A decade removed from her signature hit “Daniel,” Natasha Khan’s latest album didn’t get the short of shine it warranted. Perhaps the switch from Parlophone to an independent route kept it too closely guarded by her fans, or maybe in 2019 the exquisite record’s earnest synthpop felt somewhat out of step with the times. But Bat For Lashes has never been about trend hopping, and the concise and evocative Lost Girls showcases a songwriter unapologetic about her throwback influences while simultaneously maturing in her craft. With input from studio cohort Charles Scott IV, “The Hunger” trembles like Peter Gabriel’s mid-80s mini epics and “Feel For You” shimmies like Factory Records’ Danceteria-indebted singles of the period.
Caught in the sticky wreckage of the early 2010s indie-alt explosion unpleasantly dubbed PBR&B by some, FKA Twigs could have succumbed to the narrative that left many of her immediate predecessors helplessly timestamped in subgenre amber. Haughty critical adulation and the microscopic lens flare of gossip culture threatened to compress her career, and a disconcerting fibroids diagnosis could have done her even more harm. So to come back four years after the relatively minor M3LL155X with the stunning, nonconformist, and emotionally unfiltered MAGDALENE places her beyond any genre’s canon. One of the strongest songs of her career and the year as a whole, “Sad Day” turns fragility into force, its impactful refrain near operatic in its execution. And really, how could anyone not stan Twigs after giving Future his best song of the year with “Holy Terrain,” a trap deconstruction with input from Yeezus alums Arca and Skrillex?
In the waning weeks of this decade, innovative bass imprint Hyperdub cunningly dropped Burial’s Tunes 2011 to 2019. A collection of songs that didn’t feature on either of his two albums, the project seemed almost cynically timed to suit both music critics’ annual list season and the associated ten year roundups. Though many will take the bait and reward the producer and his benefactors on an arguably justifiable technicality, it ought not be at the expense of an actual album from the label worthy of the accolades. Without hesitation, I’m entirely comfortable stating that Loraine James’ debut LP For You And I that counts as Hyperdub’s most important and essential release since Untrue, perhaps even its better. A complicated and deeply human work, the album encapsulates a hidden personal London that speaks volumes of the city at large. Its contents deal with her queerness amid a thrilling storm of urban and club styles, present in the title track’s nervous arpeggiated jitters and video game reveries as well as rapper Le3 BLACK’s enlightening “My Future.” The loose junglist clatter of “So Scared” evokes titular fraught feelings as much as James’ looped spoken refrain, and it lingers like a headphone ghost long after the album wraps.
Nobody but nobody harnesses bass quite like Kevin Martin. As someone whose catalog, particularly as The Bug, repeatedly turns to reggae traditions in order to reverently mine for low-end gold, the decision to strip out that sonic layer for the latest King Midas Sound project made Solitude a curious aberration in his discography. With performance poet Roger Robinson’s rudeboy ruminations on a collapsed relationship supplanting bass weight with emotional heft, the duo construct a world of heartache and tempest. A quiet rage at the self, the other, and the world bubbles over the metastasizing dreamscapes of “In The Night” and underneath the groaning drones of “Zeros.” This isn’t some Ballardian dystopia or soundsystem escapism, but rather the crushing reality and existential aloneness of the now.
As apps abound and drive nearly every decision we make, the simple pleasure of watching The Weather Channel to check the local temperature floated from view like so many little fluffy clouds. Whether or not the New Age sensations of that experience were lost on you, Nonlocal Forecast recaptures the mystic vibes on this breathtaking work of kitsch as art. The rare album one wouldn’t mind living inside for awhile, Bubble Universe! bursts with delightful twists and drips with telling tinctures, a labor of love that rewards those who can let go of preconceived notions and allow some prog-lite mischief and smooth jazz flair into their lives. “Cloud-Hidden” unspools like a keyboard preset gone sentient, while “Foam, Vaccum, One” lets its ambient drones luxuriate and shimmer. “Planck Lengths” rushes with Phil Collins level drum machine glee, only holding back for birdsong and breath.
