10. Tool – Fear Inoculum
Origin: Los Angeles, California
The Gist: Thirteen years in the making, and Tool finally returned with their long-awaited fifth album, Fear Inoculum. The wait tested the patience of the band’s notoriously dedicated following, and every year the question was raised: “Is the Tool album coming out?” Any inkling of a new song or even a tidbit of information was dissected and glorified to the point where the band’s privacy was compromised. Singer Maynard James Keenan even received death threats because of the album’s delay.
Why It Rules: Fear Inoculum lives up to its daunting expectations with songs that showcase Tool in peak performance as musicians and compositional arrangers. For the die-hard fan, there’s a lot to consume here. Likewise, the album offers little respite for the uninitiated; its accessibility comes in the form of its vastness and eerie psychedelia, not through hooks or common pop structures. This is deep prog-rock as only Tool can create it, holding steadfast to the concept of the recorded album as a seamless listening experience. Fear Inoculum is best heard with full, unbridled attention, and 86 minutes to spare, which in an age of instant gratification makes it both difficult for the passing newbie and endlessly endearing for its target audience. –Jon Hadusek
Essential Tracks: “Pneuma”, “Descending”, and “7empest”
09. Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell!
Origin: New York City, New York
The Gist: Lana Del Rey’s sixth studio iteration rides in on her typical Americana cavalry, the familiar Hollywood darling cooing on the state of things, but this time it’s acutely aware and biting. For reference, see the painfully accurate description of interpersonal relationships in this day and age wrapped up in the lyrics of opener “Venice Bitch” in which Del Rey croons, “God damn man child” followed by “Your poetry is bad and you blame the news”; that in itself is enough to write a synopsis on the 2010s about.
Why It Rules: Del Rey has a pension towards swerving but still staying in her lane, and Norman Fucking Rockwell! is Del Rey at her best. She’s still drafting scripts on the play of American life, but the protagonists now live in states of gray instead of shades of blue, and reality is seeping into every corner of the dream. Norman Fucking Rockwell! is romanticism through the filter of our current climate, so when Del Ray cites, “You’re beautiful and I’m insane/ We’re American-made” in the refrain of “Venice Bitch”, there’s no trite condescension hiding anywhere in between the lines. It’s catastrophically finite; yes, it’s symbolic but also devastatingly true. –Erica Campbell
Essential Tracks: “Venice Bitch”, “Mariners Apartment Complex”, and “Fuck It I Love You”
08. 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
Essential Tracks: “Harmony Hall”, “This Life”, and “Unbearably White”
07. Lizzo – Cuz I Love You
Origin: Minneapolis, Minnesota
The Gist: It might be hard to think of a Lizzo that didn’t fit into our current conversation, but just a few years ago she was sans cosigns, attempting to shine in between genres that pushed her out: not hip-hop or R&B enough, not pop enough. Everyone seemed to be asking, “Who the hell is Lizzo?” and it took a while before we all had the patience to sit down, listen, and realize that Cuz I Love You provides 14 ample answers.
Why It Rules: Where the album asks real questions like “Why are men great ’til they have to be great?” in “Truth Hurts”, it also hands out definite responses like “Love you so, but if you don’t, I have to leave” in “Water Me”. Wrapped in references of astrology, fresh photos with bomb lighting, self-love, and DMs, the album is a millennial fever dream manifested by someone who can credibly preach on it. Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You works because we’re never going to fit perfectly into boxes and neither is she. Thankfully, the entire record gives us permission to be ourselves unabashedly, unapologetically, dancing all over the niche kingdoms we’ve created to reign over. –Erica Campbell
Essential Tracks: “Juice”, “Truth Hurts”, and “Cuz I Love You”
06. Tyler, the Creator – IGOR
Origin: Ladera Heights, California
The Gist: When Tyler, the Creator came onto the scene in his late teens as one of the co-founders of Odd Future, most of his music reflected his experiences as a disillusioned teenager. Tyler was never afraid of expressing feelings, but these expressions were never fully grounded in those early years. Every new album he released found a way to refine these emotional expressions and give them a more meaningful existence in both Tyler’s world and the world around him, reaching a point unmatched in his career thus far when he released 2017’s controversial Flower Boy. This album showcased a sincerity unseen from Tyler and gave him the momentum that led to 2019’s knockout, IGOR.
