The 50 Best Albums of 2019

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solange_albumart.jpeg 25. 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

BigThiefUFOFArt.jpg 24. Big Thief: U.F.O.F
New York indie-folk outfit Big Thief have been touring constantly for four years in conjunction with their first two full-lengths—2016’s Masterpiece and 2017’s Capacity—and their third album U.F.O.F. was largely informed by their relentless touring schedule and the band’s heightened personal and musical synergy. Some of the songs were recorded just hours after they were written. As a result, this album’s blustery whooshes contribute to an otherworldliness not yet wholly strung together on a Big Thief album. The sonic wisp of “Contact,” the celestial lyrics of “U.F.O.F.” and the cacophonies that close “Cattails” and “Jenni” all contribute to an incorporeal sheen. On U.F.O.F., Big Thief embrace their more subtle and mystical sides while capturing a wider array of landscapes—the cosmic (“U.F.O.F.”), bucolic (“Cattails”), domestic (“From”) and urban (“Betsy”). —Lizzie Manno

23. Danny Brown: uknowhatimsayin¿
Danny Brown  always seemed immortal. His trilogy of critically acclaimed releases—2011’s incendiary XXX, 2013’s decadent Old and 2016’s staggering prog-rap opus, Atrocity Exhibition—found the Detroit MC repeatedly self-destructing, masquerading the references to his childhood traumas with an infinite supply of party pharmaceuticals and charisma. Every time he sounded like he was truly on the brink, he’d return, and usually messier, drunker, funnier. His music got better. He was invincible. Maybe. It’s a relief that Brown sounds mortal on his new album, uknowhatimsayin¿. He sounds healthy, if in a high-cholesterol way. He looks it, too—watch his new talk/sketch comedy show, Danny’s House, and you’ll be presented with a nearly unrecognizable figure, complete with a malleable gut, a newly-complete set of pearly whites and an unpretentious fade. He looks like he’s about two shakes away from buying a convertible and getting a divorce. While no song sounds the same, they all exude a similar meditative energy, a far cry from the manic bombast that, to this point, defined the rapper’s discography. There are no bangers on the album, but there aren’t any sleepers either; fans that just want a XXX 2 will likely be disappointed. On the album’s superb title track—a Y2K-reminiscent downtempo groove—Brown sounds like he’s finally broken out of the cycle that once made his music so intoxicating. It’s a departure, but a vital one. “If it wasn’t for that, wouldn’t be this / Know what I’m sayin’?” —Harry Todd

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for The-Highwomen-albumcover-main.png 22. The Highwomen: The Highwomen
On The Highwomen, the group’s debut album and flagship statement in a female-forward country movement that’s stirring up chatter in Nashville and beyond, these four artists dare to imagine every kind of life for themselves. Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris, Amanda Shires and Brandi Carlile, easily four of the most talented people in the greater Americana sphere, explore every facet of femininity and humanity and how they exist alongside each other, from the beautiful and hard-won to the ugly and downright messy. Work, family, children, straight romance, queer romance, shitty men, imperfect women—it’s all there, made more impactful by the expertly played fiddle, drums, electric guitar and the voices of many. These are songs that scream, “We are here, and we have something to say,” but The Highwomen isn’t just some topical social statement that won’t hold up in a few years—this album was not built uniquely for 2019. While it’s absolutely and unapologetically meant as an addition to the discourse on inequality and lack of diversity that’s been ruling Nashville and country music (country radio in particular) for decades now, it’s also a country classic, no matter which way you spin it. —Ellen Johnson

21. 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

VampireWeekend-FOTB-Art.jpg 20. 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

