What’s the rush?
Now that 2019 is complete, I can finally stop fussing over my list of the year’s best albums and share my rankings—and more importantly, some explanations for why this is the music I kept coming back to. (Some of these blurbs are copied or condensed from reviews I wrote for this site earlier this year, but I won’t tell Glen Taylor if you don’t.)
I try to listen as widely as I can, but there’s more music than any one person can or should hear, so this list is hardly comprehensive. If an album you love has popped up on year-end lists elsewhere doesn’t show up here and you want to know why, the answer’s simple: I like it less than you do—and more importantly, I like it less than the albums here. Which I like a whole lot.
As for the year’s best local albums, they deserve a spotlight all their own: Over here you'll find my list of the 20 best.
75. Fruit Bats, Gold Past Life
Youths nostalgic for the unremembered ’70s can have the pleasant, pointless soft-rock craft of Whitney—Eric Johnson, who was providing me with an alternative to Fleet Foxes a decade back, is still my unfashionable retro preference. His AM studio-folk production is gorgeous rather than merely pretty, his melodies are as frictionless as the George Harrison slide guitar he mimics, his Gibb-like falsetto at least once (on “Ocean”) modulates to pure Lennon. So… what if the Bee Gees had never gone disco and instead moved to Marin County and swiped stylistic tics from the solo Beatles? I’ve heard worse alternate realities.
74. De Lorians, De Lorians
These Tokyo post-something-or-others are the best kind of Zappa fans—the kind who don’t write lyrics. And so, without fearing that anything like Frank’s pee-pee-poo-poo gags and “incisive” “social” “commentary” will spoil the fun, you can strap yourself in and let their ADHD fusion whip you around the room like a deflating balloon. Themes don’t always repeat, rhythms are often in flux, but their style is quainter and tidier than some agog reviews insist, and the improvisations of leader Takefumi Ishida’s sax and Soya Nogami’s guitar are consistently melodic. And with eight songs (well, seven songs and a 30 second reprise of the lead cut) clocking in at over a half hour, they’re economical too.
73. John Mulaney, John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch
No, this won’t make a lot of sense if you haven’t yet Netflixed Mulaney’s skewed yet heartfelt tribute to the eternal weirdness of theater kids disguised as a skewed yet heartfelt tribute to 20th century children’s television. But once you watch it (as you should—you’ve had five days, what are you waiting for?) most of Eli Bolin’s songs stand on their own. The grown-ups deliver as expected: André De Shields’ one-eyed tutor jazzily insisting that algebra will save you from his fate, Jake Gyllenhaal’s demented Mr. Music growing ever more frantic as his act fails ever more miserably, David Byrne helping a girl berate inattentive adults at a party. But the kids steal the spotlight, especially on the inexplicably moving “Do Flowers Exist at Night” and the show-stealing "I Saw a White Lady Standing on the Street Just Sobbing (And I Think About It Once a Week)," a sweet, smart exercise in empathy that rhymes “Joan Didion” with “Le Pain Quotidien.” See what you miss when you finish your best albums list before the end of the year?
72. YBN Cordae, The Lost Boy
Whether he’s confessing to an anxiety-fueled pill habit he kept hidden so he wouldn’t get clowned on, turning to prayer rather than self-pity, or leaving a house that wasn’t a home, this kid is the kind of searcher you don’t hear much from in any branch of pop these days. His churchy moments are less extravagant than Chance’s, whose yelpy aplomb throws the youthful assurance of Cordae’s flow into relief on “Big Idea,” which also contributes the sharpest gospel-soul touch (with help from Donny and Roberta’s “Be Real Black for Me”) to an album that swells with them. The groove here looks back toward community, tradition, a sense of continuity, maybe just some kind of coherence—all elements a lost boy might crave. And if it sometimes seems to prop up the rhymes of the talented but ordinary MC at the center of it all, you can understand why producers want to help him out. Any decent folks would.
71. Carsie Blanton, Buck Up
This footloose New Orleans singer-songwriter’s eighth full-length Blanton since 2002 captures her perpetually youthful exuberance and political commitment in full swing. On the heavy-breathing “Jacket” (“I like your shirt/I like your jacket/I like to think about you when I whack it”) conversation with a pensive crush runs aground when Blanton discovers “You're just a Democrat; I'm a revolutionary,” while “American Kid” extends its sympathies to the fucked-over generation who’ll hopeful send the rest of us adrift on ice floes posthaste. Best of all is the title track, which channels the spirit of John Prine into a shuffling anthem for happy warriors that this age of sadsacks could damn sure use.
70. J Balvin and Bad Bunny, Oasis
Eight tracks of hooky chants en español, with beats alternating between dembow down-and-up-and-down-again and trap tickety-tack and vocals ranging from manly to macho In other words, the beach party album of the year, and if the interplay between the two stars could be warmer, their vocal timbres do complement each other. Do you have to speak Spanish to groove to it? Judging by the translations I’ve seen, might be better off not.
69. Rico Nasty & Kenny Beats, Anger Management
Title nothwithstanding, Rico ain’t mad at cha. She’s violent, not angry, and every punch she lands invigorates her flow. As she bounds through Kenny Beats’ electro minefield with animated malevolence, leaving a trail of detonations behind, she dares you to keep up. Some choruses emerge from the dust, along with boasts like “I got bitches on my dick and I ain’t even got a dick.” But mostly she loves making a big noise, and for 18 minutes, she more than manages.
68. Ezra Furman, Twelve Nudes
A therapist once told me that whenever I felt anxious I should try to convince myself I was actually feeling excited, and thanks to Furman I finally understand what that guy meant. A year after a rock opera that would fit on one side of an old dubbed C-90, Furman’s got no time for concepts as the world burns around us, plummeting forward with punk’s jittery urgency and classic rock’s momentous sweep, pausing only to muse “I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend.” Can you even imagine anyone else worth your time trying to get away with a sentiment like “What Can You Do But Rock n Roll” in 2019? OK, sure, Lana. But hers wouldn’t rock.
