The 50 Best Albums of 2019

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The 50 Best Albums of 2019

Cue the panic. It’s not only the end of another year, but it’s also the end of another decade, and there’s plenty of cause for a freakout. There’s the stress of the holidays, the stress of time passing too quickly, the continuous stress of climate change and our withering Earth, and let’s not forget the stress of this seemingly never-ending political hell-scape we’ve been suffering through for more than three years. 2019 was a weird culmination of those stressors, but it was also, maybe, a bellwether for change. There’s the hope of 2020, when we’ll elect new public officials. There’s the hope of a new start, even if it’s just because of a human-made time construct called “decades.” There’s Baby Yoda. And there’s also a whole lot of incredible music coming at us all the time, which is certainly another reason to remain optimistic about humanity. We try our best to cover the albums worth listening to throughout the year, a task that can feel especially daunting when morale is down and we’re looking to artists for answers. Luckily, there’s plenty to choose from, so much so that our list of the 50 best albums of 2019 could easily be for 100. In fact, when voting on the year’s best, Paste staffers cast votes for more than 280 albums. Here, we’ve listed the 50 albums with the most votes, a list that doesn’t serve genre or economics or any other overarching factor. It’s just the music we loved this year. We hope you love it too.

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

iameasytofind.jpg50. The National: I Am Easy To Find
For all intents and purposes, Matt Berninger is a New Yorker. He’s been there long enough to write about the city with authority. So when he sings “You were never much of a New Yorker / It wasn’t in your eyes,” alongside This Is The Kit’s Kate Stables on the title track of The National’s new album, I Am Easy to Find, he knows what he’s talking about. But for the first time in quite a while, Berninger went back to his hometown of Cincinnati on “Not in Kansas,” I Am Easy to Find’s keystone track. Instead of writing about his negative memories of the place (“I never married but Ohio don’t remember me” he sang on 2010’s “Bloodbuzz Ohio”), he experienced firsthand how both he and the Midwest had changed, particularly since the election of Donald Trump, launching into a full and abstract stream of consciousness about his journey home. From the plucky and frenzied guitars on lead single “You Had Your Soul With You” to the pulsating percussion of fan-favorite “Rylan” to the dazzling orchestral strings on album closer “Light Years” (another track that could be argued as one of The National’s best to date), I Am Easy to Find doesn’t radically change the formula they developed over the past couple of releases, but it nearly perfects it, resulting in a record as elegant as the suits Berninger routinely wears onstage. —Steven Edelstone

currycover.jpg49. Denzel Curry: ZUU
With no context for the South Florida that Denzel Curry synopsizes and crystallizes over the course of ZUU, his fourth and best album, it may be difficult to parse the neck-deep morass of references and samples—detailing hyper-local haunts and Miami radio stations and communal pop culture heroes (Trick Daddy) and personal pop culture tragedies (XXXTENTACION) and whatever else—that makes Curry stump so hard for where he’s from. He’s always been adept at pulling from a wealth of influences, last year’s Ta13oo an especially labored-over attempt at being taken seriously, but only lately has he seemed comfortable in his skin, rapping about loving his supportive parents and missing his best friend and brother and how no one taking him seriously has just been the response to everything he’s done, an endless cycle of doubt he’s endured since “way before Nostalgic,” his first solo tape. Backed by Australian production duo FnZ, who’ve been with Curry since 2016’s Imperial, ZUU is both the sound of Curry finding his, and the sound of Curry’s main collaborators finally realizing what that means. First single “RICKY” admits Curry’s had an identity crisis in the past—“That was it, we was lit, y’all wasn’t even shit yet / We was Three 6, Wu-Tang, mixed with Dipset”—over FnZ’s stippling, phased-out steel drums, simultaneously laid back and flipped out. “CAROLMART” undoubtedly helps Ice Billion Berg with some debt, all low-end muck spiced up with a Trina sample, sitting right up against the relentless “SHAKE 88,” a minor masterpiece of involuntary, transcendent movement, the kind of song that generates so much inertia it’s a wonder that all of South Florida hasn’t vibrated itself free of the mainland. Even “Speedboat,” produced by Rahj—known mostly for working with DJ Khaled—is at the mercy of FnZ’s oversight, as mournful as it is manic as it is insanely melodic, Curry acting the paranoiac over a melancholic piano line: “Have your money up before you go to war / Put the mask on like a luchador / My dawg didn’t make it to 21, so I gotta make it past 24.” (He really misses XXXTENTACION, you see.) Intimate but open, angry and also easy-going, breezy but weighed with the responsibility of representing a lot of people, ZUU takes all the overworked contradictions that made Curry’s past albums so compelling and makes them work for him, effortlessly. —Dom Sinacola

