XLR8R’s Best of 2019: Releases
The most memorable releases of the past 12 months according to XLR8R staff.
XLR8R’s Best of 2019: Releases
The most memorable releases of the past 12 months according to XLR8R staff.
Whittling down a year’s worth of music into one list is no easy task, as we’ve said before, but December wouldn’t be December without Best Of lists, and so we begin our year-end review with releases: which records—albums, EPs, and singles—made us stand up and take note this year?
What follows is a list of those records that we just couldn’t shake and, more importantly, we just couldn’t exclude from this list. This is not to say that they’re necessarily the best, technically or however else you may wish to construe that word, but it does mean that they’re the ones that we enjoyed the most, we being the XLR8R staff, writers, and our acquaintances.
Importantly, each record links back to its respective Bandcamp page or equivalent, where you can buy the release and support the artist who made it.
Teebs Anicca LP [Brainfeeder]
It’s been five years since Mtendere Mandowa (a.k.a Teebs) last released a body of work, but Anicca, out now on Brainfeeder, is worth the wait. Alongside a host of musical friends including Panda Bear (Animal Collective), Sudan Archives, Ringgo Ancheta (a.k.a MNDSGN), Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, Anna Wise, Thomas Stankiewicz, and more, Mandowa delivered 15 tracks that blend his signature bright and fluid productions with the grounded and colorful elements of his collaborators. You’d be hard-pressed to find too many more compelling albums released this year.
Mabe Fratti Pies Sobre La Tierra LP [Hole Records]
Pies Sobre La Tierra, meaning “Feet on the Ground” is Mabe Fratti’s first full-length effort, released earlier this year on Hole Records, an independent cassette music label and concert promoter based in Mexico City. Fusing ambient and electronic sounds with her trusty cello compositions, it’s the sort of majestic avant-garde music you’d expect from the rising Guatemalan musician, comprised of ethereal and cathartic soundscapes recorded in her new home in Mexico. Read more about Fatti and her album processes in our interview here.
Loscil Equivalents LP [Kranky]
Scott Morgan’s Loscil project has provided a rich array of immaculate ambient meditations since its formation in 2011, and Equivalents, one of two albums Morgan released this year and his 12th in total, is yet another. It’s comprised of eight tracks modeled on Alfred Stieglitz’s photos of clouds, and it shows us once again just how blissful electronic ambient music can be.
James Massiah Natural Born Killers LP [Levels]
South London poet and DJ James Massiah stepped forward with his self-produced solo debut in September, with a little help from Peter O’Grady (a.k.a Joy Orbison), out on NTS mainstay Jon Rust’s Levels label. Massiah began producing because it felt creatively liberating, and he formed the idea for the EP after listening to Mr. Fingers, Trax Records, William S, Omar-S, Frankie Knuckles, and then to Eski, Roll Deep, and DJ Gumbo. Pitching these records down, he found a mood he wanted to recreate while also telling a tale of heartbreak, and out came Natural Born Killers, four tracks of classic Chicago house with plenty of swagger.
Mutant Joe Home Invasion Anthems LP [Natural Sciences]
Across 12 tracks, Mutant Joe delivered 40 minutes of punk-fused trap, Memphis rap, jungle, and street electronics, collaborating with a horde of friends including Lord Pusswhip, Onoe Caponoe, and the Lost Appeal Crew, and pulling in resources from now-defunct message boards and online sample dumps. The album, Mutant Joe’s debut on Natural Sciences, opens up with confessions from inside a Miami mega jail and goes on to create a record as much rooted in ’80s horror as black metal, industrial, and the stifling paranoia of life in 2019. Chilling stuff from the Manchester, United Kingdom label.
Barker Utility LP [Ostgut Ton]
An obvious entry for this list, Barker’s Utility was one of the year’s most highly-anticipated drops in light of 2018’s Debiasing, a spectacular four-track outing also on Ostgut Ton. Utility and its preceding EP are essentially experiments in how to make people dance without percussion, and Barker’s answer is a distinctive trance-like melodic house that twinkles before you, sounding unlike anything else you’ve heard before. Across nine tracks, Barker presented his most complete version of his vision to date. Read more about the album in out feature here.
