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Ten of 2019’s Best Albums

Published / by kozj_6ta8tp / 1 Comment on Ten of 2019’s Best Albums

Year-end lists are a particular thing trying to be universal. That’s where the pleasure, and frustration, lies: discovering you agree with strangers on the internet (and trying not to be smug about it), or being miffed that strangers on the internet are wrong. At best, scrolling down a list of the year’s best “____” is like thumbing through the pages of a well thought out CD binder, streaming playlist, record crate — pick your medium.

Still, choosing the “best” of anything poses a problem: it’s dumb. If a list is universally recognized as right, it’s boring. If a list is too individual and idiosyncratic, it shuts out the reader altogether. That tension powers a perpetual motion machine for barroom debate, a full employment bill for music critics.

This kind of argument is like a game: it works when everyone playing agrees on the rules. When these arguments turn sour, it often comes down to a list pitching itself as definitive and objective. We stumble into a hallway with a floor made out of papier-mâché, plenty of places to put your foot through. Does “best” mean “most important,” “most successful,” or “my favorite”? When a critic is making the judgement, there are new wrinkles: what should be declared “best” wars with what a writer imagines will be. This is why, when a publication puts out a list, I always find myself looking for lists made by individual contributors. In the publication-wide list you find consensus, the album that was “good enough” for enough people to be the “best” overall. But rarely is that choice what most held as their favorite. It is album of the year by ranked choice voting. It tells us something about the year’s music, but it’s bloodless. Instead, it’s in those individual lists where I find real gems that would otherwise pass me by.

In that spirit, I’ve produced a list that is the obvious product of one person. I’ll lay out my criteria: It is ten spots long; I had to actually listen to the album in question a lot, without this list in mind; and, I had to think the album was good enough that I’d try to get someone else to listen to it, all of it, more than once.

That leaves off plenty of great stuff. Ten isn’t that many albums. Lots of things I liked didn’t catch me at the right moment when they came out and I’m only now picking them back up again — both of Big Thief’s albums, Jaime by Brittany Howard, and Billie Eilish’s debut all fill that space. Others, I listened to a lot, but I’m not going to push them on anyone else (I won’t tell anyone they should listen to Tove Lo’s algo-robo-scando-pop unless they already want to do that; Polo G is great, but you need to want to hear someone sing-rap over a music box to get all the way there). Finally, there were things I loved this year that came out last year (Bad Bunny) or that weren’t full albums (Rosalía).

With all that said, here are ten of the best albums of the year:

10) GoldLink — Diaspora

This album reminds me of a what a thoughtful version of Drake’s More Life, one made by someone who wrote his own raps and cared about the sounds he was touring through, might sound like.

9) Burna Boy — African Giant

I’d hear a lot of these songs before the album came out, but they found an undeniably worthy vehicle here. It deserves a listen if only to stop halfway through and Google the colonial past of Unilever.

8) (Sandy) Alex G — House of Sugar

This is a tighter record than Alex G’s last, sometimes for the worse, but often for the better. I don’t know if there’s a better recommendation than Frank Ocean’s delighted response on an episode from blonded RADIO when he heard they were playing something from it.

7) Denzel Curry — ZUU

This album delivers all the good parts of listening to a bloated, 80-minute, skit-filled major label rap record from 2003, in under 30 minutes. It’s always going to be weird to listen to someone remember XXXTentacion fondly, but after seeing Denzel Curry on The Cave, I’m glad I gave this record a real chance.

6) Tyler, the Creator — IGOR

What would Kanye sound like if he were, well, a completely different person. But what if that person overcame juvenile bullshit to make interesting, thoughtful music? Maybe a Travis Scott with ideas?  This record is as good as Flower Boy, maybe better, which is high praise.

5) FKA Twigs — MAGDALENE

Happy to report that Twigs second album is exactly/nothing like what I was expecting.

4) Oso Oso — Basking in the Glow

This choice represents something about my music-listening past. It’s the kind of record I would have loved when I was thirteen but that makes me glad I’m thirty.

3) Nilüfer Yanya — Miss Universe

For the first four to five months of the year, this would have been my choice for #1. Maybe the overall conceptual arc doesn’t hang together, but it makes me very glad she’s already swinging this big.

2) Clairo — Immunity

This one is #2 because I can’t help but value pretense/ego/mess over tight, controlled excellence. Immunity is my personal favorite of the year, a wonderful gem of a record.

1) Lana Del Rey — Norman Fucking Rockwell!

Let’s get it out of the way: Lana Del Rey is not Joni Mitchell. She is somewhere in the lineage of Fiona Apple, which should be enough. This is decidedly not a perfect album, if there is such a thing, but it is a messy, intriguing document of an evolving musical persona as captivating as it is confusing. The title track is like listening to one of the voiceless women Father John Misty sings about (which, it turns out, is more interesting than listening to FJM himself). It’s a great album that works as an album, despite featuring both a nine-minute song that puns “beach” and “bitch” and a Sublime cover. It’s impressive. Lana Del Rey is not “America’s greatest songwriter,” but she is very good, and so is this album. Honestly, it might be better than Red. Who knows, I’m not a professional.

