The delicately cold air of late December is upon us. Finding shelter back home away from the desperate hysteria of tourist tube traffic, I lean back, smothered in the comfort of a good fire and international political turmoil. Over the fir tree though, a towering presence stands. A ghost of Christmas future, wrapped in reminders of a 10,000 word deadline and a dissertation expected somewhere out there in the inconceivable wilderness of 2020.
I’m choosing to ignore that. Here are the twelve albums we enjoyed the most in 2019:
LITTLE SIMZ – GREY AREA [Hip-Hop] - United Kingdom
Breakthrough. ‘Selfish’ is a contender for my favourite song of 2019. Simz already possesses arguably the strongest flow of any UK rapper right now. Period. Shame the album had a few too many underwhelming misfires in its track-listing.
JPEGMAFIA – ALL MY HEROES ARE CORNBALLS [Experimental Rap] - USA
Came to this album late. Peggy keeps his glitch-hop going through experimental sampling and blistering vocal delivery. Oh, and he can sing now. Best of the rest.
SEED ENSEMBLE – DRIFTGLASS [Jazz] - United Kingdom
Joins Grey Area as another album here shared with this year’s Mercury Prize shortlist. Doesn’t push the boat out to anywhere particularly groundbreaking but what we do have here is a Cassie Kinoshi-led screamer of a Sim City soundtrack. Ignore at your own peril.
In 2016, Palace’s debut LP So Long Forever positioned itself as perhaps the most uplifting break up music this side of Fleet Foxes’ ‘Lorelai’, but where the debut was reflective, this year’s Life After marked a lyrical metamorphosis from ‘dealing with it’ to ‘moving on’. The twinkly guitar riffs are still here and utterly *dripping* in soggy reverb, but if we should describe Palace’s new effort with any one word it should absolutely be expansive. The title track kicks off the album with both of its feet flying right off the ground, smacking you into attention with a gorgeously thick orchestral weight around a noticeably more confident vocal delivery from Leo Wyndham. Perhaps ‘Berlin’ fudges the opener’s momentum just a little, but in the following forty minutes I assure you that there is a deep well of lyrical meditation and vivid sonic colour to be enjoyed in this remarkable sophomore effort, and just look at that cover. Different gravy.
HIGHLIGHTS: ‘Life After’, ‘Face In The Crowd’, ‘Heaven Up There’
I’m late to the BROCKHAMPTON party. I’ve been late to the BROCKHAMPTON party since it began, but discovering BOOGIE this Spring while surrounded by cultured Californian students made Kevin Abstract’s Arizona Baby an unmissable listen that I otherwise might have entirely overlooked. It’s a tight 32 minutes of constantly shifting sonic identities and a dedicated exploration of queer expression fully in line with the progressive politics that most of the self-assigned “boy band” have become renowned for.
Abstract’s LP feels like a glimpse between facades, constructed as a journey of soft guitar-driven expression for the entire run time excluding the protective curtains of an opener and closer of incredibly aggressive and abrasive trap beats in ‘Big Wheels’ and ‘Boyer’. Behind these brief misdirections however there is a truly unmissable articulation of Abstract’s experiences to be heard – and you should hear it now. If every solo project that comes from the Texan collective can aspire to the quality of Arizona Baby and its provoking implementation of a disparate range of stylistic influences then I will continue to rue just how long it took me to get on board the BROCKHAMPTON bandwagon.
HIGHLIGHTS: ‘Joyride’, ‘Mississippi’, ‘American Problem’
The return of The Chemical Brothers. Big beats are the best, but what’s this? An evolution? Yes, resistant to the trend of disappointing revival albums and comeback attempts (Fear Inoculum I’m looking at you) No Geography arrives confident and ready to do business. If you had any worries that The Chemical Brothers were in danger of playing it safe and reviving the tried-and-tested ‘Block Rockin’ Beats’ of yesteryear then ‘Eve of Destruction’ was certainly prepared to make an impact. Stonking great bass riffs and trademark synth effects are in full force, but this is no simple retreading of old ground for the pair, and despite ‘Bango’, ‘Gravity Drops’ and ‘The Universe Sent Me’ all feeling distinctly uninteresting, ‘Got To Keep On’ and ‘We’ve Got To Try’ alongside the opening track will stand up well against comparisons to The Chemical Brothers’ early discography for years to come.
TRY THIS SONG: ‘Got To Keep On’
Not since Arctic Monkeys’ Whatever People Say I Am… has a band emerged with a debut so immediately confident in a sardonically fast-paced regional voice. Dogrel is smart, playful and, most importantly, quite totally and unabashedly Irish. Kicking the whole thing off with “Dublin in the rain is mine / a pregnant city with a Catholic mind” on ‘Big’, Fontaines D.C. tell you exactly where they’re taking you, and you better let them do it.
