After celebrating the best music, film, and television of the decade in November, we now turn to celebrating 2019. We start today with our Top 50 Albums of 2019.
I still believe in albums.
After nearly a decade of being told albums, as a format, are dead, dying, or rapidly circling the drain, they’re still here. That’s not to say that the industry hasn’t changed. Sure, bands can’t bank on album sales anymore to sustain a living, and a person wearing buds on the train is more likely to be skipping through a playlist than to be immersed in an album proper.
I get all that. I also understand that the album has shrunk over the past two decades to account for economic realities. And, yes, we’ve also seen records bloat the last couple of years as artists, usually rappers, try to game the system by throwing an extra dozen tracks (or “units”) on an album to be downloaded. All’s fair in love and charts.
It might not be the golden age of the album anymore. I’ll admit that. But 2019 assured us that the album is a far, confident cry from deceased. Billie Eilish and Lizzo showed us multiple ways to cram banger after banger onto a disc while aspiring to something greater than a mere collection of singles. Tyler, the Creator and Angel Olsen, long celebrated by our staff, took their studio recordings to staggering new levels this year. We got to see Sharon Van Etten reinvent herself on an album that hasn’t dulled an iota all year long, and Jamila Woods put out one of the most thoughtful and creative “concept” albums of this, or any, decade.
How audiences buy and consume music will always change. But as long as artists, like the ones mentioned above, turn to the industry’s traditional long-form format to express themselves, expand their sounds, and reflect on the world around them, consider us ready to sit down and listen front to back.
And, as always: no skipping.
50. Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars
Origin: Long Branch, New Jersey
The Gist: After writing an autobiography, performing a Broadway residency, and watching Obama’s America slowly crumble into Trump’s Wasteland, Bruce Springsteen hit the road, headed out to Middle America, and got lost under some Western Stars. Inspired by the California pop of the ’60s and ’70s, the New Jersey singer-songwriter finds himself by his lonesome for the first time since 2005’s Devils and Dust. Unlike that beautiful dirge, though, this album feels gentle — like a lullaby for city slickers. Not the Billy Crystal kind, but the bruised countrymen who haven’t lost sight of the beauty, even amidst all the chaos.
Why It Rocks: Never one to shy away from the classics, The Boss tries his hand at Glen Campbell’s style and Roy Orbison’s vibes to maximum effect. This is some country-western stuff, alright, and that might not sit well with the fans hoping to hear his construction worker anthems of yesteryear. Lose the hard hats for a second, though, and enjoy the solace. Like Nebraska, Springsteen offers up so much space for meditation, only very little room for brooding. No, this is Nebraska with headlights, where you get to see where you’re going and yet also get to kick your legs up for a second or two. Giddy up. –Michael Roffman
Essential Tracks: “Hello Sunshine”, “Wayfarer”, and “Western Stars”
49. Black Belt Eagle Scout – At the Party with My Brown Friends
Origin: Portland, Oregon
The Gist: At the Party with My Brown Friends comes less than a year after Katherine Paul’s well-received debut, Mother of My Children. While that first record came to fruition amidst the fierce Standing Rock protests, this second full-length finds the queer and indigenous songwriter exploring a different form of resistance — one rooted in the everyday.
Why It Rules: With clouds of dream pop and hushed indie rock tones as her backdrop, Paul celebrates the tiny victories in her daily life. Her songs extol the forming of community, the blossoming of a relationship with someone who inherently understands her struggle as a PoC (“You have eyes just like mine” from “Run It to Ya”), and even the memory of a time spent on the beach. Although these are small snapshots of a much larger life, they speak volumes as building blocks of empowerment and strength. In a world that’s quick to ostracize and repress on the basis of difference, living your life, loving your partner, and partying with those that look like you sometimes is the most powerful form of protest. –Lake Schatz
Essential Tracks: “Run It to Ya”, “You’re Me and I’m You”, “Going to the Beach with Haley”
48. Hatchie – Keepsake
Origin: Brisbane, Queensland, Australia
The Gist: Australia has recently been sending out the beautiful sounds of a bounty of up-and-coming musicians, one of whom is Harriette Pilbeam, aka Hatchie, a 26-year-old dream pop virtuoso. She released Keepsake, her first studio album, in summer 2019, offering up a perfect soundtrack for eating rocket pops and watching the clouds with your crush.
