Yes, this is ridiculously overdue, but thanks to the extra pressure of a new year and a long-delayed piece I haven’t found the time to put this together for real until now. Consider this an update on the previous 2020 playlist; like that one, I sequenced it to flow in a way that (mostly) makes sense. See the track listing at the link or the ‘full’ version at RYM (a few songs weren’t on YouTube). From chillwave that reaches to the sky (Brothertiger) to siren-like ambient organs (Ichiko Aoba) and metallophones from the Phillippines (Pantayo), this should have something for everyone.
Pleased to say I had trouble fitting this into a top ten.
I list my top 5 EPs and honorable mentions below my #1 as well. SO many albums sat in a ‘close but not quite’ spot for me this time, but the amount is impressive for sure.
Two write-ups are from my ‘Top 5 Albums of 2019’ halfway series hence copied in italic.
10/9. Jenny Hval – The Practice of Love
art pop / electronic / synth pop
RIYL – Opus III, Grimes, Yeule, Pastel Ghost
What a nice surprise. Jenny’s lowered the last album’s edgequeen poetry and made way for more yknow, singing, not to mention doused her voice in hypnotic water-crystals (synths). A fairy-ish falsetto like hers over such a shiny electro sound gives this an Opus III charm that should interest trance fans. Two tracks fall back into the spoken word, but the rest makes a quality EP. Good music for any aspiring mermaid.
10/9. Caroline Polacheck – PANG
art pop / folktronica / glitch pop / electropop
RIYL – Chairlift, Ramona Lisa, PC Music, Imogen Heap
Caroline sings like a fairy-tale lead lost in the woods. Her voice has an almost narrow quality, but her delivery is strong and elastic. It’s not every day you hear vocal sky-dives like hers on the same album as A.G. Cook, a yacht rock update and folksy ballads… Which is why Pang is good.
For all her great theatrics, I love the calmer sound on “Go As A Dream”. It’s become my new favorite Caroline vocal. Far from showy as in “Door”, but incredibly soothing: I can sense the birds and deer watching her in a Disney forest. The way she added that adorable new agey harp confirms this for my ‘garden refuge’ mix. -wink wink- To top it off, this song will do wonders if your mom was into Imogen Heap.
Pang is a testament to how technology allows us to fuse our inspirations. She’s created an effective self-portrait from each of her (known) trademarks here whether they had much in common or not.
8. Teebs – Anicca
downtempo / folktronica / indie electronic / wonky
RIYL – Bibio, Tycho, gardens, birds
While I worry his palette is getting plainer (not enough bells! too much guitar!) there’s just nobody in e-music like Teebs. Listening to him feels like napping in a painter’s garden. It’s interesting to hear him branch out while sticking to his own path as he does here. Full review here.
7. Sudan Archives – Athena
chamber pop / art pop / folktronica / neo soul
RIYL – Kelsey Lu, violins, wooden sounds
Not every day you hear violin (let alone one inspired by Sudanese fiddling) in electronic context, but Sudan fuses them like it’s nothing. Such woodsy, keening riffs like these are a refreshing change from the tropes I’ve come to expect with trendy alt-pop. They’re a great anchor and counterpart to the electronic backbone. When it comes to singing, Sudan sounds like a goddess tending to an ancient garden. She has insight to share and she’s focused all the way on her work, but her presence is a calming one in the end.
Athena is a slow burner, but certain tracks (“Down On Me”) are quick to hit you with a graceful melody. It works like a garden too: you have to water it to hear the true potential. As with another creative new string player, Kelsey Lu, I hope Sudan can keep blossoming as an artist. We need more string players to step into electronic music!
6. Karen O & Danger Mouse – Lux Prima
indie pop / art rock / neo-psychedelia
Imagine my shock when Karen O drops a nine-minute suite with Danger Mouse in November. Despite a new producer, “Lux Prima” felt like a sci-fi evolution from last year’s ghostly torch song and a personal ’18 fave, “YO! My Saint”. The idea of a full album piqued my curiosity. The style was hard to predict, but that added to the excitement!
