It’s been a solid year for new music. The first half was packed with so many quality releases that part one of my favourite albums was published back in June. With 2019 soon coming to an end, it’s time to tackle part two…
Santana – Africa Speaks
Trust me. Nobody is more shocked than I am to be kicking things off with Santana.
But this summer, nearly 50 years since Black Magic Woman and Oye Como Va, the 72-year old guitarist dropped his most compelling album to date.
Africa Speaks is the sound of an entire continent coming to life. Produced by Rick Rubin, the pair recorded 49 African-inspired tracks in just 10 days, many done in a single take. It’s no wonder the 11 tracks that made the cut feel like they’re running on infectious energy.
When you’re an instrumentalist, it helps to have vocal companionship. But rather than bed hop with a string of singers, Santana found stability in Buika. She might well be singing in English, Spanish and Yoruba, but it’s the language of conviction she’s mastered. Her lyrics could be campaigning for the Brexit Party for all I know, but I have no doubt she means every word.
Make no mistake, though. Carlos Santana’s biggest weapon is Carlos Santana. There’s a lot going on here, but it’s his awesome guitar playing that soars.
Try also: Afrika Express – EGOLI
Damon Alban keeps another musical plate spinning, serving contemporary sounds with the motherland’s freshest talent.
The Raconteurs – Help Us Stranger
In years to come, when googling the term rock gods (don’t pretend you don’t), will Jack White really be the person popping up on our screens?
Yes, actually. Having stormed the noughties with The White Stripes, the reluctant icon has been consistently donning quality material in the form of side projects, supergroups and solo work. This year, he dusted off his most straightforward outfit and wore it with pride.
Despite a decade passing since The Raconteurs was last on our radar, things have pretty much picked up from where they were left. Help Us Stranger offers a somewhat richer sound than before, yet thumping grooves and beefy riffs remain the key ingredients.
White still brings star presence to the table, but it’s the duo’s lesser-known half who packs a punch when it comes to earworm hooks. As Brendan Benson repeats: “I’m here right now, I’m not dead yet”, you can almost hear thousands joining him for a stadium-sized singalong.
Try also: Sturgill Simpson – Sound & Fury
Alt-country star fuses Americana, rock and electronica to create a new style of country music you actually want to listen to.
Black Midi – Schlagenheim
Here we go. Four English lads hyped as the best rock band since Zepplin, trying to prove their worth by improvising at riotous gigs and screaming about the country falling to bits.
But the thing that sets Black Midi apart is an eagerness to take things forward. Schlagenheim is an unpredictable debut that injects a much-needed shot of adrenaline into old veins. Among the horror shrieks, guitar squeals and sense of anxiety is an album full of surprises, the biggest one being that it has substance.
It’s a restless beast, too. Opener 953 sets the tone by shifting styles as though it’s being made up on the spot. It’s followed by the space-age groove on Speedway, the tense build-up on Reggae and a burst of creative uproar on Near DT, MI. That leads into the eight-minute centrepiece Western, which starts off as a country ballad before transforming into something else entirely. And with the second half being as equally exhilarating, it’s clear that losing momentum isn’t an issue for these guys. Oh, to be young again.
Try also: Psychedelic Porn Crumpets – And Now do the Watchamacallit
Their name might pay homage to all things addictive, but it’s their music that’ll have you hooked.
Marika Hackman – Any Human Friend
Ready for something lighter? Not that you’d expect it to come from Marika Hackman when listening to her third album’s opening track. As lovely as Wanderlust is, it transports you to a dusky place where friendship comes in the form of whiskey.
But its lo-fi mood is a misnomer. Because what follows is an army of upbeat songs that march alongside catchy hooks, confident riffs and a cheeky bit of synth. Any Human Friend is also thrillingly unfiltered, as you would hope from any documentation about being young, queer and horny. Candid lyrics about one-night stands, infidelity and (ahem) venereal disease are delivered with deadpan humour, while I’m officially naming Hand Solo the best song about masturbation since Diddle my Skittle by Peaches. Nice pants on the cover, too.
Try also: Bat for Lashes – Lost Girls
Natasha Khan leaps into eighties nostalgia and lands somewhere between The Cure, Talking Heads and Bananarama. It works.
Sampa the Great – The Return
It’s got to be said… 2019’s most exciting new voice sounds a little bit like Bart Simpson.
The cartoonish rapping belongs to 26-year-old Zambian-born Sampa Tempo, who has just as much charisma as the spiky-haired prankster. She’s not afraid to ruffle a few feathers either, exploring righteous empowerment, racial identity and black exploitation on her whopping 78-minute debut. Don’t let its ambition put you off. Sure, there’s a lot to consume. But The Return comes in manageable-sized chunks that are handily separated by interludes.
Once Mwana and Freedom break the ice, we find social-political Sampa sandwiched between the upright Time’s Up and OMG. Then comes Final Form, a slice of funk that I challenge anyone to listen to without strutting down the street. We soon enter soulful Sampa territory, before ending with a seductive series of hallucinogenic fuelled slow jams where we meet spiritual Sampa. She’s my favourite.
Stick with it, folks. The Return reveals itself with repeat listens. And if you’ve yet to discover it all, I’m rather jealous of you.
Try also: Rapsody – Eve
Skill is required to present a relevant portrayal of black womanhood while avoiding clichés. Rapsody has bags of it.
