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The 40 best albums of 2019 (so far)

It's Big Thief!

It's Big Thief! Michael Buishas

With the year half gone, it’s time to take stock of the best music I’ve heard over the past six months. 

1. Sir Babygirl, Crush on Me
Kelsie Hogue manages her unmanageable desires by colorfully exaggerating their scope, flinging herself into extremes of knowingly delirious indie-pop and treating every slight, sexual slip-up, and thwarted crush like the end of the world. Shouting, “You don’t know me anymore! I changed my hair!” at an ex isn’t just more fun than moping at home—it’s healthier. I just hope that same manic, pastel aesthetic is equally therapeutic when brought to bear on whatever inspired “Haunted House,” where Hogue’s voice slides up and down the scale like a penny whistle while lyrics like “no one knows the difference from my laughter and my screams” suggest a desperate failure to exorcise a genuine trauma at its core.

2. Julia Jacklin, Crushing
This Australian singer-songwriter’s acute autopsy of a fragmenting relationship cuts from present to past and back again, with the future manifesting itself through fretful anticipation as Jacklin faces a clump of unanswerables: Is he OK? What’s he gonna do with that nude pic? Did he ever watch that stupid video I sent him? Really though, is he OK? Fragile but sinuous, Jacklin’s sob stretches in tendrils of tuneful anxiety, while her guitar mimics unkempt emotion without getting rowdy or atonal. Her music sounds like what heartbreak physically feels like, before we find the words for it, though each song here gives up a phrase that wholly encapsulates a mood, a scenario, a life stage. She refuses to vilify the dude she couldn’t trust without making him sympathetic and skirt despair without giving in to the myth of closure. Dunno if he’ll be OK. But Jacklin sounds like she’s gonna be just fine.

3. Adia Victoria, Silences
“First of all there is no God,” this South Carolina blues revisionist declares plainly 30 seconds in, strings creeping beside her through the shadows, and you can hear the glint in her eye: She knows he’s dead because she offed the sucker. Victoria and co-producer Aaron Dessner of the National populate the corners of these tracks with ghosts and echoes, and the lyrics typically read more bleakly than Victoria’s stealthily scrunched, preternaturally nonchalant voice allows them to be. Playful in her self-destructive defiance, she’s a deicidal Billie Holiday fan who sounds like she’d sold her soul to Kurt Weill to pay off her bar tab. Who can relate?

4. Billie Eilish, When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
Death makes sad teens horny, a timeless truth Eilish is precocious enough to exploit for dark lulz where she might be expected to strike a supposedly gender-appropriate pose of somber, witchy melancholy. Her flashlight-under-the-chin shtick hardly trivializes the lives she’s seen lost or deaths she’s imagined for herself (that’s not how jokes work), and even in her more sincere and subdued moments this breathy teen shows up the manipulative nihilizzzm of the Soundcloud nothings whose beats her producer bro Finneas bites and bests while wending Eminem-y synth whines through his skull-emoji trap-pop.

5. Little Simz, Grey Area
For all her “Jay-Z on a bad day/Shakespeare on my worst days” boasts, this London MC doesn’t barrel you over with her wordplay. Instead she draws you in with her mushed consonants and clipped flow, matched ideally here by Inflo’s production, which relies on live musicianship rather than electronic piecework. Tough female rappers are everywhere these days, but though Simz is no pushover, she reveals a third dimension over the course of her album, promising candor then bristling when you assume too much intimacy, her defense mechanisms and survival techniques stunning you with their blunted but slow-acting venom.

6. Dawn, New Breed
In the past, the music of this Danity Kane alum turned Afrofuturist auteur sprawled architecturally. Here its components—a trap beat fading like an exorcised ghost, a Roy Ayers synth gliding in like a childhood memory—click together to fill up smaller spaces, shadowy yet luxuriant, her rhythmic logic unpredictable in ways that come to feel inevitable. And whether she’s feeling nostalgic (“the nine”), dirty (“sauce”), petty (“jealousy”), or righteous (“we, diamonds”), the lyrics come correct and direct. We all deserve the good sex and supportive community and basic respect Dawn demands. Only difference is, she’s artist enough to make anyone who’d deny her any of them look like a dope.