There are too many highlights to count on this album, and maybe more impressively there are very, very few low notes. The songs are fun, to the point and sung with the kind of half-arsed vernacular snarling of a Gallagher brother in his prime. ‘Boys in the Better Land’ obviously got its (entirely deserved) share of attention, but don’t overlook ‘Sha Sha Sha’ and all its bubbly derision – it’s there for you to join in.
HIGHLIGHTS: ‘Boys in the Better Land’, ‘Sha Sha Sha’, ‘Hurricane Laughter’
No artist active currently is more deserving of the mantle of “hip-hop” to describe their sound. Loyle Carner’s Yesterday’s Gone was a true descendent of 1990s east coast golden age beat-smithing – but with this year’s album he, Rebel Kleff and an unbelievably impressive roster of featured artists have somehow mellowed out even further back into the effortlessly comfortable reclining sofa that is Loyle Carner’s sound. Contributors of the esteem of Sampha, Jorja Smith and longtime collaborator Tom Misch don’t end up on albums by accident – they are drawn to the talent that Carner demonstrates time and time again, and the sheer flexibility on show between the shuffling ‘Angel’, the head-nodding RSI of ‘You Don’t Know’ and the smiling honesty of ‘Carluccio’ mark this artist as a generational talent for UK music.
HIGHLIGHTS: ‘You Don’t Know’, ‘Loose Ends’, ‘Krispy’
Sat in the seats at the 2019 Mercury Awards and seeing Slowthai present a prosthetic severed head in the image of Prime Minister Boris Johnson from a black 10 Downing Street rucksack, it was certainly clear that Slowthai had become one of the most volatile political mouthpieces of contemporary UK music. That should not be surprising, considering this year’s excellent Nothing Great About Britain and how the Slowthai bull took his horns to the establishment.
I’ve never heard a musician call Queen Elizabeth a “cunt” before, but I have now. I’ve never heard similes like “I love you like a crackhead loves crack”, but I have now. This guy is something special. The first half of the album absolutely blasts its way out the blocks, helped in no small part by what I consider to be the single best track of the year in the Slowthai/Mura Masa joint ‘Doorman’. This project has a voice unlike anything else and it’s saying the things very few will. Consider the zeitgeist captured, and consider Slowthai off the marks with a sensational debut album.
TRY THIS SONG: ‘Doorman’
IGOR may just be Tyler, the Creator’s best album to date, strongly contending with Wolf and Flower Boy as a tripartite monument to Tyler’s startling malleability, but where Wolf was likely to try and punch you in the mouth, and Flower Boy was to try and kiss it, IGOR feels decidedly elusive in exactly what it wants from me. Emerging from the aether with a pair of sunglasses and a blonde bob, IGOR arrived with a mystique and a perplexity and a genuine excitement that only Tyler, the Creator could generate.
What we got was forty minutes of remarkable music, totally beyond even the wildest of predictions for the Odd Future alum. ‘Igor’s Theme’ had me learning drums in a basement trying to figure out where those snare hits land. ‘Puppet’ had me asking if that was Kanye West singing in the back. ‘Are We Still Friends?’ made me realise this was so much more than a ‘rap’ album – but “hip-hop/pop” feels reductionist too. The truth is that Tyler, the Creator is a chameleon. He can do what he wants, and he will do everything well. Just watch him, he’ll make a full-on jazz album next.
HIGHLIGHTS: ‘IGOR’S THEME’, ‘EARFQUAKE’, ‘A BOY IS A GUN*’
I don’t think I’ve wanted to like an album as much as I wanted to like Michael Kiwanuka’s third full-length record, so I’m glad to say that once Kiwanuka released I simply had no other option but to fall in love with an album who’s magnificent artistic prowess shed all hype. The guitars have a fuzzy punch, the drums slip seamlessly in and out of focus and gorgeous organs and synths line the album behind blown out distorted crooning from Kiwanuka’s Bill-Withers reminiscent timbre. This album takes risks. Better than that, this album takes risks and makes them feel like entirely natural songwriting decisions. ‘You Ain’t The Problem’ is dazzling: how Kiwanuka manages to fade from soothing refrains to electrifyingly effects-wet post-chorus is totally beyond me. The project flows with a logical consistency that puts you at such relentless ease that the whole 50 minute runtime can slip away at a frightening pace.
