Half of 2019 is nearly in the bank, and one word screams out to me above all others: breakthrough. In some cases, that can mean a young artist living up to all the hype heaped on them upon arrival. (Um, we’re looking at you in particular, Billie Eilish.) It can also signify a promising artist finally reaching the end of that star-bound trajectory we knew they belonged on all along (Jamila Woods, Lizzo, or Tyler, the Creator, anyone?). However, breakthroughs can also come from veterans — even some of our favorite artists — who achieve new levels of success and artistry after being in the game for a number of years (paging the remarkable Sharon Van Etten).
A slew of breakthroughs can make for one helluva inspiring year. To see so many artists coming into their own and reaching new levels of artistry can inspire all of us to believe that we’re only scratching the surface of our capabilities, only a twist of fate or a few more drops of sweat removed from a truly rich harvest, or only one last epiphany, push, or night’s sleep from realizing our creative visions and dreams. So many of the 25 albums here make us feel that way about music, ourselves, and life. If that’s going to be the legacy of 2019, I can’t wait to hear what happens next.
Head to Consequence of Sound Radio on TuneIn to listen to all our favorite music released this year!
25. Better Oblivion Community Center – Better Oblivion Community Center
Origin: Los Angeles, California
The Gist: Supreme keepers of my melancholic malaise (and mostly likely yours, too) Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst joined hands once again in 2019 to surprise almost all of us with a brand-new band and a self-titled debut that plunges the depths of isolation, alienation, and maybe a better tomorrow. While this writer writhes at the very thought of even the slightly unexpected, she cannot count Better Oblivion Community Center’s beguiling collection of deftly designed, tender folk-rock among that list.
Why It Rules: Ten days deep into following BOCC cross country on their first-ever tour this spring, I found myself alone in a crowd of Austinites, together worshipping at the altar of folk’s finest heroes. Each night, I licked my lips for every last drop of communion poured at their sonic sermon. Each night, I watched two kindred souls come together in flawless introspective polyphony. It is this very harmony, coupled with signature sharp lyricism and marvelously grimy guitar riffs, that drives Better Oblivion’s self-titled to the top of 2019. The internal friction divulged from song to song is augmented here not by dueling duets spawned from differing approaches to songwriting. Instead, Bridgers and Oberst croon together, traversing the instinctive introspection of what it is to be sad as one. The result is a record that doesn’t beg its listeners to shed their dejection, like many on this list do, but offers a cathartic shoulder to lean on — a musical milk thistle for melancholia to help us cut through the noise. –Irene Monokandilos
24. Pivot Gang – You Can’t Sit with Us
Origin: Chicago, Illinois
The Gist: SABA should be the next household name that emerges from the thriving Chicago rap scene. In a time where much of the most popular hip-hop sounds stuck in the same groove and gets pushed on listeners in Costco bulk units, SABA and fellow Pivot Gang members prove that rap full of subtlety, nuance, and honest storytelling will never go out of style. Joined by family, friends, and local guests like Mick Jenkins, SABA and co. flaunt the power of Chicago’s Westside on You Can’t Sit with Us.
Why It Rules: Let’s keep it as real as a slice of deep dish (fuck that fold-able NY pie) and throw in a Bulls metaphor because … when in sweet home Chicago. We’ve seen SABA play Pippen to Chance the Rapper’s Jordan and drop 60 on his own sophomore game-changer, 2018’s Care for Me, but now he’s proving to be “just like Mike” by taking his Windy City brethren along for the championship ride. And You Can’t Sit with Us boasts so much more than just its most famous member dishing (not dropping) dimes for easy layups. On top tracks like “Colbert” and “Mortal Kombat”, others are playing the role of floor general and make telling these tales of turmoil and triumph look as smooth as a proper full-court weave. Again, SABA should be the next household name out of Chicago, but Pivot Gang proves he sure as hell shouldn’t be the last. –Matt Melis
23. Julia Jacklin – Crushing
Origin: Sydney, Australia
The Gist: Most people deal with a breakup by dyeing their hair and listening to “Suzanne” on repeat for six months. Instead of that, Julia Jacklin responded to her own decoupling by decamping to the Australian bush and crafting one of 2019’s best albums. On her sophomore record, Crushing, Jacklin emerges from the chrysalis of a failed relationship with a collection of songs that interrogate romantic grief and renewed autonomy while simultaneously reclaiming and reacclimating to the liberty of being unattached.
