Evolution seemed to be the theme of my top album selections for 2019. To be fair, evolution and growth are the typical traits musicians are lauded for by critics. There are certainly some artists (Kings of Leon, Kaiser Chiefs, Lil Wayne) that I am perfectly fine listening to over and over and would even prefer that they stick with their standard sounds. When I looked at my list, I could easily point to acts that tinkered (Vampire Weekend, Toro y Moi, White Reaper, Bon Iver, Hot Chip) or completely flipped (Brittany Howard, Tyler, the Creator, Sturgill Simpson) the sounds that initially made them famous. The rest of the list also made waves from daring collaborations (The Highwomen, Freddie Gibbs and Madlib, Dreamville) or had breakthrough records that were either debuts (Jade Bird, Clairo, Maggie Rogers) or hit-filled collections that garnered attention throughout the year (Lizzo, Jay Som, Rapsody).
Below is the entire top 20 with descriptions for each album and here is link to a Spotify playlist with all of the albums on my list. Enjoy!
1. Vampire Weekend Father of the Bride
I wouldn’t say Father of the Bride was the best named album of the year, but it certainly was my favorite album of 2019. I was appropriately concerned when former Vampire Weekend multi-instrumentalist Rostam B. moved on from the band. However, I did have faith in Ezra Koenig and the rest of the group that they would continue their momentum. Producer Ariel Rechtshaid was confirmed to be back on board after assisting on Modern Vampires In the City and his skills had only progressed after working with everyone from Carly Rae Jepsen and HAIM, to Beyonce and Adele. Bassist Chris Baio and drummer Chris Thomson both released their own enjoyable solo records in between the group’s albums, and it was later confirmed that Rostam would be making some contributions to the new album.
My hopes were more than rewarded as each single from Father of the Bride was released. The album was self-described by the band as having a “spring-time vibe” and though a more simplified description than the album deserved, it wasn’t wrong. The opening guitar notes of lead single “Harmony Hall” evoked the feeling of a sunrise. Things only got sunnier from there as Koenig and Vampire Weekend fully leaned into past Paul Simon comparisons with cheerful piano, blissful guitar, peppy percussion, and hopeful, yet cryptic lyrics with a baroque pop piano breakdown in the latter half of the song. The see-saw feel of “How Long”, blissful freedom of “This Life”, and duh, “Sunflower” could have easily soundtracked any outdoor party from May-October. The collaborations throughout the record with Danielle Haim (“We Belong Together”, “Hold You Now”, “Married in a Gold Rush”) and Steve Lacy (“Sunflower”, “Flower Moon”). Artists preparing for a release in 2020: good luck topping this record : )
2. Brittany Howard Jaime
I had high expectations for Brittany Howard’s first solo foray, but nothing like the masterwork that Jaime turned out to be. Rather than a retread of past paths with Alabama Shakes (which, for the record I enjoy), Ms. Howard explores a variety of sounds (jazz, hip-hop, blues, funk), vocal techniques, and vibes, that were autobiographical and inspired by travels. “History Repeats”, “He Loves Me” and “Georgia” were instant favorites, but songs like “Goat Head” left an imprint with the personal pain and horror Ms. Howard evoked through a narrative so unbelievable it had to be true.
3. Lizzo Cuz I Love You
No one in music had a more impactful 2019 than Lizzo. Lead single “Juice” kicked off the year in confidently nostalgic, danceable fashion and never looked back from there. The album was filled with positive records, such as “Soulmate” and “Like A Girl”, that combined memorable messages with top notch production. Lizzo even managed to rap toe to toe with Missy Elliot on “Tempo” and share some of that infectious energy with the legend. If you didn’t feel empowered and hopeful after listening to Cuz I Love You, you were likely someone Lizzo dissed on this record.
4. The Highwomen Highwomen
The Highwomen wins the 2019 award for the supergroup I never knew I needed. Amanda Shires, Maren Morris, Natalie Hemby, and Brandi Carlile (along with producer Dave Cobb) compiled a collection of stories that are heartfelt (“Highwomen”, “If She Ever Leaves Me”) and sometimes hilarious (“My Name Can’t Be Mama”, “Redesigning Women”, “Don’t Call Me”) at the same time. Features from Yola and Sheryl Crow added to the star power in appropriate places. The harmony-filled “Crowded Table” aptly announced the supergroup’s arrival and ensured no matter how small the table, The Highwomen should be at the head of the table.
5. Bon Iver i, i
Bon Iver’s last record, 22, A Million, was a bit experimental for some, but I loved Justin Vernon’s evolution from folk singer-songwriter to folktronica band leader. Justin Vernon announced in early 2019 that Bon Iver was no longer a solo project and “can only be defined by the faces in the ever-growing family we are.” I am perfectly fine with Bon Iver as a collective if a) Vernon is still leading vocals, and b) the collaboration list includes the likes of James Blake, Bruce Hornsby (!), Moses Sumney, and Aaron Dessner. The outcome was i,i, which seemed like a combination of the best moments from last two records with “Holyfields”, “Hey Ma”, and “U (Man Like)” leading the charge.
