Plus the best songs.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP via Getty Images, Kevin Winter/Getty Images, Scott Dudelson/Getty Images, Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Coachella, Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images, and Ethan Miller/Getty Images.
It’s conventional pop-music-history wisdom that the years at the start and end of a decade tend to be transitional, as the sound of the previous era is getting worn out but the next sensibility hasn’t yet gelled. I do have that feeling about 2019, though it’s hard to be sure that the number itself isn’t biasing my observation. Artists and the music industry might, in turn, be subtly influenced by the calendar milestone to start changing gears in some way.
In combing back through the year’s releases, the whole did seem thinner and more indistinct than average. There was a short supply of studio releases from top-tier pop stars, for one thing. Yet the music year didn’t feel sluggish while it was unfolding, primarily because a handful of pop artists new to the mainstream, Billie Eilish and Lil Nas X and Lizzo, were generating more than their share of action. Considering that Eilish and Lil Nas X were both teenagers when the year began, maybe it’s valid to see here a true changing of the guard, rather than just heightened chronological self-consciousness. After all, this was also the year that 16-year-old climate crusader Greta Thunberg became the most influential social activist in the world.
Among most grown-ups I know, however, this year found people worn thin after several years of Trump and Brexit and fill-in-the-blank, while bracing for a U.S. election season yet to come. As a side effect of the worst kind of political populism, among other factors, critics may be having a tougher time looking as generously at some products of mass entertainment as we did during, say, the Obama administration. I know I’ve felt the urge now and then to retreat, and going over my 2019 favorites, I notice my album list appears less eclectic than usual, cleaving nearer to my indie/arty/conceptual aesthetic defaults.
Still, I think you will find plenty of variety in the lists below—enough that it never seems right to me to rank disparate kinds of music against each other, so I just put them in alphabetical order. When Slate’s annual Music Club discussion convenes next week, our roundtable of guest critics will take up the broader trends and share their own 2019 passions and discoveries.
Top 10 Albums(in alphabetical order by artist)
Better Oblivion Community Center, Better Oblivion Community Center
There’s an old joke in Nashville about liking “both kinds of music, country and western.” When I’m at my least musically adventurous, I could revamp it to say I like both kinds of music, singer and songwriter. So for me this surprise team-up from early in 2019 between two very gifted guitar-slinging singer-songwriters of slightly different generations—the older, more postpunk and sloppier Conor Oberst (of Bright Eyes) and younger, rootsier and more precision-honed Phoebe Bridgers (of Boygenius)—was perfect comfort food for uncomfortable times. Many of the songs are about that discomfort, including the year’s definitive indie singalong “Dylan Thomas,” but they’re delivered with a loose panache that makes the nerve ends jangle less and bounce more.
By Better Oblivion Community Center
Jaimie Branch, Fly or Die II: Bird Dogs of Paradise
Branch is a New York trumpet player and sometime-singer out of the free-jazz tradition. But she goes about her composing, improvising, and rafters-rattling with a contemporary energy that draws on hip-hop, R&B, and rock structures and spirits. She’s also the most magnetic performer I’ve come across in ages, and I would predict she’d become super-famous if the prospect of a free-jazz superstar weren’t such an unlikely stretch. On this follow-up to her highly praised 2017 debut as a band leader, she aims her joyfully sardonic rage at the socio-political situation with pieces like “Prayer for Amerikkka, Pt. 1 & 2” and the closing “Love Song” (“for assholes and clowns”). But she and her band—Chad Taylor on drums, Lester St. Louis on cello, and Jason Ajemian on bass, with everybody doubling on extra percussion, plus intermittent electronic interventions—also create zones for spacey meditations and giddy dance parties, freeing asses and intellects as if the mind-body problem were no problem at all.
Lana Del Rey, Norman Fucking Rockwell
I was tempted to dock this album for Del Rey’s churlish way of turning her online fans against good-faith critics—specifically NPR’s Ann Powers, whose apparent sin was to write the most searching, thoughtful review any artist could wish for. But in the end I’m just too taken with the record to shut it out, and I do realize that Del Rey’s hypersensitivity comes from being the target of cynical, sexist slurs in her earlier career. Personally, I liked her marriage of vintage Hollywood noir stylistics and dour millennial attitude right away, but did feel her pastiche-based approach sometimes yielded uneven writing.