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  1. Best Albums of 2019
    This ranking is based on what I recommended to people, its artistry vs. musicality, its cultural significance, and most importantly just my favorites. Below are some notable mentions.

    15)Quiet Signs—Jessica Pratt
    A quiet album that may have gone unnoticed by some/most but made an impression on me for how quiet makes you listen harder. A voice like a tanager and light strums make you listen to the simple words with new importance. Pratt’s timbre is unique now in the age when a lot of young female vocalists fall into camps of bedroom pop, indie fry, or full bodied icon—none of which are bad, it’s just good to have an alternative indie sound. This album is perfect to slow down and feel a little bit more grounded.
    14)Father of The Bride—Vampire Weekend
    As far as concepts albums go, this is pretty great because it has such a light grasp on its commitment to the concept album structure, but merging the stories à la Dubliners and the 1991 movie is a way to be smart that feels authentic. It’s brilliance packaged for the masses, and Ezra Koenig knows what he’s doing at this point. Highly enjoyable with options for more meaning the more you care about it. But you don’t need to because they’re still bops.
    13)Diaspora—GoldLink
    Eat local, drink local, listen local. Even though he’s moved onto LA and or NYC—I still gotta respect the origin story of GoldLink in DC. This album is super fun and varied and probably my favorite summer album.
    12)i,i—Bon Iver
    Maybe it was the slow build up (stretched out hype) to the album drop since he mostly released all the tracks as singles, but the artistry behind i,i really stood out to me from the music videos to the controlled chaos of an electric orchestra. A little more approachable than glitch pop, Vernon’s collaboration capabilities has matured and takes elements from his last three albums, synthesizing the technical skills and intimate lyricism in a fresh but familiar way. Some may call it bathos, I like to think it’s pathos in showing ever expanding empathy. That’s what happens when you continuously take psychedelics I guess. And also we have Vernon to thank for voicing Orpheus in the original album of Hadestown so this is also a shout-out to that role.
    11)Is He Real—IDK
    The PG county rapper builds to the story of a major tragedy in his life but also the disappointments of today. And God. Did he help? Does he help? IDK navigates societal and personal woes, exploring those questions without sounding preachy (you really had to ruin that too Kanye? Prosperity gospel?!). It also feels good to represent local, but not DC, we heard you. IDK has some good good producers working with him balancing between bops and bangers.
    10)From Out of Nowhere—Jeff Lynne’s ELO
    Jeff Lynne has been making great music for 50+ years and this is no exception. This is on the list since I so much appreciate his ability to still produce good music by himself and being a nice guy (looking at you, Neil Young). The sounds are British pop combining classical and Lynne’s clarion voice. It made me feel like I was doing psilocybin in Manchester in 1972 and it’s good to feel like that from time to time. This is on the list to appreciate Jeff Lynne’s career as much as it is a good album.
    9)Titanic Rising—Weyes Blood
    If there’s Hot Girl Summer music this is Sad Girl Winter music. She is the closest singer we have to a Karen Dalton right now, just much more produced to be what people are calling psychedelic folk. Natalie Mering’s deep and quavering (but also powerful) voice accentuates what can also be called melodramatic dream pop. This album could feel right at home in 1969 between Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, and Linda Rondstadt, but also as a evolution of Billie Eilish and Clairo. Crooning about environmental disaster and art in the age of mechanical reproduction is the very of the now, the past, and probably the future.
    8)Purple Mountains—Purple Mountains
    My ignorance about the giants in American music knows no bounds. I listened to Purple Mountains when it came out because of the heaps of praise it revived but filed it away as not for me. David Berman’s death on August 7th of this year pushed me to give the album and his previous work a listen. I have to say knowing about his (tragic) life in context enhanced my experience of Purple Mountains. Berman’s final album has all of the best from his previous projects, smart lyrics, the “Americana” sound, which I think is a way Yanks distance themselves from country. The twangy gee-tar under “Only One For Me” is a beautiful final message Berman gives to us: We won’t love our purple mountains majesty until we love ourselves—at least that’s what I took from it. Unique stories and specificities are much more powerful than the general woman-car-drinking motifs. For better or worse, I can feel that he’s singing as a way of reckoning his own past.
    7)House of Sugar—(Sandy) Alex G
    This Philly local overlapped with my time at college and I’m disappointed I wasn’t cognizant of how good the music in Philly was and I could have gone to a show for probably for pennies on the dollar of today’s tickets. House of Sugar is combining more genres than Rocket but I think the interesting risks pay off and updates Philly’s unique DIY sound to the mainstream.
    6)The Lost Boy—YBN Cordae
    A clever debut which I throughly enjoyed. He’s having fun with it and you can tell. The features are quite impressive alone and an especially powerful endorsement for such a young artist. And finally someone is adding to the small repertoire of Thanksgiving music. Thank you.
    5)IGOR— Tyler, The Creator
    When a boy can be mentally happy, and still produce good music, I am happy. Whether the development of Tyler has been an act or not, he nonetheless has provided a certain level of catharsis for listeners that bounces. While Kanye went (more) insane and Chance lost his edge in a bad way, I think this album fills the void of tight clever bars and interesting beats.
    4)Ginger—BROCKHAMPTON
    They 👏 are 👏 so 👏 cute! Obviously this prolific boy band collective has a lot of cred to back them up, but this album —like Tyler’s—seems to be coming from a place of calm after an emotional and spiritual reckoning and is brining something new to their *oeuvre* gag. People have called it messy, but it’s the type of mess where the artist(s) want to make space for things they find dear. The reviewer of Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote describes the film in a way which equally applies to GINGER. “It is a defiantly unfocused and muddled film—but it is all of those things in a manner that reflects both the fuzzy worldview of its protagonist and the passion of its creator.“ BROCKHAMPTON is bursting with love for bars, hip-hop’s many local flares, and what a boy band lens can accomplish to get massive amounts of people to talk about toxic masculinity in 2k19, death, and general modern anxiety. ‘We need one another’ is one of the main takeaways from the album and the continued collaboration is a hopeful glow up. Excited to see where they go next.
    4)Cuz I Love You—Lizzo
    She has proven herself to be 100% that bitch this year, but we know she has been for a long time. Ever since Lizzobangers in 2013 (which I found out about in 2015) Lizzo has been near and dear to me. She just has good energy, and honestly had the best SNL performance in a long time and showed that her vocal chops are no joke. Steven Thompson of NPR threw out a interesting observation that chart topping pop music is getting longer runs. Good as Hell came out in 2017 and then got revamped and voila, we have it in 2019 too. Who thought Old Town Road would happen? Agents, producers, labels, or WHOMEVER are getting savvy at playing the chart game and Lizzo’s team has done good. Jerome is a good torch song, Better in Color is a real banger and is slept on in my opinion, and Truth Hurts is a classic of this moment which will last into perpetuity. Her branding works and gives us fun, singable songs. Any album that can be good in car trip, getting ready to go out, or to sing with friendly random drunk women on the streets is a goodie.
    3)Virtual Heaven—Infinity Crush
    Sad in the best way. I think I was PMSing and I just found out Toni Morrison died when I listened to this album and it hit all of the right spots. Infinity Crush’s Caroline White is a poet by training and that comes across very well in her effervescent depictions of intimate moments that are very personal and universal. If you’re invested in the notion that sad songs can be used as a vehicle to experience emotions outside of yourself so you don’t have to feel your own emotions than this is pretty close to the platonic ideal of that particular use for a mid-20s woman.
    2)Pony—Orville Peck
    Give me a mystery masked gay man with a voice like Marty Robins and visions of western vistas and and you’ve got yourself a winner. And no, I’m not talking about Din Djarin. I think Peck offers a new type of icon, bending what it means to be a country artist while staying firmly in the grand emotional cowboy songbook tradition. This is what Bruce Springsteen tried to do with Western Stars but didn’t offer anything new and came across like a man from New Jersey envisioning what a night in Yellowstone is like. Peck benefits from being a relative unknown before, so I can imagine seeing him right at home in Cody crooning his heart out. The songs are singable, poignant, and clever—and that voice! If there ever is a gay take on “A Star is Born” (besides Joel Kim Booster’s hot take) cast this man.
    1)Miss Universe—Nilüfer Yanya
    I listened to this album more than any other this year, sometimes just repeating the right song for the moment OVER and OVER again. First, the concept is great and I think there should be more science fiction topics in popular music (ty ty Queen Monae)—in this instance, the commercialization of mental health.
    It reminded me of Maniac (in the best way), Brave New World, the Uglies series, and 1984, all from a feminine perspective. Gaslighting, romantic anxiety, emotional independence and dependence are themes throughout the album. Each song seems like a short story of a woman who is trying to “get fixed” through a mental health call center. And the music itself is just good, subverting and complimenting the lyrics so well that a closer examination of the words on repeated is needed to understand that banger was about existential dread. Of course this is a common trope in music but one I nevertheless deeply enjoy. I hope she continues the story arc and gets the widespread recognition she deserves.

    Notable Album Mentions
    Arizona Baby—Kevin Abstract
    MAGDALENE—FKA Twigs
    A Distant Call—Sheer Mag*
    Tales of America—JS Ondara*
    2nd—Grace Ives*
    Immunity—Clairo
    Julien—Julien Chang
    Internet Arms—Diane Coffee*
    Sideline Star—Claud*
    Patience—Mannequin Pussy
    Two Hands—Big Thief
    2019—Lucy Dacas*
    Cormorant I—San Fermin
    WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP WHERE DO WE GO—Billie Eilish
    In the Morse Code of Breaklights—New Pornographers
    Shell—Amy O
    Transportation—Your Old Droog

    *Saw live.

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