ACL 2019 ~ The Top 20 Albums of the Year

Our reviewers have an ear for the unique, as evidenced by this list. Every writer voted for a different #1.  But when the votes were counted, one album stood above them all, winning a broad base of support that unified our staff.  Some familiar faces made the cut, along with two debut albums.  Two albums were completions of a series; another was the first of a pair.  Four were self-released.  These twenty albums are only the tip of the iceberg, representing less than 1% of our submissions and an even smaller fraction of the overall market.

We usually end our lists here, but 2019 also marks the end of a decade ~ on Boxing Day we’ll start the process anew, with seven decade lists and an overall Top 20 of 2010-2019.  Our readers can look forward to one of the most intriguing lists around, with surprises galore.  We’ll follow this with our Winter Music Preview, which for a time will represent the best music of the new decade!  And now, A Closer Listen presents the Top 20 Albums of 2019!

1. Caterina Barbieri ~ Ecstatic Computation (Editions Mego)
Opening with one of the best tracks of the year, Ecstatic Computation does not follow the (potentially authoritarian) blueprint of digital futurists, nor does it mark an opposition to the flows of algorithms. What it does is pose an aesthetic and historical question that diverts those streams of 1s and 0s into the realm of the symbolic, asking whether the rationalized mimesis of natural laws is also a potential source of entry into the wellsprings of the imagination. An old machine (synth) meets new processes, and the result is a powerful reinterpretation of electronic music as an ancient procedure for the erotic, finding in the more experimental, modern edges of sound an intense form of primeval expression. As it intertwines with the conventional and the melodic, it recreates the regularity of beats no longer as a rational, procedural certainty, but as the fallout of a million unpredictable interactions: history. Computing, in short, flourishes in/from chance, and it is in that undetermined zone where the wild richness of our own minds can be found, a space in which consciousness and the unconscious are one and the same thing. There, the synth sounds like a harpsichord, time folding to meld the avant-garde and the baroque into a glimpse of some selfless beyond in which time – the beat itself – is no longer measurement, but metaphor. (David Murrieta Flores)

Original Review

2. Matana Roberts ~ COIN COIN Chapter Four: Memphis (Constellation)
Lord, Lord, I finally have the honor of reviewing a Matana Roberts album! (So much for journalistic neutrality.) Throughout the 2010s, avant-garde musician and composer Matana Roberts has baffled career critics with her incendiary barrage of post-folk-pre-jazz. The latest installment in her ongoing series, Coin Coin Chapter Four: Memphis, expands her “panoramic sound quilting” with a nimble new band; and guided by Matana’s graphic scores and conduction techniques, they prove to be gifted co-quilters. Combining diarism with historical research, Memphis confronts issues of identity and morality surrounding the American slave trade. Matana’s vocals navigate the fray: howls, chants, and spoken passages reference nursery songs, sea shanties, and gospel mantras. Jazz-rock textures weave together thrillingly with folk instruments; from violins scouring pig pens to jaw harp twanging under moonlight, melodies dart between homely and alarming. One moment the band is growling at the wolves; the next, panhandling to Dixieland. Yes, Matana is a proud child of the wind, even her daddy says so.  (Todd B. Gruel)

Original Review

3. Black to Comm ~ Seven Horses for Seven Kings (Thrill Jockey)
A sense of impending doom has been with humanity for centuries. In Seven Horses for Seven Kings, Black to Comm has given that mythical register a tone for our times, a masterfully crafted drone set that is as harsh as it is exciting. It’s hard to talk about sentiment when it comes to these kinds of sounds, but there is a grinding sense of sadness and a little hope in the reflection of a hellish world, all those twisted fanfares for the harbingers of death that sweep through the circuitry of capital underlined by an everyday life that shines some light upon their terrible works. The anger and the screeching edges are reserved for them; at the album’s end, a peaceful meditation ensues, in which we share a vision with a character from a Japanese tale: we have yet to forget that we are skeletons in the mirror of hell. In having a myth, we have a humanity, whereas the kings have lost both. (David Murrieta Flores)

