So long 2019, howdo 2020. Another big year for music, with plenty of great albums and quite a few ‘orphaned’ tracks coming out too (suspect the album’s importance has taken a big hit with the onset of Spotify as the primary listening platform for many).
1. Andrew Bird – My Finest Work Yet
Wegawam Music Co
There was strong competition amongst the laidback male singer songwriters this year, with Bill Callahan’s Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest, Cass McCombs’ Tip of the Sphere, Devendra Banhart’s Ma, and Damien Jurado’s In the Shape of a Storm.
Andrew Bird produced one of the best crafted albums of leftfield indie pop that I’ve heard in a long time. It is his finest work, and some of the finest work you’ll hear.
2. Aldous Harding – Designer
Very strong competition among the female solo indie artists this year too. Good albums from Angel Olsen – All Mirrors, Jenny Lewis – On The Line, Jessica Pratt – Quiet Signs, and Rachael Dadd’s FLUX. All of which were brilliant, and Joan as Police Woman’s track from her new compilation record, What A World was one of my anthems of the year. But Aldous Harding’s Designer was probably the most inventive and consistently interesting album among them, absolutely brilliant.
3. C Duncan – Health
Fat Cat Records
I don’t know much about C Duncan, but his album Health hit the sweet spot of how electro, indie and classical elements can meld into something dramatic and beautiful. He’s on the excellent Fat Cat Records, and that’s about all I know about him. Listen to this album though, you won’t be disappointed. Feels a bit like what the Animal Collective could have been, and both Panda Bear and Avey Tare’s records this year were good, but not as good as this…
4. Modern Nature – How To Live
With a name taken from a Derek Jarman book and former members of Beak, Woods, Ultimate Painting and Sunwatchers, Modern Nature is something of a supergroup. The album is a gently observed thing of beauty, but it really catches fire when they play it live. One of the gigs of the year – worth trying to catch them!
5. Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh & Thomas Bartlett [eponymous]
Real World Records
Whether you’re a fan of The Gloaming or have never heard of them really doesn’t matter to appreciate this album from two of that band’s founding members. It’s utterly beguiling from start to finish, and one of the best traditional folk / jazz albums of the year. Featuring Bartlett on piano and Ó Raghallaigh on Hardanger d’amore
6. v/a – Self-Discovery for Social Survival
Picking a compilation album is potentially a bit rogue given this is meant to be albums, but this is a hella good record, and hangs together better than some of the single artist albums. Just a hint of surf guitar permeates most recordings here, and the scent of summer runs through them all. The Allah Las track Raspberry Jam is a particular highlight.
7. Mount Eerie & Julie Doiron – Lost Wisdom, Pt. 2
P. W. Elverum & Sun
Another year, another Phil Elverum driven album that’s part tearjerker, and all beautiful music. The harmonies with Julie Doiron, and seemingly ever present context of Phil’s personal life (recent high profile divorce, following death of previous wife) embuing the music with an emotional dignity hard to find in other writers’ work.
8. C.J. Boyd – Kin Ships
Joyful Noise Recordings
Slightly further from the splash of the ol’ main stream and down towards the proggier more concept-driven end of the left field there was plenty to listen to in 2019. Mikal Cronin (former bandmate and long-time collaborator of Ty Segall) recorded the album Seeker which is good, but the EP that followed was mindblowing – check out Arsonist / Tsinosra, however it’s not an album.
The mighty Swans released leaving meaning this year, which was okay but not top ten. And at the more poppy end of progginess, Strand of Oaks recorded Eraserland with some lovely King Crimson-esque epicness.
Celebrating ten years of being on tour, and having recorded this 4 hour behemoth album all around the US, C.J. Boyd has created an extraordinary album capturing the essence of the last decade of his life. The album was made in strict adherence to the following set of guidelines:
“First, each song is recorded in a different state, and in that state alone. Secondly, each song is a cover of a person or band from that state with whom I have played shows. That means I recorded 51 songs, each one in a different state (plus DC). Every song is a cover, and I only covered songs of people with whom I have actually shared a stage.”
