It’s easy for end-of-decade years to become an afterthought in terms of the music they produce. Most music publications dropped their “best albums of the decade” features in early October. At Chorus.fm, we held off until December 9th. Still, when you spend months of the year reflecting on past years, and on the albums you loved from throughout a whole decade, the music from the year you’re currently living in can get overlooked, forgotten, or short-changed on listening time.
I suppose we were guilty of that sin ourselves, as our “albums of the decade” list ultimately lacked a single entry from 2019. Call it anti-recency bias, or maybe just an occupational hazard of having to start planning and compiling these lists months before any readers actually lay eyes on them. But therein lies the beauty of still being able to revert to old routines: to end the year with a proper tribute to everything it had to offer on its own.
And 2019 certainly had plenty of riches to offer, from old favorite bands delivering some of their sturdiest albums in years, to one of the strongest slates of debut talent I can remember getting in a single 365-day timeframe. Taking in the scope of a decade and all the music it gave us is a fulfilling experience; it’s certainly something I invested a lot of time in this year. But there’s also something wonderful about being past that now, and about being able to take things day by day again: week by week, release day by release day, album by album. Making lists is fun, but listening and discovering will always be the greatest parts of being a music fan. Here’s to the 25 albums that we discovered, listened to, and loved most in 2019. [CM]
Note: Check the bottom of this post for links to individual contributor lists.
We’ve been conditioned to know that any year that contains a Jimmy Eat World album release is going to be special. This is a band that virtually defines consistency of quality. 2019 brought us Surviving, and this latest entry in the band’s discography feels like a complete showcase for everything Jimmy Eat World embodies. At their base level, Jimmy Eat World is an alternative rock band that makes catchy music with exceptionally relatable lyrics and themes. They may experiment with soundscapes, layers, and minor tweaks to this outline, but at the core, their strength is akin to your favorite restaurant; it’s familiar and yet exciting. The chef may have a new special to show you (“555”), or a fresh take on a familiar dish (“Delivery”), or even a meal that will remind you why you fell in love in the first place (“Diamond”). There’s a comfort in a consistency that still aims to inspire and surprise you.
Surviving is such an album. It surprises in the best ways by offering new wrinkles in songs destined for late-night drives, or for soundtracking your real-life montage scenes. It’s an album full of musical moments: moments that carry with them the history of the band and their catalog, but also moments that feel fresh, new, and indicative of a group not resting on past success but instead focusing their talents and abilities to create modern classics and new songs that will find their way onto playlists for years to come.
When I think about Jimmy Eat World, and I reflect on their career, I often think back to my high-school days and burning CD mixtapes for crushes. (Yes, I am willing to show my age to make this story work.) I can’t think of any mixtapes I made from 15 to 25 that didn’t contain at least one Jimmy Eat World song. As I got older and had far fewer crushes, and we started entering the mp3 and streaming music era, I stopped making mixtapes. Today’s musical landscape is dominated by the playlist (and I release one every single week), yet when the band released their new album this year, I realized that I am still drawn to putting their music onto these little collections of songs. There’s something so innately sharable about this band, and something so universal about the emotions they’re capable of conjuring, that I will always feel compelled to spread that feeling. They’re a band that makes catchy music, sure, but it’s when you hear that specific lyric that sends a shiver up your spine and puts to music those feelings in your chest that makes them legends. As 2019 comes to a close and we put the decade to rest, I think Jimmy Eat World topping yet another best-of list on my website is perfect. [JT]
The Dangerous Summer are not a band that needs much introduction around these parts. And yet, this Ellicott City, Maryland-based band really opened my eyes to their music on Mother Nature in a way that I was not expecting. The Dangerous Summer had been a band that I had listened to more or less casually over the years. Mother Nature was an album that grabbed me from my very first listen and kept me coming back for more. Each time I went back to the album, I found myself discovering new intricate bits and pieces that I may have missed on the earlier spins, a fact that only added to the beauty and mystery of the record as a whole. Songs like “Bring Me Back to Life” have a sonic punch that truly make them sound larger than life, and vocalist AJ Perdomo delivers some of his best work ever on tracks that showcase his vocal prowess, emotion, and control (see “Way Down”). And while the first side of the record is stacked with classics, the latter never loses momentum either, delivering certified killer songs like the anthemic “Where Were You When the Sky Opened Up” or the electronic-tinged “It Is Real.” One can only hope that The Dangerous Summer will use the momentum gained from this record to continue to experiment and expand upon their already dynamic sound. [AG]
Every once in awhile, an artist makes 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 tends to be. 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 take on 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 now take everything from Achtung Baby-era U2 to Hot Fuss-era Killers to George Harrison’s triple-LP epic All Things Must Pass, and turn 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. [CM]
Witnessing Clairo’s ascent to indie-pop stardom has been nothing short of inspiring. In 2017, many of us were watching the young singer-songwriter’s homemade video for “Pretty Girl” on repeat. There was a certain DIY charm to it, sure, but beyond that, the song was both an undeniable earworm and an ironic take on the expectations women face in toxic relationships. We heard her style evolve into lo-fi R&B on the equally viral “Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.” But Immunity, her debut album, decidedly avoids sticking with either one of these genres, instead rooting itself in a diverse collection of influences, ranging from emotional ’90s singer-songwriter fodder to fuzzy alt-rock and beyond. A testament to her abilities, Immunity sits among the top five albums on this list not because it defines any genre, but rather because it denies all of them.
