Craig Manning’s Top Albums of 2019

I wrote a lot of album blurbs in 2019. If you’re reading this post, you probably already know that 1) I’m an insane person, and 2) my big writing project this year was a rundown of my 200 favorite albums of the 2010s. I concluded that project in mid-December, around the same time that everyone else in the music criticism world was sharing their “Best of 2019” lists. For a few days, I debated not even writing up a list this year. I was so emotionally exhausted after pouring so much of myself and my life into that end-of-decade piece that I just couldn’t see myself sitting down to do it all over again—albeit, on a much smaller scale. But then I started delving back into my favorite 2019 albums, albums that I maybe hadn’t spent enough time with in my race to relive a full 10 years of music. And then I started making late-year discoveries, new albums I’d overlooked that excited me greatly. Ultimately, I decided I couldn’t let a year end without the big-list ritual that I have followed every year since 2011.

I did give myself some extra leeway this time, though. Instead of going to 40 albums, as I have for the last several years, I stuck to 30. I also opened the door for late additions (and for the corresponding deletions they would require). The resulting list is not at all what I expected it would look like even two months ago. It’s a list loaded with exciting new talent and with albums that I can’t wait to spend more time with, brushing up against records I’ve already listened to hundreds of times, from artists I’ve loved for many years. I can’t say it’s my favorite end-of-the-year list that I’ve ever made, but it might be the most unexpected. I could feel my music tastes yearning to shift and grow in new directions while compiling this collection of 30 albums, which is frankly a very exciting place to start a brand-new decade. So bring on the 2020s! But first, here are my 30 favorite albums of 2019.

1. Jimmy Eat WorldSurviving

Surviving is the sound of America’s greatest band taking stock of who they are, where they’ve been, where the country is, and where they want to go. 10 albums and 25 years into their career, Jimmy Eat World went into this album determined not to let complacency get the best of them. The result is the most kinetic set of songs they’ve recorded in well over a decade, an electrically-charged collection that oscillates between anthemic (the title track) and cutting (the Trump-era takedown of “Criminal Energy”). At this point, anyone who listens to Jimmy Eat World knows their tricks: the midtempo ballad; the power-pop rock song; the aggressive single. But on Surviving, the band somehow make those things sound new again. The templates are familiar, but the songs feel older, wiser, more informed by specific experiences. 15 years ago, Jimmy Eat World released the album that changed my life and made me fall in love with music: 2004’s Futures. But I think it’s fair to say that they couldn’t have written a song like “Love Never,” back then, about the patience and time it takes for a bond worthy of the word “love” to form; or like “Diamond,” about the long, long, long journey we all take to find our true selves. These are anthems wrought from time and trial and error and struggle. They feel hard-fought and hard-won, but they don’t feel like victories. Jimmy Eat World have acknowledged by now that everything and everyone is a work in progress. On Surviving, their best album in more than a decade, that resolve feels invigorating, because it means that a band we’ve had for a quarter-century might still, somehow, be getting better.

2. The Dangerous SummerMother Nature

Mother Nature made me feel like a kid again. I was so convinced, after 2013’s Golden Record and 2018’s The Dangerous Summer, that this band’s time as a titanic force in my life was over. They’d been there when I needed them most: for my tumultuous coming-of-age years, when I still wasn’t quite at the door of adulthood yet. Once I crossed that threshold, their music felt different to me. But Mother Nature, listening to this record on late-night drives this past summer, it reminded me of how viscerally I felt Reach for the Sun and War Paint when I needed them most. Most reprises or revivals or comebacks function as pale mimicry of the real thing. They play on your nostalgia to tug at your heartstrings, but they lack the substance to be something truly prescient in your current life. Mother Nature is an exception to that rule: it’s a record that is all heart, made by a group of guys who so genuinely want to connect with their audience in the way that they used to. Mother Nature comes from an older, wiser place than Reach for the Sun: there are wounds in these songs that weren’t there 10 years ago, wounds that only come with time and age, and with the pains and joys that life is always throwing at you. But somehow, those wounds only make these songs sound more urgent, more forceful, more desperate to connect. When I hear these songs, I hear hope and optimism: that things are going to work out okay; that second and third and fourth chances do exist; that there’s still a lot of life left to live even after those youthful memories start to look more and more like ghosts. “I still see all the wonder in those eyes/We can live life before we die/Counting the days I wanna fall in love with you,” AJ Perdomo sings on “Better Light.” Those lines, and the record, to me, are about rediscovering the beauty in the world and in the relationships we have with the people in it. Life is long, but it’s also short. Live it well.

3. Noah GundersenLover

I’m not sure any artist bared their soul as much this decade as Noah Gundersen. Something about his art always seemed so viscerally honest to me, like he was writing the songs as stream-of-consciousness missives right from his own heart. Lover, somehow, is maybe his barest and most candid work. It’s a coming-of-age album from someone who felt like his world was tilting on its axis, and maybe even coming apart at the seams. Gundersen has gone on record about how hard the years between 2017’s White Noise and this album were on him. He dealt with personal issues, financial struggles, and more, along with the restless, love-hate relationship with his own art that has long driven him to grow and evolve. All that crisis could have created a tortured, emotionally fraught album, but Lover is actually the most at-peace Gundersen has ever sounded on record. He comes to terms with failure, with artistic frustration, and with his own restlessness. He writes big unabashed love songs, instead of just breakup songs. He reaches euphoric revelry, on the wonderfully out-of-character “All My Friends.” He excavates memories from the deepest recesses of his mind, bringing a haunting and dreamlike character to songs like “Watermelon” and “Audrey Hepburn.” After White Noise, which felt adventurous but occasionally self-conscious, it’s a miracle to hear Noah sound so unguarded and unvarnished once more. It’s the realization of everything his career has been building to so far: the intimacy of Ledges, the deep self-reflection of Carry the Ghost, and the genre-bending of White Noise, paired with a newfound maturity that only years can bring.

