As time drags closer to the inevitable apocalypse and the modern world continues to develop in grisly and unforeseen ways, we can find some comfort in the fact that there is now more music available than ever before.
New music continues to explode in wild directions while the infinite archive offers more options to sink into past works with each passing year. To identify discrete trends in modern music is nearly impossible. With so many genres proliferating and complicating on their own timelines, any one person’s taste enables them to sketch out arcs in the chaos – arcs that only exemplify individual strains of a massive glut of sounds. In truth, only your own perspective dictates what you think “2019 music” looked like.
I want to say something like “guitar music is dead” to some extent, but this is only because I no longer default to guitar music when looking for something to listen to – and, in fact, three of my top 10 picks of 2019 are firmly in the realm of guitar music. So why am I predisposed to put guitar music on the back burner? Maybe because to me the mutating traditions of pop music, hip hop, and R&B contained some of the most affecting and unique music of the year. Albums that I kept returning to all shared the distinction of focusing on songwriting above all, while deviating from the norm in terms of production and experimental presentation. The music that I found most vital in 2019 made some gestures toward “future sounds,” whether in its intricate electronic arrangements or cascading melodic sensibilities. The idea of a pop song is too complex to confine within the “pop” of the past, but we still don’t have any better way to categorize it.
The music on my Best of 2019 list tends to steer away from white-male art. This is no accident, as people from marginalized backgrounds or non-U.S. origins made the best music of the year, full stop. The glorification of the nth album by indie rock mainstays such as, I don’t know, Vampire Weekend or The National, serves only to canonize their middle-of-the-road swill more than it deserves, and ensures that these bands and their copycats will continue to get automatic praise, festival slots, and enough streams on Spotify to actually make a living. All this goes on while underground acts struggle to continue to find enough time and money to make their music while managing to stay alive.
My listening was deeply entrenched in the electronic and noise underground this year, and has been for almost a decade at this point, but few of those albums will appear on my list because I’m too close to the source of that music. But this doesn’t mean that the more “above-ground” albums I selected here lack experimentation, or noise, or the artistic impulses that also animate underground creators. Everything is converging at this point. Everything is everything, it turns out. All music has something to offer. Some music just has more to offer than others. Ha ha. Here are ten albums I played the hell out of in 2019.
10) Jay Mitta – Tatizo Pesa [Nyege Nyege Tapes]. The ascendant Uganda-based label Nyege Nyege Tapes continues to destroy minds with each of their releases as they highlight African producers who treat commonly held notions of tempo, electronic arrangement, and texture/tone as nothing but examples from which to deviate – all while ensuring that their music will make you dance. Tanzanian producer Jay Mitta serves as one of the label’s flagship talents, and his style of warp-speed singeli production defines the burgeoning movement being explored by fellow producers such as Duke and Sisso. Listeners might make connections between his blistering, conga-laden beats and the dance battle sonics of footwork, the overstuffed palette of jungle/drum & bass, or the kick drum fetishism of gabber. Tatizo Pesa is none of these things, really. Tracks over 180 BPM blast into your skull with their syncopated basslines and endless clicking percussion, as drum patterns and stuttering glitch voices seem to move fast enough to consume themselves before your ears.
9) Garcia Peoples – One Step Behind [Beyond Beyond is Beyond]. New York-based jam band slash psych-prog maestros find room in the 30-minute title track of their newest LP One Step Behind for towering free-jazz saxophone workouts, hypnotic kraut rock-indebted riffage, and unfurling minimalist melodies. The track manages to encapsulate exactly what makes the band so special: a complete union of improvisation and acutely scripted music that uses the template of the rock band as a starting point for deep-space exploration. Twin guitar leads in the vein of their namesake Jerry Garcia share space with billowing synth lines á la Terry Riley, or slip into passages of almost country tonality. The moments in which the band locks into complex, dialed-in riffs remind us that they’re not just noodling into the abyss. When the distortion pedals kick on for a moment here or there, they approach the grandeur of a metal band as seen through a fractal acid lens. Everything has its right place in their jams, and their conception of what constitutes “everything” encompasses more than any underground rock band playing today, by my reckoning.
8) Summer Walker – Over It [LoveRenaissance]. The sudden rise of Summer Walker to widespread visibility in the last six months or so is the kind of story that might lead skeptics to shout “industry plant,” as if her label decided that she should be a star and we were forced to listen. One play of her album Over It will instantly dispel this notion. One of the most immediately welcoming and pleasurable songwriters of modern R&B, her voice has an effortless melodicism and gorgeous texture that transforms each of her tracks a miniature world to live inside for a while. She treats each verse like a chance to cram in a network of momentary hooks, ad libs, and intertwined phrases, while her actual choruses are nothing but earworms. My favorite cuts on the album are the ones that plant her voice against only one guitar, evoking a kind of midnight vocal jazz session in the corner of a dimly lit bar. In this context, her lovely voice gets a chance to shine in all of its unconventional melody and yearning emotional resonance. And then we have “Come Thru,” maybe the pinnacle of the record, which reinterpolates Usher’s “You Make Me Wanna” as a jumping board for a whole new song. This would be great on its own, but when Usher himself shows up to re-reinterpolate his own song … fireworks go off.
