If doing music research has taught me anything it’s that studying music leaves you far less time to listen to the stuff. With that in mind, I’ve had to be a lot more discerning about what I take the time to listen to, and even pickier with the music I take the time to revisit as the year has gone by. Perhaps more than any year in my time writing about music, 2019 has genuinely surprised me in terms of the albums I’ve really fallen in love with. Musicians that I’ve previously evangelised have let me down, and bands that I’ve previously dismissed as either overly commercial, or simply not my thing, have totally blown my mind. Maybe the biggest surprise for me is how much the film world has influenced my musical outlook, to the point that for the first time since I started this blog, a film score has made its way onto my end of year list.
Something to note, is that the usual disclaimer of “this list is not meant to be objective but is thoroughly personal” applies doubly this year. I have found that I have been writing from a personal place – one of identity and my own Jewishness – more and more, and this same introspective focus has made its way into my listening habits, which will be reflected in this list.
With all this in mind, I hope that the article will give some insight into my own thought processes around the music of such an emotionally fraught year and provide some exciting new music to explore.
(Hyperlinked titles link to full reviews)
50. Immigrance by Snarky Puppy
49. Utica Box by Dan Weiss Trio Plus 1
48. SuperBigmouth by Chris Lightcap
47. Hope by Kevin Hays and Lionel Loueke
46. Boomtown by Chris Bullock
45. Four X.it by Nate Wood
44. Ad Astra (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) by Max Richter, Lorne Balfe
43. Sun on Sand by Joshua Redman and Brooklyn Rider
42. Stepping Back, Jumping In by Laura Jurd
41. Fyah by Theon Cross
40. All My Heroes are Cornballs by JPEGMAFIA
39. Downpour by Aberdeen
38. Ninety Degrees Gravity by Trish Clowes
37. Work Songs by Timo Andres
36. Modern Times by Elliot Galvin
35. Djesse Vol. 2 by Jacob Collier
34. 365, vol. 2 by Aiden O’Rourke and Kit Downes
33. Antidote by Chick Corea
32. Turn to Clear View by Joe Armon-Jones
31. Dreamlife of Debris by Kit Downes
30. CABLES by Bill Laurance
29. Bandana by Freddie Gibbs and Madlib
28. Taller by Jamie Cullum
27. BEAT MUSIC! BEAT MUSIC! BEAT MUSIC! By Mark Guiliana
26. Good Hope by Dave Holland, Zakir Hussain and Chris Potter
25. Rule of 3 by Väsen
24. Binah by The Spike Orchestra
23. GREY Area by Little Simz
21. 2020 by Richard Dawson
19. Fly or Die II: bird dogs of paradise by Jaimie Branch
18. Sonero: The Music of Ismael Rivera by Miguel Zenón
17. Activate Infinity by The Bad Plus
16. Injury Reserve – Self Titled
14. i,i by Bon Iver
13. Come What May by Joshua Redman Quartet
12. there is no Other by Rhiannon Giddens
10. Golden Valley Is Now by Reid Anderson, Dave King, Craig Taborn
My favourite thing about jazz is how much scope there is for a huge variety of collaborations. Musicians effortlessly complementing each other or pushing one another outside their comfort zones and everything in between. With their long running trio, The Bad Plus (also featured on this list), drummer Dave King and bassist Reid Anderson have been working in a fairly narrow soundworld for quite some time now, only just opened up by the arrival of their new pianist Orrin Evans. Clearly not content to stop there, the two musicians have collaborated with one of the hardest working, most eclectic and most mysterious pianists/keyboardists in today’s jazz world, Craig Taborn.
In this more electrified setting than their usual environment, all three musicians push each other to totally new creative areas. The compositions here are tactile and totally free of ego. Improvisations are used to support the whole rather than highlight a musician’s individual talent. There’s a real heft to the combined forces of these three veterans, bolstered further by the thump of electric bass and the controlled barrage of Taborn’s synth playing. There’s nothing truly profound happening here other than the utterly satisfying result of truly fruitful collaboration from three total professionals.
