Best new music 2019

Instrument of Instruments
Instrument of Instruments, seen in a hotel lobby in Burlington ON

I understand that most people are probably not as passionate about new recorded music as I am. So I publish this post into the ether once a year to summarize what I’ve particularly liked during the last twelve months, in the hope that you might discover something new.

2019 felt like a “slow” year in terms of music: many weeks seemed to yield nothing of interest at all. But perhaps that helped me listen more closely to some standout things that did emerge. There were few overarching themes to my listening that I can point to. One change that did seem significant — but probably only for me personally — was that I found myself listening to more “rock” again this year, a genre I had all but given up on previously. The reason, I think, is the ongoing radical transformation in recording technologies and the concurrent embrace by rock acts of techniques from “electronic” music. More imaginative things come out if you have fewer technical constraints.

This year’s list, if you were to play it all back-to-back, runs a staggering 22 hours and 31 minutes. I have added everything to this Spotify playlist:

All my best for the 2020s. May they be better than the 2010s.

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Adia Victoria – Silences: Adia Victoria says she makes modern blues music. I think of her as a southern mirror of Lana del Rey. Powerful, theatrical music full of Gothic imagery about (particularly Southern?) demons, often (I think) performed in character. Musically brilliant, often deliberately fuzzy or murky or plodding, but always with clear intent and purpose. There are enough memorable melodies and hooks here to keep me coming back, and enough grit to make it worthwhile. (YouTube)

Aldous Harding – Designer: Aldous Harding from New Zealand makes a kind of spacious, proggy folk rock with unusual compositional turns. Despite the folk rock label, this is music with insightful, sharply poetic lyrics and has a new wave energy, sometimes ever so slightly reminiscent of early Patti Smith. Decidedly weird but really smart music that eludes easy description. I have found myself going back to this often. It’s both calming and engaging. (YouTube)

Bedouine – Bird Songs of a Killjoy: Orchestral folk reminiscent of Carole King or the Carpenters (but more serious), this finely crafted music has been in frequent rotation for me in 2019. I love her voice, lyrics, the string and horn arrangements — and above all, her complete commitment to this aesthetic. (YouTube)

Billie Eilish – When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?: An album that sounds like it was made by someone much older than 17. The question of her producer-collaborator brother’s role notwithstanding (focus on the work!), it’s really excellent. Her songs are, at times, sarcastic, sardonic, funny, lyrical, all while maintaining a keen pop sensibility and an eye for staging. This is one of those records that appeals to multiple generations, “despite” Eilish’s dedicated attempts to offend where possible. It’s very pop/punk that way (although it’s not pop/punk in the regular sense). (YouTube)

Bon Iver – i,i: I still think Bon Iver’s 22, a Million from a few years ago is a bona fide masterpiece that stands the test of time. This year’s release is perhaps a little less “strange” while relinquishing none of the unusual techniques honed on 22, a Million. It’s as if Bob Dylan, or perhaps one of the Laurel Canyon crowd, had combined forces with Kanye West circa 808s and Heartbeat. It’s never less than interesting, frequently amazing, often sublime. (YouTube)

Clairo – Immunity: Clairo’s debut is intelligent pop music — excellent song craft with high production values. Apparently, she first appeared as a musical Youtuber of note, but has now stepped up her game by surrounding herself with strong collaborators (the album is produced by Rostam Batmanglij, formerly of Vampire Weekend, and features drums by Danielle Haim). It’s music that makes people of all generations take note. (YouTube)

The Comet Is Coming – Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery: The anarchic new jazzers from the UK’s second (and third!?) album came out this year, continuing the cosmic trip. I enjoy the craft, the punk spirit, the saxophone playing and particularly the drumming. It’s not for every day and not for everybody, but there’s a lot to like here if you’re a little adventurous (and don’t particularly care about neat genre boundaries). (YouTube)

Danny Brown – Uknowhatimsayin’?: Unlike previous years, there’s not a lot of hip hop on this list. Danny Brown’s zany, intense, funny flow and dark, punchy production made, for me, one of the standout hip hop releases of the year otherwise marked by too many unsuccessful experiments (Kanye’s gospel, Tyler’s strange R&B) and too much sing-songy mumble rap for my liking. (YouTube)

Elva – Winter Sun: A project by an Australian and a Norwegian. Folky indie rock might describe it, with a sublimely developed sense of melody, each track a polished little gem that pulls off the neat trick of immediately sounding like you’ve heard it before — and then pays back the initial interest through repeated listening. One of these deceptively simple sounding records that you keep going back to because it’s so competent. (YouTube)

