Who says you’ve got to wait until the end of the year for a recap on its finest albums? Not us. Here are some of the best so far…
James Blake – Assume Form
Let’s take you back to January. It’s cold. Grey. The festivities are over. Good intentions have inevitably faded to sluggishness. Like every start to the year, it’s a bit of a slog. But not to worry. James Blake drops a brand-new album. His mournful vocals, sketchy beats and peculiar ambience should make an ideal soundtrack for all the gloom.
Only… that’s not what we got. The melancholy found in his previous work had been replaced with (gulp) optimism. And any feeling of isolation melted by (gasp) romance. It seemed the prince of blubstep had only gone and fallen in love. The cheek of it.
But not all was lost. The lighter touch rather suited him. And his shift into commercial territory felt surprisingly sincere. Having previously been summoned to produce a whole heap of big names – Beyonce, Drake, Bon Iver – it was only a matter of time before he shed his introverted skin to reveal a more self-assured soul. It also felt natural that he should invite a whole heap of collaborators – Moses Sumney, Rosalia, Andre 3000 – to help enhance his digital soundscape.
To call Assume Form progress would be an injustice to Blake’s superb back-catalogue. But his positive outlook on this fourth album feels like a leap in the right direction.
Try also: These New Puritans – Inside the Rose
An album that seduces with its intense collection of songs, proving every bit as smouldering as the band members who made it. Yep. Major crush alert.
Sharon Van Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow
Boy, was I late to the party. Having been vaguely aware of Sharon Van Etten for quite some time (nearly a decade in fact), I’d never felt compelled to check out her body of work. That was until this year, when someone whose musical taste I trust suggested I really ought to.
What better place to have started than with Comeback Kid, an immediate stadium sized stomper that flirts with new wave synths and commands your attention with its rough n readiness. The lead track to Van Etten’s fifth album is just one of many styles flaunted, with all its juxtapositions skilfully held together by a tenderness in her song craft.
But here’s the thing. Remind Me Tomorrow might have lodged itself in my head to create a home in my heart, but it’s also deterred me from wanting to investigate any earlier material. Maybe that’s because, despite this being the only Sharon Van Etten album I’ve listened to, it’s hard to believe she could have bettered something this good.
Try also: Cate Le Bon – Reward
Another fifth album from another hard grafter, who proves the female singer-songwriter tag has come a long way since the days of Dido.
The Twilight Sad – It Won’t Be Like This All the Time
Just my taste, this. A no-nonsense indie band that isn’t afraid to reveal some sensitivity while flexing its bulging muscles.
Always on the right side of glum, The Twilight Sad will never win awards for originality. But they do recall some of the best bands to have come before them… most noticeably The Smiths, The Cure and The Killers. They’ve also never had that one monster hit to catapult them into the stratosphere, but this year returned with an album full of consistently catchy songs.
Perhaps a result of changing both line-up and label, the Scottish cult heroes sounded freer than usual. Frontman James Graham not only tackled angst and anxiety by howling lines like: “Now the cracks all start to show” with enough intensity to make it sound vital, but delivered his native vowels without conjuring images of The Proclaimers. Quite some feat.
To sum up in a nutshell… It Won’t Be Like This All The Time is a little broody, a little brutal and a little brilliant. Just like all the best albums that wallow in the swamps of sadness.
Try also: Fat White Family – Serfs Up!
Overindulging in the latest album from these scuzzy rockers often results in an overwhelming need to scrub clean. And yet I can’t stop listening.
Little Simz – Grey Area
Hurrah. The UK finally has a female rapper with enough confidence, creativity and charisma to carry off those inevitable comparisons with the mighty Missy Elliott.
Yet likening Simbi Ajikawo (aka Little Simz) to the iconic super-duper-star would be someway off the mark. With two albums and two mixtapes already under her belt, Simz has been doing things her own way for quite some time, while always staying true to her British identity. “Allow me to pick up where I left off” she begins on her third LP, effortlessly riding a bassline in the way Roots Manuva once did when he was breaking through to the masses. Elsewhere, as she shrieks: “I’m a boss in a fucking dress” you know she isn’t here to lark about. Later, she dismisses an old flame: “You was meant to be in my Grammy speech… your entire loss.” I did mention she was confident, right?
