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It’s hard to believe that 2019 is half over, that we’re six months away from closing the book on this entire decade. The onward thrust of time is one of the few certainties we can all count on in this life, and the other is the never ceasing pile of music that needs to be reckoned with. To that end, our music and editorial teams got together recently to try to sum up the year via 25 releases we think are the ones most worthy of your limited, disappearing time this year. These 25 picks run the gamut from country to R&B, Japanese garage rock to folk rock that tears your heart out. We have vinyl of as many releases as we could get, including the final remaining copies of our editions of a number of releases. Without further ado, here are the 25 best albums of 2019 so far.
If there were ever a case arguing that the gentlest sounds were capable of surpassing a thunder clap in terms of impact, Big Thief's discography could serve as an Ivy League dissertation on the matter. But while Big Thief's first two records often detailed the traumas of the world around us, U.F.O.F. — the last F standing in for “Friend” — enlists that gentle lens to interrogate the natural (and supernatural) world around us. One thing I’m increasingly sure of is that the unknown populates every crevasse, nook, and cranny of the world, and on U.F.O.F., Big Thief teaches us to make peace, or maybe even make friends, with it. — Amileah Sutliff
CHAI, Japan’s premiere four-piece all-female disco punk group, graced us with one of the most interesting, high-energy albums to be released in 2019. PUNK is a perfect mix of sickly sweet bubblegum pop with distorted, loud, in-your-face guitar. Taking cues from ’80s new wave synths, ’90s pop grooves and a dash of LCD Soundsystem, CHAI have carved out a unique corner of a rich genre. CHAI’s electrifying live performance elevates the music to new heights. Complete with synchronized dance moves and earnest urging for crowd participation, they leave space for their fans to become an integral part of the spectacle. — Alex Berenson
There have been few musical moments this year as mind-expanding, or as gut-punching, for me as seeing The Comet Is Coming play the Empire Garage at SXSW the night before Trust In The Lifeforce Of The Deep Mystery came out. But that live experience only captured a slice of what the studio version was like; it's a, well, deep album that melds free jazz, space funk, power trios, and spoken word via Kate Tempest into something powerful and, a rarity for a lot of jazz albums these days, danceable. It’s hard to imagine a jazz album pushing more boundaries or hitting you this hard in the chest and head than this one this year. — Andrew Winistorfer
“What do you get when you cross an AI baby and a choral ensemble?” sounds like the beginning of some offbeat 2019 Twitter joke, but the answer’s actually “the most moving and fascinating meditation on the world we inhabit and the future we face to come out this year.” Through sounds made with regard to human history and future and transparent sonic processes (including two tracks that are actually live trainings by humans of a nascent AI child Spawn, a key instrument on the album), Holly Herndon asks a series of paramount questions: How do we rewrite the narrative of the machine as the intimate, human instrument it is? What does the future of human life look like? What does life look like beyond us? How can technology be positioned as an act of love, community, and humanity, as opposed to a force of distraction and destruction that it’s so often made out to be? — AS
Julia Jacklin’s sophomore album, Crushing, is an organs-on-the-table dissection of a breakup, absolutely harrowing and wrenching in its lyrical specificity and its openness. Separating in a relationship is not linear; it comes in wave after crushing wave. The anger gives way to sadness gives way to regret gives way to trying to forget them gives way to grim acceptance. Crushing might be the story of Jacklin’s personal breakup, but it’s also her most universal record; it’s a salve for when you’re in the pit of a breakup and eventually you’ll get a hold of yourself, try the restaurant your ex always wanted to go to, say “fuck them,” and move on. — AW
Mind if I…….be blissful for a second? (Well, technically 2940 seconds, but I’m rounding down). I can (and have!) explode into my heady poptimistic ramble on the artistic and cultural merits of the latest from Carly Rae Jepsen in the year 2019. But I’d rather use my blurb space to quote a 2016 concert review where Hanif Abdurraqib refers to Jepsen as “your friend with two dance moves at her disposal, milking them so energetically to every beat that it becomes endearing, until there is no such thing as a ‘bad dancer’ or a ‘good dancer,’ just a set of unchained limbs answering a higher calling.” Carly’s always been a matchstick doused in a lighter fluid of desire and shame and neediness and every little thing we don’t want to admit to even the person we share a bed with at night, and Dedication is simply another proud, elated lighting of it. — AS
