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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.


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.