Best Albums of 2019 (Part 1)

by 5:4
29 minutes read

With only a couple of days left until 2019 comes to an end, it’s that time once again to take stock and celebrate the great and the good albums that have been tickling my eardrums in the most beguiling way this year. Just before that, though, it’s perhaps worth stating the rules that determine whether or not something is eligible to appear in this list:

  1. No reissues, re-recordings (including live concert recordings) or releases that are not widely available can be featured on the list – though limited editions are generally allowed.
  2. A composer, artist, performer, ensemble or group may only appear once on the list in the same capacity (i.e. a soloist can appear more than once if also performing as part of a group or ensemble; a composer can appear more than once if featured on, for example, a portrait disc and a compilation).
  3. The definition of an ‘album’ is determined not primarily by its duration but the nature of its content. However, in general, to qualify for the list a release should be of at least 20 minutes’ duration.
  4. No recordings or arrangements of music composed prior to the 20th Century can be featured on the list – unless there’s a very good reason for doing so.

Right, now that that’s out of the way, here’s the first part of my round-up of the 40 Best Albums of 2019; each and every one of them in their own unique way will make your life a bit better – and give your ears one hell of a thrill.

40 | The Faint – Egowerk

i’ve been a fan of The Faint for around 15 years, since i was first knocked sideways by the wonder that was their 2004 album Wet From Birth. To my mind, though i’ve enjoyed everything they’ve done since, nothing has quite managed to live up to that album – until now, that is. Always a group with a lively tendency to veer wildly across a continuum between poles of electronica and rock, Egowerk finds them heavily back at the electronic end, creating some of their most glamorous tracks to date. An important part of that glamour is how sleek these songs sound, which to an extent sets them apart from the layers of punky grit and distortion that colour much of their previous work. That may not appeal to everyone, yet not only is that aspect not lost entirely, but more importantly these songs are so outrageously seductive that it’s impossible not to just fall for them – and fall hard. Combining meaningful real-world considerations and reflections – including attempts to make sense of society, the perils and paradoxes of desire, and moving beyond past errors – with a bewildering array of electropop species, Egowerk is The Faint back at their exhilarating best. Highlight of the album, ‘Quench the Flame’ – which i’ve been playing on exceedingly hard rotation throughout 2019 – is hands down one of the most infectious songs of the year. [CD/Digital]

39 | ionnalee – Remember the Future

When does consistency become tautology? It’s hard not to listen to Swedish synth-pop legend Jonna Lee’s latest album and wonder whether we’ve actually heard pretty much all of this before – and not just in her current ionnalee guise, but also in her more anonymous previous incarnation as iamamiwhoami. The styles and structures – the entire aesthetic, in fact – of her music have been very extensively reinforced in the last decade, and Remember The Future is the latest articulation of these same ideas. Yet the reason i use a word like ‘legend’ for Jonna Lee is because, despite the similarities, despite the emphasis on reliability rather than innovation, her music never fails to be hugely striking and often stunningly uplifting. Her rendition (with Röyksopp) of Julee Cruise’s classic ‘Mysteries of Love’ is a startling misstep – there’s no need for Lee to resort to cover versions, and everything about it just feels wrong – but the rest of the album is a dependably engrossing continuation of the ionnalee brand, and some of the very finest synth-pop of the year. [CD/Vinyl/Digital]

38 | Karin Hellqvist – Flock

One of contemporary music’s foremost soloists, violinist Karin Hellqvist’s first solo album brings together five electroacoustic works from Norway, Sweden and Germany. Implications of the album’s title can be felt in pretty much all of the pieces, many of which share a focus on extended bouts of playfulness within relatively constrained behavioural limits. Carola Bauckholt’s Doppelbelichtung [Double exposure] turns Hellqvist into a pseudo-bird, articulating varying forms of song and call, and Henrik Stringdberg does something similar in Femte strängen [Fifth string], gradually developing harmonic arpeggios into a kind of bird-like language of articulatory gestures conveying an inscrutable syntax. Jan Martin Smørdal’s flock foam fume studies the interplay and juxtaposition of vague, textural ‘noise’ and sharp, clear regular pulses, while Malin Bång initially explores a similarly bifurcated soundworld in … när korpen vitnar, before turning it inward in a lovely conclusion where Hellqvist is seemingly playing to herself, her melody splitting into overtones. By far the most ambitious work on the disc is Sagittarius A* by Natasha Barrett; nothing could live up to the experience of being immersed within it in the concert hall, yet this recording goes a long way to capturing both the small-scale filigree and the stunning sense of infinite expanse that the piece conjures up. [CD/Digital]

