2019 has been, by all definitions, ‘a year’. Whatever you may think of these past 12 months, one thing is for certain: it was a hell of a good year for music. As is custom, our writers have been given the almost-impossible task of highlighting their 10 favourite albums of the year. Elliot Burr is the first writer to step up to the mantle and take on the best the year had to offer.
10. Sunn 0))) – Pyroclasts
With 4 years away from the album release cycle, the Pacific Northwest’s kings of drone Sunn 0))) blessed our earbuds with two releases this year, recorded in the same sessions by legendary producer and stickler for sound Steve Albini. The collaboration between Stephen O’Malley, Greg Anderson and Albini is a triumphant one, also given further weight from a troupe of talented musicians adding their modest yet powerful nuances to the whole performance.
Whilst 2019’s first release Life Metal was certainly Sunn 0))) at their most meditative, and with an absolutely monster sound engineered expertly by Albini and co., it dipped – as can be expected from a band that attribute their most recent output as a “prismatic lustrousness of [the] saturation” – into self indulgence, most notably the 25 minute Novae which features the ten minute hum of a cello. Its ‘sister record’ however, Pyroclasts, instead saw another innovative experiment from the band, timing 12 minute drone improvisations before and after recording each day, and committed to tape. It’s essentially a more concisely edited 40 minute package of what Sunn 0))) and their mates can do: slow dirge, whistling feedback, walls of distortion, all vibrating the senses of the listener for a truly captivating experience, only accentuated by their cult-like live shows often considered to be the loudest in living memory.
Going from the subtle, drawn out major melodies of lead single Frost (C) to the aptly named Ampliphædies (E) (a Greek god of amps?), Sunn 0))) exhibit their idiosyncratic and divisive brand of slow-churning musical discovery in an admirably concise manner. Turn it up as loud as it can go and zone into the drone.
9. Lightning Bolt – Sonic Citadel
25 years into a band’s career and it can be expected that an established sound can become weary. In the case of Providence’s two-man noise machine Lightning Bolt, this couldn’t be any further from the case. The two Brians (Gibson on bass/sound manipulation/effect pedal mastery and Chippendale on feral drumming/telephone-receiver delivered vocals) have always impressed with their inspiring take on noise rock. How two men can deliver such a bombastic sound with a limited number of instruments, taking the atmosphere of their ‘guerrilla’ live shows to the recording studio and still remain as mind-blowingly creative as their earlier LPs is testament to their genius.
Sonic Citadel is their first since 2015’s heavier and (in my opinion) near-flawless Fantasy Empire, but what is evident from the Brians’ latest effort is a more channelled foray into melody and simplicity, from both sides. Gibson pulls out some of his more pop-rock style leanings on lead single Air Conditioning, and Chippendale even attempts to sing far more than usual, albeit still effect-laden and screeched through a dodgy and intentionally fucked microphone. All Insane sees the band at their most ‘mainstream’ with an effectively catchy chord sequence, Chippendale wailing beautifully and only a small smattering of improvised bass noodling, and Hüsker Dön’t appears to show a far more streamlined approach from the Rhode Island nutcases.
That being said (as the silly, fantasy-inspired song titles also indicate), they’re nowhere near from losing their DIY edge. Bouncy House sounds like the musical equivalent of its name if the bouncy castle was being used by a gang of hyenas, Van Halen 2049 features squealing feedback and virtuoso playing almost as if the two were (not for the first time) trying to play completely different songs at the same time, and the ultimate easter egg for long term LB fans is the inclusion of live fan favourite Halloween 3 finally recorded in-studio. And aren’t we thankful for it? Never stop the destruction, Brians.
8. Big Thief – U.F.O.F
Sensitivity, introspection, and aliens. All three of these turn up in droves on the first of Big Thief’s dual album release of 2019. The follow-up Two Hands was yet another example of the Brooklyn foursome’s personal and goosebump-inducing storytelling, but U.F.O.F. certainly goes down as a bonafide modern classic, and certainly one of the most angelic nuggets of musical wizardry to be released in a very long time.
Whilst I’ve personally never been the biggest champion for whimsical folk, it’s fair to say that this record has spun my head around to appreciate the under-the-skin effect that it can achieve. Much can be owed to Adrianne Lenker’s bizarre yet lovely wispy voice telling tales of the absurd, with the backing band all perfectly in synch to craft an atmosphere of such calming beauty that it’s a wonder that this music is from this world too. And the recording of Cattails in one take? My goodness.
