This time around, we went over 60 extremely well-produced independent releases. Only those with five or more tracks have been considered for this year’s list. Finally, after a lot of deliberation, we have settled on 20 releases we believe to be the best of 2019.
It is thrilling to observe, as we compile these annual lists, that the bar is steadily rising. The industry is expanding and many artists are mastering the business side of things that have become essential for artists not just to survive, but thrive. As things evolve, it wouldn’t be erroneous to suggest that 2020 will, of course, be bigger and better for independent music.
Here are the top 20 independent releases of 2019.
20. Black Letters – Still As You
Riding on their enveloping fusion of rock and electronic music, Black Letters swept onto our shores with their sophomore outing, Still As You. The Bangalore-based quartet remains firm to its alt-rock roots in terms of the melodies that it strings together. However, their music now features undercurrents of IDM and synthwave with its effervescent synths and precise, steady beats. When the synths swell, the songs soar, and when the bass drops, it plummets. This dynamic range is key to how they manage to keep these tracks lively and engaging. The various phases of each track are hypnotic, sometimes weird and captivating. Each track segues into the next seamlessly, and the entire album comes together as a singular experience.
Their approach is spoiler-free and keeps the listener on their toes. The reverb-heavy production results in a spacey synthscape, which allows the various sounds to ferment. Black Letters manage to find a way to stay in control at the turbulent helm of the ship, while not losing sight of what makes an enjoyable journey. The swathes of moods painted on with brushes of all shapes and sizes keep the listener on their toes consistently. The fact that this album has been three years in the making is not hard to believe.
19. Praveen Sparsh – Unreserved
Percussionist Praveen Sparsh announced his arrival with his debut EP in September last year. Unreserved enmeshes the mridangam with field recordings of travel and commute in varying degrees, dousing the instrument in scenes far removed from sabhas and concert halls.
The opener and title track plants the listener in the middle of Chennai Egmore Station, its teeming masses serenaded by the PA jingle. Sparsh launches into frenetic rhythms, co-opting the same jingle to give the song its melodic core. A stellar feature from Napier Peter Naveen Kumar on bass transforms this song into a squirmy bop that triggers some serious jelly-legs.
‘Savari’ casts the collaborative net wider, ensnaring trombone and trumpet players Jonah Levine and Aaron Janik in a frantic tug of war amidst city traffic, with some audacious konnakol cartwheels for good measure. At the EP’s centre is ‘Maya’, the only non-collaborative effort. Here Sparsh places sombre synth textures in lieu of field recordings, as he proceeds to flex some serious chops, bar after bar.
Sparsh also brings in Carnatic violinist Shreya Devnath on tracks’ Fly’ and ‘Bird Song’ – one exchanging terra-firma for the skies, the other a retreat to the great outdoors. Devnath, a co-producer on this EP, weaves clever melodies but also renders sharp konnakol in the closer’ Bird Song’.Texturally earthy and raw, with collaborations that are inspiring and playful, Unreserved paints a vivid picture of crowded spaces closing in on themselves, with cohabitation offering brief and pleasant respite.
18. Sid Vashi – CAREFUL WALKER VOL. 1
The Detroit-bred multi-instrumentalist and producer treasures his samples. His best works are sample-heavy. His debut project Motherland Tourism is loaded with contoured vocal snippets of Kishore Kumar and works of Anu Malik while CAREFUL WALKER VOL. 1, his latest offering sweeps the listener’s ears with a deluge of shiny, modern percussive samples.
Although the album is a collection of edits and B-sides, it is crafted so masterfully that one may assume that it was conceptualised as a whole by Vashi. The album has turned out to be the perfect canvas for the jazz musician to showcase his hip-hop production chops. It’s a pity that the album is not being heard by many as it’s only available on limited platforms.
17. Sid Sriram – Entropy
It must be quite a world in Sid Sriram’s mind – the Los Angeles-bred, Chennai-based singer, producer and composer dove confidently into the world of film music, Carnatic concerts, as well as his solo material and emerged with Entropy. Of course, he’s released music for years before working with the likes of AR Rahman. Still, with this 12-track album, Sriram intends to leave his first visible mark as a sonically shapeshifting singer-producer.
