The 50 Best Albums of 2019

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The 50 Best Albums of 2019

Cue the panic. It’s not only the end of another year, but it’s also the end of another decade, and there’s plenty of cause for a freakout. There’s the stress of the holidays, the stress of time passing too quickly, the continuous stress of climate change and our withering Earth, and let’s not forget the stress of this seemingly never-ending political hell-scape we’ve been suffering through for more than three years. 2019 was a weird culmination of those stressors, but it was also, maybe, a bellwether for change. There’s the hope of 2020, when we’ll elect new public officials. There’s the hope of a new start, even if it’s just because of a human-made time construct called “decades.” There’s Baby Yoda. And there’s also a whole lot of incredible music coming at us all the time, which is certainly another reason to remain optimistic about humanity. We try our best to cover the albums worth listening to throughout the year, a task that can feel especially daunting when morale is down and we’re looking to artists for answers. Luckily, there’s plenty to choose from, so much so that our list of the 50 best albums of 2019 could easily be for 100. In fact, when voting on the year’s best, Paste staffers casted votes for more than 280 albums. Here, we’ve listed the 50 albums with the most votes, a list that doesn’t serve genre or economics or any other overarching factor. It’s just the music we loved this year. We hope you love it too.

Listen to our Best Albums of 2019 playlist on Spotify right here.

iameasytofind.jpg 50. The National: I Am Easy To Find
For all intents and purposes, Matt Berninger is a New Yorker. He’s been there long enough to write about the city with authority. So when he sings “You were never much of a New Yorker / It wasn’t in your eyes,” alongside This Is The Kit’s Kate Stables on the title track of The National’s new album, I Am Easy to Find, he knows what he’s talking about. But for the first time in quite a while, Berninger went back to his hometown of Cincinnati on “Not in Kansas,” I Am Easy to Find’s keystone track. Instead of writing about his negative memories of the place (“I never married but Ohio don’t remember me” he sang on 2010’s “Bloodbuzz Ohio”), he experienced firsthand how both he and the Midwest had changed, particularly since the election of Donald Trump, launching into a full and abstract stream of consciousness about his journey home. From the plucky and frenzied guitars on lead single “You Had Your Soul With You” to the pulsating percussion of fan-favorite “Rylan” to the dazzling orchestral strings on album closer “Light Years” (another track that could be argued as one of The National’s best to date), I Am Easy to Find doesn’t radically change the formula they developed over the past couple of releases, but it nearly perfects it, resulting in a record as elegant as the suits Berninger routinely wears onstage. —Steven Edelstone

currycover.jpg 49. Denzel Curry: ZUU
With no context for the South Florida that Denzel Curry synopsizes and crystallizes over the course of ZUU, his fourth and best album, it may be difficult to parse the neck-deep morass of references and samples—detailing hyper-local haunts and Miami radio stations and communal pop culture heroes (Trick Daddy) and personal pop culture tragedies (XXXTENTACION) and whatever else—that makes Curry stump so hard for where he’s from. He’s always been adept at pulling from a wealth of influences, last year’s Ta13oo an especially labored-over attempt at being taken seriously, but only lately has he seemed comfortable in his skin, rapping about loving his supportive parents and missing his best friend and brother and how no one taking him seriously has just been the response to everything he’s done, an endless cycle of doubt he’s endured since “way before Nostalgic,” his first solo tape. Backed by Australian production duo FnZ, who’ve been with Curry since 2016’s Imperial, ZUU is both the sound of Curry finding his, and the sound of Curry’s main collaborators finally realizing what that means. First single “RICKY” admits Curry’s had an identity crisis in the past—“That was it, we was lit, y’all wasn’t even shit yet / We was Three 6, Wu-Tang, mixed with Dipset”—over FnZ’s stippling, phased-out steel drums, simultaneously laid back and flipped out. “CAROLMART” undoubtedly helps Ice Billion Berg with some debt, all low-end muck spiced up with a Trina sample, sitting right up against the relentless “SHAKE 88,” a minor masterpiece of involuntary, transcendent movement, the kind of song that generates so much inertia it’s a wonder that all of South Florida hasn’t vibrated itself free of the mainland. Even “Speedboat,” produced by Rahj—known mostly for working with DJ Khaled—is at the mercy of FnZ’s oversight, as mournful as it is manic as it is insanely melodic, Curry acting the paranoiac over a melancholic piano line: “Have your money up before you go to war / Put the mask on like a luchador / My dawg didn’t make it to 21, so I gotta make it past 24.” (He really misses XXXTENTACION, you see.) Intimate but open, angry and also easy-going, breezy but weighed with the responsibility of representing a lot of people, ZUU takes all the overworked contradictions that made Curry’s past albums so compelling and makes them work for him, effortlessly. —Dom Sinacola

