The Top 50 Albums of the Year
From the rise of UK drill to AI-augmented music, to post-genre explorations via pirate radio stations, here are the 50 albums that captured the many faces of 2019
Tom of England
Sex Monk Blues
Thomas Bullock has been a fixture of the underground for years, starting out with the Cambridge crew Tonka Sound System alongside one DJ Harvey, before heading to San Francisco and New York. A lifer, then, and make no mistake, the ghost of every one of those lost nights and early mornings stalks the rugged contours of his first album as Tom of England. Across the brief half-hour runtime, Sex Monk Blues coalesces into downtown skronk and lysergic disco, aggro post-punk and trippy krautrock, moments of lucidity and crushing claustrophobia. When the fog clears, the lights come on, and the drugs wear off, you realise what you should’ve known all along: Bullock is part of rarefied and cherished line of true dancefloor weirdos.
Bat for Lashes
With every album Natasha Khan releases as Bat for Lashes, she undergoes a fantastical transformation. Her previous output as indie-pop’s wistful theatric has seen her experiment with many musical alter-egos, all shot through a prism of elegant dream pop. On fifth album Lost Girls, Khan changes form once more. Inspired by a relocation to Los Angeles in 2017, she leans into the clichéd romantic aesthetics of her new surroundings without ever feeling kitschy. Lost Girls traces the story of a biker girl gang’s mischievous antics with a knowing wink; she sings of expansive desert landscapes, making out in the car and strange forces in the night, underpinned by flashes of darkwave synths, gated reverb drums and soaring melodies in her opulent contralto. It’s a coming-of-age work, and Natasha Khan has never felt freer.
Rachel Grace Almeida
Music x Road
An already blistering year for UK rap was further distinguished by the arrival of Headie One into the mainstream. January’s Top 10 single, 18HUNNA, featuring fellow emergent powerhouse Dave, not only served to ramp up interest in Music x Road, but set the album’s tone. With Skepta and Krept and Konan among the guests, it felt like Headie was seeing how his powers stack up next to some of the UK’s biggest stars. It was a methodology that paid out handsomely – there’s no doubt that Headie is an effective trap slinger, his jagged voice proving a cutting instrument on the murky Ball in Peace and Young Thug pastiche Rubbery Bands. Never mind the album artwork – which features the rapper’s face disguised behind a mask – Headie One won’t be lost in the crowd.
Dean Van Nguyen
The radically soft edges of Titanic Rising were, on the surface, a balm in a year of tumult. Natalie Mering’s supple, warm soprano when coupled with the serene steel guitar of A Lot’s Gonna Change, the velveteen melancholy of Movies, or the string-adorned classicism of Andromeda, make the fourth Weyes Blood album
a mesmetic, almost tender listening experience shorn of friction and surprise. But, sublimated within these torch songs and heartsore ballads is an undercurrent of existential fear: “A lot’s gonna change in your lifetime,” Mering sings on A Lot’s Gonna Change, while, on Wild Time, she offers, “Everyone’s broken now”. The clue was in the cover art – an image of a child’s bedroom submerged underwater – this is a record where still waters run deep.
Am I Who I Am
Alina Izolenta and Kamil Ea are well-versed in the fundamentals of high-impact rave music – the mentasm riffs, sine waves, eerie found-sounds and processed vocals. Yet, in the hands of the Russian duo, who clearly prize intuition above overthought, these well-worn tropes are made fresh again. Constructed from excerpts of live shows, Am I Who I Am feels almost organic in its unpredictability. Tracks like the warehouse stomper-turned-inside-out Over evolve and shapeshift, fixating on granular details or spinning off on sonic detours that leave you reeling. It would be too genteel to say that PTU are side-stepping genre, they seem to want nothing less than to weaponise techno against itself, in order to move it on to a higher, better plane.
With the release of her 2015 breakthrough album Own Your Own Love Again, Jessica Pratt emerged as if from an untraceable era. Her gentle alien folk feels suspended in time and place: too majestic for our messy 2019 reality; too radiant to feel like an attempt to cling to the past. And as the ambient anxiety of our generation went into overdrive this year, Pratt brought out another softly ornate record to lull us into a fantasy. With intricate, wandering melodies and psychedelic vocal acrobatics, Quiet Signs is obscure and mystifying, unspooling like a daydream.
Pang, the third solo record by Charlift’s Caroline Polachek, is the sort of album that feels as though it’s best heard on an autumn walk, while the listener is kicking leaves about and pretending they’re in the film of their own life. That’s because it’s a highly pensive, reflective record, with Polachek’s careful observations of herself, her past, and her relationships curving like ivy around towering, tightly structured castles of pop. The necessary drama comes via violin strings and looming synths (no doubt courtesy of the album’s co-executive producer, the baroque rave lord himself Danny L Harle), and of course Polachek’s evocative lyrics.
