In modern times, albums have largely lost their physical form and have become more like playlists, feature-packed endeavors that exist to game streaming algorithms and be consumed piecemeal. But this year, artists like Lana Del Rey and FKA Twigs—as well as bands like Big Thief and Sunn O))) who broke convention and released not one, but two phenomenal albums in 2019—proved that the art form still matters.
Meanwhile, reliably prolific rappers like Future, Mozzy, and 03 Greedo continued their creative sprints that yielded multiple new projects; artists like Summer Walker and Snoh Aalegra breathed new life into R&B; the goths had some big wins, with killer records from Boy Harsher and Drab Majesty; and the 100 Gecs litmus test (do you ‘get it’?) became inescapable. And it turns out indie rock isn’t dead; it’s just bigger, bolder, and freakier, as can be heard on House of Sugar, i,i, and All Mirrors.
We live in a time where the stream of content is endless, and we have faster access to more music than ever before. But if you’re deciding what to cue up next, make it these—the 100 best albums of 2019.
Without question, Young Thug will close out the 2010s as one of the most important and influential artists of the decade. As a fairly perfect encapsulation of his impact, Young Stoner Life signee Lil Keed has modeled a great deal of his approach off that of his label benefactor. Named for a departed friend, Long Live Mexico exudes Big Thugger Energy as the student shows the master what he’s gleaned while growing up in the Cleveland Avenue apartments. Fail to pay close enough attention, and you might mistake “Snake” for something off a Slime Season tape. But tracks like “Child” or “Oh My God” see him building on that vocal tradition rather than copying for the sake of copying. On moments like “Million Dollar Mansion,” where the two artists trade verses, he supplies his own cadence and reference points, demonstrating unequivocally that he’s more unique than some credit him for. —Gary Suarez
If you had “sunny, loose double album borrowing in equal parts from Grateful Dead, Van Morrison, and Disney Movie duets” on your Vampire Weekend LP4 bingo card, you can collect your winnings (a complimentary set of polo shirts and boat shoes) at the door. Father of the Bride certainly doesn’t register as the most intuitive follow-up to 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City, an album with its eye on the graveyard. But on this playful, iridescent opus, Ezra Koenig and co. have come to accept and mostly ignore the looming specter of death. Though it dips its toe into some weighty topics, FOTB mostly expends energy on breezier fare, like the stuttering, stoned psychedelia of “Sunflower” and the late-night pergola hangout “Stranger.” It’s gangly and overlong and a bit uneven and an absolute blast. Few were questioning Vampire Weekend’s songwriting acumen and studio mastery, but you’d be forgiven if you forgot they could be this fun. —Alex Swhear
Life is violence. Pissgrave is violent. Ergo, life is Pissgrave. Nothing about their second record, Posthumous Humiliation, is remotely approachable—not the lower-than-low barks; not the squealing, hardly linear guitar leads; not the pounding battery at the start of “Euthanasia.” But Humiliation splays out its ugliest impulses and extremities for all to see, and in that way, it feels lucid. It maps how violent impulses and urges can surge even in the calmest of us, how they can seem endless even when change is inevitable and feels incomprehensible to ourselves. Humiliation is all smattering, impulses, and extremities laid out, absolutely committed to ugliness. But existence is not all horror and contempt: Beauty runs alongside it, and “Rusted Wind” ends on a gorgeous funeral march, like a Viking death ritual. That Pissgrave can find something tender in all the chaos is shocking, but it also makes perfect sense. Maybe you can only fully appreciate beauty after seeing a guy’s gaping, disfigured face, jaw busted in two, on their uncensored album cover. —Andy O’Connor
Nagoya, Japan-based Chai have carved a niche out of making electronic-tinged pop-punk that is enthusiastic and fun, full of earnest lyrics, bubblegum girl power, and wry winks. Their second album, PUNK—not to be confused with their first album and other main tenet of the Chai manifesto, PINK—continues their commitment to debunking Japanese ideals of feminine cuteness and empowering women worldwide. Translated to English, their songs read like spells: “Pink butt cheeks are my charm / Twinkle, jewels, pearls, princess, twilight!” sings Mana on “I’m Me.” They’re 70s-disco-diva-charming, but inspiring in the simplest way. To summarize them in less imaginative terms: Chai are the modern Spice Girls who understand the wickedness of capitalism and would rather women be able to ditch their dull day jobs to shred all day! —Hannah Ewens
KEY! can’t contain himself on SO EMOTIONAL. On “WHY,” the Atlanta artist plays the scorned lover, almost predicting the heartbreak he’s gonna be tormented by before it happens: “I was so in love / Had to dub you ‘fore you dubbed me / I could feel it in my tummy.” SO EMOTIONAL is Sean Kingston’s “Beautiful Girl,” played out over the course of an entire album. But KEY!’s tendency to sabotage his relationships in hopes of saving himself seems to come from a place of hardened sentimentality: He’s seen things go bad one too many times to ignore a warning sign. As such, the album is tense and paranoid, and, at eight songs, a concise look at what makes KEY! so captivating. He’s been an Atlanta legend for years, and here, the quirky personality and sing-song melodicism that has captured the city’s imagination is on full display. —Will Schube
It’s hard to imagine a golden country throwback record that also has a rap feature that makes perfect sense. But this is exactly what Atlanta’s Faye Webster did with her incredible third album, Atlanta Millionaire’s Club, a collection of winsome love songs washed in pedal steel that also happens to include a cameo from rap veteran Father on “Come to Atlanta.” The 22-year-old songwriter, who was labelmates with Playboi Carti on Awful Records before signing with indie mainstay Secretly Canadian, is able to effortlessly jump between disparate worlds. Songs like “Kingston” and “Johnny” are lush, warmly produced, and grandly arranged, complete with horns, keys, and swooning slides. But where her sound is timeless and stunning, her writing never fails to disarm. “Right Side of My Neck” alone includes one of the most affecting lines of the year: “You looked back at me once / But I looked back two times.” —Josh Terry
Mythic Detroit producer Kenny Dixon Jr.’s house music always sounds unapologetic, but he reaches new heights of zero-fucks-given on Sinner: KDJ-48. It’s as though he left these songs out overnight to ferment into something even funkier and worse for you. Moodymann fans will be familiar with the ingredients, but never has he combined them such a blatant disregard for genre boundaries. Opener “I’ll Provide” contrasts old-timey strings with perhaps the gnarliest bassline of his 25-year career. “I Think of Saturday” begins as a dark skeleton of a disco track, then disintegrates into grand piano and spoken word. “If I Gave U My Love” shows he can still cook a soul sample stew like the best of them. And “Downtown” is an earnest, eight-minute basement jazz track that can’t pick a tempo but is still frighteningly beautiful. It’s 44 minutes of KDJ at his most unrepentant. —Dan Gentile
On Deserted, Gatecreeper grab hold of their destiny, cementing their status as not only the valedictorians of death metal’s new class, but one of metal’s most promising bands, period. With their 2016 debut, Sonoran Depravation, Gatecreeper went from buzzy underground phenom to marquee eyebrow-raiser, soon gracing live stages with old-guard legends like Cannibal Corpse. It’s hard to imagine anyone being able to deliver—let alone improve upon—the promises of that auspicious debut, one with growls and riffs so furious it felt like an axe flying through the air. And yet their new effort, Deserted, is all of that. From the thundering open notes of the title track, it’s evident that they’ll be pulling no punches. “Boiled Over” is an instant classic in the death metal canon, a havoc-wreaking giant crushing bones with each lumbering step. Ducking modern trends, the production is not so much “sunny” as it is “blinding” and it showcases a forward leap in their songwriting chops, bursting with memorable sections, unexpected left-turns, and tasteful maturity… despite all the downright ignorant chainsaw riffage. —Fred Pessaro
It’s not often you find the words to describe what your heart feels, but Iranian-Swedish singer Snoh Aalegra seems to locate them with ease. -Ugh, those feels again journeys through the best and worst parts of relationships, with Aalegra nestling herself in the anticipation of milestones that haven’t been reached yet, like a first kiss, on songs like “I Want You Around.” On the album’s intro track, “Here and Now,” she reveals her mantra for love: “Even if we catch the sunrise / It’s only a moment passing us by,” she sings. Aalegra is so infatuated by these moments—and the intense feelings that accompany them—that the problems don’t themselves until halfway through the album. “You’re the type that can’t commit to nothing / Why you always acting wishy-washy?” she sings on “Nothing to Me.” By the end of the -Ugh, those feels again, the listener is just as blindsided her lover’s lack of reciprocity as Aalegra is. —Kristin Corry
Toronto punk favorites PUP have come a long way from Topanga, their moniker from their early days. While their 2013 self-titled debut and 2016 follow-up, The Dream Is Over, cemented their predilection for crushing melodic riffs and gang vocals, Morbid Stuff is where PUP truly meet their potential—while also shoving it in the mud, spitting in its face, and raising the bar higher for themselves and their genre. Look to their late-night TV debut on Seth Meyers and sold-out shows worldwide: 2019 has been PUP’s year.
