50 SHANA CLEVELAND
Night Of The Worm Moon
Its title inspired by Sun Ra’s The Night Of The Purple Moon, the second solo LP from the La Luz singer and guitarist moulded the interstellar jazz auteur’s cosmic bent to her own fingerpicked acoustic guitar. As wonky chord sequences echoed Syd Barrett’s solo work, and pedal steel and synths provided an eerie, psychedelic air, Cleveland sang of grief, dreams and nameless terrors in the Californian darkness.
49 STEPHEN MALKMUS
While last year’s Sparkle Hard was Malkmus’s most accessible effort to date, here the songwriter explored his more outré interests with this basement electronic album. Despite a troubled gestation, Groove Denied turned out to be a laidback triumph: its laptop production was hazily vintage, reminiscent of early Cabaret Voltaire and Human League, while its inspired tracklisting gradually took the listener from machine-tooled abstraction to more traditional, guitar-based songs.
Cuz I Love You
2019 found Minneapolis-based singer/rapper Melissa Viviane Jefferson propelling her whipsmart rhymes, bodypositive message and occasional flute solos into the mainstream, with third album Cuz I Love You reaching the Billboard Top 5. A savvy, boisterous antidote to moody rap nihilism, the album placed Lizzo firmly in the lineage of Outkast and Missy Elliott, with the latter turning up to anoint her successor on the irresistible “Tempo”.
The debut album by this Domino-signed ‘supergroup’ exemplified why the new wave of British jazz has been such a breath of fresh air. Despite featuring a number of the scene’s major players – saxophonists Nubya Garcia and Cassie Kinoshi, trumpeter Sheila Maurice-Grey, trombonist Rosie Turton and more – it never felt like anyone was queuing up for a solo, instead striving to fashion a supremely harmonious blend of ’70s astral jazz and contemporary global flavours.
This (is what I wanted to tell you)
Under Kurt Wagner’s tutelage, Lambchop are an object lesson in how a band can evolve gracefully. The work begun on 2016’s FLOTUS – exploring the possibilities of electronica – was sustained on the immersive, thought-provoking This (is what I wanted to tell you), which navigated a path through the organic and the electronically adjusted, aided by sometime Bon Iver drummer Matt McCaughan, Calexico trumpeter Jacob Valenzuela and Nashville veteran Charlie McCoy.
45 SLEAFORD MODS
“It’s getting shitter!” Sleaford Mods – a raw and uncompromising duo – remain a difficult band for horrible times. Unsubtle but penetrating observers of the UK, Jason Williamson and Andrew Fearn here presented a bleak, if occasionally tuneful, world informed by our toxic domestic politics, without ever actually being sucked into the mire. Check the promo clips of the singer putting the bins out and walking disdainfully around the neighbourhood of Eton College itself.
44 ROBERT FORSTER
When Robert Forster announced the release of a new Go-Betweens boxset last month, he did so safe in the knowledge that his latest album stood shoulder to shoulder with the work of his celebrated former band. Inferno brought his customary wit and elegance to bear on a set of wonderfully pithy songs about ageing, family, climate change and the artist’s place in the world.
43 WH LUNG
James Murphy has taken a lot from Manchester’s musical heritage, but WH Lung reversed the flow with their strong debut album. With the group originally intended as a studio-only outfit, Joseph E, Tom S and Tom P paid painstaking attention to the eight songs on Incidental Music, carving their sparkling electronic rock with one eye on New Order and the other on Berlin-era Bowie.
42 FAT WHITE FAMILY
A remarkable turnaround for Britain’s scuzziest band, who’d previously lost their way attempting to live up to their dissolute reputation. But relocating to Sheffield, they mainlined some of that city’s synthpop sleaze, adding strings and sax to produce a compelling album of dank disco cabaret, with deliciously murky lyrics to match.
41 BILLIE EILISH
When We All Fall Asleep Where Do We Go?