7. Big Thief, U.F.O.F.
Arpeggios or circular riffs recur with the steady reassurance of a stick along a picket fence and melodies bend with the supple give of a green willow branch as this Brooklyn indie quartet—let’s call them “acoustic-friendly” rather than “folkie”—claim their space in the natural world. Drawing upon childhood idyll, thrumming with collaborative verve, electrified with just the right amount of dissonance, just spooky enough around the edges, this is a game with elaborate, improvised rules, an exercise in spontaneity not anarchy. And it’s all the context Adrianne Lenker needs for her whispered mantras like “we have the same power” and invocations of various female names to resonate far beyond their literal meaning.

8. Dua Saleh, Nūr
The deepest 20 minutes of Minnesota music I’ve heard this young year also include some of the most playful: On “Sugar Mama,” Dua’s voice bobs with double-dutch insouciance over a self-fashioned tick-tock beat as this Sudan-born and St. Paul-raised singer teases and eventually goes down on the girl next door, a white-savior wannabe who never had it so good. Once Psymun takes over production duties, the tracks thicken with reinforced steel cables of bass but retain that simple, effective rhythmic core. Dense not murky, moody not ominous, the sound is akin to Dua’s cottony coddling of words, a stylish exercise in false modesty that shrugs “oh, this old phrase” while strewing as glitzy a string of syllables as “I’ll spit on silk to find the silver in the slivers in your couch.”

9. Hama, Houmeissa
This playful Nigerian electronic composer draws his brilliant synth patterns from melodies sung by West African herders and nomads, with some wedding tunes thrown in ’cause why not, and while they may get a little sillier stripped of their context through electronic reprocessing, that hardly cheapens its effect. In fact, it gives each tune a chance to prove how hardy it was to begin with, and in Hama’s hands, these melodies thrive. Everyone I’ve recommended this to has loved it. What makes you think you’ll be any different?

10. Pedro the Lion, Phoenix
David Bazan’s lyrics don’t fully connect the boy he was to the man he is—that’s a lifetime’s work—but damn if this journey through his past doesn’t accomplish something similar musically, wedding his searching solo inquiries to the skewed sonics/straightforward dynamics of the coulda-been alt/emo contenders he disbanded in 2005. If that sounds too schematic, trust me, there’s nothing pat about a thoughtful post-Christian expiating his secular flaws through the judicious arrangement of riffs that, I swear to post-Christ, suggest (oh blessed contradiction) an introspective Pixies.

11. The Comet Is Coming, Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery
Despite the album title’s cosmic vagueness, there’s nothing spaced-out or occult about this sax-synth-drum trio, featuring the mighty British-Barbadian hornman Shabaka Hutchings, reigning here under the name King Shabaka. His attack is blunt and focused, communicating emotion in sharp, staccato bursts and repeating strands of upwardly arching melody, his tune-sense holding strong even when he’s telegraphing a series of single note dot-dot-dashes. Drummer Max “Betamax” Hallett can sprawl out with trippy accents but prefers a steady backbeat or heavy unshifting patterns, and synth maestro Danalogue (aka Dan Leavers) is a versatile mood-setter, contributing minimalist ripples that nostalgically echo ’70s futurism, new-wave chord vamps, and a synth bass you could feel in your pancreas at their danceable as hell Turf Club show last month.

12. Tanya Tagaq, Toothsayer 
The temptation to reach for metaphor is irresistible, to hear the interaction between Tagaq’s infinitely mutable vocal virtuosity and these five shifting sound compositions as the enactment of some concrete drama. But beyond a basic outline—a human voice struggling to exist amid ecological catastrophe—the musical accompaniment to the British National Maritime Museum’s “Polar Worlds” exhibit is more allusive than explicit. Tagaq’s Inuk throat-singing technique ranges too freely to pin down, her gutturals and squeals existing within their own improvisatory emotional space rather than targeting a specific listener reaction. It’s often as unsettling as you’d expect, but at times it’s also lovely. Just as the end of the world might also at times be. 