37 | Benge – Forms 7 – Topological Landscapes

The latest addition to Ben Edwards’ ongoing Forms series continues to show what wonders are possible despite being restricted to the use of just a single synthesizer. For Topological Landscapes, he’s turned to the Modcan-A series modular synth, contemplating the instrument from five different perspectives. ‘Space Filling Curve’ sets up an irresistible pulsating beatscape littered with twitches and convoluted asides, its rhythmic consistency evolving and reforming on the fly. ‘The Witch of Agnesi’ is similarly energetic, its restless pulse accreting varying quantities of sonic stuff around it, but ‘Militrees’ is a complete contrast, a delicate, somewhat wistful meditation seemingly played on a choir of chime bars. Standout track ‘Galaxy Fold’ (also, at 14 minutes, the longest piece on the album) opts for a more abstract world occupied by drifting clouds, buzzing bands and percussive elements. They drift, glide and collide in such effortless fashion that the whole thing sounds as if it could be happening in real time as we listen to it. [Digital – free download]

36 | Sir Babygirl – Crush On Me: BICONIC Edition

Melding elements of bubblegum pop and punk rock with an indie teen sensibility and more than a few retro stylings, it would be easy to mistake Kelsie Hogue’s debut album for being as deep and meaningful as nail polish. Yet the more i’ve spent time with it, the more i’ve been fascinated by the disquieting way she melds fun and anxiety, nowhere more than in ‘Haunted House’, where a hitherto glorious evening turns increasingly sour, to the point that “no one knows the difference from my laughter and my screams”. It’s a tone of interior seriousness that balances, even undermines, the restless dancing beats and bass, as also in ‘Everyone Is a Bad Friend’, where the pounding bassline feel superficially beneath such sentiments as “Well I haven’t seen a friend of mine in miles … Got a knife in my back, but all you see is my smile”, the music effectively putting on a brave face. These tracks typify the conflicted nature of this album, conveyed with refreshingly genuine vocals that mercifully haven’t been autotuned within an inch of their life, retaining all the wobbles and inaccuracies of Hogue’s authentic voice. Beneath the apparent signs of pink and plastic, there are surprising quantities of acidic vitriol here, though the underlying warmth in ‘Flirting With Her’ – where, despite the fact that “Flirting with her is like skinning your knee” there’s an undeniable attraction: “When she texts me / Brring… hey!” – makes it the most charmingly affecting track on the album. [CD/Cassette/Digital]

35 | Erkki-Sven Tüür – Spectrums

“In some ways, the four parts of Spectrums, each of which involves the organ, are like snapshots – selfies, perhaps – of Tüür at different stages of his musical life. Together, they present a fascinating portrait of an ever-changing yet always consistent composer. … polarity is at the heart of Spectrum I, a work for solo organ written in 1989. The two poles could hardly be more different: softly flowing lines of melody that suggest the beginnings of a toccata, and massive chords that appear from nowhere and threaten to squash everything in sight. … Spectrum III for solo organ, composed in 1999, is one of the most searing demonstrations of extremes in all of Tüür’s music. … We are confronted by an almost literal wall of sound: dense clusters that expand and rise, towering in front of us, at first blank and characterless, later chugging rhythmically like a colossal, weirdly convoluted machine. … In Spectrum IV (2004) for organ and cello, … there are no more signs of extremes, and what remains of polarity here takes the form of transcendence, a forceful climax at the centre of the piece contrasting with gorgeous shimmering music at its beginning and end.” (reviewed in October) [CD]

