Monday, December 09, 2019

Best of 2019

2019 was the year I lost my weekly review column after almost two decades, but that just allowed me to pay less attention to trends and go wherever my ears led me. Are these the best records of 2019? Maybe, maybe not, but they were the fuel that kept me alive this year.

Spotify shuffle playlist is here
Apple Music playlist is here

1. Snotty Nose Rez Kids – Trapline
This album is to Canada in 2019 what Fear of a Black Planet was to the U.S. 30 years earlier. Two MCs raised in a remote northwestern corner of British Columbia have grown into lyrically deft truth-tellers and provocateurs with a command of ancient and recent history. Their flow is animated and exciting; the music beneath it just as much so. While the rest of rock, rap and pop use a lot of language to say next to nothing at all, this crew is razor-sharp and almost always hits their target. Because fellow resistance leaders Jeremy Dutcher and Tanya Tagaq don’t sing in English (for very clear political and aesthetic reasons), that leaves SNRK to confront the oppressor straight on and in their own terms. These are the lyrics that Indigenous and settler audiences alike recite in unison at the high-energy live shows; these are the words that the youth will take to heart. It’s not all righteous fury; there is also a playfulness and levity that makes this music three-dimensional. Solid guest turns by the Sorority (feat. Haviah Mighty), Cartel Madras, Kimmortal, Boslen and others widen the narrative. Maybe there were objectively better albums released this year, maybe not, but this is the only one that felt essential.

2. Nakhane – You Will Not Die
An operatic, queer, black South African transplanted to London making art-pop that oscillates between euphoric R&B and disco to Nick Cave dread, with a few dead-stop solo piano ballads that would be in fine company with Jeremy Dutcher—some even conjure the ghost of Nina Simone. There’s also a guest turn from Anohni and a solo electric guitar cover of New Order. Is there anything this guy can’t do? At the centre of it all is an absolutely stunning voice that delivers goosebumps on every track. This album came out last year in Britain and was released to little fanfare on this side of the Atlantic in early 2019. Why was it so slept on? What’s going on in this world?

3. Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah – Ancestral Recall
This New Orleans trumpeter has put out four albums in 18 months spanning 2018-19, and they’re all spectacular. Scott favours long, occasionally piercing tones, playing evocative, slow melodies over percussion and synth textures. In some ways, it sounds like what Yellow Moon-era Neville Brothers would sound like if they made an instrumental record with Lanois and Eno, but with a shit-hot trumpeter on top. The ever-fiery Saul Williams orates over a few tracks, and vocalist Chris Turner brings a haunting romanticism to “Forevergirl,” driven by Kris Funn’s acoustic bass line. In its swampy mysticism, Ancestral Recall harkens back to Gris Gris, the perversely psychedelic debut by the dearly departed Dr. John. But Scott makes modern jazz that doesn’t look backwards or sideways; to my knowledge, there’s nothing else quite like this in the landscape of Kamasi Washington or Donny McCaslin or Shabaka Hutchings or Thundercat. Christian Scott Atunde Adjuah is in a world and a class all his own.

4. Orville Peck – Pony
Yes, the guy wears a mask. Get over it. Behind that mask is a great songwriter that draws heavily from classic country music—the two-step shuffles, the twangy guitars, the whistling—but isn’t afraid to take it wherever he wants, including a few nods to Joy Division and Nick Cave. Yes, it’s a pastiche, but the songs are more than solid, and Peck’s voice is nothing short of magical. He reaches into deep valleys and climbs tall peaks, and his voice never breaks in between. Rumour has it that this mysterious masked man has professional musical theatre experience, and it’s not hard to believe: he could elevate anyone’s songbook. It just so happens that he has one of his own, and it’s better than most. 

