It’s been a bizarre year. While Parliament, social media and the country-at-large have been tussling with Brexit and elections, the musical landscape has somewhat reflected that turmoil via a fragmented po-pourri of emotions, feelings and heightened surreality.
For sure, it’s not been a vintage year. Although music sales remain healthy in general, outright classics and bangers were few and far between, as even the hip hop and r’n’b scenes started to sound tired, and a little muted. But as always there has been plenty to get your ears around, some surprises, and a general willingness to keep on pushing the boat out, experiment and fuse disparate genres and moods, a reflection no doubt of the increasing fragmentation of tribes, and influence of the world wide web, where literally everything is now within easy grasp.
Sharon Van Etten may have upset some of her fans who were expecting more of the same, aka melancholic acoustica, but with Remind Me Tomorrow she delivered an electrifying pop album that won over many new fans, helped along by the stunning coming-of-age track ‘Seventeen’. And Vampire Weekend were similarly re-energised with Father of the Bride, their first album for six years, a sophisticated, heavy, yet bright and fun work. Meanwhile Richard Dawson continued his most fruitful journey from solo avant-blues to alt-pop, with another stunningly sophisticated collection of songs on 2020, morphing the everyday (jogging and football) into works of oddball genius.
Big Thief delivered not one, but two superb albums this year. The New York based, 4AD indie rootsy rockers outfit released U.F.O.F (>nominated for >Best Alternative Music Album for the 2020 Grammy> >Awards>) >and Two Hands, while contemporary Irish folk band Lankum followed up their Rough Trade debut album Between the Earth and Sky with the even more beautiful and haunting The Livelong Day.
Notable debut albums released included The Murder Capital’s rich, dark and literate post-punk debut album When I Have Fears, which for the most part captured their extraordinary live sound (perhaps my highlight set from last year’s The Great Escape), a terrific, melody-rich, no frills debut album from King Nun, The Isle of Wight’s Plastic Mermaids dream-psych-folk-pop mash-up Suddenly Everyone Explodes, and Brighton’s very own Penelope Isles’ debut on Bella Union, Until the Tide Creeps In.
And post-punk continued on its merry journey into deep, abstract, noisy yet strictly funky forays that showed no creative bounds. Bands like Squid, Black Midi, Black Country, New Road, Working Men’s Club and Dry Cleaning, displayed more creative juice in one song than most bands can muster in a lifetime. They may not capture mainstream hearts, but buy do they live and breath sweet sweet music.
There’s absolutely no doubt about it, we’re currently wading through an intense purple patch in the music industry. Which is a relief in a world where everything else seems to be falling apart at the seams. Across a multitude of genres, through brand-new music and legends of the industry, both on record and in rooms large and small, we’ve been walloped by wall-to-wall classics of the era. Nevertheless, it’s still a surprise to me that, in 2019, two of my favourite records have come from legends who, by right, should have already experienced their peak. That certainly wasn’t the case, however.
Ghosteen, the seventeenth record by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, continues his remarkable streak of five-star records since 2013’s Push the Sky Away. A remarkable, pain-stakingly candid expose of grief, it caused leakage from the eyes and a severe ache of the heart. A hard listen at times, it showcased Cave’s brazen knack for beautiful poetry and Warren Ellis’ conducting skills doing a good job of reigning in the passionate project. Likewise, Thom Yorke’s ANIMA was without a doubt his most coherent solo album so far. An anxiety-riddled electronica album littered with clever Thom Yorke-isms and an unexpected bubbling pop sensibility, it was an utter joy from start to finish.
Elsewhere, US hip-hop’s outrageous consistency continued with Tyler, the Creator’s best album yet IGOR, Denzel Curry’s 90s throwback ZUU, and Kanye West’s gospel inspired record Jesus is King. But the UK proved it’s still a creative hub for all things rap and grime with Little Simz GREY Area, Kano’s Hoodies All Summer and James Blake’s Assume Form.
In terms of new music – and the sort of music you can expect to hear on our brand new new music show Totally Wired – Fat White Family side project PREGOBLIN proved they’re far more than sleazy post-punk with the disco-inspired beats of ‘Anna (Flowers Won’t Grow)’ and ‘Combustion’, while Manchester band Mealtime were my surprise package of the year releasing dizzying and diverse electro-pop that feels both sinister and sunny. My new music artist of the year, though, has to be Arlo Parks. At just nineteen years of age, she’s released two beautiful EPs brimming with brilliant R&B licks and modernist lyrical licks and provided the main support for Jordan Rakei and Loyle Carner. The future isn’t just bright for Parks, it’s absolutely blinding. A little closer to home, Brighton bands Thyla, Squid, Youth Sector and RALPH TV all look likely to conquer nationwide domination in 2020.
In the live sphere, everything revolved around my first ever time at Glastonbury. A creative hub for everything music and performing arts, the likes of Lizzo (who certainly takes the crown for the music icon of the year), Tame Impala, Slowthai and Janelle Monae provided the perfect soundtrack to one of the hottest weekends of the year. Pure bliss. Thank god for music.