Beyond Karen’s expected indie elements, Lux Prima centers on warm, groovy surrealism in similar fashion to Italian 70’s scores. For example: the filtered strings propelling Karen’s underwater balladry in “Reveries” or the smooth bass lines and uneasy melodies in “Nox Lumina”. Like those soundtracks, Lux Prima doesn’t stick to 2-3 common recipes, so we have misty dream-folk in “Ministry” and twangy disco in “Turn The Light”. Yeah, that last one’s… weird.
As a result, Karen sings like she’s trying on new hats. With a voice like hers, which could rile a punk party and woo you to sleep in the same ten minutes, most songs give her space to shine. Her wordless wailing on “Lux Prima” and her wistful hum in “Ministry” come to mind. However, some of DM’s stylings (while impressive) aren’t the best fit for Karen, dulling her spark. Other times, melodies aren’t as interesting as the lavish backing.
The Lux Prima/Nox Lumina suite has me wishing they engaged more with their space themes, but what’s there is compelling. Lux Prima sounds like a proper solo debut and a step forward for KO. I miss Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but I’m glad to know she’s open to experiment in her solo career.
5. Nonlocal Forecast (aka Angel Marcloid)
new age / electronic / jazz fusion
One in countless Angel Marcloid creations, Bubble Universe! shows her gift for oceanic digital synths. Song-wise she flips between glittery 80’s new age and upbeat jazz fusion in tribute to the Weather Channel. The latter approaches chaos, but she unites it all through the giddy sheen of the digitized 90’s. If you thought this era was fun at all for synths or video game music, BU! is tons of fun and a great mood booster. Imagine such a soundtrack with a subtle prog-jazz influence and you have the idea. My favorite VGM is water-themed, so I applaud Angel for exploring this vibe.
I managed to chat with Angel a few days ago. She mentions another NF album is on the way despite juggling this, her Fire-Toolz album and many mixing jobs this year. How does she do it???
4. Angel Olsen – All Mirrors
chamber pop / singer songwriter
RIYL – Scott Walker, Susanne Sundfor, Anna Von Hausswolf, strings
For once, a hyped late-10s album where I GET the hype. The usual barrier between me and ‘chamber pop’ is the slowness and twee indie-rawker vocals, but Angel steps closer to a smoky folk songwriter. Her presence is mysterious enough to compliment the velvet carpet that is her new string section. Picture a woman you’ve never met with a Foggy Past visiting your Victorian fireplace to escape the storm and you have the right idea.
With many beautiful moments at both soft and loud volume, this album excels in slow burns. Every other time it began to ramble, I’d get a cinematic flourish or crescendo. “Chance” is the best example, having the same huge, frosty catharsis as a good movie climax.
All Mirrors is a delicious cross between chamber pop and folk’s ghostly edges. (See “Summer” for the latter, which makes me want to ride a horse in the mountains!) Glad this is getting the praise it deserves.
2/3. Ioanna Gika – Thalassa
art pop / darkwave / ethereal wave / synth pop / dream pop
RIYL – This Mortal Coil, early Cocteau Twins, Bat For Lashes’ Two Suns, IO Echo, Anna Von Hausswolf, filling the void Grimes left when she made Art Angels
Somehow Ioanna Gika knows 70% of what I want from gothic music right now. She can siren-sing like a lost Mortal Coil guest. Synth layers, string flourishes and fierce rhythms make her soar in all directions. She fuses modern sounds with folk references like Bat For Lashes’ best work. In a way, she represents the next step in an all-too-small group of modern artists revitalizing ethereal wave. (These include early Grimes and Pat Moon; I hope we keep getting new artists in this vein.) She’s an expert with building tension, to the point many songs would fit right into movies. “Roseate” for one, which compares her losses to walls breaking with the urgent beats and howls to match. With guitar, piano, sound design that follows her like an amorphous vortex and a surprise krautrock break, her style is flexible enough to bring her ambitions to life. It floors me to know that a 23-year-old, solo musician is behind every sound here.
