After celebrating the best music, film, and television of the decade in November, we now turn to celebrating 2019. We start today with our Top 50 Albums of 2019.
I still believe in albums.
After nearly a decade of being told albums, as a format, are dead, dying, or rapidly circling the drain, they’re still here. That’s not to say that the industry hasn’t changed. Sure, bands can’t bank on album sales anymore to sustain a living, and a person wearing buds on the train is more likely to be skipping through a playlist than to be immersed in an album proper.
I get all that. I also understand that the album has shrunk over the past two decades to account for economic realities. And, yes, we’ve also seen records bloat the last couple of years as artists, usually rappers, try to game the system by throwing an extra dozen tracks (or “units”) on an album to be downloaded. All’s fair in love and charts.
It might not be the golden age of the album anymore. I’ll admit that. But 2019 assured us that the album is a far, confident cry from deceased. Billie Eilish and Lizzo showed us multiple ways to cram banger after banger onto a disc while aspiring to something greater than a mere collection of singles. Tyler, the Creator and Angel Olsen, long celebrated by our staff, took their studio recordings to staggering new levels this year. We got to see Sharon Van Etten reinvent herself on an album that hasn’t dulled an iota all year long, and Jamila Woods put out one of the most thoughtful and creative “concept” albums of this, or any, decade.
How audiences buy and consume music will always change. But as long as artists, like the ones mentioned above, turn to the industry’s traditional long-form format to express themselves, expand their sounds, and reflect on the world around them, consider us ready to sit down and listen front to back.
And, as always: no skipping.
50. Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars
Origin: Long Branch, New Jersey
The Gist: After writing an autobiography, performing a Broadway residency, and watching Obama’s America slowly crumble into Trump’s Wasteland, Bruce Springsteen hit the road, headed out to Middle America, and got lost under some Western Stars. Inspired by the California pop of the ’60s and ’70s, the New Jersey singer-songwriter finds himself by his lonesome for the first time since 2005’s Devils and Dust. Unlike that beautiful dirge, though, this album feels gentle — like a lullaby for city slickers. Not the Billy Crystal kind, but the bruised countrymen who haven’t lost sight of the beauty, even amidst all the chaos.
Why It Rocks: Never one to shy away from the classics, The Boss tries his hand at Glen Campbell’s style and Roy Orbison’s vibes to maximum effect. This is some country-western stuff, alright, and that might not sit well with the fans hoping to hear his construction worker anthems of yesteryear. Lose the hard hats for a second, though, and enjoy the solace. Like Nebraska, Springsteen offers up so much space for meditation, only very little room for brooding. No, this is Nebraska with headlights, where you get to see where you’re going and yet also get to kick your legs up for a second or two. Giddy up. –Michael Roffman
Essential Tracks: “Hello Sunshine”, “Wayfarer”, and “Western Stars”
49. Black Belt Eagle Scout – At the Party with My Brown Friends
Origin: Portland, Oregon
The Gist: At the Party with My Brown Friends comes less than a year after Katherine Paul’s well-received debut, Mother of My Children. While that first record came to fruition amidst the fierce Standing Rock protests, this second full-length finds the queer and indigenous songwriter exploring a different form of resistance — one rooted in the everyday.
Why It Rules: With clouds of dream pop and hushed indie rock tones as her backdrop, Paul celebrates the tiny victories in her daily life. Her songs extol the forming of community, the blossoming of a relationship with someone who inherently understands her struggle as a PoC (“You have eyes just like mine” from “Run It to Ya”), and even the memory of a time spent on the beach. Although these are small snapshots of a much larger life, they speak volumes as building blocks of empowerment and strength. In a world that’s quick to ostracize and repress on the basis of difference, living your life, loving your partner, and partying with those that look like you sometimes is the most powerful form of protest. –Lake Schatz
Essential Tracks: “Run It to Ya”, “You’re Me and I’m You”, “Going to the Beach with Haley”
48. Hatchie – Keepsake
Origin: Brisbane, Queensland, Australia
The Gist: Australia has recently been sending out the beautiful sounds of a bounty of up-and-coming musicians, one of whom is Harriette Pilbeam, aka Hatchie, a 26-year-old dream pop virtuoso. She released Keepsake, her first studio album, in summer 2019, offering up a perfect soundtrack for eating rocket pops and watching the clouds with your crush.
Why It Rules: Dream pop is less a sound for Hatchie than it is an environment, a language, and an ethos. Keepsake works beautifully as essentially a love song in 10 parts, a hazy, glimmering 45-minute daydream of wishes and desires and synths that manage to be sweet more than sexy (but definitely still a little sexy). And yet the album also spawned a handful of infectious singles, such as “Without a Blush” and “Obsessed”, which both are fresh and hooky and a bit timeless, too. –Kayleigh Hughes
Essential Tracks: “Obsessed”, “Without a Blush”, and “Stay with Me”
47. Catfish and the Bottlemen – The Balance
Origin: Llandudno, Wales
The Gist: Post-punk rock purveyors, Catfish and The Bottlemen have been steadily releasing music and scaling venues across the world for more than a decade. Now, three studio albums in, the band have made it their practice to turn a deaf ear to the question of whether or not rock ‘n’ roll is dead, and somehow, in a day and age where music can slope more towards meme than musical movement, have kept a steadfast eye on fervent live shows.
Why It Rules: Whereas their previous albums translated the ins and outs of young love, The Balance is a primer on interpersonal relationships, loving or otherwise. Though their lyricism has always leaned more towards the literal than the flowery, track by track The Balance is a testament to the way we really deal with life. Songs like “2all” speak to the truth that some of the best love songs don’t happen to be romantic at all. More importantly, the significance of the album lies in its ability to be transmuted live. The Balance’s best tracks are refreshingly better suited for packed venues over streams and headphones, with moments like “Longshot” and “Fluctuate” with drum beats, guitar solos, and choruses that are best felt when sung along with in real-time. –Erica Campbell
Essential Tracks: “Longshot”, “Fluctuate”, and “Overlap”
46. (Sandy) Alex G – House of Sugar
Origin: Havertown, Pennsylvaia
The Gist: (Sandy) Alex G’s latest album is an often bleak, uninviting journey. Moments on “Walk Away” or “Near” get stuck in repetition, a broken record of desperation that blur with dream logic. Interspersed with these are some of the songwriter’s most nakedly painful yet beautiful songs yet, especially the crowning achievement of “Hope,” a sparsely drawn tale of having visions of a friend who died from a fentanyl overdose.
Why It Rules: House of Sugar is the latest in the songwriter’s burgeoning collection of great records, one that solidifies all the qualities that have made him one of the most acclaimed indie rock musicians of this decade. He doesn’t temper any of his experimental tendencies, but pushes them well past their breaking point, while also writing some of his most straightforwardly entrancing songs yet like “Southern Sky” and “Gretel”. Tales of regret, grief, isolation, and frustration color the album, as Giannascoli pushes his talents as a storyteller to new heights by stepping into the lives of the characters he writes about, criminals and gamblers searching for forgiveness, making timeless songs along the way. –David Sackllah
Essential Tracks: “Hope”, “Southern Sky”, and “Sugarhouse (Live)”
45. Clairo – Immunity
Origin: Carlisle, Massachusetts
The Gist: Recently, it seems that anyone with a relatively “lo-fi” sound tends to get pigeonholed into the ambiguous category of “bedroom pop.” At first, Claire Cottrill, professionally known as Clairo, appeared satisfied with this distinction. Cottrill’s claim to fame happened abruptly: her homemade YouTube video for “Pretty Girl”, a sardonic yet candid exploration of the idealistic “woman,” garnered millions of views, subsequently making her the new face of the micro-genre (and the Spotify playlist). But “bedroom pop” oftentimes equates to amateur. After touring with pop luminaries such as Khalid and Dua Lipa, appearing on multiple major music festival bills and selling out show after show, Cottrill was ready to disentangle herself from the confines of the loosely defined label and, well, grow up. On her debut album, Immunity, she proves herself.
