While mixtapes generally went out of fashion with Blind Date, the launch of Channel 4 and, well, the cassette, (does this mean mixtapes will come back into fashion soon? A lot of the albums below were released on cassette), the idea of circulating either CDs or playlists of your favourite tunes of the year is a tradition that has clung on defiantly, especially on social media.
Furthermore, no self-respecting music magazine, record shop or even vaguely musical Twitter user passes a December without telling everyone what their albums of the year are.
Which possibly makes December the most exciting month in the musical calendar to discover new sounds. With every man, woman and their musically-inclined-dogs churning out a best-of list of some sort, even the most slovenly, disengaged music fan – someone who listens to Heart FM, for example – cannot help but find something new to like.
I know people who make up CDs and lovingly recreate album artwork and track listings using CD-making software which probably isn’t supported anymore, or even hand-scribe notes. It’s a lovely thing, and one you might argue that posting a Spotify playlist doesn’t quite match from an artistic standpoint. But the earth’s resources are scarce, and not all of us can risk threatening the existence of turtles by self-indulgently burning CDs, spending hours writing artwork and stuffing things into jewell cases and padded envelopes. Which is another way of saying I’m going to just post the links.
So here are my albums of 2019, followed by a Spotify playlist of my favourite tunes. Hopefully there is one in there you haven’t heard before that you like, and thus the whole thing becomes worthwhile.
Please post your favourites in the comments section below.
1. The Every Record Tells A Story record of the year is Bruce Springsteen’s Western Stars.
That a Bruce Springsteen album should appeal to a person of my age may surprise no-one, but it certainly surprised me. I find myself astonished, because until this year I rather subscribed to the view that his best years were, in the nicest possible way, behind him, at least on record. Always one to watch in concert, and while I had no objection to The Boss releasing more LPs, I suspected the world would still turn if he decided not to, and people would get by without another Springsteen album seeing the light of day.
What is different about this one, is the approach. There’s no lung-busting, E-street band-shaking, 1-2-3-4-counting bombast. Instead there is orchestration. It’s Springsteen in Widescreen. He even made a film about it (which I haven’t seen yet).
Vinyl notes: There’s a blue indie-only vinyl version, a Barnes and Noble clear and blue version in the US, a dark blue web-only version for people who for reasons best known to themselves don’t shop or order records from record shops, and there are also fifty test pressings, of which two are on sale from the very reasonable price of, oh, $2,000…
2. Little Simz – Grey Area
She’s a self declared Picasso with a pen, deadpan rapping against tight drum beats and a none-more-seventies jazz flute, pumping bass lines, perhaps some piano, cartoon sound effects, violin, it’s all so inventive. And that’s just the first track. “Selfish” suggests smoother, 70s style soulful edges and “101FM” just floats over you, light as a feather while throwing in biographical (and Crash Bandicoot) references.
Vinyl notes: limited vinyl release, in white vinyl only.
3. These New Puritans – Inside The Rose
Move over Depeche Mode and The Horrors, Estuary Essex has another band deserving of your attention. There’s something of mid-period Depeche Mode and a low key, Talk Talk vibe to this latest album, while final track “Six” might have come from an early Sigur Ros album. Inside The Rose manages to be more accessible than the Leigh-on-Sea band’s previous releases, which I have found to be like a strong Stilton: something of an acquired taste. This wonderful LP has been on my turntable a lot this year and rewards repeat listens.
Vinyl notes: Only one vinyl version, but one that inhabits a lovely “acidic” multi-colour” format.
4. Lana Del Ray: NFR!
Building up an impressive body of work over five albums, Del Ray has perhaps topped them all with this sublime, cutting set of arch torch songs, including an incredible nine minute version of “Venice Bitch”.
Vinyl notes: Lime Green, Pink, Blue – you can even get the album in black vinyl if you look carefully.
5. Michael Kiwanuka – Kiwanuka
A more up-tempo LP than predecessor Love & Hate, it’s a long time since Kiwanuka appeared at the Mercury Prize awards as a relative unknown for his debut in 2012. This new album is chock full of Dangermouse-produced catchy, funky drumming, riffs and bass lines, reminiscent of classic Bill Withers, Donny Hathaway and Marvin Gaye albums, but with a thoroughly modern edge.
Vinyl notes: yellow and pink coloured version available. Signed copies were initially available on the web store for the bricks and mortar bypassers and are available for £171 on Discogs, (presumably more if signed by Morrissey at one of his shows?).
6. Ride: This Is Not A Safe Place
It’s rare for a band to reform and produce records that stand up to the ones that attracted people to the band first time around. This is the second album released by Ride since their reformation in 2014, and it’s a belter. Rockers like “Kill Switch” and “Repetition” mix with more melodic songs like the gorgeous “Clouds of Saint Marie”. A U.K. top ten album.
Vinyl notes: comes in a green translucent coloured version.
7. Thom Yorke – Anima
Another artist who has released a more accessible album than previous efforts. The Radiohead frontman needs no introduction, but his new LP is another real grower.
Vinyl notes: standard and deluxe versions on orange vinyl available.
8. Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride
A surprisingly good comeback for New Yorkers – their fourth album but first for six years, having lost key contributor / songwriter in Rostam Batmanglij, who left in 2016.
Vinyl notes: comes in standard and in orange vinyl, plus a Spotify exclusive in green vinyl “limited” to 2,000 copies.
9. Beck – Hyperspace
A more laid back Beach House-style dream pop approach compared to last (very poppy) record “Colors”. “Chemical” is part synth-drenched psychedelia, part guitar ballad while album closer “Everlasting Nothing” is one of the best songs Beck has ever done, which is saying plenty.
Vinyl notes: multitudinous versions, including “clear gold”, indie only silver, red and a Spotify exclusive, 2,000 strong Gold version. Perhaps the most limited? Rough Trade’s 500 run of dual coloured vinyl. Truly we are in a world where black vinyl is going to be the rarest version before too long.
10. Coldplay – Everyday Life
Experimental, a progression from the last album, at times beautiful (opening as it does with a strings-only instrumental), and featuring the likes of skronking jazz from Femi Kuti, a doo wop vocal group, a choir and French lyrics. Despite its eclecticism it is also oddly accessible. “Daddy” is a lovely ballad, if you have the stomach for such things. “Trouble in Town” begins quietly and understated, commenting on a divided society with uncomfortable recordings of police harassment, building to a crescendo. “Arabesque” is another highlight. Coldplay are an easy target. They are successful (never a popular move for some, especially in the UK) and earnest. They also refuse to stand still, and never more so than on this latest LP.
Vinyl notes: Sadly, limited edition silver-coloured vinyl LPs were exclusively sold through their own web store, cutting out independent shops which only get the “ordinary” version.
For those of you who prefer a mixtape, here are my songs of the year – around forty songs from various artists. What were your favourites?