Morbid Stuff excels as both escapist mosh pit fuel and reflections on generational anxiety. Stefan Babcock’s songwriting particularly shines, alternating between gutting truths and self-deprecation with lines like “If I can’t support the two of us, how can I support a third?” Ballad-meets-headbanger “Scorpion Hill,” radio-ready “Sibling Rivalry,” and absolute unit “Full Blown Meltdown” especially showcase their growth. With this big of a ripper from label Little Dipper, it’s clear that PUP are small doggy dogg no more. —Jill Krajewski
When her second major label album dropped back in May, Karol G’s biggest hits of 2019 had yet to emerge. Yet even before her Hot 100-charting team-up with Nicki Minaj on “Tusa” or her feature on Anuel AA’s guest-stuffed, Shaggy-interpolating “China,” the Colombian urbano star had some fairly big singles in play, namely “Culpables,” “Mi Cama,” and “Créeme.” Looking back with December hindsight, Ocean sounds like the work of a star on the verge of going supernova. Karol seeks out collaborators from outside of her peers’ comfort zones, gliding with Damien Marley on the slick roots of “Love With A Quality” and joining forces with Brazilian sertaneja duo Simone & Simaria on “La Vida Continuó.” A thoughtful yet diverse set of songs, the album sees her moving both within and beyond the reggaetón sounds that have dominated her career to articulate a broad definition of pop. —Gary Suarez
Future is like LeBron, in that even when he’s not putting out his most mind-blowing performance, you’re still going to get a good 30/13/10 stat line out of him. The WIZRD is a showcase of all the things we’ve grown to love about Future over the years: expensive-sounding beats, codeine-hued production, and boasts about drugs, women, and the misery Future continues to feel. Yet somehow, even with the now-predictable elements—the unflinching belief that “I been poppin’ since my demo bitch”; the constant and believable threats that he’s going to steal your partner from you (“Told my main bitch to get your main bitch / we gon’ fuck your hoe on the low”); and his propensity for bringing guns into inappropriate venues (“I just brought an AK to a dinner date”)—Future is still making music that follows his signature formula without feeling tired. It certainly follows the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” model of making music, and while it might not be the starkest progress for him as an artist, that’s his fault for setting the bar so damn high. —Trey Smith
Maggie Rogers’s Heard It in a Past Life is what happens when painful earnestness meets mercenary pop songwriting; it seems that her entire life—boarding school, NYU, stints at Berklee and Berlin, making Pharrell cry, interning for Lizzy Goodman while she did that book about The Strokes—has led her to a place where her every emotion, impulse, and political ideology gets spat out into geometrically perfect, big-chorus-and-tasteful-beats omni-playlist perfection. This album is like the Trader Joe’s frozen foods section: convenient, unassailable, and way more organic than it has any right to be. —Drew Millard
Quando Rondo has been one of the best emerging rappers over the past couple of years, and From The Neighborhood to the Stage, the most recent entry into his already-solid discography, shows he’s close to cementing himself among the contemporary greats of the genre. While his technical ability and wordplay continues to be some of the most engaging parts of his music, he’s somehow made his storytelling even more vivid since the last album. Songs like “Emotional Way of Thinking” and “Dope Boy Dreams” are documents of a young man struggling with fame and trying to balance the person he wants to become with the person he once was, and still is. One of the most impressive things about the album is how effortless Rondo sounds on melodic beats from producers like Zaytoven and Quay Global. It’s early in his career, but his veteran-level skill makes even the most casual listener excited for what’s to come from the Savannah rapper. —Trey Smith
On “LML,” the closing track of the Chicago jazz collective Resavoir’s self-titled debut, we hear a simple phrase, sung in an earthy midrange: “I love my life and it’s not over.” On its own, the line could seem like a platitude, but its roots come from a heavy place. According to the project’s producer and arrange Will Miller, the track emerged in the wake of the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida in 2018, as he contemplated his and his city’s own brushes with gun violence. And yet, calm and self-assured, that voice sings of hope. Miller and co. say it less explicitly throughout the rest of the record, but through swooning strings, celestial harmonies, and fluttering horn melodies, they underscore the message of “LML.” Optimism is possible even when it doesn’t feel earned. —Colin Joyce
On his first album since signing to Jay Z’s Roc Nation, G Perico largely sticks to the formula he’s forged for himself over the past few years. That’s not a knock on the South Central rapper, though, because, well, the type of g-funk ratcheteering that G Perico specializes in is always welcome in this household, and please note that “this household” means “literally everywhere.” Consider this: G Perico once got shot and then performed a show that same night with blood literally dripping down his leg. That doesn’t have anything to do with his music, but it also kind of completely does. After all, part of what makes the G Perico formula so perfect is G Perico himself. — Drew Millard
The euphoria that greeted Sheer Mag when they appeared on the scene in 2014 was well-deserved: They make exceptionally well-crafted jukebox pop-rock with DIY ethics and, horrible cliché aside, punk energy. But the naysayers weren’t insane either; would we have welcomed Thin Lizzy riffs from anyone not wearing the right shirts and pins? (Stare too long at the “OK, boomer” abyss, and the “OK, boomer” abyss stares back.) With A Distant Call, Sheer Mag lays these concerns to rest. Still on their own label and still on their own terms, the band offers fat production worthy of that one good Foo Fighters song, session-worthy playing and singing (still without any suspicious slickness), and sharp songwriting that rages equally against “the nightmare of history,” murderous Kissinger realpolitik, and singer Tina Halladay’s late father. The result is easily one of the best straight-up hard rock albums in anyone but the most jaded boomer’s lifetime. —Zach Lipez
In her 2019 book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff writes, “The competition for surveillance revenues bears down on our bodies, our automobiles, our homes, and our cities, challenging human autonomy and democratic sovereignty in a battle for power and profit as violent as any the world has seen.” She’s describing the way corporations invisibly violate our personal rights to privacy, independence, and security—the kind of virtual, bloodless onslaught that Blanck Mass renders all but physical on Animated Violence Mild. Edinburgh-based producer Benjamin John Power’s uncommonly ferocious fourth album seethes with the chaos of the late 2010s and grinds through the fallout of hyper-consumerism. “It seduces us with our own bait as we betray the better instincts of our nature and the future of our own world,” he wrote in a message accompanying the record. But Power’s rage is more brilliant than bitter, more fantastic than fatalist, as he laces black metal and industrial music with the uplifting timbres of trance, house, and footwork. Whenever Animated Violence Mild seeks to embody a harsh truth or present a grim outlook for the world at large, its soaring melodicism and fiery protest betray an underlying faith in our potential to alter the apocalyptic fate we designed. —Patric Fallon
“Going Out on Weekends Is Desperate.” “I’m Grammy Nominated Tho.” “Pimp Hand Level One.” These are a few of the song titles from Chris Crack’s Crackheads Live Longer Than Vegans, one of the six (count ’em, six!) albums that Chicago’s funniest and hardest-working rapper uploaded to Spotify this year. Crack specializes in 90-second snippets of tossed-off brilliance: a 16 here, maybe a hook there, sometimes all hooks and no raps, sometimes half-raps and half a recording of someone talking shit. Together, these tracks feel like little dips into Chris Crack’s mind, or perhaps more like someone’s violently jerking the radio dial from one station to the next, and they’re all playing Chris Crack. As a person with ADHD, I deeply appreciate this approach. —Drew Millard
The stylistic jump between Priests’ debut EP, Bodies and Control and Money and Power, and their second LP, The Seduction of Kansas, is stark. From feral, bare-bones punk to a melodic combination of surf rock, new wave, post-punk, and disco rock, Priests evolved their Devo-inspired sound into something more expansive and experimental, recalling New Order, Gossip, and early Primal Scream. But they’re still mining many of the themes they outlined in block capitals in their EP title: On The Seduction of Kansas, frontwoman Katie Alice Greer touches upon the American preoccupation with war, consumerism, and cultural icons, but never without a playful edge. Whether she’s ribbing 70s rock-goddery by performing it (“I am Jesus’ Son, I’m young and dumb and full of cum!”) or delivering direct cautions (“We’re hell and the handbasket, aren’t we?”), she turns songs into character sketches, conjuring Charlie Wilson, Dorothy Gale, YouTubers, and brands to paint a portrait of moral bankruptcy, like a Rockwell left to crack and fade. —Emma Garland
If we, for a moment, set aside the whole Chicago drill vs. New York drill vs. London drill vs. what’s real drill and what’s fake drill and what’s just a @Dril tweet, it’s worth noting that all these debates are occurring because, in large part, Sheff G made an excellent mixtape. And while Sheff G indeed self-identifies as a drill artist—at times he can sound a bit like Lil Durk with a head cold and a pack-a-day smoking habit—and he has worked with Pop Smoke’s go-to beatmaker 808Melo, when you, uh… drill down into The Unluccy Luccy Kid, it becomes clear the Brooklyn rapper is as much in debt to the frozen-faced soul sound of Dipset and the grim worldview of The Lox as he is to whatever abstract notion of “drill” it is we’re working with these days. The kid can rap. He’ll be fine. —Drew Millard
When Brittany Howard took a (maybe permanent) break from leading Alabama Shakes, she seemed to have no interest in plugging a hole her band left behind. Jaime, her solo debut, offers a staggering new view of the Nashville-based artist and what she is capable of. Howard blends 70s soul with warped modern psychedelia and scorched earth funk that would make Parliament proud. The songwriting is breathtakingly original: “13th Century Metal” sounds like Talking Heads meets Gil Scott-Heron, while “Stay High” is an acoustic-led doo-wop that evokes various forms of intoxication simultaneously. The album is mesmerizing, and the angles from which Howard writes songs are entirely fresh—not only for her but for us, too. — Will Schube
Omni have consistently put out fierce and frenetic post-punk, but their third full-length (and first Sub Pop release) Networker is the scrappy Atlanta duo’s most accessible and fun collection yet. It’s a riff-heavy jangle fest that finds the band polishing their songwriting without ever making it glossy. “Skeleton Key” crams hooks into its bobbing bassline and crunchy guitars, while the tongue-in-cheek “Flat Earth” uses the conspiracy theory as a metaphor for personal stagnation. “So shallow that it’s deep,” intones bassist and singer Philip Frobos. It feels like a logical next step following the band’s two stellar previous records, but it’s still a welcome leap. —Josh Terry
“The wait will be long / Until time becomes short again / We bide and bind it / Only ever on the brink.” Though you can barely hear the words, this is what Margaret Chardiet chants behind a wall of static on “Homeostasis,” the opener of Devour, her fourth album as Pharmakon. Chardiet is probably the defining industrial artist of the decade, so it’s fitting that she’s closing it out with her best work yet. This time, her attraction to extremes comes in the form of self-destruction. Her first time recording live in studio, Chardiet sounds the closest to her breaking point, like she’s clawing and cackling into an abyss.
Each song is designed to bleed into the next, and hypnotic, astringent sounds evoke unending cycles of self-harm, both on an intimate and a humanity-wide scale. That Mobius strip is of pain is a cruel symbiosis of the ugliness inside and in our world; she describes self-destruction as “balancing feedback.” On “Self-Regulating System,” Chardiet wails, “It’s not that I condone it / It just seems inevitable” over a chugging beat, and it feels like rocking back and forth in panic—perhaps about your own perceived failings, perhaps about the interminable grasp of capitalism, or maybe both. Ultimately, Devour is art about how internal pain reflects our fucked up world, and how systems of control and abuse feed each other. We’re lucky we have Pharmakon to give a sound to all the fury. —Leah Mandel
Placeholder, the second album from songwriter-guitarist Meg Duffy, is so patient it practically floats. Its 12 tracks offer intimate vignettes of past relationships, excavating uncomfortable truths with a generosity that’s almost overwhelming. Duffy sets the scene on “yr heart [reprise],” singing, “And I let you see the part of me / They call it understanding / They call it vulnerability.” Before this album, they spent time backing Kevin Morby and padded their solo sets with muscular guitar solos. But here, the arrangements are scaled back. Their virtuosity surfaces in subtler ways, such as the scalpel-like precision with which they describe a failed love affair on the album’s title track: “Oh, but I was just a placeholder / A lesson to be learned / Oh, but now you’re just a placeholder / For someone wasting time.” Love hurts, but Hand Habits isn’t looking to dish out more pain. —Josh Terry
Calboy leads a young crop of Chicago-area rappers who stand out for their decidedly melodic approach to the form, putting an emotional, Auto-Tuned, and totally catchy gloss over his brooding and gritty tales of survival and heartbreak. On Wildboy, the 20-year-old proves that the success of his piano-led breakout, “Envy Me,” which peaked at No. 34 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, wasn’t a fluke. Highlight “Chariot” gets assists from his local drill forebear Lil Durk, as well as national stars like Meek Mill and Young Thug, but it’s Calboy who shines throughout the album’s densely packed 31-minute runtime. With every smooth hook and poignant reflection (“Tell my brothers, ‘Ain’t no losin’ hope’ / All my friends are dead and they old,” he raps on “Unjudge Me”), Wildboy proves the next wave of Midwest rap is going to be just as powerful as what came before. —Josh Terry
For all its unbridled heaviness, metal can be a somewhat rigid place. But on Sulphur English, Richmond, Va.’s Inter Arma looks past purism to use all forms of metal as a palette from which to paint an opus of fury, spanning death metal, sludge, doom, prog, and even moments of folk guitar finger-picking. The result is a psychotic, psychedelic Fantasia-like opera of crushing riffs, furious growls, and merciless drumming, channeled into one seamless, terrifying, and surprisingly organic narrative.
