People are always throwing around single descriptors to summarize the year once it’s reached its end. “My year was horrible,” “this was a historic year,” “2019 was a trainwreck.” That single descriptor changes not only based on who you ask, but what that person is thinking about when you ask them, because a year is quite a long time and any number of good or bad things can happen within it. We create our own narratives for the year based on specific contexts: personal growth, political/social developments, the state of the environment, relationships we’ve had and lost. It’s a perfectly natural response, but at the same time we have to remember that years cannot be inherently good or bad. Classifying them one way or the other necessarily diminishes the importance of events that fit the opposite adjective. A new year simply inks another tick on the timeline of our lives, and it’s up to us to evaluate what happened in the space between the new tick and the last.
This lack of ability to definitively demarcate the quality of a year applies to music as well. The various descriptors for “this year in music” are not only various, but often contradictory. I hear “2019 sucked for hip-hop” and “2019 brought us so much great hip-hop” in the same conversation; some rave about the fruitfulness of the year while others insist that not many good albums came out at all; everyone has a different idea of what the truly representative “album of the year” is. This ambiguity has a clearer answer; none of us has authority to speak so decisively about the year in music because we haven’t heard every single thing that was released. Listeners who have heard very few releases don’t have authority because they have a limited picture of what the year brought; listeners who have heard an inordinate number of releases may have a bit more ground to stand on, but carving out perceived trends and assessments from such a diverse body of material is far from an easy task. So, once again, we must reluctantly abandon our very human need to aggressively simplify and instead use ourselves as the anchor for our musical judgments: what did I enjoy most? What impacted me most strongly? What best gave a voice to the concerns I have about the world around me? We must do our best to humble ourselves. There is no right answer, no canon to be argued over, no consensus we must all abide. It begins and ends with the listener.
As with all my lists, these albums are not necessarily in order of preference. They have served many different roles, filled many different voids throughout the past 50-odd weeks. Here are my favorite albums of 2019.
Ariana Grande – thank u, next (Republic, Feb 8)
After that lengthy appeal to the importance of self-based evaluation, what better release to mention first than thank u, next? Ariana Grande’s most recent endeavor is also her most personal, an admirably vulnerable confession of pain, confusion, vice, and love to an unimaginably large audience. From the infectiously catchy and defiantly danceable to the tenderly intimate and crushingly sad, Grande runs the gamut of the complex emotional battlefield she’s struggled to traverse for the past few years. No other release has allowed her to be so unapologetically her, and that directness makes thank u, next something more than just a pop album, something truly special. There’s no other record this year I’ve played as many times; no other record has provided endless drunk dance parties with friends, early morning solitary singalongs on the way to work, cathartic crying sessions in the enveloping darkness. We all owe a big thank you to the biggest star in the world and her amazing ability to make all of us feel like we really know her.
Shots – Private Hate (Careful Catalog, Aug 16)
Sometimes our love for an album is bolstered by the album being a culmination of the artist’s previous work, allowing us to see the cumulative result of the efforts that came before. Private Hate is more than just a culmination of Shots’ unique brand of abstracted sound; it is a statement about sound and how we process it, a simultaneously ambiguous and defiant assertion of how sonic presence functions. Locations are portrayed with obstinate obscurity, paradoxical mixtures of claustro- and agoraphobia jam our spacial senses with irreconcilable impossibility, humanity becomes a confusingly alien intrusion. The listener is never certain which sounds are being produced and which ones are being recorded, but the singular language of Private Hate makes that distinction irrelevant; the elements are simply there, and this remarkable record leads us to recognize, and doubt, the ways in which we cast our own perceptions onto the music we hear. And even absent of the dismaying questions that Private Hate forces us to ask, it’s a stunningly sublime journey through an uncanny auditory landscape. Original review
Yellow Eyes – Rare Field Ceiling (Gilead Media, Jun 28)
