2019 went by really fast, a blur of truth/reality and fake/reality. One might be tempted to say that 1984 is finally upon us and all the early post-modern philosophers got it right. The “simulacrum” was a fascinating and mind-bending blotto bender. I knew it was the way reality would evolve, even though the details were out of reach at the time. Welcome to the machine.
Anyway, as with any “Best of” list, this one reflects my likes and dislikes more than it acknowledges a body politic of music critic group think. This list, and all the ones like them, are only atomized versions of a vision — numbering seems completely absurd and pretentious. And so, I guess, is this list.
Nevertheless, I hope you will find something here that inspires and captivates you.
Happy New Year!
Harmony Rockets with Special Guest Peter Walker
I played this more than anything else on this list and the 12 minute cut Lachesis is a raga, with modal interzone guitar overdubs by the 70-year-old master Peter Walker and accompanied by Steve Shelley (Sonic Youth), Nels Cline (Wilco), Jesse Chandler, Martin Keith.
There’s always been a bit of the holler-throated thing about Angel Olsen voice. It crackles and goes too far, reaching out into the darkness with a bit of a twang.
Appalachia has always been a place of the poor and downtrodden finding joy and passion in music. Adrianne Lenker is the songwriter and lead singer for Big Thief. Although she has lead status this is a real band that appears to be at peace with one another. In their promo pics they seem as if they are one person, and it comes through in the music.
In the age of corporate hip-hop celebrities there are also people working as advocates for the poor, who of course are poor themselves. Moor Mother not only manages to reinvent the genre, she remains a fierce advocate in her community.
This has been on my radar for some time and it was finally released a couple of days ago to near instant critical acclaim as well as some obvious wrestling with ambiguity that so many people seem to abhor. Lets just make a list then: art rock, prog, post-punk, post-hardcore and (gulp) a free-jazz ensemble. They supposedly won over the crowd at SXSW, even though there was a lot of muttering about WTF was that?
File Under: Iranian (ANB)
Produced and recorded as a document of Amini’s slide into sleeplessness and despair. He spent so many night awake that he eventually had a nervous breakdown and landed in the ICU for a few days.. He says of the experience:” I came across the idea of ‘other night’ described by Maurice Blanchot, during my research. It started me recognizing night as something we experience as ‘the night of sleep’
Lana del Rabies
File Under: Her lost tapes
It’s possible that in some other parallel universe Lana del Ray might be making throbbing industrial music with an equal amount of awkwardness that she makes it in this world. But I doubt it. This is closer to Skinny Puppy than anything. Not metal, but guitars smashed into corners of the a loop, industrial pulsing beats and static. The lyrics (and I wish they weren’t), are basically buried in the mix.
File Under: intricate-psychedelic-prog-with-eastern-accents
File Under: a rare thing called rock
I know it’s a little old fashioned to be making experimental post-punk but sometimes it’s really great and something you’d like to see live. I would go out to see them play for sure. Their hidden weapon in Dick Riddick, who puts together an unhinged but highly catchy version of post-punk that is down tight experimental, trippy and pays homage to The Stooges with random elements thrown in.
File Under: ambient, transcendent improv
They claim live improvisational takes but there are only two of them. And I haven’t found any live videos yet so it’s hard to tell. Melbourne, but there’s few signs of that tradition having any bearing on this recording. Here’s what they have to say and I don’t doubt them given the array of electronics, as well as drum kit and guitars they are using: “We began Squaring Circles as an experimental project around the process of recording as a means of writing. This method created a spontaneity which brought a real energy in our approach to exploring sound and opened up that weird self-moving presence of how music directs itself when it’s not premeditated. The majority of these songs were essentially captured first-take jams. These sessions took place from mid-2015 until we finished mixing the record in 2017. The pieces of music we captured all slowly flowed together into a distinct narrative.”
File Under: classical and electro-experimental
This feels fresh and inventive and created by one who has a grasp of history, technique, and many of the traditional trappings of a hyper-charged Classical background. But what she has created using a variety of electric/digital effects and applications is to stretch and vibrate traditional instruments and make them into electronic workhorses. Splices from adverts, street conversation and other field recordings are woven into the mix. She has a strong sense of the history of ambient, and Modern Classical music to go along with viola performance degree from New England Conservatory a stint at studying early music at Hoochschule fur Musik in Cologne. Some opera. She can sing as well. She is also a member of Holly Herdon’s experimental landscapes ensemble.