Wrapped in his mellow and sometimes raging vulnerabilities around identity and introspection, Sriram is sometimes like Frank Ocean (‘6 Weeks’, ‘It Isn’t True’) and also like Bon Iver (sampling ‘Perth’ on the title track), but other times wholly himself (the catharsis-seeking ‘Eyes Open’ and ‘Moksha’). Combining his love for Kanye West, lo-fi hip-hop and Carnatic music, Entropy probably comes across as unpredictable and might befuddle any fans of “Adiye”, but all of that is a good thing.
16. Thaikkudam Bridge – Namah
Anyone who has made their way towards a college fest in the South has probably seen or heard Thaikkudam Bridge from near or far. The band, a nine, ten, sometimes twelve-person monolith is quite the bar when it comes to live performance — a bar set through its take on popular rock and metal covers and a few originals that pushed that orchestral sound.
This is sometimes a precarious position to be in: there are acts that become festival regulars and remain big draws despite putting out next to nothing original. Thaikkudam Bridge was precariously close to becoming that. For a well-documented live band, its YouTube page had nothing after 2017. Anecdotally, its setlist stayed the same for ages.
With their sophomore effort Namah, the band has flexed some serious muscle, pulling together an A-Team of collaborators across various genres. The group ticks all the checkboxes as the album zips across power-metal, prog, 80s glam and jumps to funk and disco.
Jordan Rudess shines in the synth-funk jam ‘Saalaikal’, as Jordan Rudess would. Guthrie Govan melts faces ever so tenderly in ‘I Can See You’. You’ve got Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt on this? Fifty points to Thaikkudam Bridge! Drummers get their day in the sun with two notable collaborators-in-tow, Marco Minneman and Chris Adler.Barring maybe the song with Anandraj Benjamin Paul, most of them showcase their prowess in an almost perfunctory 16 or 24-bar section in their features. However, optimism would tap on their shoulder and tell them that they did it because they could. And why should anyone say otherwise?
15. Kumail – Yasmin
Kumail Hamid’s third studio release took two years of patience and labour. Several notches up from his previous two releases, Kumail’s Yasmin is a slick nine-track long record with various influences, released by Brooklyn based label Bastard Jazz. The album relies on its variety to make a strong landing, and it does that beautifully. It is a confluence of the brainwork of Kumail’s collaborators and musicians such as Sid Vashi, Azamaan Hoyvoy and Los Angeles-based rapper Pink Siifu — each contributing with their own styles and influences on different tracks of the album. Going through the album track by track is effortless. Yasmin is a little bit of R&B, some splashes of jazz, and a whole lot of lo-fi beats that Kumail has become synonymous with. Kumail had said that he felt utterly defeated before he started working on Yasmin. He had just trashed an album he was not happy with and had been spending a lot of sleepless nights. He was dedicated to creating something worthwhile and spent many a night in his darkroom making beats. A product of that kind of dedication and labour holds a certain gravitas. Perhaps that’s the reason behind the appealability of Yasmin, perhaps it is simply the genius of Kumail. Either way, this one is going to stick around in our heads and playlists for a while.
14. Tarun Balani – Dharma
The Delhi-based jazz drummer and composer kicked summer 2019 off with his new EP Dharma, an introspective jazz record heavy with an unmistakable universality and backed by an impeccable ensemble to complement his beat-based compositions. Influences of Boston-based jazz stalwarts Brian Blade and Roy Haynes pervade the album’s language, marking a mature leap for the 32-year-old who was introduced to these American icons when he moved to the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
The album also owes its subtle brilliance to pianist Sharik Hasan, trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, guitarist Olli Hirvonen and bassist Raviv Markovitz, who band with Balani to create this boundary-pushing “audio essay”. Three years in the making, Dharma comes out seven years after Balani’s debut album Sacred World. The heights and depths of his personal experiences in the intervening period – matrimony, grief, moving out, settling back in, creative struggles, existential pressure et al. – account for the stories behind each song, whose names tell you the range of emotions addressed in this 8-track record.
