Ah, the December lull, when in between all the Christmas leftovers and not knowing one day from the next, we all look back on the year just passed, thinking about all the things we loved the most. For me that relates a lot to the music I have listened to this year. After a poor show of albums that I had actually listened to last year, I was determined to explore further in 2019 and judging by my some of my top picks, I would say that I succeeded. Armed with a list of upcoming releases, the beginning of 2019 was non stop checking out new albums as they come out. By the time Summer had rolled around I had slowed down somewhat, retiring to my usual favourites. Although I’m much happier with my scope of albums, I would definitely like to take it even further next year.
One of the first albums I checked out this year was one that I knew would be the top of my list immediately, and as of yet, nothing else has pipped the post. If you know, you know, but more on this later.
Perhaps we’ll start with the albums that surprised me. The first being Here Comes The Cowboy by Mac DeMarco.
Now I know what you’re all thinking – “…but Sam, you love Mac, hardly surprising hun”, but hear me out. Of course I have a soft spot for DeMarco, but when I first heard tracks ‘Nobody’ and ‘Here Comes The Cowboy’, I was, unfortunately, just SO BORED by the both of them. The repetitive sound and rhythm left me unsure, like it was music for the sake of it. For a moment I wasn’t even bothered about seeing him live, I would even go so far as to say that in that moment, I was a little done with him.
I’m not really sure what the turning point was but I decided that either way I couldn’t miss out on his show at Dreamland; I really am a sucker for old favourites playing my home town. By this time I decided it was finally time to check out the album and once I gave it some real time, I absolutely fell in love. It was the tiny little details. The tone of his voice in ‘Finally Alone’ woke something up in me and from that point on, every time I listened to the album I had a new favourite track, and a new found respect for Here Comes The Cowboy as a whole.
Although I may still skip past the title track most of the time, the album itself is absolutely a top pick for me this year. My initial thoughts of ‘he’s just fucking around, he doesn’t even care anymore’, turned into ‘this may be one of his beautiful albums’. The more time that has passed, the less I enjoy the likes of ‘Salad Days’ and ‘Chamber of Reflection’ (still bangers though, come on), instead I enjoy those more simplistic notes. That being said, while Here Comes The Cowboy is indeed among my favourite albums of the year, it actually opened my eyes to the beauty of This Old Dog, which I had previously shrugged off, but is (for now at least) my favourite Mac record. I think in essence this is a very convoluted way of saying that I very nearly fell out of love with DeMarco this year through sheer ignorance, when really I just had to embrace the shift in my own tastes. Something like that.
The other surprise favourite this year was my complete obsession with Igor. Tyler, The Creator, not exactly my go to artist and to be honest, if it wasn’t for a pal just telling me to listen to Flower Boy last year, I may not have even bothered with this one, despite my best efforts to listen to any and every album that came out. Still, it wasn’t exactly love at first sight for myself and Igor. Initially, there was something about the production that I found grating as I sat there on the train to work, headphones on full blast. Nevertheless I persevered and in the end, I couldn’t listen to anything else for a good two weeks or more. I DEFINITELY overdid it with this record but after a little respite from Igor I can happily return and feel so in tune with this album that is probably my second favourite release of the year. I’m not even sure what it is about it, but I just hooked onto this album like it was a lifeline. ‘Earfquake’ was an instant hit for me and I have a memory of a sleepless night where, possibly through some sense of delirium couldn’t help but lay and “sing” it to myself, then laughing at how stupid I must have looked. I don’t really have many words on why Igor was such a hit for me, it just kinda was. Sorry. Go buy it.
Although I did listen to a number of albums that I loved this year, there were really only a few that stuck and that’s kind of okay. So while I won’t go in too much detail of every album I loved, here are some honourable mentions:
Billie Eilish – When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
…duh. No seriously, this album is absolutely on fire. I’m not saying that there were times that I just couldn’t bear to hear it any longer, or I just couldn’t help but hear it as a meme, but I cannot deny how brilliant it truly is. Obviously she has blown up this year, so of course I have listened to this album over and over. That’s it really.