Why It Rules: About half of Immunity feels almost like an apology — whether it’s for a lack of courage or the hapless yearning for another: she’s distant, yet tender with her restrained vocals almost hiding behind a wall of electro-pop, ethereal vaporwave, and the occasional children’s chorus. But on the other half, she’s unashamed of her missteps, using her loneliness as a guide toward a new understanding of both herself and the general conditions in which she and a lover reside. She tries to remain collected, almost apathetic, as her partner walks out on her in “Bags”, a track co-produced by Rostam that features a silvery drum-loop from Danielle Haim and seldom keys that fill the fluttering synth with a reserved sense of apprehension. But she reaffirms: “I guess this could be worse/ Walking out the door with your bags.” Taken in total, Immunity is sincere, providing a retelling of Cottrill’s efforts to step outside of her bedroom and into adulthood. –Samantha Small
Essential Tracks: “Bags”, “Sofia”, and “Softly”
44. Lady Lamb – Even in the Tremor
Origin: Brunswick, Maine
The Gist: Three times the charm, indeed. Four years after dazzling us with her sophomore record, 2015’s After, Aly Spaltro returns with her most autobiographical record to date, Even in the Tremor. Under the guidance of ex-Bowie producer Erin Tonkon, Spaltro unlocks her inner anxieties over 11 tracks that soar with volume. No kidding. As she’s wont to do, Spaltro swims over a thousand words, all of which carry a dusty trail of experience and wisdom. It’s also fitting that the album finds her back on her original label, Ba Da Bing Records, as this record feels like a 360 of sorts. A new beginning, if you will.
Why It Rocks: For as hyper-literate as Spaltro can be, her true divinity dwells in her vocals. It’s been that way since she first charmed our socks off over half a decade ago with “Crane Your Neck”, and it’s even more alluring now that she’s a little older, a little wiser, and, well, a little stronger. “Deep Love” says it all. The conviction alone speaks to her maturity as a songwriter. It’s the sound of experience. Of every meandering relationship. Of every wounded heart. Of every timeless hug. And that’s only one track. Surrounding it are 10 other tracks from a songbook that bleeds as much as it screams. –Michael Roffman
Essential Tracks: “Deep Love”, “Even in the Tremor”, and “July Was Mundane”
43. The Regrettes – How Do You Love?
Origin: Los Angeles, California
The Gist: After turning all the right heads with their 2017 debut, Feel Your Feelings Fool!, The Regrettes borrowed some time with an EP, shuffled bass players, and fell in love. Or at least Lydia Night did. Of course, like the phoenix rising from the ashes, any new relationship comes from a place of sorrow, and Night leaned on those past experiences for the group’s sophomore effort. How Do You Love? is a concept album in theory about the sugary highs and sourful lows of a relationship, blending their penchant for doo-wop and obsession with distortion in equal measure.
Why It Rules: It’s catchy. Simple as that. Look, there’s nothing groundbreaking about How Do You Love?, but that’s partly what makes it so rich. These are universal themes, after all, and that familiarity is crucial to the feelings wired in every song. What makes it a cut above the rest is Night’s conviction and way around a hook. “California Friends”, “I Dare You”, and “Here You Go” scream with replay value, sure, but it’s how Night twirls around her poetry on tracks like “Pumpkin”, “Fog”, or “Dress Up” that recall the asymmetrical delivery of Paul Westerberg. Like any piece of pop culture in the midst of a relationship, there’s comfort here. Lots of it. –Michael Roffman
Essential Tracks: “I Dare You”, “California Friends”, and “Pumpkin”
42. Nilüfer Yanya – Miss Universe
Origin: London, England
The Gist: Twenty-three-year-old Nilüfer Yanya first drew attention five years ago with a series of acoustic SoundCloud releases. Critics were quick to point towards her as a singer-songwriter star in the making, but few could have predicted the direction she’d take on her debut full-length from ATO, Miss Universe.
Why It Rules: The Londoner’s first album is a prime specimen of the post-genre era. Broken up by skits about a influencer-friendly self-care corporation, Miss Universe lays bare Yanya’s anxieties through gospel dance (“Baby Blu”), waltzing blues (“Angels”), saxophone-backed bedroom R&B (“Melt”), and sparse folk (“Monsters Under the Bed”). Whatever world she plays in, it’s always restrained and natural, an unaffected manifestation of the influences in her head. As are the lyrics, which see the young musician constantly wrestling with her own emotional and creative limits. Yanya presents as a complex, considered artist with a voice as gutsy as her songwriting. –Ben Kaye
Essential Tracks: “In Your Head”, “Baby Blu”, and “Melt”
41. Pivot Gang – You Can’t Sit with Us
Origin: Chicago, Illinois
The Gist: SABA should be the next household name that emerges from the thriving Chicago rap scene. In a time where much of the most popular hip-hop sounds stuck in the same groove and gets pushed on listeners in Costco bulk units, SABA and fellow Pivot Gang members prove that rap full of subtlety, nuance, and honest storytelling will never go out of style. Joined by family, friends, and local guests like Mick Jenkins, SABA and co. flaunt the power of Chicago’s Westside on You Can’t Sit with Us.
Why It Rules: Let’s keep it as real as a slice of deep dish (fuck that fold-able NY pie) and throw in a Bulls metaphor because … when in sweet home Chicago. We’ve seen SABA play Pippen to Chance the Rapper’s Jordan and drop 60 on his own sophomore game-changer, 2018’s Care for Me, but now he’s proving to be “just like Mike” by taking his Windy City brethren along for the championship ride. And You Can’t Sit with Us boasts so much more than just its most famous member dishing (not dropping) dimes for easy layups. On top tracks like “Colbert” and “Mortal Kombat”, others are playing the role of floor general and make telling these tales of turmoil and triumph look as smooth as a proper full-court weave. Again, SABA should be the next household name out of Chicago, but Pivot Gang prove he sure as hell shouldn’t be the last. –Matt Melis
Essential Tracks: “Colbert”, “Mortal Kombat”, and “Hero”
40. Julia Jacklin – Crushing
Origin: Sydney, Australia
The Gist: I once heard a Japanese woman say that feelings linger in the ends of one’s hair. For Julia Jacklin, those forlorn feelings linger in the hushed instrumentation of her plaintive sophomore LP, Crushing. Naked, defenseless, and proud, the Melbourne-bred songwriter casts a doleful look at romance gone sour, all the while tracing her own fleshy, tender outline in the mirror.
Why It Rules: 2019 is wrought with breakup albums — the kind replete with larger-than-life motivational bops urging us to mutter an indignant “good riddance” and take a goddamn spinning class. Crushing is not one of these records. Instead, Jacklin asks us to slow down, stand up, and assess a complete and messy exploration of grief, vulnerability, and emotional recovery. Without hope or agenda, the Australian songstress leads listeners through moments of sorrow, setback, and comfort inherent in the duality of her album’s title, guaranteed to touch even the most recalcitrant audience among us. –Irene Monokandilos
Essential Tracks: “Body”, “Pressure to Party”, and “Don’t Know How to Keep Loving You”
39. Leonard Cohen – Thanks for the Dance
Origin: Westmount, Quebec, Canada
The Gist: Leonard Cohen wrote and spoke poignantly about growing old, even when he understood that death might soon be knocking at his own door. Like Bowie before him that year, we took 2016’s You Want It Darker to be the poet and crooner’s final gift to us, a project that took him nearly right up to that final encounter to complete. Little did we know that Cohen had already laid down vocals for one last record, what would become, with the help of his son’s arrangements, 2019’s Thanks for the Dance.
Why It Rules: Any reticence about Cohen not living long enough to supervise the album’s completion quickly fades away when we hear a somber guitar plucking joined by the master’s unmistakable voice on opening track “Happens to the Heart”. Poetic meditations like “There’s a mist of summer kisses where I tried to double park” remind us of how effortlessly Cohen could combine nature and concrete, sentiment and calculation, the sacred and the profane. To hear Cohen in such fine form suggests that while he may have been done dancing, he surely wanted the band to play on. –Matt Melis
Essential Tracks: “Happens to the Heart”, “The Night of Santiago”, and “Listen to the Hummingbird”
38. Jenny Lewis – On the Line
Origin: San Fernando Valley California
The Gist: It can be hard to define Jenny Lewis. Ex-child star, former Rilo Kiley leader, indie rock darling, etc. However, with On the Line, Lewis bares it all while pointing to her LA upbringing, handing out casual epiphanies on mental health, benders, and ill-fated relationships, soaking it all in folk rock and, four studio albums in, showing she’s the best person to define herself.