Why It Rules: In a year of hard times wrapping up a decade full of them, IGOR gave us a glimpse into the ever-evolving mind of Tyler, the Creator and truly showed how much he’s grown since the release of his studio debut, Goblin, at the beginning of the decade. Written, produced, and arranged by Tyler himself, IGOR is more intimate and soul-baring than any of his other albums, a kind of intimacy that comes with total creative control. The album could stand as a strong breakup album, but the way in which Tyler explores what love means to him, what led him to heartbreak, and his dependency on others turns the album into an exploration of both attaining and losing a lover. This emotional search present in his lyrics echoes through Tyler’s raw and unpolished vocals; the synth on the album –sweet at times, anxious at others — exemplifies what it feels like to fall in and out of love. The combination of these creates a nearly perfect trinity on IGOR, a fully formed emotional exploration by one of the most transformative artists of the past decade. –Jennifer Irving
Essential Tracks: “EARFQUAKE”, “A BOY IS A GUN*”, and “RUNNING OUT OF TIME”
05. 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
Essential Tracks: “7 Rings”, “thank u, next”, and “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored”
04. Angel Olsen – All Mirrors
Origin: Chicago, Illinois
The Gist: Angel Olsen’s sound has consistently gotten bigger with each album. The acoustic folk of Half Way Home grew into the folk rock of Burn Your Fire for No Witness, which twisted into the jukebox indie of MY WOMAN. Yet, for all that growth, the sheer size of the orchestral art-pop on All Mirrors remains gorgeously, marvelously unexpected.
Why It Rules: Far and away, this is the most beguiling, dramatic leap Olsen has taken yet. The layers of strings arranged by Ben Babbitt and Jherek Bischoff bolster the cinematic feel, but it is Olsen’s own compositional touches and vocal prowess that make sure those orchestrations are more than just extravagance. As she bellows against the blackness, the tracks are propelled by a ferocious self-actualization built on owning up to the darkest parts of herself. In every way, All Mirrors is an artist pushing herself forward, compositing a powerful reflection in the shattered shards of identity. –Ben Kaye
Essential Tracks: “Lark”, “All Mirrors”, and “Summer”
03. 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 soon enough. 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 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
Essential Tracks: “ZORA”, “BETTY”, and “BASQUIAT” feat. SABA
02. Sharon Van Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow
Origin: Brooklyn, New York
The Gist: Indie mainstay Sharon Van Etten returned after five long years with a fresh, powerful, and synthy musical toolkit. The artist pushes forward while remaining true to herself, still balancing precise, thoughtful lyricism with dashes of pure rock and roll. Remind Me Tomorrow stands tall as her most fully realized work yet.
Why It Rules: On Remind Me Tomorrow, Van Etten sounds cool and warm, which combine to equal self-assured. The album delicately explores adulthood, what it means to strive to embody the kind of grownup you want to be, and the kinds of challenges that trip you up along that journey. The songs all, in one way or another, are about people teaching one another and themselves how to be better, how to love better, how to live. Every track on the album is lush and deep, but Van Etten’s strong yet cracking voice on “Seventeen”, the best song of the album (and, in my opinion, the year) is everything. –Kayleigh Hughes
Essential Tracks: “Seventeen”, “Comeback Kid”, and “Your Shadow”
01. 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 Rules: 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 her strengths. Yet, what’s most intriguing about Eilish is how she toes the line between niche and universal, familiar and strange, preposterous and wonderful. 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 album’s as delicate as it’s dreamy (“xanny”), as earnest as it’s humorous (“Don’t say I’m not your type/ Just say that I’m not your preferred sexual orientation/ I’m so selfish”), and as boisterous as it’s grounded (the fluid loud, SOFT, loud of “bury a friend”). It’s never not interesting, and while “nuanced” gets tossed around all too often in half-assed reviews, it’s 100% earned on When We All Fall Asleep. This is a candied wonderland of production, dialing back to the glory days of Yeezy or Quincy or Spektor, and Finneas O’Connell never once fails his sister behind the boards.
Again, rising is such an understatement. Has there ever been a faster and more curious meteoric rise in pop this decade? It’s telling in the fact that more and more people are trying to figure it out, and by proxy, that’s why Billiemania keeps getting louder, and stronger, and, ultimately, more intriguing. She’s expiration proof. Appears at every festival? Beloved in every city. Goes on Saturday Night Live? Defies gravity. Sits down for the same goddamn interview three years in a row? Three times the charm. It would be aggravating if it didn’t feel so consciously justified.
TL;DR? She won 2019 with When We All Fall Asleep. –Michael Roffman
Essential Tracks: “bad guy”, “bury a friend”, and “all the good girls go to hell”