67. Beyoncé, The Lion King: The Gift
“Beyoncé Goes to Africa” is a tantalizing concept, promising far more majestic cross-cultural revelations than the earthly delights gathered here, their recognizable groove an indication of how subtly Afrobeats has already immigrated into U.S. pop. But trim away the 13 dialogue snippets intended to whip up Disney synergy and juice the album’s chart position with extra Spotify plays and you’ve got 14 solid-to-stellar tracks stretching a little over 45 minutes. (You’re welcome.) As always, the queen’s generosity and self-interest are inseparable: She exposes her hivelings to a broader expanse of culture while also branding its artifacts as subsidiaries within the global reach of Beycorp, Inc. And she could’ve taken a cue from Kendrick’s Black Panther soundtrack and ceded more ground to her guests: The Nigerian artists on “Don’t Jealous Me” and Tierra Whack’s showcase “My Power” don’t require regal supervision. Still, the most transcendent moments are indeed Bey’s, particularly her summit with the Malian great Oumou Sangaré on “Mood 4 Eva.” And where the soundtrack for Homecoming, no matter how inspired the arrangements, just makes me want to watch the movie again, there’s damn sure no danger of that here.
66. Ariana Grande, Thank U, Next
Ditch two subpar Max Martin productions and you’ve got a near-flawless, possibly autobiographical(ish), playful and thoughtful and silly and heartfelt song-cycle about a young woman’s romantic miseducation. The shimmery, soft-focus trap-pop productions are the distinctive, not quite uniform, possibly ideal setting for Grande’s pillowy enunciation and bottle-rocket high notes. Yes, I realize that pining for a “cohesive pop album” in the see-what-sticks era is as backward-looking as searching Yelp for your town’s finest blacksmith. Call it a “playlist” if that makes you more comfortable.
65. PUP. Morbid Stuff
How many more bratty but articulate pop-punk songs about drinking till you’re convinced your broken heart makes you a nihilist and bitching to and about your (soon-to-be) exes does the world really need? How many have you got?
64. Robert Forster, Inferno
The surviving half of Australia’s greatest pop songwriting duo has gone as long as 12 years between solo albums, so let’s appreciate that it only took four for him to crank out these nine songs—or, OK, eight if setting Yeats’ “Crazy Jane on the Day of Judgement” to a languid guitar riff is cheating a little, though there’s something so eminently Forsterian about how his voice lolls over the Irish poet’s “I can scoff and lour/And scold for an hour” I say he earns full credit. Forster savors his words at an aesthete’s leisurely pace and muses on the vagaries of success and the passage of time with an air of earned tranquility—the most intense song here is about how often he had to mow the lawn last summer. Yet the slight quaver when he sings “Time to walk around, time to hit the ground/Time to do my thing/Eat only what I eat, breathe only what I breathe/Well that's me” on “One Bird in the Sky” offers a reminder that his contentment isn’t so much achieved as practiced.
63. L'Orange & Jeremiah Jae, Complicate Your Life With Violence
These guys were made for each other. As on their 2015 collab, The Night Took Us In Like Family, the North Carolina producer whose name rhymes with nothing runs samples of hard-boiled dialogue and bluesy moans, guitar, and piano over flexible boom-bap-centered tracks while L.A.-based Jae murmurs swift bars about more modern aspects of life on the streets. A genre exercise in more way than one, but who’s afraid of a little exercise?
62. Lamin Fofana, Black Metamorphosis
Here’s how Fofana, a Berlin-based African with a grant-writer’s knack for justifying his aesthetic, has set forth the intellectual basis of these melancholy ambient compositions: “What happens when black people find themselves in the West? What ways are African aesthetics forced to permutate, outside the margins and in the in-between spaces, and what transformative potential lies on the outskirts of normative existence, in the ‘liminal zones?’” African drums combine with lapping, plosive electronics on “Dawn,” funereal bells toll as static overwhelms a teletype rhythm on “Cosmic Injuries,” but regardless of specifics the mood is consistently one of eerie balance: mildly unsettling without ever suggesting impending calamity. Would it still sound that way to me if Fofana’s précis hadn’t set the tone for my listening? Guess I’ll never know. And now neither will you.
61. Elza Soares, Planeta Fome
The title of this 82-year-old Brazilian samba queen’s thirty-somethingth album—and her second since she dramatically reinvented her sound with a crew of younger avant-gardists on A Mulher do Fim do Mundo in 2015—references a defining anecdote of her career. When a mocking TV talent show host eyed a young Soares wearing a stolen dress that didn’t fit and mockingly asked her what planet she came from, she replied “Planet Hunger.” The music here is less thrillingly disjointed than on Mulher, but the lyrics are raw and class conscious. I hear a spirit of unruly persistence, a commitment to modern rhythms that spindle tradition without disrespecting it, and beauty frayed by time but its power undiminished. You know, the usual revolutionary stuff.
60. The Highwomen, The Highwomen
Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris, and Amanda Shires are so keen to spotlight their lyrics and so taken with their vocal camaraderie that the music (especially the rhythm section) sometimes seems to come last: The humor of “Redesigning Women,” for instance, gets a little lost in the lift-every-voice folkie singalong arrangement. But “Redesigning Women” is also funny as hell, and the title track’s series of testimonials from female outlaws gains much of its power by placing word-and-voice front and center. Other highlights include three smartly written-and-sung lyrics about family (two addressed with uncommon candor to kids and one sentimental-despite-itself goodbye to a dying parent) and a pair of songs that deserve to become nothing less than new standards: the border-town heartbreaker “Wheels of Laredo” and, best of all, “If She Ever Leaves Me,” a classic country ballad with an overdue twist, as Carlile gently explains to a good ol’ boy why her girlfriend is so not into him.
59. Purple Mountains, Purple Mountains
“As a chronically depressed person I have some misgivings ... that I haven't totally worked thru yet” I chatted to friends in late July about David Berman’s comeback album. A week later, in a draft of a review I never finished, I wrote “middle age can sometimes feel like strewing a path of mordant punchlines on your way to the grave” and “transmuting your misery into well-wrought aphorisms alone won’t keep you alive, and Berman sings like he knows it.” A week later, David Berman was dead. Which doesn’t make me a prophet or Purple Mountains a suicide note, but does force me to acknowledge that I heard (and hear) Berman speaking the language of depression-not-sadness, which has fewer lessons to teach us than it pretends. There are great songs here. Berman’s never sung better, his writing is as precise as Ashbery on Music Row, and Woods’ jaunty jangle periodically staves off anhedonia. Still lines like “The end of all wanting is all I’ve been wanting” and “The dead know what they’re doing when they leave this world behind” sounded too grim when we could pretend their author sought a zen or stoic fate. In any case, I haven’t wanted to listen to this much since August.
58. DaBaby, Kirk
On “Intro,” this 28-year-old North Carolina rapper begins his second great album of 2019 addressing how he learned of his father’s death the same day he found out his album topped the Apple Music charts, but I’m happy to report that, on this bolt toward maturity, his voice darts just as athletically as on the simple and effective “Bop.” And there are other signs of growth: This has more features than its predecessor (Baby on Baby, which we’ll get to soon enough), and though there’s something insular about DaBaby’s style, he’s learning to rap comfortably in the company of others. For a week or two, I preferred this to Baby on Baby. But, as I suspected at the time, that was because the pleasures of tracking DaBaby’s ricochet flow are cumulative: The more I listen to DaBaby the more I want to listen to DaBaby.