Why It Rules: On the Line is Hollywood glamour spiked with strife as told by someone who knows how to navigate those hills. Even when driving in a red Porsche convertible, each moment is painfully relatable. According to Lewis, “Life is a disco,” and she’s “had it with trippers and drama queens.” From opening track “Heads Gonna Roll”, where Lewis claims, “You think you’re going to heaven/ And you think I’m going to hell,” it’s easy to see the entire album is based around the conflict of good and evil. But by the time Lewis reiterates, “Your demons got reason to fight” in “Hollywood Lawn”, it’s obvious all the characters are just playing a part, and there aren’t always distinct differences between the good guys and the bad ones. –Erica Campbell
Essential Tracks: “Hollywood Lawn”, “Heads Gonna Roll”, and “Red Bull & Hennessy”
37. Sturgill Simpson – Sound & Fury
Origin: Jackson, Kentucky
The Gist: Three years after breaking through to crossover success with the Grammy-winning A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, Sturgill Simpson was no longer interested in simply being outlaw country’s heir apparent. Instead, he gave Nashville the finger and gave us Sound & Fury, a collection of neo-blues and boogie rock that finds Simpson reflecting on his newfound fame while chafing at the expectations (both generic and commercial) that accompany success. Oh, the record also acts as the soundtrack to Simpson’s own dystopian Netflix anime series, because the future is nothing if not buck wild.
Why It Rules: If songs like “Sing Along” and “A Good Look” sound like they were recorded at a seedy motel by a fame-wary dude who just turned 40, that’s because they were; the majority of Sound & Fury came together at the McGuire Motor Inn (current Yelp rating: one star) 30 miles north of Detroit, a proximity to the Motor City also reflected in sleazy rock nods to everyone from Bob Seger to The Black Keys. Pair that with the tense “Make Art Not Friends” (the song LCD Soundsystem would’ve made if they’d been from Murfreesboro instead of Brooklyn) and gas-powered honky-tonk rave-up “Last Man Standing”, and you get a record that, like its creator, contains multitudes. –Tyler Clark
Essential Tracks: “Sing Along”, “Make Art Not Friends”, and “Last Man Standing”
36. Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah – Ancestral Recall
Origin: New Orleans, Louisiana
The Gist: Jazz trumpeter and producer Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah released his new album, Ancestral Recall, back in March, the artist’s first solo release since 2017’s The Centennial Trilogy. Several guests join Scott this time around, including poet and songwriter Saul Williams, to help him see his latest vision realized.
Why It Rules: Like fellow Consequence favorite Kamasi Washington, Scott’s music has crossed over not only to make jazz accessible to audiences long ignorant of the genre, but also to bring new voices and stories to the forefront of popular music. On Ancestral Recall, Scott employs various cultural rhythms and styles with guest vocalists to, in his words, attempt to “decolonize sound.” By finding commonalities and embracing differences, the album carries the important mantra that all sounds and expression are valid. –Regan Bexler
Essential Tracks: “I Own the Night” (feat. Saul Williams), “The Shared Stories of Rivals (KEITA)” (feat. Saul Williams), and “Songs She Never Heard” (feat. Logan Richardson)
35. Jay Som – Anak Ko
Origin: Walnut Creek, California
The Gist: After stunning with 2017’s Everybody Works, singer-songwriter and producer Melina Duterte approached her follow-up with an expanded creative vision. Her latest album under her Jay Som moniker includes not only more poignant aspects pulled from her personal life as a daughter of Filipino immigrants — Anak Ko means “my child” in Tagalog — but also the contribution of outside guests, such as members of Vagabon and Chastity Belt.
Why It Rules: Rather than hole up in a corner in a bout of super self-reflection, Duterte did possibly one of the most scary things a young adult can do: She put herself out there. The Los Angeles-based artist manifests her own version of maturity on Anak Ko, one marked by a willingness to be open and vulnerable, both emotionally and in the studio. That growth shows up throughout the record — from the ease with which Duterte seamlessly dives into lo-fi, bedroom pop, and alt-rock to the mindful way she grapples with heartache and anxiety. –Lake Schatz
Essential Tracks: “Superbike”, “Nighttime Drive”, and “Tenderness”
34. Denzel Curry – ZUU
Origin: Carol City, Florida
The Gist: At just 24, Billie Eilish’s tourmate is a survivor and elder statesman who ushered in rap’s Soundcloud era. And with this tribute to his home city, all guests Miami-only, the man prone to covering Rage Against the Machine stumbles into his first classic album.
Why It Rules: Denzel Curry chooses brain-melting beats (the M.I.A.-worthy “Birdz,” the Death Grips-worthy “P.A.T.”), shouts perfect hooks (the Plies-inspired “Shake 88”, the uncouth parental advice of “Ricky”), and even croons “Speedboat”, an unforgettable elegy for the fallen XXXTentaction, whom many of us would rather forget. ZUU is an almost seamless amalgam of ‘90s West Coast rap, classic Miami bass, and Soundcloud-era warping, with the hardly soft Curry a more solid and responsible mind than most every one of those signifiers will conjure up for you. And from little means other than comic-genius inflection changes, the interlude “Yoo” mounts an astounding case for bringing back the rap skit. –Dan Weiss
Essential Tracks: “Speedboat”, “Ricky”, and “Birdz”
33. The Highwomen – The Highwomen
Origin: Nashville, Tennessee
The Gist: For decades, it seemed the only artists getting airtime on country radio were guys named Luke who were entirely indecipherable from one another. And the homogeneousness was always someone else’s fault: the audience wouldn’t listen, the labels wouldn’t sign ‘em, etc. But the results were the same: Womens’ voices in country music were systematically stifled before they even had a chance.
Then came The Highwomen. The brainchild of fiddler extraordinaire Amanda Shires, the band is comprised of Grammy-winning Brandi Carlile, legendary songwriter Natalie Hemby, and pop princess Maren Morris. The group’s inception wasn’t some stunt to garner attention: In fact, each of the women put their flourishing solo careers on partial hold to create the record and perform it because they believed whole-heartedly in the project’s mission.
Why It Rules: The Highwomen’s debut album is not home to the kind of half-baked, vaguely feminist anthems often used as vapid rallying cries but actually conveying nothing (see: “Fight Song” by Rachel Platten). Instead, it delves deeply into the pains and triumphs that encompass the experience of being a woman in country music. Whether they’re singing the first gay country song or relishing in the pure joy of a honky tonk, each of the four powerhouse women exude authenticity in their tellings of love, loss, fear, frustration, and exhaustion. Throughout the 12 songs, it becomes clear that The Highwomen aren’t just itching for a seat at the table: They’re making space for others, all while simultaneously trying to get home to feed their babies (and, mind you, continuing the human race). –Lucy Shanker
Essential Tracks: “If She Ever Leaves Me”, “Old Soul”, and “Crowded Table”
32. BTS – Map of the Soul: Persona
Origin: Seoul, South Korea
The Gist: To say “K-pop finally arrived in America in 2019” wouldn’t be entirely fair to fans who have been on to the sound for years. With sold-out stadium tours, chart dominance, and much-ballyhooed Coachella appearances from the biggest names in the genre, however, there’s no denying that this was the year K-pop took over. Leading the charge has been BTS, whose sixth EP, Map of the Soul: Persona, has smashed records and become an undeniable staple for pop music fans.
