First, a confession: my listening has been less extensive this year than in ones past. (In my defence, my reading was much wider.) Second, a question: has this year truly been as underwhelming as it feels to my admittedly under-exploring ears? Good music has abounded, but perhaps in not quite such volume as in some recently: we’ve been through a purple-patch of new music it seems to me; 2019 felt slower, but perhaps I wasn’t paying sufficient attention. A resolution for 2020 is to do so better.
All that said, there are a bunch of records competing for this year’s gong: Edd Donovan’s plangently hopeful Guardians of Our Time, and Jake Xerxes Fussell’s scruffily sinuous Out of Sight; Maya de Vitry’s dilatory Adaptations, and Dan Walsh’s galloping Trio; Bill Callahan’s maze-like Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest stands out, too, as does Jenny Lewis’s On The Line. I’ve yet properly to listen to Lana Del Ray and Angel Olsen, slowthai and Solange.
But, as ever, I picked five anyway – and here they are. As usual, I want an album to do something new or interesting – for the band or the musical mode – and don’t always pick the ones I’ve listened to most (although sometimes these two criteria do coincide, in this year more than many). Enough preamble! Let’s cut to the no-particular-order chase.
Iron & Wine and Calexico – Years to Burn
Look, the minute I dropped the needle on this one I knew: from the first note I was sure I’d get on with an album that has been fifteen years in the coming (these two bands last collaborated on 2004’s In The Reins EP). Beautifully produced, this is a warm record that never risks the syrupy, a romantic one that never turns to mush. Nostalgic and open-hearted, it is also forward-looking and brave for both acts – though both play to their strengths, with Sam Beam’s vocals front and centre and John Convertino’s tastefully smart drumming forming the foundation, this is also truly a collaborative album which feels neither like an off-cut or a glorified solo album from either quarter. The songwriting, too, is top-notch – among the best either Beam or Calexico’s Joey Burns have penned in years (and Burns in particular has had a strong decade). “What Heaven’s Left”, “Outside El Paso”, “In Your Own Time” are all classics of their shared oeuvre. Years To Burn is, in fact, one of their masterpieces.
Ezra Collective – You Can’t Steal My Joy
This is the record that Britain needed in 2019 – excited, exciting, communal, far-sighted. That despite this, and despite playing one of the best sets at this year’s Glastonbury festival, Ezra Collective remain just below public notoriety says something about the British distrust of jazz … but mostly about the UK’s terrible, cagey year. We had no room for this sort of groove-laden, genre-defying, exultant tune-age. Ezra Collective often sound like a Dixieland jazz band brought up to date, since they largely eschew the cult of the solo break in favour of band-mediated good-time music. This plays to my own jazz prejudices, but also proves a powerful political project in a multi-cultural Britain suffering an identity – and confidence – crisis. The title of this album was chosen assuredly and advisedly. This is generous music, and we will need more of this stuff in 2020 and beyond – it’s the future, and on this record you can hear it calling happily.
Grande Valise – Glass & Keys
Full disclosure: I’ve known Becky and Andy, the duo behind Grande Valise, for years – and made music with the for just as long. (They are joined here and on stage by Carl Bayliss on drums and John Napier on bass, alongside numerous others including yours truly.) But Glass & Keys is a very special record regardless, since it includes some inspired songwriting on the topic of just the sorts of communities and histories that have sat at the heart of music the political wrangling past which Ezra Collective successfully squeeze. This slice of Black Country synth-pop includes songs about the impact on employment of automation, of the withering away of local amenities likes pubs and clubs; it includes songs about venerable figures of the industrial revolution like the Chubb brothers, Charles and Jeremiah, and that Wolverhampton marvel of automotive engineering, the Sunbeam. And yet it is also quite the catchiest record I’ve heard all year – hooks and melodies and vocal harmonies to die for are layered on top of one another with almost showy abandon, producing an effect of celebration rather than wake. It’s brilliant, and defies all the barren shibboleths of our present discourse. Go and buy it, and then dance.
Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride
This is going to be a controversial choice. Vampire Weekend have never been the coolest of bands – their preppy image and unapologetic adoption of polyrhythms saw to that. But on Father of the Bride they lean in to that caricature, and there’s no way around the fact the record is occasionally simply very cheesy and unfashionable, not least in its length. There’s a lot of vibrato and chorus on the guitars, too, and there’s quite a few backing choirs, as well. But here’s the thing: it works. The production here never feels gloopy or leaden, but instead comes across as refreshingly crisp, uncomplicated in some obscure, post-cool fashion. The album also includes some of the best individual songs of the year – most obviously “Jerusalem, New York, Berlin”, but also “This Life” and “Married In A Gold Rush” – and that shouldn’t be over-looked in the rush to dismiss Ezra Koenig as a bit of a douche. Stop trying to be cool, guys. It’s sad.
Our Native Daughters – Songs of Our Native Daughters
This record could so easily have been a museum-piece. Of course, once its personnel were chosen – Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell – there was never any chance of that happening. But choose only one of them, or choose a different quartet, or give them a different brief, and the resulting record could have been polite and respectful – but not also vibrant and creative and inspiring, as this set is. Released by Smithsonian Folkways, and played on acoustic instruments in a – dread word this – authentic roots Americana style, Songs of Our Native Daughters is, rather like the work of Hurray for the Riff-Raff in fact a work of stealth revolution: songs that sound like standards which are in fact original compositions that reclaim musical forms for the dispossessed. It proceeds out of Giddens’s own explorations of slavery and the history of the banjo (most obviously on 2017’s Freedom Highway), but the inspired decision to make the project fully and wholly collaborative transformed a fascinating project into a vital one. These are great tunes, beautifully performed and affectingly sung; but taken together they are also something else that happens meaningfully rather less often: they are a manifesto. The second album cannot be far away, and the movement is already here.