Utility might be entirely beatless, but boring ambient music this is not. Despite shunning drums entirely, Utility is one of the year’s most rhythmically arresting records – the whole thing pulsing and writhing in a state of perpetual motion. Melodic textures are brought vividly to life through complex processing and resonant filter work. An easy comparison to make would be Basic Channel, who pushed the rhythmic and spatial potentials of techno to their most abstract conclusions. However this time the building blocks are not grayscale dub techno, but colourful trance synths and euphoric rave hooks. Because who needs a 4/4 beat to have a good time?
Like so many of Africa’s riches, much of its popular music has gone ignored by the European public. Except for a now-sort-of-dubious Afropop explosion in the 80s, a lot of the excellent music coming from the continent remains obscure. Nigeria’s Burna Boy could very well change all that, and his fourth studio album, African Giant, is his most immediately gripping yet. Blending warm saxophones, thumbing jazz basslines, vocoder pop, American R&B and traditional West African polyrhythms, Burna’s sound samples from the entire African diaspora to create something completely fresh. Without a doubt, African Giant represents not only one of the most eclectic records of the year, but a rich and textured portrait of the future of pop music – defiant, inclusive and borderless.
Although rooted in minimal house and techno, Leif’s music has always been defined by a distinctly pastoral feel – a quality that has grown increasingly prominent in his work over the years. His last album, Taraxacum, sounded like a Livity Sound record built from twigs. On Loom Dream he invites us more explicitly than ever to reconnect with the natural world. Field recordings are coloured with broad melodic strokes, underpinned by rhythms that sound like rustling leaves or falling water. And amongst the tranquility, moments of turbulence and unease remind us that the natural world is not always the pure idyll that we might wish it to be.
Fontaines D.C.’s Dogrel could easily have been a flat concoction. (Men writing poems over guitars? Groundbreaking.) Instead, it ended up being one of the best ways to connect with a Dublin at risk of being eradicated by cold-hearted property developers. Grian Chattan’s notepad-and-a-pint-of-stout songwriting mixed with burly vocals pitched him as a romantic urbanite. Dig Dublin City Sky and its wistful remembrance of a drunken dance on a rainy night. Dig the almost derisory simplicity of Sha Sha Sha, ostensibly forged for the sole purpose for groups to chant around town. As Dogrel travelled as far as Jimmy Fallon’s The Tonight Show, it reminded the world that Irish indie can be as fiery as ever, led by a band that said they were going to be big and then willed it into reality.
Dean Van Nguyen
Rico Nasty & Kenny Beats
While Kenny Beats and Rico Nasty have both had banner years, their work together always shines the brightest. Ever since the pair first got in the studio and made Smack a Bitch, it’s been clear they bring out the most aggressive, confrontational parts of one another’s music; Rico’s sugary “Kennyyyy” tag prefixing hit after hit of crushing bass and toxic 808s. Anger Management is that aggression boiled down into 18 minutes that include a Jay-Z flip and features from Earth Gang
and Baauer (yes, he of Harlem Shake infamy). Calmer heads prevail as the tape comes to a close, but Anger Management’s best moments come when Kenny’s blown- out, heavy metal-inspired beats collide with Rico’s raspy braggadocio on cuts like Cheat Code and Big Titties and chaos is unleashed.
This time last year, black midi were navigating a wave of hype that might’ve consumed a lesser band. Instead, these four precocious Brit School graduates ignored the best new band hysteria, delivering a debut album that doubled down on their strain of virtuosic rock music. Spasming between krautrock-style freakouts and exploratory jam tracks, taut post-punk and Swans-like noise, Schlagenheim is elevated by the band’s two singular assets – Morgan Simpson’s free jazz drumming and the stylised and gnomic vocals of lead singer Geordie Greep. The result is unhinged and utterly unique – well, what else do you expect from a band whose guitarist poleaxed himself on a piano at the Mercurys. Maybe, just maybe, the hype was deserved.
Rogue Intruder, Soul Enhancer
Following a standout contribution to PAN’s Mono No Aware compilation, keen eyes were on the relative unknown Oli XL for the release of his debut album. In many ways, the record shares hallmarks with his club- deconstructing label mates – most notably a hyperreal digital sheen – but it is set apart by a tenderness and lightheartedness that many of his contemporaries eschew. The beats bounce like mangled UK garage, as if an MJ Cole track had been cut up and reconstructed on a faulty MPC. Its stop-start rhythms, vinyl scratches and chattering vocals recall Dizzee’s Boy In Da Corner or Basement Jaxx, creating a fascinating record at the intersection between pop and experimental.
