From debuts to welcome returns, we count down our favourite albums of 2019.
In The Blank Space
It’s common for someone of my background and age to spend their younger years in the ‘clever music’ trap. However in this very different time, I’ve grown weary of the Radioheads of the world. It’s this allergy that was shattered in the opening moments of Josin’s debut, In The Blank Space. Pulsating with the same transmuting reverie of the aforementioned Yorke, it’s an album steeped in bittersweet beauty and a freedom of songwriting which would challenge many to perform, let alone write, such twisting, chordal songs.
Baby-faced and Instagram-ready, the half-Korean, half-German Hamburger occupies a corner of music often reserved for chin-strokey fuddy-duddies and does it better than most who’ve come before her. A true audio-naut, she pushes boundaries while leaving enough ‘blank space’ for you to swim around in. Loki Lillistone
The Murder Capital
When I Have Fears
Human Season Records
It’s all very well being the hardest-working band of 2019, but if you put yourself in front of paying and baying mobs as much as The Murder Capital have this year, you have to have something substantially weighty to offer. And it’s all well and good being substantial and weighty, but you also have to have to have subtlety, be it musical or lyrical, otherwise you’re just beating your audience around the ears with sound and fury.
When I Have Fears serves as a daring, blistering debut. Taking its title from a Keats poem about fear of death, mortality seeps from every bar and syllable. Literary and visceral in equal measures, this record as much James Joyce as it is Fight Club. Jon Kean
Lana Del Rey
Norman Fucking Rockwell
Two years on from the release of the critically-acclaimed Lust for Life, America’s resident ‘sad girl’ returned with long-awaited sixth studio album, Norman Fucking Rockwell – an elegant portrayal of the singer’s new-found strength and stability, marking what is undoubtedly her greatest record to date. Layered with compelling stories and Lana’s signature soundscapes, the record’s personification of America’s political and social climate breaks away from melancholy and tragedy in favour of transformation and a hopeful resilience.
Closer, ‘hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but I have it’ summarises the album’s concepts perfectly, but it’s the immaculate ‘Venice Bitch’ that stands alone as a rose-tinted, dream-pop masterpiece, backed by nine minutes of heart-wrenching electric guitars and psychedelic synths. Ari Sawyer
Any Human Friend
2019 has been an exceptional year for queer artists in the industry. Compared to the equally fantastic Forevher by Shura, which languors somewhat more blissfully in the realm of newfound love, Hackman’s Any Human Friend takes on the tribulations of same-sex dating and reaffirms selfhood in celebratory style.
Whether she’s cutting loose on a fierce guitar solo (‘Come Undone’), cheekily ruminating on the joys of masturbation (‘Hand Solo’), or generally rising above preconceived expectations (‘The One’), Hackman’s third studio album expands the singer-songwriter’s canon and takes it to new heights. This isn’t some pallid, toothless, shy indie record; it’s the affirmative work of a true rock goddess and so much more than selective playlist fodder. Any Human Friend is just what the heart needs. Harriet Taylor
The first few piano notes of title track, ‘Flamboyant’ exude a grandeur and self-assured poise that instantly encapsulate the essence of this album as a whole. A powerful and anthemic debut from a downright inspirational queer pop icon, Flamboyant is an album that has offered me a sense of belonging and empowerment. From the confidence and assurance of identity that Dorian Electra expresses, to the community they have nurtured around them, there’s depth to the soaring euphoria of this record’s dance-pop gems
Collaborating with the likes of Laura Les, ABSRDST, Mood Killer, Dylan Brady and more (who all make incredible music in their own right), Electra’s Flamboyant is a witty, sensual and ingenious record from a truly iconic artist. Kezia Cochrane
It seems as though every album Metronomy release takes a little longer to accept, but that the rewards are deeper still. If ‘The English Riviera’ was their pop peak, or ‘Love Letters’ their timeless Beatles moment, this year’s effort saw them go art. Across a marathon 17 tracks, the feeling is one of never-ending ideas and few rules to abide by. The specific combination of hooks and dada-esque confidence, for me, positions Mount as a kind of English David Byrne, reaching ultimate silliness on ‘Sex Emoji’, or Lips Inc. imprint, ‘Salted Caramel Ice Cream’.