Why It Rules: Even when taken as a part of Australia’s recent boomlet of confessional female rockers (including 2018 standouts Camp Cope and 2019 contenders Alex Lahey and Stella Donnelly), Jacklin’s work walks its own path; the best songs on Crushing are equally adept at sketching scenes with the detail of a diorama (“Body,” “When the Family Flies In”) as they are at offering diaristic deconstructions of everything from self-care culture (“Pressure to Party”) to well-meaning advice (“Convention”) to men with boundary issues (“Head Alone”). Affirmational without ever falling into the trap of anthemic platitudes, Crushing aptly captures the messy but rewarding process of resetting your life and rewriting your rules. –Tyler Clark
22. American Football – LP3
Origin: Urbana, Illinois
The Gist: When Mike Kinsella announced the reunion show of his seminal emo band American Football in 2014, it felt like a rare gift, a chance for latter-day fans to make a pilgrimage for a band whose legend had grown exponentially after they released a single masterpiece and promptly disappeared. When a new album came two years later, it brought with it a certain wariness; could Kinsella ever hope to match, let alone surpass, that first instant legend? The band’s LP2 answered that question with a resounding affirmative and also set up the story line for the understated triumph of LP3. No longer promising upstarts or a longed-for nostalgia act or even a high-profile comeback story, American Football finally had the chance to be something it hadn’t been since 1998: a band with no expectations.
Why It Rules: If American Football’s debut acted as a guidebook for navigating Gen X’s particular brand of twentysomething turn-of-the-millennium angst, their latest album does the same for the existential weariness that accompanies the move to middle age. Over the course of eight shimmering tracks, Kinsella [along with guest vocalists Elizabeth Powell (Land of Talk), Hayley Williams (Paramore), and Rachel Goswell (Slowdive)] offers gentle contemplation on life’s shittiest milestones, from repeating the mistakes of your parents (“Uncomfortably Numb”) to the inexorable loss — whether through death (“Mine to Miss”) or disillusion (“Doom in Full Bloom) – that waits at the end of every happy ending. –Tyler Clark
21. Lady Lamb – Even in the Tremor
Origin: Brunswick, Maine
The Gist: Three times the charm, indeed. Four years after dazzling us with her sophomore record, 2015’s After, Aly Spaltro returns with her most autobiographical record to date, Even in the Tremor. Under the guidance of ex-Bowie producer Erin Tonkon, Spaltro unlocks her inner anxieties over 11 tracks that soar with volume. No kidding. As she’s wont to do, Spaltro swims over a thousand words, all of which carry a dusty trail of experience and wisdom. It’s also fitting that the album finds her back on her original label, Ba Da Bing Records, as this record feels like a 360 of sorts. A new beginning, if you will.
Why It Rocks: For as hyper-literate as Spaltro can be, her true divinity dwells in her vocals. It’s been that way since she first charmed our socks off over half a decade ago with “Crane Your Neck”, and it’s even more alluring now that she’s a little older, a little wiser, and, well, a little stronger. “Deep Love” says it all. The conviction alone speaks to her maturity as a songwriter. It’s the sound of experience. Of every meandering relationship. Of every wounded heart. Of every timeless hug. And that’s only one track. Surrounding it are 10 other tracks from a songbook that bleeds as much as it screams. –Michael Roffman
20. Little Simz – GREY Area
Origin: Islington, London, England
The Gist: After falling down the metaphorical rabbit hole on 2016’s Stillness in Wonderland, London rapper Little Simz emerged on the other side tired, angsty, and ready to speak her mind. The journey of self-discovery that unfolds on GREY Area is as unrelenting as it is irresistible, with Simz staking out her place in love and life one whip-smart flow at a time. She’s aided in these pursuits by her producer and childhood friend Inflo, as well as a cadre of guest vocalists including Little Dragon, Chronixx, and Michael Kiwanuka.
