10. Billie Eilish – WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?
Watching the 17 year old’s dominant performance on Saturday Night Live, one would find it hard to believe that Billie Eilish’s break out LP was released just earlier this year. While she’d found some success before, WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? Rocketed the young singer/songwriter into the stratosphere and sent ripples into the world of pop music.
Hits like “Bad Guy,” and “You Should See Me in a Crown,” continue to flood the airwaves months after their release while clever cuts like “Wish You Were Gay,” show the true lyrical abilities of Billie and her brother Finneas. Above all else, however, it’s Finneas’ production work which sets this album apart. The entire album is drenched in a bass-heavy, nocturnal mix and accented with a smattering of unique vocal and instrumental effects that make for a very intriguing listening experience. This is certainly not the most experimental record of the year, but it’s one of the more daring projects to hit the mainstream of pop music in quite some time.
9. Tyler, the Creator – Igor
After an enjoyable but under appreciated early career, the Odd Future member reinvented himself in 2017 with his ambitious fifth release, Flower Boy. The record saw Tyler portrayed in a much more vulnerable light, coming out as gay and writing heavily personal lyrics which eschewed his trademark vulgarity for more honesty and candor. Igor followed in much the same vein and, while it’s much less groundbreaking, the record also has a much clearer vision than its predecessor.
The album charts some unexplored territory with a unique blend of Motown and neosoul sensibilities and modern, electronic instrumentation. Some synthesizers are even somewhat abrasive, particularly in the latter half of the LP. It’s also perfectly paced, with a gentle blend of danceable hits like “EARFQUAKE” and thoughtful cuts like “ARE WE STILL FRIENDS?” Ultimately, IGOR is a brave blend of styles which takes no prisoners in its forging of a brand new sound.
8. Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars
An undeniable legend of rock music, Springsteen has always been somewhat hit or miss for me. His sound generally rotates between the indulgent style of records like Born in the USA and more somber storytelling of albums like Ghost of Tom Joad. I’ve always much preferred the latter, but Western Stars finds a way to synthesize these two like few previous Springsteen efforts have. “The Wayfarer,” and “There Goes My Miracle,” are some of my favorites, but every track on this album is impressive in its own right.
The ethos of this LP is Bruce’s attempt to recreate the sweeping, stringy sound of 70’s country music, specifically that of Western soundtracks and, in this, he absolutely succeeds. The massive instrumental pallet leaves a surprise waiting around every corner, making the relatively slow pacing much more bearable. Beyond this, Springsteen’s voice is aged perfectly and his lyricism is both moving and clever. Western Stars is yet another masterpiece from The Boss himself.
7. JPEGMAFIA – All My Heroes are Cornballs
JPEGMAFIA has long been a titan in the world of experimental hip-hop. His fantastic Sophomore album Veteran topped many year end lists in 2018 thanks to his unique flow and willingness to explore difficult and controversial topics quite fearlessly. While his first two albums were ambitious in their own right, they certainly couldn’t have prepare fans for All My Heroes are Cornballs.
This record is certainly not for the faint of heart has Peggy shifts rapidly between flows and instrumentals with little concern coherence or even track divisions. Despite the experimental style of nearly every cut, the record is still packed with catchy, genuinely enjoyable moments. The title track, for example, is one of my favorite hip-hop tracks of the year, as is the lead single, “Jesus Forgive Me, I Am a Thot.” Ultimately, JPEGMAFIA manages to keep listeners hooked on listenable hooks and interesting lyrics while remaining unflinchingly experimental on nearly every song.
6. Hozier – Wasteland, Baby!
After his 2014, self-titled debut, Hozier was one of the most beloved artists in the music industry and a personal favorite of mine. Unfortunately, his DIY style and insistence on keeping a small circle of influence meant that this LP was followed by relative silence for half a decade. Finally, Wasteland, Baby! Arrived as a nearly perfect follow up. His lyrical work on “Almost,” and the softness of a track like “Shrike,” were everything fans had hoped for and more, but there were also some interesting changes.
Percussion, which had been mostly ignored on the debut, took a front seat on this album with constantly creative decisions and a tendency toward more natural percussion sounds. This also saw a much harder turn toward political writing on cuts like the opener, “Nina Cried Power.” All told, Wasteland, Baby! Doesn’t quite top the excellence of its predecessor but it is still, without a doubt, fantastic. Hozier has a power in his voice that is almost breathtaking and combined with his instrumental talents and creative arrangements, I’m left very excited for future releases.
5. Todd Snider – Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3
Todd Snider was an early progenitor of the lyrically focused, folk inspired style of country which has overtaken much of the genre today. While he had a handful of strong live albums, he’d always struggled to find his stride in studio releases. That changed this year when he partnered with John Carter Cash, the single most exciting producer in country music today, and dropped this brilliant LP. Tracks like “Workin’ On a Song,” and “Like a Force of Nature,” are certainly highlights, but its just an overall enjoyable listen from front to back.