13. Jens Lekman & Annika Norlin, Correspondence
Alternating monthly, these two Swedish songwriters swapped tracks over the course of 2018, then collected the fruits of their exchange here. As ever, Lekman brilliantly extrapolates social insight from autobiographical detail, whether he’s exploring the contradictions of friendship and altruism (“Who Really Needed Who”), the roots of labor exploitation in human ambition (“Not Because It’s Easy But Because It’s Hard”), or the relationship between the misogynist punk cool of his youth and contemporary incel violence (“Revenge of the Nerds”). This is the first I’ve heard of or from Norlin, but she’s got a knack for offhandedly sidling up to a simple topic then unexpectedly turning it inside out, whether she’s concerned with “Showering in Public,” “Hibernation,” or “Joining a Cult” (“Hey, I kind of get it”).

14. Quelle Chris, Guns
Chris doesn’t hew exclusively to the title concept because he doesn’t need to—there’s a potential for violence lurking behind each rhyme regardless. So sure there are roll calls of mass murderers, and QC and his guests ably impersonate gangstas to share their boasts and confessions. But there’s also plenty of goofing off, free-associative wordplay, even a love song. It’s just, you know, like here in America, every so often someone gets shot.

15. Mannequin Pussy, Patience
The guitars are so raw, the thrust so relentless, the bad sex with worse men such a constant that you might miss how much emotional ground singer Marisa Dabice covers in under a half-hour. She fights for her right to therapeutic self-loathing on “Drunk II,” extends a pep talk to a pal on “Who Told You,” and somehow barrels through the brawling “F.U.C.A.W.” (which sounds like this Philly quartet out-brutalizing Mudhoney and My Bloody Valentine in a bar fight) only to close the album with an “I’m in love with you” that I don’t doubt for a minute.

16. Megan Thee Stallion, Fever
Before Hot Girl Meg even says a word her throat-clearing secures her title as Houston rap’s new MVP. Then she pops off with "I'll knock the shit out that bitch like an enema" and “Send him a pic of somebody else titties,” pisses her man off deliberately so he’ll fuck her harder later, and yawns thusly in the presence of interchangeable bill-paying dick-havers: “When they be talkin', I don't even listen/Tellin' me secrets, I probably forget it.” Foul, hard, greedy, flawless.

17. Todd Snider, Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3
“Just Like Overnight” acknowledges a painful fact of maturity—how life seems static in the moment even as colossal changes are underway—with something approximating acceptance. But like the rest of us, this veteran folkie is rightfully pissed and can’t stop talking about shit he knows he can’t change, so mostly his humor strays closer to bitterness than ever before. “Talking Reality TV Show Blues,” a history of the medium that fucked us all over more than Zuckerberg can even dream, ends as it must with the 2016 election but gets there by artful and circuitous roots. But he’s happy to cut to the chase elsewhere—the entire chorus to “A Timeless Response to Current Events” goes “Ain’t that some bullshit?”

18. Lady Midnight, Death Before Mourning
The sound of Adriana Rimpel’s first proper full-length as her alter ego is diverse but unified, held together not just by a voice but by a sensibility, a political thrust that’s still luxurious, rejecting the sense that hardening or austerity is necessary to take a committed stance. At times she takes on a slightly seductive tone, like a more companionable Sade, at others her voice floats amid the dense electronics as though intoning a mantra and seeking to heal through empathy. 

19. Charly Bliss, Young Enough 
It’s time once again to play my least favorite game: Do I Love This Band or Do I Love That This Band Sounds Like Bands I Once Loved? Fortunately, this round’s easier than usual, because few of the ’90s alt-pop forebears Charly Bliss recall ever lived up to their tartly chipper promise. That’s partly because the unspooling hooks that’d have sold them to Clinton-era A&Rs would have had so many underground jagoffs grumbling “sell out” they’d never have been able to sound this unbitter and casual about their success. But it’s mostly because on each track here, Eva Hendricks shucks some personal dilemma or opportunity down to its pith and comes out on the other side a wiser woman.