Why It Rules: Despite its name, GREY Area is one of 2019’s most vibrant records, one that finds Little Simz swirling together a chameleonic array of genre nods into something with its own singular sound. That deftness extends to the subject matter, which swings effortlessly between swaggering and vulnerable; as soon as you’ve caught your breath from the brash bravado of “Boss”, you’re met with “Selfish”, which finds Simz enumerating the pros and cons of her well-earned self-confidence in counterpoint with a crooning throwback chorus from Cleo Sol that could’ve been lifted from a late-’90s episode of Total Request Live. Aside from Simz’s prodigious talents, the record derives much of its charms from Inflo’s ear for production; opting for live instruments over samples, the producer finds the flourish to fit every mood, whether it’s “Boss” and its scuzzy guitar or the tense staccato strings that set the scene on “Venom” or the Hiroshima-style synths that add an airiness to the started-from-the-bottom-now-we-here reflections of “101 FM”. –Tyler Clark
19. Karen O and Danger Mouse – Lux Prima
The Gist: When the definitive chapter on early aughts music gets written, Karen O and Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton can both rest assured of getting some ink. As long as young hearts beat somewhere manically, the jangly garage of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Fever to Tell and songs like “Maps” will never tire, and likewise, the world won’t soon forget the hoopla surrounding The Grey Album, Gnarls Barkley, or any of a dozen other collaborations and head-turning production credits on Burton’s resume. But with O’s band and her own solo work receding in the rearview and Danger Mouse more and more directing from behind the scenes, Lux Prima can’t help but be the story of two giants in their respective genres figuring out just what to do next.
Why It Rules: While neither O nor Danger Mouse needs to prove a damn thing, we also gotta believe that both have moments of musical triumph left in them, and this collaboration — though perhaps not a total world shaker — finds the pair sliding into a partnership that we only want to hear more from after Lux Prima. Whether it’s the slow burn and movements of the atmospheric title track and the sultry clarity of O’s voice over Danger Mouse’s unfurling textures or the perfect pop verse-chorus exchanges of “Turn the Light”, the pair sound like they’ve been making music together for years. We can only hope that Lux Prima truly is, as its translation suggests, only the first of many lights lit by this collaboration. –Matt Melis
18. Stella Donnelly – Beware of the Dogs
Origin: Perth, Australia
The Gist: Gather ‘round, man-children, and let Stella Donnelly tell you what the f*ck is up (and even to “fuck off”). On her first-ever LP, indie music’s most sardonic Australian darling sinks her teeth into the metaphorical stray hand of toxic masculinity, millennial maladies, and the pains of being mortal with a more fleshed-out sound than what we heard on 2018’s Thrush Metal EP and a scant tolerance for bullshit.
Why It Rules: By way of laughter, whispers, song, and sporadic theatrics, Donnelly delivers a deceptively funny bloodletting for the digital age, complete with venom-laced lyrics that read like spilled milk — cutting and cold. Needless to say, we’re lapping up every last drop. Beware of the Dogs is a wickedly witty and deeply relevant oral history of 2019. Consider Stella Donnelly your modern day Aesop — if Aesop sang about rape apologist reckonings and his vibrator — but there’s no room for fables in sight. She makes us dance, she makes us cry, and she makes us want to join hands and take back the night. It is this staying power — and rallying cry — that will keep fans singing along for years to come. –Irene Monokandilos
17. James Blake – Assume Form
Origin: London, England
The Gist: The cover art for Assume Form seems instantly agreeable, or maybe “fitting” is the proper word. I don’t think I’ve ever seen James Blake pictured any differently: alone, often behind a keyboard, and sunken as if he has just let out a giant sigh. And an unexpected irony becomes quickly apparent when listening to the songwriter and instrumentalist’s new album, namely because never has Blake, in tandem with several collaborators here and dating actress Jameela Jamil at the time of recording, seemed less alone. Hell, he seems almost happy.
