Our Favourite Albums of 2019 (Part 1)

— Features —

Welcome to the first instalment of our favourite albums of 2019! While such articles are ten a penny during the month of December, we hope to bring you one a little different to the others: free of numerical rank and commercial influence, with emphasis placed upon the musical characteristics of each record. We won’t tell you that these are the year’s ‘best’ albums, simply a selection of our favourites. With music of Polish, Slovenian, South African, South Korean, and Turkish origin, we hope this article introduces you to something that you haven’t heard before, and encourages you to further explore the vast and wonderful world of music.

Derya Yıldırım & Grup Şimşek – Kar Yağar

2019 has been a remarkable year for music of Turkish origin, with outstanding albums from Altın Gün, Grup Ses & Elektro Hafız, and Insalar amongst others. Like the albums of those aforementioned artists, Derya Yıldırım & Grup Şimşek’s debut LP is exquisitely arranged and produced: with acoustic drums, percussion, flute and Bağlama melodies combining beautifully with warm synthesizer lines, plucked electric bass and processed electric guitar.

The album’s twelve tracks are a combination of original songs and instrumentals, plus re-arranged folk pieces, which the band have taken caution to preserve in essence and tone. Yıldırım’s voice has an arresting quality, and is able to stir the emotions of listeners who may not even understand the words she sings. Her fast, semitone trills give each Bağlama phrase an artful presence, and the musicians around her know how to frame those melodies sensitively, taking lead with an organ or guitar lick only when the song warrants. Kar Yağar’s other-worldly, psychedelic folk aesthetic shines brightly on this outstanding, transportive record.

Yunju Ha – Chu​-​Sun ​(​Autumn Fan)

The award-winning, Seoul-based classical vocalist Yunju Ha has crafted an album of heart-stopping beauty in Chu-Sun. Bringing ideas from Jungga (a traditional Korean song style) into the art song form — which relies solely upon the human voice and piano accompaniment — she delivers performances so compelling that they hold one’s unwavering attention without the need for any additional instrumentation. She uses her voice exquisitely, articulating notes with the same level of expression that an accomplished violinist might. Her control of dynamics, timbre and vibrato are also immensely impressive, as is her enunciation, which enables her to convey so much about the Korean language and Jungga style through example alone. Highlights include Bright Moon Reflecting on the Lonely Mountain, with its resonant, ever-developing arpeggios, and Yun-ju’s astonishing vocal performance.

Vanishing Twin – The Age Of Immunology

To describe The Age Of Immunology as a psychedelic pop record really doesn’t do justice to the wide range of sounds, styles, and songwriting at play within it. It is a boundlessly inventive album, where avant-garde tendencies and an appreciation for jazz, funk and folk music all embellish and imbue the well-wrought pop songs at its core. Singer and multi-instrumentalist Cathy Lucas sometimes modulates or fragments her voice, making it as much another instrument as the keyboard instruments in use, but other times, she goes unprocessed, singing with a lightness and emotional distance that is at once inviting and beguiling.

The album has a wondrous, trippy quality, shared by old story cassettes, radio dramas, and library music records, yet is incredibly focussed and deliberate in its construction. If you dig Dots and Loops, The Phoenix Foundation’s Fandango, and music a little darker and weirder than that, you’ll be right at home in its sound world. This is the kind of album you hear once and then continue to unpack for months.

KOKOKO! – Fongola

With a combination of bespoke instruments hand-made from items of waste, and Debruit’s beat-making and electronic processing, the DRC’s KOKOKO! created an altogether new, urgent and unforgettable style of dance music on their debut LP, Fongola. Their tekno kintueni sound: an energetic, electro-acoustic take on African and European dance music, is immediately distinguishable, thanks to the unique character of their self-made instruments and the gruff, impactful vocals of Makara Bianko.

While their instruments are emulations of the bass guitar and ngoni, balafon and drum set, they have a unique character of their own, which informs the strong, direct licks and purposeful rhythms they play upon them. Not only is their music infectious, brilliantly produced and surging with countercultural energy, it also sends an important message to all of mankind. To those countries whose ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude to waste disposal sees them paying to ship it around the world to countries that may not have the infrastructure to process it, the album says: we must be less wasteful, more mindful, and more creative. In that sense, it’s some of the year’s most vital music.

