2019 was, for lack of a better term, an odd year for music. Where there’s typically one release that can be agreed upon as the overall “Album of the Year,” this calendar had no such landmark. There were a few that came close, but a clear winner’s noticeable absence felt reflective of what some saw as a larger lack of quality. Instead of last-minute Album of the Decade contenders coming in a barrage as the 2010s drew to a close, the general consensus felt it to be a pretty lackluster finale. Indeed, many friends of mine have said outright that it was something of a bare year for music.
I disagree. Even if we didn’t get a To Pimp a Butterfly or a Blonde, there was no shortage of albums released over the last four seasons that I truly loved. Regardless of any wider critical discourse, I consider 2019 to have been a pretty standout musical year. Established mainstays released some of their finest material to date, and a crop of musicians that made promising splashes in the last few years proved themselves as an exciting class of essential new voices. These are my personal highlights from the 2010s’ concluding chapter.
Though the albums here are arranged in a specific order, each with an assigned number, keep in mind that the distinctions between closely placed albums are minimal. The order is meant more as a general gradation of affinity than a strict declaration of “this album is directly better than this album that it’s above.”
Florist — Emily Alone
Modular synth wizard and poetic soul Emily Sprague’s solo endeavor under her band’s name is likely the gentlest collection of songs you’ll hear this year. Written during a period of solitude on the opposite coast from her bandmates and her rooted life, Emily Alone chronicles a series of quiet revelations about the self and the meaning we find in daily existence. “An attempt to capture the dark spaces between change and acknowledge their beauty” as she puts it, her one-woman, one-guitar compositions have an earnest, confessional air. There’s a graceful openness of spirit that breathes within the music: with such sparse arrangements, her profundities come organically to the fore.
PUP — Morbid Stuff
In a punk band, your natural enemy is the state. But how can you diagnose the problems the government foists on society when you’re seriously struggling with getting out of bed to face the fifth show you’re playing this week to make the rent? PUP write songs about the struggles of simply continuing to be, to subsist as a human in an increasingly dystopic post-recession society. Intense interpersonal struggles are underscored by a background of shitty job prospects and plummeting opportunity, markedly adult dilemmas written in the language of roaring, youthful pop-punk. The punchy sound and cathartic performances can’t hide an overload of desperation, an unshakable sense that this music thing really needs to work out — spoiler: it does.
Angel Olsen — All Mirrors
Since her folk-rock breakout Burn Your Fire For No Witness, Olsen’s writing has stayed heart-rendingly personal, and her latest pushes her sound into the lofty heights of dazzling chamber pop. A typically on-form John Congleton brings the variety of art-pop explorations an impeccable attention to detail, synths and symphony polished to mirror sheen throughout. If All Mirrors is ostensibly a breakup album, the real drama comes in the form of a beauteous orchestra that acts as ballast for Olsen’s soaring balladry. And it’s not about any one relationship: it’s a triumphant goodbye to all the people who’ve sought to limit her, and to the timidness that once came through her music so clearly.
Earl Sweatshirt — Feet of Clay
If last year’s masterful Some Rap Songs was Earl’s Kid A, departing into the left-field while retaining a throughline to his previous work, Feet of Clay is his Amnesiac, a complete dissolution of those ties for a headlong dive into heady abstraction. Sometimes he’s barely on beat, seemingly spilling his words into the mic, sometimes the beats are so wacked out they reach a new kind of hip-hop carnivalesque. Even on the more orthodox tracks the muddled atmosphere carries. You get the sense that Feet of Clay is a raw, undeciphered cryptogram of disparate ideas and musical disciplines swirling around in Earl’s head, a letter from the edge of oblivion bearing the faded marks of them all.