34 | Ensemble Musikfabrik – Erbe

Ensemble Musikfabrik’s latest album is one of their most mouth-watering to date, featuring three major works from composers who have written works utilising the German group’s fabulous recreations of Harry Partch’s microtonal instruments. While it must be enormously tempting when writing for those instruments to just completely go to town with them, Martin Smolka’s Wooden Clouds is most impressive in the way that, for the most part, you wouldn’t really know they were even being used. The piece is focused on a central idea alternating shrill melodic bursts with peaceful periods of repose, the extreme contrasts creating a palpable tension. In Voices for Harry Partch, Carola Bauckholt seeks ways to fashion a new musical language with the instruments, highlighting their strangeness. Part of this involves a kind of mimesis, by which (bringing to mind Steve Reich’s Different Trains) the players emulate the contours of fragments of recorded speech. At its best it works well, the piece exhibiting a languid, almost whoozy laid-back atmosphere. Most impressive is Sempo Haapamäki’s Heritage, a piece that’s difficult and probably pointless to try to describe due to its extreme volatility and the cavalcade of intricacies that this leads to. What’s so remarkable about Heritage, though, is how organic is its unpredictable forward motion, never for a second sounding arbitrary or random, yet continuing to surprise every few moments with the most incredible shifts in communal behaviour, occasionally spilling over to loud vocal yells. [CD]

33 | Clemens von Reusner – Electroacoustic Works

“Aside from the fact they were all composed within the last decade, if the seven works on the disc have something fundamental in common it’s to be found in Reusner’s general attitude with regard to the handling of his materials. … At pretty much no point is there a sense that Reusner is pushing things on or overtly marshalling them toward a certain end or outcome. Instead, sounds – both on their own and as part of larger textures – are given time to establish themselves, allowing us to get to know them, before they change and/or develop into something new. What that means is that the impression of structure in these pieces is just that, an impression, one that ostensibly arises more from the inclination and interaction of each work’s elements than from an underlying scheme within which they are designed to conform and fit. … It could be argued that in some cases … Reusner allows himself too much nonchalance, and that the unpredictability of these sonic journeys … leads to the appearance of longueurs. … That being said, though, they by no means dominate Reusner’s musical language as demonstrated here; what emerges most forcefully is the delicately nuanced and fluid way that Reusner creates his compositions – without, it’s tempting to believe, getting personally involved at all.” (reviewed in July) [CD/Digital]

32 | Øyvind Torvund – The Exotica Album

A word like ‘maverick’ isn’t really sufficient to describe Norwegian composer Øyvind Torvund. It’s not exactly wrong, though, and working your way through this latest release of his is to enter a world that draws liberally on ideas and sources that many in contemporary music would shy away from for fear of embarrassing themselves. As such, The Exotica Album is a courageous gamble that deliriously succeeds, Torvund blurring the line between pastiche, homage, irony – and large wodges of full-on cheese. Something like a Wes Anderson movie scored by Esquivel, touching on a welter of familiar tropes and mannerisms – communal whistling, lounge music sexiness, cinematic swoops and rushes – in conjunction with avant-garde instrumental behaviours (performed with boistrous élan by Bit20 Ensemble), all regularly coated, flecked and otherwise embellished with unpredictable electronic blips and squeaks. There’s ever the sense that Torvund is mucking around with sounds new and old alike for the sheer unadulterated joy of it, and it’s impossible not to be caught up in its fevered frivolity. [CD/Vinyl/Digital]

31 | Rose Elinor Dougall – A New Illusion

The cover artwork on A New Illusion is stark and suggestive: a tree massively and permanently bent over, distorted by the relentless force of the wind. Yet any suggestion that the ten songs on Rose Elinor Dougall’s third album are similarly afflicted by such irrevocable damage and weariness is almost instantly dispelled by their lightness of touch. This is largely down to the beautiful arrangements, blending elements of folk, lounge and chamber pop such that permeating everything is an intimacy that often feels nocturnal. It’s as if we were listening in on private conversations conducted after dark, made spellbinding by Dougall’s voice, deeper and more sultry than ever before. Considering their lightness, it’s surprising to realise that these songs contain a great deal of weight, articulating no small longing and regret, some of it directed towards friends and lovers, some – more poignantly – reflected back on herself. Though they hold back from outpouring raw emotion – they’re too refined and elegant for that – each of these songs, particularly ‘Wordlessly’, ‘Something Real’ and the title track, are nonetheless touchingly affecting. [CD/Digital]

