Everyone’s life has a soundtrack and the songs or albums that make up that soundtrack will always differ from person to person. One of my favorite things to do every year is look back on the music that served as a backdrop throughout the weeks and months. This year I have what is probably my strongest top 10 to date; granted I’m only proud of the past 4 or 5 years in terms of quality Top 10s, but 2019 really delivered an exceptional number of albums.
There’s a lot that didn’t make the list but I’ve included a brief Honorable Mentions section as well.
Tyler, The Creator – IGOR
IGOR is Tyler’s most polished, cohesive and personal album to date. It’s been great getting to see Tyler explore his identity and many different styles throughout the years, but on IGOR, he sounds the most comfortable he’s ever been and delivers an eclectic and stylish mix of songs about love, heartbreak and identity.
Top Three Tracks: “Earfquake” – “New Magic Wand” – “Are We Still Friends?”
Solange – When I Get Home
Solange is far from just Beyonce’s little sister. She has found her true voice as an artist and has delivered another beautiful and meticulously-crafted concept album. A love letter to her hometown of Houston, When I Get Home is a finely-tuned collection of repeated refrains, seamless transitions and elegant vocals.
Top Three Tracks: “Stay Flo” – “Almeda” – “Way to the Show”
Mannequin Pussy – Patience
I never saw myself as someone who would be into “punk” music… until I listened to “Drunk II” off of Mannequin Pussy’s 2019 offering Patience. I soon found myself playing the entire album over and over; craving it more and more every time. Patience is a teetering seesaw of an album that goes from screaming in your face to crying alongside you; all within a brisk 25 minute runtime.
Top Three Tracks: “Patience” – “Drunk II” – “Who You Are”
The Top Ten
Orville Peck – Pony
I wrote an article earlier this year about how interesting I found Orville Peck to be. A masked cowboy crooner whose Country sound is far from what’s popular on most Country radio stations today, at least from what I’ve heard. Not only is he one of the most unique artists I’ve discovered this year, Pony is an impressively skillful, rowdy, and equally graceful technicolor ride through the Wild West. Though it’s only Peck’s first solo project, I’m eager to see where his enigmatic stage persona and nostalgic sound will go next.
Top Three Tracks: “Dead of Night” – “Hope to Die” – “Queen of the Rodeo”
Big Thief – U.F.O.F.
Certain albums just take their time to hit, U.F.O.F. is the most last-minute addition to my Top 10 despite coming out in the first half of 2019. When it was first recommended to me, I gave it a listen but the band’s sound just wasn’t something I particularly cared to listen to at the time. I revisited the album as the year went on and after my… third or fourth listen, it finally resonated with me, like a switch had been flipped.
There’s something so mystical and nostalgic about this whole album, it evokes feelings of dawn and feelings of warm and hazy summer air. I’m still relatively early in my discovery of the album as I’ve only listened to it a handful of times but it gets better and more fascinating with each listen.
Top Three Tracks: “Open Desert” – “U.F.O.F.” – “Century”
Clairo – Immunity
Clairo is the first of two teenage bedroom pop sensations on this list whose debut EPs didn’t really resonate with me but whose debut albums came out and knocked me for a loop.
Her debut EP diary 001 I thought was mostly good but felt rather ordinary aside from the track “Flaming Hot Cheetos” which ended up being one of my favorite songs of that year. Still, I was hesitant to listen to this when it first came out, expecting another “mostly ok” project like diary. Luckily for me, Immunity is a beautiful step forward for the now twenty-one-year-old singer-songwriter. Every song here actually feels like a page ripped out of a diary; each one feeling vastly different from the last but they never feel out of place nor do they overstay their welcome.
Immunity is almost exactly what you expect when you hear the words “bedroom pop”, but the project itself also feels far too unique and personal to be dismissed as just another collection of soft, pop memoirs. From a suicide attempt on “Alewife” to struggling with love and sexuality on tracks like “Sofia”, Clairo’s first project is at times so personal, that it feels more like living through it.
Top Three Tracks: “White Flag” – “Sinking” – “Bags”
Weyes Blood – Titanic Rising
Weyes Blood’s Titanic Rising falls in line with the second trend of albums present on this list: albums that I feel compelled to describe as “cinematic”. And if you need any clarification as to what something “cinematic” would sound like, just listen to any of the three tracks listed below, in particular, the one aptly titled “Movies.”
One a purely technical level, Titanic Rising is a masterpiece, it is produced to perfection. There’s swelling synths, strings and harmonies that make you feel like you’re floating forty feet above the ground, Natalie’s vocals throughout are haunting while at the same time familiar and welcoming.
I talked about this album earlier this year in my Mid-2019 checkpoint and everything I said then very much still stands now. Though I’ve revisited this album over and over, I still find myself discovering new things to love every time I come back to it. Critical reception aside, this is one of the most overlooked albums this year and I highly urge anyone to give it a listen, there is something here for everyone to like.
Top Three Tracks: “A Lot’s Gonna Change” – “Movies” – “Andromeda”
Billie Eilish – When We All Fall Asleep,
Where Do We Go?
Billie Eilish, a.k.a. the other teen idol on this list I slept on until their debut album blew me away, has taken the world by storm in 2019. Her debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go has been met with countless praise from critics and fans alike, and honestly, it’s deserving of all of it.
Though the comparison is obvious by this point, it’s hard to not see Billie’s success story as similar with Lorde’s story in 2013. Both being “dark and edgy” while having a smash debut album with hit singles that also happened to be rich with social commentary, teen angst and introspection beyond what you would expect of a seventeen-year-old; or maybe we should just stop doubting teenage artists’ ability to produce quality content filled with depth and subtext.
Billie is, in my opinion, the most exciting artist playing through the airwaves today; this album just further reinforces it. Billie’s soft voice floats and wanders through rich instrumentals packed with sinister bass-lines like on the track “Bury a Friend,” and sweet guitar plucking on “I Love You.” She’s perhaps the biggest artist this year and I’m so excited to see where her career, music and identity as an artist will go.
Top Three Tracks: “Bad Guy” – “Wish You Were Gay” – “I Love You”
Ariana Grande – Thank U, Next
Thank U, Next is without a doubt Ariana’s best album; it sees the pop princess at her most vulnerable, most in control and most creative. Released just six months after her 2018 entry Sweetener, and recorded within two weeks, Thank U, Next is a miracle of an album. Tragedy and heartbreak have often be cited as some of the best sources of inspiration and this album is proof of that. Fueled by her break-up with P*te Davidson, and passing of ex-boyfriend Mac Miller, Ariana reclaims her confidence and discovers self-love while standing proud. She laments the passing of Mac, while detailing the impact it had on her relationship with Pete on “Ghostin'” and stops feigning happiness and innocence for the public eye on “Fake Smile”.
This album isn’t just a moment of bliss and release for Ariana, it also finds the popstar at the height of her power, becoming her most successful album to date and highest rated project as well. With two #1 singles, and multiple Grammy nominations, as well as, spots on many year-end publication lists, Thank U Next is the album Ariana Grande will be remembered for. It’s a spectacular moment of growth, an act of self-love and good enough to turn any skeptic into a fan.
Top Three Tracks: “7 Rings” – “Thank U, Next” – “In My Head”
Lana Del Rey – Norman F**king Rockwell!
The second “cinematic” entry on this list, NFR! has been one of my most anticipated albums of the year since Lana dropped “Mariners Apartment Complex” and “Venice Bitch” late last year in 2018.
I’ve always considered myself a moderate fan of Lana’s. I was a massive fan back in the days of Born to Die, Paradise and Ultraviolence, but her later projects just really seemed to miss the mark for me. On Norman, Lana shows an evolution, working with the great Jack Antonoff, Lana has tuned into a new sound that’s just familiar enough with her established style to keep serious fans interested, but new and fresh enough to excite those who may have been more warm on her recent material. Norman Flipping Rockwell! is Lana’s masterpiece. It’s a sprawling, epic love-letter to California, to Lana herself, to womanhood, to fame.
I had no doubt this album would blow me away based on the early glimpses we had, but I let out a howl on my first listen from the very first line on the opening title-track. The rest of its runtime is a sailboat ride set to the backdrop of Venice Beach through the lens of a 16mm film camera; the album is a collection of poetry, lush instrumentals and American nostalgia. It’s Lana at her best, her most daring, and most powerful.
Top Three Tracks: “Norman F*cking Rockwell” – “Mariners Apartment Complex” – “Cinnamon Girl”
Charli XCX – Charli
When an artist uses their name for an album title, it’s usually as: an introduction, a return to form or an attempt at being their most “vulnerable.” Charli is all of these and more, it’s everything.
Charli is maximalist pop at its best, it’s Charli XCX’s third album, first in almost four years. Her most recent releases were the two genre-bending mixtapes in 2017, Number 1 Angel and the incredible Pop 2 which found her pushing the limits of pop to the literal future. As a concept on paper, this album really shouldn’t work; which is what makes the fact that it does so much more impressive. An album featuring such a wide array of artists should not be as cohesive and as well-oiled as it is. Charli is pop at its best and brightest.
It’s a throwback on “1999,” it’s a robot committing assault at the end of “Click,” it’s an anthem about partying the sadness out of a friend on “Silver Cross,” a lamentful moment of lost love on “Thoughts,” and a furious club banger about shaking ass on “Shake It.” This album should be considered a miracle, but is actually a work of genius. The geniuses in question here are Charli herself and producer A.G. Cook who executive produced the whole thing.
Every song on Charli lives its own life, every song has its own identity, its own feeling. It’s a collection of greatest hits that never were but should be because every song on here soars. From the nonstop electric opening “Next Level Charli” to the banger of the future “2099”, Charli is a futuristic maximalist masterpiece of gigantic proportions. It’s a call to party, cry, love your friends and go back to partying; a project that pushes that boundaries of pop to the future and back.
Top Three Tracks: “Gone” – “Silver Cross” – “I Don’t Wanna Know”
Angel Olsen – All Mirrors
The final entry in the 2019 trilogy of cinematic albums is All Mirrors, an absolutely massive–sounding project. Though it’s only 11-tracks, All Mirrors exists in a giant, echoing chamber of reflection. It’s cinematic not just in how grand and elegant it sounds but also in how it feels like the soundtrack to a movie that is yet to be made. The album is bookended by what I consider to be two of the best songs of the Angel’s entire discography.
“Lark” is a slow-building tale of a failed relationship that builds up into a hypnotic, immense climax of Angel near-screaming “dream on” over and over. You feel her rage, her pain. On “Chance”, the album’s closer, Angel sounds hopeful though saddened, the relationship is over, she just wants to move on to find happiness again. The sentiment is accompanied by a lush arrangement of strings and percussion, like the dark space from the earlier portions of the album have been reduced to a quiet bar as she utters the last few lines “it’s hard to say forever love, forever’s just so far”. The end of a beautifully mystical journey of lost love. The songs in between serving as beautiful moments themselves, each adorned with a mix of synthesizers and strings. The title track is a dark, synth-heavy anthem that feels like a scene out of 2013’s Under the Skin, while the songs “Spring” and “Summer” offer a brighter, more cheerful tone among the more heavy, somber moments. “Summer” in particular carrying themes of moving on and looking back and learning from past mistakes.
Though I’m a relatively new fan of Angel’s music, I can comfortably say this is her most ambitious project to date. If there’s anything else to say about All Mirrors, it’s that Angel surely knows how to craft a masterpiece and with this album, she proves that she is on a path to be an all-time great, if she isn’t one already.
Top Three Tracks: “Lark” – “Chance” – “Tonight”
FKA twigs – Magdalene
Album of the year. What does that even mean? It means an album that is not only significant for personal reasons, whether it be relatability or replay-ability; but also how good an album is on a technical level. I had a very clear pick in 2016 with Blonde and 2017 with Melodrama, last year was a bit of a toss up and this year was looking the same. That is until I was fortunate enough to see Magdalene live.
I get that it’s unfair to count that as a reason to put an album above another (though I also saw All Mirrors live) but my moment of realization came as I was describing Magdalene to a friend; ’twas then that I realized just how impressive and significant it was, not just sonically, but also the story behind the album.
In short, Magdalene is twigs reclaiming her womanhood, life, and identity after a traumatic break-up, (a trend this year) and a surgery to remove ovarian cysts that left twigs on a long road to recovery. Twigs has described the inspiration for the album’s title as her channeling the biblical woman of Mary Magdalene, the prostitute saved by Jesus turned into a figure of divinity and healing.
Magdalene is a symbol salvation and possession of one’s body. It sees twigs giving herself permission to be sexual without shame; of being a companion and a healer as well. Sonically, it’s experimental enough to be true to twigs’ nature as an artist but softer and gentler than twigs’ previous projects. The true star of the project is her vocal performance though, her signature falsetto is stronger than ever and on songs like “Home With You” and “Mirrored Heart” she’s pushing metric tons of emotion through her voice. Magdalene is symbolic, it’s artistic, it’s grimy, smooth, beautiful. It’s an experience unlike anything I’ve ever heard and it’s one of my favorite albums this decade. Lead single “Cellophane” is the best song of the year and with this project, FKA twigs has become one of my favorite artists of the past ten years.
Top Tracks: “Cellophane” – “Mirrored Heart” – “Mary Magdalene” – “Home With You”