As I said, John Carter Cash is the best producer in country music today and he lives up to that title on this project as he brings a warm simplicity to every cut. Snider’s vocals certainly won’t knock a listener off their feet, and neither will his instrumentals, but the record is really more than the sum of its parts. The carefree nature of the record bleeds through from the writing to the production and creates and extremely intimate final product. Ultimately, Cash Cabin Sessions feels like a relaxed night with friends, which also happens to sneak in some genuinely brilliant commentary on life from a true troubadour in Todd Snider.
4. Ariana Grande – thank u, next
Ariana Grande has long been considered one of the queens of modern pop music and thank u, next is her best work to date. This is her second release in a six month period and though sweetener was impressive, this record takes her sound to brand new heights. Following a string of personal tragedies, Ariana pens heartfelt lyrics and performs them with show-stopping power. Tracks like “imagine,” and “ghostin,” are simply breathtaking while other cuts like “needy,” and “break up with your girlfriend, im bored,” are just a blast.
The production on the album is certainly impressive, sporting wonderfully placed harmonies, simple but effective beats, and great vocal tuning, all of which is dripping in nocturnal mistique. Easily the highlight, however, is Grande’s fantastic vocal performance across every second of this album. She has an awe-inspiring power which is mixed perfectly with soft, emotional moments and she even reaches up into a few whistle tones from time to time. All in all, thank u, next is just a masterclass in great pop music lead by one of the most impressive vocalists in the world today, and a testament to the creative depth of pop music as a genre.
3. The Highwomen – The Highwomen
The formation of country supergroup, The Highwomen, had been rumored for quite some time before the release of their self-titled debut in the latter half of 2019. Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Maren Morris, and Natalie Hemby formed the group as a female answer to the classic group, The Highwaymen and their sound seems to have be reminiscent of the same era.
Virtually every part of this project works in every way. The chemistry between the four women is phenomenal with airtight harmonies and excellent interplay between vocal lines, Dave Cobb turns in one of his best performances to date on the production end, and the instrumentals are the perfect blend of nostalgia and organic creativity. Its strongest point though, comes in the seriously powerful lyrics, written primarily by the four women with the help of friends like Jason Isbell and Ray LaMontagne. Cuts like the title track and “If She Ever Leaves Me,” are some of the most powerful pieces of writing in the last decade and they elevate this record to a whole new height.
2. Xiu Xiu – Girl With Basket of Fruit
There isn’t one single album on this list and very few albums in my life that have left the kind of lasting impact on me that was left by Xiu Xiu’s Girl With Basket of Fruit. In terms of highlights, if you listen to nothing else on this album, I must suggest that you hear “Mary Turner, Mary Turner,” provided you have the strong stomach to handle its violent subject matter. The track tells the true story of a lynching in the American South with powerful, excruciating honesty.
Simply put, this project is horrifying. Xiu Xiu is an experimental group and this album pushes music to its outer most limits in the most brutal way possible. The sound pallet is gut wrenching, frontman Jamie Stewart’s vocals are often nightmarish, and the record itself seems to be influenced by everything from grindcore and death metal to traditional reggae and samba. To listen to Girl with Basket of Fruit in one sitting is to be bombarded with an unflinching look at existential horror. It may not have the most replay value of any album this year and it certainly wasn’t the most enjoyable experience I’ve had with an album this year, but Xiu Xiu’s hellish masterpiece is the most daring, the most challenging, and above all the most memorable record I’ve heard thus far this year.
- Joy Williams – Front Porch
Defeater – Defeater
Little Simz – GREY Area
meth. – Mother of Red Light
Charli XCX – Charli
1. Tool – Fear Inoculum
When I look back on 2019 a decade from now, I will always remember it, first and foremost, as the year when the 13 year wait finally came to an end. I have tried and failed many times to separate my personal opinions of the band and simply listen to this objectively as a new album, but it will always be the album that brought my long wait to a close. In many ways, however, Fear Inoculum is all the stronger for this connection.
Speaking, first, as objectively as I can, this record is a masterpiece of instrumentation. Adam Jones, in particular, spends the entire 90-minute runtime frantically cramming in one explosive guitar riff after another into each track. And, of course, Danny Carey is one of the best drummers to ever live, which is further exemplified on this record. “Invincible,” and “7empest” are two of the best tracks in all of Tool’s catalog and each of the seven tracks is just infinitely creative and listenable. Maynard’s lyrics are excellent and thoughtful, the production is crisp, and the decision to narrow the album to just seven multi-movement songs was simply brilliant and totally unexpected.
All of that aside, though, Fear Inoculum tops this list because I remember where I was when I got it. I was waiting by my mailbox for more than an hour to meet the FedEx driver and dash to my CD player. I felt like a kid on Christmas opening the brilliant case and pulling out the disc. This album had me excited in a way that few albums ever have or will and it fulfilled every bit of that excitement and more. For that, Fear Inoculum is my favorite album of 2019.