30 | Catherine Lamb – Atmospheres Transparent/Opaque

Catherine Lamb creates the kind of music that you can summarise in a sentence, in terms of what it does, but which would probably take a million words to begin to explore what it actually sounds and feels like. Through the 53 minutes of Prisma Interius IX pitches wax and wane, sustain on their own, collide against others, form clusters, chords and more nebulous agglomerations, all seemingly in a passive way as if they were not being controlled according to any kind of predetermined plan or scheme. Tantalisingly, Lamb makes these shifting shapes halt periodically, temporarily revealing something faintly glistening in the distance. In some ways the work has an ambient sensibility, disinterested in conventional notions of being ‘interesting’ while at the same time creating a compelling hovering soundscape. The collection of seven short fragments that together comprise Overlays Transparent/Opaque are no less engrossing despite their brevity; if anything, this makes them all the more uncannily beguiling, their ephemeral complex chords sounding like close-up details taken from the larger work. [CD/Digital]

29 | C Duncan – Health

Three years ago, when writing about C Duncan’s sophomore album The Midnight Sun as part of my Best Albums of 2016, i said how i’d been worried that it wouldn’t live up to his debut release. These days i have no such worries, and while you can never quite tell what direction musicians are going to take, it turns out there really wasn’t any need to worry. What i find so exciting about Health is the way Duncan has progressed his breathless, blissed-out aesthetic to encompass aspects of ’80s pop. However, just as his music has always evoked an earlier world of easy listening while never for a moment becoming a pastiche of it, in exactly the same way, in tracks like ‘Talk Talk Talk’, ‘Impossible’ and ‘Holiday Home’, Duncan doesn’t just buy into those ’80s stylings wholesale – the mistake made by most retro obsessives, stupidly stuck in the past – but evokes them and moulds them into his own unique approach to songwriting. Apropos: his song structures are as individual as ever, many of them not bothered with including choruses but expressing an altogether more free-wheeling and poetic kind of form. There’s often a disjunct here between the buoyant, glorious strains of the music and the melancholy running through Duncan’s lyrics, but if anything that only makes them more unbearably poignant. ‘He Came From the Sun’ and ‘Pulses & Rain’ may just be his most ravishingly gorgeous songs to date. [CD/Vinyl/Digital]

28 | Roland Kayn – Scanning

“… pretty much every part of Scanning plays with and explores the relationship between pitch and noise. … So there are some movements that place pitch front and centre, perhaps none more so than the pair of pieces titled Cycloids. The first resembles the kind of slow-moving, cautious but glowering music of David Lynch’s collaborations with Angelo Badalamenti, low and ominous, essentially triadic yet always losing focus. The second arranges its pitches into an interlocking sequence of semi-frozen strata, where seemingly familiar chords (including, at the start, an almost clear major 7th) become uncannily weird. Cycloids II is also one of the most breathtakingly beautiful parts of the entire cycle, rich, variegated and deeply engrossing. … Sometimes the music becomes akin to a mobile, bands or shards or sheets of floating pitch impacting upon, intersecting, interrupting or emerging from each other. Sometimes they form into clouds of varying nebulosity, where for long stretches their inscrutable inner mechanisms yield almost nothing tangible until – ah! – suddenly one or more pitches will puncture their surface, brightly shining out. Similarly introverted are movements that meander and seem preoccupied with themselves, bumbling and burbling along, surging at random, switching suddenly between rapidity and suspension. Scanning … contains some of Kayn’s most enthralling, palpable music – much of it at a tantalising liminal point blurring whether it’s human- or machine-made (or both) – as well as simply some of the most jaw-droppingly ravishing electronic music ever created by anyone.” (reviewed in December) [CD]

