There’s no denying that 2019 has been a rough year. The tide of global populism continues to rise, the gap between rich and poor is widening, political unrest is bubbling all over the world, sexual exploitation dominates the headlines, and we face an incoming climate catastrophe.
But at least we still have music! And if you can forget the grim headlines, albeit briefly, you’ll recall that 2019 has produced some seriously good stuff.
Below, the Musique de Danse writers have provided their takes on album of the year. Have a read, have a listen, and let the music wash away 2019’s woes.
Happy new year x
GREY Area - Little Simz
GREY Area, Little Simz third record, brims with the confidence and swagger of a rapper at the height of their powers. But Simz isn’t afraid to showcase her vulnerabilities too and it is this versatility that marks this album out as one of the year’s best.
Across its snappy 35-minute run time, Simz crosses genres, tones and lyrical content with characteristic sharpness. Unlike her previous efforts, Grey Area is not restricted by concept or debut fears - it is a display of unbounded confidence.
We hear this right from the opening bars as live drums crash onto the track, an adventurous choice for a genre so defined by its use of drum machines and sampling. The gamble pays off though - the live instrumentation brings a vitality to the beats that Simz matches with her exacting delivery.
Across the rest of the listing, Simz and producer Inflo, who has also worked on Michael Kiwanuka’s last two albums, treat us to a sonic smorgasbord - from the East-Asian inspired beats of 101 FM to the gorgeous strings on Selfish - that owe as much to video games and cartoons as they do to Wiley or Wu-Tang.
Lyrically, the North London native is funny and truthful, providing an authentic portrait of her life’s experience of relationships, adulthood, violence, pirate radio. She is also razor-sharp, particularly when touching on the difficulties she has had in gaining recognition within a male-dominated scene (and world). Just listen to ‘Venom’ and you’ll get a sense of how Simz knows she is still underrated.
Admirably and fiercely independent, she has again chosen to release the record on her own label, Age 101. Coming complete with artwork photographed by Simz herself, Grey Area is a powerful and vibrant manifestation of Little Simz’s vision. This year has seen many great hip hop releases from the UK - but make no mistake, Grey Area places Little Simz in a lane of her own.
Resonant Body - Octo Octa
Anna Cash Davidson
It came as no surprise to me that Octo Octa was my most listened to artist of 2019. Her album Resonant Body (September 2019) permeated everything from my early morning commutes, Saturday night pre-drinks and lazy Sunday afternoons.
Resonant Body sparks a new chapter in Octo Octa’s music career. Having eagerly consumed each earlier Octo Octa album, I came to expect a collection of slow-building tracks, usually reflective, melancholic or serene.
Octo Octa acknowledges a change in her style:
My mantra used to be ‘no bangers, only tears.’ But I’ve been out playing so much. So now I’m like yeah, club bangers, here we go! (The Face)
‘Ecstatic Beat’ could be the name of every song on Resonant Body. Right from the offset ‘Imminent Spirit Arrival’ creates a feeling that you’ve been thrown into the middle of a high-energy set, capturing the purgative power of dance floors that allows you to let go entirely.
One of my personal favourites is ‘Spin Girl Let’s Activate!’ a slightly manic and extremely energising, uplifting track that really lives up to its title. Despite the change in style, Resonant Body retains the emotional power of Octo Octa’s previous work, with a reflective pause presented by the dreamy ‘My Body is Powerful’.
‘Power to the People’ captures the unifying experience of dance floors, inciting both a feeling of rebellion and a sense of comfort in being part of a like-minded crowd. The voice of an unintelligible mass reverberates throughout the song; what they are protesting does not seem to be the most important thing - it is simply a celebration of unity. In one moment of clarity, there is a short sample from a 1980s rally by ACT UP, an LGBT+ activist response to the AIDS pandemic, who used their rage to force action from the government and scientific communities.
The underground queer club community provided a place of acceptance for transgender woman Maya Bouldry-Morrison (Octo Octa) and she gives back by creating a safe space through her music. Bouldry-Morrison is also giving back in the literal sense by donating 50% of profits from this album to the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, “which works to guarantee that all people are free to self-determine their gender identity and expression […] without facing harassment, discrimination, or violence.”
After listening to the album innumerable times, I am left with the mantra “I know exactly how you feel”. This repeated sample from ‘Can You See Me?’ creates the feeling of the album as a shared experience, one which I am thrilled to be a part of.
Crush - Floating Points
Floating Points’ releases up until 2019 have shown many sides to producer/DJ Sam Shepherd. Part-jazz aficionado part-polymathic analogue techno-wizard, every release has proved his talents not only as a producer but as a composer and sonic sculptor, exploring sounds that straddle ambient, downtempo, jazz, electro and house with distinctly improvisational flair. From the jazzy, Rhodes-infused hybrid of live instruments and electronics on Elaenia, to the more garage-centred Shadows EP (a personal favourite of mine), via the obtuse sound design experiments of Reflections – Mojave Desert, Crush feels like the next logical musical frontier for Shepherd in defining his aesthetic.
