It’s been a pretty amazing year for music, I gotta tell ya. So much to dig into and get lost in. There have been some pretty great music years over the last few years, with 2012, 2014, and 2017 standing out considerably. Record labels such as El Paraiso Records, Holodeck Records, Azure Vista Records, Burning Witches Records, Sacred Bones Records and The Secretly Group are working hard to empty my wallet and make my life that much more enriched.
The last few years have re-emphasized for me the importance of a truly locked in and engaged record label. When the label is run by artists themselves, it becomes less like a record label and more like a music collective. Artists working with other artists to help spread the gospel of music, the expansion of the mind, and the thoughtful engagement between artist and listener. Sure, it sounds like some hippy dippy shit, but I’m good with it. Before the hippies sold out, they were onto something. Bad acid, not-so free love, and brown leisure suits ruined the dream.
But hey, back to 2019 and records.
Like I said, 2019 has been an amazing year so far for album releases. It’s gearing up to be one of the best in recent years, and with BWR, Holodeck, and El Paraiso just getting started on the new release front, things might just get epic around here.
So without further adieu, here is Complex Distractions favorite albums of 2019, mid-year edition.
20. The Claypool Lennon Delirium : South Of Reality
One of the most left-field music collaborations in recent memory, and one of the most surprisingly satisfying, Sean Lennon and Les Claypool’s The Claypool Lennon Delirium is an absolute throwback to true, classic psych and progressive rock from the late 60s and early 70s. From Pink Floyd’s playful psych pop to King Crimson’s heady prog excursions, Lennon and Claypool have it covered in their own unique way. On their sophomore album South Of Reality, they hone in on their own unique voices. The results are some of the best songs both artists have written in years.
19. Steve Greene : Distant Transmissions – Kona, Hawaii
Synth wizard Steve Greene has dropped a new album with his main gig Voyag3r this year called War Mask. It’s a great collection of buzzing electronic and prog rock rhythms. Before that, though, Greene dropped the intimate and spatial Distant Transmissions – Kona, Hawaii. Distant Transmissions is a series Greene started as a way to create with a minimal setup and do it in an improvisational way by being inspired by his immediate surroundings. First up is Kona, Hawaii. The album is mysterious, brooding, buzzing, and ultimately transcendent.
18. Flying Lotus : Flamagra
After the psychedelic freakout that was You’re Dead! in 2014, Steven Ellison pulled the weird back a bit. Though, with Flamagra it’s anything but tame. He puts together another hip hop/fusion/electronic masterpiece that feels more thought out in the drum and bass dept, making this his most accessible album since Cosmogramma. Flying Lotus brings catchy tracks and heady arrangements together, and with the help of Thundercat, Anderson Paak Little Dragon, George Clinton, and even David Lynch, Flamagra is one of Steven Ellison’s best Flying Lotus albums yet.
17. worriedaboutsatan : Revenant
Yorkshire-based duo worriedaboutsatan are what I’d call a prolific band, dropping music pretty steadily since they first started nearly 15 years ago. Gavin Miller and Thomas Ragsdale make a low lit kind of electronic music, something that slinks and creeps in the shadows; casual techno beats surround themselves with dark synth patches and gauzy white noise. It’s a hypnotic vibe. This year they released their first album with Burning Witches Records. It’s called Revenant and it’s a beast of analog atmosphere and more Tangerine Dream-swaths of noise.
16. Chris Cohen : Chris Cohen
Chris Cohen is one of those musicians that’s so low key it’s easy to forget just how brilliant he is. He makes a folksy mixture of chamber pop, indie rock, and singer-songwriter fare, but in his own unique and slightly skewed style. He’s the musician’s musician as well, playing with a who’s who of indie rock royalty. But on his own albums is where he truly shines. On his 3rd record for Captured Tracks he brightens the place up with subtle synth touches, bringing his 60/70s vibes into more 80s feels, but the melancholy and lovelorn lyrics and pop melodies remain intact and just as engaging.
15. Repeated Viewing : The Beach House
Alan Sinclair’s long-running synth project Repeated Viewing creates soundtracks for films not yet filmed. Screenplays and narratives created by Sinclair are put to music on each of his albums, every LP hitting new sonic worlds each time out. On The Beach House, Repeated Viewing creates a score for a film about friends coming across an abandoned beach house after a night of drunken merriment. The score mixes electronics with proper acoustic instrumentation, with the piano laying the exquisite and Gothic mood. The results are, as always, stunning.
14. Phantoms vs Fire : My Mind As Your Amusement Park
Thiago Desant’s project Phantoms vs Fire plays in sonic delights. From synth pop to ambient to darker realms, he finds joy in painting musical pictures that are new, odd, and unforgettable. On his newest PvF release My Mind As Your Amusement Park, Desant outdoes himself in every way. You haven’t heard anything quite like this album, and likely never will again…unless it’s Desant himself. Dark, engaging, magnificently strange, and absolutely next level music. Don’t ignore this one.