Foals – Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost (Part 1&2)
I just love Foals okay? Whatever they do, I’m more than likely going to be a fan of. This year of course we were blessed with not one, but two albums which was just really bloody fantastic. The only thing I found with this however, was that by the time I had listened to the first part a few times, I was just waiting around for the second. When it did come around I think I did listen to it a few more times than the first, but mostly I listened to the singles as they were released. I can’t fault them, but I also can’t say much else about them. For a band who brought out two albums this year, I didn’t really listen to them all that much. This may be sounding pretty negative so far but these albums, although not ones I will binge, are still full of that classic Foals sound I love. I suppose in a nutshell, the albums didn’t blow me out of the water, but I still found them as enjoyable as ever. I know for sure they will be ones I return to throughout the years.
Marika Hackman – Any Human Friend
Hackman has always been one of those artists that I like, but never really get heavily involved with. Maybe it was just my mission to actually listen to albums this year, but something really struck me with this release, most probably the female empowerment, both in sexuality and just in life itself. I’m not saying it hasn’t existed before in Hackman’s music, but I feel that this time there was no holding back. Through witty remarks and strong imagery, her reputation for writing beautiful songs was amplified with different levels of emotion throughout. You can laugh to this album, you can cry, you can simply just clap your hands slowly. It does it all.
Now this is not so much a nod to any album of his (although the whole concept of Return To Center was rather brilliant), more a general note of how unbearably obsessed I became with Kirin J Callinan and his, quite frankly, ridiculous music. There is a level of uncertainty with Callinan. Should I be enjoying this? Should I be this invested in a man who flashed on the red carpet and whose album cover is an image of him pissing on himself, like for real? Despite everything there is quite something about this man, particularly his live performances – a man born for the stage. I have never been so captivated by someone who upon first listen had left me so unfazed. It’s really rather unsettling and I think that may just be the magic of it all? Who bloody knows.
Of course I couldn’t talk about 2019 without mentioning Harry Styles and Fine Line. I feel like this is simply an exploration of his own tastes; through sounds of the 70s to slow ballad-esque love songs. Some may say he doesn’t know who he is musically, but what’s wrong with the journey? That’s what makes this album so fun, it has it all without sounding disjointed. While some songs remind me of certain artists, it is not so much in a way that screams copycat, but more inspired. It is clear that certain styles of music are a heavy influence in this album and for me that’s just a great celebration of music as a whole. I haven’t really sat down to take an in depth look to this album (or yet had the opportunity to listen to it for weeks on end), and maybe it’s the excitement of a fresh album but Fine Line is an album definitely worth mentioning in this list.
I think it’s time for the big reveal. The shock of the century. My number one album of the year. The one that I knew before even listening to anything else was going to be the one. Quite a bold thing to say about a January release, but bloomin’ heck, James Blake, you angel, you did it.
Another artist, who until this year, had been someone I had enjoyed albeit from a distance. This of course all changed with my pledge to check out more than the measly five albums that I fully explored last year. You could say that leads to a certain bias towards Assume Form. It is true that for a moment it had my undivided attention, but it is one of the only albums I have consistently returned to throughout the year.
Every time is like the first time. It is no lie that I wore it out ever so slightly just after its release, but each time I revisit Assume Form it takes my breath away. Maybe it is just Blake’s voice, or perhaps the emotional flow of the album. It has the sheer joy of falling in love, but also the fragility of it all. The emotional thrill and disbelief of being in love is captured so perfectly throughout, all the while exploring different soundscapes. Assume Form makes me fall so in love with the idea of finding that special someone, but also shakes me to the core. There is a real sense of happiness in the album but not in your typical poptastic sense. It’s such a cliche to say that it is hauntingly beautiful but where cliches come short in the album itself, what is the harm in one to describe it?
I have to say that the featured artists really help to carry the album as they each add their own twist on the sound, yet it remains so deeply personal throughout. There is not one thing I dislike about this album, but if I had to pick my favourite tracks it would of course have to be ‘Can’t Believe The Way We Flow’ and ‘Barefoot in the Park’. Oh and ‘Are You In Love?’. I mean they are all beautiful. I just can’t even deal with this album. It is one of my all time favourites now and will be for a very long time.
There were a couple of albums that I had banked on coming out this year, alas January 2020 is calling for them instead. I can’t wait to hear more from The Big Moon and Bombay Bicycle Club; I certainly have great expectations and if their latest singles are anything to go by I won’t be disappointed. Other than that it is anyone’s game for my top album of 2020.