Published on January 9th, 2020 | by Dave Scaddan2
The Top 20 Albums of 2019
As he does every year, music writer Dave Scaddan gives us his top 20 albums of the year! Here’s Dave’s Top 20 albums of 2019!
Making this list has been tough this year. Leaving out old faves like Kim Gordon, Digitalism, Prins Thomas and Mono feels wrong, as does snubbing the attitudinous outbreaks of Megan Thee Stallion and Maxxo Kream and somehow eliding the fact that at 81 years of age, Lee “Scratch” Perry has put out three very good records in the last eighteen months. Add to this the fact that my top pick of the year is not really an album, per se, and contains no new songwriting, and it will suffice to say that I’ve pined over the list more than usual. But while quality grains in the chaff bin may bristle, they indicate that the crop has been strong, not to mention diversified.
20 Inter Arma – Sulphur English
The fourth album by this Richmond, Virginia metal band has some of the most telling cover art of the year. Most of the record produces a tangible heat that persistently threatens to overwhelm. Yet as heavy as they are, Inter Arma are capable of finding their inner Fleet Foxes from time to time, enhancing the heat with soft, folky juxtaposition.
19 The Claypool Lennon Delirium – South of Reality
The personalities involved in this “delirium” definitely run the risk of making it seem like a novelty act. Les Claypool has cultivated a devoted following as part of Primus, Sausage, and several other combos, but he’s also estranged those who can appreciate his talent as a bass player without loving what he does with his songwriting and vocals. Sean Ono Lennon, on the other hand, has all the advantages of money and bloodlines to start him on a musical career, but also the disadvantages of expectation and what people will pre-suppose about his sound.
These two balance each other’s schticks out pretty well. Ono Lennon is no Larry LaLonde, but he’s a pretty good guitar player, and his new-agey attitude fits well with Claypool’s Mad Hatter persona. He sounds a lot like his dad, but with the vocal tenderness of Elliott Smith, who’s obviously been a big influence.
If you’re still iffy about this, just try listening to ‘Blood and Rockets’ and tell me you don’t hear these two oddballs smoothing out each other’s rougher edges and channeling their obvious influences into something lovely.
18 Lindstrom – On A Clear Day I Can See You Forever
This is a downright indulgent adventure in synth that gets weird before it gets pretty. Put this on while you’re performing some task that could be done in silence and feel it sneak up on you as a pull-no-punches, vintage keyboard space odyssey.
17 Black Mountain – Destroyer
By now, you know what you’re getting from this outfit: riffage, spacey synth work, and nods to heavy prog. ‘Destroyer’ is no different – another reliable instalment in the ample catalogue, though this time without longtime vocalist Amber Webber, whose absence should’ve upset chemistry, but didn’t really, thanks to the inclusion of Rachel Fannan this time around. This lineup change was exciting for me this year, since I always used to look forward to seeing Sleepy Sun come to town with a new record and Fannan mesmerizing the locals with her raw, powerful strains. Then, one visit, she was no longer there, and the all-male version of the band suddenly failed to impress. While losing Webber is a serious hit to the attitude of Black Mountain‘s setlist possibilities, Fannan pours herself right in there like tempered chocolate and becomes one of the big reasons why this band continues to matter.
16 CHAI – PUNK
The charming DIY approach that CHAI bring to everything they do, their songs, their choreography, their videos, their outfits, make this a punk album in spirit if not in sound. This band really knocked off some socks in 2019, defying plenty of expectations about what a young, all-female Japanese rock group could sound like. They surprise at every turn, keeping songs short and diversifying their sound, which is generally simple, yet articulate.
I think there is probably something generally grumpy, unpleasant or negative about you if you don’t like this band. Unless it’s the Alvin and the Chipmunks tonality of the vocals that turns you off, (unfortunate, but understandable) CHAI‘s positivity and genuine joy for the power pop they make together are intensely loveable qualities. Kana, Mana, Yuna and Yuuki are able to project these traits without the expected pop group fakeness that usually accompanies feel-good music made by youthful groups. You can see them goofing it up in any of their various videos (they have one for practically every song they’ve done) and figure their main talent lies in how they cultivate their image, but seeing them perform live reveals an adroit and immaculately rehearsed combo that seals the deal.
15 VR Sex – Human Traffic Jam
On last year’s Drab Majesty album, Andrew Clinco, aka Deb Demure, leaned heavily on the styles of Disintegration-era Cure and other similarly styled eighties left-field pop. As part of VR Sex, Clinco’s mood and delivery have become more darkened and weighty, hitting more of a Sisters of Mercy kind of tone. The recurring theme of human reliance on electronic eroticism can be acknowledged or ignored; either way, this album delivers a spooky, often aggressive, gothy set of songs that will haunt your speakers like a cybernetic cloning of Peter Murphy.