Wand_newmain.jpg48. Wand: Laughing Matter
Wand’s music lets the soul wander before kindly accompanying it back home, and their fifth full-length Laughing Matter is another worthy side-by-side trot. Laughing Matter follows the Los Angeles rock outfit’s sky-high 2017 LP Plum and shapeshifting 2018 EP Perfume. While early releases from these Drag City mainstays were characterized by sludgy neo-garage and fuzzy stoner psych, their latest offerings conjure far too much slippery wonder to warrant concise categorization. Wand take risks and thrive on contradiction—their heady guitar embellishments keep you on your toes, and their surreal imagery simultaneously makes you feel insignificant and a pivotal part of the cosmos. Laughing Matter is intoxicating for a number of reasons. Their often opaque lyrics are a strangely touching and immersive experience, and lead vocalist Cory Hanson delivers them with a benevolence that will allow you to trust fall into his snug, fluttering coo. Wand’s affection for nature is evident, and there’s both a foreboding sense that something is slipping from grasp and a blissful acceptance of the changing of the seasons. Laughing Matter’s improvisational jams, winding outros and emotionally crushing melodies result in perhaps their most realized record yet. —Lizzie Manno

pup-morbid.jpg47. PUP: Morbid Stuff
Toronto’s PUP unleashed their third album, Morbid Stuff, on their own Little Dipper label, and it contains some of their loftiest melodic payoffs yet. The album was produced, recorded and mixed by Dave Schiffman (Weezer, The Mars Volta), and it makes for their most pristine recording to date. Morbid Stuff is at the crossroads of enlivening joy and debilitating self-hatred. Songs like “Kids” and “Free at Last” overflow with angsty lyrics of anxiety, heartbreak and fierce self-put-downs, but their reassuring pop-punk riffs and refrains will scoop you up and bring you back to your senses. The collision of utter bleakness and youthful exuberance that characterizes this record also manifests itself on the album cover—four people are playing musical chairs with knives in hand, party hats and blindfolds. The boldest cut is the post-hardcore rager “Full Blown Meltdown,” which sounds like just that. Stefan Babcock sounds like he’s foaming at the mouth when he sings, “I’m still a loser and always will be / So why change now?” The album tracks Babcock’s struggle with depression, and though there are many forlorn moments on this LP, PUP channel their pain into a catchy punk album that’s about as fun as any record you’ll hear on this list. —Lizzie Manno

hotgirltheeheat.png46. Megan Thee Stallion: Fever
Houston rapper Megan Thee Stallion is an icon in the making, a force majeure in the lineage of Houston rap. Fever, her first official mixtape, maintains the high-octane rap of her earlier work, all delivered with a sneer and a smile. Don’t let the appropriation of “hot girl summer” by the (largely-white) powers that be overshadow her relentless, braggadocio-filled raps, aided by Houston’s finest: Hot Girl Meg lays out her M.O. on the Juicy J-produced album highlight “Pimpin”: I could never ever let a n—- fuck me out my bread.” She knows she’s good, she’s unsympathetic to the guys who are intimidated, threatened and broke, and she makes that evident throughout Fever. Even at her most party-ready, like on the delightful DaBaby double-feature “Cash Shit,” the hot girl anthem “Shake That,” or “Best You Ever Had,” a crossover track in waiting, she makes her point and underlines it: Either keep up, or get out of the way. —Joshua Bote