Why It Rules: BTS is everything that’s great about K-pop, and Persona is the perfect introduction for new converts. The collection features hip-hop bangers like “Intro: Persona”, pop juggernauts like the Halsey collaboration “Boy with Luv”, and R&B jams like “Make It Right”. What’s more, if you’re willing to dig deep into translation, you’ll discover that these tracks are loaded with insightful, personal lyricism and themes. For a long while, the uninitiated’s perception was that the K-pop industry was only churning out flashy audio merchandise for the masses; with this series of undeniable hits, BTS have proven it’s far more than that. This is K-pop at its absolute best, a case study arguing in favor of the genre’s new international acclaim. The septet is the biggest band in the world right now, and impeccable efforts like this just add shine to their crowns. –Ben Kaye
Essential Tracks: “Boy with Luv” feat. Halsey, “Intro: Persona”, and “Dionysus”
31. Anderson .Paak – Ventura
Origin: Oxnard, California
The Gist: There are a few standout things that make Anderson .Paak so captivating: his drum solos, his ability to infuse jazz, rap, funk, and rock into his music without one overpowering the other nor chaos ensuring, and the way he manages to infuse exuberant joy and magnetic energy into his songs. As .Paak soared off the success of 2016 smash Malibu, which heavily relied on the power of the above list, fans eagerly awaited his next release, hoping it would equally encapsulate that same sultry talent. Oxnard, released at the end of 2018, had none of these things. While it did feature production credit from Dr. Dre and massive guest appearances from the likes of Snoop Dogg, J. Cole, and Dre himself, it also took what we loved about .Paak, funneled money into it, and reduced him to a few mediocre rap verses. So less than six months later, when .Paak decided to release another album, Ventura, fans were wary.
Why It Rules: Ventura was exactly what the people were waiting for. Instead of the lackluster rapping we got on Oxnard, the follow-up sees .Paak at his most soulful (read: best) and as confident as ever. The drum solos are back, and in place of the grandiose features that washed him out are ones that anchor him to the melodies. Sure, there are big names — Smokey Robinson is on a track, for God’s sake — but more so, each of the guests feels seamlessly interwoven between the strong appearances of .Paak himself. Ventura not only made up for Oxnard; it wiped it from the collective consciousness. –Lucy Shanker
Essential Tracks: “Come Home (feat. André 3000)”, “Make It Better (feat. Smokey Robinson)”, and “Winners Circle”
30. Charli XCX – Charli
Origin: Cambridge, England
The Gist: The long-awaited follow-up to 2014’s Sucker finds Charli XCX fully embracing her title as futuristic pop connoisseur. The English artist worked under the guidance of executive producer and PC Music founder A. G. Cook — who also oversaw 2017’s Pop 2 mixtape, Charli XCX’s first headlong foray into the experimental — as well as called on a long list of prominent guests such as Lizzo, HAIM, Troye Sivan, Big Freedia, Clairo, Sky Ferreira, Christine and the Queens, and Kim Petras.
Why It Rules: Armed with industrial-strength beats, towering synths, and a relentless urge to smash together the unexpected, Charli successfully turned the idea of mainstream pop on its head. The album’s 15 songs also spoke to a larger internal system at work which informed Charli XCX’s artistry at its core. In her world, Charli XCX instinctively, actively works to defy and challenge the norm: glossy pop meets electronic metallic clamor, the radio hosts the underground club raves, and social constructs of all varieties get warped out of existence (it’s no coincidence she has a massive LGBTQ+ fanbase). –Lake Schatz
Essential Tracks: “Gone”, “White Mercedes”, and “Blame It on Your Love”
29. FKA Twigs – Magdalene
Origin: Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England
The Gist: Five years removed from her debut album, FKA Twigs remains ambitious as ever in 2019. Combining electronic explorations, intimate R&B melodies, and haunting medieval passages, MAGDALENE is the product of an artist in full control of her craft. From Future-featuring, low-key bangers (“holy terrain”) to feathery, cathedral-filling ballads (“daybed”), MAGDALENE is an elegant soundscape that will make you feel emotions you didn’t know you had.
Why It Rules: FKA Twigs never relies heavily on percussion to deliver her rhythms, but her subtle suggestions of a beat will worm their way into your brain with more ferociousness than a contemporary trap beat. Her voice is one of R&B and pop music’s finest. If she wanted, she could be a commercial success alongside Beyoncé and Rihanna. Thank God she doesn’t. Instead, much of MAGDALENE feels otherworldly, conceived by a “fallen alien”. But the yearning, wonder, and passion Twigs displays throughout is nothing if not human. –Chris Thiessen
Essential Tracks: “sad day”, “mary magdalene”, and “fallen alien”
28. Maggie Rogers – Heard It in a Past Life
Origin: Easton, Maryland
The Gist: Maggie Rogers’ career started with virality, a daunting launch before she even had the opportunity to offer up a debut album. Fortunately for Rogers, and her listeners, there was substance behind the initial attention, and with Heard It in a Past Life, she stripped it back to what attracted listeners to her in the first place: her energy, her voice, and her songwriting.
Why It Rules: Heard It in a Past Life is packed with beautiful uncertainties, constant questions, and life changes that force realizations of self. “Would you hear me out if I told you I was terrified for days?” Rogers asks in “Light On”, she walks off the old version of herself in “Alaska”, and she admits “People change overnight/ Things get strange/ I’m alright” in “Overnight”. Whether the inspiration behind these 12 tracks is her quick submergence into fame or just the stories you’d end up writing as years pass and lives change, there’s something about the commiserate pain of coming of age sung with a bell-like voice that’s both heartbreaking and validating. –Erica Campbell
Essential Tracks: “Alaska”, “Light On”, and “Give a Little”
27. Slowthai – Nothing Great About Britain
Origin: Northampton, England
The Gist: As Britain stumble-bums its way towards an increasingly chaotic Brexit, the nation’s musicians continue to grapple with the unprecedented referendum’s ugliest cultural implications. Perhaps the best reckoning on a post-Brexit record so far comes from slowthai; on Nothing Great About Britain, the rising grime star delivers smirking takedowns of xenophobia, nationalism, and upper-crust excess that land like a cigarette butt flicked directly into a Tory’s blustering face.
Why It Rules: From the title on down, Nothing Great About Britain succeeds in large part because of its political viciousness; by the end of the opening track, the rapper born Tyron Frampton has already called the queen a cunt (an act that still managed to feel scandalous, even in 2019). Polemics tend to be boring, though, which isn’t a word you’d use to describe the tracks here. Instead of an unsmiling firebrand, slowthai plays his anger class-clown-style and filters it through stylistic cues from some of British rap’s best — you’ll hear shades of everything from the bombast of Kano and Dizzee Rascal, the street-level tenderness of Mike Skinner’s work as the Streets, and the working-class skepticism of Sleaford Mods. The result is a record that adds a jolt of topicality to the UK’s grime scene, and a ripple of fear down the legs of Leave voters everywhere. –Tyler Clark
Essential Tracks: “Nothing Great About Britain”, “Doorman”, and “Peace of Mind”
26. Weyes Blood – Titanic Rising
Origin: Santa Monica, California
The Gist: In an age that craves instant gratification, there’s something admirable about seeing an artist pay her dues, grow across projects and years, and eventually realize something brilliant artistically. That’s part of the joy of listening to Natalie Mering’s (aka Weyes Blood) new record, Titanic Rising. After years of self-releases and indie records, she arrives as a Sub Pop artist and puts out the type of album where every little emotional triumph feels fought for and earned.
Why It Rules: Titanic Rising is a testament to songcraft and restraint. From the simple opening keys of lead track “A Lot’s Gonna Change” to the incredible swells and movements of a grand song like “Movies”, it’s clear that Mering is making the right choices again and again. Gifted with a traditional-sounding voice that could blow the bloody doors off each and every track, she finds the perfect balance on songs like “Something to Believe”, quiet and analytical one moment and heightened and devastated the next — and always with an emotional honesty ready to extract a tear if you let your guard down. Simply stunning. –Matt Melis
Essential Tracks: “A Lot’s Gonna Change”, “Movies”, and “Something to Believe”
25. Better Oblivion Community Center – Better Oblivion Community Center
Origin: Omaha, Nebraska, and Los Angeles, California
The Gist: Supreme keepers of my melancholic malaise (and mostly likely yours, too) Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst joined hands once again in 2019 to surprise almost all of us with a brand-new band and a self-titled debut that plunges the depths of isolation, alienation, and maybe a better tomorrow. While this writer writhes at the very thought of even the slightly unexpected, she cannot count Better Oblivion Community Center’s beguiling collection of deftly designed, tender folk-rock among that list.