From the release of the first single, ‘LesAlpx’, it was clear how Shepherd would twist his already idiosyncratic sound into something more epic and energetic. The single miraculously combines Jon Hopkins-esque synths with a pacey garage house beat that drives the track to its intergalactic climax. Other single standouts include the idm-influenced ‘Last Bloom’ and ‘Anasickmodular’; the latter is a skippy, glitched-out breakbeat jam that feels equally at home in one of Floating Points’ epic live sets as in a pulsing DJ set.
A personal favourite of mine is ‘Bias’, a track that, for half its runtime, consists of a flickering crescendo of arps and a distant breakbeat that teases the enormous, bass-heavy payoff in the middle of the track. The track stood out to me from the first listen, but hearing Call Super expertly mix it into his headline set at XOYO last month made my night. In between the more club-ready tracks, Shepherd weaves in a number of ambient interludes and soundscapes that go further to enrich his twitchy modular universe. ‘Karakul’s’ subtle-yet-expansive sound design is an exercise in sound texture more than anything else, while the album opener, ‘Falaise’, is a gorgeously composed manifesto for Floating Points’ style, a melancholy-yet-otherworldly composition that deploys stuttering LFOs to warp a sombre jazz instrumental.
Crush feels an apt title for an album that melds so many sounds previously explored by Shepherd on different projects. What I enjoy so much about his music, especially on this album, is how three-dimensional it feels. Beautifully constructed musical compositions are ripped apart at the seams by Shepherd’s wild modular experiments. His fusion of jazz, classical and electronics has never felt more cohesive, making the sonic world he builds one of the most exciting listens of 2019.
MAGDALENE - FKA twigs
Five tumultuous years after the release of LP1, FKA twigs makes a spectacular return with MAGDALENE, a superb sophomore album centred around the intoxicating interplay of female desire and suffering. Soaring sopranos and intimate whispers are layered over beds of shimmering synths to create an LP of abundant depth that spurns all pretense and bares twigs’ vulnerability to the world. In openly articulating her rawest feelings, twigs reclaims her private life from media vultures, and transforms pain into art.
As the debut single, ‘Cellophane’ has received the lion’s share of critical attention. Hype was exacerbated by the accompanying music video, in which twigs performs an acutely tender pole-dance before undergoing an exhilarating metamorphosis into a bizarre transhumanist creature. The song’s mind-boggling, dizzying narrative is gripping - it’s obvious why this track was chosen to announce twigs’ return - but I find myself drawn to the album’s understated feminine elegies on failed relationships and bodily betrayal.
‘Home with You’ is an operatic, heart-wrenching meditation on the hardships suffered by twigs since her last album; most notably, the breakdown of a relationship (presumably with Hollywood heartthrob Robert Pattinson). Twigs displays remarkable acumen in her ability to candidly express grief without compromising her and Pattinson’s privacy, a balancing act made even more impressive in the context of tabloid voyeurism. She alludes to the ordeal of public scrutiny in ‘Cellophane’ (“They wanna see us… alone”) and the highly nuanced ‘Thousand Eyes’, which acknowledges the validation, as well as the suffocation, induced by media attention. ‘Home with You’ crescendoes into a full-throated commemoration of loss, but I’m most struck by the creeping intro, in which twigs intones “apples, cherries, pain, breathe in, breathe out, pain”, a thinly veiled reference to the fruit-sized fibroid tumours that “knocked (her) confidence as a woman”.
‘Daybed’, wryly dubbed the “sad wank” track, exemplifies Twigs’ flair for weaving potent images through a fusion of sparse symbolism, delicate synths and haunting vocals. The stripped-back production gives twigs’ restrained lyrics room to breathe, and although minimal, they’re shrewdly chosen. Rather than explicitly reference her depression, twigs employs fleeting snapshots of “dirty dishes” and a “possessive… daybed” to conjure up a claustrophobic atmosphere of despair. The home in which her daybed resides is manifest sonically through the song, with the weepy strings and sepulchral pipes representing its creaking architecture. The references to twigs’ “jaded father” and “childlike… answer” hint at suppressed conflict and degrading neediness, evoking a pathos unparalleled elsewhere on the album.
MAGDALENE hinges on several recurring motifs - fruit, love, domesticity, voice (or lack thereof) - that coalesce to produce a distinctly feminine mood. ‘mary magdalene’, an electrifying invocation of the titular biblical figure, is positioned at the album’s halfway point, operating as an epicentre from which all its themes emanate. Mary Magdalene is at once a cipher for twigs and an emblem of universal womanhood, a concept charged with a sense of divinity and mysticism through lines like “A woman’s touch / A secret geometry”. Whilst Future’s feature on ‘Holy Terrain’ and the subsequent turn to trap had some fans scratching their heads, twigs’ identity is never lost. Arca’s influence on the production is tangible, and serves as a reminder of twigs’ fealty to the experimental electronic scene.