45. Sleater-Kinney: The Center Won’t Hold
There is no room for nostalgia in Sleater-Kinney’s reunion. The band’s excellent 2015 reentry point, No Cities to Love, was not exactly a rote run-through of past glories. And the trio (now duo) did not spend 2017 going around playing Dig Me Out on some obligatory 20th anniversary run. It barely even feels like a reunion at this point—how has this band not always been here, making its bass-resistant racket and soundtracking our slide into right-wing authoritarianism? Like 2005’s The Woods, The Center Won’t Hold finds Sleater-Kinney bringing in a big name producer to jolt their routines and play more than a symbolic role in the record-making process. Except this time, the friendly intruder is art-rock maestro St. Vincent, not Dave Fridmann. And unlike The Woods, which was largely tracked live—all the better to reimagine the band’s sound as a ferocious Zeppelin-esque roar—Center finds Sleater-Kinney more inclined than ever to utilize the studio as an instrument. At its best, The Center Won’t Hold is an urgent and deliriously impolite record about powering through exhaustion, despair and the ambient dread any feminist feels pretty much constantly in 2019. Full of transformation and deserved indignation, The Center Won’t Hold is the first Sleater-Kinney album since the rest of the world started to catch up. —Zach Schonfeld

Thumbnail image for osoosomain.jpg44. Oso Oso: basking in the glow
Why did Jade Lilitri, the Long Island, New Yorker behind one-man wonder-band Oso Oso, play and sing the chorus of his song “dig” only once during its four-and-a-half-minute running time? To understand the question, you have to appreciate the magnificence of that chorus. It comes in the middle of “dig,” bookended on the front end by a couple minutes of enjoyable pop-rock that bumps along like Pinback and on the back end by a coda that crescendos nicely, but ultimately feels unnecessary. In between is 34 glorious seconds in which the song opens up and turns its face toward the sun, bringing together peach-fuzz distortion, a reliable chord progression, a blanket of cymbals and Lilitri’s soaring vocals. “I’m still reeling from the mess I made,” he sings, as if rediscovering reality after two verses of cautious optimism. The combination of contrasting sounds and catchy melody is the stuff goosebumps are made of. Why Lilitri didn’t use such a glorious chunk of music elsewhere in the song—say, after the first verse or repeated a couple times at the end—is anyone’s guess. But it only takes a few listens to Oso Oso’s new album, basking in the glow, to recognize that questioning the guy’s songwriting decisions is an exercise in diminishing returns. He is, it seems, incapable of writing a bad tune, at least at this point in his career. —Ben Salmon

43. Joan Shelley: Like The River Loves The Sea
Joan Shelley was kind enough to include a thesis statement with her new album Like The River Loves The Sea. It’s the first track, “Haven,” and its only verse goes like this: “A haven woven with warm colors / A woolen place to rest your head / And a light comes in / Forms and binds you / To mold and carry you this long way to go.” Shelley isn’t just the singer of the song. She is that light. This was already established back in 2017 by Paste’s review of the Louisville-based folk-singer’s previous (self-titled) full-length: “Shelley’s light is absolutely irrepressible.” In fact, it glows even brighter on Like The River Loves The Sea, her sixth LP. Where Joan Shelley and 2015’s Over And Even occasionally dimmed Shelley’s songs with shadowy production or dusky arrangements, the new album’s dozen tracks feel more confident and out in the open. Take, for example, “Coming Down For You,” a spirited song of devotion driven by a repeated guitar riff that seems to flicker like a flame in a steady breeze, featuring the world-class backing vocal work of Bonnie “Prince” Billy, aka Shelley’s fellow Louisvillian, Will Oldham. He shows up later, too, on “The Fading,” a delightfully lilting ode to the natural world: Springtime light, a muddy river, winding vines and rising seas dot the track, which is not only the best on the album, it’s also a centerpiece of sorts. “Oh Kentucky stays on my mind / It’s sweet to be five years behind,” Shelley sings, poetically capturing the alluring, unhurried pace of life in her home state. —Ben Salmon