Wand_newmain.jpg 48. Wand: Laughing Matter
Wand’s music lets the soul wander before kindly accompanying it back home, and their fifth full-length Laughing Matter is another worthy side-by-side trot. Laughing Matter follows the Los Angeles rock outfit’s sky-high 2017 LP Plum and shapeshifting 2018 EP Perfume. While early releases from these Drag City mainstays were characterized by sludgy neo-garage and fuzzy stoner psych, their latest offerings conjure far too much slippery wonder to warrant concise categorization. Wand take risks and thrive on contradiction—their heady guitar embellishments keep you on your toes, and their surreal imagery simultaneously makes you feel insignificant and a pivotal part of the cosmos. Laughing Matter is intoxicating for a number of reasons. Their often opaque lyrics are a strangely touching and immersive experience, and lead vocalist Cory Hanson delivers them with a benevolence that will allow you to trust fall into his snug, fluttering coo. Wand’s affection for nature is evident, and there’s both a foreboding sense that something is slipping from grasp and a blissful acceptance of the changing of the seasons. Laughing Matter’s improvisational jams, winding outros and emotionally crushing melodies result in perhaps their most realized record yet. —Lizzie Manno

pup-morbid.jpg 47. PUP: Morbid Stuff
Toronto’s PUP unleashed their third album, Morbid Stuff, on their own Little Dipper label, and it contains some of their loftiest melodic payoffs yet. The album was produced, recorded and mixed by Dave Schiffman (Weezer, The Mars Volta), and it makes for their most pristine recording to date. Morbid Stuff is at the crossroads of enlivening joy and debilitating self-hatred. Songs like “Kids” and “Free at Last” overflow with angsty lyrics of anxiety, heartbreak and fierce self-put-downs, but their reassuring pop-punk riffs and refrains will scoop you up and bring you back to your senses. The collision of utter bleakness and youthful exuberance that characterizes this record also manifests itself on the album cover—four people are playing musical chairs with knives in hand, party hats and blindfolds. The boldest cut is the post-hardcore rager “Full Blown Meltdown,” which sounds like just that. Stefan Babcock sounds like he’s foaming at the mouth when he sings, “I’m still a loser and always will be / So why change now?” The album tracks Babcock’s struggle with depression, and though there are many forlorn moments on this LP, PUP channel their pain into a catchy punk album that’s about as fun as any record you’ll hear on this list. —Lizzie Manno

hotgirltheeheat.png 46. Megan Thee Stallion: Fever
Houston rapper Megan Thee Stallion is an icon in the making, a force majeure in the lineage of Houston rap. Fever, her first official mixtape, maintains the high-octane rap of her earlier work, all delivered with a sneer and a smile. Don’t let the appropriation of “hot girl summer” by the (largely-white) powers that be overshadow her relentless, braggadocio-filled raps, aided by Houston’s finest: Hot Girl Meg lays out her M.O. on the Juicy J-produced album highlight “Pimpin”: I could never ever let a n—- fuck me out my bread.” She knows she’s good, she’s unsympathetic to the guys who are intimidated, threatened and broke, and she makes that evident throughout Fever. Even at her most party-ready, like on the delightful DaBaby double-feature “Cash Shit,” the hot girl anthem “Shake That,” or “Best You Ever Had,” a crossover track in waiting, she makes her point and underlines it: Either keep up, or get out of the way. —Joshua Bote