Why It Rules: “With you, with you, with you/ I’m in that kind of mood,” Blake sings on the beautiful “I’ll Come Too”, a tag-along pop song that finds the songwriter putting himself out there despite the fact that nothing certain lies ahead. As our own Wren Graves wrote, “Blake dwells on the anxieties of new relationships on this album … but does so with a cautious optimism.” And the anxiety sounds fascinating, whether we’re listening to percussion clops alongside a lovely melody on “Barefoot in the Park”, featuring vocals from Rosalía, or the rhythmic swagger brought to standout “Mile High” by Travis Scott and Metro Boomin. On Assume Form, Blake loses none of his preternatural gifts for introspective lyrics, developing melodies, or enveloping repetition; he just finds others to share them with. –Matt Melis
16. Stef Chura – Midnight
Origin: Detroit, Michigan
The Gist: Stef Chura’s evolution from the sad, ramshackle bedroom rock of her Messes debut to the forceful, uncompromised aggression of Midnight is the personification of the Return of Saturn. There’s a confidence in her swing towards garage pop, a bravado in her cleansing alt-rock that feels like the planets aligning for the perfect presentation of a self. Although some credit is due to Car Seat Headrest mastermind Will Toledo’s work as producer and contributor, it’s the realization of Chura as both an artist and an individual that makes the effort so impactful.
Why It Rules: Midnight is the sound of someone who has given away their very last fuck. “They’ll Never” scratches against speakers in defiance, Chura’s raspy wobble unrelenting against the inevitable end. “Scream” crunches ’90s riot grrrl into modern indie, letting out repressed rage in a wail of righteousness. Even the piano balladry of “Trumbull” smirks with the knowledge that you weren’t sure what to expect from this Detroit rocker. Where Messes was the work of a musician surrendering to face her fear of recording, Midnight is the pertinacious action of that same creative shouldering her own strengths. Hers is one of the most intriguing voices in indie rock, and her howled, angsty catharsis is as freeing for the listener as the performer. –Ben Kaye
15. Anderson .Paak – Ventura
Origin: Oxnard, California
The Gist: It’s been a long time since Anderson .Paak has felt the pressure that follows a letdown. His first solo album under the .Paak moniker got him discovered by Dr. Dre and earned him multiple standout features on the guru producer’s 2015 solo comeback, Compton. With plenty of buzz around his name, .Paak dropped Malibu in 2015, one of the most inspired and eclectic breakthroughs of the decade. So when last year’s Oxnard failed to ignite the same levels of excitement, despite a couple banging singles and a who’s who of features, Ventura, hot on its tail, had become an all-most must-win project for .Paak.
Why It Rules: And, as you may have guessed, .Paak did not disappoint. From the old-school ring-in of opener “Come Home” (feat. André 3000), which you’ll swear is a classic sample, to the funky state of the community that is “King James”, .Paak’s message and instrumentals are both on point. But it gets no better than “Make It Better” on which .Paak joins forces with no less than Smokey Robinson, a man whose legacy clearly has had an indelible impact on the young star. When the two hit their joint chorus (“Do you want to make it better/ Do you want to stay together?”), it’s a stunning moment of two generations coming together and proof positive that few can keep one eye on the past and the other in the future better than Anderson .Paak. –Matt Melis
14. Weyes Blood – Titanic Rising
Origin: Santa Monica, California
The Gist: In an age that craves instant gratification, there’s something admirable about seeing an artist pay her dues, grow across projects and years, and eventually realize something brilliant artistically. That’s part of the joy of listening to Natalie Mering’s (aka Weyes Blood) new record, Titanic Rising. After years of self-releases and indie records, she arrives as a Sub Pop artist and puts out the type of album where every little emotional triumph feels fought for and earned.
Why It Rules: Titanic Rising is a testament to songcraft and restraint. From the simple opening keys of lead track “A Lot’s Gonna Change” to the incredible swells and movements of a grand song like “Movies”, it’s clear that Mering is making the right choices again and again. Gifted with a traditional-sounding voice that could blow the bloody doors off each and every track, she finds the perfect balance on songs like “Something to Believe”, quiet and analytical one moment and heightened and devastated the next — and always with an emotional honesty ready to extract a tear if you let your guard down. Simply stunning. –Matt Melis
13. Flying Lotus – Flamagra
Origin: Winnetka, Los Angeles
The Gist: Five years after the acclaimed You’re Dead! comes Flamagra, Flying Lotus’ sixth album and the next step in his wondrous evolution as wide-ranging, wizard-like producer. Inspired by the concept of fire — specifically the image of “an eternal flame sitting on a hill” — the record finds additional heat in collaborators new and old, rising and veteran. Among them: David Lynch, Herbie Hancock, George Clinton, Thundercat, Denzel Curry, Solange, Robert Glasper, Toro y Moi, and Tierra Whack.
