20. Nick Cave – Ghosteen
Origin: Melbourne, Victoria,
The Gist: Three years removed from the haunting synth of Skeleton Tree, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds continue their mesmerizing excavation of grief and pain — and their deep meditation on love and absence — under the long shadow cast by death. If you’ll recall, Cave’s son, Arthur, passed during that album’s production, but his legacy lives on in the visceral dreamscapes and mystical musical reckonings of Ghosteen.
Why It Rules: It should come as a surprise to absolutely no one to hear a Nick Cave album poised on the edge of darkness and bathed in the profound poetics of melancholy. But in 2019, few have the gull to venture into the potent pain and sadness inflamed by the coming of death. Here, Cave does so until it nearly breaks him. A series of vignettes, Ghosteen is painted in poetics even singular for the God of Goth-Rock. Diving deep into a tragedy so close to home, Cave rounds out 40 years of his career with his most harrowing and lyrically lush work to date.
Essential Tracks: “Waiting for You”, “Bright Horses”, and “Ghosteen”
19. Brittany Howard – Jaime
Origin: Athens, Alabama
The Gist: It’s fair to say that Brittany Howard has accomplished more over the last few years than many of us will in a lifetime. The singer-guitarist — blessed with one of the greatest voices on the planet — helped turn the Alabama Shakes into a three-time Grammy-winning, world-touring outfit, worked on multiple side-projects, put pen to paper to complete part of a memoir, and, just this September, released, Jamie, one of the most subtly beautiful albums of 2019.
Why It Rules: Although Howard said she made this album entirely for herself, its effect will irrevocably improve the lives of post-Alabama Shakes fans everywhere. Frankly, it’s hard to even fully describe what it is about Howard that’s so magnetic. Look at the song “Georgia”, for example. There’s one main lyric repeated: “I just want Georgia to notice me.” It’s not an earth-shattering lyric. Hell, it’s pretty much as simple as it can get. But when it’s sung with that irresistible draw and raspy growl, it seems revolutionary. With Jaime, Howard proves what many of us already speculated: The magic behind Alabama Shakes was Brittany Howard. –Lucy Shanker
Essential Tracks: “Georgia”, “Goat Head”, and “Baby”
18. Solange – When They Get Home
Origin: Houston, Texas
The Gist: For her fourth full-length album, singer-songwriter Solange had the daunting task of living up to the critical success of her previous release, A Seat at the Table. Instead of attempting to replicate her previous success, Solange wrote a love letter to her hometown of Houston, Texas, enlisting collaborations, clean production, and unparalleled songwriting to shape When I Get Home.
Why It Rules: When I Get Home opens in a mantra, Solange reiterating, “I saw things I imagined/ Things I imagined.” It’s a warning for what’s about to come: sounds, voice-overs, and lyrics that feel intentionally disorienting, the way religious chants can pull you into different states. Even the upbeat “Almeda” is inherently meditative as Solange reflects on “Black skin black braids” that can’t be washed away with Florida water. Equally rooted in her upbringing and ethereal, the 19-track collection is ambiguous enough to give listeners the freedom to draw their own conclusions on each moment’s meaning. –Erica Campbell
Essential Tracks: “Almeda”, “Stay Flo”, and “My Skin My Logo”
17. Bon Iver – i,i
Origin: Eau Claire, Wisconsin
The Gist: Justin Vernon caught everyone off guard with the sharp left Bon Iver took on 2016’s 22, A Million. He’d swerved the band from sylvan folk to an experimental conglomeration of samples and electronic manipulations. It was a striking expansion of sound, if not slightly dense with indulgences. Three years later, Vernon needed to refine his wilder ambitions if Bon Iver’s new direction was to prove sustainable — and he succeeded flawlessly on i,i.
Why It Rules: A lightening of the avant-garde touches allows i,i to shine in its nuances. That’s always been Bon Iver’s strength, and the booming folk of “Faith” and the harmonica solo on the pastoral “U (Man Like)” show Vernon hasn’t strayed so far from 2011’s self-titled breakout. He’s also opened the thematic scope of the project, addressing the current socio-political quagmire on “Sh’Diah” and “Hey, Ma”. “Naeem” toys with dynamics masterfully, invigorating its call for understanding in the face of a finite existence while closer “RABi” is a comforting reminder to appreciate our present. Such heady meditations are well-served by bold compositions, and few are more daring than Bon Iver. –Ben Kaye
Essential Tracks: “Naeem”, “Hey, Ma”, and “Faith”
16. Faye Webster – Atlanta Millionaires Club
Origin: Atlanta, Georgia
The Gist: Joining the ranks of other rising songwriting women like Soccer Mommy and Snail Mail, 21-year-old Faye Webster sounds polished on Atlanta Millionaires Club. While the former two use chimey guitars and lo-fi production to deliver their confessional songwriting, Webster more often draws on R&B and country textures as she shares her soul.
Why It Rules: Atlanta Millionaires Club is pure southern molasses and honey, dripping with sweet pedal guitar swells and grooves that carry you along like a country road in summer. The arrangements — highlighted by orchestral strings, punchy brass, and warm organs — are rich as the chocolate gold Webster guzzles on the album’s cover. The music bolsters Webster’s internal longings and desires, the true stars of the album, which she divulges with modest sincerity and unforgettable specificity. Webster may not be in the club just yet, but this delicious collection of chill-out songs will make you feel like a million bucks every time. –Christopher Thiessen
Essential Tracks: “Right Side of My Neck”, “Jonny”, and “Kingston”
15. King Princess – Cheap Queen
Origin: New York City, New York
The Gist: The royal reign of King Princess began in 2018 with the debut single “1950”. Though the track was put out without much fanfare, the attention it drew was nothing short of incredible — millions of streams and a cosign from The xx’s Romy Madley Croft and future tour mate Harry Styles. “1950” later appeared on her Make My Bed EP, which in turn laid the groundwork for the pop artist’s first-ever full-length album, Cheap Queen, released via Mark Ronson’s Columbia imprint, Zelig Records.