Jai Paul — Leak 04–13 (Bait Ones)
Despite his hyphenated insistences that these tracks remain unfinished, the material on Jai Paul’s “debut” is every bit as revelatory as it was in 2013. Sensual and funky, Paul’s adventurous producer’s ear mixed with his globetrotting ambition make for pulsating ear candy at the nexus of far-reaching traditions and genres. Across the upbeat pop tracks and atmospheric deep cuts, synths are saturated in sparkling effect chains, and the thumping bass is deliciously cavernous. All the while Jai’s voice hides coyly in the mix, the diamond in the ruff of his alternative R&B odysseys. This stuff may have been made nearly a decade ago, but it still feels like a transmission from a better future, an image of what pop should be.
Bedouine — Bird Songs of a Killjoy
LA folk songstress Azniv Korkejian’s sophomore record as Bedouine brilliantly recreates the sound of 1960s Laurel Canyon’s singer-songwriter movement. She uses the sun-soaked sounds of her home’s past to create an honest album about love that’s at turns heartwarming and foreboding. Bird Songs of a Killjoy is of a unique emotional place, bathed in love’s glow but carrying a considerable weight of sadness and uncertainty. For how downright gorgeous the instrumentation and open-heart lyricism consistently are, it’s hard to ignore the pain and doubt in the periphery. Even though it confronts the issues of a relationship head-on, its overall impression is certainly a positive one, a glowing reminder that our love is worthwhile.
Sam Gellaitry — Viewfinder Vol. 1: PHOSPHENE
Though PHOSPHENE is technically a compilation, it feels both like an album and like the next logical step in the progression of Sam Gellaitry’s futuristic sound. Equally indebted to cinema and visual art as he is to contemporary future bass, it takes his filmic musical instincts to stunning new vistas of widescreen sound. Fans will certainly recognize his brand of bouncy bass, cherubic synths, and skittering drums, but there’s a shift, a palpable ambition that separates it from his other work. Where previous material like the Escapism EP series was brought to life by youthful, impish energy, this is the sound of a budding master moving further into his chosen field, pushing its limits and molding its tools to fit his panoramic vision.
Freddie Gibbs & Madlib — Bandana
How to follow one of the best hip-hop albums of the decade? Make some more great hip-hop. With a premium on frills and showiness, the dynamic duo create a successful Chapter 2 of their rap game takeover by doing what they do best. Madlib crafts a series of simultaneously grimy and soulful tracks, Freddie Gibbs spits unfuckwithable bars, and the two further cultivate the luminary creative synthesis that elevates their work beyond the sum of its already inimitable parts. Freddie Gibbs is a solid candidate for Rapper of the Year and Madlib needs no introduction, but the collaborative projects occupy a special world all their own; Bandana is Wolf of Wall Street as a blaxploitation flick, a land of trap funhouses and fantastically lavish gangster lifestyle.
Julia Jacklin — Crushing
Julia Jacklin knows well that interpersonal relationships are tough. Loving is hard, having people depend on you when you can barely depend on yourself wears you down, and it can all start to feel pretty suffocating. Her second full-length is the portrait of a young woman who’s realized that sometimes the best way to let it all out is matter-of-factly, making your voice heard but not yelling. A comfy blanket of guitar tones and drums lies atop serious emotional weight, the instrumentation combining with Jacklin’s diaristic storytelling for affecting examinations of romance, family, and our physical form. In the process, she discovers that small, straightforward reclamations of body and self can be unexpectedly powerful.
black midi — Schlagenheim
It’s tempting to write off black midi’s debut. They stink of importance, both the externally applied and self-imposed sort, and the music strays perilously close to sound and fury signifying nothing. But even if Schlagenheim exists as nothing more than an opportunity for a bunch of snot-nosed teenagers with record player needles worn thin on Talking Heads and Sonic Youth LPs to show off, their skill is immense and their execution impeccable. With yowling, endlessly divisive vocals, raw no-wave guitar work, enough stellar, complex drumming to fill a decade, and oodles of panache, the band is astoundingly effective in selling a product the sum parts of which you’ve definitely heard before. The influences are as impossible to miss as the music is to resist.