13. Billow Observatory : III : Chroma/Contour
On their third album, Jonas Munk and Jason Kolb as Billow Observatory go deeper and wider with their ambient/psych palate. Mixing guitar swirls, synth patches and electronic noise and cutting and pasting until what they started with is a cohesive sonic world where landscapes and horizons come in and out of focus. With their second album II: Plains/Patterns, Billow Observatory almost went into more of a ambient pop direction, making tracks that felt more like songs than mood pieces. With III: Chroma/Contour, Kolb and Munk seem to have disassembled what came before it and rebuilt their sound into looming, eerie towers in the sky. Cavernous music that surrounds and engulfs everything around it.
12. Com Truise : Persuasion System
Seth Haley has been making music as Com Truise for years now, and with each successive release he has honed in the sound of his hard electro, synth-heavy music. Galactic Melt and In Decay are classics of the genre, and transcend the synth wave label his music has been given. On 2017s Iteration, Haley seemed to disassemble what came before and rebuilt his music as a leaner, tighter machine capable of so much more nuance, emotion, and depth. With Persuasion System that trend of trimming down and getting to the heartbeat of Com Truise continues. It’s a brilliant electronic album that does much to solidify Haley as one of the great electronic artists working today.
11. Pye Corner Audio : Hollow Earth
Martin Jenkins’ Pye Corner Audio project has quietly been making incredible electronic albums for years. He’s influenced and inspired many, and with each album he seems to up his own game. On Hollow Earth, a companion piece to Stasis, Jenkins continues to innovate on his long-running, exquisite sound. Low key electronics, gauzy rhythms, and a sonic world that snakes around you like low rising smoke. The album sounds like a soundtrack to some lost sci-fi masterpiece, one that builds upon and underlying feeling of dread. Part Gothic, part new age, and all low key brilliant.
10. Metavari : Absurda
Nate Utesch is not one to go the easy route. Three years ago he scored Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, which led to his album Symmetri. With his newest album, the excellent Absurda, he rescored short films by David Lynch. Most would wither at the thought of reimagining what David Lynch already perfectly created, but not Nate. Utesch took one of his biggest influences and reimagined the soundtracks to some of Lynch’s most intriguing and bizarre works. The result is Metavari’s newest(and quite possibly best) record yet. Absurda is dark, intense, seething, and at times quite beautiful. Metavari continues to up the game in modern electronic music.
9. Steve Moore : Beloved Exile
Steve Moore has been a pretty busy guy the past few years. Between Zombi and film scoring, Moore hasn’t had much time to release original music under his own name. His first solo release since 2013 needed to be a special one, and Beloved Exile is just that. It’s his most collaborative and organic album yet, with his trademark synth structures accompanied by harp, percussion, and vocals courtesy of Emel Mathlouthi, visionary harpist Mary Lattimore, and veteran percussionist Jeff Gretz. With John Darnielle coming up with the album and song titles, Beloved Exile is collaborative in every sense of the word. It’s also an engaging and mysterious record.
8. Pentagram Home Video : Who’s Here? I’m Here, You’re Here
Pentagram Home Video has been a bit of an obsession of mine for three years now. Starting when I bought 2016s Death Waltz release Who’s Out There? I played it incessantly, and searched online for the movie it was supposed to have soundtracked. Of course, it wasn’t really the score to an actual movie. It was a brilliant electronic record disguised as such. The Satanic Path a year later expanded on that idea and became one of my favorite albums that year. With Pentagram Home Video’s newest long player Who’s Here? I’m Here, You’re Here, a point of inspiration is William Friedkin’s Cruising. The seedy underworld of leather bars and ether-fueled fever dreams permeate arguably PHVs masterpiece. Dark Goth vibes mix with acid house club beats to make a sweaty, propulsive listen.
7. Black Mountain : Destroyer
So when a band loses two of its original members after releasing one of their best albums in years, it never is good news. Fortunately for us, Black Mountain took a major hit and turned it into a moment to shine. With singer/guitarist Stephen McBean and keyboardist Jeremy Schmidt still engaged, they employed some friends to help out and created their heaviest album yet, Destroyer. Inspired by getting his driver’s license for the first time in his 40s, McBean wrote buzzing metal anthems and road trip riffage that feel they were influenced by the NWOBHM. Destroyer is a hell of a riff-ready rock&roll record.
6. Skragn : Stund
One of the many musical surprises this year was this little album out of Denmark. Marco Egeberg quietly released his solo debut album as Skragn called Stund. It’s an all-immersive heavy synth LP heavily informed by Klaus Schulze, Tangerine Dream, and plenty of 80s alternative and synth pop vibes. It’s an absolutely amazing little record that probably not too many in the states have heard, which is a shame. It’s one of the most fully realized debuts I’ve heard in a very long time. Hit up M. Egeberg’s Bandcamp and snag this one.
