Essential Listening: The Best Albums Of 2019

Gotta be honest, I lacked motivation for writing this column. Normally it’s the piece I look forward to writing the most. Doing an annual music round-up is the only blogging tradition I’ve developed since I started five years ago. There are numerous reasons why I feel differently this year. Another year of being a wage slave chipping away at my resolve – how many will it take to leave me in the foetal position permanently? In all seriousness I’ve been pre-occupied by trying to get the loft conversion finished, only to find that in the optimism gained from reaching the finishing line (finally!) I’ll be rewarded with another challenge – the work’s aftermath, be it cleaning up the mess and sorting through stuff, most of which I wish to discard, so as not to clutter the new space that’s been created. (I realise I could’ve just used the term downsizing here, but that word is only used by cunt-twats.) Trivial concerns to some, and here there’s another, my current listening habits certainly aren’t conducive to finding new releases; a lot of early nineties drum’n’bass, NTS podcasts, Fairport Convention’s three releases in 1969 (worth it though) and reverting to my trusted two-hundred plus playlists that I’ve spent years collating (you sad bastard). All of the above has eaten in to time, a chunk of which I could’ve used to trawl music websites.

So this isn’t an exhaustive list, but I‘ve always believed that only music journalists or musicians have the time, attention span or dedication to listen to enough music to collate a best of year album list some fifty or hundred long. Said lists are best perused as likely intended, for the likes of you and I to dip in and out of.

Please dip in and out of this truncated list to suit yourself, and as per usual there’s no hierarchy here, just the ten in alphabetical order. Have a Merry Christmas and I’ll post my top ten songs of 2019 in-between Christmas and New Year. Peace out homies.

Bill Callahan – Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest

Callahan’s voice and ear for melody remain strong, both combining to give you a massive hug. Just as impressive is his seamless switching between introspection, observations and vignettes, fittingly mirroring the uncomfortable juxtaposing of middle age with first time fatherhood.

Fat White Family – Serfs Up!

The pastoral cover belies a conversion to elements normally, and strongly, associated with a mainstream pop aesthetic – simple synths and drum rhythms abound, and a strong dash of disco on the opening track ‘Feet’! But it still wouldn’t be a proper fatties album if it wasn’t acerbic, peculiar, silly, homoerotic, ostentatious, and unsettling.

FKA Twigs – Magdalene

I’ve read a few comparisons with Madonna, with both displaying a deliberate control over their aesthetic. This might be valid if Madonna wasn’t so fraudulent and cynical and the artistic disparity wasn’t so vast between them. This album’s influences are catholic; tribal drums, folky strings, dub and r’n’b slowed to a crawl, autotune trap, with brooding lyrics veering from heavily distorted to balladic. Emotionally these songs swing wildly too; anger, frustration, ennui, denial and elation, all of it combines to represent the vulnerability of sexual and emotional dysmorphia, and it being the root cause of many relationships fracturing.

Floating Points – Crush

It’s been eight years since Sam Shepherd released ‘Shadows’, releasing material after something so flawless has to be fraught with doubt, the doubt that maybe you’ve already peaked artistically. Consciously, each subsequent release has its own concept while still clearly belonging to the signature Floating Points sound. There’s a sonic freneticism at times on this one owing to the influence of a certain Richard D James.

Logos – Imperial Flood

His excellent debut album, ‘Cold Mission’, emphasized space with fractured dubstep. For the most part this offering follows a similar template, but often the accent is austere, and sinister, and on occasion it utilises the dense ‘natural’ noise created in highly populated public spaces that inspired John Cage’s later works.

Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds – Ghosteen

‘Peace will come in time’, Nick Cave opens in a pained tone to a sombre canvas. Suitably he eschews humour, triviality or sarcasm, taking us on a personal journey through grief at losing a son unexpectedly, from outright dejection and despair to uplifting imagery of the departed towards the album’s conclusion on ‘Leviathan’ and ‘Ghosteen’. You sense Cave has found hope again, or feels he can, but it comes with the realisation that the process of grieving never ends as he concludes on ‘Hollywood’, by coupling the first line of ‘Spinning Song’, ‘I’m just waiting now for the time to come’.