4. The MenzingersHello Exile

Getting old sucks. Losing touch with old friends sucks. Having to attend a funeral, any funeral, but especially one for a buddy who was your age, sucks. Realizing that your days of youthful abandon are behind you sucks. Hello Exile is an album about all the things that suck most about being a so-called “grown up.” Where 2017’s After the Party found some solace in the maturity that comes with moving out of your 20s toward middle age, Hello Exile dwells on the darker side of it all. “America (You’re Freaking Me Out)” is about no longer being able to live in blissful ignorance of what the political and societal state of the nation means for the future. “Anna” is about youthful flings and epic romances that get tempered by jobs and other adulthood responsibilities. “I Can’t Stop Drinking” is about how a riotous drunk night in college is a good story while a riotous drunk night in your 30s or 40s is a sign you might have a problem. “Farewell Youth” is about putting a good friend in the ground, and your youth with them. For anyone who was struggling to come to terms with adulthood in 2019—and that might be everyone from my generation…it’s certainly me—Hello Exile spoke that same comforting message that so much great music from over the years has shouted out loudly: you are not alone.

5. Bruce SpringsteenWestern Stars

Springsteen spent the latter half of the 2010s in reflective mode. He played The River in full over and over again on an E Street tour that was supposed to last a month or two and ended up lasting a year. He published an autobiography. He reckoned with his legacy and his mortality in an acclaimed Broadway show. In the midst of this process, Western Stars was delayed repeatedly. For years, it was pitched only as a solo album that would be a bit of a departure from his past work. I was convinced, for several of those years, that the album would never actually see the light of day. When it did, it was with little fanfare: no tour, not much press, and a positive but relatively quiet reception. What’s here, though, is a new Springsteen classic that is as singular as anything in his career. It’s a record of sweeping, old fashioned country music—full of strings and songs that capture the wide-open, panoramic expanses of the American west. Sonically, it’s one of the most beautiful albums Springsteen has ever made, from the lush and melodic numbers like “Sundown” and “There Goes My Miracle” to sparse acoustic beauties like “Chasin’ Wild Horses” and “Hello Sunshine.” But the best thing about Western Stars is how the arrangements leave plenty of room for Bruce’s most vivid storytelling in years. The title track, about a washed-up actor coasting on former glories, works as both an empathetic treatise on aging and a meta commentary on Springsteen’s career. And “Moonlight Motel,” the haunting closing track, is maybe the best song Bruce has penned since the ‘80s, a writerly masterwork that uses the image of a crumbling motel to explore the slow decay of time and the fleeting nature of young love. We tend to value artists like Springsteen mostly for their legacies and past work—hence the way The Boss has spent most of this decade looking back rather than looking forward. Western Stars is proof that, at the top of their game, the old heroes are still as good as anyone who’s come along since.

6. Josh RitterFever Breaks

Ever since he leveled up on 2006’s The Animal Years, Josh Ritter has been someone who you could describe fairly as one of the best songwriters alive. For most of his career, though, Ritter has been something of an impressionist, writing poetic songs dense with religious imagery, literary allusions, and boatloads of figurative language. His songs have skewed heavily narrative at times (“Another New World,” from 2010’s So Runs the World Away) as well as achingly personal (“Joy to You Baby,” from his 2013 divorce album, The Beast in Its Tracks), but he’s rarely been a chronicler of the times in the way his early comparisons to Dylan might have suggested. That changes on Fever Breaks, an urgent and turbulent record deeply informed by the Trump years. Produced by Jason Isbell and backed by Isbell’s band, The 400 Unit, Fever Breaks is loud and muscular, a protest rock record that is in terms indignant (“All Some Kind of Dream,” a stunned, sad survey of just some of the current administration’s wrongs) and hopeful (“Blazing Highway Home,” about stumbling down the road toward something better). It is, frankly, everything you’d hope an alliance of two world-class songwriters would bring about.

7. Taylor SwiftLover

After Reputation, I didn’t think I’d ever love another Taylor Swift album—at least, not in the way that I’d loved Red or 1989 or Speak Now. The early singles from Lover—“ME!” and “You Need to Calm Down,” both truly ghastly songs—did nothing to assuage this feeling. But Lover is everything that Reputation and those songs weren’t: intimate, smart, and fun. Reputation took a big turn in the direction of modern mainstream pop, co-opting elements of hip-hop and R&B for an album that didn’t fit Taylor’s skillset at all. Lover is still a pop album—this isn’t the “return to country” release that will inevitably arrive at some point in the next 10 years—but it scales things back from the brash, blaring, inorganic production of Reputation. These songs feel more rooted in singer-songwriter territory, and Taylor lets the instrumentation be more varied than the bevy of synths that have dominated her pop era so far. More importantly, Taylor’s back to her relatable, diaristic writing style. In many ways, it’s a sequel to Red. That album was about the love stories that don’t last. “There’s something to be proud of about moving on and realizing that real love shines golden like starlight, and doesn’t fade or spontaneously combust,” she wrote in the liner notes. “Maybe I’ll write a whole album about that kind of love if I ever find it.” Lover is that album. It captures the way things feel when you know you’ve found the one: “Paper Rings” is the sugar rush of the honeymoon stage; “False God” is the bedroom sex jam; “Daylight” is the wedding vow; “Lover” is the wedding slow dance. In between these moments, Taylor sprinkles in songs about other things: a scathing indictment of sexism on “The Man”; a heart-shattering lullaby about her mom’s cancer battle on “Soon You’ll Get Better”; a peerless summer jam on “Cruel Summer.” The result is a collection isn’t quite as cohesive—or quite as great—as Red, but that still acts as a welcome spiritual successor to the greatest album Taylor Swift ever made.

