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  • Writer's pictureLeo Aram-Downs

Top 10 Albums of 2019

Much to my weird mixture of sadness and relief, 2019 is coming to a close. It’s been exciting, eventful, and exhausting and I wouldn’t have done it any other way. One of the things that has helped with the constant output of new music is the constant influx of wonderful new music into my life, and before I get too bogged down into writing about how I feel about the stuff I made (there will be a post on that), I thought I’d ease myself back into this sort of writing with some list content. Everyone loves a list, right?

Same as my top 10 list last year, these albums are going to be unranked with the exception of my album of the year. I’m pretty sure that’s all that needs explaining, so let’s get into it.

10. Snarky Puppy – Immigrance

Favourite songs – Bigly Strictness, Coven

It goes without saying that the guys in this band are good musicians. It would be a waste of time for me to sit here and explain the great composition and musicianship that went into this, because you probably know that, and if you didn’t, it would be readily apparent upon dipping into any of these tracks for even a moment. Honestly, that’s not even the reason I wanted to mention it here. The reason I wanted to mention it is because this is the first example I’ve come across of a political album with literally no lyrics. We associate protest music and political music in general with a certain level of lyrical content, because of course we would really, which would make this possibly the worst contender for the praise I’m giving it. So how did Snarky Puppy make a good political statement with this record? For me it all comes down to the context surrounding this music being released. The album name, for one is a dead giveaway of course, but even the cover sends a very direct message of unity. Beneath the skin, we are the same set of thinking, feeling and functioning components, and sometimes things need to be stripped back and simplified like that in order to remember how much we have in common. I’d like to think they’ve taken that to heart in the composition too, because tracks like Coven provide a much-needed contrast from the often hectic nature of their style.

But honestly, the reason this album makes a statement is because it does so just by being a thing. Snarky is a band made up of dozens of people from all walks of life, beliefs, and parts of the world. Their very existence, currently, is political. Through a host of great interviews surrounding the album’s release, people recounted their stories of moving around the world, and brushes they’d had with prejudice and other injustice. And yet, the real political triumph of this album was just allowing these artists to come together and make great art. It didn’t need to say anything else because that was it’s statement.

Also the groove on Chonks is real nice.

9. City Girl – Chroma Velocity

Favourite Songs -Endless and Artificial, Guaranteed Suicide

It’s telling of City Girl’s versatility and quality that this is my favourite City Girl album to come out this year. Somnolent Nova had a firm seat in the top 10 until it was usurped by an even better record. According to their twitter (use of “their” specifically because I don’t know the identity of the individual behind City Girl), each album takes approximately 6 months to make. Even after this weird little endurance exercise I’ve made of this year, I’m still shocked at the quality and turnaround of something like that. Chroma Velocity has so much versatility from beginning to end that I found myself rinsing a different song every week, whether it be the contemplative Saturation in Delay, Love in Anger or the infectiously groovy Guaranteed Suicide. Whether it’s catching a night bus home, doing the dishes, or trying not to have a panic attack on a plane, this album has had a wonderful amount of utility and whimsy that has kept it fresh and fun this entire year.

8. Little Simz – Grey Area

Favourite songs – Pressure, Flowers

This was an album that came to my attention in the best possible way: multiple people absolutely insisting that I drop everything I do and listen to this. They weren’t wrong. Grey Area is amazing. The production is great from start to finish. There’s instrumental flare, amazing use of string arrangements and analogue instruments of all sorts to add colour and flare to the arrangements. And this is before I even mention the quality of the songwriting. There’s no filler on this entire record, not a single song overstays its’ welcome, and Simz’ delivery is consistently entertaining and engaging. Even when dealing with heavy hitting subjects, she’s never one to mince words, despite being absolutely wonderful at word painting. Perfect examples of this are tracks like 101 FM, a song so infectious and nostalgic, almost any listener is able to reminisce about the wonder years of her youth, even if we were brought up nothing like her. On the total flipside, the luscious and grandiose closer Flowers deals with the damage that celebrity has the capacity to do. You want more than anything to help the protagonist of the song off the floor and help them with everything in your power.