42. Charli XCX: Charli
Although Charli is described as British pop auteur Charli XCX’s third studio album, it’s really her seventh album-length project. Charli has released four mixtapes in addition to her studio albums True Romance (2013) and Sucker (2014), so to call Charli merely her third studio album isn’t just deceiving—it ignores the very existence of the quietly revolutionary 2017 “mixtape,” Pop 2. The guest-stuffed, career-peak Pop 2 was a record in all but name. It presented Charli as a savant of futuristic synths, fanged digital programming, actually good AutoTune, and bionic bangers and ballads. Charli executive produced Pop 2 alongside PC Music’s A.G. Cook, who helped her fully access the cyborg aesthetic she’d been crawling towards for years. “We wanted it to feel like a complete restart,” Cook told The FADER upon Pop 2’s release. If Pop 2 was indeed a restart, then Charli is the thrilling next step on the journey. Across 15 songs and 50 minutes, Charli consistently matches the addictive, robotic bombast of Pop 2. Charli is a more-than-worthy follow-up to arguably the decade’s best pop release. —Max Freedman

41. Jessica Pratt: Quiet Signs
The worst assumption you can make going into Jessica Pratt’s Quiet Signs is that there won’t be much there, that minimalism isn’t for you. Knowing the folk singer/songwriter’s aversion to bells and whistles (and taking into consideration the album’s telling title), I myself feared a hollowness, but I was delighted to find the singer/songwriter somehow brings a maximalist energy to a record so subdued you’ll refrain from speaking during its quivering 27 minutes, for fear of disturbing the peace. Quiet Signs is a convincing argument for simplicity. Pratt has a very, very restrained way of supplying strength and relief during our hectic moment. Her songs are so quiet they almost don’t even exist, but maybe that’s how we need to feel for just a moment—like we’re just air. These tracks aren’t immediately satisfactory. They emit tranquility only if you’re willing to devote your full attention—and perhaps repeated listens. In under 30 minutes and in just nine songs, Pratt produces a warm, bewitching alternate dimension—but not the kind you fall into in a nightmare or thriller. The universe she’s fashioned for herself is more paradisal. And if you take a moment to find a quiet space and just sit with this record’s hollow parts, embracing them for the condensed elements they are, you might just find your own slice of heaven. —Ellen Johnson

helado_cover.jpg40. Helado Negro: This Is How You Smile
Already a prolific force as Helado Negro, Roberto Carlos Lange wrote the best record of his career in This Is How You Smile. Throughout his discography, the Florida-born son of Ecuadorian immigrants has looked to make sense of the Latinx experience in America. What he does with Smile, the sixth Helado Negro LP, is open up the range of his songwriting to show how universal the truths he extols truly are. Tracks like “Fantasma Vaga” and “Todo Lo Que Me Falta”—love songs in Spanish—just feel tender and relatable, no matter what your cultural lexicon is. And the endearing pop atmosphere of “Running” brings opposite poles together through music, to show that no matter what the shade of our skin is, we all ride the same emotional waves through this world. —Adrian Spinelli

39. Hand Habits: placeholder
placeholder wishes people were on the same wavelength, but unfortunately, it’s just never that simple. Hand Habits’ second LP sees Meg Duffy illustrating the messiness of relationships—paralyzing emotions, romanticized memories, questions of forgiveness and everything in between. After their self-produced and self-recorded debut album Wildly Idle (Humble Before The Void), the singer/songwriter and former Kevin Morby guitarist brought their second album to a studio with a group of collaborators—giving placeholder more sonic weight. The biggest weight bearers are Duffy’s sweet harmonies and lyrical meditations on queer relationships and the deep human complexities that can make or break any type of relationship. placeholder fills the emotional gaps that so many other relationship records leave untouched. Meg Duffy’s humble, comforting vocals will help cushion the blow that will inevitably come with any relationship, and their poetic aptitude results in a record that’s just as therapeutic and affecting on the written page as it is in sung form. —Lizzie Manno