19. Lana Del Rey: Norman Fucking Rockwell!
From outside her corner, Lana Del Rey has always appeared more aesthetic than artist. She emerged in 2012 as the gray-eyed anti-Katy Perry, a pop star who preferred sultry sleepers over big hooks. Like Perry, Lady Gaga and Carly Rae Jepsen, she acquired leagues of stans—but also plenty of haters. She went on to release five major label LPs that, while maybe singular within pop music, don’t really stand out in the context of her personal catalog. Del Rey’s music was often synonymous with sameness, and her personal brand with a tired California cool-girl image. You were more likely to buy Born To Die or Lust For Life at Urban Outfitters than a local indie shop. You can still buy Norman Fucking Rockwell!, Del Rey’s long-awaited sixth studio album, at Urban Outfitters (in a $40 pink vinyl exclusive, no less). But it’s so much more than an accessory for your Crosley Cruiser. Delivered with her signature slyness, this is a record that, while evoking decades of folk, rock and Americana traditions, feels so tightly woven into the fabric of today’s America that the word “classic” is an immediately obvious descriptor. You’ll know it’s something special about 15 minutes in—if not sooner—just as rusty acoustic guitars and electronic whirs mesh with stuttering psychedelia on the staggering nine-minute centerpiece “Venice Bitch,” which holds the album’s first great one-liner: “Fear fun, fear love / Fresh out of fucks, forever.” NFR! isn’t another slice of monotonous desert pop—it’s a lyrical triumph and a masterclass in pop production. —Ellen Johnson

18. Better Oblivion Community Center: Better Oblivion Community Center
Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst come from the same musical orbit. One could even argue, the two songwriters—ages 25 and 38 respectively—are like long-lost musical siblings. Though at vastly different points in their careers, both musicians know how to crush and revive listeners with inspired woe, romantic poignancy and their instantly recognizable, consoling pipes. The stars aligned just in time for Bridgers and Oberst to write, record and surprise-drop a haunting album together for a brand new project: Better Oblivion Community Center—which really is their band name and not actually the name of a utopian old folks home. Better Oblivion Community Center is an unsurprisingly tender, affecting excursion. Its largely upbeat instrumentation ebbs and flows with understated folky strums and scintillating keyboards, and the occasional ray of buoyant rock ‘n’ roll peeks out just when you need some lighthearted relief from their lyrics. Though many male-female vocal duos lean heavily on duets, this pair elected to skirt that norm by singing mostly in unison and in harmony rather than engaging in the sometimes cheesy call and response. Much of the record could still loosely fall into the folk camp, but there are moments that you wouldn’t expect from Oberst and Bridgers. The throbbing electro keyboards of “Exception to the Rule,” the fuzzy rock surge at the end of “Big Black Heart” and the psychedelic guitar swells on “My City” all represent a venture into new frontiers. —Lizzie Manno

17. 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

16. Purple Mountains: Purple Mountains
For 15 years bookending the turn of the 21st century, David Berman was not only the primary creative force behind indie-folk faves Silver Jews, he was considered by many to be the poet laureate of the underground. Across six solid albums—peaking with 1998’s American Water—his songs spilled over with double-take-worthy wisdom and witticisms built from approachable language. On his latest and, sadly, last album—self-titled and released under the name Purple Mountains—Berman doesn’t sound like a different person than the one that walked away a decade ago. He sounds like himself, an endlessly thoughtful and unnervingly honest master arranger of words. He sounds rejuvenated, perhaps buoyed by his new backing band, the Brooklyn psych-folk group Woods. He was just as bummed out as ever on Purple Mountains, and he still makes being bummed out sound better than just about anyone else. —Ben Salmon

15. Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds: Ghosteen
Grief transforms you. It rearranges molecules, builds them anew. Its power is such that it “occupies the core of our being and extends through our fingers to the limits of the universe,” as Nick Cave wrote in a 2018 edition of his email newsletter. “Within that whirling gyre all manner of madnesses exist: ghosts and spirits and dream visitations, and everything else that we, in our anguish, will into existence.” It has undoubtedly transformed Cave. In 2014, the musician’s legacy seemed fairly settled: A godfather-of-goth lifetime badge, his mid-career pivot into romantic balladry, the late-career rebirth as mustachioed preacher of Grinderman sleaze, his legendary prickliness around critics and fans. Cave’s best songs often seemed to occupy distinct characters or guises—the death-row inmate (“The Mercy Seat”), the sinister raconteur (“Red Right Hand”), the blues-slinging incel buffoon (“No Pussy Blues”)—yet since the devastating loss of his 15-year-old son, Arthur, in 2015, Cave himself has been stripped bare. He has, to quote a phrase from “Jubilee Street,” been transformed. In his music—and his increasing desire to communicate directly with fans, both through the newsletter and his unmoderated Q&A events—the artist conveys the enormity of his grief with surrealist wisdom and brutal candor. Ghosteen, Cave’s devastating new double album, is the culmination of that transformation. —Zach Schonfeld