This album is intimate, unapologetic, and full of brilliant bars and production from start to finish and I really can’t recommend this enough.

7. Bon Iver – i,i

Favourite songs – Naeem, Hey Ma

A Bon Iver album? In my top 10? Never!

For real, i,i is one of those albums that hits a lot of sweet spots for me as a fan of this band. It took everything great about 22, a Million, namely the bold new production techniques they were incorporating into their songwriting, and spliced it together that was great about the self-titled album, which was the feeling of collaboration. In my review of Big Red Machine last year, this was my one gripe with it; it felt like more Bon Iver, which is by no means a bad thing, but it didn’t feel like there were multiple people making a thing together. This album addresses that concern, and it even comes down to details such as all of the songs being named after people they care about. It’s the shouting and hollering in the background of We, the intuitive and blended backing vocal arrangements all over this album, and it’s the visuals made in collaboration with an interpretive dance company they did on the grounds of the Sonic Ranch recording studio where this was made. Funnily enough, this is the second album I’ve mentioned on this list made there. Both this and Immigrance clearly benefit from being made at Sonic Range. It's the feeling of having been contributed to by many people as opposed to assembled by one. Also like Immigrance, it’s not exactly a revelation for me to tell you that Justin Vernon is a good songwriter. This is virtually unanimously established. It bears repeating that tunes like Naeem and Hey, Ma are up there with some of their best work, but it’s the context of how this album was creating and the host of people that made it happen that give it that extra value.

Bon Iver are always a band that have always been able to place you as a listener in the centre of an atmosphere or a narrative, and i,i is no exception. It’s a conceptual journey that leaves enough room for interpretation for you to build your own place in it. It’s good, is what I’m trying to say.

6. Tyler, The Creator – IGOR

Favourite songs – EARFQUAKE, A BOY IS A GUN*

When it comes to trying to sum up what actually justifies having IGOR in my top 10, I don’t have weird frilly answers like I do some of these albums. The fact of the matter is that this record is immaculately made, with wall-to-wall bangers with songwriting you won’t get from anyone other than Tyler. The flow of the album is impeccable, songs say what they came here to say and get out. Tyler’s experimentation with characters and narrative lead to further experimentation with vocal manipulation and sampling that just build up to a watertight experience from beginning to end.

A lot of my experience of Flower Boy was heavily enriched by a super-long interview/conversation he did about the album around a year after the release, and I would give a great deal to see a similar breakdown of the sonic and harmonic choices he made while writing this album and the significance of them. Until then, I’m going to just keep on acting like I know what Carti says in his guest verse.

5. Will McNicol with Innotet – Vol. 1

Favourite songs – The Nightwatchman, The Wake Up

I realised this album was great when I randomly threw it on one day after not hearing it for a while, and realised I knew all the melodies. Will has taken compositions from his discography that stood perfectly fine on their own, and enhanced them tenfold with the help of string arrangements that accent the melodic and harmonic qualities. Even within these restrictions, in the arrangements are moments of finesse that are essentially production tricks but only with acoustic instruments. For example, the echoing of the opening melody of The Wake Up does so much painting, despite it only being a handful of notes on the violin. It sounds like the first few notes of birdsong in the early morning. Similar imagery can be heard on Blindsided, a tune written when McNicol was attacked on the street. The opening passages feature the quartet literally ganging up on the solo guitar, almost in an act of intimidation. Dragonflies, Frogs and Bumblebees creates a rhythmic and melodic menagerie of different wildlife purely through the behaviour and interaction of instrument, each taking on the quality of a different animal you’d spot on a walk through a dense English forest.

This album is a total joy to listen to. It’s fun,it’s impeccably made, and really deserves a whole tour of its own at some point. Much like Chroma Velocity, it outcompeted another record Will had put out this year which was equally enjoyable. This album encapsulates the value of good musical collaboration and, like Immigrance, how much can be said without words.