5. Brad Mehldau – Finding Gabriel
I’ll admit that I know next to nothing about this giant of modern jazz piano, other than that I’ve tried at various points in the last 20 years to find an entry point and been left cold. It wasn’t until David Bowie’s Blackstar led me to explore the work of drummer Mark Guiliana that I only recently discovered that musician’s 2014 duo record with Mehldau, Taming the Dragon. Finding Gabriel doesn’t sound like that or anything else I’ve since heard in Mehldau’s discography. Guiliana is on drums for most tracks, but Mehldau handles them himself (or programs drum machines) on others. There’s no credited bass player; the other instrumentalists are string and wind players, who are used texturally, not in any lead capacity. The rest is all Mehldau, with a choral group providing wordless melodies that are majestic and magical. It’s a modern take on cosmic jazz that is more spacious and spiritual than the likes of Flying Lotus. And on “The Prophet is a Fool,” it uses a father-child dialogue to grapple with current political divisions and He Who Shall Not Be Named. All of which makes this music a necessary balm in 2019—and beyond. 

6. Dominique Fils-Aimé – Stay Tuned
I owe this discovery entirely to the Polaris Music Prize jury; before she landed on the shortlist, there was next to no press about her in English Canada. Fils-Aimé is a Haitian-Quebecois singer with roots in jazz, but whose work draws heavily from gospel, R&B, and ’90s neo-soul. Needless to say, she has a killer voice, and her backing band is top-notch, as are the vocal arrangements. (She sings in English, in case that’s important to you.) This is the second instalment in what is supposedly a trilogy paying homage to a century of African-American music, which sounds like a ridiculously broad concept until you hear what Fils-Aimé and her collaborators are able to bring to the table. This deserves a much broader audience beyond provincial borders or genre barriers. 

7. Tobi – Still
This is a phenomenal debut album that stands head and shoulders above its peers, in Toronto and elsewhere. Tobi is an astounding singer, though that’s hardly unusual; so is his fellow Torontonian Daniel Caesar or Grammy phenom H.E.R. What sets Tobi apart is the songwriting, lyricism and production on display here. Two years in the making, it’s melodically strong and with arrangements worthy of the Roots’ more adventurous material. He can call out consumerism and misogyny on one song and sing about drunk texting on the next, yet he’s never preachy nor puerile. He’s no mumblemouth rapper either, and his flow isn’t an afterthought when he takes a break from crooning. A Nigerian immigrant to Brampton via Ottawa, Tobi brings a wide range of influences into his take on modern R&B: string-drenched jazz textures, Nigerian pop, kindred spirits Sampha, Anderson.Paak, Kae Sun and more. Here’s hoping Tobi comes to define the next generation of “the Toronto sound,” whatever that is or will be.

8. Lil Andy – All the Love Songs Lied to Us
If Leonard Cohen made a country record, it would sound like this. It’s too bad he never did. The Montreal poet did start out, after all, as a member of the Buckskin Boys, long before he published a single stanza. Sixty years later, Andy McClelland walked the same streets as Cohen, near Parc du Portugal on Montreal’s Plateau, and started a career as a country singer. After the bard died, McClelland spearheaded a local all-star tribute, and contributed to an international art exhibit dedicated to Cohen. The title track here borrows a melody from Cohen (1984’s “Coming Back to You”) and has cynical, wry lyrics that wouldn’t be out of place on Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs. The song is a triumph, and worth the price of the album alone (along with the beautiful cover art). But the rest of the album is just as strong. McClelland enlists some of Montreal’s finest players, including guitarist Joe Grass, pianist Patrick Watson and vocalists Ariel Engle (La Force) and Katie Moore. His instrumentation and his motifs may be traditional, but his lyrical voice is not. “Even the social housing sparkles at night,” he marvels. Elsewhere, “Things are thin and flatter now / there’s no good way to be / my life feels like some tinny, shitty, bitrate MP3.” This record, however, does not feel that way in the least. No matter what format you hear it on.

9. The Comet is Coming – Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery
Shabaka Hutchings is the new namedrop for midlife music nerds. Uttering his name is like some secret password into a new world of jazz that appeals to aging rockers and ravers alike. The British saxophonist broke out of obscurity when his tuba-driven band Sons of Kemet was shortlisted for the Mercury Prize last year, and in 2019 he returned to one of his other projects, the psychedelic electronic trio the Comet is Coming. Their second album isn’t as entirely mind-blowing as their debut, but it’s still a monster of a record, digging deeper into dub grooves and getting heavier than Hutchings’s more frenetic excursions in Kemet. No matter what moniker appears on the front of one of his records, he exudes ecstasy (the state) and brings the most out of his bandmates, and vice versa. 