Why It Rules: Dream pop is less a sound for Hatchie than it is an environment, a language, and an ethos. Keepsake works beautifully as essentially a love song in 10 parts, a hazy, glimmering 45-minute daydream of wishes and desires and synths that manage to be sweet more than sexy (but definitely still a little sexy). And yet the album also spawned a handful of infectious singles, such as “Without a Blush” and “Obsessed”, which both are fresh and hooky and a bit timeless, too. –Kayleigh Hughes
Essential Tracks: “Obsessed”, “Without a Blush”, and “Stay with Me”
47. Catfish and the Bottlemen – The Balance
Origin: Llandudno, Wales
The Gist: Post-punk rock purveyors, Catfish and The Bottlemen have been steadily releasing music and scaling venues across the world for more than a decade. Now, three studio albums in, the band have made it their practice to turn a deaf ear to the question of whether or not rock ‘n’ roll is dead, and somehow, in a day and age where music can slope more towards meme than musical movement, have kept a steadfast eye on fervent live shows.
Why It Rules: Whereas their previous albums translated the ins and outs of young love, The Balance is a primer on interpersonal relationships, loving or otherwise. Though their lyricism has always leaned more towards the literal than the flowery, track by track The Balance is a testament to the way we really deal with life. Songs like “2all” speak to the truth that some of the best love songs don’t happen to be romantic at all. More importantly, the significance of the album lies in its ability to be transmuted live. The Balance’s best tracks are refreshingly better suited for packed venues over streams and headphones, with moments like “Longshot” and “Fluctuate” with drum beats, guitar solos, and choruses that are best felt when sung along with in real-time. –Erica Campbell
Essential Tracks: “Longshot”, “Fluctuate”, and “Overlap”
46. (Sandy) Alex G – House of Sugar
Origin: Havertown, Pennsylvaia
The Gist: (Sandy) Alex G’s latest album is an often bleak, uninviting journey. Moments on “Walk Away” or “Near” get stuck in repetition, a broken record of desperation that blur with dream logic. Interspersed with these are some of the songwriter’s most nakedly painful yet beautiful songs yet, especially the crowning achievement of “Hope,” a sparsely drawn tale of having visions of a friend who died from a fentanyl overdose.
Why It Rules: House of Sugar is the latest in the songwriter’s burgeoning collection of great records, one that solidifies all the qualities that have made him one of the most acclaimed indie rock musicians of this decade. He doesn’t temper any of his experimental tendencies, but pushes them well past their breaking point, while also writing some of his most straightforwardly entrancing songs yet like “Southern Sky” and “Gretel”. Tales of regret, grief, isolation, and frustration color the album, as Giannascoli pushes his talents as a storyteller to new heights by stepping into the lives of the characters he writes about, criminals and gamblers searching for forgiveness, making timeless songs along the way. –David Sackllah
Essential Tracks: “Hope”, “Southern Sky”, and “Sugarhouse (Live)”
45. Clairo – Immunity
Origin: Carlisle, Massachusetts
The Gist: Recently, it seems that anyone with a relatively “lo-fi” sound tends to get pigeonholed into the ambiguous category of “bedroom pop.” At first, Claire Cottrill, professionally known as Clairo, appeared satisfied with this distinction. Cottrill’s claim to fame happened abruptly: her homemade YouTube video for “Pretty Girl”, a sardonic yet candid exploration of the idealistic “woman,” garnered millions of views, subsequently making her the new face of the micro-genre (and the Spotify playlist). But “bedroom pop” oftentimes equates to amateur. After touring with pop luminaries such as Khalid and Dua Lipa, appearing on multiple major music festival bills and selling out show after show, Cottrill was ready to disentangle herself from the confines of the loosely defined label and, well, grow up. On her debut album, Immunity, she proves herself.
Why It Rules: About half of Immunity feels almost like an apology — whether it’s for a lack of courage or the hapless yearning for another: she’s distant, yet tender with her restrained vocals almost hiding behind a wall of electro-pop, ethereal vaporwave, and the occasional children’s chorus. But on the other half, she’s unashamed of her missteps, using her loneliness as a guide toward a new understanding of both herself and the general conditions in which she and a lover reside. She tries to remain collected, almost apathetic, as her partner walks out on her in “Bags”, a track co-produced by Rostam that features a silvery drum-loop from Danielle Haim and seldom keys that fill the fluttering synth with a reserved sense of apprehension. But she reaffirms: “I guess this could be worse/ Walking out the door with your bags.” Taken in total, Immunity is sincere, providing a retelling of Cottrill’s efforts to step outside of her bedroom and into adulthood. –Samantha Small
Essential Tracks: “Bags”, “Sofia”, and “Softly”
44. Lady Lamb – Even in the Tremor
Origin: Brunswick, Maine
The Gist: Three times the charm, indeed. Four years after dazzling us with her sophomore record, 2015’s After, Aly Spaltro returns with her most autobiographical record to date, Even in the Tremor. Under the guidance of ex-Bowie producer Erin Tonkon, Spaltro unlocks her inner anxieties over 11 tracks that soar with volume. No kidding. As she’s wont to do, Spaltro swims over a thousand words, all of which carry a dusty trail of experience and wisdom. It’s also fitting that the album finds her back on her original label, Ba Da Bing Records, as this record feels like a 360 of sorts. A new beginning, if you will.
