The end (of 2019) is nigh, and as such here’s our albums of the year record of the music that’s kept us dreaming over the last 12 months (and here’s last year’s review, should you be interested). Dive in, have a listen, and if you like the sound of any of it, why not head over to the artist’s Bandcamp and support them making more lovely stuff like this?
- Sunn0))) – Pyroclasts
Sunn0))) have always known a thing or two about the cleansing power of noise, so I’m really glad Pyroclasts made it off the cutting room floor (so to speak) into a full album. Great big slabs of guitar feedback drones, pure and simple, each diving into a particular key – it’s basically the sonic equivalent of a sorbet between courses, cleansing the palate and the mind, so listen to this to wipe your slate clean before powering on with the rest of the list.
- Pan.American – A Son
While a great song and dance was being made about certain other comebacks after a long hiatus this year (including by me – see number 8 below), this was a fabulously understated and much-welcome return by Pan.American. A bit lower on the lush instrumentation than something like the brilliant Quiet City, A Son deals primarily in lilting acoustic guitars augmented by the subtlest of effects and electronics, with spare vocal lines to match. “Brewthru” is a little too jaunty for my liking and breaks the mood mid-album, but otherwise this is a gorgeous little record.
- Zonal – Wrecked
Woo! Practically a new Techno Animal record, which takes you back to the glory days of The Brotherhood of the Bomb. Square wave basslines, post-nuclear background FX and a dub influence filtered through a prism of hellish noise, this is an intense right – and that’s before you even get onto the menacing presence of Moor Mother’s vocal incantations all over the first half.
- Eluvium – Virga I
While Eluvium’s double album Pianoworks opus might have stolen the headlines this year as far as his output is concerned, for me Virga I is Matthew Cooper at his finest. Experimenting with long-form looping and generative music (apparently) has created a wonderful slice of deceptively-simple but emotionally-resonant and rewarding ambient that sounds easy at first listen, but is masterfully constructed.
- V/A – Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980-1990
What an unexpected delight – a treasure trove of what’s known in Japan as “environmental music”, tracing a direct line back to Eno and forward, in fact, to the likes of Virga I above. Soundscape design and architectural acoustics are among the influences knitted together by this disparate group of unfamiliar (to me) names, moving from whimsical moments to deep contemplative baths in 80s synth sounds. Just about the right side of (whisper it) new age music, with some magical moments to be had.
- Johanne Maître/Sylvain Sartre/Le Consort/David Chalmin – Sept Particules
Heard some of this performed at the Minimalist Dream House concert at the Barbican and it was a case of instant 😍 Think Steve Reich and Terry Riley, with moments that cross into Rachel’s or Esmerine territory, all gorgeous polyphony and polyrhythm. Definitely feels like more people should combine electric guitar, harpsichord, classical movements and clicky beats.
- Fennesz – Agora
What’s this? Only the best thing Fennesz has done since Venice – great, big warm slabs of ambient pounding you in the kisser over and over again until you submit and regress into a trance-like state. In a good way.
- Leonard Cohen – Thanks For The Dance
An almost unspeakably moving posthumous release assembled from the final fragments of the great man’s remaining songs. It’s been lovingly assembled by a great cast of musicians with enormous care and respect, and sounds so organic that you honestly can’t tell this is the musical equivalent of those weird scenes with Princess Leia in The Rise of Skywalker. Except this is completely beautiful, not adrenalin-pumping popcorn bollocks, obviously.
- Ex:Re – s/t
Google tells me that this was in fact released digitally at the end of 2018, but the physical edition didn’t come out until this year so it wasn’t really a real thing until 2019, was it? Also, if you don’t like it, go and make your own list, ‘cos this album is ace. From the opening line “you could open with your failings”, this is just a splendid evocation of heartbreak from start to finish, reminiscent of that golden WWTCT/Moon Pix era of Cat Power, right down to the “Cross Bones Style” (style) double-tracked vocal lines. And BLAM, “Romance” is a chorus, right there.
- A Winged Victory For The Sullen – The Undivided Five
I’m a bit torn on this one. On the one hand, such is the unutterable greatness of Atomos that I was expecting to be totally blown away this as one of my most-anticipated releases of the year. And it’s definitely not as soaringly awesome as that record. But then on the other hand it’s also lush, layered, thoughtful and heart-rendingly sad, and what more can I wish for at the end of a bruising and battering 2019? It’s also proven to be one of those records that reveals more of itself each time you listen to it – a surefire indicator that this one has staying power. Bonus points too because Adam Wiltzie has also dived deep into his bag of awesome Stars of the Lid track titles and come out with such gems as “Aqualung, Motherfucker” and “A Minor Fifth Is Made Of Phantoms”.