9. Rearrange My Heart by Che Apalache
It’s gotten to the point where I really feel that a year has been wasted if we’re not blessed by an exciting new progressive bluegrass project. Last year was a particularly bountiful one, with three spectacular contributions, dotted throughout the year by Punch Brothers, I’m With Her and Hawktail, so I was expecting 2019 to be rather thin on the ground in that respect. Thankfully, one of the most exciting new bands to the genre in years were waiting in the wings for the chance to stun us all with an album that accomplishes something truly special by bringing together traditional Latin American music with bluegrass and Appalachian folk.
Che Apalache’s incredible new record, Rearrange My Heart, is something of a masterpiece of empathy in contemporary folk music. With songs about the immigrant experience and resistance against malevolent forces in international politics, above all else, this album is about acceptance of others. That being said, even though this pursuit of a wholesome message is front and centre, Che Apalache don’t even come close to skimping on virtuosity, beautiful four-part vocal harmony or making the most of the gorgeous bluegrass instrumentation they work with. This band of young, diverse musicians is really bringing something important and different that is sorely needed in the American acoustic music scene.
8. Dancer In Nowhere by Miho Hazama
I’m not usually one for large ensemble, highly composed jazz. The genre has the unfortunate tendency to slip into big band cliche so I tend to avoid it. I was however, intrigued by this latest record by Japanese composer, Miho Hazama, mostly because the record was released on a favourite label of mine, Sunnyside Records, but also Hazama wasn’t credited with playing any of the instruments.
Hazama really sees the big picture with all eight of the fabulous compositions on this record, each one doing something totally musically different, and utilising each instrument in the ensemble like the versatile creative tools they are – nothing gets pigeon-holed or typecast. I was particularly stunned by her diverse uses of the string section, something that is often treated with an utter lack of imagination in jazz writing, and her collagic use of woodwinds on ‘RUN’. Hazama is definitely a talent to be paid attention to with great curiosity, and I shall be hotly anticipating her next endeavour.
7. Chapters by Kneebody
Electric jazz group, Kneebody, has gone through some pretty drastic changes in the last year, and their latest album, Chapters is a seriously impressive reflection of that. Kaveh Rastegar, the group’s bassist, left to pursue other projects, leaving the band with a serious dilemma as to how to approach filling that hole. Their answer, change labels to the ever brilliant Edition Records, work with a bunch of awesome vocal guests, and give drummer Nate Wood a bass guitar and let him play BOTH at the same time.
While Rastegar’s absence is definitely noticeable, the band has more than made up for it with some of the most creatively enriching output of their careers. The group seems really energised from working with talents like singer/songwriter Becca Stevens and the rising star that is vocal genius Michael Mayo. Thankfully the group’s signature mix of atmospheric, washed out grooves and stunningly sharp melodic playing from saxophonist Ben Wendel and trumpeter Shane Endsley feels as fresh and invigorating as ever. 18 years into the band’s career, Kneebody are as exciting as they’ve ever been and seem keen to keep evolving for years to come.
6. Circuits by Chris Potter
In a time where words and their connotations are more complex and fraught than ever before, it’s very important to be sensitive and clear about what we say and how we say it. So, when I say that Chris Potter is a MONSTER, I want to be perfectly clear that I’m using that word to convey just how frighteningly impressive a saxophonist he is, and not to imply that he’s been doing anything immoral.
American saxophonist, Chris Potter’s last few albums have been eclectic, complex, serious works released through the world’s most austere jazz label, ECM. This year, arguably the world’s best sax player decided to take a break from the thought-provoking introspection and instead unleash one of the hardest grooving jazz records of the last decade. Circuits is unabashed, pure fun featuring utterly mind blowing musicianship from Potter and bandmates Eric Harland (drums), James Francies (keys) and occasionally Linley Marthe (bass). Chris Potter’s Circuits trio is the tightest band in jazz right now.
JOY was an album that didn’t hit me at first. It seemed perfectly pleasant on first listen, but not quite substantial enough. That being said, Antonion Forcione, the trio’s guitarist, is something of a musical hero of mine, so I endeavoured to give the album a second chance. In going to see the trio of Antonio Forcione (guitar), Seckou Keita (Kora) and Adriano Adewale (percussion) live in Liverpool, the meaning behind this music as discussed by the band on stage, and the way it is all so beautifully and naturally constructed allowed JOY’s myriad intricacies and emotional nuances to slot into place for me.