The cover of PROTO is a disorientating, uncanny valley-esque meld of all its collaborators’ faces – that is, nearly all of them, because one of them doesn’t have a face. Spawn is the AI processor Holly Herndon created with partner Mat Dryhurst and developer Jules LaPlace, which was able to listen in on what human composers were playing during the album’s production and add musical ideas of its own. She named it ‘Spawn’ because its curiosity and receptivity to learning reminded her of a child – albeit a metallic bleeping one. The artificial intelligence-entwined results are a dizzying, futuristic blast of bouncy electronic breaks, filtered choral vocals, and robotic jitters and whispers. By breathing humanity into the synthetic, Herndon considers how we can coexist best with our new, fully-automated family.
Face to Phase
Don't Be Afraid
rRoxymore’s work on the outer reaches of club music always hinted at introspection, and her debut album saw rRoxymore hunker down even further, retreating into the studio during the winter months to produce it. The record sees the French-born producer strip back her sound, opting for something freer, more explorative and spatial than her previous releases. The beatless Home Is Where the Music Is contains a meditative mood and sets the album’s deep listening tone, while lead single Passages is at once sumptuous, sparse and eerie, incorporating futuristic dub with a dazzling sci-fi quality. With little room for retro aesthetics or a backward gaze, Face to Phase could soundtrack a journey into an alternate dimension, far-flung into the future. Importantly, it marks rRoxymore as one of the most engaging voices in electronic music today.
Baby on Baby
The buoyant flow, winning charisma and irresistible online personality of Charlotte MC DaBaby made him one of the year’s most undeniable breakthrough stars. Through blockbuster features and his own material, he’s firmly established himself as the golden boy of the new generation. What’s most impressive about his meteoric rise is his technical ability. While keeping the youthful energy of radio-friendly trap, DaBaby comes with a sculpted, crystal-clear delivery which accentuates
his punchlines. At risk of sounding like washed-out traditionalists, DaBaby can really rap. This shines brightest on his debut studio album Baby on Baby. DaBaby 2020!
When Lana Del Rey brought Julia Jacklin onstage for a duet on her NFR! tour, it brought to wider attention what Jacklin’s fans knew already – her 2019 album Crushing really was something special. Together the two performed Jacklin’s Don’t Know How to Keep Loving You, a track so beautifully devastating it feels like she’s reaching under your ribcage and giving your heart a tight squeeze. Crushing is a heavy listen indeed, Jacklin’s detached vocals dissecting intimate details of body politics, time stretching, and falling in and out of love. But the album’s grungy folk offers release too. Just like Jacklin in the cover art, who is pictured draped in flowers with an expression of soft ecstasy, Crushing will make you melt.
Giant Swan have built up a reputation for their uncompromising live shows, and it’s satisfying to get an album-length take on the duo’s aesthetic, which welds the dark, glassy-eyed anti-glamour of subterranean raves to the skittery sonics of experimental electronica. Building on a string of singles and EPs on adventurous electronic labels like Whities and Timedance, Giant Swan veers from thudding techno to grinding ambient and back again. Not a Crossing is a highlight, producing a certain unnervingly hypnotic effect, while Peace Fort 9 is plain spooky, with flashes of distorted noise periodically flaring from a gloomy melodic mist. Restless and spectral, Giant Swan are a welcome, noisy part of the electronic avant-garde.
Carla dal Forno
Look Up Sharp
Few artists create a mood like Carla dal Forno. Since the Australian-born, London-based multi-instrumentalist emerged with 2016 debut You Know What It’s Like, her output has been aligned with a hazy, 80s-indebted portrait of post-punk. Look Up Sharp, her best record to date, looks to her influences but expands on her sound with a clearer vision. Here, the songs are slow and foreboding, with bass-heavy guitars, feather-light synths and textured production evoking the ambient anxiety that comes with the chaos of modern life, or a particularly draining relationship – two subjects at the centre of Look Up Sharp. Dal Forno whips up a quiet oblivion that swells with glowering animosity (you only have to look as far as the sharp-tongued So Much Better) but settles in and ultimately becomes a source of solace.
Rachel Grace Almeida
Is the child doomed to become like the parent? The cover of Brandon Banks juxtaposes Maxo Kream’s face with that of his father, setting the tone for a wounding depiction of the blood bonds that partially define one man. Here, the Houston rapper continues to refine and develop his style, finding more experimental beats without ever sacrificing the grittiness of his approach. Kream’s husky voice and precise writing lay out the messy reality of family ties. And on Pray 2 the Dope, the Texan serves up a drug rap classic, asserting the harsh reality that the hustle must be prioritised before prayer. It’s worth 1,000 Chance the Rapper religious joints – the reality that faith can’t cure the earthly woes of the day-to-day grind.