Sulphur English is a demonic, almost Biblical story full of peaks and valleys, from the gentleness of the vast “Stillness” to the torment of “The Atavist’s Meridian,” a 12-and-a-half-minute epic that sounds sprung from the bubbling lava pits of hell. And it’s also an exercise in pacing, one where the riffs strain as though they’re trudging through quicksand even when the rhythm section is whip-fast, like trying to survive the apocalypse while on peyote. If there is a god, we’ve definitely pissed him or her off by now, and this is what that wrath would sound like. —Hilary Pollack
It’s been just two years since Wand released their last album, Plum. But from the soft, scratching opening notes of “Scarecrow,” the Los Angeles quintet makes it clear that they’re leaning away from that record’s jammy garage rock and headed for a bigger stage and a warmer breeze. Wand is unmistakably born of Southern California psychedelia, but you may also notice that frontman Cory Hanson’s wheezy croon sounds a hell of a lot like a young Thom Yorke. The OK Computer parallels don’t end there: Beneath the layers of silvery percussion, the guitars that squawk and drone and belch, the ambient interludes, and all manner of clicking, tapping, and bubbling, there’s a classic alternative rock sensibility here that feels deeply accessible. A sense of dystopia permeates the otherworldly “Xoxo,” and you’ll find a “Karma Police”-like cacophony on the kaleidoscopic “Thin Air.” Still, it never feels claustrophobic. Laughing Matter seems designed to waft out of the stereo of your van when you’re parked in the desert, watching the sunset, no computers in sight. –Hilary Pollack
Though she recorded most of it on a cell phone, there’s something celestial about Angel Bat Dawid’s meditative jazz full-length, The Oracle. And while the artist born Angel Elmore is part of Chicago’s deeply collaborative improvised jazz community, she performs nearly every note (save for the drums on “Capetown”) herself, layering together voice, clarinet, bass, percussion, horns, and several other instruments to immersive effect. “We Are Starzz” is smoky and spiritual, slowly unfolding with Elmore’s chant-like vocals, whereas the aforementioned “Capetown” is a dizzying 15-minute collaboration between her and South African drummer Asher Simiso Gamedze. This is jazz that feels organic and alive. —Josh Terry
The best review of the long-awaited Young Thug project eventually known as So Much Fun came from Earl Sweatshirt: “What did they put in So Much Fun?” he tweeted. “I cannot stop listening to it fr, help.” It’s not a reinvention, nor a significant stylistic departure for the decade-defining Atlanta MC. Still, the album, which is technically his debut, has an intangible something that is hard to put into words, one that Earl’s question cleverly identifies: What did they put in it? Remarkable Pi’erre Bourne beats, for one—especially on “Light It Up.” A scene-stealing 21 Savage feature on “I’m Scared,” which includes the line, “This ain’t middle school, when you sucking on me please include the balls.” An ecstatically animated Lil Duke on “Cartier Gucci Scarf.” The beautiful couplet: “If I hit New York, I take my shank like a Yankee / They stabbed him and he died, ’cause his pointer ain’t been yankin.'” And yet, even a list fails to suffice, leaving the listener no choice but to listen again, like they’re trying to pin down a word that’s on the tip of the tongue. —Ross Scarano
Dorian Electra’s outrageous music video for “Flamboyant” feels like a Weird Al Yankovic song on poppers. Between the outlandish costumes, the whiplash sound effects, and Electra’s devilishly pencil-thin mustache, it’s almost closer to a Lonely Island parody than anything else. But rest assured: Dorian Electra is no joke. On their debut album, the nonbinary Charli XCX affiliate delivers over-the-top futuristic pop bangers—and they never let their operatic sense of humor get in the way of a juicy hook. Electra leaps between sounds with campy panache, clocking in maximalist synths on “Career Boy,” grinding through industrial noise on “Emasculate,” and slow-jamming through a boy-band makeout fantasy on “Man to Man.” Throughout, Electra wrestles with concepts of male fragility, capitalist fetishism, and gender dysphoria with a razor-sharp quill, transforming each exploration of identity and sexuality into its own gyrating anthem. That they do all this while still being ridiculously funny is just the whipped cream on top. —Sam Goldner
Ever since his genre-defying 2014 sophomore LP Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, Sturgill Simpson has gleefully strayed further away from the conventions of country. His fourth album Sound & Fury is his most daring departure yet, one that can easily turn from overdriven and fuzzed-out rock to surprisingly danceable synth-funk. In his most blatant middle finger to expectations so far, the full-length starts off with a blistering almost four-minute guitar solo. If Simpson were a lesser songwriter, some of the surprises on the LP like the stadium rock-produced drums on “Last Man Standing,” the funky bass on “Sing Along,” or the zippy pop synths on “Mercury In Retrograde” would be headscratchers. But he dives into every experiment with such enthusiasm that he’s solidified his rep country’s biggest wild card. —Josh Terry
Angel’s Pulse embodies the best elements of a traditional mixtape: it feels intimate and stitched together, a patchwork of Dev Hynes’ varied musical influences and innermost thoughts. It could be something that was painstakingly recorded on a cassette, and in fact, you can actually hear bits of tape hiss on the Toro y Moi feature, “Dark & Handsome,” an emotional song that Hynes has said includes some of his favorite lyrics he’s ever written. (“Losin’ touch of everything I know / Praying for my heart to turn to stone / Bandana tied around my skull / Ice around my wrist, my touch is cold”.) The project is full of left turns into unexpected territory. To wit, “Dark & Handsome” collapses into a chopped and screwed bridge, leading into “Benzo,” another soul-baring track with lyrics you can’t help but belt out yourself: “Outside I saw where I belong.” And “Gold Teeth” reunites Three 6 Mafia collaborators Project Pat and Gangsta Boo over a hook sung by Tinashe, a perfect trio that you never would have envisioned together yourself. If Angel’s Pulse is a prelude to Hynes’ next album, we can only guess what beautiful surprises it will include. —Leslie Horn
Part of what makes Sada Baby so much fun is how well he dances—he’s clearly having a good-ass time making music. But because of that element of fun, you’d be forgiven if you didn’t immediately recognize the sinister nature of what he’s rapping about: how he’ll murder you and your loved ones, or how he’ll sell you drugs while being on drugs. The Detroit rapper says that he was doing all this before anyone else, boasting on “Skuba Says,” “‘Member we was on Xans first? ‘Member I was using hands first? Now it’s ambulance, hearse, anytime I put in work.” Bartier Bounty is all the best things about drill and trap rolled into one very aggressive and highly stimulating package. Sada Baby finds joy in being the boogeyman, and rap can always use more supervillains. —Trey Smith
The wider world might know Tove Lo best for the endlessly catchy pop songs she’s written for artists like Lorde or Ellie Goulding, but it’s the weird specificity of her own work that stands out. With Sunshine Kitty—its title “a play on pussy power”—Tove continues her steadfast commitment to proving you can explore topics like sex and romantic loss and dance all at once. The album’s lead single, “Glad He’s Gone,” picks up where 2016’s Lady Wood (particularly “Cool Girl”) left off, with Tove trying to rally a friend who is reeling from a breakup by reminding her how much more fun they can have without her ex: “Bitch, I love you, he never loved you,” she croons, later adding almost blandly: “Only one dick, that’s a bummer.” Rejecting the idea that there’s something wrong with kissing and telling, Tove takes what a previous generation—or even this one—might bill as crassness and makes it pithy. —Kate Dries
What makes Britain the dear old country it is? We have tea, biscuits, soap operas, austerity, and small-town mentalities. As Theresa May and Boris Johnson grasped at a never-ending future date for a Brexit extension this year, much to the distress of basically everyone under 35, slowthai released his debut album, Nothing Great About Britain. It was a snapshot of a country in turmoil: Drawing equally on the sonics of grime and the politics and energy of punk, the King of Northampton fires his way through slurred bars, transporting the listener to a world where posh girls make him feel out of place, he hides drugs at his friend’s house, and his dear old single mum is the only Queen of England he respects. Look no further than the title track for slowthai’s party line on the ruling classes: “I will treat you with the utmost respect, only if you respect me a little bit, Elizabeth, you cunt.” —Hannah Ewens
This year’s Big-Ass Metal Record isn’t Slipknot or Tool: It’s Spirit Adrift’s third album, Divided By Darkness. If you’re looking for a record whose whole drive is Metal Is Thee Greatest!, this is it. Leader Nate Garrett—also a Gatecreeper axeman—continues to conjure Dio-era Sabbath and classic doom here, yet he also draws upon early 90s monoliths like Metallica’s Black Album and Ozzy’s No More Tears, records of reinvention that were also huge. “We Will Not Die” and “Hear Her” take the god-crunch of the former band’s “Sad But True” into richer, more melodic planes, and spacey keyboards add just the touch of syrup this record needs. Taking cues from Trouble at their most godless, the title track and “Tortured By Time” swing hammers despite, or because of, how futile life can feel. And “Angel & Abyss,” a mini-suite that starts with dark melodies and ends on a total shred-mass, proves it’s possible to craft the ultimate NWOBHM song in 2019. Darkness is a love letter to metal, one where the text is as rich as its muses. —Andy O’Connor
Departing from the I’m-Feeling-Emotions-in-a-TGI-Fridays vibe of his previous (and very great) album American Boyfriend, Arizona Baby sees Brockhampton member Kevin Abstract ditching the alt-rock textures and diving into André 3000/N.E.R.D alt-rap adjacent production. Jack Antonoff—the pop dude who produced Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell and Lorde’s Melodrama—comes through on co-production duty, too. Loved-up (or at least crushing-on-someone) track “Peach” is a particular standout, as is the delicate, pretty “Baby Boy.” In these songs, the light of Abstract’s full potential shines bright. —Ryan Bassil
When Billie EIlish dropped into the scene, with her giant puffy jackets, neon green hair, and disaffected gaze, she looked like a physical embodiment of angsty teenagedom in 2019, raised on a diet of old episodes of The Office, dank memes, and the desire to be understood mainly by being seen as misunderstood. Eilish grew up not just with, but within the internet, a place where disparate things live together. Maybe you don’t get it.
