10. Sampa the Great – The Return
Heading into 2019 off the back of impressive single ‘Energy’, Sampa the Great’s first full length effort offers a plethora of genre, texture and vibe. And perhaps fittingly as Sampa is Zambia born and Zimbabwe raised. To that end, The Return is brimming with more influences than you can shake a stick at, with jazz and electronica playing second fiddle to hip-hop and soul in the cauldron of sound the record offers up. The bop and ambition is clear on single ‘Final Form’, whilst stand out track ‘Time’s Up’ offers a scathing yet measured attack on the white-washing, money grabbing nature of the music industry.
Another standout feature of this record is the rapping, which is energetic and deceptively complex. Tracks like ‘Grass is Greener’ showcase Sampa’s penchant for licking off syllables at a machine-gun pace over a mid-tempo instrumental, which results in a rhyme scheme reminiscent both of Kendrick and early Snoop. In the aforementioned ‘Final Form’ she swings between 99 Problems-era Jay-Z and Dark Twisted Fantasy era Kanye, riding the beat with her flow very nicely and delivering consistently punchy lyrical hooks at the end of every bar.
The main reason that The Return isn’t higher up this list becomes evident when you consider that the her lyrical messages of both defiance and self-doubt are covered whole-heartedly in the first 14 or-so tracks yet the last 5 tracks feel slightly laboured. This is a great shame, as the should-be-classic title track would have served as a brilliant penultimate statement (ala Kendrick’s ‘Dying of Thirst’ or Kanye’s ‘Gone’) if it happened half an hour earlier.
Nonetheless, there’s more than enough evidence here to suggest that Sampa will be a force to be reckoned with in the 20s music scene and might well live up to her self-appointed moniker in the future.
9. Skepta – Ignorance is Bliss
After the onslaught of acclaim for his excellent 2016 album Konnichiwa, three years ago Skepta suddenly found himself with big shoes to fill. No longer the aspiring superstar of the grime scene, and instead one of the artists in the UK most expected to deliver, Skepta coped with the pressure well on dark, cagey 2017 EP Still.
In many ways Ignorance is Bliss is a continuation of that sound – Skepta himself has talked about the bars on this record being more pre-meditated, introspective and less rooted in Grime’s clash culture[AB1] then they were on Konnichiwa. Although there are still plenty of breakneck moments on this record, songs like opener ‘Bullet From A Gun’ show the MC is still able to let the listener into his head a lot more than many of his contemporaries.
Nonetheless, the strongest parts of this record still hark back to Skepta’s roots in the 00s grime scene. ‘Greaze Mode’, the album’s most successful single, references a classic Dizzee bar and is full of the swagger and ego that defines Skepta at his razor-sharp best, whilst the far-eastern influence on the production of ‘Redrum’ makes it sound like it could easily be a quality cut from Konnichiwa.
One thing it’s important to shout out Skepta for is the inclusion of lesser-known features. Where it works, it’s great. The chorus of ‘Greaze Mode’, delivered by Nafe Smallz, easilysounds it could be from a high-profile US artist. However, the standout feature comes over the bop of ‘What Do You Mean?’ In the form of J Hus’ catchy chorus.
Despite the highlights, you can’t help but feel that Skepta still has work to do on the introspective aspect of his rhymes. Whereas Konnchiwa was one of the most live-sounding studio albums of recent years, Ignorance is Bliss shows that Big Smoke still has some way to go to be the king of the studio.
8. Fat White Family – Serfs Up!
Following the Fat White Family’s second full-length effort Songs for Our Mothers, problems befell the band. Damaged by drug addiction and personal rifts, songwriters Lias Saudi and Saul Adamceski both retreated into solo projects, both of which produced fine albums – Lias’ bonkers concept band The Moonlandingz are endless fun, while Saul’s writing is sharp as ever on his 2018 side project, Insecure Men.
Once the band finally reconvened and subsequently recorded and released Serfs Up! this April, it had been over three years since the release of SFOM – and it certainly felt like it. The band had brought Lias’ brother Nathan into the songwriting mix, and the clearly pivotal role he plays helps make for the Family’s most cohesive, listenable and accessible record to date – all without compromising the idiosyncratic nature of the band’s lyricism.
