There’s a quote from the TV show The Good Place I can’t stop thinking about. (Don’t worry, I’ll get to music in a moment.) The central question of this thoughtful and hilarious series is how, or even if, we can become more ethical people. Whether there’s hope for any of us in such a morally complicated world.
I’ll avoid spoilers, but in the latest season, Michael (played by Ted Danson) explains to an adversary why he still keeps faith in humans, despite all the challenges they face. “What matters,” Michael says, “is if they’re trying to do better today than they were yesterday.”
Now, that’s a little ironic in a year when one of the biggest songs was literally called “bad guy.” But as in The Good Place, 2019 in music was defined by the underdogs — the people who persevered through struggle, overcame the inertia of institutions, or even just escaped the corner they’d been painted into.
This was the year Billie Eilish became the world’s most significant pop star; the year that Lil Nas X’s viral “Old Town Road” (and its innumerable remixes) proved inescapable. When Lizzo managed to top the charts and conquer awards with singles from three (3!) years ago.
In 2019, some of the world’s biggest names released highly anticipated projects but tripped out the gates — like Kanye West’s turn to “religion” on Jesus Is King or Chance The Rapper’s turn to blandness on The Big Day. Not every superstar fell on their face, of course, but not every superstar is Beyoncé or Taylor Swift.
When veterans came out of the woodwork, I saw a certain fire burning inside of them — a need to prove themselves once again, to tell a new sort of story — from Coldplay to Brittany Howard, Pedro The Lion to Carly Rae Jepsen. Hell, even Jimmy Eat World sounded fresh.
How are we, and the artists we care about, striving to be better today than we were yesterday? That’s the question on my mind as I listen to my favorite albums of 2019.
Stream selections from my favorite albums of 2019, plus all my top singles of the year, on Spotify.
1. Helado Negro — This Is How You Smile
Some years, you need a rallying cry; some years, a balm. This Is How You Smile, the bilingual and genre-melting sixth album from Helado Negro, is remarkably both.
Merging the analog and digital, Roberto Carlos Lange textures his music like a photograph weathered by sunlight: Spanish guitars strumming over humming synths, xylophone piercing through the crackle of drum machines. Hints of grass rustling and children calling out, a collage of found sounds.
Lange hails from South Florida, lives in Brooklyn, his parents immigrants from Ecuador; his music meets at their center, at home in the slowly warming mornings and softly fading evenings. Light appears throughout the album: “Looking for the sun to come back tomorrow, I’ll see you waiting for the glow again,” he sings on “Imagining What To Do.” On opener “Please Won’t Please,” Lange croons, “History shows that brown won’t go, brown just glows.”
It appears again in Spanish on “Sabana De Luz,” a sheet of light appearing in a moment of enlightenment. For Lange, light is not just an external force but an internal one — it’s what keeps us going when the darkness surrounds. Lange wrote and recorded This Is How You Smile in the wake of the 2016 election and the protests that followed. How do we remain resilient, he asks, even as the New York winters stretch endless or politics feel hopeless?
Helado Negro derives its own light from the persistence of brown and black people, a theme Lange has explored across his music (his last album included the track “Young, Latin And Brown,” a spiritual successor to both Nina Simone and James Brown). “We’ll take our turn, and we’ll take our time, knowing that we’ll be here long after you,” Lange sings — threatens, promises — on “País Nublado.” There are no borders that can limit, no walls that can contain, a light like that.
Must Hear: “Please Won’t Please,” “Imagining What To Do,” “Fantasma Vaga,” “Running,” “Sabana De Luz”
2. Sir Babygirl—Crush On Me
When I try to explain the music of Sir Babygirl to people, I often stumble into some combination of “queer cheerleader power pop.” Whatever twisted creation Kelsie Hogue has unleashed on Crush On Me, it’s the most energizing music to come out of this dark year. Plowing through nine songs (two of which are reprises) in just 26 minutes, Sir Babygirl carves a jagged monument to the insecurities, destruction and self-definition of youth.
My first taste of Sir Babygirl arrived in the form of “Flirting With Her,” a manic ode to dating other girls and the new strands of confusion it digs up. “Flirting with her is like losing your key, what the fuck is going on with me?” she yelps, screams piling into the background as the song leaps from ’00s pop-punk to ’60s bubblegum a la Shangri-Las. On “Heels,” freedom cries out over a four-on-the-floor beat.