Dean Van Nguyen
Up to now, Alexandra Drewchin has always felt at home in the subversive margins of experimental music. Trinity feels different. On her liquid-themed album, the Queens-based artist embraces the fluid structures of club music, enlisting a roster of New York producers for the ride (AceMo, Tony Seltzer, Kwes Darko, Color Plus, denzxl, Dadras and Hara Kiri). Whereas 2018’s IRISIRI opens with flourishes of harps and marries a sense of romanticism with surrealism, Trinity sees Drewchin layer “gushy wet love” anthems (namely, Fontanel) with washes of choral vocals throughout; at the end, the album culminates with the delirious joy of trance music in Solid Liquid Gas. Like much of Drewchin’s work, the album is heavily draped in ecstasy and catharsis but here, these qualities find expression in the dopamine-high transcendence of the dancefloor.
billy woods & Kenny Segal
Arguably the underground rap release of the year, Hiding Places saw woods and Segal both on career-best form. Over guitar-heavy, loosely constructed instrumentals and loops, woods crafts intricate monologues that balance social commentary and humour with a deft touch. Whether it’s the hook of Spider Hole – “I don’t wanna go see Nas with an orchestra at Carnegie Hall/ No man of the people, I wouldn’t be caught dead with most of y’all” – or the concluding lines of Speak Gently – “I’m getting your mail/ I’m reading it/ It says you’re broke” – woods delivers some of the best bars on record this year. Throw in a Succession sample and there’s no way Hiding Places wasn’t going to end up on this list.
Girl Band’s combination of post-punk ferocity and techno-indebted grooves has always been a winning formula but on The Talkies they perfected the recipe. Lead singer Dara Kiley sounds like Frank Black on pingers, circling the dancefloor as industrial grooves throb beneath his frantic yelps. While in places the album’s hardcore influences break through, the majority of tracks are mixed not for heaviness or brutality but to disorientate and disturb, distorted bass and guitar folded into a whirlpool of noise on tracks like Aibphobia and Laggard. With questions hanging over the group’s return before its release, The Talkies was a triumphant comeback from the Dublin four-piece.
Berlin-based producer Phillip Sollmann – also known as Efdemin – seems to exist on the fringes of the Ostgut Ton roster despite being one of Berghain’s longest-serving club residents. Sollmann’s latest studio album cements him as a techno mainstay with ease, but it’s the boldness of this release that makes it stand out. At eight tracks long, New Atlantis could have worked as one long intertwined composition. The album, bookended by two otherworldly vocal tracks, is a homage to Francis Bacon’s unfinished novel of the same name. Despite the lofty ambition, it’s an incredibly mature record. From ambient drone to guitar to whirring, hypnotic techno, Sollmann captures Bacon’s dream world to stunning effect, with every listen demanding more of your attention, revealing something new each time.
Dog Show Records
As 100 gecs, Laura Les and Dylan Brady have found themselves appointed the rulers of the post-internet musical world. As proficient in memes as they are in music, the pair walk a tightrope between irony and experimentalism on their debut album 1000 gecs, applying a shitposter’s approach to both lyrics and genre. The result is a chaotic, brash, hyperactive and utterly glorious collection of songs that refuse to sit still and draw on everything from happy hardcore to screamo for influence. And with AG Cook and the PC Music cohort lending their backing, the duo look set to further takeover alt-pop circles in the 2020s. You may well hate this record the first time you hear it, but stay the course, and soon enough you’ll know every word, wub and car crash sound effect by heart.
For You and I
With her first record for Hyperdub (having self-released several projects since 2015) Loraine James has produced one of the most rewarding records of the year. Exploring themes of love, home, queerness and blackness, a mirage of IDM-indebted lushness is punctuated with compressed, serrated percussion, and bursts of aggression (London Ting // Dark as Fuck) are as fully realised as those of devastating tenderness (Sensual). With a powerful softness reminiscent of Tirzah’s Devotion, For You and I manages to disorientate with its swirling electronics, yet still leaves you feeling as though James’ soul is laid bare.
Freddie Gibbs & Madlib
Some flicks demand a sequel. Five years after Madlib and Freddie Gibbs crafted their classic blaxploitation joint on wax Piñata, the beatnik producer and tough-as- old-boots rapper serve up another gripping set soaked in cinematic gangster lore. Like before, Lib traps his partner in crime in the 1970s, using his great instinct for cutting up dusty samples to surround Gibbs’ gruff voice with thick slabs of buttery soul and red-hot funk. With the scene set, Freddie Kane’s candid drug narratives come to life – his writing loaded with fine detail and emotional resonance, his delivery dazzling in its technical trickery. This is a pair at the height of their powers.