Dharma, unlike Balani’s previous works, is deceptively stripped-down, wordless, and has the bearings of a concept album. Somehow, that makes it a different kind of ‘revolt music’, one Shantanu Sampath described (in our review of the album) in June as a “political masterpiece with the potential to force change” but lacking “the punch and gall to actually start a revolution”.
Debuting it in Germany and touring extensively with the new record, Balani has consolidated his space in the Indian jazz circuit, which continues to thrive and experiment in tandem with the international scene.
13. Prabh Deep – K I N G
Prabh Deep’s 2019 EP K I N G affirmed his position as one of the most consistent artists in the business, and also showcased his ability to reinvent his sound. On this self-produced EP, he shifts to a softer, lo-fi sound, and while it might be more relaxed, it is just as tight as anything else he has put out. Opener ‘Maya’ immediately sets up the listener for what is in store – he has added touches of R&B and lo-fi to his sound with the help of bass maestro Hashbass (who accompanies him on four out of six tracks). Besides Hashbass, an integral part of the EP, it is also boosted by other great guest acts including Chazz, Hrjs, Tansolo and Archit Anand who cumulatively go on to give listeners some great summertime merry.
More of Prabh Deep’s exceptional flow is on display on ‘Khat’ and ‘Amar’, the latter arguably the best of the album. Things heat up on the fascinating and slick ‘Hira’, which might be the best way to describe the musical promise on offer on this EP — an amalgamation of different styles, catchy and juicy basslines, and the dependable lyrical delivery as you witness the Delhi rapper comfortably strut through different styles.
12. Ahmer – Little Kid, Big Dreams
2019 also gave birth to novel, rebellious voices and amplified the existing ‘acts with causes’ to a wider audience. One of these voices arrived from Kashmir. Rapper Ahmer (or Ahmer Javed) released his debut album Little Kid, Big Dreams in mid-2019. The album, as the artist emphasised in several interviews later on, represented stories of conflict and resistance that young Kashmiri minds and aspirants have faced for generations.
Little Kid, Big Dreams carried both a regional and personal lament surrounding the militarised Kashmir. Following in the footsteps of fellow Kashmiri idol MC Kash, Ahmer entrusted hip-hop to be the medium, and the approach worked out. The album passes through distinctive phases, each unique to the rapper and Kashmir, eventually ensuring an effective outcome that covers his childhood, the teenage and growing rage that can only be expressed through songs. The depression in the air coupled with mainland India’s lack of empathy resulted in this eight-track stunning and important record, produced by Sez On The Beat.A bold effort like this required assistance and support from the label and Ahmer’s album release of 2019 is also a new and interesting chapter in label-artist partnerships. The music videos that followed for Little Kid, Big Dreams (‘Elaan’, ‘Kasheer’) were indications of Azadi Records’ commitment to the collective cause plus the talent involved.
11. Parekh & Singh – Science City
Their second release on UK label Peacefrog, dream-pop duo Nischay Parekh and Jivraj Singh put the breaks on their Europe and India tour plans in 2019 to take time out to recuperate. The promo plans for the record might have thus taken a backseat, but it doesn’t in any way dim the brilliant album that Science City is. Featuring Parekh’s saccharine, sometimes innocent croon that’s now turned widely introspective and much more melancholic than before, Jiver is his eccentric self with the beats and production work. There are some things utterly subtle in the percussive elements, but Parekh is more or less all heart when it comes to his words.
Whether it’s about childhood and child-like imagination (‘Monkey’) or love (‘Summer Skin’, ‘Down at the Sky’) or equating particle physics and surgery to human life (‘Forward Slash’, ‘Surgeon’), there’s a sense of regarding the smallness of existence in the universe. Songs like ‘One Hundred Shadows’ are almost discomforting, but they show a hint of a future direction with the album closer ‘Crystalline’, which leans on groovy synthpop and preaches about being supportive and living in the moment.