57. Battles, Juice B. Crypts
What the fuck is going on here? A video game soundtrack gets stuck on repeat, tumbles into an open hi-hat drum ‘n’ bass pattern, is interrupted a wheedling electronic Jajouka fanfare, and eventually grinds to a halt. And that’s just track one. Lending additional sonic elements if not always concrete meaning are voices belonging to Shabazz Palaces, Merill Garbus of Tune-Yards, and (why the hell not?) Jon Anderson of Yes. But the unpredictability of this two-man-band’s instrumental mayhem is the main attraction throughout.
56. Cheekface, Therapy Island
Twenty-five years ago, most every city within range of a college radio station had a pack of jokers like this. Nowadays, their ilk’d mostly rather tweet out their one-liners or start a podcast, so maybe I just admire the extra effort it took to get a band together and write a few simple, effective tunes. But also their one-liners are better than average (“Now I’m gonna be a little condescending/That means I’m talking down to you”) and they set this good example for anyone hoping to better themselves: ”I only say I'm sorry when I'm wrong now/I only run the air when it's warm out/I only text the friends that I like now/I only talk trash if I've thought it out.”
55. Jamila Woods, Legacy! Legacy!
Like the poet she is, Woods can’t resist a good conceit, and she’s got a great one here: Each track is named for a specific artist of color, and presumably sung from their perspective. Sometimes this feels too much like a writer’s exercise, yes, and sometimes I sense Woods’ thumb on the scale and hear her indulging in a bit of ventriloquism through her famed mouthpieces. But of course she’s allowed a little license (again, she’s a poet) and these monologues are more often allusive rather than didactic, created as acts of radical imagination.
54. Khalid, Free Spirit
He’s older, smarter, and richer than the kid who sympathetically chronicled the messy loves of his essentially decent if age-appropriately confused peers on American Teen. Not hookier though—the tracks here rely on how richly his inconsolable sob blends with a plucked, muzzy guitar that hints at Afropop. Still, when he leans into a chord change with a woozy, sexy charm that hints at emotions his commonplace lyrics don’t quite nail down, it captures how you feel when your own ordinary thoughts don’t quite capture how you feel. There’s a reason the best chorus here goes “Can’t we just talk?” All in all a fitting soundtrack for—what? A drowsy, slightly bummed early morning makeout session that one of you keeps interrupting to clear up something the other mentioned last night? Maybe not an ideal scenario, but a plausible one.
53. Tropical Fuck Storm, Braindrops
Erica Dunn’s tense guitar lines warp like they’re rising off sun-baked vinyl toward atonal crescendos that offer no release. Gareth Liddiard mutters weirdly credible threats like “you’ll be picking Chinese cotton on the moon soon” while his mates amplify the voices inside his head: “When you ever gonna learn to let things go?” or “You won’t remember me” or “Get up, get up now.” The hooky-despite-itself hectoring is like the Gang of Four without the certainty of the dialectic grounding their critique. If LDR’s too romantic for you, sample Dunn’s cold-eyed take on the California dream, “Who’s My Eugene?” If you prefer happy endings, skip to “Maria 63,” which Liddiard describes as “a love song... about killing an immortal Nazi witch.”
52. Rachid Taha, Je Suis Africain
The work-in-progress that now stands as the scruffy French-Algerian rai-rock great’s posthumous farewell feels generic at times, but it also feels charmingly off-the-cuff, and off-the-cuff charm was always Taha’s speciality. “Andy Wahoo,” is about A. Warhol (and also, for some reason, J. Cash), “Striptease” is a fiddle-driven blues, and “Like a Dervish” is his first English lyric—awkward but, yes, charming. For such a casual guy though, Taha never shied away from grand conceptual statements: He did record an Arabic language version of “Rock the Casbah” after the invasion of Iraq after all. And as proof that he was dreaming big until the end, there’s the title track, a pan-African rallying cry from an Arab perspective, with an international roll call that includes Lumumba, Derrida, Fanon, Hendrix and, of course, Rachid Taha.
51. Chuck Cleaver, Send Help
Solo albums tend toward extremes—too relaxed or too uptight—and this serving of leftovers from the last Wussy album strays predictably toward the slack. Pals from Cincinnati bands even less known outside of Ohio than Cleaver’s responded to his titular request and gussied up demos driven more by Cleaver’s rhythm guitar than their typically metronomic drums, with layers of distortion concealing whatever imperfections remain below. Lyrics like “I’m so happy that I found you/I can’t stand to be around you.” sound Wussy-worthy to this outsider, and I’d like to hear a more polished version of “Bed” (“It was a crime of passion/That became an exercise in saving face”) delivered with the appropriate amount of vocal anguish. But a lot of these songs feel tossed off in the best way: When Cleaver imagines himself as Malachi from “Children of the Corn” or recalls leaving neighbors with “mouths agape” while dancing to a “Chumbawamba tape,” I’m even reminded of his old band, Ass Ponys.
50. Salif Keita, Un Autre Blanc
Where Youssou N’Dour consistently frames his art within some historical, political, or cultural context, his only male rival for the title of West Africa’s greatest living singer has primarily offered sheer gorgeous sensation. And what’s been touted as the Malian legend’s possible finale is as sheerly and sensationally gorgeous as any full-length of his I’ve encountered. I’m always suspicious of white musical tourists (especially the one typing this sentence) who seek something as abstract as beauty from a musical heritage they don’t fully understand. But I always make an exception for Keita because he deserves it. And so do you.
49. Kehlani, While We Wait
Kehlani’s recitative verse flutters through melodies as fluid as the relationships she describes (“I thought we was just fucking,” she sighs with mild exasperation at one clingy partner) and the genders she desires (“you gon’ get my hopes high, girl,” she pines on “Nights Like This” before non-girl Ty Dolla $ign chimes in with a response). Though her features are all men (Musiq Soulchild, Dom Kennedy, 6lack) that’s not to play up sexual tension, but sheerly for vocal contrast: She’s not in this for the drama, she’s in this for the “Feels,” as the title of track that lives up sweetly and sexily (though not savagely) to that vaporous name says. But just as her liquid melodies coalesce firmly when they reach the choruses, Kehlani is plenty good at establishing boundaries when needed on “Nunya” (as in “ain’t nunya business” now that you’re out of her life) or “Morning Glory,” a throwback TLC bounce about how you better appreciate how good she still looks when she doffs her wig and nails at bedtime.