10. Damon Locks / Black Monument Ensemble – Where Future Unfolds
I’ve always needed music for therapy, but never more so than in the last three years (for obvious geopolitical reasons). In 2019, I needed to hear voices. So the sound of a Chicago choir singing secular gospel songs of solace and justice proved to be just what the shrink ordered. This debut album is a live recording of the debut gig by this 15-member ensemble, helmed by a sound collage artist who started out sampling civil rights speeches before he decided to put voice to new ones of his own. There are electronics and loops at play here, but the focus is on the jazzy rhythm section and the choir, who promise to “rebuild a nation.” Also present is Angel Bat Dawid on clarinets; she put out her own fine record on the consistently reliable International Anthem label. As the world falls apart, gospel and jazz are two of the only kinds of music that make any sense to me anymore. 

11. Haviah Mighty – 13th Floor
When this record won the Polaris Music Prize in September, it became the first hip-hop record to win a major prize in Canada, and she became the first black woman to do the same. No disrespect to all those who came before (say the names: Salome Bey, Liberty Silver, Nana McLean, Michie Mee, Lillian Allen, Molly Johnson, Deborah Cox, Jully Black, Fefe Dobson, Divine Brown, Zaki Ibrahim, Cold Specks, Sate, Dominique Fils-Aime, and no doubt many more), but Mighty is the whole package: as a poet, a lyricist, a singer, and a rapper. She’s got party tracks, historical lectures, love songs, and everything in between. She’s never short of breadth. 

12. Digawolf – Yellowstone
This guy lives outside of Yellowknife and has a voice that sounds like the gravel road he likely lives on. But this is no rural folk record: this is a ballsy, modern blues record that leaps out of the speakers. On the first two tracks, anyway; the rest of the record alternates between that mode (“Digital Nomad”) and a heavily Lanois-influenced take on arty, atmospheric folk songs that sound like a million bucks. The only hint you get that Digawolf lives anywhere near the tree line is when he sings in Tlicho, his native tongue, or on “Northern Love Affair,” which, like the rest of the record, is in English. 

13. GRLwood – I Sold My Soul to the Devil When I Was 12
Two self-described “Kentucky-fried queerdoes” in their early 20s open their second record with the line, “Be nice to sad boys or get shot.” Jeeeeeeeesus. It’s delivered over a killer riff and frenetic drumming, and by the end of the song, Rej Forester is unleashing full-on death-metal screams. The rest of the album gets even better from there. GRLwood do righteous rage very well, but it’s far from their only card. They’re also very funny: “I Hate My Mom,” “I’m Having Sex Tonight,” “Gay 4 U.” Most important, they are musically monstrous: Karen Ledford’s drumming, Forester’s guitar work and unique voice, her almost operatic range filtered through a punk rock rasp and shockingly pitch-perfect screeching (see also: Karen O, Kathleen Hanna). Even more important: GRLwood understand the power of dynamics, and so their quieter moments are just as, if not more, effective than the outbursts, making their music so much more than just a full-on frontal assault. I’m sad to report that you’re likely reading about them here first; I’ve seen next to no press about them. That needs to change. I saw them open for Man Man, a show where 500 people instantly fell in love with these young women women. I suspect that reaction is hardly unusual wherever they go. 

14. Murray A. Lightburn – Hear Me Out
This Montreal songwriter has been leading the Dears for almost 25 years now, through ever-changing lineups, management teams, record labels and degrees of bombast. Odd then, that he may have made his best album when he strips almost everything bare and becomes a full-on crooner. More likely, it says more about my own musical taste than his evolution, but the notorious control freak has admitted that he loosened the reins considerably on this project, bringing in jazz players and engineer Howard Bilerman to do a lot of the heavy lifting. The result is part early Scott Walker, part Belle and Sebastian, part Keren Ann, and even a bit Gordon Lightfoot. It’s always been obvious what a spectacular singer Lightburn is, but it’s at the lower volumes here that he really shines. Also, age becomes him: this is a wise, thoroughly satisfying midlife record he might not have been able to make until now.