27 | Vyacheslav Artyomov – In Memoriam

It’s only comparatively recently that i’ve begun to immerse myself in the world of Russian composer Vyacheslav Artyomov. Though i’ve only as yet scratched the surface, the music clearly reveals a musical language and personality that’s prepared to put itself at some remove from the conventions and legacy of Russian (and, before it, Soviet) classical music. The four orchestral works on this disc share a tone of distress and grief, and on the strength of them they indicate a composer for whom intense pain perhaps brings out the most intense originality. Cello concerto Pietà exhibits a startling kind of stodgy lyricism, either due to ideas cycling round and round, or through their notes getting stuck instantly together, becoming clogged. The three parts of Lamentations are lighter yet even more plagued with smears that make its unstoppable instinct to sing become impossibly blurred, like trying to see through eyes waterlogged with tears. That’s exquisite enough, but Tristia I ranks among the most astonishingly moving things i’ve heard all year. Involving piano and trumpet soloists, the music inhabits a dense, desolate world of infinite melancholy, its harmonies clustersmudged into oblivion yet never for a moment losing a trace of something ethereal, though to think of this as a faint ray of hope may well be stretching a point. Incredible music from a composer i’m looking forward to exploring a great deal more in 2020. [CD/Digital]

26 | John Williams – Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

The first of four soundtracks in this Best Albums list, John Williams’ final score for the Star Wars franchise sets out to find a way not only to enliven this specific film (which, in practice, amounts to doing all the emotional heavy lifting) but also serve as a fitting summation of the entire nine-movie saga. That’s not as insurmountable a challenge as it might be, considering the strange decision to make the sequel trilogy simply ape its predecessors rather than striking out with genuinely new, imaginative adventures. To that end, Williams’ music greatly exceeds the demands made on it by The Rise of Skywalker, introducing new themes and folding them into convoluted leitmotivic musical arguments. Nonetheless, in many respects it’s one of Williams’ least inventive Star Wars scores, though that impression is heavily influenced by the extent to which we’re hearing this collection of age-old themes – some of them over 40 years old – being put through their paces once again. That being said, any score by John Williams tends to outclass most other film composers by a significant margin, and for all its (over-)familarity, considering the moribund state of the contemporary blockbuster soundtrack, stultified by a reliance on the emptiest bombast, The Rise of Skywalker is a wake-up call to the genuine, non-manipulative emotive power of a soundtrack when composed by an absolute master of the craft. [CD/Digital]

25 | Chelsea Wolfe – Birth of Violence

Where 2017’s Hiss Spun took Chelsea Wolfe’s music into radiant but at the same time doomed and sepulchral places, Birth of Violence finds her pulling back into more delicate regions of dark folk. There’s something lofty, even noble, about these songs, attaining a deep-etched lyrical beauty that nonetheless sounds as if its colour has been almost entirely drained. It makes me think of the atmosphere of Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England, a monochrome strangeness that feels simultaneously intimate and odd, captivating yet occasionally terrifying. The intimacy comes across as though Wolfe were the only voice in the world – or, at least, perceived herself to be – her songs resonating across a barren wilderness, reflecting on her place within it, channelling rage, sadness, desire, and perhaps vestiges of an ancient folk magic. The restraint in these songs highlights more than ever the incredible beauty of Wolfe’s singing: soft but determined, indefatigable. [CD/Digital]

24 | Dis Fig – PURGE

Expressing profound emotion works best – perhaps only works – when traces of calculation are absent. Each time i’ve returned to Felicia Chen’s debut album i’ve been struck by the raw authenticity it captures – and then releases with staggering force. The title says a lot about what to expect, yet the nature of her purge, though disconcerting from the outset, is articulated as a slow burn. Indeed, the first four tracks feel like lighting the touch paper and watching it slowly burn, getting ever closer to the album’s explosive core. It makes sense that the start of Chen’s emotional detonation comes with fifth track ‘Unleash’, though even here it takes time for the sparks surrounding her voice (which throughout is usually half-lost in reverberation, paradoxically only adding to the immediacy of its anguish) to progress to a coruscating wall of half-screamed noise, mercilessly driven on by a pounding pulse. All of which implies enormity in what’s to follow, and while that’s true it comes in the form of what i can only describe as an ‘anti-explosion’. Followed by a brief aside into an oblique kind of quasi-monastic chant, the actual purge comes in heavily compressed – practically squashed – sequences in which Chen vocals are almost evaporated due to the implied devastating heat all around her. Penultimate track ‘WHY’ is a heartrending elegy sung in a blasted place of rumble and hiss, whereupon the album ends in an extended piece that’s possible to read as both optimistic or the complete opposite. One of the most brilliantly and palpably personal albums of the year. [Vinyl/Digital]