45. Sleater-Kinney: The Center Won’t Hold
There is no room for nostalgia in Sleater-Kinney’s reunion. The band’s excellent 2015 reentry point, No Cities to Love, was not exactly a rote run-through of past glories. And the trio (now duo) did not spend 2017 going around playing Dig Me Out on some obligatory 20th anniversary run. It barely even feels like a reunion at this point—how has this band not always been here, making its bass-resistant racket and soundtracking our slide into right-wing authoritarianism? Like 2005’s The Woods, The Center Won’t Hold finds Sleater-Kinney bringing in a big name producer to jolt their routines and play more than a symbolic role in the record-making process. Except this time, the friendly intruder is art-rock maestro St. Vincent, not Dave Fridmann. And unlike The Woods, which was largely tracked live—all the better to reimagine the band’s sound as a ferocious Zeppelin-esque roar—Center finds Sleater-Kinney more inclined than ever to utilize the studio as an instrument. At its best, The Center Won’t Hold is an urgent and deliriously impolite record about powering through exhaustion, despair and the ambient dread any feminist feels pretty much constantly in 2019. Full of transformation and deserved indignation, The Center Won’t Hold is the first Sleater-Kinney album since the rest of the world started to catch up. —Zach Schonfeld

Thumbnail image for osoosomain.jpg 44. Oso Oso: basking in the glow
Why did Jade Lilitri, the Long Island, New Yorker behind one-man wonder-band Oso Oso, play and sing the chorus of his song “dig” only once during its four-and-a-half-minute running time? To understand the question, you have to appreciate the magnificence of that chorus. It comes in the middle of “dig,” bookended on the front end by a couple minutes of enjoyable pop-rock that bumps along like Pinback and on the back end by a coda that crescendos nicely, but ultimately feels unnecessary. In between is 34 glorious seconds in which the song opens up and turns its face toward the sun, bringing together peach-fuzz distortion, a reliable chord progression, a blanket of cymbals and Lilitri’s soaring vocals. “I’m still reeling from the mess I made,” he sings, as if rediscovering reality after two verses of cautious optimism. The combination of contrasting sounds and catchy melody is the stuff goosebumps are made of. Why Lilitri didn’t use such a glorious chunk of music elsewhere in the song—say, after the first verse or repeated a couple times at the end—is anyone’s guess. But it only takes a few listens to Oso Oso’s new album, basking in the glow, to recognize that questioning the guy’s songwriting decisions is an exercise in diminishing returns. He is, it seems, incapable of writing a bad tune, at least at this point in his career. —Ben Salmon

43. Joan Shelley: Like The River Loves The Sea
Joan Shelley was kind enough to include a thesis statement with her new album Like The River Loves The Sea. It’s the first track, “Haven,” and its only verse goes like this: “A haven woven with warm colors / A woolen place to rest your head / And a light comes in / Forms and binds you / To mold and carry you this long way to go.” Shelley isn’t just the singer of the song. She is that light. This was already established back in 2017 by Paste’s review of the Louisville-based folk-singer’s previous (self-titled) full-length: “Shelley’s light is absolutely irrepressible.” In fact, it glows even brighter on Like The River Loves The Sea, her sixth LP. Where Joan Shelley and 2015’s Over And Even occasionally dimmed Shelley’s songs with shadowy production or dusky arrangements, the new album’s dozen tracks feel more confident and out in the open. Take, for example, “Coming Down For You,” a spirited song of devotion driven by a repeated guitar riff that seems to flicker like a flame in a steady breeze, featuring the world-class backing vocal work of Bonnie “Prince” Billy, aka Shelley’s fellow Louisvillian, Will Oldham. He shows up later, too, on “The Fading,” a delightfully lilting ode to the natural world: Springtime light, a muddy river, winding vines and rising seas dot the track, which is not only the best on the album, it’s also a centerpiece of sorts. “Oh Kentucky stays on my mind / It’s sweet to be five years behind,” Shelley sings, poetically capturing the alluring, unhurried pace of life in her home state. —Ben Salmon