Immunity also details the struggles of youth. There are gut-wrenching piano ballads (“Alewife”) followed closely by a vocoder-drenched experimental track (“Closer to You”). There is newfound, nervous love, hinted at on highlights like “North” and “Sofia,” surrounding something sensual and exciting on “Softly.” Immunity as a whole, however, is anchored by lead single “Bags.” Against three simple guitar chords and a dizzying synth, Clairo explores complex feelings of longing and denial. The chorus in particular is enough to tug at the heartstrings: “Can you see me using everything to hold back?/I guess this could be worse/Walking out the door with your bags.” Thankfully, Immunity channels a general sense of resolution and survival throughout, but Clairo’s debut perfectly showcases the songwriter’s knack for crafting music that is just as personal as it is universal. If we’re lucky, she’ll remain at the forefront of a class of Gen-Z artists who are capable of the very same. [AM]
Oso Oso’s 2017 breakthrough, The Yunahon Mixtape, was the product of desperation. The album was quietly released for free without promotional singles or label backing, and bandleader Jade Lilitri planned to more or less retire the project afterwards, maybe sporadically releasing EPs whenever he had the desire to write. It’s a sort of the emo Born to Run: a last-ditch-effort record where you can hear all the blood, sweat, and tears in the songs. Thankfully, things turned out differently than Lilitri expected and The Yunahon Mixtape blew up. This is all to say that it wouldn’t be inaccurate to call Basking in the Glow the first Oso Oso album to come with expectation; how do you follow up an unexpected hit? If you’re Lilitri, you release the best record of your career. Basking in the Glow has all the hooks we’ve come to expect from previous Oso Oso releases, plus a sunny optimism befitting the sugary melodies. Think Something to Write Home About or Stay What You Are as touchstones. It might sound hyperbolic to compare a months-old LP to two of the genre’s classics, but Basking in the Glow has the sort of timeless quality that suggests that, had it come out 20 years ago, we’d discuss this record in the same way we do those two. There’s no sense that this record is dated or derivative, and it eschews the genre’s worst impulses, particularly lyrically. In place of the misogyny that marked so much of emo for so long, Lilitri offers a self-aware positivity that feels lived-in rather than rehearsed. On highlight “The View” he admits he’s “making progress in microscopic strides.” He’s wrong; on Basking in the Glow, he’s taking a massive leap forward. [ZD]
2019 was a year that oftentimes felt very dark. It was like every piece of news we were pummeled with—about global politics, climate change, surveillance technology, you name it—was more troubling than the last, and just more reason to slip into pessimism and nihilism.
With that context in mind, PUP’s Morbid Stuff was the perfect soundtrack for the year. It’s a dark, pessimistic blast of rage—which is not a new tack for PUP, but still feels more relevant than ever. It is also, somewhat oxymoronically, incredibly fun, thanks to the combination of the band’s pumped-up punk rock and Stefan Babcock’s witty gallows humor permeating each song. On “See You At Your Funeral,” he sings: “I hope the world explodes, I hope that we all die/We can watch our highlights in hell, I hope they’re televised.” “Full Blown Meltdown,” meanwhile, is an at-once explosive and hilarious take-down of those in the music industry who capitalize off of depression. “How long will self-destruction be alluring?/It’s good for business and baby, business is booming.”