DOGRELARTWEB1-9900000000079e3c.jpg 14. Fontaines D.C.: Dogrel
Fontaines D.C. have been pigeonholed as the British Isles’ next great post-punk export à la Shame or Idles, but this Irish five-piece deserve more than that reductive framing. Fontaines D.C. are more poetic than the bands they’re lumped in with, and their debut album Dogrel is a testament to a different set of concerns. Dogrel takes on the degradation of urban cities as lively cultural hubs and launching pads for people to make something of themselves—or at least put some change in their pockets. Frontman Grian Chatten and his bandmates share a love of literature and poetry (the Beats, James Joyce, Patrick Kavanagh, etc.), and they write songs together in Irish pubs, resulting in a brazen-faced, romantic portrait of Dublin and its vast characters. Two of their biggest calling cards are self-belief and authenticity. The uplifting lyrical themes on the lead track “Big” (“My childhood was small / But I’m gonna be big”) are analogous to “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” the lead track on Oasis’ Definitely Maybe, though “Big” has more wit and spit. If self-awareness is one factor of the renewed interest in post-punk, the intense, charismatic Chatten certainly has it as he pokes fun at charisma (“Charisma is exquisite manipulation”). Dogrel is an album of tremendous ardor and vivid landscapes, and interspersed with an Irish underdog spirit, Fontaines D.C. are nearly untouchable. —Lizzie Manno

Thumbnail image for KevinMorbyOhMyGodArt.jpg 13. 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

12. 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. \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

black-schlagenheim.jpg 11. black midi: Schlagenheim
It may be hard to write about, but Schlagenheim is a record you feel more so than anything else. Case in point: First track “953” features one of the hardest hitting lead guitar riffs in recent memory, an opening salvo that makes you want to drop everything and go run a mile—something I actually did, resulting in my fastest time ever. Within mere seconds of hitting play on their debut album, Geordie Greep and Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin make their case as two of our most inventive contemporary guitarists, all while you try your hardest to keep time with a beat that will still elude you after 10 listens. There’s a high barrier to entry for Schlagenheim, a record by a band who refuses to meet you halfway. Pedantic and pretentious all the way through, Schlagenheim showcases why black midi are generationally great instrumentalists despite our inability to follow what they’re doing and why. By the end of “Ducter’s” anarchic pandemonium, you won’t know what hit you, but you’ll find yourself quickly returning to “953” for another go around of an album that showcases some of the most talented musicians around, coalescing behind an experimental, genre-less and extremely noisy sound to exceptional results. Schlagenheim is beyond weird. Schlagenheim is a legitimate one of a kind record. Schlagenheim is a masterpiece. —Steven Edelstone

Thumbnail image for fayewebster_atlmillionairesclub.jpg 10. 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

9. 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

8. 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

7. 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

6. Brittany Howard: Jaime
On spoken-word breakdown “13th Century Metal,” Alabama Shakes frontwoman Brittany Howard repeats, over and over, “We are all brothers and sisters.” This sentiment of union is a thread that runs throughout Jaime’s 35 minutes, but Howard’s debut solo effort is also deeply personal. “I wrote this record as a process of healing,” Howard wrote in a personal essay upon the album’s announcement. “Every song, I confront something within me or beyond me. Things that are hard or impossible to change, words and music to describe what I’m not good at conveying to those I love, or a name that hurts to be said: Jaime.” She’s referring there to her sister Jaime, who passed away as a teenager. But as Howard also wrote, “The record is not about her. It’s about me.” These are love songs (perhaps written for her wife Jesse Lafser, with whom she recently moved to small-town New Mexico), spiritual songs, songs about the past, songs about the future and songs that react to and make sense of our present moment. On Jaime, Howard beautifully reckons with her personal past and shatters soul, rock and blues norms in an album that should go down as one of the most daring and inventive of the year, maybe even the decade. —Ellen Johnson

