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The Best Albums of 2019 (So Far)

At this point last year, we began this article by saying, “Like so many other things in 2018, the music scene is loud, unsettled and afflicated with an ever-shortening attention span.” And like so many other things in 2019, that statement remains true — but more. The past 12 months have seen the rocketing rise of Billie Eilish, the continuing creative and commercial flowering of Latin music and K-pop, the mainstreaming of SoundCloud rap and its reach into other genres… and we’re still waiting for that Childish Gambino album. Turbulent times make for turbulent art — and anyone who had vaguely wished that they’d been around during the 1960s may find themselves wishing today that they’d been more careful about what they’d wished for — and one of the few silver linings in the horrors of the past 12 months has been the art they’ve inspired.

What can we expect in the second half of the year? What used to pass for a release schedule has turned into an ADD-addled exercise in impulse control — Bad Bunny and J Balvin surprise-dropped a collaborative album just last night — but we’re looking forward to new albums from Ed Sheeran, Raphael Saadiq, Charli XCX, Alabama Shakes singer Brittany Howard, Halsey, Beck, Cardi B, Lana Del Rey, the Weeknd, Maxwell, Tove Lo, Miley Cyrus, Celine Dion, Chance the Rapper, and maybe the long-percolating next outings from Rihanna, Missy Elliott, Grimes, Frank Ocean and even Kanye West’s “Yandhi.” But as always, we’re most looking forward to exciting new music from someone we haven’t heard of and didn’t see coming.

Bad Bunny “X 100PRE” (Rimas Entertainment)
There’s little question that Latin music is undergoing another renaissance phase, with innovative music coming from J Balvin, Rosalia, Maluma, Ozuna and many others, but Puerto Rican rap-singer Bad Bunny — best known for his guest appearance on Cardi B’s summertime smash “I Like It” — may have released the most diverse and polycultural album of the group His debut full-length, “X 100PRE” (which actually dropped on Dec. 24 of last year but we’ll count for 2019) is a kaleidoscopic combination of influences — it’s primarily based in reggaeton and trap, but the settings for his nasal croon range into ballad and even ‘80s-style new wave territory on this vibrant album. The diversity of his influences an appeal are apparent in its list of guest appearances, which range from Diplo and Drake to Ricky Martin and Dominican artist El Alfa — and just last night, he surprise-dropped a new collaborative album with Balvin, so who knows what’s coming next? —JA

Big Thief “U.F.O.F.” (4AD)
While their debut outing was called “Masterpiece,” the third outing from this New York-based quartet is the one that finds the group truly coming into its own. Based around the vocals and lyrics of primary songwriter Adrianne Lenker, the album works within the confines of indie rock, but the vivid characters in her songs and her deeply emotional, quavering vocals vault the group’s music into a realm that transcends categories. Influences from Joni Mitchell and Nick Drake are prominent, but Lenker has fused them into a style that is completely distinctive and ever-evolving. —JA

Billie Eilish “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go” (Interscope)

Billie Eilish When We All Fall Asleep Where Do We Go
There was something slightly hilarious about referring to a debut album recorded before the freshman artist in question turned 17 as “long-awaited,” but In Eilish’s case it was true, since she’d been signed at an even more scarily precocious age and been dribbling out singles and EPS for so long it feels like she at at least be in grad school by now. Anyway, we’re the ones getting schooled: This is an album to make the most grizzled singer-songwriters jealous. Far from anyone’s preconception of a teen phenom, Eilish contain 17-year-old multitudes: She’s funny, depressed, wicked, a wallflower, aggro, sweetly vulnerable… and, luckily for her line of work, kind of ridiculously crafty, too. One thing she’s learned at this age that others might take decades to pick up is the value of whispering. She sings a great deal of “When We All Fall Asleep…” in a hush, and you have to laugh and marvel at the notion that there’s a nation of overstimulated youth cocking their ears to listen more closely to someone this dedicated to keeping her voice down. At times she raises it for a more pronounced, nuanced jazziness. But her instinct is for intimacy — and producer-co-writer Finneas is a champ at knowing how to frame her breathy pull with a mix of somber acoustic sounds and blaringly fun EDM effects. As quiet and nearly guitar-free as it is, with this much style, verve and attitude, “When We All Fall Asleep” is really a great rock ‘n’ roll album at heart. —CW