While it’s become hackneyed at this point to say that the morbid state of the world under capitalism is enough to feed great punk rock (it isn’t, really), PUP have taken it in an unexpected direction: they wrote a political punk album without ever touching on politics. Instead of writing self-serving protest songs, they’re simply angry at everything, and in 2019 anger felt more essential than any political talking point. Songs won’t save us, but maybe being pissed off will. [MH]
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. [CM]
Young Enough, the second album from Brooklyn-based band Charly Bliss, outlines vocalist Eva Hendricks’ view of the world. There’s a lot of darkness throughout the record, but Charly Bliss never disregard the light. Eva captures moments of infatuation (“I wanna eat the world with you/and float like dust inside of you”), leaves the holds of an abusive relationship (“I was fazed in the spotlight/his word against mine”), and comes to terms her most frightening realization (“I’m alive but I’m dead inside”). But those lines aren’t easily noticed, as Eva and her brother, drummer Sam Hendricks come up with delectable hooks from the start of the record to its closing track. Where their debut album Guppy offered a delightful blend of grunge and bubble-gum pop, Young Enough ramps up the keyboards and makes sure each song sounds enormous.
When Eva Hendricks begs to love an old flame, who has given her 100 reasons to walk away, and belts out the lines, “Eyes like a funeral, mouth like a bruise/veins like a hallway, voice like a wound” in the viscerally haunting “Hurt Me,” rooms fall silent. Whether it’s been a month or five years since you left a toxic relationship—romantic or platonic—a Charly Bliss gig is an invitation to a safe space. It’s not all doom and gloom, though, as Charly Bliss have managed to pull off something nearly impossible: on this album, they turn traumatic experiences into something big, sparkly, and beautiful. With Young Enough, Charly Bliss present simple yet colossal anthems that allow people to heal. [MV]
Amber Bain is full of surprises. Her brief but abrupt emergence onto the British indie pop scene in 2015 came with enough ambition to leave her fans clamoring for more, but also brought enough mystery to not know what to expect next. The years to follow were a delight; it’s every fan’s dream to receive a consistent flow of music from an artist they love. Bain’s capability of not letting quantity diminish her quality resulted in four incredibly strong and experimental EPs over the course of three years, allowing us to watch her development in near-real-time, as she stripped back one layer after another to immerse us fully within her world. In fact, if there’s one thing that’s not surprising at all about Good At Falling, it’s that these 13 songs are the Kodak moment her fans had all been unknowingly waiting for. The perfect storm of her vulnerability and skill, an untethered sucker punch of emotion—a picture perfect image of The Japanese House. Over the album’s 45-minute run time, we hear Bain confess to us through vocoders and harmonies her struggles with loneliness and detachment, interweaving a newfound love and how it’s made her reconsider her purpose. On “Maybe You’re The Reason”, she tackles the track-entitled inquiry by asking: ”Is there a point to this/Or are we living for the feeling/When we look back on what we did and reminisce,” before launching into one of the album’s strongest hooks. Tracks like “You Seemed So Happy” and “Everybody Hates Me” give us less optimistic views on her perception of life, delving into the sadness and self-doubt that can lay dormant beneath a lifestyle that appears, outwardly, to be content. Bain’s way of conveying deeply personal experiences into digestible poems is just as well examined on the closing track “I Saw You In A Dream,” where she focuses on just that: a dream in which she’s seen a loved one that no longer exists in her conscious state. In a gut-wrenching anecdote, she recollects that “all good things come to an end.” And not long after, Good At Falling comes to an end as well. But if there’s anything we know about Amber Bain’s inability to contain her endless creativity, it won’t be long before we hear from her again. [TG]
10. NF – The Search
On July 26, 2019, rap artist NF released his fourth studio album, The Search. Like his 2017 album, Perception, The Search debuted at number one on the Billboard 200. It also outsold Chance the Rapper’s highly anticipated album, The Big Day, and inspired an influx of Google searches asking, “Who is NF?” Born Nathan Feuerstein, 28-year-old NF had a difficult childhood. His parents divorced when he was young and his mother struggled with addiction, eventually dying from a drug overdose in 2009. His rough upbringing and autobiographical, in-your-face rap style has invited inevitable comparisons to fellow Michigan rapper Eminem. But NF’s journey to stardom has been uniquely his own. He was largely influenced by Christian hip-hop and his albums lack the explicit content embraced by many of his mainstream counterparts. Music is NF’s coping mechanism and his lyrics are drawn straight from his inner dialogue. They are intense, complex, and surprisingly relatable.
