Recommended Albums of 2019
Written by katehazeldine on 20th December 2019
2019 sure has been a turbulent year (no expansion needed – y’all know what we mean). But at least we’ve always got one constant: the music (cannagettan AY-MEN?). And boy, did this year certainly deliver on the album front.
A few LPs certainly blew the roof off our studio – Floating Points’ Crush did just that to our minds, bodies and souls; FKA Twigs made us fall in love with the raw and tender Magdalene, whilst elsewhere we raved in cyberspace with Nathan Micay’s debut Blue Spring.
However, our listening horizons were certainly broadened further thanks to you lovely lot. Each month we looked forward to what new discoveries our radio hosts would bring in, from fizzy, uncomfortable electro through to smooth, silky soul. Below is a round-up of our top albums of the year, with the help of our Melodic radio show hosts, staff and extended family. Dig in!
James Blake – Assume Form (Polydor)
Chosen by Mo Ayoub (MDR/Reprezent host & voice of E4)
Cronulla and pancakes. A dreamy anecdote dropping you off in the café lined streets of a Sydney neighbourhood, sure, but also the specific moment I knew that I’d found the sweet spot of melancholy in my musical output; and that my album of the year dropped – Assume Form. I can see your mind’s cogs malfunctioning already – “that came out in the first two weeks of 2019?!” Yes, yes it did. Let me explain…
James Blake’s reversed application of elements you’d find in Brazilian Choro really struck a chord with me; kicking sand across ozone-less shore-fronts with the title track on loop. The carefully measured mix of features means there’s a sophisticated aural moodboard that, if you’re as loved up as Blake is, takes you to the euphoric highs of being enamoured like in ROSALÍA’s breakout feature on ‘Barefoot in the Park’ – or the silky ‘Can’t Believe The Way We Flow’.
Opposingly, the heartbroken will find a form of solace and reassurance in the more introspective, solo tracks like ‘Power On’ or ‘Don’t Miss It’. With production input from the likes of Mount Kimbie’s Dominic Maker and Metro Boomin’, each layer of each track is clinically tuned, whilst retaining a personable, human touch that brings you into Assume Form’s world multiple times. Having had both sides of the aforementioned love coin land in my hand this year – this album’s been somewhat a musical agony aunt, and definitely best friend.
Thanks for your empathy and honesty James.
Barker – Utility (Ostgut Ton)
Chosen by Chris Barker (Deep Space Orchestra & Spaced Out)
Sam Barker’s first solo LP felt like a desperately-needed breath of fresh air. At the time of its release, it seemed to arrive against a particularly dense backdrop of lazy tech house and bandwagon rave pastiche, highlighting just how novel its sound was in comparison to the volume of beige “will this do?” releases that were doing the rounds at the time.
It’s strangely hard to pin down. Most people’s first point of reference is the arresting lack of kick drums in an otherwise dancefloor-focused LP, but that’s an oversimplified description that doesn’t do the album any justice. It’s extremely beautiful, weirdly euphoric and in several places actually quite haunting. I’ve listened to the album in its entirety so many times and keep finding myself returning to it – there’s nothing else quite like it out there, except perhaps Barker’s own Debiasing EP from late last year. It’s refreshing to see somebody carve out a niche of their own when everyone else seems to be content with recycling sounds that are already extremely well-worn.
Also much kudos for raising the profile of the Barker dynasty in general. Clan goals.
Tei Shi – La Linda (Downtown Records)
Chosen by Kate Hazeldine (LUNA & MDR Producer)
Tei Shi is a Colombian-Canadian singer/songwriter I’ve been following for years. Ever since her soaring vocals on ‘Bassically’ gave me chills (and then froze me to death live at Sound City 2015), she had me gripped until her debut album Crawl Space in 2017.
This November she released her second album La Linda on Downtown Records. I have to admit, it took me a few listens through at first. But with each play, it just gets better and GOD-DAMN BETTER. There are still glimmers of the ethereal vocals and glitchy production that captured me 4 years ago, but since then her music has gone down more of a pop/alt.RnB route (which I dig just as much).
