The 50 Best Albums Of 2019

For many of us, 2019 has been a year of flux — politically, culturally, professionally, personally. It’s hard to envision what the future might bring since the recent past has shown us that we don’t know half the things we thought we knew. In unsteady times, music can be a balm and also a mirror. And a lot of the best music of the year responded, in one way or another, to that constant uncertainty.

There was something hymnlike about a lot of 2019’s best music in just about every genre — as if our quasi-mainstream singer-songwriters and indie-rock guitar-tanglers and abstract rap word-twisters and rage-choked punks were writing elegies to a dying society before it’s quite dead. In one case, that was painfully literal, as one of our greatest songwriters emerged from a long silence, came out with a work of mordantly funny and all-consuming sadness, and then took his own life.

But there was also a whole lot of confidence on display in this year’s best music. Artists twisted genres up into unrecognizable forms, talked shit with chest-out bravado, and radiated chaotic, euphoric energy. There’s joy in this year’s saddest albums, and there’s depression in its most euphoric ones. Calendars are arbitrary things, and every year is messy enough to resist narrative. But this year was really all over the place.

We, your Stereogum staff, spent this year attempting to make sense out of all this chaos and to herald the best music we heard from across the musical landscape. We’ve spent these past months debating and extolling and arguing over our favorite records, and the list you see below is the best stuff we heard. Hopefully, you’ll find as much to love as we did. —Tom Breihan

50 Greet Death – New Hell (Deathwish)

Greet Death songs manifest in various forms: breakneck shoegaze rave-ups, bleary folk-rock lullabies, slowcore epics that seem to fill up the entire room until they smother you with disgusting beauty. Their vocals can evoke both the deep sorrow of early Mark Kozelek and the spindly, supernatural qualities of Dan Bejar reading poetry several cocktails deep. Yet for all their versatility, they’ve honed in on an unmistakable mood, a feeling of depression in desperate search of catharsis. More often than not, New Hell provides it. —Chris DeVille

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49 Miranda Lambert – Wildcard (RCA Nashville / Vanner )

Miranda Lambert is certainly a wildcard — a loose-lipped spitfire, a country master that has adapted to and elevated the Nashville song-making machine. Her seventh album, Wildcard, was written in the beginnings of a new marriage and a new chance at happiness. These songs are about the luxury of upward mobility, the horizon of stability. Lambert is being pulled in both directions — a desire for change and a desire to feel safe. “I’m a wild child and a homing pigeon,” she sings on one song, refusing to be pinned down to either. “Am I settling up or settling down?” Wildcard gives Lambert the space to do both: embrace where she’s been and push in new directions. —James Rettig

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48 Girl Band – The Talkies (Rough Trade)

After several years of silence spent working through mental health issues, Girl Band resurfaced this year with a new album in tow. They’ve always been transparent about their anxieties, but The Talkies elevates their jittery noise-rock by taking the lyrical focus off them and placing it onto you. From the visceral breathing of a real-time panic attack in “Prolix” onward, the Irish four-piece writhe and jab with unpredictable tension, turning guitar screeches in “Akineton” and thundering drums in “Laggard” into a piece of art that feels more alive and unbidden than the sound of your own heart pumping blood. —Nina Corcoran

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47 Nilüfer Yanya – Miss Universe (ATO)

Miss Universe doesn’t feel like a debut. Nilüfer Yanya possesses a comfort in the undefinable that eludes many an artist both in form and concept. She sways between pithy indie-pop-leaning melodies and the controlled chaos of crunchy power chords, gracefully yet forcefully. Her songs are relatable because of their sheer poignancy, but you can’t quite grasp them fully because she rarely offers a resolution. The sliding spectrums of her sonic versatility and emotive intelligence seem to meet in the perfect place to make each song irresistibly engaging in its unique multidimensionality. The poppy, more lighthearted bounce of “Heat Rises” cohabitates seamlessly with the powerful distorted strums of “Paralyzed,” the Sade-esque jazz/R&B meld on “Melt,” and everything in between. So fuck a sash, give Yanya a guitar strap instead. —Collin Robinson

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46 Solange – When I Get Home (Columbia)

Initially, Solange’s latest project seems like a lush stream of consciousness, stealthily changing neurological channels. But really, When I Get Home is an elaborate meditation on origin with a distorted timeline. As a follow-up to 2016’s A Seat At The Table, Solange burrowed into her roots and lassoed the rhythms, textures, and images of her hometown Houston. From her fabulous army of collaborators, the album takes notes especially from experimental ensemble Standing On The Corner: quilting trap beats, embroidering messages, sewing together jazz interludes. As she states early on, Solange can’t be a singular expression of herself. On When I Get Home, she gathers all the pieces — her childhood, fulfilled dreams, and leveled-up artistic vibrancy — and baptizes them in Florida water. —Margaret Farrell

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45 Brittany Howard – Jaime (ATO)

Alabama Shakes bandleader Brittany Howard’s first album under her own name is explosive and easygoing all at once. Throughout this project, she deploys a knack for jazz scales and idiosyncratic composition. There are moments like “Stay High” — detonating in color like fireworks through the use of child-like keys and claps as percussion — while other tracks like “Georgia” deny the constraints of any one genre palette. Jaime is a beautiful fusion of everything that makes you feel music. —Keely Quinlan

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44 Blood Incantation – Hidden History Of The Human Race (Dark Descent)

The mere idea of psychedelic death metal appears self-evidently contradictory, like eco-friendly corporations or compassionate conservatism. Psychedelia aims toward the sky, toward astral beauty and transcendence, while death metal wallows in the muck of rage and viscera. But on their second album, Denver’s Blood Incantation have figured out a fusion that makes sense. Hidden History Of The Human Race is an intricate half-hour suite that turns the cavernous mystery of Morbid Angel into an odyssey of spiritual searching. Again and again, Blood Incantation lurch from guttural grind to space-jazz epiphany, wrenching us along on a whiplash journey into infinity. —Tom

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43 Tyler, The Creator – IGOR (Columbia)

Having begun the decade as rap’s most unruly rugrat, Tyler, The Creator is ending it having grown into the genre’s most eccentric fashion icon, a post-Top 40 tastemaker, and a cinematic storyteller peerless in his class. IGOR, his latest screenplay of wounded fight music, traces a breakthrough love becoming unrequited in real time. Yet it moves not with mourning but chest-beating assertion, all while folding a supporting cast of compatriot iconoclasts the likes of Solange, Playboi Carti, Lil Uzi Vert, and Kanye West into Tyler’s singular authorial voice. —Pranav Trewn

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42 Oso Oso – Basking In The Glow (Triple Crown)

Oso Oso mastermind Jade Lilitri sings of digging for clarity but can’t see the light for the dirt beneath his fingernails. Basking In The Glow is an album with all the right answers — an album about how great it feels to have those answers — but with the understanding that knowledge doesn’t necessarily translate into action. As Lilitri sings it, there’s always another angle to question, whether a step forward is a step in the right direction at all. In the grand tradition of forebears like Taking Back Sunday, the Used, and Jimmy Eat World, he quells his doubts by affixing them to airlocked guitars and rocketship choruses, and then launching them into the sun. —Pranav

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41 Brutus – Nest (Sargent House)

Most bands would be lucky to have either a drummer or a singer as viscerally talented as Stefanie Mannaerts. Brutus has both within a single human body. Limbs, lungs, and all, Mannaerts is the elemental force that powers Nest’s 11 tracks. No slouches themselves, her bandmates build out Mannaerts’ bashing and howling into world-swallowing rock songs so pulverizing they couldn’t possibly be pop and so catchy that it doesn’t feel quite right to call them heavy metal. However you categorize it, it’s one of the most exhilarating rock records in a long time. —Chris

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40 Danny Brown – uknowhatimsayin¿ (Warp)

The question going into every Danny Brown album is how many different Dannys are going to show up. A few years ago, pretty much every Danny — from the depraved to the frantic banshee to the demure introspective — came out to play on Atrocity Exhibition. On uknowwhatimsayin¿, Brown stays in a pocket of measured energy and lyrical agility. With his vocal antics stripped down, what remains is a welcome reminder that dude can rap his ass off. Wordsmith Danny over unorthodox, minimalistic beats overseen by Q-Tip is something worth riding for any day of the week or decade of a century. —Collin

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39 Bon Iver – i,i (Jagjaguwar)

In 2019, the men whose aching soundtracked our adolescence found peace. Similarly to his friend Ezra Koenig, Justin Vernon seems to have recently accepted his mortality and discovered comfort in the inevitability of rupture and upheaval. Then, he invited a dozen like-minded collaborators over to make an album honoring life’s fickle, sublime joys — resulting in a chaotic, heavenly symphony he collages from the sounds of his past, from For Emma’s frigid beauty, to Bon Iver’s earthy warmth and 22’s explosive storms. “Sunlight feels good now, don’t it?” he exhales on album closer “RABi.” Still, it’s not all sunshine. Vernon uses his newfound internal peace to look farther outside himself than he ever has, to climate change, class disparities, the opioid epidemic, and Trump voters. Full of grace and gratitude, his riddles of tender, charming near-nonsense crash-land into bursts of clarity. —Jael Goldfine

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38 Amygdala – Our Voices Will Soar Forever (Prosthetic)

“I can still feel the hospital bed,” Bianca Quiñones roars on “Why Can’t I Heal?” One of the greatest punk bandleaders to come along in recent memory, Quiñones howls about rape and abuse and racism with open-wound immediacy and blood-vision ferocity. Her band responds with majestic clang, blurring screamo and crust punk and doom metal into an overwhelming and often-beautiful blur. There are plenty of great hardcore bands who might make you want to smash shit up. There are precious few who make you want to rebuild it into something less cruel. Amygdala are among the few. —Tom

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37 Jamila Woods – LEGACY! LEGACY! (Jagjaguwar/Closed Sessions)

Albums that pay homage to influences with eponymous tracks are risky; you’re essentially creating a canon the work can and will be judged against. At best, you do your heroes justice. At worst, it’s a self-aggrandizing attempt to put your name in conversation with legends. Both Rapsody and Jamila Woods dropped such albums this year, and both were exceptional. What makes LEGACY! LEGACY! successful is Woods’ uncanny ability to illuminate her ingenuity while also showcasing her impressively deep study of and reverence for all 11 figures she dedicates songs to. From her nods to funk visionary Betty Davis, through the track for the inimitable author James Baldwin, Woods is incredibly adept at looking back in admiration while pushing forward with a sound, soul, and strength that is unmistakably hers. —Collin

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36 Hand Habits – placeholder (Saddle Creek)

“What if I can’t calm down and I just don’t have that in my bloodline?” Meg Duffy asks on placeholder, their magnificently assured sophomore album as Hand Habits. Duffy makes it clear through their lyrics that they’re not sure of anything, but these perfectly rendered folk-rock songs would make you think otherwise. Duffy is fixated on whether human beings can actually truly change, or whether we’re meant to eternally hang in a state of in-between, always becoming something new. Duffy longs to settle down and searches for a clarity that never really comes, that only gets more complex with the more questions you ask. —James

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35 Abuse Of Power – What On Earth Can We Do (Triple B)

Atlanta’s Abuse Of Power are not an elevated hardcore band. They are not experimental. They do not test the boundaries of the genre. They could’ve existed at any point in the last 25 years. They’re practically traditionalists, and their full-length debut is over in about 20 minutes. But they play with grace and fervor and passion, and there’s something enormously satisfying in hearing a young band bang out this intense basement music with such focus and drive. Also, the riffs slap hard, and there’s enough melody that you might catch distant echoes of whatever your favorite Bad Religion song is. —Tom

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34 Ariana Grande – thank u, next (Republic)

Throughout the turmoil she endured over the last few years, Ariana Grande continued to approach the world with a stylish levity, one that might have seemed flippant in the face of reality. Yet the emotional range she unapologetically displays in both her personal and musical life should be taken as symbiotic; the light arriving by mandate to make sense of everything the darkness stole. Much the same way Sweetener gracefully spun strands of joy in response to tragedy, on thank u, next Grande channeled the rapid dissolution of a high-profile relationship and passing of a beloved former lover into a no-filler run of empathic-yet-unflinching kiss-offs. “Fuck a fake smile,” she cooed, through a hard-fought genuine one. —Pranav

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33 Better Oblivion Community Center – Better Oblivion Community Center (Dead Oceans)

Sometimes, when your idol reaches out to you to tell you he admires your music, there is a possibility that you might form a band. Such is the case of Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers. On their first album as Better Oblivion Community Center, they sing about insanity and chaos in a dystopia that, most of the time, sounds like our current reality. Oberst and Bridgers accentuate each other’s knack for visceral lyricism and cavities of witty, bleak humor, their voices changing lanes over each other while traveling supple folk-rock roads. —Margaret

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32 Bill Callahan – Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest (Drag City)

The longer Bill Callahan’s silence stretched this decade, the easier it was to be happy for him. For a singer so methodical and proficient at unpacking heartbreak and existential dread, there was a sense that maybe he’d said everything he needed to and got his storybook ending. Turns out, parenthood is just a handful, and this gorgeous, funny, lovingly messy return feels like a life-affirming letter from an old friend. “It feels good to be writing again,” he sings. It feels good to be listening. —Miles Bowe

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31 PUP – Morbid Stuff (Rise)

Redlining guitars, hurtling tempos, and anthemic gang-shout choruses? Self-aware lyrics about depression, self-loathing, and alcoholism? Full blown meltdowns? Yep, it’s a PUP album alright. On Morbid Stuff, Canada’s finest purveyors of hooky pop-punk catharsis purvey the shit out of some hooky pop-punk catharsis, refining the form they perfected on their 2016 breakout The Dream Is Over into another infectious explosion of bad vibes. As always, PUP make feeling bad sound good. —Peter Helman

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30 Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Bandana (RCA/Keep Cool)

It’s basically rap album as buddy cop movie. Freddie Gibbs is the hard-nosed, shit-talking gangsta rapper from Gary, Indiana. Madlib is the drugged-out, crate-digging beat shaman from Oxnard, California. Together, they fight crime — if by “crime” you mean the fact that it took them five years to release a sequel to their beloved collaborative album Piñata. Bandana, its long-promised follow-up, is well worth the wait, a virtuosic old-school rap workout in which two underground veterans continue to push each other to strange new heights. —Peter

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29 Control Top – Covert Contracts (Get Better)

Anti-capitalist to the core, Control Top’s debut album Covert Contracts is a rallying cry. These punk songs confront the status quo with conviction, volleying pissed-off lyrics against a proverbial wall like a game of handball. Take the title track, when Ali Carter condemns the co-opting of subversion in the corporate world with the urgency required to make a skeptic listen more closely. The trio performs these songs loud and fast — it’s as if they are jumping down your throat, apprehending you before you can get a single word out. —Gabriela Tully Claymore

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28 Girlpool – What Chaos Is Imaginary (Anti-)

Each Girlpool album seems to exist within its own developmental stage. Their first, Before The World Was Big, gleams and wails with childlike wonder and confusion. Adolescent angst prevails on Powerplant. What Chaos Is Imaginary rides the ups and downs of adulthood, when the person you’ve been meets the person you’re becoming. Harmony Tividad and Avery Tucker open up like nesting dolls, revealing shells of their younger selves against a dreamy backdrop. —Julia Gray

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27 100 gecs – 1000 gecs (Dog Show)

It shouldn’t work. Sometimes it doesn’t. But when 1000 gecs catches you right, that shit hits like no other. Dylan Brady and Laura Les make digital get down pop, the culmination of a decade’s worth of music that is Extremely Online. It’s nonsensical, debaucherous fun mixed with some surprisingly deft commentary on what it feels like to be overwhelmingly plugged-in. Wanna hate on them? You talk a lotta big game for someone with such a small truck. —James

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26 Empath – Active Listening: Night On Earth (Get Better)

How to describe Empath? The word “frenetic” comes to mind. Their debut album, Active Listening: Night On Earth, is controlled pandemonium, the hooks so crisp that they sparkle under layers of sludgy production. The Philadelphia band traffics in the type of calamity that is hell-bent on finding some semblance of joy amidst the messy detritus of daily life. Look no further than the buoyant melody of “Hanging Out Of Cars” that cradles these lyrics: “Desire ends in death.” —Gabriela

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25 Young Thug – So Much Fun (300 / Atlantic)

“I can tell you how to talk the most impeccable shit. I can show you how to walk like you got decimals, bitch.” In terms of substance, that’s the type of thing that rappers say all the time. In terms of style, it’s light years beyond. That’s Young Thug in 2019: a onetime outsider-art weirdo who yammered and gibbered and yowled his way into the rap mainstream, altering its DNA in the process. Today, Young Thug is a pop star, commanding huge beats and chanting hypnotic hits. But he still retains his deep, implacable strangeness. It’s impeccable. —Tom

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24 Florist – Emily Alone (Double Double Whammy)

True to its title, Emily Alone was written and recorded by Emily Sprague during a few days last winter; after plans for a full-band Florist album were put on hold, she’d ended up with all these songs ruminating on loneliness that she didn’t know what to do with. It’s funny, though, because the songs that she wrote have the effect of making a listener feel less alone. Sprague creates a meditative, atmospheric blanket, her folky ramblings a comforting presence. It’s a guiding hand through the darkness that we fear so much. —James

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23 Rico Nasty & Kenny Beats – Anger Management (Sugar Trap / Atlantic)

Rico Nasty brings the charm, the chaos, and the catharsis. Her aggro rasp and full-on live performances sound off to the alt-rock and emo bands she grew up on, and she’s found her counterpart in the producer Kenny Beats, who made his name making festival EDM as half of the duo LOUDPVCK. Together, they offer up Anger Management, a loud, frantic collection of rap songs that surround and surprise you, like a fireworks display igniting an hour early for reasons unknown. —Gabriela

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22 Charli XCX – Charli (Asylum / Atlantic)

Charlotte Aitchison spent years honing her pop prowess, and it all comes to a head on Charli. Like Charli XCX’s previous release, Pop 2, the album boasts an eclectic roster of collaborators and producers, but Charli‘s brightest moments come when she’s on her own. Her inner demons emerge from a sound palette of pops and fizzes. Sheer vulnerability is uncharted territory for Charli XCX, who regularly claims to be the greatest pop artist of her generation. But this album makes the hyperbole feel well earned. —Julia

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21 Cate Le Bon – Reward (Mexican Summer)

Over the course of this decade, Cate Le Bon has been chasing her own distillation of a folk-tinged art-rock sound. Some elements, like her knotty yet liquid guitar work, have been refined over time, but Reward expands and realizes her aesthetic like never before. Playing like a long-lost classic from an eccentric ’70s singer-songwriter, Reward finds Le Bon crafting songs that are all pristine, nervy angles (“Mother’s Mother’s Magazines,” “Magnificent Gestures”) but also exploring warm, piano-based compositions, with “Miami” or “The Light” sounding like contemplative exhales of cigarette smoke into a hazy night. Gorgeous then esoteric, intricate then askew, Reward is Le Bon’s most alluring work yet. —Ryan Leas

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20 Polo G – Die A Legend (Columbia)

Surfing the spectrum between melodious sing-song and breathless, clinical bars, Polo G raps his life story with such candor that you can’t help but be immersed in the drama. His narratives don’t glamorize gang life so much as present the Chicago streets in unflinching detail. So Die A Legend is a mesmerizing work of literature, but it wouldn’t have made a fraction of the impact if it wasn’t phenomenal rap music first and foremost. Against production that skillfully sets a reflective mood and stays out of his way, someone who could have easily been a casualty of his environment instead flips that environment into a vibrant portrait. —Chris

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19 Jessica Pratt – Quiet Signs (Mexican Summer)

Jessica Pratt can make you feel like you’re living in a romantic noir — in a church seeking solace, or longingly gazing out an airplane window. Film flickers through the projector as solemn moments are captured. This is all to say Quiet Signs is patient and contemplative. The album radiates in a glossy hue, as vivid and warm as stained glass in a cathedral. Gauzy guitar strums, hasty piano plucks, and wandering flute solos dot the album, as Pratt navigates through a world “burnin’ on wild words.” From the medieval balladry of “Crossing” to the gentle hymnal “Silent Song,” Quiet Signs is a poetic search for the sublime. —Margaret

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18 Denzel Curry – ZUU (Loma Vista)

Denzel Curry didn’t even need 30 minutes to make a conquering mark on the rap game this year. It was overdue for sure, but even after Imperial and the three-act Ta13oo, ZUU reached a new height of intensity, technical craft, and strength. That last part never came at the expense of vulnerability, as he proved on new classics like “Speedboat” while offering loving celebrations of Carol City, transcendent club bangers, and the funniest skit of the year (“Yoooooo!”). He did all that in a breathless, breakneck rush — and if you listen closely, you can hear him becoming a star in real time. —Miles

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17 Weyes Blood – Titanic Rising (Sub Pop)

With a regal voice reminiscent of Karen Carpenter, it was not hard to fall head over heels for Weyes Blood. The angelic, orchestral Titanic Rising proved it’s a love that will endure. Tracks like “Everyday” and “Something To Believe” draw an alternative to a world all but consumed by cynicism. From its surreal artwork to the dribbles of sonic sentimentalism that reel you in, Titanic Rising hooks the heart with its open-ended vulnerability. —Keely

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16 Jenny Hval – The Practice Of Love (Sacred Bones)

“Look at these trees/ Look at this grass/ Look at those clouds … Study this/ And ask yourself/ Where is God?” Leave it to Jenny Hval to open an album with words that could’ve been lifted from a self-help mindfulness exercise and turn them into an existential reckoning. The Practice Of Love grapples with all kinds of questions, as any of Hval’s work does. But at the same time as Hval remains thought-provoking, she’s now housed these meditations in futuristic pop songs like “High Alice” and “Ashes To Ashes,” locating an accessibility and infectiousness we might not have ever expected from her. The Practice Of Love is a thing of shimmering beauty throughout, but perhaps this is its most moving takeaway: constant searching leading to new thoughts and new sounds, history and memory and life lived stoking yet another evolution. —Ryan

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15 FKA Twigs – MAGDALENE (Young Turks)

At only nine songs, MAGDALENE feels like a massive undertaking. Not-so-subtle nods to Catholicism — such as the bone-chilling, Gregorian-chant-like stacked vocalizations on “thousand eyes” — operate dually as a condition of possibility and restriction throughout the album. Within this framework Twigs finds clarity in the confessional, especially on “home with you” in which she admits, “I didn’t know that you were lonely/ If you’d have just told me I’d be home with you.” She strikes a masterful balance between the classical and experimental. —Keely

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14 Mannequin Pussy – Patience (Epitaph)

No song has so acutely captured the pathetic valiance of a breakup as “Drunk II,” Mannequin Pussy’s anthem to getting blitzed as a way to stop feeling everything. The band’s third album, Patience, is a dismantling of what it means to be perceived as strong. Marisa Dabice is most certainly a badass in the way that she tears through these hardcore punk rippers, but she is also a fallible human, just another one of us who has been beaten down by the system and betrayed by their own mind and body. It’s a howl for those of us that sometimes just want to be allowed to feel weak. —James

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13 Holly Herndon – PROTO (4AD)

On a record of countless voices (both human and AI) and instruments (both real and virtual), Holly Herndon fused the ancient and futuristic to form a hopeful vision for our present. There are crystallizations of her club music on “Alienation” and “Eternal,” stunning chorales like “Frontier” indebted to both gospel and Medieval church music, breathtaking electro-acoustic sound design on “Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt,” and remarkable snapshots of Herndon’s process with glimpses at the AI’s “live training.” At a time when machine learning is viewed mostly with fear, Herndon depicts it more accurately as something young and innocent, something we created — in need of guidance, community, and, yes, love. —Miles

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12 Charly Bliss – Young Enough (Barsuk)

Charly Bliss packages pain in tulle and power chords. Then, Eva Hendricks punts it into the air and explodes the whole thing with a shriek. Confetti rains down. Dancing ensues. Repeating this process to address everything from an abusive relationship to career angst, Young Enough is a huge-hearted, deeply felt account of a woman’s mid-20s experience, making a convincing case for surviving that perilous passage. It establishes Hendricks as one of today’s best lyricists (her abusive ex has “Eyes like a funeral, mouth like a bruise/ Veins like a hallway, voice like a wound”) and this power-pop troupe among the most endearing and fun-loving bands on the indie circuit. —Jael

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11 Black Midi – Schlagenheim (Rough Trade)

Do Black Midi work hard to make their songs weird as fuck, or does that just come naturally for these four virtuoso freaks? Nothing was going to match the experience of seeing the young UK experimental band locked in on stage, wringing gnarled chaos from their instruments like some drunken octopus forming a noise-rock jam band with itself. And yet Schlagenheim basically did capture it. Few albums this year hit harder, or from so many angles. —Chris

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10 Fontaines D.C. – Dogrel (Partisan)

From “Big” onwards, Dogrel finds Fontaines D.C. rushing out into the world, young artists feverishly overflowing with ideas and fiercely held convictions. Their ascension has been swift, and something to behold, largely thanks to how much they figured out early on — their blend of raw, intense instrumentals with literary lyrics capturing a Dublin in transition, a great capital disappearing underneath rapid change. The result was a debut that functioned as a short story collection: the sound of city streets and poetic characters, of late night revelations and bleary-eyed sunrises. All weary and half-skeptical romance trying to grasp onto a past that’s slipping away, Dogrel is the kind of reinvigorating work that looks to the death of things to sculpt the birth of something else. —Ryan

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9 billy woods & Kenny Segal – Hiding Places (Backwoodz Studioz)

Even in a year when scam-rap and depression bangers were the hottest trends in hip-hop, no release in the genre was as vividly unnerving as the indie tag-team instant classic Hiding Places. Kenny Segal’s consortium of sounds — resistance-band bass, crashing percussive tremors, grand pianos slashed and unwound — are beautiful and bleak, like Depression-era portraits of dejected migrant workers. Billy woods brings those sonic photographs to life with a voice like the Dust Bowl, delivering sermonic black comedy with the same unapologetically blunt edge as the late-capitalist forces that proliferate and profit off systemic poverty. —Pranav

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8 Great Grandpa – Four Of Arrows (Double Double Whammy)

With differing time zones and work hours separating the members of Great Grandpa, their follow-up to 2017’s grunge-influenced Plastic Cough had every reason to sound safe and familiar. Instead, without meaning to, the five-piece recorded an album of emo, alternative, and folk-rock hybrids. Four Of Arrows is an immediate listen; these songs are earnest and worried, seemingly always reaching for hope that’s just out of grasp. But they never sound defeated, at least not with friends by their sides. It’s as if by experiencing major changes individually, they saw all the ways in which Great Grandpa could blossom together. —Nina

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7 Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds – Ghosteen (Ghosteen Ltd)

The last Bad Seeds album, 2016’s Skeleton Tree, was a transmission from the center of an angry grief-haze — half written before the sudden death of Nick Cave’s teenage son, half after. Ghosteen, by contrast, is the sound of a man searching for meaning, or for peace, in something that offers neither. Cave ruminates sadly and slowly, half-singing and half-talking over his band’s achingly beautiful drones. The result: a desperate, crushing, beautiful search for light from a man who’s spent decades wallowing in darkness, and a weighty album that can reduce you to tears even as it soothes you. —Tom

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6 (Sandy) Alex G – House Of Sugar (Domino)

If there was any doubt that (Sandy) Alex G is the Elliott Smith of this generation, turn to House Of Sugar. He doubles down on undecipherable guitar tunings and double-tracked acoustic guitar while singing about the increasing normalization of overindulgence, the difficulty of breaking addiction, and the friends he lost to Fentanyl overdoses. Even when he throws digitized synth tracks into the mix, he manages to maintain his melancholic warmth. House Of Sugar is a testament to that sweet spot in the singer-songwriter genre, especially when it includes unshakable hooks and Revolver-esque guitar warps. —Nina

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5 Vampire Weekend – Father Of The Bride (Columbia)

When a beloved band goes away for half a decade, you pray they come back with an album as magnificent as Father Of The Bride. Vampire Weekend’s latest rich text was instantly engaging and has proven to be endlessly rewarding. Over the course of 18 tracks, Ezra Koenig and friends successfully transplanted the precocious metropolitan pop-rock of his youth to West Coast dad status just in time for Califorina to start disappearing underwater. The resulting sprawl maintained this group’s meticulous touch while sounding as comfortably loose as an album about creeping discomfort can be. It was another artful showcase for Koenig’s brain power, one that found him growing ever more adept at baring his heart. —Chris

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4 Big Thief – U.F.O.F. (4AD)

Big Thief’s impossibly layered U.F.O.F. seems as soft and fragile as a blade of grass, right up to the moment it guts you. It’s a seismic shift summoned instantly by singer Adrianne Lenker with a throat-shredding scream on “Contact,” or in a line like “switch to a different lens” blurring its extraterrestrial title track from love story to horror tale as it swells to a coda of guttural, inhuman gulps. But those sinister touches also don’t prepare you for the breezy beauty of “Cattails” and its knotty acoustic guitar lines disguised as ramshackle, or the breathtakingly intimate “From,” or the cathartic and crashing release of “Jenni.” It’s the kind of defining statement that will surely take years to follow — excuse me, what? There’s another one? —Miles

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3 Purple Mountains – Purple Mountains (Drag City)

When David Berman introduced his new project, Purple Mountains, longtime fans of the poet and Silver Jews leader rejoiced. Finally, after a decade of silence, he was back. The self-titled album is an arrestingly honest self-portrait, a work that mirrors its maker. The wry, exceedingly catchy lead single “All My Happiness Is Gone” is an upbeat song about feeling down, and it is one of several on the album that paints an (often humorous) portrait of depression. Berman died by suicide a month after Purple Mountains was released, making it impossible to hear this album in any other context. It was his final gift. —Gabriela

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2 Angel Olsen – All Mirrors (Jagjaguwar)

All Mirrors is like a grand, cinematic rendering of the quiet guitar tracks and synth showstoppers from Angel Olsen’s last two albums. Its songs have the sultry sheen of James Bond theme music and the shadowy swoon of a Twin Peaks score, fog dissipating around deceptive reflections and self-delusion. “Lark” opens the album with a 14-piece orchestra and an arresting, hypnotic refrain — “Dream on, dream on, dream on.” By the end of All Mirrors, Olsen has fully immersed you in a romantic haze. But behind the strings and high drama, she’s at her most uncertain, rehashing heartbreak and debunking the worlds we build while we’re in love. —Julia

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1 Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell! (Polydor / Interscope)

Lana Del Rey emerged at the dawn of the decade with an already fully formed identity. Self-described as “gangster Nancy Sinatra,” she was part Marilyn Monroe, part Joan Didion, and all herself, persona or not, both unabashedly nostalgic and unmistakably modern. And now, as the decade draws to a close — along with the American dream, society, and quite possibly the planet — she’s finally given us her masterpiece. Norman Fucking Rockwell! feels like the album that Lana Del Rey has been building towards for her entire career, a perfectly realized synthesis of her aesthetic and her classicist pop songwriting. And it couldn’t have come at a better time.

“Hawaii just missed that fireball/ LA is in flames, it’s getting hot/ Kanye West is blonde and gone/ ‘Life On Mars’ ain’t just a song/ Oh, the livestream’s almost on,” Del Rey sings on “The Greatest,” a resigned lullaby for the end of the world. Where Norman fucking Rockwell depicted a utopian ideal of everyday American life, Norman Fucking Rockwell! is all frighteningly real American dystopia, twilit tales of dissolution and disillusion on the contemporary California coast. The Lana Del Rey of Norman Fucking Rockwell! is numb and “fresh out of fucks forever,” fucking man-children and possible serial killers, grasping endlessly at happiness and love and connection while barely daring to even hope for it.

But in the hands of Del Rey and her co-producer Jack Antonoff, America’s cultural, spiritual, and moral bankruptcy sounds like a million bucks. Specifically, it sounds like a million bucks circa 1970, so in 2019, adjusting for inflation, that’d be around six million. Even more specifically, it sounds like a languid Laurel Canyon fever dream, lightly psychedelic folk-rock ballads that got lost on their way to Dennis Wilson’s favorite bar at 4AM and sat down at a piano bench instead. Her voice has never sounded better, and her devastating, allusion-dense lyrics have never been more quotable. With Norman Fucking Rockwell!, Lana Del Rey just might have written the next best American record she’s so obsessed with after all. ‘Cause she knew she could. ‘Cause she’s just that good. —Peter

HEAR IT: Spotify | Apple Music

Listen to selections from the top 50 albums in this Spotify playlist.

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