48. Megan Thee Stallion, Fever
Before Hot Girl Meg even says a word her throat-clearing secures her title as Houston rap’s new MVP. Then she pops off with "I'll knock the shit out that bitch like an enema" and “Send him a pic of somebody else titties,” pisses her man off deliberately so he’ll fuck her harder later, and yawns thusly in the presence of interchangeable bill-paying dick-havers: “When they be talkin', I don't even listen/Tellin' me secrets, I probably forget it.” Foul, hard, greedy, flawless.
47. Vampire Weekend, Father of the Bride
Collecting 18 snippets that feel even shorter than they are, this is Ezra Koenig’s Unbearably White Album. There’s a tension between ease and control throughout; for all the guitars’ jazzy indirection and the effortlessness of the spry tunes and allusive couplets, this genteel folksiness is also mechanically precise, like a digital rendering of an open-air landscape. Koenig has come to acknowledge that once you care about others your own mortality is the least of your worries, and doom lurks around the edge of nearly every chorus here, from “How long till we sink till the bottom of the sea?” to “There’s an avalanche coming.” Been wanting an instruction manual for how to continue to treasure the wit and craft that have helped you survive and love in the past, yet seem hopelessly insufficient tools for addressing the looming apocalypse on the horizon? Study up.
46. Miranda Lambert, Wildcard
Lambert needed some upbeat songs to round out her set, so she whipped ’em up like the pro she is. Boasts of sexual satisfaction, same-ol’-me assertions, determined sightings of silver linings, jokes that cut straight to the punch line—it feels deliberately breezy after the always personal and occasionally ponderous break up album The Weight of These Wings. Yet for all its offhandedness, it almost coheres as a pop statement, if only because Lambert sometimes sounds like she’s reassuring herself that life’s been good to her so far. And not many superstars can sing “girls like me” so convincingly that even boys like me can hear how much she must mean to girls like her. No, there’s nothing here I’d play to prove that she’s the most brilliant mainstream country recording artist of her generation. But if you haven’t noticed by now, why should she cater to you?
45. New Pornographers, In the Morse Code of Brake Lights
What keeps me tuned in to these 11 sturdy power-pop exercises isn’t the familiar way Neko Case’s clarion peal cuts through Carl Newman’s vocal fog as though his lyrics are more urgent than they read. It’s not the ominous and timely references to a “child king” and “culture of fear” and “gig economy” that don’t so much address the precarity of our moment as illustrate how pervasively political banalities have colonized our imagination. It’s not even the newfound infatuation with synth strings, which are cute in an In Through the Out Door kind of way. It’s bassist John Collins, who channels his inner James Jamerson and John McVie so smartly he’s often as melodic as whatever’s going on up top. Which with a band this tune-forward is saying a lot.
44. Floating Points, Crush
When Sam Shepherd eschews drums, his elegant zero-gravity chamber music ripples with glitches that puncture the surface without roiling the mood, too tuneful to settle for ambient. When a beat recognizably indebted to UK Garage or drum ‘n’ bass surfaces, the rhythm sounds like a commentary on rather than an embrace of the style. Either way, I can hear a guiding intelligence at work that I trust enough to follow wherever it leads.
43. Sleater-Kinney, The Center Won't Hold
“Fighting is the fuel and anger is a friend,” Carrie Brownstein sings hopefully on “LOVE,” a song that made me fret for this entity’s persistence even before Janet Weiss jumped-or-was-she-pushed—it’s never a good sign when a band feels the need to mythologize its past in song, and this is an album desperate for fuel and friends. The distanced electronic reserve of St. Vincent’s production is a perfect mismatch for such chill-deprived rockers, generating a bracing aura of alienation, as though Sleater-Kinney don’t feel at home on their own album. Once they craved all the drama, now they’re making art out of exhaustion, the only fuel that’s truly inexhaustible. And they may be on to something. After all, where’s hope got you lately?
42. Madonna, Madame X
Look, she’s a weirdo. Lacking any real pop context, she pursues her own eccentricities and encourages Mirwais to put his stamp on whatever she imagines is current dance trends are, which fortunately this year means Latin pop. If that leads to her I-am-the-world posturing on “Killers Who Are Partying,” it also leads to her convincingly sexing it up with Swae Lee on “Crave.” So why not “Crazy” and “Bitch I’m Loca” on the same album? Why not “cha cha cha” and “ay ay yi” on same track? Why not? “Can’t you hear outside of your Supreme hoodie/The wind that’s beginning to howl” [blows into mic]. OK, I know damn well why not, but I’m tickled anyway. And I’ll admit it, I love how much she embarrasses anyone born after she became a star.
41. Denzel Curry, Zuu
In a rap game of ballers going hard in the paint, this south Florida hustler comes across like a ferocious but nimble middleweight boxer, bobbing and weaving as he spars with FnZ’s beats. He’s got such a musical flow it’s hard to say where the verse ends and the hook land, and his hood reportage is deft if blunt. In the end he goes 12 rounds without a knockout, but he tires you the fuck out, lands some good punches, and wins by decision.
40. Jenny Lewis, On the Line
Every indie-gal’s cool older sis has "had it with you trippers and drama queens,” flitting through middle age with little use for petty concerns like personal growth, love, security, or whatever other mirage of permanence or progress you’re peddling. With Beck’s production lending most of the tracks a colorfully lackadaisical shuffle, the blithe hedonism of Lewis’ “a little bit of hookin’ up is good for the soul” and “life is a disco” channels a carefree L.A. ideal with none of the self-serving B.S. spiritualism or free-love ideology that turns off us skeptical landlocked heliophobes. Yet the lyrics are choked with death, with drugs both legal and illegal taken in both moderate and extreme doses; listen up and what you’ll hear fraying the edges of Lewis’ tarnished voice is sadness, regret, but, miraculously, no bitterness.
39. 75 Dollar Bill, I Was Real
If there’s one thing the psych-rock, West African desert blues, and experimental drone this duo synthesizes here all have in common, it’s that music nerds really dig ’em. But don’t let that scare you off: Guitarist Che Chen and percussionist Rick Brown consistently uncover what’s most enticing rather than what’s most difficult about their source material. This is the sound of a series of keys turning unexpected locks, opening up new possibilities in the most familiar strains of eclecticism.