Vin Gordon – African Shores

Kingston-born trombone player Vin Gordon joined forced with saxophonist Nat Birchall and multi-instrumentalist/producer Al Breadwinner to craft one of this year’s most authentic roots reggae albums, in African Shores. The nine-track album begins with its title tune: an almost bluesy, deceptively quick rhythm, upon which Gordon uses his slide just as a blues guitarist might use theirs: achieving emotive glides between notes and a cultured vibrato on the notes he sustains, playing perfectly into Al Breadwinner’s hands when he notches up the feedback on his Roland echo unit. Styler Man hears the horn section in full, unified force, while Spill Over is the deep cut no DJ will tire of: its funky clav thickening the musical broth, with hand percussion that gives the track and shimmer and swagger. The men at Tradition Disc can do no wrong, and African Shores is testament to that, not least, the great playing of its deserving bandleader.

Moor Mother – Analog Fluids Of Sonic Black Holes

From the dense orchestral dissonance of its opening cut, to the ensemble of hand percussion that forms its closing track, Moor Mother’s Analog Fluids Of Sonic Black Holes is a dark, visionary record, upon which her voice and ideas are both clear and absorbing. The album’s gritty production aesthetic benefits from distorted beats, noise, jarring strings and distant vocal samples, setting the tone for Moor Mother’s impactful poetry, direct rap verses and dramatic vocal performances, through which she assesses historic and present realities for black people in North America.

There’s stylistic breadth to both her delivery and instrumentals: tracks like Black Flight and After Images taking the form of leftfield, thought-provoking hip-hop tracks, while RepeaterDon’t Die and Shadowgrams are altogether more avant-garde in their structure, instrumentation and vocal delivery. Repeater is a petrifying, all-consuming highlight on the album, with disconcerting chants and shrieking strings, shifting washes of ambience and deep percussive chords, which provide the backdrop to a spoken word piece about breaking free of obtuse rulers, who hold life and death over people’s heads. The album as a whole is potent, challenging, dark and creative.

Jamila Woods – LEGACY! LEGACY!

Soul singer, poet and educator Jamila Woods drew influence from the interviews, writing and actions of twelve prominent, African-American and Mexican figures for her phenomenal second album, LEGACY! LEGACY!. Researching people such as Nikki Giovanni, the poet responsible for the era-spanning poem Ego Tripping, and award-winning, late science fiction author Octavia Butler, Woods was able to assimilate the creative achievements and life experiences of each of her subjects, taking personal guidance from them as well as applying her findings to songs from a wide range of perspectives. For instance, her persona poem for Miles Davis, reflecting how the jazz trumpeter used the power and influence he garnered to pursue a career untainted by audience and industry, is a different exercise to BALDWIN, in which James Baldwin’s advice to his nephew about loving white people in spite of the views they may hold about black people, informs a broader assessment of love and fear, in which battle rap and police brutality also feed the theme of the song.

The album begins with a piece about Betty Davis’ style of self-expression and concludes with that song reprised in a house style, Woods paying homage to the choreographer Boogie McClarin, without whom her understanding of house music would be less rounded. As well as Woods’ uncanny ability to distill the essence of a complex idea or personality into a set of lyrics, craft beautiful melodies and strong productions alongside Slot-A, it is her obvious eagerness to learn, absorb knowledge and extend her artistic outlook, that makes this project so fulfilling to listen to. As you listen, you’re able to share Woods’ excitement for the subject matter and take joy from the successful execution of her concept.

The Sure Fire Soul Ensemble – Build Bridges

Following a timely rework of the funk classic Impeach the President earlier this year, west coast funk outfit The Sure Fire Soul Ensemble call for the building of bridges, not walls, on their third studio album for Colemine records. While funk instrumentals for medium-sized ensemble are nothing new, it’s the execution and attention to detail that makes Build Bridges an LP to celebrate. For one, the band certainly know how to keep compositions and arrangements varied and interesting: with sweet Hammond organ and trombone solos on Campus life, gorgeous snare rolls and brass harmonies on the unsettling title cut, an Afro-Latin feel running through Gloria’s Anthem, Down South groove on Backyard Boogie, hint of movie soundtrack grandeur on Roxy Funk, and a touch of Africa ‘70 in the horn riff on Aragon. From top to bottom, an instrumental funk record that’s hard to fault.