“I wanted to attempt making dance music while avoiding the deeply ingrained cues. We’ve developed a lot of rules for how to make people dance, like off-beat hi-hats or 4×4 kick drums, pulling things out and putting them back in again. It’s an explicit direction, and you respond almost automatically by moving your body. Perhaps this is rooted in human history and evolution, the heart-beat in the womb or whatever, but to me it feels more like holding up a cue card that says ‘Clap’ or ‘Dance.’— Barker
Rian Treanor ATAXIA LP [Planet Mu]
ATAXIA, Rian Treanor’s debut album, is “intended to make people’s bodies move in unpredictable ways,” hence its title, meaning “the loss of full control of bodily movements.” As with the British artist’s preceding EPs, the album took interest in angular and asymmetrical rhythms and is designed with club sound systems in mind, but it’s more strict and thought-out in terms of the patterns—no stab, drum, or pad presents itself without reason. The result is an album that’s playful and beguiling; that’s conceptual and indulgent but also enjoyable for the listener, as demonstrated as Treanor’s performances across Europe in the album’s wake.
TNGHT TNGHT II EP [Warp Records]
Seven years have passed since Hudson Mohawke (a.k.a Ross Birchard) and Lunice (a.k.a Lunice Fermin Pierre II) announced themselves with their first self-titled EP. Since that outing, the duo, from Glasgow, Scotland, and Montreal, Canada respectively, established themselves as two of the world’s most in-demand producers with their work on Kanye’s Yeezus album and so it was hard not to look at this release a little differently, even if they seemingly didn’t: TNGHT II picks up in the same fun-loving vein as their debut, delivering more of the beats, bass, and chopped vocals that made you fall in love with them the first time round.
Shuta Hasunuma Oa EP [Northern Spy Records]
Tokyo, Japan-based electronic producer Shuta Hasunuma emerged in 2006 with a self-titled debut album, which he’s followed with six more solo long-players. It’s an EP, however, that impressed this year, namely Oa, available either on cassette or as a download, and an ode to Manhattan, New York, where he recorded it. The EP’s title refers to Hasunuma’s old address (Oa) in Manhattan, and the individual track titles reference nearby locations and landmarks—”454″ refers to his apartment number; “BORO” to the Queensboro Bridge; and “LEX” to the nearby Lexington Avenue subway station. “20150716” is the date of recording. Expect four tracks of introspective ambient minimalism.
Clever Austin Pareidolia LP [Touching Bass]
Pareidolia is the work of Hiatus Kaiyoté drummer Perrin Moss as Clever Austin, released in May to inaugurate London’s Touching Bass in collaboration with Melbourne label Wondercore Island. Across 16 tracks, Moss merges shape-shifting soul with jazz and funk, calling in the help of Georgia Anne Muldrow, Jon Bap, Cazeaux O.S.L.O., and Laneous along the way.
Ras_G & The Afrikan Space Program Dance of the Cosmos EP [Akashik Records]
Across Dance of the Cosmos, Ras_G attempted to draw the connection between the “four to the floor tabernacle” of Chicago house music and its roots in the drum circles of ancient Afrika, marking the legendary Los Angeles beatmaker’s first forays into dance music. The result is four tracks of atmospheric, swinging, warm deep house, the sort you’d expect from Theo Parrish. Listening back reminds us of an almost unparallelled brilliance—R.I.P. Ras_G.
Lorn Drown The Traitor Within LP [Wednesday Sound]
If dark, brooding IDM is your thing, then Lorn’s Drown the Traitor Within is probably one for you. Released in June via Wednesday Sound, it’s comprised of eight haunting cuts that place power and distortion front and center. A faint melancholia pervades the release, and each track ropes you in with its melodic synths and driving beats, creating rich, immersive soundscapes. “Perfekt Dark” is a popular pick, but the whole album is worth your time.