8. Tyler HiltonCity on Fire

Tyler Hilton is one of those artists that doesn’t really belong to any one genre. He came up as an early 2000s teen pop heartthrob, but he’s always had other aspects to his sound: folk, country, and Americana over here; a little bit of southern rock over there; swooning ‘80s pop somewhere in the middle. He has had, frankly, the most bizarre journey of any artist I follow, with his biggest claims to fame including a guest spot in Taylor Swift’s “Teardrops on My Guitar” video, a lengthy recurring role on the teen soap opera One Tree Hill, and a brief cameo as Elvis Presley in the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line. City on Fire is maybe the first album in Hilton’s catalog that captures his full idiosyncratic, versatile capability as an artist. The title track and “Anywhere I Run” are dark, flammable country songs. “When the Night Moves” and “The Way She Loves You” are sweeping, romantic, ‘80s style soft-rock jams. “How Long ‘Til I Lose You” is a pure pop confection. “I Don’t Want to Be Scared” and “When I See You, I See Home” are gorgeous, aching folk songs. There are even oddities like “Seasons Change” (a catchy little reggae-influenced ditty) and “Find Me One” (a tongue-in-cheek honky-tonk one-take). And then the album ends with a five-minute, super earnest acoustic cover of Rihanna’s “Stay.” It’s a mess of an album, just like Hilton’s career has been a chaotic thing to follow, full of hiatuses and chameleonic sonic shifts. But it’s also an impressive display of songcraft, making up for what it lacks in cohesion with sharp hooks and a metric ton of charisma.

9. Miranda LambertWildcard

The last time we heard from Miranda Lambert, she was getting over a heartbreak—seemingly in real time, on tape for all to hear. That album, 2016’s post-divorce opus The Weight of These Wings, blew Lambert’s personal life up into a big screen subject, exploring her split from ex-husband Blake Shelton over the course of an epic double album sprawl. In contrast, Wildcard seems almost tongue-in-cheek. There’s one song called “White Trash,” where Lambert makes light of the insults that close-minded people have occasionally thrown her way over the course of her career. There’s another song called “Way Too Pretty for Prison,” which is kind of like a rewrite of the “Cell Block Tango” from the musical Chicago, only with the ladies deciding not to kill their cheating, good-for-nothing, bastard husbands. Other tunes extol the virtues of strong Mexican spirts (“Tequila Does”), hand-wave all the disasters and social blunders that might come over the course of a lifetime (“It All Comes out in the Wash”), and own Miranda’s reputation as a maneater (“Track Record”). The result is the most purely fun album Lambert has made in years—perhaps ever. But when the serious moments crackle through—the sweeping forbidden romance epic of “Fire Escape,” or the personal reckoning of “Dark Bars”—they add an extra layer of sincerity and maturity that gives the funnier songs more depth. One of the best lessons Lambert learned on Weight was that her songs didn’t have to be just happy, or just sad, or just sassy, or just funny, or just badass, or just inspirational: sometimes, they can be all those things at once.

10. Kalie ShorrOpen Book

Kalie Shorr had a long, hard road to travel to get to Open Book. While this record is her debut, she’s been a factor in the up-and-coming country music scene for at least half a decade—especially in the fight to support and elevate the genre’s female songwriters. While her EPs were strong, though, Open Book is a triumph. It is the kind of raw, honest, unflinching album that you can only make when you’ve been through hell and come out on the other side. For Shorr, that hell was losing her sister to a heroin overdose. This album reckons with that tragedy, along with a million other smaller battles she’s fought to get to this point: a childhood that wasn’t picture perfect, with a family that definitely had its issues; a complicated relationship with her father; a lot of heartbreaks, courtesy of a lot of shitty guys; her own vices, mistakes, and regrets. The resulting set of songs is sometimes funny (“F U Forever,” 2019’s greatest kiss-off anthem), often deeply poignant (“Big Houses,” a love letter from Shorr to her mom), and occasionally unendurably painful (“The World Keeps Spinning,” about moving on after her sister’s death). But the album peaks with “Lullaby,” a hymn to the resilience of the human spirit and to closing the book on the bad chapters to start newer and hopefully better ones. The song is the album in microcosm, existing somewhere between the early 2010s pop-country of Taylor Swift, the angsty teen pop of Let Go-era Avril Lavigne, and the quiet-to-loud emotional dynamics of Dashboard Confessional, circa A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar. It’s Shorr’s own little corner of the country music scene, and she owns it with wit, heart, and brutal honesty.

11. Sturgill SimpsonSound & Fury

At some point, Sturgill Simpson went from country traditionalist to post-genre provocateur. On Sound and Fury, he seems to have no desire bigger than getting a rise out of people. He’s not picky with his targets either. The people who hailed him, upon the release of his early records, as a potential “savior” of country music. The award show posers who have either showered him with honors (the Grammys) or ignored him entirely (CMAs). The people who love his music. The people who hate his music. Everyone might as well be in the sights on Sound and Fury, a wild left turn of a record that gleefully douses Sturgill’s past successes in kerosene before flicking a match to burn them all to the ground. It’s maybe the most divisive record of 2019: an album hailed by some as a daring melding of genres and by others as a loud, tone-deaf, self-indulgent piece of trash. The best thing about it might be that it is ultimately both. There’s something definitively trashy about the songs, which sound like sleazy ‘70s rock ‘n’ roll and spend most of their lyrics in “old man yells at clouds” mode. But Sturgill presents this wild opus in a masterful way: slice-and-dice guitar riffs; earworm hooks; massive, pristine production; a trippy anime film that begs to make Sound & Fury the millennial version of Dark Side of Oz. Frankly, we need more artists willing to take big, bizarre swings like this one.