Why It Rules: As Steven Ellison’s catalog expands and deepens, so does his universe in more ways than one. Exceptional is the richness, as well as the technical dexterity, on display on Flamagra, its 27 songs all artful collisions of jazz, J Dilla-inspired beats, West Coast G-funk, and psychedelic soul. Each unexpected and jarring turn — the 8-bit-like run, that oscillating tempo — is a leap of faith that pays off every time and a sign that Ellison is nowhere close to done exploring the realms of music before him. The unknown gray area ahead? That’s where FlyLo thrives and grows the most cosmic of colors and sounds. –Lake Schatz
12. Faye Webster – Atlanta Millionaires Club
Origin: Atlanta, Georgia
The Gist: We don’t really know what to call Faye Webster’s style. The Atlanta native got her start on underground hip-hop label Awful Records, releasing albums of pleasant country-folk since she was 15. As she grew more comfortable as a songwriter, her Western Swing and R&B influences became more apparent. Yet, it’s still undeniably Americana; it’s just … also not. Whatever it is, Webster is the perfect vessel for it, her softly pleading vocals the paragon of heartbroken intimacy, delivered in an idiosyncratic style that makes the time-worn story earnestly fresh.
Why It Rules: Occupying some sort of world where Natalie Prass and Angel Olsen are the same person, Atlanta Millionaires Club is inches away from perfection. Slathered in the sad, warm sounds of pedal steel, the music is inventive yet classic, present yet nostalgic. The themes and notes by themselves could be familiar; it’s Webster’s unique perspective and self-awareness that set the songs in a class of their own. Every understated note feels like the aural equivalent of looking deep into someone’s eyes as they confess their true selves. Hers is a quiet immediacy that beckons the listener closer even in its most anti-social moments. –Ben Kaye
11. BTS – Map of the Soul: Persona
Origin: Seoul, South Korea
The Gist: To say “K-pop finally arrived in America in 2019” wouldn’t be entirely fair to fans who have been on to the sound for years. With sold-out stadium tours, chart dominance, and much-ballyhooed Coachella appearances from the biggest names in the genre, however, there’s no denying that this was the year K-pop took over. Leading the charge has been BTS, whose sixth EP, Map of the Soul: Persona, has smashed records and become an undeniable staple for pop music fans.
Why It Rules: BTS is everything that’s great about K-pop, and Persona is the perfect introduction for new converts. The collection features hip-hop bangers like “Intro: Persona”, pop juggernauts like the Halsey collaboration “Boy with Luv”, and R&B jams like “Make It Right”. What’s more, if you’re willing to dig deep into translation, you’ll discover that these tracks are loaded with insightful, personal lyricism and themes. For a long while, the uninitiated’s perception was that the K-pop industry was only churning out flashy audio merchandise for the masses; with this series of undeniable hits, BTS have proven it’s far more than that. This is K-pop at its absolute best, a case study arguing in favor of the genre’s new international acclaim. The septet is the biggest band in the world right now, and impeccable efforts like this just add shine to their crowns. –Ben Kaye
10. Solange – When I Get Home
Origin: Houston, Texas
The Gist: When I Get Home is the fourth album from Solange and the follow-up to her masterful 2016 opus, A Seat at the Table. An homage to Houston, where she grew up, the record presents itself as a mood board of sorts — full of the sounds inspired by the Texan city, but more importantly the feelings evoked by the process of returning to one’s origins. Helping Solange to realize this vision is a long list of prominent guest musicians, including Pharrell, Tyler, the Creator, Blood Orange, Sampha, Steve Lacy, Gucci Mane, Metro Boomin, and Panda Bear.
Why It Rules: While A Seat at the Table saw Solange focused and direct, When I Get Home is Solange floating freely in meditation. One approach isn’t necessarily better than the other; the genius is in the execution, and this time she’s forgoing traditional song structures, emphasizing immersion over immediacy. Across 19 tracks and 39 minutes, she allows listeners to soak and simmer in atmospheric, almost avant-garde, recipes of soul, hip-hop, R&B, and jazz. Each song is more a snapshot of a vibe than a full-on statement, but its craftsmanship is not any less expertly curated. Here, Solange has found a way to host a party and get out on the dance floor, too, reveling in where every fluid bass line, shape-shifting rhythm, and sudden beat may take her. –Lake Schatz
09. Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars
Origin: Long Branch, New Jersey
The Gist: After writing an autobiography, performing a Broadway residency, and watching Obama’s America slowly crumble into Trump’s Wasteland, Bruce Springsteen hit the road, headed out to Middle America, and got lost under some Western Stars. Inspired by the California pop of the ’60s and ’70s, the New Jersey singer-songwriter finds himself by his lonesome for the first time since 2005’s Devils and Dust. Unlike that beautiful dirge, though, this album feels gentle — like a lullaby for city slickers. Not the Billy Crystal kind, but the bruised countrymen who haven’t lost sight of the beauty, even amidst all the chaos.
Why It Rocks: Never one to shy away from the classics, The Boss tries his hand at Glen Campbell’s style and Roy Orbison’s vibes to maximum effect. This is some country-western stuff, alright, and that might not sit well with the fans hoping to hear his construction worker anthems of yesteryear. Lose the hard hats for a second, though, and enjoy the solace. Like Nebraska, Springsteen offers up so much space for meditation, only very little room for brooding. No, this is Nebraska with headlights, where you get to see where you’re going and yet also get to kick your legs up for a second or two. Giddy up. –Michael Roffman
08. Ariana Grande – thank u, next
Origin: Boca Raton, Florida
The Gist: Just six months after dropping her ambitious comeback record, Sweetener, Ariana Grande stares down the barrel at 18 months of seemingly insurmountable trauma and sends a rare pop-shaped bullet packed with emotionally complex material flying. Her aim is true. What is left are 12 track-sized fragments expertly reassembled into a musical road map of what processing tragedy really looks like.
Why It Rules: Grande’s vocal prowess is not up for debate. She has, and will continue to, churn out massive bop after massive bop, singing circles around legends old and new. But what makes thank u, next stand out among not only Grande’s catalog but her genre at large is a fresh and singular deftness in taking the hit machine and electrifying it with real, raw life. Whereas Sweetener sought to sugarcoat the shadows lurking just underneath the surface, thank u, next embraces those moments when everything is against you. When life feels like an impossible existence. And yet, Grande leans into the freezing winds and dreams of warmth or maybe learns to make that warmth herself. –Irene Monokandilos
07. Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride
Origin: New York City, New York
The Gist: Six long years of waiting finally yielded Father of the Bride this spring, Vampire Weekend’s fourth album and follow-up to the Grammy-winning Modern Vampires of the City. The band’s first without multi-instrumentalist and in-house producer Rostam Batmanglij as a full-time member features added firepower in its revolving door of collaborators, including Ariel Rechtshaid, Daniel Haim, Bloodpop, Mark Ronson, and Steve Lacy. Ezra Koenig, who’s since relocated from New York to Los Angeles, also takes on more duties beyond mere frontman, essentially leading Vampire Weekend into perhaps the most exciting chapter of their already outstanding career.
Why It Rules: Vampire Weekend have always brandished a certain type of confidence on their records, one partially informed no doubt by their established place in the indie rock hipster canon. They’re still confident on Father of the Bride; however, it’s the kind less concerned with coolness. “I think I took myself too serious,” a telling voice narrates the beginning of the song “Sympathy”, “it’s not that serious.” But loosening the grip doesn’t mean sacrificing quality, as the group turns in some of the brightest, warmest, and most gorgeous melodies of their careers all while touching on classic rock, pop, jazz, and even country (thanks, Kacey Musgraves!). What’s changed this time around is Vampire Weekend actually, finally sound at peace with themselves about it. Mazel tov. –Lake Schatz
06. PUP – Morbid Stuff
Origin: Toronto, Ontario, Canada
The Gist: On their third album, Canadian pop-punk torchbearers PUP tap into the deep, dark well of old-millennial malaise that’s helped keep emo relevant long past the genre’s adolescence. True to its name, Morbid Stuff contains plenty of tales of stalled economies, stunted relationships, and ever-present existential dread, but the bitter subject matter goes down easy thanks to a sonic sugar coating; each song here arrives trussed up with the kind of bright, hook-laden riffs that sound like they were cribbed straight from a lost Ozma record.
