Pleased to say I had trouble fitting this into a top ten.
Many repetitive trends haven’t changed in this time, or in the last 3 years for that matter. We need to get off this 808 addiction for one thing. So, while I hope for some big changes in the 20’s, I felt this was a great year for overall quality and I’m excited to find more! In the meantime, here’s my favorites so far. Note… Final order is rough.
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
RIYL – Karen O’s “YO! My Saint”, Arctic Monkeys’ “One Point Perspective” + “American Sports”, U.S. Girls’ In A Poem Unlimited, space
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
RIYL – 90s Weather Channel music, Eyeliner, “Aquatic Ambience” from Donkey Kong Country, “Dire Dire Docks” from Super Mario 64, digital synths
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.
- 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.