As heavy as it gets, her voice is sweet and humane enough to keep the void from swallowing everything. The way this contrasts the darkness surrounding her leads to the most punch-to-the-gut beauty I’ve heard from a 2019 release since Kelsey Lu. A gentler song like “Weathervane” has her shivering like a bird in a desolate tundra. It’s a portrait of how she felt then, and it feels very real. I get a feeling Thalassa‘s world is a pristine, homely one since warped by her grief. It’s clear she’s grown a lot since her time with IO Echo. As addicted as I got to their album, Thalassa’s lyrics here are far more touching and evocative. No odd ‘ponyboy’ / ‘wonderboy’ references here.
Thalassa is both a striking emotional release and culmination of Ioanna’s great taste. A must-hear if you want something more individual than the usual post-punk rehash. I’m convinced she can liven up the goth scene. Touring with Chelsea Wolfe suggests she’ll get her due with time.
2/3. La Feline – Vie Future
french pop / art pop / electronic / neo-psychedelia / dream pop / space age
RIYL – Mylene Farmer, French accents, surrealism, Broadcast, Ghost Box, Stereolab
Vie Future is a rabbit-hole trip with bits of magic (like so much music I love), but the lyrics concern Earth and humans. As a response to giving birth, losing a parent and fear for the climate, Agnes fills Vie Future with weighty questions. She has the right emotional range to give life to these complex feelings whether she channels dolls or cyborgs. She ponders death to upbeat rhythms (“Où est passée”) and hums to herself in a river (“Voyage”) with the same conviction.
Much to her credit, Future expands far beyond La Feline’s minimal wave roots while avoiding many 10’s cliches. I love how hard it is to label. You have piano, flutes, various moody synths, guitars, mallets, vocoder effects and strings. With the update on space-age themes, I’d call Ghost Box and Stereolab the closest things. And yet, that only says so much with their variety, and I haven’t heard a singer like Agnes in this context before.
Vie Future thrives in subtlety. Like a great mystery story, it unravels new tricks with time to keep me hooked inside.
1. Kelsey Lu – Blood
chamber pop / art pop / singer songwriter / chamber folk / folktronica
RIYL – cellos, Sudan Archives, non-forced eclecticism, Goldfrapp’s Tales of Us, Kate Havnevik’s “Unlike Me”, Weyes Blood, Angel Olsen
As you could guess from a cellist, keyboardist, guitarist and singer who’s worked with Solange and Blood Orange, Kelsey Lu’s solo debut isn’t easy to box. She defies more cliches than any new album I’ve heard this past year, resulting in unfiltered creativity. The minimal cello-with-vocal sound on her Church EP has evolved to a bolder statement with a stronger personality and wider palette, the electronics among the most promising. In Lu’s case, Blood sounds like the natural gathering of her inspirations. She isn’t going eclectic for the sake of it, which is often the best way to do so. Even when she goes from twangy folk (“Too Much”) to a 7-minute electro 10cc cover, she unites each sound through the sweet hums and shivers of her voice, the warm wooden tremble of her cello and clear-cut production.
Blood opens with a pair of striking cello-tinged folk songs, the sinister warning of “Rebel” and the uneasy sleepwalk of “Pushin’ Against The Wind”. In the first big shift, she dives into a cathartic pop ballad with “Due West”, setting her vocal decadence to a blanket of synth chords and a harp so fragile someone could’ve sewn it together. When I think it’s over, a cello pluck enters and cross-fades into what sounds like Grouper making ethereal wave in a church (“Kindred”). Unlike the rest of Blood, Lu sounds truly weightless as she sings like an opera singer’s ghost, possessed yet appeased. Not long after, she kicks into 70s disco with “Poor Fake”, where the album’s biggest beat threatens to kick off a party. And we’re only halfway in by then.
Blood is the most a new artist has impressed me in months if not a few years. Her awe-inspiring musical scope combined with such clear passion and creativity to match means Blood has enough to process for some time, but I’m clamoring to know what sound she’ll pursue next. Will she do more pop, guitar folk, classical cello, will it follow this album’s steps or will she do a 180? Blood tells me any of these and more could work.
