image by Dalibor Bosnjakovic
Our Favorite Releases of 2019
2019 was another year of exceptional new music. We saw both talented newcomers emerge as well as old favorites turning in new classics. As always, there was also a cavalcade of important and worthy archival releases that uncovered previously unavailable work or rendered hard-to-find tracks discoverable for a new generation of listeners. All in all, this has made for a heady and varied collection of sounds that has kept our ears at busy throughout 2019. We’ve highlighted much new music over the year through both our DJ sets and Song of the Day picks. But here we take the opportunity to share our personal favorite new music released this year.
DJ D-Mac’s pick:
Sault 5 and 7
Featured tracks: “Don’t Waste My Time” (from 5) and “No Bullshit” (from 7)
Enshrouded in self-imposed mystery since their ESG-inspired debut single “Don’t Waste My Time” arrived early this year (the band’s bio is just three words—”We are Sault!”—and their location is “Global”), Sault is actually the work of London-based producer Inflo. Inflo has made a name for himself working with high-profile artists like The Kooks, Danger Mouse, and most recently, Michael Kiwanuka.
In May, Sault released their 14-track debut full-length 5 on Inflo’s own Forever Living Originals imprint. And while grassroots word-of-mouth was still spreading, they released a 10-track follow up album, 7, just four months later. The two records are a marvel of authentic, live-in-the-studio immediacy, bursting at the seams with the energy and conviction of a band utterly confident in their abilities and excited to commit it all to tape. Like the best 70s female-led soul singles, there’s a warmth and intimacy to the recording. But there are enough modern touches—most notably deep dub basslines and tough breakbeats played on close-miked drums—to make it feel completely current. And the music is funky as all get-out.
This is most definitely a record lover’s record. In addition to the downtown funkiness of ESG, I hear the influences of Aretha Franklin’s female empowerment anthems (“Let Me Go” and “Think About It”) the soulful schoolyard chants of Shirley Ellis (“No Bullshit”), the impassioned alt-R&B of Santigold (“Something’s in the Air” and “Red Lights”), the modern classicist approach of Kali Uchis (“Why Why Why Why Why”), the slyly menacing late-night vibes of Portishead (“Foot On Necks”), and the baby-making romanticism of Al Green (“B.A.B.E.”).
DJ Ty Hussell’s pick:
Mdou Moctar Ilana (The Creator)
Featured track: “Ilana”
Amongst an onslaught of incredible releases in 2019, I’m choosing Mdou Moctar‘s Ilana (The Creator) as my favorite. Part of this stems from the fact that I was able to vicariously experience his 2019 U.S. tour in support of this release through a good buddy of mine who was on hand as a roadie/road manager. I was blown away night after night at the videos that my friend was posting and my love for Mdou Moctar‘s unique brand of “Desert Blues” continued to grow. The man is simply a virtuoso on the electric guitar and as my buddy says, his band is firing on all cylinders! Not for the faint of heart, this music is hard-driving, impassioned, and I love it. If you’re ready to kick your energy level up a notch or two, try giving the title track from this album a whirl!
Based in Agadez, Niger, Moctar is a Tuareg musician of the highest order. One of the first to electrify Tuareg traditions, Moctar plays his left-handed Fender Stratocaster with fire, precision, and aplomb. Ilana is his first full-length album recorded with a full band. On it, he pushes the boundaries of Tuareg melodies and rhythms, stretching out virtuosically on his 6-string into what some have called ‘Rock n Roll’ territory. Moctar himself says, “I don’t know what rock is, I have no idea. I only know how to play my style.”
DJ Neville C’s pick:
Cate Le Bon Reward
Featured track: “Daylight Matters”
My favorite release of the year comes from Cate Le Bon*: a 36 year old Welsh songwriter, musician and producer who’s been active since 2007. This year she put out her fifth LP Reward on the Brooklyn based Mexican Summer label and it is a release I loved right away. This is gorgeous and literate dream pop of the highest order.