Original Review

4. The Caretaker ~ Everywhere at the end of time/everywhere, an empty bliss (History Always Favours the Winners)
After six years dedicated to a painful sonic chronicling of early on-set dementia, Leyland Kirby deserved a succinct moment of “clarity”. Everywhere, an Empty Bliss does good on that promise, if you consider an abbreviated journey into total memory loss a chance for clarity. Ditching the longer runtimes of all six stages of Everywhere At The End of Time, we’re given a quick sampler of haunted, ever-deteriorating ballroom music slowly eating itself alive. The decay is accelerated here, giving natural degradation a defamiliarized tint, almost amplifying the heartbreak that the full project achieves. In three minute pieces, The Caretaker lets old samples churn into oblivion as they forget where they once came from, like remembering an absent placeholder where a memory once was. The missing pieces become faded, cloudy memories of their own, slogging along towards the finality of complete emptiness. (Josh Hughes)

Original Review

5. Sunn O))) ~ Life Metal (Ideologic Organ)
As its playful title might suggest, Life Metal is the sound of Sunn O))) loosening their typical chokehold on immersive, droning metal. Through four expectedly indulgent tracks (nothing shorter than 11 minutes to be found here), the group finds harmonious— if vaguely threatening— transcendence in the booming, decadent tones of dual guitar feedback. Alongside Steve Albini’s delicate hand on the boards, Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley effortlessly broaden the color spectrum on a career littered with a thousand grey hues. Sparing collaborative work from Hildur Go∂nadóttir and Anthony Pateras further adds to the intoxicating bliss that foams over the edges of the jetblack waters that still linger in the loud soundscapes. It’s simply another self-assured project from the deserved titans of contemporary drone metal. (Josh Hughes)

Original Review

6. Dominik Eulberg ~ Mannigfaltig (!K7)
There have been occasional 12” singles, but this is Eulberg’s first album since 2011’s Diorama; after such a time, he needed fresh motivation to craft a real statement. As a biologist and ecologist, there was one staring him in the face; he could not help but be moved by the accelerating rates of destruction of wildlife and forests, which depressingly seems to be spinning out of control and beyond the chance to correct such losses. For Mannigfaltig, he has chosen a small part of the greater whole and looked close to home, to the animals, insects and birds of his native Germany, who have inspired the track titles. Each one has imbued its particular tune with their personality, and Eulberg can genuinely be said to paint pictures with sounds. It’s a long record, so the variety is appreciated; it isn’t an album that will feature in many DJ sets but it might inspire action and that’s what we need. (Jeremy Bye)

Original Review

7. YATTA ~ WAHALA (Purple Tape Pedigree)
As YATTA croons on Wahala, “I sing the blues so well because I need it.” For a transgendered African American coping with displacements both personal and national, the devil creeps around every corner. Fortunately, art helps illuminate these dimly-lit corners. The digital poet and musician’s second album is a gripping psychodrama part self-therapy, part musical theater. Produced with an ear for the bizarre, fleeting melodies fade in and out of view, punctuating symphonic vocal narratives. Amid dusty keyboard loops, YATTA’s stream of consciousness poetry takes center stage: spoken, chanted, or sung in a cappella layers. The mood may be surreal—full of pixilated MIDI beats, harp, or bird chirps and music boxes—but the message is concrete. Regardless of demographics, lyrics which tackle mental health and sexuality remind us that we’re all just little specks among galaxies. Hell may be how we find our world; but heaven can still be how we leave it.  (Todd B. Gruel)

Original Review

8. PYUR ~ Oratorio for the Underworld (Subtext)
To describe one’s art as the result of a creative process of “inward archaeology” could very easily function as tired copy in the wrong hands. But Sophie Schnell’s hands are clean; and on her Subtext debut, Oratorio for the Underworld, she proves that she has at least one hand in a portal to another world. Having grown up in family which worked with the shamanic arts, the Munich electronic artist known as PYUR welcomes the veil which cloaks the rational mind. Rather than seeking to tear it apart, her chimerical project celebrates the shadows in which our collective stories take refuge. Recruiting the help of a cellist and violinist, a colorful warmth accents her club-torqued beats, balancing a rapturous blend of sound design and formal composition. No, this isn’t the type of archelogy which can be illustrated by timelines or monuments. It’s the type we must descend into with our eyes closed and our ears opened. (Todd B. Gruel)