38. that dog., Old LP
Out of respect for their past glories and my own nostalgia, I won’t bother listing the many beloved ’90s bands whose reunion albums settled for respectable professionalism when the old creative spirit just wouldn’t spark. But despite being down to a sole Haden triplet, that dog. pick up precisely where they left off when nu-metal stomped all over alt-pop. That may be because their skewed chord changes and harmonies were never exactly suited to radio streamlining, so now they’re free to art things up, or because Anna Waronker’s lyrics sort through persistently intractable matters of the heart without sounding either jaded or stunted. Which in your 40s is a much greater achievement than coming up with a catchy chorus, believe you me.
37. Quelle Chris, Guns
Chris doesn’t hew exclusively to the title concept because he doesn’t need to—there’s a potential for violence lurking behind each rhyme regardless. So sure there are roll calls of mass murderers, and QC and his guests ably impersonate gangstas to share their boasts and confessions. But there’s also plenty of goofing off, free-associative wordplay, even a love song. Then again, every so often someone gets shot. Just like here in America.
36. Sudan Archives, Athena
A humble, precise miniaturist in an age that rewards unrealized ambition, Brittney Parks evokes multiple African traditions and strains of avant-garde experimentation on a violin she plucks, saws, and otherwise coaxes unexpected hooks from, and she never once asks directions to Carnegie Hall. My favorite chorus is a simple “Oh did you know/Oh did you know/Life is/Life’s not perfect?” I knew. But sometimes I need the reminder.
35. Mark Ronson, Late Night Feelings
Ronson may claim top billing, but he not only caters to the strengths of the nine female singers who appear on a collection that’s every bit as thematic as its title indicates, he uncovers hidden talents. Lykke Li strikes an unexpected firmness at the core of her pliable soprano, Camilla Cabello indulges in a liquored up burr, and Alicia Keys finds her inner Dawn Robinson. Ronson can’t quite encourage Angel Olsen to chill out enough to handle a disco song, hey, the guy’s not a miracle worker.
34. Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba, Miri
Once a sought-after sideman, now a justifiably honored fixture on the world music circuit, this Malian ngoni master packed up his lute and hied off to his home village on the banks of the Niger for album number five with his group, and that locale might explain the slight loss of intensity. But even in ruminative mode he’s too restless and imaginative an improviser to offer relaxation rather than invigoration. From the exquisite vocal refrain that Kouyate’s lines wend around on the opener, “Kanougnon,” through the closing seven-minute elegy to his mother, Ngoni Ba’s inexhaustible font of melody offers a cheery riposte to the age of austerity.
33. Priests, The Seduction of Kansas
Maybe a looming apocalypse on the horizon and clearly drawn battle lines helped these arty D.C. punks focus some. The guitar is brawnier and hookier, and Katie Alice Greer’s lyrics angrier, smarter, and funnier than ever: “I am Jesus' son” rhymes with both “I think I wanna hurt someone” and “I'm young and dumb and full of cum.” Straining to peer into the mysteries of middle America from distant D.C. on the title track, Greer evokes a jumble of shopworn Kansan products—Applebee’s, Superman, the Koch Brothers, Dorothy Gale—as though reworking a Wikipedia entry into a mystic incantation. And once her spell is cast, she hears, from within “a drawn out charismatic parody of what a country thought it used to be,” voices calling “I’m the one who loves you/It’s true” to... her? Us? Some rough beast slouching toward Wichita?
32. The Delines, The Imperial
Understated singers usually let you hear the pain simmering and contained beneath the surface; Amy Boone’s gift is to allow it to rise up but never engulf her as she navigates the one wrong turn after another Willy Vlautin’s lyrics steer her toward with a mild relief that at least she hasn’t hit a dead end yet. The women Vlautin sketches and Boone inhabits don’t seek out damaged men: They’re just making do with what’s available. Call this existential soul music, stripped of any solid belief but tenuously rescued from despair by a gentle exertion of will, an indiscriminate extension of empathy, and some subtly supportive instrumentation: piano or Fender Rhodes, decorative pedal steel, and a spare drumbeat with just the hint of funk
31. Sharon Van Etten, Remind Me Tomorrow
“Sitting at the bar I told you everything/You said ‘Holy shit’” is a helluva lede, and what’s most bracing about Van Etten throughout this album is her willingness to deadpan a heavy revelation for dramatic effect then chase it with a sour rush of hooky adrenaline, like someone sharing her darkest secret just as the roller coaster you’re both sitting in is about to barrel downhill. Producer John Congleton’s electronic sound effects—the forlorn boom-bap that shows up uninvited to “I Told You Everything,” the synthfuzz horns traipsing with mockery through “You Shadow,” the distorted detonations that threaten to make “Hands” into the Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart”—offer much more than background, but Van Etten herself is always the foreground.
30. Lizzo, Cuz I Love You
Ricky Reed’s bald calculation, X Ambassadors’ retro chintz, Oak’s late-pass radio-rap—each producer and co-writer here loiters on the unfashionable edge of pop as we know it, and they’re Lizzo’s ideal courtiers because and not in spite of that. Preaching self-love more than self-care, with a joy none dare call corny, Lizzo remains eminently root-for-able not because she’s an innovator but because the timeworn musical formulas she straps herself into can’t possibly contain her personality, which spills over all formal confines in unexpectedly voluptuous ways.
29. Otoboke Beaver, Itekoma Hits
This 14-track collection gathers up this Kyoto quartet’s two EPs, tosses in a couple of re-recordings with the new drummer, adds six unreleased songs, and never stops detonating. Speedy little guitar bits—sometimes pinched and thin and darting, sometimes trilling with surfy acceleration, sometimes entangling themselves like extension cords in a kitchen drawer—spike these joyful tantrums, each too precise to be as spontaneous as they sound, none vaguing out into mere noise for more than a few bracing moments, not even when they close in on three whole minutes. For all the band’s post-hardcore bristle I also hear traces of the B-52s, Le Tigre—in fact, I hear something new each time I listen. Remember when sometimes it used to be fun to get mad, back before constant outrage numbed your wrath? Let these rants fan your exhausted frustration into righteous impatience.
28. TNGHT, II
Hudson Mohawke and Lunice always seemed a bit sheepish about how wild the festival kids went for their hiply crowd-pleasing boom-trap—maybe that’s why they waited seven years for the follow-up. In any case, they re-emerge with absolutely no pop context, which must ease some of the pressure and the shame. Fortunately, making funny noises over spare beats is timeless. My favorite track reminds me of Balkan Beat Box. My favorite vocal sample goes “What it is/What it ain’t.” God willing and the Medicare don’t run out, I’ll be bugging my neighbors at the old folks home with V in 2040.
