It was a varied, chaotic year for music, with most of the highlights coming during the second half of the year. There were plenty of great records that just barely missed getting included, but here is a summary of the year in music that will hopefully contain some of your favorites and introduce you to great records you may have missed.
50. KID KOALA – “MUSIC TO DRAW TO: Io” As opposed to his 2017 effort, “Music to Draw To: Satellite,” this finds turntable-ist Kid Koala switching his sound into a more atmospheric, almost dream-pop-like mode. Together with Trixie Whitley (the daughter of the late, celebrated singer-songwriter Chris Whitley), he makes something defiant and downright cinematic. While this isn’t often for passive listening, tracks like “All For You,” “Diamond Heart” and “Lost at Sea,” deliver some truly compelling moments. The tracks where Koala is left on his own offer up some warm, truly astoundingly lush instrumental moments.
49. MADONNA – “MADAME X” (DELUXE) Thirty-six years after her debut, Madonna doesn’t seem to aim for the pop charts in a calculated way. Sure, the politically-charged, “I Rise” is a rather traditional pop-anthem, but much of the record finds her in performance-artist mode. This is a spiky, tangled collection. Don’t let the chilled vibe of the Maluma-assisted, “Medellín” fool you. Sure, it is indicative of the Latin-tinged, digital haze heard across the record, but once “Dark Ballet” morphs into a computerized protest-fueled nod to Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite,” it becomes immediately evident that this is one of her strangest and most compelling albums to date. With highlights like “God Control” and the densely-constructed and blunt “Killers Who Are Partying,” Madonna makes “Madame X,” a cleverly-constructed protest record, meant to be examined as a piece of art. Madonna still courts controversy, but with a unique, globally-minded sense of maturity.
48. CHARLI XCX – “CHARLI” Five years after “Sucker,” “Charli” is said to be Charli XCX’s third proper album, even though you could consider her two 2017 “mixtapes” “Pop 1” and “Pop 2” albums under a different classification. Like those two efforts, “Charli” mixes the experimentation of her often difficult 2016 EP, “Vroom Vroom,” with the bright pop made her famous. With strong collaborations with Haim, Lizzo, Sky Ferreira, Troye Sivan, Kim Petras and more, the result is a party album for the glitch-driven digital age. Key moments like “Silver Cross,” “1999” and the downright ear-melting “Click” are full of undeniable forward-thinking weirdness. On “Shake it,” she manages to get Big Freedia, CupcakKe, Brooke Candy and Pablo Vittar all on the same track. “Charli” offers a warm, slow burn that not only puts Charli XCX on the technological forefront but also proves that her party is an impressively inclusive big tent.
47. BILLIE EILISH – “WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?” At 18, Billie Eilish is already a dominating pop force. Joined by her brother and collaborative partner brother, Finneas O’Connell, her proper debut album, “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” often trades the more traditional pop sound of 2017’s EP “Don’t Smile at Me” for a darker, more digitally experimental, sometimes slightly jazzy, minimalist sound. Highlights like “You Should See Me in a Crown,” “Bury a Friend,” “I Love You” and the chart-topping “Bad Guy” show her to be one of this year’s biggest movers and trendsetters.
46. HOMEBOY SANDMAN – “DUSTY” Homeboy Sandman’s latest album, “Dusty” earns its name with its straight-forward, analog-hued production. Indeed, this tight, 15-track, nearly 35-minute set goes by quickly, but it is Sandman’s lo-fi approach and often blunt and humorously thoughtful lyricism that often makes this album stand out from the pack. The half-sung “Name” and the inward-looking “Noteworthy” are worth deeper examination, as are the slick, funky “Easy” and the Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell-sampling “Picture on the Wall.” “Wondering Why” is a playful lyrical game in the tradition of A Tribe Called Quest’s “What?” and “Far Out” comes off like a rapid-fire yet disarmingly nonchalant exercise.
45. MAGGIE ROGERS – “HEARD IT IN A PAST LIFE" Do yourself a favor and look up the viral video of Maggie Rogers’ music blowing Pharrell Williams’ mind during Bob Power’s master-class at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. If you haven’t seen it, Pharrell has a genuine look of happily surprised shock on his face listening to her song, “Alaska.” Sure, that track and “On + Off” are a couple years old, having appeared on her 2017 EP, but those tracks and the rest of the songs that make up her full-length debut, warrant that kind of surprise. Rogers comes off like someone who respects the likes of Carole King and the Neptunes in equal measure. “Fallingwater,” for instance, is a very traditional song in its structure but it has a surprising kick. Then there is “Say It,” which is a slightly woozy, spacey R&B ballad and “Back in My Body” which sounds like a slightly new-wave-tinged, power-ballad from the eighties. “Heard it in a Past Life,” is an eclectic, thoroughly pleasing record with some really unexpected left turns. Rogers remains a massive talent to watch.