12. Old DominionOld Dominion

Old Dominion have always been incredible melodic craftsmen, capable of repeatedly writing some of the catchiest songs in all of pop-country. Early on, though, it would have been easy to dismiss them as bro-country wannabes. While their debut, 2015’s Meat and Candy (an album I like quite a lot), was cleverer and had more heart than anything Florida Georgia Line or Luke Bryan ever made, songs like “Beer Can in a Truck Bed” and “Said Nobody” had a fratty energy about them that was hard to ignore. Hearing this band progress toward maturity while maintaining their instinctive grasp on how to write a hook has been a joy, and they’ve reached the peak of that progression with their self-titled third album. The songs on Old Dominion are still catchy as hell—and they even sound pristine, with big guitar licks, gorgeous piano work, and surprisingly classic-sounding production choices—but they also delve deeper than this band has gone in the past. “One Man Band” and “My Heart Is a Bar” are smart explorations of loneliness and how it only deepens as you get older and go through more years of trying and failing to find the one; “Hear You Now” is a song about really shutting up and listening to the person you love—and about how some of us only learn how to do that when it’s too late; and “Some People Do” is an almost shockingly raw plea for reconciliation—the rare post-breakup “I’m sorry” song where the protagonist really, truly seems bent on becoming better. I’ve always liked Old Dominion, in part because they never seemed to take themselves too seriously. There was always an edge of a grin or a wink in their songs, which lent a warmth and humanity to their music that tends to be missing from most radio country. Old Dominion retains that welcoming feel, but pairs it with songs that are more personal, more soulful, and more driven by matters of the heart than past efforts. The result is the best album yet from this undervalued pop-country band.

13. Maren MorrisGIRL

In a lot of ways, GIRL is a sophomore slump. It’s less adventurous, less dynamic, less catchy, and all around less fun than Hero, the album that took Maren Morris from unknown to superstar. Even on weaker footing, though, Morris’s grasp of the poppier side of country is second to none. When she shoots for big and bombastic, it’s virtually impossible for her to miss. From the title track, with its jagged 2000s indie rock guitar riff, to “All My Favorite People,” a summertime barn-burner featuring Brothers Osborne, GIRL is at its strongest when it lets Morris wail away over songs that sound huge. The back half, packed with ballads about her marriage, is less immediately striking, though it still features two tracks—“The Bones” and “To Hell and Back”—that stand among the decade’s best and most innovative love songs. “The house don’t fall when the bones are good,” Maren sings in the former. She’s singing about her marriage, but she could also be singing about this album: a collection that succeeds in spite of those flaws, thanks to the tremendous talent of its creator.

14. ColdplayEveryday Life

For most artists, the double album is their big moment of excess and hubris. Almost by definition, double albums are overlong, overstuffed, and over-indulgent. Everyday Life, Coldplay’s double album moment, is a subversion of the form in just about every way. For one thing, double albums are typically projects that bands make at the peak of their powers, when they can do just about anything and still sell huge quantities of records. By no definition is Coldplay at the peak of their powers. That moment was probably around 2005 for this band (the fascinating, definitely overstuffed X&Y, which is actually 10 minutes longer than Everyday Life) or maybe in 2008 (the masterful, hugely ambitious Viva la Vida), but either way, its at least 11 years in the past. For another thing, Everyday Life is one of the least bombastic albums this famously bombastic band has ever made. Instead of shooting for stadiums, the album is often small-scale (beautiful, disarming ballads like “Daddy” and “Old Friends”) or just idiosyncratic (“BrokEn” and “When I Need a Friend,” both extensive interludes that utilize full choirs—one gospel, one polyphonic—to create an emotional release). When Coldplay do bring the noise—as on the world-music-influenced “Arabesque,” which crescendos to a big, epic sax breakdown, or “Champion of the World,” one of the few songs on the record that sounds like classic Coldplay—it’s thrilling. But for most of Everyday Life, the band is more interested in making music that radiates toward the cheap seats rather than shaking them. “How in the world am I going to see/You as my brother, not my enemy?” Chris Martin sings on title track and finale, an earnest piano ballad that draws straight from the U2 playbook. As the world spins out of control, Everyday Life is the sound of one of its biggest rock bands in that world trying to make something that can bridge the many divisions. It probably won’t work, but it’s wonderful to see someone give it a try.

15. The MaineYou Are OK

Every once in awhile, artists make a quantum leap. Bruce Springsteen made one on Born to Run. Jason Isbell made one on Southeastern. Green Day made one on American Idiot. It’s the moment where an artist levels up so significantly and so quickly that they shock everyone—even the fans who already thought they had all the potential in the world. The Maine made that kind of jump on 2017’s Lovely Little Lonely, an album that ranks easily as one of the best rock LPs of the 2010s. Honest, wistful, and impeccably sequenced, that record made nostalgia sound every bit as beautiful and solitary as it usually is. Unfortunately, when you take a leap that big and make a record that good, everyone at least half expects (hopes?) that you’re going to do it again. It’s a more peculiar type of pressure, even, than facing down the sophomore slump, and it’s one that The Maine face gamely on You Are OK. While not the masterpiece that Lovely Little Lonely was, this album doesn’t shy away from the thought of fighting in a new weight class. Instead, The Maine take their sound in a dozen brand-new directions. Once a neon pop-punk band, and then the heirs apparent to Third Eye Blind’s bratty-but-thoughtful ‘90s alt-rock, The Maine here are taking everything from Achtung Baby-era U2 to Hot Fuss-era Killers to George Harrison’s triple-LP epic All Things Must Pass, and turning it into a collage of rock ‘n’ roll sounds that spans entire eras with confidence and ease. The results, often, are the biggest-sounding songs these guys have ever made: see colossal crowd-pleasers like “Heaven, We’re Already Here” and “Broken Parts,” or the multi-part closer “Flowers on the Grave.” Like most rock music in 2019, You Are OK went overlooked and undervalued, but it’s always comforting to know that there are top-tier bands like this working independently and outside the system to create great art.