Within the first four tracks of U.F.O.F., it’s difficult to not be completely swallowed whole by a big cuddly blanket, and forced to become part of the world that Lenker sets in front of you before becoming further enveloped into the band’s campfire-in-a-forest-like whimsy. The record is paced wonderfully, with Orange displaying Lenker at her most stripped back, crooning over a luscious guitar-driven backing track, and Jenni takes a turn into different territory, featuring a shoegaze-inspired sound. What can these guys not do?
So it’s no wonder that U.F.O.F. has been nominated for next year’s incoming Grammy award, and it would be an ironic robbery for this outfit to not receive recognition for such a perfectly balanced record.
7. King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard – Infest the Rats’ Nest
2018 turned out to be a strange time for music as it completely lacked any new output from the kings of consistency King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard. The seven-piece are ultimate workaholics, touring the whole world to bring their brand of psychedelic-garage-rock (if it can ever be boiled down to just that) to the masses with unbelievable success and working behind the scenes to craft an album of whatever the hell they want.
So normalcy was achieved in 2019 with two efforts from Stu Mackenzie and the boys. Spring’s Fishing for Fishies saw them get environmental, singing about our impending doom through the medium of boogie-based indie folk and even some synth rock? And if you thought that wasn’t weird enough, they hit us with the more in-yer-face and urgent environmental tune Planet B, hinting a foray into thrash metal, because why the fuck not?
Infest the Rats’ Nest was thus released, demonstrating the Gizz actually concocting a beautiful homage to 60s Sabbath doom riffage and 80s thrash from the ‘Big Four’ with such aplomb that any sense of it bordering on parody is completely null and void. Whilst only really written by a barebones version of Gizzard (Stu and Joey on guitar and bass and Cav on only ONE DRUMKIT?!), this record tells the tale of our planet’s imminent death, a class battle between rich people living on Mars and the poor suffering on Earth, a move to Venus as a new living destination, and ending up in Hell. Clearly their prog influences even make it into thrash metal through this highly conceptual record, somehow void of pretention, and being one of 2019’s most fun-sounding records backed by incredible speed riffing and sludge.
Whatever could be next for a band that has released five albums in a year and covered everything from acoustic to jazz to thrash? I’m sure they’ll continue to keep us in wonder. The fact that I’ve included so many question marks within this writeup says it all, really.
6. Liturgy – H.A.Q.Q.
The phenomena of new-wave black metal at the hands of musical innovators is a trend that has pervaded the decade, and I for one am very happy about this. Whilst Deafheaven, Alcest etc. have really brought major attention to the ‘blackgaze’ genre (and Sunbather certainly has a lot of kudos to be considered amongst the best records of the ‘10s), Brooklyn’s Liturgy go one step further in making their affective music all the more personal, driven by the self-belief system crafted by its mastermind Hunter Hunt-Hendrix.
Liturgy’s attack is a formidable one, and expertly demonstrated in this year’s release H.A.Q.Q., an acronym meaning Haelegen above Quality and Quantity, just one function in Hunt-Hendrix’s belief system. I will refrain from even trying to explain his thought processes (and they have been outlined in the misleadingly simplistic looking album cover), but he is so engrained in his own credence that he brings it to the fore through Liturgy, in an extremely avant-garde manner.
As black metal purity goes, there are the blood-curdling vocal strains from the frontman himself, hidden in a mix of atmospheric synths and choir arrangements (certainly a very heavy draw from classical music here), and the extraordinarily talented Leo Divodsky hits and kicks his drums with some of the most cutting and mind-blowing blast beats (or ‘burst beat’ according to the vocalist) you’ll ever hear. The interludes on this thing evoke an almost baroque-style feel to sequence in with the frenetic, glitchy, and just bloody powerful brand of ‘hipster black metal’ that Liturgy exhibits. It’s one hell of a journey to get through H.A.Q.Q., even without dissecting Hunt-Hendrix’s true meaning behind the project, but taken at face value, it’s a delectable, puzzling treat.
5. Knocked Loose – A Different Shade of Blue
“Arf, arf!” It’s been a long wait for the sophomore effort from Oldham County’s excellent hardcore upstarts Knocked Loose, who had a significant act to follow after the outrageously solid debut record Laugh Tracks back in 2016. Matching the intensity of beatdown hardcore with some catchy metallic riffs, they’ve helped to spearhead a metalcore revival of significant proportions, with their second effort being the catalyst for a whole new swathe of interest in the what was considered a decaying genre at the mid-point of the decade.
