20. Patience – Dizzy Spells [Night School Records]
Following the demise of her acclaimed jangle-pop band, Veronica Falls, Roxanne Clifford understandably took her time to make her next move. Now based out of LA, Roxanne’s route back into music started with both a desire to find new sounds, and a collection of analogue synthesisers. The result is her current musical moniker, Patience, and the brilliant debut album, Dizzy Spells, released on Night School Records back in May.
Dizzy Spells arrives on a blast of bubble-gum, or perhaps more accurately chewing-gum pop, with opening track The Girls Are Chewing Gum, a blast of Metronomy-like twitchy synths, processed beats and latterly what sounds suspiciously like hand-bells. Throughout the record it seems to balance Roxanne’s inherent skill with heart-break pop and a distinctly 1980’s synth-pop sound, tracks like the sublime White Of An Eye and The Pressure, harking back to the heyday of The Human League or Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark. Undeniably Dizzy Spells was an album that looked backwards, yet it felt so out of step with everything else in 2019, that it sounded fresh, exciting and unlike anything else we heard.
19. Fresh – Withdraw [Specialist Subject Records]
London punks Fresh first emerged back in 2017 with their self-titled debut album, heavily indebted to the rambunctiousness of pop-punk and early 2000’s emo. It was an intriguing collection certainly, yet not one that really suggested they had an album in them quite as good as the follow up, Withdraw, turned out to be. Released through Specialist Subject back in August, Withdraw seemed to push every aspect of Fresh’s sound, coming across bigger, brighter and more polished than we ever thought possible.
Take the slinky New Girl, with its prominent bass-line and angular-guitar line it owes as much to the Rapture as it does pop-punk and it feels all the more intriguing for it. Withdraw is an album that seemed to blossom further the longer it went on, the Grease-referencing Punisher and the strong-willed brilliance of Revenge leaping from the speakers as highlights any band would be proud of. Across the record Fresh pulled off a trick so many other bands have struggled with, they evolved without losing what made them so wonderful in the first place, Withdraw, conversely to its title, was the sound of Fresh stepping out into the light.
18. Holiday Ghosts – West Bay Playroom [PNKSLM Records]
They might be based out of the seaside town of Falmouth, yet Holiday Ghosts seem to have taken influence from something considerably more urban. The quartet’s potent blend of stripped back rock’n’roll drew influence from the likes of The Modern Lovers, Violent Femmes and The Velvet Underground. Back in February, the band released their second album, West Bay Playroom, named after the makeshift studio the band created in guitarist Sam Stacpoole’s childhood playroom, a setting that influenced not just the recording but the entire feeling of the album.
West Bay Playroom is a record that seems to dip in and out of the best of rock’n’roll’s history, across its fourteen tracks it shimmies like the best surf-pop, it struts like the best blues-rock, it even fits in an almost flamenco flourish on Booksmart. It’s not an album that seems to stop for breath, instead bombarding the listener with waves of musical brilliance, who needs to stop and think when there’s the Terry-like brilliance of The Dodger, or the sublime Kat’s Lament coming roaring up on the horizon. Holiday Ghosts provided one of the year’s most enjoyable romps, and one that had us constantly hitting play for another go round.
17. Erin Durant – Islands [Keeled Scales]
Although based out of New York, you probably wouldn’t guess it listening to the music of Erin Durant. A native of New Orleans, Erin’s second album Islands, released via Keeled Scales back in June, has a sound that certainly seemed more in keeping with her Louisiana roots. Scratch the surface though and Islands reveals its secret, this was a record that more than anything encapsulated the journey, yes it was a country record, its themes however were universal, it was about finding your place in the world. As Erin sings on the sublime, Take A Load Off, “I’ve been traveling by word, a bit confused where I am”, encapsulating the album’s searching quality, throughout Erin seems to be looking for something, yet is never entirely sure what it is.
Musically, there was probably no album more beautifully put together in 2019, at the forefront throughout was Erin herself, her complex piano lines and crystal clear vocals never far from your ear, and equally important was the eye for detail. Working with producer Kyp Malone, Erin created a record that always felt experimental without ever sounding like it was trying too hard to be odd. From the Joni Mitchell-like title track to the Joanna Newsom-like flourishes of Highway Blue, Island was always as easy on the ear, as it was intriguing. Erin Durant’s songwriting was the sound of escapism, yet it wasn’t just pretty, it carried an honesty and a grit, an album that worked hard to sound this good, and truly rewards the listener willing to drink it all in.