Why It Rules: Ten days deep into following BOCC cross country on their first-ever tour this spring, I found myself alone in a crowd of Austinites, together worshipping at the altar of folk’s finest heroes. Each night, I licked my lips for every last drop of communion poured at their sonic sermon. Each night, I watched two kindred souls come together in flawless introspective polyphony. It is this very harmony, coupled with signature sharp lyricism and marvelously grimy guitar riffs, that drives Better Oblivion’s self-titled to the top of 2019. The internal friction divulged from song to song is augmented here not by dueling duets spawned from differing approaches to songwriting. Instead, Bridgers and Oberst croon together, traversing the instinctive introspection of what it is to be sad as one. The result is a record that doesn’t beg its listeners to shed their dejection, like many on this list do, but offers a cathartic shoulder to lean on — a musical milk thistle for melancholia to help us cut through the noise. –Irene Monokandilos
Essential Tracks: “Big Black Heart”, “Dylan Thomas”, and “Didn’t Know What I Was in For”
24. Flying Lotus – Flamagra
Origin: Winnetka, Los Angeles
The Gist: The thesis for Flamagra comes on the record’s 13th track; after one of his signature tales of creeping suburban dread, guest vocalist David Lynch repeats the name of the song over and over. “Fire is coming. Fire is coming. Fire is coming.” This call for conflagration animates the first album in five years from master producer Steven Ellison (better known as Flying Lotus) and adds an extra dimension of danger to his signature lo-fi jazz-funk beats.
Why It Rules: Anyone who’s ever watched Adult Swim can attest to the evocative quality of Ellison’s work behind the boards. That returns on Flamagra, where instrumentals from the fast-forwarded funk of “Takashi” to the bleary-eyed “Find Your Own Way Home” set the mood in less time than it takes most songs to hit their first hook. More impressive is the way in which Ellison draws the best out of a who’s-who of collaborators from Solange to Thundercat to Shabazz Palaces; George Clinton sounds positively playful while presiding over the apocalypse of “Burning Down the House” while Tierra Whack turns the cheek up to 12 for the 8-bit spycraft that runs through “Yellow Belly”. That’s the thing about fires, though; once they start, they tend to spread. –Tyler Clark
Essential Tracks: “Takashi”, “Fire Is Coming”, and “Yellow Belly”
23. Purple Mountains – Purple Mountains
Origin: Chicago, Illinois
The Gist: David Berman, best known as a founding member of indie rock band Silver Jews, made several waves in 2019. To the delight of fans and the indie community at large, the once-thought retired songwriter returned as Purple Mountains with a self-titled full-length after being on hiatus for more than a decade. Sadly, less than a month later, Berman was found dead in his apartment, having committed suicide by hanging.
Why It Rules: What would’ve been viewed as a triumphant comeback album for Berman now spins as a strange testament to the pain he must have been going through — and the attitude he maintained towards it. The jovial melodies of songs like opener “That’s Just the Way That I Feel” belie the desperation of lines like “When I try to drown my thoughts in gin/ I find my worst ideas know how to swim” and “The end of all wanting/ Is all I’ve been wanting.” Berman’s talent for wordplay and penchant for dark humor and ironies suggest an artist in control and a man hanging in there better than he actually was. To feel the chug and glow of a song like “All My Happiness Is Gone” now leaves us in this emotional no man’s land of wanting to dance and cry at the same time. A great talent lost. –Matt Melis
Essential Tracks: “All My Happiness Is Gone”, “That’s Just the Way That I Feel”, and “Margaritas at the Mall”
22. Stella Donnelly – Beware of the Dogs
Origin: Perth, Australia
The Gist: While Soccer Mommy refuses to be “Your Dog”, and Sidney Gish bans them completely with “No Dogs Allowed”, Stella Donnelly warns of their injurious bites and privileged behaviors in Beware of the Dogs. In her debut album, the Australian indie-rock musician refuses to indulge in the verbose. Instead, she settles into a biting compound of cheeky metaphors that parallel allergic reactions to the repercussions of an ill-matched relationship and simultaneously provides a transparent lens into the dominance of the patriarchal philosophies that permeate her community. Donnelly’s bright songwriting compels you to laugh, wince, and squirm uncomfortably at the realities of familial conflict, collapsing relationships, and the inherent sexism found in the greater sociopolitical landscape.
Why It Rules: At first “Beware of the Dogs” seems disjointed. This is in part due to its fluctuating sound that edges into singer-songwriter territory on tracks like “Mosquito”, employing a similar sound to that of early Sharon Van Etten. But then she applies dreamy synth on “Bistro” and soon transitions to Lily Allen-esque indie-pop on “Die”, a song Donnelly reveals she wrote “for [her] to run to.” The stories she tells follow a similar pattern, trailing across an assortment of vignettes relating to tense family encounters, deadbeat boyfriends, and ultimately working up to the rape of a friend. Yet, the subject of the lyrics remain consistent: power. Donnelly speaks plainly, in a wavering vibrato that is both pleading and blaming; she looks into the imbalances found in her immediate vicinity — with her relatives, her lovers. But then she widens the scope to her country, to a society at large that often yields control to one specific demographic: men. Throughout this, however, she warns the dogs that their time is up. “Like a mower in the morning,” she sings, “I will never let you rest.” –Samantha Small
Essential Tracks: “Old Man”, “Lunch”, and “Season’s Greetings”
21. Little Simz – Grey Area
Origin: Islington, London, England
The Gist: It would not be hyperbole to call Little Simz a prodigy. After recording her first raps at nine years old, the now 25-year-old British rapper has flourished into one of the most unrelenting, rapid-fire rappers and profound lyricists out of the UK. Before, observing Little Simz felt almost like watching the soundcheck. It felt clear that she was someone on the crux of breakthrough, always evolving in her creative process and improving with every work. With the release of Grey Area, it seems that she has fully arrived, her skills honed, her sights ready and focused.
Why It Rules: Your twenties are an endless pit of confusion, a spiral of self-inflicted pain in the search for pleasure. Couple that with an exploding music career, of which you’re traveling across Europe to promote, and one can only imagine the endless frenzy that accompanies. On Grey Area, Little Simz takes that mayhem and translates it into her most succinct album to date, a tight collection of 10 songs where she’s both commanding and vulnerable. As she grapples with everything from going to therapy to the world ending to making selfish decisions, her spit-fire flow is complemented perfectly by the carefully selected features. They neither outshine her nor overpower her vocals — she’s simply unstoppable. –Lucy Shanker
Essential Tracks: “Selfish”, “Boss”, and “Venom”
20. Nick Cave – Ghosteen
Origin: Melbourne, Victoria,
The Gist: Three years removed from the haunting synth of Skeleton Tree, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds continue their mesmerizing excavation of grief and pain — and their deep meditation on love and absence — under the long shadow cast by death. If you’ll recall, Cave’s son, Arthur, passed during that album’s production, but his legacy lives on in the visceral dreamscapes and mystical musical reckonings of Ghosteen.
Why It Rules: It should come as a surprise to absolutely no one to hear a Nick Cave album poised on the edge of darkness and bathed in the profound poetics of melancholy. But in 2019, few have the gull to venture into the potent pain and sadness inflamed by the coming of death. Here, Cave does so until it nearly breaks him. A series of vignettes, Ghosteen is painted in poetics even singular for the God of Goth-Rock. Diving deep into a tragedy so close to home, Cave rounds out 40 years of his career with his most harrowing and lyrically lush work to date.