6. Toro y Moi Outer Peace
My impression of Chaz Bundick (aka Toro y Moi) is that he is an immensely talented person that has so many ideas about music that there aren’t enough outlets for every sound filed in his brain. From Les Sins to remix work, there isn’t much that Chaz has created that I haven’t loved. Toro y Moi songs have been featured on at least 12 of my mixtapes (not counting remixes) in the past 9 years. In my opinion, Outer Peace, is the first time Chaz was able to craft a completely cohesive album that carried out a vibe and sound throughout its entirety. My favorites definitely lean toward the smile-worthy, danceable fun of “Who I Am”, “Fading”, “Ordinary Pleasure”, and “Laws of the Universe.” However, the slower tempo, more earnest moments on “Monte Carlo” and “New House” offered a peak into Chaz’s deeper paranoia and feelings.
7. Anderson .Paak Ventura
Speaking of crafting cohesive vibes for an entire album, Anderson .Paak’s compiled one helluva trip back to the best R&B sounds of the past 40 years on Ventura. .Paak’s raspy vocals and production excelled on his fourth studio album, and the guest-list on Ventura seemed perfectly curated with strong features from Andre 3000, Smokey Robinson (!), Jazmine Sullivan, Brandy, and Nate Dogg (R.I.P.). “Make It Better” sounded like ‘70s soul at its finest, “Jet Black” gravitated to the dancefloor with grooving bass guitar, “Chosen One” hovered with ’80s synth and high hat before .Paak dropped pulsing rhymes, and “Yada Yada” elicited instant head nods with Kaytranada-like glow. If .Paak was a student of the game, Dr. Dre can confidently promote .Paak to teacher now.
8. Sturgill Simpson SOUND & FURY
It doesn’t even seem fair to put Sturgill Simpson in the “country” genre anymore. After 4 records, Simpson’s memorable twang, impactful voice, guitar skills, and sly wit punctuate nearly every song and are typical touch tones of country. However, SOUND & FURY allowed listeners to orbit the latest planet Simpson visited that leans more toward a fusion of blues and psychedelic rock ‘n roll. Blistering guitar was nearly constant throughout the album on songs like “Last Man Standing”, “Sing Along”, and “Last Man Standing“. Even more straightforward blues rock songs like “Mercury In Retrograde” and “Make Art Not Friends” that skewered the pitfalls of fame and feature otherworldly with modulated vocals, strings, and vocals that gave the songs a trippy feel.
9. Tyler, the Creator IGOR
When I think of Tyler, the Creator, and anyone associated with Odd Future, experimentation has always been a character trait that I admired. Tyler’s past albums have exhibited that trait, but I’m not sure he has ever put together a more complete album than IGOR. The love-triangle concept record found Tyler coalesced around heartbreak (“Earfquake”, “Running Out of Time”), anger (“Puppet”), confusion (“A Boy Is A Gun”, “Are We Still Friends”) and more feelings that were centered by strong production and numerous features (Kanye, Solange, Charlie Wilson, Playboi Carti). Tyler dabbled with soul samples, synth, and songs that didn’t feel the need to adhere to traditional song structure and the complete package worked as an experiment gone right.
10. Jay Som Anak Ko
Jay Som’s output over 3 years since her debut in 2016 has been steady, but the content has not suffered from such an accelerated timeline. Anak Ko marked Jay Som’s third album in that time and the excellent effort packs plenty of honesty, hazy dreampop into the short run time (35 minutes). “Superbike”, “Peace Out”, and the lo-fi charmer “Tenderness” were standouts perfect for a lazy day on the beach or sun-filled drive along your favorite coast.
11. Jade Bird Jade Bird
Some may have forgot that Jade Bird released a stellar, self-titled debut record in 2019. That could have been because it seemed like the major singles (“Uh Huh”, “Love Has All Been Done Before”) were already addictive in 2019. Ms. Bird saved plenty of more fun storytelling on the full album though, like “Good At It” and the painful breakup tale “Ruins”.
12. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib Bandana
I have been a fan of all of the producer/rapper combinations that have been released in recent years. From PRhyme (Royce Da 5’9”/DJ Premier) to Run the Jewels (Killer Mike/El-p), these duos have captured the essence of each others skills, but managed to test their comfort zones at the same time. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib obviously had prior success on Pinata, and I can’t pinpoint why, but Bandana just grabbed my ears stronger than their previous collaboration. Gibbs’ stream of consciousness crime stories instantly charmed over Madlib’s soul-infused gem “Freestyle Shit” and the album only got stronger from there with bangers like “Crime Pays” and “Soul Right”. Choice features from Pusha T and Killer Mike on “Palmolive”, Yasiin Bey and Black Thought on “Education”, and Anderson .Paak on “Giannis” complimented the chemistry MadGibbs compiled on the rest of the record.
