2019: Music in Review

Another year, another chunk of time spent pondering music and how it all fits together, this year with the added pressure of tying it all together in a neat decade-sized chunk. 2019 was a year that, musically, did not land as hard as it should. Whereas previous "9" years have usually been filled with classics (Kind of Blue; Abbey Road; Unknown Pleasures; 3 Feet High and Rising; The Fragile; Veckatimest), none of this year's releases at the moment feel like they might join that rare firmament. The year's critical consensus is a fine lyrical achievement from an artist who has long threatened to make some kind of masterpiece - perhaps in coming years we will come to appreciate the album as a true snapshot of a better time (assuming things will not get better as years pass and we can look back on this contentious year as a "better time", in which case God help us all).

Maybe it was general fatigue in considering the decade list, but it was a slog putting the year's list together, especially as there didn't feel like many great things were happening in real time. However, I could still find plenty of great albums to write about, and I present them here. You will also find a link to the decade list on the landing page coming soon.

Albums of the Year

40. Octo Octa, Resonant Body

This followup to 2017's deep house album Where Are We Going? finds Maya Bouldry-Morrison in a more playful mood, mining the 90's house sounds of her kindergarten years to sterling effect, all chunky bass and dramatic strings, ending with the sounds of a huge crowd in joyous dance communion. The gender politics are never far behind, as titles like "Can You See Me?" and "Power to the People" attest.

Move Your Body

39. Slipknot, We Are Not Your Kind

Although you could credit the Iowa metal band for keeping on well past after everyone expected them to flame out (and certainly past nu-metal's relevance), their last decade of work had been, to put it generously, sub-par. What a shock, then, to encounter this work of hunger and passion - these masked men rage and push the limits of their sound further than since 2001's Iowa, Corey Taylor sounding newly energized and focused, his lyrics shifting away from recent empty platitudes to more personal stories. A delightful surprise.

Nero Forte

38. Girl Band, The Talkies

They could have easily taken a victory lap after 2015's triumphant Holding Hands With Jamie and crowded out the likes of Idles and Fontaines DC, but instead, Girl Band took time off to deal with mental health issues. After readying themselves, they recorded a highly experimental sophomore album that begins with Kendrick-esque heavy panic breathing and doesn't let up from there. Some of the best wordplay of the year, and an album that proves that rock maybe has a chance to thrive in the next decade.

Going Norway

37. Tyler, the Creator, Igor

This might be the year's best rap album if it were concerned with being a mere rap album. Yet again, Tyler forgoes genre trappings in an attempt at a singular sound: he is still beholden to the Neptunes and soul, still writing from the heart. Igor is a fully realized concept album about queer love and heartbreak, self-care and humor.


36. PTU, Am I Who I Am

A missive from techno's strange sector, this album from Nina Kraviz's Trip label is suitably eccentric and quick, a 45-minute odyssey that begins with a robotic incantation of Orwell's "1984" and ends with the duo of Alina Izolenta and Kamil Ea circling a club outside, an ambient outro punctuated by a distant motorway. Along the way, a topical "machinery after humanity" concept is given an organic makeover, as the lush jungle and bird sounds of "After Cities" illustrate. A great not-quite-techno album in a year full of them.

After Cities

35. JPEGMAFIA, All My Heroes Are Cornballs

A post-rap exercise in manic rap, Peggy's new album is a scattered collage of sounds and styles, veering from hard af bars to soulful crooning, a melange of classic song titles ("Jesus Forgive Me I Am a Thot"; "Life's Hard, Here's a Song About Sorrel"; "BasicBitchTearGas") and gender-fluid pronouns. A vertiginous accomplishment from an artist who continues to surprise.

Jesus Forgive Me, I Am a Thot

34. Dave, Psychodrama

Dave's debut album is a classically-minded three-act rap album framed as a therapy session, Dave attempting to grapple with his brother's incarceration, a toxic British culture, and struggles with mental health. It climaxes with "Lesley", an 11-minute track about a woman in an abusive relationship that is so focused and harrowing that you believe it singlehandedly won the Mercury Prize for the artist - a party-starter, this ain't. It remains to be seen what esteem this album will hold in the future, but there is no doubt about its sincerity and craft.