42. Charli XCX: Charli
Although Charli is described as British pop auteur Charli XCX’s third studio album, it’s really her seventh album-length project. Charli has released four mixtapes in addition to her studio albums True Romance (2013) and Sucker (2014), so to call Charli merely her third studio album isn’t just deceiving—it ignores the very existence of the quietly revolutionary 2017 “mixtape,” Pop 2. The guest-stuffed, career-peak Pop 2 was a record in all but name. It presented Charli as a savant of futuristic synths, fanged digital programming, actually good AutoTune, and bionic bangers and ballads. Charli executive produced Pop 2 alongside PC Music’s A.G. Cook, who helped her fully access the cyborg aesthetic she’d been crawling towards for years. “We wanted it to feel like a complete restart,” Cook told The FADER upon Pop 2’s release. If Pop 2 was indeed a restart, then Charli is the thrilling next step on the journey. Across 15 songs and 50 minutes, Charli consistently matches the addictive, robotic bombast of Pop 2. Charli is a more-than-worthy follow-up to arguably the decade’s best pop release. —Max Freedman

41. Jessica Pratt: Quiet Signs
The worst assumption you can make going into Jessica Pratt’s Quiet Signs is that there won’t be much there, that minimalism isn’t for you. Knowing the folk singer/songwriter’s aversion to bells and whistles (and taking into consideration the album’s telling title), I myself feared a hollowness, but I was delighted to find the singer/songwriter somehow brings a maximalist energy to a record so subdued you’ll refrain from speaking during its quivering 27 minutes, for fear of disturbing the peace. Quiet Signs is a convincing argument for simplicity. Pratt has a very, very restrained way of supplying strength and relief during our hectic moment. Her songs are so quiet they almost don’t even exist, but maybe that’s how we need to feel for just a moment—like we’re just air. These tracks aren’t immediately satisfactory. They emit tranquility only if you’re willing to devote your full attention—and perhaps repeated listens. In under 30 minutes and in just nine songs, Pratt produces a warm, bewitching alternate dimension—but not the kind you fall into in a nightmare or thriller. The universe she’s fashioned for herself is more paradisal. And if you take a moment to find a quiet space and just sit with this record’s hollow parts, embracing them for the condensed elements they are, you might just find your own slice of heaven. —Ellen Johnson

helado_cover.jpg 40. Helado Negro: This Is How You Smile
Already a prolific force as Helado Negro, Roberto Carlos Lange wrote the best record of his career in This Is How You Smile. Throughout his discography, the Florida-born son of Ecuadorian immigrants has looked to make sense of the Latinx experience in America. What he does with Smile, the sixth Helado Negro LP, is open up the range of his songwriting to show how universal the truths he extols truly are. Tracks like “Fantasma Vaga” and “Todo Lo Que Me Falta”—love songs in Spanish—just feel tender and relatable, no matter what your cultural lexicon is. And the endearing pop atmosphere of “Running” brings opposite poles together through music, to show that no matter what the shade of our skin is, we all ride the same emotional waves through this world. —Adrian Spinelli

39. Hand Habits: placeholder
placeholder wishes people were on the same wavelength, but unfortunately, it’s just never that simple. Hand Habits’ second LP sees Meg Duffy illustrating the messiness of relationships—paralyzing emotions, romanticized memories, questions of forgiveness and everything in between. After their self-produced and self-recorded debut album Wildly Idle (Humble Before The Void), the singer/songwriter and former Kevin Morby guitarist brought their second album to a studio with a group of collaborators—giving placeholder more sonic weight. The biggest weight bearers are Duffy’s sweet harmonies and lyrical meditations on queer relationships and the deep human complexities that can make or break any type of relationship. placeholder fills the emotional gaps that so many other relationship records leave untouched. Meg Duffy’s humble, comforting vocals will help cushion the blow that will inevitably come with any relationship, and their poetic aptitude results in a record that’s just as therapeutic and affecting on the written page as it is in sung form. —Lizzie Manno

