Before we get to the list of "best" albums released in 2019, we need to talk about the most joyous, life-affirming musical thing I encountered all year: the People Dancing To Steely Dan Twitter account. Created by Grace Spelman, who truly inhabits the spirit of bodhisattva, it has an incredibly simple but brilliant conceit: she takes random Internet videos of people (or cartoon memes) dancing, and syncs it up with Steely Dan classics. And let me tell you: IT WORKS EVERY TIME. If I know you, there is a very good chance I have emailed you a link to one of these videos and/or forced you to watch them with me while I cackled with glee. We can't necessarily choose where we find our happy place, but I was lucky enough to find mine here. Music truly does have the ability to bring us all closer together, especially when it involves Michael McDonald singing backup vocals.
First up, some honorable mentions worth checking out, because there's so much great music out there to celebrate: Stephen Malkmus explored electronic textures on the wintry Groove Denied. Beck released his best album in over a decade with the synth-filled Hyperspace. Alex Cameron dropped his shtick and exposed himself for the first time on Miami Memory. Kevin Morby channeled Dylan's Christian period on his atheistic exploration of religiosity, Oh My God. Future unleashed the addictive "Crushed Up" on the very solid The WIZRD (he also dropped a sweet little single, "Out The Mud," with Lil Baby). The always-consistent Bon Iver put out another very good album i,i, highlighted by "Hey, Ma." Solange got a little more abstract and drew some inspiration from Stevie Wonder's The Secret Life Of Plants on When I Get Home. J Balvin & Bad Bunny solidified their undeniable partnership with one of the most fun albums of the year, Oasis. If you like punk-influenced rock, don't sleep on Mannequin Pussy's Patience; if you like more prog-oriented rock, don't sleep on Wand's Laughing Matter. Thom Yorke released his best solo album yet, Anima, featuring the immaculate "Dawn Chorus." If you like dance music and have never heard Daphni (a side project of Caribou), I can't recommend the Sizzling EP enough. Clairo's debut Immunity, especially the single "Bags," showed she wasn't an Internet one-hit-wonder. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib released one of the best rap albums of the year with Bandana. Forever Turned Around may not have been quite as good as their debut, but "Giving Up" was a perfect single from Whitney. And Jay Som's Anak Ko may have been even better than her much-lauded debut.
Former Chairlift singer Caroline Polachek released one of the best singles of the year, the Tango In The Night-esque "So Hot You're Hurting My Feelings," off her very good debut pop album Pang. Haim released three excellent singles (no new album yet)—"Now I'm In It" is my favorite thing they've released since their debut album. Tierra Whack didn't drop an album either, but she did unleash Whack History Month last February/March with five excellent singles (especially "Only Child" and "Unemployed"). Rosalía could not stop releasing great singles ("Con Altura," "Aute Cuture," Fucking Money Man EP). Metronomy released the glitchy "Salted Caramel Ice Cream" and Ice Cream released the infectious "Peanut Butter." Do you love LCD Soundsystem but can't stand James Murphy? Check out Squid and their Town Centre EP. Mark Ronson's sad bangers record Late Night Feelings contained two of the best songs of the year: "Find U Again," and especially "True Blue" featuring Angel Olsen.
Oh yeah, one last thing: despite shelving Yandhi, which had the makings of a true musical resurgence, Kanye West ended up reworking the material and releasing it as the unabashed Christian album Jesus Is King. Musically, it's a mix of the chilly, auto-tuned aesthetics of 808s & Heartbreak and the experimental electronic soundscapes of Yeezus (highlights "Follow God," "On God"), with some of his best production since that latter album. Lyrically, it is a relentlessly, sometimes punishingly religious experience. When it occasionally touches on the tumultuousness of West's current life (like on "Hands On"), it is striking and exceptional, but often the lyrics are monotonous or corny. Despite those frustrations, I still find West to be a fascinating artist whose unpredictable career and choices keep me on the edge of my seat, for better and worse.
Below, you'll find my 25 favorite albums of the year, plus a few words about why they mattered to me.