44. JEFF LYNNE’S ELO – “FROM OUT OF NOWHERE” It is a little unexpected that in 2019, Jeff Lynne dropped a new album from his current version of ELO. This brief, 10-track/33-minute collection sounds like vintage ELO, from the anthemic glow of the title-track to other standouts like “Down Came the Rain,” “Time of our Life” and “Goin’ Out on Me.” To add to the album’s appeal, Lynne’s signature production aesthetics are firmly present, bringing to mind helmed classics like George Harrison’s “Cloud Nine” and Tom Petty’s “Full Moon Fever.” The fact that this album makes it sound like no time has passed is a reminder of Lynne’s evergreen skill as a craftsman.
43. KING PRINCESS – “CHEAP QUEEN” Mikaela Straus (AKA King Princess) is only 20 but her debut album, “Cheap Queen,” released on Mark Ronson’s imprint with Columbia, is a confident, assured set. Indeed, if you got a charge from her impressive, previously-released single “1950,” “Cheap Queen” has a lot more frank lyrical moments like standouts “Hit the Back,” “Ain’t Together” and the title-track. Straus doesn’t dance around taboos. Instead, they are firmly tackled, adding to this set’s strong appeal. This is also a playfully-produced record. Transitional tracks like “Useless Phrases” and “Do You Want to see Me Crying?” are treated with the same care as their full-length counterparts, making this an appealing and invigorating set from front to back.
42. JADE BIRD – “JADE BIRD” The debut album from British singer-songwriter Jade Bird mixes folk-driven moments like “Ruins,” with rocking anthems like “I Get No Joy” and “Love Has All Been Done Before.” Bird’s often rapid-fire, almost rapped lyrics are delivered in a signature rasp that volleys from a girlish whisper to a surprisingly powerful, bluesy wail. With its singer-songwriter, pseudo-grunginess and flecks of country, this record is likely to attract a very wide audience.
41. MARIKA HACKMAN – “ANY HUMAN FRIEND” English singer Marika Hackman’s latest album, “Any Human Friend,” delivers a blunt set of songs, often dealing with her relationships with women. This record is sometimes graphic in its lyrics, but Hackman has a great deal of charm and intimate, confessional songs like “All Night,” are delivered with the kind of skill that hopefully won’t frighten the prudes. While the last record was more cheeky and playful in tone, this one is more of a somber and melancholy affair, suggesting perhaps that it may ultimately be a break-up record of sorts. That being said, standouts like “The One” and “I’m Not Where You Are” come off like slinky, dance-floor ready cuts with a foreboding undercurrent. Hackman has a knack for melody, as well, which compliments her sharp wit.
40. ELBOW – “GIANTS OF ALL SIZES” The eighth studio album from the reliable Manchester band is a slow-burning, intricate, experimental outing, from the elongated, pseudo-gospel-driven funk of “Dexter & Sinister,” to the semi-Gothic synth-bounce of “Empires.” On “The Delayed 3:15,” Guy Garvey sings a spiky, folk-charged ode to a man’s suicide-by-train with the deadpan tone of a hapless, resigned observer in utter shock. “Doldrums” has an eerie, death-march quality and yet there is a hint of a Kinks-like, melodic brightness in the chorus. To say there is a lot to unpack in this densely populated, 40-minute set is an understatement.
39. FRESH – “WITHDRAW” The British band's new album "Withdraw” definitely ups the ante from their past work, while maintaining their appeal. That wonderfully sludgy riff that serves as the anchor of the title-track will leave you hitting the repeat button, while the jangle-pop of “Nervous Energy” and the playful pop-punk glide of “Going to Brighton” in undeniable. “No Thanks” sounds like it has startling pop-radio crossover potential while “New Girl” is a pristine dose of thought-provoking, well-plucked indie rock. Front-woman Kathryn Woods’ lyrics keep their bite no matter what the backdrop. This record is brisk but feels thick with details.
38. THE HIGHWOMEN – “THE HIGHWOMEN” The Highwomen got their name as a clever callback to the country super-group, The Highwaymen, which was formed by Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. Like that group, each member of the Highwomen has established herself in her own right. Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires join forces from each of their unique corners of country to make a record that owes equal debt to both traditional folk music and organic, traditional country. This isn’t surprising from Carlile, but considering Morris is leaning towards more traditional pop in her solo work, her presence here is quite welcoming. Highlights include “My Name Can’t Be Mama,” the cool and moody, “Old Soul,” the paradigm-shifting “Redesigning Women,” the charging kiss-off, “Don’t Call Me” and the mood-setting, Yola-featuring title-track, which reconstructs the classic Jimmy Webb-penned title track from the Highwaymen record. When they are joined by Sheryl Crow on “Heaven is a Honkey Tonk,” it seems like a good fit. This is a warm throwback to a vintage, evergreen Nashville sound and a time when quality songwriting was as important as individual personalities.
37. LANA DEL REY – “NORMAN F---ING ROCKWELL!” If Lana Del Rey has ever been a hard sell for you, “Norman F---ing Rockwell!” is a record you need to hear. It is her strongest effort to date, where she finally balances artistic goals and songwriting fortitude. Singing in character, as she does, isn’t necessarily for everyone, but the title-track and the majestic “Mariners Apartment Complex” show hints that the walls are coming down a little. There’s vulnerability here, even if is masked by her tough shell. “Hope is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman Like Me to Have – But I Have it” seems like a true highlight in her songbook. Even when she is rather faithfully (and surprisingly) covering Sublime’s “Doin’ Time,” it somehow does not distract from the narrative of this record.