Ariana Grande “Thank U Next” (Republic)
There’s maybe a little bit of unintended irony in the title of Grande’s fifth album. Coming less than six months after “Sweetener” — which made Variety’s best of 2018 lists — this one followed in such short succession that you might’ve wondered if she was taking the same let’s-move-on approach to albums as she was to ex-boyfriends in the title track. But if the rock ‘n’ rollers of the 1960s could turn out great work on what looked like an assembly-line schedule, there’s no reason why someone with pop instincts as solid as Grande’s can’t, too, especially with teams of producers working around the clock. Nothing about “Thank U Next” feels clocked in or phoned in, anyway. She acknowledges the grind she’s a willing but reluctant part of in “Fake Smile,” one of the album’s most personal songs; Grande surely does not suffer gladly those who demand grins out of her after all she’s been through. “Needy” is the ultimate diva’s anthem — not just for Grande-level divas but anyone whose demands amount to a desire for two-legged emotional support animals. But whatever tears were left to cry seem like a very distant memory when she’s meeting our demands for songs as sassy as “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored” or spacy-sexy as “NASA.” This material came to even greater life on the year’s most fascinatingly artsy superstar arena tour. Anyway, it’s been five months now, Ariana — where’s the next album? — CW

Lizzo “Cuz I Love You” (Nice Life-Atlantic)

Lizzo "Cuz I Love You"

The past couple of decades haven’t been easy for old-school soul singers: The late, revered Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley carved out niches late in their careers in a revivalist vibe, while Jennifer Hudson just can’t seem to find the right setting for her near-peerless voice. So go figure that Lizzo, a proudly plus-sized soul shouter with powerhouse pipes, seems poised to be the one to bring traditional R&B into the 21 st century. Her previous, independent albums hinted at her potential, but “Cuz I Love You” brings a songwriting flair and production punch that her previous efforts lacked. And while her style is definitely old school — there’s lots of soulful testifying and horn section blasts — it’s also very contemporary, which comes across to even stronger effect in a live setting: She performs accompanied only by a DJ and her dancers, the “Big Girls,” yet has no problem filling the stage with her songs, her sass and her roof-raising voice. Fans of this album will probably love her live set, because Lizzo’s voice and personality are too powerful to be limited to audio files (or vinyl). — JA

Maren Morris “Girl” (Columbia Nashville)
In our in-house discussions about what might appear on a mid-year top 15 list, the usual issues of representation arose, with a strong desire for at least one country album to figure in amid the ranking. And then a question arose: Does Morris’ sophomore even count as country enough to check off that box? In some ways, the question is moot: If the country audience accepts something as country, they get to be the final arbiter … and with the title song from “Girl” now in the country radio top 10, that call has officially been made. But in a stylistic sense, whether or not everyone’s favorite “Middle” woman has truly pulled a pop play after her mainstream smash with Zedd is a worthwhile and fun conversation to have. It’s a nearly twang-free collection, to be sure, aside from her outlier of a hillbilly-rock duet with Brothers Osborne, “All My Favorite People.” (Reportedly Morris is pulling out some of the country-er material she’s held in her pocket for the upcoming album with her side project, the Highwomen.) But a lot of the other best moments here aren’t so much country-pop as old-school R&B-pop… which, weirdly, makes it feel closer to, not further from, home plate. The long history of R&B influence in Nashville covers not just Ray Charles’ C&W side trips but singles by everyone from Ronnie Milsap to Thomas Rhett that veered more toward Memphis on the map. Yes, there are moments on “Girl” that couldn’t be more pop if a weasel were involved. But in great cuts like “The Bones,” “RSVP,” “Shade” and “Good Woman,” you feel Morris really nailing down her Southern soul instincts — and maybe, ironically, that’s what makes her country. —CW

Megan Thee Stallion, “Fever”
“Rap is not pop, if you call it that then stop” – so rhymed A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip back in 1991. That was already a questionable claim back then, and over the following decades the distinction has been erased almost entirely. So when Megan Thee Stallion takes a between-verses breather on the opening track of “Fever” to insist, “I’m a real rap bitch, this ain’t no pop s—t,” there’s a reason she wants to draw that line in the sand. For far too long, the artificially low number of women rappers who were allowed to break through meant that those who did often felt compelled to try to be all things to all people: rap star, pop star, dance music star, Latin crossover queen… The Houston-bred Megan, on the other hand, wants to succeed as a pure technical rapper, and judging by the steeliness of the bars she lays down across the 14 tracks of her debut mixtape, she ought to be able to draw a crowd without swerving out of her chosen lane. Her subject matter is limited, but that’s by design: what we’re here for is to witness her invention and ferocity as she tackles the same topics (sex, money, and the interplay of the two) from every possible angle, whether that means out-raunching Juicy J on “Simon Says,” repurposing male rappers’ tired Dolemite fantasies into something new on “Pimpin,” or producing the most spit-take-worthy SpongeBob reference ever committed to tape on the scorched-earth album closer “Running Up Freestyle.” — AB