Despite contributions from the likes of Jack Antonoff and Nicolas Jaar, MAGDALENE is a deeply individualist project, rooted in Tahliah Barnett’s personal experience and brought alive by her multi-disciplinary talents. The title, initially dismissed by some critics as a regurgitation of a banal trope, turns out to be well-earnt. With MAGDALENE, Barnett invites us to peek behind the curtain of her artist persona, offering an intimate glimpse into her hallowed domestic world of feeling and spirituality. In an increasingly left-brained world, where rationality and rhetoric reign supreme, such work is sacred.
Anima - Thom Yorke
Living in a metropolis such as London, with its snaking alleys and dense populous, it’s easy to feel like a ghost. Everywhere around you can seem drenched in chaos, yet the next street is silent. For me, no soundtrack personifies this confusion of city life better than Thom Yorke’s newest synth fueled album, Anima.
After recently watching Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Dario Argento's classic horror masterpiece, Suspiria, in which Yorke’s score weaves beautifully amongst chilling scenes of grotesque witches and gracefully choreographed ballerinas, I was more than excited to hear that Yorke would be working with Paul Thomas Anderson on a visual conception of his newest album.
On release day, I made no hesitation in listening to Anima in full. Being a huge fan of Yorke’s previous work, I went into the album with no doubt that I’d love what I would hear. So it was a shock when I didn’t…
At first, this album felt pretentious without reason. There were no hooks, it felt bland, and nothing grabbed me. I spent the rest of the day at work feeling glum, sure that I must’ve missed something. Musically, this was a great piece of work and subtly different to Yorke’s previous releases, but it felt empty. That same night, I visited Netflix to binge whatever shit it force-fed me - but instead of You, I saw in big words: ANIMA. I hit play, forgetting Paul Thomas Anderson’s involvement and unsure what to expect.
The film opened with Yorke looking bleary eyed on a subway, surrounded by similarly weary passengers. As ‘Not the News’ starts playing, Yorke and the passengers commence a brilliant choreography depicting a story of love amongst chaos and isolation. However all is not as it seems, and with such profound imagery and strange movement, it’s up to the viewer to decide how much of this story is simply just the protagonist’s spirit, connecting with their deepest subconscious; or Anima.
After watching Anderson’s film, the jigsaw became complete. As Yorke’s music narrates the silent actors’ movement, my emotions started to swell, and I found I couldn’t look away. The commotion of the initial scenes and contrasting warmth of the midsection slowly began to make sense as the final image of Yorke, alone on a bus, faded. The film lasts a mere fifteen minutes, yet as the end credits rolled, I felt more empathy with the ANIMA’s protagonist than that of a two hour blockbuster.
In retrospect I realised I’d gone into this album naively hoping for a rinse-and-repeat of radio-friendly early works like ‘Black Swan’ and ‘Guess Again!’. The Eraser, Yorke’s first solo project, feels slightly amateurish; though authentic and often brilliant, it makes for unchallenging listening. Anima was never meant to be this, and I’m so glad now that it wasn’t. With Anima, Yorke is confident and bold. The lovers in Anima have found an escape from the pervasive alienation of urban life, and whether real or a dream, I found comfort in this.
Apollo XXI - Steve Lacy
The release of Apollo XXI in May 2019 marked Steve Lacy’s first foray into solo production, just weeks after his 21st birthday. There is little doubt that Lacy needed to do much more to establish his rigor and respect as one of the most layered, complete artists of our generation. As a teenager and guitar player for alternative R&B/soul group The Internet, Lacy was already partly responsible for internationally recognised and Grammy-nominated records. His individual talent was not missed by other musicians, and as early as 2017 he was already scoring production requests on tracks by Kendrick Lamar and SZA.
Apollo XXI presents us with more cinematic, downtempo tracks than the funkier sounds that define The Internet, of whom he is the third member to release a solo album. This release makes evident that his talent is not limited to guitar and bass; he has an acute ear for melting riffs with a variety of machine-like percussion, which are paired in brilliance with his falsetto vocals for some of the faster tracks on the album like ‘Guide’ and the ecstatic ‘Playground’.
However, the progression of the album also allows us to explore the strength of his vocals, with opening wonder ‘Only If’ luring everyone into his unique sound. The most impressive thing about the collection of tracks, each composed and played by Lacy on drums, vocals, guitar and bass, is the fact that each song puts a modern twist on his traditional chorus.
The psychedelic single-chord song ‘Playground’ was the most listened to on the album - perhaps unsurprisingly, given it shares a mood of uplifting nostalgia with the likes of industry sweethearts Mac Demarco (whose influence Lacy has previously mentioned) and even Frank Ocean.
But Lacy proves to be anything but derivative as he continues to showcase the malleability of his skill with instruments and sounds, with no track sounding like the next. His meticulous toying with rap and lo-fi sounds on tracks like ‘Amandla’s Interlude’, as well as his slow rock melodies, are something special, capable of taking any music fanatic on a ride to the moon or bittersweet summer.
What struck me, as a listener and upon writing this review, is that Apollo XXI demands no knowledge of Lacy’s previous incisions into the music industry. The album musters a voice of its own, one where Lacy allows his disposition to speak unfettered and for itself. I anticipate his follow-ups with nothing but excitement.