James Blake – Assume Form
The quavering, circuitous voice of British jazz-dub songwriter James Blake is still a beautiful instrument, and his arrangements are as atmospheric as ever here. He resembles a heart-eyes emoji at various points, swooning over girlfriend Jameela Jamil on Power On and Can’t Believe the Way We Flow. The strongest tracks, though, are when he slinks softly around guests Travis Scott and RosalÍa. Ben Beaumont-Thomas Read the full review.
Brittany Howard – Jaime
Alabama Shakes hardly cleaved to one genre, but frontwoman Brittany Howard shows just how astonishingly broad and instinctive her talent is here. Ramshackle hip-hop, spoken word, gospel, neo and not-so-neo soul, raunchy funk, spiritual jazz and whatever glorious noise 13th Century Metal is, it’s all given extra heft by Howard’s poignant reflections on love and identity. BBT Read the full review.
Muna – Saves the World
Specificity is the marker of killer pop (the matches in Pet Shop Boys’ So Hard, the shoelaces in Robyn’s Be Mine), a trope that the LA trio Muna wield to intense effect on their second album of gothic synthpop. Saves the World is an unsparing emotional confrontation that drags you right into the bedroom bathed in pink light, the dorm room with the blunt scissors, not to mention singer Katie Gavin’s torrid self-examinations. Laura Snapes
Bill Callahan – Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest
In the five years since his previous album, Bill Callahan got married, became a father and attained a level of beatific perspective that could probably settle international conflicts. While that warmth glows through Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest, Callahan’s understanding of his inherent masculine violence, and his way with lucid profundity, means his domestic treatise was never cloying. LS Read the full review.
The Murder Capital – When I Have Fears
The other Dublin post-punk success story of 2018 alongside Fontaines DC, The Murder Capital have a bit more monochrome hauteur – but there’s still a touch of lairiness. Over metronomic garage-rock, frontman James McGovern sings like a man reading a list of demands out of a high window, but also modulates into sweeping gothic romance. BBT Read the full review.
Sleater-Kinney – The Centre Won’t Hold
When drummer Janet Weiss quit Sleater-Kinney prior to the release of their ninth studio album, it cast an unfair pallor on a record mired in suspicion, every new dazzling synth or poppy refrain regarded as the possible straw that broke the camel’s back. But its status in the band’s catalogue is beyond reproach. With St Vincent as producer, Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker break new ground as songwriters – high camp on Bad Dance, trading intimacy and vaulting catharsis on The Dog/The Body – while mining affectingly desperate and ugly emotional depths. LS Read the full review.
Big Thief – Two Hands
The Brooklyn band’s second album of the year is earthier than UFOF, the glowing collection that arrived in spring. Here, the four-piece till the dirt and Adrianne Lenker sings relentlessly about death and disease, elemental concerns that nevertheless reach some kind of higher plane thanks to the tenacious, cracked songwriting that’s swiftly establishing them as Brooklyn’s answer to Crazy Horse. LS Read the full review.
Black Midi – Schlagenheim
As buzz bands go, Black Midi is a weird one, a jagged mulch of math rock, Beefheart restlessness and the 90s Chicago school of alt-jazz, full of the declamatory vocals of Geordie Greep (whose voice you couldn’t make up if you tried). But Morgan Simpson’s astonishingly tight drumming keeps them painting within the lines, even when they’re making the most abstract daubs. BBT Read the full review.
WH Lung – Incidental Music
From Stereolab to LCD Soundsystem and Hookworms, almost every year produces a band who replicate the soothingly simple, eternal groove of Neu! – and in our world of lies and gaslighting, we need that north-star constant more than ever. Manchester’s WH Lung are on hand to provide it, garlanded with airy vocals and endearingly retro sonics. BBT Read the full review.
Sturgill Simpson – Sound & Fury
Much as Kacey Musgraves broke open country songwriting in 2018 with the love-bombing body high of Golden Hour, Sturgill Simpson casts himself as the genre’s outlier in 2019. This is a strutting, utterly badass glam rock record, shot through with a gimlet-eyed outlaw nihilism – and comes with its own accompanying Kurosawa-inspired anime. All of a sudden, songs about beer and broads seem a little lacking. BBT Read the full review.