13. Dreamville Revenge of the Dreamers III
Hip-hop compilations used to be the best thing about late ‘90’s/early 00’s rap. Not only did labels like Ruff Ryders, Death Row, No Limit, and Cash Money showcase their best rappers their namesakes could offer with epic posse cuts and new signee introductions, but you could count on quality guest features (who could forget Jay-Z or Juvenile on RR Vol. 1). Dreamville’s latest effort, Revenge of the Dreamers III (honestly, I didn’t know there was a “1”, shrug), evoked all those nostalgic feelings. J. Cole leads a fun cast on this sequel that I never knew I needed, including Ari Lennox, Bas, Omen, and more. Cole shines on solo cut “Middle Child”, “Down Bad”, and “Under the Sun”, but mostly let the rest of the crew like J.I.D. and Earthgang make names for themselves. Dreamers III has a slew of boisterous ciphers, including “Costa Rica” and “Wells Fargo”, and lets outsiders like Da Baby, T.I., and Vince Staples join the fun.
14. Caamp By and By
Ohio natives Caamp were on nearly every summer playlist I crafted thanks to their hit-filled sophomore effort, By and By. The banjo-driven tales lead by Taylor Meier’s raspy vocals paired well with sunshine, beer, grilling, bike riding, the beach…pretty much any laid back occasion you could imagine. “Keep the Blues Away”, “Peach Fuzz”, “Penny, Heads Up”, and “No Sleep” were among many folk gems on the record.
15. Clairo Immunity
If Rostam Batmanglij co-writes and co-produces the majority of your album, there is a strong chance you are doing something right. Such was the case on Clairo’s debut album, Immunity. At 21 years old, the rising star expertly sings and evokes all of the paranoia (“Closer To You”), fear (“Impossible”), nervousness (“Bags”), and pain (“Feel Something”) of young love amid the variety of quality production.
16. Maggie Rogers Heard It In A Past Life
Maggie Rogers’ debut, Heard It In A Past Life, was another early 2019 record that felt like it came out an eternity ago, but had staying power thanks to a plethora of inescapable hits. Listeners likely came for charming singles “Alaska” and “Give A Little”, but certainly stayed for the replay-ability of “Retrograde”, “Burning”, and “Light On”. “Fallingwater” landed on my top tracks list in 2018 and probably would rank even higher in 2019 with Rogers’ ethereal vocals, gorgeous instrumentation, and pulsing drum loop.
17. Hot Chip A Bath Full of Ecstasy
Though they are not the same, I can certainly understand the comparisons between Hot Chip and LCD Soundsystem. Similar traits include nostalgic synth, longer than typical dance songs, and earworm hooks that leave listeners wanting more (even on songs that run 6 minutes+). A Bath Full of Ecstasy felt sunnier than anything James Murphy and co. have crafted with plenty of hope to be found on the title track, thumping fun of “Echo”, and replay-worthy “Hungry Child”. “Spell” was a standout that hypnotized with Alexis Taylor’s heavenly vocals, an appropriate hook, bumping bass, hovering keys, and haunting vocoder.
18. James Blake Assume Form
James Blake’s fourth studio album, Assume Form, was particularly fitting for the cold of Michigan in January. That isn’t defined as slow or sad, which Blake can sometimes be associated with. Personally, that means I’m listening to music on headphones and the intricate, complex, and often hip-hop-influenced production was excellent for my first quarter. I would even argue that much of the album (“Tell Them”, “Power On”, “I’ll Come Too”) was upbeat. Blake also benefited from the best Andre 3000 rhymes of the year on the haunting effort, “Where’s The Catch?”.
19. Rapsody Eve
Rapsody’s lyrical skills are well-known in hip-hop circles, but I personally wondered if she would languish like so many great storytelling rhymers that came before her due to lack of label support. On Eve, Rapsody enlightened listeners with clever wordplay and narratives that outline industry struggles and personal tales that paid homage to females that inspired the North Carolina artist. “Cleo” was a particularly damning experience of the sexism female artists encountered in the music industry, while “Tyra” offered messages of empowerment and self-love. Strong production from 9th Wonder, Nottz, and Eric G helped provide the canvas for Rapsody’s wit-filled bars on other standouts like “Aaliyah”, “Ibtihaj”, and “Michelle“.
20. White Reaper You Deserve Love
I hate to simplify the joy of Louisville quintet White Reaper, but if their brand of glam/garage rock doesn’t bring a smile to your face that is solely your problem. You Deserve Love, the band’s third album, has everything that you should already know and love about White Reaper: big guitar riffs, uptempo rhythms, and soaring vocals. This collection seems to be a perfected version of White Reaper though with more summer-ready jams like “Real Long Time” and “Saturday”, driving percussion and bass of the title track, and even a touch of The Cars’ brand of new wave on “1F”. White Reaper is right, “you deserve love” and deserve to enjoy White Reaper.