Why It Rocks: For as hyper-literate as Spaltro can be, her true divinity dwells in her vocals. It’s been that way since she first charmed our socks off over half a decade ago with “Crane Your Neck”, and it’s even more alluring now that she’s a little older, a little wiser, and, well, a little stronger. “Deep Love” says it all. The conviction alone speaks to her maturity as a songwriter. It’s the sound of experience. Of every meandering relationship. Of every wounded heart. Of every timeless hug. And that’s only one track. Surrounding it are 10 other tracks from a songbook that bleeds as much as it screams. –Michael Roffman
Essential Tracks: “Deep Love”, “Even in the Tremor”, and “July Was Mundane”
43. The Regrettes – How Do You Love?
Origin: Los Angeles, California
The Gist: After turning all the right heads with their 2017 debut, Feel Your Feelings Fool!, The Regrettes borrowed some time with an EP, shuffled bass players, and fell in love. Or at least Lydia Night did. Of course, like the phoenix rising from the ashes, any new relationship comes from a place of sorrow, and Night leaned on those past experiences for the group’s sophomore effort. How Do You Love? is a concept album in theory about the sugary highs and sourful lows of a relationship, blending their penchant for doo-wop and obsession with distortion in equal measure.
Why It Rules: It’s catchy. Simple as that. Look, there’s nothing groundbreaking about How Do You Love?, but that’s partly what makes it so rich. These are universal themes, after all, and that familiarity is crucial to the feelings wired in every song. What makes it a cut above the rest is Night’s conviction and way around a hook. “California Friends”, “I Dare You”, and “Here You Go” scream with replay value, sure, but it’s how Night twirls around her poetry on tracks like “Pumpkin”, “Fog”, or “Dress Up” that recall the asymmetrical delivery of Paul Westerberg. Like any piece of pop culture in the midst of a relationship, there’s comfort here. Lots of it. –Michael Roffman
Essential Tracks: “I Dare You”, “California Friends”, and “Pumpkin”
42. Nilüfer Yanya – Miss Universe
Origin: London, England
The Gist: Twenty-three-year-old Nilüfer Yanya first drew attention five years ago with a series of acoustic SoundCloud releases. Critics were quick to point towards her as a singer-songwriter star in the making, but few could have predicted the direction she’d take on her debut full-length from ATO, Miss Universe.
Why It Rules: The Londoner’s first album is a prime specimen of the post-genre era. Broken up by skits about a influencer-friendly self-care corporation, Miss Universe lays bare Yanya’s anxieties through gospel dance (“Baby Blu”), waltzing blues (“Angels”), saxophone-backed bedroom R&B (“Melt”), and sparse folk (“Monsters Under the Bed”). Whatever world she plays in, it’s always restrained and natural, an unaffected manifestation of the influences in her head. As are the lyrics, which see the young musician constantly wrestling with her own emotional and creative limits. Yanya presents as a complex, considered artist with a voice as gutsy as her songwriting. –Ben Kaye
Essential Tracks: “In Your Head”, “Baby Blu”, and “Melt”
41. Pivot Gang – You Can’t Sit with Us
Origin: Chicago, Illinois
The Gist: SABA should be the next household name that emerges from the thriving Chicago rap scene. In a time where much of the most popular hip-hop sounds stuck in the same groove and gets pushed on listeners in Costco bulk units, SABA and fellow Pivot Gang members prove that rap full of subtlety, nuance, and honest storytelling will never go out of style. Joined by family, friends, and local guests like Mick Jenkins, SABA and co. flaunt the power of Chicago’s Westside on You Can’t Sit with Us.
Why It Rules: Let’s keep it as real as a slice of deep dish (fuck that fold-able NY pie) and throw in a Bulls metaphor because … when in sweet home Chicago. We’ve seen SABA play Pippen to Chance the Rapper’s Jordan and drop 60 on his own sophomore game-changer, 2018’s Care for Me, but now he’s proving to be “just like Mike” by taking his Windy City brethren along for the championship ride. And You Can’t Sit with Us boasts so much more than just its most famous member dishing (not dropping) dimes for easy layups. On top tracks like “Colbert” and “Mortal Kombat”, others are playing the role of floor general and make telling these tales of turmoil and triumph look as smooth as a proper full-court weave. Again, SABA should be the next household name out of Chicago, but Pivot Gang prove he sure as hell shouldn’t be the last. –Matt Melis
Essential Tracks: “Colbert”, “Mortal Kombat”, and “Hero”