I didn’t enjoy any single album from 2019 as much as I liked Mitski’s Be The Cowboy in 2018. Nevertheless 2019 was a strong year – albums that I thoroughly enjoyed by old favourites like The New Pornographers and Taylor Swift didn’t make the cut for this top 16 list.
I know 16 seems like an arbitrary number, but these were the albums from 2019 that I thought were essential. I can’t cover everything – I’ve only heard a tiny fraction of music released in 2019, but in particular, I’m very light on hip hop and on releases from veteran acts – I missed out on acclaimed records by Nick Cave and Bruce Springsteen.
To show where my choices register among general critical consensus, I’ve included each album’s rankings from the end-of-year-list aggregator Album of the Year. Interestingly, I thought their top three albums for 2018 were all terrific, but I was less enthusiastic about the critical hivemind’s top handful of records for 2019.
16 Best Albums of 2019
Young Enough – Charly Bliss
Genre: Power pop (with an emphasis on pop)
The straightforward four piece power pop of Charly Bliss‘s 2017 debut Guppy was magical. The band added pop trappings for their sophomore record Young Enough, but songs like ‘Blown To Bits’, ‘Young Enough’ and ‘Capacity’ still rung true. Bonus points for also releasing the EP Super Moon in 2019.
AotY Position: #47
Pang – Caroline Polachek
Genre: Art pop
Former Chairlift vocalist Caroline Polachek released her first solo album under her own name with Pang. She delivers unabashed pop with ‘So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings’, and ethereal artiness with ‘The Door’, able to wrap both into a coherent package.
AotY Position: #55
Ilana (The Creator) – Mdou Moctar
Genre: African Blues
Niger’s Mdou Moctar released his first full band record with Ilana (The Creator). The Tuareg musician delivered long psychedelic blues jams, playing left-handed Stratocaster like Jimi Hendrix. It all culminates in the guitar epic ‘Tarhatazed’.
AotY Position: n/a
The Highwomen – The Highwomen
Amanda Shires formed The Highwomen as an answer to the 1980s supergroup The Highwaymen. Shires recruited Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, and ace songwriter Natalie Hemby. Their debut album sounds like a compilation with four vocalists and boldfaced attempts at writing hits like ‘Redesigning Women’. But at its best, there are magical songs that cover rarely discussed themes – death on ‘Cocktail and a Song’ and infertility on ‘My Only Child’. There’s also timeless sounding material – the reworking of the Jimmy Webb chestnut on the opening track, and Carlile’s vintage sounding ‘Wheels of Laredo’.
AotY Position: #58
When I Get Home – Solange
Genre: Alternative R&B
Solange broke through with 2016’s excellent A Seat at the Table. 2019’s When I Get Home is written about her hometown of Houston, Texas, and is inspired musically by Steve Reich and Stevie Wonder’s The Secret Life of Plants. It’s striking, with short and repetitive song structures.
AotY Position: #10
Dedicated – Carly Rae Jepsen
Carly Rae Jepsen followed up 2015’s surprise pop masterpiece Emotion with another batch of excellent songs. ‘Now That I Found You’ harnessed Jepsen’s trademark euphoric lift, while ‘Want You In My Room’ was a lust-filled pop banger. It was a strong year for mainstream pop – records by Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande narrowly missed my cut.
AotY Position: #52
Better Oblivion Community Centre
Talented young singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers and Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst teamed up for Better Oblivion Community Centre. It’s a pleasingly fulfilling collaboration – the pair harmonise beautifully, and songs like ‘Dylan Thomas’ and ‘Forest Lawn’ are gorgeous.
AotY Position: #51
Miss Universe – Nilüfer Yanya
Billie Eilish claimed the best new artist Grammy among her massive pile of trophies, but for my money 2019’s best debutante was London’s Nilüfer Yanya. She’s incredibly versatile, from raw guitar rock like ‘In Your Head’ to Sade-like smoothness on ‘Melt’.
AotY Position: #67
African Giant – Burna Boy
Nigerian star Burna Boy brashly named his fourth studio album African Giant, a response to his low billing at Coachella. He lives up to his self-appointed title with African Giant, fusing modern sounds with African tradition and political lyrics.
AotY Position: #73
Two Hands – Big Thief
Genre: Indie folk
Brooklyn indie quartet Big Thief had an impressive year, releasing two strong albums. Their second of the year, Two Hands, was recorded in the desert near the Mexican border, and crackles with dusty tension. The best tracks, electric epics like ‘Not’ and ‘Shoulders’, recall the rough-hewn and intuitive interplay of Neil Young and Crazy Horse.
AotY Position: #18
Genre: Art pop
Angel Olsen initially planned her fourth album as a low-key back to basic record. Unsatisfied with the results, she re-recorded All Mirrors with strings, giving her songs an epic sweep. Tracks like ‘Lark’ and ‘Chance’ are lush and beautiful, sometimes recalling the romance of 1960s Roy Orbison.
AotY Position: #6
Igor – Tyler, the Creator
Genre: Neo-soul/hip hop
Tyler, the Creator followed up 2017’s Flower Boy with another acclaimed effort. He started in hip hop, but here he’s cross-pollinating genres like a mad scientist, on a concept album about a love-triangle. The single ‘Earfquake’ is full of hooks, while ambitious tracks like ‘A Boy is a Gun’ show a wide-ranging imagination.
AotY Position: #5
Father of the Bride – Vampire Weekend
After a six year absence, during which Ezra Koenig wrote and produced an anime series, Vampire Weekend returned with Father of the Bride. Koenig had relocated to California, and multi-instrumentalist and producer Rostam Batmanglij had left the band, and the 2019 version of the band is substantively different. Collaborating with producer Ariel Rechtshaid, Koenig’s songs reflect Californian sunshine, and Father of the Bride joins the celebrated pantheon of sprawling double albums.
AotY Position: #11
Legacy! Legacy! – Jamila Woods
Chicago’s Jamila Woods returned with an ambitious sophomore record, its songs painting portraits of thirteen of her role-models. Musically the tunes recall the 1990s R&B of Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu, but lyrically they’re fascinating. The portraits of ‘Frida’, ‘Basquiat’, and ‘Baldwin’ are lyrically incisive and musically satisfying.
AotY Position: #26
Titanic Rising – Weyes Blood
Genre: Arty singer-songwriter
Pennsylvania’s Natalie Mering returned with a lush record. There are moments of artiness, like the space of ‘Andromeda’ and the twinkling synths of ‘Movies’, but the lingering mood is created by gorgeous songs that recall the 1970s records of The Carpenters and Karla Bonoff.
AotY Position: #7
Genre: Indie folk
2019 was Big Thief’s year, releasing two excellent records. The first was U.F.O.F., recorded in a damp cabin in the woods of Washington State. U.F.O.F. is charming and rustic, Big Thief’s interplay recalls The Band, while Adrianne Lenker’s songwriting perspective is intimate and original.
AotY Position: #13
Most Charismatic Newcomer: Billie Eilish
Great Record, but made me too sad to play it often: Purple Mountains – Purple Mountains
Great Record, but way too long: Lana Del Rey – Norman F***ing Rockwell
Favourite New Zealand Record: Tiny Ruins – Olympic Girls
Did I neglect your favourite 2019 record?