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 Post subject: Harry's Top 50 of 2019
PostPosted: Sat Jan 11, 2020 5:55 pm 
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1. Big Thief – UFOF
At 2:56 into “Contact”, the first cut of UFOF, a full-throated electric guitar drops loudly into what had been an earnest if plaintive folk song, reminding the listener that the idiom of this brilliant band (woman) is rock music. Might as well be an epiphany. Guitars, acoustic or electric … these poems are threaded through chords, finger-picking, and a simple drum’s back beat. Most of the songs could be picked out in a dorm room, or motel downtown, or the house at the lake, or a mental hospital’s craft room. Because make no mistake, this woman, writing from inside the personal stories her body holds on to, writes poetry. Confessional poetry like Robert Lowell, or (I worry for her) Anne Sexton. But poetry born of this century, this decade, this moment – even as it narrates the palimpsest images of her childhood and subsequent romances, its flowing gender ruminations, and offers a melancholic placeholder for some future better alignment of the stars. Rock as a tool of the artist, real rock, not sound engineering, rather analog analyses of a this not that that is both sobbing yodel that may not make it through the dark night of our collective soul, yet also a stark assertion of a personhood strong enough to (might as well) stay alive. A voice that demands attention, even as it’s the most annoying, broken-hearted warble since after the goldrush. Permit me voyage, love, into Adrianne Lenker’s more than capable hands. Because, after all, rock music. Not dead yet.
2. Big Thief – Two Hands
Happy pop songs about body dysphoria, gender performance, loving betrayal and remembered child abuse. I suppose they could have waited and made a double album. But these songs bring that pinking shears voice even further forward in sparse arrangements. And, as is her wont, she sounds (even sometimes double-tracked, with harmony) seriously insistent. There is something urgent, horribly and desperately urgent that needs to be shared. Less dense than UFOF, the songs are hardly light – some of them could be covered and reimagined as arena rock or a classic power ballad, rather than 2:00am accusations in the kitchen, where they seem to live in this setting. DNA as a death sentence and redemption in one fell confession. “Not” is the song of the year; Dylan could have written this in 1966, if he’d gotten laid less and been able to recognize the bed that is haunted with a blanket of thirst. “I am unstable, rock and sing… rock and sing.” Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing.
3. Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980–1990
Minimal. Delicate. Detailed. Borrowed technology. Who better than the Japanese, right? Two hours of carefully curated samples of many composers. The variety of “new sounds” is its delight – some like machines humming quietly in the background, some lugubrious Vangelis-like soundtracks, some raindrops in a (of course) Zen garden, some like the most meditative Eno – music barely there at all. Many compositions are architectural. Some are provisional, almost hesitant in their reserve. All are astoundingly beautiful. And if these composers didn’t directly influence much of the electronic/ambient music I dote on and drone on about now, they heard then what became what my favorite musicians hear now.
4. The Comet is Coming – Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery
Young Brit saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings continues his monumental exploration of psychedelics, electronics, dub-jazz, and the cosmic cocktail lounge. Propulsive (summon the fire, like now, ok?) and brand new, this music reminds us, quoting both beatnik dreams and Chicago avant-garde blue note screaming, that Cool is still better than Chill. Sun Ra through the looking glass. Sun Ra pogoing as a punk. Sun Ra on the Day of Ascension. Sun Ra head banging in gentrified cities, in council houses, and on a road Trip. “Unity” almost sounds like John Klemmer quiet-storm 70s jazz, and is the second best “cut” of the year (c.f. “Not” above). Even given the epic flag waving of Hutchings’ Trane-like sax, all three pieces are equally needed. The rhythm section is not respectful, has no time for reminiscing about the jazz canon. Indeed this music, both its hot and cold sides, isn’t patient. Music on the edge of time – a trio of blokes keeping the beat of cosmic relief or total dystopia. Annihilation either way.
5. Yann Novak – Slowly Dismantling
Well there are drones (deepening into one place, clearing away distractions, aural stability), and then there are waves of drones – the forward momentum of similar or congruent sounds (treated, found and re-shaped) that seem to suggest the ephemeral, the transitory nature of sound and time, and so being itself. (Think Disintegration Loops) This is much more composed and chosen here than the work by Basinski, which celebrates the accidental. And Novak, the LA composer, proposes that this is in fact a tone poem or musical essay on his growing up queer. I don’t hear that in the largely comforting industrial hums and pitches. The mothership is always entering the frame – it’s all about a challenged notion of time, space and perception – and the result is a chronological record of the undone. Renewed at every listen. Be still and know that I am… well, I am. Among the best droning of the decade.