The sound has been turned up, the riffs more concise, the breakdowns heavier and more devastating, and Bryan Garris has forged himself as one of the most recognisable and revered frontmen in modern hardcore. And whilst we will forgive the disheartening absence of dog barks, Garris’ depleted lyrics and call-to-arms breakdown chants have taken an extra step in the right direction, luckily brought to dramatic conclusions by the band. Pacsun and Kevin Otten’s tight rhythm section is a juggernaut of a driving force, with Cole Crutchfield and Isaac Hale’s axes churning out mammoth headbanging riffs and some extra ambient sauce to give A Different Shade of Blue an empty, despairing atmosphere on top of its simplistic ‘swing your arms’ manifesto, bringing die-hard fans from hardcore and metal together in perfect harmony.
Lead singles preceding the album drop Mistakes Like Fractures and …And Still I Wander South showed that there’s a shit tonne of life left in metalcore, with its new iteration focusing on sludgy chugging and a more gruff, grisly image than the scenester look which defined much of the late noughties (for better or worse). Given the terrifying breakdown of In The Walls, who knows how many skulls Knocked Loose have yet to smash as they carve a very positive path in the scene. A Different Shade of Blue has cemented the Kentucky five-piece as one of the decade’s most important heavy bands, and long may their reign continue.
4. Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell!
Sad, sad, sad. Happy? No, sad. Melancholy. A little bit happy, maybe. But mainly sad. Yes, it’s the new Lana Del Rey. The ‘California songstress’ has been a seminal addition to music playlists over the past ten years, with many of her singles being decade-defining, and yet nothing could prepare this listener for quite how excellent the entire run of Norman Fucking Rockwell! would be.
Lana and collaborator/producer Jack Antonoff had clearly set out to make The Next Best American Record as the singer-songwriter croons through some of her most lovelorn songs, with just the right sprinkle of smut and sarcasm throughout its course. Self-deprecating in her own fight with love, with people and places, it’s the ultimate love letter to the state of California. Lana continues her staple Golden State persona, but veering away from more trip-hop leanings, she becomes a strong-willed artist accompanied by guitar and piano, occasional highlighting moments of weakness and vulnerability to craft a perfectly dichotic character.
Songs such as Mariners Apartment Complex even delve into a more country sound as Lana dictates being the rock of a relationship, before Venice Beach delves into a hallucinatory Hollywood dream state of an outro instrumental which is absolutely sublime. And on that subject, Lana’s inclusion of Sublime’s Doin’ Time never seems out of place as another subtle nod to the joys of the greater Los Angeles city limits, and does its bit to accentuate Norman Fucking Rockwell!’s ‘party pieces’.
Lana pulls you this way and that through wave upon wave of emotion, all in a narrative of artistic struggle and redemption, love gained and love lost, drinking and partying, soaking up the California ambience and longing for more than her hometown can give her. It’s the downbeat summer record that you could expect from LDR, but with added heart and devastation in equal measure. Let’s all go and have a bit of a cry.
3. Counterparts – Nothing Left to Love
It’s almost a given that Canada’s melodic hardcore kings Counterparts would make an end of the year list, but it’s all warranted considering their instrumental role in spanning the length and breadth of the metalcore genre and still remaining, not just relevant, but one of the most celebrated goliaths in the scene.
After a string of exceptional records this decade, and a multitude of line-up changes, they’ve never strayed too far from the sound that defined them as the most talented lead lick writers in the hardcore game. And after cementing the exceptional talents of Blake Hardman on lead guitar and Kyle Brownlee on drums, they also reinstated old school Counterparts alumni Alex Re to develop what was to become Nothing Left to Love.
This particular record not only continues to highlight their signature fast shifting chord sequences, it continually displays some of the most expertly crafted lead lines Counterparts have ever accomplished, connecting perfectly with the disheartened poetry uttered by the band’s only remaining original member Brendan Murphy. His screams are filled to the brim with sadness, dictating lyrics that wouldn’t seem out of a place in a manuscript. And whatsmore, they’ve even reinstated tropes from mid-noughties post-hardcore to create this year’s most forward thinking throwback record. Murphy’s vocals are complemented by wonderfully placed sung backing lines evoking the emo era before they throw in devastating beatdowns that feel like a harkening back to their Prophets and The Difference Between Hell and Home records.