20. Vampire Weekend, Father of the Bride
Collecting 18 snippets that feel even shorter than they are, this is Ezra Koenig’s Unbearably White Album. There’s a tension between ease and control throughout; for all the guitars’ jazzy indirection and the effortlessness of Koenig’s spry tunes and allusive couplets, this genteel folksiness is also mechanically precise, like a digital rendering of an open-air landscape. Koenig has come to acknowledge that once you care about others your own mortality is the least of your worries, and doom lurks around the edge of nearly every chorus here, from “How long till we sink till the bottom of the sea?” to “There’s an avalanche coming.” Been wanting an instruction manual for how to continue to treasure the wit and craft that have helped you survive and love in the past, yet seem hopelessly insufficient tools for addressing the looming apocalypse on the horizon? Study up.

21. Denzel Curry, Zuu
In a rap game of ballers going hard in the paint, this south Florida hustler comes across like a ferocious but nimble middleweight boxer, bobbing and weaving as he spars with FnZ’s beats. He’s got such a musical flow it’s hard to say where the verse ends and the hook land, and his hood reportage is deft if blunt. In the end he goes 12 rounds without a knockout, but he tires you the fuck out, lands some good punches, and wins by decision.

22. Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba, Miri
Once a sought-after sideman, now a justifiably honored fixture on the world music circuit, this Malian ngoni master packed up his lute and hied off to his home village on the banks of the Niger for album number five with his group, and that locale might explain the slight loss of intensity. But even in ruminative mode he’s too restless and imaginative an improviser to offer relaxation rather than invigoration. From the exquisite vocal refrain that Kouyate’s lines wend around on the opener, “Kanougnon,” through the closing seven-minute elegy to his mother, Ngoni Ba’s inexhaustible font of melody offers a cheery riposte to the age of austerity.

23. Jenny Lewis, On the Line
Every indie-gal’s cool older sis has "had it with you trippers and drama queens,” flitting through middle age with little use for petty concerns like personal growth, love, security, or whatever other mirage of permanence or progress you’re peddling. With Beck’s production lending most of the tracks a colorfully lackadaisical shuffle, the blithe hedonism of Lewis’ “a little bit of hookin’ up is good for the soul” and “life is a disco” channels a carefree L.A. ideal with none of the self-serving B.S. spiritualism or free-love ideology that turns off us skeptical landlocked heliophobes. Yet the lyrics are choked with death, with drugs both legal and illegal taken in both moderate and extreme doses; listen up and what you’ll hear fraying the edges of Lewis’ tarnished voice is sadness, regret, but, miraculously, no bitterness.

24. Sharon Van Etten, Remind Me Tomorrow
“Sitting at the bar I told you everything/You said ‘Holy shit’” is a helluva lede, and what’s most bracing about Van Etten throughout this album is her willingness to deadpan a heavy revelation for dramatic effect then chase it with a sour rush of hooky adrenaline, like someone sharing her darkest secret just as the roller coaster you’re both sitting in is about to barrel downhill. Producer John Congleton’s electronic sound effects—the forlorn boom-bap that shows up uninvited to “I Told You Everything,” the synthfuzz horns traipsing with mockery through “You Shadow,” the distorted detonations that threaten to make “Hands” into the Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart”—offer much more than background, but Van Etten herself is always the foreground. 

25. Kehlani, While We Wait
Kehlani’s recitative verse flutters through melodies as fluid as the relationships she describes (“I thought we was just fucking,” she sighs with mild exasperation at one clingy partner) and the genders she desires (“you gon’ get my hopes high, girl,” she pines on “Nights Like This” before non-girl Ty Dolla $ign chimes in with a response). Though her features are all men (Musiq Soulchild, Dom Kennedy, 6lack) that’s not to play up sexual tension, but sheerly for vocal contrast: She’s not in this for the drama, she’s in this for the “Feels,” as the title of track that lives up sweetly and sexily (though not savagely) to that vaporous name says. But just as her liquid melodies coalesce firmly when they reach the choruses, Kehlani is plenty good at establishing boundaries when needed on “Nunya” (as in “ain’t nunya business” now that you’re out of her life) or “Morning Glory,” a throwback TLC bounce about how you better appreciate how good she still looks when she doffs her wig and nails at bedtime.