Slauson Malone — A Quiet Farwell, Twenty Sixteen to Twenty Eighteen
A dizzying blend of sound collage, spoken word, plunderphonics, and abstract hip-hop that traffics primarily in bewilderment and sensory overload, A Quiet Farwell is a searingly personal scrapbook of tone poems and musical fragments that can only obliquely be described as songs. The album is a lot like its accompanying visuals; just when you think you’ve got a handle on things, it hurls a flurry of images that overwhelm and elude your comprehension. Downtrodden rap confessionals and hallucinatory chronicles of black liberation run up against smoldering expressions of oppressive pain and rage, creating an illusory portrait of suffering, fear, hope, regret, and everything between, a murky infinity of secrets daring to be teased out.
James Blake — Assume Form
The cover of James Blake’s new album is the experience in microcosm. No more blurred faces: new love has taught him openness and clarity, and Assume Form is the barest we’ve seen his soul yet. Applying Blake’s penchants for studio tinkering and heaps of emotion to his most lush material to date, it manages to stick the landing as his Pop album without sacrificing an ounce of appeal. The music overflows with the bubbling, manic excitement and anxiety of a newly kindled romance that’s just hit its stride, with lyrical celebrations of shared life and earnest inquiries of dedication pouring out alongside uncharacteristically bright production and melodies. Rarely has the transition from honeymoon phase to long-lasting bond been so well captured.
(Sandy) Alex G — House of Sugar
Like the figure skater on its cover, Alex G sets his sights for the stars and returns with the celestial indie folk powerhouse House of Sugar. His typically oddball production tactics here apply sweeping sonic landscapes to each song, elevating what would otherwise be quaint folk tunes to a grandiose level of drama and intrigue. The album takes his homegrown DIY sound and makes it marquee material at nearly every turn. It often feels like an in media res chapter of a larger story, alluding to events and experiences that we’re never shown, and the world it creates is deeply alluring. There are some explanations we’ll simply never get as to their origin, but the many shades of personal turmoil and joy on display are all the more captivating for it.
jonatan leandoer127 — Nectar
Cloud and emo rap progenitor Yung Lean shocks the world with one of the prettiest and best singer-songwriter records of the year. Nectar thrives on simplicity, beauty resulting from the interaction of finger-picked guitar, drums, bass, Lean’s vocals, and a whole lot of reverb. The vocals are arguably the most important piece: coupling a palpable woundedness with an unshakable calm, they effectively translate the power of his voice from icy sadboy ballads to pleasant guitar music sans any awkwardness or growing pains. Of all the unlikely bets for 2019, Yung Lean releasing an indie folk album was somewhere near the top. It being great was even more unlikely. But here we are.
Flume — Hi This Is Flume
Harley Streten began the decade as one of the foremost innovators in future bass, then spent the bulk of it getting bogged down by a lack of direction and ambitions of commercial crossover. He now ends the 2010s with Hi This Is Flume, a mixtape of freewheeling experimentalism that seats him squarely back on the throne. Flume all but abandons the sounds he single-handedly made radio-friendly and opts instead to channel the underground EDM trap and wonky music that (based on the feature list) clearly inspires him now. It’s low stakes and immensely fun, it doesn’t pull punches on abrasion; Hi This Is Flume clearly exemplifies that he’s answered a needed wake-up call, and stands as one of the most invigorating electronic projects of this decade.
Maggie Rogers — Heard It In A Past Life
Instead of striking while the viral iron was hot, Maggie Rogers took her time crafting a debut that delivers on all that “Alaska” promised and establishes her as one of our generation’s great new pop stars. Her interpretations of classic ’80s and ’90s pop music work seamlessly with tasteful 21st century sounds for an album that’s chart-ready but not beige, that draws on nostalgia but stands firm on its own merits. Her production work is playfully eclectic, working decidedly off the beaten path while remaining catchy and ear-pleasing at every turn. Each song weaves a striking tapestry of feeling and sound, translating passionate internal drama into frequently earthshaking waterfalls of emotion whose cathartic beauty belies a precise vision of the shape of pop to come.