7) Bill Orcutt – Odds Against Tomorrow [Palilalia]. Bill Orcutt’s solo career after disbanding his highly influential Florida noise band Harry Pussy has explored the outer limits of solo guitar performance. He jackhammers away at a nearly broken acoustic guitar, pounding out staccato phrases that hint at blues or American Primitive tonalities but that really emphasize the raw texture of the guitar more than any discrete notes or chords. Odds Against Tomorrow, released on his own label Palilalia, flips the script entirely, turning his playing toward the contemplative and frankly gorgeous. Not only does Orcutt flirt with conventional chords and melodies on the electric guitar here, but for the first time in his guitar catalog he accompanies himself with overdubbed performances. The result is spellbinding, as Orcutt’s fleet-fingered playing speckled with rapid hammer-ons and winding improvised fills serves the forces of beauty instead of pure chaos. That’s not to say that chaos isn’t lurking right beneath the surface of his tracks. Every once in a while he’ll shoehorn a discordant note choice, a dissonant chord, or a moment of unease into his playing, as if to remind us of how he built his catalog up to this point.
6) Wednesday Campanella – Yakushima Treasure [Warner Music Japan]. The reigning champions of experimental Japanese pop, Wednesday Campanella’s improbably prolific output over the last seven years or so plays out like a menu of every style of music under the sun, all compressed into bite-sized songs weighted thick with the sing-song melodies and raps of now iconic singer KOM_I. Previous albums such as Galapagos, Superman, and Zipangu contained everything from mutant glitch, orchestral beauty, Daft Punk-style future funk, and festival EDM, often all crammed into the same song. With the release of Yakushima Treasure, the group throws down an even more ridiculous gauntlet to their listeners: a 30-minute EP of often harrowing, always bizarre ritualistic noise collage. It’s a true thrill to hear them fully embrace musique concrète while never shedding the sense of playfulness that makes them stand out. Tracks unfold over squealing synth lines, bursts of harsh static, and KOM_I’s most twisted vocal performances yet. She channels deep forest Japanese temple music, funereal keening, and unhinged gibberish into her performances. By the time the lovely album closer “Yaku no Jitsugetsubushi” hits, with its more conventional acoustic guitar lines and sparkling omni-pop production, it’s like a reassurance that the group hasn’t fully descended into hell.
5) Ecco2k – e [YEAR0001]. A satellite of the extended Yung Lean family of Swedish rap pop provocateurs, and a member of the increasingly influential Drain Gang (spearheaded by the slightly more visible Bladee), Ecco2k really brought the heat for his first full-length album. The kind of release you put on loop and just let wash over you repeatedly, not caring where it begins or ends, e is future pop at its most hazy and drugged out, running on fumes in a state of emotional overload. The production throughout is big-budget digital synth arrangement par excellence, with layers of angelic pads and bright chiming tones wrapping together into music box melodies planted over high-definition drum patterns in the post-trap/R&B tradition. Tracks uch as “Sugar & Diesel” showcase exactly what makes Ecco2k, at the ripe old age of 24, such a force among his contemporaries. The song maintains a sense of complete claustrophobia while floating over luscious, tumbling melodies. Overlaid vocal lines swirl through the mix with bittersweet lyrics presumably about addiction and heartbreak (“oh pretty please with sugar on top / I can stop whenever I want” -> “more, more, I gotta have it”). Then you have the track “Calcium,” which plays out like a whispered rave banger, as Ecco2k’s vocals skirt closer to rapped verses and endlessly looped refrains (“double K crystals kiss my nose”) as the production balances between states of menacing terror and tearjerking affect.
4) Mdou Moctar – Ilana (The Creator) [Sahel Sounds]. The venerable Sahel Sounds has served as an international springboard for the music of Saharan/North African performers for a decade at this point, but few acts have reached the Western world with a bigger bang than Niger-based Tuareg guitarist Mdou Moctar. From his origins as a wedding-band performer and an enigmatic, nomadic guitar slinger to a marquee jammer of the highest caliber, the arc of Moctar’s career attests to the raw power of his music and his history-in-a-blender approach to six string performance. His playing channels the cyclical riffs and desert tonalities of such forebears as Tinariwen, the crisp, clean tone and precise fretwork of his acknowledged influence Mark Knopfler, and the two-handed tapping pyrotechnics of Eddie Van Halen. Ilana (The Creator) stands as his most fully formed album to date, and elevates his already idiosyncratic style to new heights of electric ecstasy. Look no further than album centerpiece “Tarhatazed,” which swells from an ambient glow into one of the most rollicking shredfests in recent memory, built on his hyper-speed guitar lines and the relentless stomp of his band. Moctar knows how to lay out a sonic narrative, as the gang vocals and pleasant chord progressions of his verses give way to an unbelievable guitar solo that causes his band members to shout on the album take in disbelief as he pours notes from his axe.
