Saka-Sama at Tower Records, Kinshichō – they’re not on the list but doesn’t this just show all of the joy music can bring?
This has been an incredible year for music, and so I have really struggled to come up with my ten albums of the year – 2019. Any list in which new releases by Karen O, Sleater-Kinney and Kim Gordon don’t even get into the “…not quite” section represents a strong year.
My albums of the year have all been released in
2019, but I have also added a little section of reissues and new discoveries.
Oh…and there are also some that didn’t quite make it.
Anyway, here they are, presented in no particular order. If you’re so inclined, there’s a little Spotify playlist (including tracks from all the lists below) that you can listen to whilst reading…or whenever you fancy really. Oh, and note that the videos are not always the same track as is included on the playlist…I’m awkward like that (and sometimes there isn’t a video for my standout track).
As I write this, it strikes me that much of what
I have been listening to has been a little…melancholy (apologies to those who
get my end of year CD). Perhaps that reflects the current atmosphere in the
world; or perhaps how I have been listening to music. Since I upgraded my hi-fi
in my home office, I have been able to have music accompany me when I work.
This can really help my concentration, but it needs to be music that washes
over me in some sense or form. To cheer things up though, this is also the year
I really discovered City Pop…and I’d really encourage you to dive into that.
So, in no particular order, let’s jump in…
Umi to Uchu no Kodomotachi / Maison Book Girl
This is very much a late breaker, being released in December 2019, but still it makes it into the list. Maison Book Girl are a group that I didn’t get for the longest time…until the release of Yume in 2018 (which I didn’t get until January this year, so it didn’t make it into last year’s list). Once you click with this band, you’ll likely become as smitten as me.
So what is it that makes this album special?
Quite simply, you will not hear pop music like this anywhere else or from
anyone else. There’s an artfulness to the music that means that every track is
instantly recognisable as a Maison Book Girl track, and its all in the music.
There’s heavy use of flute and other wind instruments, as well as strings, and
the hooks are all…slightly odd (at least to the Western ear). Vocally they’re
on point as well.
The standout track is Silhouette, a melancholy piece of wonder that stands up with the very best. And all this from an Idol group…wow.
Antidotes 1 / Lucinda Chua
2019 was the year I discovered and got obsessed
with Lucinda Chua. Previously in Felix (see below) and playing with FKA Twigs
amongst others, Lucinda is a cellist and vocalist who creates expansive
compositions that really speak to you when you want to listen to something a
little downtempo. There are multiple layers to this release (more of an EP than
an album, but who’s counting) that reward exploration and repeated listening.
Every track is a killer, but for me it’s Semitones that stands out (if only for the “broom among the brooms in a broom closet” line). Lucinda’s cello really soars in that track, and the semi-spoken vocal only adds to the atmosphere.
Inside The Rose / These New Puritans
My most anticipated album of the year,
pre-ordered with great excitement, and it didn’t disappoint. I have adored TNPS
since 2010’s hidden (and particularly since We Want War…possibly the most
sinister track you’ll here). Inside the Rose harks back to the heights of
Hidden; and is definitely a step up (in my view) from Field of Reeds (which was
still magnificent). This album creeps up on you, and then speaks to some pretty
dark places as the atmosphere builds throughout (accompanied by some pretty
spectacular musicianship and composition).
It’s pretty hard for me to pick out a standout track, but I’m probably going to go with A.R.P., if only for the magnificent introduction with its almost sunny hook…and sinister bass motif that keeps hitting you as the strings build to the point where the vocal starts – the opening lines tell you all that’s going to happen:
“This is your complications calling Your mistake Your faux pas Your broken heart”
Villa / Hallca
NEW RELEASE ALBUM OF THE YEAR ALERT!!!
is about as wonderful piece of escapist pure pop as you will hear. Hallca used
to be in the rather wonderful Especia, but since they quit she’s been ploughing
a solo furrow. Anyone who has dabbled in the joys of City Pop (see below) will
find plenty to love here. Vocally she is excellent, and many of the tracks give
her plenty of space to show this. If you’re feeling a little down or need an
eighties style fix, this is the album for you!
Standout track can really only be Wanna Dance, which rattles along at a great pace and wears it’s City Pop credentials for all to hear. There’s funky geetar, keyboard stabs, and a gloriously catchy chorus.
We Fall / Josephine Wiggs
…and back we head into melancholy for a largely
instrumental offering from Josephine Wiggs. For those of you unaware, Josephine
Wiggs was in The Breeders with Kim Deal…but this is not a clone of that work.
Rather, this is an album for headphones, potentially in one of those temperate
forests in the Pacific Northwest (although you might scare yourself). Vocals
appear sporadically, as do little analogue pops and fizzles, but really this
album is characterised by what isn’t there. There’s a sparseness to the music,
that really shows a level of comfort in the composition, and an artist who
knows sometimes less is more.
Again, this is another LP where picking out a standout track is troublesome in the extreme. I’m going to go with Loveliest of Trees…if only for the really awesome drumming that punctuates the track…along with the main guitar hook that really exemplifies the space this album offers.
Look Up Sharp / Carla dal Forno
I changed the way I discovered music this year,
and Carla dal Forno was one of the resulting discoveries. I’ve taken to
listening to a lot on Spotify, and then purchasing the standouts (ideally from
the artist’s own store…e.g. on Bandcamp). So, what is special about this…again
I think it’s the melancholy and the musicality that keeps me coming back (along
with the creative use of fireworks). Many tracks really drive along, so this
isn’t as downtempo as a lot of my list this year (although again many of the
tracks have a lot of space to them…and fireworks). Lyrically this is also
really interesting, I don’t think I’d want to be on the wrong side of Carla!