FKA twigs – Magdalene: Like an R&B Kate Bush, FKA twigs continues to astound with her sheer talent and discipline in every area that counts for her work: writing, singing, dancing, stagecraft. Less electronically abstract than her previous releases, Magdalene sets a new standard of what arty R&B might aspire to be. (YouTube)

HAIM – Hallelujah (EP): I occasionally discover new artists “late,” and HAIM falls into that category for me. That’s not to say that I can’t then wholeheartedly embrace them. I think HAIM are “the new Fleetwood Mac” in a sense: that sense of rhythm, the impeccable pop craft, music that straight up aims to transcend this (our) age in pop music. Here’s a rather short EP that pulled together three singles that came out this year… here’s hoping a new album will follow in 2020. (YouTube)

Holly Herndon – Proto: A lot has been written about Proto, an album made “collaboratively” with an AI. I would suggest that most of what’s been said is sensationalist rubbish. Herndon’s new record is amazing because it emerges from the encounter of an artist and a set of constraints: employing machine learning techniques puts a box around Herndon’s compositional work that is generative of amazing things, like Bach and Baroque composition’s formal requirements. It’s still Holly Herndon (a “serious” composer who can write complex polyphonic music for choirs but also a producer of electronic music), only different. (Some commentary from the nerd community has wondered about “who did what, exactly” — Herndon or the AI — but keeping us guessing is one of the factors that makes this so interesting.) (YouTube)

iLe – Almadura: iLe was formerly one of the vocalists in Puerto Rican electronica group Calle 13. This is her second solo album. She has emerged as an amazing singer-songwriter, able to both reflect and advance a range of Latin styles in ways that are respectful to the tradition(s) and also resolutely modern. Her voice is a wonder: she is able to cut through any arrangement, reminiscent of Celia Cruz perhaps, yet never sound harsh. This is also a political record, reckoning with Puerto Rico’s all but abandonment by American politics. (YouTube)

Lana del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell!: This has emerged as everyone’s favourite record of 2019. There’s not that much more to say about it than has already been said elsewhere. I belong to the camp that thinks Lana del Rey writes “persona” songs, scenes done in character, like Springsteen’s or Dylan’s. I think she’s in the same bracket (which I’m sure will raise some eyebrows). (YouTube)

Leif Vollebekk — New Ways: Vollebekk is a major new singer-songwriter talent from Montreal. For reference, you might want to think “young Van Morrison” and Jeff Buckley. This is tremendously well-written and performed music, fearlessly and justifiably on its own path, out of step with contemporary music yet deserving of a place in the canon. Even though he emerged from the Montreal indie scene, Vollebekk’s music seems devoid of the tiresome mimicry so inherent in acts like the Barr Brothers. Even if his music is deeply idiomatic it’s never a version on a trope. (YouTube)

Malihini – Hopefully, Again: Made by an Italian real-life couple of singer-songwriters, this album might be one of the best melancholy pop records of the last few years. The songwriting and production are beautiful, and I’m always touched by records made by real-life couples (call me a romantic). In the narrow field of acts weaving together male and female voices equally, this could give Stars a run for their money. (YouTube)

Michaela Anne – Desert Dove: The best country record of the year, in my opinion. Perceptive, intelligent songs sung with sensitivity and produced to sound a little like a sad version of the Mavericks, or Emmylou Harris’ run of self-penned albums from the late 90s/early 2000s. Michaela Anne is not afraid of taking hard looks at difficult topics through her lyrics, unlike the bigger names of “new women country singers” whose lyrics tend to look for novel ways to package pat stories of women’s empowerment (not that there’s anything intrinsically “wrong” with that — this is just better). (YouTube)

Molly Sarlé – Karaoke Angel: Molly Sarlé is one of the singers in Mountain Man who has now struck out on her own. She writes interesting, swirling lyrics and embeds them in music that reminds me a little of 10,000 Maniacs and a lot of Cowboy Junkies in their heyday, Sarlé’s voice having some of the same amber qualities as the younger Margo Timmins’. A beautiful, weird record for rainy days. (YouTube)

The National – I Am Easy to Find: Certain artists or bands have a sound which — when you first hear it — feels like you’ve been waiting for it all your listening life. REM and 10,000 Maniacs were like that for me. The National is, too. This album is impossibly “mature” and accomplished, a record made by a band that has now freed itself from the constraints of traditional instrumentation and thus unlocked additional compositional potential (similar to Radiohead, maybe, or the Beatles once they went studio-only). Every track here is distinct, emotionally fine-tuned, elegant, unusual. There are also lots of female voice and instrumental collaborators, balancing an already well-rounded sound even more. It’s “autumnal” for sure — some might say low-energy — but for the right moments, it’s truly brilliant. (YouTube)