I discovered a veritable graveyard of amazing new black metal this year, but my clear favorite comes from a band I’ve been listening to for many years. I fell in love with USBM legends Yellow Eyes the first time I heard their dusky, dendrophilic masterpiece Sick With Bloom, but after not being very into their next record (2017’s Immersion Trench Reverie) I admittedly wasn’t hotly anticipating their 2019 release. But from the first moments of Rare Field Ceiling it’s immediately clear that you’re listening to something exceptional. Punchy drum onslaughts barrel from the darkness like woodland armies; angular, dissonant riffs curl and meld until they explode in bursts of warm beauty; nocturnal nature recordings and ritualistic samples sew the six tracks together to form an immersive, uninterrupted odyssey. The songwriting is succinct yet sprawling and organic, the cryptic and evocative lyrics are delivered with heart-wrenching passion, and it’s so well paced that by the time its 45 minutes are over you’ll wonder where all the time went. Original review
Pom Poko – Birthday (Bella Union, Feb 22)
What’s fun music worth if you can’t jam to it with the people you love? Ever since I discovered Oslo indie quartet Pom Poko’s debut LP, it’s been a constant favorite of mine and all my friends’; the “If U Want Me 2 Stay” groove sessions never get old. This promising new band channels a great deal of auspicious influences, from Battles and Deerhoof to Ponytail and Kero Kero Bonito, but their candy-coated chimeric style is consistent and undeniably their own. The album traipses through anthemic choruses, hypnotic rhythmic meditations, achingly beautiful melodic resolutions, and affecting moments of tenderness with a hyperactive approach that’s at once fluid and jarring. Listening to Birthday requires a cessation of seriousness, a willingness to have fun no matter the consequences. As the band themselves instruct, “reduce the testosterone, increase the sugar rush, and get ready for this K-PUNK explosion.”
Andrea Borghi – VHS (Misanthropic Agenda, May 8)
I’ve now written about Andrea Borghi’s VHS LP three times, and still I feel as though my words do not do it justice. The Italian sound artist had an astonishingly prolific year (see my MVPs of 2019 feature) but VHS was his crowning achievement, a marvelous record that both demonstrates Borghi’s scavenger proclivities and puts his trademark tactility on visceral display. The eight pieces on the LP buzz and hum with crackling electricity, the result of manual experimentation and manipulation of the circuits in several modified open-back VHS recorders, and conjured in the eye of the listener is a sparking, sizzling mass of mad-scientist coils and transistors. But it’s not all mechanical, shifting synthetics; Borghi tempers his jittery voltage collages with dusty samples snatched from actual VHS tapes, brushing hiss-caked swaths of muffled humanity across the lush fields of sputtering electronics. Original review
Triple Negative – Precious Waste in Our Wake (Penultimate Press, May 16)
Multinational London trio Triple Negative first announced their existence with the TOWERS, OPEN, FIRE / Looking for Business 7″, but the true power of their enrapturing approach to rock music is realized on Precious Waste in Our Wake. The six rambling pieces sculpt themselves from a seething primordial stew of post-punk, hypnotic tribal headspace, and delirious drugged-out studio experimentation in the vein of Twin Infinitives, ambling along at an unhurried pace with impossibly loose rhythmic structure. At face value, revolutionary excursions like “Destroyer / Under the Void” and “Living Dirt Living / Silverplated Waste” are completely befuddling, prickly slabs of abstract sound grounded by the smallest amount of convention, but Triple Negative crafts such an immersive and inviting atmosphere that it’s not at all difficult to lose yourself completely in their skittering dins. Precious Waste in Our Wake is an exciting and gleefully subversive deconstruction of rock music for the modern age.
Duncan Harrison – Nothing’s Good (Index Clean, Feb 16)
Poetry is not always just about words. For some, poems are less of a defined literary genre and more of a form of expression that transcends a specific medium. Unlike some of Duncan Harrison’s previous works, much of Nothing’s Good makes use of the Brighton artist’s voice only sparingly, either in brief, bizarre snatches or as heavily manipulated textural elements, but the short CD is most effectively appreciable as poetry, an intimate, earthy tapestry of evocative sound woven from disparate elements. Harrison melds ghostly tape recordings, stuttering loops, fragmented junk cacophony, mysterious spoken mantras, and other oddities into fascinating, rough-edged collages whose message is not always known but never not felt. To listen to Nothing’s Good is to step into a startling and surreal world where nothing is permanent or predictable; the unassuming clatter that begins “Are You Angry?” cannot prepare you for the cut-up madness of “A Good Night,” whose aggressively heterogeneous form collapses in an assaulting squall of dying electronics, and that in turn gives no indication of the pregnant negative space that lurks between the lines of “Its Blinking Torture.”