On NFR, her method has blossomed to the point where it feels almost like it can do no wrong, all the juxtaposed signifiers (which aren’t that different in many ways from the verbal collage effects of rap) colliding in ways that produce rich emotional texture. The promise of the advance singles “Venice Bitch” and “Mariners Apartment Complex” is fulfilled in nearly every lush, expansive track, in which languor and sadness beneath the bright Los Angeles sun become both existential mirrors and feminist weapons.
Billie Eilish, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
This L.A. teen had built up a cult following for a couple of years with online singles written and produced at home with her synth-savvy older brother, Finneas O’Connell. But when her major-label full-length came out in March—still reportedly all DIY—it felt like it instantly transformed American pop. Eilish’s synthesis of drama kid, SoundCloud rap fan, and emo-goth dreamer constitutes a genre unto itself, and she occupies it with a playful inventiveness that has plenty of anxieties but no apparent inhibitions. That the album sustains itself musically pretty much end to end should be impossible, but it does. Many out-of-nowhere star prodigies seem like mayflies. But like her slightly older antipodean predecessor and counterpart Lorde, Eilish seems like she’ll be creating unmissable art for as long as she cares to, and it’ll be our privilege to witness it happen.
Brittany Howard, Jaime
Howard was already an adored figure as frontperson of the Alabama Shakes before this year’s solo outing. But by stepping away from the band’s garage rhythm-and-punk trappings, she’s able to follow her muse and her otherworldly voice wherever it wants to go—which is practically everywhere. Jaime includes songs that burrow deeper than the Shakes ever did into her own biography, including childhood wounds of race and family as well as grown-up ties. But it’s the number of modes of groove that keep the ear entranced.
Miranda Lambert, Wildcard
Miranda Lambert is Nashville royalty, but she still found herself in need of a minor career reset with this album. Her early image as a fierce and funny singer of female revenge fantasies forged her fan base, but she’s deepened and matured well beyond that, as was on display on her 2016 double album (her first following her divorce from Blake Shelton) The Weight of These Wings. But few of those songs got much traction on country radio. On Wildcard she splits the difference, offering up a few more commercial novelties for skittish programmers (like lead single “It All Comes Out in the Wash”), and lots of more upbeat and less introspective tunes. But the kind of smarts that Lambert radiates don’t rely on lyrical overwork, and any real Miranda fan is up for a laugh and a romp as much as a good cry.
Cate Le Bon, Reward
My attention somehow never alighted on this Welsh musician and songwriter before her fifth solo album this year, but now I’m hooked on her blade’s-edge skate across intensity and cool remove. She reminds me by turns of the German cabaret-rock veteran Dagmar Krause, of postpunk feminist bands like the Au Pairs and the Raincoats, and of more recent complicated but whimsical songwriters such as Eleanor Friedberger (of the Fiery Furnaces) or at times Australia’s Courtney Barnett. But pileups of parallels aren’t necessary to get absorbed in the unpredictable arrangements, narratives, and atmospheres here. This year she also released a collaborative record with Bradford Cox of Deerhunter, Myths 004, a pricklier affair that sometimes recalls the Velvet Underground in “Murder Mystery” mode. I won’t lose track of Le Bon again.
Purple Mountains, Purple Mountains
The 2019 album I love the most is also the one that makes me most sorrowful. Its release in July marked the return of poet and songwriter David Berman a decade after he’d announced the end of Silver Jews, his primary musical outlet (with a rotating membership that often included his friends from Pavement) since the early 1990s. It’s a mordant, witty, rigorously grounded set of indie-country-rock songs about depression, divorce, the absence of God, and the consolations of art. Here Berman is operating at an altitude most other songwriters can only fantasize about.
A month after Purple Mountains appeared, on the eve of a planned tour, Berman was dead by his own hand. The appreciations, tribute albums, and memorial concerts have not ceased since then, which one sorely wishes he could have seen and heard. (Full disclosure: I am in the beginning stages of a book about Berman’s life and work.) Though the album is uniquely frank about the despair and dysfunction Berman often contended with, it’s constantly transcending pain via humor, philosophical kibitzing, and a host of other maneuvers. It shouldn’t be reduced to the tragedy associated with it, but lived with, thought and felt along with, and cherished as widely as possible.