38. Bedouine: Bird Songs of a Killjoy
Isolation can be both enjoyable and insufferable. Azniv Korkejian (aka Bedouine) explores both kinds of confinement in these Bird Songs, first the frustrating loneliness of “two people never getting together” on swirling album opener “Under the Night,” then the startling freedom of separation on “One More Time,” where she basks “on an island with no one else around.” On “Bird,” she warns “that it’s you against the rain” and dotes on some sweet, flightless creature before leaving it alone to “sing.” Early in the record she mournfully quips, “You love how much I love you / when you’re gone.” All these verses point to a complicated, ever-changing relationship with space and separation. While many of these songs are concerned with flying solo, Korkejian is still an expert on “Matters of the Heart,” a sly and jazzy tune that uplifts side B of this record. When she sings, “Call me like a phone / Just ring to me, baby” Korkejian sounds like the same woman who said, “I like watching people make out to my songs so I encourage consensual… anything, really,” at a Bedouine show earlier this year. She who values alone time can still yearn for company. I treasure both, and I would like to curl up inside Bird Songs of a Killjoy and live there forever. —Ellen Johnson

37. Caroline Polachek: Pang
A handful of pop songs in the past decade—think “Teenage Dream” or “Run Away With Me”—bottle the lightning feeling of whirlwind love perfectly, the sound of a saxophone horn or a vocal swell sublimating the yearning of a new romance. Pang, Caroline Polachek’s first album under her own name, stretches out that feeling, eking out the intricacies of feeling simultaneously liberated and trapped by the feeling of being overwhelmed by someone else. It’s a big task, but Polachek might be the ideal candidate, an indie darling who shaped her last band Chairlift’s twee-pop origins into big-budget, emotional cinema to brilliant effect. The most sublime moments on Pang match the all-cylinders feeling of falling into new love, each neuron so stimulated by the feeling that they threaten to overload and collapse entirely. The divine title track is, at once, twee and lustful, as if The Postal Service were tasked with making a quiet-storm track—the base feeling of unexplored love compounded with each touch of the skin. By the end of Pang, Polachek has fully opened up to the headrush of new love—both in the chance that it could devastate, and the very real possibility that it could result in something transcendent. “The parachute, I’ve got to trust it now,” she sighs on album closer “Parachute,” her voice weightless, at ease. It’s a relief, for her—and for us. —Joshua Bote

36. Charly Bliss: Young Enough
Recording an excellent debut album is mostly a blessing, of course. But there’s some curse involved, too, in that you have to figure out how to follow it up. That’s not easy to do. Usually, it means refusing to stagnate, lest you be labeled a one-trick pony. So you must try to record a set of songs that showcase some artistic growth and aesthetic ambition, but at the same time, you don’t want to stray too far from what worked so well the first time out. On their second album Young Enough, Charly Bliss navigates these various pressures and pitfalls without overthinking them. The hotly tipped New York City combo broke through nationally in 2017 on the strength of its debut album Guppy, a perfect—yeah, I said it—10-track blast of sweetly serrated pop-rock supercharged with punky energy and plentiful hooks. Two years later, Young Enough introduces new moods and textures without tamping down the band’s irrepressible likeability. There is unquestionably a centerpiece song on Young Enough, and that’s the title track, which clocks in at 5 minutes and 20 seconds long—an epic by this band’s standards. It’s time well-spent: slow-burning, dynamic, emotionally resonant and representative of Charly Bliss in 2019. Here, you can hear how the synthetic sounds better contextualize Hendricks’ desperate words by drawing out their meaning and feeling rather than running roughshod over them like Guppy’s rollicking arrangements. In doing so, they also open up a promising path forward for the band. That sophomore album challenge? Charly Bliss nailed it. —Ben Salmon