14 Negativland – True False
The subversive brilliance of Negativland is a forty year legacy at this point, a legacy that includes the creation of their own quasi-musical sub genre. Negativland repackage soundbites from sources like commercials and media reports into repetitive montages. These montages cast new meaning into the words of the original speaker or broadcaster, simply due to the ways the sounds and language are arranged. ‘True False’ is a powerful audio examination of why humans believe what we believe and how the forces influencing our patterns of thought and reason are affecting us. This may not seem like enjoyable listening, and for many, it won’t be. But if you’re interested in hearing how the right manipulation of simple sound clips can create a sharp, funny, sociological art piece, then this is essential listening, and possibly Negativland‘s best.
13 The Fat White Family – Serfs Up!
FWF got into the big studio sound in 2019, and ‘Serfs Up!’ finds them just as playful and sardonic as ever, but with much of the same combination of sweet melody and dark lyrics that made Saul Adamczewski’s Insecure Men album so choice.
12 Earth – Full Upon Her Burning Lips
With riffs designed for slow, heavy repetition building up waves of sustain, Earth are so moody and minimal that the most subtle variations in their melodies can sound like huge shifts in tide.
11 Lizzo – Cuz I Love You
2019 didn’t see anyone break out bigger than this. Months before she was nominated for every goddamn Grammy she was eligible for, awareness of her name alone became a signifier of how up on it we were. ‘Cuz I Love You’ broke so big that people are now getting their lawyers to fight over who actually wrote some of it. Meanwhile Lizzo herself is giving lyric writing credits to tweets. What’s important to me is how much Lizzo feels these songs, and how great it sounds to hear a perfect-pitch voice that’s willing to make little mistakes for the sake of emotion and impact. Want to hear her rap? Done. Want to hear her sing a sassy-sweet pop number? Done. Want her to belt out an emotional ballad without ever sounding soft or weepy? Done. Lizzo is nothing less than a versatile star riding a peak that she has unquestionably earned. She’s also the only SNL musical guest I’ve seen in a loooong time who didn’t seem like she was tripping over her own hype.
10 Boy Harsher – Careful
Straddling the lines of darkwave, synth pop and goth, this Massachusetts duo get it done. The track called LA is one of my faves of the year. It sounds to me like the kind of music I thought the girls who dressed like Siouxie in the 80s would listen to – I felt like it was too cool for me then, and I still kind of do now.
9 Aesop Rock and Tobacco are Malibu Ken
This is one of the oldest records on this list, so having lived with it for nearly the entire year, I can attest to its continued appeal. I feel like Aesop Rock has gotten better with age, focusing more on clarity and narrative without sacrificing his trademark complexity and pace. As a fan of everything Tobacco/Black Moth Super Rainbow-related, I’ve always known there was potential for Tom Fec to work his freak beats more in the hiphop realm, like he did on the Anticon Ep “LA UTI” in 2010. ‘Malibu Ken’ is the realization of that potential, and it excites me to think about this duo enduring.
8 Khruangbin – Hasta el Cielo
Khruangbin is a Texan three-piece, and ‘Hasta El Cielo’ is a dub remix of their 2018 album, ‘Con Todo El Mundo’. Using echo and reverb, these mostly instrumental numbers are reworked into a chill re-imagining of last year’s tracks. Khruangbin’s lineup bring plenty of playing prowess to the table, but never perform with individualistic flair – the focus is always on the collective sound and the laid-back attitude they’ve perfected. So while the dub production treatment is not a necessity – or really, even an improvement – it is an interesting lens to take these tracks through.
7 Chromatics – Closer to Grey
Two covers set up the whole mood of this amazing record. It begins with Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Sounds of Silence’, doubled here as a tune that could’ve been the Love Theme to Bladerunner. Later, The Jesus and Mary Chain‘s ‘On the Wall’ becomes a pretty, eight minute expanse with one guitar chord per bar, sounding, like the best covers do, like it needed to be covered. The whole album showcases a truly Lynchian darkness under the sweetly accessible exterior of Johnny Jewel’s production and Ruth Radelet’s sing-you-to-sleep voice. ‘Closer to Grey’ is not even the record that Chromatics have been hyping. The long-awaited ‘Dear Tommy’ is set to drop in 2020, but this release is no place-filler. In fact, it will be tough for this band to produce their eventual ‘Chinese Democracy’ in a form that will top this.
6 Moon Duo – Stars are the Light
This record covers a lot of stylistic ground while always keeping one foot in the psych-rock realm. If you’re looking for the record from 2019 that had the widest collection of pleasant, melodic sounds, ‘Stars are the Light’ and ‘Hasta el Cielo’ belong in that search. Syncopated synth patterns lay the groundwork for Ripley Johnson and Sanae Yamada’s smoothly paired vocals, always with some molasses-thick bass work in the mix.
5 Pete Rock – Return of the SP1200
Return of the SP 1200 was one of the most pleasant surprises of the year. Everything about the way this record came out made it seem like a dud, or at least a questionable cash-in. As one half of the duo Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth in the early nineties, DJ Pete Rock produced two albums that were in the same jazz-toned style as what A Tribe Called Quest and Gang Starr were doing at the time. The instrumental beats on this record come from before that, which makes one wonder why they would only be released now as a limited edition Record Store Day release. Thing is, every single one of these tracks is a throwback to one of hiphop’s best eras, the time when Digable Planets were still together, when Ron Carter could be recruited to play bass on ‘The Low End Theory’, the time when it was most ridiculous to say that rap didn’t require a musical acumen. Pete Rock’s ear for a beat is dead obvious on these tracks, each one of which is like revisiting the earliest days of artists like The Roots, De La Soul, and DJ Premier. If you’re of a certain vintage, you can close your eyes while listening to this in the early evening and wake up wondering who’s on Arsenio tonight.
