Image: Tiny Ruins live at the Red Rattler, Sydney, Sunday November 24.
Author: Melody Menu
It’s an understatement to say that 2019 has been a big year for music. We’ve had some incredible albums from incredible women, as well as records channelling love, loss and sheer grief. In a personal capacity, it’s also been a year of navigating music without working in a record store (how do people find good music these days?) and taking a break from writing to focus on other projects. In the meantime, vinyl sales continue to rise, Spotify continue to pay artists a pittance, and the way we listen to and engage with music continues to change and grow beyond expectation. But most importantly: music created with skill, talent, creativity and life is still being made by artists around the world. This is just a small selection of them.
Tiny Ruins – Olympic Girls
The opening guitar chords to Olympic Girls ring out with the sense of a new adventure, matched by an inspired percussive heartbeat. Such is Hollie Fullbrook’s songwriting and immersive turn of phrase, that her songs become shining storybooks, each telling a distinct narrative and unravelling stylish settings such as design-school archives and romantic launderettes. Olympic Girls shines brighter than its predecessors not only due to Fullbrook’s scenic songwriting, but also her co-production with band member Tom Healy. From their deft hands come fuller arrangements than previous albums, with these kindly folk songs lifted to greater and more memorable heights through electric guitar flourishes, earthy cello and colourful mellotron. However, should you wish to hear the songs as Fullbrook originally wrote them on unaccompanied acoustic guitar, she has also released a solo version. An album so good you can listen to it twice. – Melody Menu
Aldous Harding – Designer
It takes generous measures of insight and fearlessness to follow one’s creative instinct as faithfully as Aldous Harding does on Designer. Her fidelity to the commands of her muse are evident from the smallest of idiosyncratic vocal phrasing choices to the bigger song structure decisions that have led to wonderfully sparse, folk-pop arrangements where every note, beat and word is used with maximum economy; nothing extraneous. There is an impression of simplicity, yet the record is chock-full of splendid gems – addictive melodies like the piano riff in ‘Treasure’; luminous metaphors like ‘you bend my day at the knee’; and compelling vocal phrasing like the hypnotic, clipped sentences of ‘The Barrel’. Another striking thing about Harding, unusual in the genres in which she operates, is her ability to significantly change vocal timbres yet still sound like herself. Compare the rich, roundness of her voice in ‘Damn’ to the airy ‘Fixture Picture’. If the abundant creative choices on Designer had been made with intellect rather than instinct then this album could have floundered in pretentiousness. Instead it has risen to an uncommon level of spare, subtle originality and brilliance. – Paul Watling
Cate Le Bon – Reward
After Cate Le Bon’s show at the Factory Theatre in Sydney, a group of us stood in stunned silence as we processed the quality and talent of the performance we had just witnessed. Praised was heaped upon Cate’s stage presence, her commanding yet benevolent aura; the versatility of her voice and guitar playing. Her backing band were lauded for their passionate and professional execution of stunning arrangements, from bass, drums and guitar to multiple saxophones and the marimba that graces the gorgeous pop of ‘Home To You’. Songs from previous album, 2016’s Crab Day and her latest release Reward that did not seem like they would stand together – the former for its indie guitar focus and chaotic nature, and the other for its poised precision – did so in a way where touches of sax and sparse percussion bridged the divide. Five albums, multiple sonic textures and poetic songwriting in, Cate Le Bon is continuing to prove herself as a master songwriter and sonic storyteller. – Melody Menu
Faye Webster – Atlanta Millionaires Club
Look, I’m not usually one for a breakup album. If you aren’t either, it may intrigue you to learn that Atlanta Millionaires Club has the decency to be succinct. What keeps me returning isn’t its sense of economy, but its subtle discrepancies. Compare the tenderness of Webster’s close-miked vocals with the hard g’s of her Atlantan pronunciation; the dreamy pedal steel lines with the coarse tones and busy flourishes of the keyboards. Her words address the questions you must answer alone after a lover leaves, mundane reminders of loss, and how self-development can come to depend on another. Each with pathos she’ll receive praise for, and ironic wit, which she won’t. ‘This wasn’t ‘posed to be a love song, but I guess it is now’, she laments on ‘Jonny’, as saxophones swing fractionally behind the beat. While that may sound indecisive, Webster knows what she wants her records to be, and it’s no accident that she’s made one this delightful. – Paul Macadam