- Brothertiger – A Chain of Islands / Chillwave, synth-pop. Listen to “Prideland”
- Flying Lotus – INFINITY Infinitum / Nu jazz, spiritual jazz, neo soul. Listen to “MmmHmm”
- Natasha Kmeto – Verse/Versus / Alt R&B, neo soul, synth-pop. Listen to “Count To 5″
- Hinako Omori – Voyage / Progressive electronic, ambient. Listen to “Teleport”
- Sulli – Goblin / K-pop, synth-pop. Listen to “Dorothy”
- Suiyoubi no Campanella & Oorutaichi – Yakushima Treasure / J-folk, avant-folk.
- Bat For Lashes – Lost Girls / Art pop, synth-pop, dreamy, fantasy. Listen to “Jasmine”
- CFCF – Liquid Colours / Drum and bass, new age, 90s spa music? Listen to “Green District”
- Jorja Chalmers – Human Again / Electronic, ambient, soundtrack-ish. Listen to “She Made Him Love Again”
- Maria Usbeck – Envejeciendo / Synth-pop, downtempo, tropical. Listen to “Retirement Home”
- Natalie Rose Lebrecht – Mandarova Rose / Neo-medieval folk, ethereal wave. Listen to “Lost“
- Shura – Forevher / Sophisti-pop, R&B. Listen to “Skyline, Be Mine”
- SODA Lite – Vale & Stone / New age. Listen to “Vale & Stone”
- SPELLLING – Mazy Fly / Cowgirl synth witch music? Listen to “Hard To Please”
- Steve Hauschildt – Nonlin / Space music, prog electronic, ambient. Listen to “Attractor B”
- Tei Shi – La Linda / R&B pop, downtempo, dreamy. Listen to “Even If It Hurts” ft. Blood Orange
- Voyage Futur – Secret Earth / New age. Listen to “Eternal Dawn”
- Yeule – Serotonin II / Dream pop, electronic, synth-pop. Listen to “Poison Arrow”
There’s more. I could add Lana, Lil Simz, Weyes Blood, Charli, Lizzo and other cult hits, but this is long enough kept to my darkhorse faves. Stay tuned for my 2019 playlist for their proper acknowledgement.
I’m pleased to report that I found quite a few enjoyable new releases this year.
It’s hard to have a ‘definitive’ outlook as there remains so much for me to catch up with, but here are the highlights from what I’ve heard so far.
(To keep things from getting redundant here, my 2018 halfway list’s honorable mentions won’t be featured here. Read that list here if you’re curious about them.)
Top 8 Albums
8. Steve Hauschildt – Dissolvi
ambient techno / progressive electronic / ambient
Hauschildt is known for his role in the defunct drone/ambient group Emeralds. I’m yet to ‘get’ the appeal of Emeralds, but I’ve enjoyed a great deal of songs from Steve’s solo career, which veered away from his droney roots into more melodic territory. Dissolvi is more transparent/airy in texture than his last few albums, and often less inconsistent. This is great knowing how one of my main issues with his other albums was the lack of consistency. There’s a mild techno element here through the subtle use of rhythms, which gives the songs an interesting aquatic pulse.
Dissolvi may be my favorite album of his besides the popular Tragedy And Geometry from 2011. While some songs loop or repeat too much, most of them have plenty of evolving layers to keep this a fluid and hypnotizing listen. This is most apparent on the 7-minute “Alienself”, which goes on about 1-1.5 minutes too long but also contains some of Dissolvi’s most impressive textures and atmosphere. Also notable is the title song, by far the most rhythmic and tense but retaining some needed subtlety through soft synth hums. A promising step up.
7. Tess Roby – Beacon
art pop / gothic / synth pop / dream pop
Balancing folksy vocals, synths and Durutti-like guitar, Tess Roby is like a lost 4AD/This Mortal Coil collaborator. It’s not the most surprising she’s on Italians Do It Better, but at the same time it’s a bit different from what I expect from the label. These songs are moody and elusive, with a semi-gothic tone save for one or two more tender moments like “Ballad 5”. They drift along subtly, but not without shifts in tone or instrumentation. At eight songs long it ends pretty quick but at the same time this keeps it digestible and interesting. My favorite has to be the sinister folk/synth combination of “Borders”.