Sleater-Kinney, The Center Won’t Hold
Less traumatically, but still tough for S-K die-hards, the making of this album led to the departure of longtime drummer Janet Weiss. The record is less of a band-jam than anything Sleater-Kinney has done before—it’s partially more of a songwriting-forward outing for founders Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, and a more technologically mediated studio product with the assistance of co-producer Annie Clark (St. Vincent). But when you put aside expectations (and side-taking), you hear an album that’s working hard and succeeding in finding new registers of feeling, both for its makers’ lives as older people (older women, specifically) and for the riven, stricken state of their nation. It still rocks, just along different axes.
Jamila Woods, Legacy! Legacy!
The headline on this second R&B album by Chicago-based poet Woods is that each song is dedicated to and named after a black-culture ancestor and icon, such as Zora Neale Hurston, Nikki Giovanni, Eartha Kitt, Miles Davis, Octavia Butler, and James Baldwin. And as a channeling and a tribute, it holds many riches. But all of the songs also work on multiple levels, evoking more interpersonal entanglements and aspirations, while hooks and grooves slip into the ear like undulating silk. A concept that could have seemed dutiful and didactic instead becomes a house of many chambers in which listeners can wander, recline, and bop around, and in places pound a fist against the walls and doors, too.
25 Other Favorites
Big Thief, Two Hands; Leonard Cohen (posthumous), Thanks for the Dance; Celine Dion, Courage; Steve Earle, Guy; FKA Twigs, Magdalene; Fontaines D.C., Dogrel; Kim Gordon, No Home Record; Mary Halvorson & John Dietrich, Tangle of Stars; Ariana Grande, Thank U, Next; Carly Rae Jepsen, Dedicated; Jenny Lewis, On the Line; Lightning Bolt, Sonic Citadel; Lingua Ignota, Caligula; Mekons, Deserted; Alison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom, Glitter Wolf; Angel Olsen, All Mirrors; Bruce Springsteen, Western Stars; Sudan Archives, Athena; Taylor Swift, Lover; Tropical Fuck Storm, Braindrops; Tanya Tucker, While I’m Livin’; Vampire Weekend, Father of the Bride; Weyes Blood, Titanic Rising; Yola, Walk Through Fire; Young Thug, So Much Fun.
Top 10 Songs/Singles (in alphabetical order by artist)
Charli XCX and Christine & the Queens, “Gone”
One of the MVPs of 2010s music returned this year with her Charli album, swelling the supply of not-popular pop that’s been one of the decade’s more characteristic and improbable categories. Her encounter with similarly intriguing and individualistic un-pop artist Christine from France is a dream match from which I never want to awaken.
Gary Clark Jr., “This Land”
Until this year, I thought of Gary Clark Jr. as an updater of the blues-guitar tradition whom everyone respected but whom only blues fetishists got excited about. With “This Land,” though, he’s made an uncompromising 2019 protest song—with a harrowing video—that is essentially this year’s “This Is America.” Except that too few people saw it because it came from a respectably unexciting blues guitarist. Do yourself a favor and correct this omission.
North Carolina’s Jonathan Lyndale Kirk has gone from obscurity to a Saturday Night Live appearance in a couple of years, with singles like “Suge” and “Babysitter” and cameos on, for instance, a Lizzo “Truth Hurts” remix. I respond to the brashness of his sound in a rap generation that’s often averse to enunciation, but didn’t have a rounded sense of his personality till this opening track on his second album this year, Kirk, where DaBaby lays out some of his vital life experiences and political inclinations with a conviction that I can then hear in his other songs. It’s a conventional positioning move, but sometimes conventions exist for solid reasons.
Highwomen, “If She Ever Leaves Me”
The debut album by this Nashville alliance—Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris, and Amanda Shires—didn’t amount to everything I was hoping. But along with their group anthem “Highwomen” and a couple of other songs, I’m always eager to hear them perform this Carlile number, which has to be the first country song (on a major label at least) in which a lesbian dares a straight guy to go ahead and try to steal her girlfriend: “It might last forever or it might not work out/ [But] if she ever leaves me, it won’t be for you.” Sexual politics aside, it’s just one of those perfect three-minute movies country does better than pretty near any other form can.
Lil Nas X, “Old Town Road (Remix)”
The English language has pretty much been depleted of new ways to tell this story. Unlike Billie Eilish, if his slapdash EP is any indication, Lil Nas X may not be a music lifer. Given his entrepreneurial media savvy, he’s more likely to end up, who knows, owning the Disney corporation. But whatever the now-20-year-old is doing at 60, he’ll always be able to say, “Hey, did you ever hear about the year I turned the music industry absolutely goddamn upside-down?” And his (LGBTQ) family will sigh, “Yep, but you’re about to tell it again, aren’t you granddad? Can’t nobody tell you nothin’.”
Little Big Town, “The Daughters”
From the group that four years ago gave country music the controversial same-sex attraction (but not really) No. 1 hit “Girl Crush” comes an anti-patriarchy anthem that’s quite a bit edgier. The lyrics recite various ways girls and women are herded into conformist and submissive behaviors, then the chorus pays off with the tagline, “I’ve heard of God the Son and God the Father/ I’m still looking for a God for the daughters.” It turns out that feminist borderline blasphemy doesn’t go over quite as well as lesbian bait-and-switch—“The Daughters” peaked at No. 29.
The biggest drawback to how much everyone loves Lizzo is, well, how much everyone loves Lizzo. It’s difficult to avoid the feeling that through no fault of her own, she’s become a bit of a mascot for white people who only listen to black artists who present as unthreatening and adorable and mutually empowering. Before it all started feeling sticky on those dimensions, though, “Juice” was the first thing I put on my 2019 playlist early in the year. Who could ask for a more rapturous re-creation of the Minneapolis sound? Ah, American culture, can’t live with ya, can’t live without ya.
Rosalía and J Balvin, “Con Altura”
Outside of Eilish and Lil Nas X, Spain’s Rosalía has been the most compelling newcomer to the pop charts in the past year-plus. Her carefully crafted hybrid of flamenco compound rhythms, trap beats, and other international elements is particular to her background, and yet now feels like some kind of inevitability. Several of her other 2019 singles could as happily fit in this spot, such as “Milionària” or “A Palé.”
Taylor Swift, “Lover”
After a pair of lead singles that felt far too dumbed-down for a nearly 30-year old (her birthday is on Friday), the title track proved to be more the measure of the high median quality of Swift’s new album. In retrospect it’s shocking that it took this artist so long to write a first-dance wedding anthem, replete with the little twists of phrase and zoomed-in details that make the best Swift songs so Swifty. I’m not sure why the pledge “And at every table, I’ll save you a seat” makes me well up so embarrassingly, but I suspect it’s the way it locks in with the lilt of the waltz—“seat” lands on the first beat and then hangs just for a moment, like someone pausing to pull out a chair. It feels very kind.
Sharon Van Etten, “Seventeen”
I spend probably too much of my time grumbling about the gentrification of my city, which, as in most major cities right now, is severe and helter-skelter and an act of elite theft. But now and then I remember that I’m also getting older, and it’s probably built into aging to feel like invisible forces are stealing something out from under you, something you sorely miss. With a fierce synth pulse and vocals that feel like they’re fighting an inexorable pull, Sharon Van Etten captures the nostalgia and frustration of all that, utterly and completely. Damn, I used to be 17.
20 Other Picks
Lucy Dacus, “Forever Half Mast”; Richard Dawson, “Jogging”; Freddie Gibbs and Madlib, “Crime Pays”; Haim, “Now I’m In It”; Ashley McBryde, “One Night Standards”; Megan Thee Stallion (feat. Ty Dolla Sign, Nicki Minaj), “Hot Girl Summer”; Justin Moore, “Jesus and Jack Daniels”; Frank Ocean, “In My Room”; Offset feat. J. Cole, “How Did I Get Here”; Jai Paul, “Do You Love Her Now”; Katy Perry, “Never Really Over”; Pet Shop Boys, “What Are We Going to Do About the Rich?”; Frances Quinlan, “Rare Thing”; Rico Nasty, “Time Flies”; Joan Shelley, “Cycle”; Kalie Shorr, “F U Forever”; Sir Babygirl, “Haunted House”; Tyler the Creator, “I Think”; Kanye West, “Follow God”; Wilco, “Everyone Hides.”
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