27. Chance the Rapper, The Big Day
Having fruitlessly scoured indifferent reviews from former admirers for any significant musical objections to this 77-minute celebration of newly wedded bliss (though I’ve got too much self-respect to seek the answer on YouTube), I’m left with the assumption that a lot of people who feel uncomfortable calling gospel and/or grandmas corny are super-eager to tell you they’re too cool for love songs. Yes, it’s too long (especially with four and a half minutes of skit) and Chance’s taste in white backing vocalists is, to use a technical term, wack (excepting Randy Newman, of course, whose short pause between “you can get over anything” and “almost” is a stroke of sly genius). But if those are crimes against rap, who then is truly innocent? The first 10 or so minutes is as summery and lush a stretch of music as I’ve heard in 2019, and the old-school goof of a bachelor party that interrupts it is the first of a string of slick curveballs to follow. Throughout Chance’s boasts (“I made the three more famous than Steph”) and roasts (“Side chicks make they Kool-Aid with Splenda”) are genial and winning. But yeah, the dude loves his wife and he likes to rap about it. You totally got him there, asshole.
26. Charly Bliss, Young Enough
It’s time once again to play my least favorite game: Do I Love This Band or Do I Love That This Band Sounds Like Bands I Once Loved? Fortunately, this round’s easier than usual, because few of the ’90s alt-pop forebears Charly Bliss recall ever lived up to their tartly chipper promise. That’s partly because the unspooling hooks that’d have sold them to Clinton-era A&Rs would have had so many underground jagoffs grumbling “sell out” they’d never have been able to sound this unbitter and casual about their success. But it’s mostly because on each track here, Eva Hendricks shucks some personal dilemma or opportunity down to its pith and comes out on the other side a wiser woman.
25. Frankie Cosmos, Close It Quietly
“The world is crumbling and I don’t have much to say,” Greta Kline breathes at the start—about the crumbling world, she must mean, because she’s got plenty to say about her breaking, broken, and mending heart. But like Kline’s small voice, her humility masks her confidence as she stakes out a deliberately limited patch of indie turf over 21 songs in 39 minutes, each one a completed work, not even the 46-second one is a mere snippet. On “This Swirling” she professes to see the world “through a veil of tears” and singsongs the mantra “I will die crying/I will cry dying/I will try crying/I will cry trying.” Which, if you want it to, may say something about the crumbling world as well as Kline’s heart.
24. Todd Snider, Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3
“Just Like Overnight” acknowledges a painful fact of maturity—how life seems static in the moment even as colossal changes are underway—with something approximating acceptance. But like the rest of us, this veteran folkie is rightfully pissed and can’t stop talking about shit he knows he can’t change, so mostly his humor is more caustic than ever. “Talking Reality TV Show Blues,” a history of the medium that fucked us all over more than Zuckerberg can even dream, ends as it must with the 2016 election, but gets there by artful and circuitous roots. Elsewhere Snider’s happy to cut to the chase—the entire chorus to “A Timeless Response to Current Events” goes “Ain’t that some bullshit?”
23. Rapsody, Eve
Like Jamila Woods, this North Carolina rapper names her tracks here for people of color she respects, though she’s not as bookish as that fine Chicago singer/poet—she looks to Aaliyah, Whoopi, and Oprah rather than Baldwin or Hurston. Her determination to be taken serious as an MC means she’s still got a prickly attitude toward equally gifted women who sex it up, but she’s never somber, preachy, or puritanical. In fact, she’s never taken more pleasure in her rhymes, and she’s open-minded enough to welcome samples from both “In the Air Tonight” and “Don’t Stop (Doo Doo Brown).” Recommended to just about every kind of rap fan. Except unreachable sexists and rank hedonists, I guess.
22. Tanya Tagaq, Toothsayer
The temptation to reach for metaphor is irresistible, to hear the interaction between Tagaq’s infinitely mutable vocal virtuosity and these five shifting sound compositions as the enactment of some concrete drama. But beyond a basic outline—a human voice struggling to exist amid ecological catastrophe—the musical accompaniment to the British National Maritime Museum’s “Polar Worlds” exhibit is more allusive than explicit. Tagaq’s Inuk throat-singing technique ranges too freely to pin down, her gutturals and squeals existing within their own improvisatory emotional space rather than targeting a specific listener reaction. It’s often as unsettling as you’d expect, but at times it’s also lovely. Just as the end of the world might also at times be.
21. Jens Lekman & Annika Norlin, Correspondence
Alternating monthly, these two Swedish songwriters swapped tracks over the course of 2018, then collected the fruits of their exchange here. As ever, Lekman cannily extrapolates social insight from autobiographical detail, whether he’s exploring the contradictions of friendship and altruism (“Who Really Needed Who”), the roots of labor exploitation in human ambition (“Not Because It’s Easy But Because It’s Hard”), or the relationship between the misogynist punk cool of his youth and contemporary incel violence (“Revenge of the Nerds”). This is the first I’ve heard of or from Norlin, but she’s got a knack for offhandedly sidling up to a simple topic then unexpectedly turning it inside out, whether she’s concerned with “Showering in Public,” “Hibernation,” or “Joining a Cult” (“Hey, I kind of get it”).
20. Little Simz, Grey Area
For all her “Jay-Z on a bad day/Shakespeare on my worst days” boasts, this London MC doesn’t barrel you over with her lyricism. Instead she draws you in with her mushed consonants and clipped flow, matched ideally here by Inflo’s production, which relies on live musicianship rather than electronic piecework. Tough female rappers are everywhere these days, but though Simz is no pushover, she reveals a third dimension over the course of her album, promising candor then bristling when you assume too much intimacy, her defense mechanisms and survival techniques stunning you with their blunted but slow-acting venom.
19. Taylor Swift, Lover
As students of career narrative will tell you, the “return to form” is supposed to be stripped-down and acoustic, so Swift’s refusal to stick to the script is telling: She’s determined to remain pop, communicating in the broadest lyrical and musical strokes at her command. And while that persistence is commercially wise, no doubt, I’d be more convinced fame was good for her art if the big, blaring singles weren’t the worst moments here and the best wasn’t the Dixie Chicks harmonizing on the quiet song about her mom’s cancer. But there’s no denying that she owns the title concept—the love songs here are committed and lived in, whether overheated on “Lover,” horny on “I Think He Knows,” contrite on “Afterglow,” innocent on “It’s Nice to Have a Friend,” or, best of all, silly on “Paper Rings,” where the supposed former breakup junkie reveals what fans of “Our Song,” “Mine,” and “Stay Stay Stay” have always known—her real gift is for imagining what it might mean to live happily temporarily after together. And you can’t spell “together” without her.