4. Brockhampton – GINGER

Favourite Songs – NO HALO, BIG BOY

If you’ve spoken to me in person for any longer than 10 minutes at any point in the last few years, this band has probably come up. This is equal part an apology for constantly talking about them and also me doubling down on how badly you need to listen to this band. Anyway, on with talking about how great GINGER is.

The one theme that has remained a constant throughout Brockhampton’s music has been catharsis, and this album is no different. This is a group of people who clearly get a lot out of being in a group this involved and intimate that they wouldn’t have got out of any conventional route into the industry. To be part of what could be argued is a second family is what gives Brockhampton such a unique energy and, for want of a better word, brand for someone like me to consume. It’s also the reason that they were able to navigate what has been a tumultuous year or so together. This is why I think catharsis is such an important theme in all of these albums. The SATURATION trilogy was cathartic because it was the first breakthrough moment for a group that had been making art together for years prior. Iridescence was cathartic almost as a knee-jerk reaction to a traumatising experience they were put through. GINGER is cathartic because it’s meditative. It’s a reflection on the atmospheric and emotive messages of iridescence and provides the real closure they were looking for a year ago. And it’s the best kind of closure, one that looks forward to what is possible, instead of just revelling in nostalgia. This is apparent through multiple members expanding their skillsets in ways you could never predict had you only heard SATURATION. There’s a clip in the documentary made behind the scenes of the trilogy, in which Joba says he’s just a singer. If only you could show that version of him the amount of stunning rap verses he’d written prior. In a similar versatility, Merlyn came through with some of his best material he’s ever put out. His sung verse in the middle of NO HALO is the mood-setter for the rest of the album, and his energetic, direct verse at the end of LOVE ME FOR LIFE is likely my favourite verse on the album, and that’s up against some serious competition.

The peripheral media around Brockhampton, much like Snarky, is the context in which the music really thrives. The Saturation series is world class in its own right, but the ability to be a fly on the wall while they make the series is what gives it that extra depth for a fan like me. Likewise, being able to see The Longest Summer In America the night before iridescence got released was the perfect way to set the tone of that film, and I can’t really gauge how I’d judge that album had I not watched an entire film about the experiences that led to its creation. With GINGER, the peripheral media is real life. At this point, we’re all kind of aware of the backstory of the group and what they’ve been living through, and I feel like this is the first album they’ve made that is dedicated to other people. The aforementioned Merlyn verse is great because it doesn’t just speak of his experience, but makes an effort to broaden the narrative to people who’ve experienced the kind of prejudice he has, and much much worse. Artists like Deb Never, Victor Roberts and Slowthai are put dead center of whatever track they feature on, as opposed to being guest stars in passing.

Ultimately, this album is cathartic because it’s able to let go. It puts a lot of things haunting them to bed, like in the colossal DEARLY DEPARTED, and laces the future with optimism, with tunes like SUGAR and BOY BYE. But you needn’t look that far into the tracklist to see that’s what this is about, because the album cover says it all. This album is one massive hug. It’s a group hug for the band, it’s a hug for you as a listener for sticking with them all this time, and it’s a literal positive embrace of the possibilities to come. Thank you for coming to my TED talk.

3. Dave – Psychodrama

Favourite Songs - Lesley, Drama

How many albums have you heard that have a convincing plot twist? Songs sure, I can think of some clever uses of wordplay that take you to a certain point, but a narrative that pulls you in over the length of an entire album and then pulls the rug out from underneath you is something else.

Dave wants you to know that he has something to say, and wastes no time telling you. As soon as he opened the first track, Psycho, with “stop all the pain”, I knew what I was in for. What followed was in equal parts sensitive, introspective and hard hitting, both sonically and lyrically. One of Dave’s signature traits is his wordplay abilities. While every now and then that breaks the immersion a bit, often times it functions as a point of reference for the listener. If you can understand the puns and the witticism, you can take in the message he’s conveying with it. And I genuinely feel like I was following along with him because of that. Streatham is the perfect example of this. Clever moments of rhyme and abbreviation are used to talk about something far more serious and sinister. And this is the overall message of Psychodrama. Dave may be an entertainer, but his message has weight to it.