5. Galactic Protector : Evening
One of the biggest album surprises for me this year has been the subtle touches in Galactic Protector’s Evening. Bryan Richie’s album debut on Burning Witches Records has been nothing short of low key brilliance. It’s an instrumental electronic album that has a deft touch on synths and simple beats and heavy on atmosphere. Where most dystopian worlds are places I’d rather not crash land on, Richie’s is wholly unique. Music that nearly transcends the usual sci-fi fare, Evening is a record of pure delights, trading in the headiness of the Tangerine Dream model of synth albums and goes for more of an Air vibe, but done in a very lo-fi state-of-mind. This has been an absolute delight to get lost in.
4. Pinkish Black : Concept Unification
Pinkish Black have always dealt in a bit of the darkness. From the band’s beginnings as The Great Tyrant, through their first two albums Razed To The Ground and Bottom of the Morning, their mix of synth/vocals/drums is reminiscent of bands like Zombi, Suicide, and Seattle’s Bell Witch, with the emotional weight of Swans. But the Texas duo have always kept their albums very much tethered to this world, but lurking in the shadows. On their newest and best record yet, the Gothic and heavy Concept Unification, I feel they’ve truly defined their sound. This is a seriously heavy record. Heavy, dramatic, dark, and one album that stays with you. A brooding masterpiece
3. Cory Kilduff : When It All Gets To Be Too Much
Imagine a John Hughes film about a loner falling for a girl way out of his league, but come to find out she’s as much of a loner on the inside as he is. A sort of West Side Story that takes place in the suburbs in the mid-80s. Of course, the actors you don’t recognize and the typical score is familiar, yet foreign. It’s this psychedelic, non-existent movie that maybe John Hughes dreamt of but never actually made. The music would sound just like Cory Kilduff’s When It All Gets To Be Too Much, an electronic album that feels like a love letter to those classic Hughes teen comedy/dramas about first love, first heartbreak, and feeling like a stranger in your own skin. Lush synth tracks that sound like Tangerine Dream, OMD, and early Depeche Mode all swirled together with Kilduff’s own unique take on the decade. An absolutely amazing record.
2. Chicago Odense Ensemble : Chicago Odense Ensemble
In 2008 Jonas Munk and Jakob Skott took a trip from Odense, Denmark to Chicago, Illinois and played a show supporting Isotope 217. The next day the two musicians set up some recording time at a Chicago studio with some of the Windy City’s finest improvisational musicians, including members of Tortoise and Chicago Underground Collective. The results became the Electric Miles-esque Chicago Odense Ensemble. Going in, Munk had the idea that he wanted this session to be their own Live Evil. Munk took the sessions back to his Odense studio and went all Teo Macero on the recordings; mixing, cutting, pasting, and rearranging the sessions into what we have today. The album was released by a French label in 2011 but went relatively unknown until now. El Paraiso Records re-released the album, getting a new mastering courtesy of Jonas Munk. The album sounds both modern and vintage; like if Cluster, Jimi Hendrix, and Miles and his electric crew dropped some acid and just let things fly. Though not a new album, this album is new to my ears and newly re-released, so it counts. And it’s also one of the freshest jams I’ve heard this year.
Number one is…..a tie. First,
Thom Yorke : Anima
I’m pretty much inclined to like(love) everything that Thom Yorke does, whether on his own, Atoms For Peace, or with Radiohead. His solo albums hold a special place in my life. His intimate and slightly claustrophobic solo records feel like entries from the last man on earth, put to melodic bleeps and blips. But on his new album Anima he opens his solo ventures to greater and grander sounds and sonics, turning his intimate tomes on Dystopian worlds and the awkwardness of being a human being in these times into widescreen beauties. There isn’t a single skippable track on Anima. It’s all mesmerizing and beautiful, and it shows Thom Yorke at his most bare bones emotionally. It’s a stunning piece of art, and one of the best things Thom Yorke has done.
Last but not least,
Hunter Complex : Open Sea
Hunter Complex’ debut with Death Waltz Originals is a stunning, crystalline trip into early 80s neon and sunlit synth. Open Sea captures the vibe of Jan Hammer and Mark Isham, giving each track a unique sound that walks a line between synth pop and more ambient textures. Lars Meijer, aka Hunter Complex, chooses to build songs out of movement and momentum, while still giving the tracks emotional depth and enough widescreen feel that you can get lost in the grooves. Open Sea is a stunning musical statement, and one I’ve listened to on a regular basis all year.
Okay that’s it. Favorite 20 albums so far. I’m sure this will change by year’s end and there are albums I’ll spend more time with that might get more love from me later, but for now this is a pretty solid list for me.
Here’s a Spotify playlist I created with tracks from my top 20. Not all my top 20 are represented as a couple aren’t on Spotify, so I implore you to seek them out anyway you can. It’s for your health.
Give it a listen, or don’t. It’s not mandatory. Maybe a little rude, though.