The 15 Best Albums Of 2019
These were the albums that held us up to an emotional truth, and then nailed us there.
2019 belonged to the stans.
Diehard devotees of pop groups aren’t a new phenomenon, of course — try telling that to the hordes of teenagers that fainted at the mere sight of the Fab Four some six decades ago.
But the digital era in which we live has allowed that love and loyalty to grow and blossom in new ways. Nothing about the way we consume music is casual anymore. We don’t just listen to our favourite pop acts. We consume them, following their daily routines till they’re imprinted on our memory, and we’ve come to feel about musician the way that we used to feel about close members of our own family.
It helped too that a lot of music released this year was defined by its emotional honesty. Everybody got real, from the usually apolitical Taylor Swift to the once-private and mysterious FKA Twigs. Nothing has been as uncool this year as artifice.
To that end, here are the records that most connected with us this year — the albums that held us up to an emotional truth, and then nailed us there.
Lana Del Rey — Norman Fucking Rockwell!
Ever since she first emerged, Lana Del Rey’s critics have claimed that the performer is nothing more than a one trick pony, a Nancy Sinatra clone who updates pop of the ’50s with curse words and talk about pussy tasting like Coca Cola. Obviously that’s not true — it never has been — but Norman Fucking Rockwell! is the record that shuts down that criticism with the most finality.
After all, Del Rey’s latest record, maybe her masterpiece, isn’t some limp piece of imitation. It’s an entire world, a glowing collection of red wine-sodden stories and barbed lines that sounds like nobody but Lana. “Goddamn man-child,” she barks on the first line of the titular track, and everything from there cartwheels between hatred, hurt, and heart.
‘Hope Is A Dangerous Thing For A Woman Like Me To Have — But I Have It’, might be the most sensitive and sweet song in her entire back catalogue, while ‘Cinnamon Girl’ comes arching over to the listener with this leering grin on its face. Nobody ever gets to say that Lana doesn’t do her own thing ever again.
Sampa The Great — The Return
It’s been four years since the release of Sampa The Great’s groundbreaking debut, The Great Mixtape, which is a long enough period of time that the rapper and songwriter could probably get away with repeating the pleasures of that work without getting in trouble. That’s what most artists do, anyway: they mine their own back catalogue till audiences get bored and they’re made to shuffle on.
That’s not what The Return is. Sampa’s full-length debut dodges and feints its creator’s own reputation, resisting easy categorisation and breaking for new ground on every single song. ‘Mwana’ is a gorgeous, glittering thing; ‘Time’s Up’ is a compact piece of throwback rap; and ‘OMG’ is Sampa at her most mainstream and accessible.
Each song seems Sampa transform herself, push herself. Musicians rarely move at this speed, or with such intelligence and wit — the crackling ‘Diamond in the Ruff’ sits in a league entirely of its own — and the sheer energy of the thing makes it look like every other rapper has been asleep for about two decades. We should expect this kind of magic from every one of our artists — or we should admit that Sampa sits in a league entirely of her own.
Solange — When I Get Home
It’s easy to forget that Solange released her debut album in 2002. With a synthetic, pop-savvy sound supporting a singer still finding her feet, Solo Star is a real time capsule. So is its list of guests and producers, which included Timbaland, Lil’ Romeo, B2K, Rockwilder and The Neptunes.
For many fans, the Solange story started a lot later, with 2016’s A Seat At The Table. That album was a career reinvention, setting its creator apart as much more than ‘Beyoncé’s sister’. It had a sharp point of view and fully-realised songs you knew would sound incredible live. And it was cool, a word not so suited to early Solange.
The Solange of 2019 is searching, spiky, playful and completely in control.
When I Get Home had the difficult task of following a sensation. Instead of duplicating what worked, Solange reset the table. This time, the album drifts by in snatches, with most tracks running under three minutes. The overall effect is airy and unobtrusive on speakers, then quietly commanding in headphones. The uptempo moments, like ‘Stay Flo’ and ‘Binz’, pop even more in such languid company.
Built around impressions of her hometown Houston, the album features the likes of Metro Boomin, Dev Hynes, Sampha and Pharrell, who brings it full circle from Solo Star. But this battalion of men never pulls focus. The Solange of 2019 is searching, spiky, playful and completely in control. When I Get Home is a force of her own making.