Essential Tracks: “Waiting for You”, “Bright Horses”, and “Ghosteen”
19. Brittany Howard – Jaime
Origin: Athens, Alabama
The Gist: It’s fair to say that Brittany Howard has accomplished more over the last few years than many of us will in a lifetime. The singer-guitarist — blessed with one of the greatest voices on the planet — helped turn the Alabama Shakes into a three-time Grammy-winning, world-touring outfit, worked on multiple side-projects, put pen to paper to complete part of a memoir, and, just this September, released, Jamie, one of the most subtly beautiful albums of 2019.
Why It Rules: Although Howard said she made this album entirely for herself, its effect will irrevocably improve the lives of post-Alabama Shakes fans everywhere. Frankly, it’s hard to even fully describe what it is about Howard that’s so magnetic. Look at the song “Georgia”, for example. There’s one main lyric repeated: “I just want Georgia to notice me.” It’s not an earth-shattering lyric. Hell, it’s pretty much as simple as it can get. But when it’s sung with that irresistible draw and raspy growl, it seems revolutionary. With Jaime, Howard proves what many of us already speculated: The magic behind Alabama Shakes was Brittany Howard. –Lucy Shanker
Essential Tracks: “Georgia”, “Goat Head”, and “Baby”
18. Solange – When They Get Home
Origin: Houston, Texas
The Gist: For her fourth full-length album, singer-songwriter Solange had the daunting task of living up to the critical success of her previous release, A Seat at the Table. Instead of attempting to replicate her previous success, Solange wrote a love letter to her hometown of Houston, Texas, enlisting collaborations, clean production, and unparalleled songwriting to shape When I Get Home.
Why It Rules: When I Get Home opens in a mantra, Solange reiterating, “I saw things I imagined/ Things I imagined.” It’s a warning for what’s about to come: sounds, voice-overs, and lyrics that feel intentionally disorienting, the way religious chants can pull you into different states. Even the upbeat “Almeda” is inherently meditative as Solange reflects on “Black skin black braids” that can’t be washed away with Florida water. Equally rooted in her upbringing and ethereal, the 19-track collection is ambiguous enough to give listeners the freedom to draw their own conclusions on each moment’s meaning. –Erica Campbell
Essential Tracks: “Almeda”, “Stay Flo”, and “My Skin My Logo”
17. Bon Iver – i,i
Origin: Eau Claire, Wisconsin
The Gist: Justin Vernon caught everyone off guard with the sharp left Bon Iver took on 2016’s 22, A Million. He’d swerved the band from sylvan folk to an experimental conglomeration of samples and electronic manipulations. It was a striking expansion of sound, if not slightly dense with indulgences. Three years later, Vernon needed to refine his wilder ambitions if Bon Iver’s new direction was to prove sustainable — and he succeeded flawlessly on i,i.
Why It Rules: A lightening of the avant-garde touches allows i,i to shine in its nuances. That’s always been Bon Iver’s strength, and the booming folk of “Faith” and the harmonica solo on the pastoral “U (Man Like)” show Vernon hasn’t strayed so far from 2011’s self-titled breakout. He’s also opened the thematic scope of the project, addressing the current socio-political quagmire on “Sh’Diah” and “Hey, Ma”. “Naeem” toys with dynamics masterfully, invigorating its call for understanding in the face of a finite existence while closer “RABi” is a comforting reminder to appreciate our present. Such heady meditations are well-served by bold compositions, and few are more daring than Bon Iver. –Ben Kaye
Essential Tracks: “Naeem”, “Hey, Ma”, and “Faith”
16. Faye Webster – Atlanta Millionaires Club
Origin: Atlanta, Georgia
The Gist: Joining the ranks of other rising songwriting women like Soccer Mommy and Snail Mail, 21-year-old Faye Webster sounds polished on Atlanta Millionaires Club. While the former two use chimey guitars and lo-fi production to deliver their confessional songwriting, Webster more often draws on R&B and country textures as she shares her soul.
Why It Rules: Atlanta Millionaires Club is pure southern molasses and honey, dripping with sweet pedal guitar swells and grooves that carry you along like a country road in summer. The arrangements — highlighted by orchestral strings, punchy brass, and warm organs — are rich as the chocolate gold Webster guzzles on the album’s cover. The music bolsters Webster’s internal longings and desires, the true stars of the album, which she divulges with modest sincerity and unforgettable specificity. Webster may not be in the club just yet, but this delicious collection of chill-out songs will make you feel like a million bucks every time. –Christopher Thiessen
Essential Tracks: “Right Side of My Neck”, “Jonny”, and “Kingston”
15. King Princess – Cheap Queen
Origin: New York City, New York
The Gist: The royal reign of King Princess began in 2018 with the debut single “1950”. Though the track was put out without much fanfare, the attention it drew was nothing short of incredible — millions of streams and a cosign from The xx’s Romy Madley Croft and future tour mate Harry Styles. “1950” later appeared on her Make My Bed EP, which in turn laid the groundwork for the pop artist’s first-ever full-length album, Cheap Queen, released via Mark Ronson’s Columbia imprint, Zelig Records.
Why It Rules: While she had some help from Father John Misty, Tobias Jesso Jr., and Ronson, Cheap Queen is purely the extension of New York native Mikaela Straus. Her pop is threaded with fibers of R&B, blues, and ‘70s rock, all pulled from her own personal catalog of influences, and her songs recount tales of queer love, heartache, and friendship. In addition to the realness of the stories themselves (she once described “Hit the Back” as an “anthem for bottoms everywhere”), Straus approaches her music as the unapologetic, cheeky new queer icon that she is: fluidly floating between the masculine and feminine, cool and vulnerable AF, and repping her hardcore love of drag culture. –Lake Schatz
Essential Tracks: “Prophet”, “Ain’t Together”, “Hit the Back”
14. PUP – Morbid Stuff
Origin: Toronto, Ontario, Canada
The Gist: The best pop-punk is about dealing with frustration, whether that’s Blink-182 channeling the anxieties of adolescence or The World Is a Beautiful Place voicing the anger of a crumbling political climate descending into fascism. For PUP’s cathartic new album, the frustration that gives it strength focuses on the income inequality of modern life, navigating dead-end jobs, layoffs, maxed-out bills, and a general feeling of hopelessness that seems to be pervasive in today’s society.
Why It Rules: What keeps Morbid Stuff so engaging is the band’s ability to channel their frustrations both outwardly at a broken system as well as inward. Without being filled with self-hatred or a backwards “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality, the songs never absolve their subjects blame for their problems. From the blistering fury of “Kids” and “Free at Last” to the winding, anthemic “Scorpion Hill”, PUP channel their rage and self-determination into something that could almost be called uplifting, or at least a way to know you’re not the only one facing the same problems. One of the best pop-punk albums of the decade, Morbid Stuff provided a reliable 37 minutes of shouting that really came in handy for 2019. –David Sackllah
Essential Tracks: “Kids”, “Scorpion Hill”, and “Full Blown Meltdown”
13. Big Thief – U.F.O.F.
Origin: Brooklyn, New York
The Gist: One time darlings of Brooklyn’s indie underground, Big Thief rose to prominence in 2019 with two stellar sonic efforts. The first of these, the beguiling U.F.O.F, served as the Adrian Lenker-led outfit’s third, and arguably best, album to date, bringing their mystical folk sound to the forefront of music consciousness.
Why It Rules: U.F.O.F does what Big Thief do best and then some: marrying folksy, backwater sonority with eerie and enchanted vocals to give rise to a new genre standard. Hipster indie folk be damned. Full of winding revelations and quiet coos, U.F.O.F feels like a family heirloom found deep within the attic of time. Wrapped in a dusty oilcloth and opened to reveal multitudes of sonic spells and truths — a timeless artifact to get lost in by lamp light, connecting all the dots that ever were in Lenkerian whispers. –Irene Monokandilos
Essential Tracks: “UFOF”, “Cattails”, and “Orange”
12. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Bandana
Origin: Gary, Indiana, and Oxnard, California
The Gist: After years of mixtapes and cult fame for his unbreakable (re: numbing) flow, odious cult favorite Freddie Gibbs formed an unlikely alliance with legendary indie producer Madlib for 2014’s Piñata, which made Gibbs palatable with gorgeous, vintage loops patched together. Five years later, its follow-up is shorter, better-edited, and even Gibbs is worth hearing.