Highlights include the stomping, sinister single ‘Feet’, the singalong ‘Tastes Good With The Money’ (featuring an excellent feature from Baxter Drury) and the irresistibly catchy ‘Kim’s Sunsets’. The record also sees Fat White Family at their most melodic, with ‘Oh Sebastian’ serving as a ketamine-induced cut from Pet Sounds.
It would be inaccurate to suggest that FWF are still searching for that elusive breakthrough album, as breaking through wouldn’t fit any of their plans. However, with this record the band has finally found a coherent and concise way to perfect their niche and has won them the respect of the UK’s underground in doing so.
7. Ezra Collective – You Can’t Steal My Joy
If, like most listeners, you associate jazz with a certain degree of density, Ezra Collective could be the band to break that cycle. Hailing from London, the quintet released You Can’t Steal My Joy this April. As the collective Jungle accomplished with soul before them, the band have produced an album that is full of good vibes and brings a communal, accessible style to jazz that the genre has craved for so long.
There’s a gallery of influences and sounds at play here. The opening track ‘Space is the Place’ could be a beat that A Tribe Called Quest would’ve spat over in 1991, whilst ‘Red Whine’ is a big nod to ska and sounds like the soundtrack to a long-lost Guy Ritchie movie. ‘Sao Paulo’, is straight-up Samba and both the title track and closer ‘Shakara’ bring the sort of high octane but jazzy vibes that make you want to buy a jaegerbomb in the iconic London Ronnie Scott’s jazz bar.
The most pleasant surprise is the inclusion of two big name stars of the UK scene at the moment – Georgia Smith and Loyle Carner. Loyle drops his buttery-smooth rhymes on ‘What Am I to Do’ with ease, but it’s the performance of Jorja Smith on ‘Reason in Disguise’ that is the big highlight. The track allows Smith to release her inner Winehouse, and she croons both sombrely and powerfully during the verse and chorus respectively.
A big statement from the flourishing UK Jazz scene (which EC will surely become the face of going forward), a few more excellent features could shoot the band into the limelight come their next record.
6. Tyler, The Creator – IGOR
Since 2015’s disappointing Cherry Bomb, former Odd Future frontman Tyler, The Creator has gone from strength to strength. 2017’s Flower Boy was a huge leap forward which gave us one of the finest albums of that year, and IGOR is no different. However, that is probably where the similarities end.
Whilst Flower Boy felt like it really allowed its features to shine through, IGOR feels more personal and introspective, albeit even more steeped in concept than its predecessor. Aside from the obvious connotations to Frakenstein, IGOR seems to be more than the album’s title, and instead represents Tyler fully allowing the indulgence of self-expression to infiltrate his music. Furthermore, the record’s accompanying tour has seen Tyler fully in character as IGOR, and it seems this embracing of his alter-ego has allowed for his boldest production and most vulnerable lyrics yet.
Interviews with Tyler reveal that he takes influence from an of array of material so vast that’s it’s impossible to delve into completely. Think Stevie Wonder meets Metronomy meets Kanye meets Die Antwoord and you could potentially argue you’re slightly getting there. The result is a brilliantly weird, disjointed jolty soulful set of instrumentals with solid continuity that give the record a really distinctive sound and a bizarrely comforting effect on the listener.
The obvious candidates for standout track are the double-salvo of ‘EARFQUAKE’ and ‘I THINK’. The former is a slice of g-funk layered R&B inspired by the best bits from the 90s, and the latter is one of the best combinations of jarring drum beat and gorgeous-sounding synth you’ll hear this year.
It seems Tyler’s journey post-Odd Future has allowed him to explore his inner music nerd and expand his repertoire to the extent that he is poised to enter 2020 with the bit between his teeth.
5. Little Simz – GREY Area
2019 has been the year Little Simz has finally earned her well-deserved place in the limelight. GREY Area is the Islington rapper’s third album, and her combination of experience and youth have made this record one of the very best of the year.
