It’s that time of year – the annual top music releases of 2019. As always, I have bought each release and 28 of the 30 are albums. 2 are game soundtracks. I never include live albums no matter how good they are (Loreena McKennit) nor single releases either. This year I’ve also had to exclude EP’s no matter how good they were as I simply needed to stay at 30! Remasters are not eligible either. It is simply a list of my favourite music I discovered and bought in 2019. But…
Two stunning EP’s I have to mention first…
Two EP’s absolutely blew me away in 2019. Go check those bad pups out.
On with the list…
30 – SHHE – SHHE
A drone-like emptiness that feels so sad yet connected to you, SHHE lives for the ambiguous space. Her slow synth work is beautiful, her voice captivating and her grinding style of music hypnotic. A stunning debut.
29 – KAIRI – AUTUMN ROSE
An Eastern fueled electronica album that is full of sumptuous instrumentation. Kairi uses tuned percussion, electronic beats, plucked Chinese instruments like the guzheng and smashes it into a half game music, half world dance music extravaganza. An undiscovered gem.
28 – C DUNCAN – HEALTH
Turning his heel towards a more pointed pop-rock that you’d find on the British seaside, C Duncan kept his lush synth and vocal layering in his arsenal with ‘Health’. It feels vintage and quirky but always warming.
27 – CALISTA KAZUKO – EMPRESS
An album of 10 Empresses singing their own story from across time, Calista Kazuko embodies each song with sensual sass, empowered spite and a watchful eye. The way how the songs on ‘Empress’ can make you squirm, giggle and slow shuffle all at the same time made is a unique sound in 2019.
26 – SHANA CLEVELAND – NIGHT OF THE WORM MOON
Shana’s acoustic psychedelia feels partly like a children’s audiobook and partly like a maddening dreamscape. It is pretty on the surface but the guitar wane and disembodied vocals give every track a chill – something the art of the video captures excellently.
25 – CARNIVAL YOUTH – GOOD LUCK
As a long term fan of the Latvian indie rock band, I was delighted that ‘Good Luck’ continued their upbeat weirdness streak. They’ll smash a really catchy hook with cheeky synths and then something that feels really out of place. It’s all part of Carnival Youth’s charm and this is some of their best.
24 – LAUREN HOFFMAN – MERCURY GIRLS
‘Mercury Girls’ is a short but sweet tour of Lauren Hoffman’s entire music career in eight jam-packed songs. Whether she’s smashing a nifty riff or crooning a whimsy Americana ballad, she strides across genres with ease making it her most diverse album to date.
23 – CLATTER – PUSH BACK FOR SOUND
‘Push Back For Sound’ feels like a bonus level from Clatter, who’d paused making music for a few years and then smashed out this beauty. The bass and drums duo continue to have me in awe at the power and roundness of their rock with just two people hurling riffs and chords at speed. Welcome back.
22 – JOSIENNE CLARKE – IN ALL WEATHER
Possibly the smoothest album on this list, Josienne Clarke’s folk reminds me of This Is The Kit but with more electric piano and a Scottish twang in her step. It’s one of those albums that creeps up on you and suddenly you have all of the songs in your head without knowing.
21 – MERMAIDENS – LOOK ME IN THE EYE
Mermaidens’ second album sees them revel in unusual riffs that like to spiral around with an unpredictable chord or time signature. It keeps you on your toes but their unusual approach makes every song stick out as an indie gem for those who are looking for anti-hook hooks.
20 – CHARLY BLISS – YOUNG ENOUGH
After the riot that was ‘Guppy’, Charly Bliss follow up all their three-chord anthems with their version of an 80’s adult anthem rock album. Songs last over three minutes and feel more glam rock at times. It took me a while to appreciate it but ‘Young Enough’ is a superb follow-up. The extra EP ‘Supermoon’ is stunning too – acting as a bridge EP between the two styles.
19 – PENDANT – THROUGH A COIL
Pendant personifies everything I love about the messy 90s grungy indie-rock era. Mixing up power chords, angelic male vocals, catchy riffs and a rousing cinematic feeling – ‘Through A Coil’ is a breath of fresh air. In a world without Stone Temple Pilots – Pendant fills the void.
18 – DAVID GARCIA DIAZ – ARISE A SIMPLE STORY OST
Full of beautiful motifs both understated and grande, Arise A Simple Story is a beautiful and emotive soundtrack. David Garcia Diaz has quickly become one of my favourite composers in this generation of games. Rime still blows me away and now Arise builds on that legacy.
17 – NAYTRONIX – AIR
I didn’t even know Nate Brenner from TuneYards had a side project until the single ‘Come Back’ was released for ‘Air’. His signature grooves are ever-present and now with added Nate vocals and noisy weirdness – Naytronix was one of my happiest discoveries of 2019. How was I not aware of this delight beforehand?!
16 – PORTICO QUARTET – MEMORY STREAMS
Portico Quartet had been on my ‘to listen to’ list for a long time and I’m so delighted to have found them with ‘Memory Streams’. The jazz quartet sits in the same pantheon as GoGo Penguin for me, but with additional saxophone. With this album, an added synth element and the turn of the hang drum make the album a blissful frenzy of colour and thought.
15 – DAVID WISE – YOOKA LAYLEE AND THE IMPOSSIBLE LAIR OST
Game music has long been a favourite genre of mine and I often have to turn to the indie or RPG scene to find the 90’s-early 2000s era of game music I enjoy most. David Wise recreates that with Yooka Laylee – as he has done many times before. An orgy of joyful sounds, explosions, effects and cuteness – this is the N64 soundtrack found 20 years later. 50 fabulous tracks!