Disclaimer: best of lists are arbitrary constructs, there is no objective "best" in art, comparing albums between different genres is like comparing apples and oranges, etc. "This is just, like, your opinion, man." That's right: all lists and end-of-year roundups are just opinions. "This is a boring list, normie." These are the records that moved me, the songs that got stuck in my brain, the artists who helped me get through the days. Maybe you'll find something new to listen to; maybe you'll find something to argue about. The comments are wide open.
25. Jenny Lewis, On The Line
Lewis, one of the most sly and moving songwriters in indie rock, assembled an all-star team of musicians (Beck, Jim Keltner, Benmont Tench, Don Was, Ringo Starr) to help bring these biting songs to life. It's filled to the brim with lived-in details ("Can you be my puzzle piece, baby?/ When I cry like Meryl Streep?"), melodies that sound straight out of the Tom Petty playbook ("Wasted Youth"), a remarkable amount of drug references (red wine, weed, grenadine, heroin, bourbon, Paxil, Marlboros, cognac, Candy Crush and a hallucinogenic Fuji apple all get mentioned), and the devastating, brilliant "Little White Dove," written about her complex relationship with her mother while she was dying.
24. Nilufer Yanya, Miss Universe
The debut album from the British musician is like the perfect mix of Blur's mid-90s records and the modern production touches and vocal dexterity of Kali Uchis. Yanya favors a raw guitar tone throughout the album on highlights such as "In My Head" and "Heavyweight Champion Of The Year," which is matched by her wonderfully expressive double-tracked falsetto.
23. Crumb, Jinx
After releasing two promising EPs in the past couple of years, Crumb hit it out of the park with their debut full-length. You can hear shades of melancholic, groovy indie legends from the '90s throughout, from Portishead to Sonic Youth to Blonde Redhead. It's a little bit psychedelic, a little bit dreamy, and filled with the kind of guitar and synth textures other bands will eventually try to copy.
22. Helado Negro, This Is How You Smile
The beautiful, synth-folk loping of single "Running" was one of my favorite songs of the year, in contention for warmest song of the decade ("Because I feel you/In my mind/All the time/Because I see you/In my hands/Everyday"). But that sentiment flows throughout the whole album, making it Roberto Carlos Lange’s best work yet. It's music that feels like you're alone floating in the sea on a lazy summer day, trying to speak to someone in your head.
21. Deerhunter, Why Hasn't Everything Already Disappeared?
Deerhunter is one of the most consistent indie rock bands of the last 15 years—and people love to take consistency for granted. This was the band's best record since their masterpiece Halcyon Digest at the start of the decade, with production by the brilliant Cate Le Bon, who helped them nail some of their poppiest ("Element," "Futurism," "Plains") and most experimental tunes ("Détournement," "Nocturne") to date.
20. Bruce Springsteen, Western Stars
Many of the songs on Springsteen's latest record, his best of this decade, revolve around a fading Western B-movie star taking stock of his life. Both sonically and lyrically, Western Stars is one of his most focused, conceptual and well-constructed albums. There are a couple of missteps ("Sleepy Joe's Cafe"), but there are far more standout tracks to recommend ("Hitch Hikin'," "The Wayfarer," "Chasin' Wild Horses," "Stones"), the best of which is "Hello Sunshine," which has added resonance knowing Springsteen's own struggles with depression throughout his later years.
19. Cass McCombs, Tip Of The Sphere
It blows my mind that McCombs barely gets mentioned in all the various end-of-decade pieces that have come out recently when he's been such an incredible, thoughtful songwriter in the vein of the early '70s greats. Lately, his music has evolved to include more classic rock and Dead-ish references (his band is practically jammy live too), with Tip Of The Sphere one of his most accessible as a result—but the lyrics remain just as rich, layered and steeped in history as ever.
