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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.


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.