THANK GOD IT’S CHRISTMAS
Which means, among other things, that it’s time to list your favourite albums of the year that was [CURRENT YEAR].
My listening habits are going sideways and backwards. I’m bravely exploring the furthest reaches of various forgotten sounds and movements. And I’ve long-since concluded that no new music can possibly be as good as The Music of the Ages. My ambition is to one day look at the various best-of-the-year lists and not recognise a single release. It very nearly happened this year! Better luck next year. It would be so much easier if everyone stopped making such incredible new music.
Here are my 10 favourite albums from 2019, carefully ranked in order of smashing-ness.
10. Acid Rooster – S/T
Some bands deal in light and shade – or as they might term it, “quiet and LOUD.” They let the tension build ’til it’s unbearable. Then, with a triumphant stomp on a distortion pedal, they release. Quiet. LOUD. Acid Rooster do this too – only they start with the LOUD and take things from there. This is space rock that understands the undeniable – that space is terrifying. That even when you’re blissfully floating in free-fall, you could be seconds away from catastrophe. Set your interstellar controls to overdrive, and prepare to plunge through the heart of the sun and emerge screaming from the other side.
Favourite Track – Moon Loop
9. Desperate Journalist – In Search of the Miraculous
I didn’t just “go full-new age” this year. I also came gloomily close to going full-goth. I spent my last night of Glastonbury wailing about how EVERY NIGHT I BURN AND SCREAM THE ANIMAL SCREAM. With vampiric hunger I prowled the shadows for a new gothic fix. And I found it in the third album by Desperate Journalist. Sludgy dirges like Murmuration and operatic laments like Argonauts sated my dark cravings. But I was delighted to find that the majority of the album is comprised of bittersweet chiming wonders with strong echoes of The Bunnymen. Cedars is the sort of song that could become your new favourite song even before the end of the first chorus.
Favourite Track – Cedars
8. Bat For Lashes – Lost Girls
Oh, speaking of vampires! At what point did the creatures of the night become synonymous with neon-tinged sax-enhanced synth grooves? I really didn’t like this one to begin with. Khan wouldn’t be the first musician to scour the heart and soul from her music in pursuit of an electric dream. But after a few listens, I realised that Lost Girls is no less spellbinding than any of her previous albums. The end point is still a place of glittering beauty, she’s just used a different path to get there.
Favourite Track – The Hunger
7. Centrum – För Meditation
Transcendence through heady grooves and heart-stopping drones. This music sounds like it’s carved into the face of a mountain. On my first listen I kept expecting it to explode, to take off. It never does, really – the crescendo’s meant to be within you. One for slowly rising incense and foul-tasting concoctions that’ll make you expunge your inner impurities ready for an audience with the caterpillar that runs the universe.
Favourite Track – Som En Spegel
6. Ride – This Is Not a Safe Place
Oh, how I miss Liverpool Psych Fest. It felt like it could last forever, an annual beat of the celestial heart that would reliably infuse us with righteous energy for the next 12 months. But then it was no more. It’s ostensibly returning next year. Yet it’s been eight months since they announced their intentions (and took our money), and there hasn’t been a peep since then. Not a sausage. I’m not convinced it’s going to happen. Anyway, in the months leading up to each Psych Fest I’d make a playlist featuring a song from every band on the lineup. Listening to Ride’s latest album, I’m amazed by how much it resembles those playlists of old. It’s like they’re trying their hand at every flavour of modern psych, and pulling it off time and time again. In terms of styles and moods it’s diverse, yet it’s a cohesive listen as a whole, and the songwriting remains tight throughout. Stunning.
Favourite Track – Fifteen Minutes
5. Is Bliss – Strange Communication
Soaring harmonics deployed with pinpoint accuracy evoking a cleansing downpour in a delirious afterlife! Is Bliss delivered on the promise of their early EPs. At its best, it almost – almost – captures the magic, the majesty and the mystery of early Verve and Spritualized.
Favourite Track – Belong
4. Tool – Fear Inocolum
Like studying a series of intricately-carved statues dedicated to long-forgotten gods. I know I’ll still be studying these runes decades from now. But while this is music to decipher and unravel, it’s in no way ponderous. It’s heady, it’s heavy, and it’s magnificent. It’s ultraprog in excelsis. It’s a midnight herbal tea party with a shaman, prying open your third eye to finally see the world in lurid colour.
3. Spellling – Mazy Fly
Imagine the sort of chanteuse who’d perform at Club Silencio weaving her spells over John Carpenter synths. It’s not just haunting. It’s haunted – by historical scars and dark visions of the future. But hidden among these spectral warnings to the curious you’ll find a ray of hope. The Mazy Fly is a spirit of natural innocence, unfazed by technology and immune to dystopian nightmares. The whole album could be taken as an invitation to put down your phone, and frolic.
Favourite Track – Dirty Desert Dreams
2. Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds – Ghosteen
His fifth successive masterpiece. Or, depending on how you feel about Nocturama, his 13th successive masterpiece. He’s an international treasure. And while it wouldn’t quite be true to say that he’s never been better, we can safely say that he’s as good as he’s ever been. But he’s hurting. Obviously. These elegiac arrangements – lush orchestration, ghostly choirs and vintage synths – are the first set of Bad Seeds compositions I wouldn’t mind hearing in instrumental form. Shorn of Nick’s vocals, this would be a remarkable ambient release. But add Nick’s grave vocals – stoic throughout, but rising to the very top of his register for his closing recount of a Buddhist grief fable – and the effect is heartbreaking. Devastating. It’s the sound of grieving. But it’s also the sound of transcendence. He’s not moving on, but he’s desperately seeking peace. Listening feels intrusive, like you’re trudging through the rawest parts of his mind.
Favourite Track – Night Raid
1. Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980-1990
I have Light in the Attic records to thank for my initial descent (ascent?) into new age living and thinking. Their 2013 release, I Am The Center, kickstarted my obsession. Nine minutes of Constance Demby changed me forever. This year they stoked the fires with their Kankyō Ongaku collection. This music was specifically written to evoke a way of life – one of peace, optimism, and prosperity. Some of it was piped into shopping centres and art galleries. Some of it was written for advertisements and product launches. Yet it never sounds trite. It doesn’t even sound naff. It feels spiritual, like a celebration of the miraculous wherever it can be found in the everyday world. It’s profoundly moving and deeply relaxing. It’s a wonderful reminder that, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, there’s always more to life than this.
Favourite Track – Hiroshi Yoshimura – Blink
Thank you for reading. And listening. And a very Merry Christmas, or whatever you celebrate, to you and yours.