Steve Lacy — Apollo XXI
If you don’t know Steve Lacy by name, you know his work.
The 21-year-old has produced for Solange, Vampire Weekend, Kendrick Lamar, Blood Orange and Denzel Curry, for starters, and has been a core member of The Internet since he was a teenager. Self-produced debut album Apollo XXI proves he’s more than ready to stand centre: like Brockhampton affiliate Ryan Beatty’s 2018 highlight Boy In Jeans, it’s a seemingly effortless R&B album that deals with the hard labours of growing up.
Take standout track ‘Like Me’, a sprawling 9 minute epic that charts Lacy’s own exploration and acceptance of his bisexuality. It’s sticky-sweet; synths and guitar lines swirl in and out like the lava lamp on Apollo XXI‘s cover, and the song shifts between ominous confusion and off-synths to smooth high-snares and teenage reflection.
Like ‘Like Me’, the mixtape-like Apollo XXI‘s without edges — everything rolls into one, each emotion too attached to the next. Just as with the indie guitar, hazy synths and The Internet’s distinctly sensual R&B, feelings of liberations and shame, love and confidence flow into each other on Apollo XXI. The link is Lacy’s wonderful-awful, all-eclipsing closeness to everything that comes with being 21. Fragmented, yet fully formed.
Sharon Van Etten — Remind Me Tomorrow
Speaking to the New York Times, Sharon Van Etten described the period between her last album and Remind Me Tomorrow as a “dramatic pause”. That’s a fair way of putting it: in the years since 2014’s Are We There, the Brooklyn musician found love, had a baby, acted in two TV shows, composed a movie score and went back to school to get a degree in psychology.
That time spent studying the human psyche might be why Remind Me Tomorrow contains possibly her most self-appraising moment yet. Past the dark atmospherics of ‘Jupiter 4’ and the puffed-chest bravado of ‘Comeback Kid’ lies ‘Seventeen’, where Van Etten addresses her teenage self. The song is nostalgic and worried for that lonelier, less assured girl, but it also peers back at her present self and asks: would you like me? Would you be happy with how you turned out?
Van Etten has penned plenty of songs about her relationships with other people but this one, notably, feels like it was made just for her.
Collarbones — Futurity
Collarbones took their time with Futurity: after Return, their third album from 2014, the duo struggled to land on what was next. Marcus Whale and Travis Cook met on a post rock forum in the late ’00s, and in the 12 years since, they’ve found new obsessions. Futurity‘s? The potentiality within desire, and the way a crush can sustain you with a glance — or nothing at all.
Skittering lead single ‘A.I’ was inspired by Whale’s three-year catfish as a teen, but the absence of any tangible person on the other end shapes the Futurity’s sound: reverb-heavy, hard-hitting electro-pop, as if Whale’s voice searches through abandoned industrial rooms. Every three songs, there’s a sonic shift to acoustic ballads filled with blind belief (‘Haunted’) and idealistic hope (‘Everything I Want’).
They suggest a crush — and, in that crush, purpose — can be sustained long after the object disappears. An album that needs to be listened to in order.
FKA Twigs — Magdalene
Artists have been turning their break-ups into music since the dawn of time — but few with the ingenuity or skill of FKA Twigs. That’s because Magdalene, her 2019 masterpiece, is less an autobiographical confessional than it is a process of constructing and dismissing selves.
It’s a violent mix of personas, some real, some clearly fake, sung in a thousand conflicting voices, some plucked from history, and some from a place deep within the performer.
Paradoxically then, it’s precisely through that experiment of deflection that things are revealed — truths uncovered. There are few instances of emotional clarity as startling or as honest as the chorus of ‘Home With You’, perhaps the most important song in the artist’s entire back catalogue. And then there’s ‘Sad Day’, which raises and lowers itself in waves, flirting with a startling revelation that comes far too late in a relationship that’s already died a thousand times over.
‘Relatable’ is the wrong word for the record. It’s something else entirely — an album that works because of the distance it strikes from the listener, not the closeness. FKA Twigs isn’t anybody that you’ve ever met before in your life, but in their sheer scale, her problems feel somehow like your own. Pop records like this come along ever few decades. We should cherish it.