Why It Rules: The few hip-hop artists still trading in deep-crate boom-bap are rarely punching at this level. Recognizing Bandana as an event, guests as disparate (but vital) as Pusha T, Anderson .Paak, Black Thought, and Yasiin Bey (you knew him as Mos Def) bring their A-game over Madlib’s serrated soul on the best tracks Gibbs has ever been gifted: the glassy “Crime Pays”, the hypnotic RZA-style loops of “Massage Seats”, and the hooky “Giannis”, which gives off a whiff of Ghostface Killah’s canonical “Mighty Healthy”. And even the marquee rapper makes something of his therapy (didn’t help), disgusting punchlines (you do what like “Flat Tummy Tea?”) even his “bitches” (who’ve all got a “situation”). Far from mature, the ex-pimp was so inspired by such amazing beats that he’s at least thinking and feeling. And hell yes, rapping. –Dan Weiss
Essential Tracks: “Massage Seats”, “Giannis”, and “Crime Pays”
11. Charly Bliss – Young Enough
Origin: Brooklyn, New York City
The Gist: Two years after their breakout debut album, Guppy, Brooklyn power pop outfit Charly Bliss returned with more confidence and determination than ever. Primarily an outlet for frontwoman Eva Hendricks to address a sexual assault, Young Enough ends up a vivid dance that celebrates the growing pains of life in all their forms. It’s a nearly perfect album that allows listeners to viscerally feel an artist’s personal evolution right alongside the band’s stylistic expansion.
Why It Rules: Hendricks may have a better innate understanding of lyrical meter than most contemporary songwriters. Just listen to the intricacy of words on “Capacity”, “Blown to Bits”, or the title track. What’s more, her particularly effervescent voice could easily fall into saccharine if not handled properly; both her own words and the sturdy fun of the band as a whole carry those vocals just so, allowing them to remain endearingly affecting. Although Young Enough is filled with a lot of pain, its pathos is delivered with the unbridled joy of self-assurance, of resolve, of hope. In that, it’s truly beautiful — an adjective not so easily won by others in Charly Bliss’ genre. –Ben Kaye
Essential Tracks: “Young Enough”, “Chatroom”, and “Blown to Bits”
10. Tool – Fear Inoculum
Origin: Los Angeles, California
The Gist: Thirteen years in the making, and Tool finally returned with their long-awaited fifth album, Fear Inoculum. The wait tested the patience of the band’s notoriously dedicated following, and every year the question was raised: “Is the Tool album coming out?” Any inkling of a new song or even a tidbit of information was dissected and glorified to the point where the band’s privacy was compromised. Singer Maynard James Keenan even received death threats because of the album’s delay.
Why It Rules: Fear Inoculum lives up to its daunting expectations with songs that showcase Tool in peak performance as musicians and compositional arrangers. For the die-hard fan, there’s a lot to consume here. Likewise, the album offers little respite for the uninitiated; its accessibility comes in the form of its vastness and eerie psychedelia, not through hooks or common pop structures. This is deep prog-rock as only Tool can create it, holding steadfast to the concept of the recorded album as a seamless listening experience. Fear Inoculum is best heard with full, unbridled attention, and 86 minutes to spare, which in an age of instant gratification makes it both difficult for the passing newbie and endlessly endearing for its target audience. –Jon Hadusek
Essential Tracks: “Pneuma”, “Descending”, and “7empest”
09. Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell!
Origin: New York City, New York
The Gist: Lana Del Rey’s sixth studio iteration rides in on her typical Americana cavalry, the familiar Hollywood darling cooing on the state of things, but this time it’s acutely aware and biting. For reference, see the painfully accurate description of interpersonal relationships in this day and age wrapped up in the lyrics of opener “Venice Bitch” in which Del Rey croons, “God damn man child” followed by “Your poetry is bad and you blame the news”; that in itself is enough to write a synopsis on the 2010s about.
Why It Rules: Del Rey has a pension towards swerving but still staying in her lane, and Norman Fucking Rockwell! is Del Rey at her best. She’s still drafting scripts on the play of American life, but the protagonists now live in states of gray instead of shades of blue, and reality is seeping into every corner of the dream. Norman Fucking Rockwell! is romanticism through the filter of our current climate, so when Del Ray cites, “You’re beautiful and I’m insane/ We’re American-made” in the refrain of “Venice Bitch”, there’s no trite condescension hiding anywhere in between the lines. It’s catastrophically finite; yes, it’s symbolic but also devastatingly true. –Erica Campbell
Essential Tracks: “Venice Bitch”, “Mariners Apartment Complex”, and “Fuck It I Love You”
08. Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride
Origin: New York City, New York
The Gist: Six long years of waiting finally yielded Father of the Bride this spring, Vampire Weekend’s fourth album and follow-up to the Grammy-winning Modern Vampires of the City. The band’s first without multi-instrumentalist and in-house producer Rostam Batmanglij as a full-time member features added firepower in its revolving door of collaborators, including Ariel Rechtshaid, Daniel Haim, Bloodpop, Mark Ronson, and Steve Lacy. Ezra Koenig, who’s since relocated from New York to Los Angeles, also takes on more duties beyond mere frontman, essentially leading Vampire Weekend into perhaps the most exciting chapter of their already outstanding career.
Why It Rules: Vampire Weekend have always brandished a certain type of confidence on their records, one partially informed no doubt by their established place in the indie rock hipster canon. They’re still confident on Father of the Bride; however, it’s the kind less concerned with coolness. “I think I took myself too serious,” a telling voice narrates the beginning of the song “Sympathy”, “it’s not that serious.” But loosening the grip doesn’t mean sacrificing quality, as the group turns in some of the brightest, warmest, and most gorgeous melodies of their careers all while touching on classic rock, pop, jazz, and even country (thanks, Kacey Musgraves!). What’s changed this time around is Vampire Weekend actually, finally sound at peace with themselves about it. Mazel tov. –Lake Schatz
Essential Tracks: “Harmony Hall”, “This Life”, and “Unbearably White”
07. Lizzo – Cuz I Love You
Origin: Minneapolis, Minnesota
The Gist: It might be hard to think of a Lizzo that didn’t fit into our current conversation, but just a few years ago she was sans cosigns, attempting to shine in between genres that pushed her out: not hip-hop or R&B enough, not pop enough. Everyone seemed to be asking, “Who the hell is Lizzo?” and it took a while before we all had the patience to sit down, listen, and realize that Cuz I Love You provides 14 ample answers.
Why It Rules: Where the album asks real questions like “Why are men great ’til they have to be great?” in “Truth Hurts”, it also hands out definite responses like “Love you so, but if you don’t, I have to leave” in “Water Me”. Wrapped in references of astrology, fresh photos with bomb lighting, self-love, and DMs, the album is a millennial fever dream manifested by someone who can credibly preach on it. Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You works because we’re never going to fit perfectly into boxes and neither is she. Thankfully, the entire record gives us permission to be ourselves unabashedly, unapologetically, dancing all over the niche kingdoms we’ve created to reign over. –Erica Campbell
Essential Tracks: “Juice”, “Truth Hurts”, and “Cuz I Love You”
06. Tyler, the Creator – IGOR
Origin: Ladera Heights, California
The Gist: When Tyler, the Creator came onto the scene in his late teens as one of the co-founders of Odd Future, most of his music reflected his experiences as a disillusioned teenager. Tyler was never afraid of expressing feelings, but these expressions were never fully grounded in those early years. Every new album he released found a way to refine these emotional expressions and give them a more meaningful existence in both Tyler’s world and the world around him, reaching a point unmatched in his career thus far when he released 2017’s controversial Flower Boy. This album showcased a sincerity unseen from Tyler and gave him the momentum that led to 2019’s knockout, IGOR.