33. Angel Olsen, All Mirrors

Infusing her usual sound with a gothic grandeur, Olsen stated that these tracks were composed acoustically and will likely be re-released as such: a tough proposition for such a lush and ornate album. It's arguable that none of these songs quite reach the heights of her previous albums, but the new sound suits her well, and the title track is an epic wonder.

All Mirrors

32. Tool, Fear Inoculum

What were you up to 13 years ago when Tool last checked in with us? Did you imagine that 10,000 Days was an almost literal title for how long you'd wait for the next album? You can temper your expectations all you want, but this was easily the most anticipated album of the year, if not the whole decade if we forgot about Dre. It was worth it. Inoculum is the antithesis of music listening in 2019: a vast 86-minute album that demands full immersion and multiple visits - it sounds pristine, it ebbs and flows and crushes when it needs to, and peaks with one of their heaviest and best songs ("7empest"). See you in 2032!


31. The Comet is Coming, Trust in the Life Force of the Deep Mystery

For all the love I have of mid-era jazz, I have been negligent of modern developments other than the occasional works or artists that cross over into my limited worldview. Shabaka Hutchings has been a huge force in the past few years (last year's Your Queen is a Reptile with Sons of Kemet was fantastic), and this new Comet is Coming album (the first of two released in 2019) was a doozy - a heady, psychedelic trip that is "part Alice Coltrane and part Blade Runner", and all future classic.

Summon the Fire

30. Special Request, Vortex

It bears noting that Paul Woolford dropped not just one or two, but four albums as Special Request this year and they were all singular works from a peak artist - Offworld with its premise "what if Jam & Lewis signed to Metroplex"; Bedroom Tapes' lost ambient nostalgia; whatever Zero Fucks turns out to be – but it was this first blast of relentless bangers he had "a right doss" making that hit the hardest. Strictly for your feet.


29. Fennesz, Agora

Fennesz LPs tend to be few and far between, but he makes the wait worth it. Agora is his first solo album in five years, and features four side-length works that he composed over his headphones after losing his studio space - the attention to detail in these sonic cathedrals could only have been recorded in such close quarters, and rewards similar listening.

In My Room

28. Aldous Harding, Designer

A deeply poetic and free-form folk album. Harding's lyrics are inscrutable, her vocals mercurial, and the arrangements airy and inviting, splashes of psychedelic pop and orchestral flourishes atop simpler guitar arrangements.

The Barrel

27. Flying Lotus, Flamagra

Given how busy Steven Ellison has been in recent years - between curating festivals and directing body-horror movies and championing friends and associates - it should be no surprise that it's been 5 years since his last LP. He made the wait worthwhile with his dense and very long album centered around fire, enlisting talents like Denzel Curry, David Lynch, Solange and Thundercat to bring his visions to life.

Black Balloons Reprise

26. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Ghosteen

Long known as a poet of the depraved, dark side of humanity, it's no surprise that Cave wrought absolute lyrical devastation out of the death of his son. The lush, sparse instrumentation is merely a bedrock for Cave's rich baritone, at its craggiest, to spin untold tales of lost children, bad faith and yearning parents. Not the year's easiest listen, but the easiest to get lost in.

Bright Horses

25. Tunes of Negation, Reach the Endless Sea

Sam Shackleton has been presenting collaborative albums for the past few years now, but his newest is one of the most satisfying. Based on a 13th century poem by mystic Jalalu’l-Din Rumi, "reach the endless sea" is a description of what Shackleton himself hopes to achieve with the music, to “aid transmutation and enter into the light”. This is as twisting, polyrhythmic as he's ever been, and the moments of transcendence here are divine.

The World Is a Stage / Reach the Endless Sea

24. Opeth, In Cauda Venenum

The great Swedish metal exports have notoriously been dabbling in growl-less prog for the past decade now, and Mikael Akerfeld's decision to record vocals in both English and Swedish go a long way to satisfy the itch to hear both sides of their story. Either language you choose to listen to, the results are brawny and heavy, possibly the best of their new era to date.

