The best of 2019

The best of what I’ve listen and write about in 2019.

Translation: Aleksandra Szkudłapska

I started 2019 by transforming Nowe idzie od morza into a music website focused not just on Gdańsk-Sopot-Gdynia – as for the past 6 years – but about music in general, filling the void after almost 10 years of writing for Popupmusic.pl, an online music magazine sadly laid to rest two years ago with its 50th issue. I set out to review one record a week, and even if my posts weren’t entirely regular, I did manage to describe a total of 77 albums (i.e. 1.5 albums a week), make 9 interviews and write reviews from 3 festivals, which featured several hundred photographs.

The logical consequence would be to sum up the year with all the music I reviewed and listened to. Yet I won’t be posting a ‘best of’ list of albums – a numerical list juxtaposing footwork with singeli, organ minimalism, noise, free jazz and songs about death would seem rather futile. I waited until the end of the year, because even though releasing new music in late November or December seems quite pointless – interesting things from this time of the year usually go unnoticed – I find the ever-earlier end-of-year summaries absurd (the record goes to Rough Trade’s mid-November list). In my case, those last weeks brought me some gems that had to wait their turn or that I simply came across at the last moment. The best musical summary of the year was written by Rolling Stone, outclassing The GuardianNew York Times, not to mention the ranking of Gazeta Wyborcza – we should start taking bets about who’s going to be featured there (although I did still participate in its Polish section). I created my categories inspired by annual summaries written by Daniel Brożek (201820172016) – adjusting them to what I heard rather than trying to pigeonhole the music at a push.

Guitar Heroes

I try to limit listening to guitar (or guitar-based) music as much as possible, because I’m rarely in awe of these releases. In the last months, the absolute best in this category was Fugues by Kogumaza, with its monumental repetition-based suites, minimalism, and a mighty bang – Michael Gira should definitely listen to the trio before deciding upon any subsequent return of Swans. Their friends from Haress created meditative forms resembling the old Jackie-O Motherfucker, drawing out in a lazy, yet engrossing way. Brazil had its say too – Deafkids’ album was an avant-garde masterpiece, while Rakta prepared a genuine musical ritual. Portugal’s Black Bombaim released not one, but two albums in 2019. Both were far from typical – the first was recorded in different spaces with various producers, the latter is the result of their cooperation with Joao Pais Filipe, and features a particularly potent percussion part (I saw it performed twice in 2019, at Tremor and Unsound, a genuine phenomenon!). Sunwatchers’ yet another very political album proved their consistency and uniqueness – their blend of blues, minimalism and jazz makes for an original and clear message. Somewhat surprisingly, I’ve included Mary Halvorson in this category too – although she’s a guitarist, she usually tends to explore the realms of jazz or avant-garde. Her album with Deerhoof’s John Dieterich is another flash in her discography, frivolous, yet somewhat inconsistent with her other work. In Poland, ARRM released interesting material, but the real surprise came from Kraków in the last weeks of December: Decay by Ogdens’ is a sparse, yet rich, entrancing and fresh record. I’d really like to see this duo live in 2020.

A New Kind of Jazz

All essays about jazz being a fossilized genre or reinventing the wheel because “something has shifted” or “someone has returned jazz to someone else” seem a little funny, because jazz – and everything that surrounds it – has been with and among people for quite a while now. 2019 only confirmed that. Chicago’s International Anthem has been the leader of the pack for at least three consecutive years, and in 2019 also brought a lot of music to the world – what I liked most were Angel Bat Dawid’s handy/travel album The Oracle, full of anger, spontaneity, sternness and being in the moment, and FLY OR DIE II, the sophomore album that saw Jaimie Branch as a frontwoman: jazz meets blues here, with singing, freedom, groove and political chants. Jazz AD 2019 belonged to these two women – the latter also played a brilliant show at Jazz Jantar. Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah (who also played a fantastic concert at Jazz Jantar) showed some amazing progress with Ancestral Recall, pushing genre boundaries to their limits; Travis Laplante recorded a brilliant solo album Human (his Battle Trance gave a total show at Jazz Jantar in 2017, if you allow me to mention the festival one last time). Another noticeable solo endeavour was Julius Gabriel, who connected his saxophone to various effects, entering the field of psychedelia. A permanent point on my map of music labels is Astral Spirits, which delivers both quality and quantity – for me, the crown of their last year’s roster was Bloor (currently Bloar) with Drolleries. This is jazz that’s raw, crazy, youthful and full of spark. For some time now I’ve also been following the Helsinki-based We Jazz, which in 2019 released Koma Saxo – Petter Eldh’s new project, which plays jazz that peeks into realms once occupied by Jaga Jazzist, and generally acts as an original and invigorating ensemble on the European scene. Poland’s very own Kuba Więcek is on a par with all the aforementioned performers: in 2019, he released a captivating second album with his trio, Multitasking, which automatically elevated him to the pantheon of Polish Jazz – not just because of the label, but his compositional flair and freshness on the Polish scene. Gdańsk-based Alpaka had a busy year with their third album Algorhythm, which touched upon electronica and hip hop in terms of production, and my most memorable Polish jazzman touring Europe is Szymon Gąsiorek and his band’s eponymous album E/I, which tested the intensity and volume of sounds in a jazz line-up that didn’t seem content with just this one genre.