The walls close in on “Haunted House,” an electro-pop anthem about feeling out-of-place at a raging party. Unrelenting synths escalate the sense of claustrophobia as Hogue’s voice screeches higher, echoed and distorted. Throughout the record, Sir Babygirl layers vocal loops for a DIY wall of sound. It’s a panic attack inside one hell of a hook.
Hogue is bisexual and nonbinary, and that experience certainly provides a backdrop to Crush On Me, whose overall attitude is one of youth in revolt. To come of age in an age of uncertainty is to be exhausted and horny, exhilarated and devastated, daring and fragile. “Everyone I meet I think is gonna die, so we shake our hands and say our goodbyes,” she sings on “Everyone Is A Bad Friend.” With so little time on this earth, what’s the use of being anything less than yourself?
Must Hear: “Heels,” “Flirting With Her,” “Cheerleader,” “Haunted House”
3. The National — I Am Easy To Find
Surprise is not an emotion I’m accustomed to with The National. The Brooklyn fivepiece is perhaps, with the exception of Spoon, the most consistently excellent band in the game, putting out six mopey and elegant albums of a similarly high caliber over the last 15 years. With 2017’s Sleep Well Beast and its experimental electroscapes, though, they showed a weariness that maybe the gig was finally up.
And perhaps it is, because I Am Not Easy To Find redefines exactly what The National is. Lead singer Matt Berninger, whose iconic baritone has long acted as a stand-in for the band at large, invites a cast of accomplished women to join or replace him on the stage. As vocalists like Gail Ann Dorsey duet on “Roman Holiday,” or Kate Stables on the title track, our perspective on these stories and relationships widens. It hits different to hear Stables admit, “There’s a million little battles that I’m never gonna win anyway.”
Here Berninger presents some of the best songs in his catalog, including the anthemic “Rylan” and politically tinged “Not In Kansas.” When he steps aside completely, like on “Oblivions,” French folk artist Mina Tindle more than delivers, sounding not one bit out of place singing Berninger’s usual run-ons and parentheticals.
Besides the expanded vocal range, and piano returning to the prominence it held on 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me, the band touches blissfully little else in their palette. Every inch of I Am Easy To Find rings of classic The National. And yet, it still feels like the beginning of a new era.
Must Hear: “Oblivions,” “The Pull Of You,” “Where Is Her Head,” “Rylan”
4. Brittany Howard — Jaime
Brittany Howard, lead singer of Alabama Shakes, seemed at first to set her sail to rock revivalism. Except she’s been unable to sit still, unwilling to look back. If 2015’s Sound & Color redefined her as a futurist, then her first solo record Jaime completes the dialectic — a divinely personal merging of tradition and innovation.
Jaime is named after Howard’s older sister, who died when they were children but whose memory has fueled Howard’s creative journey since. It’s not always been an easy one: The album revisits troubled memories of growing up biracial in Alabama (“Goat Head”) and takes a rather pessimistic view of the moral universe’s arc (“History Repeats”). “History repeats and we defeat ourselves,” she sings on the opener, a frantic sprint of psychedelic funk.
What keeps her going? Faith, and faith in people. Her God is not one of divine retribution, but of forgiveness and freedom. “He loves me when I do what I want,” Howard declares. “He loves me, he doesn’t judge me.” Just after the album’s halfway point, “13th Century Metal” cements her thesis, less a song than spoken-word cacophony. The synths pound out a newstype urgency while Howard delivers both a fuck-you to oppression and a call for solidarity: “I am dedicated to oppose those whose will is to divide us, and who are determined to keep us in the dark ages of fear.”
In practice, Howard’s vision might sound a little like “Stay High” — chimes ringing and sun-dappled guitar strumming over a workmanlike stomp. In 2019, it may feel like a fantasy to relax, to feel satisfaction, after a hard day’s work. But when Howard sings, “All I do is keep it cool and don’t worry ‘bout what everyone is doing,” you feel like maybe you could start doing the same.
Must Hear: “Stay High,” “He Loves Me,” “Short And Sweet,” “13th Century Metal”
5. Faye Webster — Atlanta Millionaires Club
I’ve never been to Atlanta, but I imagine the summer there feels about as woozy and slow as the pedal steel that opens “Room Temperature” by Faye Webster. On her third release, the singer-songwriter mines the sounds of alt-country and extracts an air of casual coolness, but there’s more than meets the ear.