Paranoid London – PL

The veteran duo double down on their debut release from five years ago. Pulsating retro acid house done with panache but with more structured vocals this time. Would’ve been massive in ’92, should be now.

Prince – Originals

It says plenty about this man’s genius that three years after his departure an album of cuts he penned for other musicians, many of which would become hits (because of course they did), performed here by the man himself, is one of the best releases of 2019. This is apex era Prince too. None of that ‘Batdance’ type bullshit or the extensive self-indulgence found on ‘Emancipation’. Just poptastic winners and hooks galore.

Richard Dawson – 2020

Dawson splices witty personal anecdotes with a scathing narration, dripping with sarcasm and satire, of the collective ennui in working and middle class culture that’s aided the creation of Brexit Britain. Funny and incisive as Dawson is here, it isn’t when you’re faced with the reality that you too are firmly lodged in said culture, crumbling under a mass existential crisis due to its decline from decades of believing it’s never had it so good and that this decadence was deserved. The abrasive guitars, and changes of pace, imbue the impression of a confused vessel unable to halt its decline.

Sleaford Mods – Eton Alive

Not that he likes it, but the current political clusterfuck, the widening social and cultural polarisation and public and private forms of disaffection with the establishment, aging and the state of things generally, all offer inspiration for Jason Williamson’s material. Trust that these two, utterly prolific, will continue to document anger, anguish and helplessness incisively, ‘Graham Coxon looks like a left wing Boris Johnson’. ‘Eton Alive’, sure, we are, we have been, but I’m slightly disappointed the album wasn’t named ‘Boris Johnson is a chancing cunt’, that too is true, as we’re about to find out.

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Yes, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a great Western

Can a computer game belong to the canon of great Westerns? My reflex response was no. Yet whilst playing Red Dead Redemption 2, which was finally released on PC earlier this month, I keep questioning my initial resistance. The vividness of the game’s incessant violence and inhospitable extremes of the American wilderness equates to the imagery conjured in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Blood Meridian is a true western: an endless cascade of violent hedonism, wastage, and the collective mania that besets a fractured lawless society, not the infantilised, sanitised, idealised big screen depictions of nineteenth century frontierism starring John ‘Wooden’ Wayne. It’s little surprise Westerns are synonymous with such dross, much of the mainstream artistic output of the twentieth century related to the era triumphed Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis.

Distance, mixed with changing attitudes, tends to encourage re-examination of historical periods romanticised by popular culture. So, in 2019, with the utterly pathetic cancel culture rampant, it makes total sense for Rockstar, the contrarian joker in the mainstream pack, to reproach the snowflakes by turning its sarcasm on them through an increasingly contested historical lens.

However, Red Dead Redemption 2 does offer a deeper examination. The game is set in 1899, at a time when wild west freedoms were being demonised and or curtailed. Attitudes were increasingly favouring a more organised, urbanised, and yes, civilised society. This conflict motivates you, playing as Arthur Morgan, to kill and steal, and to maintain you and your posse’s goal of sustainable subsistence, free from the reach of government interference and urbanisation.

Those who argue violent games cause crime, usually the hypocritical gun lobbyist types, will target Rockstar’s attempts to glamorise outlaw life. If it wasn’t so close to the bone, they’d compare the fictional, and justified, persecution of outlaws as synonymous with the real paranoia held by many modern fringe far right organisations, such as the Michigan militia, who they pander to. Even though I’ve just done it for them, any such comparison has no merit. Context always matters. Today you don’t need a gun, nobody is out to get you (unless you’re an Albanian sex trafficker and you kidnap Liam Neeson’s daughter), most folk live in towns and cities and have jobs that sees them in front of computers. You buy your food from shops, and there’s no need to hold up Starbucks to get a Skinny Caramel Latte darling.

In Blood Meridian the main protagonist is an observatory vessel for the narrator. The Kid and we bear witness to lawlessness and gruesome crimes, which often occur for no reason. Comparing Blood Meridian to Red Dead Redemption 2 in this sense creates a paradox, as the justifications to mis-behave in the game are clearly defined. Missions and random events tend to offer a binary choice, it’s you or the other fella. While similar to Rockstar’s other sandbox epic, GTA V, in construct, Red Dead Redemption 2 is more nuanced, as consistently robbing and committing murder on passers-by and civilians alters a sliding outlaw scale. The redder your rating on the scale is, the more immoral you are, and this rating alters elements of the story and suitably inhibits your ability to do certain things. Alternatively, should you choose a different path, you are rewarded for acts of chivalry and generosity.