The Caretaker Everywhere At The End Of Time, Stage 6 [History Always Favours The Winners]
This year, The Caretaker wrapped up Everywhere At The End of Time, his ambitious sonic interpretation of the different phases of dementia that began back in 2016. The project’s finale, Stage 6, when listened to on its own, is an engulfing and claustrophobic experience that feels like your mind is being slowly sucked into a black hole, and it’s an evermore harrowing and heartbreaking experience when listened to as the final installment of Everywhere At The End Of Time. With this final piece, The Caretaker has put to bed arguably this decade’s most jaw-dropping piece of sonic art.
Tim Hecker Anoyo [Kranky]
Like its companion album, Konoyo, released last year, Tim Hecker’s Anoyo draws on gagaku instrumentation recorded in Japan with Ben Frost and the Tokyo Gakuso ensemble. Anoyo is more stripped-back and desolate than its predecessor, but no less powerful and devastating. It’s almost a cliché to speak of ambient music as an imaginary soundtrack to an event, place, or time, but with Anoyo, Hecker has crafted a spectral and mesmerizing score for a year filled with such eerie turmoil.
Fumiya Tanaka Right Moment LP [Perlon]
Fumiya Tanaka continued his long-standing relationship with Perlon with Right Moment, his fifth studio album, released earlier this month. The sonic space this album inhabits is filled with low-quality replicas that don’t really add much to the conversation, but Tanaka’s latest, a follow-up to 2016’s You Find The Key, shows what good minimal techno sounds like.
Andy Stott It Should Be Us EP [Modern Love]
As you’d expect, Andy Stott’s latest release, his first in three years, arrived with little promotion, but that didn’t stop the excitement. It Should Be Us, available now via the UK artist’s own Modern Love, comprises nine tracks recorded over the summer. Expect pure and bare-boned energy, with churning synths, rhythmic heat, and moody tripped-out burners. It precedes a new album in 2020.
Thom Yorke Anima LP [XL Recordings]
In lesser hands, the mix of breaks, loopy techno, frayed ambient, and affecting machine pop found on Anima, Thom Yorke’s third solo LP, may have sounded like the work of a confused artist unsure of their direction. It’s an ambitious collection and, in our opinion, the most complete solo statement that the Radiohead frontman has released. Yorke has a way of taking songs and ideas to a point where they are teetering on the edge of failure and, in the past, sometimes they have. Anima, however, doesn’t stumble but instead dances on a creative knife’s edge, artfully playing with genres—and the listener’s nerves—across nine intriguing tracks.
Not Waving and Dark Mark Downwelling LP [Ecstatic Recordings]
Alessio Natalizia (a.k.a. Not Waving) and alt-rock icon Mark Lanegan (Queens of the Stoneage, Screaming Trees) provided us with one of the year’s most intriguing and confounding releases in Downwelling, a nine-track odyssey of eerie, smoked-out electronics that pairs material recorded by Natalizia in London, Italy, and Paris over the past five years with Lanegan’s affecting vocal work. Downwelling is an album that conjures intense emotions with sounds that feel delicate, crushing, familiar, and utterly alien.
Sohrab Simple Minds EP [Marginal Returns]
London-based DJ-producer Sohrab has been steadily making a name for himself as a DJ with regular gigs at local club Pickle Factory. It wasn’t until this year, however, that we’ve seen how talented he is in the studio. Simple Minds, the Londoner’s debut, surfaced on vinyl in June with four tracks of warped out techno, house, and electro rhythms. A must-have from a rising talent.
Ash Walker Aquamarine LP [Night Time Stories]
Aquamarine, Walker’s third album, is a cosmic mix of sound, color, rhythm, shape, and patterns, recorded at home with the freedom of time and space. Along for the ride on this cosmic, downtempo journey are trumpet and flugelhorn auteur Yazz Ahmed, bassist Marc Cyril, and renowned producer Jonathan Shorten. Pour yourself a strong one on the rocks and sit back and enjoy Aquamarine.