Original Review

9. Mono ~ Nowhere Now Here (Pelagic)
To some, it might be a surprise that Mono is a recurrent presence in our end-year lists, after all these years. And here we are, yet again, showcasing an album from a band whose highs and lows just mean getting better and better. Theirs is a work of strongly grounded evolution, in which every step is a struggle to refine what is an obviously wonderful and vast emotional core. Nowhere Now Here sounds as earnest and ambitious as the band has ever been, hitting all those familiar notes with which many of us have grown, but it also explores new angles upon old themes, interesting, shifting approaches that refresh what you already know. Just like a person simultaneously changes and remains the same, so does this band, their capacity for self-development decidedly an example to follow. Mono’s inspiration is a well that never ends, and we are thankful for it. (David Murrieta Flores)

Original Review

10. Ikarus ~ Mosaismic (Ronin Rhythm)
For their third LP, Swiss quintet Ikarus considered the force of the musical interplay between their traditional jazz trio and vocal duo so seismic that they honoured it in the title. The other part of that portmanteau ~ mosaic ~ speaks to the intricacy with which these compositions were constructed, which somehow fades when you step back to digest the whole. Mosaismic is rhythmically involved and melodically accomplished, its complex drum and bass lines calculating around each other while the piano wanders up scales on its own meter and the scat vocals punctuate different parts of both with their own wordless rhythms or heavy breathing (“Subzero”). But then ~ sometimes across a single track (“Aligulin”) ~ the drums and bass start a shuffling groove. The piano locks in. The vocals fall in line. You feel an urge to get up and dance, even though you’ll end up a pile of confused limbs. Ikarus lead us through an angular, intimidating cityscape, but one full of murals, plants and jostling people ~ vibrant and alive. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)

Original Review

11. Širom ~ A Universe that Roasts Blossoms for a Horse (Glitterbeat)
Slovenian “imaginary folk” trio Širom likes it when a song falls apart—in fact, it’s what excites them the most: the gift of impermanence. On the group’s third album, A Universe that Roasts Blossoms for a Horse, they ride the cusp between structure and flux. But in the realm of folk music, there’s nothing traditional about them: neither their backgrounds (in classical, hardcore, and post-rock), nor their horde of instruments (consider their love of kitchenware), nor their techniques (intricate compositions born from an improvisational spirit). And although the eastern plains of their homeland inform their music, it’s as rooted in the air as in the land. The sparse use of vocals throughout is sublime, spurring A Universe’s soft sadness towards a pop-oriented catharsis. Whether pulled from caves, sinkholes, or moss-covered boulders, these are landscapes worth wandering with care and reverence.  (Todd B. Gruel)

Original Review

12. Trio Ramberget ~ Musik att somna till (Self-Released)
This gorgeously evocative release from Trio Ramberget has rare purity in its vision and execution. It seems absurd to talk in such essentialist terms. But the threesome’s bass, trombone, and clarinet are each as crisp and untrammelled as freshly fallen snow. Ambient music benefits so greatly from electronics, it’s easy to forget the simple power of bowed strings, deep brass, and a blown reed. While the title posits this as night-time music, it will equally enrich a dark winter morning or a lazy afternoon. (Samuel Rogers)

Original Review

13. Hammock ~ Silencia (Hammockmusic)
The final part of a trilogy centred around loss and mourning, Silencia sees Hammock slowly, thoughtfully, emerge from the grief that flowed through the previous albums Mysterium and Universalis. The duo of Marc Byrd and William Thompson have retained many of the same collaborators throughout the three albums; indeed, the Budapest Art Choir who have already acted as an ethereal presence on several tracks in the trilogy come to the fore on Silencia sounding like a heavenly host, letting light and hope in, at last. The grief doesn’t go away entirely but, at the end of it all, this is a life-affirming work, touching the soul and feeding the spirit. (Jeremy Bye)