15. Geoff Berner – Grand Cosmopolis Hotel
Berner is the kind of artist whose interests and opinions threaten to overshadow his music; reading his liner notes are almost as entertaining as the songs they’re meant to accompany. But make no mistake: the man is a master, as plenty of material from his almost 20-year career will illustrate. Berner, who recently founded an ecosocialist political party in B.C. in his not-so-spare time, writes here about the perils of being a left-wing Jew resisting orthodoxy from all sides of the political spectrum (“Not the Jew I Had In Mind”), of ever-present anti-Semitism (“Would You Hide Me?”), of smug preppers (“Oh You Survivalists”) and of clearly obvious political solutions to the world’s ills (“Why Don’t We Just Take the Billionaires’ Money Away?”). Instead of punchlines, he offers gut-punchers; a Berner song is much more likely to invoke impending doom than to resort to a one-liner. He’s not a political comedian writing songs; he’s an ace songwriter who trades in satire. And he’s one of the best.

16. Ice Cream – Fed Up
As debut records by Peaches and Le Tigre celebrate 20th anniversaries, two Toronto women wielding electric guitars and electronics lead a new charge of political grooves over post-punk no-wave disco that manages to sound remarkably fresh (see also: L.A. band Automatic). Grooves as sticky as “Peanut Butter,” textures as delicious as “Banana Split.” Surprising classic-rock lead guitar on “Bun Roo” (surprising because of the genre, not the gender). But those are just the pop songs that act as gateway drugs off the top. The title track rides a slower tempo and darker electronic sounds, while Amanda Crist and Carlyn Bezic sing, “I’m not a shell for your fantasies … real power, no glossy sheen / queens of the void, queens of everything / I want to be free.” 

17. Leonard Cohen – Thanks for the Dance
“And now you’re gone / you’re gone as if there ever was a you / who held me dying and pulled me through / Who’s moving on? Who’s kidding who? This is the kind of release that could’ve been what every fan dreads: a icon’s final breaths put to music, in some cases by people he never met—especially when said icon was a total control freak, who often resisted collaborators’ attempts to make his music more interesting (see: Sharon Robinson, Ten New Songs). Thanks for the Dance, on the other hand, is handled with care and respect. Son Adam Cohen is in charge, and he wrangles the likes of Patrick Watson, Feist, Daniel Lanois, Richard Reed Parry, Beck and others to flesh out what are essentially recitations rather than melodies. None of those players is out to hog the spotlight; everything about this record screams humility, from the arrangements to Cohen’s closing line: “Listen to the hummingbird / don’t listen to me.”

18. Chaka Khan – Hello Happiness
“Like Sugar” was hands-down my favourite single of 2018, and the follow-up album didn’t disappoint. The R&B legend sounds as powerful as ever, with a modern sound from producers Switch (Major Lazer, Santigold, M.I.A.) and Sarah Ruba. These are rollerskate jams that Daft Punk dreams of making: killer bass lines, rich funk, and a goddess on the mic. “Don’t Cha Know” harkens back to the slinky grooves of her Rufus days. “Too Hot” is a torchy blues song that puts all new pretenders to shame. “Isn’t That Enough” is a sexy dub jam, and the title track is every bit the equal of “Like Sugar.” Hello happiness indeed: this record is an instant mood-changer.

19. Jamila Woods ­– Legacy! Legacy!
A 13-track song cycle dedicated to key figures in African-American cultural history, set to progressive, jazzy R&B: it sounds like a lot of work, but Woods makes it sound almost easy. “Don’t ever let a textbook scare you,” she notes on the song about Octavia Butler. The grooves are sumptuousness, the production rich, the playing impeccable, and Woods is a captivating vocalist. But listen closer, because she has a lot to say. Obviously—you can’t write a song dedicated to James Baldwin and take it lightly.