23 | Quatuor Bozzini – Phill Niblock: Baobab

Disseminate as Five String Quartets sets out with only the implication of stability, harmonically complex from the outset with something that may or may not be dronal at its core. This develops into a conflict where apparent stasis (the piece, after all, is built upon slow moving, drawn-out pitches) is continually undermined by strange undulations and shifts in its tonal makeup. Often, one becomes aware of something only after it’s actually been present for some time, and it’s similarly difficult to track the evolution of the work’s harmony, which from around halfway through has become seriously smeared, still dronal but tonally clusterfucked. By contrast, Baobab begins in the utter clarity of octave unisons, which gradually shift out of alignment, allowing other notes (at first, only fifths) to encroach. Due to the proximity of the near-unisons in the first third of the piece, the combined texture resembles a vast squadron of planes, or perhaps the aural sensation of sitting at the dead centre of a hive of bees. … The Bozzinis excel at this kind of intricate, infinite music – what we might call ‘upper case’ ambient – and it’s no hyperbole to say this recording really is almost as good as having them there in the room with you.” (reviewed in March) [CD/Digital]

22 | Jakob Ullmann – Fremde Zeit Addendum 5

“The album features a single hour-long work of Ullmann’s, Solo V for piano, though describing it as “for piano” doesn’t even begin to hint at the reality of what this piece does, or is. … there’s the impression of non-music, that the octave bands of ostensible air noise (actually created with horsehair on the piano strings) within which small instances of something unidentifiable recede as quickly as they emerge, could be some kind of natural phenomenon: soft wind filtered through pipes; a far-off industrial process; a speculative rendering of astronomical data. … As the work continues, the piano is used more assertively to introduce brief glimpses of something almost recognisable. … From one perspective, drenched in reverb and surrounded by noise, these halting motes of possible music take on a hauntological aspect, the noise an obfuscating hiss, the reverb making each one an echo of a dimly-recalled thought from long ago. Yet from a less melancholic perspective the way the surrounding ambiance loses all sense of passivity, perceived now as a presence rather than an absence, suggests something more uplifting: a deployment of negative sonic space that effortlessly overwhelms the piano such that these miniature morsels are all it can enunciate. Reactions of wonder in response to the numinous.” (reviewed in October) [CD]

21 | Joseph Branciforte & Theo Bleckmann – LP1

“It was perhaps inadvertently helpful that i first listened to LP1 … in bed late at night. Not because it’s nocturnal, as such, but more to do with the fact that it sounded in sympathy with the pitch blackness all around me. For while it wouldn’t be accurate to say that LP1 is an album without colours, still less that it’s a ‘black’ music, there’s nonetheless an inscrutability to its palette that i find fascinating every time i listen to it. The inscrutable palette … manifests most powerfully in the way Branciforte and Bleckmann ramp up the intensity and – more importantly – the density of the music. ‘5.5.9’, which ends the album, drapes everything in heavy reverb, having the uncanny effect of both deadening things while allowing them to resound. Its unsettling soundworld brings to mind Angelo Badalamenti and David Lynch’s more tortured material from Twin Peaks: all traces of pitch and noise, whether human, acoustic or electronic, are rendered almost unreal – practically figments – within its juddering environment, unidentifiable streaks and traces of sonic stuff that together accumulate into an opaque mass that radiates a kind of ‘anti-light’. … Details do emerge … but it’s the way the music sounds so trammelled, its elements crammed together, that primarily holds our attention.” (reviewed in June) [Vinyl/Digital]

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