Universal Truth

23. Charli XCX, Charli

The future of pop goes wherever Charli takes it. Charli can almost rank as a bit of a disappointment - she bravely hyped the album up as the greatest thing she's ever done as if she's forgotten Pop 2 - until you press play. Then it's all future, all the time. It had a few too many guests for my liking, but when the songs work, they hit with the power of an H-bomb - after all, I can't complain about guests when Christine & the Queens absolutely slaughters "Gone" with our girl. Total control over her brand.


22. Danny Brown, uknowwhatimsayin?

On which Danny Brown comfortably settles into elder statesman status aided by exec producer Q-Tip, on a brief and bodied album of bangers and storytelling gems. A rare misfire aside (the lazy title track, this is another gem in his discography.

Dirty Laundry

21. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib, Bandana

Pleasure-zone rap in the mumble era. Madlib's tasty productions providing a bedrock for Gibbs to flow buttery over - the only debate is whether it is as good as 2014's Pinata or better. Either way, you won't find a more satisfying throwback rap album in 2019.

Crime Pays

20. Ariana Grande, thank u, next

Bemoaning her pop genre's rigid timelines, Ariana went hard in 2019 with a quick turn-around after last year's Sweetener, an album that already thrust her into the forefront of the game. Now, that album is relegated to second-best in her discography. A brief, feature-less album of relentless melodies and ferocious attitude, this is the work of an artist at her peak, and even has the temerity to backload all three singles at the very end of the album. She just needs to learn how to pronounce NASA and she'll be all set.

thank u, next

19. Blood Incantation, Hidden History of the Human Race

Riding a Mastodon-sized wave of hype, this Denver band's second album was a metal colossus this year - a note-perfect mix of black metal blastbeats, proggy riffing and screeching vocals. They studied their Rush well: 4 songs, an 18-minute multi-part epic to close the album, 36 minutes of pure perfection that you couldn't wait to blast again.

The Giza Power Plant

18. Floating Points, Crush

After touring with The xx and improvising his sets each night - resulting in his "most obtuse and aggressive" sounds created to date - Sam Shepherd brought that focused energy to his second LP. The ethereal float of Elaenia is in the rear-view: this is a certified genius making brain-dance music, full of peaks and throbs, with plenty of introspection to bring the energy to a simmer.


17. Klein, Lifetime

Designed as a read through someone's diary, Klein's debut studio album is far out even by musique concrete standards, with nary a hook or a straight-forward beat to sink your teeth into, let alone a catchy chorus. However, this is a totally immersive album that frustrates you just enough that you want to hear it again and try to make sense of it.

Claim It

16. Thom Yorke, ANIMA

The Radiohead frontman has been doing impressive work for well-on 30 years now, and this new solo album is a prime example. I would contend that 2006's The Eraser is a low-key masterwork, way more memorable and influential than people credit it, but ANIMA exceeds it in all respects - as electronic music, this album truly pulses and swings. Yorke's voice is comfort food at this point for people my age, and the warm instrumentation fits perfectly especially when coupled with the memorable long-form video on Netflix directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.

Last I Heard (...He Was Circling the Drain)

15. Moodymann, Sinner

Kenny Dixon has been repping Detroit hard for decades, and his work has a delightful idiosyncrasy that sets him apart from his peers. Sinner is a sinuous album that was promised long ago (or was it?), the first word after a long absence (or was it?) following his glorious 2014 self-titled album (that it was) - this is an urgent and meaty house album from a master.

I'll Provide

14. Barker, Utility

It is an age-old question, pondered from the time of Plato onwards: what does the 4/4 techno sound like without a kick drum? Barker had the answer this year. By removing the most recognizable element of his genre, he allowed the music to pulse and swirl on its own, giving a spotlight to all the other elements that make techno tracks great - a stunning triumph.

Paradise Engineering

13. black midi, Schlagenheim

It seems to happen less frequently these days - a breathlessly anticipated debut album by a highly touted young band of skilled musicians. In an age when rock is dead, black midi might have a say in bringing it back from the dead. This is an album of explosive ideas and tremendous musicianship, a firehose of ideas run amok. It will be thrilling to see what these young guys will do next.


12. Big Thief, Two Hands

The second album by the Brooklyn band who had already made a grasp for the golden cup earlier in the year, this is the earthbound twin of the album you'll find further down. Adrienne Lenker's songwriting yields further fruits (especially on the standout "Not"), the band's insistence on not resting on their laurels and continuing their hot streak is a great decision. Certainly a band to keep your eye on.