From album opener ‘Offence’, Little Simz delivers the kind of menacing, hungry and intricate flow that combines the confidence of experience with the fire of youth. Each of the album’s ten tracks uses this combination to devastating effect. Highlights include the no holds barred second track ‘Boss’, the homage to Islington pirate radio 101 FM, and the Michael Kiwanuka link-up ‘Flowers’.
There’s songs for each mood here, and the diversity of Simz’ lyricism is complimented by Inflo’s excellent production, which uses samples cleverly and discreetly. Take the intro of ‘Pressure’ – Simz’ lyrics wrap themselves around Inflo’s sparse, piano driven, emotional instrumentation and the syncopation between the two makes the heavy-hitting intro feel slightly more contextualised and moving that it perhaps would have been otherwise.
Unlike a few albums on this list, GREY Area does not fall into the seemingly-classic-2019 trap of fitting as many tracks as possible into its listing, and there isn’t a particular track which it could be argued was noticeably weaker than the others. Having said that, 35 minutes seems a slightly abrupt amount of time with which to make the album’s themes feel fully formed. It’s hard to look past GREY Area as one of the best that 2019 has to offer – all it needs is one more massive song.
4. Dave – Psychodrama
This year’s Mercury Prize winner seems to have already become a landmark in British hip-hop just 9 months after its release. Dave, still only 21 years old, has delivered a debut album that is full of emotion in a genre that has been lacking it for some time.
The surprisingly revealing nature of Psychodrama is the main characteristic which defines the disparity between itself and contemporary hip hop in the UK. For a genre so full of bravado to have one of its leading lights release a record that is steeped in anxiety should deliver a new sense of depth and expansion to British hip-hop. From opener ‘Psycho’, the album imagines a therapy session with Dave as the patient, which sets the tone for the rest of the album and allows the opening line ‘how do you stop all the pain?’ to be delivered with both sincerity and vulnerability – not the sort of opener you’d ever expect to hear on a British rap album.
Then again, Dave’s choice of words have a tendency to surprise and surprise you again on Psychodrama. His lyricism here is peppered at every opportunity with internal rhyme, wordplay and every other vocal trick under the sun. Despite this, the lyrics don’t feel dense, overcomplicated or alienating, and instead Dave’s flow allows him to ride the waves of the album’s strong production very well. In fact, the record gives you strong urge to listen back and try hopelessly to untangle Dave’s never-ending spider web of wordplay.
The one thing really holding this record back is that, at 51 minutes, it feels far too long. ‘Lesley’ is a valiant attempt at an epic 10-plus minute story, but it feels irrelevant when you consider that ‘Drama’, the album’s dark closing track, clocks in at seven minutes. This, plus the fact that Lesley’s presence creates an unsettling gap to the last two tracks on the album, makes the track seems like an inconvenience rather than a moment to be savoured. A real shame, as the track could’ve served better as a closer if ‘Drama’ were not there.
3. Fontaines DC – Dogrel
Dublin post-punk quintet Fontaines DC recently had the honour of having Dogrel named the album of the year by BBC Radio 6, which, in addition to a Mercury Prize nomination and selling out London’s Brixton Academy, tops off quite a year for the band.
Dogrel feels like a perfect album for 2019. At times uncompromising, at times vulnerable, it is overall a fiercely emotional, poetic record with few weak points. First single ‘Too Real’ appeals to the album’s anguished, aggressive side and doesn’t sound like any other guitar song released this year. Elsewhere, there are more sombre moments in tracks like the lyrically astute ‘Roy’s Tune’ and pretty closer ‘Dublin City Sky’.
However the album’s strongest moment comes in the triple salvo of ‘Chequeless Reckless’, ‘Liberty Belle’ and lead single ‘Boys In the Better Land’, which shows the band skilfully avoid the trap which many guitar bands of this decade have fallen into – predictability. Instead, the band have managed the neat trick of combining artistic integrity with accessibility, which has in turn allowed them both a top ten chart position and the plaudits of critics.
