End-of-year stuff is always a big deal for us here at NME, so it’s extremely exciting to unveil our pick of the best albums of 2019, as voted for by NME staff and critics. And luckily there’s absolutely nothing else going on in the news at the moment that might distract you from this list and make it seem in any way trivial.
Oh. Actually, it’s a few days since the Tories won an absolutely massive majority and voters roundly rejected a government offering to reduce inequality in a country with more food banks than branches of McDonald’s. It’s at this juncture that I’m contractually obliged to tell you it’s shit out there – but hey! At least the music this year was good!!!
Well, OK, I’m not going to do that, but what I will say is that there’s a lot of hope in this list, be it from the trio of young, politicised acts with stellar debuts in the top 10 – encompassing punk, UK rap and the biggest pop star on the planet who, perched at Number One, exists in her own unique realm – or the diverse array of talent sparkling throughout.
Cali singer-songwriter Weyes Blood’s otherworldly fourth album ‘Titanic Rising’ is a vital wake-up call about climate change, Kano’s ‘Hoodies All Summer’ is a deeply empathetic plea for greater unity and even veteran rockers Slipknot broke new ground with their pulsing manifesto of compassionate hatred ‘We Are Not Your Kind’.
If anger is an energy, reading this list should be like chugging a can of Monster with your finger stuck in a plug socket. These albums won’t change the world, but they do offer us a different perspective and help us to stand in someone else’s shoes for little while. And maybe that’s what we need right now.
– Jordan Bassett, Senior Staff Writer
Words: Carl Anka, Jordan Bassett, Rhian Daly, Georgia Evans, El Hunt, Natty Kasambala, Charlotte Krol, Hannah Mylrea, Will Richards, Kyann-Sian Williams, Thomas Smith, Dan Stubbs, Andrew Trendell.
50The Japanese House, ‘Good at Falling’ (Dirty Hit)
In a nutshell: A break-up and its fallout, via the medium of wispy pop
It’s been a revelation watching Amber Bain step into the spotlight. This, her debut, was billed as a break-up album, and in some ways that was true: the music video for ‘Lilo’ co-starred Marika Hackman, her IRL ex, and ‘We Talk All The Time’ was plainly a banger about not having sex. But mostly this was a record about its creator picking up the broken fragments and piecing herself back together. “I’m looking for something else,” she realised on ‘Maybe You’re The Reason’, “I found myself – I’m someone else.”
Key Track: ‘Maybe You’re The Reason’
Best moment: That video for ‘Lilo’ is a complete tear-jerker, and the song itself has inspired several fans to lug actual lilos along to her gigs. Makes crowd-surfing more comfortable. EH
49Juice WRLD, ‘Death Race For Love’ (Mom + Pop)
In a nutshell: Big-hearted Soundcloud rapper’s perfectly-formed emo-rap opus
Chicago rapper Jarad Higgins perfected the emo-rap sound he’d helped create with his second album which, tragically, will be the last released during his lifetime. Combining elements of mid-noughties emo with breathtakingly honest lyrics about drug addiction and mental health, this is a compelling, clearly realised record. His death is tragic, his legacy indisputable.
Key track: ‘Robbery’
Best moment: The breezy cha-cha-cha of ‘Hear Me Calling’, an idiosyncratic track that speaks to Juice WLRD’s eclecticism. JB
48Rex Orange County, ‘Pony’ (Sony)
In a nutshell: Easy-on-the-ear emotive pop that doesn’t shy away from sharing its struggles
Rex Orange County won over swarms of fans with knowingly schmaltzy love songs that apparently described a golden period in his life. But, as his third album revealed, with success came sadness. While ‘Pony’ lost none of the melodic immediacy of his previous releases, lyrically it ventured into darker territory, depicting tougher times over jazz wanderings, slow jams and baroque-pop.