It’s an eclectic journey from the slick ‘Even If It Hurts’ with Blood Orange, the hip-popping ‘Mantando’ (sung all in Spanish, which is divine), to the heart-wrenching almost country(?)esque ballad ‘When He’s Done’. Her lyrics are raw, painful, euphoric and honest all in one. They tell relatable stories of love, loss and pain, making you feel less alone in this vast universe. If you’re into sexy sultry jams, paired with a voice that will knock your little socks off, give La Linda a whirl.
Yank Scally – There’s Not Enough Hours In The Day (Self-Released)
Chosen by Phil Charnock (ASJC Guest DJ)
Liverpool is exceptional at music as a whole. We can present electronic and soulful music in the context of clubbing brilliantly. However, I’ve never heard an entire LP of modern, electronic music created in this city that I can listen to repeatedly. Nor have a found a record – of this ilk – from an ‘L’ postcode that moves me. Like, really resonates. Then Yank Scally’s LP emerged in 2019 and gave me exactly what I had been craving.
Confident but quiet, busy but raw. I have no idea who Yank Scally is. I feel like I know him. Surely we’ve shared a dance floor? If we had been at a sit-off together I’d remember, so it can’t be that. It’s not just music that originated locally – there are many types of people in a city – this feels like it could have been made just for me.
‘Walk Home’ is my favourite song (I can’t use the word ‘track’ for it, it’s too dear to me) on the LP, but ‘Bulletproof Wizard’ deserves mention, if only because that title is a great insult waiting to be deployed. And the vocoder-led ‘Up All Night’ embodies its singular, jittery sentiment exactly as intended.
Rian Treanor – ATAXIA (Planet Mu)
Chosen by Nina Franklin (Lupini & MDR Studio Manager)
Rian Treanor’s whiplash debut hit Planet Mu back in March. Angular and tightly sprung, ATAXIA is a smart trot through pattern, percussion and rhythm. Occupied with opposites, the release joyrides through functionality/unfunctionality, seriousness & studiousness / irreverence & playfulness/ Sonically, it feels like a dry-humoured cousin of London’s harddrum, Lisbon’s Principe and anything Nyegue Nyegue. If you’re DJ Plead, DJ Firmeza, or Slikback in the streets, you could be Rian in the sheets.
Whilst obsessed with percussion, Rian’s at his best when bruising his way through vocals, as in the nauseous skat piece of A1; the tension-release Lollywood shiver of B2 and the delicious crown piece closer D3. Not that the instrumentals lack: the rubberised bounce of C2 has a whiff of UK funky lurking somewhere low in the swamp, while the scrobbled, eczematic D1 and the piped clang of D2 give away the South Yorkshire heritage.
At times, there’s a risk of being a “producer’s album.” The press bumpf was predicated on Rian’s love of pattern modulation, synth patches and sound design. The overall ConceptTM is so clearly – and neurotically – probed in every track. Still, there are so many moments of unbridled joy. Simply put, the album is really, really funny.
I’m not here to explain the joke to you, but it runs on the same comedic bent of bawdy DJs skilfully smelting down polyrhythms beyond their constituent parts; mangling beyond downbeats, breaking beyond counting into what feels like a sandstorm of being told, dear dancer, to Fuck Off. It’s of no surprise that Rian’s DJ sets and album clunk comfortably into place here.
Claire Welles – Transpose (Self-Released)
Chosen by Chris Connor (SPINE)
Claire Welles is an icon. After writing four albums (at least) in under two years, she’s the unstoppable pop provocateur the world needs. On her self-released and produced 29th album, Claire refines and expands the polished synth production established in 2018’s Sniper At Work and Blush, further embracing her wide-ranging songwriting sensibilities with avant-pop anthems and sirene VHS ballads.