MIKE — Tears of Joy
Figurehead of NYC’s forward-thinking sLUms collective, Bronx rapper MIKE is a well-read student of hip-hop with a consistent flow and a cheesy winning smile. That grin is scarce on Tears of Joy, a true ascent to greatness and his most affecting work to date. His familiar tools — distinct, husky baritone and wonky cassette-sampled instrumentals, and the hypnotic atmospheres that arise from them — fashion a tribute to his recently-passed mother. MIKE collects kind remembrances of the woman who served as his guiding light alongside capturing what he’s felt in her wake: grief, resolve, and yes, joy. Heaviness manifests in his lyrics and the typically woozy sLUms beats, but it’s clear MIKE’s teary eyes are turned to the future; his mother remains in his heart, and he’s not going anywhere.
Blood Orange — Angel’s Pulse
Dev Hynes’ latest post-album mixtape is an excellent follow-up to his magnum opus Negro Swan, fashioning its deep exploratory funkiness into breezy, impressionistic shapes. It functions on a ruminative spirit and a free-flowing atmosphere that recalls actual mixtapes of yore, best experienced as a single piece of work. Songs sway into one another with a casualness that’s reflected in the tracks themselves, minimal compositions that prioritize soul, beauty, and vibe above complexity and polish. Angel’s Pulse takes elements kindred with its predecessor — simple keyboard melodies, angelic vocals, fantastic curation of guests, a standout drum machine — for a peaceful epilogue, the softer second punch of one of this decade’s strongest musical combos.
Injury Reserve — Injury Reserve
The only Arizona rap group has come a long way, from highly derivative ATCQ worship to a new breed of leftfield hip-hop that sounds like no one else. Both MCs are more than serviceable, but the real appeal here is those beats. Parker Cory’s lack of familiarity with hip-hop’s history has been documented, and here it works in their favor, producing a wild-eyed, no-rules playbook for their experimentation. Throughout the diversity of SOPHIE-inspired bangers, crackling, eerie noise cuts, and oddly pretty ballads is a constant impression of self-serious pyromania, that the guys who made it thought they really had something. And really, they did. Injury Reserve is the rare example of a group trying extremely hard to be special, and actually pulling it off.
JPEGMAFIA — All My Heroes Are Cornballs
In a rollout that’s already borderline iconic, JPEGMAFIA assured us that we’d be disappointed with his next album. Thankfully, All My Heroes Are Cornballs fulfills the potential of his previous work, transitioning Peggy from seedy, mysterious underground rapper to oddball internet sensation and bonafide star. Where Veteran felt like the culmination of his grind into a record for the masses, Cornballs is Peggy unfiltered: impossible to pin down, all over the place at breakneck speeds, every bit as weird as he is. Rather than a unified whole, it is a continuous series of detours; dialing down on earlier material’s aggression to include serene sounds and straight-up pop tracks, it provides a complete portrait of the musical insanity constantly unfolding in his mind.
Lana Del Rey — Norman Fucking Rockwell!
If not always directly, Lana’s sixth album imagines herself as a sardonic ’50s housewife straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting, with the change in setting reflected in a shift from weightless trap-pop ballads to sepia-toned, achingly beautiful art-pop that perfectly backdrops her emotionally dissonant songwriting. Norman Fucking Rockwell! is about doomed love in a doomed world, and many of its songs are simultaneously cynical, wistful, and genuinely heartfelt. It feels like the album Lana was always meant to make; her deeply insightful commentary on the complex way we process emotions and events in our burning world takes the rose-colored glasses with which many look upon the past to observe our current time, fabricating a genius, fatalistic pre-nostalgia that’s impossible to look away from.
Vampire Weekend — Father of the Bride
The last Vampire Weekend album saw lead creative mind Ezra Koenig tackle life in metropolis and religion with a literary, ironic wit, and overall felt pretty serious. Six years, a cross-country move, a marriage, a baby, and a lineup change later, he returns with Father of the Bride, an album of frequently silly sunshine pop that’s just as essential. It manages to gracefully integrate an overflow of new lightness in both melody and production, encompassing a huge variety of sounds that still fit together, and still sound distinctly like Vampire Weekend. The lyrics take stock of mounting social crises and climate change, investigating how we can stay happy when things are so fucked. Ezra’s answers turn out to be pretty simple and constructive: take joy in the little things, seek relief in the people you love, and don’t be afraid to be goofy.