Mischa Blanos Indoors LP [InFiné]
Mischa Blanos is the über-talented Romanian pianist who makes up Amorf alongside Cristi Cons and Vlad Caia, together known as SIT. His infusion of piano into the trio brings a certain soul into the Romanian minimal house sound that has had all of us buzzing and dancing for countless hours for several years. In his solo music, you’ll find traces of Bugge Wesseltoft, Henrik Schwarz, Francesco Tristano, Vanessa Wagner, Murcof, and Brandt Brauer Frick.
Indoors follows his debut EP, Second Nature, released in June 2018 on Infine. Blanos conceived all tracks during the Paris Piano Day in March 2019 and they all “assert his difference, far from the canons of the current piano stylistic clichés, with glimpses of jazz and unique groove,” the label explains. If you enjoy the piano like we do, then you will likely concur that Blanos has created another masterpiece here. Bravo!
Bjarki Happy Earthday LP [!K7 Records]
Bjarki’s Happy Earthday album, released by !K7 in February, was, as Bjarki explained, his “proper debut album.” Pulled from very personal material written over the last decade during “fragile moments of introspection,” Happy Earthday presented an inspired collection of tracks that provided a window into the creative workings of an artist very far removed from the slamming, big-room techno-making tracks (“I Wanna Go Bang”) that made him a household name around half a decade ago. Like many of this year’s best releases, Happy Earthday is hard to pin down to any one style or genre. You’ll find splatterings of breakbeats, Aphex-like ambient passages, warped alien transmissions, and more than a handful of head-warping beats that make up an expansive—and fitting—soundtrack to Bjarki’s home in Iceland, one of the world’s most awe-inspiring environments.
Madteo Dropped Out Sunshine LP [DDS]
Hunter S. Thompson’s famous quote “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro” could have easily been pulled from a review of Madteo’s Dropped Out Sunshine had the album been released in the heyday of the outsider house trend. It was, however, produced and released this year, many years after the then-in-vogue lo-fi sound had passed us by—and in true Madteo style, its contents were murkier, funkier, and way more bat-shit crazy than anything from the last decade. Hyperbole aside, Dropped Out Sunshine is just plain brilliant. What other album this year managed to cram chopped and screwed hip-hop, sample-based disco-house, VHS ambient, and machine funk onto one release and make it sound like it all belonged? We’ll wait…
FKA twigs Magdalene LP [Young Turks]
Magdalene, FKA twigs’ sophomore album and her first full-length LP in five years, is as deeply captivating as we’d expect from the British musician. Once again, it defies easy genre classification, sitting closer to experimental R&B than anything else, but if you listen carefully you can hear the fingerprints of Nicolas Jaar, Koreless, Daniel Lopatin, Skrillex, Benny Blanco, Michael Uzowuru, and Noah Goldstein, all of whom worked on the album in varying capacities. Not often does raw emotion sound so good.
William Basinski On Time Out of Time LP (Temporary Residence Ltd.)
On Time Out of Time is a suite of work originally commissioned for the 2017 installations “ER=EPR” and “Orbihedron” by artists Evelina Domnitch and Dmitry Gelfand for the exhibition “Limits of Knowing.” Among other things, these works utilize exclusive source recordings from the interferometers of LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) capturing the sounds of the merging of two distant massive black holes, 1.3 billion years ago. The CD and digital formats feature two tracks: the 40-minute title track, “On Time Out of Time,” as well as “4(E+D)4(ER+EPR),” a live track recorded during the installation. Press play for 50 minutes of hauntingly beautiful ambiance.
Flying Lotus Flamagra LP [Warp]
This year’s list just wouldn’t be complete without Flying Lotus’ Flamagra, released in May on Warp Records. A 27-track mega-album, it was Steven Ellison’s first album in five years and it saw him call upon a plethora of genre-bending artists sharing his desire to summarize, refine, and reinvent, among them David Lynch, George Clinton, and Solange. “The best I can give is that well, it sounds like a Flying Lotus album. That’s not to say it’s predictable—if it was I’d have written it myself. Instead, it’s sort of predictably unpredictable, twisting and turning in a way that’s unmistakably FlyLo,” wrote Sam Davies in his album review. “And that is the greatest compliment of all.”