9. Mike Adams At His Honest Weight – There Is No Feeling Better
Joyful Noise Recordings
In the poppier indie realm there were more good tracks than albums this year. Man & The Echo’s Men of the Moment was well-observed and seemingly what The Divine Comedy have been striving for all these years, but was a bit ‘filler’ around the punchy and hilarious A Capable Man. One of my personal favourites, Spiral Stairs (of Pavement fame – now his additional surname) released the We Wanna Be Hyp-No-Tized, which similar to Man & The Echo, was largely one very strong song called Hyp-No-Tized, with many others holding the album back. Hiss Golden Messenger’s Terms of Surrender was close to making the list with some excellent tracks, such as Cats Eye Blue and I Need A Teacher.
The increasingly reliable Mike Adams At His Honest Weight released a much stronger and more coherent album than most, and while there isn’t one standout knock-your-socks-off track, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts…
10. Kendrick Scott Oracle – A Wall Becomes A Bridge
Another great year for jazz, and personally I got to see Shabaka Hutchings and Kamasi Washington both of which were incredible. Pianist, Kit Downes’ album Dreamlife of Debris is fantastic and if you prefer your jazz slightly more classical, and the tone more relaxed, this would probably be your preference over my pick. Moses Boyd’s single Stranger Then Fiction is also well worth a listen. Wynton Marsalis on the Motherless Brooklyn OST is also liable to break a few hearts.
Like Marcus Strickland Twi-Life’s People Of The Sun last year, the Sons of Kemet album, and the current jazz movements of London and California, Kendrick Scott Oracle’s album has a healthy respect for bebop, but roams freely bringing in other influences liberally.
BONUS 11. BCUC – The Healing
BCUC (Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness) released a 3 track album so I’m allowed 11 tracks in my top ten. Jo’burg based BCUC brought out Yinde last year which was excellent, but The Healing takes it to the next level. Collaborations with Saul Williams and Femi Kuti on two of the tracks help, but ultimately they’ve got a big vision for what afrobeat should be in the modern world, and they’re bringing it.
Singles or non-album tracks
James Alexander Bright’s Tigers Roar – contender for bassline of the year (or certainly drawn with Allah Las Raspberry Jam, and one of a number of a soulful, funky single tracks released this year.
BADBADNOTGOOD continued their run of banging non-jazz tracks this year with a collaboration with Jonah Yano called nervous.
The Districts brought out single Nighttime Girls which was excellent, but no associate album has emerged so far…
Need to give a bit more time to Black Midi, Kris Davis, Mikal Cronin’s actual album, and Mercury Rev’s revival of Bobbie Gentry.
The Prefuse 73 album Fudge Beats is a great DJ record of beats, but doesn’t have enough about it to justify dedicated listens.
As above, Georgia Anne Muldrow’s VWETO II was great, but needed a bit more of her vocal or something beyond the beats to lift it to being an album of the year.
DJ Shadow’s Our Pathetic Age was good, but could never hold a candle to his ultimate legacy of Endtroducing…..
Kim Gordon’s No Home Record was almost everything good about music – daring, exciting, out there, etc, but sadly fell short of being a good enough album that you’d want to listen to repeatedly (or perhaps that’s just because I haven’t yet).
KOKOKO! released Fongola a great afro-beat inspired dance record.
Some of the more hyped leftfield albums of the year were:
- Fontaines DC – Dogrel, pretty standard-issue post-punk, couldn’t work out what all the fuss was about…
- Angel Olsen – All Mirrors, probably need to give this one a bit more time, but given her previous albums the string section added for this, didn’t pack the same punch.
- Big Thief – Two Hands, this really passed me by. No matter how many times I listened to this, nothing stood out.
- The National – I Am Easy To Find, uninspired…
- Bon Iver – I, I, the unenviable task of following his last album was beyond him. I’m sure Justin will be back however.