitable that at some point one of those records was going to plant its flag this deep in my heart. Top spot this year goes to the record I played more than any other, by the artist I played more than any other. According to Music I’ve listened to 1,155 hours’ of music this year. That’s 143 different artists, and 186 different releases. And yet seven out of my top ten most listened-to tracks, including the entire top five, come from one record. And I’m not nearly done playing any of them. In reverse order then:

  • ‘I Forgot that You Existed’: the album opener is the sound of someone reclaiming their power with as assured a light touch as you can imagine. A sparse musical bed over which Swift’s voice floats, saying goodbye to something she doesn’t need anymore.

  • ‘The Man’: an upbeat synth-pop masterpiece by way of feminist anthem, and like every song here entirely impossible not to sing along to every time you hear it.

  • ‘The Archer’: a downbeat synth-pop masterpiece showcasing Swift at her most emotionally vulnerable as it builds to something more powerful.

  • ‘You Need to Calm Down’: instantly ranks alongside my favourite pop tracks of all time. The five layered “uh ohs” of the bridge have pretty much been stuck in my head all year. A beautiful, righteous celebration of the LGBTQ+ community.

  • ‘Lover’: my most-listened to song of 2019 is an exquisite, tender ballad about holding close that which you love.

And then there’s ‘Paper Rings’, ‘ME!’, ‘I Think He Knows’….

It’s kind of fitting that it’s Swift who takes this giant leap for pop music kind and claims top spot on my List. I’ve been increasingly impressed with her as a cultural figure since she handled the whole Kanye West / VMAs debacle with such grace. It was Swift’s protest that single-handedly got Apple to agree to pay artists when their music was listened to during the free trial period of the Music streaming service. And most recently she has been both an increasingly vocal advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, and an increasingly visible opponent of industry practices that place record companies entirely in control of artists’ work.

So, alongside becoming the most decorated performer in the history of the American Music Awards, and being heralded their ‘Artist of the Decade’, here’s another trophy for Taylor’s shelf: she made my favourite album of 2019.

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