On his previous albums, NF addressed tough topics without flinching: addiction, isolation, abandonment, depression. The Search is no exception. Its songs deliver one verbal punch in the gut after another, whether he’s coming clean about a post-success breakdown (the title track), the fear of being forgotten (“My Stress”), or his shortcomings in his relationship with his wife (“Time”). Throughout, he retains an undercurrent of hope in his songs. The message of the record—and of NF’s career so far—is that no matter how bleak things have become, not all is lost. [EW]
I like to describe Noah Gundersen as the current greatest secret in music. He’s an incredibly talented songwriter who always seems to float just below the radar, but those that discover his music are almost certain to become lifelong fans. His latest album, Lover, is an audacious collection of songs that walks the line between stripped-down soul and almost Bon Iver-esque electronic flourishes. It’s the kind of album that has the ability to draw you in instantly (“Crystal Creek,” “Watermelon”). Still, it’s with repeated listens that you find how much of the music’s power is sitting there just under the surface, boiling a little hotter with each play. It’s within this extra time with the album that it’s grown with me to the point where I’ll find myself thinking about specific lines, or little moments, long after the album’s finished playing. When we were building our “best of the decade” feature earlier this year, I had Noah’s Ledges in my top ten. That’s an album I still listen to frequently and find myself blown away by how well it captures feelings I’ve felt and thoughts I’ve never been able to put to words. Lover is a different kind of album, but it carries with it the same gravitas and ability to conjure emotions from a hidden place in my mind. That kind of catharsis stays with you; that kind of songwriting is unique. [JT]
I have loved watching the evolution of Copeland throughout their career. You can trace a through-line from their early work to where they are now, but if you were to listen to those early albums and then put on their latest, it’s almost dizzying how much they’ve grown and fleshed out their sound. Blushing is a lush and vibrant album full of sonic layers and emotive vocals. It’s an album that feels whole, with all of the songs building and working off each other to craft a sound and album experience that can feel, at times, genuinely meditative. There’s always been an ethereal quality to Copeland’s music, but on Blushing, this once-below-the-surface element feels baked into every carried note and whispered vocal line. There’s a confidence to the songwriting and experimentation that shines through the songs, leaving the listener feeling as though they’ve been brought into the band’s musical world to experience it with them. It’s a brilliant vibe that leads me to believe this is the band at their very best. With a career of classics behind them, Copeland are still able to strike out new and exciting paths as they forge important new additions to an already envious catalog of work. [JT]
Are you ready for a revolution? It sure seems like we’re witnessing one, courtesy of 19-year old pop phenom, Billie Eilish. From Dave Grohl comparing the buzz surrounding Eilish’s music to Nirvana during the ‘90s, to her appearing on a different magazine cover just about every month, it sure seems like Eilish is ready to take her moment as far as it can carry her. With all the buzz, it’s easy to forget that what’s at the center of it—the music—is and always has been well worth the attention. From the drowned-out pop fuzz of “Bad Guy,” to the breakneck hook of “You Should See Me In A Crown,” Eilish has established a unique signature sound on When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go that we are likely to see others attempt to emulate for years to come. Her vocal delivery is the key, moving from a whisper to growl at a moment’s notice and conveying a deep vulnerability that shows her to be just as human as the rest of us. Based on the momentum Eilish gained in 2019 alone, the new year promises to be another incredible chapter for this dynamic young talent. [AG]
At this point, I think I’m out of new things to write about this album. I wrote about it in our “50 bands you need to know” feature. I wrote about it in our “best of 2019 (so far)” mid-year feature. And since it’s at the very top of my personal best of 2019 list, I wrote a little about it there as well. I’m out of ways to say it’s an incredibly well-crafted pop-album that melds the upbeat and reflective. I’m out of ways to say that it’s a refreshing reminder of what great pop-songwriting can be, or that it’s an album that’s proven incredibly listenable during all four seasons. There are only so many ways to say some version of “it’s great, and you should listen to it.” But hey, it’s great; you should listen to it. [JT]
Are we doomed to follow the same decisions made by our ancestors? Or, are things decided by fate? These are just some of the questions Seattle band Great Grandpa are asking on their second album, Four of Arrows. These contemplations are wrapped up with the adjoining core themes of grief and trauma. On album highlight “Mono No Aware,” when Alex Menne sings, “When grandma slowly faded from Alzheimer’s like a lifeless steak in that empty diner/It now reminds me of my failing grasp of the present, memory, self and past,” she gives the rawest snapshot of watching someone wane away, and the devastation that comes with it.
