Home Music Music Lists

The 50 Best Albums of 2019

From ‘Lover’ to ‘Cuz I Love You,’ ‘Death Race to Love,’ and beyond, here are the records that defined the year

As the culture continued to sag in 2019, music soared. This was the year Billie Eilish rewrote the rules of from-nowhere pop mega-success; Ariana Grande exulted in the spacey, self-loving emo grandeur of Thank U, Next; Taylor, Lana, Miranda Lambert, Vampire Weekend, and Sharon Van Etten capped off great decades with big reinventions; and Lizzo was as Lizzo as ever. Meanwhile, avant-pop what-the-fucks 100 Gecs and hard-rocking heroes Sheer Mag kept noise alive, and rising stars Megan the Stallion and DaBaby, both masterful mouths of the South, led a class of newcomers setting the table for the 2020s.


Moon Tooth, ‘Crux’

An album that can remind you of Converge one minute and John Mayer the next? Bear with us. There’s something alchemical at work on the second LP by Long Island outfit Moon Tooth that turns what could be a scatterbrained genre mashup into an ingenious hybrid. There’s no channel-changing evident on songs like “Omega Days” and “Motionless in Sky,” just a harmonious mesh of prog-metal fury and R&B poignancy. And while we never envisioned that power-ballad crooning could flow naturally into beast-mode blitz, it now seems like pure wish fulfillment, thanks to Crux’s awe-inspiring title track. Not since the early days of the Mars Volta has a rock band managed to sound so wildly adventurous while delivering such unshakable hooks.


Priests, ‘The Seduction of Kansas’

After making a name for themselves with the whirlwind fury of their live shows and early releases, this Washington, D.C., band disavowed the word “punk” entirely in interviews around their second album. The music backed up that promise, flying through art-damaged disco (the title track), dark minimalism (“I’m Clean”), eerie pop (“Carol”), and more — even a few all-out ragers like opener “Jesus’ Son” (rhymes with “I think I’m gonna hurt someone”). In the end, Priests made all of those labels irrelevant by burning with the same incandescent heat no matter what sounds they were trying on. The Seduction of Kansas is a pretty great album about American dysfunction, but it’s an even better album about how to make a guitar band feel essential in 2019.


Yola, ‘Walk Through Fire’

Prior to launching her solo career, British singer-songwriter Yola worked as a top-line songwriter, sang with Massive Attack, and performed in bands including Bugz in the Attic and Phantom Limb. There was, however, scant evidence of Bristol-born Yolanda Quartey’s pop and electronic pedigree on her proper debut, Walk Through Fire — instead, it’s a smooth-sipping master class in country-soul, produced by Dan Auerbach and played with knowing expertise by the Easy Eye Sound house band. There are shades of Dusty in Memphis (“Faraway Look”) and even Carole King’s sturdy singer-songwriter pop (“Still Gone”), but Yola sounds equally confident with more down-home traditions, as heard on the fiddle-laced title track and the lush, gentle ballad “Shady Grove.” Above it all, her deft sense of melody and commanding voice shines through, rising from a low purr to an explosive, cathartic cry on “Lonely the Night” and caressing an easygoing, windows-down groove in “Ride Out in the Country.”


Post Malone, ‘Hollywood’s Bleeding’

Post Malone barely moved a muscle for much of 2019, but he dominated the year anyway, racking up streams by the hundred million on 2018 singles like “Sunflower” and “Wow.” While some stars hew closely to the sound that brought them commercial success, afraid of alarming listeners with endless options at their fingertips, Malone decided not to pack his new album with attempts at “Wow, Part 2.” Quite the opposite, in fact — Hollywood’s Bleeding can evoke Tame Impala (“Circles”), classic rock (“Take What You Want”), and pop-punk (“Allergic”). Malone’s commercial pull is so strong that whatever he touches right now becomes a hit. Case in point: Ozzy Osbourne is currently the oldest performer appearing on Top 40 radio by several decades, thanks to his guest appearance on “Take What You Want.”


Burna Boy, ‘African Giant’

Burna Boy’s new album opens with a declaration of global conquest: “Here comes the African giant.” The Nigerian star alternates between brassy, propulsive solo showcases — “Anybody,” “Dangote,” “Gbona,” and “On the Low” are all nimble bass and loose funk — and shrewd collaborations that show him expanding his reach further into Atlanta (Future), London (Jorja Smith), Los Angeles (YG), and the Caribbean (Damian Marley, Serani). “On the Low” has become a stealthy hit stateside, earning over 20 million streams, according to the analytics company Alpha Data, and Burna Boy is working hard to maintain his momentum, recently appearing on a Stormzy and Ed Sheeran single that debuted at Number Three in the U.K. “One thing that’s constant [in my career] is growth,” Burna Boy told Rolling Stone. “It’s not an up-and-down thing. I climbed every step. I don’t skip steps — I’m too heavy to skip steps.”


