By Coleman Bandy
2019 found modern music in a further state of flux. Some of the year’s most decidedly original albums are difficult to classify in terms of genre: Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell! has snippets of folk, soft rock, and trip hop in its construction. FKA Twigs’ Magdalene isn’t quite a rap album but isn’t fully R&B or rock-indebted, either, while (Sandy) Alex G’s House of Sugar is two thirds alt-country and one-third techno.
The year’s very best music came from an eclectic mix of genres, and its artists defy easy categorization as well: nine of my top 15 records feature female songwriters, while four are from songwriters who are either African American or of mixed race. While my own musical taste obviously injects bias into the list, I think it’s safe to say that some of the most critically revered records of the year come from a wide-ranging group of talented multicultural artists.
Here are the 15 best albums of 2019.
15. Brittany Howard – Jaime
Brittany Howard has finally shaken the influences of her old band, Alabama Shakes, and made the first album that sounds entirely crafted in her own voice. Jaime is both the title of Howard’s newest record and the name of her deceased sister, who died when the singer was much younger and turned Howard toward a life in music. The album serves as a monument to Howard’s sister while forging new musical ground: songs like “History Repeats” and “Goat Head” take on racial injustice while “Georgia” and “Stay High” inject a psychedelic sound mostly absent in Howard’s prior work. Jaime is a remarkably nimble record that barely lasts half an hour – but seems like it passes by in mere minutes.
14. Fontaines D.C. – Dogrel
There’s a decidedly youthful sheen to Dogrel, the debut studio album by Irish post-punk band Fontaines D.C. “Big” and “Sha Sha Sha” are loud, percussive exaltations that don’t shy away from the social or political. In “Big,” singer Grian Chatten grovels about clashing cultures and the hypocrisy inherent to city life: “Dublin in the rain is mine / A pregnant city with a Catholic mind / Starch those sheets for the birdhouse jail / All mescalined when the past is stale, pale.” “Roy’s Tune,” however, is the clear highlight: a song about fading youth and the friends we lose as we get older. Dogrel is one of the most promising debuts in recent memory.
13. Bill Callahan – Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest
Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest is Bill Callahan’s 17th studio album overall and his best in more than 20 years. It’s an hour-long rebuttal to the notion that artists put out their best work under great emotional duress: Shepherd finds Callahan at his happiest, describing an almost idyllic domestic life shared with his new wife and budding family. Clocking in at an hour and three minutes, the record meanders unhurriedly at its own pace. “Angela” is a love song about his wife, “Writing” is about, well, just that: a meta look into the life of an artist who writes songs for a living. There’s even room for “Lonesome Valley,” a traditional folk song that fits right into Callahan’s newfound domestic bliss. Shepherd in Sheepskin Vest shows that life at home can be much more fulfilling – and fun – than the party-fueled lifestyle often associated with musicians like Callahan.
12. (Sandy) Alex G – House of Sugar
House of Sugar plays like a sequel to (Sandy) Alex G’s similarly great Rocket, his previous studio album released in 2017. House of Sugar is structured like a parabola: it opens with alt-country songs like “Hope” and “Southern Sky” before glitching out in its middle section. Like some alien frequency on a spaceship radio, “Taking,” “Near,” and “Project Two” serve as mostly wordless, electro album centerpieces before the final few songs like “Cow” and “Crime” land the spaceship to bring us back to the start. The songs on House of Sugar are wide-ranging in their themes: “Crime” describes a man who lets someone else take the fall for his misdeed; “In My Arms” is a sappy love song with a twist; and the Springsteenian “SugarHouse” profiles the pitfalls of spending too much time in a casino. That House of Sugar coalesces into a streamlined record is a small miracle. That the album is so solid is a testament to the strength of Alex G’s songwriting.
11. Purple Mountains – Purple Mountains
David Berman took his life just weeks after the release of his only album as Purple Mountains. It was a major shock to the music world: Berman was one of our very best lyricists. He was especially adept at capturing a sort of generational depression in his songs, which were seemingly simple in their lyrical content until you really take a peak under the hood: take “All My Happiness is Gone,” a deceptively upbeat song with morbid lyrics about losing loved ones. “Friends are warmer than gold when you’re old / And keeping them is harder than you might suppose / Lately, I tend to make strangers wherever I go / Some of them were once people I was happy to know.” It’s easy to parse this album for hints at Berman’s despair, but it’s more fruitful to scan for the small moments, sometimes hidden deep inside the music, when Berman seems at peace.