16. Cassadee PopeStages

Around the release of Stages, one of the things Cassadee Pope said is that she liked the challenge taking songs written by and/or for male artists and making them her own. It’s an interesting hurdle for an artist to take on, especially in the country-leaning space where doing anything outside of the status quo (such as being a female in country music) typically dooms you to radio purgatory. It also one of the best-ever arguments for using an outside writer on an album, given the fact that two of the three best songs here—the bookends, “Take You Home” and “I’ve Been Good”—come from outside writers. Both are songs clearly intended for male artists. The former teases a sexual come-on but subverts it with a thoughtful, heartfelt twist. The latter boasts a protagonist who is doing good after a heart-wrecking breakup: good at drinking lots of whiskey, and at staying up all night, and at distracting (her)self from the pain of the heartbreak. In a dude’s hands, these songs might come across as dime-a-dozen radio country love tunes, not so far from the so-called “boyfriend country” trend we’re currently living through. In Cassadee’s hands, though, with a voice that aches in such a singular, beautiful way, those two tracks elevate in fascinating fashion. It’s a reminder of how much different perspectives matter in music, and a serious boost to the “women need more country radio airplay” movement that has been raging for the past several years. The songs Pope actually had a hand in writing are great too—particularly “Bring Me Down Town,” about how the face of a place can change when you associate it with pain; or “Still Got It,” which truly sounds like a second chance with the youthful crush you missed your chance with the first time. But those bookend tracks are so uniquely stunning that they make you wish Cassadee Pope could put her own twist on every song that has topped the country charts in the past five years.

17. Grace PotterDaylight

I’ve been extremely taken with Grace Potter’s voice ever since I heard her 2007 song “Apologies,” recorded with her band The Nocturnals. Though not a “hit” in the classic sense, “Apologies” was one of the many mid-2000s tracks that managed to make a pretty sizable impact thanks to the fact that it got picked up as a soundtrack song for various primetime television series—including Grey’s Anatomy, One Tree Hill, and Kyle XY. That kind of thing doesn’t seem to happen much anymore, now that we’re well over a decade removed from the influence of The OC on popular culture. It’s a shift that has left artists like Potter in a curious position: not clearly marketable to any radio format and not household names, but with the kind of talent that really deserves to be spotlighted somewhere. Unsurprisingly, Daylight, Potter’s latest album as a solo artist, went criminally overlooked this year. Where Potter’s last album, 2015’s Midnight, was a pop play that (for me at least) didn’t stick, Daylight is a return to the template she mastered on “Apologies”: emotionally rich folk-rock songs with a good bit of gospel and soul in their DNA. Here, she uses those tools to craft a richly personal piece of work, inspired by a divorce, a new marriage, and the birth of a child. Potter’s songs—and her big, emotive voice—give those tales a visceral edge, whether they’re about the end of one relationship (“Shout It Out”), the beginning of another (“Love Is Love”), or how it feels to find complete happiness again after personal turmoil (“Every Heartbeat”). It’s a shame artists like this lack the spotlight they had in the 2000s, when TV show producers were willing to spend a sizable chunk of change on music licensing. That side of musical discovery and exposure might just be the thing I miss the most about my formative listening years. Albums like this one are why.

18. Sam FenderHypersonic Missiles

Sam Fender was pitched to me as the British, millennial Bruce Springsteen. One listen to this album’s opening track—the big, bold, apocalyptic title track—is enough to give that comparison some serious legs. Fender’s socio-political commentary isn’t as nuanced or lived-in as Springsteen’s is—frankly, no other songwriter can quite match the Boss’s empathy or in-their-shoes storytelling—but he nails the sonic signifiers so effectively that it’s almost hard to believe Hypersonic Missiles came out in 2019. Here we are, at the tail end of the “rock is dead” decade, and some 25-year-old kid is making music that sounds like this. Huge guitars; reedy, rip-roaring saxophone blasts; chiming glockenspiel; arena-scaling production that mimics the size and scope of “Born in the U.S.A.” The style and sound are so thrilling that you’d be forgiven for overlooking the songwriting, which also packs a great deal of punch. “Will We Talk” is a classic road trip anthem that just happens to be about romance in the age of hookup culture. “The Borders” is about two friends who drift apart due to very different upbringings and very different class situations; “Dead Boys” is about the alarming climb of suicide rates among young men. These songs bridge the personal and the political in gripping and often haunting ways, given extra urgency by Fender’s cavernous voice and the sheer bigness of the arrangements. Fender does ignore one key lesson of those early Springsteen albums, which is to keep things concise—the album is overlong at 14 songs and 52 minutes—but its highlights are so high and Fender is such a promising talent that you can forgive the album for running out of gas toward the end.

19. Emily Scott RobinsonTraveling Mercies

The greatest song of 2019 might just be “The Dress,” Emily Scott Robinson’s raw, personal account of coming to terms with being a rape survivor. “Should I blame myself?” she asks. “Was it what I was wearing?” “Can I change the past by throwing this dress in the trash and trying to forget about it?” The answer to all of those questions is clearly “No.” It wasn’t your fault, it wasn’t the dress, and you can’t reverse what happened by burying an article of clothing under a pile of dirt and trash. But the song, which reckons with guilt, and fear, and regret, and an anxiety on a level that most of us will hopefully never have to live with, is an extraordinarily powerful journey through what it means to be a survivor of sexual assault. It’s a song that’s hard to listen to, but also the rare song that makes you better just by having listened to it. Great songs can force you to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes and recognize what it means to do so. “The Dress,” more than any other song I heard in 2019, forced that kind of deep listening experience. It’s just one example of the incredible, emotional narratives that Robinson weaves on Traveling Mercies. Whether she’s writing songs about strong women extricating themselves from toxic situations (gripping narratives like “Shoshone Rose” and “Run”) or penning swoon-worthy love songs (“Better with Time,” the year’s loveliest slice of domestic bliss), Robinson is a master of the craft who I can’t wait to hear more from in the future.