Kate Tempest – The Book of Traps and Lessons
There is a poignant scene in Herman Hesse’s book Steppenwolf where the protagonist Harry Haller is at the Black Eagle; a jazz club and dance hall. Harry becomes engrossed in the dancing, and experiences the dissolution of the self into the collective. Harry aptly describes the experience as having ‘lost the sense of time’. Durkheim calls this feeling of losing oneself into the group as ‘effervescence’. You can feel these moments within Tempest’s album. She is able to portray the awe and transcendence that arise from connecting with others and the natural world. And she does so with insight and empathy. These fleeting moments that Tempest eloquently describes might edge close to what Aristotle meant when he discussed ‘catharsis’ in Poetics. Or, as Nick Cave said in a recent Red Hand Files, those interludes in the deranged chaos of our lives are, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, the crack where the light comes in.– Chris Panagiotaros
Julia Jacklin – Crushing
Julia’s album Crushing is my pick of the year. For several reasons, one of them being that it would make a great soundtrack to the movie of my life. ‘Don’t Know How to Keep Loving You’ would play as I stared out of the train window with a perfect mix of confusion and clarity. The driving, jangly guitars in ‘Pressure To Party’ have a tempo that is as consistent as the amount of outfits I try on before going out, and a narrative about post-breakup social anxiety is my kind of pre-drinks soundtrack (cue montage). I’ve always loved the way Julia fits everyday observations into her lyrics and this record feels personal and insightful. I take away something new every time I listen and, as always, her voice makes me want to cry my face off in a happy/sad way. – Kay Proudlove
Sasami – Sasami
Sasami is built upon a foundation of flowing guitar, framing tales of pessimism and lost love. Shoegaze influences such as Cocteau Twins are hidden beneath the surface, with an occasional tug of rippling synthesizer. From the intimate and tender ‘Free’ ‘Cause our time is running out, and you don’t know what it means to be free’ to the broad and expansive ‘Not The Time’ ‘Even though we tried to make it work, it doesn’t’ – the subject matter toes the line between destructive-yet-empowering relationships shared, embracing the inevitability of their course. Sasami is an ode to oddly-soothing fatalism, which is an oddly soothing anecdote; accepting that we’re liable to fall back into our old habits is how we manage to move forward. Sounding out and understanding personal misgivings at the umpteenth attempt, should you fail, the world still spins on its axis. You will continue to breathe and when you’re ready to, you will try once more. – Sean Lees
Big Thief – U.F.O.F. and Two Hands
Big Thief released two incredible albums this year, both of which reflect songwriter Adrienne Lenker’s internal creative maelstrom. Name a more prolific songwriter of our times. Rather than record a double album from over 50 demos, the group decided to record two closely related but entirely distinct albums in U.F.O.F. and Two Hands. Singles ‘Cattails’ of the former and ‘Not’ of the latter provide an interesting compare and contrast. Where ‘Cattails’ is resonant and forgiving, evoking scenes of Lenker’s grandmother set against the stunning greenery of the Great Lakes, ‘Not’ is arid and without it’s sister’s rising calm. ‘Not’ is just as vivid, but as a study in absence, backed by fierce and chilling guitars with Buck Meek echoing Lenker’s haunting vocals. A testament to the group’s sonic chemistry and startling maturity, both albums stand strong in their own right, and by any other band, would have been written and recorded many lifetimes apart. – Melody Menu
Purple Mountains – Purple Mountains
2019 saw the return of the late David Berman to reclaim his place as indie rock’s most sincere yet sardonic songwriter. Berman’s previous project Silver Jews had disbanded in 2009 and that seemed to be the last the world would hear from him as a songwriter. That is until Purple Mountains’ first single, ‘All My Happiness Is Gone’ dropped earlier this year. It is a gripping and cinematic song that feels like everything’s teetering on the edge of collapse with Berman’s sombre lyrics, ‘I confess I’m barely hanging on.’ The album that followed is a masterful work in lyrics, melody and texture.
It’s hard to note the brilliance and achievement in this record without also acknowledging the tragic circumstances that surround it now due to David Berman’s untimely death. A friend recounted upon discussion that the record feels like a long suicide note and, in many ways, it is. But the album is not without Berman’s natural and wry sense of humour, dropping lines like ‘If no one’s fond of fucking me, maybe no one’s fucking fond of me’. It may feel like a hard listen at times, but you can also hear a little light heartedness that helps to soften the blow. – Bradley Cork