cornballzcover.jpg35. JPEGMAFIA: All My Heroes Are Cornballs
JPEGMAFIA dropped one of the year’s most off-kilter and fun rap albums of the year out of the blue in September. On the first listen, it feels a bit discombobulated, even disconnected. But upon repeated listens, the pieces start to come together, miraculously so. The Baltimore rapper’s signature wild production and sound effects, which span voiceovers, static and warps, mesh with his intense delivery to a satisfying end. All My Heroes Are Cornballs toggles between ambience and hi-fi insanity. Highlights include the riotous album opener “Jesus Forgive Me, I Am A Thot,” in which JPEGMAFIA plays with AutoTune and shouts out David Byrne, the low-key “Free The Frail,” which hosts Canadian musician Helena Deland for the final chorus and outro, and the minute-long “BasicBitchTearGas,” which features a smooth sample of TLC’s “No Scrubs.” If it wasn’t already apparent, this album proves JPEGMAFIA’s musical knowledge and influences are broad. All My Heroes is a glitchy, neon-tinted journey. —Ellen Johnson

Billie Eilish’s career to this point has been one that could only have happened now. She has only ever made music in the streaming age, where she’s translated copious plays into press hype, rather than the other way around. But her music, songs that emphatically encapsulate teenage angst for an existential era, is very much of this period as well. So perhaps, when we eventually look back on the music of this era a few years from now, there will likely be no singular album that absolutely nails the sound of 2019 quite like Billie Eilish’s debut record, WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?, for better or worse. She delivers the record that her generation has been waiting for, one with loads of in-jokes and language (the album literally begins with a joke about pulling out her Invisalign, while “all the good girls go to hell” ends with a joke about “snowflakes”). After all, this album isn’t made for critics—or even anyone born more than a few years before 9/11—it’s for those who share the same teenage hormonal desires and emotional pitfalls that Eilish is currently going through. While someone like Snail Mail, only 18 months her elder, can put out a record with largely the same themes as WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?, yet still speak to an older audience, Eilish’s debut largely doesn’t care, well aware that she doesn’t need anyone above, say, 25 to make her the biggest pop artist on the planet. —Steven Edelstone

mannequin-patience.jpg33. Mannequin Pussy: Patience
Mannequin Pussy’s first two albums—2014’s GP and 2016’s Romantic—are both under 20 minutes and feature speedy jolts of punk along with the occasional glimmer of dulcet-toned pop. But their 2019 LP, Patience, is crisper, poppier, longer and more fully realized than anything they’ve released before. In a still-modest 26 minutes, Mannequin Pussy, led by frontwoman Marisa Dabice, dish out punk-pop that will make you want to hug your teenage self, but also fight on behalf of the adult you’ve become. Dabice opened up on this record in a way she hasn’t before. She sings about abusive relationships, self-hatred, and personal inadequacies, revelations she struggled with for years before ever talking about them. It’s a record that simultaneously pierces while forcefully standing its ground, rightfully taking up space. Patience begins with anxious heart racing, but concludes with the kind of heart racing we all strive for—that lovey dovey tingle you wish you could bottle and save for when you’re feeling cynical. Dabice, along with Colins Rey Regisford (bass, samples, vocals), Kaleen Reading (drums, percussion), and Thanasi Paul (guitar, keys) also made one of 2019’s most anthemic tracks in the form of lead single “Drunk II.” When Dabice forcefully, begrudingly admits, “I still love you, you stupid fuck,” you can already envision a crowd of forlorn fans belting that line in a basement venue on a Tuesday like they have nothing to lose. Dabice’s admission of not only subtle imperfections, but also deep-set, recurring inner turmoils, is immensely invigorating. Patience is the sound of liberation, and paired with melodic riffs that scream into the void just like Dabice, it’s also an emotional reboot you can rage to. —Lizzie Manno

32. Marika Hackman: Any Human Friend
Female ownership of sexuality is nothing new, not since Madonna’s cone bra or Salt-N-Pepa’s declaration that their activities between the sheets are “None of Your Business.” More often than not, these sex-positive declarations exist in purely heteronormative terms, with any lady-on-lady action fetishized for male pleasure (think Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl”). Times are happily a-changing, though, and Marika Hackman’s latest LP, Any Human Friend, provides a hypnotizing case-in-point. Hackman, the folk artist turned synth-rock darling, cares only for the female gaze—the queer female gaze, that is, and more specifically, her own. This album—a treasure trove of zippy guitar hooks, glimmering synths and lemony vocals expertly curated by Hackman—is all about human connection. She hones in on her emotional and sexual connections both to herself and others post-breakup. The truths Hackman discovers along the way, illuminated by songs both inventive and entrancing, are enough to make anyone want to be her human friend (or, at least, a rabid fan). —Clare Martin