But perhaps unsurprisingly, adults slightly too far past that time in their own lives ate it up anyway. On the back of megahit “bad guy,” the 17-year-old’s debut album When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? (a charmingly, fittingly faux-deep teen thought) is a pensive, dreamy, bedroom-pop introduction to the complicated feelings of growing up in the digital age. Eilish started making music in her literal bedroom with her brother Finneas, and When We All Fall Asleep Where Do We Go? preserves the DIY spirit of the songs the duo first started posting on SoundCloud a few years ago. In her soft, smoky voice, EIlish croons about burgeoning sexuality, anxiety, and confidence struggles with admirable honesty and subdued intensity. “xanny” (and Eilish’s general delivery) had ASMR enthusiasts losing their minds, and “when the party’s over” shows off her range. (The girl can sing!) When We Fall Asleep is a time capsule of this era that proves Billie Eilish is Gen Z’s first true breakout star. Maybe, like the rest of us, she’ll someday look back and cringe at her younger self, but she shouldn’t. —Alex Zaragoza
There is a funk that runs through Lucky Daye’s debut album Painted that makes his passion impossible to ignore. That soul shows itself in the Bill Wither’s sample in Daye’s breakthrough single, “Roll Some Mo,” and his reworking of Ginuwine’s “Pony” on “Karma.” He squeals on tracks like “Real Games” proving that Daye is a student of 70s predecessors like Marvin Gaye, after whom he modeled his stage name. When Daye makes a departure from the soulful stylings of his idols, he doesn’t retreat in the trap-adjacent trimmings of his peers. Instead, he buries himself in traditional R&B ballads like “Love You Too Much” and “Misunderstood.” “I’m missing you but I got no right / You’re the only one I see, so much for open minds,” he sings. There is no happy ending for Daye on Painted; the album is a portrait of Lucky Daye’s unsuccessful relationships. But Painted, like a work of art, has beauty in the details remembered. —Kristin Corry
Ana Roxanne poses a question a few tracks into ~~~ that seems central to understanding the six-song project and her work as a whole: “Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared?” a voice intones blankly as a handful of synthesizer lines spin gently around each other. It’s a shame, Roxanne argues, that a chaotic world would rob us of spaces for meditation and repose, so in these six tracks she creates her own, weaving cocoon-like environments out of the synthesizer threads and crackling field recordings. These pieces are simple, but so is their purpose. Drown out the noise and drift away. —Colin Joyce
Pi’erre Bourne doesn’t work with just anyone. This is as much about how his beats sound as his taste in collaborators; finding the pocket in one of his twitchy shifting Magic-Eye beats is a challenge. East Atlanta’s Young Nudy has the longest and richest track record with the 26-year-old behind “Magnolia” and “Gummo,” and Sli’merre is the culmination of their relationship. Nudy’s voice is sticky but pliable and playful, like some novelty slime a parent might give to their child only to find it stuck to the ceiling hours later. Listen to his delivery on the stand-out “Extendo,” which moves from a slow sway to a showcase for gunshot sound effects. The beat is spectral, with a noise that might be a human voice repeating every few seconds, a kind of warbly tuning-fork sound the provenance of which is best left unknown. On “Sunflower Seeds,” over a gentle music-box beat, Nudy is sweet, breathing a slight melody into a line like “she with gang gang gang right now.” You can’t help but want to join in. —Ross Scarano
Change and solitude are good for the soul, and when writing Reward, Cate Le Bon was at furniture school, living alone in England’s mountainous Lake District. Le Bon, who typically composes on guitar, played piano late into every night. It was a shift and a reexamination, and alongside her day gig of learning carpentry, music became her hobby again. Reward sounds like all of this, at once an alpine and watery landscape, a warm room full of modernist wooden chairs, tables, and credenzas. It’s a window to the mind that reveals a room, one revealing the complex but everyday issues she sings about: love, fear, memory, and self-worth. These are strange songs, full of life and fascinated with structure. Sometimes there is emptiness, sometimes there is chaos, and sometimes there’s both. Le Bon has the rare ability to make angular sounds feel comforting and intimate and to simultaneously jar and invite. Her music is like a painting by Leonora Carrington; like Virginia Woolf or Frank Lloyd Wright, she’s become a master of her craft, and it’s easy to imagine her constructing songs like surrealist buildings. In her hands, bass, clarinet, saxophone, slide guitar, mellotron, synth, and percussion hold new power, as though they are very precious building blocks. —Leah Mandel
When Freddie Gibbs and Madlib released Piñata in 2014, it sounded like two musicians from different backgrounds figuring out each other’s tics in real time. Now on this year’s Bandana, their chemistry has coalesced to that of a classic rapper-producer duo, and it’s a showcase of two artists who understand each other’s tendencies. Gibbs moves away from his street-laced tales and Madlib is more experimental than ever with his woozy loops. Both artists retain their stylistic calling cards, while offering something new, bright, and energetic. “Flat Tummy Tea” is a song of the year contender, a two-and-a-half minute sprint that is pushed by Gibbs’ unrelenting double-time flow and Madlib’s electronic crunch. It’s just one example on an album full of the duo creating something new from the ground up. — Will Schube
Erika de Casier’s debut album feels just as built for the club as it does for the lonesome walk home at the end of the night. The Copenhagen-based singer/producer may be working off tried-and-true 90s reference points like Timbaland, Sade, or Erykah Badu, but her songs couldn’t be more suited for the present day, navigating the complications of relationships that live through iMessage. Channeling vintage ice-cold R&B, Essentials radiates a romantic aura even as de Casier expresses her frustrations with the typical pitfalls of the têxte-à-têxte, pining to cut through all the mixed signals and find something real. One of the most unassumingly confident pop albums of the year, Essentials is a masterclass in nighttime music, and a promising debut from a songwriter already deeply entrenched in the messy intricacies of modern love. —Sam Goldner
When Quincy Jones produced The Wiz in 1978, it was the updated story of the American dream, as told by Black Americans. Earthgang’s Mirrorland, which is inspired by the legendary film, creates a similar universe of boundless Blackness. The album is a sketch of Atlanta with Olu and WowGr8 putting their acrobatic deliveries on full display, as they offer on “UP.” Their unconventional cadences have drawn comparisons to OutKast’s eclectic rap, but songs like “Bank” and the Young Thug-assisted “Proud of U” are proof that the duo is capable of adapting to a mainstream sound. Mirrorland finds Earthgang coating their grievances with charisma, but bouts of paranoia still manage to seep through. “They took Nip, took X / Just a hating-ass nigga, hope I ain’t next / But if it pleases God, I hope the shooter aim best,” Olu raps on “This Side.” To them, the city is “filthy sweet,” and their experience in their hometown is as sullen as it has been candied. —Kristin Corry
Where Shura’s excellent 2016 debut, Nothing’s Real, drew inspiration from break-ups, this mesmerizing second album shimmers with all the lust, longing, possibilities, and frustrations of a new, long-distance relationship. “This isn’t love, oh, this is an emergency,” she sighs on “BKLYNLDN” (Brooklyn-London). “Keep thinking of that picture that you sent to me.” Elsewhere, the queer British singer-songwriter contemplates being with someone forever; falls for her new, adopted home on the other side of the Atlantic; and confronts her own mortality on standout track “Princess Leia.” “Maybe I died when Carrie Fisher died” is one of many forever lyrics that swirl around your head long after the album finishes. Shura’s airy melodies also really linger, and she and co-producer Joel Pott build a dreamy electro-pop sound that envelops you like a fragrant vapor. The result is an elegant and affecting celebration of a love that’s anything but cookie-cutter. —Nick Levine
In música urbana, a singles-driven genre that frequently relies on team-ups and posse cuts to secure attention in a crowded field, collaboration is king. Yet two of its biggest stars had only linked on tracks a handful of times ahead of this surprise-dropped joint mini album. If those prior partnerships—”Si Tu Novio Te Deja Sola” and the Cardi B-led “I Like It”—were any indication of the Latino Gang’s might, Oasis was the victory lap celebrating how far reggaetón and Latin trap has come. While production veers closer to Balvin’s Vibras sheen than Bunny’s X100PRE experimental edge, their pairing produced at least two of urbano’s most important songs this year, both notable for not coming from their usual beatmakers. The sentimental, sun-soaked jazz drip of “La Canción” by Nichael Arroyo proved a late-2019 hit, while the multinational effort “Como Un Bebé” caps the project off masterfully with Afrobeats vibes courtesy of Legendury Beatz and Mr. Eazi. —Gary Suarez
It starts with one of those disorienting Phoebe Bridgers turns of phrase, which suggests an anachronism without exactly being one: “My telephone, it doesn’t have a camera.” And that matters, naturally, because this whole album, a collaboration between Bridgers and Conor Oberst, is a love letter to the kind of knotty, romantic songwriting that in the not-so-distant past might have inspired a couple of friends to geek out together over the liner notes. Tragic figures are invoked. Long, angsty drives occur. Wistfulness? You can count on it. And yet despite all the deadbeats and dead people, the overall tone is hopeful. There is absolution in the noise of the guitars. Is it trite to suggest that the answer to all the big questions might be to jam as loudly as possible? Is it trite to even ask? Sure—to paraphrase Eve Babitz, you don’t care about the art of the rock album. But you might like the part about Forest Lawn. —Kyle Kramer
On “BETTY,” the opener of the singer, activist, and poet Jamila Woods’ excellent full-length LEGACY! LEGACY!, she exclaims, “I am not your typical girl/Throw away that picture in your head.” It’s a bold declaration from an artist who’s always eschewed easy classification. Woods’ soulful debut album, 2016’s HEAVN, was almost diary-like in its introspection, interpolating music from her childhood to express deeper truths about her city, her identity, and her family. But here the focus is even wider. Like the Betty Davis homage kicking off the LP, each track here names a historical artist of color, with titles referencing Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Sun Ra, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and more. Woods is an omnivorous listener and a keen student of history in her deft translation of these influential figures’ lives into her own experiences. She warmly synthesizes genres like soul, jazz, R&B, and rock into something fresh, radical, and wholly her own. —Josh Terry
“I started writing at the same age that you start doing all those other things that you turn into a person,” Nilufer Yanya told Rolling Stone earlier this year. “So me writing is me being a person.” It’s a heady, though not unfamiliar, way of looking at one’s life and vocation. But it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll make the sort of propulsive, searching music the 24-year-old London singer-songwriter does. Listen to “Baby Blu” or “Heat Rises,” though, and there’s no question that this music rips. Yanya’s voice is bold, shaped by classical training and a fondness for jazz, and her guitar playing is muscular. Miss Universe, her debut, draws on indie rock and soul, power chords and saxophones, and multi-tracked vocal harmonies. It’s an entire world within itself. —Ross Scarano
There’s no way you can look back on 2019 and not tip your hat to the strong-kneed, Houston-bred hottie Megan Thee Stallion and her debut album, Fever. The artist served up an unapologetically Southern 14-track project punctuated with enough empowering, sex-positive anthems to last a lifetime, including “Sex Talk” and “Pimpin.” Paired with visuals inspired by Blaxploitation cinema, Fever boasts features from DaBaby on fan-favorite “Cash Shit” and Juicy J on the boastful “Simon Says.” The braggadocious “W.A.B.” appropriately samples Three 6 Mafia’s “Weak Ass Bitch,” firmly establishing that Megan is a part of the lineage of Southern rap royalty.