3) Erika de Casier – Essentials [Independent Jeep Music]. The music of early 2000s R&B staples such as Aaliyah, TLC, and Destiny’s Child continues to find its way back into the tunes of today’s luminaries, but Erika de Casier’s debut album handles those influences with such extreme command and poise that it becomes far more than a pastiche of past classics. Her songwriting is at once razor-sharp in its diverse melodic flows and effortless in its cloudy, casual atmosphere, to the point that it sounds like these songs have always existed, at least since the turn of the century. Essentials lives up to its name with zero skippable tracks, as every song offers a buffet of beautiful cooed phrases and smoky atmospheres to sink into. Though her talent as a singer is on full display here, the album wouldn’t succeed without the incredible production of her collaborator El Trick, whose intricate chord progressions come to life as a web of pitch perfect MIDI preset voices and lush synth pads. Nearly every track here builds from a framework of MIDI guitar, and the synthetic instrument becomes just as important of a voice in the grand scheme as de Casier’s vocals. Highlights including “A Little Bit” and “Story of My Life” wring pure beauty from a chintzy tonal palette, while “Puppy Love” doubles down on the preset voices with its tinny orchestral tones. All of this contrasts de Casier's fluidity on the mic, singing of loves new and lost, taking photos of her partner, or wondering where their relationship fell off.
2. Young Thug - So Much Fun [300 Entertainment]. No artist this decade redefined popular musical forms more viscerally than the god Young Thug. His signature blend of smeared sing-song vocals, hyper-detailed battle raps, and manic ad libs has become the template for a stable of MCs that he personally represents (Gunna, Lil Baby, Lil Keed, SahBabii) and an untold number of rappers both known and unknown who try to ape his style. After the more eclectic song cycles of Jeffery and Beautiful Thugger Girls found him experimenting with pop forms and way-out-there production ideas, So Much Fun was Thug’s attempt at making an album you could play at a barbecue, just vibing and enjoying yourself. And the conceit worked. Over an hour long, the album maintains an insane momentum in its constantly oscillating hooks, labyrinthine verses, and consistently S-class production from Thug mainstays such as Wheezy and welcome collaborators including Pi’erre Bourne. The synthetic horns of “Hot” caught viral fire, and “What’s The Move” bounced over perfect bubbly production and an inspired Lil Uzi Vert guest verse, but the album’s best moments showcased Thug alone in the booth, rattling off his fractal flows like nothing could be easier for him. Album opener “Just How It Is” gets the closest to the elemental songwriting of his biggest influences Bob Marley and Prince as Thug tongue-twists his way through acutely melodic verses over one dry guitar line that sounds like it was recorded in a practice room. Here, we see his talents for what they are: an international treasure to be pored over, to sink into, to fully live within.
1) Charli XCX – Charli [Atlantic]. The beyond-pop future stylings of Charli XCX have become an emblem for the internet-addled, everything-at-once culture in which her fans live. Her music highlights the most advanced electronic production of modern times (see: Sophie’s “Vroom Vroom” beat), while her approach to songwriting maximizes the pure dopamine flow to your brain, animated by constant earworm moments and more hooks per song than virtually any of her contemporaries. With its balance of laptop-on-fire pop bangers and swooning ballads, Charli funnels every facet of her music into her most complete album to date (sorry Pop 2 stans). Tracks “White Mercedes” and “Official,” which Charli claims she wrote under the direct influence of Ed Sheeran (ha), tug at heartstrings with their frank portrayal of relationships in all their little details, delivered in the form of Charli’s god-tier melodies that tumble up and down between registers and distinct emotional palettes. Centerpiece posse cuts “Click” and “Shake It” stretch the limits of a pop song to the breaking point with their blasts of digital noise, heavily effected vocals, and crumbling song structures. “Gone,” a duet with like-minded French future-pop auteur Christine and the Queens, is the most fully realized pop anthem of the year – something that Cher or Mariah Carey could have sung, but couldn’t have pulled off with the same unbridled energy and sugary sweet bile (“I feel so unstable / fucking hate these people”). More than just an attempt to make pop in the glare of the personal computer, Charli succeeds so fully because of the brilliance of the woman at its center in all her imperfections and insecurities, all her joys and raw pleasures.