Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Clockwise from top left: Jamila Woods (Photo: Bradley Murray), Little Simz (Photo: Jack Bridgeland), Nick Cave (Photo: Matthew Thorne), and Sam Shepherd, a.k.a. Floating Points (Photo: Dan Medhurts)

The 20 best albums of 2019

Clockwise from top left: Jamila Woods (Photo: Bradley Murray), Little Simz (Photo: Jack Bridgeland), Nick Cave (Photo: Matthew Thorne), and Sam Shepherd, a.k.a. Floating Points (Photo: Dan Medhurts)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

When we paused to reflect on our favorite music at the year’s halfway mark, we already had more than enough releases to compile a hefty final best-of list: When I Get Home, Solange’s hallucinatory homage to Houston; When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, Billie Eilish’s deliciously disruptive debut; Remind Me Tomorrow, Sharon Van Etten’s moody metamorphosis. That 10 of those early picks made the cut below—exactly half of our list—speaks to the continued excellence found in 2019’s second half. The 20 records below are, in our critics’ opinions, the very brightest spots in a brilliant year (browse our ballots here). Taken in full, they represent the myriad issues on our minds, from love and loss to racism and climate change. They also overwhelmingly reflect a tendency to turn to known names, established artists hitting their strides or pursuing new horizons (excepting a couple of rowdy upstarts). If your personal favorite is nowhere to be found, don’t worry—it was definitely number 21. Here are The A.V. Club’s favorite albums of 2019.

Want to listen to our picks? Below, you’ll find a Spotify playlist counting down our top 20, one track at a time.

20. The National, I Am Easy To Find

“I’m just so tired of thinking about everything,” Matt Berninger sings near the top of I Am Easy To Find, echoing anyone who’s spent too much time online these past few years. Fatigue is a recurring theme on the prolific rockers’ eighth album, which is both their most collaborative and most meditative collection of songs. Singers like Gail Ann Dorsey, Sharon Van Etten, and Lisa Hannigan often eclipse Berninger’s drunken drawl, urging him to disconnect from the madness and reflect on what’s being lost in the periphery. So, while songs like “Rylan” and “Where Is Her Head” still pulse with The National’s thrumming energy, it’s hazy, hypnotic cuts like “The Pull Of You” and “Not In Kansas” that better reflect the LP’s thematic knitting of memory, essence, and identity. What have we lost in life’s mad rush? It’s impossible to articulate, but it’s easy to find. [Randall Colburn]

19. Anderson Paak, Ventura

A quick hit of Ventura is all one really needs to remember just what makes Anderson Paak such a standout. After what some classified as a detour with Oxnard, the Californian artist’s fourth studio album drips with so much unadulterated soul and honesty that it feels like a homecoming. Ventura clearly maps Paak’s musical influences, from the essential funk of Parliament Funkadelic to the smooth hip-hop of Outkast (which makes a collaboration with Andre 3000 especially apt). “Make It Better,” his breezy, classically R&B track with Smokey Robinson and likely the album’s most recognizable single, is so emblematic of Paak’s cross-generational appeal. Meanwhile, his ability to straddle the line between the past and the present comes through in bass-thumping grooves like “Twilight” (produced by Pharrell), which melds retro funk and experimental house beats. More importantly, Ventura is a return to what Paak does best: stripped-down, profound sentimentality with a beating, old-school heart. [Shannon Miller]

18. Sharon Van Etten, Remind Me Tomorrow

It may have come out all the way back in January, but there’s no way it could be forgotten: Sharon Van Etten’s Remind Me Tomorrow has towered over 2019. The album explores Etten’s newfound process of composing almost entirely with keyboards, and the results—shimmering, moody pop full of ethereal atmospherics and raw-nerve lyricism—suggest she’s found an artistic sweet spot. The record begins with a brutal confessional that never actually reveals the details of its narrator’s near-death experience, the better to conjure all manner of potential thoughts in the listener, as though preparing them mentally for the emotional wounds (and moments of quiet transcendence) that follow. Buffeted by her pulsing rhythms, melancholy melodies, and electronic flourishes ranging from funereal to dirty and distorted, Remind Me Tomorrow is a triumph of ambiguous conclusions, its songs rarely ending on a definitive emotion. It’s a ferocious beauty she finds in loss and love alike. [Alex McLevy]