Despite the death of her mother Molly Thomas—who was also her manager, and a former rapper—2019 was a transformative moment in the entertainer’s career. Megan “drove the boat” toward inclusivity, defying tired tropes that suggest there can only be one woman in rap. Fever not only acted as a means for Megan to plant her flag in rap—with infectious hooks and spitfire bars oozing of her desirability and sexual prowess—but it was the moment she defined her sound and championed the musical sensibilities of the south. —Sharine Taylor
If the icy but exuberant synth-rave of TR/ST’s last album, 2014’s Joyland, was a burst of high-energy goth pop set directly beneath a disco ball, their new two-part record, The Destroyer, is what you’d hear in the darkened hallway under a flickering light bulb. The Destroyer – 1 lifts off with the throbbing, slow-building “Colossal,” a pulsing space anthem fit for a sci-fi soundtrack, but it finds catharsis on the singalong chorus of “Grouch” and the uncharacteristically tender “Control Me.” While TR/ST’s infectious dance-floor sensibilities still permeate this project, the focus has shifted to foreground those brutalist, post-apocalyptic synths, putting Robert Alfons’ signature sneering voice at the center. The Destroyer – 2 delves further into an experimental interpretation of TR/ST’s chilled, warped aesthetic, conjuring Placebo on tracks that stray away from synthlandia and into 90s-alt turf, from “The Stain,” which opens with— whaaat?—an acoustic guitar, to title track “Destroyer,” which reads as strictly indie. And for Alfons and co., that makes fresh use of his now-proven songwriting gifts. —Hilary Pollack
Belgian psych-metal trio Brutus quickly came into focus with their latest LP, Nest, garnering plenty of buzz and press on the heels of its release in late summer. Their ethereal but heavy sound marched deeper into the realm of bands like Pelican, Sannhet, and even labelmates Russian Circles, creating dramatic and pensive post-rock epics that vacillate into grand tremolo-picked choruses and lay bare vulnerability. And while the previously mentioned artists—which all happen to be instrumental—make amazing and challenging work of their own, Brutus reveals a question about them all: What if they had a vocalist? And what if the vocalist was the drummer, and she sounded like a mix between Björk and Corin Tucker without all the vibrato? It would sound amazing, emotive, and like an artist that made one of the most stellar records of the year. —Fred Pessaro
The most prominent feature on the cover of DaBaby’s major label debut Baby on Baby is that smile. If you followed the Charlotte rapper’s rise over the course of the last year, you’ve probably seen it before. Perhaps you caught a glimpse of his pearly whites in the video for “Walker Texas Ranger,” in which he plays a cartoonish outlaw behind the wheel of a Dodge Ram who accidentally drives off a cliff while watching videos on his phone. If not, maybe you saw them in another video as he munched on a bowl of breakfast cereal and thumbed a diamond-studded chain featuring Stewie from Family Guy. The point is, that smile is telling. There’s a sense of humor at the heart of his music that he finally fully explored on Baby on Baby, which included such prurient deadpans as “I’m the type of baby that’s gonna fuck the babysitter.” Elsewhere, he gets a little more serious, detailing the particulars of his rapid ascent, but even then the smile’s still there, shining brightly, right at the center. —Colin Joyce
Julien Chang is 19, so it’s debatable whether he’s currently classifiable as a ‘teen prodigy.’ But regardless of the semantics, he’s enviably young and even more enviably talented. On Jules, the Baltimore-based artist’s debut album, he swims through a bevy of half-century-old influences—the Beatles, The Beach Boys, early Pink Floyd—through kaleidoscope eyes, acid-washing classic pop-rock songwriting with moments of deep psychedelia, neo-soul, and effortless-sounding jazz. The lackadaisical opener “Deep Green” takes an unexpectedly funky turn into “Of the Past,” a track that feels like a surprise gem plucked from a dusty record store bin, with adult-contemporary piano solos, calypso arpeggios, and a charmingly retro dancing-on-a-cruise-ship groove. “Candy Cane Rainbow” would sound right at home on Abbey Road, with its “Because”-esque vocal harmonies. It’s hard to wrap your head around the fact that a record so easily compared to the most beautifully druggy moments of the Beatles was written and recorded by a high schooler, but that’s the magic and the mystery of Julien Chang—who, as a reminder, can’t legally drink a glass of wine for two more years. Cheers. —Hilary Pollack
While it may be tempting to characterize Truck Music as chaotic or mishmash, this year’s release by Philadelphia-based Christopher Taylor ultimately delivers a deliberately constructed 22-minute joyride. Taylor’s project (assisted by percussion from Matthew Anderegg) careens and skids between disparate rhythms and samples stitched together with care, turning heads without jolting listeners out of the reverie these songs create. Along with the expertly crafted production, Taylor’s vocal work weaves in and out of these tracks effortlessly. The standout single “Nairobi Flex” features the singer crying out amongst the dense, pinballing percussion patterns, anchoring the song with surprisingly intense emotion. Body Meat is the music of the future—global, innovative, captivating, and transportive. —Avery Mencher
Dijon remembers. That’s more or less what he’s made his name doing over the last few years, writing bruised, beautiful ballads about the way things were before, back when we were all so young and things were easy. Despite its name, Sci Fi 1 feels more like a memoir, full of Proustian road trips through relationships that time forgot and summers that felt like they’d never end. In the way that memories tend to be, the record is fragmented and small—only a pair of songs even approach the three-minute mark. That style suits him though, the images in songs like “Lace,” in which he recalls tires screeching on LA highways and the patter of feet on a wooden staircase, only feel more vibrant and detailed when they’re viewed in this shattered way. Dijon looks at the past through a broken mirror, so his hindsight isn’t 20/20—but it’s beautiful anyway. —Colin Joyce
The Mozzarella Fella is the definition of your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper, with technical skills that are second to none. He raps in a way that’s so engrossing that you become personally invested in the situations he describes, and his bars are intricate and endlessly entertaining to untangle. He released a total of four albums this year, but Internal Affairs stands out above the rest. The project is a masterclass in what Mozzy does best: providing riveting first-hand accounts of street life that show that it’s far more complex than outside observers could ever understand. There are highs (“Off the dribble, nigga ballin’, finna cram on it 550 European with the yams on it”) and lows (“That shit embarrassing, sleeping on homie’s mother’s couch / Lost a bundle in that bitch, at least a hundred count”), but we’re very lucky to have a talent like Mozzy guide us through his world. Mozzy is a very good rapper, and it looks like he’ll continue to be a very good rapper until the end of time. —Trey Smith
Pang may be Caroline Polachek’s third solo record, but it’s the first the former Chairlift member has released under her full name. Listening to the album, however, this makes sense: Pang‘s introspective approach is best summarized by album highlight “Look at Me Now”—a throwback treat for those who spent their teenage years feeling sorry for themselves while listening to Imogen Heap. Polachek sings that she wrote once herself a letter, asking herself: “When you finally get this / Where will you be?” Pang is an attempt to answer that question through the time-honored medium of the pop song, with Polachek mining desire, breakups, and growing self-awareness over a bedrock of deftly layered synths and strings. She co-produced the record with PC Music’s Danny L. Harle, who opts for an airy and expansive sound instead of his usual HUGE™ drops. The result is a clear-headed collection of classic pop and electronic experimentation, with a sound that’s just as in flux as the artist behind it. —Lauren O’Neill
A Canadian punk-turned-queer-cowpoke, the pseudonymous Orville Peck emerged as this year’s most intriguing country music outlier. He wears masks adorned with concealing fringe veils, presenting an enigmatic image that hints at what a Lone Ranger movie reboot might look like with David Lynch directing. While that aesthetic made him a darling for both fashion magazines and music blogs, Pony imbues all that style with gobs of substance. Recorded on Western Canada’s picturesque Gabriola Island, far away from the Nashville buzz and din, the singles “Dead Of Night” and “Turn To Hate” place his voice on a singer-songwriter spectrum somewhere between Glenn Danzig and Roy Orbison. A thick gloomy haze of bad relationships and the corresponding emotional roadburn gives Pony its might, with Peck spinning poetic narratives that play out like tall tales. Above all, it’ll make you reconsider the awesome power of the phrase yee-haw. —Gary Suarez
With references to Blow‘s George Jung and Scarface‘s Tony Montana, “Disco Shit” is meant to sound cinematic. It’s just one entry off Netflix & Deal, a 13-track project inspired by Greedo’s favorite movies that shows off his encyclopedic knowledge of film. There are nods to West Side Story (“Maria”), Avatar (“Blue People”), and Twins (“Aye Twin”), and even a song eponymously dedicated to whom you’d have to assume is one of his favorite actors, “Brad Pitt.” “Fight club, diamonds hittin’, I’m kickin’ shit / My broad and me like Mr. and Mrs. Smith / Think I’m Brad Pitt,” the LA rapper boasts.
Netflix & Deal puts Greedo’s deft wordplay at center stage: “The curious case of Benjamin Button / My money get newer each time I get older,” he quips on the aforementioned ode to Pitt. Netflix & Deal follows this year’s equally excellent DJ Mustard collab Still Summer in the Projects, proving that Greedo was serious when he said he recorded more than 30 albums before he began serving a 20-year sentence on drug and firearms charges in Texas. If this is what he’s capable from the inside, one can only imagine what he’ll be able to do once he’s free. —Leslie Horn
“What’s your time machine? / Is it Springsteen or ‘Teenage Dream’?” Maren Morris asks on “A Song for Everything,” accidentally nodding to what was probably the most celebrated (and critiqued) element of her sophomore major label album: her embrace of a wide range of sounds outside of the traditional country canon. Girl‘s opening guitar chords echo her ongoing collaboration with her fellow Highwomen, while the bridge on “Gold Love” lends itself to gospel-style clapping. There’s enough rollicking energy throughout to recall “The Middle,” her 2018 smash dance-pop hit with Zedd and The Grey, though she also weaves in moments of lyrical subtly and sonic softness, such as on “To Hell and Back.” But it’s “The Bones” that brings it all together, melding all these styles at once to prove that yes, cheesy as it might sound, “When the bones are good, the rest don’t matter.” —Kate Dries
Grime MC Kano pins his tunes with sharp, specific references that conjure entire worlds in just a few words. There are long nights with cold white wine, BBQ all-dayers in the garden, champs upon champs upon champs in plastic cups. On 2016’s Mercury-nominated Made In The Manor, he turned this focus inward. But as he told VICE during an interview about Hoodies All Summer this year, “[Made In The Manor] was about me—this album is about ‘us.'” Direct, urgent, no bullshitting, Hoodies All Summer touches, among other things, the knife crime epidemic in the U.K. Featuring a roll-call of guests that includes Popcaan, D Double E, and Ghetts on stand-out grime track “Class Of Deja,” the album marks Kano out as an artist’s artist whose work stands against time. —Ryan Bassil
Kelsey Lu is one of those infuriatingly talented people who can sing beautifully, write incredible music, play cello, and pull off bleached eyebrows—all without acting like a pretentious nightmare. In person, she’s warm and inquisitive, prone to fits of giggles that sometimes end with a little snort. On her debut album, Blood, she pulls you into an intimate world just as openly. Blood charts her unusual path from a North Carolina childhood in a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses to hustling as an artist in New York to her current happy place: the tingly sunshine of California. There’s no easy way to categorize the music, so don’t bother worrying about that. Instead, give yourself over to her ambitious use of engorged strings, layered vocals, disco-esque basslines, and meditative songs that may make you want to slide to the floor in the shower, eyes brimming with tears. —Tshepo Mokoena
Panama’s role in the dawn of reggaetón cannot be overstated. In practice, the country’s spearheading of the urban Latin movement has been systematically downplayed or otherwise ignored in lieu of a narrative that favors Puerto Rico to a fault. So with that tricky history as context, one can’t help but see the breakout of Afro-Panamanian singer Sech this year as a victorious full circle moment. Produced by Rich Music’s in-house beat maestro Dimelo Flow, his “Otro Trago” did big streaming numbers throughout Latin America and made huge strides in the U.S. ahead of the star-studded remix that sent it into the Hot 100. Those who circled back to the Sueños LP were rewarded with an optimized fusion of R&B romanticism and dembow-laden groove. With contemplative, earnest standouts like “Boomerang” and the hypnotic “Falsas Promesas,” the album soars above contemporaneous efforts this calendar year from the genre’s cookie-cutter hitmakers. —Gary Suarez
After the release of her 2015 record Platform, experimental electronic musician Holly Herndon started thinking bigger. Like, way bigger. First, she started working with a vocal ensemble, and then she added a member: a piece of AI named Spawn that she built with artist and developer Jules LaPlace.
