The 25 Best Albums of 2019 (So Far)

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flylo_albumart.jpg 13. Flying Lotus: Flamagra
Flying Lotus’s sixth album is as much of a throwback to the bold, experimental productions that made him one of the most uniquely influential hip-hop/electronic crossover producers of the past decade as it is a new relic for other musical creatives to once again derive stylistic permutations from. And while the 27-track sprawl is decidedly innovative, Steven Ellison never wavers from his hallmark: instantly recognizable Flying Lotus harmonics, filled with the fragrance of experimental jazz that only a member of the Coltrane family tree could enact. The intention behind Ellison’s collab tracks is palpable, and there isn’t a hint of frivolity on dual-force gems like “Spontaneous” (Little Dragon), “More” (Anderson .Paak), “The Climb” (Thundercat) and an imaginative foray with off-kilter and equally atmospheric rapper Denzel Curry, on “Black Balloons (Reprise).” This one will be looked upon as yet another touchstone for furthering the fusion movement from FlyLo, and Flamagra isn’t leaving the turntable anytime soon. —Adrian Spinelli


12. Stella Donnelly: Beware of the Dogs
Stella Donnelly references the ’90s one minute and 10 seconds into her debut album, Beware of the Dogs. It’s not what you think. She does not quote a Pavement lyric or drop a gnarly riff from a Hole song. Donnelly, who is in her mid-20s and from Perth, Australia, is the rare indie-rocker who alludes to the ’90s without a hint of nostalgia. “This is not ’93 / You lost your spot on the team,” she sings in that opening cut, a deceptively sunny-sounding kiss-off to an abusive man. The song is called “Old Man,” and it’s a fine introduction to Donnelly’s songwriting, which is frequently funny, confrontational, and charged with an awareness that the personal is political. These wry indie-pop songs unfold like short stories populated by assholes and assorted misadventures. They are often breezy and uncomplicated in arrangement, but Donnelly remains a compelling narrator: On Beware of the Dogs, the songwriter roasts an obnoxious date (“Tricks”), takes inventory of the indignities of the touring life (“Lunch”), stresses about mortality (“Die), and turns in a sober and knowing protest of rape culture. The resulting album is an imaginative indie-pop chronicle of millennial malaise. Throughout, Donnelly sings in a thick Perth accent, and her vocals are dotted with audible laughter, theatrical flourishes, inspired instances of talk-singing, and other oddities. It’s almost as though her stories can’t quite be contained within the limited space of the songs themselves. —Zach Schonfeld

solange_albumart.jpeg 11. Solange: When I Get Home
The magic of “Almeda,” a standout from Solange’s welcome March surprise, When I Get Home, is unshakable. Produced by Pharell and Solange and featuring Playboi Carti in a bouncing, tail-end rap sequence, “Almeda” is a celebration of steadfast black faith: “Black faith still can’t be washed away / Not even in that Florida water,” Solange sings, citing the unisex cologne she carried to the 2018 Met Gala that’s said to have healing effects—but nothing as potent as black resilience. In an exhilarating anthem honoring the chopped ’n’ screwed mixing style that originated in her hometown of Houston, the younger Knowles sister embraces “black-owned things.” With “Almeda,” perhaps more than any other song on the album, Solange gracefully re-entered music and cultural conversations in the assured, commanding way only she can. Solange is a visionary—she overproduces ideas and whittles them down into glittering little nuggets. But the products of her latest brainstorm are less flashy than the profound studio effort that was 2016’s A Seat At The Table. For When I Get Home, Solange rallied the likes of Gucci Mane and Playboi Carti (among others) for a record that spans ambient avant-garde jazz to startling trap. After hearing it, I have a hard time imagining the day in the near future when a new Solange release won’t be regarded as objectively brilliant. —Ellen Johnson