36. SEABLITE – “GRASS STAINS AND NOVOCAINE” This San Francisco band blends shoegaze guitars with jangling power-pop accents. Standouts like “Time is Weird,” “Pillbox” and “Lollipop Crush” should earn them comparisons to everyone from Velocity Girl to Alvvays. Of course, Lush and My Bloody Valentine also come to mind. When the distortion gets reduced on the driving and atmospheric, “There Were Only Shadows,” a lot more moodic textures are left to explore. This is one of 2019’s biggest word-of-mouth wins.
35. GANG STARR – “ONE OF THE BEST YET” On paper, “One of the Best Yet” should not work as well as it does. Nine years after Guru’s death, DJ Premier has assembled an album using leftover verses, building beats to make them into finished songs and recruiting guests to give the album more heft. Weirdly, tracks like “Bad News” and the J. Cole-assisted “Family and Loyalty” don’t sound pieced together in the slightest. It is cool when Q-Tip shows up on “Hit Man,” Jeru the Damaga drops a verse on “From a Distance” or when Talib Kweli comes in on “Business of Art,” but the real focus is completely on Guru and the legacy he left behind. Give Premier credit: his signature, dusty, bouncy beats with cut-up vocal snippets still pack a real wallop. You can tell this was put together to honor a fallen friend. Guru is missed. It is great to hear his voice on record again.
34. CARLY RAE JEPSEN – “DEDICATED” Carly Rae Jepsen continues mining her forward-thinking version of a bright, sunny pop landscape, with “Dedicated,” a near-perfect follow-up to her last album, “Emotion.” Jepsen’s gleaming pop confections are undeniable. They sound like they are from some re-imagined, heightened, futuristic version of the eighties, while being too well-crafted to be dismissed. Immediately, this album impresses with “Julien,” or the silky, slinky “No Drug Like Me.” “Now that I Found You” sounds like a sugary pop moment that morphs instantly into a dynamic banger in the chorus. The glossy funk balladry of “Everything He Needs” is warm and welcoming as it references Shelley Duvall’s song from “Popeye,” “He Needs Me.” From “Happy Not Knowing,” to “The Sound,” to “Automatically in Love,” this is a stellar, excitingly enjoyable pop offering from end to end.
33. ANGEL OLSEN – “ALL MIRRORS” Angel Olsen follows up her breakthrough 2016 album, “My Woman,” with the incredibly risky yet rewarding, “All Mirrors.” The album combines retro synths with elongated psychedelic rises. If you have heard singles, “Lark” and the title-track, they are good indications of the spacey terrain Olsen is exploring. She often goes from a near-whisper to a belting voice so powerful it feels like all of her emotional strength is being called into use. Pop-wise, this is not a very accessible record but it is almost more appealing for that reason. A slowly sinking song like “New Love Cassette” becomes much more indelible with each revisit. Mostly, in a subtle way, this album seems to be crafted to show Olsen’s range. For instance, the low, breathy vocal tone of “Tonight” and upbeat, more insistent tone on “Summer,” don’t really sound like the same vocalist. You’ve got to give Olsen credit for not taking the easy route and for dropping something this peculiar and arty. This record is designed to be heard on big speakers across a wide, empty room.
32. THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS – “NO GEOGRAPHY” “No Geography” is either the Chemical Brothers’ ninth or tenth full-length album, depending if you count their soundtrack to the movie, “Hanna,” and like the majority of its predecessors it still shows why they made such a splash more than two decades ago, in effect helping to helm the electronica boom of the mid-to-late-nineties. They still have that “big-beat” punch and they still have those weirder edges that bring to mind the darker, innovative aspects of the Manchester club scene. Right from the beginning, with the Aurora-assisted “Eve of Destruction,” the album brings a hectic, booming energy. This goes throughout the set on “Bango,” the spacey title-track, “Free Yourself” and “MAH.” “The Universe Sent Me” (again with Aurora) is a slippery, ethereal builder, while “We’ve Got to Try” turns a funky, vintage sample of a song by the Halleluiah Chorus into a top-notch, synth-heavy attention-grabber. No matter where you are, “No Geography” doesn’t disappoint.
31. LIL NAS X – “7” (EP) There is way more happening on Lil Nas X’s 18-minute EP than just the two versions of “Old Town Road.” Sure, that song did somehow become the biggest #1 single of all time, put another surprising notch in Billy Ray Cyrus’ belt and because the song is built around a Nine Inch Nails sample, it made Trent Reznor a CMA winner. But besides that, the six other songs here show Lil Nas X to be way more eclectic than expected. Indeed, the Cardi B-featuring “Rodeo” has a similar country/hip-hop hybrid energy, but then there is the left-field pop of “Panini,” the indie-rock of “F9mily (You and Me)” the lo-fi, semi-punk-charged “Bring U Down,” and the club-y funk of “C7osure (You Like).” Honestly, maybe the coolest sonic moment is on “Kick It,” which begins as pseudo-slice of sung-hip-hop and eventually morphs into an orchestra-coated exercise complete with a chopped up, dub-like ska-horn breakdown. There’s a lot to discover here in very little time. Timing-wise, few artists are more economical.