10. Big Thief – Two Hands
Big Thief put out two excellent albums in 2019. Two Hands is often referenced as their other album, U.F.O.F.’s, earthbound twin. If U.F.O.F. has its head in the clouds, then Two Hands has its ear firmly pressed to the ground. Press materials for the album note its recording process took the band to a studio in west Texas because of its “vast desert location,” and you can practically feel the warm desert air informing the band’s play; each song was recorded live with minimal overdubs, the intricacies of each member’s performance on full display: the slight grovel of Adrianne Lenker’s voice, the laden reverb of Buck Meek’s guitar. The songs themselves are a wonder: the nigh chorus-less “Not” and sparkling “Replaced” are two major standouts. With these two excellent releases, let’s go ahead and call 2019 “The Year of Big Thief.”
9. Solange – When I Get Home
Three years after Solange’s monumental A Seat at the Table, the singer has released its companion album. When I Get Home is more brooding, a difficult record that’s at once dark and hopeful, forward-thinking and wistful. When I Get Home is surprisingly jazzy, a fusion of hip-hop beats and New Orleans-indebted instrumentation. Lyrically, When I Get Home features some of Solange’s best work: “Almeda” references the Houston neighborhood where the Solange grew up and discusses the steadfast nature of African American culture, while “Down With the Clique” is about the oblique nature of youth. When I Get Home proves that A Seat at the Table was no fluke: Solange Knowles is a consummate musician who has come into her own as an artist and come out from her sister’s shadow.
8. PUP – Morbid Stuff
Morbid Stuff is probably the most vibrant album of 2019, a pop-punk explosion of catchy ear-worms and biting lyrical work that celebrates the messy confusion of being a young person in 2019. PUP has gradually become one of the most promising punk bands working today, its poppy melodies suggesting Green Day and Blink-182 while the instrumentation and vocals have more in common with second-wave Midwestern emo. Most of all, Morbid Stuff is just plain fun: first single “Kids” finds lead singer Stefan Babcock complaining about a girlfriend and pondering the “pointlessness of a Godless existence,” while the opening title track features a guitar riff you can’t get out of your head no matter how hard you try. “Free at Last,” the best song the band has ever recorded, is full of problematic self-loathing — but as shouted by Babcock, it soon becomes downright cathartic: “Just ‘cause you’re sad again / it doesn’t make you special at all.”
7. Jamila Woods – Legacy! Legacy!
With Legacy! Legacy!, poet and R&B artist Jamila Woods set out to make a statement record, a collection of songs that celebrate black artistry in the face of systematic oppression. It’s a lofty goal but one that Woods undoubtedly reaches with her newest album. Each song on Legacy! Legacy! is named after an influential African American artist or activist, from Betty Davis and Zora Neale Hurston to Muddy Waters and Octavia Spencer. The albums peaks when Woods touches on timely themes: “Betty” is a celebration of black womanhood, a song about Betty Davis not as a muse for her husband, Miles, but as a talented artist in her own right. Legacy! Legacy! proves that Jamila Woods should contemplate her own place among the greats.
6. Weyes Blood – Titanic Rising
Weyes Blood’s Natalie Mering sounds like she comes from a different era, one where its singers haven’t given up on love and lament that they’re “still a good man’s daughter.” Her newest album’s title – Titanic Rising – even brings to mind a clock ticking backward. It would be a mistake, however, to confuse her vintage style for conservatism or passivity – Mering is very much a modern singer-songwriter who uses the past as a window to view our present-day grievances: “Movies,” the best song on Titanic Rising, contemplates what it’s like to live forever on the silver screen, noting that today’s world isn’t as glamorous as our favorite films make it out to be. “A Lot’s Gonna Change” laments the passage of time, while “Andromeda” ponders the meaninglessness of our place in the universe. It’s a lush and soulful record, one that benefits from Mering’s singular vision.
5. FKA Twigs – Magdalene
When “Cellophane” dropped, you knew something big was on the horizon. The song begins as a traditional piano ballad, its lyrics referencing a tumultuous breakup (likely with Twigs’ most recent ex, Robert Pattinson). But then, halfway through the track’s runtime, “Cellophane” breaks open. The piano ceases, a booming drum flutters – and then Twigs’ unmistakable voice returns, bringing us back from the edge of the cliff. “Cellophane” is the final track on Magdalene, FKA Twigs’ second studio album, and it plays as a microcosm of the record as a whole. Her aforementioned breakup informs much of its content, but Magdalene rises above the tabloid references and embraces its namesake, Mary Magdalene, a feminist icon for Twigs, who views the biblical figure not as a mere disciple but someone worthy of worship in her own right.
4. Angel Olsen – All Mirrors
All Mirrors represents Angel Olsen at her very best. The album’s songs revolve around a failed relationship: Olsen coyly suggests in interviews that her heartbreak stems from an ex who couldn’t come to terms with her fame, a man who supported her fledgling music career but became jealous when success finally came knocking. As constructed, All Mirrors resembles the five stages of grief, an album that embraces confusion and heightened emotion. The first few songs are full of spiteful energy – especially “Lark” and the title track – but All Mirrors later gives way to despondent nostalgia in “Spring” and finally uplifting acceptance in “Endgame” and “Chance.” Producer John Congleton and cowriter Ben Babbitt help color All Mirrors with extravagant string arrangements and bombastic percussion that accentuate Olsen’s passionate vocals.
3. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Ghosteen
Nick Cave’s 17th studio album is his first written entirely after the tragic death of his 15-year-old son, Arthur, who fell from a cliff near Brighton, England in 2016. That event is never explicitly mentioned in Ghosteen, but Arthur’s memory hovers over the entire production, much like the titular ghost that names the record. Trading in guitars for haunting synths and a droning, krautrock-esque rhythm section, Cave’s album exudes peace instead of unrest, sadness instead of anger. It’s a record very much preoccupied with parents and their children, a sort of family-themed concept album. Cave describes the first eight songs as the “children” and the final three as “their parents,” turning the album into a bildungsroman that is equally concerned with life as it is with death. Despite its morbid background, Ghosteen’s best moments are uplifting: “Waiting for You” is possibly the best song Cave has ever written, a beautiful ballad about finding love and hope in the depths of despair.
2. Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell!
Nothing in Lana Del Rey’s prior career hinted that she was capable of making a classic as deep and soulful as Norman Fucking Rockwell!, a record that would top my list most years if it weren’t for the decade-defining masterpiece that sits below at number one. NFR is a grower; there’s nothing here as immediate as “Video Games” or as provocative as “Lust for Life.” Instead, Del Rey has mastered a newfound subtlety. In songs like “The Greatest,” sly references to Dennis Wilson’s death (and Kanye’s hair) unravel one of the album’s key themes: the emptiness of the digital age. That’s far from a unique message, but Lana’s beautiful voice, lyrical charm, and improved songwriting prowess show it’s one still worth exploring. Producer Jack Antonoff, who fills the record with uncharacteristically understated flourishes, is perhaps Normal Fucking Rockwell’s secret weapon. With NFR, Antonoff and Del Rey have finally cashed in on the songwriter’s limitless potential. There’s nowhere to go but up.
- Big Thief – U.F.O.F.
Big Thief’s U.F.O.F. is a revelation. The New York band’s third studio album, its first with 4AD, is positively airborne. Openers “Contact” and title track “U.F.O.F.” sound like the band is floating through clouds, where singer Adrianne Lenker analyzes love and friendship through a kaleidoscopic lens, the songs’ grooves filtered through a rainwater prism. The nostalgic “Cattails” would be the best song of 2019 if it weren’t for album centerpiece “Orange,” a beautiful folk song that could easily have been a Joni Mitchell concert staple in the early ’60s. The fact that Big Thief put out two studio albums this year (see above) just adds to U.F.O.F.’s mystique: like the Beatles in their prime, Big Thief is churning out classics as if time were a mere illusion. Indeed, there’s a definite timelessness to U.F.O.F.: this music will endure long after we’re gone – long after our kids are gone. It’s that good.
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