Thumbnail image for KevinMorbyOhMyGodArt.jpg 10. Kevin Morby: Oh My God
Kevin Morby is not religious. Yet by his own admission, he has made a “non-religious religious record.” Oh My God, the dizzying and fantastic fifth album from the increasingly prolific folk-rocker, is preoccupied with the language of exaltation, from its gospel-choir refrains to its outrageous album cover, which depicts Morby, shirtless, posing beneath a famous painting of Saint Cecilia playing piano for the angels. Somehow, none of this scans as ironic or overtly hokey: When Morby sings lines like “Dear God, please forgive me” three times with a children’s choir accompanying him on “Congratulations”—and then caps that off with a searing guitar solo worthy of a Springsteen climax—it’s hard to believe he is a nonbeliever. Morby’s previous work, particularly the back-to-back Singing Saw (2016) and City Music (2017), has been frequently compared to the singer-songwriter greats of the 1970s, notably Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Oh My God has a ramshackle energy to it, as well as a distinctly vintage instrumental ambience, that’s likely to encourage such comparisons. The pianos crackle; the organs rumble and groan (see: “Nothing Sacred / All Things Wild”); everything has that fuzzy analog glow. Oh My God also has a certain unabashed exuberance that’s uncommon in circa-2019 indie rock. You can hear it in the church-choir backing vocals, in how Morby shouts “Oh! My! God!” throughout “Piss River,” pausing to let each syllable hang in the air. Some records demand to be heard with headphones. Oh My God is not one of them. I first heard the album shortly after being laid off from a newsroom job, which meant Morby’s music was ringing out loudly in my empty apartment instead of piping into my headphones on an overcrowded subway. This seemed to suit its messy, god-obsessed exuberance: Let it ring out wherever you can. If any actual believers were within earshot—well, that’s fine too. —Zach Schonfeld


9. Carly Rae Jepsen: Dedicated
Since we’re living in a post-Emotion world, it’s hard to remember a time when Carly Rae Jepsen wasn’t regarded as an accomplished pop icon. But before the sexual torment of “Emotion,” the sweet rush of “Gimmie Love” and all those “Run Away With Me” saxophone memes, Carly Rae Jepsen was, to most, “Call Me Maybe” and nothing more. 2015 became her moment, and Emotion the pop album to save them all. Now in her thirties, going on four years since then, Carly Rae Jepsen is perhaps even more the music media darling and pop culture mainstay. And while we’ve never really looked to her for lyrical profundity, she’s always been savvy when it comes to pure feelings, making her fourth LP Dedicated another beacon of emotional intelligence, and Jepsen a straight-A student of pop history. Dedicated is about relationships, but it’s also an examination of self. She sashays from one romantic identity (single, heartbroken, in love) to another, but as the record beams on, it becomes clearer they’re all one in the same—a trinity. If the bar for Carly Rae Jepsen—and maybe even 2010s pop as a whole—is the intellectual pop perfection of Emotion, then Dedicated falls only a little short, landing somewhere between effortless earworm territory and therapeutic ecstasy. —Ellen Johnson


8. Jenny Lewis: On The Line
To witness a shape-shifting musician like Jenny Lewis truly evolve throughout the years—succeed in multiple projects, try on manifold musical styles, experience pain and loss and outline it all in her songs—and then arrive at a sensational album like On The Line feels monumental. First as the frontwoman of one of the most beloved indie-rock groups of the aughts and then as a realized soloist and supergroup hero, Lewis has had a brilliant career, even when things took a turn for the rocky in her personal life. The best of her four albums outside of Rilo Kiley, On The Line is absolutely dazzling. It sounds decidedly grown up, mature both lyrically and musically, and it’s a spectacular studio effort. Lewis sings contemplative lyrics with a glamorous edge, giving us an album that’s as much a rock ‘n’ roll relaxer as it is a lyrical thunderbolt. The On the Line singles are all illustrious earworms, but the album opener, “Heads Gonna Roll,” is especially grandiose. As ever, Lewis’ attention to detail and location is mesmerizing. She makes a boxing reference, namedrops Elliott Smith and the “sycophants in Marrakesh,” recalls a run-in with “Harlem nuns” and relaxes with a pack of Marlboros all before proclaiming, “Maybe a little bit of hooking up is good for the soul.” In a most delightful way, “Heads Gonna Roll” is about everything and nothing. Another single, “Red Bull & Hennessy,” is one of the best rock songs of the year. Marking at least the second mention of cocktail ingredients on this album, “Red Bull & Hennessy” is a delicious display of desire. On The Line, her best solo work to date, finds her trading chaos for peace and pain for parties. And West Coast rock combined with piano glam and Lewis’ lyrics makes for a most celebratory listen, indeed. —Ellen Johnson