Don’t techno for an answer

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not trying to criticize the broad-ranging genre of techno, but given all that’s happening on the electronic dance scene, it’s hard to still be excited about ‘good old techno’ in 2019. To me, the unquestionable centre of the universe is singeli, a genre hailing from Tanzania and Uganda, about which I wrote in Polityka weekly (in Polish). Bamba Pana played two shows at Off Festival, Mczo and Duke took over Unsound’s Hotel Forum Kitchen by K.O., and went on to tour Poland after that. Above all, though, Nyege Nyege issued a singeli trilogy with albums by Duke, Jay Mitta and Sisso – each very different and characteristic, yet maintaining the same dizzying pace. Since we’ve already had Uganda and Unsound, I should also mention Mc Yallah and Debmaster with their brilliant beats and rap flow on Kubali. Another album I listened to a lot was Fongola by Kokoko! who play self-made instruments from recycled materials, and are really able to throw a party. Hama flew on his synthesizer straight from Sahara desert, combining keyboard sounds and futuristic beats on his record released by Sahel Sounds. Two albums were put out by Odete, a new, original figure on the Portuguese scene, and to underline the hat-trick scored by Unsound Festival, I have to mention HOXXXYA by Gabber Modus Operandi, who crush Indonesian culture into pieces and serve it in a show-stopping noise and rave formula. With an idea for presenting it live. In Poland, the seaside proved most intense – Jaromir Kamiński released his album with the telling title Powoli [Slowly] on Polena Records, a mix of downtempo, balearic beat, trip hop and even hip hop. Kamiński had Gdańsk’s district of Zaspa on the cover, while Rhythm Baboon made his record in the neighbouring quarter of Wrzeszcz – instead of releasing full-length albums, he only makes EPs, each time with his trademark style, inventive ideas and nervous, footwork beats. And to prove that not all that’s good has to come from the sea: Justyna Banaszczyk’s aka FOQL presented herself in a futuristic, pulsating and original way on Dumpster Diving Know-How.

Deep listening

I think I’ve quoted Pauline Oliveiros’s idea of deep listening regularly in my reviews of 2019. Even if it’s just a shortcut term for being absorbed in, and focused on, the music, especially music that requires time to really permeate the space around you. Kali Malone developed her fascination with the organ and recorded the most interesting and monumental album in her discography so far: The Sacrificial CodeMandatory Reality by Joshua Abrams Natural Information Society is a mantra-like contemplation written for guembri and an improvised line-up, based on painterly backgrounds and organic repetitions. David Rothenberg encourages us to listen to urban soundscapes and nightingales in Berlin and Helsinki – himself and a group of invited musicians enter in a dialogue with them, playing various instruments. Dynasonic also paid its tributes to minimalism and repetitions – they’re an amazing band to catch live, too. Repetitions and minimalism are also the trademark of Rattle – the duo released their last record in late 2018, but I only wrote about it at length in 2019. Five years after it was made, 2019 finally saw the release of ADVENT – a subsurface, flickering album recorded by Phil Minton, Gerard Lebik and David Maranh in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Warsaw using voice, generators and organ. The importance of space was underlined by Lea Bertucci, who recorded her Resonant Field in a giant grain elevator in Buffalo – the saxophone often fades away in the reverberating space, even to the point of losing its identity. Finally, two interesting labels: Longform editions, self-proclaimed as the ‘deep listening collective’, which invites musicians to create special suites. In 2019, these included Antti Tolvi, Bitchin Bajas, Lieven Martens or Greg Fox and Pan American. On the other hand, Besom Presse released two ginormous albums: Tony Buck and David Watson’s duo for drums and bagpipe and the monumental Processions by Werner Durand, Amelia Cuni and Victor Meertens, who look at the timbres of sounds and multi-layered structures on the verge of drones and musical mantras. Since we’ve mentioned drones, another must on the list is Important Drone Records, which releases music that may even have hallucinogenic properties.