20. Thomas RhettCenter Point Road

Thomas Rhett, maybe more than any other artist working today, makes what I like to call “jukebox albums.” His records cover a massive range of musical and tonal territory, with influences ranging from classic country to ‘70s funk to ‘90s alt-rock to modern pop. Just like a jukebox, you probably don’t love every song that comes up. On Center Point Road, for instance, both “Don’t Threaten Me with a Good Time” and “VHS” are tough hangs. But the jukebox mentality also lends Center Point Road a few very favorable properties. It is heavily playlist-able, for instance, with tracks you could pull of for road trip mixes (“Don’t Stop Driving,” “Almost”), romantic mixtapes (“Blessed,” “Notice”), beach day soundtracks (“Sand,” “Barefoot”), and nostalgia trips (“Center Point Road,” “That Old Truck,” “Remember You Young”), just to name a few themes. Rhett is better at some of these modes than others, excelling particularly at penning emotionally authentic songs about old friends, hometowns, and the past. But even the lighter-weight numbers, like the tongue-in-cheek drinking song that is “Beer Can’t Fix” or the gospel-inflected scene-setter that is “Up,” Rhett has the charm and pop sensibility to win you over. The album can’t quite match its predecessor, 2017’s, Life Changes, in the hooks department, and it’s certainly an album that sounds better in the summertime, but in terms of pop-country, there aren’t many artists doing it better than this guy.

21. Maybe AprilThe Other Side

With vocal harmonies that sound like magic and songs that capture the very particular ache of first love and first heartbreak, Maybe April were easily one of the most exciting debut acts of the year. Previously a trio with an EP and a handful of singles, the band gets boiled down here to a duo, of vocalists and songwriters Kristen Castro and Katy DuBois. You can’t imagine wanting them to sound any other way than they do on songs like “Need You Now,” the lilting summertime beauty that functioned as the album’s lead single, or “Truth Is,” a funny, tongue-in-cheek song that makes light of getting over heartbreak. “Birds swim, fish fly/Willie Nelson don’t get high,” Castro and DuBois sing on the latter, with the punchline being: “The truth is, I’m over you.” The sad songs are arguably even stronger, if only because Castro and DuBois have voices that radiate empathy and deep regret. “Already Gone” hits the hardest: a song about wanting so badly to rely on the person you love, only to get aloof restlessness in return. But the album’s crowning moment might be “You Were My Young,” a song that isn’t quite sad, per se, but one that feels distinctly bittersweet the way Castro and DuBois sing it. For many people, their first love isn’t their forever love. This song explores that idea, of having your entire youth so tied up in a person who ultimately went off in a different direction than you did. “Ain’t a corner in this town that we didn’t go around/Forever had a nice sound ‘til eighteen broke our hearts,” goes the chorus. As so many young lovers do, the subjects of this song grew up and went their separate ways. The memories always remain, though, from the late-night parking lot meetups to the shared flannel shirts, all coalescing like a photobook of vivid moments into this beautiful song. It’s an example of what Maybe April do so well: telling universal stories in a visceral, relatable way.

22. Austin JenckesIf You Grew Up Like I Did

I watched American Idol for years and can count on one hand the albums from former contestants that I care about at all. I’ve never watched a full episode of The Voice in my life, but I seem to find myself racking up an ever-growing collection of albums from past Voice contestants that I adore. Maybe these ex-reality-TV stars aren’t facing the degree of label interference that Idol graduates were, or maybe it’s just that The Voice has figured out what to do with its country-leaning alumni. Whatever the explanation, If You Grew up Like I Did—the debut album from former Voice also-ran Austin Jenckes, moved me on an emotional level that very few other albums from 2019 did. Jenckes has the kind of big, country-ish voice that lends itself well to soaring choruses, and this record has plenty of them, from the epic love story of “We Made It” to “American Nights,” a treatise on the freedom and possibility you can find with no more than a car, a twenty-dollar bill, and a sky full of stars. But the best moments of the record are the barest ones: “Fat Kid,” a co-write with Lori McKenna that captures the loneliness of being a high school outcast; and “If You’d Been Around,” a letter from Jenckes to his father, who struggled with depression and ultimately committed suicide when the singer was 16 years old. “I got your name, I got your eyes/I got some hows, I got some whys/To this day, I hate goodbyes,” Jenckes sings at the top of the first verse. It’s the fastest any song has made me choke up in 2019.

23. Drew Holcomb & The NeighborsDragons

Most years, I lock in the albums that will make up my top 30 or 40 around Thanksgiving. The reasoning is simple: December is light on releases and everyone else is making lists anyway, so why shouldn’t I? This year was different. After spending so much time writing up my end-of-decade coverage, crafting a 2019 list felt almost like an afterthought. At first, I thought that was a bad thing, because I didn’t want to give the albums presented here short shrift. Eventually, I realized it was a gift, because it meant that I could be a little bit looser with how I compiled my list this year. The result is that at least three albums on this list are things that I didn’t hear until after December’s mid-way point. The biggest beneficiary of the delayed list-making process might have been Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors’ Dragons, which dropped in August but which stayed off my radar until late in the year. I’d heard Holcomb and his Lumineers-y folk-pop sound before, but none of his music had resonated with me deeply. Something about Dragons clicked right away, though. Maybe it was because of the stacked guest list (The Lone Bellow, Lori McKenna, and Natalie Hemby all make appearances), or maybe it was that Holcomb seemed to have injected some stickier pop choruses into his sound without losing his rootsy aesthetic (earworms like “End of the World” or “Make It Look So Easy”). Or maybe it was that the gorgeous guitar solo on “See the World,” a song penned by Holcomb for his daughter, sounded just a bit like Christmas magic. Whatever the reason, Dragons made enough of an impression on me in just a few weeks to land a spot on this list.