The year’s pop phenomenon, courtesy of “Bad Guy” – a record of such creepy delivery and intention it threatened to darken the skies at a radiant Glastonbury – Eilish had no problem extending her vision to a full album. Here, production by her brother Fineas O’Connell gave off a padded-cell ambience, which well suited songs falling somewhere between ’90s R&B, Dr Dre and Nine Inch Nails.
40 VAMPIRE WEEKEND
Father Of The Bride
Once, they tapped out bookish Afroindie from the confines of a Columbia University dorm room. But Vampire Weekend’s fourth album was a genuinely cosmopolitan effort. Six years in the making, it gleefully mashed up all manner of musical styles – the glorious “Harmony Hall” alone veered from ’70s folk rock to ’90s gospel house, via Gilbert & Sullivan – but at the heart of it all, singer Ezra Koenig remained charmingly vulnerable.
39 BONNIE “PRINCE” BILLY
I Made A Place
Will Oldham has been busy over the last decade, reworking his own catalogue and paying homage to his heroes. I Made A Place, however, is something else: his first collection of new, selfpenned songs since 2011’s Wolfroy Goes To Town. A continuation of his work rather than a reinvention, this is a stately, sophisticated set of country-rock songs, the likes of “This Is Far From Over” certainly a match for those of his songwriting idols.
38 75 DOLLAR BILL
I Was Real
In 2016, Rick Brown and Che Chen issued a debut – Wood/ Metal/Plastic/ Pattern – which purported to come from Brooklyn, but which seemed to have emerged from a different continent altogether. Three years on, their second, larger record expands on that initial promise. Alive with Tuareg guitar electricity and longform drone, I Was Real proposes a kosmische of the earth: capable of easeful travel across great distances, while always retaining something solid underfoot.
37 THE MURDER CAPITAL
When I Have Fears
While they match fellow Dubliners Fontaines DC for fire and fury, The Murder Capital processed their anger through a more angular post-punk sound on their debut album. Rhythms stutter à la Joy Division or early Cure, while vocalist James McGovern sounds, at times, like a young Ian McCulloch; “Don’t Cling To Life” and the lengthy “Green & Blue” are as epic and dramatic as the ‘Big Music’ of the early ’80s, helped along by Flood’s atmospheric production.
Streatham rapper David “Dave” Omoregie may have capped a triumphant year with a starring role in Top Boy 3, but his debut album Psychodrama – the recipient of this year’s coveted Mercury Prize – was no generic gangster chronicle. Sounding preternaturally wise, he tackled racial inequality, mental illness and domestic abuse over brooding strings and needling piano, although the slinky “Location” proved he could still cover the rap bases.
35 STURGILL SIMPSON
Sound & Fury
Simpson has never been one to stand still, creatively speaking. His first album, High Top Mountain, was a traditional country effort – but since then he has moved away from heartlandcourting endeavours. Sound & Fury presented another big shift in direction for Simpson – this time with anime visuals, strutting disco-boogie, grunge and pulsing modern blues joining the party. However nuts Sound & Fury became though, Simpson’s commitment to heartfelt songcraft remained reassuringly intact.
34 FONTAINES DC
“My childhood was small/But I’m gonna be BIG!” The opening declaration of Fontaines DC singer Grian Chatten is alive with the irrepressible momentum of the young band going places. This debut, sure enough, surges onward through post-punk styles big and small, from The Fall to REM, to Prolapse and Idlewild. Always energetic, generally cathartic, occasionally – see “Television Screens” in particular – revelatory, they alight on moments of thundering lyricism quite their own.
33 THE RACONTEURS
Help Us Stranger
Back after an 11-year hiatus, Jack White and his co-conspirators picked up where they left off with Consolers Of The Lonely. That’s to say, anyone fearing the kind of indulgences White brought to last year’s solo album Boarding House Reach will have enjoyed the more conventional rock leanings of Help Us Stranger. The vibe was uncluttered and exuberant – including a cover of Donovan’s “Hey Guy (Dig The Slowness)” – while the attendant tour was among the year’s live highlights.