Yet all the bravado would just be talk if it hadn’t been backed by decent tunes. Simz was clearly paying attention during her sessions with Gorillaz, infusing live instrumentation across each track and peppering them with cartoonish effects. While she switches styles to keep things interesting, she never loses musical focus. And if the smoother track Selfish is her attempt to break through to the masses, she does so with credibility intact.
Try also: Dave – Psychodrama
Bold. Gritty. Expressive. If I was a betting man, I’d put money on this album winning this year’s Mercury Music Prize.
The Comet is Coming – Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery
As a rule, I like to keep eccentric jazz at a relatively safe distance, perhaps playing in the background while I’m reading a book or cooking a Tagine… you know, so that it doesn’t hinder my hedonistic lifestyle. But every now and then something will come along to demand my full attention. It might even force me to dig out the decent headphones.
One such moment was prompted by this year’s second album from The Comet is Coming, that pesky London trio who renovated cosmic jazz with their debut (Channel the Spirits), and whose saxophonist, composer and band leader (Shabaka Hutchings) gave us one of 2018’s most dazzling albums (Your Queen is a Reptile) with his other group Sons of Kemet. I mean, I should have seen the comet coming a mile off.
As you might expect, none of this is what you call straightforward music. The album title might sound a little naff, but it does sum up the sonic journey being reflected. Incorporating elements of jazz, electronica, funk and psychedelic rock, it’s one hell of an experimental ride that makes you work for its thrills. And once you take off, there’s no turning back.
Try also: Ezra Collective – You Can’t Steal My Joy
Already an exhilarating live act, the quintet’s solid debut proved why they’ve become poster boys for Britain’s new wave jazz scene.
Nilufer Yanya – Miss Universe
One thing you’ve got to admire about Generation Z, besides their dismissal of socks, is the refusal to be defined by music taste. Why fully commit to being a clubber, goth, jazz-head or indie kid when you’re a bit of all those things? Genre is dead. Gen-Z killed it.
It’s not their fault, mind. Growing up with a heap of streaming platforms at the fingertips has meant picking only the bits you like is a given, not a privilege. No wonder today’s pop stars can only survive if they come armed with a military of musical references.
Which brings us to Nilufer Yanya. If you were to judge her debut Miss Universe on its opening trio of tracks, you’d probably describe it as guitar-driven pop. But this is evidently just one side to the youngster from Turkish, Irish and Bajan heritage who cites Nina Simone, Amy Winehouse and Pixies as her influences. Cue a handful of bluesy numbers, some gospel house, upbeat retro and a few moody ballads to avoid any risk of complacency. It’s a little like an iPod shuffle. Remember those?
None of my ramblings matter, though. Because when the songs are as catchy as In Your Head and Heat Rises, or as diverse as Paradise and Baby Blu, you soon grasp that Yanya is an artist only interested in making good music. Which, quite frankly, is timeless.
Try also: Billie Eilish – When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
The Lorde comparisons are justified, but so is the hype surrounding this year’s breakthrough artist. 17 years old and already conquering the world.
Chemical Brothers – No Geography
I know, I know. Backing the Chemical Brothers in 2019 risks lumping me into a former-raver-turned-embarrassing-uncle category. But I’m going to say it anyway… they don’t make them like this anymore.
Although they’ve been kicking around for over three decades, the dance-pioneering duo haven’t really proved their relevance since 2002’s Come With Us. This year’s ninth (yes, ninth) studio album was a leap back to that form, even if it didn’t quite push their sound any further forward. That said, No Geography is far more composed compared to their earlier work, and lighter in tone too. Tunes such as the title track, Got to Keep On and Catch Me I’m Falling make for a euphoric listen, recollecting memories of finding unity at a festival field (rather than being monged-out in the corner of a dirty warehouse).