These New Puritans – Inside the Rose
With ambition and intent that should shame many of their peers, These New Puritans have crafted another suite of post-punk symphonies. As ever, the sound design is exquisite, bass thrumming in clouds under choirs, pianos and their trademark instant-decay drums, but the big earnest melodies give it heart. Jack Barnett’s vocals, conversational yet epic, add their own particular drama. BBT Read the full review.
The Japanese House – Good at Falling
Like Caroline Polachek, Hannah Diamond and so many others this year, Amber Bain uses super-synthetic electropop and soft rock to say much rougher, grittier truths. The production, aided by George Daniel of the 1975, is like dense layers of fluttering gauze, annotated with fine detailing; floating through it all is Bain’s breakup pain. BBT Read the full review.
Jamila Woods – Legacy! Legacy!
Like Sons of Kemet’s Your Queen Is a Reptile, each track on poet/activist/songwriter Jamila Woods’s second album is named for a pivotal artist of colour, whose legacies she explores as models of how to live life to the fullest. The Chicago musician flips between them – from Zora Neale Hurston to James Baldwin – with warmth and close attention, her sandy voice full of tenderness and the jazz-influenced backing sun-baked and dazzling. It makes Legacy! Legacy! feel less like a history lesson and more like a glimpse into a beloved photo album. LS Read the full review.
(Sandy) Alex G – House of Sugar
By blending the trudging splendour of slowcore with country melodies and the kind of genuinely oddball artistry that doesn’t second guess or try to make things fit, (Sandy) Alex G remains one of America’s most underrated songwriters. Southern Sky, Bad Man, SugarHouse and plenty more make this a future cult classic. BBT
Purple Mountains – Purple Mountains
As with Bowie’s Blackstar and Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker, David Berman’s long-awaited return to music will forever be overshadowed by his death, as he died by suicide less than a month after its release. Elegiac and rickety, it’s a lasting testament to his mordant and philosophical poetry, but also to his pain: “The end of all wanting is all I’ve been wanting,” he sings on That’s Just the Way That I Feel. LS Read the full review.
Durand Jones and the Indications – American Love Call
These one-time music students create a perfect simulacrum of 60s and 70s soul, but lit with the lamps of a jazz club rather than the sterile striplighting of a lab. American Love Call is full of modern classics, from the falsetto raptures of How Can I Be Sure to the perfect country soul of Long Way Home. BBT Read the full review.
Flying Lotus – Flamagra
Twenty-seven tracks long, and with guests ranging from Solange to David Lynch, Flamagra is the most ambitious vision yet from the LA beatmaker. He gives more space than ever before to his vocalists, but he could never become a producer of straightforward backing tracks – his tumbling, symphonic funk is as impetuous and psychedelic as ever. BBT Read the full review.
King Princess – Cheap Queen
While artists like Billie Eilish and Polachek have pushed pop into the future this year, King Princess joins Lana Del Rey in showing that there’s potential in classicism yet. The 20-year-old – born Mikaela Straus – released a debut album filled with louche balladry that, despite her New York pedigree, is plump with west coast studio richness. Also: echoes of All Saints’ sultry best. LS Read the full review.
Fat White Family – Serfs Up!
The chief grotbags of the British indie scene return, retaining a genuinely reptilian edge to their lounge lizard music. They dip into the strangest, sexiest bits of the 70s, with prowling disco on Feet, rollicking glam on Tastes Good With the Money, and electronically, chemically enhanced psychedelic skronk throughout. BBT Read the full review.
Kano – Hoodies All Summer
With his sixth album, the east Londoner cements his status as one of the UK’s greatest ever MCs. There’s a musicality to his delivery that suggests a man considering one side of the argument, then the other – but ultimately there is little equivocation as he condemns institutional racism, needless violence, and the difficulty of social mobility: “We’re Kunta Kintes in some Cuban links / The Balenciagas didn’t blend us in.” BBT Read the full review.