32 KIM GORDON
No Home Record
After the serious noise of her Body/ Head project, we were probably unprepared for the vibrancy and colour (even jokes) of No Home Record. Working with art-pop producer Justin Raisen, Gordon framed her Mark E Smithlike observations (see for details especially: “Air B&B”) within compositions which vaguely alluded to her past as the first lady of US noise, while never leaning on it to help her determine her future.
31 MICHAEL KIWANUKA
This expansive third album from the British-Ugandan singer fulfilled the early promise of his previous efforts. Full of beguiling melodies, affecting lyrics, sharp playing, rich arrangements and sympathetic production, Kiwanuka confidently delivered multiple pleasures. Strings wash, choirs purr, and the balance of analogue and electronic – overseen by Kiwanuka, Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton and hip-hop multiinstrumentalist Inflo – was expertly maintained. Kiwanuka’s references – Isaac Hayes, Marvin Gaye – are given psychedelic goosing, as on first single “You Ain’t The Problem”.
30 JESSICA PRATT
The epithet ‘LA-based singersongwriter’ tends to conjure up notions of sun-kissed escapism, but Jessica Pratt’s enchanting third album was more Muswell Hill than Laurel Canyon. Her plucked guitar and strange, waiflike voice was gilded with occasional flute, piano and creaky synths that made it all sound like a tape reel discovered in someone’s loft, untouched since 1967 – or perhaps even 1667.
29 TRASH KIT
UPSET THE RHYTHM
Post-punk’s not dead! After a fiveyear rest to pursue other projects – among them the very good Shopping and Bas Jan – Rachel Aggs, Gill Partington and Rachel Horwood reconvened for this fine third album. For sure the trio fluently speak the language of 1980: spare production, articulation of every note, songs called things like “Dislocate”. More impressive, though, is how Aggs’ guitar flourishes and the sparing use of sax and piano make it all more than the sum of its parts.
28 JENNY HVAL
The Practice Of Love
Following on from her Blood Bitch album, a high-concept “investigation of blood”, from menstruation to vampire movies, the seventh album by Norwegian artist Hval turned love into a kind of visitor attraction. A work of immersive, textured synthesiser and billowing trance, The Practice Of Love was paced like a DJ set, incorporating stunning drops in tempo – see the spokenword contributions of Vivian Wang on the title track – and thoughtfully ecstatic highs.
27 THE NATIONAL
I Am Easy To Find
Something of a surprise, coming hot on the heels of 2017’s Sleep Well Beast, the band’s eighth studio album was inspired by a collaboration with filmmaker Mike Mills. As a consequence, I Am Easy To Find saw the band expand to include a cast of female vocalists (including former Bowie bassist Gail Ann Dorsey) guiding and redirecting the songs away from Matt Berninger. It paid off: I Am Easy To Find continued The National’s uninterrupted creative trajectory.
26 ANGEL OLSEN
Though this Asheville-based singer-songwriter has always reinvented her sound, moving from earthy folk to raw post-punk to lusher pastures, her fourth record proved to be her most extreme transition yet. Here, industrial synths and scything avant-garde string arrangements collided to bring a dramatic, gothic grandeur to Olsen’s ruminations on lost love and emotional isolation. Above the turbulent arrangements, her voice provided a mighty and quivering constant.
25 NEIL YOUNG WITH CRAZY HORSE
A timely reunion – marking the 50th anniversary of Young’s first record with Crazy Horse – Colorado also found Nils Lofgren, newly promoted to full-time member, adding appropriate musical lift and heft to proceedings. There were customarily heroic jams like “Milky Way” – but also a vein of melancholia, as best heard on “Olden Days”, that helped underscore the losses Young experienced during a difficult 2019, including his former wife Pegi and long-serving manager Elliot Roberts.
24 THE SPECIALS
The band’s first new material since they reformed 10 years ago, Encore is at its best when it not only honours The Specials’ past – a mournful trombone solo or a dive into the ska vaults – but pushes in new directions, too. A cover of the Equals’ “Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys”, for instance, offers imposing taut funk. Elsewhere, Terry Hall’s soul-bearing reports of his struggles with mental health add poignancy, while the socio-political barbs reinforce their role as vital cultural commentators.