Make local things global

The term ‘world music’ is (and rightly so!) becoming obsolete, wrote The Guardian halfway through the year, and I came to similar conclusions after attending Globaltica festival in Gdynia. Music is global, and inspirations keep interweaving with one another in all corners of the world. Various artists from different countries have secured a place in the premier league. Columbia thanks to the second album of Chúpame El Dedo, who play cumbian metal (and played a great show at Tremor), Los Piranhas and Pedro Ojeda’s solo tour de force with Romperayo. Elvis Alvarez devised the motto of the year: instead of making global things local, make local things global. The Turkish scene is also growing in strength – Gaye Su Akyol received coverage from The Guardian and New York Times, and I too had the opportunity to talk to her in 2019. Following in her footsteps are Altin Gun (Grammy nomination), Derya Yıldırım & Grup Şimşek and Anadol. South Korea’s Park Jiha released another solid album: on Philos, she intriguingly refreshes the sound of traditional instruments with the characteristic piri flute in the foreground. One of the best records of the year was recorded by Sote – Parallel Persia daringly juxtaposes Iranian tradition and futuristic, electronic sounds.Synth passages in Arabic scales were delivered by Marc Codsi on A New World, while Slovenia’s Sirom play fake-folk – something that sounds like folk and tradition, but is their own answer to the local globalised (sic!) world. The pure nonsense of the ‘world music’ label is further confirmed by some amazing albums recorded by Western artists informed by non-Western music: Vula Viel build their Deerhoof-esque sound based on Ghanaian xylophone, while Free the Robots from Los Angeles created his hip hop rhythms and melodies inspired by traditional music from Polynesia.

In Poland, the absolute best in terms of music referring to tradition and informed by it was Opla’s Obertasy – Hubert Zemler and Piotr Bukowski delivered their raw, whirring sounds with no scruples, as if there was no tomorrow. A different look at the Middle Ages was offered by Bastarda – a group that keeps getting better from record to record, with amazing artists from different music worlds who somehow manage to find common ground in this outfit. The end of 2018 – although for me this was a 2019 discovery – saw the release of Biełgoraj Kalwińskiego Adama by Królówczana Smuga. This is an intriguing and peculiar take at avant-folk, traditions, the Polish answer to New Weird Britain, backed by amazing performance and visuals (I’m judging by the photos, I’d love to catch him live in 2020). I’d been missing a project like that in Poland. And since we’re talking about Poland and tradition, the Ethnographic Department of the National Museum in Gdańsk prepared a brilliant exhibition Primal Sounds.

Eat the rich

A number of 2019 releases brought fresh hope and ideas in terms of articulating opposition to acute social and political problems. The front runner here is of course the US, where the current situation provokes sometimes very direct reactions. To me, the strongest example was Amirtha Kidambi, who recorded a masterpiece of an album with Elder Ones: From Untruth speaks of colonialism, racism, and capitalism to the accompaniment of Moog, saxophone, sensory percussion and vocal lines inspired by Carnatic improvisations. Lingua Ignota talks about the consequences of domestic violence, in operatic and theatrical style, universally blending Baroque sounds with metal, folk and songs in the style of Diamanda Galas. Moor Mother took us on a peculiar journey around African American USA, teaching us about protests, falsified narratives and constant inequalities to the accompaniment of raw beats, punk forms, sampledelia and with the support of a couple of producers. Black Myths, a minimalist duo for bass and drums that aims for a maximalist sound, released their sophomore work in 2019: a mighty, raw blend of noise and punk, filled with rage and defiance. Finally, Yatta made a lyrical, yet very involved album about the discrimination of LGBT+ people.

In Poland, a strong punch was landed by Ukryte Zalety Systemu, whose pulsating, reinvigorating post-punk on Sposób użycia is backed with intelligent, poignant lyrics. Between her two full-length works, Siksa released Palemostynielegal, an album originally recorded by CSSABA in 2010 (an incarnation of Nihil from Furia), to which she made lyrics about her hometown of Gniezno. My discovery of the year, though, is Złe Oko and her painfully moving commentary about Poland as seen from Norway: about the lack of tolerance, misogyny and patriarchal world. That’s the must-listen list from Poland AD 2019, where politically and socially involved works are still accepted with reluctance.

Good spirits, where art thou?