Great Grandpa went into Four of Arrows with clear intent: “Go slow, big choices.” That mantra pays off in spades. Blending ceaselessly charming country twang with existential ennui and earworm melodies, Great Grandpa fire from all cylinders on the stunning “Bloom,” a jubilant track full of hooks that recall Tom Petty, “and how he wrote his best songs when he was 39.” The anthemic “Rosalie” tells the story of a character fighting mental illness, while the refrain of “Human Condition” plainly admits something we all know: “Sometimes living is hard, hard work.” Backed by an idyllic guitar, Menne croons and yelps throughout the emotional pillar of the album, “Digger” before a rousing climax that rejoices in release. “Digger” in particular sees Great Grandpa on the search for something; something tells me they’ve already found it. [MV]
Genre lines continue to be blurred in today’s scene, and I find that to be a very unique and healthy sign for the direction of the music industry as a whole. In a couple of years, no one is going to remember or care whether or not a band made one of the best punk rock records of the decade and then “turned” into a pop band with their subsequent release. Instead real music fans will remember the great songs that made them feel something, regardless of genre definitions Enter Sturgill Simpson, who has already established himself as a more-than-capable country music star, to deliver a splendid rock record in Sound & Fury. From the ballsy artwork of a muscle car outrunning an atomic bomb, to the overall feel of the album, it’s easy to see why this record has been hanging around the best sellers lists since it was released. “Remember to Breathe” would fit well on an action movie soundtracks. “A Good Look” sounds as big as the explosion from the album artwork. Even slightly subdued tracks such as the electronica-esque “Make Art Not Friends” come across as well thought out and strategically placed into the world Simpson has created on this larger than life record. In the post-genre world we’re heading toward, Sound & Fury is clearly a record that will stand the test of time. Just don’t blame Sturgill Simpson for that future speeding ticket you got while putting “Last Man Standing” on blast going down the highway. [AG]
17. Blink-182 – Nine
Blink-182 in 2019 shouldn’t work. They are a band defined by the 2000s (or maybe the late ‘90s) in a way that few others could be. They were bratty and immature, a guitar-based rebellion to the boy bands who stole just enough of their poster-worthy good looks to land on TRL. Looking back, their lyrics and stage banter are entirely out of touch from where our society has grown. And on top of all that, they parted ways with arguably their most popular and vocally defining founding member in Tom DeLonge. And yet, here, in 2019, Blink-182 have not only found a way to work, they’ve not only found a way to thrive, but they’ve found a way to move from being a nostalgia act to reaching new fans, having new hit songs, and putting out a record worthy of our best of the year list. This feels like it shouldn’t be happening, and yet here we are.
Nine finds Blink-182 exuding confidence in who they want to be in this new era. Where their previous release, 2016’s California, often felt like a band finding their footing again as a new unit, Nine feels like the group forging forward versus looking back at who they once were. There’s still familiarity: Mark’s vocals and melodies are undeniable. Travis Barker’s drumming is, as always, superb. And Matt Skiba takes on more of a role in songwriting and lead vocals. But then all of these familiar things get mixed with dashes of new. Playing with popular song structures, flirting more with electronic elements, incorporating and utilizing more modern recording techniques, and in the process crafting an album that isn’t just a polished modern take on music with the name Blink-182 slapped on, but a uniquely Blink-182 record.