Ruby Rushton – Ironside

Ed ‘Tenderlonious’ Cawthorne’s recording method with Ruby Rushton revolves around capturing ‘the keeper’. What you hear on Ironside is exactly what this exceptional quartet, featuring trumpeter Nick Walters, keys player Aidan Shepherd and drummer Tim Carnegie, is capable of capturing in a single full-band take. Made at the world-renowned Abbey Road studios, their follow-up to the dual volume Trudi’s Songbook is an exceptionally well-recorded album, with defined kick drum and bass synths, warm tom tom strikes and Rhodes tones, plus clear and defined hi-hats, cymbals and trumpet tones, each sound immediate, crisp and characterful.

The compositions and solos are the main focus, however: Cawthorne favouring the soprano sax and a range of effects pedals on these recordings, harnessing each with masterful skill and restraint. From the breezy, early ‘70s feel of Eleven Grapes to the dance intensity of The Target and the pensive solo flute on Prayer for Grenfell, the broad range of compositions run from emotive contemporary jazz, through fusion, to nu-jazz sounds and structures, retaining a coherence and musical vision.

EABS – Slavic Spirits

Following their astonishing trilogy in homage to Krzysztof Komeda, seven-piece ensemble EABS turned their gaze to Polish history, landscape and folklore, resulting in the atmospheric yet resplendent Slavic Spirits. Some of the album’s quieter passages evoke images of vast marshlands and sparse, rolling hillsides, while the dynamic summits, where horns, drums and piano crest, tell lyrical tales with an emotional weight. Self-described as  ‘Slavic melancholy’, the mood of the album is somewhat sombre, but deeply moving. Tracks knit together seamlessly, with ambient soundscapes occurring between pensive, brooding melodies from pianist Marek Pędziwiatr, swelling electric guitar chords from Vojto Monteur, and Jakub Kurek’s descriptive trumpet playing. Ruby Rushton’s Tenderlonious contributes soprano saxophone to this album, strengthening a strong international collaboration between him and the group. Overall, this is a mature and spiritual jazz record, that shows its creators to be a band with real vision.

Fenella – Fenella

The eponymous offering from Jane Weaver-led trio Fenella is described as a ‘reimagined soundtrack to Marcell Jankovics’ cult animation Fehérlófia’ and released as part of Fire Records’ re-imagined score series. Created with her long-term bandmates Peter Philipson and Raz Ullah between a remote cottage in north west Scotland and vintage gear haven EVE studios on the outskirts of Manchester, it’s immediately recognisable as a work of Weaver’s making. Spectrum-spanning synthesizers — sounding powerful yet fragile with their analog character — are a dominant element of this ambiguous work, which feels broody and dark in spite of its vivid, colourful instrumentation and Weaver’s light vocal tone.

Opener Slow Swoop hears the harsh esses of Weaver’s elongated syllables ricocheting around the soundstage, recalling Linda Perhacs’ Parallelograms. Behind her gentle voice, slowly undulating synthesized sounds shift and meld, setting the tone for the following sixteen experimental pieces — most of them short in length, but a handful passing three minutes. Three Heads Rising moves from dull, brassy synth swells into a passage where a light motif and synth drones pleasingly clash, as vocals distort and stretch beyond legibility. Penultimate cut Gilded Griffin (the longest piece on the record at just over five minutes), is a recording for the ages: a jaw-dropping piece of electronic music that builds around a percussive, Tubular Bells-esque cycle, developing constantly with the tweaks in filter cutoff, resonance and envelope shape of the various synths at play, before bright, expressive, Tomita-esque synth leads take hold, guiding the track melodically — like a nimble, free-flying bird — to the song’s beautiful end, in which some fine electric guitar work also adds to the thick, rich arrangement. A beautiful album, that is fascinating in isolation and undoubtedly even more satisfying when synchronised with the film that inspired it.

