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Yola. Photo/Alysse Gafkjen/Supplied

The Listener's 15 Best Albums of 2019

Graham Reid offers a personal selection of the year’s top albums – and some more to explore.

Aldous Harding: Designer

Beguiling if cryptic lyrics woven into elegant, intimate, sometimes weightless personal and yet universal folk-pop. Harding again creates a spellbinding inner/out-there world.

On Tour: Wellington’s Michael Fowler Centre, March 13; Auckland Town Hall, March 14; Christchurch Town Hall, March 15.

Now hear this: Purple Pilgrims, Perfumed Earth.

Billie Eilish: When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?

The youngest-ever Grammy-nominated artist in four major categories delivers this ambitious, broody and subtle debut, produced by brother Finneas. The Lorde-influenced 17-year-old insinuates rather than shouts her way into attention. Style and substance.

Now hear this: Charli XCX, Charli.

Billie Eilish. Photo/Supplied

Dead Little Penny: Urge Surfing

The Auckland trio reassemble widescreen shoegaze guitars, melodic power pop, goth gloom, 60s girl-group melodrama and dream pop into engaging dense/light songs. Beths-like attention beckons.

Now hear this: Mermaidens, Look Me in the Eye.

Ekiti Sound: Abeg No Vex

Challengingly lo-fi London tenement-block sonics are filtered through Lagos hip-hop and bargain-basement electronics. Inner-city pressure and tribal dance infuse Nigerian producer/singer Leke’s debut, with dislocating rhythmic shifts from funk to drum’n’bass. Not for the faint-hearted.

Now hear this: Kim Gordon, No Home Record.

Gretchen Peters: Dancing with the Beast

Monochromatic country-touched postcards out of Trump’s broken heartland from an abused girl, a truckstop hooker and marginalised middle-aged and older women. Disturbing female perspectives of an America beyond the headlines.

Now hear this: Greg Fleming and the Working Poor, Get Off at Lincoln.

Gretchen Peters. Photo/Getty Images

Jan Hellriegel: Sportsman of the Year

An autobiographical book/CD collection signalling the return of the respected New Zealand singer-songwriter. The conversational book is peppered with kitchen-table wisdom and anecdotes; the sometimes flinty songs deliver with poetic precision and hardened insight.

Now hear this: Mousey, Lemon Law

Julia Jacklin: Crushing

The Melbourne singer-songwriter’s insightful second album deals with her life in the sudden-fame lane, personal loss, keeping the interest alive in a long relationship and more. Preternaturally mature.

On tour: Laneway Festival, Auckland, January 27.
Now hear this: Angie McMahon, Salt.

Lankum: The Livelong Day

The Irish folk band explore entrancing drones and eerily timeless moods. Possibly more for avant-rock listeners than folk purists. Best not undertaken in one sitting but a disconcerting album to return to.

Now hear this: Groeni, Nihx.

Julia Jacklin. Photo/Supplied

Leonard Cohen: Thanks for the Dance

A posthumous PS to the farewell letters of his final album, You Want It Darker, these intimate songs don’t tarnish the legacy of the great Canadian who distilled art and truth into poetic songs.

Now hear this: Bruce Springsteen, Western Stars.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds: Ghosteen

The subtext of these mostly understated, elegiac meditations on grief and spirituality is that even in the midst of life we are in death. Love and reassurance are everywhere, though, and “peace will come”.

Now hear this: Jenny Hval, The Practice of Love.

75 Dollar Bill: I Was Real

Daring New York guitar and percussionist duo (plus pals) thread together hypnotic sub-Saharan desert blues, avant-garde minimalism, Velvet Underground drone and psychedelic rock. Intoxicating.

Now hear this: Tinariwen, Amadjar.

Troy Kingi. Photo/Supplied

Troy Kingi and The Upperclass: Holy Colony Burning Acres

Post-colonial, consciousness-raising, 70s-framed Aotearoa reggae for our time. Ravaged or stolen land, displaced peoples, resistance, positivity and more are the broad themes. An important, musically captivating album.

On tour: Womad, New Plymouth, March 13-15.
Now hear this: Lee “Scratch” Perry, Rainford.

Nérija: Blume

London’s jazz scene, where grime, hip-hop, hard bop, Afro-futurism, brass and more get mashed up, is where it’s at. This (mostly) all-women collective leap into the vanguard with this boiling debut.

Now hear this: The Comet is Coming, The Afterlife.

YBN Cordae: The Lost Boy

Downbeat, down-tempo and articulate autobiographical debut by the 22-year-old US rapper who allows breathing space for strings and quiet passages while reflecting on how far he’s come, but still misses his late grandma and screwed-up family. Gospel and blues in his DNA, too.

Now hear this: Church & AP, Teeth.

Yola: Walk Through Fire

Mature Black-British artist records in Nashville with Dan (Black Keys) Auerbach and creates her own space between classic Dusty Springfield, Dolly Parton, gospel and country-soul. Exceptional, enjoyable debut.

Now hear this: Brittany Howard, Jaime.

YBN Cordae. Photo/Jimmy Fontaine/Supplied

From the vaults – the best reissues

The Okay, Boomer Award for a reissued album that never went away: The Beatles: Abbey Road

Their final studio album returned for its 50th anniversary with remix tweaking and a disc of outtakes, some of which – Come Together and I Want You (She’s So Heavy) particularly – are compelling. Then they crossed the road into history.

Now hear this: The Rolling Stones, Let It Bleed (50th anniversary reissue).

The Budget Advice Award for an expensive but enjoyably secular Sunday: Bob Dylan: Travelin’ Through, 1967-1969 The Bootleg Series Vol 15

At this time Dylan was acoustic and comfortable after his turbulent years. This collection of mostly unreleased country material spotlights his association with Johnny Cash.

Now hear this: Steve Gunn, The Unseen In Between.

The Get Up-Stand Up Award for righteously indignant reggae: Herbs: Whats’ Be Happen

Released after the decade of discontent – Ngā Tamatoa, dawn raids, Polynesian Panthers, the hikoi, land occupations – and as the 81 Springbok tour arrived, this EP (now with French Letter added) captured the zeitgeist. Angry but at times a lament for what might have been in this country.

Now hear this: Sarathy Korwar, More Arriving.

The It Was Jazz, Jim, But Not As We Knew It Award: Nathan Haines: Shift Left

New Zealand’s biggest-selling jazz album got 20th anniversary treatment (with bonus remixes), and its blend of turntables and hip-hop consciousness alongside saxophonist Haines’ classic jazz scholarship still sounds timely.

Now hear this: Tom Ludvigson and Trevor Reekie, Roto.

The Nightcap Award for providing rest amid the haste: Various artists: Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental and New Age Music 1980-1990

As it says, collected quietness. To say more would make unnecessary noise.

Now hear this: Al Fraser, Sam Leamy, Neil Johnstone, Panthalassa.

For more by Graham Reid see www.elsewhere.co.nz

This article was first published in the December 14, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.