Do something for me, will you? Get in your car or on a train or whatever moving vehicle you can make available to yourself. Now, get in your 20s. If you’re not there already by nature of time, close your eyes for a second and situate yourself among the exploration and exploitation and exaltation and, well, fuckery of it all. Turn on the hottest British MC in the game’s latest, GREY Area; go ahead — play it from start to finish. Now tell me your chest isn’t a little broader than it was a half hour ago, your eyes a bit straighter on the path ahead of you? Oh, you can’t? Cool. — AS
Kelsey Lu’s cello is a thing of beauty. When she first started releasing music, it was the captivating centerpiece of her story. While her cello acts as the driving force behind every song on Blood, it ultimately takes a backseat to a uniquely different set of sounds from her previous releases. Blood, which has a symphonic quality across the board, is a new take on art pop. The songs range from slow ballads to certified indie-pop hits, to a straight-up disco song (“Poor Fake,” if you were wondering), to one of the best 10cc covers ever recorded. Kelsey’s collaborators span from Jamie xx to Skrillex, bringing new interpretations to her already focused sound. Repeat listens of Blood bring new perspectives to each track and give her audience the unique and rewarding experience of discovering nuanced layers in every listen. — AB
Name the last time a rap album left one dangling in suspension the way Mach Hommy and DJ Muggs do so often. It’s not the only showtrick, because this is no show: this is street documentary and dystopian nightmare. I mean, the title is literally “Kill them all,” dog, fuck you thought this was? Muggs made this shit sound like “Fury Road” as explored by a masked Haitian. Muggs’s seasoned selections enable Mach’s freedom in a way sparsely seen in his vast discography. It often feels like Mach’s had his words overdubbed over a REM cycle. It’d easily explain his evasive stylings, and be of little service in decoding them. Nevertheless, he’s blown another bag over an expensive dinner, and the listener’s jaw remains on the pavement. — Michael Penn II
This album makes me want to be my best Hot Girl, but also be killed by a Hot Girl and also bathe in a marble bathtub filled with diamonds I stole from a rich man via a seduction-driven heist with my Hot Girl friends. Harnessing (but not bound by) a lineage of her Houston rap predecessors and peers, Megan’s breakneck debut placed the crown upon her head to prove she’s southern rap empire royalty right out of the gates, and she’s not asking anyone’s permission. It’s powerful, filthy, luxurious but not indulgent, and contagious in the best possible ways. Do really you need any other proof that this is one of the best things out this year (and believe me, there’s plenty) than the line “lick, lick, lick, lick, lick. This is not about your dick. These are simply just instructions on how you should treat my clit.” I love poetry. Long live Megan. — AS
The most unlikely thing happened in the 3 years since Maren Morris’ superlative debut LP, Hero: Thanks to “The Middle,” she became a superstar, ubiquitous in pharmacies and sporting events in a way that hardly ever happens for country singers, and definitely not women ones, in today’s anti-women country radio. And while there was some misguided pearl-clutching over Morris going pop, the song was really a runway-clearing set up for GIRL, her sophomore album that finds her delivering on what she’d been saying she wanted to be all along: The modern Sheryl Crow. From the title track to “The Bones,” the Brothers Osborne-featuring “All My Favorite People” to the Brandi Carlile-featuring “Common,” this is pop country at its finest, a mix of rock and pop and country, a blend that only a performer of Morris’ vocal strength and songwriting intelligence could pull off. Morris is a powerhouse, ready for her next big breakthrough. — AW
For someone so familiar with the many intricacies of a global society in crisis, Quelle Chris remains so… calm. Not content, not even collected, but calm in the sense that he remains a highly reliable narrator of our ills and thrills. I’d invite him to the cookout and the race war; on the latter, Guns goes the distance to untangle our nation’s subsidized murder fetish while recalibrating his steps on a path toward joy. As always, Quelle raps like a man with a legacy to leave: reserved and poignant, even when he’s exhausted. Thankfully, he finds time to try us some tenderness as we check our vests for marks. Be sure to inhale this record as a whole and watch the skies part before you. — MPII
Because Joel Ross is a jazz vibraphonist, and definitely the only one under 25 putting out a record this year, it’s tempting to paint him as some anomaly, a guy who is bucking trends and modern music to carry around mallets. But KingMaker, his stunning debut, while being original and from Ross’ mind and arrangements, pays homage to the greats (Bobby Hutcherson especially), while also taking inspiration from the modern political jazz of labelmate Ambrose Akinmusire. Which is to say that KingMaker is this year’s finest jazz debut, an album that shows you where jazz was, and where it might be when Ross is done with it. It’s a sprawling, swing-for-the-fences release, the antithesis of playing it safe. — AW
Buy the Vinyl Me, Please edition of this album over here.