Tyler, The Creator — IGOR
Ten years ago, describing Tyler, The Creator’s music as mature was a laughable idea. The snapbacked blog-rap anarchist was the flag-bearer for aimless angst — but with the release of Flower Boy in 2017, Tyler mellowed with a stringified sensitivity. IGOR is another redefining text, one that almost entirely sidelines rap for angular neo-soul.
Chronicling the blossom and wilt of an almost-relationship, Tyler completely dissolves his ego on IGOR — rendering his sung vocals mostly through a pitch-shifter and placing them at the back of the mix. His demonic baritone isn’t totally absent, but when it does appear its aggression is stripped by a less confrontational flow. Features from Solange and CeeLo Green blend into the often vocally anonymous Tyler, while his typically wry braggadocio is delegated to hard-edged guests like slowthai.
It’s a masterfully wrought, yet simple conceptual effort from Tyler, and one that has cemented his vanguard status for a new decade.
Caroline Polachek — Pang
When Chairlift announced their end in 2017, critics lamented. The duo’s knack for tying down ephemeral feelings had created some of the decade’s most acclaimed synth-pop, guided by Caroline Polachek’s deceptively tender voice. Pang, her debut solo album, sees her switch out synth-pop for something more freeform; Polachek isn’t interested in creating a specific future-pop sound as she is an ecosystem of emotion.
“Panging is a verb; a secret twisting between your lungs that resists all logic. If you know, you know,” she wrote upon release. Idiosyncratic production choices — trilling bells, whistling winds, harsh, cold synths cutting against her voice — create the sense that that twisting is otherworldly in its intensity.
Polachek isn’t interested in creating a specific future-pop sound as she is an ecosystem of emotion.
Pang transforms the likes of self-sabotage (‘Caroline Shut Up’), long-distance love (‘So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings’) and everyday malaise into a strange delight. It pulses with an intense interest in feeling feelings, treating them with the curiosity of someone refusing to be hardened by experience.
Staying open is key, which is why Polachek launched Pang with ‘Door’, a song she described as an “invitation”. In its chorus, Polachek runs to someone through a “door to another door to another door…“. The goal — raw honesty, true connection — might be impossible to reach (“I don’t know who I’m singing to“), but the journey creates an Alice In Wonderland world, equal parts fantastical, hurtful, ridiculous.
Julia Jacklin — Crushing
The haze of the NSW Blue Mountains has never left Julia Jacklin’s voice, though her words have gotten clearer. The singer-songwriter’s second album Crushing retains the woozy lilt and steady guitar jangle of Don’t Let the Kids Win, but with greater melodic focus.
Writing on the road, Jacklin unlocked the sheer mundanity of heartbreak. The absence of love carries as much as weight as its presence on Crushing, as relationships grow stale and infatuation feels impossible to beat. The solution, Jacklin appears to find, is agency; the belonging of her body is a nagging motif. She swaddles the most incisive couplets in the softest arrangements, while Jacklin’s vocals stretch from muted tones to a tender roar. Closer ‘Comfort’ engages the one thing most breakup songs can’t: empathy.
Crushing has leapfrogged Jacklin’s career from tiny Sydney bars to sold out national theatres, and it’s only going to get bigger from here.
Stella Donnelly — Beware Of The Dogs
When George Bernard Shaw said, “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you”, he probably wasn’t thinking of something like Beware Of The Dogs. But Stella Donnelly’s sharp, funny debut album takes aim at shitty men hiding behind being an ‘Aussie larrikin’ with so much charm and humour that it’s hit an audience that might normally tune out.
After the smash success of her devastating anti-rape culture ballad ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ in 2017 (landing just before the #MeToo movement took off, and becoming a home-grown anthem) Donnelly was in a unique position: people weren’t just listening to her music, but its message. Across Beware Of The Dogs, Donnelly runs with it with self-deprecation and a stunning voice.
Backed with a budget that pushes her guitar-driven indie pop out of the DIY territory, Donnelly tackles her own shitty experiences with everything to creepy bosses “jerking off to the CCTV while I poured a flat VB” to terrible breakups.