Blink-182 in 2019 shouldn’t excite me. This is a band that defined my teenage years, and as I approach the middle of my thirties, my tastes have shifted far from the pop-punk domination of my high-school days. And yet, here we are with an album in my top ten most-played for the year and full of songs (“Darkside,” “Hungover You,” and “Black Rain”) that I’ve come to associate with the band as much as any of their classics. And that feeling of excitement also comes with feelings of introspection. Feelings of trying to figure out what defining myself by this band in my early years meant for my early identity, and feelings of great frustration with choices they make and how to reconcile that with an enjoyment of the music. And I don’t have good answers to most of the questions I ask myself, but I also find it fascinating that here, at the end of the decade, I’m still laying in my bed thinking about Blink-182 at all. This isn’t something I expected. This isn’t something I would have predicted. But I can’t deny the pull the music has and how much fun it was to make new memories to Blink-182 music this year. Maybe it shouldn’t work, but it did. [JT]
Big Thief released two albums in 2019, both of which are featured on this list. The first, U.F.O.F., dropped in May. The second, Two Hands, arrived in October, just over five months later. Two Hands is the sound of a band-aid being ripped off of U.F.O.F. It is visceral, a recording that’s intimate in its proximity to each member and that unleashes Big Thief’s most primal work yet. The record’s more physical moments duel between its louder and quieter nuances, paced always by frontwoman Adrianne Lenker’s focused, heavy guitar tones and James Krivchenia’s meticulous, inventive drumming (“The Toy” and “Shoulders”). Everything comes to a head “Not,” the fiery first single (and Obama favorite) that is a definite song-of-the-year candidate. Two Hands feels loose throughout, and it ensures that Big Thief are leaving 2019 behind having cemented themselves as one of the most important rock bands today. [DB]
2019 was undoubtedly the year of Lizzo. Her voice is an outstanding, bellowing force that begs to be heard. After eight years of giving free tickets to undersold gigs and “playing shows for free beer and food with -$32” in her bank account, the world finally caught up to the greatness of “Truth Hurts,” her 2017 empowerment anthem that featured in the Netflix film Someone Great. Lizzo subsequently leapt to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 and stayed there for seven consecutive weeks. The success of “Truth Hurts” invited the acclaim of Cuz I Love You, Lizzo’s third album, now certified gold in the U.S. “I’m crying/Cuz I love you!” Lizzo roars, a cappella, on the thundering title track. It’s just one of perhaps 50 moments where jaws audibly hit the floor while listening to the record.
On “Soulmate,” Lizzo lets us in on a secret: she doesn’t need you anymore. She is her own soulmate. Learning to put yourself above the needs of others isn’t easy. Loving yourself, despite some vocal groups in society insisting that you’re wrong and unlovable as you are, is even harder. Lizzo refuses to be defined by what anyone thinks she should be and makes arduous journeys of self-love sound fun. That’s exactly what we need in art right now: music that won’t leave your mind, and someone who’s openly vulnerable while consistently repeating that YOU are enough. [MV]
The first time I heard “Dead of Night,” the opening track of Orville Peck’s astonishing debut Pony, I couldn’t help but think about Chris Isaak and his instantly recognizable falsetto in hit single “Wicked Game.” It’s fitting, then, that the song’s accompanying video is a Lynchian slice of Western cinema, featuring Peck sauntering around saloons and pickup trucks in his signature leather mask, flanked by a crew of beautiful and flamboyant dancing cowfolk. From the moment you first finish that video, one thing becomes clear: Orville Peck is changing the country-western landscape. His sexuality plays an inevitable role in that task (Peck identifies as a queer artist), but it has less to do with this artist’s placement on this list than his obvious songwriting abilities. Pony truly sounds like a timeless record. It channels the aforementioned Chris Isaak, but also Roy Orbison, and at times, even Morrissey (without any of the far-right baggage). Aside from a classic country aesthetic, there are flashes of shimmering 90s alt-rock in the changing tempo of “Buffalo Run,” and just a track later, cosmic synths filling out the verses of “Queen of the Rodeo.”