Spawn—who has “learned” to mimic Herndon and her partner Mat Dryhurst’s voice, in the manner of a baby imitating its parents—contributes vocals to the proceedings. A couple of the tracks on Proto demonstrate Spawn being trained. It is, quite simply, spine-chilling to hear technology being used in this artistic, generous way. Proto‘s choral anthems sound like a utopian future, one where technology is harnessed to enrich humanity rather than to supervise and discipline it. It’s an album that recognizes that our voices make the strongest impact when we’re singing in tandem. —Lauren O’Neill
It’s a fact that Little Simz is one of Britain’s most gifted rappers. But another fact is that for years, the mainstream industry in the U.K. overlooked her. Now, on her third album, Grey Area, she’s done waiting for acknowledgment—and funnily enough, this is her first time she’s landed on the shortlist for a major British and Irish award. She’s her most confident, blistering through breathlessly fast bars on scorcher “Venom,” or two-stepping to a piano line she plays live on heartbreak anthem “Selfish.” Grey Area sounds like Simz coming home, kicking off her shoes, and letting it all out. No doubt that’s partially attributed to her working with longtime friend and collaborator Inflo, who produced the album. But it also may be because she no longer needs to look for outside validation. At this stage, the facts speak for themselves. —Tshepo Mokoena
In a world controlled by evil men, bad actors, and unfeeling billionaires, anger is often the only emotion that makes sense. Few bands are more skilled at sublimating the chaos and torment of existence in a doomed world than the New York duo Deli Girls, whose 2019 album I Don’t Know How to Be Happy is a retching, cackling distillation of pure rage at the state of our troubled existence. Across the record, vocalist Danny Orlowski barks, raps, and groans lyrics about private traumas, public injustices, and—most frequently—the violence that the world exerts on the vulnerable. In the background, a series of martial, lo-fi instrumentals rumble menacingly, setting the tone for Orlowski’s doomsaying. Songs like “Money” moan with an ominousness that almost feels tectonic, like the whole world is shifting and groaning underneath Deli Girls’ feet. It sounds like the end of days, which feels about right given the state of things. —Colin Joyce
SiR doesn’t want summer to end, and he’s so enamored with its warmth that he’s willing to chase it. But on his third album, the TDE singer is also chasing new beginnings, women, and money. Like most summer flings, SiR’s emotions are spontaneous but fleeting. On songs like “You Can’t Save Me,” he’s convinced he’s missing out on love: “In another time, in another place / You would be mine / On a brighter day, under a different sky, maybe we’d fly,” he sings. On “New Sky,” he rejects potential relationships: “I thought I was gone now, on the run now / Trying to find a happier me / But flying away didn’t fix a thing.” Despite his insatiable wanderlust, by the end of the album, he wants nothing more than to return to sunny LA, as though he’s realized that everything his heart desires he already has at home. —Kristin Corry
It’s already an astounding feat for an indie rock band to release two albums that elevated the genre in the same year. But what made 2019 such a banner year for Big Thief is that the New York band accomplished it in such wildly different ways in the pair of LPs they put out: spring’s folk-minded and airy U.F.O.F., and autumn’s driving and unflinching Two Hands. The full-lengths were recorded within weeks of each other, with the quartet fresh off a grueling tour, and their road-tested chemistry bursts through each track. Take the two breakout singles “Cattails” from U.F.O.F. and “Not” from Two Hands. Though the former is self-contained, plucky, and delicate where the latter is expansive and rocking, both contain a deep well of emotional resonance. But while the musicianship captures their raw and often crushingly loud live show, it’s frontperson Adrienne Lenker’s vulnerable voice and incisively personal writing that prove why the band garnered so much hype. —Josh Terry
Away from his guitar-playing gig in the retro-futurist funk band The Internet, Steve Lacy has always made music that’s deeply intimate. On his early demos, it was hard to figure out exactly who or what he was singing about, but that feeling was there all along, close-mic’d and squished-sounding in the way that only iPhone recordings can be. It felt like he was sending the songs directly to you, via Voice Memos.
Even though he had money for better gear to make his debut album, Apollo XXI, the personal nature of the recordings is still the defining quality of his songwriting. He opens up throughout the album, singing about loves won and lost, the pressures of growing up, and the struggle to find one’s place in the world. The centerpiece is the multi-act epic “Like Me,” on which he telegraphs his intent in an opening monologue: “This is about me and what I am,” he says. “I didn’t wanna make it a big deal, but I did wanna make a song.” He goes on to detail his anxiety about how his sexuality (“Ain’t got a preference,” he croons) will be received by the world, his friends, and his family. It’s a headstrong song about living as the person you want to be, but it’s vulnerable, too, like a whispered “I love you,” left in the voicemail inbox of someone you barely know. —Colin Joyce
At least a dozen academic papers could be written about the work of Kristin Hayter, and she’s only just released her second full-length. Like 2017’s ALL BITCHES DIE before it, CALIGULA is an epic collage, referencing medieval songs, the Bible, Frank O’Hara, the serial killer Aileen Wuornos, Lars Ulrich eating a sandwich, and Christian liturgy, in addition to drawing on black metal, power electronics, opera, and baroque classical. And also, she’s set the collage on fire.
The album is named after a sadistic, power- and sex-obsessed Roman emperor, and Hayter harnesses that chaos as a means of processing trauma. As Lingua Ignota, she renders herself huge and aflame, rising from the depths of hell to vanquish abusers from this earth. She becomes the tyrant, the vengeful god: “The bitter blood of many foes sustains me,” she sings rhapsodically on “FRAGRANT IS MY MANY FLOWER’D CROWN.” “And heavy is my hammer, swinging ’round / And soft are their throats / And soft are their skulls.” Sometimes her voice sounds choral; at other points, it’s unbelievably ragged and almost charred, surrounded by savage, snarling sounds that threaten to crash in on her. But she is the conqueror here. “If you don’t fear me yet, you will,” she intones on “FUCKING DEATHDEALER,” and the whole thing ends with a repeated, pained command: “Beast I am / Praise me.” —Leah Mandel
Ever since his 2009 debut EP Vacuum, Floating Points’ music has always sounded almost too perfect. This may be the first time English producer Sam Shepard seems a little uncertain about just what he wants to create. The clinical rhythms and gorgeous melodies are still front and center, but there’s a restlessness to the album that can make it hard to understand exactly what you’re listening to, which is precisely what makes Crush so thrilling.
Is that an oboe, or some trick-mirror Buchla synth module (on “Falaise”)? Where’d those U.K. garage breaks come from (on “Bias”)? Am I swaying in a festival crowd (“Last Bloom”), sitting in a concert hall (“Requiem for CS70 and Strings”), or waking up in Aphex Twin’s guest bedroom (“Environments”)? Sure, there’s a few bangers for good measure (“LesAlpx” and “Anasickmodular”), but it’s a testament to Floating Points’ talent that electronic music this baroque and challenging can be so pleasurable. —Dan Gentile
For a while there, it seemed like FKA Twigs had sort of… disappeared. Musically, at least. After releasing her game-changing, Mercury Prize-nominated 2014 debut album LP1, followed by her exceptional M3LL155X EP in 2015, the 31-year-old artist didn’t come out with anything for another four years. She’d altered the landscape of pop, sure, but maybe that was it.
But then she released MAGDALENE—a strange, innovative, Trojan horse of an album full of sonic twists and surprising turns of phrase. “I’m a fallen alien / I never thought that you would be the one to tie me down,” she sings on “Fallen Alien,” her breathy falsetto floating above odd, cinematic piano keys and cavernous beats. Elsewhere, on “Holy Terrain,” her voice sounds stronger, tighter: “I’m blue when the moon hits my skin right,” she intones over immaculate, spidery production.
It’s hard to pin any of the songs on MAGDALENE to one genre—FKA Twigs is too complex for that. Instead, she weaves stories out of soundscapes, imbuing her words and voice with feeling. She uses instrumentation to create a world around her, and us. These things take time. For Twigs it took four years, but now she’s given us something timeless. —Daisy Jones
Chicago rapper Polo G has thought a lot about the family and friends he’s lost, causing him to question his own mortality at only 20 years old. On his debut studio album, he muses on how he wants to be memorialized, and he isn’t settling for a life that’s less than legendary. “For my family, gotta build a legacy / I’ma be the man when I’m dead,” he raps on “BTS.”
His ruminations around his own demise are a reminder that Black people are often only celebrated in death. Much of Die a Legend shows Polo G exploring the trauma of growing up near Chicago’s Cabrini-Green neighborhood, likening his adolescent experiences to war. “Boy I won’t play, I’ll go to war about my gang members / We lost some soldiers in that war so they been tryin’ to kill,” he raps on “Battle Cry.” “A King’s Nightmare” examines why life hardened him, but Polo G is aware that his story isn’t unique to him or Chicago. “I wonder one day will we wake up? Is the cycle gon’ end?” Die a Legend is Polo G’s contribution to stopping it. —Kristin Corry
The stakes always feel higher when Angel Olsen sings. The Asheville artist is one of the decade’s most evocative songwriters—and the kind of vocalist whose every warble brims with unfathomable emotion. With All Mirrors, her most ambitious offering yet, she’s defiant. Just take opener “Lark,” where she bellows, “What about my dreams? / What about the heart? / Trouble from the start / Trouble with the heart” over swirling strings courtesy of collaborators Ben Babbitt and Jherek Bischoff. Whether the songs are threadbare or full of epic arrangements, Olsen proves she is an auteur through and through. —Josh Terry
The first thing Maxo Kream does on Brandon Banks is shout out all his friends and family members behind bars. “Tried to go to visitation, but they wouldn’t let me in / So our only conversation writin’ letters with a pen,” he goes on the chorus of “Meet Again.” From there, the fractures in his community only become even more apparent, with the Houston rapper spinning yarns about families doomed to repeat the same cycles over and over again: “Brenda” follows a woman who slowly watches her son grow into an abuser; on “Bissonnet,” Maxo reflects on how his own father influenced his path toward becoming a Crip. But whether he’s having an existentialist crisis in double-time on “8 Figures,” or bouncing back and forth with Megan Thee Stallion on the pure Houston heat of “She Live,” his flows are just as captivating as his words. The result is a soul-baring journal entry from one of our generation’s most gripping storytellers. —Sam Goldner
Those who have closely or even loosely followed Sunn O))) over the past two decades may have thought that by now, they’d know what to expect—or even that the band’s best work may be behind them. But the pair of excellent new records they released this year, Life Metal and Pyroclasts, proved otherwise. Recorded and mixed by the incomparable Steve Albini, they seem to explore two sides of the same coin. On Life Metal, the band takes its monolithic, ruminative brand of drone metal and ramps up the density and complexity (see: the uncharacteristically vocal-driven “Between Sleipner’s Breaths”). On Pyroclasts, they strip it down to its barest rudiments, offering a series of single-note-focused tracks like “Frost (C)” that feel as organic to the body as sleeping, or blood, or an orgasm.
