As We End a Wonderful Year…
IN THIS PHOTO: Billie Marten/PHOTO CREDIT: SHOT BY PHOX
My Favourite Five Albums of 2019
THERE is always a danger publishing a list like this…
IN THIS PHOTO: Michael Kiwanuka/PHOTO CREDIT: Andy Ford/NME
a few weeks before the end of the year because, invariably, you are subjected to late arrivals and surprise releases! This is a risk that I am willing to take, because I have looked at the albums slated for release before 2020 and it seems like there is little in there that will budge my opinions – that said, one album in this list was only released a week ago! In any case, I have compiled the five albums that are, in my view, the best of this year. In each case, I am including a sample review, a link to the album on Spotify and a chance for you to buy it. Everyone will have their opinions regarding the finest albums of the year and that just goes to show what a strong year it has been. There have been a couple of albums that have won praise from every single person who has put pen to paper – including Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ Ghosteen -, and I feel 2020 is going to be a very hot one. Have a look at my chosen five and, if you have not investigated these albums, make sure you get on it! In terms of politics and society, this year has been a pretty tough and unsettled one. When it comes to music, we have been treated to albums of…
IN THIS PHOTO: Brittany Howard/PHOTO CREDIT: Alysse Gafkjen
THE highest quality.
Jamila Woods – LEGACY! LEGACY!
Release Date: 10th May
Producers: Slot-A/Oddcouple/Peter Cottontale/Ralph Gene/Justin Canavan/Aminata Burton/Jamila Woods/Stephon ‘Mooch’ Brown/Jasmin Charles/Nico Segal
Standout Tracks: ZORA/MUDDY/BALDWIN (ft. Nico Segal)
“Each song is titled after its catalyzing figure and is brilliantly threaded with references, but Woods also connects their experiences to her own and those of her immediate bloodline. Racism and its side effects, from theft of culture and land to willful distortions and ignorance of black achievement, weigh heaviest on Woods' mind, yet her voice maintains a sweetness, unfurling like ribbon over the rhythms. Vulgar rebukes such as "Shuddup muthaf*cka, I don't take requests" are expressed with enough grace and melodicism to be as quotable and whistle-able as "I tenderly fill my enemies with white light" or "Take a picture if you want me quiet." Just like HEAVN, Woods' debut, LEGACY! LEGACY! is a modern R&B album recorded in Chicago, mostly with Chicagoans. There's more from Saba and Nico Segal, HEAVN collaborators who respectively add a tailwind-generating guest verse and beaming horns. Three-quarters of the songs, plus a garage-flavored remix of "BETTY," are dynamic Slot-A productions, covering sci-fi electro-soul of numerous shades and chunky hip-hop with elements of post-bop jazz, sometimes with an electric quartet. There's evidence his work was custom built, like when the keyboards burble and blare out of "Miles," evoking the namesake trumpeter's early-'70s dates, and the moment a sampled Geoff Barrow/Adrian Utley one-off elbows its way into "MUDDY," resembling the grit of Electric Mud (an LP recorded in Chicago with Chicagoans). This galvanizing declaration of pride, support, and discontent will no doubt inspire covers itself. Every public library should have at least one copy” – AllMusic
Key Cut: MILES
Michael Kiwanuka - KIWANUKA
Release Date: 1st November
Producers: Danger Mouse/Inflo
Standout Tracks: You Ain’t the Problem/Piano Joint (This Kind of Love)/Final Days
“Working again with Danger Mouse and Inflo, Kiwanuka recorded the project in Los Angeles, New York and London, and it has an assured craft and folksy charm that elevates the artist among his peers. One gets the sense that Kiwanuka is a soft-spoken and humble man, one who's perspective on what constitutes blackness and groove-oriented music puts conventional and stereotyped notions on their collective rear.
While there might not be a "Cold Little Heart" with Kiwanuka, tracks like "You Ain't the Problem" mark its psychedelic territory. "Hero," "Solid Ground" and "I've Been Dazed" are rooted in expansiveness, with simple yet layered lyrics and composition. "Rolling" revels in its musical intelligence while one can feel the swell of "Final Days" and the closing track "Light."