Dean Van Nguyen
New Yorkers Big Thief have maintained a pretty damn consistent hit rate since their 2016 debut, but with their alien third album, they placed themselves on a trajectory entirely of their own. While their earlier works were rooted down with a poppy immediacy, U.F.O.F.’s world is one of overwhelming subtlety. This is an album populated by small moments of wonder: micro- crescendos that lead, not to moments of release, but to points of collapse, dead ends and devastating hush. The instrumentation is so impossibly loose that harmonies seem to pool together like water, and Adrianne Lenker’s whispered vocals feel disembodied, as if communicated through the ether.
Murlo’s debut album is a lesson in how to build narrative in dance music without losing sight of the groove. Accompanied by a comic written and illustrated by the producer, Dolos builds a sense of story through organic sounding synths, dynamic shifts in pace and moments of pupil-dilating euphoria. Through the record Murlo commands his arsenal of horn samples and synths like a conductor, creating a sense of classicism that’s bolstered by the folkloric imagery of the Manchester producer’s live show. Thanks to its foundations in the sprawling world of UK bass – with grime, garage and LuckyMe-esque hyperactivity all finding their way into the mix – it can still draw gunfingers as well, with tracks like Ascension holding their own on the dancefloor just as well as on headphones.
Some artists live up to their name. It seems barely a coincidence that Summer Walker’s music sounds like a heady evening in late August, fireflies whizzing around East Atlanta, the night air dappled with trap beats and a gingerly plucked guitar. Over It, Walker’s debut studio album, not only excels in maintaining this dreamy ambience but also stands firmly in the middle ground between the old and new schools of R&B. While its staccato beats and syrupy harmonies are firmly anchored in the now, tracks like the sultry standout Playing Games and Come Thru (which contain elements of Destiny Child’s Say My Name and Usher’s You Make Me Wanna… respectively) use 90s nostalgia to their advantage, flawlessly marrying all the ingredients that have made Walker the breakout R&B artist of 2019.
Erika De Casier
Independent Jeep Music
Listening to Essentials feels like reading Erika De Casier’s diary; a document of intimacy so candid and assured that it’s hard to believe it’s her debut album. As a Regelbau affiliate and DJ Sports’ go-to vocal collaborator, the Danish artist cut her teeth with the experimental electronic scene. But on Essentials, her voice sits at the centre. De Casier sings with the quiet wisdom of Sade and Aaliyah; a voice so soothing and aqueous it could be bottled up and sold as a healer. From the harpsichord funk of Do My Thing – a direct warning signal to an overbearing partner – to the R&B drama of What U Wanna Do? and the airy bliss of a new relationship on Puppy Love, it’s an album that’s as idealistic as it is rooted in reality; a celestial hymn for millennials in love with everything.
Rachel Grace Almeida
When I Get Home
Solange’s critically esteemed A Seat at the Table was always going to be a tough act to follow, but her fourth studio album When I Get Home felt like a departure from its predecessor, making them impossible to compare. It was definitely weirder, bounding from one bold idea to the next. Tracks like the jazz-tinged Almeda draw on her black Southern heritage, and, like so much of this record, are an ode to African American culture. Notably, Solange demonstrates her considerable curatorial prowess, collaborating with the likes of Gucci Mane, Sampha, Playboi Carti and Pharrell. All are harnessed to help build out her considerable vision and nudge her aesthetic into unexpected directions. And that’s the beauty of Solange.
Speaking to Crack Magazine back in August, Kedr Livanskiy described how Your Need was born from a frenzy of creativity that originated when Livanskiy teamed up with St. Petersburg producer Flaty to record a single. Both accomplished DJs in their own right, before long the duo were swapping inspirations and producing tracks at a frenetic pace, accumulating an album’s worth of material in just 10 days. Production-wise, Your Need is rife with club influences, from the uptempo kicks of Bounce 2 to the dub echoes of Lugovy (November Dub), each one warped deftly into a foil of Livanskiy’s airy vocals. Pop records that riff on the dancefloor are nothing new, but the fizzing, aux cord-grabbing eclecticism of Your Need sounds more like all the best afters you’ve ever been to, distilled into one.
When We All Fall Asleep Where Do We Go?