Ritt Momney — Her and All of My Friends
19 year-old Jack Rutter’s debut album as Ritt Momney is a lightning rod of teenage emotion, the single most effective attempt at translating nascent experiences of angst and loss into music we’ve gotten in a number of years. The sparse folktronica and indie rock arrangements perfectly capture the personal tragedies of leaving a religion, the breakup of a serious relationship, and the temporary loss of self that often comes from entering adulthood without a charted trajectory. The wounded beauty of Jack’s voice ties it all together, flitting sheepishly around songs whose lighthearted atmospheres don’t attempt to conceal the melancholy it carries. Her and All of My Friends may be an album about pretty universal feelings, but it’s a special musical experience from a special mind, one of the most promising new voices in the medium.
Tyler, the Creator — IGOR
IGOR was released without fanfare this May, and immediately set the world on fire. This was partially because it’s such an obvious outlier from anything else in Tyler’s catalogue, trading in the sunset-and-sunflowers aesthetic of Flower Boy for a brazen turn to dusty retrofuturist neo-soul. But it was also because the results of that change are really, really good. Tyler applies his bold musical sensibilities to classic soul music and emerges with one of the decade’s finest breakup albums, where the lines separating musical beauty and abrasion as well as emotional good and evil dissolve almost entirely into a carefully constructed mess of jagged distortion. Poignant explorations of our tendencies to knowingly chase toxic love and the burning intensity of a fated love affair intertwine with the brash instrumentals for an otherworldly journey of misty-eyed cacophony.
FKA twigs —MAGDALENE
MAGDALENE is twig’s victorious return from hiatus, an impeccably crafted piece of work that progresses further into the unknown and shows the last few years were not spent idly. twigs plays with religious ideas of the sacred and profane, applying them to internal and relationship drama in a blend of heartbreak and poeticism that stands totally unrivaled. Although pitting MAGDALENE against other albums seems wrong; it pulls numerous talented producers across genre lines but sounds only like itself in a way nothing else could, a 1:1 render of twigs’ singular vision. Mutant pop arrangements that span hip-hop, R&B, and swathes of underground electronic music are put through a theatrical prism of alien sonic architectures, towering melodrama, and the quavering authority of her flawless voice.
Weyes Blood — Titanic Rising
Named after the ill-fated Titanic sequel, Natalie Mering’s third album as Weyes Blood takes on modern life in crisis, attempting to parse out what it means to live, love, and consume in a world facing its end on a daily basis. Grand compositions that draw from chamber pop and country reflect the deep stirring in her soul, angelic pianos and orchestral arrangements evoking her restless spirit. She investigates how we use media to escape the meaninglessness of our own lives, yearning to be the star of her own movie, imploring for deliverance from the hell we find ourselves in. Darkness ever looms, but Mering’s songs maintain an untarnished, if not unaffected beauty and wit, a wry smile against immeasurable odds of justice and survival. She loves the movies after all, and doesn’t any good movie have a happy ending?
Helado Negro — This Is How You Smile
Roberto Lange’s latest project largely leaves behind the synth-pop of his previous outings, moving quietly into a new locale of pillowy folk music. This Is How You Smile is an intimate devotional to the important stuff — family, peace, safety, wonder, pride in identity — amidst a society that increasingly seeks to unmoor persons of color from these pillars of happiness. A constant strength of resolve hangs over the bewitching experience, lyrical reminders that the marginalized will endure and outlast their oppressors jumping out from the minimalist beauty of solo guitar tracks and shimmering psychedelic ballads. Though it’s easily the softest protest album of the year, it also feels like the most important. Grand gestures matter, but sometimes the small-scale resistances, claiming radiant personhood in the face of systems of oppression, can be the most liberating acts of all.