- Thom Yorke – Anima
Smashed it this time – rich, warm and involved instrumentation and the kind of deeply paranoid the-world-is-fucked lyricism we’ve come to know and love. This marked the point for me at which Thom’s solo records became a thing to be anticipated and treasured in their own right, rather than an interesting event between Radiohead albums. What he’s conjured up on “Dawn Chorus” with just a few vocal effects and a Rhodesy piano sound, for example, is utterly mesmerising, and The Paul Thomas Anderson accompanying short film is just great, too.
- The Comet Is Coming – Trust In The Lifeforce Of The Deep Mystery
The British, end-of-2010s answer to Sun Ra hit their stride on this one, skronking away in a manner that simultaneously manages to rock, psych out and occasionally go off on one in a particularly rousing manner. It’s a simple formula, and they’ve properly smashed it here. Bonus points too for rocking what must surely be the finest pecs in jazz.
- Tool – Fear Inoculum
Yeah, so not sure if you noticed but TOOL came back this year. TOOL, who released the finest prog-metal albums of all time in Aenima and Lateralus, and who have been in hibernation since 2006. Frankly, I didn’t really get into the kinda New Agey vibe of 10,000 Days, so any advance on that was a bonus for me. But Fear Inoculum is actually GREAT – it’s Tool-on-a-stick time signatures, lyrical mysticism, that twangy bass effect they’ve made their own and some vague overarching clever theme about the number 7, but importantly the songs actually bang. Worth the entry fee for the 16-minute riff festival “7empest”.
- Whistling Arrow – s/t
Heard this on late-night radio by accident and had a “wooooahhhh” moment. Its pedigree speaks for itself: This Heat’s Charles Hayward, Ex-Easter Island Head mainman Benjamin Duvall and composer Laura Cannell. It’s the kind of thing you’d hope to find playing an impromptu set in the middle of the woods at a festival, sitting squarely at the centre of a triangle with corners marked “Espers”, “hauntology” and “the most bonkers bits of Godspeed”. A definite hidden treasure.
- Amon Tobin – Long Stories
Well, didn’t he have a productive year? Two albums under his own name, plus his bonkers electro-metal project Only Child Tyrant (which was also great), but for me this was the highlight. I cannot describe it any better than the accompanying blurb, which refers to it as “like magic folded into chocolate”. It’s basically built from the sounds of just an old Omnichord going through lots of analogue processing and OH MY GOSH WHAT ARE THOSE WARM PADS? This man is a wizard, a literal wizard.
- Caterina Barbieri – Ecstatic Computation
Rarely has an album been more appropriately titled, for indeed this is music that is at points intensely cerebral and calculated, but is also boundlessly joyful – HURRAH! We have Laurie Spiegel-esque arpeggiated bleepy loops (let’s call them bloops, why not?), warmly aggressive pad sounds and, on “Arrows of Time”, an interlude of harpsichord and vocals that only increases the sense of focus and purpose in the rest of the album.
- Mabe Fratti – Pies Sobre La Tierra
We are now fully into the “Guatemalan cellist” section of this albums of the year review, with an actual Guatemalan cellist, making an album of unspeakable beauty that reaches the parts other cellists cannot reach. She blends cello with warm electronics and synth pads, topped with multi-layered, melancholic vocal lines. Spend seven minutes with “El Sol Sigue Ahi (El Sol Brillo – No Tenia Alternativa)” and you’ll be as in love as I was.
- Holly Herndon – PROTO
In-house rules state that I’m only allowed to use the word “genius” once per end-of-year review, so here it is – Holly Herndon is a genius and so is this album. I won’t go into the utterly fascinating story behind the production of this album (go read this – https://www.thefader.com/2019/05/21/holly-herndon-proto-ai-spawn-interview), but it’s the very definition of something that offers an intellectual challenge but also touches the heart. Magnificent, and will doubtless be regarded as a landmark in electronic music in a few years.
- Sigur Ros – Liminal Sleep
Sigur Ros + ambient music = surely a match made in heaven. Sure enough, the Liminal live event in Hyde Park in London this summer was utterly mesmerising, a 90-minute sound bath of drones, Icelandic choirs and snippets of Jonsi’s inimitably beautiful voice. The ongoing Liminal releases have all been great, but Liminal Sleep is the most perfect showcase of how to do the explicitly “relaxing” side of ambient music without sounding like the drippy soundtrack to a massage parlour reception area. Truly gorgeous.
- Loscil – Equivalents
It is quite ridiculous how good Loscil is. Nobody is better than Loscil at building warm, enveloping drones, but knotting them together into the kind of melodies you feel have been in your head since forever. Whatever frame of mind I’ve been in this year (and there’s been quite a range), this is the album I’ve kept coming back to time and again.Welcome back Loscil, and please pick up this insignificant award, which is my album of the year gong —> 🏆