18. Young Thug, So Much Fun
An album that completely lives up to its name. Nobody in hip hop does as much with their voice as Young Thug, who seems to have a supernatural ability at conjuring up catchy trap melodies. Whether he's accompanied by horns ("Hot"), chirping birds ("What's The Move"), moody flutes ("The London"), or steelpan drums ("Surf"), Young Thug and his large crew of friends and collaborators keep it fun. If you're having a pool party, this is what you want to put on. As Thug put it: "The name of the album is directly what it means. There’s no static to it. It’s just so much fun. I don’t even want you to think when you listen to this even if I’m saying a metaphorical bars or anything. I don’t want it to be nothing thought too hard about. I want it to be only party."
17. The New Pornographers, In The Morse Code Of Brake Lights
The New Pornographers have been responsible for some of the world's best power pop records over the last twenty (!) years, and they kept that streak going with this album, which really digs into band leader Carl Newman's undying love for Electric Light Orchestra (and especially the way Jeff Lynne used strings). "The Surprise Knock" has the effervescence of something off of side two of Mass Romantic; "Falling Down The Stairs Of Your Smile" is pushed along by an infectious bassline; "Colossus Of Rhodes" has one of those vocal performances from Neko Case where it sounds like she's singing from atop a mountain; and best of all is "Higher Beams," where dreamy keys and synths mix with hip-hop influenced drums as Newman surveys the state of the country: "Deep in the culture of fear/We all hate living here."
16. Lana Del Rey, Norman Fucking Rockwell
Del Rey ditches some of the colder aesthetics of her music from earlier in the decade, embraces more traditional instrumentation (thanks to...producer Jack Antonoff?), writes a bunch of fantastic lyrics reflecting on life in 2019, and basically creates our generation's Tapestry. A mark of a true genius songwriter is being able to take colloquialisms of her time and making them seem timeless. I didn't expect it, but credit where it's due: this album is just filled to the brim with indelible hooks.
15. DaBaby, Kirk/Baby On Baby
DaBaby was the busiest man in hip-hop in 2019, releasing two great albums and half a dozen hilarious music videos that showcased his relentless charisma. He also performed on SNL, traveled the country for shows (even when he got stuck on a jet), and jumped on every feature or remix he could find, outshining everyone around him (see: Chance the Rapper's "Hot Shower," Post Malone's "Enemies," Lizzo's "Truth Hurts," and Lil Nas X's "Panini"). His rapid-delivery flow is as irresistible as his humongous smile. If you're new to DaBaby, Baby On Baby is a perfect summation of his core sound, while Kirk (which I slightly prefer) adds a few new colors to his sonic pallet (such as "INTRO" and "GOSPEL").
14. Weyes Blood, Titanic Rising
The spirit of Laurel Canyon is alive and well. Natalie Mering's project Weyes Blood, whose name was inspired by a Flannery O’Connor book, exploded in the indie world this year. It's her best record, whose emotional and symphonic heft lives up to its title. And as with O'Connor's work, the beauty was mixed with some more sinister imagery (and music videos). If you were looking for a new Karen Carpenter to love in 2019, she was it. If you love Beach House but maybe sometimes wish there were fewer synths, you need to listen to this. "Everyday," with its Mamas And The Papas-worthy chorus, remains my personal favorite, a soft rock instant classic which could have been a hit single in 1971.
13. Wilco, Ode To Joy
What a delightful, unexpected late-period gem from a band whose best days seemed in the rearviewmirror. Jeff Tweedy's songwriting has gotten sharper and more poignant in recent years, coinciding with his introspective recent solo albums and memoir. But the real surprise is the arrangements and textures the band brings to these tunes, especially drummer Glenn Kotche, who uses every percussive instrument in his arsenal to breathe life into delicate songs like "Bright Leaves," "Before Us," and "Quiet Amplifier."
12. Megan Thee Stallion, Fever
Megan Price, better known as Houston rap sensation Megan Thee Stallion, was hands down the best rapper of 2019. Like DaBaby, she had a magical coming out year built on tons of hard work: after years of building up an audience online with her freestyles and EPs, her single "Big Ole Freak" blew up in the spring, followed by the release of this debut full-length mixtape. Her rapid-fire delivery and no-bullshit trash talk was steeped in Houston rap tradition on highlights like "Cash Shit," "Realer," "Simon Says" and "Sex Talk." That she spawned the "Hot Girl Summer" meme without even trying was just as impressive.