11. Karenn, Grapefruit Regret

Blawan and Pariah are no strangers to my year-end lists, and their debut album as Karenn was destined for greatness. They released an introductory EP earlier in the year, then stormed the gates with this double-pack of relentless hardware techno. No subtlety is needed (the album's name came from an incorrect breakfast order), no ambient interludes or overall arc are to be found: this is 8 tracks of colorful, foot-pounding beats for the clubs.

Crush the Mushrooms

10. Amon Tobin, Fear in a Handful of Dust

The legendary Brazilian producer had already gifted us countless moments of greatness across his voluminous discography, but on his first album in 8 years, he was reborn with a vengeance. He had already explored the farther reaches of foley sound and drum manipulation: what can he do without rhythmic madness? This is a largely ambient work with plenty of pulse, and some of his most immediate and melodic work in close to "decades". His year-long Nomark subscription service gave you access to several new side projects - an LP by Only Child Tyrant, work from Stone Giants, Figueroa and Paperboy, singles from Two Fingers - and Long Stories, a second new album. His cup overfloweth.

Vipers Follow You

9. Lingua Ignota, Caligula

For those who prefer their ghosteens a little (okay, a lot) more abrasive, Kristin Hayter drags you to absolute hell throughout her journey into the abyss of survivor anthems. Her classical training brings forth moments of tender introspection, but her grounding in extreme music plunges you into coruscating noise and her operatic voice - used as an agent of destruction - will haunt your dreams. Perfect for your next summer BBQ.


8. Solange, When I Get Home

Although the album cover suggests "same lane", this new album is a looser, more experimental follow-up to Solange's Seat, nearly hitting the point of full-blown therapy session. Houston looms large in Solange's vision, and the album features a cadre of shout-outs to and guests from her home city, as she continues to perfect her search for identity as a black woman in a distinct culture. Another important work from an artist who looks to achieve great things.


7. Big Thief, U.F.O.F

The first of Big Thief's two albums this year was a stunning leap forward for the band - a celestial, moderately experimental tilt to their strong songwriting, Adrienne Lenker's words of poetry given a hefty musical playground to explore. As the albums were recorded in separate sessions, I have chosen to separate them, though make no mistake: they had a very good year.


6. Weyes Blood, Titanic Rising

Natalie Mering's project has been steadily building to something great - this is it. Operating in full capacity, she crafts a lush headphone project that hearkens back to the immersive production of the 70's while throwing lyrical barbs and anxieties that are very of the time. "Love is calling / it's time to give to you / something you can hold onto / I dare you to try."


5. Loraine James, For You And I

In its 15 years of pushing the envelope, Hyperdub have been keen selectors of fresh talent poised to do big things. The latest in their line of producers is Loraine James, who finds the sweet spot between melodic IDM throwbacks and gangly beats, making a commentary on urban living and queer life in the modern day UK, but at the end of the day just sounding so good. The label hyped up the new Burial comp as a big celebration of its anniversary, but they clearly are still invested in the future in hiring people like James to push things forward.

Glitch Bitch

4. Lana Del Rey, Norman Fucking Rockwell!

The year is 2009. After a decade spent releasing strong albums and amassing critical weight, Animal Collective stormed the gates with a hugely acclaimed eighth album that was an instant critical consensus pick. In 2019, after a decade of releasing strong albums and recovering from a spotty start to her career, Lana Del Rey stormed the gates with a hugely acclaimed sixth album that quickly became the year's critical consensus pick. NFR! is a concise, endlessly quotable and musically lush masterwork that presented 2019 in a microcosm, nurturing a kernel of hope as the world slowly burns.

Mariners Apartment Complex

3. Sunn O))), Life Metal / Pyroclasts

The heaviest of heavies, Sunn made an ethereal roar this year with this tandem album: recorded in two weeks with acclaimed noise-maker Steve Albini, Life Metal was the chunky, enormous statement of intent and was perfectly complemented by the more regimented and streamlined Pyroclasts (four 11-minute drone improvisations). Whether you used the noise to block out the year, or heighten it, there was no better option in 2019.