Music has limitations with how literal and serious it can be sometimes, and Dave knows that. And his way around that is to make a lot of this album a meta-narrative about that. This is made very apparent in the relationship between two tunes, Lesley and Drama. Lesley is the centrepiece of the record. Clocking in at 11 minutes, it tells the story of a woman who only starts off as an acquaintance, but slowly becomes someone Dave becomes concerned for. He learns of her living situation, her relationships with those around her and wants to help. From them on, with little more for a chorus than just a one-line refrain, Dave takes you on a journey through the relationships between a handful of people with the narrative complexity of a novella, let alone a rap song. This is also a prime example of him building up a narrative and using that to create a plot twist in the final act of the tune. Using a line you don’t really think much of at the time, he places a Chekov’s Gun in the middle of the song that leads to a penny-drop moment that is as satisfying as it is heartbreaking. I’m genuinely not going to go into anymore depth because that would be getting into spoilers, and I think that says everything you need to know about the quality of the writing on here.

The other previously mentioned track, Drama, is about placing the rest of this album in context. The reason this relates to Lesley, and the rest of the album is because it reminds you what you’re supposed to be taking from this as a listener. In the track, Dave says “do you believe that I can illustrate what Streatham is, then break the fourth wall and base Lesley on my relatives?” This line, and the rest of the track, is crucially important because it reminds you that while you might consume this as entertainment, this is real life. It’s important for people like me to practice a bit of empathy when listening to tracks like this, because they stem from a real root of pain that I’ll never understand. There’s been a lot of conversation in the last few days online about this cultural disconnect, and how a lot of white audiences will never be able to grasp the gravity of some of these topics. I think that’s true, almost categorically. But that’s all the more reason for the kind of quality storytelling like Psychodrama. It’s not just a great listening experience, but a serious reminder of where a lot of this art comes from, and I think our connections as people and music fans will be stronger for it.

2. The Japanese House – Good At Falling

Favourite songs – Lilo, Maybe You’re The Reason

This album is the place I go to think.

It first came to my attention when Spotify just handed me Lilo on autoplay after something else I was listening to. I loved the song but for some reason had a very latent reaction to it, and it didn’t really have its teeth in me until a couple of months prior to that. But when it did, it was the only thing I was able to listen to for like a week. Naturally, when Good at Falling dropped it was a similar situation. There’s so much depth to the songwriting, quality production, and stylistic versatility. It’s one of those great albums that’s like a choose-your-own-adventure book. There’s always something to revisit it for, and new value that can be taken from it dependent on your mood and situation. I was in Sweden for a few days for work earlier this year, and I was naturally feeling pretty spacey and contemplative, and that was literally the only album I was capable of listening to. Everything else I listened to just felt like I was refreshing my ears so I could go back into this album again.

Another anecdotal moment I had with this album was during the last UK tour she did. I was at home, just listening to the album as one does, and I was curious as to whether she was playing any shows near me any time soon. She was playing that night, on my road, and her set had just started. I had never run faster for anything.

In all seriousness, the songwriting on this gives off the feeling of unprecedented maturity. It’s the amount of lifelike quality she gives other people, the way she describes her feelings in such a melancholic and descriptive manner that give it so much depth. There’s also something in this style of production that’s really struck a chord with me over the last year, so something about the sonic qualities of this album are just auditory drugs to me at this point and I have no idea what that is. This is also the year I finally realised how great the last 1975 album was, and that’s definitely no coincidence. I’ve been all about my melancholy pop anthems this year, and this is really the defining piece of work in that whole genre (if you can call it a genre).

Good At Falling is full of intimate, personal moments that have produced and packaged in a way that reward your active involvement and enjoyment as a listener. There’s no filler, everything flows wonderfully and it leaves me super excited to see what an artist like her can do with more time and experience in the industry and in life.