Spaza – Spaza

South African collective Spaza is a group with no fixed line-up, inviting musicians from Johannesburg’s jazz, afro-funk and experimental electronic music scenes to collaborate on improvised ideas that respond to a range of creative stimuli. Their name, itself very symbolic in contemporary South Africa, suggests that their music will encompass a variety of social and musical ideas, which indeed it does, with swirling vocals, acoustic and electronic instrumentation, blending into compelling sound collages. Their work addresses such topics as ‘divination, burial rites, as well as the precariousness of a simple trip to the cornerstone,’ through a crazy combination of elements that somehow melds perfectly, sounding far more refined and rehearsed than one would think music could when created spontaneously.

Petter Eldh’s Koma Saxo – Koma Saxo

On this, the first album from Petter Eldh’s Koma Saxo, it’s hard to know where the bassist and bandleader’s post-production begins, and where the band’s high-octane playing ends! The quintet blow with such ferocity and inventiveness, that some of their hard-hitting, off-kilter grooves — constantly morphing and sometimes, breaking down temporarily into free jazz passages, before reconfiguring — sound almost too complex and far out to have been achieved without some form of studio trickery. That said, we’ll take nothing away from this collective of extraordinary players, whose musical intentions are clearly defined and expertly executed. Mikko Innanen’s heavy baritone sax lines give considerable punch to the killer licks in Fanfarum For Komarum II and Ostron Koma, while Christian Lillinger’s dizzying drums are some of the wildest and most commanding you’re likely to hear on any album this year. No two pieces in this collection sound the same, and with short interludes and passages of crazy processing or atmospherics, the album almost has the flow of a Beat Konducta mixtape. Mesmerising, mind-bending post-jazz that, along with releases from Anton Eger and others, might be giving us a glimpse of the next key movement in jazz-derived experimental music.

Meat Beat Manifesto – Opaque Couché

It takes guts to compile an release an album as varied as Opaque Couché, the latest record from accomplished electronic music maker and synthesizer enthusiast Jack Dangers, bka. Meat Beat Manifesto. Across its sixteen tracks, there are references to everything from ‘90s jungle production: rolled-off subby bass stabs, sped-up drum breaks and vocal samples — to tracks with dark synthesizer programming and snippets of old monologue, nods to the sparse, disconcerting sound of industrial music, through to ambient house, Cornish acid, and so much more.

The album is also scattered with instances of endearing, slightly ironic humour: from the use of the ‘world’s ugliest colour’ (Pantone 448C) for the album’s title and cover, to the musical application of electrical device interference on Present for Sally. These elements add a playful dimension to what is otherwise serious music: daring, well-crafted, hard-hitting and club-ready.

Cykada – Cykada

Cykada’s adventurous self-titled debut album was the result of once-weekly jams over a prolonged time period, culminating in a recording session at Total Refreshment Centre in December, 2017. The band of six London-based musicians: some from jazz backgrounds, others beat-making, rock, and various other niches, established and refined their creative aesthetic before heading into the studio, building a strong rapport and crafting five epic compositions in the process.

The energy and urgency of their debut album is owed to them recording live in the same room, harnessing the freedom that afforded them to respond to each others cues, improvisation and natural tempo changes, and realize a free-flowing set of recordings indicative of their jam session origins, for keys/electronics player Tilé Gigichi-Lipere to then process in post, giving them their spacy, psychedelic quality. There’s an active timeline running through their music: heavy use of the Phrygian dominant linking it to Flamenco, aspects of ancient Eastern European and Arabic music, but then extending right to the present day with cutting edge electronics, spectral glides and much more. The band’s explorative nature has served them well, yielding an out-there album of energising, uncategorizable music.

W.H. Lung – Incidental Music

The good folks at Piccadilly Records have named this as their album of the year for good reason. Incidental Music, the debut full-length from the Manchester-based three piece, harnesses the 4/4 electronic pulses of krautrock, shimmering Stone Roses-esque licks and infectious pop hooks, to craft a propulsive, contemporary take on guitar-laden synthesizer pop. Standout cut Inspiration! benefits from razor-sharp wordplay, inventive guitar licks, and a wonderfully tight rhythm section, reflecting the band’s confidence and vision in the studio. The guys have crafted something quite special here, which feels ripe for consideration alongside the classic albums of Manchester’s recent past.