But of course, Peck’s sexuality has to play a role in the album’s identity. Country music is a notoriously conservative segment of the music landscape, a reputation the genre continues to shed with the emergence of artists like Sturgill Simpson and Kacey Musgraves. But as cool as reverb-drenched, LGBTQ+ friendly cowboy music is, the coolest part about Pony is that it’s proud reverb-drenched, LGBTQ+ friendly cowboy music. Peck never hides this part of his life from his songs, regardless of how fictional they may be. On “Dead of Night,” he watches boys from afar, lamenting the sight itself is “enough to make a young man…” before trailing off. Later, on the ethereal “Big Sky,” he sings of a life of heartbreak, having loved and lost with boxers, jailers, and the like. All of this wrapped with a vintage, doo-wop twang makes Pony one of the most unique and essential country music releases of the year. [AM]
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 was 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. [CM]
Panorama. There couldn’t possibly be a better or more apt title for La Dispute’s Epitaph Records debut. Here, the Grand Rapids, Michigan quintet bring a wide-angled view of their art, creating the most profound and immersive work of their decade-plus long career. However, as La Dispute take their sound to a higher astral plane, Jordan Dreyer looks inward. Panorama features Dreyer’s most personal and introspective lyrics ever, his pensive whispers and frantic yelps meshing perfectly with the hesitant spontaneity of the “Fulton Street” suite and “Footsteps At The Pond.” The album’s 10 tracks showcase the band’s continued excellent musicianship, from the jazzy “Rhodonite and Grief” (propelled by the rhythmic duo of bassist Adam Vass and drummer Brad Vander Lugt) to the anguished anxiety that emanates from the sparse “There You Are (Hiding Place).”
It’s extremely difficult to follow up a post-hardcore classic, much less two, but La Dispute (just like their peers in Pianos Become The Teeth and Touché Amoré) continue to zig when others would zag. On these prior records, La Dispute would build up the tension and release it in frenzied cathartic fashion, rapidly moving to the next moment. Panorama is more patient, delivering fully realized compositions that choose to stay within these fleeting moments (the seven-minute closer “You Ascendant” exemplifies this best) rather that leave it behind too fast. [DB]
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 of 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 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. Instead, we get to see behind the curtain at what it’s like for a normal person to suddenly become a superstar. [CM]
I’ve already talked about Big Thief’s impressive 2019, so I’ll keep this brief. Big Thief kicked off a spectacular year with their ethereal third album U.F.O.F., an intimate journey into the band’s supernatural psyche. It’s equal parts breezy and sinister as vocalist Adrianne Lenker lulls you into a false sense of security with her gentle vocals (the swelling allure of “Cattails,” or the profound “From”) before the band decimates you on tracks like “Contact.” Meanwhile, Buck Meek’s simmering guitar work highlights the breathtaking “Jenni.” It’s the type of career-defining album that typically takes musicians years to conjure. Somehow, Big Thief did it twice in 2019. [DB]
New Hell is an awfully harsh name for anything that isn’t a metal album. But on Greet Death’s sophomore full-length, the Flint, Michigan-based emo trio do whatever they can to earn it. Not unlike their peers in Cloakroom, the band greatly focuses on crushingly heavy guitars complimented by lush soundscapes. Unlike Cloakroom or Hum, Greet Death delivers lyrics that are every bit as inescapably dark as their music. “Here comes the sun/Here comes the shit again,” starts vocalist Sam Boyhtari on single “Do You Feel Nothing?” You read that right; that’s how the single starts. Both singers (the other being bassist Logan Gaval) have a distinct vocal delivery that once separated their songs on 2017’s Dixieland. But here, they work together, most noticeably strengthening “You’re Gonna Hate What You Done” and “New Hell.” These two songs best capture the spirit of the album, each approaching 10 minutes and showcasing the band’s penchant for explosive songwriting. But nothing quite matches the gut-wrenching cognitive dissonance of “Crush,” a pop song that effectively details the narrator’s disenchantment with love and life altogether. [AM]
- [JT]: Jason Tate
- [CM]: Craig Manning
- [DB]: Drew Beringer
- [TG]: Trevor Graham
- [MV]: Mary Varvaris
- [AM]: Aaron Mook
- [ZD]: Zac Djamoos
- [AG]: Adam Grundy
- [EW]: Eric Wilson
- [MH]: Mia Hughes