The contemporary music industry is radically different from its state 10 or 15 years ago. And the model we’re witnessing right now does not favor LPs. They’re often considered a format of the past, an overly-artistic attempt to revive Pink Floyd-esque sentiments. And it’s been that way for a long time. In fact, this topic is the one I’m writing about each time I publish the end-of-the-year list of best albums. But to say that the album is dead is an over-exaggeration. It may be a singles world, but there are still artists, who find marvelous opportunities in a bit longer format.
And there are hundreds if not thousands of them! I mean, just wow. How can you listen to all of them? There’s a new LP published almost every day, with Friday batches of premiering albums coming in dozens. There are some, who try to keep up to date and listen to hundreds of discs every year and take pride in that achievement; or some that review an LP after just a one listen, because they cannot afford a normal sit down to digest the art properly. Why? I have absolutely no idea. Give up. There’s no way to keep track and not dive into a mechanized factory-line style of consuming art. This does not make sense. I’ve been that person, listening to 100-150 newly released LPs each year. In time, it became an obligation, a duty, a work you have to go through to listen to something you want to listen to. So, this year I decided to take things slow and just enjoy. I’ve listened to a countless number of LPs, but I’ve listened to a fraction of them, I dived deep and swam renewed. Therefore, I won’t recommend a whooping list of 200 or 100 LPs you must listen to, but 20 that are really, really interesting and worth exploring slowly and truthfully.
But, going back to the condition of the contemporary album format. Well, I won’t lie. It’s not that great. However, it’s not that terrible either. I’ve had this feeling for some time that LPs are being treated as an exotic addition to the music industry rather than its moving force. There are a few exceptions each year that prove album-oriented music is not dead, but that’s it. They’re unfortunately exceptions, the last great year for LPs being 2016? 2013? 2005?
What strikes me the most about 2019 in the album industry is how women’s voices are being as loud as ever. The trend I’ve noticed two years ago, present in 2018, could also be seen in 2019 with 6 out of my top 10 LPs being sung by women (4 in top 5). Still, it’s sad to see that politically-conscious music is still nowhere to be seen in the mainstream (or among those critically-acclaimed releases), again, with a few exceptions. On the other hand, it was a magnificent year (again) for deeply emotional music. So yeah, a few tears went down my cheek this year – because of both their emotional weight and their sheer beauty. And those albums were not emotional in a pompous or almost ridiculous way. They were just moving and thought-provoking, saddening, frightening, blissful or just had this incredible ability to connect with the listener on an emotional level.
Therefore, the list I present you below consists of albums that I’ve found the most interesting, moving, thought-provoking, and left me with some kind of a bind to both the music itself and the period of time when they were released. I hope you’ll find that kind of connection as well. So, please, enjoy the list of 20 studio albums I’ve enjoyed the most in 2019. There are no compilation LPs, no live albums, no re-releases. Only newly-published studio releases.
20. Ariana Grande – thank u, next
While Dangerous Woman set the bar extremely high, Sweetener wasn’t exactly the achievement we were expecting from this contemporary mega superstar, who Ariana surely is. So, thank u, next was another step, and while it’s not worse than Sweetener, it surely is not a huge one forward. The album is coherent, enjoyable, but sometimes very generic. And I wanted some bold moves like in DW LP! Grande’s still at the beginning of her career, so we’ll see what happens next. Meanwhile, let’s enjoy this thought-through, magnificently produced and fun music.
19. American Football – American Football (LP3)
What can I say? I like this weird combination of math rock and emotional folk. The beautiful delicacy and strict precision in almost soothing and mutually beneficial. If you’re searching for short songs to cry to, you’d be disappointed. Prepare for a set of 5+ minutes compositions that bring you on an interesting emotional folk-post-math-rock rollercoaster, which leaves no room for a mistake.
18. Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars
The Boss is back! And wow, this LP proves that without a shadow of a doubt he’s an extremely talented composer. Of course, he’s not 27 years old. There’s less fun and more of nostalgia, wisdom and fireplace stories, but the music is still amusing and impressive. You can hear that he celebrated his 70th birthday this year, and that’s totally ok. An album suiting the age and the experience he has.
17. The National – I Am Easy to Find
After the first few seconds of the first song, we know we’ll be listening to the good old National we know and love. Yes and no. It’s the same aesthetics and general atmosphere, the same drumming patters and the same magnificent standard of artistry. But there’s also more experimental side to it all, a different kind of emotional specificity as seen in the second half of the LP (and the first song). Even though there’s a lot to digest, some of these songs are slowly becoming my all-time National favorites like Not in Kansas and So Far So Fast duo.