When the trio talk about joy in the context of this album, it is a reflection of the innocent jubilance of childhood, of finding one’s purpose, and of appreciation for loved ones. Crucially however, the record’s expression of joy is also simply the joy that these three master musicians from totally divergent musical and cultural backgrounds feel when playing together, and that happiness is apparent in every note. AKA Trio’s crowning achievement is that their promise of music as an antidote for these troubled times doesn’t feel cliche, but necessary and utterly genuine.
4. Who Are You Now by Madison Cunningham
Often, in the music world, we talk about influences like they’re a bad thing. If you can tell who a given musician’s influences are then they must be unoriginal or lacking in imagination. Well, Madison Cunningham is here to burn that narrative to the ground. The prodigious, twentysomething singer/songwriter and guitarist proves that it’s absolutely fine to wear your influences on your sleeves if you are talented enough to channel those musicians without diluting your own voice.
On her debut full-length album, Cunningham impressively channels Joni Mitchell and Jeff Buckley whilst demonstrating her own ability as one of the most singularly talented songwriters of the last decade. Her melodies are delightfully wistful and harmonically daring, her voice is totally distinct and powerful, and all the instrumental work on the record is daring and meticulously delivered, particularly the guitar playing from Cunningham herself and Ted Poor’s subtly physical drumming.
What consistently blows my mind on each listen, is the wisdom the young songwriter channels with the stunning presentation of every lyric… and she’s my age!
3. Finding Gabriel by Brad Mehldau
In all honesty, the thing that has had the biggest cultural impact on me this year wasn’t a piece of music, it was a podcast about movies called Blank Check with Griffin and David. It has, to a pretty significant extent, changed the way I look at art, how I consume it and how I understand it. The show deals with auteur directors who are given free reign to make whatever they want, and the more I think about that concept, the more I have come to believe that said auteurs exist in the jazz world too.
Brad Mehldau is one of those jazz auteurs. Very few other musicians would have the kind of clout to put together an album as creatively out-there as the pianist’s latest project, Finding Gabriel. Aside from the sheer number of crazy talented collaborators present on the record (from Becca Stevens and Gabriel Kahane to Mark Guiliana and Ambrose Akinmusire), the literal biblical concept is so grand, but presented in such an abstract way, that it feels like the musical equivalent of a Coen Brothers movie. Whilst Finding Gabriel definitely feels like a Brad Mehldau album – his signature piano and harmonic styles are totally intact here – it’s the most aesthetically adventurous project he’s ever put out. This is Mehldau’s blank check album and I’m so glad it exists.
I love clipping. but they frighten the crap out of me. In their last few projects, the experimental hip-hop trio have been exploring some of the biggest issues facing contemporary America through the lens of horrifying stories and imagery. Their last record, Spleandor & Misery, took us into the ethereal, presenting a terrifying narrative of everything that comes with being alone in space. But while their latest release takes place closer to home, it’s far scarier and much more scathing.
There Existed an Addiction to Blood employs the group’s most visceral, gory lyricism and their punchiest instrumental work for a Halloween-adjacent release that uses horror movie imagery to tackle the very real problems surrounding race and gender in America today. It’s a record that is simultaneously their easiest and most difficult listen. You find yourself getting drawn into the tactile, satisfying production until the lyrics begin to register and you recoil at the brutal realisations Daveed Diggs, Jonathan Snipes and William Hutson are forcing you to reckon with. This record is haunting in every sense of the word.
When I talk about music that hit me personally this year, and music that completely changed my opinion on a band, this is the record that is most indicative of that. My thoughts about Vampire Weekend have always been fairly neutral. Their music seemed little more than inoffensive indie-pop, but in the last 12 months, I found out that several of my musical heroes cite the band’s frontman, Ezra Koenig, as a major songwriting influence, and I found out through my favourite movie podcast that he’s not only Jewish, but expresses that part of his identity fairly explicitly in his music. That was enough to get me interested in the band’s new record, Father of the Bride.
Turns out, that not only is Koenig’s writing a beautiful rumination on contemporary Jewish-American identity, but the record’s instrumental work is utterly stunning. Vampire Weekend is not a band that puts out heavy, visceral, thumping material, but instead give you eclectic, considered and wonderfully thematically coherent songwriting delivered in seemingly impossibly accessible packages. Father of the Bride is, as far as I’m concerned, near perfect in it’s simple presentation of important topics without diminishing their complexity or nuances.