To some people, albums are dying — or at least, in a serious state of flux. In a world where playlists dominate the musical landscape, 2019 reminded us that there’s nothing quite like a well-constructed full-length album to not only enthral us from start to finish, but also act as a welcome distraction from today’s often turbulent and depressing world. Even if albums aren’t consumed physically as much as they used to, and even if they’re often tailored specifically for streaming algorithms, artists are always going to want to make strong artistic statements. Luckily for us, many did so this year in ways that show us the album format as a whole is far from dead.
The diverse, oversaturated nature of the streaming age probably contributes to many of the albums we’ve included on this list not really overlapping too much stylistically. The modern music climate also showed us how much the boundaries of what a popular artist is supposed to be had been broken. To wit, 2019 made superstars out of a teenager in oversized, colourful clothing with a gothy, mysterious feel to both her music and persona (Billie Eilish); a body-positive singer/rapper/flautist/Instagram maven whose older songs wound up becoming massive sleeper hits (Lizzo); and a rapper whose short-but-sweet tune about riding horses — literally or not — on an old town road would dominate the charts and airwaves (Lil Nas X).
It also gave the world fantastic albums from artists at various junctures in their careers. In some cases, they were from long-established indie darlings (Vampire Weekend, Lana Del Rey); excellent works from living legends (Nick Cave, Kim Gordon); similarly fantastic LPs from younger indie artists in their prime (Angel Olsen, (Sandy) Alex G); and sadly, epitaphs from artists who would leave us less than a month later (Purple Mountains). 2019 also gave us excellent albums from artists whose biggest calling cards other than their music are their attitude and sheer brashness (Fontaines D.C., Slowthai), as well as albums from artists who took indie rock to new and entrancing places (Big Thief).
We saw artists across genres do newer, bolder, more exciting places with their respective musical identities this year — the last year of a tumultuous, but musically rich, decade — and many of those artists translated them beautifully onto wax. Here are our picks for the top 20 albums of 2019.
TOP 20 ALBUMS OF 2019
20. Kim Gordon – No Home Record
The album No Home Record gives us a Gordon who seems revitalized, excited and taking the steps to secure her own legacy, on her own terms. It’s a great thing to have an artist like Kim Gordon who seems so interested in what they can do to play with and subvert the regular song, that after 40 years she is still sounding so fresh.
19. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Ghosteen
Ghosteen it’s an album that takes the listener on a journey. One that will maybe become clearer with time but one that demands attention and care and one that will be infinitely rewarding with every revisit and one that showcases Nick Cave as one of the premier artists working in the musical medium today. It’s an intriguing, somewhat beguiling listen and, surprise or not, an infinitely beautiful, heartbreaking album that only a master can create.
18. Karen O and Danger Mouse – Lux Prima
To cap off the album’s conceptual slant, ‘Nox Lumina’ merges peculiar synth motifs with strings, digital squelches and crunchy beats. There’s a lovely touch of continuity in the song’s final throes as it’s mimics ‘Lux Prima’s swooning string arrangements. It may have been years in the making (and waiting) but ‘Lux Prima’s coalescing of two of music’s creative sparks is most definitely worth the wait.
17. Aldous Harding – Designer
Harding’s gorgeous vocals are hard to pin down, and she often operates with chameleon-like skill, selecting a range of tones to fit her songs that bounce from dark and husky to light and effervescent. This wide range of colors finds a perfect balance on standout tracks like the lovely Nico-esque “Barrel,” the hushed “Zoo Eyes” and the cowboy jangle of title-track “Designer.” Overall, Designer, is a heavenly listen that will certainly hold up in years to come, unburdened by the time-stamped pop production that defines so many modern releases.
16. Tyler, The Creator – IGOR
With Igor, Tyler, The Creator had decided to show us a new, softer side of his personality. Armed with an array of amazing guest stars, the album, completely produced by Tyler himself, is soulful, vulnerable and his most mature work to date. It’s so nice to see that he hasn’t stopped growing as an artist and it keeps us excited to hear where he goes next.
15. Sharon Van Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow
In front of Remind Me Tomorrow’s shadowy, synth-driven backdrops, Sharon Van Etten reveals stark emotions that are startling in their honesty. All the highs and lows she sings of – all her cautionary doubts and words of encouragement – come with finding ways and time to chase what one wants in life. “Remind me of the small things tomorrow,” Van Etten seems to say. “I’m busy making the most of – and even cherishing – today.”
14. black midi – Schlagenheim
‘Schlagenheim’ is an adventure through ever-changing noise and evolving, textured soundscapes. No song starts and ends the same; whilst some tracks push the 8-minute mark, even in the space of two minutes a song will flit from explosive post-rock eruptions to tense, brooding silence. There’s something so refreshing about ‘Schlagenheim’, it’s an album that almost sounds peerless, as if it hasn’t and can’t be penetrated by the zeitgeist; I don’t think black midi would have it any other way.
13. (Sandy) Alex G – House Of Sugar
House Of Sugar kicks off with “Walk Away” all strummed acoustic guitars and vocals fed backwards when the drums kick in, creating a kaleidoscope of colour with the repeated refrain of “not today” that is immediately pulls you in to the proceedings. It’s rare to hear something so bold. This boldness is followed up with “Hope” a more straight ahead track that conjures up Elliot Smith with its double tracked falsetto vocals and acoustic guitars. In fact this continues with “Southern Sky” a track that wouldn’t seem out of place on a later Elliott Smith album. Giannascoli has this rare ability to make songs that are seemingly off the cuff but that have huge emotional payoff.
12. Big Thief – Two Hands
Big Thief have crafted a beautiful, intimate and striking album in Two Hands. It’s amazing that this is their second record in under a year and between the two albums the band has put out, within months of each other, neither feels lesser than the other. The differences in feel only add to highlight just how good of a unit Big Thief is. Even though it will be nice for the band to take these songs out on the road and let them evolve in that way, the fact that they were able to pull off recording two such gorgeous albums back to back makes the listener hope that it isn’t too long until they do it all again.
11. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Bandana
The second collaboration of Freddie Gibbs and Madlib does find the duo working more in step with each other than on their previous album, Piñata, but they both seem to be up to challenge each other. Gibbs continues to amaze with his flow. Popping full lines into single bars here and there while drawing the proceedings out in others to maximize the emotion while Madlib conducts the affair in a striking way. Let’s hope for so much more of this from these two in the future.
10. Angel Olsen – All Mirrors
All Mirrors is a record that implores you to spend time with it. This isn’t a one and done for the type of people that need an instant gratification fix. This is something that you can hear the amount of care and thought that went into every note and every production choice. Olsen says that in the creation of this record, the journey that she took to complete this artistic endeavour, was that she needed to be her own compass, to learn to trust new faces and to let herself become a stranger so that she could keep moving forward. She says in order to survive, an artist needs to evolve and the evolution she has documented on this latest release is a reminder to every listener that while the artistic process is a mystery, it’s one that can be cathartic, surprising and ultimately a snapshot of the roads you’ve travelled, to look to, when you need to keep moving forward.
9. DIIV – Deceiver
DIIV have come back together sounding renewed, refreshed and with something to say about taking responsibility for their past actions and seemingly determined to use those lessons in their lives moving forward. It’s a disciplined record that doesn’t sacrifice the touchstones that made the band exciting to begin with. Through their work on Deceiver, DIIV have found that sweet spot of writing to exorcise their own demons all the while helping the listener with theirs. Rebirth has never sounded so good.
8. Vampire Weekend – Father Of The Bride
Father of the Bride is a less satisfying listening experience than any of the imminently replayable, nearly flawless, Vampire Weekend, Contra, or Modern Vampires of the City. But its best songs reach, perhaps exceed, Vampire Weekend’s previous heights. And, more importantly, it seems like Ezra the existentialist is having fun within the chaos.
7. slowthai – Nothing Great About Britain
The album is brought to a stunning close by the stark sounding volley of strings and crackling beats on ‘Northampton’s Child’, a touching story dedicated to Frampton’s mum. The vulnerability on display is undeniably raw, as slowthai talks us through his mum’s teenage pregnancies, the death of his brother, a drug-taking stepdad but through it all, his mum imparted her son with an important mantra “kids just imagine/do anything as long as you do it with passion.” That’s why he refers to his mother as his “only Queen.”slowthai finds himself as the poster boy for Brexit Britain and it’s a mantle that this street poet will no doubt relish.
6. Weyes Blood – Titanic Rising
Though it loses a little sonic steam in its latter half, Titanic Rising is front-loaded by some simply amazing tracks. Solo act Weyes Blood brings grandeur to a lonely stage production, ethereal at times while shockingly concrete at others, thanks to its intoxicating blend of cosmology and cinema. Standout tracks were “Something to Believe”, “Everyday”, and “A Lots Gonna Change”.
5. Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell!
Lana Del Ray’s “Norman Fucking Rockwell!” is absolutely masterful. It’s truly the sound of a singular artist. One that captures her unique prospective and allows us a glimpse into her vision. Lyrically and musically it all gels together effortlessly, creating the ultimate impact emotionally and one that will be soundtracking all of our own unique highs and lows for years to come.
4. FKA Twigs- MAGDELENE
Overall, though, MAGDALENE is a recovery record. It’s a record of triumph. It’s lush, calming, and reflective, with moments of grace. “Day Bed” might be the only pure example of this. Otherwise, many of the songs contain dualities. Hear the exuberant swell of “Home with You,” for example. The subtle “Thousand Eyes” features sounds of trickling water and her echoing voice, gently obfuscated as it is. Minor doses of static interrupt the mostly-piano song “Mirrored Heart.” And MAGDALENE contains numerous cacophonic sprawls – mini-tornadoes of sound – but the album never sounds choppy or disjointed. Even guest vocalist Future, who contributes his trademark modified voice to “Holy Terrain,” he never feels shoehorned into the song.
3. Better Oblivion Community Center – Better Oblivion Community Center
Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst have already cemented their status as two of the more uniquely talented singer songwriters of recent years and with their collaborative, and surprise, project Better Oblivion Community Centre exceeded any expectations of the two of them working together could have. The eponymous album dropped out of nowhere in January and contained some of the loveliest crafted songs of this year. Highlights such as “Exemption To The Rule” and “Dylan Thomas” showed the duo’s range and ability to make you wanna dance and cry at the same time.
2. Purple Mountains – Purple Mountains
David Berman retired from music after he disbanded his group Silver Jews in 2009. Over the decade between then and the release of the self-titled Purple Mountains record this last summer, he retreated to his home in Nashville, read a lot and came back with this wonderfully beautiful album. Unfortunately, this will be the last album that Berman will treat us too, as he passed away in August of 2019, but his beautiful legacy will remain intact through this final collection of songs.
1. Fontaines D.C. – Dogrel
Combining nimble post-punk trills and gnawing guitar ‘Television Screen’ contains one of the album’s most spiteful lyrics “you’re a cluster of nothing” while ‘Hurricane Laughter’s lingering danger makes you feel like you’ve wandered into a dodgy part of town, minutes away from getting a kickin’ from the local boys. Fontaines D.C. you’ve done your city proud; ‘Dogrel’s scrappy charm could just snag debut album of the year.
Follow the entire playlist on our Spotify page:
Intro Best Albums 2019: Dave MacIntyre
Credits Best Albums 2019: Charles Brownstein, Alberto Dal Santo, Adam Fink, Adam Williams, Leslie Chu, Dave Macintyre, and the rest of NT’s family.