There’s so much talk of what music will become, of all the frenetic, glitchy pop and emo-trap-wave-core that “sounds like the future.” But what about music that transports you to somewhere unfathomably ancient, back to a time when your bone marrow was just some particles drifting in a primordial swamp in Pangaea? This decade was home to a renewed interest in sound baths and transcendental meditation and mindfulness. Metalheads need all that, too. But it’s in the groans of the universe that Sunn O))) finds that peace, channeled through guitars emitting an avalanche of distortion instead of, say, an “ommm.” –Hilary Pollack
Thanks to the magnetizing energy of Rico Nasty and the signature sound of producer Kenny Beats (who is represented twice on this list), Anger Management is a monument of empowering rawness. Loaded with both bravado and grit and about the anxieties of life, the artist embraces and draws on maximalism in every aspect of her performance, delivery, and cadence atop Beats’ production, to create a galvanizing, powerful rap album. Though the album is just shy of 20 minutes, with a wicked Jay-Z sample on “Hatin’,” each track serves a healthy amount of boastfulness and woman-first anthems. “Make more money than your father, can’t get to me, why bother? / I just left from the Bahamas, my money getting longer,” she spits on album-opener “Cold” with a fierceness no one can replicate.
Transparency is Anger Management‘s best asset, which fuels much of its power. In “Sell Out” Rico acknowledges her old behavior and redemption through lines like “I done did some fucked up shit in the past, but I know the Lord forgives.” For many of her fans, and in particular Black women who have found liberty in its rightfully riotous sound, Anger Management is Rico Nasty’s triumphant stamp on rap. —Sharine Taylor
As the RMS Titanic sank into the North Atlantic Ocean in 1912, the massive ocean liner’s house band reportedly set up on the rapidly slanting deck and played the same hymn over and over again, hoping to calm the passengers who had yet to escape. Titanic Rising isn’t the first great work of art to draw inspiration from that heartbreaking image (all eight musicians died), but as Weyes Blood demonstrates in this sprawling collection of open-hearted folk songs, it’s hard to think of a better metaphor for the role of the artist in 2019. Natalie Mering has always had a knack for isolating emotions we don’t even realize we’re feeling and singing them “like the top’s blown off”—and on Titanic Rising, that larger-than-life earnestness makes navigating a world rife with unending fires, existential confusion, and romantic missed connections feel almost like a hero’s journey. But the most beautiful part is, it sounds like she’s having fun while she’s doing it—luxuriating in the odd Beatles-esque slide guitar passage and old Hollywood orchestral swell, throwing us melodic and rhythmic curveballs like she’s daring us to sing along. —Emilie Friedlander
What do you create after you’ve already made what this site considers to be the best album of the decade? You do like Solange and turn your trips back home into a full retrospective on your Houston roots. For her new album, the singer was looking to answer the question: “How much of ourselves do we leave at home, and how much do we carry with us forever?” When I Get Home finds those answers with song titles like “S McGregor,” named after the bypass that ran past her childhood home, featuring a poem from another pair of famous Houston sisters, Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Allen. When Solange isn’t delicately sifting through memories of her childhood, she’s crafting songs inspired by the city’s Third Ward neighborhood and Screwed Up Click legacy, with “Almeda” and the sunny “Binz,” which pokes fun at the fact that her “dollas never show up on CP time.” Halfway through the album, Solange reminds the listener, “Do nothing without intention,” and When I Get Home pays homage to Houston on purpose. —Kristin Corry
The best post-punk feels combustible, as though its nervy energy could fold in on itself at any moment. Chicago’s The Hecks take this dynamic to a welcome extreme. The songs on their sophomore LP, My Star, jerk around so violently, it sometimes feels as if they don’t play their instruments so much as stab them. But even as the guitars and synths clash, the quartet are masters at writing an earworm. The hook on “So 4 Real” is irresistibly Prince-like, and the cascading riffs on the album’s eponymous closer wouldn’t have felt out of place on a new wave dance floor. This is out-of-the-box indie rock that thrives on the same anxious, off-kilter grooves as Devo and Talking Heads. —Josh Terry
When Clairo’s breakout hit “Pretty Girl”—a lo-fi feminist pop song that Claire Cottrill wrote and uploaded to YouTube—went viral in 2017, critics were quick to label it as the genre du jour: bedroom pop. This year, on her debut album, Immunity, 21-year-old Cottrill up and leaves the bedroom and doesn’t look back. Gone are the fuzzy, muted sounds of her demos. Though the record features big-name assists—production from Rostam Batmanglij and drums from Danielle Haim—it’s Cottrill’s honey-coated voice that takes center stage as she navigates charged moments with a female crush (“Bags,” “Sofia,” “Softly”), contemplates her own suicidal thoughts (“Alewife”), and comforts a struggling younger version of herself (“White Flag”). The result is a sophisticated collection of pop songs that are as searing as journal entries scribbled in bed after a long night. Cottrill may have started out in her bedroom, but Immunity proves that her world is about to get a whole lot bigger. —Avery Stone
The questions, as ever, have changed. It’s not about who. “I could prophet, I could rob, I—however,” Justin Vernon muses, pointing toward new conclusions. His voice, in stricter confines, would obviously be the star. But treat it like just another instrument—one component alongside those little guitar plunks on “Faith,” the synthesizer pattern on “Holyfields,” the stealthy drum programming and harmonizing tremors and whatever else it is you’re hearing on “iMi”—and how is the word that comes to mind. How did Bon Iver make that sound? i,i is a triumph of the group’s long-running studio obsessions and pursuit of the aesthetically interesting. But in this refocusing, Bon Iver raises another question: What is the right way to live? The answer is not in a cabin in the woods. The only way to defeat the incoherent nullity of contemporary culture is to champion counter-cultural ideals: Kill the ego. Build a community. Create something beautiful. —Kyle Kramer
Last year, “Girls Need Love” made the world want to know more about the woman brave enough to sing “I just want some dick,” but if it were up to Summer Walker, we wouldn’t know her at all. Much of Walker’s approach challenges outdated gender norms, but the 23-year-old is not pretending to be delicate to sell records. At times, her love is smothering and damn near possessive, with song titles like “I’ll Kill You,” and mentions of the gun she keeps stashed in her purse. But Walker insists she’d never cross the line. “I would never shoot you, baby / Maybe just wave it around / All in your face,” she sings on “Me.” The unpolished acoustic track “Fun Girl” shatters the double standard of what makes a woman “undesirable.” “Is it ’cause I know what I want, just like you? / ‘Cause I make my own money and my own moves? / Love who I want and fuck who I choose to / Don’t take no shit and won’t be used.” Over It is a tightrope of emotions that finds the listener unable to determine where hate begins and love ends. —Kristin Corry
With his sixth studio album This Is How You Smile, Roberto Carlos Lange, who performs as Helado Negro, doubled down on his softer side. There’s an atmospheric nature to the songs that leaves space for you to project your own feelings onto them—they’re the sort of sweet, lovelorn jams you might listen to in your bedroom after a long night out, wishing you’d said something to your crush. But when you listen closely to what Lange is saying, he has real things on his mind. He talks about life as the child of immigrants, of being brown, of finding warmth and love in difficult times for Latinx people. He told Billboard that his music explores, “this idea of longevity through resilience and understanding, how much shit we can go through. ‘We,’ as in a lot of people of color and people who feel oppressed.” It’s a sublime and lush exploration of family, hitting right in the chest whether or not you come from his same cultural background. But if you do, the soft sting pierces even harder. —Alex Zaragoza
Before Tyler, the Creator started donning shoulder pads, shades, and an ice-blonde bobbed wig, Los Angeles darkwave duo Drab Majesty popularized the look in more underground music circles where the duo has been putting out lush, gothic dance-floor bangers since 2011. On Modern Mirror, they harken again to the past—alternately conjuring early 4AD gods like Cocteau Twins, the post-punk bellows of Killing Joke, the stadium-worthy choruses of Duran Duran, and the shimmering ethereality of Kate Bush—while unpacking the cultural moods of the present.
Androgynous and stoic, their costumey presentation belies the introspection of their lyrics, which, here, focus on narcissism. On the album’s biggest single, “Ellipsis,” Andrew Clinco—who moonlights as frontperson Deb DeMure—wrestles with technology’s toll on contemporary relationships, dissecting the customs of texting and the phenomenon of ghosting and wondering why “two modern minds won’t say what they want to.” On “Oxytocin,” keyboardist/vocalist Mona D reckons with the pressure members of our generation feel to always be one step ahead when what’s in front of us seems hopeless: “All the time I have, I borrow / I’m not living for tomorrow, it’s not there.” The 80s, even with all their pitfalls and problems, look awfully romantic in hindsight—but here we are. —Hilary Pollack
The ears of the world have tilted towards the influential sounds that are being produced by Africa‘s blossoming dancehall scene. A collection of artists throughout the continent have proudly bolstered the sounds of their regions, but one of its most “giant” stars is none other than Nigeria’s Burna Boy. Though his fourth studio album, African Giant, is distinctly and uniquely Nigerian—as seen through his use of Igbo, Pidgin, and Yoruba on “Gbona” and his work with Nigerian producer Kel P—he used the album as an opportunity to share the sounds of the Black diaspora, with appearances from talent like U.K.’s Jorja Smith, Jamaica’s Damian Marley, and Los Angeles’s YG.
Though Burna Boy is already considered one of the greats in his home country, African Giant solidified his status and sound in the global music industry. But more importantly, it spoke to the possibilities of how the contemporary sounds of Africa—local, regional and continental—can integrate more fluidly into mainstream markets. —Sharine Taylor
Jessica Pratt’s greatest instrument has always been her elf-like, mystical voice, which at times feels too delicately beautiful for this troubling world we’ve found ourselves in at the turn of the 2020s. Like spider silk, it’s intricate and feminine but strong as steel, typically accompanied only by soft acoustic guitar. On her third full-length release, Quiet Signs, she’s created a hushed, ethereal space that’s thoroughly modern, yet would seem right at home on a private press label out of the Haight Ashbury in the late 60s. It’s no easy feat making an LP this bare-bones compelling, but it works due to the center staging of Pratt’s breathy, lilting vocals. The intentionally airy production gives off a ghostly feel, an air of psychedelia, and, as the album name promises, a quiet darkness to it all.