Her real skill is not just a knack for wordplay, but an ability to balance critique with empathy. In other acts’ hands, references to Kyle & Jackie O or Southern Cross tattoos might come off as mean-spirited and ironic, but Donnelly is a master of using cultural cringe to clever, pointed effect.
Charly Bliss — Young Enough
After exploding out of the gates in 2017 with arguably the best rock record of the year in Guppy, Charly Bliss were always going to have to put in the hard yards to outrun the shadow cast by their debut.
Not only were they able to achieve that with Young Enough, they were able to do so entirely on their terms. Yes, this is an album that embraces the band’s love of pop music. It’s not a dirty word where these four come from — and nor should it be.
With that being said, you won’t find any other pop song on the radio right now that strikes upon the human condition the same way standout tracks like ‘Capacity’ and ‘Chatroom’ do. Emotively striking and visceral in its honesty, they’re delivered so subtly and in such glossy packaging that you might not even fully understand the weight of that verse you’ve been singing along to this whole time.
From the charging ‘I Fought the Law’ pastiche of ‘Blown to Bits’ through to the quietly-devastating title track, Young Enough is a stellar achievement for a band that doesn’t show any signs of slowing momentum.
— David James Young
Hayden James — Between Us
You could have been forgiven for thinking that Hayden James might never get around to releasing an album. For six years, the Sydney producer drip fed single after single, at the relaxed rate of one track per year. Only it wasn’t relaxed to James — the pressure of trying to produce a hit a year got to him, and hamstrung his efforts of putting together a full-length release.
Instead, he toured the world, and produced for little known artists such as Katy Perry. In the meantime — slowly, surely — the jigsaw pieces fell into place, and Between Us was formed. The wait was worth it: Between Us is relentlessly sophisticated and polished, a vibrant distillation of the cool house sound that James has made his own.
Let’s hope it isn’t another six years before the next one.
Tropical Fuck Storm — Braindrops
As its leering, gonzo title implies, Tropical Fuck Storm’s debut, A Laughing Death In Meatspace, was a Rorschach test of vomit, piss and spit — this great, heaving work of dance punk. Braindrops is something different again.
Retaining the slinky basslines and barked lyrics that have become the group’s trademark, it’s a quieter work; a sadder one. ‘Paradise’ starts with a warble rather than a bang and only gets wormier and more gnostic from there, while the titular track surveys the horror of modern living and lets out one long sigh.
It’s a mournful record, but in that sadness, there’s a kind of collective group therapy.
Not that Gareth Liddiard and his collaborators have lost their sense of fun. ‘Who’s My Eugene’, sung in the lilting voice of Mod Con’s Erica Dunn, is a winking piece of vomit pop, and ‘Desert Sands of Venus’ trawls over the landscape of a planet too hot to support life — geddit? — while shaking with something like hideous laughter.
It’s all awful, of course, but it’s not some insufferable work of creaky navel-gazing. Certainly, it’s a mournful record, but in that sadness, there’s a kind of collective group therapy. After all, when things are this bad, what are you meant to do but have some fun with your fellow damned souls?
Vampire Weekend — Father Of The Bride
We’re all a little surprised that Father Of The Bride is this good, but we shouldn’t be.
It’d been six years since Vampire Weekend’s last album, and in that time, the indie-rock they front has become increasingly outdated: who wants to hear a handful of Ivy League dudes complain while wearing cashmere sweaters and khakis? But even with its joke-y title (taken from a Steve Martin ’80s comedy), Father Of The Bride is a reminder that Vampire Weekend have never been the band we often think they are.
That much was clear with early single ‘Unbearably White’: lead singer Ezra Koenig joked in lead-up it was a comment on infighting over white privilege, but we were given a sharp, succinct look at a snow-capped relationship. Koenig describes FOTB as a ‘Spring’ album, and its 18 songs are a kind of thawing.
Now in their mid 30s, there’s an emotional maturity across the album: where college-era Koenig was a masochist for painful situations and turned them into upbeat-pop, FOTB sees him accept the tangled mess. It’s an album less concerned with existentialism than moving through the world with kindness — country-twangs and duets with Danielle Haim and Steve Lacy throughout offer new air. Breathe it in.