My summary of 2019 has so far been dominated by experiments, but last year was also filled with great songs, as if tailor-made for radio airplay, or albums that kept the song tradition alive. In a nutshell: alternative music that may be more attractive to mass audiences thanks to melodies, choruses and lyrics. Nagrobki made Pod ziemią, their best record so far, demonstrating that the subject of death is an insatiable source of inspiration. The duo are informed by the Polish song tradition, delivering peculiar, catchy hits. Enchanted Hunters are back after a long hiatus, this time in an electronic incarnation – although I’m not a die-hard fan of Dwunasty dom, these are brilliantly tailored songs, interestingly alluding to the 1980s, as if made specially for the radio. Are radio stations ready to play them, though?Cudowne Lata are also romancing with the past in their own original way, while Król strengthened his position, at the same time gaining an ever greater number of fans, as proved by his top 1 place in Gazeta Wyborcza’s 2019 Album of the Year chart, nomination to Polityka‘s Paszport awards and several weeks at no. 1 of Poland’s Radio 3 charts. He’s remained true to himself throughout, and I’m buying that. TRYP made a fantastic comeback, reviving the idea of concept albums with brilliant music and narratives. Piernikowski made a really good album, filtering Poland and the surrounding reality through his own language, sometimes creating sylvan/fairy-tale hymns like the single “Dobre Duchy” (Good spirits). And Judy’s Funeral – a band that will, unfortunately, most likely pass unnoticed, despite being the authors of witty, pertinent songs veiled in shoegaze mist, not just about Gdynia. I also got hooked to Helado Negro, who recalls the past of pop music on This Is How You Smile, but also to Teebs, who completely surprised me, sometimes resigning from beats, at other times inviting dozens of guests and creating a record you want to listen to in full each time around. Another return to the past was offered by Sessa with his take on tropicalia, but Grandeza is a very fresh Brazilian record that you can listen to indefinitely. And then there’s Zoom, Cucina Povera’s sophomore work, i.e. minimalist, sparse songs that keep playing with silence.

Sky Is the Limit

The last category is filled with artists who are pushing genre boundaries to such an extent it’s actually hard to give them any labels – so let’s take the multitude of forms and new narratives as the starting point. Wojtek Rusin is a Renaissance man of the 21st century, author of a peculiar conglomerate of ideas. On Columbia Icefield, Nate Wooley composed a colourful narrative rooted in improvisation, centred around a story about the American glacier. Original percussion-based records were released by Max Jaffe, Tiger Village and the Julian Sartorius/ Valentina Magaletti duo – each of them different, yet all of them broadening the spectrum of this instrument. Peru’s Buh Records accept no limitations: apart from some fantastic archive material (see below), they released brilliant records by Ale Hop and synthesizer madness by Sajira. I was surprised by the dark improvisation of Ślina released by Kilogram, as well as by a collage of Amirtha Kidambi’s vocals processed through the tapes of Lea Bertucci. One of the most unusual albums, as misty as the record cover, was Wool In The Pool by Wool and the Pants from Japan, who hypnotised and entranced me with their beats and blurred songs. The most acid-fuelled record of the year was released by Wiktor Stribog, as noted by Bandcamp and omitted by most Polish media and blogs; labels such as Enjoy, Glamour, and Opus Elefantum are also interesting hybrids. And a bonus: Unicorn Booking, an agency to whose gig I’ve not yet been, but who send the best newsletters in the world – I always read them from beginning to end as an inspiring source of info about little-known, up-and-coming artists.

Back to the future

Finally, a word about archive releases. The revelation of the year goes to Luis Alvarado’s Buh Records, releasing old and new, young and mature – everything that’s ever come from Peru. The brightest point to me was a reedition of Chocolate’s album and their brilliant sound-art compilation Grabar y Coagular. Another point on the map is Ian Nagoski’s Canary Records – Nagórski unearths pre-war gems from various corners of the world; in 2019, the most interesting ones included recordings of European immigrants who arrived in the US towards the end of the 19th and in the early 20th centuries, and Portuguese fado recorded on the eve of Salazar’s dictatorship.

Bulimundo’s concert at Tremor made me look at a Funana compilation from Cape Verde released by Ostinato Records, while Bartek Chaciński introduced me to the catalogue of Chevance, ‘outremusique’ created by French jazzmen and poets in the 1970s… entirely for children. In turn, Akuphone released an album devoted to the Japanese scene, particularly its female incarnation. These albums rekindled my faith in the idea of compilations, especially those that reach towards the past.