“We’re all so sick and tired of seeing things as they are,” sings Nick Cave on Ghosteen‘s epic ‘Bright Horses’. “The fields are just fields, and there ain’t no Lord.”
Sick and tired is the general collective consensus for the year in general, but when we diverted our ears for a few seconds away from the ongoing shitstorm that they’re finally going to GET DONE next year, there was a soundtrack to be had. Here’s mine…
20. GNAW THEIR TONGUES — An Eternity of Suffering, An Eternity of Pain
No other artist on Earth does abject misery quite like Gnaw Their Tongues aka Dutchman Maurice Du Jong, who takes black metal to its absolute breaking point.
One of his many releases under different guises this year (he’s got 90-odd albums and EPs on Bandcamp), this is a slight side-step into ferocious in-the-red harsh noise rather than black metal, and there’s even the odd droney ambient passage. But mostly it’s utter, retching horror and we’re all gonna die.
19. HOLLY HERNDON — PROTO
As a concept album, PROTO has a pretty strong conceit – producer Holly Herndon has collaborated with a choral ensemble and a nascent artificial intelligence called Spawn, taught by hundreds of vocal coaches. Once you know this it’s impossible to listen without prejudice, but you may as well welcome the hyperreal digital collision of zeroes, ones and carbon-based lifeforms, even if its prophetic vision of a future post-human generation is a bit close to the bone for now.
18. MIKE PATTON & JEAN-CLAUDE VANNIER – Corpse Flower
Music’s greatest reprobate polymath Mike Patton teams up with French composer Jean-Claude Vannier, maybe best known for his work with Serge Gainsbourg. Patton chews up and gorges on the cinematic arrangements in typically all-in voracious fashion. It all feels like Mr Bungle have been let loose among the reels in a French library music archive.
17. LANKUM – The Livelong Day LP
If you’re sick of the old played out drinking song ‘The Wild Rover’ after years of it being rinsed out, Lankum’s stunning version will sober you up and kick you in the teeth. The 10-minute track owes as much to the Dirty Three, Michael Gira’s Angels of Light or British psych-folk as Irish trad, with Radie Peat getting to the real tragic heart of the song — a battered alcoholic’s ultimately doomed plans to give up the drink. It builds to Swans levels of intensity and you’re wrung out by the end.
And that’s only the opening track. From droney, avant-garde reboots of leftfield trad songs, to powerful originals, this is unflinching music that reclaims trad and folk from the Temple Bar chancers.
16. KLEIN — Lifetime
Londoner Klein says Lifetime is her most personal work to date, saying it feels like “giving someone your diary”, but even then she’s not explicitly giving much away. Her clipped vocal abstractions and hyperreal electronic collages are no less compelling without a narrative that jumps out. And the sound design here borders on actual possession when you go with headphones.
15. MOUNT ALASKA – Wave Atlas: Season One
For two years, Dublin duo Mount Alaska had been drip-feeding singles that nodded to ambient techno and Burial-tinted garage, but on their debut album they fully realised their explorations into modern composition.
They say Wave Atlas: Season One is “an ode to our favourite composers: Max Richter, Olafur Arnalds, Johann Johannsson and Wendy Carlos”, while Nils Frahm and Tim Hecker echo through these droney, delicate imaginary soundtrack passages.
14. MANGO x MATHMAN — Casual Work
Dublin duo Mango x Mathman introduced Casual Work’s lead single ‘Deep Blue’ as a “love letter to the city”, and over the course of the album they let you know ‘it’s complicated’. It’s a period piece of sorts — following a post-Celtic Tiger few years in MC Mango’s life that still resonates with the state of the city being bulldozed around us.
You might come for the tops-aff Mentasm hardcore and grime bangers, but you’ll stay for Mathman’s vivid soul and garage, ambient textures, vocal collaborations and string arrangements by avant-garde collective the Crash Ensemble.
13. HAMA – Houmeissa
In the depths of January, Nigerién Hama hit the sweet spot you never knew you wanted – West African desert folk songs retooled into cosmic synthwave and soulful techno. This is some of the most addictive, straight-up joyous music I’ve ever heard. It’s all classic 808 house kicks, lo-fi synth leads and infectious 90s video game motifs that demand re-looping. I listened to it for around eight hours one day and it’s stuck in my head for life.
12. PHARMAKON – Devour
French producer Margaret Chardier’s last album Contact continued her recurring themes of empathy and transcendence through visceral noise and power electronics. On new record Devour she takes the next logical step, with five tracks steeped in the imagery of self-cannibalisation, “on cellular, individual, societal and species-wide scales”.
Devour is her first album recorded in a studio, and Uniform’s Ben Greenberg immediately captures her feral live intensity and body horror — all rusting metallic white noise, shattered vocals and animalistic heavy breathing.
11. GROSS NET — Gross Net Means Gross Net
If 2020 is the year they get Brexit done, 2019 will be remembered as a collective retch of ultimately unheeded warnings. On Gross Net Means Gross Net, Belfast’s Philip Quinn bottled the existential dread and disgust in Ireland and the UK and hammered it into dubby post-punk, cold wave industrial corners.