Troubled Air


A debut of preternatural poise which promises great things to follow. Crafted by two home-schooled siblings, who have grown up in a totally Web 2.0 era of omnivorous music consumption (and have clearly done their homework), Billie removes the Invisalign and brings the feelings. It may seem underwhelming at first - how can a pop project this hyped be so, well, quiet? - but this is alternately mature, bratty, self-aware and alternative. A triumph.

bad guy


After an agonizing five-year wait that was marked by physical and emotional agony for Tahliah Burnett (high profile breakups, fibroid tumors), MAGDALENE came as a reckoning, an impeccable 39 minutes of wallowing in those sorrows and finding the way of dealing with such conflicting emotions. Her lyricism has always been pointed, but is a spear here; her musical choices have rarely been so dizzying, her vocals so bare and brave. A high-art masterpiece, give or take a Future verse.


Song of the Year

I don't tend to focus on songs so much as albums, and it takes a special song to get me to write a blurb, BUT Old Town Road is just such a song. Think: a barebones country-rap song built off an obscure Nine Inch Nails guitar sample, built by a Swedish teenager and bought by an queer Atlanta teenager for $30, stigmatized by Billboard's country charts (thus all but ensuring its breakthrough success), hopped on by a one-hit-wonder from 1991, that managed to completely re-write the Billboard record books by being at #1 for 19 straight weeks. It boggles the mind. From my 5-year old daughter on up, everyone was caught up in the fever, and even if we never see Lil Nas X again, he owns a spot in our hearts for owning 2019. Let's enjoy one more time.

Or at least co-owning: Trent Reznor had his best year yet without a shred of new NIN material. He got a co-writing credit on the biggest single of all time; his old songs were a huge part of Netflix's "Black Mirror" Miley Cyrus episode (of course, her dad was the one-hit-wonder who jumped on the "Old Town Road" remix); his scores for Bird Box and the HBO Watchmen show were either miles better than the source material, or enhanced it to no end; he's expecting his fifth child. All good things to Trent; my young self is rejoicing in his victorious pop cultural placement in 2019.

Compilations / Reissues

Prince, 1999: Super Deluxe Edition and Originals
The passing of Prince has unlocked his vault and the results have been terrific. His breakthrough fourth album is blown up to gigantic scale all over again, with three bonus discs of unreleased tracks and live material, plus a live DVD. The additional Originals album featured his own recordings of songs written for others: more often than not, these are rough sketches or scratch tracks, but for any Prince fans, this look at his process is well-worth the trouble.

Various Artists, Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980 - 1990
Light in the Attic Records knocked it out of the park with this astonishing compilation that capitalizes on the recent love of all things obscure Japanese. These works were recorded during the country's economic boom to create music for commercials and soundscapes for public spaces (study the cover art in close detail and imagine what it would sound like). It is soothing and sometimes unnerving but always fascinating. The only complaint is that it could be twice as long - nevertheless, each artist listed here can lead you off on a new fascinating avenue of music.

Some Best Jams

Four Tet, Live at Alexandra Palace London, 8th and 9th May 2019
Boards of Canada, Societas x Tape
This past summer I ran my first marathon. I am an amateur runner and was not very well prepared: instead of building up and tapering correctly, I misheard the date of the marathon and had done 30km and 35km runs on the consecutive Sundays before the marathon race; it wasn't until the Wednesday before that I even realized the race is in four days.
Four Tet and Boards of Canada are two sweet spots of mine, and both had released long-playing projects in the months before. Four Tet put out a live set from the London venue, an epic 2 hour wormhole through very Tet-y sounds and textures, all set to a fairly metronomic beat. Boards of Canada have been silent for the past six years and counting, and this mixtape for NTS Radio is their first commercially released mix: it runs for 2 hours and goes through all sorts of crazy progressions and stylistic hops, from post-punk to raga chants to a ton of possibly unreleased BoC music.
I aimed for a four-hour race (being a slower pace than I usually run on my shorter runs) and cued these two projects up back-to-back. It synced almost perfectly and I am convinced that the ecstacy I felt during the four hours (3:59 to be exact) was at least 60% attributable to the glorious music I had playing. I attribute any success I may have had to Kieran Hebden and the Sanderson brothers.

Honorable Mentions

Elbow, Giants of All Sizes
Continuing their more lively direction, Elbow address the Brexit issue with aplomb and keep churning out lovely poetry.