Largely depending on how close to the millennium you were born and how you feel about emo, Billie Eilish is either the voice of her generation or some kind of evil Spotify-created pop destroyer. Regardless of what you think, with the voice and songwriting poise of a 50s jazz singer and the aesthetic sensibility of a gothic hypebeast (so glad this decade is ending), Eilish marked herself out early as Gen Z’s first true superstar. From the chart-topping groove of Bad Guy to the swooning Wish You Were Gay through to the tender balladry of When the Party’s Over, Eilish displayed a depth few pop stars, let alone teenage ones, possess.
The Comet Is Coming
Trust In the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery
Coltrane in space! Sun Ra at SubClub! Blade Runner but with saxophones and in London! None of these would be a ridiculous way to describe The Comet Is Coming’s second album. Combining the world of British bass, jazz and more than a few hints of prog, Trust In the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery weaves together an occasionally dystopian sounding alternate universe. Towering moments like opener Because the End Is Really the Beginning display Shabaka and co’s cinematic tendencies while sitting alongside groovier, almost club-ready tracks like Timewave Zero, which bristles ominously with horns before breaking down into euphoric house piano and shuffling, half-Afrobeat-half- footwork-drum-patterns. A landmark album in another banner year for Shabaka Hutchings.
T4T LUV NRG
No one in dance music bottles joy like Octo Octa. So far, her albums have traced a cathartic emotional journey, from 2013’s Between Two Selves, which marked a period prior to coming out as a trans woman, to 2016’s Where Are We Going?, which mapped uncertainty, movement and “Fleeting Moments of Freedom”. There’s very little to be uncertain about in this year’s Resonant Body. Its buoyant breakbeat and divine 90s-indebted house marks a moment of emotional clarity – and its overriding emotion is one of pure joy. A paean to the collective bliss of a dancefloor packed with sticky bodies, feelings are felt wholly and delivered with a gut punch in a celebration of vulnerability, intimacy, and pure rave euphoria. The most radiant release of 2019.
Mello Music Group
Using firearms, and America’s relationship with them, as a thematic core, prolific Detroit rapper Quelle Chris delivered one of his most intriguing and rewarding projects in 2019. Despite often being billed as a conscious rapper, Guns carries with it an immediacy and clarity in production that side-steps any preachiness. As the cover art suggests, there’s an absurdist, avant-rap quality to the record which gives it an addictive vibrancy – pairing the oddball impulses of Danny Brown with the nuanced perspective of artists like Kendrick. Increasingly, headlines about shootings have begun to blur into one. By interrogating the reality of the stories and finding new sonic ground through his own productions, Chris zeroed-in and found a startling urgency.
AGE 101 MUSIC
On Little Simz’s third album, GREY Area, the deep-thinking rapper matches her indomitable strengths with a richer set of instrumentals and more adroit songcraft. Simz, in her familiar north London tone, raps over the kind of heavy, percussion-driven beats that Nas was leaning on a decade ago. The battering drums of Boss sees Simz at her most dissonant, while the fuzzy bassline and dramatic strings of Offence sound like they were captured from the grubbiest corner of the 70s soul canon. On the other end of the stylistic spectrum, the sweet hook of Selfish forms a fresh slice of laid-back lounge rap. This is Simz at her most enjoyable, delivering everything that makes her distinct, but with a welcome layer of polish.
Dean Van Nguyen
Carter Tutti Void
This is the third and final album from Carter Tutti Void, the collaborative project of Throbbing Gristle alumni Chris Carter and Cosey Fanny Tutti, and Factory Floor’s Nik Void. Much like 2012’s Transverse and 2015’s f(x), Triumvirate’s largely improvised approach unearths a dark and alluring energy that fogs the mind. Its six tracks are thick with the primitive sensuality at the heart of all good industrial and EBM: pulsating synths throb beneath Carter’s propulsive, rudimentary beats. The burning air of ceremony hangs heavy throughout. At many points, there is space for a listener to crawl inside the sound, allowing for hypnotic, hallucinatory moments. Very appropriate for such a rich and intoxicating parting gift from what’s proven a fiercely creative venture – it’s sad to see them go.
The Practice of Love
After the decadent textures of 2016’s Blood Bitch, where Jenny Hval would go next was anyone’s guess. The answer, it seems, is an all-encompassing dissertation on intimacy and desire expressed through the prism of 90s trance music. The Practice of Love is, in a word, spellbinding. The record’s chasm of hard dance rhythms and arpeggiated synths runs parallel with its lyrical dichotomy; concerns over women’s abilities to pursue non-heteronormative trajectories in their relationships are validated even as Hval exalts the transcendent, almost clichéd bliss of “giving into the ordinary.” It’s an apt analogy for the album itself – The Practice of Love takes on a subject matter exhausted beyond belief and emerges with a work of radiant profundity.
