When I started writing this year-end list in the beginning of December, I felt a bit like I was straying from my moral compass. I’ve long argued against the year-end list, even though I found the magic of Big Thief on NPR Music’s 2016 list (and that’s just one example). I decided to begin the lengthy process of amalgamation by writing down big questions instead of bite-sized clickbait: How did music respond to 2019’s increasing anxiety and spiking disillusionment in the face of a planet on the brink of extinction? What styles emerged in the year of Tik Tok mindreading Artificial Intelligence and an ever-worsening political landscape? Is classical music responding to today’s culture or still just trying to regurgitate a long-gone past? I wrote a joke about Lana del Ray’s lyric, “god damn manchild.” I thought that maybe I could make a list of every experimental record that I had heard.
But those questions aren’t answerable in a list, they’re journal articles I want to find on JSTOR. Anyone can make a joke about manchildren, it’s low-hanging fruit. And one person simply doesn’t have the bandwidth to do everything. I scrapped these ideas.
The crux of my concern with writing The Year-End List is that I’m one person who, admittedly, didn’t listen to every release in 2019. There are so many niches in music! Each sonic rabbit hole you climb down provides different meanings and freedoms. It’s impossible to make a blanket statement about which ones are The Best in the form of a list. Yet, when we see a list, it’s so simple to scroll just to see who’s first, giving in to an often-enraging practice.
In its most pure state, The List is a listening guide, a space for perusal or remembrance of music forgotten. I’m writing this list for the Road to Sound with mind to the music I cover here, with the hopes that someone out there will find something they like, from a person who spent nearly two months of the year listening to music (thanks for reminding me, Spotify). The main list focuses on experimental works, and I’ve included a brief bonus of a few albums in other genres that are not-to-be-missed.
So, sit back, listen, and consider this your invitation to take some new sonic adventures…
John Luther Adams, Become Desert (Cantaloupe Records)
With Become Desert, arid, sandy landscapes become John Luther Adams’ musical muse. While his 2014 Pulitzer prize-winning work, Become Ocean, explored the depths of the sea with slowly undulating thematic repetition, Become Desert takes the concept of repetition to a less moody, more static, and almost revelatory state. Recorded again with the Seattle Symphony, Become Desert provides a barren, yet endlessly warm ode to our Earth through distant angelic vocalization, floating chimes, and harmonious orchestra that exist in a timeless, almost eternal soundspace.
Galya Bisengalieva, EP TWO (NOMAD Music Productions)
In 2018, London Contemporary Orchestra leader Galya Bisengalieva began releasing solo EP’s. EP TWO is the second such endeavor, featuring new works for violin and electronics by commissioned composers and Bisengalieva herself. The EP opens with “Zohra,” a turntable-violin duet of wandering resonant dissonance and sliding melodies, and goes on to explore goddesses of ancient religion and game-inspired fantasy worlds. The feeling of EP TWO is that of free exploration, across instruments, melodies, and ideas.
Glenn Branca Ensemble, The Third Ascension (Systems Neutralizers)
The Third Ascension is another leap of faith into the sonic void of no-narrative noise Glenn Branca is so known for. A posthumous release, this installment of Branca’s Ascension trilogy is a maximalist drama that doesn’t lose intricacy in its constant quest to reach new heights in sheer volume. A live recording from the 2016 premiere of the work, it’s easy to become engulfed in the ever-increasing sonic energy of electric guitar resonance. The album is dissonant, noisy, massive, complex.
Alex Groves & Eliza McCarthy, Curved Form (No. 4)
Alex Groves originally composed Curved Form (No. 4) for pianist Eliza McCarthy in 2017. It was released as a recording, accompanied by a series of reimaginations, this past year. “Curved Form (No. 4)” is a resonating drone, using the natural timbre of the piano to create a melodic wash of sound that slowly bleeds between depths and pitches. The melody is a seed that grows and morphs, taking inspiration from the artwork of Bridget Riley by using pulsing repetition and gradual changes as a backbone for expansion.
Mary Halvorson & John Dieterich, a tangle of stars (New Amsterdam Records)
2019 MacArthur Fellow Mary Halvorson and Deerhoof band member John Dieterich come together on a tangle of stars to create a whimsical collection of improvisatory-feeling guitar duets. Some are dissonant, some are acoustic, some are electric, some are funky art pop glam while others are ruminative experiments. A tangle of stars is a collection of pieces that ask more than answer, traversing a broad range of sonic landscapes, all with a sense of wonder.
Nathalie Joachim, Fanm d’Ayiti (New Amsterdam Records)
Fanm d’Ayiti (Women of Haiti) is flutist, vocalist, and composer Nathalie Joachim’s debut, GRAMMY-nominated album and a musical celebration of Haiti, melding found sound with vocals, flute, electronics, and a string quartet. The song cycle is rooted in the personal, functioning as a space for Joachim to explore her own heritage as well as a means to bring light to Haitian tradition. The album features recordings of Joachim’s grandmother and a girl’s choir in her home village, reimagined traditional songs, and new works. The sound is buoyant, rich, and commanding.
Anna Meredith, FIBS (Moshi Moshi/Black Prince Fury)
If you could soundtrack relentless optimism, the result could very well be FIBS. It’s a vibrant outer space dreamworld that’s layered with intricate instrumentation and melodies, effervescent bursts of energy. What’s most remarkable about the album is the number of instruments and styles it employs — art rock, electronic dance music, pensive dissonant odes, you name it. FIBS is full of bold, bright, new combinations.