Rico Nasty and Kenny Beats, ‘Anger Management’

Across 18 minutes and nine songs, Maryland rapper Rico Nasty boiled over. The anger inherent in Anger Management — a collaborative project with producer Kenny Beats — was more accurately a righteous fury. Over jagged and intense beats, Rico screamed, screeched, and yelped about everything she’s had to fight for and against on her path to rap stardom: the men who tried to control her, the people who desperately wanted to hold her back, fake relatives, copycat rappers, and the spoils that come along with never relenting. On “Cheat Code” she proclaims, “I can never wait on a nigga to come save me,” and on the “Dirt Off Your Shoulder”–sampling “Hatin,” she builds a chorus around the sage advice, “You know these niggas be hatin’ on bitches/You got your own shit, you ain’t ever gotta listen to him, girl.” But as the project progresses, the enmity begins to dissipate and the high-octane beats become more reflective. Rico lyrically admits what’s sonically unfolding: “Had a lot of built-up anger that I had to let out.” Her fury helped secure her spot in hip-hop, but it’s far from her only story.


The Black Keys, ‘Let’s Rock’

Breakup rumors surrounded the Black Keys in the three and a half years they took off from the road after touring 2014’s Turn Blue. But the break served them well. The band sounds recharged and heavier than ever on their catchiest album since 2011’s El Camino. The duo unabashedly channels bands like Stealers Wheel and Led Zeppelin, while frontman Dan Auerbach offers some of his most introspective lyrics ever: “Every woman who’s ever loved you is telling you lies/Everyone who’s ever loved you would never deny,” he sings on the funk throwdown “Tell Me Lies.” Auerbach, who spent much of the Keys’ break producing other artists at his studio, seems ready to take risks, incorporating gospel vocals on the rave-up “Low/Hi” and a sitar solo on “Breaking Down.”


Todd Snider, ‘Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3’

An alt-country wordsmith of the first order, Snider came back from a battle with opiate addiction, sense of humor and fighting spirit intact, on an album recorded in Johnny Cash’s old cabin studio in Tennessee. (For those keeping track, there is no volume one or two.) The Dylan-esque “Talking Reality Television Blues” traces a narcotizing line from Milton Berle to The Apprentice, and “Working on a Song” is the well-observed life story of a Nashville songwriter. As a whole, the album is like Cash’s rebel spirit mixed with the mordant wit of Randy Newman, and it makes for one of the year’s best heartland statements, even if Nashville wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole.


Rapsody, ‘Eve’

Rapsody made the stakes of her latest opus clear from the beginning: Over a sample of Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit,” the very first words out of the fellow North Carolinian’s mouth were, “Emit light, rap, or Emmett Till.”  On this dense 16-song concept album structured around paying homage to the diverse strands of black womanhood, the MC crafted a sprawling masterwork that nevertheless feels like her most intimate offering to date. Set to samples that range from Phil Collins to GZA to Björk, the 36-year-old traditionalist confronted a music industry that remains hostile to voices, like hers, that refuse to conform. “White men run us/They don’t want this kinda passion,” she offered, “A black woman story?/They don’t want this kinda rappin’.”


Maggie Rogers, ‘Heard It in a Past Life’

Expectations couldn’t have been higher for this up-and-comer’s pop debut, which doubled down on the muscular electro-folk of her breakthrough single, “Alaska.” But Heard It in a Past Life proved that the singer-songwriter was a first-rate pop classicist — from the soft balladry of “Past Life” to the Rostam Batmanglij-assisted percussive piano anthem  “Fallingwater” and the strutting synth-rock of “Overnight.” Rogers took several years to write and record her first LP, which takes on her own unsettlingly rapid rise as its central drama. “Everything kept moving/And the noise got too loud,” she sings on “Light On,” her voice breaking on the pre-chorus climax: “With everyone around me saying/‘You should be so happy now.’”


Juice WRLD, ‘Death Race to Love’

Juice WRLD broke out with hits full of mournful guitar, self-involved lyrics sketching romantic torment, and vocals from the school of why-croon-if-you-can-wail. On his sophomore album, the Chicago rapper-singer is intent on demonstrating his versatility, trying his hand at steroidal SoundCloud rap (“Syphilis”), reverent R&B (“Demonz Interlude”), and global dance hits (“Hear Me Calling”). “People say that they can hear the rock influence, the Blink-182 influence, the emo influence in my music, but on this album you can hear ev-er-y-thing,” Juice WRLD told Rolling Stone. “I have songs for the trap house, songs for the sock hop, songs for the Caribbeans, songs for raves, songs for slow dancing.” Some artists sound awkward when they are attempting to prove their range; that’s not a problem for Juice WRLD. “Certain people freestyle for a while and then run out of things to say,” explained producer Hit-Boy, who worked closely on Death Race for Love. “I feel like [Juice WLRD] is one of the first people I’ve worked with personally who never runs out.”


Beck, ‘Hyperspace’

Beck seesaws between antique blues and modern artifice on his 14th LP, an album that captures the raw fear of time running out and darkness closing in, rendered in pop beats and colors. In songs like “Die Waiting” and “Dark Places” (the titles tell you plenty), Beck combines the exuberant studio mischief of 1999’s Midnite Vultures with the sumptuous introspection of 2002’s Sea Change to eccentric, genuinely compelling effect.


