Here are the albums of new music from 2019 that grabbed me on first listen, then compelled repeated plays. I’m not gonna rank them except for my Top Favorite status, which I’ll save for the very end. The others are listed alphabetically by artist. (Old school style, that is — last names first where necessary!) Links to previous reviews or purchase sites are embedded in the album titles. But first, a graphic tease …
Alcest, Spiritual Instinct: death metal and shoegaze collide, with uncannily appealing — actually, downright uplifting — results. Alcest mastermind Neige (abetted by drummer Winterhalter) embarks on a classic Hero’s Journey, relentlessly melodic, massive and enthralling from beginning to end. Hints of Pure Reason Revolution’s canny structures and Sigur Ros’ ecstatic climaxes are there, but the experience is even more widescreen. The aural equivalent of wrestling with angels on the way to the promised land.
Big Big Train, Grand Tour: BBT extend and refine their sonic vocabulary, broadening their reach into a wider, sometimes wilder world. Instantly appealing and challenging, richly melodic and spikily rhythmic, the new songs reflect on, rejoice in and ruminate about the wonders of the past and present. The Train’s North American tour in May is easily my most anticipated event of 2020!
Tim Bowness, Flowers at the Scene: Bowness’ stylish, moody art-pop reaches a new peak. Allusive, vivid vignettes of characters at their wits’ ends, sketched in epigrammatic, desperately melancholy lyrics, embodied in richly dappled musical settings (featuring stellar contributions from No-Man partner Steven Wilson, Plenty collaborator Brian Hulse, and an all-star cast). Stylish, moody, enticing art-pop that seduces, horrifies and burrows into your subconscious, all at the same time. Check out our three part interview with Bowness, too.
Elephant9, Psychedelic Backfire I & II: recorded live earlier this year. Two sets of scorching jazz-rock improvisation: one mesmerizing solo after another from organist/keyboardist Ståle Storløkken and guitarist Reine Fiske, over relentless, hard-driving grooves by bassist Nikolai Hængsle and drummer Torstein Lofthus. Whether subjecting a Stevie Wonder tune to a jazz-rock breakdown or building unstoppable momentum, Elephant9’s music is endlessly inventive and thoroughly compelling.
The Flower Kings, Waiting for Miracles: after six years away, Roine Stolt revamps the band that made his bones; the result is compulsively listenable, my favorite FK effort to date. Stolt, co-vocalist Hasse Froberg, keyboardist Zach Kamins, bassist Jonas Reingold and drummer Mirko DeMaio unleash one glorious riff, delectable hook, soaring vocal and killer solo after another, adding up to nearly two hours of symphonic grandeur. Unapologetic old school prog, it’s a winning ride from start to finish.
Rhiannon Giddens & Francesco Turrisi, There Is No Other: an album beyond category. Folk ballads, jazz, classical arias and more, subsumed into the spell that Giddens (on protean, glorious vocals plus banjo, violin and viola) and Turrisi (on piano, accordion, lute, banjo, and percussion) conjure up. Warm, determined, melancholy, driven and delighted by turns, blending the wisdom of generations and the optimism of youth together, to devastating effect.
Steve Hackett, At the Edge of Light: my favorite Hackett album since Spectral Mornings, featuring his most consistent singing to date, typically dazzling guitar work, and stunning new compositions — a high-octane journey riding unexpected twists, turns and switchbacks to surprising, satisfying destinations. Tracks from this album were the icing on the cake when he brought his recent tour to Grand Rapids this fall.
The Neal Morse Band, The Great Adventure: Morse and cohorts trace the path to John Bunyan’s Celestial City a second time. There’s enough continuity with The Similitude of a Dream to feel like a genuine sequel, but also enough musical and lyrical freshness to stand on its own merits. All over the map and over the top all the way, The Great Adventure was a smashing success that rewarded repeated listens and proved to be an great live experience as well.
Sonar (with David Torn), Tranceportation (Volume 1): utterly mesmerizing. The Swiss “minimalist groove” quartet that tunes their guitars in tritones (yup, “the devil in music”) makes room for Torn’s impressionist soundscapes a second time, and the combination is dynamite. Torn insidiously seeps over, under, and into Stephen Thelen’s patiently evolving clockwork compositions; the play of musical light and shadow is unpredictable, inevitable,and enthralling. Fans of Steve Reich and 1980s King Crimson, this is your jam.
Courtney Swain, Between Blood and Ocean: hearing avant-garde indie rockers Bent Knee live this summer was a visceral experience, and Swain’s bracing singing and slashing keyboard work were a big part of the thrill. This solo effort showcases her astonishingly vast range, running the gamut from sparse, intimate ballads (“Uranium City”, “Sand Angels”) to stomping rock rampages (“Don’t Look at Me”, “Black Sheep”), every heartfelt song focused and brought home by that versatile, heart-stopping voice. Highly recommended.
And, my Top Favorite of 2019 …
Tool, Fear Inoculum: as heavy, brainy and cathartic as one might expect, Tool’s first album in 13 years also turned out to be deeply thoughtful, richly layered, compelling music — a satisfying, unified work from start to finish that also rocks like a truck full of bricks. Fear Inoculum stayed true to Tool’s goals, showed impressive musical and lyrical growth along with a sharpened artistic edge, made longtime aficionados deliriously happy, and brought new fans — like me — into the fold. (And, news flash — just in time for Christmas, the album’s actually available in a physical format again!)
— Rick Krueger