The Wind in the Trees – A Gift of Bricks from the Sky (self-released, Feb 19)
Rising from the ashes of several portentously adventurous hardcore bands, the new Baltimore-based band The Wind in the Trees takes no prisoners with their sharp-edged, eviscerating mathgrind intricacies. A Gift of Bricks from the Sky is no noisecore-indebted blast of dizzying, bite-sized impenetrable chaos; stretching out the dense masses of technical riffs and imbuing the punkier sections with a fist-pumping energy is a palpable emotional hardcore influence that makes the album even more addicting. There are no official instrumental credits for the release, but every participant lends an essential facet to the maelstrom, and the plentiful supply of crushing unison hits and forceful rhythmic repetition makes A Gift of Bricks one of the tightest metallic hardcore endeavors I’ve heard in a long time. The superb lyrics add another important dimension to the proceedings; conveyed with both jagged, high-pitched shrieks and low guttural growls are nightmarish, violent images and cryptically communicated feelings of agony and despair that couldn’t be a better fit for the intense music they accompany. Due to “Blinding Miscalculations” alone, one of the year’s most superb closing tracks, A Gift of Bricks is sure to become a modern classic. Original review
Mosquitoes – Vortex Veering Back to Venus (Feeding Tube, Sep 27)
I, as well as many others, can confidently call Mosquitoes one of the most exciting bands active today. Since their first 7″ in 2016 the UK trio has reverently refined their dark, moody masses of no wave skronk and meticulously crafted atmosphere into something truly amazing. Drip Water Hollow Out Stone was an easy choice for my top ten in 2018, but this year’s miraculous Vortex Veering Back to Venus documents Mosquitoes at their most ambitious and singular. Spectral yet weighty bass tumbles form dark clouds of steam that fog up the glass; shivering, shattered drum work casts an illusion of structure as its sporadic throbs and rattles plant miniature anchors amidst the current; piercing guitar scrapes and nonsensical, partially formed speech trade space in the unclaimed territory of the higher register. Tracks like “VR” and the almost tear-jerkingly sublime “VS” are some of the band’s furthest steps into the abstract, resulting in claustrophobic chunks of languid nocturnal clamor whose blanketing forms are both oppressive and comforting. Original review
Danny Brown – uknowhatimsayin¿ (Warp, Oct 4)
Lots of people have a fervent appreciation for brevity (try to complain to Jon Chang about how a Gridlink album shouldn’t cost the same as an “actual LP” and he’ll be sure to convey his), but it takes skill to pull it off, especially when it’s not something you’ve attempted before. We’ve been waiting for new music from Detroit artist Danny Brown since his 2016 opus Atrocity Exhibition, the ambitious record that won him acclaim and appreciation from a wide range of music listeners, and 2019 was finally the year with the early October release of uknowhatimsayin¿. Running only 33 minutes and finding its footing with (cautious) optimism, bright colors, and earwormy boom bap beats, it’s quite an interesting response to the fractured delirium of its predecessor. Though his past albums have all been of sizeable length, Brown thrives within the shorter format, delivering his interlocking rhyme schemes and unending love for cunnilingus over production that’s both cozy and pleasingly abstract. As always, features are utilized with masterful insight; Run the Jewels’ loudmouthed bluster makes the dissonant horn stomp of “3 Tearz” even more percussive, Obangjayar makes “Belly of the Beast” the album’s most beautiful song with his arresting croons, JPEGMAFIA delivers a hilariously out of tune yet impossibly catchy hook to accompany his production on “Negro Spiritual,” and Dev Hynes (Blood Orange) adds some soul with his dreamy contributions to “Shine.” And if that’s not already enough, uknowhatimsayin¿ ends with one of Brown’s best songs yet, “Combat,” which combines an addicting instrumental with some of the finest punchline rap I’ve heard in a good while.