Original Review

14. The Pirate Ship Quintet ~ Emitter (Denovali)
The ship that sailed out of Bristol Harbour seven years ago finally returned this year, bearing a wealth of treasures. Emitter is a bold record of intensity, atmosphere and above all patience, formed of a trio of guitars plus drums and cello ~ the few airy vocal passages reminding us of, but nautical miles from, the screaming angst of Rope for No-Hopers. Across two pieces that comfortably surpass 10 minutes, the quintet display a new level of maturity, drifting without obvious course through calm passages in which the guitars tend to play textural support to the lead cello. There is no destination, merely empty seas and the occasional slow creep of disquieting mist. The stormy passages that eventually emerge are tighter, and their scarcity means they hit harder ~ most effectively in the 90-second crescendo to the 17-minute “Companion”. 2019 offered little joy for most in the liberal city of Bristol, making Emitter the perfect companion for cold, gloomy nights when you wish to shut out the noise and simply be immersed. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)

Original Review

15. Lilien Rosarian ~ a day in bel bruit (Self-Released)
Static buzzes, birds chirp; the distant voices of people sound indistinguishably through the radio’s speakers. Signals chop in and out, as a longwave listener scans the frequencies. Ambient music thrives on gentle, rising and falling tones. But Lilien Rosarian’s exquisite album also introduces elements of glitchy cacophony. The result is both a relaxant and a stimulant: a beautifully executed concept album, and my personal favourite of the year. (Samuel Rogers) 

Original Review

16. Daniel Thorne ~ Lines of Sight (Erased Tapes)
As the title suggests, this record doesn’t take one single perspective, but a series of vanishing points within a complex geometry. Layering up a variety of saxophone utterances, Daniel Thorne takes in free improvisation, methodically minimalist patterns, uplifting ambience, and brooding drones. This is an understatedly virtuosic outing, which consciously pushes towards the outer perimeter of the instrument’s repertoire. (Samuel Rogers)

Original Review

17. Blair Coron ~ On the Nature of Things (Self-Released)
Though “nature” and “things” may seem inconspicuous subjects for the Scottish composer’s debut LP, such is Coron’s commitment to a singular compositional ambient-folk sound that On the Nature of Things ends up as sonic depictions of a deep sunset, a brief downpour or a passing flock of birds ~ conspicuous and touching. Such moments owe their dues mainly to the bold sequencing, as the pianist entertains us through a first half of sweeping chamber pieces and quiet piano in the key of birdsong, adjourns for an interval in which he intones a brief poem, then invites his friends onto the stage for a second half of intimate campfire songs and a near 20-minute encore. Each of the nine pieces is as unpredictable as it is affecting ~ none more so than “Doom”, whose protracted silences and brief interruptions truly speak to what we all fear of death: things carrying on without us. The theatre analogy before was deliberate, for this set truly feels timeless, dynamic and lively, though never loud or raucous. In short, nothing is intrusive yet everything stands out. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)

Original Review

18. Mario Diaz de Leon ~ Cycle and Reveal (Denovali)
Post-minimalist composer Mario Diaz de Leon’s fourth album alludes to a silent spirituality that is never disclosed. Despite its title, Cycle and Reveal embodies the sort of a Gnostic revelation which can only be intuited, fated to be ephemeral. Man’s relationship to musical and theological divinities are questioned across four lengthy recordings. Consider the differing outlook of the middle compositions: “Labrys” plays a sly game of cat and mouse between bassoon and synthesizer; “Irradiance” wades through a bog which shimmer towards the end. Either could function as analogies for one’s faith in systems which avoid explanations. Elsewhere in the album, marimba and flute make boisterous appearances, defying genre conventions. World music themes wind throughout the album, including Arabian scales accented by spectral electronic treatments. We don’t fault Cycle and Reveal for its impermeability. The fact that we cannot grasp it endears us to the mystery.  (Todd B. Gruel)

Original Review

19. W00DY ~ My Diary (Self-Released)
Readers may associate A Closer Listen with blissed-out soundscapes. But hyperactive, high-energy beats are another vital part of instrumental music. Breakcore was perhaps the genre that solidified my adolescent interest in electronic music. Unfortunately, its perpetual tongue-in-cheek can be tiring in large doses. Pittsburgh’s W00dy bypasses this, being incessantly fun without too much knowing irony. The artist mixes breakcore with other speed-demon styles like footwork and juke. The long tracks of My Diary are veritable barrages of invigorating ideas and skilled production. (Samuel Rogers)