30. FRANKIE COSMOS – “CLOSE IT QUIETLY” Frankie Cosmos is the musical pseudonym for Greta Kline, the daughter of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates. Since 2012, Kline has been releasing an impressive catalogue of lo-fi, often endearing indie-rock songs. “Close it Quietly” is her second full-length to be released by celebrated label Sub Pop and it marks a huge step forward. Indeed, these 21 songs in just under 40 minutes make up her most substantial offering to date, without losing the original homespun appeal of her early records. Her quirky, conversational style is fully on display on “Cosmic Shop,” the sunny “Windows,” the tender and intimate “Marbles” and the key-standout closer, “This Swirling.” Kline possesses a quiet, unique cleverness that is worth finding.
29. GUSTER – “LOOK ALIVE” “Look Alive” is the best Guster album in a very long time. In fact, there is something about this album that makes it feel like an effective reboot of sorts for the beloved Boston band. They just sound reinvigorated, from the beautiful, opening title-track, to the pop-radio-ready “Hard Times.” "Terrified" is among one of their strongest songs to date, as is the bold, slowly building, “Not for Nothing.” The best moment comes, though, on playfully bizarre “Overexcited,” where a tweak-y, strange synth-line is paired with vocals sung in a fake British accent about being nervous about a crush. It sounds weird on paper but it is a bit of a joyous revelation. This is a really impressive set.
28. JENNY LEWIS – “ON THE LINE” Jenny Lewis’ fourth solo album shows the former Rilo Kiley leader further evolving into a thoughtful, mature singer-songwriter. Right off the bat, “Heads Gonna Roll” establishes a blunt, world-weary point of view, whereas “Red Bull & Hennessey” is a mixture of adult pop and alt-country, thick with sexual tension and an almost tragic undercurrent. “Do Si Do,” the groovy “Little White Dove” and the breakup ballad title-track make up some of the other highlights. Lewis becomes a more commanding performer with each passing release. She’s one of the best writers and performers working today. Considering she is going on tour with Harry Styles, hopefully this record will be introduced to a whole new, unexpected audience.
27. LITTLE BROTHER – “MAY THE LORD WATCH” Breaking a nine-year silence, North Carolina rap duo Little Brother returns with new force, with “May the Lord Watch.” Tracks like “The Feel,” “Everything,” “Picture This,” and “Sittin’ Alone” have an immediate smoothness, all along bringing an instantly classic, retro-hip-hop feel. Along the way, they also bring back the controversial skits about UBN, a fictional television network. These skits and segues are meant to lampoon and criticize some aspects of media targeted towards an African-American audience -- a concept that began on their 2005 album, “The Minstrel Show." Hip-hop to many people is meant to be protest music, after all. Not only does “May the Lord Watch” present this under-rated group working at the top of their game, but it is also, at its core, a strong, retro-minded set.
26. MARK RONSON – “LATE NIGHT FEELINGS” Mark Ronson returns with “Late Night Feelings,” a collection slick pop songs anchored by female vocalists. The Camila Cabello-led “Find U Again” is a key winner as are the flemnco-tinged, disco-ready hit, “Nothing Breaks Like a Heart,” led by Miley Cyrus and “Truth” which finds both Alicia Keys and the Last Artful, Dodgr both sizzling over a booming track. On “True Blue,” Angel Olsen shows a very different side than the one present on her album, “All Mirrors,” while “Pieces of Us,” with King Princess should easily please her fans. Lykke Li also does nice work on her two bookending tracks. Ultimately, this plays like a damn near-perfect mixtape chronicling the party and the let-down. The fact that no Mark Ronson album sounds like the last one is a testament to his talent.
25. THE MUFFS – “NO HOLIDAY” A couple of weeks before the release of “No Holiday,” Kim Shattuck, the Muffs’ leader died. The album was presumably meant to be the beloved punk band’s final statement. If you listen to single “A Lovely Day Boo Hoo,” without crying, hearing Shattuck’s voice singing in a softer, sweeter tone that contrasts greatly from her signature yell, you may be lacking something. Of course, this record does still have plenty of rockers like “Down Down Down,” “Pollyanna “and “The Kids Have Gone Away.” But it is the quieter moments that are the most stirring. Closer “Sky,” particularly lands hard. Shattuck was one of the best power-pop writers around and she was cut down too soon.
24. DANNY BROWN – “uknowhatimsayin¿” Albums like “uknowhatimsayin¿” don’t come around very often. In a way, on this record, Danny Brown comes off like a combination of ODB and MF DOOM. He’s wacky and filthy one minute and then switching up his flow the next to seem calm and collected in comparison. The backdrops to “Change Up” and “Theme Song” sound like they are sampled from old movie scores, while Q-Tip’s wonderfully insane beat for the raunchy “Dirty Laundry” sounds like it is briefly referencing the last Tribe record. When Brown is joined by Run the Jewels on “3 Tearz,” it is a really inspired pairing, which is further cemented by a bonkers beat from JPEGMAFIA, anchored by a Yoko Ono sample. Indeed, although it stands out from the pack, this record is rather subdued by Brown’s standards. No longer as druggy or as rave-centric, this collection has some straight-ahead hip-hop gems that would be experimental by other artist’s standards. But listening to “Savage Nomad,” “Best Life” or “Combat,” it is evident that Danny Brown is in a comfortable, enjoyable lane.