5. FKA twigs: MAGDALENE
In the five years since her transformative debut album, 2014’s LP1, FKA twigs has been through a lot. As though having six fibroids removed from her uterus during this period wasn’t torment enough, she dated and split up with two famous actors, to one of whom she was engaged. As she suffered both immense emotional and physical pain, she all but rebirthed herself. This rebirth narrative is one possible reading of the stunning video for “cellophane,” the first song released from MAGDALENE, LP1’s long-awaited album-length follow-up. A devastating piano lament that only vaguely includes the howling, clicking and stuttering vocal and synth tricks of LP1, “cellophane” arrived alongside a video that, like the majority of FKA twigs’ visuals to date, exists in a not-quite-terrestrial space full of forthright sexuality, brooding sci-fi, angular dancing and plain old horror. The two videos that have followed have been, well, exactly not that, and that contrast lies at the heart of what makes the game-changing genre-less artist’s sophomore album so special. MAGDALENE is the sound of an artist gluing together the million tiny shards in which she found herself after an explosive breakup. If FKA twigs previously sang about her isolating sexual desires, here she details the journey to regain her strength after she’s seen the other side of romantic fulfillment. As expected, the climb is often challenging: On the loping, shapeless “daybed,” ostensibly the only track to survive FKA twigs’ 2016 sessions with Oneohtrix Point Never, she struggles to even leave her bed. As she sings lines like “dirty are my dishes,” “friendly are the fruit flies” and “possessive is my daybed,” she equates the disheveled state of her home with the disheveled state of her heart, and the analogy is nothing short of crushing. —Max Freedman

4. Big Thief: Two Hands
Big Thief has amassed a large and devoted fanbase the old-fashioned way: by releasing four astonishingly good albums in just three-and-a-half years, by touring relentlessly and seemingly without rest, by Instagramming a lot of photos of themselves grinning and embracing each other in various bucolic settings. In 2019, much of Big Thief’s ethos feels like a throwback to the LP era: the prolific output (think Creedence circa 1969-1970), the album-stream-as-vinyl-sides, the band’s creative intimacy and affinity for recording live with minimal overdubs. Which is appropriate, since this band’s razor-sharp songwriting has always felt somewhat adrift in time, belonging as much to the 1970s or early 2000s as it does to the present. Two Hands does not dramatically depart from the mesmerizing folk-rock fusion of U.F.O.F., but its best moments emphasize the band’s gnarled electric energy, particularly on the career highlight “Not.” When an artist releases two studio albums in one year, it’s customary for critics to grumble about hubris, usually accompanied by the suggestion that the two separate releases should have been whittled down into one. Often—as with Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience and its turgid sequel—this charge is accurate. With Big Thief, it won’t be. Both records stand as outstanding and individual statements from a band operating at some rare creative peak. Both records deserve to exist, and we’re fortunate that they do. —Zach Schonfeld

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

2. Angel Olsen: All Mirrors
From her very earliest recordings, Angel Olsen has mined drama from her relationships with physically present but psychologically absent partners. Across her often-brilliant catalog, the Asheville singer/songwriter has sung candidly about staying with these partners despite recognizing their awful qualities. Her fascination with this unhealthy dynamic, in addition to her unmistakable, showstopping vibrato, has tied her songs together across multiple genres, from haunting lo-fi folk (2010’s Strange Cacti EP, 2012’s Half Way Home) to scorching rock (2014’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness, 2016’s My Woman). Olsen still deals with bad partners on her fourth album, All Mirrors, but this time around, she escapes their destruction and finds not just happiness, but catharsis. She narrates her journey alongside a 14-piece orchestra, with string co-arrangement from Ben Babbitt and conductor-arranger Jherek Bischoff (and co-production from the ever-busy John Congleton, who also co-produced Burn Your Fire). Her newfound embrace of violins, violas and cellos elevates her shadowy, often synth-infused rock to extraordinarily goosebump-inducing heights, making All Mirrors her third consecutive (and likely best) masterpiece to date. —Max Freedman

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 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 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

Listen to our Best Albums of 2019 playlist on Spotify right here.

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