With the trademark musings on old towns and ex-girlfriends, sad songs that are somehow danceable and that unique, lo-fi vocal, Metronomy are still there – just this time freer and zanier than ever. Metronomy, forever. Loki Lillistone
Stones Throw Records
Celestial, mercurial and potent, Athena is a testament to its divine namesake. On her debut full-length record, Sudan Archives firmly marks out her territory with powerful bow strokes, sultry R&B rhythms and sublime, assured vocals. With compositions that feel at once perfectly simple and richly abundant, the LA artist has fully honed her talent on this record, having the listener hooked on every melodic and rhythmic shift that she orchestrates.
The sublime harmony between violin and vocals that Brittney Parks crafts is incomparable, wielding its own distinct quality, one which radiates as much vulnerability as it does deific confidence. Kezia Cochrane
Switching up sounds and branching out in new directions can often be a setback for a band’s follow-up album, but London trio, Girl Ray have proven that this isn’t always the case. Moving away from the lo-fi indie vibes of their debut, the band’s latest offering, Girl, reaches for a fresh, beat-heavy pop sound, drawing primarily on fun, freedom and creative expression.
While the trio remain true to their London roots via an outstanding collaboration with rapper, PSwuave, the entire record has a warmer feel. From title-track, ‘Girl’ to the groove-packed lead single, ‘Show Me More’ and everything in between, they incorporate uplifting, sun-kissed beats, making excellent use of synthesis, inspired, we’re told, by some of the most powerful female names in the industry. Ari Sawyer
Stuffed & Ready
This year saw Cherry Glazerr become less of a band and more of a person than ever. The Pixies-meets-Warpaint sound is largely the same, again expertly produced by Grammy Award-winner, Carlos de la Garza, but this time mixes guitar-work with drum machines and other pixie dust, putting this rock project firmly in 2019. No mean feat.
Above all, however, the songwriting is what puts this album head and shoulders above most others in the space. ‘Ohio’ would cause inanimate objects to head-bang; ‘Daddy’ explains patriarchal notions so succinctly that you’ve got plenty of time left to rock out; and ‘Self Explained’, Clem’s favourite track of the record, confidently takes its time more than any Glazerr tune I’ve heard to date – marking, I think, a coming of age. Loki Lillistone
The Twilight Sad
It Won/t Be Like This All The Time
After the densely-dark and oft-misunderstood Nobody Wants to Be Here…, The Twilight Sad felt on the verge of implosion à la Pornography-era Cure, bearing a similar weight. But instead of succumbing to such immense gravity, they went away and re-emerged with their finest album to date; the work of a band taking a rapturous victory lap for fifteen years of honing their craft.
They haven’t shaken the gloom – after all, that’s a large part of their aesthetic appeal – but the combination of old and new sounds, wrapping shoegaze, dream pop, electronica into a tight, accessible bundle of post-punk noise, is a spectacular feat in itself. ‘The Arbor’, which brings to mind the work of fellow Scots, Cocteau Twins, I recommend as a personal highlight. Harriet Taylor
If there’s one record from the past twelve months that resonates with me deeper than any other, it’s IDER’s astounding electro-pop debut, Emotional Education. Fusing intricate vocal harmonies and emotive pop-synths, opening track ‘Mirror’ is intimate and hard-hitting, recounting the introspective process of losing, healing and re-discovering yourself in the throws of separation.
While ‘Saddest Generation’ later addresses the harrowing statistics of mental health throughout the country, marking an anthem of solidarity and inner strength, closing track ‘Slide’ slows to a haze of bittersweet, childhood nostalgia, showcasing some of the album’s most remarkable vocal work and placing Ider firmly on the ‘ones-to-watch’ list. Through a relatable and artistic commentary on the millennial generation, Emotional Education beautifully captures what it means to be human, and what it means to be vulnerable. Ari Sawyer
Dogrel opens with “Dublin in the rain is mine,” on the track, ‘Big’. Brash and frenetic, you can basically feel Grian Chatten fidgeting. He sing-shouts with the tone and ferocity of people that speak to their mates at gigs when they should be listening to the band. It ends with “We trip along disaster in the whirlwind of the free/ All together now,” on the unusually serene Pogues ode, ‘Dublin City Sky’.
