Mid 2019 eh? Wowsers. Rolling into the latter half of the final year in this decade, we’ve witnessed deepening social and political divisions the world over, the growing crisis of climate change rapidly unfolding, and the gargantuan Game Of Thrones going out with a mighty…meh.
But still. As ever, some great new music was released, some of it even heard. Some of it by my own ears! And here, by tenuous link, is my lineup of some of the best releases from the past six months. Cause we can’t just wait until December can we?
Sharon Van Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow
It’s been a long five years since we last had a Sharon Van Etten album to savour, in 2014’s “Are We There“. Not that she’s been resting on her laurels, having pursued her acting career (including stints as a regular on Netflix hit The O.A.), studied for a degree in psychology…oh, and the little old job of settling into parenthood.
Thankfully, the wait was more than worthwhile, as “Remind Me Tomorrow” kick-started 2019 on a high. Mixing her established emotional earnestness with a fresh injection of electronics, Van Etten sounds rejuvenated and as relevant as ever, and in album highlight Seventeen, she crafted a calling card anthem that will be resonating across festival fields all summer long.
Essential tracks: No Ones Easy To Love, Comeback Kid, Seventeen
Luke Sital Singh – A Golden State
Last year Luke Sital Singh relocated from Bristol to L.A. along with his wife, designer Hannah Cousins. Although the move hasn’t had an immediate effect on his sound acoustically, lyrically it seems to have opened up a new level of emotional depth to his songwriting. It’s this shift in craftsmanship that marks his latest album “A Golden State” as his finest work to date, featuring intimate emotional peaks such as “Love Is Hard Enough Without The Winter” and “The Last Day” (which is seemingly impossible to reach the end of without getting a little misty eyed).
Essential tracks: Lover, The Last Day, Hearts Attach
Big Thief – U.F.O.F
Following a brief hiatus last year, in which all band members seemingly released solo/side projects, Big Thief reformed in 2019 with possibly their finest album to date. At times warmer and more accessible than their previous albums, it still contains their signature raw emotional sound, centred around Adrianne Lenkers distinctive vocals. At times so hushed as to be barely audible, yet able to switch to a primal howl the next, she is a tour-de-force across the album, bringing to mind Nirvana in their more tender moments.
Sheer quality from start to finish, and in the gorgeous Cattails, they have crafted possibly their best song yet.
Essential tracks: UFOF, Cattails, Jenni
Billie Marten – Feeding Seahorses By Hand
Billie Marten is, at the age of twenty, already an old hand at the ol’ music business. Having initially gained attention at just twelve years old from a series of well received covers via Youtube, she has gone from strength to strength, being nominated for the BBCs Sound Of 2016 award, and this year releasing her second LP to great acclaim.
Initial comparisons to an early Laura Marling are not unfounded, yet there’s plenty here to mark her out as her own unique creative force. There’s a natural quality to her voice that instantly warms you to her, and alongside some deft production flourishes, her distinct brand of melancholy folk-pop is one that marks her out as a fine talent with many bright years ahead.
Essential tracks: Betsy, Vanilla Baby, Bad Apple
Alesund – Shift and Flux
One of my favourite discoveries this year has been Bristol four piece Ålesund, a dreamy alt-pop collective who released their debut EP Shift and Flux in February. Centred around the ethereal Kate Bush-esque vocals of Alba Torriset, their songs are at once tightly played and concise, whilst simultaneously invoking a cinematic, widescreen quality.
There’s an admirable restraint to their sound as well, with plenty of space within the songs to hear each instrument clearly mixed in. Not a note is wasted, each one formed simply to suit the song. Think within the realm of Daughter, London Grammar and the xx, but with a self-professed Nordic twist, and you’ll be in the right ballpark.
Essential tracks: Lucid, Shift and Flux
The Tallest Man On Earth – I Love You. It’s a Fever Dream
Kristian Matsson, or as he’s known by his more familiar namesake, The Tallest Man On Earth, has been spinning out early Dylan-esque folk for the best part of fifteen years now. On this, his fifth LP, released back in April, we find him in the melancholic state that dominated much of his previous album, 2015’s Dark Bird Is Home.
It’s a dark, often brooding piece of work, punctuated by occasional moments of clarity and lightness. Matsson himself remains musically on top form, forever a highly emotive and engaging vocalist, and an intricate guitarist capable of some of the sweetest melodies you’ll hear this year.
Essential tracks: There’s A Girl, I’m A Stranger Now
W.H Lung – Incidental Music
Manchester’s W.H. Lung (incidentally named after a local Chinese supermarket) hit the ground running in 2019 with their incredibly accomplished debut LP. Accomplished in the main sense that their lead single was a Simpatico People, a ten minute plus epic synth-pop-electro-post-punk masterpiece, which managed the feat of not sounding self indulgent or naval gazing for one second of its extended running time. And that’s just the opening track. The album as a whole is crisply produced to a point, the band displaying a remarkable level of creativity and maturity so soon into their career as an outfit.
Essential tracks: Simpatico People, Second Death Of My Face, Inspiration!
Julia Jacklin – Crushing
In with a strong shout as my Album Of The Year so far, Julia Jacklin stepped up a significant level on this, her second LP. Having impressed with her debut Don’t Let The Kids Win in 2016, it was here for me that she really landed as an artist, proving a masterful command over both songwriting and melody in equal measure.
Ably watched over by Courtney Barnett producer Burke Reid, here she accomplishes the feat of sounding huge and intimate at the same time. A near perfect run of singles forms the first half of the album, peaking with the anthemic Pressure To Party, before a more low key, introspective second half, which rewards the listener with it’s levels of depth over numerous listens.
Essential tracks: Body, Head Alone, Pressure To Party, Don’t Know How To Keep Loving You
Vampire Weekend – Father Of The Bride
Vampire Weekend took their sweet time following up 2013’s Modern Vampires Of The City. For their first album in six years, they managed to fit about three albums worth of material across it’s near hour running time. Not just in terms of it’s bumper 18 tracks, but each song is a patchwork of soundscapes and influences, including (deep breath): reggae, indie, folk, pop, African rhythms, distorted vocal choirs, layer upon layer of harmonies, more guest musicians than you could shake a fist at…and the successful incorporation of bongos into the mix. Highlights of these would have to be one-two knockout of Sunflower and Flower Moon, both Steve Lacey collaborations.
It’s a White Album-level feat of an album, which would have probably broken many lesser bands. Yet in being able to maintain coherence, confidence and accessibility across so many fragments of ideas, Vampire Weekend still manage to maintain control over their music, sounding as focused as they are sprawling.
Essential Tracks: Bambina, Sunflower, Flower Moon, 2021
Richard Hawley – Further
Sheffields finest returns on his eighth LP, his first not to be named after an area of his home city, and what an album it is. Containing threads from throughout his careers, including subtle nods to the overt psychedelia from 2012’s Standing At The Skys Edge. Here it’s just simply sublime craftsmanship all the way, including lush Scott Walker-esque orchestration on many numbers, as well as Hawleys signature croon taking centre stage.
What’s most telling is how concise many of these numbers are. Where as contemporaries such as Elbow (mainly Elbow) would have stretched out these songs to seven minutes plus, here we rarely stray past three. Not a scrap of sound is wasted, each song is there to make its point before wrapping up neatly. Sheer class.
Essential tracks: My Little Treasures, Further, Doors
So there we have it. Disagree? Good! Let me know your thoughts and your own personal highlights in the comments below. For an expanded selection of some of my 2019 highlights, check out the Spotify playlist below: