This year, when we all fell asleep, we dreamed of Billie — and Charli, Taylor, Lana, Jamila, Ariana, Summer and all the other women who rocked the music world in 2019. It did not escape our attention, however, that a few men stepped up, too… even if Ms. Eilish was pretty much all the “Bad Guy” that 2019 required. Click on the bylines or scroll through for our critics’ top 10s:
1. Charli XCX, “Charli”
After nearly five years of doing seemingly everything except make an official third album, Charli XCX dropped a tour de force that shows what all of those mixtapes and singles and guest spots and multiplatinum cowrites were leading up to: arguably the most innovative pop album since Robyn’s “Body Talk.”
2. Bad Bunny, “X100 pre”
Even during a golden age of alternative Latin music, Bad Bunny is a titan whose songs are as big and audacious as his outsized personality, carrying off his eccentricities and silliness and musical curiosity with a rapper’s swagger. (This one came out on Dec. 24, 2018 — sue me.)
3. Billie Eilish, “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?”
To see a 17-year-old and her not-much-older brother almost singlehandedly create a record this dark and weird — and have it become the top-streamed album of the year by the breakthrough artist of the year — is enough to give one hope.
4. Mark Ronson, “Late Night Feelings”
The man who brought the world “Uptown Funk” has followed it with an album that almost couldn’t sound more different from it: a romantic and atmospheric collection of songs he describes as “sad bangers” sung entirely by female singer (Miley Cyrus, Camila Cabello, Lykke Li, Angel Olsen, King Princess and others) that recalls Massive Attack and even late-period Sade.
5. Sabrina Claudio, “Truth Is”
The second full-length from this young singer could almost act as an extension of Ronson’s album above: It’s a low-key R&B album big on romance and heartache, with strong enough melodies and singing to set it apart from many other albums that fit that description.
6. Vagabon, “Vagabon”
This Cameroonian-born, indie-scene reared artist, whose music is sometimes R&B, sometimes “alternative,” doesn’t really fit any mold, which is one reason why the genre-unspecific Nonesuch Records is a good home for her. This second album finds her unique and intimate songs crystallizing into an uncategorizable sound wholly its own.
7. Karen O & Danger Mouse, “Lux Prima”
In many ways this album is a continuation of Danger Mouse’s work with Daniele Luppi and Broken Bells, but it should go without saying that Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer Karen O makes an indelible impression on his very ’60s-movie-soundtrack inspired songs. It’s like a punk crashing into a Fellini film set, and fitting right in …
8. Summer Walker, “Over It”
You can’t tell a book or an album by its cover — except when you can. This Atlanta-spawned singer has set herself apart from the horde of contemporary R&B singers with sass and attitude that’s perfectly summed up by the album’s hilarious artwork.
9. Big Thief, “U.F.O.F.” / “Two Hands”
This Brooklyn-based indie band has taken a big page from Ariana Grande’s book by releasing two albums in the course of six months — just kidding about the Ariana part, but the group, led by quavery-voiced songstress Adrianne Lenker, has nearly doubled its already formidable body of work this year alone.
ANDREW BARKER’S TOP 10
1. Tyler, the Creator, “Igor”
Continuing one of the more remarkable artistic evolutions of recent memory, the onetime enfant terrible of millennial L.A. hip-hop offered a genre-defying album of dazzling technical accomplishment and striking emotional maturity. “Igor’s” high points (“Gone/Thank You,” “A Boy Is a Gun,” “Earfquake”) rival the best work of Tyler’s compatriots Frank Ocean and Earl Sweatshirt, as he synthesized his various tics and talents – his Pharrell hero-worship, his fondness for surrealistic left-turns, his ability to keep a bruised heart beating beneath even the bleakest stretches – into an eminently replayable, rewardingly unconventional record that couldn’t have possibly come from anyone else.
2. Lana Del Rey, “Norman Fucking Rockwell!”
By turns warm, wry, vicious, vulnerable, defiant, sexy, reactionary, progressive, archetypal, authentic, plainspoken and casually metaphysical, indie pop’s prophet of doom summoned all of her wonderfully contradictory gifts to soundtrack a Laurel Canyon dinner party for the end of the world.
3. Freddie Gibbs and Madlib, “Bandana”
The second full-length collaboration from the only modern producer-MC duo that can hold a candle to the likes of Gang Starr, Reflection Eternal, or Madlib’s own Madvillain, the sample-chopping Oxnard alchemist and the Midwest’s foremost gangsta rap classicist continued to carve out a lane that is entirely their own.
4. Vampire Weekend, “Father of the Bride”
Older, wiser, and noticeably less self-satisfied, the mid-aughts indie heroes returned after a six-year absence with an open-hearted, stylistically diverse statement of purpose for a post-rock landscape: Just because the culture has moved on doesn’t mean you can’t still find plenty of verdant spaces in the margins.
5. Jamael Dean, “Black Space Tapes”
The newest talent to emerge from L.A.’s stunningly vibrant contemporary jazz scene (and a previous collaborator with that scene’s biggest names, Thundercat and Kamasi Washington), the 21-year-old pianist/bandleader delivered a debut that sparkles with promise and wide-ranging ambition.
6. Miranda Lambert, “Wildcard”
Following up the double-album that was clearly meant to be – and was – a career-defining magnum opus, the decade’s most consistently excellent mainstream country star shrugged off the weight of those wings and eased into a comfortable, slightly tipsy groove. All the better to put the listener off-guard while she slyly sinks the knife in.
7. Jamila Woods, “Legacy! Legacy!”
The brilliance of Woods’ second full-length – a dense, expressionistic headphone-record with each song dedicated to a different black or brown artistic icon – comes from its ability to distill the essences of figures as storied as Zora Neale Hurston, Nikki Giovanni and Frida Kahlo within music that always feels like it was beamed in from somewhere in the near future.
8. Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Live at Woodstock”
CCR’s long-unreleased midnight set was just about the only Woodstock performance that hadn’t been repeatedly stripped for parts over the last half-century, and finally getting a chance to hear it proved the revelation of this past summer’s anniversary celebrations. The rare band from that ’69 stage that could have frictionlessly slotted into a Coachella bill 40 years later, Creedence sound rawer and meaner here than on any of their previous live records … or several of their studio ones, for that matter.
9. Lightning Bolt, “Sonic Citadel”
The Rhode Island duo has always had an unnerving ability to make head-splittingly chaotic noise sound somehow…friendly? Lightning Bolt’s seventh album may indeed be its friendliest – in relative terms, of course – with the singsongy melodies and endearing sense of humor that have always been lurking beneath the tumult creeping ever closer to the surface.
10. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Dedicated”
She may never again ascend to the commercial heights of “Call Me Maybe,” or capture the culty zeitgeist of “Emotion,” but Jepsen proved she still has plenty left to offer with this endlessly effervescent wine spritzer of an album.
Other stuff I liked a lot: Earl Sweatshirt, “Feet of Clay”; Purple Mountains, “Purple Mountains”; Gang Starr, “One of the Best Yet”; PUP, “Morbid Stuff”; Nicky Jam, “Intimo”; The Highwomen, “The Highwomen”; Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, “Ghosteen”; Megan Thee Stallion, “Fever”; Taylor Swift, “Lover” (the song, not the album – the album is fine, I guess, but the song is one of the best goddamn things she’s ever done).
CHRIS WILLMAN’s TOP 10
1. (tie) Taylor Swift, “Lover”
How rarely does it happen that the most popular artist in the world is also the one turning out the best string of albums? Well, the Beatles did it, and you’d be hard-pressed to cite anyone else who’s pulled off that double duty since. After the darker turn of “Reputation,” Swift returned with a more sprawling tour de force, focusing on the promised songs of newfound love and contentedness but also taking detours for outward-leaning subjects like feminism, gay pride, grief and even American dystopianism. Because we still need some shadows in our pop deliriums.
1. (tie) Billie Eilish, “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?”
An album that takes at least part of its inspiration from night terrors and sleep paralysis is one sweet dream of a debut record. Somehow, Eilish makes a state of anxiety feel haunting and harrowing — as it should — but also beautiful, funny and deeply fun. She’s your quintessential “old soul,” to be sure: You’d have to be 200 years old, give or take a few years, not to relate to this record. Thankfully, there are moments, too, where she’s not getting too far out ahead of her essential 17-ness. Here’s to Eilish as a career artist for 60 or so more years to come.
1. (tie) The Highwomen, “The Highwomen”
Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Natalie Hemby and Amanda Shires convened virtually overnight as a supergroup and quickly cut the most instantaneously classic-feeling country album in many, many years. If there is a feminist agenda within the grooves, it’s an effortless-feeling one. Nearly every song comes from a distinctly female perspective, but it’s a different one from song to song, whether they’re giving us the perspective of a gay woman who’s throwing some shade at a would-be ladies’ man in a bar or a hungover mom or just the simple compassion of women who want to maternally embrace the world. They’re every woman, these Highwomen.
4. The Raconteurs, “Help Us Stranger”
It takes a lot to make us feel excited about pure rock ‘n’ roll again, this far into rock’s supposed death throes. And by “a lot,” we mean this brilliant and thrilling assortment of songs from Jack White and Brendan Benson, reconvening after too long a break as the Lennon & McCartney of guitar-slamming Midwestern/Southern power pop. Sweetly sung choruses are punctuated by short but hurt-inducing solos that make the programming-user-alles era feel like just a bad dream.