16. Living Hour – Softer Faces [Kanine Records]
Hailing from Winnipeg, not a city we can say we’ve discovered many bands from over the years, Living Hour returned back in March with their wonderful second album, Softer Faces. The follow up to 2016’s self-titled debut, Softer Faces was a gentle re-imagination of Living Hour’s sound, expanding on the blue-print without losing what made it so wonderful in the first place.
Throughout the record, it’s almost impossible to not focus your attention in on singer Sam Sarty’s stunning vocal, it seems to not so much find melodies as just waft into your ears, and flutter in your brain. The woozy lushness of the vocal is perfectly matched in the bold arrangements, it would be easy to over-rely on a voice that strong, yet Living Hour’s musical choices seemed to enhance rather than detract from Sam’s efforts. Musically, it is an eclectic record, one where moments of jazzy complexity sit next to driving rockier sections, angular guitar lines give way to waves of easy brass and warm bassy solidity. It wasn’t a record that jumped into any pigeon holes, instead it crafted its own magnetic world and invited you to come in and joint them there.
15. Rosie Tucker – Never Not Never Not Never Not [New Professor Music]
In 2019, few new musicians seemed to resonate with as many of our fellow music bloggers as Los Angeles-based artist Rosie Tucker. Whether it was the underdog spirit, the DIY attitude, or just simply the brilliant songwriting, everyone seemed to be willing Rosie and their brilliant album Never Not Never Not Never Not to be a success, and delightfully it was.
Citing the influence of many of the queer, blacklisted, and forgotten female songwriters of the 1960’s, from Dusty Springfield through to Karen Dalton and Sibyl Baier, Rosie updates those sounds with a modern bedroom-pop production style. What truly ignites the album is the complexity of the characters Rosie creates whether it’s a roommate struggling with a bipolar disorder diagnosis, the troubled queen of a house party scene, or on Pablo Neruda the entire city of New York. As much as anything a tribute to the joy of creativity, Never Not Never Not Never Not was a sometimes sad record that still sounded like a joy to make, full of passion, skill and an awful lot of heart.
14. Cross Record – Cross Record [Ba Da Bing Records]
As an artist, songwriter, death doula and living funeral celebrant, Emily Cross has created one of the most impressively niche lifestyles we can imagine, in recent years she’s also created some of our favourite music going. Both under her Cross Record solo(ish) project and as a member of the excellent Loma, Emily’s voice has been one of the key soundtracks to the last few years of the 2010s. For 2019, Emily’s musical offerings came in the shape of the self-titled, and third, Cross Record album.
Revisiting Cross Record to write this article, we were struck by what a singular songwriter Emily is, the eleven tracks on this record simply don’t sound like anyone else. The record is something of a departure not just in sound, but also in how it was written, while previous record Wabi-Sabi was produced at home, here Emily decamped to a secluded part of the Mexico-coast, isolated herself from the world and came back with something brilliant. The album is instantly gripping, as an eerie buzz of electronics gives way to Emily’s distorted vocal repeating, “what is your wish?”, it’s as much like a scene from The Shining as it is any contemporary pop-record. Throughout the record, Emily seems to grapple with ideas of separation and control, often the songs seems to mirror that insecurity, not so much progressing as gradually dissolving into the ether. A track like Licorice, starts with a clear melody and slowly it starts to wobble, to distort, the vocal melody becoming almost engulfed in the array of odd and ominous noises. While it is always complex and intriguing, Cross Record isn’t a difficult album to love, it has moments like PYSOL My Castle that are as warm and lush anything Emily has ever put out, even if the security it has a certain finite quality exposed in the lyric, “you can’t unbreak the bubble underneath me”. Wildly creative and hugely intriguing, where Emily Cross is concerned we wouldn’t expect any less.