Either way, there’s an irresistible romance to this album, be that a love of the shabbily mundane and everyday, a love of chaos or a reminder to hug the shit out of the one life you get to live. Dogrel shamelessly epitomises Thomas Edison’s old saying that “discontent is the first necessity of progress.” Jon Kean
Giant Swan’s self-titled debut is a heady, warped, and visceral experience in a league of its own. For a live act brimming with such raw, hypnotic power, the duo’s ability to encapsulate and deliver this essence on-record is quite astounding. Across Giant Swan, they deliver juddering, intense techno creations, exemplified by the instantly-incisive and discordant ‘55 Year Old Daughter’, alongside moments of somehow-tender sparsity, such as ‘‘I’ As Proof’, and the eerie, alien-esque ambience of ‘Not A Crossing’.
There’s a tangible eclecticism throughout, intertwined with a certain punk attitude, and while the soundscapes feel ultimately unsettling, entangling you in an abrasive, uncanny terrain not of this world, there’s also a spectral charm and transcendent quality, all fusing to leave a searingly-unforgettable impression. Kezia Cochrane
ATO Records / Fontana North
Witnessing Nilüfer Yanya live at Simple Things Festival this year, pouring her soul into each note as it emanated from a stage in the Colston Hall foyer, has compounded my love for this record. Miss Universe has dazzled listeners worldwide and peaked to such acclaim that you wonder what more can be said than has been already.
The gentle, dreamy haze of subtle guitar plucks, soft synths, and Yanya’s dulcet vocal delivery wrap you in a sonic blanket that feels warm and reassuring like the first sun of springtime. Yet praise be to the often-forgotten interludes that thread this glorious album together, where Yanya parodies an intoned wellness hotline operator. “We are here for you, we care for you,” the fictional ‘WWAY HEALTH™’ promises – familiar soundbites we’ve heard from solicitors eking out ‘quick and easy’ mental fulfilment strategies. Harriet Taylor
Aldous Harding has always been an intriguing artist. Rarely interviewed – even less so on camera – and with performances which are very much in-character. When she dropped Designer this year, however, she crossed over into being a downright important one. Lead track, ‘The Barrel’, served as a characteristically-obtuse reintroduction, yet one catchy enough to have me inadvertently singing ridiculous things like “show the ferret to the egg” in public. Its stark video – complete with moves that challenge Drake in terms of meme-ability – further remind us of her auteurship.
Aldous Harding paints with words in a way that only she can, compounded by a precise command of delivery and timbre that, while rare, appears on every single track of this album. To quote the woman herself: “there’s a definite vibe”. Loki Lillistone
Before diving into any musical analysis, it’s important to note that Holly Herndon finds innovation in disruption. For her third album, PROTO, the (somewhat) Berlin-based musician and composer, along with long-time collaborator Mat Dryhurst and a choral ensemble, developed Spawn, an AI taught to interpret and process sound by using machine-learning programming, mimicking what she sonically absorbs. From that point, music and technology worked in perfect symbiosis and Herndon’s finest work came to life, letting go of pre-conceived notions of composition and relying highly on experimentation.
A quasi-post-apocalyptic opera, PROTO combines elements that are both very human and transhuman, tied in part to Spawn’s progressive technical development. The incorporation of a choral ensemble takes this further, as human and cyborg unite strengths and skills to create a piece of work that showcases the potential of modern technology, and ourselves. Highly conceptual, this is not your typical electronic/experimental album, requiring dissection and the listener’s full-attention. Each sound connects with the next, never giving you an objective sense of what is real and what is mechanical. If Herndon’s music makes you question your own perception, then her goal has been met. Francisco Gonçalves Silva
The Practice of Love
Sacred Bones Records
The subject of ‘love’ is perhaps music’s most trite and timeworn topic. Yet in the hands of Jenny Hval, on her devine seventh album, it feels like uncharted waters. Love is about friendship, community, otherness. Love is defined on one’s own terms, Hval seems to say, as she weaves together a tapestry of art, poetry and spellbinding electronic production.
Time and time again, Hval’s brilliant intelligence pierces through The Practice of Love. It’s an album of grand ambitions, deftly played out with dexterity and humility. In the album opener, ‘Lions’, a measured voice invites us to study the natural world around us and ask ourselves “Where is God?”. This voice, coupled with bursts of static noise and bubbling synths, eases us in as the track evolves into a euphoric, transcendental banger. The album’s closer, the starkly beautiful ‘Ordinary’, later eases us out again. It’s an emotional wild ride, but Hval gently guides us through it.