With all due respect to Autechre’s amoral algorithms, we don’t talk about IDM anymore primarily because it more or less stopped mattering. Still, the legacy of what Aphex Twin’s Rephlex Records cheekily branded as braindance helped guide so much of what we have on offer in the electronic music underground today. A former labelmate of those Warp pioneers, patten makes music that considers the prior data before applying it to more contemporary rhythmic structures found in the club on his self-released Flex. Less overly enamored of his predecessor’s futurism fetish. he subjects drill, grime, and trap to wave abuse on cuts like “Night Vision” and “Snake Eyes.” One key weapon in the patten arsenal is voice manipulation, adding a frenetic edge to the footwork of “Infrared” and the post-rave clamor of “Memory Flood.”
Science fiction has provided plenty of inspiration to electronic and jazz musicians alike, for better or worse. In the case of Salami Rose Joe Louis’ space opera, it’s unquestionably the former. The Brainfeeder act’s diverting keyboard jazz noodle of “Octagonal Room” and “Nostalgic Montage” occasionally and joyfully distracts the expository solar narrative provided over top. Even if you’re not following along with her story, Zdenka 2080 presses on with its musical mission, mostly through fairly brief tracks the length of beat tape snippets. Yet while FlyLo’s label has been known to cater to L.A. scene format, this cohesive work stands on its own . Vocals reminiscent of the celestial choirs led by Kamasi Washington give a certain charm to “Love The Sun” and “Cumulous Potion.”
As was often the case last year, reggaetón continued to rock the world in 2019 as a pop phenomenon. Even as J Balvin and Daddy Yankee globetrot as prominent commercial ambassadors of the style, Tomasa Del Real represented the realness of an underground inclusive of the people the genre once systematically shut out. A sturdy successor to her Bellaca Del Año, the Chilean neoperreo leader’s semi-eponymous TDR keeps dembow from stagnation with its collaborative and empowering essence. She’s sexually direct on “Ella Quiere Culiar” alongside TECH GRL, and in command of the dancefloor on “Perrea Conmigo” with the legendary DJ Blass. Typically spritzed if not altogether doused in auto-tune, Del Real’s voice anchors future-facing cuts like “Los Dueños De Neoperreo” and the playful “Braty Puti.”
Too often, Diplo’s celebrity takes away from the fact that Major Lazer isn’t some solo project, but rather than product of collaborative energies, including those of the Jamaican-American DJ/producer Walshy Fire. Born of a deliberate attempt to reconcile the oft maddeningly segregated contemporary music scenes in Africa and the Carribbean, his Abeng links the likes of Mr. Eazi and Runtown from the former with Kranium and Machel Montano of the latter. Judging from the consistency and potency of the exercise’s results, the soundclash of Afrobeats, dancehall, and soca, among other regional styles, proves a profound success. Eschewing slackness for positivity, the overarching warmth and camaraderie of “No Negative Vibes” and “Round Of Applause” aids in diasporic healing.
Considering how many of the 2000s’ flashes in the pan went tupperware cold before the 2010s, it’s more than a little wild to think that a band that dropped some of its best stuff in the wake of electroclash could somehow still be alive and kicking. Yet as some of their peers limply mount cashgrab reunions for a young generation weirdly susceptible to nostalgia, the snarky boys of Chk Chk Chk never even quit in the first place, pivoting more towards disco than art punk beginning with 2013’s Thr!!!er and continuing with like minded follow-ups As If and Shake The Shudder. Demonstrably better than those latter two, Wallop finds the band as punchy and poppy as ever before, with the slamming house glam of “Couldn’t Have Known” and the self effacing funk rock of “Serbia Drums.”
Born, raised, and still living in New York City, Gary Suarez writes about music and culture for a variety of publications. Since 1999, his work has appeared in various outlets including Backstage, Billboard, Complex, Deadspin, Four Pins, High Times, Pitchfork, and Noisey, among others. His Digital/Divide column appears monthly on Vinyl Me, Please.