13. Richard Dawson – 2020 [Domino]
Across his five previous album’s, Richard Dawson has slowly built fame and acclaim for his black-humoured blend of historical musings and razor sharp whip. None of his previous releases though quite prepared us for his brilliant album 2020. It was a stunning state-of-the-nation address, looking at the bleakness of austerity Britain, the divisive nature of Brexit and most importantly the people at the heart of our island in meltdown. Are Richard’s stories heavy? Undeniably, yet the lightness of touch and the dark humour stop it from ever feeling completely lost to the bleakness.
As you’d perhaps expect for a man whose music has often been linked to folk, Richard’s tales are all deeply human; whether it is the depressed civil servant cutting off someone’s disability allowance, the dad screaming at his son from the sidelines or the jogger traumatised by the world around them and seeking solace in exercise. It isn’t just the words here that are creative though, musically too, on 2020 Richard pushed himself to new highs, from the complexy almost math-rock sounding The Queen’s Head to the sprightly intensity of Two Halves, it sounded delightfully different to anything else on offer. Perhaps our favourite moment though, is arguably the most subtle one, the gorgeous Fresher’s Ball, a stripped back guitar line is Richard’s accompaniment as he talks of dropping a daughter off at University, and finding tears rolling down his cheeks at he takes the motorway home. Something in the mundanity, and humanity of the story resonates, like so much Richard Dawson does he makes the ordinary extraordinary in the way only he can, and 2020 was by some way his finest record yet.
12. Big Thief – Two Hands [4AD]
Bands have good years, some bands have great years, and then some bands have years like Big Thief did in 2019. The New York-based quartet had already won over many with their previous two albums, yet hit new heights this year with the release of not one but two new records. The measured, subtle beauty of U.F.O.F. was very good, yet to our ears, the second offering Two Hands was even better.
What we loved about Two Hands was the way it gently evolved Big Thief’s sound, we already knew they could do mesmerising, this showed they could also get their hands dirty. This was never more obvious than on the first single the band shared from the record, Not. The track clattered in on a Neil Young-like guitar line, before vocalist Adrianne Lenker enters, not with her normal poised delivery, instead this was visceral, yelping from the belly, passionate and distorted. Two Hands feels like an almost deliberate contrast to U.F.O.F. in many ways, it was recorded in the scorching heat of the desert, live with almost no over-dubs, it featured almost entirely live vocals; it’s Big Thief but not as we know them. It isn’t just their loud record though, it still possesses a great deal of depth, from the minimal ditty of Wolf to the Radiohead-like closer Cut My Hair, it’s just that even in the tranquil moments it still feels raw and unpolished. By getting a little dirt under the finger-nails, Big Thief confirmed all the growing suspicions that they are one of the finest bands on planet: they’ve never sounded better.
11. Angel Olsen – All Mirrors [Jagjaguwar]
It would probably be fair to call 2019 a very good year for Angel Olsen. It was a year that saw Angel release her fourth album, All Mirrors, which crashed into album charts across the world on the back of near universal acclaim. All Mirrors is a fine example of a record that started as one thing, and ended up somewhere completely different. Initially planned as a solo acoustic record, to be released alongside a full band project, across its recording All Mirrors morphed from something sparse to Angel’s most sonically ambitious record to date. Resplendent with lush orchestral arrangements, it’s a dense and luxurious record, almost as if Angel, with that ever stunning vocal, is summoning up some fabulously dramatic apocalypse for us all.
As opening tracks go, All Mirrors has quite possibly the best one you’re ever likely to hear. The utterly sublime Lark is a track so good that, the first time we tried to play the record we struggled to get past track one; it’s a master-class in slowly building, foreboding perfection, from the gentle opening it swells on majestic strings, then cuts them through with an uneasy droning bass, like The Velvet Underground playing with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s a trick that’s repeated across the beautiful arrangements on All Mirrors, and through it all, Angel herself never gets lost, no matter how vast and intense the strings get, the voice is always there at the centre of it all, conducting the mood. Following on from two of our favourite records of the decade, All Mirrors always had a difficult job, perhaps it didn’t have the variety of My Woman, the raw emotion of Burn You Fire For No Witness, yet it did something better than that, it carved its own niche. This was a record that took Angel Olsen where she’d never been before, an evolution of sound that only the truly great songwriters can manage, a club to which Angel Olsen has shown she truly belongs.
Click HERE for part two of our album of the year run-down.