Jessica Meyer, Ring Out (Bright Shiny Things)
Violist and composer Jessica Meyer pivoted to writing music just five years ago, and Ring Out marks her debut album. It’s a collection of intimate contemporary classical chamber works that take inspiration from a variety of places — Rumi odes, David Foster Wallace quotes, Matsuo Basho haikus, to name a few. What stands out is the sounds Meyer captures on string instruments, like haunting harmonics, prickly plucking, crunchy bowings, often layered amongst luscious melodies. The music is textural, using instrumentation to create nearly tangible emotions, working within traditional classical forms to create new experiences.
Meara O’Reilly, Hockets for Two Voices (Cantaloupe Records)
Hocketing is the tradition of splitting of melodic material into parts, such that pitches and silences interlock. On Hockets for Two Voices, Meara O’Reilly creates a new, synthesized means of understanding the process. Her collection of simple, intertwined melodies is hypnotic: it’s hard to tell where each vocalization begins or ends. Each movement is short, just a minute or so long, yet they envelope you with the bouncing sound of a voice jumping through scales and across your headphones. Listening to Hockets for Two Voices is a driving exercise in sonic perception.
Cassie Wieland & Erich Barganier, in a (once-)blossomed place (people | places | records)
Ambient music is often portrayed as a lullaby for sleep, a means for relaxation that sits in the background like white noise. On in a (once-)blossomed place, the gentle caress of ambient is transformed into the sonic embodiment of uneasiness, raising questions about displacement and asking more than providing. Wieland’s visceral compositions send chills up your spine; Barganier’s universe is fully abrasive. The tangibility of the music is striking: it’s a sensory explosion of scratches, electronic manipulations, turbulent violins.
BONUS ROUND: some other albums not to miss…
Kim Gordon, No Home Record (Matador Records)
Kim Gordon’s career in music and art bloomed from New York’s Lower East Side and has spanned decades, but 2019’s No Home Record is her first solo album. It’s an acidic melding of the biting rock she’s known for, arresting noise, off-kilter electronics, and her merciless lyrics. A fresh spin on sounds both old and new, No Home Record is a reinvention, a new path forward.
Hand Habits, placeholder (Saddle Creek)
On placeholder, Hand Habits’ Meg Duffy writes music for the middle-ground between acceptance and despair. They find their groove in the soft spoken sound of indie-folk, but eschew self-pity for a new path towards powerful self-actualization. “Placeholder” is a ballad for romances that were but weren’t, “what lovers do” is a sigh of the poignance of memory, “can’t calm down” reminds us that memory is a fickle game. Hand Habits find glory in nuance, solace in nostalgic strums.
Jenny Hval, The Practice of Love (Sacred Bones Records)
Jenny Hval’s music straddles the borderline between music and philosophy, creating conceptual worlds of sound to go along with her ideologies. On The Practice of Love, Hval blends her characteristic questioning electronics with upbeat, trance-like bops. Perhaps it’s Hval at her most “accessible,” or perhaps it’s Hval experimenting with different sound worlds, asking us to take a journey with her to find a new sinister dance. On “Ashes to Ashes,” it’s easy to imagine losing yourself to the pulsating beat as Hval sings in her high-pitched whisper-like style: “Ashes to ashes / dust to dust.” But, you must remember that the song begins with the image of a person dreaming of a funeral march.
Long Beard, Means to Me (Double Double Whammy)
Nostalgic dream pop is the name of Long Beard’s game on her second full-length album, Means to Me. The songs are fragments of the past, time gone but never forgotten: “We wanted it/It must mean something/Time with you and me/Remember?” (“Means to Me”). It’s an album for the dark of night: when street light is flickering into the abyss as moths attempt to penetrate its brightness and you’re stumbling home, music beaming like the lens flare of a camera held up to the sun.
Kelsey Lu, Blood (Columbia Records)
Blood is an immersion: a sunny, wealthy daydream (“Foreign Car”), a devastating 10cc cover (“I’m Not In Love”), a bubbling disco rave (“Poor Fake”). The romance of luscious cello orchestration fits well within the album’s continual allusions to some of our most well-known pop ideologies and southern California daydreams (or nightmares). The album traverses a roller coaster of sound worlds on its journey towards finding understanding.
Mannequin Pussy, Patience (Epitaph)
Patience is at once vulnerable and sharp, incisive and warm, tackling the age-old complicated stories of loving oneself and others while maintaining a delicate balance of openness and mayhem. It’s Mannequin Pussy’s third record, and an absolute triumph of modern punk rock. A raw, real, true emotionality seeps through each song, and cutting guitar licks, punching screams, and hard-hitting rhythms emit an unbreakable energy.
Roy Montgomery, Scenes from the South Island (Reissue, Yellow Electric)
Guitarist Roy Montgomery embodies sonic freedom on Scenes from the South Island, his newly-reissued 1995 record. It’s a series of guitar odes for isolation, sound worlds for wanderers, at once arresting, restless, and hopeful. It’s also a feat of style — moving through long, wandering experimentations, echoing introverted melodies, raucous slow-burning noise. Each song provides something different, displaying a massive range of possibility.
You can listen to all the songs included here in one place: