Putting Words to Music: 2019 Top Tunes

Halloween cabaret...

Photo:  Dave Niddrie (0095c)

I’ve been doing a lot more writing lately and figured I’d start sharing some of it on this here blog. To kick that off, and carry on a tradition going back to the early 00s, I’m writing up my favourite tunes of the year. If you know me even a little bit, you’ll know music is a lifelong obsession of mine. I’m always on the hunt for new sounds, unheralded gems, lesser-known artists and I tend to follow a musical family tree as far back (and forward) as I can. Yep, I’m restless. I can find good stuff within almost all genres, but I have a strong distaste for top 40 radio pop. Sure, I love a good banger every now and then, but to get any depth out of this artform, I look deeper, push further and open my ears with curiosity. I hope you find something just for you, too – enjoy.

1
Sault – 5 & 7

I will preface this by saying this was my best discovery of the year. A band so mysterious nobody knows exactly who they are, where they come from or what they’ve done before. Surely it must be something. Who releases such a balls out fun, funky, broad and dynamic collection of tunes – out of the blue, as a debut – like this? Then follow it up with a second full-length months later. Both are absolutely spectacular. I have turned so many people onto this band. For fans of no wave meets funk, Liquid Liquid, ESG, Tune-Yards, Shakes, .Paak, Khruangbin, spectral disco, subdued aftobeat, uplifting downtempo – it’s a bit of everything but 100% Sault. And the best raw bass lines of the year. Listen to 5 start to finish and tell me you’re not on board by the time Masterpiece ‘ahhhhs’ away. Then play 7 straight through. Perfect summer album, too. Listen

Operators – Radiant Dawn
I’m a Dan fan! I love the Wolf Parade, the Handsome Furs, even some of that Divine Fits. Operators is natural progression and their show this year bridged the gap between bands — this is their best release yet. The songwriting is top notch, the sounds divine and yes, the eastern bloc motifs are still strong with this band. Did I mention you can dance to it? On stage they conjure the best of the Furs and it’s all a seamless flow. Listen

The Comet is Coming – Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery
My live review from their Imperial show this year sums it up: “The soundscapes of Tangerine Dream meet the sinister bass vibrations of deep Massive Attack with the squelchy acid Roland keys from Danalogue the Conqueror sending fat ripples of subsonic pleasure along the dance floor. Waves of treated saxophone become clear with fast fingering and tonal bliss. The sound of timbale and rimshot take drummer Betamax Killer’s rhythm to a syncopated beat. Vocal lines courtesy of the tenor sax, King Shabaka, slip in an out of the deep groove from the other two players. Future forward, analogue electronic workouts on a cosmic plane, reaching high and hitting hard. A 100 minute journey, allowing plenty of time to let yourself go and trust in that Deep Mystery” Listen

2
Solange – When I Get Home

Last year’s A Seat at the Table opened my ears to this new soulful sound and the follow up delivers. It’s more experimental, yet more focused. Looser yet tighter. It has a great vibe and kudos to the non-pop songwriting and risk-taking on this album. Have to say this is usually outside my wheelhouse, but this just oozes cool and I submit. Listen

Baby Rose – To Myself
One listen and you will ask yourself — whose voice is this?? I know I did. The entire album is a personal, intimate and drop dead gorgeous take on soul music from an incredible young artist. Shades of Nina add some familiarity but in no way is this anyone’s show but Baby Rose. An assured debut. Listen

Sudan Archives – Athena
Last year’s Sink EP gave me a taste, and an album cover hard to forget, but this year, Sudan Archives let loose her debut and it’s deep and sure-footed. Soulful voice, her hypnotic fiddle playing taking centre stage with beats and atmospheric production. Really looking forward to her show next year. Listen

Britanny Howard – Jaime
Yea, I love them Shakes. I really love Brittany’s voice. Who doesn’t? She is one of the greats. Her debut starts off with some my favourite production of the year on History Repeats. Listen on good headphones. That opening snare roll seems to keep going. Just like Brittany holding a long note…when will it ever end? Please don’t let it end. Listen

3

Black Pumas – Black Pumas
Instant connection. From the opening strum of acoustic guitar on Colors to the yearnful soul of Oct 33, the punch of Black Moon Rising. Oof. It’s a full package. Their live show at the Rickshaw cemented my love for this album, a soon to be classic debut. Crazy to think a year ago they were only just getting together. Listen

Injury Reserve – Injury Reserve
I’ve loved hip hop since the 80s, but lost interest during the hyper-commercial, lyrically-vapid days of Jay-Z, Puffy, etc. It took a Good Kid to bring me back to the head nodding game. There is much to explore in the experimental booming bass territory. Injury Reserve from Arizona hit it. This release was fresh when I first heard it, and 20 spins later, it’s still damn fresh. And funny, and weird without pretension – I like it. Listen