So far, with a third of the game complete, my outlaw rating is ‘balanced’, so I’m going to assume my soul has yet to be completely corrupted by violent temptation. I’m yet to turn gun on any women or ‘non-whites’. This probably speaks to my ‘fucking liberal’ views. But lord, I have sinned too. Shooting a horse, albeit accidentally, put me on a bit of a downer. Nonetheless, perfectly executing a stealth kill makes me react like Limmy killing a hundred villagers in a Minecraft deathpit. I also take immense joy in killing a member of the rival O’Driscoll gang, because they have it coming. Riding up behind a stranger on a path, and at point blank range, literally blowing his head clean off with a sawn-off shotgun or lassoing and looting him, then leaving him tied up in the tall grass squealing for help was fun, well, until a witness grassed me up and I had to dispose of them too.

The argument against including Red Dead Redemption 2 in the canon with Blood Meridian is that the former isn’t attempting to be a serious artistic proposition. You can pimp your saddle, give your horse a Mohawk and can attain absurd gun upgrades which break through the authenticity of the game’s physics and world, which, broadly, are rooted in reality. Your mortality, as is that of your horse, is very fragile. You have to maintain Arthur’s health and that of your horse by feeding it, you need to rest periodically and wear the correct attire for each environment. If you’re out-manned and or outgunned, you’ll often perish, unless you can flee. Falls from a height are often fatal, and apex predators bite back with a vengeance. So far I’ve succumbed to all.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is a technical marvel, and I’d argue argue its technical accomplishment makes it an artistic one. Visually this game has the most impressive level of detail I’ve experienced in a game. Sunsets are events, the mountains are intimidatingly steep and rugged, rocks crumble under your feet, the snow crunches under your feet and drifts in the wind, the swampland’s mud is as gnarly and sticky as the air is thick, the sounds of nature and wildlife, as well as an unobtrusive score, enhance the bucolic aesthetic, where nature’s perpetual threat is overawed by its beguiling beauty.

As I roam free in Red Dead Redemption 2, to kill another passer-by or hunt a legendary animal, I’m reminded of the fiddler at the end of Blood Meridian, who, metaphorically, represents humanity’s relentless capacity for savageness. Through different mediums, these two Westerns do what the genre always should – implicitly state that nature does not make savages of men, it liberates our nature.

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Song Of The Day – Indian Thing by J.J. Jackson

From the album ‘…And Proud Of It’ (1970)

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Song Of The Day – On Top Of The World by Mike Patton & Jean-Claude Vannier

From the album ‘Corpse Flower’ (2019)

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Charles Manson was a person too

It was fitting that he’d finally decide to go through with it right as the rambunctious crescendo of ‘Socialist Suicide’, with its violent imagery of scabs committing various forms of the act in the safe heavens of their homogenised suburban living rooms, arrived. To his surprise the blood arrived copiously before the pain. Upon the fourth stab into his chest his leg muscles began to sag, his breathing laboured before it declined to choking. As his knees hit the rickety slithery platform smeared with a sludge consisting of mud, fag ends, fag ash, vomit and booze, which somehow combined to offer a grotesque smell reminiscent of discarded fish fingers, he offered one final flail of the arms. His arms, elongated by a guitar in one hand and the knife in the other, propelled the bulbous globules of rich blood from his chest thoroughly over the crowd, who remained locked in their own delirium of indifference, before using gravity’s momentum to bring his left hand down with what turned out to be a timid attempt to slice his jugular vein.

