Sure, years are arbitrary markers. But the annual ritual of listening to selections from guest music aficionado David Abravanel makes it worthwhile.
And this is a perfect producers’ list – music that dissolves genres, bears up to repeated deep listening, and suggests still more possibilities could lie ahead. Here’s David with his latest selections to round out a year in digital music. -Ed.
The 2010s went out with a bang, musically. If the silver lining to turbulent times is interesting art, then we’ve been spoiled during this anxiety-ridden, transitional year. I can’t remember the last time it was this difficult to narrow down my top albums to only 52 choices (arbitrary number!), and still left myself with legitimately great albums that didn’t quite make the final tally.
As per usual, these are in alphabetical order, though if pressed, I would say my favorite album of the year was Synkro’s Images, favorite EP was Alis’s Papercuts, favorite track was Floorplan’s “So Glad”, and favorite reissue/compilation was The Residents’ Eskimo (pREServed Edition).
I heard more than a few people ask exactly what “ambient” now means as of 2019. There’s no question that the popularity of ambient music resulted in some more reserved and beautiful releases. I spent loads of time exploring the crevices of electronic sound with 0N4B (another excellent release on the Kaer’Uiks label), spacing out with Richard Norris’ Abstractions series (inaugurating his Group Mind label), going to space with Yehezkel Raz’s minimal 9 Moons, and exploring the political economy of “relaxing” music with the reissue of Ami Shavit’s heart-tugging Yom Kippur 1973. And then Fennesz returned with Agora, astonishingly his finest hour yet.
The sparseness of ambient music spread to a number of musicians more well known for techno. Peter has previously covered Barker’s incredible Utility; anonymous label-mate Pom Pom also took a more ambient techno dip with the appropriately-titled Untitled 2. Meanwhile, TM-404 & Echologist quietly updated the sparse template of dub techno with Telomic Ghosts, and Deadbeat provided a master class in dub techno atmospheres with the welcome compilation of his Echocord releases.
The blurring of jungle breaks into house and techno productions (along with great proper jungle) remains an ongoing story. Lapalux, Chrissy, Stenny, and Konx-Om-Pax all released stellar full-lengths which saw the spirit of early jungle and rave merged with everything from R&B songwriting to disco to cavernous techno.
With the proliferation of digital music and the near-complete erosion of clear genre markers, there are more artists than ever who are hard to exactly pin down. 2019 was full of such unique voices: Coppé explored grief and classic opera with her “Martian” electronic style on Na Na Me Na Opera, Tralala Blip made the best dance-pop I’ve heard in a while and straddled the line between agonizingly heartfelt and playful, Andrew Pekler took me to a false memory of exotica parties from decades before I was born, and Elon Katz defied convention between electro, techno, and experimental styles with Pneumania on San Francisco’s underrated Left Hand Path label.
Speaking of genre-blurring, let’s take a moment to appreciate Robert Lippok as an essential collaborator with modern classical musicians. From his beautifully understated work with guitarist Takeshi Nishimoto a few years back, to this year’s touching Kubus with Kaan Bulak (on Bulak’s wonderful Feral Note label), Lippok has proved that rare electronic musician who can work in traditional realms without showing the seams on either side of the equation (if you dig Alva Noto & Ryuichi Sakamoto’s collaborative work, Kubus is well worth your time).
Lastly, I’ll embarrass Peter by saying that Intimacy In A Fluid World is the best thing I’ve ever heard from him. If Hardy Fox from the Residents hadn’t died in 2018, I suspect he would have been bowled over by this ethnographic look at a world that doesn’t (yet) exist.
To be honest, after a decade that saw techno going harder and darker with each hour, I wasn’t expected to hear hard/dark techno in 2019 that would really wow me. Enter veteran Paula Temple, whose Edge of Everything managed to make 909 rushes sound brand new, and Canadian newcomers minimalviolence, whose thrilling take on EBM/industrial/rave sounds scratched a real itch.
The Return of…
2019 saw some excellent new releases and reissues from veteran artists. It’s nice to see new appraisals of past classics (Nexus 21 and The Connection Machine back in print! The Chemical Brothers’ Surrender remains essential! The Mad Professor dub versions of Massive Attack’s Mezzanine at long last!), but perhaps even more thrilling to see what established artists can do to still surprise us.