17. Floating Points, Crush

The best electronic dance music is balanced on a threshold between repetition and variation. On Crush, the long-awaited follow-up to Elaenia, British producer Sam Shepherd (a.k.a. Floating Points) doesn’t just find that sweet spot; he signs an album-length lease and moves in his intricately hacked Buchla-and-Roland system. You need an advanced degree in analog synthesis (or at least a Resident Advisor byline) to fully grasp how the music works, but only a central nervous system is required to appreciate its rich coloration and evolving rhythms. Whether his tracks are cut for the nightclub (“LesAlpx”) or the orchestra pit (“Falaise,” a marvel of electro-acoustic composition), Shepherd seamlessly blends the immediacy of U.K. dance music with the harmonic complexity of classical music, as if Burial and Debussy fell into the teleporter that turned Jeff Goldblum into a fly. But Shepherd is more spider, spinning a patch-cable web that can capture the most sensitive vibrations, from the dance floor or the music gods. [Brian Howe]

16. Dave, Psychodrama

“You ever fall ’sleep ’cause you don’t wanna be awake? / In a way, you’re tired of the reality you face?” raps Dave (born David Orobosa Omoregie) on the opening track of his stunning debut LP, Psychodrama. These moments of honest introspection coat the entire record as the 21-year-old emcee invites listeners on an hour-long journey into his psyche, using the narrative conceit of a cathartic therapy session. Atop a slew of moody piano beats, the Streatham rapper opens up about the issues he’s been dealing with, like suicidal thoughts, parental neglect, domestic abuse, and the Black British experience. He shows fearlessness and emotional maturity on the hardline “Screwface Capital,” but still finds time to be unabashedly playful on the low-key bop “Location.” On the crushing closer, “Drama,” Dave speaks to his incarcerated older brother (“Never had a father and I needed you to be the figure”) who inspired the idea for the album. It’s amazing to think Psychodrama, a record this unflinching yet touchingly vulnerable, is just the beginning for Dave. [Baraka Kaseko]

15. Jenny Lewis, On The Line

Jenny Lewis has always been a stickler for quality control when it comes to her music, meaning she only releases albums when she’s satisfied with how they sound. The deeply affecting On The Line, however, took a few years to unfold due to life getting in the way; specifically, Lewis was navigating the death of her once-estranged mother and the dissolution of her decade-plus relationship with Johnathan Rice. These traumas naturally permeate the album’s lyrics, albeit in oblique ways—for example, standout “Dogwood” contrasts the fights of a fracturing relationship with spring’s new blooms. Musically, On The Line carries on the tradition of manicured ’70s pop-rock, as it’s buoyed by luxurious tempos, painstaking arrangements, and meditative piano. However, Lewis herself takes a leap forward as a performer, dabbling in a crooning falsetto and sophisticated belting when the mood strikes. [Annie Zaleski]

14. Little Simz, Grey Area

Little Simz says Grey Area was made through a fog of uncertainty, specifically the swirl of confusion that is navigating your 20s. It’s all the more impressive, then, that this third LP by the North London rapper would be her most cohesive effort to date. On Grey Area, Simz finds a way to showcase her sonic range and restlessness without ever going adrift; to the contrary, she is completely at home in every one of these vibrant productions by Inflo, which call up trip-hop, jazz, rock, R&B, and more. Simz is at her absolute sharpest as a lyricist here, too, hitting double and triple time as she speaks her mind on everything from, well, speaking her mind (“Offence”) to coming of age in U.K. rap (“101 FM”). But Grey Area feels much bigger than any regional qualifier; it’s a 33-minute flex from one of hip-hop’s most skilled practitioners—on either side of the pond. [Kelsey J. Waite]