David Torn, Tim Nerne, Ches Smith
File Under: jazz
It’s rare when a jazz album stands out of the murk of forgotten genres and speaks to me. Check on Amazon for this gem.
File Under: Punk, kraut, gaze, psych
A wonderful reissue from 1999 is Leisester, UK’s Prolapse’s last album before they decided to go their separate ways. A little bit of a murky recording, but then this is to be expected from a band that leans toward goth and gaze, with Cocteau Twins and Stereolab level use of verse and voice.
File Under: former psyche wonders find a Kosmische groove
It sure sounds as if they have autobahns in Chile given the raw material the duo of Domingae Garcia-Huidobro and Diego Larca.
File Under: Glasgow singer-songwriter
She won a best Scottish Album of the Year award for this one that is a few years old but new to me. “My mum sings in a Gaelic choir, my gran was a musician who played by ear. My sister is amazing and picks up and plays everything.
File Under: experimental
She’s been at this for a while now and working with expat producer Jim O’ Rourke who told The Wire that “I decided to be almost invisible on this one.” Ishibashi understands pop tradition while always searching for the opening into a greater expanse of frontier—into unknown regions where she has never explored.
File Under: simplicity begets transcendence
Former Saintseneca member Maryn Jones still works with her voice and guitar, but here she brings in some new friends from the Philadelphia scene, the electric guitar out and taking more risks that on her first solo outing. I don’t know how so many people with acoustic guitars and voice can suck, while others like Yowler enlighten and expand. It’s a vibe. If there is a clear explication of what Black Dog In My Path is all about it comes on the cut entitled “Sorrow,” wherein she sings “So if we make it through these times and more sorrow is all we find/ I hope I can at least leave something behind / A small word, or a sigh, that’d be fine.
Michael O’ Shea
File Under: a staggering reissue of 1982 masterwork
Not only did O’ Shea invent a new 17 stringed instrument he sometimes called “Mo Cara” or “my fried” in Gaelic, he was discovered while busking in Covent Garden, London by Wire members Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis, who gave him their card and told him to stop by the studio and they would record him, which he did some two years later. The resulting recording was put out on Wire’s own experimental label Dome in 1982. By all accounts, there were only 500 albums pressed so this long overdue repressing by Dublin Label All Cityls AllChival imprint is a sort of reawakening to the beauty and inventiveness of this bespoke artist. The opening cut is a 15 minute raga, before O’ Shea settles into the more confined territory of shorter songs. O’Shea had a brief chimera of recognition and then fell out of sight and eventually was struck and killed by a van on a London street. Except for a few collaborations, this record is all that is left, and it’s a beauty.
File Under: millennial folk
So says Leah Sanderson aka Keto to describe the post-folk and post-rock explorations on her lovely new album Blackened Pool, which was supposedly created and recorded in the otherworldly setting of the Outer Hebrides with support from the PRS Foundation.
Meg Baird & Mary Lattimore
File Under: ambient-folk, divine collaboration
These two stalwarts of the folk scene have collaborated on a new album together for the first time. There’s Meg Baird of Espers and Heron Oblivion and renowned harpist Mary Lattimore. They bring such restraint and at the same time power to these compositions. Tradition is one thing, and they know it so well that they can disregard those cliches and move on into freak-folk dirges and trance-inducing vocal schematics. This would have made my best of 2018 list since it came out in late November, but I knew I needed to save some for this month.
File Under: Native experimentalist
Tanya Taguq is an Inuit throat singer who brings modern modalities and experimentation to her new album Toothsayer. A combination of her unique vocal work, electroacoustic instrumentation, synths and piano, with the percussionist Jean Martin sitting in on two cuts. Tagaq says of her new effort: “I named it Toothsayer because I always liked the term soothsayer, to look into the future and to speak wisely. “Teeth” represents protection and hunting in nature. We are going to have to get our fists up and our teeth out to carve our way to survival in this world.”
File Under: experimental aural journeys
Luke Younger is Helm and he’s been at this long enough to break a lot of aural barriers. He takes us on long journeys in short segments. OST Blade Runner 2099 is not a bad place to begin the visual landscape. Ambiguity reigns here, passages of pastoral restraint, and ambient interludes as well as a grim view of humanity’s future.