38. Bedouine: Bird Songs of a Killjoy
Isolation can be both enjoyable and insufferable. Azniv Korkejian (aka Bedouine) explores both kinds of confinement in these Bird Songs, first the frustrating loneliness of “two people never getting together” on swirling album opener “Under the Night,” then the startling freedom of separation on “One More Time,” where she basks “on an island with no one else around.” On “Bird,” she warns “that it’s you against the rain” and dotes on some sweet, flightless creature before leaving it alone to “sing.” Early in the record she mournfully quips, “You love how much I love you / when you’re gone.” All these verses point to a complicated, ever-changing relationship with space and separation. While many of these songs are concerned with flying solo, Korkejian is still an expert on “Matters of the Heart,” a sly and jazzy tune that uplifts side B of this record. When she sings, “Call me like a phone / Just ring to me, baby” Korkejian sounds like the same woman who said, “I like watching people make out to my songs so I encourage consensual… anything, really,” at a Bedouine show earlier this year. She who values alone time can still yearn for company. I treasure both, and I would like to curl up inside Bird Songs of a Killjoy and live there forever. —Ellen Johnson

37. Caroline Polachek: Pang
A handful of pop songs in the past decade—think “Teenage Dream” or “Run Away With Me”—bottle the lightning feeling of whirlwind love perfectly, the sound of a saxophone horn or a vocal swell sublimating the yearning of a new romance. Pang, Caroline Polachek’s first album under her own name, stretches out that feeling, eking out the intricacies of feeling simultaneously liberated and trapped by the feeling of being overwhelmed by someone else. It’s a big task, but Polachek might be the ideal candidate, an indie darling who shaped her last band Chairlift’s twee-pop origins into big-budget, emotional cinema to brilliant effect. The most sublime moments on Pang match the all-cylinders feeling of falling into new love, each neuron so stimulated by the feeling that they threaten to overload and collapse entirely. The divine title track is, at once, twee and lustful, as if The Postal Service were tasked with making a quiet-storm track—the base feeling of unexplored love compounded with each touch of the skin. By the end of Pang, Polachek has fully opened up to the headrush of new love—both in the chance that it could devastate, and the very real possibility that it could result in something transcendent. “The parachute, I’ve got to trust it now,” she sighs on album closer “Parachute,” her voice weightless, at ease. It’s a relief, for her—and for us. —Joshua Bote

36. Charly Bliss: Young Enough
Recording an excellent debut album is mostly a blessing, of course. But there’s some curse involved, too, in that you have to figure out how to follow it up. That’s not easy to do. Usually, it means refusing to stagnate, lest you be labeled a one-trick pony. So you must try to record a set of songs that showcase some artistic growth and aesthetic ambition, but at the same time, you don’t want to stray too far from what worked so well the first time out. On their second album Young Enough, Charly Bliss navigates these various pressures and pitfalls without overthinking them. The hotly tipped New York City combo broke through nationally in 2017 on the strength of its debut album Guppy, a perfect—yeah, I said it—10-track blast of sweetly serrated pop-rock supercharged with punky energy and plentiful hooks. Two years later, Young Enough introduces new moods and textures without tamping down the band’s irrepressible likeability. There is unquestionably a centerpiece song on Young Enough, and that’s the title track, which clocks in at 5 minutes and 20 seconds long—an epic by this band’s standards. It’s time well-spent: slow-burning, dynamic, emotionally resonant and representative of Charly Bliss in 2019. Here, you can hear how the synthetic sounds better contextualize Hendricks’ desperate words by drawing out their meaning and feeling rather than running roughshod over them like Guppy’s rollicking arrangements. In doing so, they also open up a promising path forward for the band. That sophomore album challenge? Charly Bliss nailed it. —Ben Salmon