24. Jade BirdJade Bird

Jade Bird is only 22 years old, and she only turned 22 years old in October. That fact registers as both surprising and natural on the British songstress’s self-titled debut album. On the one hand, Bird sings with grit, energy, and commanding charisma that is beyond her years. A Janis Joplin comparison might be apt—not because Bird sounds just like that folk-rock legend, but because the simple sound of her voice demands attention in a similar way. There’s a ferocity to the singing here that gives songs like “I Get No Joy,” “Uh Huh,” and “Good At It” a uniquely kinetic energy. “All the words my mother said/Can’t seem to get them out my head/Everything becomes everything/You live, you learn, you love, you’re dead/I get no joy,” she belts out on the former, in a rapid-fire cadence that will make your head spin. Those rip-roaring moments make it almost startling when Bird lets the attitude drop a little bit. But the best moments of the album are often the most intimate ones: gentler tracks where Bird audibly reckons with the arc of her own coming-of-age tale. “I mean it when I say that I’m not sure who I am,” she sings on the lovely album opener “Ruins,” and it’s maybe the most revealing line of the record. Nobody’s sure who they are at 21—even the songwriters who sound this fully-formed the first time at bat.

25. Maggie RogersHeard It in a Past Life

This year’s run of debut albums—let’s call it 2019’s “freshman class”—was truly something to behold. Especially among young female artists, 2019 served up a lot of promise for a bright future. Billie Eilish; Clairo; Sigrid; Jade Bird; Maggie Rogers; Yola; Kalie Shorr. All these artists hit the ground running in 2019 with impressive debut projects that managed to make a sizable splash. Rogers stands out in part because she was one of the first to the punch. Her debut, Heard It in a Past Life, arrived on January 18, probably the first notable release day Friday of the year. Her record was the perfect primer for the year to come: an anticipated release from an artist who’d already proven herself as a promising young talent (see the 2017 EP Now That the Light Is Fading), but that still had a few surprises up her sleeve. It was also a reminder of the kind of lightning-in-a-bottle magic that a debut album can capture. Making your first album is an experience no artist ever gets back. There’s a level of unencumbered joy at getting the chance to craft something you’ve probably been dreaming up in your head for years, along with the shades of uncertainty and insecurity that come with charting unfamiliar territory. Past Life carries both of those pieces. It’s got a boatload of euphoric songs that feel like dance parties with all your friends—see highlights like “Give a Little” or “The Knife.” But it also reckons with the jarring transition from relative anonymity to overnight fame. “Oh, I couldn’t stop it, tried to slow it all down/Crying in the bathroom, had to figure it out/With everyone around me saying, ‘You must be so happy now,’” Rogers sings in the splendid “Light On,” the last song written for the album, and perhaps the most wholly honest. These days, we seem to prize our pop artists for their confidence and their surefootedness. What makes Heard It in a Past Life so human and so electrifying is that Maggie Rogers hasn’t quite built up that veneer yet. We get to see behind the curtain at what it’s like for a normal person to suddenly become a superstar.

26. YolaWalk Through Fire

It should be a surprise to no one who heard her debut LP Walk Through Fire that Yola became one of the breakout musical stars of 2019. The Bristol-hailing singer/songwriter had a big, big year, landing an opening slot on tour with Kacey Musgraves, acting as the unofficial fifth member of the buzzy Highwomen supergroup (see number 27) and even landing a surprise Grammy nomination for Best New Artist. The eye of the storm was this record, a classic-sounding collision of country, folk music, and vintage vinyl soul. Yola’s big, big voice is the showcase throughout—especially on the supercharged opener “Faraway Look,” or the pitch-perfect, ‘60s-girl-group-inspired “Lonely the Night.” She gets none other than Vince Gill to back her up on “Still Gone”—a risky move, given his prodigious skill as a singer, but one that feels 100 percent natural and logical here—and sends everything skyward on the hopeful, ascendant finale “Love Is Light.” If there’s a drawback to the album, it’s that everything eventually starts to fade together into the album’s beautiful, throwback haze. Credit/blame producer Dan Auerbach, who pays so much attention to making the album sound like a Motown classic that he occasionally forgets to pull out some of the quirks and intricacies of the individual songs. Here, we spend a lot of time in the same mood, same tempo, same gear. It’s a lovely gear, but one that I hope Yola will shift beyond in the future. With such a clear wealth of talent to share, it would be a shame for her to get pigeonholed into a strictly throwback vein.

27. The HighwomenThe Highwomen

You always hope that a supergroup of artists you love will result in something that is even better than the individual members have created on their own. Usually, for whatever reason, the opposite happens and supergroup albums end up being enjoyable but largely inessential. The Highwomen is somewhere in between those two things. On the one hand, members Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris, Brandi Carlile, and Amanda Shires have all made better albums on their own this decade. On the other hand, though, The Highwomen is a true joy: an example of just how much firepower the female side of the country music coin has at this particular moment in time. The problems of every supergroup are here—namely, the fact that some members (Carlile) feature much more prominently than others (Hemby). But at its best, The Highwomen is a collection of incredible songcraft and occasional out-of-comfort-zone creativity. Morris, particularly, has never sounded quite as classic as she does on numbers like “Loose Change” and “Old Soul,” both of which eschew her typical pop-country style. Every member gets at least one shining moment: Morris on the aforementioned pair; Carlile on the Shires/Jason Isbell penned “If She Ever Leaves Me,” an epic queer country love song; Hemby on the aching beauty “My Only Child”; and Shires on “Cocktail and a Song,” a heartbreaking farewell to her grandfather. Not all the songs hit their mark, but those tracks are so strong that they make up for the couple of throwaways.