23. THOM YORKE – “ANIMA” It shouldn’t surprise anyone that “Anima” is a somewhat abstract, perhaps alienating on some level, but dynamically amazing exercise. This album is a sea of electronic beats swirling at your ears and yet, “Last I Heard (…He was Circling the Drain)” almost sounds like a morose classical piece with laser-gun whooshes added for effect. “Traffic” is thick with dense, fast drums. It almost works in moody “drum’n’bass” framework. “Dawn Chorus” is some stunning, near spoken-word. “Not the News” sounds like something Four Tet might put on a record, whereas the bass-driven “Impossible Knots” may be the most accessible moment on the record. Really, this album sets a high bar because it captures such a specific mood with the sound it achieves. Twenty years and change from “OK Computer,” and Yorke is still living in the dystopian, resigned mechanical future that “Fitter Happier” promised.
22. BLINK-182 – “NINE” “Nine” is the best and most focused Blink-182 record since their 2004 self-titled release. Punk purists may take issue because it is much glossier than their earlier records, but this is the record where Matt Skiba, who joined for their last album, “California,” feels firmly integrated into the mix. His raspy yell is a key reason why this album works and songs like “No Heart to Speak of” and the vaguely Linkin Park-esque “Runaway” are strong examples. His interplay with Mark Hoppus is pretty flawless. Most of this album consists of brightly-hued songs with inward-looking lyrics about lost youth. “Blame it on My Youth” and “Happy Days” really serve as centerpieces. The hardcore romp of “Generational Divide” and the vaguely Police-esque “Hungover You” are also highlights. Blink-182 are maturing nicely, in their own unique way.
21. THE WHO – “WHO” The Who, theoretically-speaking, should not still work well as a band. Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend buck the odds effectively and keep the torch astoundingly alight on “WH0,” their first album in 13 years. “Ball and Chain” finds Daltrey singing with a thick, bold rasp that would make any bluesman proud, “All the Music Must Fade,” immediately evokes memories of earlier classic Who records, as does the orchestral rise that begins “Hero Ground Zero.” Throughout the set, there are stunning moments all around, from the beautiful synth-ballad, “Beads on One String,” to the excellent clapping bounce of “Break the News.” The Townshend-led “I’ll Be Back” has a whimsical, McCartney-esque quality. “WHO” is a very satisfying record and it is a reminder that even with half the original band no longer with us, the Who can still tear down the place.
20. PIXIES – “BENEATH THE EYRIE” On their third album since firmly re-establishing the band, the Pixies come off as comfortable. Following the excellent but highly misunderstood, “Indie Cindy” in 2014 and the slightly awkward-but-reliable-in-places, “Head Carrier,” in 2016, this album has them more at ease with new bassist Paz Lenchantan effectively finding her place in the group. Black Francis hands in some his best work here. “On Graveyard Hill” and “Catfish Kate” play really well next to the band’s classic late-eighties and early nineties output. “Long Rider” is some truly righteous grungy surf-rock, which goes really well into the Lenchantin-led “Los Surfers Muertos.” Even the Pixies purists who won’t acknowledge the band since Kim Deal’s departure will find it hard to deny that “Beneath the Eyrie” has them sounding effectively revitalized.
19. OSO OSO – “BASKING IN THE GLOW” Jade Lilitri makes some big leaps on his latest Oso Oso record, which effectively follows up his key breakthrough, “The Yunahon Mixtape” from 2017. Immediately, there is a denser nature to this record. Standouts like the title-track, “The View” “Impossible Game” and the quietly iconic “Intro” show that the hype was warranted. This is high-quality indie, emo-rock with a nice dose of power-pop inserted for flavor. While this album isn’t necessarily as immediate as its predecessor, it is a more thought-provoking record and it feels like its own beast rather than a retread. If you don’t already know Oso Oso’s work, this record will immediately be worth your time.
18. PETE YORN – “CARETAKERS” Releasing what is perhaps his best piece of work since his 2001 debut, “Musicforthemorningafter,” Pete Yorn delivers this summery, sunny set with great ease. This album sounds effortless and yet songs like “Calm Down,” “Do You Want to Love Again?” the title-track and “Friends” are all so immediate, as if they arrived out of moments of pure, sudden inspiration. Indeed, like his under-rated but excellent duets album with Scarlett Johansson a decade ago, “Break Up,” one worries that this majestic effort won’t get the audience it deserves. Yorn has always been reliable but here he is golden. The beautifully tender, “ECT” sounds like some lovelorn dream-pop, while “I Wanna Be the One” would have been a monster hit in a different era. “Caretakers” is a top-tier release for Pete Yorn.