Dua Saleh arrived at the top of this madness of a year, delivering the first-quarter surprise no one anticipated until it was served as frigid as the outside world. Thankfully, Nūr offers far more warmth than meets the five-track surface: this EP harbors a pulsating intimacy, a firmly-rooted sense of self, and a smile that turns to a snarl on command. Psymun’s uncanny wizardry allows Dua to lay themself bare and free over sounds that unwind their subtleties like quiet revelations. Don’t mistake Dua for anyone or anything else: Their pen pulls na’an punch, and their people are not to be talked down upon. — MPII
Buy the Vinyl Me, Please edition of this album over here.
Previously known for her synth wizardry in grungey rock outlet Cherry Glazerr, SASAMI’s solo debut is a more melancholic, shoegaze effort that’s the sonic equivalent of well-utilized white space in good design. Written in a period of time following a breakup, Sasami Ashworth’s present lyrics feel like an act of emotional processing and reflect the (sometimes beautiful and meaningful, and sometimes very painful) universal mental static that always comes with it through its musical lens of both restraint and complexity. It’s intimate, gripping, and ever-changing with each new listen. — AS
Bro’s right, you know? Slowthai managed to fit the indictment of his crumbling homeland into a fierce coming-of-age narrative that rides us through Northampton at breakneck speed. It takes a minute to calibrate to Ty’s pace, the way he weaves through a beat in a way that sounds off to an untrained ear. Once one locks in, Ty becomes the conduit for a generation raised on barren surroundings and even emptier promises. He embodies the survivor, the madman, the dealer, the fool. Once the Brexit Bandit takes his rest, he retires to beans on toast and the inevitable moshpit. — MPII
No one (and I mean no one) does it like Solange — particularly in terms of constantly proving her status as an Auteur. On When I Get Home, she’s the ultimate curator and creator, providing a multi-dimensional kaleidoscope through which listeners can gaze at the rich Houston of her childhood. Armed with a militia of the best and most forward in the game, from Panda Bear to Playboi Carti, she’s both calculated and careless, the way one has to wade through a moat of extreme comfort and extreme baggage before entering the doors of the place they call home. — AS
Deem Spencer remains hellbent on being unequivocally New York while completely paving his own pathway through the newfound underground noise. It’s like you can tell he’s Queens as hell, but he’s not bound by the lineage. Pretty face plays something like an updated audiobook of Eternal Sunshine, extending his universe outward toward even murkier territories as he sifts through the end of a relationship. But this album doesn’t work to erase the pain from his memory; Deem would rather excavate these highs and lows for all their marrow, serving us another piece of him. When one dwells in the unexpected, it’s easy to become a caricature of oneself; Deem has yet to fall into that abyss, and shows no signs of treading anywhere close. — MPII
“RIDIN’ ROUN’ TOWN, THEY GON’ FEEL THIS ONE UNHHHHHHHHHHHUHUHUH!” Mr. Okonma keeps getting better, to some’s dismay and my fandom’s confirmation. He continues to extend his range, this time tackling the love-triangle narrative while elevating his production even further out of the stratosphere. The more Summer shows herself, the more IGOR hits! I’ve never heard more Tyler records in rotation by album cycle; it’s no longer a faux pas to run them in public among many different walks of life. Blessed be the growth, and the feelings. — MPII