Summer Walker, ‘Over It’

On her slow-burning debut LP, Walker favors leisurely beats, frequently crafted by the Atlanta hip-hop producer London on da Track, and stories about not-quite-functional relationships. She also likes to pay tribute to Nineties R&B — nodding to Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name” on “Playing Games,” reworking Usher’s “You Make Me Wanna” on “Come Thru” — and playing off of high-powered duet partners: Yes, that’s the actual Usher making a rare guest appearance on “Come Thru,” and he’s joined on Over It by the new-school brooders PartyNextDoor and 6lack, plus the sweet-voiced streaming sensation A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, and a little artist by the name of Drake. Walker’s approach remains remarkably consistent from song to song, making Over It easy to absorb in a long chunk. That’s what listeners did in droves — Over It amassed more than 145 million streams its debut week.


Purple Mountains, ‘Purple Mountains’

David Berman established himself as a literary indie-rock genius in the Nineties and 2000s with his band the Silver Jews. After an 11-year hiatus, he returned with new project Purple Mountains, singing about love and its absence, the beauty of the world, and the futility of existence in heartbreaking, mordantly funny songs that explore his own unique outsider-country idiom. “Margaritas at the Mall” is hilarious happy-hour existentialism, “Darkness and Cold” is a crushingly lovely post-breakup autopsy, and “Storyline Fever” is a study in “motivational paralysis” hot-wired by Bakersfield guitar twang. Just days before Purple Mountains were scheduled to begin a tour to support the LP, Berman took his own life, leaving fans and peers with this wonderful suggestion of all the great music he still might’ve given us.


FKA Twigs, ‘Magdalene’

Not many artists could get away with a breakup album that doubles as an extended metaphor about Mary Magdalene, but not many artists have the careful curatorial skills of FKA Twigs. On her sophomore album, the English multi-hyphenate dissects the end of her much-publicized relationship with actor Robert Pattinson. She’s the Magdalene to his Jesus figure: a derided, misunderstood partner to a beloved celebrity. She lets it all out in songs like “Cellophane,” “Sad Day,” and “Mirrored Heart,” reflecting on public perception and a partner who doesn’t understand the pain of a relationship under the microscope of public scrutiny. With help from collaborators like Nicolas Jaar, Jack Antonoff, Kenny Beats, Future, Skrillex, and Cashmere Cat, she reconstructs what she’s called the “ornate birdcage” of her sound — a blend of orchestral elements and chamber pop with trap beats and R&B production. Only now, it’s simultaneously bigger and more accessible than ever before.


Brockhampton, ‘Ginger’

Brockhampton, the internet’s native boy band, had a meteoric rise. Then they paid for it. Following a dizzying three-album run in 2017 that powered the unusually large collective to superstardom, they began to fracture. “I had an identity crisis,” said Joba, one of the group’s producers. “I didn’t know how to exist.” Ginger finds the group on the other side of a chasm: more sensitive than before, less willing to give into anger, more influenced by Nineties R&B. It’s a mature album from artists who made their name going full-tilt at every opportunity, and the kind of cornerstone they could build a career upon. Until the next crisis.


Karen O and Danger Mouse, ‘Lux Prima’

Karen O and Danger Mouse came from different schools of early-2000s musical destruction (and reconstruction), but they sounded perfectly in step on Lux Prima, a collaborative album that found the Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman crooning over the producer’s cinematic soundscapes. The music is part Goldfrapp trip-hop, part Isaac Hayes “Walk on By” soul odyssey, part Shirley Bassey Bond theme. It’s all effortlessly cool, and Karen O makes it even chillier as she sings about turning her dreams into a ministry of love (“Ministry”) and coos, “There’s nobody but youuu” (“Lux Prima”). She also sounds confident and strong on “Woman,” using her Yeah Yeah Yeahs growl to declare “I’m a woman,” and on “Redeemer” when she promises, “You’re not coming for me, I’m coming for you.” The whole thing is dusky, sexy, and fresh — just what you’d expect from these two.


J Balvin and Bad Bunny, ‘Oasis’

When Bad Bunny and J Balvin first linked up on 2017’s excellent “Si Tu Novio Te Deja Sola,” it might have been easy to lose them in the wave of urban collabs sweeping the Latin charts. But when the two crossed orbits on Cardi B’s bilingual summer jam “I Like It,” their effectiveness as a duo became impossible to ignore. By the time they followed that with the one-two punch of Balvin’s magnum opus Vibras and Bad Bunny’s Boricua manifesto X 100pre, these artists had established a league of their own. In a classic showing of international pop solidarity — or perhaps just genuine friendship — the Colombian Balvin and Puerto Rican Bunny dropped their long-awaited LP, Oasis, this summer. Together, the two continue to flout música urbana’s conventions, suffusing the streetwise art form of reggaeton with a healthy dose of play.


Sheer Mag, ‘A Distant Call’

Some bands go their whole careers without hitting on a sound as finely honed as the one Sheer Mag put forth on their first three EPs. Since then, it’s been a matter of micro-refinement: On their debut LP, 2017’s Need to Feel Your Love, they branched out into disco and funk; on A Distant Call, they added a semi-autobiographical framework, loosely based on the life of singer Tina Halladay. But the album’s genius lies in the mix of leather-and-spikes toughness (see fierce socialist anthem “Chopping Block”) and tears-on-my-pillow vulnerability (try the yearning breakup tale “Silver Line”) that’s been the band’s calling card all along. May they keep on not fixing what ain’t broke.


Megan Thee Stallion, ‘Fever’

“Nine times out of 10, I’m the realest bitch you know/If you ain’t want a pimp then what you fuckin’ with me for,” raps 24-year-old Megan Pete on her first LP. Megan Thee Stallion’s realness is never in question, as she connects the feminist rap tradition of Roxanne Shante and MC Lyte to the throbbing sounds of her native Houston, putting her own intimate pleasures front and center on pointillistically detailed dirty-talkin’ flexes like “Sex Talk” and “Pimpin’.” She brags about moving to the burbs and slips into some R&B softness on “Big Drank” and “Best You Ever Had,” but still keeps it resolutely ratchet, spraying commanding verses all over every track. 


The National, ‘I Am Easy to Find’

The National’s eighth album, like all National albums, takes a little while to reveal itself as, also like all National albums, a melancholic exercise in beauty and restraint centered on the mundane pleasures and devastations of middle-aged life in America. The band sounds as assured as ever, but it’s the addition of new voices — lead singer Matt Berninger seems happy to cede the spotlight — that shows they’re more than capable of evolution. From the emergence of longtime Bowie collaborator Gail Ann Dorsey on the opening track, “You Had Your Soul With You,” the album continually subs out Berninger’s gruff baritone for female vocalists like Sharon Van Etten, Lisa Hannigan, and Kate Stables. The shift yields some of the band’s strongest work to date.


Sleater-Kinney, ‘The Center Won’t Hold’

Drummer Janet Weiss’ sidelining and departure was the sad footnote to this set. Yet it saw one of America’s greatest rock bands remaking itself in thrilling ways. Corin Tucker still brought the noise, paraphrasing Yeats on the title track in a bloodcurdling howl for a nation (and maybe a rock group, too). Conjuring the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford on the torch song “Broken,” Tucker also found a new sort of tenderness. Carrie Brownstein, meanwhile, emerged like a New Wave superheroine, amplified by producer Annie Clark of St. Vincent, a fellow guitar goddess who gave the music a chrome-plated, synth-powered sheen. The LP may have marked the end of an era. But it was both a fitting capstone and an auspicious new chapter.


Coldplay, ‘Everyday Life’

“The thing we’ve done with this album is like, ‘Fuck it,’ ” Chris Martin told Rolling Stones Jann Wenner about Coldplay’s eighth LP. “I don’t care what anybody thinks. I really don’t. Just let it flood through.” Flood it did: Everyday Life is a double album that brings together giant singalong choruses, Persian poetry, watery balladry, protest folk, Sufi qawwali, laid-back gospel, and production from Max Martin (alongside longtime Coldplay producer Rik Simpson and the Dream Team), plus guest spots from Fela Kuti’s son and grandson, the Belgian rapper-singer Stromae, the London Voice Choir, and Martin’s son, Moses, who co-wrote the single “Orphans.” (How all-over-the-place is it? Martin cited Paul Simon and Rammstein as big influences.) And yet the whole thing works, in part because there’s an audible lack of self-consciousness. Coldplay throw everything into the mix and bind it all together with Martin’s gift for melody and earnest humanism: lyrics about police violence, guns being everywhere, missile strikes in Syria. It’s by turns beautiful, catchy, a bit much. But by the end you’re glad they went for it all.


Sharon Van Etten, ‘Remind Me Tomorrow’

Sharon Van Etten has always known how to wreck hearts — she’s one of the past decade’s most unflinchingly intense songwriters. But she really hits home on Remind Me Tomorrow, her fifth and finest album. She goes for an expansive electro groove, but with all the stark intimacy of her early acoustic-guitar days. She begins the album in a saloon, with a hell of an opening scene: “Sitting at the bar, I told you everything/You said, ‘Holy shit.’ ” “Stay” is her trip-hop rumination on the terrors of becoming a mom, while “Seventeen” gives a boomingly compassionate pep talk to her younger self, taking flight at the end with Siouxsie-style wails.


Wilco, ‘Ode to Joy’

Wilco have reinvented themselves enough times during the past 25 years that few would have blamed them for spending the next quarter century turning out low-key treats like 2016’s Schmilco. Instead, they blew up the blueprint yet again for Ode to Joy, an exercise in radical restraint that yielded their best album in ages. The opening sequence of “Bright Leaves,” “Before Us,” and “One and a Half Stars” sets a mood of hushed intensity, with Jeff Tweedy singing about crushing sadness over Glenn Kotche’s drums and not much else. When the familiar pleasures of the band return to the mix later on — the rapturous Nels Cline riff on “Love Is Everywhere (Beware),” the campfire chorus of “Hold Me Anyway” — they feel both welcome and earned. “Are we all in love just because?/No, I think it’s poetry and magic,” Tweedy sings. Ode to Joy shows that Wilco aren’t ready to call off the search for either one.


Jamila Woods, ‘Legacy! Legacy!’

Following the gospel-tinged rap-soul revelation of her 2016 debut, HEAVN, Chicago poet Jamila Woods dug into cultural history to find the personal on her second LP. Song titles invoke musical giants (“MILES,” “EARTHA,” “SUN-RA”), whose sound and style Woods slyly channels in her arrangements and lyrics. But she looked to the future, too, passing the mic to rising stars Saba and Nitty Scott, whose cameos are pure fire. Like the best Windy City art, Woods’ work creates a world apart from coastal style-chasing: See the dubby space-funk of “OCTAVIA,” channeling speculative sci-fi master Octavia Butler (“Don’t ever let a textbook scare you/You the missing piece”), and the virtuoso flow of “GIOVANNI” (“A hundred muthafuckas can’t tell me how I’m ‘posed to look when I’m angry/How I’m ‘posed to shrink when you’re around me”), a nod to American poet Nikki Giovanni. When Woods declares, “I am not your typical girl,” she’s not lying.


Tanya Tucker, ‘While I’m Livin’

Although Tucker hates to refer to it as such, her “comeback” album couldn’t have turned out any better — While I’m Livin’ featurs 10 expertly chosen songs, two Grammy-winning producers, and one unmistakable voice. (It also netted her four Grammy nominations of her own.) A concise 35 minutes, the LP captures the outlaw essence of the one-time teenage star without resting on past laurels — there’s no “Delta Dawn” remake here. Instead, co-producers Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings challenged Tucker, throwing a cover of Miranda Lambert’s “The House That Built Me” at her, along with a wealth of brand-new songs written especially for the 61-year-old by Carlile and twin brothers Phil and Tim Hanseroth. “Mustang Ridge” and “The Wheels of Laredo” nod to her Texas heritage, and “I Don’t Owe You Anything” finds her playing the badass to the hilt. But it’s “Bring My Flowers Now,” about gathering those rosebuds while ye may, that is the album’s apex. “Good music is good, no matter what year, what generation. ‘Delta Dawn’ is always going to be a great song,” Tucker told Rolling Stone. “And that’s why you keep striving to find songs like that.”


Harry Styles, ‘Fine Line’

 Styles’ sophomore album, Fine Line, is a breakup meditation bathed in the bright light of personal clarity. Even with a relationship to recover from he’s ready to step into the sun on an album chock full of the same California rock and pop influences that built the foundation of his self-titled 2017 debut. With less to prove this time around and his boy-band past feeling further away than ever before, the album is the sound of the star having a bit of fun. With dreamy summer nostalgia (“Watermelon Sugar”), Joni Mitchell-inspired dulcimer bops (“Canyon Moon”), Lucius-assisted calls for giving peace a chance (“Treat People With Kindness”), and extended psychedelic arrangements (“She”), Styles is building a new type of rock canon — and a new brand of rock star.


Bruce Springsteen, ‘Western Stars’

Bruce Springsteen has spent the last several years looking back. He celebrated the 35th anniversary of The River with a box set and tour, released a memoir, and put together a reflective Broadway residency. On Western Stars, he continued that nostalgia trip with an album that evokes late-Sixties and early-Seventies California pop, complete with swelling string arrangements and songwriting that shamelessly echoes Jimmy Webb and Glenn Campbell (he even covered “Rhinestone Cowboy” in the film version). Fittingly, the LP is filled with has-been L.A. characters — the title track centers on an actor who once did a scene with John Wayne, and “Drive Fast (The Stuntman)” features a stuntman who describes meeting a woman who “liked her guys a little greasy, ‘neath her pay grade.” No one could have anticipated that Springsteen would become a cowboy in 2019, but we’re glad he did.


Bon Iver, ‘i, i’

Since 2016’s 22, a Million, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon hasn’t been content with giving it to you straight. The singer and multi-instrumentalist, long commended for his ability to spin a beautiful melody, retreated into himself, and his gear. With 22, a Million, the result was an album that was fraying at the edges; it sounded like a corrupted file. On i,i, he stays the path, wielding the same electronic distortion to offset the painfully earnest message at the heart of this album: a straightforward plea to be good to one another. This LP includes more coherent songs than its predecessor ever aspired to — “Hey Ma” is one of his best outings to date — and expresses sharp contempt for the listener, and likely himself, on songs like “Holyfields.” It’s an album about everything that somehow achieves intimacy.


Polo G, ‘Die a Legend’

“I’m a killer, girl, I’m sorry/But I can’t change,” Polo G raps in the chorus of his hit “Pop Out,” the centerpiece of the Chicago rapper’s debut, Die a Legend. In someone else’s hands, that apology would be cursory; in Polo’s, it’s a thematic concern. Chicago rap is having a moment this year — its sound is melodic, pained, beautiful — and Polo G is the emerging leader of a new class of rappers from the city. It’s easy to see why. Die a Legend is a remarkably confident full-length, marked by both a sensational ear for beats and a near-reflexive sincerity. Just as he can turn a party track regretful in a second, Polo’s delivery is perpetually nimble, always searching for the gap between rapping and singing — it’s not a new approach, but in Polo’s hands, it feels like an announcement.


100 Gecs, ‘1000 Gecs’

Across 10 songs and 23 minutes, the debut album from 100 Gecs — the duo of Dylan Brady and Laura Les — manages to sound like a billion different things. It’s a jumble of PC Music’s future pop, SoundCloud rap’s frazzled edges, EDM’s greatest excesses, the Warped Tour set’s deceptively broad sounds, and plenty more musical strands from the past 15 years. The center holds because the hooks are like superglue, but Brady and Les are also canny chroniclers of their era, tackling topics like self-medication (“800db Cloud”), capitalist pitfalls (“Stupid Horse”), and navigating the intricacies of heartache and love over the phone (“Ringtone,” “Gec 2 Ü”). There’s humor, there’s pathos, there’s a dubstep drop with dog barks (“745 Sticky”), and it all coalesced into one of 2019’s most exciting debuts.


Young Thug, ‘So Much Fun’

For six years, Young Thug was an uncontainable force: The otherworldly linguistics, the riotous ad-libs, and borderless melodies, along with the dresses and skirts and gender fluidity, broke a genre in need of breaking. But after a string of critically lauded yet commercially disappointing releases, Thug’s momentum stalled. Then So Much Fun resuscitated the mercurial musician. Direct and digestible, the album is Thug at his most streamlined. There are no heady concepts or genre detours; instead, the track list is loaded with major stars (Future, J. Cole, Travis Scott), and every beat is uncomplicated and dynamic. Thug ceded the floor on “Hot” and “Bad Bad Bad” to his streaming behemoth protégés (Lil Baby, Gunna), engaged in a rare press run, and dropped video after video. After years of deconstructing hip-hop and remaking it in his image, Thug spent 19 songs playing the game, and in the process became the commercial star he was destined to be.


Big Thief, ‘Two Hands’

Big Thief had a great 2019, releasing two excellent LPs, the cosmically hardbitten indie-folk set U.F.O.F., and the tougher, more earthbound Two Hands. At the center of their richly textured music is Adrianne Lenker’s delicately intense songwriting. She can squeeze mountains of meaning out of cryptic lyrics and deliver life-lesson lines like “the world has no direction/Everyone needs a little protection” in a way that makes you want to tattoo them on your forehead. The band backs her with just the right craggy guitar beauty, whether it’s on the gently unfolding “Forgotten Eyes” or the shyly explosive “Not.” 


Sturgill Simpson, ‘Sound and Fury’

On 2014’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, Sturgill Simpson made a psychedelically soulful album that successfully blended themes of fatherhood and a mariner’s journey. For Sound and Fury, Simpson blew up the ship, making a “sleazy synth-rock dance record” that serves as a fuck-you to Music Row and beyond. He torches flash-in-the-pan artists (“Everybody’s worried about a good look/But they need to be worried ’bout a good hook”) and the yes men trying to surround him (“They come backstage and on my bus pretendin’ to be my friend”). Simpson, who started out with a bluegrass band, couldn’t sound farther from his roots. He spends minutes on end jamming on his Les Paul, with a sound that channels T. Rex and Trans-era Neil Young. He paired the album with an anime film. Those left-field choices paid off: Simpson is now headlining arenas for the first time. He sums up his mission on the last track, “Fastest Horse in Town”: “Everybody’s trying to be the next someone. But I’m trying to be the first something.”


Brittany Howard, ‘Jaime’

On her tour-de-force solo debut, Alabama Shakes frontwoman Brittany Howard was finally free to explore the full range of her various musical selves. Unburdened by the sea of retro expectations surrounding her main rock outfit, Howard explored a kaleidoscope of influences, from spaced-out Prince melodrama (“Run to Me”) to Nina Simone torch singing (“Short and Sweet”) and Gil Scott-Heron–esque spoken-word psychedelia (“13th Century Metal”). “I repeat, we are all brothers and sisters,” she declared throughout the latter. On an album with moments like “Goat Head,” a song that traced Howard’s family’s history of racial intimidation growing up in the rural South, the line sounded less like a truism than a proud provocation.


Angel Olsen, ‘All Mirrors’

Those who know Olsen from the stripped-down intimacy of 2014’s Burn Your Fire for No Witness may be startled by the grandeur here, though her 2016 My Woman clearly showed an artist whose trajectory had yet to be fully measured. “I was definitely listening to Brian Eno and a lot of Gary Numan, Kate Bush, Sinead O’Connor,” she said of her musical diet during the All Mirrors recording. “Also a lot of Nina Simone and jazz.” The result alternates vast orchestral landscapes with equally cinematic band tracks: Deranged and romantic, her glam-folk alto moves from whisper to wail and back again on songs that negotiate love with no shortage of self-interrogations. Nothing’s simple, or clear cut. The highlight is “Lark,” a crisis scene that builds like a roller-coaster ascent, then dive-bombs into string glissandos while Olsen goes full-ham on a lover. The finale may be the most cathartic two minutes of music you hear this year.


Jenny Lewis, ‘On the Line’

Following the death of her mother and the end of a 12-year relationship, Lewis channeled her grief into the stunning On the Line. The record arrived like a glittery beam of Laurel Canyon sunshine, as Lewis sings about bourbon and Mercury in retrograde (“Wasted Youth”), and Elliott Smith and grenadine (“Heads Gonna Roll”). The star-studded personnel — Ringo Starr, Beck, Heartbreakers’ keyboardist Benmont Tench, and legendary session drummer Jim Keltner all appear on the album — only adds to the Hollywood allure. “I’ve always brought that jam vibe with me wherever I go,” Lewis told Rolling Stone in March. “I feel compelled to play music, to play with people, or I’ll go crazy.”


Tyler, the Creator, ‘IGOR’

When Tyler, the Creator first earned a devoted following as a member of Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All early in the decade, his raps were often abrasive, full of confrontation and provocation. Fast forward to 2019, and Tyler is making some of the year’s prettiest pop, often eschewing rap altogether and choosing to sing with disarming sincerity (“Don’t leave, it’s my fault/’Cause when it all comes crashing down, I’ll need you“). IGOR is idiosyncratic and surprising — “I Think” is an unexpected turn to nu-disco, while “Are We Still Friends?” pays tribute to soul great Al Green — without an obvious radio hit. In the old days, this combination would have ensured that IGOR remained a cult album. But in 2019, Tyler, the Creator managed to out-sell DJ Khaled’s Father of Asahd, the expensively marketed and produced equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster, and debut at Number One.


Nick Cave, ‘Ghosteen’

Grief has always been Nick Cave’s greatest muse, but it never felt more present than on Ghosteen, an album he wrote after the death of his son. Where his past dirges were confrontational and intense, the songs on Ghosteen were quiet, ethereal, and, most surprising, hopeful. The Bad Seeds barely even touched their drums; nothing could cut through the gauzy, dreamy synths other than Cave’s voice. He split the record into two parts — one half dedicated to the parents of children who have died and the other for the kids — and it’s a triumph because he connected them with a yearning to make sense of it all. On the children’s side, he sings, “Sometimes a little bit of faith can go a long, long way” (on “Waiting for You”), and on the parents’, he sings, “It’s a long way to find peace of mind” (on “Hollywood”). The album is sad but never too sad. By the time it’s done, you just want to give him a hug.


The Highwomen, ‘The Highwomen’

With songs like “Redesigning Women,” “My Name Can’t Be Mama,” and the ballsy title track, the Highwomen’s self-titled album appeared to court a certain audience. But this was a record for everyone, with a message of solidarity that transcended age, race, and, yes, gender. Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Natalie Hemby, and Maren Morris sang about topics affecting us all, from the grand (the persecution of the historical characters in “Highwomen”) to the minute (the glorious kiss-off “Don’t Call Me”). And the tracks that do zero in with a fine point — like the Carlile-sung “If She Ever Leaves Me” — are still wildly relatable. “I love that we have songs on this album about shattering female stereotypes to a gay country love song, and songs about losing loved ones,” Morris said to Rolling Stone. “It’s all real, and it’s all country.”


DaBaby, ‘Baby on Baby’

Hyper-regional, blunt, kinetic, and self-assured, DaBaby’s Baby on Baby marked the arrival of a star. The North Carolina rapper with a gleaming, jewel-encrusted smile brought a myriad of skills into 2019. His singular, raspy voice boomed over simple, bass-boosted beats, and his flow contained enough gravitas to assault the senses. “Suge” became the rare 2019 rap hit that forgoes melody in favor of a torrent of bullish bars stacked atop a ceaseless, unending flow. “Walker Texas Ranger” was the funniest Western-themed hip-hop song of the year (yes, even including “Old Town Road”), while “Goin Baby” was a monument to the ability of raucous ad-libs to make a normal song seem transcendent. Baby on Baby was merely an opening salvo — nine months later, that shot is still ringing.


Miranda Lambert, ‘Wildcard’

Working with innovative producer Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Brothers Osborne) for the first time, Miranda Lambert reinvigorated her sound with rock & roll energy on Wildcard. On these 14 new songs, the country star shrugged off life’s little mishaps (and men) in the lead single “It All Comes Out in the Wash” and then knowingly chuckled about seeing her face adorning the tabloids in “Pretty Bitchin’.” In “Way Too Pretty for Prison,” Lambert and Maren Morris traded wicked fantasies about knocking off an unfaithful partner. But there were also hints of Lambert’s new love, as with the smoldering “Fire Escape” and the vulnerable “How Dare You Love.” She experimented with her sound on the sleek “Mess With My Head” and the punk-tinged “Locomotive,” but easily switched gears to bedrock country in “Tequila Does” and the stark closing track “Dark Bars.” Through it all she held fast to hope. “If the whole wide world stops singing and all the stars go dark/I’ll keep a light on in my soul/Keep a bluebird in my heart,” she sang in “Bluebird,” a perfectly uplifting message for these (or any other) dark times.