17. LEONARD COHEN – “THANKS FOR THE DANCE” One would have thought 2016’s “You Want it Darker” would have capped Leonard Cohen’s career. After all, he died merely weeks after that album’s release. The thing is, after completing that album, Cohen apparently kept recording and “Thanks for the Dance” was then finished off by his friends and most importantly, his son, singer-songwriter Adam Cohen who made sure this album did the material justice. Cohen’s voice is the center as his deep, almost rugged, cowboy-esque tone nearly whispers half-sung poetry in your ears. He delivers some biting material as always. “The Night of Santiago” is thick with sexuality while “Happens to the Heart” is packed with some cool, grizzled wisdom. Perhaps most importantly, the Holocaust and political imagery of “Puppets” hits the hardest on the record, with the track’s minimalist background driving its point home. The title-track and “Listen to the Hummingbird,” cement this record as a fitting and somewhat quietly celebratory goodbye.
16. JIMMY EAT WORLD – “SURVIVING” Following up their triumphant 2016 record, “Integrity Blues,” Jimmy Eat World have given us another key winner with “Surviving.” Last year’s single, “Love Never” makes an appearance, but sadly it's also stellar companion song “Half Heart” does not. The majority of “Surviving” blends the band’s signature brand of emo-tinged power-pop with some other elements. The title-track has a hint of retro-arena-rock influence, while “All the Way (Stay)” includes of all things, a shimmering saxophone solo. “555,” with its must-see, futuristic, dystopian video, is a slightly confessional piece backed by a pleasantly chilly electro-stomp. The best track is the vulnerable and love-struck “One Mil,” with its incredibly insistent hook which should please fans of the “Bleed American” era. Jimmy Eat World continue to find new magic with each release. “Surviving” is yet another jewel in an already crowded crown.
15. FKA TWIGS – “MAGDALENE” FKA twigs’ second full-length album and her first in five years is a peculiar and entrancing wonder. Over some sparse beats, the operatic and delicately dramatic voice dances over the track. Is “Thousand Eyes” experimental, art-house pop or is it meant to be sung like a hymn? The Tricky-esque coolness that gives “Home with You” an informed sense of menace then gives way to a gentle and softly angelic chorus. “Sad Day” has some strong pop-crossover potential and Future doesn’t sound out of place guesting on “Holy Terrain.” It is interesting that this record fits into the modern alternative R&B landscape, considering how much twigs’ moving, experimental work can recall the likes of Bjork and Massive Attack. Her song-structures are never obvious and other standouts “Fallen Alien” and “Mirrored Heart” offer up soundscapes that volley from serene to visceral. With “Magdalene,” FKA twigs definitely provides a unique and groundbreaking listening experience.
14. DJ SHADOW – “OUR PATHETIC AGE” DJ Shadow’s 92-minute album, “Our Pathetic Age” is divided into two discs. The first is a highly experimental instrumental collection where Shadow follows his every whim, with the end results ranging from lush to defiantly caustic. This half of the record is for those who love cutting-edge movie-scores and offers up key winners in the electronic “Intersectionality,” the explosive, fun cut-up experiment, “Juggernaut” and revelatory “Rosie.” The second disc is essentially a banging, left-field hip-hop offering, packed with guests. Hearing Nas and Pharoah Monch dropping bars side-by-side on “Drone Warfare” is tremendous. De La Soul capture fire with “Rocket Fuel.” Inspektah Deck, Ghostface and Raekwon bring some Wu-energy to the slightly eerie “Rain on Snow.” The Run the Jewels collaboration, “Kings & Queens” is much brighter-sounding with its retro-R&B groove, when compared to their frequently-licensed 2016 collaborative single, “Nobody Speak.” “Our Pathetic Age” is a monolithic sonic behemoth worthy of high praise.
13. STURGILL SIMPSON – “SOUND & FURY” How did Sturgill Simpson respond to the love and award attention he got for his 2016 album, “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth?” He totally switched up his sound. “Sound & Fury” has the country singer mixing hard-rock and electronic elements into his formula. This is a concept album that is paired with an anime film that can be seen on Netflix. It is most definitely a weird career choice but the chance pays off. It doesn’t get much better than “Make Art not Friends” or the fuzzed-out rockabilly of “Last Man Standing.” The skeezy romp of “A Good Look” and the new-wave-meets-country blend of “Mercury in Retrograde” also offer some real surprises. This is the perfect album for the country fan who doesn’t always stay within the lines. Simpson should be commended for not following an obvious path.
12. VAMPIRE WEEKEND – “FATHER OF THE BRIDE” Vampire Weekend return after a six year break with this 18-track offering. Somehow it is both expansive and sparse. This is said to be the New York band’s California record, perhaps due to new father Ezra Koenig settling down with Rashida Jones between records. Also the departure of key member Rostam Batmanglij weighs heavy on this record, even if he does still contribute in places. “Harmony Hall” is the boldest track, right off the bat, meeting intricate, near-classical piano soloing with some strong Grateful Dead influence. Elsewhere the band joins forces with Steve Lacy on the excellently jazzy, “Sunflower,” and Koenig and Danielle Haim sing together on “Hold You Now,” “Married in a Gold Rush” and “We Go Together,” in some moments bringing out an unexpected country twang from Haim. The quiet optimism that sneaks into “2021,” the bounce of “This Life” and the astonishingly hymn-like, “Jerusalem, New York, Berlin,” all round this collection out to make it an engaging, eclectic effort.