7. Julia Jacklin: Crushing
Autonomy can be damn frightening. The realization—the one arriving after a breakup, before a solo move, following a graduation, etc.—that you’re actually in this thing alone and only you are in the driver’s seat can leave you feeling scared silly. Or it can leave you feeling high on independence. Julia Jacklin’s Crushing is a striking search for self, a call to upend that which tethers you down. But it’s also rooted, deeply, in a sense of calm. The Aussie songwriter’s ability to process emotion is out-of-this-world sharp, and this album is her best, most piercing work to date. Crushing can change from melodic balladry to anthemic rock at the drop of a hat. And for its entirety, Jacklin, slowly gaining cred as one of the most underrated singer/songwriters working, basks in a newfound clarity. Crushing is the brave story of a woman—and an artist —coming into her own. Securing that agency, however, was no walk in the park. Jacklin clearly had to sort through mountains of wreckage to arrive here, but the album’s autobiographical nature is what makes it so affecting. Jacklin said, in writing it, she realized “how not very special” she is (evident in “Body,” as she sings, “It’s just my body / I guess it’s just my life”). But in recognizing the non-exclusivity of her experiences, she made something singular. —Ellen Johnson


6. Lizzo: Cuz I Love You
“Let yourself go” has a negative connotation to it—doing as such would imply something like cancelling all physical activity, restricting your wardrobe to sweatpants and purchasing all your meals from a drive-thru, hair long and unkempt and fingers coated in Cheeto dust. But what if “letting oneself go” looked like something else? What if it meant letting go of self-hate, bad energy and your host of inner demons? What if it included forgetting about the odds against you and just loving yourself with an uninhibited pride? Cuz I Love You looks like that. It’s a parade of Lizzo’s most prideful tendencies and a dazzling way to experience the triple-threat talent (rapper, singer, flautist) who’s currently guiding us in a much-needed confidence craze. On Cuz I Love You, Lizzo’s fortified voice could collapse buildings, her lyrics could bring you to your knees and her unprecedented assurance could inspire you to love yourself just a little bit more. It’s Lizzo’s energy solidified—everything you love about her, wrapped up in one twerkable package bursting with bold statements, bad bitches and, perhaps most notably, bops. Lizzo preaches self-worth by declaring self-worth. She opens “Like A Girl” with the words, “Woke up feelin’ like I just might run for President / Even if there ain’t no precedent, switchin’ up the messaging / I’m about to add a little estrogen” before later name-dropping some of her girl heroes, like Chaka Kahn, Lauryn Hill and Serena Williams (“Willy”). Arguing with Lizzo is tricky business—it’s difficult to disagree with someone who has so much confidence in herself, which is why Cuz I Love You is such a winner. Lizzo is impossible to ignore, and with this album, she lets us know she’s here to stay. —Ellen Johnson


5. Tyler, The Creator: IGOR
On “IGOR’S THEME,” the opening track on Tyler’s highly anticipated follow-up to Flower Boy, he shows that even with the heightened expectations, he can still surprise us. Relying on heavy, ominous low synth tones and complex percussion—a combination that’s featured prominently throughout the album—the mainly instrumental song is a bit of a change-up from his past work, essentially combining the best aspects of Cherry Bomb with the emotionality and relative absence of Tyler’s rapping presence on Flower Boy to create a hangover record of sorts from the flamboyance of his last record. Perhaps the Yeezus to Flower Boy’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he continues to push the themes of loneliness and his inability to be fully loved found on his previous record, only this time largely twisting the knobs in a louder and darker direction. Tyler warned us to not “go into this expecting a rap album,” but some of the best tracks on IGOR are when he does give into these tendencies. The slowthai-aided “WHAT’S GOOD” largely follows suit, proving that he can make hard-hitting hip-hop better than almost anyone else. —Steven Edelstone