13. Angel Olsen, All Mirrors

Throughout her catalog, Angel Olsen has consistently vented about romantic partners at once physically present and emotionally distant. On All Mirrors, she transcends her dispiriting relationship history and decides she just might fare best on her own. The LP opens with a bitter argument (“Lark”) and later explores the comfort of being alone (“Tonight”) before closing with the realization that solitude and love aren’t mutually exclusive desires (“Chance”). Each of these songs uses a 14-person orchestra—strings are entirely new to Olsen’s music, and wow, does she find raw power in them—to impart her signature high-stakes lovelorn drama, whether angrily in the first case, diminutively and eerily in the second, or borderline-cinematically in the third. When she says “I like the life that I lead” during “Tonight,” it’s what follows that speaks most strongly to All Mirrors’ emancipatory through-line: “Without you.” [Max Freedman]

12. Barker, Utility

In an interview earlier this year, veteran DJ Sam Barker described the ubiquitous 4/4 kick drum of electronic music as a “cognitive bias”—a blunt instrument designed to deliver to audiences on a base, almost Freudian level. “I’ve definitely felt like a nail being pounded into the dance floor before,” he told CDM. So on his debut solo LP, Barker sheds the kicks and lets the music float up, up, up. On tracks like “Experience Machines” and “Models Of Wellbeing,” the raw materials of trance music are left to grow according to their own dictates, forming strange biological cultures that sprawl out into oblong track lengths, sometimes two minutes and sometimes nine. The song titles wink at a sort of generalized utopian wellness, but there’s nothing ironic about the music, which smears dance’s most gorgeous tendencies into a single sinuous wash of sound. Imagine an algorithmic productivity playlist becoming sentient, inhabiting a body, walking into your home, and cooking you dinner. It’ll taste like Utility. [Clayton Purdom]

11. Brittany Howard, Jaime

You would think that taking a sabbatical from the Grammy-winning band that you’ve worked with for a decade would lead to a bit of an identity crisis. The opposite can be said for Brittany Howard and her transformative solo debut, Jaime: Temporarily stepping away from Alabama Shakes gave her the room to firmly assert who she is as an artist and an individual. Melodically wading through small-town racism, religion, love, sexuality, and politics, Howard pieces together some of her private, seemingly formative moments. Tracks like “Short And Sweet” showcase a vulnerability that, as a listener, feel almost unearned on our part. What did we do to earn such intimacy, such raw honesty? But that’s the magic that lies in Jaime: It invites us to witness the joy and pain behind the throaty growl we’ve come to admire over the years, making Howard’s debut both a long-gestating triumph and a reintroduction. [Shannon Miller]

10. Cate Le Bon, Reward

Anyone looking to figure out exactly what happened to Cate Le Bon after her joyously ramshackle 2016 album, Crab Day, should turn around now. Sure, follow-up Reward could possibly be a breakup album, but Le Bon’s lyrics detail little more than mere fragments of heartbreak. Instead, she imparts clarity through her crystalline arrangements, which strike with vigor and surprise coming from a longtime juggernaut of forked art-pop. “You Don’t Love Me” begins with its titular lyric and then digresses into images of dead flowers and unwanted cake, the song’s lucidity existing entirely in Le Bon’s pristine enunciation and groaning guitars. Career highlight “Daylight Matters” centers on the lyric “I love you but you’re not here / I love you but you’re gone,” but even funereal saxophones and reverberant pianos can’t perfectly outline the nature of Le Bon’s grief. The reward isn’t in knowing what happened—it’s in experiencing how Le Bon feels. [Max Freedman]

9. Billie Eilish, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? 

At this point, Billie Eilish doesn’t need to introduce herself, let alone prove her artistry. Even ignoring the blitz of awards and nominations (she set the record for youngest artist ever nominated in all major Grammy categories the same year) and the massive album sales, she was ubiquitous in 2019. Was there a more distinctive and deservedly omnipresent pop song this year than “Bad Guy,” pulsing with her signature whisper-purr vocal style and that snarkily triumphant “Duh” breakdown? Luckily, it was no fluke—When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? fairly seethes with warped, minimalist brio: From the opening announcement of her Invisalign removal, through the distorted balladry of “Xanny,” to the closing one-two gut punch of torch song “I Love You” and affected longing of “Goodbye,” it’s a complete sonic journey of exciting postmodern pop. [Alex McLevy]