6. Michael O’Shea
It’s hard to think what he wanted this music to be. A buskers’ inward gaze really, messages from an interior world. The home-made dulcimer drones on while the beats pound the rhythmic point home. Indian raga, north African melody lines, and scenes from the Galway coast all at the same time. Tinariwen playing in a medieval court. Its rescue from obscurity (this music is 30 years old) only one element of what is essentially Mystery. As much in the religious as musical sense.
7. (Sandy) Alex G – House of Sugar
There is a tradition in pop/art rock of eccentrics using musical bromides in odd and arresting ways. English eccentrics (Julian Cope, Robert Wyatt, Kate Bush) and American eccentrics (Jonathan Richman, Don Van Vliet, Ariel Pink). Eccentricity deeper than a utilized “quirkiness” (Van Vliet compared to Zappa). This music occupies that kind of unsettling origin. Much of the album sounds like a demo session; suggested ideas more than pop songs. But the electronics are sophisticated noise. High tech recordings of lo-fi elements (a strummy guitar seemingly with no re-verb), and a fine fuzz overlaying simple street corner freak-folk ditties. His voice burying special needs lyrics (What if Ariel Pink tried to be serious?), the double tracking helping tentative vocal chords more than hold their own. Perhaps it’s telling that the best song on the album is a “live” track at the end where a sax helps him and his melody, against all logic, sound like Bruce Springsteen.
8. Kali Malone – The Sacrificial Code
Some of this careful and calm organ droning sounds like the quiet and meditative organ prelude before a funeral. Greeting friends not seen in years, sadly thinking about mutability and the ephemeral nature of living. But when the “pedal gets stuck” and there is one tone left, it’s not a mindful meditative stasis; and it’s a relief when there is finally a next and second tone. And then mercifully the residue of a melody. Minor key and stripped down to the clear minimum, not disintegration loops, this sound of things falling away is sharp, not fuzzy. I remain a sucker for the tectonic plates pace of slowly moving sound designs. Many minimalist electronic droning, even other acoustically produced albums that are the métier of choice, have a similar pace, but none have these rough and mellow sonics of an analog pipe organ (like last year’s cello compositions of Clarice Jensen). Toccata, passacaglia, preludes – this music inescapably invokes churches and chapels – what produces these sounds uses a familiar tradition, even if the artifact performed steadily, slowly disrupts. Using the language of history to make something utterly else.
9. Thom Yorke – Anima
Finally getting the balance right between club-ready electronica and the majestic ennui of his first-world-problems voice. But maybe it’s too late – the very timbre and intensity of his voice concretizes a zeitgeist just as much as a Dylan, Johnny Rotten, Cobain, Tupac or Cardi B – but the quality of this mercy is pretty strained, time’s up gentlemen. A musical Brexit from Euro-trash. I thought we had a deal. I really mean it, man.
10. John Luther Adams – Become Desert
The lines between “serious music”, commissioned by serious orchestras and awarded Pulitzers, and experimental “popular” music, has been blurring for years, and now doesn’t exist in this list (there is another Pulitzer or two on the list). Adams’ won the Pulitzer for the sequel to this composition, Become Ocean, and this is even more simplifyingly beautiful. Perhaps its my own affinity for deserts and spirituality – small sounds magnify into cosmic proportions. Limited sound pallets first open the ear. Hermitage, retreat, magnificent hysechia – eventually with a huge orchestra – Mahler after doing E - with a string section, kettle drums, woodwinds, brass, chorus… all in a single swirling sound of unerring space and light.
11. Purple Mountains – Purple Mountains
Fine, you finally figure out how to bring an endlessly nourishing indie sound to the middle-aged hipster masses who like their rock gods to be poets, and then you commit suicide? Well, it’s a perky suicide note, for sure. Countryfied choruses with soul-hungry harmonics, rom-com melancholy, riffs and pedal steel, two-step beats allowing the head to bob in rhythm just so, as you get it all together just in time for check out. These are songs Leonard Cohen could have written, if you pulled out the Zen, inserted some Jeff Tweedy, and sprinkled lightly with a death wish. David, you coulda been the Warren Zevon of the 20’s. Epitaph rock?