Despite never finding himself in any sort of place or predicament that was liable to require its use, he carried a flick knife for security, but in truth its main purpose was to enhance the method. The imagery that accompanied the suddenness of the urge to use it on himself was cruelly sobering – he envisioned ‘no future’, that those dreams of super-stardom masquerading under the flag of rebellion was the zenith of self-deception, and Patti was talking hypocritical shit, having a record pressed means you’ve made it. He also froze in that moment, because, for the first time in his tragic artistic existence, he was truly convinced. For once he had the perfect situation to surpass himself; on stage, with an audience of nearly a hundred, and he had exceeded the level of intoxication which impairs self-preservation.  Charlie was upping the ante. Nobody else would carry the name after this, well, unless, like him, they already were.

What would happen next would be an ineffectual and lousy derivative of Sid Vicious self-mutilating himself on stage. But we have the benefit of hindsight, he does not. That the scope and value of an act is dependent on its impact, not its artistic merit, should favour him. If he had more talent and exposure the act could grant him a legacy, serving as an emphatic rebuttal to two of popular culture’s injustices; it would, albeit only ironically, inverse the mortality of his more famous namesake and posit Sid as a poseur. Slashing one’s self on the chest with a puny razor might’ve bolstered the commercialised, manufactured mania that punctuated the genre’s anti-establishmentarianism in the public consciousness, forming a vector which romanticised punk to the youth, but hard-core it was not. Not after this.

Irritation grew as Kev’s drumming continued out of sequence with the guitars, or was it the other way round? The key sensibilities of the punk movement was its post-modernist aversion to the slick production found in gentrified art, its impetuous cleaving to the strange and random, which owed much to Joseph Beuys, and its accessibility for musicians of mediocre skill. But, fuck all that, years of practice should at least lead to something that sounded coherent. The difference between art and the cynicism of self-promotion is a serious artist creates for everyone. As they were not serious, neither, by extension, was he. They were deadly serious about being provocative and finding ways to make sure everyone knew it, to hide their lack of artistic capability, and sustain their suitably meagre following. In truth his dissatisfaction, and his inaction, was linked to a vainglorious grievance. He witnessed the discovery and ascension of their ‘contemporaries’; the Pistols, Buzzcocks, the Clash, and the Ramones, while they toiled in relative obscurity. He had convinced himself that he had diagrammed the template for punk’s popularity before they achieved it, yet was left embittered and crushed by being unable to capitalise. Were these bands just better, or did they simply get there first? Mercifully, for the sake of taste, delusion had finally capitulated, and he concluded that his songs, and they, were just too shit, even for punk. Even their references to the family likely weren’t original. Shitty replication threatened to make punk dull. He, they, had become that threat.

He became entranced by the prominent forehead scar of the grimy haired girl standing at the front of the crowd. Thanks to her frenetic head movements the scar soon melted into an extensive nebulous distortion, married with the pounding drums and lazy thrashing of metal against plastic and wood, induced a mild dizziness. Earlier the grimy haired girl had revived herself by puking in a plastic bucket and was occasionally spinning it around her head spreading vomit everywhere. Sadly its stench allowed lucidity of who he was and where he was to barely hang on with its fingertips. Unnerved by this sensory collaboration, he wondered whether this was the prelude to psychosis, if not psychosis itself. It was balmy, too balmy for early April and the compacted air devastated his will to endure any more. He was sweating heavily, his frail physique wilting under the duress of a distressed layer of leather festooned with metal embellishments and the heavily cut cocaine pounding through his blood stream. The desire to cut through the dopamine, and vanquish psychological instability with physical damage had been building. Smashing up something, his guitar, maybe over one of the crowd, could offer a reprieve, but only temporarily, and anyway, he couldn’t afford another.

Autumn 1975. It was a peculiar time for music, with change poised to strike. Disco was ubiquitous. Glam Rock was toast. Prog Rock had always been crap. They were unaware of Krautrock. Elton John was still relevant on merit. The Stones had exhausted themselves and Mick Taylor. The solo careers of The Beatles ranged from passable to abortive. David Bowie was re-emerging from selling out as a mediocre soul singer by recording Station to Station. Sabbath and Led Zepp were at their peak, but some in the group caught their fathers listening and signing along on the radio, so they were out. That blues derivative stuff didn’t represent their social inadequacy or teenage angst, nor did it match the political disquiet. There was a void to be exploited, a demand for something different, something new, something they could inform and take ownership of. He sensed something was happening. Songs had been written, rehearsed and an aesthetic had been cultivated, and they weren’t the only band around with this accent. To call this a premonition or foresight that they were actively aware of being involved in the vanguard of the Punk movement as we know it now would be generous. Music is forever mutating, and this is largely in thanks to the young skewing towards irrational positivity. They believe they’re exceptional and or are perhaps destined to be, or the more self-aware will try anything to avoid the dismal reality that awaits the vast majority of them.