You know you can feel it when B-Murph repeatedly yells “tear the tears out from my open eyes / for I no longer need to drown in the ocean of another” and “we are two different breeds of broken!” amongst a cyclical record that begins and ends with the unanswered question “will you love me when there’s nothing left to love?”. Of course, we’re left longing just like the lyricist at the end of the record which, ironically, is very much a complete package. Never leave us, Counterparts.
2. 100 gecs – 1000 gecs
What can really be said about this debut record? For starters, upon first listen it really was the most confusing, agonising and, quite frankly, annoying record of the year. Then I listened to it for the second time, and here I am on fifty plus listens. Luckily, those initial adjectives have mostly disappeared, besides maybe the confusion, as I continue to scratch my head at whether I understand 100 gecs or if I’ve just become indoctrinated into the gec cult to make me feel like I get it.
Either way, I don’t care. 1000 gecs is easily the most borderless, audacious, and fun LP to have been released in pop music this year. DIY home songwriters Dylan Brady and Laura Les, whilst working remotely from Los Angeles and Chicago respectively, have managed to take elements of genuinely catchy pop music (see: ringtone), before deciding to filter the whole trashy ‘bubblegum pop’ thing for a bit of an overstayed welcome, then thrown in the likes of Skrillex-like dubstep, ska, and whatever else they feel can add to the delectable distaste of the whole 23 minute runtime. Yes, there’s even a horrific grindcore breakdown at the end of 800db cloud and the MSN evoking xXXi_wud_nvrstøp_ÜXXx is like Eurotrash done well. Don’t ask. Brady and Les’ traded autotune vocals are Alvin and the Chipmunks singing about throwing their cash into washing machines and stealing horses in Porches, so it’s clear they don’t take themselves too seriously, and neither should you. But you should definitely know that this is the most revolutionary piece of ‘fuck your categorisation’ I’ve heard for a long while.
It is essentially PC Music-run Charli XCX meets Mr Bungle mixed with Death Grips and channelled through Vengaboys. Please just listen for yourself about 100 times before making a decision. It’s been a strange year.
1. TOOL – Fear Inoculum
It’s difficult to just crunch talk of TOOL into a few paragraphs instead of writing a whole damn novel, and that’s ultimately how they’ve remained one of music’s most fascinatingly brilliant bands for the past 25 years or so. But we’ll start by justifying that Fear Inoculum’s release as their first effort since 2006’s masterwork 10,000 Days was a bit of a big deal, seeing them headlining Download Festival and having to impress one of the most fickle fanbases in rock and metal. I would count myself in that, but it must be said that the result of a thirteen year wait has been just what the doctor ordered.
The whole cryptic act that TOOL continues to get away with is something that riles most, with vocalist and general wind-up merchant Maynard James Keenan posting memes and stuff on Twitter to build up hype of (maybe!) a new TOOL record in 2019, before the other band members revealed it was a reality. Before it’s actual drop on August 30th, many were probably still sceptical if that date was just another massive hoax by the band, but luckily we were all graced with their fifth effort after all. And marketing buffoonery aside, it’s best to let TOOL’s music ultimately do the talking, and it talks a hell of a lot.
Lead single and title track Fear Inoculum expertly managed to outline the unfurling, novel-like structure that was to make up the seven song effort which, whilst many bemoaned, is very much a signature of the LA foursome’s back catalogue. Each main track here is over 10 minutes long, featuring some of the most intricate work Adam Jones, Justin Chancellor and Danny Carey have ever produced; none have lost even one smidge of their playing prowess and chemistry in the thirteen year absence. And, I have to admit, hearing them playing new songs Invincible and Descending on the main stage at Download, surrounded by Jones’ head-scratching surrealist short films and a full-on light show was overwhelmingly blissful to say the least. They are absolute masters of their craft, and Fear Inoculum only serves to prove that point.
It’s the fifth masterpiece that they’ve released, still differing in style and outlook from its predecessors, with Keenan’s lyrics being largely concerned with the difficulty of aging. Each of the other musicians remains in a league of their own as maestros: Justin Chancellor’s bass thunders throughout, with lead lines to rival the beauty of Schism, Danny Carey finally records his outrageous live drum solo Chocolate Chip Trip on the album because ‘why not?’ and Adam Jones’ idiosyncratic guitar tones and playing styles all find their home in his greatest feat yet, 7empest, which is essentially the TOOL equivalent of Ted Nugent’s winding instrumental Strangehold. Exceptional, unrivalled stuff.
I took a whole day off of work to listen to this masterpiece on repeat, and it didn’t let me down one bit. So that’s that: record of the year, 2019.