Le Bon co-produced the record with composer and multi-instrumentalist Josiah Steinbrick. At times, the record evokes the Lake District in Northern England where Le Bon lived while writing the songs for the record, while other songs take you elsewhere. Reward is a pop record but it’s layered and deep. The production is lush (but not too lush) and the instrumentation is completely unique. The songs are great and never predictable. A stellar LP and my favorite of this year.
*no relation to Duran Duran frontman Simon Le Bon.
DJ Stylus’s pick:
Anderson .Paak Ventura
Featured track: “Make It Better (ft. Smokey Robinson)”
I had many favorite singles, EPs, comps and reissues in 2019 but if there was one new full length album project I ran back over and over again, it was Anderson .Paak‘s Ventura. Recorded over the same stretch as 2018’s Oxnard, Paak‘s 2019 follow up is lush, soulful and finds the musical polymath growing into more mature strengths as a songwriter and producer.
Ventura is one of those projects best enjoyed by letting it run uninterrupted from top to bottom. It’s a testament to Paak‘s vision that a star-studded list of guest features including Andre 3000, Smokey Robinson and Lalah Hathaway fit into the overall flow without standing out as the huge individual talents they are. It is an album that really highlight’s Paak‘s talents as a collaborator and in constructing a uniform musical vision.
DJ M Dot’s pick:
Lafawndah Ancestor Boy
Featured track: “Tourist”
My album pick of 2019 is not my most played and in fact, it’s something I discovered pretty recently. It’s not even the most “pleasant,” but it is raw and stokes the emotional fires. Lafawndah‘s debut full length album, Ancestor Boy, released in April, is red hot. The other day I had Bjork playing on Spotify and it was beautiful and intense and I got to thinking how amazing it is that her music was ever considered pop. Her risk taking and experimentation moves her music into her own category. Shortly after, I discovered Lafawndah, who, while she diverges from Bjork stylistically and lyrically, makes me feel that same energized passion. A lot of musical appreciation has come from traveling and sharing music with people outside my cultural experience. Without leaving the comforts of my Spotify car travels, Lafawndah‘s music brings me to places far away. She herself grew up between Paris, Tehran and Mexico, and is of Egyptian-Iranian heritage.
This is an album I recommend listening from start to finish. I know, not exactly the way we consume music these days! But her intensity builds and by the end, you hit “Tourist” which gives you a bit of a dance break and allows you to exhale lyrics like “You built a city all up on me, Now I’m about to burst from the track “Substancia”. This album is a work of self-expression and gives the listener the opportunity to tag along on her journey.
Chromatics Closer To Grey
Featured track: “Closer To Grey”
Chromatics have been a band that I’ve followed for a long time. I’ve been a fan dating back to their years as a scuzzy noise punk outfit playing Portland, OR house shows before they morphed into their current incarnation as doomed indie-disco sweethearts. The band have been promising a full-length follow-up to their triumphant 2012 release, Kill For Love for years, but all that had emerged were a number of EPs and the shelving of the long-rumored album, Dear Tommy, (with principle songwriter Johnny Jewel even destroying the few copies of the album that had been pressed). While the band had recently released a new (non-album) single and embarked on a successful North American tour, it still came as a great surprise then when Chromatics first announced and shortly thereafter, dropped, Closer to Grey in late November. The album is digital only at the moment, but will see a physical release in early January.
For fans of Chromatics, the record is everything you would expect it to be: a mix of melancholy indie rock and electronic dance music that is far too slow to dance to. You also get a pair of oddball classic rock covers, with the band giving the Italians Do It Better treatment to Simon & Garfunkel‘s “The Sound of Silence” and The Jesus & Mary Chain‘s “On The Wall”. Singer/ guitarist Ruth Radelet remains as bewitching a presence as she always has, really selling the band’s underlying emotionally angsty-yet-medicated aesthetic. The band also appear to be pushing themselves a bit musically, with a new emphasis on lush, more complex arrangements and even inserting some trip-hop influence on “Touch Red”. I’ve been listening to the record a lot since its surprise appearance and it is a healthy reminder of what makes the band so special. A perfect soundtrack for these tumultuous times.