10. Parvaaz – Kun
The rock quartet chose to cap off the decade with one of the most thematically complex releases in recent memory. Kun literally means “to live”, a theme that every track circumvents in wholly unique ways. The Kashmiri and Urdu lyrics explore the trials and tribulations of getting through life unscathed by the numerous hurdles on the road. The composition and songwriting are also among the most intricate and riveting in the scene today. Every track presents more than a few left hooks in its emotional arc. Everything about the album is bigger, bolder and breaks new ground.
This is seen from the slate of producers and collaborators that the band saw fit to bring on board. Sameer Rahat (bassist for Joshish), keyboardist Jason Zachariah, music producer Akshay Dhabadkar and Leslie Charles (bassist for Thermal and a Quarter) all lend their exquisite virtuosity to the immaculate soundscape of the album. The sublime instrumentals tap into the primal and existential angsts that remains repressed within all of us. The effort required to overcome the language barrier and delve into the questions and insights posed by the band is rewarded by an intimate and emotionally satisfying experience.
9. aswekeepsearching – Rooh
Once you have announced yourself with a bold effort like Khwaab and followed that with experimental Zia, anything that follows requires more than a familiar approach and template to create an impact. Despite all of this, 2019 and Rooh turned out to be crucial chapters in the band’s journey.
The band completed five years of its existence that earned them several awards, an international tour, three studio albums, festival headlining slots and accolades. Moreover, its relentless and successful attempts at staying relevant, earning new listeners and finding more avenues to reach out to a broader audience continued in 2019. As the band’s image grew outwards, the sound did not limit itself to festival crowd or esteemed venues. House concerts and intimate gigs ensured the audience’s limited attention span did not lead to isolation.
Aswekeepsearching represents a genre that has challenged several bands to experiment and raise the benchmark. Apart from a new drummer, the band innovated with its promotions, marketing and visuals in 2019, but the same effort did not extend to its songwriting. Call it repetition, lack of scope to innovate or the curse of the genre, Rooh failed to offer anything its predecessors Zia and Khwaab hadn’t.
Aswekeepsearching has every reason to celebrate going strong after three albums; however, the upcoming albums will decide if the band evolves into a fiercer force redefining the genre in ways never before or follow the path of fellow post-rock acts.
8. Pakshee – Pakshee
Delhi-based band Pakshee’s debut sounds like the work of very experienced musicians — artists who are supremely assured in their abilities. The 7-track album clocks at 39 minutes, and there is enough room and time for a truly immersive experience.
The album starts on a confident note with the 2017 single ‘Raah Piya’. It is perhaps a wise decision to start with this, as it embodies the band’s sound and ethos – a fusion of smooth jazz with Hindustani and Carnatic vocals (there is also a western vocal interlude that throws a rather pleasant surprise).
There is a lot of versatility on display throughout the album, from ‘Ang’, where the saxophone suddenly takes off, to ‘Raanjhan’ that has a chilling, almost transcendental effect. All seven tracks here are tightly constructed, but there is also mature restraint. Few in recent history have managed to navigate the east-meets-west fusion route successfully without sounding like a poor person’s Coke Studio. The fusion or ‘world music’ genre comes with a lot of temptation to go overboard or to do everything all at once, which is where the young band impresses even more. They manage to set the mood, rather than beg for attention.
7. Ditty – Poetry Ceylon
Aditi Veena’s voice is enough to take you to a time and place where life is conceivably better. On her new album Poetry Ceylon, that place appears to be amidst a thick forest that hasn’t been ravaged by deadly fires or humans, an ocean where marine life does not ingest plastic, or in a garden that has been grown with love and care. When I interviewed her around the time of the album’s release, I did not anticipate, and I bet neither did she, how momentous this album would come to be for taking the conversation on saving the earth forward, as well as for her career.