Širom – A Universe that Roasts Blossoms for a Horse

Slovenian trio Širom are quick to point out that their music has nothing to do with traditional music indigenous to their country — nor is it improvised. It does however owe a debt to the Slovenian landscape, and to the art of improvisation during its inception. Once their music has been meticulously written and arranged — imbued by the emotion that the natural world stirs — the multi-instrumentalists Ana Kravanja (violin, viola, ribab, qeychak, balafon, bendir, flutes, various objects, voice), Samo Kutin (ikitelia, hurdy gurdy, tampura brač, lyre, melodica, chimes, percussion, objects, voice), and Iztok Koren (banjo, three-string banjo, balafon, gamelan, tank drum, percussion, various objects), record it in a single take without overdubs, switching instruments as often as their work demands.

The result is a beguiling acoustic music that resonates deeply with the listener, making one feel as if they’re travelling through a mythical, pre-industrial land. Their creations are wildly inventive, as a consequence of their desire to sound unlike any other artist. While certain instruments and ideas naturally bring to mind musical comparisons, they have absolutely succeeded in creating a music which is unique unto themselves.

Tinariwen – Amadjar

Few bands have experienced exclusion like that known to the itinerant North African six-piece, Tinariwen. Political turmoil in the desert region they roam has seen them targeted and ostracized by multiple groups, yet, the band persevere with admirable courage. Their ninth album, Amadjar, which translates as ‘the foreign traveller’, finds the group reflecting upon their status as human beings and place in the land to which they are indigenous, but ostensibly unwelcome.

It was recorded on the move, as the band travelled through Mauritania and the Western Sahara, West of Mali and Algeria. While a few studio overdubs were made, the band feel that recording in a camp of their own construction, looking out upon the landscape they love, playing together, without headphones or acoustic separation, is the essence of their practice. Given their recording preferences, the sonic quality of the album is staggering. The rich, boomy hand percussion and delicate slide guitar lines on opening cut Tenere Maloulat are beautifully captured, as is the introductory acoustic guitar on the following track, Zawal, with vocals throughout the album — from emotive leads to the beautiful backing of griotte Noura Mint Seymali — shine brightly.

As is often the case, the band have worked with several collaborators on the new record: allowing Noura’s husband Jeiche Ould Chighaly to contribute guitar to Zawal, engaging in a wondrous call and response pattern with Warren Ellis’ violin. Elsewhere, we hear Noura sing lead vocals and play her ardîn (a smaller variation on the kora) on the track Amalouna, her voice blending beautifully into a unified chorus. Tinariwen are simply incapable of making music that lacks depth, emotion and texture. They convey a universal emotional energy through their playing, which when combined with further reading upon their story and subject matter, only strengthens the bond one can develop with their work.

Levitation Orchestra – Inexpressible Infinity

The fourteen-piece Levitation Orchestra, led by trumpeter Axel Kaner-Lidstrom, work in a cyclical fashion, composing collectively ‘in the spirit of communal ownership’. They rehearse, gig, and ultimately track their newly minted creations, resulting in recordings that oozes depth and energy, suggesting each member is energised by the working process and its objectives.

The group features drummer Harry Ling, who is a force throughout, plus Lluis Domenech Plana and Marysia Osuchowska on flute and harp respectively, whose subtle contributions bring texture to ensemble passages and shine in moments of subtlety. Beginning with nine-minute piece Odyssey, which arrives with a dark, balletic motif played by voices, horns and woodwinds, it unfurls into a powerful big band variation piece, with descending lines cresting and diving above and into the dynamic underlying rhythm. Mystical Yang is Odyssey’s equal in lyricism, dynamics and soloing, while MF One surges out of the blocks with an octave-spanning bass riff and choppy breakbeat, fading rapidly into Clairvoyance, a gentle, folkloric number, in which harp, flute and voices operate. This digestible epic is a fine first statement from a bright young big band.

Modern Studies and Tommy Perman – Emergent Slow Arcs

Tommy Perman’s response to Modern Studies’ sophomore album, Welcome Strangers, sees him taking their mature, understated and well-wrought folk-rock sound it to daring new territory. As a fan of the record, he heard new possibilities in the music, and so crafted minimal, atmospheric electronic music from its stems, resulting in a haunting work that bares little resemblance to the music it derived from.

The music shifts slowly, packed with frequency information and micro-movement. It feels somehow evocative of a disjunction between our reality and understanding of ourselves within the world; a feeling simultaneously disconcerting and comforting.