23 ALDOUS HARDING
Three albums in and New Zealander Hannah “Aldous” Harding remains impressively tricky to pin down. Recorded with utilitarian precision in Bristol and Wales, aided by John Parrish and Huw “H Hawkline” Evans, Designer’s brisk, catchy folk-pop initially felt like a startling contrast to the heavy drama of previous album Party – although a sense of unease seeped through into the album’s crespuscular second half.
22 LEONARD COHEN
Thanks For The Dance
You want it even darker? How about this from beyond the grave – work put together sensitively by Cohen’s son Adam? Compiled from late-doors studio recordings and then complemented by performances by the likes of Beck, Feist and Cohen’s sometime vocal partner Jennifer Warnes, the tone ranges from deep wisdom and finality (“The Goal”) to the wryly seductive (“Her nipples rose like bread,” Len whispers on “The Night Of Santiago”). A slim but essential volume.
21 RHIANNON GIDDENS feat FRANCESCO TURRISI
There Is No Other
Of the projects Giddens has been involved in since 2017’s Freedom Highway, There Is No Other might just be the finest. A collaboration with Italian multiinstrumentalist Turrisi, it addressed the ‘other’ of the title through its examination of Islamic influences on Western music: thus the title track mixed banjo with Middle Eastern percussion, Giddens’ impassioned vocals meshed with lute on “Ten Thousand Voices”, and a take on Ola Belle Reed’s “Gonna Write Me A Letter” highlighted the blues’ explicit links to Africa.
20 BRITTANY HOWARD
This striking solo debut from the Alabama Shakes singer swapped stirring Southern soul for something more intimate and experimental. Marshalling a small group of skilled players, including jazz pianist Robert Glasper, she explored Prince-style purple funk, neo-soul and even electropop as a backdrop for moving ruminations on race and relationships.
19 PETER PERRETT
Perrett’s sudden, miraculous reappearance back in 2017 with his first solo album proper, How The West Was Won, was one of the more surprising returns of recent times. Fortuitously, Humanworld was every bit as good as, and at points even better than, its predecessor. Made with his sons Jamie and Peter Jr joining him on guitar and bass, Humanworld foregrounded Perrett’s gifts for compressing all the drama of life’s ups and downs into simple, unpretentious pop.
18 JENNY LEWIS
On The Line
Lewis’s fourth solo album evoked the expensive sounds of prime Fleetwood Mac, and featured some of the finest players of that hallowed era, from Ringo Starr and Jim Keltner to Benmont Tench and Don Was. On The Line was resolutely not a period piece, however, its sumptuous production only serving to better highlight the bleeding edge of Lewis’s lovelorn ballads, from the wayward “Taffy” to the deliciously lugubrious “Hollywood Lawn”.
17 MODERN NATURE
How To Live
A move from inner London to the fringes of Epping Forest encouraged Jack Cooper to abandon Velvets wannabes Ultimate Painting and focus on this inspired urban-rural hybrid, driven by tight motorik rhythms but rich with the cadences of British folk rock. Effusive sax breaks from Sunwatchers’ Jeff Tobias sealed the deal.
16 SHARON VAN ETTEN
Remind Me Tomorrow
It’s been a busy time of late for the New Jersey native – motherhood, acting and a counselling degree – while further changes were in evidence on this, her fifth studio album, which found Van Etten edge away from guitar towards piano and vintage synths. The results were often gloriously catchy – the Springsteen-esque “Seventeen” – though elsewhere songs like “Jupiter 4” evoked the pulsing drones of Suicide and the dissonant hiss of “Memorial Day” shared the corrosive atmospherics of Low’s Double Negative.
15 BON IVER
His Wisconsin wood cabin long since overgrown, Justin Vernon’s fourth Bon Iver album was an experiment in musical crowdsourcing, finding starring roles for everyone from Bruce Hornsby to former Spank Rock rapper Naeem Juwan. Continuing the revelatory ‘exploded view’ songwriting approach of 2016’s 22, A Million, but with real musicians and singers taking the place of samples and effects, it found thrilling new ways to convey moments of soaring, communal joy.