Webster plays coyly with ‘70s-indebted instrumentation, like on the lilting, self-pitying “Hurts Me Too.” “My mother told me one day she’s tired of my sad songs,” Webster sings, “but loving you has only made me cry twice or so.” The space in between words stretches long; the horns ache with despair. There’s aching too in “Right Side Of My Neck,” but more like a post-sex stupor, desire and tenderness intertwining.
Atlanta Millionaires Club is an exercise of mood: Webster doesn’t so much sing her lyrics as sigh them, the whole ordeal of life and romance just too much to bare. Or maybe it’s just too troublesome to worry. “This wasn’t supposed to be a love song, but I guess it is now,” Webster shrugs on “Jonny,” about her ex-boyfriend. Just don’t mistake her understatement for detachment.
Must Hear: “Jonny,” “Right Side Of My Neck,” “What Used To Be Mine,” “Hurts Me Too”
6. Big Thief — Two Hands
Big Thief has been on a legendary tear. Adrianne Lenker, the fourpiece’s frontwoman, has released an album a year under either the band’s name or her own since in 2016. In 2019, the folk rockers upped the ante by recording and releasing both U.F.O.F. and Two Hands within just a few months of each other. Each on their own would be a career bright spot; together, they’re a blinding binary star.
Admittedly, with their whispered vocals, interweaving guitars and constant spectre of death, Big Thief isn’t the easiest band to get “into.” But the truth is there’s a version of this band for everyone. Whereas U.F.O.F. is softer on the whole, with more subtle layers of production, Two Hands brings the rawest edge we’ve seen from them before, right up my alley.
That unadorned quality is most affecting on “Not,” the mantra-like refrain rising to a breaking point. Lenker’s voice cracks, and the screeching guitars flood through — not the only time that Big Thief devolves into the primal. On “Wolf,” Lenker meditates on a relationship that’s left her powerless to its draw. All she can do is howl.
Must Hear: “Not,” “Wolf,” “The Toy,” “Forgotten Eyes”
7. Kishi Bashi — Omoiyari
When Kishi Bashi first arose in the 2010s, I initially grouped him in with other violinists-with-looping-pedals like Andrew Bird or Owen Pallett. But K. Ishibashi always painted with a brighter palette, twisting and skewing his instrument into electro-pop landscapes. Omoiyari is the first time he’s really ventured outside of that maximalist approach, all for a concept album about the internment of 120,000 Japanese-American during World War II.
Here he tells the story of two people who meet in an internment camp, fall in love, then are separated by war. The tale begins optimistic and springlike, skipping into the organs and whistles of “A Song For You.” The climax arrives in “Summer of ‘42,” which references the beginning of Japanese internment by Franklin D. Roosevelt (himself namechecked in “F Delano”), before taking a turn darker in the second half.
Ishibashi, the son of Japanese immigrants, says that “omoiyari” roughly translates to “creating compassion towards other people by thinking about them.” Though a romantic at heart, Ishibashi has chosen to leave listeners uneasy and unsettled, much like American history itself.
Must Hear: “Summer Of ‘42,” “A Song For You,” “Penny Rabbit and Summer Bear”
8. Lizzo — Cuz I Love You
It’s hard to argue that 2019 didn’t, in the end, belong to Lizzo. The Minneapolis singer/rapper/dancer/flautist has been low-key the best thing in pop for years — singles like “Boys” have already defined her as an icon of life affirmation and no-shits-taken. Lizzo’s debut full-length Cuz I Love You proves she’s got the range as well as the message.
Genre is no object here, as Lizzo jumps from Motown soul to ’90s hip-hop to ’70s funk. “Tempo” gives Missy Elliott her biggest tribute — and best guest verse — in years, and “Exactly How I Feel” reaches stadium-level energy with a feature from Gucci Mane. Minus “Like A Girl,” the album’s one weak link, Lizzo holds her own as the rapper.
It’s her singing, though, that runs away with the show, even as the title track explodes into a Phil Spector wall-of-sound. The production drops out to make way for her powerhouse voice to tease, “I’m cryyyy-in.” You can even hear the giant breath she takes to prepare — pure theater.
Lead single “Juice” anchors the record, a feel-good self-love celebration in a retro disco package. More than once, Lizzo audibly chuckles at her own audacity. While there are as many Tumblr-worthy quotes as there are lines in the song, “If I’m shinin’ everybody gonna shine” is the one to remember. One album in, and it’s already bright as hell in Lizzo’s world.
Must Hear: “Juice,” “Cuz I Love You,” “Tempo”
9. Anderson .Paak — Ventura
Anderson .Paak has pretty well carved out his own corner in hip-hop and R&B. The man plays his own drums while rapping and singing, in case you somehow didn’t know. His albums merge the hooks of old-school soul with funk instrumentation and the verbosity of ’90s hip-hop, all drenched in an effortless confidence.
.Paak’s style has made him plenty of friends along the way: His latest record brings in Andre 3000, Jazmine Sullivan and, yes, Smokey Robinson. His adaptability as a bandleader gives each guest a pitch-perfect showcase of their abilities. Andre 3000 takes a section of the softly pleading “Come Home” all to himself, just to be himself, although .Paak more than proves his own flow on tracks like “Winners Circle.” With the defiant “King James,” he plays tribute not just to LeBron but also Colin Kapernick and countless other activists. “There’s a movement we’ve been groovin’ on, you can move or stay your ass asleep.”
Unlike last year’s release Oxnard, .Paak does more singing than rapping on Ventura. In a surprisingly touching turn, .Paak and Robinson croon on “Make It Better” about investing time and effort to revive a stalled relationship. “It can’t survive on history alone,” he sings of the romance. That line could just as well be about his own music — a tribute in style, but in every other way, striving to be something more.
Must Hear: “Come Home,” “Make It Better,” “King James”
10. Clairo — Immunity
“Hope you find solace in this,” Claire Cotrill coos midway through her debut album as Clairo. The line comes from “White Flag,” an olive branch to a former friend or partner, but it’s also Clairo’s invite to listeners. With spacious production by ex-Vampire Weekender Rostam Batmangli, Immunity is immediately transporting — to the small Massachusetts towns where Cotrill grew up, and to the feeling of being at peace with yourself.
At just 21 years old, Clairo exhibits an incredible maturity. Softly pleading pianos open “Alewife,” a song recounting a moment in eighth grade when her friend Alexa saved her from potential suicide. Like most of the songs on Immunity, Clairo sings in a near whisper, demanding close attention. “Know that you and I shouldn’t feel like a crime,” she urges on “Sofia,” a track celebrating her sexuality and first crushes on women.
Envision this as a sonic companion to last year’s movie Eighth Grade. Immunity looks back on those anxiety-provoking experiences of middle and high school with a hard-earned comfort. “I was 15 when I first felt loneliness” doesn’t mean she doesn’t feel lonely anymore, just that she can recognize the impulse and do what she needs to overcome.
Must Hear: “Alewife,” “North,” “Sofia”
Better Oblivion Community Center — Better Oblivion Community Center
Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes were already a proven duo, having sung together on Bridgers’ 2017 debut, but there’s nothing inevitable about Better Oblivion Community Center. Songs like “Dylan Thomas,” a jangly tribute to the Welsh poet, are a true product of inspiration and collaboration. Unlike even Bridgers’ work with Boygenius, it’s impossible to tell who wrote which song: Both members thrive where detailed storytelling meets brutal self-deprecation. Hopefully this isn’t a one-and-done.
Carly Rae Jepsen — Dedicated
A full four years after Carly Rae Jepsen resurrected ’80s pop, she moves even deeper into her groove with Dedicated. Jepsen mines Cyndi Lauper for the jubilant “Want You In My Room,” robotic-voiced chorus and all, and gets her polyrhythmic Toto moment on “For Sure” (wait, is that an mbira in the mix?). I’d be remiss not to mention “Party For One,” an absolute bop of a closer that’s 100% about masturbation. Where Emotion brought alive the pure sugar rush of crushes and flirtation, Dedicated is more mature — fully aware of not just what Jepsen wants, but what she’s bringing to the table.
Tyler, The Creator — IGOR
Tyler, The Creator made quite a pivot from his early days of “Internet troll incarnate” to one of hip-hop’s most considerate and gifted artists. IGOR traces the course of a doomed relationship, its beats grittier and more aggressive compared to 2017’s Flower Boy. But even on the devastating “A BOY IS A GUN*,” Tyler remains grounded in the same soul samples that have defined his most recent output. He’s got a lot to work through: When our vulnerability betrays us, do we close ourselves off, or go back out into the world?