cornballzcover.jpg 35. JPEGMAFIA: All My Heroes Are Cornballs
JPEGMAFIA dropped one of the year’s most off-kilter and fun rap albums of the year out of the blue in September. On the first listen, it feels a bit discombobulated, even disconnected. But upon repeated listens, the pieces start to come together, miraculously so. The Baltimore rapper’s signature wild production and sound effects, which span voiceovers, static and warps, mesh with his intense delivery to a satisfying end. All My Heroes Are Cornballs toggles between ambience and hi-fi insanity. Highlights include the riotous album opener “Jesus Forgive Me, I Am A Thot,” in which JPEGMAFIA plays with AutoTune and shouts out David Byrne, the low-key “Free The Frail,” which hosts Canadian musician Helena Deland for the final chorus and outro, and the minute-long “BasicBitchTearGas,” which features a smooth sample of TLC’s “No Scrubs.” If it wasn’t already apparent, this album proves JPEGMAFIA’s musical knowledge and influences are broad. All My Heroes is a glitchy, neon-tinted journey. —Ellen Johnson

34. Billie Eilish: WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?
Billie Eilish’s career to this point has been one that could only have happened now. She has only ever made music in the streaming age, where she’s translated copious plays into press hype, rather than the other way around. But her music, songs that emphatically encapsulate teenage angst for an existential era, is very much of this period as well. So perhaps, when we eventually look back on the music of this era a few years from now, there will likely be no singular album that absolutely nails the sound of 2019 quite like Billie Eilish’s debut record, WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?, for better or worse. She delivers the record that her generation has been waiting for, one with loads of in-jokes and language (the album literally begins with a joke about pulling out her Invisalign, while “all the good girls go to hell” ends with a joke about “snowflakes”). After all, this album isn’t made for critics—or even anyone born more than a few years before 9/11—it’s for those who share the same teenage hormonal desires and emotional pitfalls that Eilish is currently going through. While someone like Snail Mail, only 18 months her elder, can put out a record with largely the same themes as WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?, yet still speak to an older audience, Eilish’s debut largely doesn’t care, well aware that she doesn’t need anyone above, say, 25 to make her the biggest pop artist on the planet. —Steven Edelstone

mannequin-patience.jpg 33. Mannequin Pussy: Patience
Mannequin Pussy’s first two albums—2014’s GP and 2016’s Romantic—are both under 20 minutes and feature speedy jolts of punk along with the occasional glimmer of dulcet-toned pop. But their 2019 LP, Patience, is crisper, poppier, longer and more fully realized than anything they’ve released before. In a still-modest 26 minutes, Mannequin Pussy, led by frontwoman Marisa Dabice, dish out punk-pop that will make you want to hug your teenage self, but also fight on behalf of the adult you’ve become. Dabice opened up on this record in a way she hasn’t before. She sings about abusive relationships, self-hatred, and personal inadequacies, revelations she struggled with for years before ever talking about them. It’s a record that simultaneously pierces while forcefully standing its ground, rightfully taking up space. Patience begins with anxious heart racing, but concludes with the kind of heart racing we all strive for—that lovey dovey tingle you wish you could bottle and save for when you’re feeling cynical. Dabice, along with Colins Rey Regisford (bass, samples, vocals), Kaleen Reading (drums, percussion), and Thanasi Paul (guitar, keys) also made one of 2019’s most anthemic tracks in the form of lead single “Drunk II.” When Dabice forcefully, begrudingly admits, “I still love you, you stupid fuck,” you can already envision a crowd of forlorn fans belting that line in a basement venue on a Tuesday like they have nothing to lose. Dabice’s admission of not only subtle imperfections, but also deep-set, recurring inner turmoils, is immensely invigorating. Patience is the sound of liberation, and paired with melodic riffs that scream into the void just like Dabice, it’s also an emotional reboot you can rage to. —Lizzie Manno

32. Marika Hackman: Any Human Friend
Female ownership of sexuality is nothing new, not since Madonna’s cone bra or Salt-N-Pepa’s declaration that their activities between the sheets are “None of Your Business.” More often than not, these sex-positive declarations exist in purely heteronormative terms, with any lady-on-lady action fetishized for male pleasure (think Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl”). Times are happily a-changing, though, and Marika Hackman’s latest LP, Any Human Friend, provides a hypnotizing case-in-point. Hackman, the folk artist turned synth-rock darling, cares only for the female gaze—the queer female gaze, that is, and more specifically, her own. This album—a treasure trove of zippy guitar hooks, glimmering synths and lemony vocals expertly curated by Hackman—is all about human connection. She hones in on her emotional and sexual connections both to herself and others post-breakup. The truths Hackman discovers along the way, illuminated by songs both inventive and entrancing, are enough to make anyone want to be her human friend (or, at least, a rabid fan). —Clare Martin

31. Bon Iver: i,i
Nearly everything about Bon Iver’s excellent 2016 album 22, A Million was inscrutable: the glitchy sonic turbulence, Justin Vernon’s effects-treated vocals, song titles rendered in numbers and symbols. Though an expansive ensemble helped Vernon make 22, A Million, the tension between turmoil and vulnerability made it seem like a solitary endeavor by an artist who was trying not to be seen while figuring out how to live a public life. If you have the patience to drill deep enough into i,i, the bright spots are incandescent. A three-song segment in the middle turns out to be the heart of the album, balancing musical and technical proficiency with the wringing, open-hearted emotion that made Bon Iver’s earlier work so mesmerizing. The mini-suite begins with “Hey Ma,” where a pinging sound at its start makes room for guitars and subdued strings, then synths, an unobtrusive electronic beat and manipulated backing vocals as Vernon alternates between raw-boned vocals and his delicate falsetto. The instrumentation condenses into a muddle halfway through, then drops out entirely for a few bars to emphasize Vernon’s voice. For all its considerable musical acumen, i,i still feels clinical at times. Though Vernon and his compadres demonstrate great facility with songwriting—and even more with constructing disparate parts into a whole—their emphasis on structure sometimes comes at the expense of emotional impact, which makes for an album that is objectively dazzling, but not always easy to love. —Eric R. Danton

jamila.jpg 30. Jamila Woods: LEGACY! LEGACY!
On HEAVN—her self-released 2016 solo debut album—Jamila Woods presented a seamless and spirited exploration of the modern black experience: beauty and pain, pride and fear, spirituality, struggle and, ultimately, the strength that comes from being part of a community built on love and support. “Call it black girl magic,” Woods sang against a wall of buzzy future-soul and hip-hop, neatly summarizing her entire aura in three words. For her second act, the dynamic singer, songwriter, poet and Chicagoan decided to dig into the deep roots of that magic, naming each track on LEGACY! LEGACY! after an inspirational person of color: Nikki Giovanni, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Sun Ra, Octavia Butler and James Baldwin, among others. The album spends its first half being perfectly enjoyable in a way that marries Woods’ aptitude for memorable melodies with sturdy, engaging beats. But then comes the second half, which noticeably shifts into a higher gear. The backing trackers get weirder (and sometimes prettier), the lyrics become more antagonistic, and Woods’ vocal delivery reaches new heights as she channels her subjects and confronts the forces they faced down so she can fly. “I shed sounds like snakeskin, style like chameleon. Wanna cage me?” she sings in “Miles,” a persona poem about legendary jazz man Miles Davis. “You can find me in the garden growin’ like a weed.” LEGACY! LEGACY! is a stunning work. Watching where she goes from here may be even better. —Ben Salmon

29. (Sandy) Alex G: House of Sugar
At the southern tip of Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood, there’s an imposing structure on the Delaware River that somehow looks equal parts parking garage, hospital and convention center. The building is none of these things, but it’s just as overwhelming as each one of them. It houses SugarHouse Casino, a dystopian abyss of colorful images leaping forth from slot machines and laser-bright ceiling lights hovering over card tables where gamblers can earn $150 in blackjack, lose it and swear off gambling forever (which may or may not have happened to this writer). Philly resident (Sandy) Alex G’s newest album, House of Sugar, his third for storied label Domino (and eighth or ninth overall, depending on who you ask), is named for this casino. As unsettling as its namesake, the newest record from Alex Giannascoli at times improves on the inscrutable, circuitous experimentation of his Domino debut, Beach Music. At other times, it refines the accessible but still characteristically sauntering country-lite of Rocket, his masterful second album for the British indie label. In other words, House of Sugar sounds like a middle ground between the two albums that preceded it. —Max Freedman