File Under: cosmic improv
All of these players are considered masters of the improvisational form. All of them are explorers and subtle and listen closely to each other as the music is invented. It takes a lot of practice and a lot of careful and patient listening to arrive at this level of playing as constant surprises.
Dave Harrington Group
File Under: it must be jazz, or psyche or fusion
Some “Jack Johnson” sort of grooves and I did say a fusion of sorts. Not the normal, showoffy stuff, but memorable and measured out in long-form doses. It’s traditional in a mid-70’s sort of manner, but come off sounding so relevant to these times.
File Under: swiss savants create swinging groove and equally on footing for my favorite discovery of the year.
I have no way of knowing if they are actually singing in any known language, or just improvising. It might matter. It would certainly make them funny. So many tangental resources and possible sources. Trout Mask Swiss, comes to mind. These dudes can swing and create delirious soundscapes and Krautish expectations. Can. Yep, Can. They might be songs crafted with layers and layers of overlays and edits, but it comes across as improvisational. There is a sense of abandonment of convention. A search for something not heard before. It took about three listens, and a look at one of their live video gigs before I really heard it. What a wonderful place they’ve created.
File Under: yes, we’re going to prog
Expect anything and everything. Wah-wah pedals, psychedelic free-riffing, experimental blotto and a general all-around intention to post-rock rather than mere revival. These guys sound like friends, not guitar and saxophone gods.
File Under: cosmic percussionist, modular synth player
Here we find Swiss percussionist Michael Anklin, and modular synth maestro working together in a quest toward the impossibility of perpetual motion. A grand idea and one certainly worth exploring in a musical context.
File Under: Argentine DJ does just about everything on this record.
It’s a laidback Argentine vibe, bringing the entire world into context. It’s quietly persuasive and adept. You get it all, free-jazz, Kosmische, 2-Step, Latintronica, post-rock, cumbria and all the tangled shamanistic places between.
File Under:: Daughter singer goes solo with stunning results
The solo project by Daughter singer Elena Tonra is pronounced “ex-ray” and came out of the blue recently. The production is stripped down and was done over a few days at the 4AD studios, which is a welcome change from the often overwhelming nature of her work with Indy-gaze adherents Daughter. What is left over is just what an audacious and talented lyricist Tonra possesses. It is so raw and intimate that it sounds like the early records of Angel Olsen or Sharon van Etten.
Agathe Max & Natalia Beylis
Two world-class improvising women combine talents on this come hither, come thou meeting of the minds. Agathe Max has often performed as a solo artist with a lot of foot pedals and effects. Here she works Natalia Beylis, who plays a variety of instruments including mandola, piano as well as the exotic cumbu, which is an oud-like Modern Turkish instrument. Instrumental incantations and spectral haunts make this album, named after a book of illustrations drawn by Irish artist Harry Clarke for Hans Christian Anderson’s The Garden of Paradise a welcome listen.
File Under: originality perchance to dream
I wonder how the phrase “sound collage” got turned into “plundertronics.” Perhaps a graduate student might be able to answer the question. One is at a distance and neutral and the other presumes a sort of ironic guilt that could only have come from a crumbling empire called The West. I reviewed his first album under this moniker, which was called “Self-less” and was no less original and awoke in me an almost liminal state. It is collage and it is unlike anything else I’ve ever heard.
File Under: Industrial medicine
“ I love everything that tries to destroy me.” So says Debby Friday on her new album Death Drive. Her most recent called Bitchpunk lays out the landscape of old school Soviet France, Skinny Puppy, all within the black diaspora intensity the remains consistent throughout.
Sampa The Great
File Under: truly Innovative hip hop
Not all afro-futurism is guided by the same incantations and grandiose designs.
File Under: a shorty from the master, with love, in collaboration with his life long friend, the painter Anna Liber Lewis.
File Under: a post-empire 4th world cocktail
With The Caretaker finishing his project, the ever-prolific dandy Daedelus unravels similar territory on The Bittereinders(sic). This is my first experience with this artist’s work and frankly, it’s a revelation. Using jazz samples and field recordings Alfred Darlington, aka Daedelus releases the third installment in his “End of Empire” album trilogy for Brainfeeder.