With track titles like ‘The Indignity of Labour’, ‘Of Late Capitalism’, ‘Shedding Skin’ and even ‘Theresa May’, you know what you’re getting yourself into, with added body horror, sarcasm and bleak humour.
10. LEONARD COHEN — Thanks For the Dance
Not sure how unpopular this opinion really is, but Leonard Cohen recorded his best music in his last years, with his final three albums all masterpieces in half-spoken poetic grandeur through experimental arrangements.
The posthumous Thanks For the Dance has all the dry wit and deadpan finality of 2016’s You Want It Darker, as it was finished with sketches from those sessions, with his songwriter and collaborator son Adam gathering musicians including Daniel Lanois, Jennifer Warnes, Bryce Dessner and, er, Damien Rice to give Leonard a brilliant, defiant send-off.
9. DOS MONOS — Dos City
The debut album from Japanese hip-hop trio Dos Monos fizzles with a brazen no-fucks-given attitude, with free jazz discord, metallic percussion rattles and giddy rhymes. It’s a garish, glitchy, hyper-cut headbutt of RZA/ODB-fuelled beats, DOOM-style skits, 16-bit crunches and digital overdrive.
8. BOY HARSHER – Careful
Goth pop EBM duo Boy Harsher’s LP Careful pulses with an intense, melancholy sensuality, evoking seedy dancefloors and fizzling neon striplights on their last legs. It’s a smudgy analogue fever dream, with Jae Matthews’ reverbed vocal abstractions weaving between Augustus Muller’s woozy synth gear changes.
7. RAKTA – Falha Comum
I’ve heard Brazilian duo Rakta being described as post-punk, but Falha Comum sounds like some ghost in the machine psychedelic seance, a witches’ cauldron of occult kosmische energy, dense psych-rock and giallo horror luridnessness. I don’t understand Brazilian, but nothing good is happening to the people in these songs.
6. SWANS — leaving meaning.
When Michael Gira resurrected Swans in 2010 after 14 years, he lit a fuse on the most intense, visceral and ultimately ecstatic live music experience of the decade. But while the albums The Seer, To Be Kind and The Glowing Man were shapeshifting, improvised epic passages that got hammered into shape on the road, Gira finished the decade with a bunch of bluesier songs that were then embellished by the likes of Ben Frost, the Necks, Anna and Maria Von Hausswolff, and most of his Mk II co-Swans.
There’s no real blunt force trauma here, no 50-minute hypnotic portals, but leaving meaning still rams it home with arm-scratching repetition, incantations and feral abandon, while offsetting the fear with the most blissful aspects of Gira’s psych-folk Angels of Light project.
5. FREDDIE GIBBS & MADLIB — Bandana
The gift that keeps on Gibbing – Freddie and Madlib’s new album Bandana comes five years after Pinata and it’s another hall of fame record from the pair. Woozy psychedelia, scratchy soul breaks, Gibbs’ rugged bars and actual funny skits (“Go out on this this holiday, get you some ribs, throw ’em on the grill, and let’s call it… a fuck-ecue!”)
4. SHORTPARIS — Так закалялась сталь
Apparently you need to see Shortparis in the flesh to get fully locked in, but I’m still on board with the Russians’ dark pop theatrics on Так закалялась сталь (Thus the Steel Was Tempered).
The St Petersburg act toy with Laibach-style military sedition, techno precision, the wind machine electro-goth of Depeche Mode and the rusted clanking of Iron Curtian cold wave EBM. They’re known for their gigs in abandoned factories, sex shops and supermarkets, but until I catch them at some bizarre perfomance art happening, this is knocking me out for now.
3. SUNN O))) — Life Metal
The 13-minute ‘Between Sleipnir’s Breaths’ is the most colossal opening track of any album this year. It rides in on wailing horses, blackened psychedelia and Icelandic vocalist and cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir reciting ancient poetry. In Norse mythology, Sleipnir is an eight-legged horse ridden by Odin to Hel, so I’m guessing it breathes fucking heavily. The rest of Life Metal oozes into the depths like a 1bpm lava lake, with grating overdrive hacking through the drones.
2. NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS — Ghosteen
“What would I do without Warren?”
When Nick Cave half-whispers these words in the documentary Once More With Feeling, he’s marvelling at Warren Ellis’s strength as a friend helping him steer his life out of derailment after the death of his son Arthur and the recording of the 2017 album Skeleton Tree — maybe the album of the decade.
But Ellis has also been a miraculous Bad Seed band leader since 2013’s Push the Sky Away, with his impressionistic synth loops leading to a transcendent chapter in the life of the hardest ass backing band of all time.
Ghosteen closes a trilogy of sorts, and it’s the first time Cave directly tackles his own grief and a new profound bond he has nurtured with fans (the songs on Skeleton Tree were written before Arthur’s death).
Along with Cave’s piano and his empathetic, fantastical lyrics, Ellis’s wispy ambient textures elevate Ghosteen to another spectral plane entirely.
1. KIM GORDON — No Home Record
At 66, Kim Gordon released her first solo album in 2019, and predictably enough it’s a bullseye. After her noise and ambient textural explorations with Bill Nace on Body/Head, she chops up slivers of lo-fi hip-hop, punk, dark dub and drone-rock and skewers them all together with the kind of post-human guitar sounds that are nothing less than pure sorcery.