North Mississippi Allstars – Up and Rolling: After two or three outstanding, weird, groovy blues albums in their early days, NMAS went all small town hard rock trio (and lost me) for the balance of their career to date. Now they’ve returned with a record that deliberately tries to recapture the sound of those early years, and it’s very successful. Highly recommended. (YouTube)

Our Native Daughters – Songs of Our Native Daughters: A political folk super group of sorts. Important and often joyous songs for dark times — thoughtful commentary or resistance party in a box, take your pick. (YouTube)

Patrick Watson – Wave: My friend DP introduced my to this Montreal singer-songwriter, whose work I hadn’t heard before. This is a wonderful album of beautiful pop music, conjuring up, variously, Radiohead, David Sylvian, James Blake and others. I never don’t enjoy hearing this, and it’s been in heavy rotation since I learned about it. Watson’s earlier work is also worth hearing. (YouTube)

Sault – 5: Apparently, nobody quite knows who is behind Sault. But they make music that sounds very much like music I loved in the mid 1990s: a little “trip hop” (if that’s still a term), a little sampled R&B and African music, danceable rhythms everywhere, female vocals. Part of this record’s strength is that you don’t need to know who made it, only that it is excellent. (YouTube)

Skye Wallace – Skye Wallace: My favourite Canadian album of the year. Everyone should hear Skye Wallace. A superb songwriter, a wonderful singer and performer. She originally came from the indie folk scene but has now embraced a punky rock sound. Her band is extraordinarily tight and musical and always in service of the songs. Wallace’s voice is a powerful instrument, a clear, authoritative alto that seems to have effortless power throughout her entire range. I could listen to her sing for hours (and I have). I’m hard-pressed to describe this accurately from a genre standpoint: it’s too punky to be “indie rock,” too “roots” to be punk, too “rock” to be folk — yet it has all of these elements. And I love the production: it’s dry and non-reverb-y in all the right ways but maintains a good sense of space and soundstage throughout. 33 minutes that speak with great force. (YouTube)

Tourist – Everyday: The most beautiful, emotionally intelligent electronic album you’ll hear this year. Reminiscent of Nils Frahm (the highest compliment I can think of in this genre), this collates field recordings pulsing beats and warm, analogue-sounding textures into a cohesive whole that never sags or loses your attention. Equal parts melancholy, euphoria and everyday contentment, this is an excellent album for (nearly) ever hour of the day. (YouTube)

Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride: I take back anything I might have previously said about this. (I sometimes wonder about new albums where every song immediately sounds like you’ve heard it hundreds of times before.) This is a wonderful pop record, every song is a gem, and the production is so good it sets the standard of how recorded music should sound in 2019 and beyond. (YouTube)

Weval – The Weight: Weval are two Dutch electronic producers. They made an excellent album that sets out a complete musical journey (not always a given in electronic music). Even if you normally don’t listen to electronic music, this might appeal to you. (YouTube)

Weyes Blood – Titanic Rising: Natalie Mering, who goes by Weyes Blood, is an extraordinarily gifted songwriter. This is her best record so far. Once again, this sounds like music that escaped from the 70s… but that knows and reflects everything that came after. You really must hear this. (YouTube)

75 Dollar Bill – I Was Real: I’m not 100% sure it’s possible to explain why I’m so excited about this. It’s instrumental drone music that sounds partially like Touareg guitar music, partially like prog rock. It’s never not compelling, never not radical in some way. Even if this description sounds hideous to you, you should give it a try. (YouTube)

Various Artists – Velvet Desert Music Vol. 1: A compilation assembled by Jörg Burger, on Germany’s Kompakt label. The music operates along a nexus of acoustic sounds via electronic production meets Krautrock meets morning-after house music. This isn’t music for clubbing but for listening. There are even vocals here on occasion (actual songs!). I’ve found this to be thoroughly listenable, time and again. Perhaps it hits an aesthetic I was unknowingly looking for. (YouTube)* * *

The best song of the year, I thought, was Mark Ronson featuring Miley Cyrus, “Nothing Breaks Like A Heart,” which — amazingly — manages to conjure up memories of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” without really being like it. The associated album of Mark Ronson collaborations was sadly a disappointment, especially after such a strong advance single. Can’t have it all, I guess. (YouTube)* * *

If somebody made me say which of the above are my top 5 records of the year, I would say:

  1. Vampire Weekend — Father of the Bride
  2. Skye Wallace — Skye Wallace
  3. Patrick Watson — Wave
  4. Weyes Blood — Titanic Rising
  5. The National — I Am Easy to Find

But that’s only if somebody made me.

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