26. Cheekface, Therapy Island
Twenty-five years ago, every city within range of a college radio station had a pack of jokers like this. Nowadays, their ilk’d mostly rather tweet out their one-liners or start a podcast, so maybe I just admire the extra effort it took to get a band together and write a few simple, effective tunes. But also their one-liners are better than average (“Now I’m gonna be a little condescending/That means I’m talking down to you”) and they set this good example for anyone hoping to better themselves: ”I only say I'm sorry when I'm wrong now/I only run the air when it's warm out/I only text the friends that I like now/I only talk trash if I've thought it out.”

27. Khalid, Free Spirit
He’s older, smarter, and richer than the kid who sympathetically chronicled the messy loves of his essentially decent if age-appropriately confused peers on American Teen. Not hookier though—the tracks here rely on how richly his inconsolable sob blends with a plucked, muzzy guitar that hints at Afropop. Still, when he leans into a chord change with a woozy, sexy charm that hints at emotions his commonplace lyrics don’t quite nail down, it captures how you feel when your own ordinary thoughts don’t quite capture how you feel. There’s a reason the best chorus here goes “Can’t we just talk?” All in all a fitting soundtrack for—what? A drowsy, slightly bummed early morning makeout session that one of you keeps interrupting to clear up something the other mentioned last night? Maybe not an ideal scenario, but a plausible one.

28. 75 Dollar Bill, I Was Real
If there’s one thing the psych-rock, West African desert blues, and experimental drone this duo synthesizes here all have in common, it’s that music nerds really dig ’em. But don’t let that scare you off: Guitarist Che Chen and percussionist Rick Brown consistently uncover what’s most enticing rather than what’s most difficult about their source material. This is the sound of a series of keys turning unexpected locks, opening up new possibilities in the most familiar strains of eclecticism.

29. Lizzo, Cuz I Love You 
Ricky Reed’s bald calculation, X Ambassadors’ retro chintz, Oak’s late-pass radio-rap—each producer and co-writer here loiters on the unfashionable edge of pop as we know it, and they’re Lizzo’s ideal courtiers because and not in spite of that. Preaching self-love more than self-care, with a joy none dare call corny, Lizzo remains eminently root-for-able not because she’s an innovator but because the timeworn musical formulas she straps herself into can’t possibly contain her personality, which spills over all formal confines in unexpectedly voluptuous ways. 

30. Robert Forster, Inferno
The surviving half of Australia’s greatest pop songwriting duo has gone as long as 12 years between solo albums, so let’s appreciate that it only took four for him to crank out these nine songs—or, OK, eight if setting Yeats’ “Crazy Jane on the Day of Judgement” to a languid guitar riff is cheating a little, though there’s something so eminently Forsterian about how his voice lolls over the Irish poet’s “I can scoff and lour/And scold for an hour” I say he earns full credit. Forster savors his words at an aesthete’s leisurely pace and muses on the vagaries of success and the passage of time with an air of earned tranquility—the most intense song here is about how often he had to mow the lawn last summer. Yet the slight quaver when he sings “Time to walk around, time to hit the ground/Time to do my thing/Eat only what I eat, breathe only what I breathe/Well that's me” on “One Bird in the Sky” offers a reminder that his contentment isn’t so much achieved as practiced.

31.Ariana Grande, Thank U, Next
Ditch two subpar Max Martin productions and you’ve got a near-flawless, possibly autobiographical(ish), playful and thoughtful and silly and heartfelt song-cycle about a young woman’s romantic miseducation. The shimmery, soft-focus trap-pop productions are the distinctive, not quite uniform, possibly ideal setting for Grande’s pillowy enunciation and bottle-rocket high notes. Yes, I realize that pining for a “cohesive pop album” in the see-what-sticks era is as backward-looking as searching Yelp for your town’s finest blacksmith. Call it a “playlist” if that makes you more comfortable.

32.The Delines, The Imperial
Understated singers usually let you hear the pain simmering and contained beneath the surface; Amy Boone’s gift is to allow it to rise up but never engulf her as she navigates the one wrong turn after another Willy Vlautin’s lyrics steer her toward with a mild relief that at least she hasn’t hit a dead end yet. The women Vlautin sketches and Boone inhabits don’t seek out damaged men: They’re just making do with what’s available. Call this existential soul music, stripped of any solid belief but tenuously rescued from despair by a gentle exertion of will, an indiscriminate extension of empathy, and some subtly supportive instrumentation: piano or Fender Rhodes, decorative pedal steel, and a spare drumbeat with just the hint of funk. 