11. Faye Webster, Atlanta Millionaire's Club
The first sound you hear on the album is the twangy pedal steel of "Room Temperature," a soulful, country-tinged lament to isolation. The chorus, in which she tries to hype herself up to break out of a funk ("I should get out more"), gets stuck in my head multiple times a week. Webster, a wunderkind who released her first album at 16, exists somewhere on the continuum between Americana and Aaliyah (though definitely more in the former camp). Her voice has an intimacy to it that I find deeply comforting; her self-deprecating lyrics are full of humor and romance, as on the gorgeous "Kingston" and "Jonny," where brass punctuates her musings on a love that's passed.
10. (Sandy) Alex G, House Of Sugar
One of the most prolific DIY musicians of the first half of the decade, Alex Giannascoli has matured over his last couple releases for Domino into this generation's closest thing to Elliott Smith (if Smith sang about Nintendo 64). But he has an even wider range: he's not afraid to mix fiddle-driven country songs with delicate acoustic laments, dabble in hardcore stomps, or devote a side of vinyl to electronic pieces ala Oneohtrix Point Never. House Of Sugar is his first back-to-front great album, balancing its experimental moments ("Near," "Project 2") with Springsteen-worthy anthems ("SugarHouse"), gorgeous folk tales ("Gretel"), nostalgic love songs ("Southern Sky") and odes to friends lost to drugs ("Hope").
9. Angel Olsen, All Mirrors
Angel Olsen is one of the greatest artists of this past decade, someone who has become a master at excavating emotional heartbreak and transmuting it into magnificent songs. All Mirrors is her most ferocious release to date, a hurricane of strings, synths and her unmistakeable, Orbison-esque vocals. It's a truly epic record that takes inspiration from Scott Walker, storming out of the gate with "Lark" and "All Mirrors." "What It Is" is the sleeper hit of the album, "Tonight" has the most mind-blowing arrangement, and "Chance" is the song destined to become a standard.
8. Tyler, The Creator, Igor
Who would have thought the most profane member of Odd Future, the kid who ate cockroaches in his music videos, would end up writing the most heartfelt breakup album of the year? Following 2017's superb Stevie Wonder-influenced Flower Boy, Tyler moved even farther away from traditional hip-hop by singing on the majority of Igor, manipulating his vocals in order to remove himself from his own heartbreak, as if any other approach would be too painful. "EARFQUAKE" was the deserved hit, but "A BOY WITH A GUN" and "RUNNING OUT OF TIME" showed how much Tyler had absorbed from his heroes (Kanye, Pharrell), and "WHAT'S GOOD" and "NEW MAGIC WAND" showed he still is one of the best rappers in the game when he wants to be.
7. The National, I Am Easy To Find
The National have mastered a certain brooding, complex, wine-drunk rock sound, more focused on time signatures and textures than power chords. Their music has always been particularly synonymous with singer Matt Berninger's crisp baritone, whether he's throwing out witty one-liners or devastating confessions. Their latest album is the most radically different they've ever produced, largely because Berninger's voice is just one of many featured on the album—instead, it's filled with guest female vocalists who help bring a new perspective to the songs and band. Highlights include the gorgeous "Light Years," "Oblivions," "Quiet Light," "Where Is Her Head," and especially, the years-in-the-making classic "Rylan."
6. Sharon Van Etten, Remind Me Tomorrow
With albums like Tramp and Are We There, Van Etten was already one of the best singer/songwriters of this decade, documenting characters who were reckless, yearning, and always moving. But she took a leap up in production/arrangement with this muscular, rock and synth-heavy new album, her best yet. "Seventeen" is a cinematic rock anthem; "You Shadow" is Motown dragged to the future; and "Comeback Kid" is a personal anthem for underdogs everywhere, and sounds as huge as a jet taking off. She sings of a brush with death on Springsteen-tinged opener "I Told You Everything," channels Massive Attack on the spacey "Memorial Day," and pulls out two ridiculously catchy maximalist tunes in "No One's Easy To Love" and "Hands."