“Songs build little rooms in time
What comes after certainty
And housed within the song’s design
Is the ghost the host has left behind
To greet and sweep the guest inside
Stoke the fire and sing his lines.”
12. Lumen Drones – Umbra
Those long Norwegian nights bear a secret. Or so this seems to promise. Half folk rock with a mournful fiddle stating the melodic premise, half Euro rock with a constant drone and Tangerine Dream insistent percussion driving the point home. I guess the marked distance between the lumen and the shadow is the space to ponder, to rest in. Post-rock ideas that assemble unexpected conclusions – calm resolutions not meant for the faint of heart.
13. Bremer-McCoy – Utopia
Danish piano/bass instrumental duo, analog and no effects, creating jazzy post-classical ambient soundtrack. A little like Satie’s gymnopedies , a thoughtful simplicity, future-focused with the Neue Innigkeit sense of creating the new by reductions, not additions. Chill enough on the inside. Best heard when left on repeat; the increments and accretions of solace.
14. Bon Iver – I.I.
Have you heard the good news? This is Gospel music at its core. Hipster, deconstructed, fragmented shards and samples of heavily produced and processed gospel music. And I guess popular music has always been white guys appropriating black music; here Vernon sounds like he’s singing with hip hop Auto-Tune, even when he’s not. The lyrics themselves are self-satisfied and cryptic, largely around love and relationship. White, spacious, wintry, and coolly beautiful music, with effective but creepy hooks. I like you, I like you … but that’s nothing new.
15. Black Midi – Schlagenheim
Much of “young kids’”music seems to me chopped up, partial ideas, inchoate, segmental and impatient (Lorde, Billie Eilish). ADHD of the clicks and downloads; cut and paste software. A language with some future and potential maturity. Prog-rock is an old man’s field of dreams, just embarked upon by these British teens. Ephemeral in service to the eternal. That particular King’s crimson is an adolescent blush of “let’s try this.”
16. A Winged Victory for the Sullen – The Undivided Five
Comfort audio food. Analog piano rolling slowly around electronic fireside chats. Simple melodies fade away before they’re done. Slow core, slow shell, slow breath, opening spacious music for sitting meditations. Country clapboard church and Park Slope brownstone two sides to the same lucky coin; a tidal wash of sound, small on the surface, but bigger than the moon.
17. Nivhek – Walking In A Spiral Towards the House/After Its Own Death
Liz Harris/Grouper doesn’t make intentionally pretty music, although there’s a lot of beauty here, conventional beauty with echoing choruses and starkly snow-like aural landscapes. She doesn’t make simple music, although there are moments of repetitive minimalism here. The voice (her voice) is distinctive as it’s multiple tracking eventually sounds like a Bulgarian women’s choir, quarter tone harmonics before a “gamelan” up in the attic shows up and states the main themes. The voices almost rubbed out and the static-laden gamelan are the primaries sounds in this seriously unique composition.
18. Ellen Akro - Chords
Adventures in minimalism! A chord is a combination of multiple tones, by definition, and here the composer composes by varying timbre, volume, resonance, tremolo, and buzz of the tones in a single chord. Until the next chord. There may be as many as two chords in 60 minutes. The composer references the great base pedal tones of a huge organ in a cathedral and the dentist’s drill heard though both air and bone. Indeed, played loudly, some of this does a nice job of vibrating the sternum. The second half’s vinegary guitar chords, finally following the organ, turn white noise into sunshine.
19. Fennesz – Agora
A return to form from the clubs via the last Trans-Europe Express to Lhasa. I always liked the F at the beginning and sz at the end; so much of his droney electronics were fizzy, fuzzy. And these are matured and well considered drones, good to put on repeat and listen to for hours on end. Music of the Public Spheres
20. Sarah Davachi – Pale Bloom
Serious, intellectually challenging music can also break the heart. This does just that. Just as the ear can develop informed taste for drones and electronics, so the lay listener can discern the quality and intents of bare minimalist compositions. This contemplative music is radically minimal but familiar: acoustic authentic sounds of piano, strings, organ and voice. A solo piano of a few cool notes is quietly, slowly heightened with counter-tenor vocals, chanson, art song human voices dropping in almost as if the radio channel was shifting. The tender grief of a human voice. The organ and piano then join in modal increments. What would minimalist counter-point sound like? Viola and violin bifurcate the space between each instrument, causing oddly pleasing dissonant harmonics, like Tibetan tingshas. The organ at the end is like Allen Ginsberg’s Hindu hand organ, and the result is indeed a felt need for prayer, chanting, and ceremony wherein one note, held just long enough, is a complete invocation of the mortally sacred.
21. Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah- Ancestral Recall
In the mélange of influences (afro-cuban, tribal dub-step, rap, John Hassel-Freddy Hubbard-Miles, Fourth World) the timbre of his piercing trumpet, muted or not, and shamelessly melodic phrasing, are the sonic and soaring arcs building bridges. From the cool 50s cocktail lounges to the industrial 10s concentration camps and a neo-modernist and fragmentary future. Those bridges are heavily produced, and cross many rivers (more Rio Cauta, and Niger, than his Mississippi River home).
22. Hammock – Universalis
Released in December, 2018, but I’m claiming it for this year. Achingly beautiful post-rock from Nashville, with pedigree of Winged Victory, Olafur Arnalds, Johann Johannsson. Explosions in the Sky slowed down to a subconscious, sub rasa pace and place. Chamber rock in indie-soundtrack mode, with droning longterm phrases. Plenty of space to ponder the elegant and rooted despondency growing underfoot, left alive. So high on the list because it was played more than anything else this year, in my Dharma Bums’ hut, marking time.
23. Our Lady of the Flowers - Holiday in Thule
Astonishing sound montages of found sound and layered electronics produced clean and clear, the distance from the highest 3D treble to the massive undercurrent of bass humming constantly, is a mile wide. Some electronic music fills space, some expands it. Deepchord exceeds it – you’re on the 14th floor, and every minute sound scrap below is heard and is in perfect dubstep with the larger construction. Heady stuff in the purest deep electronic house tradition – it does sound a little old school. Wired and wondering.
24. The National – I Am Easy to Find
For the ennui connoisseurs only. Adult music, with energy, and tasteful classic rock/Eno production values. Hooks, breaks, crescendos, drum fills, funny string instruments and the relentlessly depressive irony of his voice. That voice falling off a baritone cliff, and phrasing like an apologetic message left on a Williamburg barista’s cell phone. Gen X heartbreak, again. It’s gonna be totally ok. Yeah, that voice (a little distracted by the duets on this album) will always make you forgive him, if only until he leaves at 2:00am. Again. I guess he really should be singing in French. Best since their first, but sometimes I wish they’d scale back the production, and let the guitar and his voice get to know each other. Although not high on this list, it’s likely I’ll listen to this more in ten years than most of the music listed here.
25. The Delines – The Imperial
Although from Portland’s gluten-free roadhouses, these songs want to tell stories of the real grit from Americana’s dark and nourishing/poisoning bars where a drink or two is needed to make it through the night. Documenting the hard scrabble myths in the lower middle classes without anthropology or art. “You’re using all your vacation days…” “Arlo’s been a good man to me, and I take care of his daughter too…” Hammond organs and quiet horn section critical to keep you on life-support. Got any quarters for the jukebox?
26. Ralph Alessi – Imaginary Friends
The requisite ECM-stable and cerebral cool-bop, falling apart, unravelling from some quiet but desperately beautiful center. “Stable” in that the wide Mies Van der Rohe spaces of the minimalist cocktail lounge, predictably, comfortingly, encourages limits at the compositional fraying edge. Samples, found sound, errors, and the sweetest horn timbre. Euro-jazz’s reminder that jazz is the past century’s most serious music.
27. Neil Young and Crazy Horse – Colorado
There is no way, of course, that this should be on the list. But the garage is still Holy, and the young man’s tremolo, having become an old man’s quaver, still sings the song of the hippie dream, with three crunchy underwater chords and the truth. Play at full volume.
28. Ellen Fullman and Okkyung Lee – The Air Around Here
If you like droning, the trance-like and meditative qualities of music composed horizontally, not vertically, what better design than the electronically mushed and augmented analog latitudes of Fullman’s cello? Both close to the sound of the human voice and of a large oil tanker slowly grinding on a pier, this experimental music takes its time. The Lee electronic chirpy appurtenances, I guess, are the seagulls circling, flying to remind, there is air around here.
29. Caroline Shaw/Attaca Quartet – Orange
As music morphs and hybridizes, the subsets of “serious” music and electronic popular music produce unexpected successes. And not just the orchestral soundtrack successes of Max Richter or Jóhann Jóhannsson, but chamber music like Orange. This string quartet always is a trip to places new and familiar at once. And you can shoe gaze and thoughtfully nurse a single-sourced coffee to pizzicati and borderline twelve-tone. When you need an aural cleanse, serious music like this is the ticket.