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
Earlier this year, when a fan asked if he feels his late son Arthur is communicating with him on his Red Hand Files site, Nick Cave wrote that he feels a presence all around him; the soothing power of the idea of an afterlife. Ghosteen is a transcendental album that attempts to make sense of this life-altering loss. It fits all the despair and love he can carry into the smudged shapes of songs. There’s aching pain, of course, but there’s also joy in the memories and their unbreakable bond. It’s a reminder that there are no simple answers. Here, Cave seems more vital than ever, a master of his craft who has channelled immense grief into something that burns with beauty.
Lana Del Rey
Norman Fucking Rockwell!
When Lana Del Rey announced she’d teamed up with pop producer Jack Antonoff for her sixth album, it raised some eyebrows. But far from adopting his signature bombastic production, Norman Fucking Rockwell! stakes out more minimalist territory. Often accompanied by little more than a piano, Del Rey demonstrates some of her most perceptive writing to date – cutting through the myth of male genius, most notably on the title track, which addresses a flawed “man-child” who blames the news for his bad poetry. What’s more, in a continuation from Lust for Life, her universe is now more aligned with present-day America and its many ills. Despite the unflinching gaze, what glimmers through the sprawling odes to California is hope – and a fear of hoping. That’s a perfect encapsulation of 2019.
Kristin Hayter’s steel cage of layered chants, croaks and screamed lyrical barbs aims straight for the blackened heart of the misogyny surrounding heavy music on the hulking, hugely moving CALIGULA. By reclaiming violent, abrasive sounds – one of her abusers was “a very powerful noise musician in the Providence community” – she sets about cauterising her own wounds with metal and noise. “Throw your body in the fucking river,” she intones with shifting mercilessness and fragility on DO YOU DOUBT ME TRAITOR, a song she recorded the vocals for in one take from the floor of her closet, when she was, in her words, “truly ruined.” CALIGULA is female retribution distilled; it’s something fucked-up and freeing growing in the void.
Angel Olsen embraced high drama on her fourth album, underscored by a new film noir-indebted aesthetic and a music video for All Mirrors that took cues from Sunset Boulevard. Funny then, that the album was originally conceived as a stripped-back work, an idea junked after Olsen made alternative recordings of the tracks adorned by string and synth arrangements from Ben Babbitt and Jherek Bischoff. The best songs on the record, such as the cinematic Lark, attain a quasi-operatic quality, if not in sound, then in emotion. Indeed, far from obscuring Olsen’s songwriting, the set dressing serves to heighten her disarming directness; the maelstrom of strings and synths framing that elemental voice. All Mirrors is extra, and guess what, it is just right.
Anthony Naples has forged a curious path for himself. Hot off the hype of his breakthrough outsider house anthem Mad Disrespect, Naples relocated to Berlin from his native Florida, and subsequently retreated from the spotlight after it didn’t go to plan. A move to New York City later, and Naples found community and purpose again. Enter Fog FM, his fourth solo album and most complete work to date. Expanding on his quick-witted house-slash-techno ruminations, Fog FM has a classic feel to it – a stylish and thoughtfully crafted sound that never falls victim to the rooftop house cosmopolitanism that New York often surrounds him with. It’s a defining moment in Naples’ low-key but colourful career.
Rachel Grace Almeida
Tyler, the Creator
A Boy Is a Gun/Columbia
Having previously demanded the most attention of anyone in the room, on IGOR Tyler seemed content to work in the shadows. Inviting the likes of Solange, slowthai, Frank Ocean, Kanye and many more into the studio, guests pop up exactly where you’d least expect; a Playboi Carti verse over some lavish piano chords, Lil Uzi lending vocals on Igor’s Theme, Jack White somewhere in the mix as well. Hell, even La Roux makes an appearance on Gone Gone / Thank You. Through those intricately layered contributions, Tyler dissolved genre entirely, distinguishing himself yet again from his contemporaries and elevating himself into the pantheon of artists – Prince, Pharrell, Kanye in the good old days – whose sound serves a category all of its own.
Lust for Life
Lord Tusk may not have the same name recognition as his previous collaborators and associates Klein and Dean Blunt, but his distinctive, heavy-lidded approach is becoming harder and harder to ignore. With Lust for Life, Tusk’s second LP under the name Sun Runners, he comes close to a breakout moment. While melancholy and nostalgia are coded into every gated drum, 90s R&B sample and retro synth chord on here, but there’s something discomfiting about the repetitious, unchanging nature of these tracks – influenced, surely, by Daniel Lopatin’s late aughts Eccojams project. These aren’t songs as much as incantations and, in the hands of such a deft pop culture obsessive, they are capable of unlocking something approaching the sublime.