While it might fit into the general canon of lo-fi folk like Mount Eerie, Pratt’s lyrics tend to weave a heightened sense of mystery, such as on the hymn-like “This Time Around,” where Pratt warbles, “Haven’t you heard there’s a somber wind gets my head away now / Hallowed be thy name, had you come to claim it?” On “Aeroplane,” she potently captures the heavy beauty of the middle-of-the-night silence of a city as she draws listeners breath-close with lines like “The roses that you came with sure did have a thorn or two / But still this blood runs blue.” Subtle touches of flute, strings, and keys wash over moments like pale strokes of watercolor, painting a stunning picture without ever feeling too opaque. —Fred Pessaro
Charli XCX’s music videos are the stuff of 90s MTV dreams: the pouring rain, cars, and leather in “Gone“; the club scenes and choreography in “Blame it On Your Love“; the colorful era-nodding in radio smash “1999.” Yet she’s nothing like any of the pop stars who have come before or since. Her sound is unique: part robotic electronics, part sugary pop pleasure, like something deeply familiar made future-facing and weird.
Until recently, Charli had been releasing sporadic cult mixtapes and infectious loosies—the strategy of an artist who seemed more interested in innovating than bowing to industry expectations. But Charli takes that same energy and puts it in an album format. From emo lullaby “Cross You Out (feat. Sky Ferreira),” to syrupy sweet anthem “White Mercedes” and 80s slow dance lament “I Don’t Wanna Know” (all of which were co-produced by alt-pop wizard A.G. Cook), it’s exactly the sort of debut album we’d expect from someone who enthusiastically shuns and embraces pop traditions at exactly the same time, as though that distinction never existed in the first place. —Daisy Jones
Moving between darkwave, trance, EBM, and synth punk, Boy Harsher occupies the center of a countercultural Venn diagram that is uniquely 2019. Berghain regulars? Check. Former stalwarts of the hardcore punk scene who are now really into uppers? Check. The last remaining cybergoths of the 21st century? CHECK! On Careful, the Massachusetts duo summons a uniquely claustrophobic and erotic atmosphere out of industrial drum loops, pulsing 80s synths, and the sort of aching vocals that sound like they were recorded in the middle of sex or a spell. Tracks like “Fate” or “Come Closer” conjure up a sweaty room full of people fist-pumping in body harnesses, while on “LA” and “Tears,” the group veers toward Drive soundtrack territory, communicating lust and fury through gritted teeth. Boy Harsher truly took a dive into a world of strangeness and pain with this one—and it paid off. —Emma Garland
Military types use the phrase “spider hole” to describe a camouflaged, one-person hideout from which a soldier can observe and snipe at enemies. On Hiding Places, Billy Woods stakes out a lonely position to describe the dustbin of history we uncomfortably occupy in this time of permanently precarious (un)employment, obvious government buffoonery, constant war, and impending environmental doom, squeezing off a good line or two (or three—the writing on this album is masterful; mid-verse, he describes a social worker speaking in vain to a room you can only picture: “Close your eyes / Tell me where you see yourself in five, then write it down”). “Niggas put up a good front, but you can see the zipper,” the New York-based MC raps in a weathered voice, deep with contempt but also something resembling amusement for widespread foolishness and fakery: This is America in decline. Woods has a roving eye—he references SpongeBob, Chuck D, Mamet, Andre 3000, Achebe, and Dworkin—and his syntax is unlike anything else in hip-hop. “It’s just me in the spider hole / That’s the best part,” he announces over producer Kenny Segal’s loops of live instruments; pianos and guitars figure darkly, as ominous as a fluorescent light flickering on and off in a dirty hallway lined with a few cracked windows. If there’s a more timely album this year, could you stomach it? —Ross Scarano
David Berman left behind an endlessly quotable discography, discovering catharsis and humor in seedy characters and uncomfortable truths. Purple Mountains, which he released just a month before his death, saw the former Silver Jews frontman return from a ten-year hiatus with some of his most lacerating songwriting yet. “If no one’s fond of fucking me / maybe no one’s fucking fond of me,” he croons over a country-tinged arrangement on closer “Maybe I’m The Only One For.” But on “All My Happiness Is Gone,” which features some of Berman’s most depressing observations to date (“Ten thousand afternoons ago / All my happiness just overflowed / That was life at first and goal to go”), it’s never from a place of absolute bitterness. On “She’s Making Friends, I’m Turning Stranger,” he sings, “I want to be a warm and friendly person / But I don’t know how to do it.” There was always a kindness to Berman’s music, even in the darkest times. —Josh Terry
The slinky interlude on “I THINK” is one of IGOR‘s most powerful moments. Speaking to Rick Rubin on the Broken Record podcast in October, Tyler, the Creator explained the 70s disco feeling he wanted to invoke: “I want to be in Studio 54,” he said. “I want to hear these chords and no vocal—so I stripped it… and you can’t help but fucking dance.”
He’s long fancied stuff like this, crushing on the little multicolored jigsaw pieces that his hero, Pharrell, also adores: strange hooks, weird percussion, layered voices. A left-field art-pop break-up record that sees Tyler performing as a biwigged alter ego, IGOR casts this sensibility center stage, then ratchets up the glorious pomp. Moving away from the cleanliness of 2017’s Flower Boy but keeping the musical growth, IGOR features idiosyncratic quirks, distortion, and—probably on a hard drive somewhere in Tyler’s house—one track with 18 distinct bridges. For an ostentatiously chaotic album, it’s masterfully reserved. —Ryan Bassil
Ari Lennox is not singing the soul your parents grew up on; her rendition fits the cadence of a millennial woman. Shea Butter Baby, her debut album, trades in love letters for FaceTime appointments—the kind you schedule in advance so you can feel just as cute as you do on Instagram. It’s the highly relatable disappointment of Tinder swipes that cause you to swear off dating until you’re 43, like she describes in “I Been.” On an album as modern as Shea Butter Baby, “Static” is about a love that reminds Lennox of a TV in ’99. “Tell me who needs cliché HD / You’re perfect for me,” she sings. Lennox turns the details of Black womanhood, which were once shunned, into keepsakes. Her tight coils that stain pillowcases with heavy hair products are perfect as is, and men get lost in the stride of her hips. Ari Lennox created a space for the real shea butter babies to roam free. —Kristin Corry
If Denzel Curry’s music conjures the inimitable feeling of playing an old Southern rap tape that your car’s speakers can barely handle anymore, then ZUU sharpens his craft to a knife’s edge. Over its jet-engine 29 minutes, this record trades in previous effort TA13OO‘s atmospheric, three-act grandiosity for the sonic equivalent of taking a brick straight to the head. But these aren’t just tales of partying and excess (though there is plenty of that); the Miami we encounter on ZUU has plenty of speedboats, strip clubs, and coke dealers, sure, but Curry also brings us into the nooks and crannies of his Carol City upbringing, paying tribute to the friends he’s made and lost along the way as FnZ’s crunched-up beats clatter all around him.
Whether he’s trading street flexes with Rick Ross on “BIRDZ” (“Fuck a Pop-Tart, we carry toasters for real”) or recounting the advice he received from his parents on “RICKY” (“My daddy said, ‘Treat young girls like your mother’ / My mama said, ‘Trust no ho, use a rubber'”), ZUU feels like hopping in the backseat as Curry speed through his old neighborhood, leaving skid marks and taking out mailboxes while he giddily points out his favorite Cuban sandwich spot. —Sam Goldner
Alex Giannascoli thrives on ambiguity. Like the outcasts he often sings about, the songs on House of Sugar tend to oscillate wildly between meanings and moods. When he sings a line like “You know good music makes me wanna do bad things” on album highlight “In My Arms,” you can’t tell if he’s delivering a threat, a confession, or a tender affirmation. Disorienting opener “Walk Away” clouds things even further, with Giannascoli pitch-shifting, looping, and distorting his own voice. When he’s bracingly direct, like he is on “Hope,” he’s still caught up in indecision: “He was a good friend of mine / He died / Why write about it now / Gotta honor him somehow.” With its mix of electronic experiments and plaintive, bittersweet folk songs, House of Sugar is a career best, not least because of its recognition that there are no easy answers in life. —Josh Terry
The opening lyric of Lana Del Rey’s fifth major-label album alone is enough to cement it as one for the ages: “Goddamn, man-child / You fucked me so good that I almost said I love you.” That raised eyebrow of a line—one that acknowledges its own weaknesses as much as it does those of others—feels like Del Rey (née Lizzy Grant) distilled. In that way, it’s the perfect introduction to Norman Fucking Rockwell!, where the grande dame of sadgirls offers the most essential and straightforward account of herself to date.
Del Rey has always been a great imagist—crafting tangible visions of dirt roads and sparkling mansions—but here, she moves into the territory of timelessness, ripping compositions out of the great American songbook and refracting them through her unmistakable point of view. On tracks like “Love song” and “Happiness is a butterfly,” she puts simple piano arrangements and Carpenters- and Carole King-esque chord progressions to work in service of minutely observed personal narratives about relationships and fleeting satisfaction. That doesn’t mean the album isn’t in conversation with the wider world, however: “LA’s in flames, it’s getting hot / Kanye West is blond and gone / ‘Life on Mars’ ain’t just a song / Oh, the livestream’s almost on,” she near-whispers on song-of-the-year contender “The greatest.” But she manages to take this existential threat and make it feel personal. That is the genius of Lana Del Rey, her essence as a chronicler of America in all its promises and failures: She takes something bigger and connects it back to her own life—while empowering us to do the same. —Lauren O’Neill
There are few things that 1000 Gecs—the full-length debut from Laura Les and Dylan Brady—doesn’t sound like. This is, it seems, by design. In interviews, both together and apart, they have expressed their love for, well… music, as a broad category. And their approach, as songwriters and producers and vocalists, can be read as an attempt to express their appreciation for all of it at once. Listen closely to 1000 Gecs, and you can hear basically anything you want to: the early-aughts rap and country that Les says she grew up listening to, the bitter tang of PC Music’s energy-drink pop, digitalist ska, treacly dubstep, gory sludge metal, gurning techno, seasick musique concrète.
If that sounds like a lot, well, that’s the beauty of it. Brady and Les have said they were just pushing each other to do whatever excited them rather than consciously trying to make something overwhelming. But they ended up making a record so overloaded with ideas and energy that it feels frenetically psychedelic. It follows a sort of dream logic, darting from crushing noise to head-spinning pop songs about assaulting horse jockeys to heart-skipping ballads about the joy of love in the internet age. At any given moment, you just have to turn yourself over to it and embrace the chaos, find whatever joy in it you can. It’s a good life lesson in an age of digitally mediated confusion. Sometimes it can be hard to find your place in the vast sea of information, but when you start to feel like you’re drowning, according to Les and Brady, you can always gec. —Colin Joyce