Why It Rules: While she had some help from Father John Misty, Tobias Jesso Jr., and Ronson, Cheap Queen is purely the extension of New York native Mikaela Straus. Her pop is threaded with fibers of R&B, blues, and ‘70s rock, all pulled from her own personal catalog of influences, and her songs recount tales of queer love, heartache, and friendship. In addition to the realness of the stories themselves (she once described “Hit the Back” as an “anthem for bottoms everywhere”), Straus approaches her music as the unapologetic, cheeky new queer icon that she is: fluidly floating between the masculine and feminine, cool and vulnerable AF, and repping her hardcore love of drag culture. –Lake Schatz
Essential Tracks: “Prophet”, “Ain’t Together”, “Hit the Back”
14. PUP – Morbid Stuff
Origin: Toronto, Ontario, Canada
The Gist: The best pop-punk is about dealing with frustration, whether that’s Blink-182 channeling the anxieties of adolescence or The World Is a Beautiful Place voicing the anger of a crumbling political climate descending into fascism. For PUP’s cathartic new album, the frustration that gives it strength focuses on the income inequality of modern life, navigating dead-end jobs, layoffs, maxed-out bills, and a general feeling of hopelessness that seems to be pervasive in today’s society.
Why It Rules: What keeps Morbid Stuff so engaging is the band’s ability to channel their frustrations both outwardly at a broken system as well as inward. Without being filled with self-hatred or a backwards “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality, the songs never absolve their subjects blame for their problems. From the blistering fury of “Kids” and “Free at Last” to the winding, anthemic “Scorpion Hill”, PUP channel their rage and self-determination into something that could almost be called uplifting, or at least a way to know you’re not the only one facing the same problems. One of the best pop-punk albums of the decade, Morbid Stuff provided a reliable 37 minutes of shouting that really came in handy for 2019. –David Sackllah
Essential Tracks: “Kids”, “Scorpion Hill”, and “Full Blown Meltdown”
13. Big Thief – U.F.O.F.
Origin: Brooklyn, New York
The Gist: One time darlings of Brooklyn’s indie underground, Big Thief rose to prominence in 2019 with two stellar sonic efforts. The first of these, the beguiling U.F.O.F, served as the Adrian Lenker-led outfit’s third, and arguably best, album to date, bringing their mystical folk sound to the forefront of music consciousness.
Why It Rules: U.F.O.F does what Big Thief do best and then some: marrying folksy, backwater sonority with eerie and enchanted vocals to give rise to a new genre standard. Hipster indie folk be damned. Full of winding revelations and quiet coos, U.F.O.F feels like a family heirloom found deep within the attic of time. Wrapped in a dusty oilcloth and opened to reveal multitudes of sonic spells and truths — a timeless artifact to get lost in by lamp light, connecting all the dots that ever were in Lenkerian whispers. –Irene Monokandilos
Essential Tracks: “UFOF”, “Cattails”, and “Orange”
12. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Bandana
Origin: Gary, Indiana, and Oxnard, California
The Gist: After years of mixtapes and cult fame for his unbreakable (re: numbing) flow, odious cult favorite Freddie Gibbs formed an unlikely alliance with legendary indie producer Madlib for 2014’s Piñata, which made Gibbs palatable with gorgeous, vintage loops patched together. Five years later, its follow-up is shorter, better-edited, and even Gibbs is worth hearing.
Why It Rules: The few hip-hop artists still trading in deep-crate boom-bap are rarely punching at this level. Recognizing Bandana as an event, guests as disparate (but vital) as Pusha T, Anderson .Paak, Black Thought, and Yasiin Bey (you knew him as Mos Def) bring their A-game over Madlib’s serrated soul on the best tracks Gibbs has ever been gifted: the glassy “Crime Pays”, the hypnotic RZA-style loops of “Massage Seats”, and the hooky “Giannis”, which gives off a whiff of Ghostface Killah’s canonical “Mighty Healthy”. And even the marquee rapper makes something of his therapy (didn’t help), disgusting punchlines (you do what like “Flat Tummy Tea?”) even his “bitches” (who’ve all got a “situation”). Far from mature, the ex-pimp was so inspired by such amazing beats that he’s at least thinking and feeling. And hell yes, rapping. –Dan Weiss
Essential Tracks: “Massage Seats”, “Giannis”, and “Crime Pays”
11. Charly Bliss – Young Enough
Origin: Brooklyn, New York City
The Gist: Two years after their breakout debut album, Guppy, Brooklyn power pop outfit Charly Bliss returned with more confidence and determination than ever. Primarily an outlet for frontwoman Eva Hendricks to address a sexual assault, Young Enough ends up a vivid dance that celebrates the growing pains of life in all their forms. It’s a nearly perfect album that allows listeners to viscerally feel an artist’s personal evolution right alongside the band’s stylistic expansion.
Why It Rules: Hendricks may have a better innate understanding of lyrical meter than most contemporary songwriters. Just listen to the intricacy of words on “Capacity”, “Blown to Bits”, or the title track. What’s more, her particularly effervescent voice could easily fall into saccharine if not handled properly; both her own words and the sturdy fun of the band as a whole carry those vocals just so, allowing them to remain endearingly affecting. Although Young Enough is filled with a lot of pain, its pathos is delivered with the unbridled joy of self-assurance, of resolve, of hope. In that, it’s truly beautiful — an adjective not so easily won by others in Charly Bliss’ genre. –Ben Kaye
Essential Tracks: “Young Enough”, “Chatroom”, and “Blown to Bits”