Original Review

20. astrïd ~ A Porthole (I) (Gizeh)
Poetic as the title itself, the music of astrïd allows listeners to glimpse into the sometimes rapid, sometimes tranquil passing of abyssal time. The first of a set, this album draws up a window into the vastness of the sea, how simultaneously profound and banal it can be, a fact of life as much as an experience of endlessness. The chamber post-rock instrumentation gives this Porthole a unique texture, making perfect use of the emotional resonance and precision of classical sounds as they’re paired up with the uncertain, vibrant and electric tones of rock. There’s a wealth of different instruments to listen to, all of them balanced and tuned towards the concept, so much so that the differences between them come to be unnoticeable, in the sense that they play together incredibly well. You can just let the composition take you, and every sound is carefully crafted to be in the right place, at the right time. By looking out, you will look inside. (David Murrieta Flores)

Original Review

6 comments

  1. Well done! Lots of amazing music on here, and even a few gems of discovery for me! 🙂

  2. Thanks a lot for a lot of good recommendations again! However, 2019 does not mark the end of a decade, as a decade actually ends after ten years are over, not nine. You were probably thinking of “the 2010s”. Please pay attention in future posts.

    • You’re welcome! Mathematics aside, you’ll see the end of the decade pretty much everywhere, and we don’t want to be a year late to the party! It all depends on how one views a zero. For example, a baby born at the beginning of a zero year (1/1/00) is a decade old when the calendar reaches a 10. I’m with you, and tried to hold out until the entire world celebrated on Y2K but after that there was no point in fighting it!

      • Felice Vallotton

        But yea, that’s what I’m saying – you’re obviously not celebrating the end of “the decade” but looking back on the 2010s – like all the other websites/magazines you’re presumably referring to. Which, don’t get me wrong, is totally fine, since we’ve all been referring to “the sixties”, “the 80s” etc. I am merely pointing out that you’ve written “2019 marks the end of a decade”, which is just not correct – unless, as you suggest, if you start counting with a zero instead of a one to finish ten full items/years… but who on earth would do that? Every person starts counting with a 1, and a decimeter or a deciliter wouldn’t be complete after counting from 0 to 9 either…

        However, it has become such a strange custom that most magazines no longer publish their annual retrospective at the end of the year, but in late November. (Fortunately, ACL is among the few not doing that!) Even one of the big weekly newspapers here in Germany (DIE ZEIT) has repeatedly published their annual recap in the last week of November – as if there was nothing happening in the world anymore during the month of December and everyone was hibernating.
        (Again, I am not suggesting to anyone to do their 2010-recaps at the end of 2020. I was merely pointing out it’s not the end of “the decade”.) All the best from Germany!

      • This article seems to sum up the decade discrepancy well in that everyone wins! Key phrase is that we can celebrate twice! https://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/decade.html

      • Felice

        Haha. Yes, nice one. While he actually reaches the conclusion of agreeing with the cue I made – distinguishing between “a decade” and “the 20s/30s” etc.: [“You only need to make sure that the year you state as the first year of a decade, century, or millennium matches the term you use to describe it. Equipped with this knowledge, you can go ahead and celebrate the beginning of the twenties when the New Year Countdown reaches zero at midnight on January 1, 2020. And one year later, you can party extra hearty again to mark the start of the 203rd decade!”], he makes a somewhat (intentionally?) quirky comment writing “do we have to wait until 2021 to celebrate the beginning of the twenties?” – it’s obviously clear to anyone familiar with numbers that 1920 is not part of “the tens”, just like you’re no longer teen the moment you turn 20.
        But you’ll only have reached the end of your second decade when you’ve lived 20 years, not with the first day after having turned 19… (if you start counting with year 1, that is of course).

        I kind of like his idea that many of us generally / colloquially refer to “a decade” as “the twenities” and such; but he essentially dimisses that notion at the end of his text when he says we it makes a difference if you sayeither “a decade” or “the decade” / “this decade” / “the century” / “the 21st century” etc…. nevertheless, not seldom the 20th century is referred to as the years from 1914 (WW1) and 2001 (9/11)..

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