The lo-fi art-rock of her early discography has been succeeded with drum machines, digital synthesis and the unabashed charisma of Bryan Ferry or Eno in his pre-ambient glam days. As ever, nostalgia is a recurring lyrical theme and persistent object of exploration throughout Transpose. Claire’s musical vision yearns for an alternative present where Top of the Pops never died and Level 42 are fashionable.
Personally, ‘Back Window Kids’ is my favourite song to come out of Liverpool in years. Inspired by familiar surroundings and childhood mishaps, lyrics on later tracks like ‘My Knowsley Heart Is Breaking’ (on ‘Knowsley’) cut deep and reassure in equal measure, laced with a sense of dry irony that permeates all of the artist’s extensive back catalogue. ‘Pressure’ recalls Bowie’s Berlin period whilst ‘Shit For Brains’ provides the meditative declaration that ‘Life’s a piece of piss… Especially when you have no kids.’ Essential listening from one of Merseyside’s finest, support your local scenes.
Jenny Hval – The Practice of Love (Sacred Bones Records)
Chosen by George Maund (Cartier 4 Everyone)
2019 was a fine, fine time to be a fan of queer-leaning pop, with releases from Charli XCX, Lizzo, and Kindness all taking us to higher places and elevating the current upward flex in refined, genre-less popular song.
In the top reaches of that pile Jenny Hval continued her unbroken run of lush, insight-bearing records by delivering The Practice of Love – a shimmering assemblage of ruminations reflecting on the inner life of a woman in and out of (self-)love (‘High Alice’), marking life’s natural rites (‘Ashes to Ash’), and pondering the existential whereabouts of opting to be child-free over 30 (‘The Practice of Love’). It’ll feel relevant for ages while sounding timeless thanks to a faintly nostalgic breakbeat vein running throughout; it bounces in places like it could’ve sat in between Bjork’s first two LPs.
Considering the whirlpool of hype that always surrounds Grimes, I stay surprised that Jenny Hval isn’t huger, given their similar upper-register vocal range and propensity for spiralling synths. For fans of the prettiest arpeggios and crushing, earnest honesty. On loop in the whip into 2020.
E B U – Hinge (NoCorner)
Chosen by Chris Cooper (Roadside Picnic)
In a year full of innovation as well as renewed interest and dedication to long player format, it was E B U’s debut album, Hinge, that stood out as a truly remarkable and unique offering.
Over the course of 10 tracks, the Bristolian artist draws from a seemingly ending list of references whilst sounding like nothing else out there, demonstrating her singular artistic voice and vision. The result is a highly personal set of tracks that shun any particular genre instead opting for what she herself has dubbed ‘swamp pop’. This is incredibly apt given that it is defined throughout by its arresting mix of naive melodies and disorienting sonic landscapes.
Stand out tracks include the bittersweet ear worm that is ‘Falling’, as well as the charming slow burning ‘Homeland’ that recalls endless days spent wistfully staring onto rain-soaked landscape.
However, it is a start-to-finish listen that makes this album come into its own. With each song seamlessly leading into the next, the care and attention that has gone into arranging both the individual songs and album pays off as the resulting 40 minutes is a true head trip into Ebu’s absorbing world.
Otherworldly synths, modulated vocals, field recordings and all manner of instruments are combined into what should, in theory, be a cacophony. Instead, it is a bizarrely cohesive and calming listen. The final product is a highly addictive set of tracks that summons up memories of half-forgotten dreams and leave you eagerly wanting more.