Karen O + Danger Mouse “Lux Prima” (BMG)
Among the many musical genres spawned during the 1960s was a sophisticated strain of orchestral pop purveyed by songwriter/producers such as John Barry, Burt Bacharach, Scott Walker and various Frenchmen that is oddly present in three albums on this list: Bruce Springsteen’s latest, the Weyes Blood album, and this, the unexpectedly cohesive collaboration between Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer Karen O and Danger Mouse (whose sprawling discography spans Gnarls Barkley, Gorillaz, Black Keys and even U2). The sound is lush even when the songs are O-powered and punky, placed into a plush context that’s like a sonic version of Deborah Harry’s early 1980s mesh of street style and high fashion — even “Reveries,” which starts off as just O accompanied a roughly strummed, echo-drenched acoustic guitar, gets a floofy musical down comforter that climaxes with Daft Punkesque fusion of orchestra and buzzing synthesizer. Those contrasts are simply one facet of the most remarkable thing about this remarkable album: the way these two talents — so different from each other and such a seemingly unlikely, or at least not obvious, combination — mesh together. “Lux Prima” is a fresh adventure for both, and one that’s both familiar and strikingly new for the listener as well. —JA

The Raconteurs “Help Us Stranger” (Third Man)

You know, you don’t actually have to be a rockist (that derisive term for fogeys who believe in the inherent supremacy of rock over pop) to think that what the world needed about as much as anything else in 2019 was a truly great meat-and-potatoes rock ‘n’ roll album. It got one in the form of the Raconteurs’ first new studio effort in a decade, although that dietary description doesn’t really do justice to the eccentric seasonings and side dishes that are inherent to any meal thrown together by Jack White. Working with Brendan Benson, a master of power pop, does bring out White’s mainstream instincts, though. And so after White used “Who’s with me?” as a clarion call on his most recent solo album (2018’s “Boarding House Reach,” an excellent effort that pushed the weirdness envelope just a little too far for some fans), the Raconteurs’ comeback is the album in which “Who’s with me?” is really going to answered by a unanimity of raised hands. You hear echoes of everyone from the Beatles and Yardbirds to Lynyrd Skynyrd in these 12 tracks, but there’s no danger of it seeming too much of a classic-rock throwback; White’s guitar bursts are just too eruptive and impassioned to ever allow the music to feel like a trip through yesteryear. “Stranger” is an album even a popist can love — but it doesn’t hurt if you’ve been starved to death for some severely accomplished six-string swagger. —CW

Mark Ronson “Late Night Feelings” (RCA)
Coming off the success of both the global smash “Uptown Funk” and his Lady Gaga collaborations on “A Star Is Born,” superproducer Mark Ronson has followed up with an album that sounds little like either project: A low-key collection of what he calls “sad bangers,” inspired by the dissolution of his marriage, with a remarkably wide ranging but cohesive group of all-female guest singers ranging from Miley Cyrus and Camila Cabello to Lykke Li and Angel Olsen. The album’s title is perfect: It’s got several single-worthy songs, but the vibe is chill and intimate: Think Massive Attack or the low-key offerings from their British progeny like Rudimental or Jess Glynne, or even some of Sade’s later work. There’s lots of echo, midtempo beats and distant strings or synths, yet most of all, it’s a real album, one that you can put on and leave on as an hour-plus-long soundtrack for whatever those late night feelings might be. —JA

Slowthai “Nothing Great About Britain” (Method)
“Voice of a Generation” is a cruel albatross to hang around anyone’s neck, but occasionally albums come along that indisputably give listeners a glimpse into the generation in question. Such is the case with 24-year-old Bajan-British rapper Slowthai (Tyron Frampton), whose debut album serves up slices of mid-Brexit Britain with a knowing savvy that is both completely contemporary, both lyrically and musically, while nodding to his forebear: he references Dizzy Rascal’s 2003 epic “Kid in Da Corner” within this album’s first moments and there are flashes of Kendrick Lamar’s “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City” and The Streets’ character portraits. However, his is not a London-centric view: Spawned in the backwater of Northampton, his perspective is that of a kind of British (if not global) every-youth, an opened-minded, multi-cultural but pissed off young person who’s wondering, amid the seemingly perpetual state of incredulity we all finds ourselves in these days, what he did to deserve the world that he’s inheriting. It spans first-person looks at poverty, classism, and racism to bigger-picture rants against the endlessly self-serving “public servants” who brought about this mess — and there’s both a foul-mouthed diatribe for Queen Elizabeth in the title track and, in true classic-rapper fashion, a tribute to his mother (“Northampton’s Child”). But it would all be just invective if it didn’t bang, and aided by producers Kwes Darko and Mura Masa, the album rockets along through grime, drill, electro, trap and even the occasional urban ballad. “Nothing Great About Britain” is a vividly drawn portrait of one person’s world that seems to speak for many. —JA

Bruce Springsteen “Western Stars” (Columbia)
The Wichita lineman: still on the line, 60 years later. (Can someone pass the guy up a meal, or something?) Wherever Glen Campbell is, his celestial ears surely must be burning from all the name-checks he’s gotten as a result of Springsteen going west for what nearly seems like a genre exercise… if Jimmy Webb’s songwriting influence counts as its own genre, which it probably should. Springsteen’s past “solo” albums (i.e., the non-E-Street-Band ones, even though the group’s name never appeared on anything but the live collections) were stripped down affairs, so it’s a fun late-life development to have him using one of these occasions to ramp up a sound and boss around an orchestra, which almost owes as much to Elmer Bernstein’s Magnificent Seven/Marlboro Man music as it does to the folk-pop arrangements of the late 60s. Sometimes the character vignettes recall the sorts of short stories he was telling on sparer albums like “Devils & Dust,” and sometimes, as in “There Goes My Miracle,” you’re just reminded of the vintage-pop throwback ballads he’s occasionally thrown into his catalog, like “Girls in Their Summer Clothes.” It’s not a perfect album: he can indulge in stock language about wanderers and wayfarers as much as anybody. But the combination of loners and losers and unexpected lusciousness easily makes this his most magical album since, well, “Magic.” —CW

Tyler, the Creator “Igor”
The decade-long evolution of the old Odd Future crew, from a clique of willfully crude anarchists into the vanguard of forward-thinking hip-hop, has been a stunning thing to behold. But while Frank Ocean and Earl Sweatshirt always wore their more sensitive sides on their sleeves, no one has taken a more surprising leap into maturity than ringleader Tyler. In truth, there was always a bruised, beating heart beneath the shock ultraviolence of Tyler’s early work, but it wasn’t until 2017’s “Flower Boy” that he fully let it out into the open, and that tendency continues to, well, flower on this year’s “Igor.” Tracing the course of a relationship from barely articulate impressions of infatuation on the opening tracks to the long screeds of self-examination on the closers, Tyler foregrounds his confused ruminations with continually surprising production choices that urge you to take a closer listen just as often as they hold you at a distance. It’s hard to think of a more defiantly, rewardingly noncommercial hip-hop album to debut at No. 1 since Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” – that “Igor” reached the chart summit at the expense of DJ Khaled’s latest collection of focus-grouped brand extensions makes it all the more satisfying. — AB

Vampire Weekend, “Father of the Bride” 

Vampire Weekend Father of the Bride

Vampire Weekend really could have just called it a day after 2013’s “Modern Vampires of the City.” A career high-point that saw the band win a Grammy – not to mention winning over many of the critics who’d spent years aiming sometimes inexplicable barbs in their direction – their third album was followed by half a decade of inactivity, during which the group lost key member Rostam Batmanglij and saw the indie-rock wave they’d ridden so successfully dwindle to a low trickle. But Ezra Koenig & Co. weren’t quite done yet, and their comeback record is all the more satisfying for its inessentiality; it’s an album clearly made out of desire, rather than necessity. Looser, shaggier, and more blissfully unpretentious than anything the group has done before, “Father of the Bride” sees Vampire Weekend broaden their usual punk and Afro-pop influences to take in notes from country, prog, jam-band psychedelia and even techno, and the results are always playfully adventurous. As a frontman, Koenig’s whole Ivy League hipster persona was always mostly an act (albeit one he played convincingly enough for some listeners to miss the joke), but that doesn’t make it any less refreshing to see him let down his hair and loosen his tie here, more concerned with reveling in the bittersweet pleasures of full-blown adulthood than convincing us he’s the cleverest guy in the room. — AB

Weyes Blood “Titanic Rising” (Sub Pop)

weyes blood Titanic Rising

Orchestral pop comes in many different flavors, and if the Karen O and Danger Mouse album above brings the orchestral sweep and ambitious arrangements, the latest from Weyes Blood — a.k.a. singer-songwriter Natalie Mering — has the baroque pop elements that characterized many great songs from the Zombies and Nilsson, along with a classical influence that brings a sort of prim stateliness to her melodies. Yet it’s Mering’s crystalline voice — we’ll bet she’s never inhaled a cigarette —and precise delivery that sets her apart from any influence one might hear. Similar in tone to pre-jazz Joni Mitchell, her mannered style brings forth the classical influences and lends a gravitas and a sense of drama to the songs, no matter what the lyrics are addressing (which, true to the title, seems sometimes to be the film “Titanic”). Mering is accompanied on most songs by retro savants the Lemon Twigs, and Alabama Shakes/Perfume Genius producer Blake Mills shows yet another side to his Grammy-winning talent. But despite the influences and the ace accompaniment, there’s never any question who’s leading this dance. “Titanic Rising” is a new peak for a rapidly maturing and utterly distinctive artist. —JA

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