18. Raphael Saadiq, Jimmy Lee
Remember Black Messiah? A true Sly Stone disciple, D’Angelo brilliantly mirrored the impressionist Afropessimism of his lyrics in the complex jazzy murk of his grooves and arrangements. But this Tony! Toni! Toné! alum remains Motown at heart, and his bleakest album topically is just as crisp and light on its feet as his romantic R&B throwbacks once were. Ex-felons stumble through a world that’s “drunk and the people are mad,” a gritty scene peppered with miscellaneous hard drugs, a splash of liquor, AIDS, debt, and just a little religion to leaven the pain—with the prosperity gospel all the rage in rap circles, it’s good to hear someone give it up for the god of desperation. When Saadiq brings this album home with an anti-prison song he doesn’t rail generally against the carceral state. Instead he directly calls out Rikers, because his art has a specific purpose: to render the unbearable intelligible.
17. Big Thief, Two Hands
Two great albums in one year? Who does Adrianne Lenker think she is, DaBaby? But though the tunes here are a little more legible than on U.F.O.F., they’re also slightly less idiosyncratic, and therefore slightly less revelatory. Still, Lenker’s freak flag deserves a salute even at half mast, and “Not” is this band’s finest moment—two of its finest moments even, if you give the extended guitar outro the respect it deserves.
16. Pedro the Lion, Phoenix
David Bazan’s lyrics don’t fully connect the boy he was to the man he is—that’s a lifetime’s work—but damn if this journey through his past doesn’t accomplish something similar musically, wedding his searching solo inquiries to the skewed sonics/straightforward dynamics of the coulda-been alt/emo contenders he disbanded in 2005. If that sounds too schematic, trust me, there’s nothing pat about a thoughtful post-Christian expiating his secular flaws through the judicious arrangement of riffs that, I swear to post-Christ, suggest (oh blessed contradiction) an introspective Pixies.
15. Mannequin Pussy, Patience
The guitars are so raw, the thrust so relentless, the bad sex with worse men such a constant that you might miss how much emotional ground singer Marisa Dabice covers in under a half-hour. She fights for her right to therapeutic self-loathing on “Drunk II,” extends a pep talk to a pal on “Who Told You,” and somehow barrels through the brawling “F.U.C.A.W.” (which sounds like this Philly quartet out-brutalizing Mudhoney and My Bloody Valentine in a bar fight) only to close the album with an “I’m in love with you” that I don’t doubt for a minute.
14. KOKOKO!, Fongola
Summoning metallic polyrhythms from self-fashioned junkyard-salvaged percussion, this clamorous Kinshasa outfit works out of the street music tradition of Congotronics, though rather than sticking to groovy ambient patterns as was that scene’s wont, they’re both more muscular (full-throated frontman Makara Biankoand sees to that)and intricate (credit the tinkeringof French producer débruit).It’s not quite like any Congolese music I’ve ever heard and there’s no other place that could’ve birthed it. Musical tradition is funny that way.
13. The Comet Is Coming, Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery
Despite the album title’s cosmic vagueness, there’s nothing spaced-out or occult about this sax-synth-drum trio, featuring the mighty British-Barbadian hornman Shabaka Hutchings, reigning here under the name King Shabaka. His attack is blunt and focused, communicating emotion in sharp, staccato bursts and repeating strands of upwardly arching melody, his tune-sense holding strong even when he’s telegraphing a series of single note dot-dot-dashes. Drummer Max “Betamax” Hallett can sprawl out with trippy accents but prefers a steady backbeat or heavy unshifting patterns, and synth maestro Danalogue (aka Dan Leavers) is a versatile mood-setter, contributing minimalist ripples that nostalgically echo ’70s futurism, new-wave chord vamps, and a synth bass you could feel in your pancreas at their danceable as hell Turf Club show last summer.
12. Lana Del Rey, Norman Fucking Rockwell!
Joni? Stevie? Nah, try Don Henley on for size. Just like that Boomer bird of prey, Lana’s convinced to her Cali soul that a compulsion to have great sex with idiots she can’t stand is a portent of the apocalypse.Of course,she’s far loopier (and therefore more insightful and easier to empathize with), so though maybe in the long run (heh heh) this will sound as vacant as Hotel California, right now it sounds like an apt envoi to a deluded era of American excess a lot of us hoped we’d squeeze a few more hours from. Her doomsaying on this Album of a Lot of People’s Years isn’t just more resonant because the world’s gotten worse—she’s fine-tuned her schtick. Her jokes are sadder, her melancholy funnier, and Jack Antonoff’s aural watercolors dapple and glow in flattering hues, a pleasure to bask in even when things get boring, which they have to occasionally for the overall project to gel. I will demur, however, that fucking people you actually like and collectively organizing to prevent the end of the world remain options worth exploring.
11. Danny Brown, uknowwhatimsayin?
Brown’s brash nag of a flow will forever suggest the bratty kid brother who swiped all of B Real’s weed, and though it never loses its scrunched charm it does riskmonotony, despite the brilliant absurdity of his wordplay (“mixin’ Ripple, listening to Minnie Ripperton”)and metaphors (“I die for this shit like Elvis”). So key to this album’s success is the variety of production styles, whether it’s Paul White dousing “Change Up” in Morricone atmospherics, Cartie Curtlacing Wu violin throughout “Theme Song,” or futuristic jazz-funk hailing from west coast (Flying Lotus) and east (Standing on the Corner). And the samples flipped here flatter Brown’s middle-school-leaning lyricism: JPEGMAFIA chops up Yoko Ono, Playa Haze leans on a riff from Czech guitarist Ota Petrina, and MVP Q-Tip remixesthe ’70s with Canadian Moog-meisters Syrinx, Grand Rapids soul man Tommy McGee, and the sound of Steve Austin flexing his bionic powers.
10. Kim Gordon, No Home Record
Gordon’s voice is such a known quantity that I had to strain to listen past my preconceptions to hear how well this collaboration with art-pop producer Justin Raisen cohered on its own sui generis terms.The 808s and thumb-piano of “Paprika Pony,” the avant-clubby beats that get into and out of the groove(y), lyrics like “You can pee in the ocean/It’s free” and “I’ve got sand in my heart for you,” skepticism that Airbnbs or yoga deliveron their promise—it’s allcalculated and arranged to form a series of patterns you can’t unhear once this clicks for you. With apologies to Lee Ranaldo (whose solo work this past decade really has been consistently stellar), this is the best album to emerge since the dissolution of Sonic Youth—and the first to not make me miss them even a little.