Miss Universe thumbnail.jpg 28. Nilüfer Yanya: Miss Universe
Style over substance is never a smart method for making art, and London based singer/songwriter Nilüfer Yanya masterfully obliterates that concept on her debut album, Miss Universe. With an album that borders on soul, pop, jazz and rock, Yanya is far too preoccupied with her inner demons and unique artistry to quibble over what one particular genre her music most closely resembles. In a current musical climate ruled by increased musical accessibility from streaming and in a world where so many people struggle with mental health, Miss Universe is a post-genre attempt at self-care that feels needed. This is an emotionally multi-faceted album to luxuriate in. Whether you take solace in her sultry, rich voice, instrumentals that range from bubbly to rugged or become invested in her confessional storytelling, Nilüfer Yanya’s Miss Universe can be easily enjoyed during a night out or night in. There are exultant singalongs (“In Your Head,” “Heavyweight Champion of the World”), luscious, bittersweet slow-burners (“Melt,” “Safety Net”), and sometimes humorous, sometimes alarming spoken-word interludes, which cultivate a transcendent alternate reality (“WWAY HEALTH,” “Sparkle GOD HELP ME,” “Experience?”). It’s an angsty LP concerned with entrapment, fear and expectations versus reality. Perhaps most triumphantly, Yanya pulls off jazz-infused, scrappy guitar pop with much more emotional and musical nuance than the buzzy, male-dominated “sad boi” acts like Rex Orange County or other beanie-donning dudes with keyboards and Stratocasters. —Lizzie Manno

thankunext.jpg 27. Ariana Grande: thank u, next
Released mere months after the love-soaked Sweetener and Mac Miller’s death, thank u, next grapples with a difficult quandary: How do you live and love healthily, sustainably, when the world around you is watching you grieve in real-time? Grande figures it out with effervescence, joy and pop brilliance, crafting a loosely autobiographical concept album filled with self-actualizing (“thank u, next,” “fake smile”), self-discovery (“needy,” “ghostin”) and, between thirst and retail therapy, a few, all-too-human self-soothing mechanisms along the way. It’s her most focused, most inward work yet, delivered with the deftness and universality of a bonafide pop star. thank u, next is a guidebook on how to thrive, complete with an eminently Instagram caption-worthy mantra — one that gave Grande her first Billboard No. 1 single after all this time. —Joshua Bote

26. Maggie Rogers: Heard It In A Past Life
In a way, Maggie Rogers is the exemplary model of a modern pop star. Her success story is one that’s exclusive to our times, when the Internet has the power to make moguls out of memes overnight. But Rogers is no Mason Ramsey: Her story begins not with a Walmart yodel, but with an unbelievably perfect demo, played for Pharrell Williams during a songwriting masterclass at New York University in 2016. The video of his reaction (stunned, in the best way) went viral, and Rogers stumbled into sensation. As Pharrell more or less said upon hearing that first cut of “Alaska” (which now boasts more nearly 100 million Spotify streams and club remixes for days), Maggie Rogers is singular. Other Internet-made stars flake and fade, but Rogers has continued to burn oh-so bright, incomparable in terms of musical style. While she’s kept us satiated with an EP and a crop of sparkling singles, we’ve been waiting for Heard It In A Past Life for a few years. Now that it’s here, one thing’s clear: Maggie Rogers is a pure pop star and a deserving one, at that. She’s self-assured in a way other radio stars aren’t, never afraid to fold in her folk background and do whatever she wants. And you just can’t help but root for her. If Maggie Rogers can find a way to exist alongside the likes of Billie Eilish (which she has, at least by this list’s judgement), she’ll be the next big thing in pop. The charts are starved for something real and down-to-earth, and her songs, while heavily produced in comparison to some of her folksier beginnings, have an earnestness to them that can’t be fabricated. Rogers’ career may have first sparked on the internet, but now it’s a fire burning IRL. —Ellen Johnson

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