28. Riley GreenDifferent ‘Round Here

Riley Green’s debut album, if you look at the cover, probably scans as just another faceless release from a mainstream country bro who no one will remember in three years’ time. But there are a few things about Different ‘Round Here that elevate it above the norm for mainstream country music. The first is the production, which allows the guitars to sound big, robust, and a little shaggy—not at all the norm for airbrushed radio pop-country. The second is the sense for melody on display here: the songs eschew easy, sticky-catchiness for hooks that feel organic and truly linked to the tenor and meaning of the songs. When Green sings about a long-lost first lover on “My First Everything” or a father struggling with Alzheimer’s on “Numbers on the Cars,” there’s a sweet wistfulness in the movement of the melody that belies the melancholy of the lyrics. But the thing that really elevates this album for me is one single song, called “I Wish Grandpas Never Died.” Sometimes, songs just resonate with you so perfectly that you can’t help but be swept into their orbit. On the surface, “Grandpas” is a pretty simple piece of writing: a wishlist of all the things the narrator thinks could make the world a better place. Some are tongue-in-cheek: wishes for coolers that never run out of beer, or for country radio stations that still play actual country music. Some are heartfelt and earnest: wishes to go back in time to your first kiss or to when you first learned to drive; prayers that every soldier overseas could somehow make it home. But at the end of every chorus, the titular line swings back through and brings a truckload of emotional payoff with it: “And I wish grandpas never died.” This year marked five years that my grandpa has been gone, and every time I listen to this song, I think of him. Like all the best songs, it makes me smile, and cry, and remember, and hope—all at the same time. It is a mighty, beautiful piece of work, and, for my money, the greatest country song of the year.

29. Canyon CityBluebird

With some music, you can’t quite put into words what it means to you. I love diving into the lyrics of most albums I adore: dissecting their themes, trying to get to the bottom of what they have to say about the world at large and my life in microcosm. It stands to reason that my favorite albums—both of all time and of most years—are the ones that I find deeply resonant on a thematic level. But there’s a specific kind of magic to that other kind of album too: the kind you can put on and have it whisk you away just on the basis of how it sounds; the kind of album where the lyrics and themes and words maybe matter less than the atmosphere it creates. That’s the way I feel about Bluebird. It’s not even that the lyrics aren’t lovely, because they are. There’s a poetic grace to these songs, a simplistic elegance that singer-songwriter Paul Jeffrey Johnson (the man behind Canyon City) has clearly mastered. The way he paints pictures in these songs—of rain on windows, of girls driving away into the night, of the stars in a sky on a perfectly clear, dark night—is truly beautiful. But the draw of Bluebird for me is how utterly tranquil it sounds. It is the most soothing, evocative album I heard in 2019—a perfect soundtrack for the late, late, late night drive I haven’t gotten to take with it yet. If you’ve got a drive under the stars coming in the next month or so, my advice is to make this Bluebird your companion.

30. Runaway JuneBlue Roses

One of the things I would have told you coming into this year, had you asked for my big 2019 predictions in the country music space, was that Runaway June’s “Buy My Own Drinks” would climb the charts. From the first time I heard that song—a spunky anthem of female independence—I knew it was a hit. The track was ultimately stymied by the same thing that has stalled many other female-fronted country singles in recent years: country radio loves its talent-impaired men and overlooks superior songs written and performed by women. But Runaway June, a debut act with no prior radio success under their belts, still managed to take the song into the top 10 on the Country Airplay chart, and even broke into the all-genre Hot 100. Sometimes, songs are just undeniable, and Blue Roses, the full-length debut from this Nashville-based trio, is packed with undeniable gems: “Head Over Heels” and “I Am Too” use wordplay to subvert the meanings of common phrases in clever ways, while the gorgeous “We Were Rich” explores how, when you’re a kid, the way you are raised and the values your parents pass on to you are a hell of a lot more important than how much money your family has in the bank. The record as a whole is top heavy and loses steam a bit in the second half, but the high points show a talented collection of new voices that I have a feeling will make a mark on country music for years to come.

The 2018 Re-Rank

2018 was maybe my least favorite music year of the whole decade. On the whole, last year just failed to ignite the level of passion in new music that I’ve become accustomed to. There are a whole lot of albums from my initial 2018 top 40 that I feel like I pretty much stopped listening to the moment I finished writing the list. That happens, of course: some years are bound to be lighter than others in terms of albums you love. There was a small contingent of 2018 LPs that I positively adored, though, and that cluster of favorites pretty much stayed the same (and stayed in heavy rotation) throughout 2019. The only major change is that I swapped the album that was originally in the number 10 slot (The 1975’s A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships) for a record that I found myself going back to a lot more (The Night Game’s self-titled debut).

  1. Caitlyn SmithStarfire
  2. Kacey MusgravesGolden Hour
  3. Andrew McMahon in the WildernessUpside Down Flowers
  4. Ruston KellyDying Star
  5. Lori McKennaThe Tree
  6. Donovan WoodsBoth Ways
  7. Brian FallonSleepwalkers
  8. Matt NathansonSings His Sad Heart
  9. Death Cab for CutieThank You for Today
  10. The Night GameThe Night Game

The 2009 Re-Rank

2009 was the year that I graduated from high school, so it’s been a bit surreal to go back to these albums and acknowledge that they are a decade old. I remember having a real crisis that year, trying to decide between three or four options for my album of the year title. In retrospect, the number one pick is the clearest thing in the world—even if I still genuinely love every album listed here.

  1. The Dangerous SummerReach for the Sun
  2. Will HogeThe Wreckage
  3. Dashboard ConfessionalAlter the Ending
  4. Mat KearneyCity of Black and White
  5. John MayerBattle Studies
  6. Boys Like GirlsLove Drunk
  7. The DamnwellsOne Last Century
  8. Relient KForget and Not Slow Down
  9. Michael McDermottHey La Hey
  10. U2No Line on the Horizon
  11. Green Day21st Century Breakdown
  12. Third Eye BlindUrsa Major
  13. DawesNorth Hills
  14. All Time LowNothing Personal
  15. Ingrid MichaelsonEverybody
  16. SwitchfootHello Hurricane
  17. Jason Isbell and the 400 UnitJason Isbell and the 400 Unit
  18. fun.Aim and Ignite
  19. Miranda LambertRevolution
  20. The FrayThe Fray