I swore I wouldn’t do this.
Everyone takes a minute in December to talk about “The Best Albums of the Year.” I didn’t want to do that. But Thomas Hatton is a great guy, and he opened up a whole new world for me. So when he asked me to compile such a list, I figured he was worth it.
2019 has been a pretty good year for music, particularly if your musical tastes tend to run beneath the radar, the way mine do. No doubt if you follow my page, you will have heard me pontificate about these records soon after they were released. Rather than be redundant, I’ll give you a sentence or two here, and the opportunity to read the longer rambling elsewhere.
So without further ado (and in no particular order), here are a few of my favorite releases from 2019.
Boston-based avant-rockers Bent Knee have only been around since about 2011, when they released their self-titled debut album. But thanks to a nearly relentless schedule or recording and touring (to say nothing of band solo projects), the band already mature sound has grown by leaps and bounds, making them sound like they have been around at least twice as long. You Know What They Mean is the band’s first true collaborative album, with everyone building each song from the ground up. Between that and a great deal of time spent touring with bands like Thank You Scientist, Haken, and Leprous, Bent Knee has brought forth their heaviest sounding record to date. Based on the two live performances I saw this year, they are only getting stronger. In a musically just world, big things lie ahead for this group.
As one-fourth of Sonar, Stephan Thelen’s clean trio-tone guitar is part of an intricate collaboration creating progressive rock at the highest level. With Fractal Guitar, Thelen allows himself to augment his clean sounding guitar with delays and other effects, which are then augmented with sounds from talented musicians like David Torn, Barry Cleveland, Henry Kaiser, and Markus Reuter. The result is a dark, brooding sonic soundscape that hammers away continuously while allowing room for remarkable pyrotechnics as part of the overall musical scheme. I loved this record from the moment I heard it, and that feeling has only grown stronger since.
Bryan Beller is the bassist top-tier musicians call upon when they need that particular chair filled for their projects. With an epic, 2-CD concept album on his hands, Beller turned the tables and called on his friends to assist him with the recording of this remarkable album. Featuring the likes of Joe Satriani, Mike Keneally, and John Petrucci (among a HOST of others), Scenes from the Flood takes the concept album to its highest level, featuring beautiful playing that is jaw-dropping without becoming self-indulgent. This is one of those albums a true music fan must include in his collection.
As a long-time devotee of Adrian Belew’s musical efforts, I made a conscious decision to shelve his work for a bit, so I could focus on newer, unestablished artists. But here’s the thing: there’s no shelving Adrian Belew! Sooner or later, he comes off the shelf to remind me just why I have been a fan for more than three decades. Pop-Sided is no exception. Even with a scant 30-minute run time (no doubt a habit developed from his Flux efforts), we are still able to experience “The Full Adrian,” as he runs the gamut from pop to prog, with a few stops in between. And while the sounds are familiar, Belew cannot be accused of treading musical water. His adventure (and therefore ours) is forever ongoing.
The secret is almost completely out: The National is one of the best American Indie bands going. I Am Easy to Find seemed to come rather quickly on the heels of Sleep Well, Ghost, the band’s 2017 release. I mean, how deep can the well of individual pathos and deep musical brooding go, I wondered? Plenty deep appears to be the answer to that question. If the band was as stuck as they claimed to be at first, the injection of feminine voices appeared to break the logjam beautifully, as the band continues to inch closer to major-league commercial viability. That’s great for music fans, even if it isn’t all that great for me, given my love of seeing bands like this one in smaller, more intimate venues.
Australian post-rockers We Lost the Sea faced a daunting challenge in following up their epic 2015 release Departure Songs. But the band was able to cast aside its collective self-doubt, embrace a sobering all-encompassing global topic, shift its overall sound ever-so-slightly, and come up with a new epic in Triumph & Disaster. Set around the concept of a mother and son attempting to enjoy their last day on a dying Earth (expressed through a children’s poem, no less), the band pulls no musical punches and takes on its topic with the muscle of the finest rugby player, head-on. The result is a deeply emotional recording that (hopefully) will get us to think about the way we treat our planet, and how generations behind us will have to live with the fallout.
Sonar, with David Torn, Tranceportation (Volume 1)
Speaking of Sonar, their latest effort is a face-melting, heart-pounding, ear-blistering bit of sonic joy that will be handed out to us in two parts (Volume 2 is due in May). As the band’s producer for Vortex, master sound manipulator/guitarist David Torn found himself in a position to improvise over the Swiss quartet while bringing their musical efforts to life. This time, the band has intentionally left room for him, and Torn makes the most of the opportunity to enhance the already brilliant Sonar sound. All hail the musical forces that brought these two elements together.
Thank You Scientist, Terraformer
The only thing better than music that defies definition, is definition-defying music enhanced and improved upon by a deeper level of group collaboration. New Jersey’s Thank You Scientist opened their sonic door a little wider, resulting in a highly groove-alistic balls-to-the-wall sound captured remarkably in the studio, and nearly outdone when played live. Driven by the voice of Salvatorre Marrano and the brilliant guitar work of Tom Monda, Thank You Scientist is an air-tight collaborative unafraid of venturing into the toughest musical territory, coming out with a brilliant product on the other side. The secret will be out about this band soon, too, I think. My days of seeing them from six feet away might be coming to an end.
Another epic bit of post-rock, this time originating in Raleigh, North Carolina. Old Solar has created some positively gorgeous music marking the changes of seasons. While sweeping in scope, the music is also deeply emotional, taking us to unexpected places in our mind while the sound washes over us. Fans of Explosions in the Sky and This Will Destroy You will find another musical home with this group.
Many fans griped when the 13-year wait for a new Tool album that sounded to them like more of the same. My response to this statement was essentially, “And …?” Tool has a signature sound. To deviate excessively from that sound — to change for the sake of changing — would not allow the band to be true to who they are. I, for one, have absolutely no problem with that. Is this the greatest album I’ve ever heard in my life? No. But it’s TOOL! And what they gave us will more than tide me over for awhile. That being said, how about we not wait another decade-and-a-half for the next one, guys?
And so it goes for 2019. It looks like the new year is shaping up to be every bit as epic. We can only wait and see.
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