2019 saw the release of thousands (maybe millions) of new albums, and I heard but a few hundred of them. What follows are five that stuck with me throughout the year.
The Reeling by Brìghde Chaimbeul (River Lea)
The debut album of 20-year-old Isle of Skye smallpipes player Brìghde Chaimbeul ("Bree-CHU Campbell") is utterly entrancing. Recorded live in a church in the Scottish Highlands, The Reeling reverberates with the rich drones of her bellow-blown instrument (a cousin of the bagpipe) in both plaintive ballads and manic dances from Scots Gaelic and Bulgarian traditions, here accompanied by fiddle, concertina, and canntaireachd (mouth music).
Out of Sight by Jake Xerxes Fussell (Paradise of Bachelors)
This is the third album by the Durham, North Carolina, singer and guitarist, but the first I've heard, and I am rapt. He approaches Americana music in a way that imbues these traditional tunes with new vitality. The son of Fred C. Fussell, a folklorist, curator and photographer, he often accompanied his father across the Southeast as he documented traditional vernacular culture, which included recording blues and old-time musicians and collaborating with Native American artists. The songs on this album are often learned (first-hand, second-hand, third-hand) from great balladeers of time past. The roots are exposed, but the renditions – featuring honky-tonk band arrangements with pedal steel (Nathan Golub), fiddle (Libby Rodenbough), and piano and organ (James Anthony Wallace) – have a renewed immediacy.
Mujeres by Y La Bamba (Tender Loving Empire)
Portland-based singer-songwriter Luz Elena Mendoza has long been one of my favorite artists. While each of her albums has exhibited her experimentation with song structure, instrumental arrangements, and production elements, it is the personal honesty of her lyrics and emotive power of her vocal performances that I have always connected with. Mujeres, though, feels like a radical leap in her maturation as a songwriter, performer, and, perhaps, person. Mendoza said in an interview with KEXP, "I just now have been feeling more empowered and [have] been allowing myself to celebrate the clearness of my voice instead of feeling shame and scared... Because I'm so used to being gaslighted as a woman. And as a woman of color." This album exposes a rawness and ferocity that I've not heard before on previous recordings, and which is transmitted during her more recent live stage shows.
Black Tenere by Kel Assouf (Glitterbeat)
I have been impressed with the output of Tunisian producer and keyboardist Sofyann Ben Youssef (Ammar 808, Bargou 08) over the past few years, but his project with Belgian-Nigerien songwriter and guitarist Aboubacar "Anana" Harouna is an unexpected stadium rocker. Though structured on Kel Tamashek (Tuareg) music, this is rarely the meditative desert blues one expects from groups like Tinariwen, but rather this is a barrage of defiant guitar hooks, acid organ drones, and merciless drumming (courtesy of Belgian jazz drummer Oliver Penu).
Miss Universe by Nilüfer Yanya (ATO)
We all need that album that impels us to sway self-consciously on the Muni, sing surreptitiously on the sidewalk, and to, finally, let loose, sock-footed with a dripping spatula in the kitchen. For me, this year, it was this album. The 23-year-old English singer-songwriter has combined charmingly downcast vocals with a smooth, soulful guitar sound (that occasionally crescendos with crunchy riffs) to craft a delightfully brooding pop album full of understated but catchy songs that especially come alive in the textured details like Jazzi Bobbi's saxophone solos.
I'd be remiss if I did not include a brief postscript of a few of my favorite local Bay Area albums –
Sasha is the host of Boy with Girl’s Name Morning Mixtape, which broadcasts live most Tuesdays at 8AM PT.