Hooldies All Summer
In one hell of a year for British hip-hop, London veteran Kano did what he’s always done – proved himself a man apart. Full of soft piano chords and tweaked vocal samples via producers Jodi Milliner and Blue May, Hoodies All Summer artfully absorbs gospel and soul into the rapper’s murky sound as he laments the human cost of a society broken. The ultralight beam sounds of Trouble takes his audience to church as Kano calls out the politicians complicit in the oppression of his community. But on Class of Deja, he re-rewinds the clock back to 2001 and the pirate radio station grooves that once shook London’s tower blocks to their foundations.
Dean Van Nguyen
In music, there is the familiar, the alien and an in-between space that would be vacant, if not for the existence of FKA twigs. Since the British artist started making music, panting messages of infatuation over spectral R&B beats on 2012’s EP1, the dancer, singer, producer and performance artist has constantly swerved easy definition.
She is, after all, a polymath: the kind of artist who would sooner spin all of her plates than exclude part of her persona from her work. That sentiment has trickled through her catalogue to date. Both her breathless debut LP1 and the crushing, maximalist gem that followed it, the M3LL155X EP, capture an artist whose attitude towards creating abstract work, while remaining firmly in touch with reality, is tightly intertwined. Her humanism is as potent as her desire to make something different.
Toeing that line and maintaining control has played a key part in helping twigs grow greater than her contemporaries. Her music is scarce but precise, every violent and unearthly beat considered. But sometimes, it’s best to stretch out and feel everything, and let pain shape you in ways it hasn’t before. Enter twigs’ cataclysmic, melancholic masterpiece MAGDALENE.
In 2019, FKA twigs crept out of the shadows whispering seven syllables of self-flagellation. On cellophane – a new era’s glistening strings and glum keys replacing the thundering, carnal synth-hop that had shaped her prior work – she repeated a lyric that crystallised the influence of her sophomore record: “Didn’t I do it for you?”
MAGDALENE is a mountain built from the remnants of twigs’ tumultuous past half decade. In that time period, there were relationships that have been dissected by tabloids. Then came a medical diagnosis: a “fruit bowl” of fibroid tumours that put her body through hell. For the first time in her life, she was halted.
And so, twigs made a record that mulled over that pain. MAGDALENE wallows in its sore heart; what it feels like to be betrayed by your own body and let down by those you love.
The opening few songs feel like the first dizzying hit of confusion when a lover leaves you. Hymnal opener thousand eyes and the melancholy of home with you precede sad day. It’s the record’s strongest meeting of emotional lyricism and skewed pop production. The simmering, shaky piano chords and twigs’ perfect enunciation at the start making way for a song that is soaring then, all of a sudden, sad and apocalyptic.
The production that wallpapers twigs’ work – predominantly from Arca, Clams Casino, Dev Hynes – has long been one of the most alluring components of it, perhaps even more so than her lyrics. When it comes to those words, she is direct and unambiguous in a way that balances out the proudly cacophonic instrumental. But on MAGDALENE she takes the reins. twigs’ role as a producer focuses less on polished precision and more on capturing emotion in its most aggressive, narcotising form here. Her part in it is so prominent that Nicolas Jaar – the most present force on the record beside herself – suggested removing his name from the credits entirely.
MAGDALENE’s core is angered and chaotic. Bulgarian folk choirs battle trap snares on holy terrain, a song that’s been described by some as pandering to the streaming ecosystem, yet still contains 200 coexisting elements. Above the guttural army cries and tingling percussion of fallen alien, twigs delivers the majority of her lines in a piercing falsetto. “In the blazing sun, I saw you/ In the shadows hiding from yourself,” she growls as strobing synths, white noise and melancholic piano chords merge.
twigs has always understood and battled with subservience. In her hands, the desire she gives and receives is dangerous, incendiary and a great source of power. On LP1’s Two Weeks, she insistently told a lover “get your mouth open, you know you’re mine“, before becoming “your sweet little love maker” on Pendulum. M3LL155X contrasts commandeering behaviour (“Now hold that pose for me”) with an offering of herself (“Wind me up/ I’m your doll”). Here, in a sea of songwriting that ponders her emotional state far more bravely and deeper than she has before, that ability to coerce those around her still seeps through.
Who are we when the person we love leaves us? What do we become when the body we trust turns against us? Over 39 immaculate minutes, MAGDALENE articulates those feelings in a way that feels, like all of her work, familiar and yet alien. Through grand expressions of weakness, fury and conflict that constantly collide with each other, she has created a blistering soundscape of biblical scale. MAGDALENE is FKA twigs’ very first masterpiece.