Album of the year: Mree – The Middle

Favourite Songs - In The Kitchen, Kiki's Song

When I was deliberating over what to include in my album of the year, it took me a minute to realise that I was comparing everything against The Middle. That’s when I realised this is hands down my album of the year. And it isn’t even an album.

I got into Mree purely based off the last two tracks of her previous album Empty Nest. Had I owned Red Sparrow on any kind of physical medium, I probably would have worn out the CD/vinyl/tape I had it on. That’s why when I found out she was releasing something new, I was ready for all of it. This is one of the only things to have been released this year that I was into on the first listen. The mesmerising use of looping melodies on the opening track In the Kitchen invite you into this entire sonic world that Mree has built. And after that, it’s a nonstop journey through reverberated mindscapes, your only guide through it being Mree’s soothing and sensitive vocal. The mixing almost makes it feel like she’s right beside you, guiding you out of the foggy woods and into a clear field where you can see entire universe in the night sky.

I feel like had I been at the helm of any of the other projects I’ve mentioned as a producer, I would have made tweaks here and there to fix something I think could have been done better, but with The Middle, I’d be incapable of changing anything, let along totally unwilling. As an experience, it’s perfect. Every song says what it needs to and then perfectly tees up the next one. These songs, despite flowing together perfectly, have their own distinct characteristics. I could be out in town getting stuff done, and Kiki’s Song is the ideal accompaniment. I’ve done a fair bit of very late night travelling this year, and every now and then When You Come Home will come on and just obliterate me.

This EP is inviting, comfy, and utterly enjoyable. It’s an experience that can be relived countless times and, I would argue, almost universally enjoyable. This kind of songwriting and production can be enjoyed by people who are passionate about it, but it doesn’t lose the instant appeal of just being great music. I seriously can’t recommend it enough, and with a runtime of only 18 minutes, there’s no reason not to just throw it on and see what you think. I did that and it defined my entire year taste-wise.

0. Jonathan Mann – I Used To Love My Body

It would be remiss of me not to give this album a mention, despite it not specifically being in my top 10.

On New Year’s Day, I dropped the first track of the Year of Everything. It was also the same day I found about Jonathan Mann, who that exact day hit an entire decade of daily music releases. Since then, Mann’s song-a-day project has been a constant fuel for inspiration for my own work, and also been a thoroughly enjoyable project to enjoy as a consumer. It’s been so fun just to jump on his channel everyday not really knowing what to expect. From improvised songs in hotel rooms and airports to entire, through-composed bangers, Mann has it all and it’s the reclaiming of songwriting for the sake and joy of it that I feel like might have become lost in translation in a rather cynical age for the music industry.

This album is full of fun and whimsy and a great representation of the project as a whole, which I’d recommend anyone to keep at least a passing interest in.

Music is awesome.

Honorable Mentions:

Bill Laurance – Cables

Vampire Weekend – Father Of The Bride

Devin Townsend – Empath

Will McNicol – Rain On Qingming Bridge

City Girl – Somnolent Nova

Jakub Zytecki – Nothing Lasts, Nothing’s Lost

Paul Gilbert – Behold Electric Guitar

Maisie Peters – It’s Your Bed Babe, It’s Your Funeral

YaYennings Quartet – Scott Ave.

James Blake – Assume Form

Richard Henshall – The Cocoon

Justin Stanton – Secret Place

Clairo – Immunity

Sungazer – Sungazer Vol. 2

Car Bomb – Mordial

Slowthai – Nothing Great About Britain

Periphery – Periphery IV: Hail Stan

Becca Stevens – Wonderbloom

Jacob Collier – Djesse

Lau – Midnight and Closedown

Lizzo – Cuz I Love You

Of Monsters And Men – Fever Dream

Billie Eilish – When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?

Justus West – Control

Instupendo – Boys By Girls

Leprous – Pitfalls

Julian Lage – Love Hurts

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