Snotty Nose Rez Kids – Trapline
They opened for Cypress Hill at the free 420 concert where grass was on everyone’s mind — the parks board worried about the lawn; the 25,000 people in attendance not worried about anything, really, cause grass. I hadn’t heard the album yet, but damn! Then I heard the album – double damn!Lyrically rich, informative and so entertaining. Excellent guests to get into (Cartel Madras for instance) and a whole album’s worth of beats, rhymes and some trap for good measure. Knock Knock Knock… Listen

Quelle Chris – Guns
Thanks to algorithms, I found Quelle Chris. An album often about, yes, guns, violence and race but from an ‘end the madness’ point of view, no glorification here. Chris’ vocals are easy going and he has some funny lines, the songs do get under your skin in a good way. When it comes on, I’m like – yea, this one…nice. Great message in the lyrics. Listen

4
Schoolboy Q – Crash Talk

I enjoyed his last few well enough, but they just didn’t totally stick for me. This one did. Feels like Mr. Q was in a good space, working with some cool guest vocalists and mixing it up in the style dept. Nothing too wild and crazy, but songs you can keep coming back to. I know I am. Absolutely gigantic bass music, too, booms in the headphones. Listen

Lee Scratch Perry & Peaking Lights – Life of the Plants
This is a match made in heaven. The best sounding Peaking Lights release of late, the best Lee Perry release of late. The Lights’ take on dub always worked for me when it was less pop and more space-swamp (new genre?). They’re back. And they’re playing with the dub master himself, who is somehow releasing an album a month these days it feels like. (Perry had full lengths with Adrian Sherwood & Brian Eno in 2019, too) Listen

Fontaines DC – Dogrel
Bummer. I learned of this band, got totally obsessed by this album, played it a ton while singing along then learned they played locally a few months before. This is my rock album of the year, it revs me up, makes me shout and gets my hair whipping back and forth. Post-punk, a hint o’mod, heavy tenderness with excellent speak-singing — straight outta Ireland. I mean, the first line is “Dublin in the rain is mine, a pregnant city with a catholic mind.” Lyrics to pay attention to. I really hope they come back! Listen

Lorelle Meets the Obsolete – De Facto
Hola from Guadalajara. The fifth album from this Mexican group is psych rock with plenty of space followed by lots of noise in the wall of feedback and sound way. They bring their trippy sound to the very edge, but wrap it up with great psych-pop songs and female vocals that take you places, then blow it the hell up. It’s weird, me gusta. Listen

••• Further Listening: Take Me To This Land Of Good Times •••

5
Malibu Ken – Malibu Ken

Ok — Tobacco and Aesop Rock, together? Hard to picture, but…this really works. Tobacco sets a bed of psychedelic strange-ness and Aesop’s surreal flow and storytelling take each track to another level. A cool surprise collab. That first vid is exquisitely gross, too. Listen

!!! – Wallop
There was a time I figured !!! were done. A string of so-so releases had me longing for another hangout with Guiliani in the schoolyard. But then Shake the Shudder came out and won me over. Wallop builds on Shudder’s strengths, taking the piss out of dance music while creating their own 120bpm party. It’s brainless fun. Second vocalist Meah Pace steps it up. Can we all dance like Nic Offer? He really has all the moves. Listen

Bérnays Propaganda – Vtora miadost, treta svetska vojna
A band from Macedonia! Finally, right? Possibly my first experience with modern music from that region, this was quite a surprise. Synthy, a little punk, strange and quite analogue sounding, too. What are they saying? I just don’t know, I just turn it up and rock out. Wild sounds from the other side of the world. Listen

MNGWA – The Strange One
Full disclosure. The singer is my good friend. But. That doesn’t matter because MNGWA is a many-headed beast and those many heads are filled with musical delights from around the world, coalescing into a mixture that is thick and humid like the jungle on the album cover. I can’t even count the influences or musical styles and nor will I try. MNGWA have the chops to play whatever they damn please and with this release, they’ve reached an epic point of doing just that. Songs wind from one side of the planet to the other, with a visit to the cosmos available to you at any time. Listen

••• Further Listening: Inner/Outer Visions Through Space & Time I •••

6
HTRK – Venus In Leo

Big fan of Psychic 9-5 Club, so I’ve been patiently awaiting something new from HTRK. It is mellow! Embrace it. The music can be dreamy, it can be spacious or claustrophobic – sometimes at once. Female vocals float over scattered bass and delay — very mooooody. Ideal for late at night, after hours or when you want to wrap up in cozy darkness. Listen

Olan Mill – Sacred Geometry
I listen to a lot of what you may call headspace music. I use it to relax or focus, lots of this kind of music can fade away or get right into your head. It depends on volume, set and setting and yea, headspace. Olan Mill’s latest captures the drone of nature, and geometric forms of our mystical world will be revealed if you just relax & float downstream. Listen

Saba Alizadeh – Scattered Memories
Stunning worldly ambient vibes with unencumbered experimental, middle-eastern roots and a yearning that you can feel and hear. It’s positive and ultimately very transportive. Originally released only in Iran, this is an electro-acoustic journey to that land. Listen