16. Solange – When I Get Home
I admire this album for not falling for an easy path of repeating the previous release or jumping on a bandwagon of popularity to break through with a mainstream record. Solange recorded something unconventional and interesting, thought-provoking and coherent, full of fascinating moments, but not for everyone.
15. Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride
I have not idea what Vampire Weekend must’ve had done to top their previous LP. Thankfully, they didn’t attempt to do so. Instead, they’ve released an album, which is as experimental as you expected it to be, and as filled with blissfully sounding, clever and interesting songs as you wanted it to be. This 18-song epic is a wonderful story that catches you off guard each time you listen to it. It’s not perfect, but it’s bold, and I’m totally fine with that.
14. Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell!
You may have a big problem with Lana Del Rey’s manner of singing, just like I do, but there’s no way in hiding the fact that this album is just really good. I’m not sure it deserves the praise it got from critics (in most cases undisputed album of the year), but there’s something fascinating about it. Musically, it’s really moving even though it’s based on a very basic artistic means. But lyrically, just wow. And it so American in its specificity. If you’re not convinced, listen to Venice Bitch and read The Greatest lyrics.
13. Tool – Fear Inoculum
I have no idea what people were expecting from this LP, but the hype was so big that the whole situation became ridiculous. And somewhere there, among all of the dust of high expectations, rave reactions or hateful disappointments, there’s a strong, solid, coherent, intriguing, smart, convincing and monumental album. Of course, Tool’s music is very specific, but its 2019 incarnation connects with me perfectly. Beyond all, this is just a great, reasonable, smart, mature progressive metal album – a rare sight in contemporary popular music.
12. Sharon Van Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow
What a great evolution. While it’s still distinctly Van Etten’s LP, it’s a huge step forward for her sonically. A massive and often disturbing sound links perfectly with her lyrical dark undertones. It’s not my favorite, but it may as well be her most impressive album to date. There are a ton of great songs here, which maintain a coherent theme throughout the album. A marvelous piece of work, proving that not getting what we’re used to from an artist is usually a great way to find new depths in the works by the same signature author.
11. Slipknot – We Are Not Your Kind
Can a metal band after 24 years of career be as exciting as when they were releasing their debut album? Of course, they can. And Slipknot is a perfect example of such. We Are Not Your Kind is probably the best album in their career. Yes, I said it. It’s fresh, it’s bold, it’s innovative. They’re at the top of their game and they use it not to cash in their success, but to have a space to create something new. If you’ve never tried to listen to Slipknot, now’s a great chance to start. You’ll find one of their best selves here.
10. Michael Kiwanuka – Kiwanuka
My initial thought after listening to Kiwanuka’s lastest LP was that he recorded a song-focused version of Kamasi Washington’s jazz epic. And there is much truth to it. Kiwanuka is soulful, emotional, moving, delicate, yet very powerful. You can hear Danger Mouse had something to do with it. Perfect for the old-school soul fans with a modern twist and a pinch of experimental expression.
9. Billie Eilish – When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
I wanted her to fail so much. I really did. The hype was so big, it had to be too good to be true. And while Eilish’s debut album is not perfect, it truly is a small breath of fresh air. The idea for aesthetics is clever, production is very curious, and the songs are simply very enjoyable. While there is room for improvement and sometimes the LP is very uneven, the high moments are stunning. Well done, we’re waiting for more.
8. Baroness – Gold & Grey
This is not my favorite album by Baroness, but oh my, it’s absolutely the best. They’ve recorded the most complex, multilayered and coherent album, which you can read like a fascinating novel. It’s full of emotional power and magnificent, epic riffs, but it also has a more delicate side, which is present throughout the whole hour-long journey. Everything connects perfectly. And yes, don’t be afraid of it being labeled as emotional metal. It really is one of the best sides of contemporary art-rock. One of the best rock albums I’ve heard in years.
7. Raphael Saadiq – Jimmy Lee
Saadiq is an R&B legend, there is little doubt about that. And Jimmy Lee proves that. Even though it may sometimes feel a bit old-fashioned or without a step out of the comfort zone, it just smashes listeners with heartfelt, juicy and monumental songs. It’s coherency, truthfulness, and deepness, along with the world-class musicianship and professional production, gives listeners nothing short of a lush performance. These are just some magnificent songs – sometimes very grim and ominous, sometimes comforting and encouraging, sometimes just purely fun and enjoyable. If you don’t want to experiment, but just enjoy a straightforward, outstanding R&B album, with a little pinch of unusual and unexpected, go ahead, be amazed by this 40-minutes testimony.