Richie managed to procure a Patti Smith single on Canadian (apparently) import with a Jimi Hendrix cover of ‘Hey Joe’, but it was something about the B side’s construct that truly caught their attention. Patti encapsulated a mood, she spoke defiantly of refusing to be consigned to shit menial jobs and of wanting something more. This resonated on several levels; with their hatred of the shit menial jobs they’d left school for or that technical college was preparing them for, plus, her style of delivery was replicable. Craig was shot down when he suggested its vocal aesthetic, dry and wry, owed much to beat poetry. When parsed further the compositional elements belied its result; no drums, the freneticism of the piano and her voice fuelled each other, creating tension by overpowering the guitar and bass. It managed to sound sparse yet brash at the same time. It was an intriguing mix, and provided a formula which they could experiment with on their terms. Now they just needed a sound of their own.

Every afternoon during the school summer holiday they congregated in the local park under a towering oak tree. Park benches encircled its trunk and were shrouded by its generous canopy. Now mid-teens the menu was spliffs and rotgut wine, occasionally spirits if resources were pooled. Talk inevitably turned to music, and following some liberation from humility, the kind of music they’d like to make. They all enjoyed The Stooges, but all agreed they sounded too American. Somehow the debate shifted, highly presumptuously, to deciding the band name, and its inspiration was Charlie’s name. He remained quiet as his fear of someone else thinking of the obvious manifested itself in front of him. It was Craig, of course it was, who suggested calling themselves The Manson’s. Eventually, and to much puerile amusement, the idea expanded, each band member would change their names to match the real members of the Manson family and they decided their first album should be called ‘Finding Polanski’. As afternoon drifted into early evening they started to sense he wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea, which Craig tried to assuage jokingly, ‘that people will assume you’ve changed yours anyway’. At one point a mother with a pram passed them on the footpath nearby, Craig, at this point quite drunk, shouted at her ‘we’re the Manson’s, and we’re gonna come to your house’. It was hard to decipher if it was the bad taste, the aggressive tone, or general rudeness of shouting at a stranger, never mind a mother transporting her infant, that stunned her into stopping and staring at them with a willowy jowl. They were to be equally stunned by her sniping retort, ‘didn’t your mother teach you any decorum?’ ‘Nah, she killed herself when I was six.’ Replied Craig. There was rapturous laughter aimed in her direction because they knew she hadn’t and the woman didn’t, to which he joined in. ‘You could’ve just said no.’ She sniped back, indignantly power walking her pram away.

When the news broke it simply didn’t occur to either Michael or Mavis that it would shape their son’s life so negatively, and that he would be so weak to let it. For a short time, the name Charles became only slightly less toxic than Adolf, Genghis and Josef, to name three, in the contemporary lexicon. Some people may have the misfortune to share either the first name or surname with these repugnant figures, now so reviled in what we’ve come to term woke culture in the twenty-first century, but both? In the context foisted upon them by circumstances out with their control, the family name, and borrowing the name of his grandfather on his mother’s side, had cruelly converged to form a joke most of a glib disposition would inveigh as excessive.

Should his parents be blamed? Some, including their son, surmised Baby Boomers should be blamed for everything, but they supplied him with stability and everything he needed to be well adjusted. How could they have foreseen the events of early August 1969? Changing his name was floated by his mother shortly after that event, but Charles Manson, the latter, reached the age of eleven in 1969. His father deemed it too late to change tack, and considered it a feeble act. Not even the easily assumed knowledge that he was named before the original rose to infamy shielded our protagonist from years of ridicule, accruing to ultimately create an unimaginative despondency that it would forever define him and his art. What the name of Charles Manson does tell us is that historical context can be a self-fulfilling prophecy for the weak, or, to be more specific, that a gross sense of entitlement mixed with crushing artistic failure has always, so far, proved fatal.

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