5. Cate Le Bon, Reward
Welsh singer-songwriter Cate Le Bon took a break from music after her 2016 album Crab Day to study furniture-building and immerse herself in life off-the-grid. Clearly that extra space worked wonders, because she returned with this brilliant record of strange, bewitching, and addictive songs. "And I don’t need the comedy/ Holding the door to my own tragedy/ Take blame for the hurt/ but the hurt belongs to me," she sings on the elusive song "The Light." As unique as Le Bon's arrangements and lyrics can be, I don't want to understate just how effortlessly catchy the songs are as well, especially "Home To You," "Miami," and "Daylight Matters." That latter tune contains one of my favorite moments of any song in 2019, when she describes her hermit-like lifestyle only to burst into the chorus with pure, romantic longing: "Love you, I love you, I love you, I love you/ But you're not here."
4. Guided By Voices, Zeppelin Over China/Warp & Woof/Sweating The Plague
Robert Pollard, still the greatest rock songwriter of his generation, unleashed THREE GBV albums in 2019, and collectively, they stand up amongst the best material he's done since bringing back the GBV moniker at the start of the decade (aided by the strongest iteration of the band ever). Zeppelin is the 32-song double album monster that has a certain cinematic grandeur; you'll find a new song to love every time you listen to it. Warp is my personal favorite, a bunch of perfect short, jagged post-punk tunes recorded while on the road, filled with spontaneity and warped melodies. And Plague contains some of the heaviest, moodiest, prog-friendly songs the band's put out since the early '00s. They are the most under-appreciated rock band still producing exciting, vital material.
3. Big Thief, UFOF/Two Hands
It's a little bit of a cheat to put both of these wondrous Big Thief albums together on the list, but they work so well as complimentary sister albums that it felt wrong to separate them too. There is something magical about the unique balance of Big Thief's sound, in which tender folks songs are given Radiohead-worthy arrangements. UFOF is a carefully-crafted masterpiece that, as Pitchfork wrote, "sounds at once exploratory and wise, as if they are both seeing the world with fresh wonder while explaining the way things have always been." Two Hands is far more raw sonically, with almost no overdubs and live vocal takes, but just as powerful and unforgettable.
2. Purple Mountains, Purple Mountains
David Berman's work in both music and poetry was defined by his literary prowess, a mix of observational humor, aesthetic cleverness, and profound melancholy. Every line he wrote was specific, carefully drawn, and endlessly quotable. He never thought anyone cared about his work, but he also was overwhelmed with affection for anyone who did. He tried to give some of himself to those people on albums like Purple Mountains, his final work before his suicide this year. It's hilarious, heartfelt and haunting, with some of the darkest, most revealing lyrics of his entire career ("Darkness and Cold," "All My Happiness Is Gone"). It's a hard listen because of the confessional nature of the words, but it is also filled with empathy and care ("Snow Is Falling In Manhattan," "I Loved Being My Mother's Son"), and stands among the best things he's ever released.
1. Bill Callahan, Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest
Every new Bill Callahan record feels like a gift. This, his longest album yet, comes after a six year hiatus, during which he married, had a child, and settled down in Austin. Domestic romanticism, the revival of the creative spirit, and the tender embrace of mortality are the main subjects of the songs on this masterpiece, which is filled with dog-eared wisdom. "I never was the things I said I was/ But it's not as if I lied/ What I was, all I was/ Was the effort to describe," he sings on "Call Me Anything." As always with Callahan, the largely acoustic music is unfussy but perfectly placed, as to better express his shrewd, plainspoken lyrics. At times it is hilarious, as on "Confederate Jasmine," when his attempts at making love with his wife early in the morning are interrupted by the sound of Grover counting to fifth in the other room. It's an album that I sense was made to grow with you as you grow older, like a road patiently unfurling through a fog: "True love is not magic/ It's certainty/ And what comes after certainty?/ A world of mystery."
What did you listen to this year?