Not content with simply constructing 14 sensationally crafted musical episodes, Kiwanuka’s architecturally impressive song-writing is there for all to see, integrating some of the most satisfying guitar performances I have heard this decade. ‘Hero’ is testament to that. No noodling shred machinery – though it easily could be – instead the song puts forward some magnificent technical capabilities through their paces with melodic solos processed through an eye-wateringly appealing distorted tone. This is an album that explores every facet of it’s artist’s sensitive soul, from experiences of racism to personal anxiety. All of them beautifully voiced through a soulfully resplendent man.
HIGHLIGHTS: ‘You Ain’t The Problem’, ‘Piano Joint (This Kind of Love)’, ‘Hero’
It feels a little dishonest to call this a debut album, with The Japanese House (Amber Bain) having released enough material on her last *four* EP projects to put a full-length album together already, but Good at Falling truly surpasses any and all of the major touchstones Bain planted thus far. Production is icy cold. Sparse and weighty, swirling around softly introspective lyrics that hit harder than anything I’ve heard from the ever-increasingly impressive Dirty Hit catalogue. In a co-producer role alongside Bain and BJ Burton (of 22, A Million acclaim) The 1975’s George Daniel offers all the twinkly synthesizer sounds and driving hi-hat hits that we’ve come to expect – but here the result is, in my opinion, far beyond that of even The 1975’s output. This is the new jewel in the crown of Dirty Hit Records.
No material is reused from Bain’s EPs.* This EP is a tour de force of original tunes, and it just sounds pleasant. Vocals flit from soft meandering solos to bombastic choir-sized layers of rich studio witchcraft. The drums sound immediate but not overpowering – and then there’s those bass tones. Oh, the bass tones. I couldn’t get enough of The 1975’s tight 80’s bass guitar sounds back in 2016’s I Like It When You Sleep… and I am ecstatic to hear them replicated here in this record. Front to back delight.
*Bain’s reprisal of ‘Saw You In A Dream’ at the culmination of this album lands with every tiny molecule of its music placed precisely where it needs to be. Unexpected in an album tracklisting entirely without re-released material from her previous EP’s, ending Good At Falling with a surprisingly hollow and sombre rendition of her most famous single to date stands out as a real highlight from music in 2019 for long time fans, which I am lucky to count myself as a part of.
HIGHLIGHTS: ‘We Talk All the Time’, ‘somethingfartoogoodtofeel’, ‘Worms’
Where did this album come from? Cashmere Tears isn’t even half an hour long but it is completely spring-loaded with an explosion of vibrant imagery, pristene instrumentation and obscenely talented lyricism from Kojey Radical. Inner London Hip-Hop is hitting on all cylinders right now with phenomenal releases from Loyle Carner, Little Simz and Arlo Parks – and you better be adding Kojey’s name to that list.
Cashmere Tears, much like Noname’s Room 25, seems fully committed to this new era of backing beats with full instrumentation in a post TPAB landscape, and I am enjoying this music scene more than I can express here. This album is hiding all sorts inside: G-Funk vocoders, Kendrick-esque cadences, laid-back-horizontal drum grooves and horn sections that make my headphones melt. There are no faults to find in this album, and following in the steps of Kanye West’s commitment to tight 30 minute hip-hop projects with Pusha T’s Daytona and his own Kids See Ghosts with Kid Cudi (ignoring some *less* impressive projects) KR has leapt at the opportunity this streamlined approach provides.
I’m just going to advise you all now to be adding the following songs to your playlists:
FILL YOUR PLAYLISTS: ‘Where Do I Begin?’, ‘Can’t Go Back’, ‘Sugar (feat. Amaarae)’, ‘Cashmere Tears’, ‘Eleven’, ‘Feel About It’
I didn’t like Lana Del Rey. Authenticity is a common line of critique when it comes to the persona/non-persona of her musical voice, but god was I an idiot for ignoring this album. Released on my birthday back in August, this was a gift just waiting to be unwrapped, but no, I thought it was just another LP I had very little interest in from an incredibly over-privileged singer who already had one failed go at super-stardom under her belt.
I was a fool and this is a masterpiece. I don’t care about matters of authenticity, or personas, or even if Lana Del Rey is writing the music. Norman Fucking Rockwell! is a piece of work that announces its seductive charms instantly and sinks its teeth into any part of your body that left itself susceptible to the soft vulnerability of Lana’s vocal cries. This album aches with a wistful melancholy, heartbreaking enough that until very recently convinced me to consider it the very best album of 2019. Forget about Lana as you knew her, NFR is so far beyond what even her fans would’ve considered possible from her artistic labours.
