20 Best Albums of 2019 (So Far)

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20. American Football

LP3

The emo legends from Illinois cemented their legacy in the late 90s with their sole eponymous studio album that wowed with its singular atmosphere and mathy influences. It would take them almost two decades to follow up in 2016 with a second record. Sadly, that one was received to disappointing response. This third record, however, sees Mike Kinsella and company back to true form with lush production, intricate arrangements, and personal lyrics about the transitions into adulthood.

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19. Stella Donnelly

Beware of the Dogs

Stella Donnelly rides the fine line between writing quirky singer-songwriter tunes and fire-eyed protest music. On her debut studio album, the Australian musician uses her sharp wit to punch up at social ills. “Boys Will Be Boys”, a single that has existed on previous EPS for a few years now, is a sobering retelling of sexual assault survivals and the excuses society utilizes to shift the blame on victims. Wielding jangly guitar and bitterly sarcastic wordplay, Donnelly is a vital voice for 2019.

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18. Slowthai

Nothing Great About Britain

As the title suggests, the 24-year-old rapper is not subtle about his feelings towards the UK’s current state of affairs in the wake of Brexit. Hailing from Northhampton, Tyler Frampton strings together a series of memorable, politically charged tunes that puts him amongst a long line of prominent UK wordsmiths. Frampton brings to the table a wealth of charisma, razor sharp flow, and a fully tapped into sense of sneering humor. This does not sound like a debut studio project.

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17. Ariana Grande

thank u, next

Ariana Grande has gone through a rapid evolution, one that brought her from teen icon to one of the most towering pop stars of today. Just one year after her deeply romantic Sweetener, Grande returns with thank u, next, the break-up sequel. It’s better, featuring her best songcraft to date. This chiseled pop record features daring production, heightened vocal performances, and an enchanting amount of swagger. Grande drops off her bid to be seen as an essential reference point for this era of pop music.

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16. Cate Le Bon

Reward

Cate Le Bon went away for a while, putting together the ideas for this record at night while taking a course in furniture making by day. Out of that process, comes her fifth studio album, an impressive collection of oblique, left field art-pop. But while holding on to her explorative tendencies, she finds a way to keep these songs approachable. Her longing lyrics and gorgeously produced arrangements also lean into a jagged edge with her angular guitar and clanging percussion.

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15. The Comet is Coming

Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery

Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery is an unapologetically modern jazz album. While rooted in the genre’s rich heritage, The Comet is Coming takes the music into the future with a sci-fi lens. Incorporating deep brass, synthesizers, and abstract electronic instrumentation, this album is a wild musical journey that shows just how exciting jazz music can and should still be.

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14. Bill Callahan

Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest

It has been six years since we’ve last heard a Bill Callahan solo album. Since that record, Callahan has become a father and a husband. Callahan brings back his signature baritone and confessional lyricism to reflect on this new transition in life. The result is a richly textured folk record that’s warm and earnest. Twenty songs package Callahan’s tremendous knack for storytelling and his endless depth of poetry.

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13. Jamila Woods

LEGACY! LEGACY!

Chicago artist Jamila Woods is well studied, holding degrees in Theater and African Studies from Brown University. She also has a background in spoken word, which shines through her conversational yet richly provoking lyrics. This is a reference heavy-album, naming each song after a seminal black artist or advocate, looking to the past to inform the future. With sleek production and delicate vocals from Woods, this is essential neo-soul.

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12. Jessica Pratt

Quiet Signs

In only 27 minutes, Jessica Pratt has enough time to trap her listener in the mystique of her masterful Quiet Signs. With mostly nylon string guitar and breathy voice, Pratt creates intricate, serene folk tunes. While Pratt leans into minimalism, there is a wealth of detail rewarding repeat listens. Quiet Signs is the most breezy, intoxicatingly beautiful example of folk music so far this year.

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11. Denzel Curry

ZUU

Denzel Curry has quickly established himself as one of the most forward thinking, ambitious hip-hop artists on the scene today. Last year’s TA1300 was a hard-hitting, futuristic hip-hop album that garnered significant critical attention. The decision to follow it up with a leaner, more accessible album might have caused some to worry, but ZUU’s straightforward approach does not sacrifice quality in the slightest. Curry unloads one ferocious banger after another. ZUU impresses with its introspection and nods to his overlooked South Florida home.

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10. PUP

Morbid Stuff

With Morbid Stuff, the Canadian rockers present a persuasive thesis as to why pop-punk should be taken more seriously. PUP while holding on to recognizable pop-punk structures, venture into left-field territories, bringing in outside sounds and ideas with an admirable sense of ambition. With monster hooks, Morbid Stuff explores themes of depression, addiction, and loneliness while furiously rejecting the tortured artist archetype.

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9. James Blake

Assume Form

James Blake earned his fame with his artsy brand of downtempo R&B and post-dubstep. While eights years since his now classic debut has passed, Blake has been more and more willing to engage his pop and hip-hop leanings. Collaborating with both Beyoncé and Jay-Z in recent years, it would make sense that James Blake latest record would be his most widespread appealing project yet. James Blake does not let his pop sensibilities subdue his creativity, however, as he produces a series of moody, densely textured songs. It’s hardly a disappointment.

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8. Nilüfer Yanya

Miss Universe

Even though Yanya has been making some noise the past couple years off the strength of her EPs and some solid singles, it’s hard to assume that many people were expecting her debut studio album to be as excellent as it was. Exploring themes of mental health, isolation, and self-care, Nilüfer Yanya tastefully combines elements of soul, pop, R&B, jazz, and even some punkish charm thanks to her wiry guitar theatrics. Nilüfer Yanya weaves in and out of styles, shifts dynamics, and changes up the colorations of her songs with the highest level of subtlety and sophistication. Miss Universe is an extraordinary collage of sounds and textures.

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7. Sunn 0)))

Life Metal

Bringing on production assistance from the legendary Steve Albini, the doom metal mainstays release their most polished album to date after a four-year hiatus. With their added clarity, levels of nuance and subtlety shine through with enriching detail seeping out of every crevice. As to be expected, long sustained, crushing drones look to push the extreme of a speaker’s low end frequency. Melodic guitars and operatic vocals fill space to not take away from the sheer heaviness of the record, but to complete the emotional spectrum the duo seeks to bring to the idea of metal music.

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6. Big Thief

U.F.O.F.

Big Thief’s 2016 debut record, Masterpiece, gained moderate levels of attention. They combined quality songwriting with a pleasant blend of folk-rock instrumentation, yearning vocals, and deeply felt lyricism. What no one expected back then is that Big Thief would evolve into one of the most essential, sought after bands in independent music in a short three years, Adrienne Lenker proving to be one of the most vital and singular voices in the scene. U.F.O.F. is an ethereal, dream-like record rich in detail. The evocative arrangements, mystical lyrics, and hypnotic performances provide the framework for this deeply melancholic, vastly beautiful record. This is the album that cements Big Thief’s importance.

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5. Fontaines D.C.

Dogrel

The Dublin based band come through with a fully invigorating post-punk record detailing Irish life. With cheeky observations and his apathetic sneer, vocalist Grian Chatten tells fully developed narratives about the despondent and overlooked members of their country’s society. Instrumentally, the band puts together a series of jagged, wiry, and angular compositions, taking the punk aesthetics to levels of oblique sophistication, just like any great post-punk album should. Like their counterparts in Shame and IDLES, Fontaines D.C. is finding ways to keep punk music fresh and exciting deep into the late 2010s.

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4. Little Simz

GREY Area

GREY Area is an exceptional hip-hop record that seemingly came out of nowhere. The 25-year-old British MC comes into her own on her third studio album, singing about the sudden challenges of touring as well as demanding to be taken seriously as a woman in rap, as she does so furiously on the standout “Venom”. Simz flow is razor sharp. Her surgical wordplay should be a new standard for rappers in 2020 to take note of. From the contemplative, to the groovy, to the downright furious, there is a wealth of sonic variation on this record, all benefiting from top-notch production.

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3. Weyes Blood

Titanic Rising

Titanic Rising is Weyes Blood’s most essential album to date. Natalie Merring’s immaculately crafted arrangements could stand on their own as instrumentals. Her life-affirming, at times existentially questioning lyrics would still be captivating if backed simply by an acoustic guitar. Together, these songs are a purely sublime package. While mostly existing as a singer-songwriting record, borrowing heavily from the sounds of Carole King and Stevie Nicks, it would be inaccurate to pigeonhole Titanic Rising as such. The swirling synths on the cinematic “Movies” is just one example of the diversity Merring puts into this sonic adventure, all with a painstaking attention to detail.

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2. Tyler, the Creator

IGOR

It wasn’t long ago, back in his Odd Future days, when Tyler was only looking to shock people. Still, there was a certain charm to his definitively immature, jarring demeanor. But, Tyler has grown up into something new. His last album Flower Boy ushered in a welcome new era of introspection and growth for the California based artist. IGOR, his latest, is the perfection of this new approach. With lush instrumentation, beautiful singing, and evocative moments of vulnerability and honesty, Tyler, the Creator put together one of the most sobering break-up records of the decade. While leaning into the musical directions of soul and funk, Tyler does not abandoned his origins as a hard-hitting MC. IGOR is Tyler’s best album by a mile.

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1. Black Midi

Schlagenheim

Unnerving. Chaotic. Abstract. Unrelenting. These are just a few words that could be used to describe the brand new first studio album by the London based quartet. With very limited amounts of recorded music prior to the release of Schlagenheim, Black Midi already were able to garner a cult following due to their absolutely bonkers performances existing online. With an album under their belt, Black Midi capitalizes on the hype. With mesmerizing complexity, endless creativity, and an energy that doesn’t let off throughout the record’s entirety, Black Midi furiously combine elements of post-punk and math rock for some sheer mind-altering madness. Black Midi comes through with the most exciting debut rock albums in years.

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Matt Marciniec