Why It Rules: It’s hard to find humor in the collapse, which is exactly what makes the songs on Morbid Stuff so valuable. No matter whether he’s finding love through nihilism (“Kids”), practicing self-improvement for all the wrong reasons (“See You at Your Funeral”), or simply facing down the meaninglessness of his lot in life (“Full Blown Meltdown”), singer Stefan Babcock performs his snotty, snarling tracks not with rage, but with laughter. Throw some flashes of tenderness (the laid-bare stock-taking of “Scorpion Hill” might represent the most heartfelt and accomplished song the band’s ever written), and you’re left with a record that won’t cure your ills but will give you the comfort that, if nothing else, we’re all in this shitty timeline together. –Tyler Clark
05. Tyler, the Creator – IGOR
Origin: Ladera Heights, California
The Gist: Once hip-hop’s most mercurial lightning rod, Tyler, The Creator seems increasingly interested in trading those shocks for something a little more tender. Though we weren’t totally convinced of the sincerity of this touchy-feely face turn when it began on 2017’s Flower Boy (a skepticism not shared by those of you in the comments section), IGOR proves that our skepticism might’ve been unwarranted. Following the blueprints established on tracks like “Garden Shed” and “911/Mr. Lonely,” Tyler now turns in his most vulnerable record yet, one that traces the rise, fall, and optimistic aftermath of an intense romantic infatuation.
Why It Rules: As stunning as it is to see the once-misanthropic Tyler open his heart all the way up on wax, it’s even more stunning to see how his move from trolling confrontationalism to newfound emotional honesty has both broadened and deepened his production instincts. Lyrically and sonically, the songs of IGOR capture the little moments that make up the arc of a relationship, which moves from the floating infatuation of “EARFQUAKE” to the claustrophobic friction of “WHAT’S GOOD” to the Al-Green-sampling closure croon of “ARE WE STILL FRIENDS?” Add to this heart-filled kaleidoscope guest appearances from Charlie Wilson, Kanye West, and Solange, and you’ve got the makings of a career-expanding statement piece. As our Christopher Thiessen put it in his review of IGOR, “By closing the door on the philosophies and musical approaches he used to take, Tyler discovers an open window, leading him to new, peaceful strength and mastery of his craft.” We couldn’t agree more. –Tyler Clark
04. Lizzo – Cuz I Love You
Origin: Detroit, Michigan
The Gist: Lizzo is no stranger to the music scene. After releasing 2014’s Lizzobangers, 2015’s Big GRRRL Small World, and 2016’s Coconut Oil, the artist born Melissa Jefferson pulls out her flute, hits the pavement, and leads us all in a vivacious self-pride parade twerked to around the world. With her major label debut, the Minneapolis triple threat (singer, rapper, flautist) delivers a near-perfect collection of expertly curated soul-pop earworms. Each is driven by a magnetic personality that has all but flooded our speakers, social media accounts, and brains, engendering what can only be described as “Lizzomania”.
Why It Rules: In the ever-connected social media age, consciousness is a terabyte, love is an algorithm, and self-esteem? Almost non-existent. Enter Lizzo. Cuz I Love You stands apart as a vibrant, bop-filled burst of unprecedented, authentic self-confidence in a time when loving yourself for who you are feels, well, radical. This irresistible energy, coupled with an array of toothsome production helps the classically trained flautist tackle almost every musical style out there. Along the way, Lizzo creates a genre all her own that, somehow, inspires all of us to shine no matter our appearance, our background, or our relationship status. –Irene Monokandilos
03. Billie Eilish – When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
Origin: Los Angeles, California
The Gist: After surviving Billiemania over the last few years, Billie Eilish finally let loose her debut album this past Spring. Fueled by every kind of genre under the dial, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? ricochets and screams with alien confidence. In fact, it’s so confident that it makes you wonder if any kind of hype would have been insurmountable for the 17-year-old singer-songwriter. Whether it’s the Gothic new wave of “bad guy” or the angelic balladry of “when the party’s over”, this is the kind of rich enigma that overwhelms its desired audience while perplexing those around it.
Why It Rocks: There’s been a lot of rah-rah about how Eilish is changing the pop game. Or how she knows how to blend genres. Or how she’s a succinct distillation of all pop culture. None of that’s wrong; in fact, those are all strengths. Yet, what’s most intriguing about Eilish is how she toes the line between niche and universal. On the surface, When We All Fall Asleep comes off as aggressively abrasive, but it’s not. There’s so much economy to the songwriting; it’s as much of a Rubik’s cube as her own fashion sensibilities. The fact that more and more people are trying to figure it out is why Billiemania keeps getting louder, and stronger, and, ultimately, more interesting.
TL;DR? She won. Big time. –Michael Roffman
02. Sharon Van Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow
Origin: Brooklyn, New York
The Gist: Sharon Van Etten was threatening to be one of indie folk’s best singer-songwriters for years. Then she stepped away from the music scene for almost half a decade, focusing instead on acting roles and starting a family. When she came back, she made good on her old threats — just not in the way anyone expected. She handed producer/engineer John Congleton music by Suicide and Portishead, brought along the aesthetics she’d surrounded herself with on The OA and Twin Peaks, and reinvented her sound. Though “going electric” is a narrative many artists have told before, Van Etten tells it better than most anyone on Remind Me Tomorrow.
Why It Rules: By the time you get to May, it’s easy to forget about what music came out in January (especially given the ceaseless onslaught of media these days). Yet, Remind Me Tomorrow has not only remained in the consciousness of music fans but has arguably not been surpassed. Credit that to Van Etten actively avoiding her past compositional habits without abandoning a shred of herself, penning penetrating deconstructions of contentedness from an ultramodern perspective. These tracks take her songwriting down a dark well of synthesizers and atmospherics where rich melodies kick to the surface instead of drowning beneath it. It’s the kind of sonic evolution everyone talks about but so few are able to actually pull off. All that makes this her most aggressively fearless effort to date, the arrival of a surprising but stunningly welcome new era for Van Etten. –Ben Kaye
01. Jamila Woods – LEGACY! LEGACY!
Origin: Chicago, Illinois
The Gist: Jamila! Jamila! Jamila with one “el.” It’s a name Chicagoans are plenty familiar with and one the rest of the country should recognize by year’s end. Jamila Woods has been turning heads and making a difference in her hometown for years as a poet, academic, activist, and, of course, as a performer. Her voice has soared alongside Chance the Rapper’s on hits like “Sunday Candy” and “Blessings”, and she released the extensive and critically acclaimed HEAVN in 2016. But this is three years later, and like all true artists, Woods has evolved — to the point where Chicagoans can still claim her as one of our own but can’t in good conscience keep her to ourselves any longer.
Why It Rules: Woods doesn’t stray far from what she knows and what inspires her most on LEGACY! LEGACY! She’s long cited literary treasures like Gwendolyn Brooks, Toni Morrison, and Lucille Clifton among her inspirations, so it’s not shocking that an artist with both a degree in African studies and a penchant for literature might try to incorporate those passions into her music.
However, what is surprising is that Woods, along with several of her usual collaborators, is able to transform her passions into one of the best R&B albums of the year and in recent memory. It’s a rich and fascinating look at ancestry and the world around her through the eyes and circumstances of historically influential people of color — not exactly your typical popular fare.
From “BETTY” and “ZORA” to “GIOVANNI” and “BASQUIAT” and back around to “BALDWIN”, LEGACY! LEGACY! offers a masterclass in history, community, empathy, and critical thought with enough variety, hooks, and compelling vocals to make sure the lessons stick. Like Janelle Monáe did a year ago, Woods has expanded on the idea of what a modern R&B album can do and say.
Again, if you haven’t learned yet: It’s Jamila with one “el.” –Matt Melis