Special mention is due for Cosey Fanni Tutti, whose self-titled Tutti served as an incredible statement of purpose and captured the exploratory and unsettling voice that she’s carried through Throbbing Gristle, Chris & Cosey, and as a solo artist. After the engrossing read of her 2017 memoir, Art Sex Music, Tutti felt like a fitting musical summation and sequel.
If Cosey Fanni Tutti’s album felt like a summation of her powers, Kim Gordon’s No Home Record arrived as a pleasantly shocking left turn. Maintaining the attitude and social commentary of Sonic Youth, but shifting to electronic beats and a hip-hop framework, No Home Record is the kind of album that surprises you, then makes perfect sense as it becomes a quick favorite.
The returns came one after the other this year. Future Sound of London brought back their acid electro alias Humanoid in fine form. After a series of reissues of his material as As One, Kirk DeGiorgio resurrected the alias for Communion, one of his all-time best albums. The Cinematic Orchestra returned after a long absence to strike the same emotional chords with friends and styles old and new. Mira Calix made a very welcome return to Warp, where we’ll hopefully see a new LP from her in 2020 alongside fellow sublime Warp legends Seefeel. Rod Modell pushed the tempo on his Deepchord formula and ended up with some of the most exciting fast-paced techno this side of ASC.
Speaking of ASC
Was there a more prolific artist than ASC in 2019? I’m pretty sure ASC released more tracks than the number of times I changed my pants in 2019 (make of that what you will). Carrying on the fast techno style he led with the Realms series, going back to the eerie well for an EP on Samurai/Horo, finding inspiration from sci-fi classic THX-1138…and that’s not even covering his album on A Strangely Isolated Place. The dude’s prolific and deserves your ear!
If there was a challenger to ASC’s release schedule in 2019, perhaps it was Amon Tobin. Coming back from a hiatus, Tobin released three albums and an EP, indulging in pseudonyms new and old (the return of Cujo!) and exploring everything from garage rock to autoharp lullabies.
The Reality of our Surroundings
As I mentioned earlier, 2019 was a year of much anxiety. While it’s easy for us to sit back and enjoy some of the art, the realities – from climate crisis to rising fascism to the dehumanizing of refugees – are impossible (and selfish) to ignore. Music is a healer, but it’s also a galvanizing force. Listening to Meemo Comma’s Sleepmoss and Lamin Fofana’s Black Metamorphosis – two of the year’s most deeply affecting and tough to pin down releases – I’m struck by the ability of music to be both a salve and a reminder of our complex reality. Zonal’s Wrecked – a collaboration between The Bug, J.K. Flesh, and Moor Mother, and perhaps the heaviest listen of the year – provides no easy comforts, but screams for hope in the midst of desolate situations.
I’ll leave things on a simple and positive note, with “Ende #2”, the beautiful closer to Robag Wruhme’s gorgeous Venq Tolep. Over a simple ambient soundscape, we hear greetings from collaborators and friends from around the world. It’s a difficult world, but we do have each other.
And that brings us to this year’s selections – even this extensive list covering just a fraction of some of the best of this year’s bounty, some well recognized, some not so much. We’ve certainly missed music, so let us know if there’s more to hear in comments – including your own work. Thanks as always to David for providing his singular point of view – a human algorithm, as we believe in the users.
Now give these a search on Bandcamp and support the artists and labels. -Ed.
Top 52 albums
0N4B — Supra/Infra/Intra (Kaer’Uiks)
Amon Tobin — Long Stories (Nomark)
Andrew Pekler — Sound from Phantom Islands (Fatiche)
Andy Stott — It Should Be Us (Modern Love)
Artefakt — Monsoon (Semantica)
As One — Communion (De:tuned)
ASC — Realm of the Infinite (Auxiliary)
Barker — Utility (Ostgut Ton)
Blato Zlato — In The Wake (self-released)
Chrissy — Resilience (Chiwax)
The Cinematic Orchestra — To Believe (Ninja Tune)
Coppé — Na Na Me Na Opera (Mango + Sweet Rice)
Cosey Fanni Tutti — TUTTI (Conspiracy International)
Cosmin TRG — Hope This Finds You Well (Fizic)
E L O N — Pneumania (Left Hand Path)
Fennesz — Agora (Touch)
HTRK — Venus in Leo (Ghostly Intl.)