Aditi, who goes by the pseudonym Ditty, is someone who grew up surrounded by nature but eventually had to move to a big city for work. Now, with the solemn ‘On An Island’, she bids goodbye to city life and has gone back to being a girl on an island which happens to be the ancient land of Ceylon. She lays under trees and makes compost. That is, of course, when she is not touring, talking climate change in various cities or signing sync deals with major web series like (now) Netflix’s Little Things.
At the outset, what seems like a simple, sobering album by a peaceable singer-songwriter, is actually an incredibly moving piece of art that falls heavily on Ditty’s deep understanding of not only the art but also what the world around her is made of. So, when my heart aches and my lungs decay in the toxic air of the country’s capital, I listen to Ditty’s Poetry Ceylon.
6. Soumik Datta – Jangal
Offering a response to the climate change crisis, London-based sarod virtuoso Soumik Datta fuses classical with contemporary like never before on his latest EP. The five-track fusion record, lush from start to finish, engulfs the listener in its green world that is turning to ash. The album takes the form of a forest, translating its mysterious sounds into instrumental dryads while shifting electronic textures graft the fabric of each song. The sarod takes centre stage in each track supported by backing instruments and vocals, together weaving a sonic foliage.
The songs, theatrically titled ‘Myth’, ‘Beast’, ‘Wildfire’ and ‘Plantations’, are reminiscent of a destructive-creative paradox where sign and melody must follow the other. The album is populated by intonations of Latin American bombo drums, Swiss hang drums, Naga bamboo flute ‘bamhum’. Jangal’s raging “unruly melodies crackling in defiance” exorcises Datta’s anguish with wild harmonies spun from the existential planetary threat. For Datta, a passionate climate warrior bombarded continually with news of an environmental emergency, Jangal is primarily protest music, the kind that eschews words to advocate a global urgency. Datta conjures the images coming out of the California, Amazon and African wildfires last year, just as much as he dedicates it to climate activists fighting deforestation in India’s Aarey Colony and Hasdeo Arand.
5. Gauley Bhai – Joro
Of all the debut releases in 2019, Bengaluru-based Gauley Bhai potentially cemented its position as the band that’s here to stay. Joro, released in the first half of 2019, came out of nowhere and struck an ideal first chord with its new listeners. The 10-track studio release is melodic, folksy, spirited and thanks to its Nepali lyrical theme coupled with the vocals, progressively fresh-sounding. The album’s arrangement and emphasis on the sound come across as a veteran musician’s chef-d’oeuvre.
The most impressive part of Gauley Bhai’s debut album is the proud representation of its sound and philosophy. Nothing feels ‘tailor-made’ for listeners. A professional effort like this seems like quite a conscious and long task, however, the quartet comes off as a bunch of regular music enthusiasts with no ultimate plan or motive. And that might very well be, considering the unpredictable nature of the ‘independent music’ ecosystem. However, the band did spend the second half of 2019 touring the country. The album led to more gigs and slots at music festivals which also reflects that a band does not necessarily need strong PR tactics or management to grow in the scene. A bunch of finely composed and produced songs can do the trick too.
4. Sarathy Korwar – More Arriving
One of the most important records of our times – when citizenship, immigration and rights are deservedly occupying public discourse – Sarathy Korwar and his merry band of jazz cats, MCs and poets conjure a lasting message on More Arriving. While the London-based producer, drummer and percussionist may have taken significant inspiration from the seemingly never-ending Brexit saga, on More Arriving he casts his net wider and shows us the hues of multiculturalism and why it’s crucial.His previous record Day to Day saw him work more with field recordings, but Korwar seems to like his role as a conduit, rather than taking centre stage. Calling on the likes of MC Mawali, Delhi Sultanate, Prabh Deep, Trap Poju, Zia Ahmed and Deepak Unnikrishnan, there’re also unwavering vocals from Aditya Prakash (delivering his powerhouse best on the irony-laced rendition of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s ‘Bol’) and Mirande. It’s psychedelic, but also loud and jazz-heavy, cacophonous in its use of saxophone and synth at times while quietening down with percussive zest on spoken word pieces like ‘Mango’ (“Islamism is the new communism. Shit” Ahmed deadpans). Possibly relevant for many years hence, More Arriving is a necessary reminder of the importance of unity in diversity.