The Practice of Love is Hval’s most pop album yet, directed at pop’s favourite topic, love. It’s a treasure trove of wisdom, experience and insight. And it’s an album that feels as deep and intricate as it does immediately enjoyable. Thomas Evans
Originally written and recorded as a stripped-back solo record, All Mirrors went from ‘potentially seeing the light of the day’ to being one of Angel Olsen’s greatest achievements. With the inclusion of strings and other orchestral arrangements from a twelve-piece, along with a little help from co-writer Ben Babbitt, producer John Congleton and arranger Jherek Bischoff – who has worked with the likes of Xiu Xiu, Parenthetical Girls, Amanda Palmer, and more – this constellation allowed Olsen’s vision to grow deeper. The resulting sound embodies to the fullest a grander sense of proportion; ‘epic’ is a word that comes to mind, as does ‘refinement’.
Olsen is magistral at juggling emotions and elegantly showcasing her most vulnerable moments of reflection. Throughout her discography, and with every album she has released, she has projected her willingness to evolve as an artist. Whether by including synths, her songwriting sharpening, or her increased precision at creating lullabies for nihilists, these step-by-step improvements are now displayed in all their glory within All Mirrors. Her output is transgressive and honest, layered with irreverent sucker punches disguised with tenderness, addressing heartache and rejection while opening doors to laughed-off new beginnings. Francisco Gonçalves Silva
Nothing Great About Britain
Famously, the release date of Northampton-born punk-MC, slowthai’s debut album was meant to coincide with Brexit day. And while the country is still holding a collective gun to its head as the months pass on, slowthai has already pulled the trigger.
Nothing Great About Britain is compelling, funny, poignant and stomach-churning in equal measures. The topic of Brexit inspires little but dread in the hearts of many, but here slowthai hijacks the Brexit shitshow and claims it as a soapbox for his take on nationalism, poverty and inequality in Britain, 2019.
“I will treat you with the utmost respect, only if you respect me a little bit Elizabeth, you cunt,” he says, addressing our country’s celebrated monarch. Johnny Rotten is biting his lip, he would never have gone that far. But for all of his cartoonish antics, there’s an integrity and heart to Tyron Kaymone Frampton – from his 99p tours, to his actually-genuinely-touching family tributes. Nothing Great About Britain is unflinchingly grim in its portrayal of a modern UK, but at the same time envisages a fairer, funnier, more optimistic country. In short: slowthai for Pres. Thomas Evans
This has truly been Dave’s year, and deservedly so. From his Mercury Prize and Ivor Novello wins to starring in Top Boy and of course the release of Psychodrama. Almost ten months after the album’s release, I still get chills every time I listen to it. It’s a record imbued with emotional poignancy, vulnerable honesty and an authenticity that allows for astute, nuanced narratives on racial identity, mental health, abusive relationships and family.
While Psychodrama is predominantly defined by melancholic, brooding tones and sparse beats, there are moments of levity such as on summer jam, ‘Location’, featuring Burna Boy, and the tender, soulful ‘Purple Heart’. The South London rapper, producer and multi-instrumentalist’s musical prowess fully shines throughout, not only in his supreme lyrical dexterity and inimitable flow, but also in his tone, in each carefully-placed melody and each skittering beat (for which the legendary Fraser T. Smith is also to thank).
At a time when racism is depressingly and disgustingly rife, the discerning, eloquent reflections on race that Dave offers are pertinent, as is the young, black artist’s success and the fact that he continues to do things very much on his own terms. The fact that ‘Black’, the third track on the record, ridiculously received backlash when it first aired on mainstream radio speaks for itself.
Framed conceptually within the psychotherapy setting from which the record takes its name, the unguarded openness Dave pours out is reinforced by interspersed sections of speech from his therapist across the tracks. While the album closes on ‘Drama’, which features an agonising and emotional conversation with his incarcerated brother, there is a sense of catharsis and reconciliation that Dave attains over the album’s duration.
A striking, empowering and achingly-human debut, Psychodrama will continue to be lauded as the powerful masterpiece that it is for a long time to come. Kezia Cochrane
See the video for ‘Professor X’ by Dave here: