best of 2019

The Best Albums of 2019 (So Far)

Photo: Vulture

This list has been updated with September releases.

2018 was a banner year for big-name artists dropping big-name releases. It’d be faster to run through the A-listers who didn’t release an album last year than the ones who did. Does that mean that they’re tapped out and the same thing won’t happen this year? Of course not! We’ve already seen highlights from Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Billie Eilish, Solange, Vampire Weekend, Tyler, the Creator, Bruce Springsteen, Bad Bunny and J Balvin, Charli XCX, the Highwomen, and many others. The big themes of the year are still hard to pinpoint, but we can say with certainty that the albums below confront complicated emotions in complicated times. It might not be a new concept, but it’s a welcome one.

American Football, American Football (LP3)

With LP3, emo godfathers American Football have officially been more fruitful since their 2014 reunion than they were in their late-’90s heyday. The impossible trick is that they’ve maintained the same level of quality. American Football slowed down and mellowed out, but prettier melodies and longer running times don’t make these songs any less gutting than AF 1.0 gems like “Never Meant” and “Honestly?” LP3 is not above new tricks. Guest vocalists Hayley Williams, Elizabeth Powell, and Rachel Goswell invite textures that complement lead singer Mike Kinsella’s voice while opening up possibilities for future collaborations.

Ariana Grande, Thank U, Next

Ariana Grande’s second album in just six months is somehow sharper, sadder, and more personal than the last. Recorded in a two-week stretch a few months after the release of last summer’s dewy, happy Sweetener, this year’s Thank U, Next is an end cap to the last album’s romanticism and a rejoinder to the idea that happiness is the game of sharing life with a lover. Thank U sees Grande and A-list pop producers Max Martin, Pop Wansel, and Ilya Salmanzadeh process the year of stress and pain the singer endured after the Manchester Arena bombing, the loss of her ex-boyfriend, the rapper Mac Miller, and her breakup with the actor Pete Davidson. The beats are a mix of spacious R&B/trap hybrids, airy ballads, and careful excursions into rock and reggae. Burned out but far from broken, a new pop supreme emerges.

Bad Bunny and J Balvin, Oasis

Oasis, a mini-album mind meld between Puerto Rican Latin trap performer Bad Bunny and Colombian reggaetónero J Balvin (and their go-to producers), is the rare moment where the clear frontrunner for the party album of the summer drops out of the sky just in time for talk of vacations and cookouts to kick off. Oasis feels perfectly engineered for the moment where June melts into July, and everyone starts to look a little cuter through a haze of heat and humidity. Bunny and Balvin process their own feelings of lust and longing while graciously providing a soundtrack for everyone else doing the same in the next few months.

Baroness, Gold and Grey

Singer, multi-instrumentalist, and artist John Dyer Baizley’s rock quartet Baroness continues to evolve on Gold and Grey, the fifth in a color-coded series of sludge metal and hard rock wonders including the heady Red Album and Blue Record as well as the genre-hopping double album Yellow and Green. The new album traces an unpredictable path through white-knuckle radio-rock riffs, slow-burning dirges, porchfront folk tunes, and airy, ambient palette cleansers. Just when you think this band has run out of tricks to pull and hues to tap for an album concept, it returns and achieves the impossible one more time.

Billie Eilish, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?

We talk a lot about genres crashing into each other and creating new forms over the last decade of tastes expanding online, but When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, the debut album by 17-year-old singer, songwriter, and producer Billie Eilish, is the idea in action. The music, written and produced by Eilish and her brother Finneas, stacks and rearranges aspects of rap, dance music, folk, rock, pop, and show tunes into hybridized, colorful forms, like Legos. Zipping through the album’s baker’s dozen of two- and three-minute wonders, you come away with an appreciation of Eilish’s formidable chops as a writer and performer and an excitement for where she’ll take them next.

Blood Orange, Angel’s Pulse

If you’re the type that powers through the haze of the dog days with music that sounds the way the end of summer feels, dig Angel’s Pulse, where globe-trotting, genre-hopping studio whiz Blood Orange checks in with his first commercial mixtape, a travelogue of the places he’s been and the people he’s met since last year’s studio album. Like a great playlist on shuffle, Pulse is both effortless and lawless in its mixture of trap, soul, rock, and gospel values, the kind of place where Arca, Tinashe, Toro y Moi, and members of Three 6 Mafia drop in, and everyone sounds cool and natural together.

Bon Iver, i,i

Most music about environmentalism is either impossibly fun or cloyingly serious, with little middle ground. On one end, you have, say, Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” and on the other, there’s Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive.” Bon Iver’s i,i is rife with message songs that don’t carry the bleakness of their message like a stone. The lyrics are heavy on close inspection, but the music makes them buoyant. You don’t catch the withering political commentary of a song like “Hey, Ma” unless you listen past the hip-hop phrasings and production flourishes. “Naeem” couches sophisticated sadness in Migos triplets. The album gets brutal when it sits still. “U (Man Like)” delivers stern words about American homelessness through a chorus of voices, including Moses Sumney’s and Bruce Hornsby’s. The feeling is quite like getting dressed down in a parent-teacher conference. i,i otherwise resists this kind of directness. It’s too in love with balancing rustic acoustic sounds with electronic textures to allow itself to be a drag.

Brittany Howard, Jaime

Alabama Shakes and Thunderbitch singer-songwriter Brittany Howard’s debut solo album Jaime is a tour de force; like a cross-country road trip, it weaves through scathing rock tunes, stately folk ones, lithe funk workouts, and upbeat soul scorchers. Howard’s ecstatic vocals, expressive guitar, and crisp drums light the way, with assists from jazz-funk legend Robert Glasper, Shakes bassist Zac Cockrell, and gifted session stickman Nate Smith. Jaime is both a break from the Shakes’ hearty southern rock influences and a refinement of the songwriting engine powering them.

Broken Social Scene, Let’s Try the After (Vol. 1 & 2)

The two-month gap between the first and second installments of veteran Canadian indie-rock collective Broken Social Scene’s Let’s Try the After EP series is the shortest layover between BSS projects ever. (Usually, we’re lucky to see two in a decade.) As it turns out, 20-minute installments suit the band well. Sprawl’s their thing, but short, quiet songs offer convincing evidence that a band whose finest moments are five- to seven-minute guitar jousts can be just as impactful in a wistful three-minute love song.

Bruce Springsteen, Western Stars

Sixty-nine-year-old Asbury Park institution Bruce Springsteen’s nineteenth career full-length sees the troubadour diving into the minds of a gallery of old timers lamenting the idea that their ship has sailed, from the jilted, out-of-work songwriter of “Somewhere North of Nashville” to the injured daredevil of “Drive Fast (The Stuntman).” It is in these stories of broken men settling down that the Boss locates a second wind of his own. Western Stars is Springsteen’s best (and by no coincidence, his quietest) album in over a decade, proof positive that try as you might, you can’t keep a good dog down.

Charli XCX, Charli

Charli XCX is so ahead of her time that she called her last mixtape Pop 2, thumbing her nose at the radio faves who’ve been retracing her steps since 2013’s True Romance. This fall’s Charli crystallizes what makes the U.K. singer great. She’s an honest writer, a gifted vocalist, and a thoughtful collaborator; no one else would think to corral Lizzo, Haim, Cupcakke, Clairo, Sky Ferreira, Christine and the Queens, and Big Freedia for the same album, and few possess the range to bring them together in a cohesive body of work that sounds both futuristic and fun.

Flying Lotus, Flamagra

Flying Lotus albums feel like hovercraft rides through uncharted territories in space, but album six, this spring’s star-studded Flamagra, seems to be very poignantly inspired by the producer and director’s hometown of Los Angeles. Its jazzy, airy grooves evoke West Coast hip-hop even when they’re aiming far beyond it; its meditation on fire as an agent of change and destruction can only have come from someone who steps outside from time to time to see the hills ablaze. It’s a testament to the artist’s sensibilities that none of this comes out feeling overbearing. At the root of it all, he just wants to get people dancing.

Freddie Gibbs and Madlib, Bandana

Five years after the Midwest-SoCal duo of Indiana rapper Freddie Gibbs and Los Angeles producer Madlib teamed up to crack skulls on their debut collaborative album, Piñata, the pair regroups with the stunning Bandana. Gibbs’s bars race with the triumph of a gifted technician whose future seemed uncertain at various frightening low points in the last few years, and Madlib’s beats make soul funk, rock, and reggae sounds bend to his will like Magneto. Guests Anderson .Paak, Pusha-T, Yasiin Bey, Black Thought, and Killer Mike appear like a consort of magi converging on the scene of a historical event.

Future, The Wizrd

Future’s career is a stark study of contrasts; he’s a rapper and a singer, a trap star and a balladeer, a writer of infectious love songs and scathing breakup records. 2017’s Future and Hndrxx split the Atlanta performer’s creative instincts down the middle, the one album playing out like an action movie while the second cheesed about the finer points of companionship and cohabitation. January’s The Wizrd restores the balance. Wizrd’s 20 tracks ping-pong between gruff street talk and vulnerable discussions of matters of the heart. The result is a picture of a complicated man, a balance between toughness and tenderness. It’s versatile in subject matter but also in form. The new songs contain a few of the artist’s best raps and tightest melodies. Fifteen years into his rap career, Future’s still finding ways to grow.

Girlpool, What Chaos Is Imaginary

On album No. 3, this winter’s What Chaos Is Imaginary, Los Angeles indie singer-songwriter duo Girlpool sharpens its nostalgic alt-rock to a fine point. The twee folk style that informed the outfit’s first two full lengths, 2015’s Before the World Was Big and 2017’s Powerplant, has been reined in significantly; in its place, there are big guitars, unforgettable hooks, and plaintive, honest vocals from singer and guitarist Cleo Tucker alongside singer and bassist Harmony Tividad. Squint and you’ll feel like you tripped and fell into the Matador vaults. What Chaos Is Imaginary makes the familiar sound sublime and rejuvenating.

The Highwomen, The Highwomen

Inspired by the ’80s supergroup comprising country legends Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson, the Highwomen — a quartet uniting ace country singer-songwriters Amanda Shires, Maren Morris, Brandi Carlile, and Natalie Hemby — pooled their tremendous skills on September’s excellent self-titled debut. The wealth of experiences each singer brings to the table gives The Highwomen impressive range; there’s songs about raising families and about being single, about loving a man and loving a woman, about being young and feeling old. This group contains multitudes.

Jenny Lewis, On the Line

Former Rilo Kiley lead singer Jenny Lewis’s fourth album under her own name, On the Line is a milestone in a career that’s been building since her days starring in ’80s sitcoms and kids’ movies. The new songs brim with the wisdom of a performer who, at just 43, has accumulated over 30 years of Hollywood and music industry experience. Lewis sings of crumbling lives and coming doom in a hearty, moving voice, while her backing band — which at different points in the album includes Beck, Ryan Adams, and members of the Beatles, Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, and John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band — provides foundational roots, rock grit, and performances that beam with as much heart as their singer does.

Justin Townes Earle, The Saint of Lost Causes

Singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle — thusly named as the son of the country troubadour Steve Earle, who named his kid in part after his friend, the late Townes Van Zandt — has spent the last decade crafting elegant, folky dispatches about his experiences as a New Yorker. But this spring’s The Saint of Lost Causes turns the lens outward, illuminating the struggles of a network of realistic characters in dire straits, to dazzling effect. Spacious, haunting arrangements make it an essential soundtrack to late-night reflection.

The Mountain Goats, In League With Dragons

North Carolina indie-folk trio the Mountain Goats continues a decade-long streak of stunning concept albums about fanatics, geeks, and outcasts with In League With Dragons, a song cycle obsessed with murder mysteries and tabletop gaming. Songs like “Doc Gooden” and “Waylon Jennings Live!” compare athletes and performers in their twilight to wizards losing touch with magic. “Younger” and “Clemency for the Wizard King” humanize foot soldiers in a mythical war. Aiding head Mountain Goat John Darnielle’s thoughtful pen and emotive vocal is the delicate, airy accompaniment of bassist Peter Hughes and drummer Jon Wurster, and production from singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Owen Pallett.

Say Anything, Oliver Appropriate

Whether you read it as a series of character sketches about a serial killer or a string of gorgeous acoustic campfire songs from an artist whose bread and butter is loud guitars and intricate arrangements or a nostalgic look back on the themes of a beloved album years later, Say Anything’s Oliver Appropriate stuns. The new music muses about what happened to the protagonist of the West Coast emo act’s breakthrough album … Is a Real Boy, a baker’s dozen of wry observations about punk culture and masculinity, after the limelight fades. Oliver Appropriate’s story of bottled same-sex attraction and physical violence is a salty, bitingly funny, and ultimately tragic examination of what happens when people don’t get what they want in a world gone wrong … but the lyrics are just abstract enough to be enjoyed without thinking about any of that stuff, if that’s your thing.

Slipknot, We Are Not Your Kind

Metal’s masked marauders Slipknot spent the last two albums trying to reconcile its goth-rock tendencies with its taste for blunt-force power-metal grooves, skewing heavy on 2008’s All Hope Is Gone and leaning toward lighter textures on 2014’s .5: The Gray Chapter. On this summer’s We Are Not Your Kind, balance is restored. It features the band’s most assured songwriting since 2004’s Vol. 3: The Subliminal Verses. A song like “Nero Forte” captures the dynamic; the verse is harsh, but the chorus nudges it imperceptibly to sweetness. All Hope fans will appreciate the vicious “Birth of the Cruel”; Gray Chapter gang will latch on to slow burners like “Spiders” and “My Pain.” Twenty years on from their self-titled debut, the band continues to find ways to reinvent and rediscover itself.

Solange, When I Get Home

When Solange Knowles sings, “I saw things I imagined” at the start of her fourth studio album — and first visual album — it’s not clear right away what the lyric refers to. As the stoned, dreamy When I Get Home unfurls, you learn that the thing she’s imagining is her hometown, Houston, Texas. Through a series of short songs, sketches, and shamanistic chants set to music, Solange shares her dream of home through feelings, sounds, and abstract phrasings rather than rehashing the powerful, declarative lyricism of her 2016 statement A Seat at the Table. Home is more fractured and offbeat than its predecessor, but the music’s mix of jazz fusion methodologies and DJ Screw pacing feels like a peek into the future.

Sturgill Simpson, Sound and Fury

Kentucky country-rock crooner Sturgill Simpson is a big dreamer. His 2014 breakthrough Metamodern Sounds in Country Music recast classic outlaw country in a druggy, psychedelic haze, and 2016’s sprawling A Sailor’s Guide to Earth supplied his newborn son with advice about growing up. Sound and Fury ups the ante: it’s a self-described “sleazy synth-rock dance record” with an accompanying anime. Both the film and the album wisely synthesize seminal post-apocalyptic wasteland anime and the peppy soundtracks that propel them. If you ever wondered what ZZ Top might sound like covering the Cure, or Queens of the Stone Age doubling down on those latent Gary Numan vibes, this is your album.

Taylor Swift, Lover

Taylor Swift loves to trick the audience with her singles. The cloying “ME!” and the bratty, nonchalant “You Need to Calm Down” were ruses of a sort. They got us thinking she would stretch even further out into the passive-aggressive post-genre maximalism of Reputation, when really, she was angling at a mix of sleek synth-pop love songs spiced with country ballads in the same manner as Red. Lover is fun and effortless in ways it takes repeat listens to unpack; people always look to songwriters to process big trauma through art, but Taylor Swift is more in her wheelhouse examining the tiny pleasures of companionship here than she was on Rep, which was, in spite of its lovely, quiet moments, a lot like a professional wrestling promo. Lover sees Rep’s budding romance blossom, and luxuriates coolly among the flowers.

Thom Yorke, Anima

For a taste of Radiohead and Atoms for Peace figurehead Thom Yorke’s gobstopping dynamic range as a writer and performer, drop the needle down on his new album Anima’s “Twist” and let it play through to “Dawn Chorus.” On the former, he crafts heady, ominous electronic music out of unusual rhythmic and melodic elements before blowing the composition to bits with a wave of synths that swallow the song. On the latter, he embraces a coming reckoning in an exhausted, disembodied whisper, keyboard figures stuttering to a stop underneath each measure like a last missive from the drowning seaman in the “No Surprises” video. Anima spends its remaining 30 minutes landing even stranger creative stunts.

Toro y Moi, Outer Peace

Singer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist Chaz Bundick’s shiftless solo project Toro y Moi has carried him from wispy, nostalgic dance pop to Kinks-style rock and back in the last decade, but this year’s Outer Peace finds a new direction, as the South Carolina star pours his talents into a string of laid-back tunes inspired by trap and R&B hybridizers like Drake and Travis Scott. There’s still room for big dance moves — see “Freelance” and “Ordinary Pleasure” — but killer cuts like “New House” and “Baby Drive It Down” push Toro y Moi the closest to radio accessibility the act has been since Underneath the Pine.

Tyler, the Creator, IGOR

Like a villain in a monster movie, IGOR sneaks up on you. The sweetness of the hooks and arrangements make the first taste land like marshmallow crème, but repeat plays reveal new textures in the confections. Tyler used to be a menace, but now he’s making songs about crushes and head rushes. He used to be a snarling rapper, but now he’s an R&B vocalist making giddy love albums. Watching him work through what bugged him up till now has been a rocky ride; IGOR is the beach-house vacation at the end of the trip.

Vampire Weekend, Father of the Bride

Keeping Vampire Weekend alive beyond the hiatus and personnel changes the band has experienced since the release of 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City meant radically restructuring the idea. Front man Ezra Koenig picked up a few tips watching Kanye West work a few years back. This spring’s Father of the Bride draws from a wide constellation of collaborators, including members of Haim, the Internet, and the Dirty Projectors. The result is a kaleidoscopic array of pop-rock nuggets about the state of love and trust, guided by Ezra’s voice and sensibilities and enriched by samples and session players from across the spectrum.

The Best Albums of 2019 (So Far)