14 RICHARD DAWSON
For his follow-up to Peasant, Newcastle’s folk auteur turned his keen eye on 21st-century life, singing of racism, soul-sucking jobs, homelessness and mental illness: “It’s lonely up here in Middle England,” he laments on “Jogging”. To match the coarse subject matter, Dawson swapped the harps and strings of Peasant for electric guitar, drums and synths; “Black Triangle”, then, recounts the desperation of a UFO obsessive over wailing metal, while the gruelling “Fulfillment Centre” dissects damaging consumerism over Tuareg rhythms.
13 OH SEES
As in life, as on record. Manic intensity is the John Dwyer way, his energies for keeping Oh Sees on an unforgiving schedule of writing, playing and recording mirrored in the brisk-tempo garage motorik that is the stuff of Face Stabber. Always different, always the same, here the band occupy some reassuringly familiar space to last year’s Smote Reverser: their thundering double drummers are the propulsion for their turbulent passage into guitar orbit.
12 JULIA JACKLIN
The slacker thrills of Don’t Let The Kids Win, Jacklin’s 2016 debut, did little to suggest the depths of raw emotion that the Sydney-raised songwriter would plumb for its powerful follow-up. Jacklin’s extraordinary voice, wracked lyrics and the slow, sparse electric pulse suggested early Cat Power or Low, with “Head Alone” a demand for space, both emotionally and physically, and the closing “Comfort” a cautious resurfacing after romantic and touring troubles: “I’ll be OK/I’ll be alright…”
11 CATE LE BON
For her fifth solo LP, Carmarthenshire’s Cate Le Bon left behind the acidic guitars and tumbling krautrock of 2016’s Crab Day for a softer bed of pianos, marimbas, saxophones and synths. The result, mostly written in isolation in the Lake District while Le Bon was studying furniture-making, was a slow-burning triumph, a grower that took many listens to reveal its enigmatic, intoxicating centre.
Ode To Joy
Throughout their storied 25-year career, Wilco have consistently questioned themselves and their creative purpose. So Ode To Joy – their 11th studio album – found Jeff Tweedy and his co-conspirators once again recalibrating their sound and direction. Ode To Joy stripped everything back to its key components, favouring a hushed, spacious palette on which Tweedy could transmit his songs about mortality, love, the state of the world and more. Also: their Wilcovered CD for Uncut was pretty amazing, we humbly thought.
9 BIG THIEF
The quartet’s second album of the year, Two Hands, also picked up some appreciation from our writers, but their superb first LP of 2019 made the biggest impact. Adrianne Lenker’s songs, from the weightless “Cattails” to the ominous “Jenny”, were never less than stunning, but they were elevated by the sensitive, sinuous arrangements: one moment Big Thief could sound as folky and rootsy as a campfire singalong, the next as expansive and airy as the cosmos high above.
8 BILL CALLAHAN
Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest
After Dream River’s spacious meditations on the natural world, six years later we find Bill Callahan keeping things within four walls. Bliss would be overstating it – Callahan is too nuanced a writer for that – but this is a record far more domestic than watery. Now a husband and father, here Callahan admits us further than ever before into his private world. The sound is as intimate as the sentiment, even if the record occasionally hints at strange currents beneath the tranquil surface.
7 BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN
A change of pace from the sturm und drang of the E Street Band, the longdelayed Western Stars found Springsteen at his most autumnal and meditative. The songs were bleak narratives and lingering pen-portraits of fading actors, injured stuntmen and jaded lovers ruminating on their unhappy lot. The lush orchestrations and ambitious, sophisticated arrangements felt closer to ’60s West Coast folk-pop than Springsteen’s usual beat. As a consequence, Western Stars was an unexpected and welcome stylistic detour.
6 JOAN SHELLEY
Like The River Loves The Sea
The Kentucky singer and guitarist has quietly proved herself to be one of the finest songwriters of recent years, and her sublime fifth album was naturally entrancing. Recorded in Iceland with her adept collaborators Nathan Salsburg and James Elkington, with a little help from Will Oldham and a few local musicians, these 12 acoustic tracks are gossamer-fine, sometimes profound and utterly timeless.