Sure, it’s a nostalgic listen. But I’m sticking to my guns. Old is the new new.
Try also: Jayda G – Significant Changes
Canadian-born, Berlin-based producer dabbles in some Chicago House and creates infectious dancefloor grooves for hot young things worldwide.
Kelsey Lu – Blood
Rhiannon Giddens. Weyes Blood. Jessica Pratt. Lucy Rose. One thing there hasn’t been a shortage of this year is female songwriters releasing solid albums on par with their voices.
The freshest to arrive was Kelsey Lu, a classically trained musician whose soulful tone gave her a more seductive edge. Blood’s cover art might have unwittingly suggested an over sexualised R&B puppet, but its music reflected someone far more inventive. It’s at times haunting and enigmatic, while always stiflingly honest. And from the warmth in her voice to the exotic arrangements, the whole thing just sizzles. No wonder she’s drenched in sweat.
Like all untameable spirits, Lu can’t always settle. One moment she’s blissing out to hypnotic strings, the next soaring on a disco-tinged belter that seemingly comes out of nowhere. But for all its unsteadiness, Blood is still an astonishing triumph. Bonus points too for bringing something new to the table with her version of 10cc’s I’m Not in Love.
Try also: Weyes Blood – Titanic Rising
This is a bit like marmite. Whether you gag in disgust or gorge with delight depends on your palate for Carpenters-esque ballads set to lush production.
Jamila Woods – Legacy! Legacy!
How’s this for an introduction: teacher, poet, activist, youth leader, singer, song writer and proud owner of an Africana Studies and Theatre and Performance Studies qualification.
“I’m not your typical girl…” the Chicago singer proclaimed on her second album, before instructing “…throw away that picture in your head.” With each track dedicated to inspirational black icons (whether they be musicians, writers or historical figures), Woods proved she wasn’t afraid to add political commentary to her lyrical wit and neo-soul flavour. While the tone in her vocal echoed vintage jazz, the tone of her delivery revealed a more contemporary voice.
Words might be her forte, but Woods also understood when to let the music surrounding them do the talking. Why smother a song with sentiment when a bluesy riff does the job perfectly? On an album full of highlights, this confidence in musicality was one of the best things about it. But the stage undoubtedly belongs to her. She deserves that spotlight.
Try also: Anderson Paak – Ventura
The Californian singer, rapper and multi-instrumentalist got it right once again when it came to delivering smooth soul with a hard edge.
Tyler, The Creator – Igor
Hip hop used to be such an uncomplicated thing. From the sampling joy of the golden era to its more troubling gangster phase; you always knew what you were getting.
That’s until Outkast got their meddling hands on it.
As swiftly as member Andre 3000 swept in to blow our musical minds, he handed the baton over to Kanye… who took it a little further before passing it onto Kendrick. After such an explosive trio, whoever dares step up for the final leg to take it over the finish line is anyone’s guess.
One candidate making a very good case for himself is Tyler, The Creator. Since his early days in Odd Future, he’s been slowly conquering the world as a fully-fledged rapper in his own right. His latest offering – less an album, more an assemblage of rhymes, samples and sounds – is probably the most eclectic release of the year so far. It takes quite some skill to make dirty basslines, chunky beats, electronic pulses, animal noises, drowsy melodies, tribal-style chanting, stop-start drum kicks, dreamy intermissions, distorted rapping and futuristic synths sound like they all belong together on the same track. Yet he does so with ease on the brilliantly bonkers New Magic Wand. And that’s just one example.
There’s an argument to be had as to whether you can call Igor a hip hop album. But, hey, these are confusing times we’re living in folks. One thing’s for sure… this is the type of music we all hoped Andre 3000 would one day release. Now he needn’t worry. It’s come full circle.
Try also: Slowthai – There’s Nothing Great About Britain
Dropping the C-word isn’t that shocking these days. But when it’s brashly used to address Her Majesty, it doesn’t go unnoticed. Not for Nans.
Get a little taster of each album here…