Humanoid — Built by Humanoid (FSOL Digital)
I Am Snow Angel — Mothership (self-released)
John Shima — The Lonely Machine (Firescope)
Kim Gordon — No Home Record (Matador)
Konx-om-Pax — Ways of Seeing (Planet Mu)
Kyle Bobby Dunn — From Here To Eternity (self-released)
Lamin Fofana — Black Metamorphosis (Sci-Fi & Fantasy)
Lapalux — Amnioverse (Alpha Pup)
Lisieux — Psalms of Dereliction (Steelwork Maschine)
Meemo Comma — Sleepmoss (Planet Mu)
minimalviolence — InDreams (Technicolour)
patten — FLEX (555-5555)
Paula Temple — Edge of Everything (Noise Manifesto)
Peter Kirn — Intimacy in a Fluid World (Kotä)
Pixies — Beneath The Eyrie (Infectious)
Plaid — Polymer (Warp)
Pom Pom — Untitled 2 (A-Ton)
Richard Norris — Abstractions Volume Two (Group Mind)
Robag Wruhme — Venq Tolep (Pampa)
Robert Lippok & Kaan Bulak — Kubus (Feral Note)
Rod Modell — Captagon (Tresor)
Stefan Goldmann — Veiki (Macro)
Stenny — Upsurge (Ilian Tape)
Stephen Mallinder — Um Dada (Dais)
Synkro — Images (Apollo)
Thighpaulsandra — Practical Electronics with Thighpaulsandra (Editions Mego)
Thom Yorke — Anima (XL)
TM404 & Echologist — Telomic Ghost (Kynant)
Tralala Blip — Eat My Codes If Your Light Falls (Room 40)
Various Artists — ШЩЦ/SHITS (ШЩЦ)
Vilod — The Clouds Know (Mana)
Wang Changcun — As Plausible As Anything Else (play rec)
Xeno & Oaklander — Hypnos (Dais)
Yehezkel Raz — 9 Moons (Artlist.io)
Zonal — Wrecked (Pressure)
Top 15 EPs
Abstract Thought — Abstract Thought (Clone)
Alis — Papercuts (Astral Plane)
Claro Intelecto — Forgotten Wasteland (Delsin)
Fanu & Infader — One Thing And Another (Lightless)
Floorplan — “So Glad” / “Feel Him Moving” (M-Plant)
Galcid — Galcid’s Ambient Works (Detroit Underground)
Goiz – Green (Open Space)
Hyusfall — Folsdune (self-released)
Kero & Valence Drakes — Abstract Thought (Detroit Underground)
Kiefer — Bridges (Stones Throw)
LFO — Peel Session (Warp)
Mira Calix — utopia (Warp)
Ras G — Dance of the Cosmos (Akashik)
Seefeel — Sp/Ga 19 (self—released)
Substance — Rise and Shine (Ostgut Ton)
Top Reissues / Compilations
Ami Shavit — Yom Kippur 1973 (Sub Rosa)
Deadbeat — The Echochord Sessions (BLKRTZ)
F.U.S.E. — Dimensions (Plus 8)
Gramm — Personal Rock (Faitiche)
Happy Mondays — The Early EPs (London/Factory)
Massive Attack — Mezzanine (Deluxe) (Virgin)
Múm — Yesterday Was Dramatic, Today Is OK (Morr)
Nexus 21 — The Rhythm of Life (Blue Chip)
Osamu Sato — LSD Revamped (Ship to Shore)
Prince — 1999 (Warner Bros.)
Slava Tsukerman, Benda Hutchinson, Clive Smith — Liquid Sky (Death Waltz)
Solar X — Xrated (Galaxiid)
The B-52’s — Cosmic Thing (Rhino)
The Chemical Brothers — Surrender (UMC/Virgin/Freestyle Dust)
The Connection Machine — Painless (Down Low)
The Residents — Eskimo (pREServed Edition) (Cherry Red)
Words and music selections: https://twitter.com/dabravanel
Here are David’s picks from last year, also worth revisiting: