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The Top 10 Albums of 2019

Presenting the best of the best, from pop and R&B to straight-up old-school country realness.

How does one even begin to define the state of music in 2019? Before Lizzo, Billie Eilish and Lil Nas X blew up the airwaves and conquered all the streaming platforms, I would have said that the era of blockbuster mainstream hits was over. Yet here we are, with a sea of fresh new faces outselling everyone else, and they show no signs of easing up.

In fact, you’ll notice a trend in my list of the best of the best from 2019; aside from indie darlings Lissie and M83, all the artists here are either fresh on the scene or have just an album or two under their belts. If ever there were a time for fresh blood, 2019 was it.

And my goodness was it hard to whittle it down to 10 winners this year. There was just too much good material, which is a great problem to have. So in no particular order—because I can’t rank them and you can’t make me—here are my top 10 favorite albums of the year.

Joseph, “Good Luck, Kid”
Joseph, “Good Luck, Kid”

“Good Luck, Kid” | Joseph

Just like its title track, “Good Luck, Kid” is a bold statement from this Portland-based trio that really can do no wrong. It took them nearly breaking up to get here, but the time away surely worked some favors for the group, who managed to return to form and elevate their material beyond the trappings of Pacific Northwest dreamy folk-pop. The group’s second full LP is still packed to the brim with the trio’s signature harmonies (you’d be remiss to ignore the haunting “Revolving Door”), but it’s punctuated with subtly refreshing guitar and synths to lend the material a sense of contemporaneity. Yet there’s also a hard thread of melancholy running through most of the album, and tracks like “Enough in Your Eyes” show an unexpected vulnerability. If their last album was about loving yourself, flaws and all, then “Good Luck, Kid” represents a spat of unsure self-reflection as the group matures into adults who suddenly realize they don’t feel fully equipped to deal with the real world. Welcome to adulthood, kid. It sucks.

Stand-out tracks: “NYE,” “Revolving Door,” “Without You,” “Room For You”

Tinashe, “Songs for You”
Tinashe, “Songs for You”

“Songs For You” | Tinashe

If you’re looking for another example of an artist harnessing their heartbreak to craft perfect music, look no further than Tinashe’s latest. Released independently after her split from RCA, “Songs For You” has Tinashe flexing her songwriting prowess in brand-new ways, alternating fluidly and skillfully through pop, hip-hop and R&B. She does all three genres incredibly well, and this album is her best blending of the three since her debut, “Aquarius.” The cocky flex anthems “Cash Race” and “Link Up” are fun distractions, but that’s really all they are; brief moments of youthful rebellion amidst a period of heavy heartbreak. When Tinashe delves into the sadness of love lost, she really shines. Tracks like “Touch & Go” and “Know Better” give her a chance to showcase her vocals alongside some impressively taut production, and obvious stand-out “Save Room For Us” features Tinashe serving up some serious pop chops for one of the catchiest tracks she’s ever created. It’s tailor-made for radio, which feels criminal given that this album was an independent release with little major-label involvement. It is, however, a sign that Tinashe still has her eye laser-focused on stardom, and it’s hard to think of someone better positioned to shake up the pop/R&B landscape.

Stand-out tracks: “Save Room For Us,” “Touch & Go,” “Perfect Crime”

Grace Potter, “Daylight”
Grace Potter, “Daylight”

“Daylight”| Grace Potter

After a lackluster solo debut with “Midnight,” Grace Potter seems to have found her voice again and is back to producing the country-tinged rock music that she’s been known for during her career with Grace Potter & the Nocturnals. This much was clear as soon as she started droppings singles like “Love Is Love” leading up the album’s release. That signature raspy voice is on full display for “Daylight,” and even when she tries a little too hard to push herself into earnest sappy pop territory, it lends her material a sheen of authenticity that’s hard to deny. The come-up after the dark of night is bright indeed.