6. Noname – Room 25
jazz rap / hip hop / neo-soul
Noname is someone I’ve been meaning to listen to for some time now. And my first thought, of course, is ‘why didn’t I listen to this sooner?’ Room 25 is full of blissful jazz groove, even subtler in execution than the likes of Nujabes and Digable Planets (check this out if you like either one). The excellent live band she assembled for the album enhances this effect with it’s free-flowing style, one that tends to disobey common verse-chorus structure. The smooth keyboards (piano, e-piano) and Noname’s own unique delivery are sure to lull you into a peaceful daze.
I do think Noname tends to mutter a little too much, which can obscure the lyrics, but she has a great flow that blends in very well with the music. She includes plenty of guests and sung sections for these songs, but they don’t disrupt the album’s flow. They’re fitting and natural rather than thrown-in. One great example of this is the way “no name” begins with one brief rap verse before 2.5 whole minutes of singing. If someone else tried that, it could’ve wound up boring, but this may be the loveliest moment on an already rich album. ‘Your life is your life / Don’t let it pass you by’, the voices repeat over strings and piano until it (and thus the album) ends. I’ll be very interested in Noname’s next move.
5. Music House/Various – Scandi Disco
electro-disco / synth pop / electropop / synthwave
‘If you’re bored of the sheer quantity of 80s retro music out there, maybe don’t listen to this. But if you’re like me and love this music enough to still give the continuous new releases a chance, I recommend this recent library album. I enjoyed almost every song on this one, a bit surprising seeing how there’s no hype at all surrounding it. I found it only because I was looking through other, older releases by this label, Music House, and this happened to be their most recent album. Everything about this album is shiny, stylish and fun with plenty of energy and melody. The production is impressive as expected from a stock music label, and while it has a prominent modern polish they tap into the huge potential and legacy of electro-disco very well.’
4. Reni Jusis – Ćma
dance-pop / electropop
If you’ve followed me for long enough you may know I’ve become a big fan of this semi-obscure Polish singer/producer. However, her ’16 album BANG! was a let-down. It hopped on all of the worst mid-10’s mechanical bass-drop trends I hoped she would evade. I sighed and moved on. But that’s when a single (“Tyyyle Milosci”) popped up in May. A GOOD one, too, a reflective ballad-like song lacking BANG!’s pitfalls. A great surprise, but I didn’t know what to expect from an album. The following press release claims the album is Reni’s return to dance music after the ‘experiment’ of BANG!…
And like I hoped, the album is much more uptempo than BANG!. Shimmering pop anthems, hypnotic melodies, and of course, the abundant synths are all here. All kinds of pleasant textures pop up, forming some great transitions and grooves. Even in more ‘experimental’ moments (e.g. “Ćma”’s dizzy end cool-down; tracks #6 and #9) there’s the kind of spacey atmospheric touches that popped up in her 2000’s heyday. It would’ve been fine if she didn’t bring that part back. I thought it was too much to ask for – but there it is!
Ćma has plenty of flaws. A few songs are inconsistent, the huge repetition lowers replay value, and her delivery gets bombastic at times. Many areas would benefit from some tweaking. But I finished Ćma feeling relieved. She did come through with some jams, and she revived the sound she does best. It’s a big step up from BANG!, and for that I’m grateful. I recommend this to anyone looking for good modern electro-pop this year.
3. U.S. Girls – In A Poem Unlimited
art pop / psychedelic pop
As I wrote in the 2018 halfway list:
’While I did find the previous U.S. Girls album Half Free a bit inconsistent, In A Poem Unlimited feels like a step up. There were only about 2 or 3 tracks that I didn’t enjoy here. The album has a warm semi-70s feel thanks to the band put together for it. There’s also a sense of eclecticism that’s executed better than on a lot of other albums with similar ambitions. The voice of Meg Remy, the one true ‘member’ of U.S. Girls, can be quite twangy and takes a bit of getting used to at first, but it’s somewhat grown on me since then, and it got some time to shine here. This is most often when she does a kind of nervous falsetto like in two of my favorites, “Rosebud” and “L-Over”. While the many styles that Remy explores here aren’t much new (70s funk, jazzy rock, general quivering psych weirdness, a bit of synth pop), the variation of it all and the will to experiment helps keep things interesting, and most of them evade the boring cliches that tend to pop up in so much music lately.’