Kiwanuka is therapeutic for all parties involved. It's honest, psychedelic, enlightening and recalls blackness defined by acoustic folk and the organic soul of past artists like Gil Scott-Heron, Bobby Womack and Otis Redding.
For the artist, it's a statement on self-acceptance, an implicit understanding that mental wellness involves a strong sense of self. (Polydor/Universal)” – Exclaim!
Key Cut: Solid Ground
Billie Marten – Feeding Seahorses by Hand
Release Date: 26th April
Producer: Ethan Johns
Labels: RCA/Chess Club
Standout Tracks: Cartoon People/Blue Sea, Red Sea/Boxes
“Like its predecessor, Feeding Seahorses is an incredibly spacious album, yet when you peel away the trimmings, these songs all rely on nothing more than Marten with her guitar and her faultless, often double-tracked voice. The songwriting beneath these tender soundscapes feels naturally matured - not a surprise since Marten was still in school when her debut was released.
At its most sparse Feeding Seahorses can sound truly desolate and profoundly intimate, like on the excellent bare-bones Laura Marling-esque "Vanilla Baby" and delicate closing track "Fish", yet more fleshed out tracks work equally as well. "Blue Sea, Red Sea" is a delightful cut that bears an almost lawsuit-worthy resemblance to Pixies’ "Here Comes Your Man" while lead single "Betsy", the synth-laden "Boxes" and peaceful "Toulouse" are all excellent tracks.
This collection of softly sung songs forms nothing short of a gentle and reserved masterpiece. It would have been easy for Marten to have made this record with the same restricted tool set she used on her debut, however she opted for a riskier route that has certainly paid off. Throughout the album Marten refuses to place restrictions on herself, but manages to never go too far, and add more to a track than it needs.
On Feeding Seahorses, Marten has managed to skilfully navigate a true artistic tightrope by developing and building on the sounds of her minimalistic debut, without losing any of its original essence. Nothing is lost, only gained” – The Line of Best Fit
Key Cut: Toulouse
Brittany Howard – Jaime
Release Date: 20th September
Producer: Brittany Howard
Standout Tracks: History Repeats/Stay High/13th Century Metal
“Howard wrote and composed all of the music on Jaime, which manages to sound both far-reaching and solitary. She played all the assorted, mesmerizing guitar parts, and enlisted Shakes bassist Zac Cockrell, jazz pianist extraordinaire Robert Glasper, keyboardist Dan Horton, and drummer Nate Smith to play sessions with her. With these highly capable ringers driving the arrangements, Howard pushes the boundaries of sound and space in search of fulfillment and decency. In a world that requires so much fixing, the music works effortlessly. Armed with a deeper understanding of self, Jaime becomes her gospel of empathy. “I promise…to be wary of who I give my energy to. Because it is needed for a greater cause,” she vows on “13th Century Metal.” “And that cause is to spread the enlightenment of love, compassion, and humanity to those who are not touched by its light” – The Line of Best Fit
Key Cut: Short and Sweet
Billie Eilish – WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?
Release Date: 29th March
Producer: Finneas O'Connell
Standout Tracks: bad guy/you should see me in a crown/bury a friend
“There’s little to plausibly fault on the record. Previous singles are included sparingly (2018’s ‘When The Party’s Over’ and ‘You Should See Me In A Crown’), and there’s a real level of intrigue waiting on every song, partly as only two new songs (‘Bury A Friend’, ‘Wish You Were Gay’) got a pre-release. It’s an album that moves with purpose and knows when to hold the listener tight, or grab them by the scruff of the neck and drag them into her world. That said, one nitpick is the pacing towards the end, with the final three songs – ‘Listen Before I Go’, ‘I Love You’ and ‘Goodbye’ – providing an melancholy end close to an otherwise thrilling album.
‘When We All Fall Asleep…’, then, ticks all the boxes for a memorable and game-changing debut album. It’s enjoyable and familiar, but retains Billie’s disruptive streak. It’s a brave and resounding first step for an artist with bags of potential and over the next decade, you’ll no doubt see popular music scrabbling to try and replicate what this album does on every level. There’ll always be copycats, as Billie noted on her 2017 song of the same name, but none will be able to reach these heights any time soon” – NME
Key Cut: all the good girls go to hell