Kokoroko Kokoroko EP [Brownswood Recordings]
Kokoroko is a young, London-based Afrobeat eight-piece band led by trumpeter Sheila Maurice-Grey, and inspired by Fela Kuti, Ebo Taylor, Tony Allen, and the sounds that come out of West Africa. Their mission is to fashion new languages using the medium of afro-beat and this, their first full release out now via Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood Recordings, is half an hour of irresistible improvised groove. It followed “Abusey Junction,” their contribution to the UK label’s We Out Here compilation, and confirmed that they warrant the hype.
Gene on Earth Local Fuzz LP [Limousine Dream]
Expectation was high for Local Fuzz, the debut album from Gene on Earth, whose wonky minimal rhythms have been played out here, there, and everywhere since the San Francisco-born producer began releasing in 2017. Local Fuzz followed in much the same vein as the 12”s that preceded it on Limousine Dream: nine dancefloor bombs that are as feel-good as they are fun. Somehow, someway, Gene on Earth has established a voice of all his own in the realms of minimal house, and Local Fuzz cemented his status as an artist breathing new life into the genre.
Rah Zen Upon The Apex LP [Dome of Doom]
Rah Zen (a.k.a Jacob Gilman) returned to Dome of Doom for his sophomore full-length, Upon The Apex, out in July across limited edition cassette and digital formats. The Boston artist created the album during a series of travels to the deserts of Arizona, the cities and landscapes of Israel, and a cross-country road trip from Boston to Los Angeles and back via the southern route, and actually began recording in the summer of 2017 before the release of Midnight Satori, his debut album for Dome of Doom. It features contributions from 3Deity, Kadeem, Dirty Merlin, CLYDE, and Dephrase. Expect soulful and eclectic bass-driven cuts, laden with quirky samples and off-kilter rhythms.
SPAZA SPAZA LP [Mushroom Hour Half Hour]
SPAZA is an entirely improvised album recorded live in one take, featuring a one-off ensemble of Johannesburg, South Africa-based avant-garde musicians, namely Siya Makuzeni (vocals, FX & Trombone), Nosisi Ngakane (vocals), Joao Orecchia (synthesizers & electronics), Waldo Alexander (electric violin with FX pedal), Gontse Makene (percussion), and Ariel Zamonsky (upright bass).
In the context of this improvised album, the term “spaza” not only refers to the name of the outdoor gallery in Troyeville, Johannesburg where this project was recorded in the autumn of 2015, it also evokes a spirit of musical independence, a looseness, a jam session, a collaboration, a coming together of great minds at the corner to play their instruments. There is emotional intelligence and vulnerability to the vocal sculpting that spills over into the music, creating a sonic document that touches you deep within.
Oren Ambarchi Simian Angel LP [Editions Mego]
Oren Ambarchi’s latest session came in July, once again on Editions Mego. Simian Angel, the Australian experimental electronic guitarist and percussionist’s only solo release of the year, featured two tracks of slowly-shifting electronica, sprinkled with hazy guitar tone and intricate piano solos. It was a welcome return to more spacious pastures following a trilogy of records that explored more driving rhythms, namely Sagittarian Domain (2012), Quixotism (2014), and Hubris (2016). The music is subtle yet complex, and also highly emotionally affecting—you’ll find beauty in the smallest of details.
Shafiq Husayn The Loop LP [Nature Sounds]
Los Angeles-based polymath Shafiq Husayn’s The Loop is a project of epic proportions that dates back to 2012 and a series of studio sessions in his home, and it includes collaborations with the likes of Thundercat, Erykah Badu, Flying Lotus, Bilal, and Anderson Paak. Amongst these friends, the foundations for the album were formed, deeply rooted in ideas of song, story, history, guidance, and spirituality. Across 17 tracks, the last a bonus, Husayn bumps, jumps, and jangles through progressions in jazz, hip-hop, soul, and funk, creating an album that builds upon Shafiq En’ A-Free-Ka, his debut album, released a decade ago. The record is accompanied by a series of paintings by Japanese visual artist Tokio Aoyama, who worked in tandem with Husayn to create a painting for each song on the record.
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