As a happily married person in my early 30s, I feel like I’ve spent the last 12 years (from the time their debut leaked as Blue CD-R) growing up with Vampire Weekend, who went from erudite 23-year-olds dropping obscure references (2008’s Vampire Weekend), to 26-year-olds having existential quandaries (2010’s Contra), to 29-year-olds wondering if they were ready for whatever is next (2013’s Modern Vampires of the City). This year’s Father of the Bride tackles issues that every 30-something can relate to, including ennui around relationship choices, whether marriage breeds resentment, and whether or not you can really find fulfillment in whatever domesticity looks like for you. That it’s wrapped in a jam-band friendly package, a messy, sometimes bloated album that tries to cover too much ground fits with the album thematically; if you can do whatever you want all the time, how do you make sense of anything? — AW
Whether we consciously recognize it at this point, the phrase “Remind Me Tomorrow” actively inserts itself into the majority of our lives on a day-to-day basis in the form of Apple Software Update. This makes it a fitting title for Sharon Van Etten’s most chilling, ambient, and abrasive album yet — one that grapples with processing the world among the omnipresent specter of burnout. Veering slightly from her history of often softer, Americana-tinged ballads, letting piercing, moody synths take center stage and pop instincts take the reigns, Remind Me Tomorrow is ultimately a gorgeous, surprisingly optimistic attempt to make peace with the inner and outer world. — AS
Buy the indie store exclusive edition of this album right here.
Faye Webster writes songs for those afternoons when you’re lying on your bed, the sunlight poking through semi-closed blinds, wondering if everything you’ve done was a mistake. Melancholic pedal steel buoys songs that drip like syrup, while Webster’s conversational and saccharine croon spins tales about boys, Jamaica, and the little things that drive relationships from infatuation to dissolution. There are few albums more suited toward a quiet day on a porch than this one this year. — AW
Buy the Vinyl Me, Please edition of this album over here.
This record’s haunted me every time I’ve had to recall a passing baseline forecasting a gripping gloom, or the force of woods’ Bigfakelaugh as the world handcrafts another unfortunate event. Hiding Places keeps a diary of all the unfortunate events of a lifetime survived on this burning planet, but woods is more than fortunate to be here. In fact, a blistering humor sizzles underneath the struggle, woods weathering every worldly blow with his grin shining and his mug covered. You’d be hard-pressed to find a rap record as engrossing or harrowing this year… the same way you’d be hard-pressed to forward your mail once you switch buildings when your pocket doesn’t talk. — MPII
Jamila Woods’ stunning sophomore album Legacy! Legacy! features 13 tracks, named after inspirations of hers like Betty Davis, her husband Miles, Muddy Waters, and Eartha Kit, among others. That sentence out of context will make you think that this is maybe an album of hero worship, but Woods’ is after bigger game: She uses the 12 inspirational legends mentioned in the song titles as ways to frame her own life, from how Sonia Sanchez taught her the power of leaving, to how Miles taught her the power of not bending to how people perceive you. But within those songs, she also grapples with legacy, in how the inspirations mentioned here were messy people with a whole barrel of faults. In making an album about her inspirational heroes, Woods made an album about everything, a masterpiece that delivers on all the promise she’s had since she first popped up as a compatriot of Noname and Chance the Rapper. — AW
Zelooperz is an enigmatic rapper and a fire painter. The youthful Bruiser’s been elevating on the quiet, and Dyn-O-Mite finds the man on his loud shit. He still contorts his voice like the most demented character from Adult Swim block. And with Black Noi$e on the boards, he’s the most outlandish and comfortable he’s been on record. The soulful edge may prove jarring at first, but Zelooperz’s agility knows no end, whether the bleakest trap or the most joyful sample. He damn near skated off with one of the best rap records of the year by only banking on himself, in blissful ignorance of whatever the hell else is going on. I’m thankful he’s kept that energy from the jump. — MPII