The storytelling ability of vocalist Grian Chatten is also of note. His lyrics and delivery throughout the record seem to suggest a degree of escapism and anxiety but hope and defiance also play role in the albums message. The sharpness of quips such as ‘money is the sandpit of the soul’ on ‘Chequeless Reckless’ lend themselves to a sceptical outlook on modernity that is not steeped in rock n roll clichés, but instead feels urgent and natural.
At forty minutes, the record is also just the right length. Despite that, some of the band’s most traditionally post-punk songs exist in a slightly laboured wilderness. A couple of witty, catchy urgent songs to replace those weaker moments would see this record at the top of the list.
2. Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride
Six years have passed since Vampire Weekend released Modern Vampires of the City, but it certainly doesn’t feel like it. Father of the Bride is a very current-sounding tapestry of both genre and texture and sees the band release arguably their most ambitious album to date.
The band’s first real foray into country opens the album. ‘Hold You Now’ is one of three country songs featuring Danielle Haim, which creates a cosy corner in the mind of listener, transporting them to a sunny southern love story every twenty minutes. The good times don’t last forever, however, and this record holds a fair amount of angst and anxiety, set to frontman Ezra Koenig’s famously sunny voice. The sinister nature of excellent lead single Harmony Hall’s “I don’t wanna live this, but I don’t wanna die” chorus refrain ruffles the feathers and scratches the head of the listener in an inquisitive way that would be difficult to pinpoint on VW’s earlier releases.
The album continues into similar territory with some great tracks in ‘Rich Man’, ‘Big Blue’ and ‘How Long?’ These songs establish a psychedelic sentiment which hasn’t been a particularly prominent Vampire Weekend staples before. However, it certainly works – the excellent guitar work forms an essential part of the record but exists almost unbeknown to the listener, such is the intricacy of the albums production.
FOTB mustn’t have been an easy album to put together; you can really sense that Ezra Koenig was teeming with ideas during its production, and at times that becomes a problem. There are songs on the second half of the album which seem to serve a purpose of simply existing on the album, included for the sake of inclusion. Furthermore, at 18 tracks at 58 minutes, this record feels too long to be considered a single album and too short to be considered a double album. There are tonnes of themes on this album – many pastoral, many personal – which could have seen it repurposed into two separate discs. That thematic cohesion would be the remedy for the albums only big flaw.
1. Slowthai – Nothing Great About Britain
Slowthai has taken the mantle of broken Britain’s reluctant poster boy with aplomb. The Northampton rapper has managed to encapsulate the endlessly complex mindset of 2019 Britain, which is no mean task, with a record that feels perfect for the times.
A brisk summarisation of Brexit Britain (in this case delivered by Slowthai himself), sets up the opening song’s bleak-sounding production and the listener is fired directly into his troubled psyche. The album is a bit of a paradox in this sense – Slowthai’s perception on the world is dark, often angry but always accessible. His depiction of the Northampton area of Lingscomes across as stereotypically Northampton, never untroubled but always down to earth. In this sense, the very British approach being used to describe Britain’s unignorable downsides feels like a great way of getting the album’s message across.
The array of influences on the album also feels inherently British. The highlight of the album, ‘Doorman’, feels like a gritty combination of Mike Skinner, IDLES and Sleaford Mods and creates a genuinely unique sound that does not necessarily feature on the rest of the album but does not feel out of place on it. JayKae’s break-neck feature on another stand out track, ‘Grow Up’, is another highlight of the album. Not to mention the garage influence on ‘Toaster’ and frank revelations on heavy-hitting ‘Peace of Mind’.
When the opener and title track announces itself with Slowthai’s assertion that’s ‘there’s nothing great about Britain’, it serves as a weird reminder of the opener to the Smiths classic 1986 album The Queen Is Dead. Except this time, there’s no mention of ‘dear old Blighty’. Slowthai’s assertion certainly isn’t scampered on, and the range of his anxieties from personal to political are always coherent and full of emotional thrust. The album is perhaps slightly too short, but with the digital inclusion of some excellent bonus tracks there’s more than enough material here to prove that you won’t hear a better narrative of Britain this year.