11. CAROLINE POLACHEK – “PANG” Former Chairlift frontwoman Caroline Polachek sets off her solo career, with “Pang,” a hypnotizing collection of atmospheric electro-pop that brings to mind the likes of Kate Havnevik and Imogen Heap. Given the right push, this could be a massively popular record. In fact, it deserves to be. The title-track, “Hit Me Where it Hurts” and “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings” could easily become pop-radio crossovers if given the right championing. In a way, this like a slightly more alternative and sensual answer to the latest Carly Rae Jepsen record, considering it is a record full of killer, sugary melodies with warm synths. “I Give Up” and Ocean of Tears” are also key standouts. Caroline Polachek is a massive star in the making.
10. THAT DOG. – “OLD LP” On their first album in 22 years, semi-grungy and orchestral power-poppers That Dog (usually stylized as “that dog.”) make a stupendous return that ranks easily among their best work, from the hard-rocking “Just the Way” and “If You Just Didn’t Do it,” to the more tender approach of “Your Machine” and “Bird on a Wire.” Titles like “When We Were Young” and of course the title-track, “Old LP” are no doubt in-jokes about the long gap between records, but the former is a sunny mid-tempo number with impressive vocal harmonies, while the latter is the true highlight of the record, as it is a very heartfelt tribute to the Haden sisters’ father, famous jazz bassist and bandleader, Charlie Haden, who died in 2014. Really, the title-track of this record is one of the most ambitious and beautifully soaring songs of the year. With its intricate arrangement and insistent melody, it is truly award-worthy. This whole album was made with love and it shows.
9. RAPSODY – “EVE” North Carolina rapper Rapsody takes a huge step on her third album, “Eve,” a concept album where each track is named for and (sometimes loosely) pays tribute to an inspirational black woman. Right from the beginning with the “Strange Fruit” sample that begins “Nina,” you know this is going to be a insightful and heavy offering. Rapsody definitely has the flow. As an emcee, she is constantly engaging and she brings the right amount of seriousness to the table. She also knows how to make this exercise fun, when she skillfully rhymes over a sample of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” on “Cleo,” brings GZA (and D’angelo) in to pay tribute to “Liquid Swords” on “Ibtihaj,” (which is appropriately named for Olympic fencer, Ibtihaj Muhammad) or uses a slick Herbie Hancock sample to back “Whoopi,” making a tight, ground-breaking party-starter. When she brings in Queen Latifah to drop a verse on “Hatshepsut,” it is like the return of a long-lost friend. On “Aaliyah,” she pays the most obvious tribute to the singer with true love and affection. Other people name-checked on this record with tributes include Maya Angelou, Michelle Obama, Afeni Shakur, Tyra Banks, Iman, Myrlie Evers-Williams, Serena Williams, Oprah Winfrey and Sojourner Truth.
8. ANDERSON .PAAK – “VENTURA” Anderson .Paak’s latest album named after a location in California is more of a smooth R&B offering than a hip-hop album. While he does occasionally drop some skillful bars, this record is more devoted to serene grooves and his silky croon. His voice and approach are so unique that he has easily become one of the most iconic figures currently working today, blending tight, soulful musicianship, smooth singing and lyrical skill. For this efficient, 40-minute ride, he brings along a varied collection of guests. Smokey Robinson, Brandy, Nate Dogg, Lalah Hathaway, Jazmine Sullivan, Andre 3000 and Sonyae Elise all make excellent appearances, making this come off like a carefully curated collection full of enough retro energy to please older fans and just enough undeniable fortitude to bring in new ones. Highlights include the gorgeous “Make it Better” and “Come Home,” to the jazzy, upward funk of “King James” and the creamy, near-disco stomp of “Twilight.” With its sitar work, “What Can We Do?” sounds like a 2019 reimagining of late-sixties Motown. From start to finish this feels like a solid statement that probably sounds best on vinyl.
7. BECK – “HYPERSPACE” Seven out of the 11 tracks on Beck’s latest album were co-produced by Pharrell Williams and not only is it a pairing that should have happened many years ago, it is also clearly evident that they should work together again. The majority of “Hyperspace” has Beck working with a smooth, pseudo-“vapor wave” palate. “Uneventful Days,” “Stratosphere,” “Dark Places” and the very Air-esque “Chemical” blend the inward-looking nature of past work like “Sea Change” and “Morning Phase” with the pop bounce of his last effort “Colors.” The fun Delta-Blues-esque “Saw Lightning,” stands out like a sore thumb on the set, but it brings some playful energy, as well as some background harmonies that recall Beck’s 2006 single, “Cellphone’s Dead.” “Die Waiting,” which features Sky Ferreira is also a key highlight. Closer, “Everlasting Nothing” is the best track on the album with its slightly psychedelic drive and its timeless melody. It’s the kind of show-stopping ballad that would have turned more heads had it come from a new artist. Indeed, “Hyperspace,” continues to show Beck as a constantly and consistently evolving sonic chameleon.