5. The New Pornographers, “In the Morse Code of Brake Lights”
It’s the end of the world as we know it, and they feel Phil Spectorian, if hardly fine. This might be the most successfully political album of 2019, even though no names or topics du jour are mentioned and it’d be easy to overlook that whole aspect of what the New Pornographers auteurist-in-chief, A.C. Newman, has pulled off here. There’s a sheen to the high anxiety here as he enlists Neko Case and the group’s other multiple female vocalists on a spooky, shimmering, nervously rocking pop record that encapsulates the existential panic of the Trump era while barely keeping the politics subliminal. If you want just one record this year that makes you feel like a doomed ancient Grecian, that you can also dance to, this is it.
6. Leonard Cohen, “Thanks for the Dance”
Yes, it’s a posthumous album, and also boss-humous. (Please don’t haunt us for that one.) However it might have been assembled by his son, Adam, from the scraps of spoken-word verse or barely sung choruses that Cohen left behind on his passing three years ago, “Thanks” sounds suspiciously like the next album the poet laureate would have made after his swan song in life, “You Want It Darker.” He is open about the final settling of his affairs, in appropriately grave fashion, but also delves into sensual reminiscing — it’s sexy and even amusing at times, as last wills and testaments go.
7. Maren Morris, “Girl”
Are the Country Music Awards smarter than the Grammys? Considerably so, when it comes to realizing that this was the best as well as most important mainstream country-star album of the year. (It won at the CMAs, wasn’t even nominated for that other award.) Working with Greg Kurstin as well as her beloved, recently passed away Busbee, Morris further blossomed on her sophomore album into an artist for whom the boundaries between country and pop seem irrelevant, with old-school R&B shadings as the glue that binds them. She’s proven herself exactly the star the genre needs to help lead it into a not entirely boy-dominated future.
8. Yola, “Walk Through Fire”
The Grammys didn’t get it all wrong this year. What they tooketh away with Morris’ near-shutout in the recent nominations, they gaveth with an unexpected four nods for this black, British Americana fetishist. The words “country” and “soul” may never have been used in such close proximity as they have to describe what Yola is intertwining with her roots-pop. Even then, those genre descriptors come up short on what she’s able to do with a brilliant sense of historical musicology — shared with her producer/co-writer, the Black Key’s Dan Auerbach — and a dynamic vocal range to die for (that part is just hers). On this debut, she goes from Lulu-like to Tina-esque in an instant.
9. Ariana Grande, “Thank U, Next”
Swift doesn’t have any lock on the concept of superstar/blockbuster album as serialized memoir chapter. Following just seven months on the heels of her previous full-length, “Thank U” offered a title track ripped from the tabloid headlines and cut up and re-pasted into something more proactive, while delving just slightly into the darker themes that feel true to her recent experience with “Fake Smile” and “Bloodline.” But sexier fare like “NASA” made her into the best kind of space cadet. It almost seemed awkward that she’d close an album with some weight to it on as inconclusive a note as “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored,” until you realize: it’s another serial cliffhanger.
10. Sara Bareilles, “Amidst the Chaos”
No one embodies the classic pop singer/songwriter tradition to any greater effect nowadays than Bareilles, who, like Swift, tried to bring a darker, socially conscious undertow into her 2019 album even as she devoted a lot of it to the experience of falling deeply in love in uncertain times. The result was an album that feels balmy, not in the tropical sense, but in an actual wound-healing one. Producer T Bone Burnett brought in his usual percussive crew and took a little of the high-end shine off her work — never to better effect than in “Armor,” a delightful, hopeful and still pretty pissed off anthem for women who’ll probably need something to march to for many Januaries to come.
Not to mention: Bruce Springsteen’s “Western Stars,” Tanya Tucker’s “While I’m Livin’,” Vampire Weekend’s “Father of the Bride,” Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi’s “There Is No Other,” Lana Del Rey’s “Norman F—ing Rockwell,” Joy Williams’ “Front Porch,” Jenny Lewis’ “On the Line,” Allison Moorer’s “Blood,” Gary Clark Jr.’s “This Land,” Fruit Bats’ “Gold Past Life,” Miranda Lambert’s “Wildcard,” Jamila Woods’ “Legacy! Legacy!,” Rodney Crowell’s “Texas,” Kalie Shorr’s “Open Book,” Tyler, the Creator’s “Igor,” Sheryl Crow’s “Threads,” Midland’s “Let It Roll” and Maggie Rogers’ “Heard It in a Past Life.”