Having finished this, it possibly requires even further splitting up but, hey, it’s January now and nobody needs another end of year list being drawn out any longer than is strictly necessary. Still, strap in for a lengthy explanation of my top five favourites from 2019. What a year for music!
- Weyes Blood – Titanic Rising [LISTEN]
Sometimes, an album just gradually takes over. You don’t expect it, you don’t realise how much you’re playing it and you suddenly twig that you know it inside out. The sweeping orchestral backdrops to many of the songs on ‘Titanic Rising’ have been on a loop in my subconscious for much of this year, occasionally getting loud enough for me to realise what it is I’m humming away at. The woozy swirl of ‘Andromeda’ is utterly hypnotic, Natalie Mering’s emphatic vocal exerting a gravitational pull on everything around it.
‘Everyday’ stomps about with an early-Seventies pop-rock swagger with hints of ELO and all sorts in there, while ‘Something To Believe’ builds to a full on late-Beatles, early-solo Macca crescendo that is on a par with most of Teenage Fanclub’s ‘Songs From Northern Britain’ as having the capacity to achieve a musical mental reboot. The bleepy synths take a curiously stately sideways turn towards the end of ‘Movies’ and ‘Wild Time’ evokes memories of (the soon to finally release another album) A Girl Called Eddy. ‘Picture Me Better’ feels like it belongs in the reflective moment of a redemptive musical and the instrumental conclusion that follows neatly rounds of a rather grandiose experience. It’s out of time and yet timeless. One for the contemplative hours of winter that lie ahead.
- Michael Kiwanuka – Kiwanuka [LISTEN]
I adored ‘Love and Hate’ but it came out in the year of no full listso I didn’t get to hammer that point home around 2016’s festivities. My emphatic Clash review is still online though, should you need any persuasion to give that corker a go. In the three years that followed, one whole album’s worth of material was scrapped and a fresh approach was taken. The epic Seventies soul of his second record is still at play here colliding with Nineties electric soul and 21stcentury jazz, while David Axelrod symbolically twiddles with the controls. The scope is phenomenal and the ground covered on one record makes it feel like one of those ‘Buried Treasure’ titles you read about in Mojo which are pitched as world beaters. I appreciate I’m having my hyperbolic cake and eating it with that statement but a) it deserves it and b) that’s all the rage these days, right?
One moment of glory is when Kiwanuka’s lead vocal comes back in around the 2:15 mark of ‘I’ve Been Dazed’. Another is the string swell around 1:40 of ‘Piano Joint (This Kind Of Love). Then there’s the start of ‘Hero’ when it becomes clear that the recording has been tinkered with. What about the dragged-heel drum that brings back the beat four minutes into ‘Hard To Say Goodbye’? Oh, there is a great deal to love here. Crank it up on your preferred listening setup and let it do its thing. Michael Kiwanuka is a very special artist and I’m genuinely excited to see where he goes next.
- Stella Donnelly – Beware Of The Dogs [LISTEN]
My Green Man envy was especially strong this year. Almost all of the most splendid people on my Twitter timeline were there and raving about various wondrous performances across those few idyllic days in the Welsh countryside. We’re wondering if it might be time to introduce the little one to the experience in the next year or two, but for now it’s all vicarious. Amongst the noise this time came much chat about Stella Donnelly. I’d seen the sleeve of her EP, ‘Thrush Metal’, posted online a few times but had listened without giving my full attention and moved on. This time, however, I thought I should probably investigate and what I found was a brilliant lyricist with some outrageously catchy songs.
The keening harmonies at the start of ‘Mosquito’ are more restorative than an afternoon nap. The mid-paced jangle of ‘Season’s Greetings’ is joyous, making its eventual conclusion all the more striking. Her voice is utterly brilliant, ascending majestically at times while being pointedly, ironically conversational at others. This is a performance in so many ways and this is an artist who truly understands the power of language, something I find myself gravitating towards more and more in this world so increasingly disinterested in experts and knowledge.
The twitchy rhythms of ‘Die’ and the Dubstar-ish ‘Watching Telly’ hark back to aspects of the Nineties indie fringe (scene, not Ashcroft) while the lilting title track is stunning building to such a potently ferocious conclusion. You might already know ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ from its appearance on that aforementioned EP, but that doesn’t negate what a brilliant song it is. The combination of some meticulous lyrics, a ranging, raw vocal and a sparse electric guitar accompaniment make for something truly potent.
It’s funny, it’s shocking, it’s righteously furious and it is oh so very great.
- Purple Mountains – Purple Mountains [LISTEN]
I genuinely think any of the big five albums of 2019 could have been list toppers in other years. What a record this is. The music of Silver Jews had been in my peripheral hearing for some time but, for whatever reason that massively escapes me right now, I hadn’t ever really taken the time to appreciate what was so clearly a band ideally suited to my tastes. That group was parked in the late-Noughties and its leader, David Berman, retreated from the spotlight for almost a decade. His re-emergence under the name Purple Mountains in 2019 was a cause for much celebration in certain quarters and the lead single, ‘All My Happiness Is Gone’, quickly caught my ear. But, still, I didn’t follow the thread. It was only when the horrible news of his death emerged in August that I read so many compelling pieces about his work that I properly took the time.