YĪN YĪN – The Rabbit That Hunts Tigers (Bongo Joe)
Chosen by Benny Maths (Black Beacon Sound)
I’m certain I was saying this at the end of 2018, but it’s been a good year for albums, with some wonderful long players hitting our ears. I’ve got to give a shout to Zen the Sharpshooter’s Manhattan Centre, Monday Night on my own label, Black Beacon Sound, because it might well be the best thing we’ve released so far. A concoction of funk infused electro jams, techno laced soulful grooves and just some damn fine hip-hop, alongside the cosmic explorations of Malik Crumpler and the incisive intuitions of Treece, it’s ace. With that, I’ve also got to mention the psychedelic, lo-fi, hip-hop weirdness of Yikes the Zero’s fantastic self-produced An Echo Storm Howling on Extra Lovely Records. thatmanmonkz stretching his creative legs astride some raw OG house, techno and disco vibes on the gorgeous Non Zero Sum Game on Shadeleaf Music. And finally, the powerful, raucous, punch-in-the-face stompers of the guitar and drum assault that is Girl Band’s The Talkies on Rough Trade.
However, album of the year for me goes to the kaleidoscopic East Asian influenced vibes of Yin Yin’s marvellous The Rabbit That Hunts Tigers on Bongo Joe. With tracks that switch up from the irresistible disco of ‘One Inch Punch’, through the intoxicating uplifting drama of ‘Alpaca Mountains’ to the shimmering funk of ‘Sui Ye’, this is an album that has so many sounds I love wrapped around a scintillating core of grooves. It has to be my number one from 2019.
J-ZBEL – Dog’s Fart Is So Bad The Cat Throws Up (BFDM)
Chosen by Jack Charnley (All Trades & Altered Voltage)
So not only does this win my AOTY, but it also takes the cake for ATOTY (Album Title of the Year). Littered with ‘where do I know that from’ samples, from ‘Mortal Kombat’ to ‘The Matrix Reloaded’, it’s not only the unashamed references that make this AOTY, but the number of styles & moods that the J-ZBEL crew touch on within 12 tracks.
From Detroit & Goan acid techno trips to ethereal hip-hop, gabber & something that sounds like a soundtrack from a journey through an off-world jungle to the summit of an interstellar Machu Picchu, the sound design throughout is next-level. Every genre is nailed as if they had spent their whole career perfecting that one style. For this project to have stayed an unofficial compilation passed between friends, as was originally intended, would have been nothing short of criminal.
Then we get to the breakbeat-science and oh BOY do they go in. ‘Organically grown’ as they describe it and they’ve been feeding their snares the good stuff. The drum programming on this album is second-to-none. Personal highlights include the gated vocal on ‘Tunnel Vision’ that played out exactly as I hoped when I listened to it for the first time, and the mental gabber rinse-out, fittingly titled ‘The J-ZBEL Anthem’, that I’ve done the Hakken to a few times alone in my room. Instant Classic.
Sleep D – Rebel Force (Incensio)
Chosen by Joe Stephenson (Test Press & Almost Grown)
The Melbourne duo released their first LP Rebel Force on Anthony Naples’ label, Incensio, in early October. It features ten tracks, all of sublime quality that set off a cognitive process of familiarity throughout. In saying this, it’s difficult to put a finger on the synergistic elements flowing through each of the cuts. Perhaps it’s the warm fuzz oozing out of every composition, or the tripped out, subtle textures layered throughout. The album in its entirety leaves the listener pondering the mindfulness that produced this level of linkage without really knowing how it was achieved. As a whole piece Rebel Force is enticing, hypnotic and very re-listenable.
Individually there is a lot to unpack in each track. One may look to ‘Reggatron’, a +140 dubstep orientated tune that’s as snappy as it is mellow. Dubbed out melodies allure a meditative state of mind, whilst the whip of a snare channels focus back onto the dancefloor. ‘Twin Turbo’ slows things down with some chunky progressive chug. A rolling bassline underlies the undeniable groove whilst a plethora of sounds playfully mingle in the forefront. What starts as a percussive element (perhaps a crushed cymbal), slowly morphs into a dually disjointed but infectious hook. Sleep D bring Rebel Force to a close blissfully with ‘Pearlescent Sky’. A trip into serene sonic pleasure, driven by a stomping kick and trance-like flecks of organic sound. Perhaps a hint at what’s to come from Sleep D, or an ode to the spirit of what came before.