Why It Rules: In a year of hard times wrapping up a decade full of them, IGOR gave us a glimpse into the ever-evolving mind of Tyler, the Creator and truly showed how much he’s grown since the release of his studio debut, Goblin, at the beginning of the decade. Written, produced, and arranged by Tyler himself, IGOR is more intimate and soul-baring than any of his other albums, a kind of intimacy that comes with total creative control. The album could stand as a strong breakup album, but the way in which Tyler explores what love means to him, what led him to heartbreak, and his dependency on others turns the album into an exploration of both attaining and losing a lover. This emotional search present in his lyrics echoes through Tyler’s raw and unpolished vocals; the synth on the album –sweet at times, anxious at others — exemplifies what it feels like to fall in and out of love. The combination of these creates a nearly perfect trinity on IGOR, a fully formed emotional exploration by one of the most transformative artists of the past decade. –Jennifer Irving
Essential Tracks: “EARFQUAKE”, “A BOY IS A GUN*”, and “RUNNING OUT OF TIME”
05. Ariana Grande – thank u, next
Origin: Boca Raton, Florida
The Gist: Just six months after dropping her ambitious comeback record, Sweetener, Ariana Grande stares down the barrel at 18 months of seemingly insurmountable trauma and sends a rare pop-shaped bullet packed with emotionally complex material flying. Her aim is true. What is left are 12 track-sized fragments expertly reassembled into a musical road map of what processing tragedy really looks like.
Why It Rules: Grande’s vocal prowess is not up for debate. She has, and will continue to, churn out massive bop after massive bop, singing circles around legends old and new. But what makes thank u, next stand out among not only Grande’s catalog but her genre at large is a fresh and singular deftness in taking the hit machine and electrifying it with real, raw life. Whereas Sweetener sought to sugarcoat the shadows lurking just underneath the surface, thank u, next embraces those moments when everything is against you. When life feels like an impossible existence. And yet, Grande leans into the freezing winds and dreams of warmth or maybe learns to make that warmth herself. –Irene Monokandilos
Essential Tracks: “7 Rings”, “thank u, next”, and “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored”
04. Angel Olsen – All Mirrors
Origin: Chicago, Illinois
The Gist: Angel Olsen’s sound has consistently gotten bigger with each album. The acoustic folk of Half Way Home grew into the folk rock of Burn Your Fire for No Witness, which twisted into the jukebox indie of MY WOMAN. Yet, for all that growth, the sheer size of the orchestral art-pop on All Mirrors remains gorgeously, marvelously unexpected.
Why It Rules: Far and away, this is the most beguiling, dramatic leap Olsen has taken yet. The layers of strings arranged by Ben Babbitt and Jherek Bischoff bolster the cinematic feel, but it is Olsen’s own compositional touches and vocal prowess that make sure those orchestrations are more than just extravagance. As she bellows against the blackness, the tracks are propelled by a ferocious self-actualization built on owning up to the darkest parts of herself. In every way, All Mirrors is an artist pushing herself forward, compositing a powerful reflection in the shattered shards of identity. –Ben Kaye
Essential Tracks: “Lark”, “All Mirrors”, and “Summer”
03. Jamila Woods – Legacy! Legacy!
Origin: Chicago, Illinois
The Gist: Jamila! Jamila! Jamila with one “el.” It’s a name Chicagoans are plenty familiar with and one the rest of the country should recognize soon enough. Jamila Woods has been turning heads and making a difference in her hometown for years as a poet, academic, activist, and, of course, as a performer. Her voice has soared alongside Chance the Rapper on hits like “Sunday Candy” and “Blessings”, and she released the extensive and critically acclaimed HEAVN in 2016. But this is three years later, and like all true artists, Woods has evolved — to the point where Chicagoans can still claim her as one of our own but can’t in good conscience keep her to ourselves any longer.
Why It Rules: Woods doesn’t stray far from what she knows and what inspires her most on LEGACY! LEGACY! She’s long cited literary treasures like Gwendolyn Brooks, Toni Morrison, and Lucille Clifton among her inspirations, so it’s not shocking that an artist with both a degree in African studies and a penchant for literature might try to incorporate those passions into her music.
However, what is surprising is that Woods, along with several of her usual collaborators, is able to transform her passions into one of the best R&B albums of the year and in recent memory. It’s a rich and fascinating look at ancestry and the world around her through the eyes and circumstances of historically influential people of color — not exactly your typical popular fare.
From “BETTY” and “ZORA” to “GIOVANNI” and “BASQUIAT” and back around to “BALDWIN”, LEGACY! LEGACY! offers a masterclass in history, community, empathy, and critical thought with enough variety, hooks, and compelling vocals to make sure the lessons stick. Like Janelle Monáe did a year ago, Woods has expanded on the idea of what a modern R&B album can do and say.
Again, if you haven’t learned yet: It’s Jamila with one “el.” –Matt Melis
Essential Tracks: “ZORA”, “BETTY”, and “BASQUIAT” feat. SABA
02. Sharon Van Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow
Origin: Brooklyn, New York
The Gist: Indie mainstay Sharon Van Etten returned after five long years with a fresh, powerful, and synthy musical toolkit. The artist pushes forward while remaining true to herself, still balancing precise, thoughtful lyricism with dashes of pure rock and roll. Remind Me Tomorrow stands tall as her most fully realized work yet.
Why It Rules: On Remind Me Tomorrow, Van Etten sounds cool and warm, which combine to equal self-assured. The album delicately explores adulthood, what it means to strive to embody the kind of grownup you want to be, and the kinds of challenges that trip you up along that journey. The songs all, in one way or another, are about people teaching one another and themselves how to be better, how to love better, how to live. Every track on the album is lush and deep, but Van Etten’s strong yet cracking voice on “Seventeen”, the best song of the album (and, in my opinion, the year) is everything. –Kayleigh Hughes
Essential Tracks: “Seventeen”, “Comeback Kid”, and “Your Shadow”
01. Billie Eilish –When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
Origin: Los Angeles, California
The Gist: After surviving Billiemania over the last few years, Billie Eilish finally let loose her debut album this past Spring. Fueled by every kind of genre under the dial, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? ricochets and screams with alien confidence. In fact, it’s so confident that it makes you wonder if any kind of hype would have been insurmountable for the 17-year-old singer-songwriter. Whether it’s the Gothic new wave of “bad guy” or the angelic balladry of “when the party’s over”, this is the kind of rich enigma that overwhelms its desired audience while perplexing those around it.
Why It Rules: There’s been a lot of rah-rah about how Eilish is changing the pop game. Or how she knows how to blend genres. Or how she’s a succinct distillation of all pop culture. None of that’s wrong; in fact, those are all her strengths. Yet, what’s most intriguing about Eilish is how she toes the line between niche and universal, familiar and strange, preposterous and wonderful. On the surface, When We All Fall Asleep… comes off as aggressively abrasive, but it’s not. There’s so much economy to the songwriting; it’s as much of a Rubik’s cube as her own fashion sensibilities.
The album’s as delicate as it’s dreamy (“xanny”), as earnest as it’s humorous (“Don’t say I’m not your type/ Just say that I’m not your preferred sexual orientation/ I’m so selfish”), and as boisterous as it’s grounded (the fluid loud, SOFT, loud of “bury a friend”). It’s never not interesting, and while “nuanced” gets tossed around all too often in half-assed reviews, it’s 100% earned on When We All Fall Asleep. This is a candied wonderland of production, dialing back to the glory days of Yeezy or Quincy or Spektor, and Finneas O’Connell never once fails his sister behind the boards.
Again, rising is such an understatement. Has there ever been a faster and more curious meteoric rise in pop this decade? It’s telling in the fact that more and more people are trying to figure it out, and by proxy, that’s why Billiemania keeps getting louder, and stronger, and, ultimately, more intriguing. She’s expiration proof. Appears at every festival? Beloved in every city. Goes on Saturday Night Live? Defies gravity. Sits down for the same goddamn interview three years in a row? Three times the charm. It would be aggravating if it didn’t feel so consciously justified.
TL;DR? She won 2019 with When We All Fall Asleep. –Michael Roffman
Essential Tracks: “bad guy”, “bury a friend”, and “all the good girls go to hell”