14 – EMILY JANE WHITE – IMMANENT FIRE
Emily Jane White has always been stunning with her dark folk tales but ‘Immanent Fire’ is perhaps her best yet. Pouring in magic from her older works, she also channels a little late PJ Harvey in places too. It’s deliciously dark and brooding. Emily’s album out broods Chelsea Wolfe’s acoustic albums – that’s saying a lot!
13 – HANIA RANI – ESJA
I’ve not been so stirred from a pianist in years. Hania Rani commands the keys like a lady empowered and possessed to harness every note. She plays tense pieces but the fluidity of the songs make the album flow dramatically. It’s that combo that elevates Rani’s music to the highest tier for me. Press repeat and drift off again.
12 – PENGUIN CAFE – HANDFULS OF NIGHT
Something fundamentally emotional speaks to me every time I hear ‘Handfuls of Night’. Maybe it is knowing the journey and relationship Penguin Cafe has with Antarctica. Maybe it is the beautiful cinematic soundscapes. I didn’t expect to find it so engrossing and that’s why I so highly recommend it.
11 – MANU DELAGO – CIRCADIAN
A full nights dream sequence as performed by Hang Drum player and percussionist Manu Delago and his troupe. It is a quirky symphonic treat from start to end. Circadian evokes so many thoughts and emotions from the brain as it moves from the floating to the mechanical all in a perfect circle of music if you loop the album. Clever, inventive and bombastic.
10 – SHE KEEPS BEES – KINSHIP
She Keeps Bees is my latest hippy folk discovery. They’ve been going for years but an online jaunt lead me to the sublime acoustic purge that is ‘Kinship’ and their stunning back catalogue. She Keeps Bees brings everything I want to folk-rock that has drama, high heels and a bloody managers desk. Pointed, with something to say – She Keeps Bees reminds you that don’t need screaming guitars to make your mark in rock.
09 – LAGARTIJEANDO – JALLALLA
The beauty of Lagartijeando is that when he mixes his South American traditions with the dance floor it feels like both sides win. Each track mixes up things in different ways, making Jallalla a rounded experience. You could go into the forest for peace. You go out clubbing for hedonism. You could have an ayahuasca trip. Jallalla would be a stunning soundtrack for all three. Timeless.
08 – SHEENA RINGO – SANDOKUSHI
My favourite album of Sheena Ringo’s since Tokyo Jihen broke up, this is an absolute tour de force. No one is quite as creative as Ringo when it comes to smashing up rock, jazz, pop, electronica and cabaret into something cohesive. Sandokushi takes Sheena back to the ‘I’ll have 50 instruments please’ approach again and I fell in love with its maximalist approach on the very first listen.
07 – FAUN – MYTHEN & MARCHEN
Faun may have their line up over the years but the quality of their pagan folk music is never compromised. With their latest album, the band dips their toe into more Irish and Celtic waters but without compromising that German power that we know and love. Easily one of the most reliably stunning bands I’ve ever heard.
06 – IRAH – DIAMOND GRID
My favourite dark folk album of 2019 comes from IRAH. Her mixture of drone synths, big percussive moments and her seductive but dangerous vocal is potent. Each song either wraps you around her finger or emotionally wounds you. Elsaine fans will adore this.
05 – IGLOOGHOST, KAI WHISTON & BABII – XYZ
A collaborative explosion between three musicians, this still feels like an Iglooghost album with permanent guests. The weird tuned percussion, glitchy grunge vocals, effortlessly cool delivery and catchy as hell melodies – it’s all here. In its glitching out finest. Floating around its own galaxy. Off its head.
04 – ANGEL OLSEN – ALL MIRRORS
Well, I picked the best time to decide ‘I’ll give Angel Olsen a try, I’ve been meaning to for ages!’ All Mirrors is the kind of album you’ll be talking about in a decade time as a seminal piece of art-pop. The symphonic approach for the album is explosive, and Olsen’s vocals boom over every note with prowess. There is a beautiful narrative to the album too that spoke to me on a deep level and the fact I could both bawl to and rage sing to almost every song on the album at the same is a pure bonus.
03 – KISHI BASHI – OMOIYARI
The violin indie pop-rocker transformed from blasting anthems to devastating folk ditties with ‘Omoiyari’. I needed a few listens to adjust but the layers, the beauty, the sincerity and the Japanese historical undercurrent flows deep here. It is an album that rewards you every listen with a new nuance and keeps giving 100 listens in. Violin Tsunami makes me glassy-eyed every time.
02 – DEVOURS – ICONOCLAST
If I’m ever having a massive breakdown on the dancefloor – it’ll be Iconoclast from Devours that’ll be my soundtrack. Inventive, bouncy, sarcastic and witty – this is an anthemic electronica album for the generation lost between hi-technology and old school values. Songs for the disengaged, the perverted, the repressed and the kicked out – Soft Cell for 2020 is back and this time it is personal.
01 – LUPA J – SWALLOW ME WHOLE
Lupa J has been threatening to wipe the floor with her debut album for years and ‘Swallow Me Whole’ did just that. Lupa J mixes the best from cyberpunk grit, the neon club world, a dangerous goth edge and a hangover of pure regret and fry-ups into one cluster storm of ‘oh crap – what have we done’. Raw with emotion and honesty, insanely catchy melodies and full to the brim of dark chaos – ‘Swallow Me Whole’ is the kind of debut album you come across once every few years. Astounding upon every listen. My album of 2019.
So that is my top albums of 2019. I hope you found something you enjoyed this year and I look forward to entertaining you all again daily at 8 pm UK time in 2020 for Higher Plain Music’s 12th year. See you there from the 2nd and happy turn of the decade.
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