With all understanding of the cliche, I know Lana now. I knew her voice, I knew her songs, but through Norman Fucking Rockwell! Lana Del Rey drew out a remarkable emotive response in me as a listener that utterly enraptured me for months on end. I’m still devoting hours of my life to relistening to this album, going back for more visceral punishment, feeling every minute aspect of the artist’s heart wrenching anguish crash through my body, and I can’t leave. This is musical stockholm syndrome, but I was never a prisoner – just a listener caught in songs of utter emotional devastation time and time again. Absolutely outstanding.
HIGHLIGHTS: ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell’, ‘Doin’ Time’, ‘Cinammon Girl’
Totally unquestionable. Every draft of this list has seen this LP rise up and up until finally I had realised that Melkweg stood out as an utterly, unspeakably wonderful composition more deserving of its place as ‘Album of the Year’ than some of these other albums deserved a place on this list.
Instrumental albums won’t be for everyone, but oh god do I promise you that this will be worth it. Melkweg (Dutch for ‘Milky Way’) is a 55 minute live album made in collaboration between producer Jameszoo, composer/conductor Jules Buckley and Hilversum’s Metropole Orkest and it blew my proverbial socks off. The album is a seamless convergence of Vangelis-esque synthesisers soaring over a tantalisingly characterful orchestral performance from the Orkest, harnessed and corralled by Buckley’s incredible control. The Melkweg concert hall lends itself to a magnificently captured sound that this album absolutely makes the most of. Every instrument feels entirely accounted for and every single aspect of the auditory flavour of this performance is mastered to meticulous perfection. Again, I am going to reiterate that this is a LIVE RECORDING to make sure you don’t forget it. It sounds perfect: utterly astonishing and the performances are quite entirely flawless. Perhaps the best compliment I can pay to Melkweg is that when the audience’s clapping does eventually filter through audibly for the first time after John Dikeman blasts his way into recognition on ‘(soup)’ it feels quite entirely out of place to hear an applause break through the illusion of studio-level genius on show here.
Nothing has grabbed me like Melkweg. Nothing is over embellished, nothing outstays its welcome. Every new idea is a fresh and spectacular addition to the progression of the LP, and though this is a performance recorded back in 2017 as the opening to Amsterdam Dance Event, it’s release back in May 2019 means this is simply must be my album of the year. On a purely objective and aural appreciation of the technical achievement it is one of the most impressive albums I have ever enjoyed, but from an emotional consideration this composition is totally mesmerising from start to finish and I will continue to gush praise at this collection of recordings for a long time.
This album is so far beyond what should be possible in music. I mean every superlative I dedicate to Melkweg, without a single exposition of artistic intent or lyrical voice the symphonic scale of this composition is capable of eliciting emotions that most lyricists would only dream of drawing from their audiences. This does not feel like one electronica producer, an esteemed conductor and a Grammy-nominated orchestra. This is one, singular mass of musical euphoria and I care very little about how silly I sound in saying it. This music is phenomenal – it shouldn’t sound this good. It’s live! Such delicate balancing of instrumental voicings would be astounding beyond belief in an engineered environment – but in the shared, collective playing of Melkweg a *genuinely* unbelievable chemistry of performance makes itself totally unignorable.
Listen to Melkweg’s opener ‘(flake)’. Please resist the temptation to click away before the piece really gets a chance to open itself out at around the 3 minute mark. Leave it on if you’re enjoying yourself and see where this incredible project can take you. It’s a free concert on your phone. It’s better than that, it’s a free masterpiece at your fingertips. Listen to this album as loud as possible, you don’t want to miss an atom of it.
This album is jazz, this album is electronic, this album is classical. This album is all of those things and none of them simultaneously. If you are patient with this project it will bring you to some absolutely breathtaking aural places, I can promise you that. It’s got a fucking wurlitzer.
HIGHLIGHTS: '(flake)', '(flu)', '(crumble)'
Slow Motion Panic Masters' Top 12 Albums of 2019:
1. Jameszoo, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley - Melkweg
2. Lana Del Rey - Norman Fucking Rockwell!
3. Kojey Radical - Cashmere Tears
4. The Japanese House - Good at Falling
5. Michael Kiwanuka - Kiwanuka
6. Tyler, the Creator - IGOR
7. Slowthai - Nothing Great About Britain
8. Loyle Carner - Not Waving, But Drowning
9. Fontaines D.C. - Dogrel
10. The Chemical Brothers - No Geography
11. Kevin Abstract - Arizona Baby
12. Palace - Life After
Listen to a song from each album mentioned in this article here:
See you next year.
Ben Wheadon, December 2019.
Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture blog created and edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based in London, England. Subscribe to our mailing list below to be alerted every time a post is published on the site.