33. Rico Nasty & Kenny Beats, Anger Management
Title aside, Rico ain’t mad at cha. She’s violent, not angry, and every punch she lands invigorates her flow. As she bounds through Kenny Beats’ electro minefield with animated malevolence, leaving a trail of detonations behind, she dares you to keep up. Some choruses emerge from the dust, along with boasts like “I got bitches on my dick and I ain’t even got a dick.” But mostly she loves making a big noise, and for 18 minutes, she more than manages.

34. Priests, The Seduction of Kansas
Maybe a looming apocalypse on the horizon and clearly drawn battle lines has helped these arty D.C. punks focus some. The guitar is brawnier and hookier, and Katie Alice Greer’s lyrics angrier, smarter, and funnier than ever. “I am Jesus' son” rhymes with both “I think I wanna hurt someone” and “I'm young and dumb and full of cum.” 

35. Mark Ronson, Late Night Feelings
Well, shit, I never knew he had it in him either. Ronson may claim top billing, but he not only caters to the strengths of the nine female singers who appear on a collection that’s every bit as thematic as its title indicates, he uncovers hidden talents. Lykke Li strikes an unexpected firmness at the core of her pliable soprano, Camilla Cabello indulges in a liquored up burr, and Alicia Keys finds her inner Dawn Robinson. And if Ronson can’t quite encourage Angel Olsen to chill out enough to handle a disco song, hey, the guy’s not a miracle worker.

36. Jamila Woods – Legacy! Legacy!
Like the poet she is, Woods can’t resist a good conceit, and she’s got a great one here: Each track is named for a specific artist of color, and presumably sung from their perspective. Sometimes this feels too much like a writer’s exercise, yes, and sometimes I sense Woods’ thumb on the scale and hear her indulging in a bit of ventriloquism through her famed mouthpieces. But of course she’s allowed a little license (again, she’s a poet) and these monologues are more often allusive rather than didactic, created as acts of radical empathy.

37. Salif Keita – Un Autre Blanc
Where Youssou N’Dour consistently frames his art within some historical, political, or cultural context, his only male rival for the title of West Africa’s greatest living singer offers sheer gorgeous sensation. And what’s been touted as the Malian legend’s possible finale is as sheerly and sensationally gorgeous as any full-length of his I’ve encountered. I’m always suspicious of white musical tourists (especially the one typing this sentence) who seek something as abstract as beauty from a musical heritage they don’t fully understand. But I always make an exception for Keita because he deserves it. And so do you.
38. PUP – Morbid Stuff
How many more bratty but articulate pop-punk songs about drinking till you’re convinced your broken heart makes you a nihilist and bitching to and about your (soon-to-be) exes does the world really need? How many have you got?

39. Deerhunter, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?
Synthesizers are funny things. Admirers have pegged this indeed-tuneful, political-they-say fantasia as “pop,” but (I doublechecked) the pent-up guitar dissonance of Monomania was catchier. What this is instead is artier, its polychromatic cheer radiating out of a menagerie of vintage avant-garde touches—electro-metallic horns suggesting Bowie’s Berlin, minimalist repetition, a Laurie Anderson impression, all manner of keyboards including oozy and abrading, guitars often but not always making noises the synths couldn’t. The contrast between this pixelated pastoral setting and Bradford Cox’s elliptical visions of decay makes for an effect that’s less ironic than disorienting, and if Cox has a message, it is, as he sings on “Détournement,” “There is some form of art left,” which is political-I-say.

40. Epic Beard Men, This Was Supposed to Be Fun
Sage Francis and B. Dolan are just a pair of alt-rap lifers goofin’ around and showin' off, as paired off alt-rap lifers will do. But while it’s gags like “You Can’t Tell Me Shit” (“I don't even like the old Kanye/You deleted but I got the screenshots/All my tattoos are brand new”) that grab your attention, it's the stories of less creative and successful lifers that will keep you coming back.