5 LANA DEL REY
Norman Fucking Rockwell
A thematically rich record – crazy love during end times – Norman Fucking Rockwell positioned the singer-songwriter somewhere between Eve Babitz and Carole King. Over baroque piano ballads and dazzling folk, the album’s narrators found themselves adrift in Del Rey’s deeply seductive vision of California, populated by ne’er-do-wells and fly-by-nights. References to Laurel Canyon, Dennis Wilson and CSN cast a retro haze; but Norman Fucking Rockwell is very much Del Rey’s own vision. Witness “Venice Bitch”, the nine-minute epic that crowned this elegant and complex album.
4 THE COMET IS COMING
Trust In The Lifeforce Of The Deep Mystery
Having put a rocket up the jazz scene with last year’s incendiary, politically charged Sons Of Kemet album Your Queen Is A Reptile, Shabaka Hutchings channelled that fervour into the return of his cosmic synth’n’sax outfit, The Comet Is Coming. As with the best spiritual jazz records, Trust In The Lifeforce… was equally blissful and raging, both out-there and in-here – the most intoxicating collision of beats, jazz and apocalyptic visions since DJ Shadow discovered David Axelrod.
3 PURPLE MOUNTAINS
“I spent a decade playing chicken with oblivion,” revealed David Berman in the opening number of what was tragically to prove Purple Mountains’ first and last album. “Day to day, I’m neck and neck with giving in.” We know now that oblivion won. But Berman’s generous final act was to give hope to others by excavating the darkest recesses of his psyche with such eloquence and humour, all set to his unique brand of endearingly louche country-rock.
2 NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS
If Skeleton Tree loosened the moorings, then Ghosteen found Cave boldly cutting the rope, severing all ties with the glowering caricature of old. Instead, this was an epic, dreamlike odyssey through grief and towards hope, accompanied by migrating spirits and galleon ships, sick babies and Jesus freaks, all engulfed in whirls of analogue synths and spectral, multi-tracked voices. As he sang, “It’s a long way to find peace of mind” – but it was a journey that enriched us all.
1 WEYES BLOOD
Last year, our Albums Of The Year poll found seasoned veterans like Low and Yo La Tengo discovering new sonic methods to convey their apprehension and sense of displacement during these complex times. Similarly, our 2019 survey shows how many of our other core artists have also grappled with ways to articulate their responses to an increasingly tumultuous world. For Wilco, Lambchop, The Specials and Brittany Howard, for example, their albums during 2019 mixed both personal and political themes with uplifting results.
The same is true, too, of Weyes Blood’s Natalie Mering – whose fourth album Titanic Rising, released in April, confronted the problems facing us all head on. Her 2016 LP, A Front Row Seat To Earth, had begun to consider our planet’s fate; but the themes that recur in Titanic Rising proved to be weighty: climate emergency, the decline of natural resources and the struggle to find emotional connection in an increasingly technological world. For the front cover of Titanic Rising, Mering submerged an entire bedroom, complete with teddy bear and laptop. “Show me where it hurts,” she whispered at the end of opener “A Lot’s Gonna Change”; you could be forgiven for thinking she was addressing Earth itself.
Weyes Blood ushered in 2019 with “Andromeda” – a swooning update of early-’70s West Coast pop, filled with sci-fi wonderment, where Mering transformed her earthy quest for love into a celestial concern. The rest of Titanic Rising, meanwhile, is an exercise in baroque post-modernism, full of lavishly orchestrated and structured compositions. Titanic Rising also showcases Mering’s remarkable alto – part Judy Sill, part Nico – that lies between folk and torch singing. There is a dignity and otherness at work here: her voice sweeps robustly over swelling crescendo of “Something To Believe”, while “A Lot’s Gonna Change” finds her delivery softer and more intimate. By the end of the year, Mering was sharing the stage of the Hollywood Bowl with Lana Del Rey and Zella Day, singing three-part harmonies on a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “For Free”. An indication, if you need one, of Mering’s breakthrough with this remarkable, transcendent album.