4 Moodymann – Sinner
2019 saw Detroit house veteran Moodymann reinvent the dance genre as a melancholy, emotive vehicle. ‘Sinner’ thumps throughout, but also lives up to its creator’s name by projecting a rather odd, downcast vibe that blends strangely with a house style that’s usually so upbeat. There are many cool production touches on ‘Sinner’ that need to be heard to be appreciated, but hearing the blend of Fatboy Slim‘s ‘Praise You’ with Labre Siffe’s ‘If I Gave You My Love’ is a standout moment that shows Moodymann‘s prowess. These tracks have both been sampled relentlessly, but never like this. It’s almost harder to present an oft-used loop source in a new light than it is to crate-dig for a new loop nobody’s heard before. All this points to Moodymann‘s experience and confidence, traits that blend in a really cool way with his sombre tone on ‘Sinner’.
3 Brittany Howard – Jaime
Defying expectation is not always easy, especially for a young performer who’s just recently enjoyed some critical and commercial success. Defying expectation and still impressing and entertaining listeners, even while surprising us, is what makes ‘Jaime’ great. Nothing on this album would sound entirely in place on either of Alabama Shakes‘ two records, and except for the fact that this is unmistakably Brittany Howard’s singing voice, there isn’t much of a stylistic thread between the two projects. That’s the point I guess. Well, Miss Howard, point made.
‘Jaime’ doesn’t rock much. In fact, one of my favourite things about Brittany Howard – her rock ‘n’ roll guitar style – doesn’t get featured in any major way. It’s okay though, because choosing to feature her vocals instead is no real sacrifice. Her voice is so strong, it can be a tonic for remembering that Aretha is gone. And these songs. Pretty . . . strange, aren’t they? There’s a confident looseness to the way these tunes are put together, a little like how Hendrix assembled ‘Electric Ladyland’ when he took over the production controls for the first time, occasionally sounding a little green, a little casual, but always genuine.
2 Danny Brown – uknowhatimsayin¿
Heavy subject matter with a lighthearted tone – that’s what Danny is sayin’. He might put it best when he howls, “shower any beat with the dirtiest vocab / this was the sad man, he used to be the savage nomad.” Even a tired, boojie self-help cliche like, “I’m livin’ my best life” sounds profound when Danny pairs it with all the reasons he should no longer be alive on ‘Best Life’. ‘3Tearz’, featuring Run the Jewels, is a downright dirty pledge to not giving a fuck that picks up where ‘Hey Kids (Bumaye)’ left off. If anyone but Killer Mike deserves the belt, I feel like this record cements Danny as the best emcee of the decade. Five albums in nine years is what passes for productivity these days, and from The Hybrid to uknowhatimsayin¿, there are really no weak points, just the subtlest changes of style and attitude to keep things fresh.
Q-Tip’s (executive) production fingerprints are all over this thing, particularly on the title track, where Danny does his own version of the questions-only concept spawned on Tribe‘s ‘What?’. You remember this one, the one with the line, “‘scuse me if I’m illin’ hey what, say what? What’s a fat man without food in his gut?” Danny takes that inquisitive template and gets downright street-philosphical without ever straying too far from his madman storyteller persona.
1 The Cure – Anniversary/CURÆTION
To celebrate the fortieth anniversary of their first record, The Cure, my favourite band, did this live exhibition of the history of their work. Sticking faithfully to a format of playing two songs from each of their thirteen studio albums, old-to-new in the first half, new-to-old in the second, this is a deliberate move by Robert Smith to highlight the range and longevity of his music with an almost anthropological approach, and it really works.
I’ve been scouring the record bins and torrent sites for thirty years trying to find any obscure or live Cure experiences I could get my hands on, and there is a lot of concert footage – audio and video – for obsessive fans of the band to unearth. If forced to choose whether I would rather keep The Cure‘s studio discography in my collection, or just the live stuff I’ve gathered over the years, I’d have to go with the live stuff – they’re a great live band. The bootlegs and official live releases would exceed the studio catalogue in size, though certain studio tracks would practically never be played live. Hearing certain songs evolve over forty years of live performance is one of the most rewarding aspects of Cure fandom, and that would be a hard thrill to give up.
The Cure also know they are a great live act, and so they waste very little effort in this project on selling anything other than their indelible mark on rock music, giving a tight, skilled, immaculately arranged and downright dignified performance that befits their vintage. Also included with this Blu-ray is another live performance at Hyde Park from earlier in the year. Both concerts show the band members – two who’ve been there from the start, one who’s been there since ‘Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me’ and two who are fairly new – jelling at the top of their form, especially Robert Smith and Simon Gallup, neither of whom seem like they’re 60. The Cure‘s 40-year road of shifting lineups and styles has proved that it was built to last, and now we can travel it all in one show.