20. Lee Harvey Osmond – Mohawk
Maybe you don’t have to be a Canadian over the age of 40 to appreciate this band, but it helps. If the lineage of the Band, Neil Young, Cowboy Junkies, Daniel Lanois, Oh Susanna and Orville Peck means anything to you, then Tom Wilson’s project of the last 10 years fits in perfectly. The industry veteran keeps getting better with age, and this is his first album since his bestselling memoir, Beautiful Scars, in which he discovered his adoption story and his Mohawk heritage. Loping bass grooves (Anna Ruddick), extremely tasteful lead guitar (Aaron Goldstein) and harmonica work (Paul Reddick), and the wind instruments of Darcy Heppner all elevate what could be standard bluesy folk rock tunes. Wilson’s rich baritone is central, of course, but it’s the balance of all these elements in the hands of producer Michael Timmins that really ties it together. As always with this band, this record sounds even better while driving through the Canadian Shield.

Honorable mentions:

Begonia – Fear. Powerhouse vocalist from Winnipeg is poised to break out beyond all borders.

Black Flower – Future Flora. Belgian Ethiopian jazz groove band concoct psychedelic delight.

Theon Cross – Fyah. The only solo tuba jazz album to ever make one of my year-end lists—which makes sense only because Cross is an essential member of Sons of Kemet.

Fet.Nat – Le Mal. Pattonesque high fuckery from Hull, Quebec, which led to the best WTF moments of this year’s Polaris gala.

Kevin Hearn – Calm and Cents. Toronto’s MVP doesn’t get nearly enough love for his solo recordings, and this more meditative collection is one of his best. Featuring just the trio of Hearn, bassist Chris Gartner and violinist Hugh Marsh. (See also: Rheostatics’ comeback Here Come the Wolves, also featuring Hearn and Marsh.)

Michael Kiwanuka – Kiwanuka. The worst thing I can say about this record is that it sounds like an extension of his 2016 breakthrough Love & Hate. Which was excellent. So is this.

Reginald Omas Mamode IV – Where We Going? While we waited for a new Kaytranada album (which finally arrived Dec. 13, after this list was made), there were these funky little numbers, partially recorded during a trip to discover family roots in the Mascarene Islands, off Madagascar. Mamode went “In Search of Balance” and found a lot of off-kilter, Madlibbian and Dilla-esque beats, gospel melodies, ’70s funk, and lots of jazzy licks.

Karen O & Danger Mouse – Lux Prima. In which one of the greatest rock’n’roll singers of the new century shifts gears and lends her voice to an interstellar psychedelic journey set to a Serge Gainsbourg backdrop.

Purple Mountains – s/t. I’m very late to the David Berman bandwagon—too late, obviously. I look forward to diving deeper before the publication of a Berman bio by one of my favourite writers, due in 2021.

Sleater-Kinney – The Center Will Not Hold. Of all the influences to hijack a new S-K record, I did not expect late-’90s Depeche Mode to be the one. This was a necessary experiment that works more often than it doesn’t. But one has to ask: was it worth losing Janet Weiss?

Best 2018 records I heard in 2019:

Gaye Su Akyol – Istikrarli Hayal Hakikattir. This Turkish singer sounds like Googoosh for the modern era, with a bit of Bjork, bossa nova, surf rock, flamenco, analog synths and ’60s psych pop on top of all the usual elements you would expect from the eastern Mediterranean.

Altin Gun – On. Speaking of Turks, this Dutch band embraces the diaspora and filters Anatolian sounds through seriously funky grooves. They followed this up quickly with the fine 2019 album Gece, but start here.

Kikagaku Moyo – Masana Temples. This Japanese band plays German psychedelia with a sitar and a bit of bossa nova, like a weird mix of Stereolab, Black Mountain and Ananda Shankar. Of course it’s great.

Kim Richey – Edgeland. This Americana veteran has been around for 25 years, and keeps getting better. Or at least, that’s what I thought when this here newbie stumbled across this record and then started working my way backwards.

Rosalía – El Mal Querer. The Spanish superstar deserves all the success she found in 2019, but you probably know that by now. For a totally different side of her, check out her understated, acoustic 2017 debut, Los Ángeles.