Vampire Weekend, ‘Father of the Bride’

If Vampire Weekend’s first three albums were like freshman, sophomore, and junior year, Father of the Bride felt like the work of a senior who’d returned from a long gap year (or six) with some very strong opinions about the best “Dark Star.” And while the kind vibes and earthy images that accompanied early songs like “Sunflower” and “Harmony Hall” seemed to suggest Vampire Weekend had gone full jam band, Father of the Bride proved characteristically dense and eclectic. Highlights like “This Life,” “Married in a Gold Rush,” “Unbearably White,” and “Stranger” revealed a tasteful palette rooted in, but not beholden to, Seventies Southern California, while bandleader Ezra Koenig continued to expertly capture the big and little tragedies and comedies that engulf individual lives and the world at large.


Lizzo, ‘Cuz I Love You’

A classically trained flute virtuoso turned hip-hop soul queen, Lizzo arrived as a full-fledged pop legend this year with Cuz I Love You. On her major-label debut, she claims herself as her own “Soulmate” and leaves her baggage behind, boasting that the “Only exes that I care about are in my fucking chromosomes.” “Tempo” is her club duet with Missy Elliott (“Slow songs, they for skinny hoes”) while “Juice” goes for Eighties Minneapolis dance-floor gloss. And in “Jerome,” she belts an old-school R&B ballad. She came off like a young Tina Turner making a Private Dancer of her own, flaunting the coolest flute solos since Jethro Tull.


Bad Bunny, ‘X 100pre’

After Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in 2017, morale was below sea level. An estimated 3,000 people had died, disaster relief had been stalled, and 24-year-old Latin trap star Bad Bunny began grappling with celebrity outside the decimated island he called home. During his U.S. television debut on The Tonight Show, he pulled an impressive stunt by prefacing his gospel-trap single “Estamos Bien” with a sobering plea for help on behalf of Puerto Rico. (“More than 3,000 people died, and Trump’s still in denial.”) The statement foreshadowed the gravity and range of his debut LP, X 100pre. Volleying between shamelessly crude and totally vulnerable, Bad Bunny and his slow-burning baritone opened the floor for Latin pop that’s not afraid to get uncomfortable. It’s a portrait of Puerto Rico in its renaissance — a critical footnote in the history of the Latin-with-an-X zeitgeist that’s been sweeping the globe.


Taylor Swift, ‘Lover’

Nobody ever accused Swift of holding back emotionally, but on Lover, she really lets it all loose: It’s her overdramatic-and-true masterpiece. Lover is the album where she proves she can do it all: the country slow-dance swoon of “Lover,” the synth-pop regret of “Cruel Summer,” the obsessive electro-goth of “The Archer.” These are the deepest love songs she’s ever written, chronicling adult romance and the turning-30 blues with all her usual eye for detail. Hell, she even busts out her country accent again. Lover sums up all the highlights of her twenties — but it also points to all the highlights of her next decade.


Lana Del Rey, ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell!’

Los Angeles is a town crawling with B-listers, C-listers, and beyond — actors and musicians who might spend their whole lives working the checkout at Trader Joe’s, forced to pack up their hazy fantasies of the town before moving to their next rented bungalow. It’s this limbo that Lana Del Rey draws from on Norman Fucking Rockwell!, a lush soft-rock album in the style of 1970s Laurel Canyon, filled with characters whose dreams have long gone up in wildfire smoke and who are just waiting for the rest of the world to catch up. “I’m always going to be right here/No one’s going anywhere,” she intones on “How to Disappear,” a line of reassurance that drips with melancholy. Elsewhere on the album, she puts herself in the company of the not-so-distant ghosts of L.A.’s past — Dennis Wilson, Bradley Nowell, various ladies of the Canyon. By invoking their let-down desires instead of attempting to rise above them, Del Rey finally earns her title as queen of the West Coast.


Billie Eilish, ‘When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?’

At only 17, Billie Eilish dismantled and rebuilt the pop song with her debut LP. With help from her producer-brother, Finneas O’Connell, Eilish layered bizarre sounds (the clicking of a crosswalk signal, a sample from The Office) under nihilistic lyrics about Satan, the downfall of humankind, and the uselessness of prescription drugs — all delivered in Eilish’s characteristic whisper-hum. “Most people need to stand and open their diaphragms, but Billie sounds amazing just slumped on the bed,” Finneas told Rolling Stone. That’s especially true when she drawls such cutting takedowns as, “Man is such a fool/Why are we saving him?” (“All the Good Girls Go to Hell”). “Bad Guy” was an eerie foray into off-kilter sexuality, equal parts Marilyn Manson and Rihanna, while “You Should See Me in a Crown” was pure trap-derived pump-up. With this stunning effort, Eilish promised to keep scaring — and seducing — us for years to come.


Ariana Grande, ‘Thank U, Next’

“Remember when i was like ‘Hey i have no tears left to cry’ and the universe was like HAAAAAAAAA bitch u thought,” Ariana Grande tweeted in November of last year. She was referring to the lead single off 2018’s Sweetener, which was meant to be a post-tragedy bright-side opus. But Grande’s life took a couple of more turns: Her ex Mac Miller tragically passed away less than a month after the album was released, and her whirlwind engagement to SNL star Pete Davidson came to a halt. In just two weeks, Grande let the tears flow and wrote Thank U, Next, her trap-R&B-pop masterpiece that nods to ‘NSync and The Sound of Music and features appearances from her grandma and drag queen Shangela. We’re so fuckin’ grateful for her exes too.