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Another years goes by and yet again music has played such an important part in keeping me afloat; more: music keeps me feeling alive, properly alive. So, it is a bit of a surprise to discover that I didn’t buy as much music as I have in the past, and I can only list five new albums that have made an impact. Perhaps I’ve been revisiting older records – In Rainbows by Radiohead (2007) and Violator by Depeche Mode (1990) both have had quite a spin, and I have also been enjoying mix-tapes (yes, old cassettes) that I made many moons ago. In any case, the following albums have significantly enriched this year.

New Energy by Four Tet

This is the album I have listened to the most in 2019, partly because I love much of what Kieran Hebden has done over the years – Rounds (2003) and There is Love in You (2010) are beauties – and partly because this latest release is such a strangely wonderful suite of tracks. To my ears, it is more laid-back, ambient even, though there are also some bangers e.g. ‘Scientists‘. Is this an absolutely necessary collection? Maybe not, but considering the world is rapidly going to hell in a hand-basket, sometimes it’s just good, if not essential, to just let intricate beats and thoughtfully crafted melodies ease and lift the spirit.

Honey by Robyn

This is the first album of Robyn’s in which I have fully engaged, although many of her earlier songs, including her collaborations with Neneh Cherry and Röyksopp, are familiar. It’s a ripper of a collection and deserves repeated listens – at first it came across as a little lightweight. Give it time and the songs soon reveal themselves to be masterclasses in dance-pop. Intelligent dance-pop, with plenty of subtle left-turns to keep the ears interested. Check out ‘Honey‘. What a delight.

Psychodrama by Dave

UK rapper Dave won this year’s prestigious Mercury Prize for Psychodrama and deservedly so. Structured as a series of conversations (of sorts) with his therapist, this record chronicles the vulnerable and, at times, furious reflections of a young man dealing with contemporary racism and having a brother in jail for murder. In parts it’s understandably and appropriately tough-going, but the music, which mostly involves pretty piano samples, provides contrast. Psychodrama packs a punch and is very, very moving. Try ‘Black‘.

To Believe by The Cinematic Orchestra

Ma Fluer (2007) is one of my favourite albums, fusing piano ballads with jazz shapes and trip-hop beats and was not afraid to experiment. So, what would this outfit, which apparently spawned the ‘nu-jazz’ category, do next? We had to wait twelve years find out. To Believe is both extraordinary and frustrating. These songs are more, well, cinematic, with most rendered in lush strings; the various vocalists – including Moses Somney, Roota Manuva, Tawiah – give spirited performances; a melancholic mood dominates, which to my ears is no bad thing. Because the songs are so masterfully constructed and produced, the collection deserves close, immersive listening; but whenever I do that – and I have done it many times – I am struck by three things: the songs often don’t seem to line up internally, and by that I mean so much of them sound off-kilter (perhaps intentionally, to reflect the off-kilter times, ,or it could be a jazz thing?); and on one song, ‘Lessons‘, there is a weird and repeated clicking sound that infuriates, as if it is a mistake that escaped the mastering process – to be fair, it also appears on live recordings, so it’s clearly intentional. I would love to sit down with the band and ask them about how and why they made this record; no doubt it would be illuminating. I’m also sure that I will still be listening to this collection years down the track. For a taste, head to ‘A Caged Bird/Imitations of Life‘ featuring Roots Manuva.

All Melody by Nils Frahm

I am relatively new to Nils Frahm, even though I have been listening to experimental electronica and ‘new classical’ music for many years. All Melody is a beautifully constructed masterpiece, contrasting short reflective tracks with long and almost frenetic pieces that sound like what Philip Glass would create if asked to write for the dancefloor. As opposed to other popular contemporary composers, such as Ólafur Arnalds, All Melody is not easy-listening; it can be intense, even up-tight, but the genius comes from it being so warm and human. A classic of the genre. Check out this live recording of ‘Resident Advisor‘. (To think he is a classically trained pianist.)

While we’re talking new classical composers, an emerging one of considerable interest is Joram van Duijn from the Netherlands; his EP Handwritten (under his previous name of Elevate) is definitely worth checking out.

Reading is the foundation – all the stillness and immersion and depth and revelation – but music is the other constant: without it I would not be able to respond to the world in a meaningful way. For what it’s worth, the following are the albums that I enjoyed the most this year.

I have loved everything The Go! Team has ever done, so I hardly have a balanced view, but Semi-Circle is a delightful albeit subtle progression on what they do best, which is alternative pop (if that’s the right term). As always, every song is impeccably crafted, despite the lo-fi aesthetic. Head towards ‘Semi-circle song’ for a fun entry point.

Depth of Field by Sarah Blasko is a wonderful companion to the stunning Eternal Return from 2015. This is sexy, soulful electronica with some heart-breaking ballads. Beautifully produced too. ‘A Shot’ is one of the many highlights from a very special album.

Another Australian who is doing amazing things is Luke Howard. Open Heart Story fits into the category of beautiful, simple, new-classical music made popular by Ólafur Arnalds and Max Richter. There is a lot of cinematic melancholia on this record – try ‘Bear Story II‘ – which means I’m all over it and it’s all over me.

Borrowed Verse is a fascinating project initiated and curated by Brisbane-based songwriter Simon Munro – it pairs Australian songwriters with prominent Australian poets, including Judith Wright, Dorothy Porter, and Michael Dransfield. Ben Salter’s ‘Tracks’, based on a poem by Herb Wharton is, for me, song of the year. Also brilliant is Angie Hart’s ‘Not The Same’, based on a poem by Dorothy Porter.

To my mind, in 2018 there were two albums that verged on being truly great.

The first is All Melody by Nils Frahm. Although I have been listening to experimental new classical music for years (starting with Glass and Nyman decades ago), Frahm is new to me. All Melody is everything I want a record to be: fresh, adventurous, intricate, all the while being highly listenable. There is such a range here: from simple piano pieces to electronic epics that could almost be played in nightclubs (if they dared). Sublime is the world. Try this video of Frahm performing ‘All Melody’ and ‘#2’.

The other truly great album from this year, and one that I have been playing on repeat for months, is Singularity by Jon Hopkins. Immunity from 2013 was a superb work, but it is possible that with Singularity he has made his masterpiece – from the first note till the last it is stunning: there are dancefloor bangers and gentle ambient pieces, some of which are soft echoes of the more intense songs. Yes, a masterpiece. I could listen to ‘Luminous Beings‘ till the end of days.

 

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