Dave Harrington Group – Pure Imagination, No Country
One half of Darkside, Dave Harrington’s release can be literally interpreted — it’s very imaginative. But is there a hint of country? Maybe in the pedal steel. Transcendent is one word. Jazzy, too. If you liked Darkside’s live sound, you’d probably dig this. Listen

••• Further Listening: Inner/Outer Visions Through Space and Time II •••

7
Not Glass (Not Waving & Jay Glass Dubs) – Forma

Let’s add some Latin and Greek to this mix. A collaboration from Not Waving and Jay Glass Dubs, this is some atmospheric ambient dub meets mystic strings, tribal rhythms and ambient tones. It was a surprising find for me, after first hearing Not Waving last year. What a treat and another late night mood setter. Listen

75 Dollar Bill – I Was Real
Lose yourself to this desert blues guitar jam noodle session with an attitude. Perfect headspace music if your idea of that is long-form microtonal workouts from the NYC underground. Works for me! Listen

Elkhorn – Elk Jam / Sun Cycle
Oh yes, another guitar jam noodle session taking the American Primitive guitar stylings with a heavy dose of crusty, sun-baked earth and voila. This is a companion of releases — instant desert session in your head but from two different points of departure. Listen

Paisiel – Paisiel
Psychedelic, drum-forward jazz but not jazz really at all. Long pieces take time to move around, instruments react to each other and propel the listener to some far reaches. Free form, freak out sax’n’drum, back to earth with the sound of the gong. Listen

••• Further Listening: Fuzzy, Noisy, Pulsating & Hypnotic Rock Music •••

8
Julie’s Haircut – In the Silence Electric

An Italian band with a really bad name. If you like your psych in the vein of say, Clinic or Suuns, this is your band. I learned this is their 9th album and 30th release or something! Me? Never heard of ‘em haha. Until now. Whenever one of these tracks comes on shuffle, I look it up and I like it. Let them take you somewhere…probably spacey. Listen

Follakzoid – I
Chile’s foremost ‘Krautrock’ trance band. Or something. But they can lay down a groove for 15 minutes and you won’t get tired of it. Shifting tones, driving drums and looping bass lines may make me march fast down the street. Or, if at home, slap this one on and let the mood take your introspection to another level. Listen

Dury Dava – Dury Dava
Here I’m thinking a lost Can jam w/ Damo slipped onto the playlist, but it’s track 3 on this psychedelic Greek band Dury Dava’s killer album. Love these discoveries, right up my alley. By track 8 I’m hearing hints of Fugazi mixed in with all the above, which pleases the heavy in me. I think the album cover sums it up, all these things and more. Listen

Snapped Ankles – Stunning Luxury
These guys intrigued me from the first note I heard. Then I learned they make their own synthesizers out of actual logs. WTF. Then I google-imaged them. WTAF. Turns out they are pretty normal, but in a Liars are totally normal kind of way. Similar? A little, in the dance-punk kind of way. Is it a gimmick? I don’t believe it — these are art kids doing art things in the UK. We can’t ask for more, really can we? Listen

••• Further Listening: Psychedelic Light & Love with a Gentle Comedown •••

9
Moon Duo – Stars are the Light

Speaking of spacey. This might be the most light-filled, open and spacious album from this psych-rock duo. I started to hear their albums in the same tone, this changes all of that. Bubbling synths, drum machines, less fuzz maybe but more glint. Yea, glint. Listen

Devendra Banhart – Ma
Dev is back! Does anyone call him Dev? I don’t! I had pretty much given up on ol’ Devendra some time ago (looking back however, Mala is pretty good). But boy, did we all fall for his first bunch of albums. Perfect freak folk for the times (the 00s, yo). Saw this release, thought what the heck and hit play. I love it! It’s easy going, it’s humorous, it is not pretentious or overstuffed. The production supports his voice and songs, it doesn’t try to be everything for everyone. So chill, so sweet. Dev’s back baby, Dev’s back. Listen

Helado Negro – This is How You Smile
Fits right in with Devendra above and Avey below. I’ve read it described as cosmic synth-folk. That’s pretty accurate, it ambles along with found sound, relaxed vibes and multilingual lyrics. Hammock music of the finest order. Listen

Avey Tare – Cows on Hourglass Pond
Animal Collective made a big impression on me esp Feels, MPP. Then they got weird with electronics. I bailed. Panda Bear made some cool albums, but then Avey Tare emerged as the solo guy to beat. I loved 2017’s Eucalyptus – possibly my favourite of any AC-related release. This album carries on in that vein. His melodies are so strong, his voice covers much ground and it’s experimental with excellent songwriting. Prolific, too, he’s put out solid EPs and singles in between, too. Sorry Panda and Geologist, Avey’s my man. Listen

And finally, a shout out to Townes van Zandt, Blaze Foley, Gillian Welch, David Rawlings & Tommy Guerrero for sound-tracking campfires & forest hangs throughout the summer. If I compiled a ‘most played’, I bet these folk would occupy a good spot at the top.
After Sault of course ;)


Top photograph: Twenty years ago at SAIT, a celebratory end of semester party at the student lounge. Photographed for the Emery Weal, when I was Photo Editor 1999/2000.

 

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