Thumbnail image for fayewebster_atlmillionairesclub.jpg 4. Faye Webster: Atlanta Millionaires Club
If she prefers to stay inside, then Webster makes music for her own kind: With all its droopy pedal steel, unhurried funk and a breezy island air that could sub in for your AC, Atlanta Millionaires Club is the perfect summer album for indoors-y types. Drawing on both her Americana roots and the bendy R&B of artists like Aaliyah (one of her cited inspirations), Webster creates a dramaticized retelling of romantic shortcomings that sounds like the sun crying. After her debut album Run and Tell and high school, Webster did what any aspiring songwriter would: moved to Nashville. There, she studied songwriting at Belmont University before trying out graphic design, but when she found herself jonesing for a trip home every other weekend, decided to abandon collegiate life altogether and made plans to return to Atlanta, where she has since stayed put. Since then she’s spent considerable time photographing various ATL stars like Offset and Lil Yachty. Webster released her second, self-titled album after college, which contains her first Spotify hit, the groovy “She Won’t Go Away,” a hazy country dream. But dreamier still is Webster’s third solo LP, Atlanta Millionaires Club, a steamy brush with R&B flourished with lots of twang and retro grooves. It’s weird and sleepy and full of droll one-liners like “I should get out more,” the chorus from “Room Temperature.” —Ellen Johnson


3. Sharon Van Etten: Remind Me Tomorrow
Singer/songwriter Sharon Van Etten experienced a lot of change after the release of her last album, 2014’s Are We There, and they’re the kind of life-altering shifts—newfound romantic partnership, motherhood, career advancements—that are all but destined to reveal themselves in one’s art. And here, on her fifth studio effort Remind Me Tomorrow, those evolutions are apparent in a powerful sonic swerve, and in Van Etten’s desire to explore both nostalgia and rebirth, and maybe even how they intertwine. Remind Me Tomorrow was the first great rock album of the year, and it would behoove any and all of Van Etten’s fans, even those who staunchly prefer her folk-leaning material, and rock ‘n’ roll aficionados of all stripes to open their ears (and their hearts) to this beautifully executed pivot. And for all its bold sonic upheavals—the addition of drum machines and electric shred and cavernous synth—Remind Me Tomorrow maintains Van Etten’s gothic sensibilities. Sharon Van Etten was already one of the great lyricists of the ’10s, but with this breathtaking project, she’s proved an artistic pliancy her contemporaries may not possess. She hit her stride with Are We There, but here she’s not even on the ground. —Ellen Johnson


VampireWeekend-FOTB-Art.jpg 2. Vampire Weekend: Father of the Bride
If such a decree is not already at large, I hereby declare Father of the Bride the official album of summer 2019. If you’re still skeptical, just listen to it outside, maybe while eating a popsicle. Let Danielle Haim and a choir of children sing you down the aisle on “Hold You Now;” let the bendy “Bambina” rock you into a summer stupor. Let it be easy. It’s light without being too flighty, thoughtful but not esoteric and chock full of tiny little musical treasures. Peel back what some have perceived to be a lyrical disaster, and Vampire Weekend’s fourth full-length is an album of rewarding moments and juicy samples. A record that’s roughly five songs too long and as many choruses too cheesy may not sound like the most enticing listen, but Ezra Koenig expertly spins even the shabbiest couplets into nuance—and he does it to the tune of pure sunshine. He adopted a passion for the Grateful Dead, intensified one for character studies and swapped boat shoes for Birkenstocks, and the result here is the rare album that not only works as picnic music but also makes for a fine conversation topic. Vampire Weekend proved their talent with a trio of excellent albums in 2008-2013. With this comeback, Koenig proves they’re not going anywhere. —Ellen Johnson


1. Weyes Blood: Titanic Rising
Natalie Mering’s work under the name Weyes Blood feels less like a catalog of music and more like a journey. And each time she releases a full-length album, her destination comes a little more into focus. That’s especially true on her new record Titanic Rising, which finds Mering edging her peculiar psych-folk closer than ever to the sound of traditional pop music. For someone with a documented predilection for idiosyncrasy and experimentation, she sounds completely at ease in these new songs, and ready for bigger things ahead. Folks who know her debut, 2011’s The Outside Room, might be surprised to hear Weyes Blood in 2019, but they shouldn’t be shocked. Even on that lo-fi bundle of echo and noise, you could hear Mering’s gift for haunting melody and the folk form hovering slightly below the surface. Titanic Rising doesn’t feel blissfully adrift. Instead, it feels like Mering knows exactly where she’s going. You can hear it in the robust string sections of album opener “A Lot’s Gonna Change” and the sturdy backbone-beat of “Andromeda” and the sentiments of “Wild Time,” a patient ambler with a ‘70s soft-rock vibe (including a hint of “Landslide”) and a plainspoken bridge: “Everyone’s broken now,” Mering sings, “And no one knows just how we could have all gotten so far from truth.” —Ben Salmon


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