Thom Yorke — ANIMA
For the first time in Thom Yorke’s solo career, he’s finally found his voice. ANIMA sees Yorke and producer Nigel Godrich hone their considerable chops into a worthy product, a careening freefall into the darkness of our modern life. Few of the themes here are new territory for Yorke, but his signature brand of social commentary by way of techno-paranoia feels far more vital backed by these fantastic, pulsing electronic tracks. Loving reworks of the sounds of London’s club luminaries injected with a hefty dose of liminality bring the frantic dissatisfaction to uneasy life. It feels like Black Mirror with far more subtlety, like a grim dance party at the end of the world, like a genuine harnessing of the harbingers of doom Thom Yorke has been writing about since the millennium shift. It’s the best work of dystopian science fiction of 2019, and the best music he’s created in years.
Bon Iver — i,i
Completing the cycle that For Emma’s desolate winter began, i,i is Bon Iver’s peaceful autumn, a welcoming collage of every sound and every friend that the project has ever hosted, flowing with an ease and joy that’s unparalleled in the band’s discography. Its songs are the best constructed in Bon Iver’s history, feeling for the first time like they were actually written from start to finish. They gracefully pull sounds from each preceding album, working the fragmented vision of the band’s past into new, complete forms. i,i confronts difficult truths about the state of our world and questions about our future while maintaining a wide-eyed optimism, a belief in the worthwhile pursuit of sticking it out with the people we love. The 50+ musicians, dancers, and artists credited in the album’s liner notes are all fully felt: the music still functions with frontman Justin Vernon at its center, but every song is born of a village of collaborators, guided by the reality that we can’t make it alone.
Floating Points — Crush
Sam Shepherd’s debut album Elaenia took over seven years to complete, and he spent over two years touring it, additionally recording an album of live jams and an accompanying concert film with the touring band. Its follow-up took a bit less time.
Inspired by his new studio rig, the improvised live sets he had played with it opening for his friends The xx, and the political unrest in his home country of Great Britain, he hunkered down in the studio without much of a roadmap and emerged five weeks later with Crush, a stark piece of chilly IDM and his most aggressive set of tracks to date. Its title is appropriate — it takes ideas that keen-eared fans will be able to pick out as distinctly Floating Points and pulverizes them, twists them into barely recognizable shapes, and nearly destroys them altogether.
The album functions most obviously as a pendulum swing from somber ambient cuts to intense IDM odysseys. Songs like “Requiem for CS70 and Strings” and “Sea Watch” are quiet and contemplative, the mixes sparse but full to bursting with melancholic frustration. And on mid-point highlights “Bias” and “Environments,” the music is snarling and ferocious, using blistering dancefloor drums and frenetic lead melodies to be something that Shepherd’s music never before has— menacing. Every moment is visceral and exciting, and you never know what new sounds are around the next dark corner.
Shepherd’s new tools were difficult to wrangle at first, and coupled with the grim state of affairs currently unfolding in the UK, the music bears the scars of struggle. The flow of the album, and indeed the internal movement of songs themselves, sounds like a ceaseless battle. Shuddering rhythms constantly threaten stress fracture, and sometimes, like at the end of “Anasickmodular,” they break entirely. The horrifying specters of Brexit and growing anti-refugee sentiment flash like emergency lights over the walls of the experience, with immense anger at play that’s new to Shepherd’s wheelhouse.
Crush pierces unhinged new ground for the Floating Points project, and captures in stunning detail the war inside Sam Shepherd at the time of its creation, anxiety and anguish channeled directly into night terrors of fizzing glitch. Throughout the experience you can clearly hear the numerous adversarial binaries that spawned it: man and machine, individual and state, oppressor and oppressed, right and wrong. At the close of a decade largely defined by fear, it felt like the perfect kick in the teeth to both totalitarian establishments and personal resignation, a resonant beacon of the fight that remains in us. Do not go gentle into that good night, it’s not over just yet.