6. TAYLOR SWIFT – “LOVER” Maturity will truly be Taylor Swift’s friend. “Lover,” an expansive 18-track set, will no doubt get her fans who never expected to be won over. The stunning title-track may be her best writing to date, while other highlights include the high school-themed, but perhaps veiled political commentary, “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince,” the sleek, sax-driven “False God,” the slightly pop-punk-y “Paper Rings,” the authoritatively defiant pop of “The Man,” the sadly tender Dixie Chicks-assisted, “Soon You’ll Get Better” and the St. Vincent collaboration, “Cruel Summer.” “Lover” is an intelligent, carefully crafted pop record. It gives every indication that Swift’s best work is still ahead.
5. LIZZO – “CUZ I LOVE YOU” (DELUXE) Lizzo is well-deservedly the pop break-out star of the year, oozing attitude and charisma. From the first few seconds of the title-track, she immediately grabs attention as she belts the first notes, as if summoning them from the deepest reaches of her soul. The retro-eighties sound of the summery “Juice” and the massive number one hit (deluxe bonus track) “Truth Hurts,” are also key highlights. On “Jerome” she beautifully dismisses an immature man and tells him to “come back when you’re grown.” On “Tempo,” she and Missy Elliott drop lyrics over a very trippy beat. Besides “Truth Hurts,” the deluxe edition also includes the previously-released, funky, soulful hip-hop exercise, “Boys,” and the club-friendly anthem, “Water Me.” Lizzo is a powerful force to say the least. “Cuz I Love You” is the kind of insistent record that is impossible to listen to passively. She’s a star.
4. CHARLY BLISS – “YOUNG ENOUGH” On “Young Enough,” Brooklyn’s Charly Bliss reinvent their sound, going from the very guitar-heavy, Weezer and Letters to Cleo-esque tone of their excellent 2017 debut, “Guppy,” to a much more synth-driven framework. Indeed, on first listen, lead single, “Capacity” was a real shock. But here, lead-singer, Eva Hendricks is saying something very profound, using words in her lyrics that in comparison to most shockingly simple pop songs are near S.A.T.-level. Indeed this album is said to be written as a therapeutic response to ending an abusive relationship. “Chatroom” is set in the aftermath of a sexual assault, albeit covered in a pop veneer. Ballad “Hurt Me” deserves to be a huge crossover pop single, while the two closing tracks, “Hard to Believe” and “The Truth,” artfully end the album on a sugary but introspective, uplifting note. “Camera” finds Hendricks cleverly wondering about the story behind her stolen credit card, while building, passionate energy of the title-track sounds meant for tender moments at a high school dance. Yes, “Young Enough” is a totally different creature than “Guppy,” but it shows Charly Bliss to be one of the greatest and most thought-provoking potential pop-crossover acts working in indie-rock today.
3. TOOL – “FEAR INOCULUM” Indeed, Tool’s fifth album, “Fear Incolum” dominated in mid-to-late 2019, knocking Taylor Swift off the top of the Billboard Top 200. That's an impressive feat for a band that hadn’t released an album in 13 years. With 10 songs running 86 minutes, this collection is more atmospheric and not quite as heavy as its predecessors but standouts like “Pneuma,” “Invincible” and “7empest” should please longtime fans. These songs may be elongated prog-rock exercises, but they are also impressively intricate in their execution. Danny Carey’s drum and percussion work is particularly strong as are Maynard James Keenan’s vocals. While they supposedly labored on this album for years, it is clearly evident from the end product that this was worth the wait.
2. MICHAEL KIWANUKA – “KIWANUKA” British singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka is probably best-known on this side of the pond for his song “Cold Little Heart,” which is used as the theme for HBO’s “Big Little Lies” along with his cameo in the movie “Yesterday.” Indeed, his third record continues where its two predecessors left off, delivering the kind of thought-provoking, organic sounding R&B that Bill Withers and Marvin Gaye used to make. Kiwanuka also infuses his sound with a folk tradition and as he blends social commentary into key standouts like “You Ain’t the Problem” and “Hero,” it is evident that his work is truly timeless. There is also some strong retro-sixties influence in “Rolling,” which simultaneously recalls both Jimi Hendrix and the Animals, with its thick doses of “acid rock”-style guitar. Another key moment is the explosively psychedelic “I’ve Been Dazed.” On “Piano Joint (This Kind of Love),” Kiwanuka makes the most of a jazzy, meditative groove. “Kiwanuka” is a very dense and hypnotizing offering and if there is any justice, it should make Michael Kiwanuka a bigger star.
1. BAT FOR LASHES – “LOST GIRLS” The best album of the year is Natasha Khan’s fifth album under her Bat For Lashes moniker. Here, the British singer has relocated herself to Los Angeles and has crafted a very synth-driven, very eighties-influenced set of songs, with soaring highlights like “Kids in the Dark,” “Mountains,” “Peach Sky,” “Safe Tonight” and “The Hunger.” It is almost as if Khan has found the perfect balance between her inner-Kate Bush and something akin to the “Stranger Things” score. The title of the record is in itself a nod to the vampire movie, “The Lost Boys.” Listening to this record, it immediately captures a slightly dark but warm nostalgia. Even when she goes clubbing in the minimalist, early-eighties-sounding workout, “Feel for You,” Khan doesn’t lose the thread, effectively making a collection more entrancing with each repeat listen.