Stand-out tracks: “Love Is Love,” “On My Way,” “Daylight”

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“Sweet Insomnia” | Gallant

Gallant’s first album only came out in 2016, but it feels like we’ve been waiting an eternity for his follow-up. He finally delivered in 2019 after teasing us with a handful of tantalizing singles earlier in the year, and it was absolutely worth the three-year wait. Let’s be honest, though: Gallant’s sophomore album was going to land on this regardless. That’s how good he is. If you were worried that his debut was a flash in the pan, he’s here to prove you wrong with more of the chill, vibe-y, supremely catchy masterpieces he’s known for. When you’re feeling stressed, just grab a glass of whiskey and put on “Sleep On It.” Instant mood adjustment.

Stand-out tracks: “Sharpest Edges,” “Sweet Insomnia,” “Sleep On It”

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“Kiwanuka” | Michael Kiwanuka

One of your songs just soundtracked the hottest HBO drama for white people since “Game of Thrones”; what do you do next? Well, if you’re Michael Kiwanuka, you just keep doing what you do best.

2016’s “Love and Hate,” which boldly declared “I’m a black man in a white world,” was a transcendental exploration of identity, relationships and disappointment. His self-titled follow-up, on the other hand, finds Kiwanuka in a better place, and with an eye on new beginnings. It opens with the statement track “You Ain’t the Problem” and promptly dabbles in some light ‘60s-style psychedelic rock before shifting back to downtempo orchestrations sprinkled amongst funky, brassy soul.

Stand-out tracks: “Piano Joint (This Kind of Love)”, “Living in Denial”

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“DSVII” | M83

“DSVII,” short for “Digital Shades Vol. II,” might be M83’s eighth full-length album, but he continues to surprise us with every release. Inspired by classic video game soundtracks and rooted in spacey experimentalism, “DSVII” takes you on a journey through fantastical instrumental landscapes of 8-bit fairies and hazy analog memories, all without pandering to obvious nostalgia. The masterfulness of his craft lies in the way he evokes the simplicity and tenderness of youth without beating you over the head with flagrant trend-hopping or unnecessary heavy-handedness. Instead, the album often feels effortless… like opening a book and drifting off into a cloudy dreamland a lá “The Neverending Story.” It’s comforting and relaxing in all the right ways, and I dare you to resist its charms. Look at that album artwork, for goodness’ sake. Sweep me away on your magical dino steed, Anthony.

Stand-out tracks: “A Bit of Sweetness,” “Lune de Fiel,” “Taifun Glory”

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“I Used to Know Her” | H.E.R.

After starting the year with two well-deserved Grammy wins, H.E.R. took a short break and came back with more of the same. “I Used to Know Her” is H.E.R.’s second compilation of tracks from her various releases as she readies her “official” full-length debut. Tracks like “Fate” and “Carried Away” are carry-overs from her previous EPs, while a sprinkling of new material helps to flesh out this “album” and keeps it from feeling too stale. It’s easy to see her growth already in the new material; “21” is a self-aware exploration of adulthood and sudden, intense fame, with H.E.R. reaping the benefits of her hard work and questioning the hangers-on from her past who question “where you been?” It’s hard to overstate H.E.R.’s insane talent and upward trajectory. But watch her live performances and witness the way she hits every note, plays multiple instruments and nails her stage presence. With near-instant acclaim from Janet Jackson and early comparisons to Lauryn Hill, not to mention those Grammy wins (plus 10 more nominations this year), H.E.R. is obviously poised for greatness. The industry is paying attention — now it’s time to see if audiences tune in for what’s next.

Stand-out tracks: “Hard Place” (obviously), “21,” “Lord Is Coming (feat. YBN Cordae)”

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“Pony” | Orville Peck

Many people have compared Orville Peck to Lana Del Rey, thanks to the deep, drawling voice and melancholy material, but the comparison feels a bit unfair. While Del Rey evokes a very specific brand of sad hipster pop, Peck hearkens back to the classic country stylings of Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison and filters it through a glittering, pensive queer lens. It’s melancholy and heartbreaking, but it’s also an incredible, refreshing take on country music in today’s climate of hyper-masculine bro-country-pop and manufactured Nashville princesses. By definition, Peck’s queer message flies in the face of convention — all while adhering closely to the musical style of days gone by.

Stand-out tracks: “Dead of Night,” “Buffalo Run,” “Queen of the Rodeo”

Lissie, “When I’m Alone: The Piano Retrospective”
Lissie, “When I’m Alone: The Piano Retrospective”

“When I’m Alone: The Piano Retrospective” | Lissie

2019 was the year of the piano and the year of artists revisiting their own material for a fresh take on already great material. The best example came from Lissie, a mega-talented singer-songwriter who, for the most part, has managed to shirk the big label machine and fly under the radar of the mainstream. This year she leaned into her own anti-mainstream image and released an album that repackaged some of her best songs for the piano instead of her usual guitar. Lissie herself knows she has a powerhouse voice, and this album was borne of a desire to strip back the instruments and electronics that she felt were holding her back as an artist. It generally works to great benefit. Her guttural, warbling vocalizations have always been impressive, but paired with just a piano, they shine like never before. Songs that were once melancholy become wholly heartbreaking and it becomes even more crystal-clear that the universe is sleeping on a world-class talent. As an added bonus, Lissie takes a page from the catalogs of her musical inspirations and covers the always iconic Fleetwood Mac and Dixie Chicks. I bet you didn’t realize you needed a piano-driven cover of “Cowboy Take Me Away,” did you?

Stand-out tracks: “Everywhere I Go,” “When I’m Alone,” “Cowboy Take Me Away”

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“Cuz I Love You” | Lizzo

You’re not surprised that Lizzo made the cut… right? Lizzo exploded onto the scene this year (though anyone who’s really in the know has been on her level for a while now), and “Cuz I Love You” has been on constant repeat ever since. Sure, her megahit “Truth Hurts” didn’t appear on the album until she re-released it as a deluxe version later in 2019, but it doesn’t matter because even without “Truth Hurts,” Lizzo’s first official major label debut is still one of the best album of the year. Packed to the brim with killer hooks, flawless rap verses, impressive vocals and more than a healthy serving of self-empowerement, “Cuz I Love You” is a love letter from Lizzo to herself. Now that the year is almost over, she’s finally getting a chance to promote the material from this album, and it’s about time because it’s packed with absolute bops. “Like a Girl” and “Soulmate” are riotous empowerment anthems that deserve the kind of stratospheric exposure that “Truth Hurts” and “Feelin’ Good” have gotten, while sultry jams “Jerome” and “Lingerie” give Lizzo the opportunity to revel in her sexiness.

Stand-out tracks: “Like a Girl,” “Soulmate,” “Lingerie,” “Water Me”

Honorable mentions:

“Thrilled to be Here” | Bailen
It took a while, but we finally a fully-fledged debut album from this up and coming trio of indie-folk siblings. Come for the harmonies, stay for the honest lyrics.

“The Sun Will Come Up, The Seasons Will Change” | Nina Nesbitt
A very solid debut from U.K. pop songstress that hints at a bright future. Too many female pop stars have been boxed into releasing boring, generic, utterly forgettable pop tunes that chase radio trends instead of attempting to rewrite the genre, but the same can’t be said for Nesbitt, whose debut album is full of earworms and expertly crafted jams. The filler material is minimal here, and it’s much-appreciated. In case you missed it: “Loyal to Me” should have been your song of summer for 2019.

“Norman Fucking Rockwell” | Lana Del Rey
Anyone who’s anyone already knows that this is Lana Del Rey’s best album in years, and you don’t need me to tell you. But if you were on the fence, take this as your sign that you should check it out. The only reason it didn’t make it into the top 10 is because there was just too much solid material released this year.

“Sunshine Kitty” | Tove Lo
“Sunshine Kitty” is the opposite of “Blue Lips,” both in name and lyrical content. Tove Lo is back to doing what she does best: producing gritty, sexy Swedish pop music that doesn’t shy away from its honesty. And this time she’s had a dip or two in the lady pond to write about.

“Velvet: Side A” | Adam Lambert
The music industry seems to have struggled to find a place for Adam Lambert, but no worry; touring with Queen for the past few years appears to have done Lambert some serious favors. This first of two new EPs sees Lambert leaning fully into the glam-rock persona we all know he was born to inhabit, and he’s brought a fuck-you attitude that takes aim at the current cultural climate.

A recovering pop music addict who’s finding his way in the wide, wonderful world of music.

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