If you don’t know his music, be sure to listen to ‘American Water’, ‘Starlite Walker’, ‘The Natural Bridge’ and ‘Bright Flight’ some time soon. And then the rest. And then buy ‘Actual Air’, his recently reprinted and often stunning poetry collection. The first song on the eponymous Purple Mountains has the following stanza labelled as the chorus in his handwritten lyrics:
“A setback can be a setup
for a comeback if you don’t let up
but this kind of hurting won’t heal.
The end of all wanting is all I’ve been wanting
and that’s just the way that I feel.”
Echoes of ‘Blackstar’ abounded as some of his biggest fans expressed disbelief that they hadn’t seen it there, right in front of them, when they had first played the album. It is, of course, one of those records that will now forever be entwined with the circumstances close to its release. Berman was due to go on his first tour in an age only days after the point when he ended his life and there was such visceral shock from those to whom his music had always meant so much. I’ve since joined those ranks, but I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.
Let’s not generalise this record and overthink every lyric. The luscious wash of ‘Snow Is Falling In Manhattan’ is utterly gorgeous, despite a chorus that just involves the word “snow” being repeated with its vowel elongated to varying extents. And then there’s the lyric to ‘Maybe I’m The Only One For Me’. Whatever the subtext, “If no-one’s fond of fucking me, maybe no-one’s fucking fond of me” is a hilariously brilliant line.
This will be heralded as a masterpiece one day, so let’s just get in ahead of the crowd. A truly, truly special album.
- The National – I Am Easy To Find [LISTEN]
With a couple of weeks remaining before Christmas, Cardiff’s Motorpoint Arena played host to arguably my band of the decade, The National. ‘High Violet’ was the moment where I truly fell in love and I have written at length previously about how it got me through a pretty grim year. Curiously, they have offered that service several times since and ‘I Am Easy To Find’ has been ballast and balm in the choppy waters of 2019. I have listened to this album more than any other in the past twelve months, and by some stretch. Not since ‘High Violet’ has an album dominated my listening quite so much and it actually reminded me of the pre-digital era when you would play your purchases over and over to make sure they seemed like good value. It was off-line on my phone, the first thing streaming in hi-res when I finally embraced the 21stcentury and added a streamer to my setup and, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit, I own three different vinyl editions of this record. Not the red swirly bollocks though, obviously. To witness these songs played live was something incredibly special. Screens offered images adorned with the paint streaks of the artwork, while an audience resisted the temptation to talk through the slow ones. ‘Quiet Light’ had me moist-eyed within the first ten minutes and by the time the audience singalong of ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’ neared its conclusion I was in a state of near-euphoria. Not at all bad given the state of the world right now. Seriously, look at this setlist.
I could wang on about this record for longer than it takes to play the thing. It’s one thing to work with a range of female vocalists across the course of an album, but it’s quite another to find such utterly perfect fits. Gail Ann Dorsey is a sensational choice, elevating ‘Hey Rosey’ and ‘You Had Your Soul With You’ to stratospheric heights, her voice the note perfect foil for Matt Berninger’s ageing creak. Kate Stables’ work on the title track and long-term live favourite ‘Rylan’ is similarly glorious and when both combine with Lisa Hannigan on ‘Not In Kansas’ it’s very special indeed. That track in particular is one highlight amongst many. Lyrically, it is immense, sprawling all over the place in a piece which is split into several movements. Evocative landscapes emerge:
“My bedroom is a stranger’s gunroom
Ohio’s in a downward spiral
Can’t go back there anymore
Since alt-right opium went viral”
both offering political heartache and plain nostalgia:
“I’m binging hard on Annette Bening
And listening to R.E.M. again
Begin The Begin over and over
Begin The Begin over and over.”
It’s somewhere between songwriting, poetry and performance art and as much as I understand why it didn’t make it to a live setting, I would have appreciated the opportunity to see if my emotions exploded in its presence.
The aforementioned title track is staggeringly pretty, the lift in Stables’ voice on the line “if you ever come around this way again you’ll see me” one of my favourite musical moments of 2019. And all this is without mentioning ‘Where Is Her Head’ featuring Eve Owen, a British singer-songwriter just embarking on her career. She takes the lead on a frantic charge, proving to be the fourth perfect additional voice for this band to be used on one album. I understand why the purists might not be able to trace the line from ‘Alligator’ to here but I feel like they are massively missing out.
‘So Far So Fast’ is a curious beast, with six and a half minutes of fidgeting synths below Lisa Hannigan’s glacial poise, Berninger’s emphatic mid-song participation and skittering percussion. It’s unlike anything else on the album and utterly beautiful in its assertively slow pace. And let’s not forget the majesty of ‘Hairpin Turns’, with Dorsey and Hannigan, and closer ‘Light Years’ which evokes the joys of non-album single and soundtrack piece ‘Exile Vilify’.
The art direction is magnificent and the accompanying film offers an interesting route into the songs. The lyric booklet included with the vinyl is a delight and I can’t think of a single thing I’d want to change about the whole album. It hasn’t been a critical favourite in the end of year lists, possibly because they’re established, it’s quite slow and pretty long. But, honestly, don’t see any of those things as negatives because they oh so emphatically are not once you actually hear the thing.
I Am Easy To Find over and over
I Am Easy To Find over and over.