31. Bon Iver: i,i
Nearly everything about Bon Iver’s excellent 2016 album 22, A Million was inscrutable: the glitchy sonic turbulence, Justin Vernon’s effects-treated vocals, song titles rendered in numbers and symbols. Though an expansive ensemble helped Vernon make 22, A Million, the tension between turmoil and vulnerability made it seem like a solitary endeavor by an artist who was trying not to be seen while figuring out how to live a public life. If you have the patience to drill deep enough into i,i, the bright spots are incandescent. A three-song segment in the middle turns out to be the heart of the album, balancing musical and technical proficiency with the wringing, open-hearted emotion that made Bon Iver’s earlier work so mesmerizing. The mini-suite begins with “Hey Ma,” where a pinging sound at its start makes room for guitars and subdued strings, then synths, an unobtrusive electronic beat and manipulated backing vocals as Vernon alternates between raw-boned vocals and his delicate falsetto. The instrumentation condenses into a muddle halfway through, then drops out entirely for a few bars to emphasize Vernon’s voice. For all its considerable musical acumen, i,i still feels clinical at times. Though Vernon and his compadres demonstrate great facility with songwriting—and even more with constructing disparate parts into a whole—their emphasis on structure sometimes comes at the expense of emotional impact, which makes for an album that is objectively dazzling, but not always easy to love. —Eric R. Danton

jamila.jpg30. Jamila Woods: LEGACY! LEGACY!
On HEAVN—her self-released 2016 solo debut album—Jamila Woods presented a seamless and spirited exploration of the modern black experience: beauty and pain, pride and fear, spirituality, struggle and, ultimately, the strength that comes from being part of a community built on love and support. “Call it black girl magic,” Woods sang against a wall of buzzy future-soul and hip-hop, neatly summarizing her entire aura in three words. For her second act, the dynamic singer, songwriter, poet and Chicagoan decided to dig into the deep roots of that magic, naming each track on LEGACY! LEGACY! after an inspirational person of color: Nikki Giovanni, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Sun Ra, Octavia Butler and James Baldwin, among others. The album spends its first half being perfectly enjoyable in a way that marries Woods’ aptitude for memorable melodies with sturdy, engaging beats. But then comes the second half, which noticeably shifts into a higher gear. The backing trackers get weirder (and sometimes prettier), the lyrics become more antagonistic, and Woods’ vocal delivery reaches new heights as she channels her subjects and confronts the forces they faced down so she can fly. “I shed sounds like snakeskin, style like chameleon. Wanna cage me?” she sings in “Miles,” a persona poem about legendary jazz man Miles Davis. “You can find me in the garden growin’ like a weed.” LEGACY! LEGACY! is a stunning work. Watching where she goes from here may be even better. —Ben Salmon

29. (Sandy) Alex G: House of Sugar
At the southern tip of Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood, there’s an imposing structure on the Delaware River that somehow looks equal parts parking garage, hospital and convention center. The building is none of these things, but it’s just as overwhelming as each one of them. It houses SugarHouse Casino, a dystopian abyss of colorful images leaping forth from slot machines and laser-bright ceiling lights hovering over card tables where gamblers can earn $150 in blackjack, lose it and swear off gambling forever (which may or may not have happened to this writer). Philly resident (Sandy) Alex G’s newest album, House of Sugar, his third for storied label Domino (and eighth or ninth overall, depending on who you ask), is named for this casino. As unsettling as its namesake, the newest record from Alex Giannascoli at times improves on the inscrutable, circuitous experimentation of his Domino debut, Beach Music. At other times, it refines the accessible but still characteristically sauntering country-lite of Rocket, his masterful second album for the British indie label. In other words, House of Sugar sounds like a middle ground between the two albums that preceded it. —Max Freedman