½. Suiyoubi No Campanella – Galapagos
j-pop / electronic / art pop / downtempo
Cult J-pop group Suiyobi no Campanella released this ‘EP’ in June, though I don’t get why it’s considered an EP, since it’s the length of an album. It did receive some deserved acclaim upon release but since then, I’ve heard little about it – seems it didn’t stick. I’m wondering if the promotion as a mere ‘EP’ is part of it – were they wanting to keep a lower profile for this? If so, why, when it’s this elaborate?
The first thing I noticed was how much these songs morph and change, often in unexpected ways. “Bamboo Princess” sets the scene. It begins wistful and hushed but soon evolves into a thrilling chorus of strings and horns. The song also seems to reference an ancient Japanese folk tale. “Matryoshka” relaxed mallet groove mutates and evolves many times through it’s duration. Despite all this, the last two songs calm things down. “A Cat Called Yellow” is a gorgeous end to the album that sounds like both a farewell and a lullaby, covered in this blanket of thoughtful ambience.
Matching the creative song structures is a wide-ranging palette of sounds. There’s percussion, sampling, aquatic keyboards, mallets, clean guitar, synth bells, some kind of keening violin (“Bamboo Princess”) and even hang (a recent creation similar to the steel drum). It’s cold and tropical all at once. Listening is like dipping into the water at a beach resort, watching all these colors blur into the water.
Galapagos has some of the most impressive production I’ve heard all year. These are more tapestries than songs, and I mean that in the best way possible. This album is an ideal summer-evening mood piece. It may be winter now, but you should listen to it ASAP anyway.
½. Fishdoll – Noonsense
wonky / dream pop / electronic / downtempo
‘Fishdoll, an exciting new artist from China, manages to recall everything I miss about electronic music of the earlier 10′s. First I thought of ‘wonky’ producers like FlyLo and Teebs who had such interesting and creative taste in electronic production and samples. Take a gander at the amazing operatic vocal/harp sample that ends “Beijing Well” or the spacey fluttering chords on most of the songs, for example. Secondly, Fishdoll adds subtle effects to her own voice that say, Grimes or Washed Out became popular for, creating a similar kind of airy surrealism.
It doesn’t do enough justice to Fishdoll to make so many comparisons, though, since this album really does feel unique. Which is exactly why it’s one of my favorites of the year – it’s an electronic artist doing something unique and doing it well.
I’m looking forward to Fishdoll’s next musical move, and I’m convinced Noonsense deserves more than a bit of Bandcamp popularity, which seems to be all it got upon release.’
Since writing this in the first halfway list, I was also asked to write a brief review of Noonsense for the Rateyourmusic front page in October, which you can find here.
To go along with my upcoming list of favorite 2018 releases, here’s part 2 of my favorite 2018 songs! To keep this from getting redundant, you won’t found what was on the first halfway playlist here, but do take a look at that one too if you’re interested in my other picks.
- Adonis – Candy Flip
- Little Dragon – Lover Chanting
- Mariah Carey – GTFO
- Reni Jusis – So Far
- Mitski – Geyser
- NONONO – Hymn
- Tess Roby – Beacon
- Elysia Crampton – Oscollo
- Pastel Ghost – Sakura
- George Clanton – Slide
- Rina Sawayama – Cherry
- Roisin Murphy – The Rumble
- Tesla Boy – Compromise
- Suiyoubi No Campanella – Matryoshka
- RNR – Contemplation
- Steve Hauschildt – Syncope
- Kimbra – Past Love
- Tesla Boy – U
- Robyn – Send To Robin Immediately
- Empress Of – When I’m With Him
- Mitski – Blue Light
- Reni Jusis – To Tylko Podroz
- Lapalux – Opili
- Tess Roby – Borders
- Glasser & Roll The Dice – Elevate
- Mylene Farmer – Reteneir L’Eau
- Karen O + Danger Mouse – Lux Prima
- Suiyoubi No Campanella – A Cat Called Yellow
- Noname – no name ft. Adam Ness