9. Big Thief, U.F.O.F.
Arpeggios or circular riffs recur with the steady reassurance of a stick along a picket fence and melodies bend with the supple give of a green willow branch as this Brooklyn indie quartet—let’s call them “acoustic-friendly” rather than “folky”—claim their space in the natural world. Drawing upon childhood idyll, thrumming with collaborative verve, electrified with just the right amount of dissonance, just spooky enough around the edges, this is a game with elaborate, improvised rules, an exercise in spontaneity not anarchy. And it’s all the context Adrianne Lenker needs for her whispered mantras like “we have the same power” and invocations of various female names to resonate far beyond their literal meaning.
8. Dawn, New Breed
In the past, the music of this Danity Kane alum turned Afrofuturist auteur sprawled architecturally. Here its components—a trap beat fading like an exorcised ghost, a Roy Ayers synth gliding in like a childhood memory—click together to fill up smaller spaces, shadowy yet luxuriant, her rhythmic logic unpredictable in ways that come to feel inevitable. And whether she’s feeling nostalgic (“the nine”), dirty (“sauce”), petty (“jealousy”), or righteous (“we, diamonds”), the lyrics come correct and direct. We all deserve the good sex and supportive community and basic respect Dawn demands. Only difference is, she’s artist enough to make anyone who’d deny her any of them look like a dope.
7. DaBaby, Baby on Baby
The title describes the style: DaBaby’s a one-man crew, his voice multi-tracked into a simulated choir of DaBabys that answer, agree with, and leapfrog pastoneanother. What leaps out of his bars isn’t so much virtuosity (though try to keep up if you doubt his skills) as momentum, abetted by the video-game beats and squelchy bass of his go-to producer, JetsonMade. There are no femme choruses sweetening the pot and not a lot of features: When Rich Homie Quan shows up, his emotional keen feels like an unseemly imposition. But though few sounds here register as “pop” by current standards, the tracks are taut, not austere: Theirkinetic charms are their own reward. Rap’s always been partly about the excitement that comes from getting on the mic and finally being heard. DaBaby’s ping-ponging flow is what that enthusiasm sounded like in 2019.
6. Hama, Houmeissa
This playful electronic composer from Nigerdraws his brilliant synth patterns from melodies sung by West African herders and nomads, with some wedding tunes thrown in ’cause why not, and while they may get a little sillier stripped of their context through electronic reprocessing, that hardly cheapens its effect. In fact, it gives each tune a chance to prove how hardy it was to begin with, and in Hama’s hands, these melodies thrive. Everyone I’ve recommended this to has loved it. What makes you think you’ll be any different?
5. 100 Gecs, 1000 Gecs
Rarely has a tuneful racket gone so far out of its way not to justify its arrant dipshittery. Dylan Brady and Laura Les warp their voices electronically with as much disdain for “the natural” as PC Music but with no obvious goal of disrupting gender binaries; they wield Sleigh Bells’ pounding pixelated sledgehammers with none of the will to power. Bass-drops so clumsy they make Skrillex sound like Philip Glass and tunes so looney they make Carl Stalling sound like Haydn add up to the perfect soundtrack for cackling neurotically at bad Twitter jokes at 3 a.m. or falling off your bike in front of a horde of snickering teens. When they’re not losing their money at the track or spending it before 7:45 a.m., they’re tossing it in the oven, but like lots of cartoon nihilists they’ve got bubblegum hearts. “My boy’s got his own ringtone” may just be self-consciously sweet naiveté, but I bet they actually cherish the fantasy of domesticity that serves as their finale: “Dishes are piling up/But that's cool/'Cause at least we got food/Yeah, everything is pilin’ up/But that's cool, that's cool/'Cause at least I got you, I got you, I got you.” So sweet. So fucking dumb. I love it.
4. Adia Victoria, Silences
“First of all there is no God,” this South Carolina blues revisionist declares plainly 30 seconds in, strings creeping beside her through the shadows, and you can hear the glint in her eye: She knows he’s dead because she offed the sucker. Victoria and co-producer Aaron Dessner of the National populate the corners of these tracks with ghosts and echoes, and the lyrics typically read more bleakly than Victoria’s stealthily scrunched, preternaturally nonchalant voice allows them to be. Playful in her self-destructive defiance, she’s a deicidal Billie Holiday fan who sounds like she sold her soul to Kurt Weill to pay off her bar tab.
3. Billie Eilish, When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
Death makes sad teens horny, a timeless truth Eilish is precocious enough to exploit for dark lulz where she might be expected to strike a pose of somber, witchy melancholy. Her flashlight-under-the-chin act hardly trivializes whatever deaths she’s imagined for herself (that’s not how jokes work), and even in her more sincere and subdued moments this breathy teen shows up the manipulative nihilizzzm of the Soundcloud nothings whose beats her producer bro Finneas bites and bests while wending Eminem-y synth whines through his skull-emoji trap-pop.
2. Julia Jacklin, Crushing
This Australian singer-songwriter’s acute autopsy of a fragmenting relationship cuts from present to past and back again, with the future manifesting itself through fretful anticipation as Jacklin faces a clump of unanswerables: Is he OK? What’s he gonna do with that nude pic? Did he ever watch that stupid video I sent him? Really though, is he OK? Fragile but sinuous, Jacklin’s sob stretches in tendrils of tuneful anxiety, while her guitar mimics unkempt emotion without getting rowdy or atonal. Her music sounds like what heartbreak physically feels like, before we find the words for it, though each song here gives up a phrase that wholly encapsulates a mood, a scenario, a life stage. She refuses to vilify the dude she couldn’t trust without making him sympathetic and skirts despair without giving in to the myth of closure. Dunno if he’ll be OK. But Jacklin sounds like she’s gonna be just fine.
1. Sir Babygirl, Crush on Me
Kelsie Hogue manages her unmanageable desires by colorfully exaggerating their scope, flinging herself into extremes of knowingly delirious indie-pop and treating every slight, sexual slip-up, and thwarted crush like the end of the world. Shouting “You don’t know me anymore! I changed my hair!” at an ex isn’t just more fun than moping at home—it’s healthier. I just hope that same manic, pastel aesthetic is equally therapeutic when brought to bear on whatever inspired “Haunted House,” where Hogue’s voice slides up and down the scale like a penny whistle while lyrics like “no one knows the difference from my laughter and my screams” suggest a desperate failure to exorcise a genuine trauma at its core. Either way, Crush on Me is a thrilling lesson in how to harness your love for corporate pop in pursuit your own DIY vision.