8. Lana Del Rey, Norman Fucking Rockwell

Lana Del Rey’s sixth album sounds like the culmination of a decade spent exploring and exploding the California dream. There’s the cover art collaging a yachting adventure as fires engulf the coastland, an homage to Long Beach bro faves Sublime, and even the title itself. The songs mostly pass by in a dreamy haze accented by soft downtempo drums worthy of Thievery Corporation, and the themes focus on the kind of alcoholic romances depicted in Hollywood neo-noir films. It would all seem insufferably banal if not for the deliriously imaginative songwriter who pens these velvety tributes to sex and washed-out landscapes. She splatters her lyrics with expletives and punctuates them with canny phrases that thread between cliché and satire. Her mythmaking reaches a zenith on “Venice Bitch,” a nine-and-a-half masterwork that sounds as vivid an encapsulation of Los Angeles pop life as has ever been made. [Mosi Reeves]

7. Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, Ghosteen

Ghosteen is the first new set of songs written by Nick Cave since the death of Cave’s son, Arthur, in 2015, so the crushing weight of this 68-minute double album is to be expected. But while Ghosteen is undoubtedly devastating, it’s also transcendent, as Cave passes through the valley of the shadow and emerges transformed. This journey is lyrical, expressing the profound nature of both love and loss with a blend of forthright emotion and biblical parable. But it’s also musical, moving from four-minute hymns infused with pale sunlight into more expansive compositions as Ghosteen descends into the darkness, backed by ambient synthesizers and string arrangements—guitar and drums are both almost entirely absent—from Cave’s band the Bad Seeds. By the time we reach 14-minute closer “Hollywood,” Cave’s grief has left both him and the listener emotionally drained and spiritually cleansed, too exhausted to resist the healing that’s been patiently waiting outside our doors. [Katie Rife]

6. Solange, When I Get Home

Hold up, did Solange see imaginary things or imagine that she saw things? Or did she see some things and imagine others, independently? At the outset of When I Get Home, as she nudges open-ended statements around a soft collision of jazz and early electronic music, it’s impossible to pin down. The artful ambiguity is worthy of a Gertrude Stein poem or a David Lang libretto, and it persists throughout When I Get Home, which is as oblique as A Seat At The Table was direct. In a way, it’s as simple as a tribute to her birthplace, but this is some kind of spectral Houston of the mind. Solange pulls apart phrases until they double and treble with free-floating meanings, dispersed through a maze of astral jazz at a Southern pace. The famous guests don’t even start showing up until halfway through, once Solange has patiently led us to the deep, still center of these enigmatic waters, somewhere far from home. [Brian Howe]

5. Weyes Blood, Titanic Rising

Laurel Canyon is a different place now than it was in the ’60s, and it’s only appropriate that the leafy Los Angeles enclave’s signature sound keep up with the times as well. Weyes Blood, a.k.a. L.A. singer-songwriter Natalie Mering, accomplishes this and then some on her fourth album, Titanic Rising. Hitting dreamy musical touchstones from gauzy 4AD dream pop to smooth yacht rock, Titanic Rising takes Maring’s already futuristic folk-rock sound to lush, cinematic new heights, its eyes turned toward the “big wide open galaxy” Mering fantasizes about on lead single “Andromeda.” That’s true even when its heart is full of the bitter melancholy Mering sings about on “Something To Believe,” where she laments: “I gave all I had for a time… Then by some strange design, I got a case of the empties.” Contrast this digital-age ennui with the joyous analog instrumentation on the stirring “Everyday,” or the effervescent escapism of “Movies,” swinging from despair to hope and back again for a listening experience that’s as captivating and immersive as cinema. [Katie Rife]

4. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib, Bandana

The underground teems with grizzly street vocalists rhyming about the vagaries of criminal activity over dusty soul loops. But Freddie Gibbs and Madlib infrequent pairings remain the watermark for this rapidly overpopulated subculture. Bandana switches ably between crackling Dolemite-style shots of humor—check the Dap “Sugar” Willie routine that concludes album standout “Palmolive”—and languid Blaxploitation jones that serve as fuel for Gangsta Gibbs’ riffs on dope slanging, watching the news with disgust (“We got a reality star in the goddamn office, quite like the Reagan days”), and aspiring toward a better life as a sometimes-celebrated, often-underrated musician. “Diamonds in my chain, yes I slang, but I’m still a slave,” he raps on “Crime Pays.” There are occasional tonal shifts: Madlib attempts a trap beat full of jutting keyboard sounds on “Half Manne Half Cocaine,” and it doesn’t sound as bad as you might imagine. But this is mostly for the fans who know what to expect from two of the best, and they get more than their money’s worth. [Mosi Reeves]

3. Jamila Woods, Legacy! Legacy!

It’s easy to get caught up on the conceptual hook of Legacy! Legacy!—13 songs, each named after a prominent artist of color, with Woods’ remarkable lyrics cutting between memoir, biography, and critical reassessment like a bird through a library. But all that history elides how alive this project is. On her second album, Woods transmutes each influence into audaciously pleasurable R&B, from the ’90s boom-bap of “Frida” to the moonlit reverie of “Basquiat.” She dabbles in electro on “Octavia,” minimalist Afrofuturism on “Sun Ra,” soaring sing-along pop on “Betty.” What holds it all together isn’t the conceit but Woods’ voice, cool and emotive, tethering past and present through sheer strength of phrasing. In these historical figures she finds not only inspiration but present-tense tension; it is in the space between the two, after all, that a legacy is created. [Clayton Purdom]

2. Jenny Hval, The Practice Of Love 

It takes a profoundly skilled artist to remake the familiar into something wholly fresh and revelatory. Jenny Hval has managed it with breathtaking ease on seventh LP The Practice Of Love, a collage-like dissertation on music’s favorite four-letter word. Hval repurposes the stuttering synths of “trashy ’90s trance music” for a euphoric electro-pop sound all her own, while finding sensual, modern musings on art, desire, and womanhood in well-trod imagery like Alice down the rabbit hole (“High Alice”). The Practice Of Love is an immaculate marriage of body and mind: It is primal and physical, building to hypnotic heights, and it is heady and layered, rich with intertextual discourse. (Where else are you going to find a meta dance-floor cut like “Six Red Cannas,” about art communicating through time, and conjuring the spirit of Georgia O’Keeffe?) The Practice Of Love is unlike anything we’ve heard from Hval, an exhilarating expansion of voice and vision. [Kelsey J. Waite]

1. FKA Twigs, Magdalene

There was no more accomplished and subversive an album in 2019 than Magdalene, FKA Twigs’ follow-up to her moody, ingenious debut, LP1. In crafting her wonderfully succinct yet profound new LP, the avant-pop artist and enviable polymath lived up to certain expectations—that women, particularly young women, should offer up their pain and flaws for public consumption and criticism—while blowing them up. And Twigs was really working through some shit here: the end of her engagement to Robert Pattinson; anxiety over being subjected to racism and outsize scrutiny due to that relationship; considerable physical pain caused by fibroids; and the need to, as an ever-evolving artist, turn that pain into art. The layered productions of “Thousand Eyes” and “Cellophane” chronicle the beginning of the end, and the end of a love in which even Twigs admits she lost herself. But Magdalene is never quite rueful, even as the multi-hyphenate artist revisits the heights of infatuation on “Holy Terrain” with an assist from Future. Instead of figuratively tearing up photos of happy times, Twigs channels her pain to create in Magdelene something even more beautiful than the relationship that inspired it. [Danette Chavez]