Miss Universe thumbnail.jpg28. Nilüfer Yanya: Miss Universe
Style over substance is never a smart method for making art, and London based singer/songwriter Nilüfer Yanya masterfully obliterates that concept on her debut album, Miss Universe. With an album that borders on soul, pop, jazz and rock, Yanya is far too preoccupied with her inner demons and unique artistry to quibble over what one particular genre her music most closely resembles. In a current musical climate ruled by increased musical accessibility from streaming and in a world where so many people struggle with mental health, Miss Universe is a post-genre attempt at self-care that feels needed. This is an emotionally multi-faceted album to luxuriate in. Whether you take solace in her sultry, rich voice, instrumentals that range from bubbly to rugged or become invested in her confessional storytelling, Nilüfer Yanya’s Miss Universe can be easily enjoyed during a night out or night in. There are exultant singalongs (“In Your Head,” “Heavyweight Champion of the World”), luscious, bittersweet slow-burners (“Melt,” “Safety Net”), and sometimes humorous, sometimes alarming spoken-word interludes, which cultivate a transcendent alternate reality (“WWAY HEALTH,” “Sparkle GOD HELP ME,” “Experience?”). It’s an angsty LP concerned with entrapment, fear and expectations versus reality. Perhaps most triumphantly, Yanya pulls off jazz-infused, scrappy guitar pop with much more emotional and musical nuance than the buzzy, male-dominated “sad boi” acts like Rex Orange County or other beanie-donning dudes with keyboards and Stratocasters. —Lizzie Manno

thankunext.jpg27. Ariana Grande: thank u, next
Released mere months after the love-soaked Sweetener and Mac Miller’s death, thank u, next grapples with a difficult quandary: How do you live and love healthily, sustainably, when the world around you is watching you grieve in real-time? Grande figures it out with effervescence, joy and pop brilliance, crafting a loosely autobiographical concept album filled with self-actualizing (“thank u, next,” “fake smile”), self-discovery (“needy,” “ghostin”) and, between thirst and retail therapy, a few, all-too-human self-soothing mechanisms along the way. It’s her most focused, most inward work yet, delivered with the deftness and universality of a bonafide pop star. thank u, next is a guidebook on how to thrive, complete with an eminently Instagram caption-worthy mantra — one that gave Grande her first Billboard No. 1 single after all this time. —Joshua Bote

26. Maggie Rogers: Heard It In A Past Life
In a way, Maggie Rogers is the exemplary model of a modern pop star. Her success story is one that’s exclusive to our times, when the Internet has the power to make moguls out of memes overnight. But Rogers is no Mason Ramsey: Her story begins not with a Walmart yodel, but with an unbelievably perfect demo, played for Pharrell Williams during a songwriting masterclass at New York University in 2016. The video of his reaction (stunned, in the best way) went viral, and Rogers stumbled into sensation. As Pharrell more or less said upon hearing that first cut of “Alaska” (which now boasts more nearly 100 million Spotify streams and club remixes for days), Maggie Rogers is singular. Other Internet-made stars flake and fade, but Rogers has continued to burn oh-so bright, incomparable in terms of musical style. While she’s kept us satiated with an EP and a crop of sparkling singles, we’ve been waiting for Heard It In A Past Life for a few years. Now that it’s here, one thing’s clear: Maggie Rogers is a pure pop star and a deserving one, at that. She’s self-assured in a way other radio stars aren’t, never afraid to fold in her folk background and do whatever she wants. And you just can’t help but root for her. If Maggie Rogers can find a way to exist alongside the likes of Billie Eilish (which she has, at least by this list’s judgement), she’ll be the next big thing in pop. The charts are starved for something real and down-to-earth, and her songs, while heavily produced in comparison to some of her folksier beginnings, have an earnestness to them that can’t be fabricated. Rogers’ career may have first sparked on the internet, but now it’s a fire burning IRL. —Ellen Johnson

solange_albumart.jpeg25. 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.jpg24. 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.png22. 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.jpg20. 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.jpg14. 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.jpg13. 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.jpg11. 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.jpg10. 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

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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