3. JBABE – Play the Piano Drunk Like a Percussion Instrument Until the Fingers Begin to Bleed a Bit
Statistically and historically, frontmen or members of popular bands who set out to establish themselves as solo acts have rarely Timberlake-d their way to unbreakable success. But Joshua Fernandes, frontman of one of the most popular bands in the country, The F16s, is clearly on to something here with his beautiful mind and sequined jackets. His first full-length release has been a revelation, one that took us all by pleasant surprise. His solo record wears some of the band’s signature sounds inconspicuously but proudly, sprinkled cautiously in bits here and there. The final product is a unique flavour of sound that will only be known for JBABE henceforth.
Fernandes has fused R&B, soul and dream-pop to build this “bedroom pop” album which has an aesthetic – auditory and visual — of its own. Play the Piano Drunk Like a Percussion Instrument Until the Fingers Begin to Bleed a Bit is emotive, bold, subtle and intimate. He says things in a way that seems unabashed but, at the same time, he holds back just enough to keep it slightly open-ended and leave room for interpretation. This could very well be a consequence of taking creative inspiration from a fellow “desperate degenerate” (as Fernandes calls him) in Charles Bukowski. Possibly, also responsible for the tangible presence of the classic 80s sound. Lush is the word that comes to mind as one glides through the smoothest 22 minutes of the independent gamut of 2019.
2. Peter Cat Recording Co. – Bismillah
Back in 2012, I saw the band play in a hotel ballroom as the closing act of a music conference. The lineup was not what it is today, there was no fancy lighting, and the single interesting aspect, at least visually at that point was that they had a harmonium. They opened with ‘Don’t Rape My Baby’, a now ancient B-side, and propelled the night into an indelible experience almost instantly. The act carouseled through members, and seemed to disappear momentarily; Sawhney and Kartik Pillai took a brief break to commence their excursions in electronic and ambient music. In 2018, with Portrait of a Time, the band lit the beacon to announce their return.
With Portrait… and this year’s Bismillah, the band reassembled their image, creating a visual language which struck a chord. Singles ‘Floated By’ and ‘Where the Money Flows’ encapsulate the extents of Suryakant’s lyrical predilections; the former an ode to a lover, the latter a huge sigh about Demonetisation. The harmonium, or its spirit, remains in tracks like ‘Shit I’m Dreaming’. What was conversational has warped into eloquence. And it’s beautifully presented in 10 gorgeous tracks enjoyed best in sequence.
While listening to Bismillah on repeat, I am constantly reminded about that night in 2012 and the band’s metamorphosis from scruffy cabaret boppers to an airtight unit. A band fully realised. From bundling into an SUV to anywhere in India, to touring Europe with label support, 2012’s nervous wrecks are now bursting at the seams with confidence. It’s the same band.
1. Lifafa – Jaago
Until 2018, a precis of Suryakant Sawhney’s oeuvre would’ve read — vocalist and guitarist of the gypsy-jazz band Peter Cat Recording Company who occasionally toyed with experimental electronic sounds under the pseudonym Lifafa. With every release, the New Delhi-based musician inched closer to finding his identity.
In 2019, Sawhney’s side-project broke out. And the album that heralded Lifafa’s arrival was nothing like the material the musician released previously.
Jaago is a rare dance album that’s political, doused in nostalgia, dramatic and sprinkled with just the right amount of romance. The lyrics are theatrical and grand, but Sawhney’s dreamy vocals assure that there’s no break in the listener’s suspension of disbelief.
The past year also witnessed Lifafa emerge as a live-act which drew the largest crowds. Apart from consistently selling out shows all over the country, Sawhney also commanded a sizable crowd even at one of the toughest festival setups, Echoes of Earth, where festival-goers had to navigate through the woods and their inebriated selves to catch their favourite acts. Here’s a hypothesis — the cult of Lifafa is here to stay.