Dream Theater, Distance Over Time
Yes, it's a self-correction after the monstrous bloat of 2016's The Astonishing, but what a correction! Concise and melodic, their best album in quite a while.

Galcher Lustwerk, Information
Galcher is going to sound like nobody but himself. Further explorations of his downbeat dubby techno.

Oli XL, Rogue Intruder, Soul Enhancer
A self-aware debut album from the Swedish producer who is aware of his country's electronic music scene's unique love of both hip-hop and experimental pop: Basement Jaxx energy, digital cleanliness and shards of hip-hop swagger. Interested to see how far he pushes the sound in the future.

James Blake, Assume Form
Happy Blake still cuts like no other. After a couple of fantastic standalone singles, our favorite sad crooner finds happiness and flexes some dancefloor muscles.

King Midas Sound, Solitude
The most pitch-black of Kevin Martin's albums, this follow-up to 2009's Waiting For You is totally lovelorn and heartsick, a spoken-word dub experiment for Roger Robinson to invoke dead-eyed poetry.

Coldplay, Everyday Life
You know I have to give respect to Coldplay for still attempting some new things, or at least for jettisoning the toxic EDM flirtation. Some of their most vital work in a long time.

Hot Chip, A Bath Full of Ecstasy
The Hot boys continue to do their thing without greatly reinventing the wheel. When you do your sad-boy electronic pop so well, why mess up the formula?

Inter Arma, Sulphur English
The Virginia band does a specific brand of metal (overwhelming sonic intensity and technical proficiency) that you respect far more than you play on repeat. But they do it very well.

Beck, Hyperspace
Beck's 14th album is a collaboration with Pharrell, something that 2002 me would have exploded in joy from. It is closer to Sea Change than the Midnite Vultures/"I'm a Slave 4 U" mashup I would have expected, but the mood is relaxed and the tunes memorable.

Sharon Van Etten, Remind Me Tomorrow
Van Etten's fifth album was borne of a time of frightening, positive changes - she characterized it as a tempest and created an album of deeply satisfying, melodic apocalypse.

Purple Mountains, Purple Mountains
R.I.P. David Berman. The album would be morbidly funny if it didn't imitate life so much - it will be a while until we can listen to this in peace.


Chance the Rapper, The Big Day
Woof, not so much a disappointment as just straight-up Worst. Chance had been flirting with tipping into irredeemably corny territory for so long, and this brutal 77-minute slog of terrible production, terrible singing and interminable guest spots did the trick. He loves his wife - that's fantastic. Maybe one mention of that would be enough. That this was his eagerly awaited major-label debut makes his total faceplant all the more unfortunate. A postponed tour, which eventually got cancelled altogether (due to terrible ticket sales) was just the icing on Chance's no-good very-bad big year.


There's enough bad stuff in the world to focus on doing a worst section: there will always be terrible music coming from Ed Sheeran and DJ Khaled and gang. I can choose to ignore them and focus on the tidal waves of good music that come. However, I do want to take a moment to remember some people lost this year.


Keith Flint, March 4 - the popular Prodigy frontman took his own life at 49.

Hal Blaine, March 10 - the legendary Wrecking Crew drummer was 90.

Scott Walker, March 22 - another legend, a huge influence on Bowie. He was 76.

Nipsey Hussle, March 31 - the Los Angeles rapper was shot and killed at the age of 33.

Roky Erikson, May 31 - the 13th Floor Elevators' frontman/guitarist was 69.

Dr. John, June 6 - the New Orleans jazz mainstay was 77.

Bushwick Bill, June 9 - Geto Boys' diminutive rapper wrote some of the most chilling verses in rap; he was 52.

Joao Gilberto, July 6 - an inestimable influence on Brazilian music, he was 88.

Ric Ocasek, September 15 - the Cars' frontman and prolific producer was a pop maestro; he was 75.

Ginger Baker, October 6 - Cream/Afrobeat drummer extraordinaire was 80.

Juice WRLD, December 8 - the American rapper died of an accidental overdose at 21.

Marie Fredriksson, December 9 - Roxette's lead singer died after a lengthy battle with cancer at 61.

See you all next decade, I hope!