6. Big Thief – U.F.O.F.
This album is one of the biggest positive surprises this year. I’ve listened to it for the first time in mid-December only because of the widespread critical acclaim and the places on the best-of-the-2019 lists, and wow, it was so worth it. It’s full of disturbing beauty, introverted reflexion, subdued emotional and internal scream (like in Contact), which just makes your heart explode. And all of it presented with a small semi-acoustic band and a weirdly comforting voice, which delivers a Joanna Newsom-like quality of performance. It’s like a pleasing combination of Newsom and Alice in Chains from their heyday in an unplugged fashion. Unearthly, enchanted, luscious, and heartful. To be listened at a slow pace and with an open heart.
5. FKA twigs – Magdalene
I was never a big fan of FKA twigs before, but oh my, this stuff is magical. This beautiful, delicate, yet very powerful album is full of succulent moments. Given the originality, artistic hights and critical favorability, we might as well be witnessing a confirmation that FKA twigs has become one of the strongest forces in alternative electronic music. And oh, a minor detail, cellophane is the best song of the year, hands down.
4. Little Simz – Grey Area
Little Simz recorded an album, which caught me by surprise. I had no idea that I needed this English-to-the-core rap album by this hugely talented musician. It’s sincere, it’s raw. She goes straight to the point without any shadow of doubt or an unnecessary filler/filter. Both musically and lyrically, Grey Area is extremely impressive and immersive from the first until the last minute. Even though it’s only 35-minutes long, it feels like a monumental LP, which should elevate her to the level of the new queen-of-rap-to-be. She’s still very young and you can hear her enormous talent just waiting and looking for a proper outlet. No doubt, she’s an artist who should be observed closely in the upcoming years.
3. Angel Olsen – All Mirrors
On her fourth album, Angel Olsen sounds as mature, convincing and monumental as never before, yet maintaining her signature delicacy and subtlety. She has a marvelous capacity to create really powerful tunes in her distinctive style. With each album, she showcased a different side of this magnificent talent, and this time the expanded orchestrations and well-crafted arrangements worked ideally. Moving, often disturbing, and always leaving a listener with a deep reflection. Her best album to date? Yes. My favorite Olsen’s album to date? Yes. A must-listen 2019’s album? Yes.
2. Weyes Blood – Titanic Rising
Since its release in early April, I knew Titanic Rising will be one of the top contenders for the title of the best LP of 2019. And while it didn’t top the list, I have to admit that Weyes Blood created an album, I’ll treat as a high-point of this year’s artistic achievements. Everything works here perfectly – melodies, arrangements, general atmosphere, lyrics; all of it blends into an unearthly achievement. It’s soothing and heavenly, full of melancholy, nostalgia, sublimity, and grace – I rarely find this kind of peacefulness and tranquilizing flow in contemporary music. Simply beautiful.
1. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Ghosteen
I chose Ghosteen as the best album of the year because of its sheer beauty, bravery to confront emotions and the ability to extract them from listeners. Ghosteen is a monumental achievement in musical and lyrical craftsmanship, blissfully ending an experimental trilogy of Push the Sky Away, Skeleton Tree and Ghosteen. All three are similar in the general concept, but while the first one is based on a poetic imagery and reflections on a modern world, and the second continues the trend while facing a theme of death, mourning and loss, the last one is a perfect summary where an extreme grief is contrasted with faith and positivism in a truly monumental manner. You won’t find songs here. You’ll find musical poems about life and its loss and life again. About being in emotional despair, but eventually traveling to paradise. This is everything we could’ve asked for, even though we couldn’t ask for it given the circumstances of Cave’s personal life. This is a perfect ending and the beginning of something new. A cycle that moves so much, that everything stands still and then there’s only art.
- Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Ghosteen
- Weyes Blood – Titanic Rising
- Angel Olsen – All Mirrors
- Little Simz – Grey Area
- FKA twigs – Magdalene
- Big Thief – U.F.O.F.
- Raphael Saadiq – Jimmy Lee
- Baroness – Gold & Grey
- Billie Eilish – When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
- Michael Kiwanuka – Kiwanuka
- Slipknot – We Are Not Your Kind
- Sharon Van Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow
- Tool – Fear Inoculum
- Lana Del Rey – Normal Fucking Rockwell!
- Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride
- Solange – When I Get Home
- The National – I Am Easy to Find
- Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars
- American Football – American Football (LP3)
- Ariana Grande – thank u, next
- Anderson .Paak – Ventura
- Big Thief – Two Hands
- Bring Me the Horizon – Amo
- Danger Mouse & Karen O – Lux Prima
- James Blake – Assume Form
- Tyler, the Creator – IGOR