30. DIIV – Deceiver
Music that dives deeper than their previous respectful, druggy shoe gaze. Full body and exposed power chords dropped among the murky chimes. Heads nodding more to music than central nervous system downtime. It suits him.
31. Moon Duo – Stars Are The Light
The lovely chuga chuga of psychedelic kraut rock via Marin county, 2019. The underwater guitars of the guy from Wooden Shjips, thick and expansive. Ecstatic voodoo brewed with single source coffee beans.
32. Lankum – The Livelong Day
Beyond the folk-based melodies and sources, there is something intrinsically Irish about building from a moment emerging from silence to a heightened ecstatic intensity, even if that ecstasy is melancholic. These songs build… and drone from quietness to a desperate jig at the end of time. Acoustic celtic rituals threaded through a powerful electronic doom and gloom. Espirit d’dirge – the Irish illnesses and hungers.
33. Tim Hecker – Anoyo
Tricks with traditional Japanese music and its instruments continue. Hecker did this last year, and this repeats the surprising textures and pastiche melody lines he gets when he records old Japan, electronically alters the sounds and chops it up in western ways. One of my favorite ambient composers is in a holding pattern.
34. Floating Points – Crush
Shepherd’s music has always sounded a little like “music” drifting through interstellar space, of one intelligent civilization trying to declare life and find and communicate with another. Although it’s clear that the sending planet is Club Ibiza. Here he goes pure electronics, although some interludes sometimes sound more like Wendy Carlos than Klaus Schulze. Unlike a lot electronic music, the melody itself tells the story. He should trust this quiet side more.
35. Joshua Redman and Brooklyn Rider – Sun on Sand
One of the best hybrids of jazz and classical, which doesn’t sound either dissonant, or recklessly blue, its uptempos more qi than urban raucous, and its downtempos more meditative than opioid. Oddly, the sax seems to harken back to a simpler time, and the strings rush forward, no prisoners. Sax, bass, string quartet – nothing else like it this year.
36. Better Oblivion Center – Better Oblivion Center
It’s beyond meat simulation and potatoes, rooty and juicy. Down the middle of the road, if this road still existed. Craft and literary competence.
37. iLe – Almadura
Classy Latin torch singing by a woman whose firmly personal and confident voice, older than its years, seems burnished by real and unrelenting life. Hard soul indeed.
38. The Caretaker – An Empty Bliss Beyond This World
A ballroom at the end of time, its dances captured in a recording that hisses and pops and suggests it’s an archival remnant from another dimension. Interesting, but seemed to be only one trick.
39. Sharon Von Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow
What if Patty Smith had been a Gen Xer?
40. Pedro the Lion – Phoenix
Still awed by God, just can’t quit Him, these are memory pieces about the suburbs of the 70s, Partial stories, with Barzan’s timeless thick and tubey guitar filling the spaces.
41. Tycho – Weather
One of my favorite post-rock atmosphere bands added vocals to no particular good purpose.
42. Angel Olsen – All Mirrors
I get it, I don’t disrespect the respect. But just too gauzy and sweet-toothed. 80s wet drums with string orchestras don’t leave much room for error.
43. J Balvin and Bad Bunny – The only reason a “trap” album makes my desiccated white guy list is the luscious summer sounds of his voice and the ritmos columbianos lurking.
44. Rocketship – Thanks to You
Totally unironic mining of shavings drawn to the same musical folk-pop lodestone as Momma’s and Papas/Carpenters, then filtered through mid-70s Fleetwood Mac anthemic tendencies. Who listens to this brilliant stuff? You couldn’t make music less attuned to the zeitgeist. Sacramento, eh?
45. Ride – This Is Not A Safe Space
Underappreciated 90s band return to suggest that some shoes need no longer be gazed upon.
46. Sturgill Simpson
Noisier than his brand would suggest.
47. Tyler, The Creator – IGOR
I like the Latin riddim’ touches, though.
48. Weyes Blood – Titanic Rising
Worst Well-Reviewed release of the Year. This Avant pop is stale spitwads cluttering my synesthetic ears.
49. Son Volt – Union
Well-meaning political angst in the key of Americana. And rates ahead of Jeff.
50. Wilco
Neil Young award for old dad rock disqualifying from lists like this. Oh, wait a minute, Neil still makes good music.

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