Julia Jacklin — Crushing
Though not necessarily a dark-sounding album, Julia Jacklin’s Crushing is full of heartbreaking emotional clarity. “I don’t want to be touched all the time, I raised my body up to be mine,” she declares on “Head Alone.” On the opener “Body,” Jacklin breaks up with a boy “more kid than criminal” who got them thrown off a plane, then thinks of ways he could come back to hurt her. Misbehaving men are all over these songs, but as on “You Were Right,” the Sydney songwriter is always determined to put them back in their place.
Jay Som — Anak Ko
If Jay Som were once Melina Duterte’s “bedroom pop” project, it’s now shifted completely into jam band territory. Yes, that’s a good thing. Hearing them perform in concert, as I have twice now, it’s remarkable to watch the precision and chemistry between band members as songs devolve from tight pop structures into noise and distortion. Across Anak Ko (Tagalog for “my child”), that live energy translates into extended bouts of fuzzed-out guitar and vintage synths on songs like “If You Want It” and “Superbike.” The beginning of “Tenderness” hints at the intimacy of past records, a song about how social media colors our relationships, while “Get Well” drifts into aching alt-country. Jay Som is far from done transforming.
Stella Donnelly — Beware Of The Dogs
Stella Donnelly has her knives out. Cloaked in jangly folk-pop melodies, Beware Of The Dogs is one of this year’s most explicit protest albums, targeting male privilege and rape culture with refreshing directness. “Oh are you scared of me, old man, or are you scared of what I’ll do?” the Australian songwriter asks on opener “Old Man.” She teases mediocre men on “Tricks” (laughing at her own double entendres) and sends off a former boss on “U Owe Me,” but the finger-picked “Boys Will Be Boys” hurts the most. A waltzing confrontation of the man who raped her friend and faced no consequences, the song serves as a stark reminder of just how far society still needs to go.
SASAMI — SASAMI
Sasami Ashworth mines the distortion and reverb of shoegaze for her slow and icy debut record. As with her friend Melina Duterte, parallels to Yo La Tengo are more than evident. That doesn’t mean it’s not a blissful joy to lose yourself in the cascade of drums and grinding guitars, like on the tracks “I Was A Window” and “Not The Time.” The album shifts through the fragments of failed relationships, but when Sasami strips the noise away, such as on her Devendra Banhart duet “Free,” you can hear her piecing together the remnants into a more whole self.
Even more great albums, in no particular order:
MUNA, Saves The World; The Hold Steady, Thrashing Thru The Passion; Your Smith, Wild Wild Woman; Barrie, Geology; Taylor Swift, Lover; Weyes Blood, Titanic Rising; Vampire Weekend, Father Of The Bride; Joan Shelley, Like The River Loves The Sea; Jimmy Eat World, Surviving; Vagabon, Vagabon; Wilco, Ode To Joy; Big Thief, U.F.O.F.; King Princess, Cheap Queen; The New Pornographers, In The Morse Code Of Break Lights; Heather Maloney, Soil In The Sky; Angel Olson, All Mirrors; The Highwomen, The Highwomen; Local Natives, Violet Street; Lydia Ramsey, Flames For The Heart; Raphael Saadiq, Jimmy Lee; Sturgill Simpson, Sound and Fury; Future Teens, Breakup Season; Lana Del Rey, Norman Fucking Rockwell!; Oso Oso, Basking In The Glow; Glen Hansard, This Wild Willing; Maren Morris, GIRL; Strange Ranger, Remembering The Rockets; Molly Tuttle, When You’re Ready; The Cranberries, In The End; Florist, Emily Alone; Meghan Thee Stallion, Fever; Pronoun, I’ll Show You Stronger; The Mountain Goats, In League With Dragons; Beyoncé, Homecoming: The Live Album; Hozier, Wasteland, Baby!; PUP, Morbid Stuff; Andrew Bird, My Finest Work Yet; Jenny Lewis, On The Line; Emily King, Scenery; Maggie Rogers, Heard It In A Past Life; Sharon Van Etten, Remind Me Tomorrow; Pedro The Lion, Phoenix; Charly Bliss, Guppy
Favorite Songs Of 2019
Songs must be released by artists as designated singles. Lead artists cannot appear in the same year on both the list of top albums and top songs.