Angel Olsen – All Mirrors
As far as opening tracks go, you’d be hard pushed to find a more intense one than on this year’s All Mirrors by Angel Olsen.
With its swirling strings giving way to thunderous drums, Lark starts life as the ghost of late-sixties ballads before taking a far darker turn. Soaked in reverb, the folkstress-turned-siren’s vocals provide enough dramatic tension to suspect a deranged woman could jump out at any given moment. And once it’s all over, you still have no idea what to expect next.
A pleasant surprise is what. Olsen might have been gathering pace over the years, but I never expected such a white-knuckle ride as this. Each song takes you somewhere completely unexpected. It’s both luscious and eerie, icy but warm, hushed yet commanding. And just when you think our heroine can’t be saved, the closing track Chance offers a glimmer of hope. Beautiful.
Try also: Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds – Ghosteen
Cave follows 2016’s harrowing Skeleton Tree with more heartbreaking songs to help heal the pain.
Elbow – Giants of All Sizes
Another best of the year list, another Elbow album. If there’s one word that sums up this group’s 22-year-old career, it’s consistency. But there’s only so much cosiness a band can withstand before they find they’ve suddenly become the next Coldplay.
Fortunately, Elbow has a far more empathetic frontman. Guy Garvey might have become an awkward father figure in music, but he radiates enough bitter cynicism to ensure it cuts right through the sweetness. Cue a new set of cheery songs about suicide, homelessness, injustice, heartbreak and mortality.
It seems Garvey is aware there are only so many lavish choruses you can get away with. The majestic touches found in Elbow’s DNA are still here, but so is a noticeably more adventurous sound. The band flex their biceps more than usual on Dexter and Sinister and White Noise White Heat, while Empires and On Deronda Road confirm they’ve still got legs.
Giants of All Sizes is undeniably an Elbow album, which is no bad thing when you delve into their impressive collection. But it also might just be the jewel in their crown.
Try also: Bon Iver – i,i
It’s business as usual for Justin Vernon, playing the complex bumpkin seemingly lost in his bubble of melancholy.
Richard Dawson – 2020
How do you follow a critically acclaimed album full of traditional folk songs inspired by tales of English life in the middle ages? With a critically acclaimed album full of contemporary folk songs inspired by tales of English life in the fickle present. Obvs.
2017’s Peasant was a minor masterpiece. But this year’s 2020 trumps it. As well as its more muscular sound and digital flourishes, it’s a current album that speaks to the masses. How could you not relate to songs about the monotony of work, flooded communities pulling together, desperately needing the toilet during a deadline, the paranoia felt when your partner gets a text, and how seeing a hedgehog can brighten your mood? Where’s your soul goddamnit?
The genius behind it all is Richard Dawson, who’s singing style suggests an everyday man taking a drunken stab at karaoke. But when the songs are this strong, he could easily be the next Tom Waits as far as I’m concerned. A modern triumph.
Try also: Sleaford Mods – Eton Alive
Good storytelling comes in many guises. This one happens to be angry working-class rants set to electronic punk. Enjoy.
Michael Kiwanuka – KIWANUKA
When Michael Kiwanuka was announced as BBC’s Sound of 2012, the response was somewhat meek. There were hints that he could be a musician with merit, but his songs were too watered down for anyone to really care.
It seemed Kiwanuka agreed. Suffering from imposter syndrome, he spent four years digging deep and came back with Black Man in a White World. It was an immediate song that suggested he had something worth saying, while its parent album Love + Hate suggested he was planning on sticking around to say more.
Kiwanuka takes an even bigger step forward on his third album, proving to be an artist with real staying power. If it weren’t for the modern touches, this could easily be mistaken for a long-lost seventies’ soul classic, complete with improvisational twists, peculiar gospel backing vocals and hints of Hendrix, Hathaway and Scott-Heron.
The fact that he’s found his voice, feet and sound is even sweeter knowing it’s on his own terms. “I won’t change my name, no matter what they call me” he states on Hero, heeding back to the days when he was asked to consider a less African sounding stage name. Having his surname capitalised as the album’s title feels like a triumphant middle finger to the record labels.
Try also: Brittany Howard – Jaime
Alabama Shakes frontwoman adopts a DIY approach to production while revealing a more tender, soulful side to her songwriting.
FKA Twigs – MAGDALENE
She’s back. And this time she’s heartbroken. Cue nine intimate ballads that not only broadcast the emotional turmoil but cements Twig’s status as one of our most intriguing popstars.
Much has been made of her publicly scrutinised relationship with a certain famous vampire, and the fact she’s found solace in a certain misunderstood biblical figure. Yet it’s her music that does all the talking on Magdalene. Thanks in part to laziness, but mainly due to a lack of imagination, here are some of my favourite quotes from the countless positive reviews it received: Veering between eerie sparseness and half-familiar melodies from classic love songs (NME)… A magnificently twisted sci-fi torch album (Telegraph)… Unlikely to be rivalled by any of her peers in 2019 (Sputnickmusic).
They’re all correct. Yet they also fail to sum up what an extraordinary piece of work Magdalene is. I won’t attempt it. But one thing’s for sure. There’s currently nobody quite like FKA Twigs.
Try also: Thom Yorke – ANIMA
Man-bun aside, Yorke shows us how to embrace midlife gracefully with his best solo album by a mile.
Get a little taster of each album here…
See also: Best Albums of 2019 (Part One)