This is exemplified in standout track So Much Better, which sees Carla almost spit her way through discovering an old flame is in town, but knowing that she is stronger in every way. Few tracks start with lyrics like…
“Walking to the station I’m in such a bad mood, the pavement is beneath me and a sense of pending doom”
…but don’t you wish they did!
Between The Sheets / Hina Ota
Another pure slice of Japanese Pop, again
contemporary and again with a City Pop sensibility albeit more downtempo than
Hallca (there’s a theme building here isn’t there). I really don’t know a huge
amount about Hina Ota other than what’s on her website (she likes liver, but doesn’t like carrot for garnish). This is a
little jazzier than some of the offerings on here, which isn’t a bad thing.
Again though, there’s that space in the production in many of the tracks that
allow the vocal and piano to lead the tracks.
Standout track is probably Blue Moon, which shows the strength of Ota-san’s piano playing and vocal, with some soaring strings that add an additional melodic motif. What’s lovely about this track is that neither the vocal or piano feel the need to shout to make themselves heard, there’s a subtlety that belies the strength of both. Wonderful stuff.
Fibs / Anna Meredith
Let’s start with a confession…I love Anna Meredith and I was absolutely gutted when she played in Norwich (at Wild Paths) when I was away on a pesky work trip. For those who don’t know, Anna is a British composer who, as well as making some pretty pure pop music, has produced film soundtracks (Eighth Grade) and had her music played at The Proms…how very highbrow. Unlike many other selections in this list, there is a LOT going on in many of these tracks. In many ways, this is the epitome of experimental music and many of you might think that’s not for you, but stick with it as there is plenty to discover here.
Such as Killjoy, which is my standout track. The vocal is wonderful, and there’s still that rather wonderful repeated stab hook that features in so many of Anna’s tracks. The chorus though, is deliciously off kilter and underscored by a rhythm section that then breaks to allow the track to continue to build before the chorus kicks back in with a flourish as the track draws to a close.
The Practice of Love / Jenny Hval
Another undoubtedly experimental album, and one that crept up on me as I really didn’t get it after the first listen but now I adore it. There’s almost a trance-like sensibility to this album, by which I mean that somewhat overplayed 90s dance genre (I always preferred minimalist techno, with a good 303 squelch). What’s interesting about this album is it is a meditation on love, but more the cerebral than the romantic (at least that is my take). Lyrics are often softly spoken, encouraging you into the music, and there’s a connection to the earth and nature that permeates throughout.
Ashes to Ashes illustrates all of this; and is my standout track. Starting out almost acapella, the strings then join followed by a decent beat. In the 90s there’d undoubtedly be a host of remixes…most, if not all, of which would be far inferior to the original. This song takes you on a journey, one that you’ll want to repeat if you give it time and space to burrow into you.
Geomatries Sous Cutanees / Watine
Oh algorithms, how do you work your magic. I don’t understand the internet, and particularly do not understand how they can grab you and introduce you to something you’d otherwise likely never hear. And so it was with Watine, and yet another experimental album to add to my list.
Not only experimental, but also sparse and spare – every track is given space and time to build. Do I know anything about Watine? Not really, but I do know she likes to have a photo of her album on your record player, which is kind of cool. Here you will find music that feels like its been made for a French arthouse movie…the sort that is somewhat surreal and definitely brooding. There are found sounds, snatches of commentary, strings and a dense feeling that is never quite foreboding (but feels like it could flip at any time).
Standout track is the 14 minutes of Jetlag, which feels exactly as I do when I get off a long-haul flight. As William Gibson once wrote, there’s a feeling that your soul is out there somewhere, waiting to catch up. That’s the feeling this track evokes, with hushed spoken lyrics, and a cinematographic sensibility that lasts throughout as the track ebbs and flows around the central theme.
Albums that almost made it…but didn’t
There have been some great other releases this year, including a few that almost made it to this list but didn’t. Those include:
Bird Songs Of A Killjoy / Bedouine
5 / Oyasumi Hologram
Momoiro Clover Z / Momoiro Clover Z
Brace For Impact / She Makes War
Then the Quiet Came is probably the most beautiful and, at the same time, devastating song of the year!
Memory Streams / Portico Quartet
Proto / Holly Herndon
Signals Into Space / Ultramarine
Magdalene / FKA Twigs
Reissues and New Discoveries
…and here are the things I discovered this year, but that were not released this year. Some have been on extremely heavy rotation in AY On Life HQ.
Oh Holy Molar / Felix
Ties for most listened to album of the year (particularly Oh Thee 73, with its perfect opening line)
Yume Hiko / Mioko Yamaguchi
THANK YOU FACEBOOK ALGORITHM – I cannot express how much I love this, if you want to know why City Pop is wonderful, listen to this (and forget all about Plastic Love by Mariya Takeuchi)
Rice Field Silently Rising In The Night / Reiko Kudo
Experimental, and simply wonderful – I cannot imagine a British artist being able to release this, more is the pity.
Mother Earth’s Plantasia / Mort Garson
Future Pop / Perfume
Pacific Breeze / Various Artists
As perfect an introduction to City Pop as you’re likely to get
I Used to Spend so Much Time Alone / Chastity Belt
1992 – 2001 / Acetone
Petit Petit Petit / Zombie Chang
…and that’s a wrap, hopefully you’ve found something here to like.