Key track: ’10/10’
Best bit: When O’Connor sings “it’s not the same any more / It’s better” on moving closer ‘It’s Not The Same Anymore’. WR
47Charli XCX, ‘Charli’ (Asylum/Atlantic)
In a nutshell: The cult star’s avant-pop years were leading here
Fans had been waiting five years for a new Charli XCX album, a time in which the singer-songwriter moved away from the radio-ready synth-pop of hits like ‘Boom Clap’ and ‘I Love It’ towards crystalline, PC Music-affiliated experimental pop. ‘Charli’ felt like the culmination of those years, and while the mainstream breakthrough she’s long promised still eludes her, this was absolutely worth waiting for.
Key track: ‘Gone’
Best bit: The brilliant synthesised vocals that open ‘Shake It’. HM
46Sneaks, ‘Highway Hypnosis’ (Merge Records)
In a nutshell: DC punk Eva Moolchan ditches the bass and picks up the pace
The death of the album is predicted with alarming regularity, but with the likes of Sneaks around, the form will remain in rude health. Every song on her brief, understated third album – which combined 1990s rave, ambient sounds and rattling post-punk – could thrive alone, but it was in context that they really flourished. These 13 tracks formed a taut, swaggering tone studded with moments of menace. As she put it on ‘Ecstasy’: “Long live Sneaks.” JB
Key track: ‘The Way It Goes’
Best bit: The demonic voices that chant the album’s name on the title track. It’s like being in the Evil Dead branch of Urban Outfitters. JB
45Madonna, ‘Madame X’ (Interscope)
In a nutshell: The ultimate pop icon taps into the Latin pop zeitgeist
On her best album in years, Madonna returned under the guise of ‘Madame X’, an alter-ego that encompassed roles of a mother, child, teacher, spy, nun, saint, and more. The album that shared her new pseudonym was similarly imaginative, pulling together inspiration from the Latin-pop and Batuque music she’d been exposed to since moving to Lisbon, Portugal. Ultimately, ’Madame X’ represented an eclectic, masterful new phase that stood tall amid her inimitable back catalogue.
Key track: ‘Medellín’.
Best moment: The glittery pop waltz of ‘Crazy’’s chorus. RD
44Maggie Rogers, ‘Heard It In A Past Life’ (Debay Sounds)
In a nutshell: Viral star goes the distance
At Maggie Rogers’ online store you can buy a range of merch that declares her to be a “witchy feminist rock star”. On her major label debut, the Maryland musician backed up that branding by weaving field recordings from hikes into songs like ‘Alaska’ and ‘Burning’, like a sorcerer using the earth’s resources to cast musical spells. The results were entrancing and showcased a young songwriter who both thought outside of the box but understood how to craft a killer pop hook.
Key track: ‘Back In My Body’
Best moment: The album’s final surging crescendo on ‘Back In My Body’, when a wall of Rogers’ vocals swells then swoops out. RD
43Coldplay, ‘Everyday Life’ (Parlophone)
In a nutshell: Sorry, fans – they ran out of vanilla
With the pop culture swing-o-meter lunging towards Coldplay’s home turf of environmental responsibility, globally-minded politics and spirituality, Chris Martin and co. finally delivered the album they’ve been threatening to make for years – one with tunes, toothsome lyrics and – gasp – swearing!
Key track: ‘Orphans’
Best bit: The bit in ‘Arabesque’ when jazz hero Femi Kuti lets rip on the sax. DS
42Anderson .Paak, ‘Ventura’ (12 Tone Music / Aftermath Entertainment)
In a nutshell: The closing of .Paak’s myth-making trilogy of albums
The Cali rap-crooner’s fourth continued in the vein of previous records ‘Malibu’ and ‘Oxnard’ in charting his rise from ambitious young buck to star. Witness André 3000 appearing on the soulful opening track ‘Come Home’ for proof of his pulling power now. The three albums form a sort of loose trilogy, and this record, like all great closing entries, took aspects of its predecessors – lush arrangements and reflections on the good life – and amped them up.
Key track: ‘King James’
Best bit: When ‘Winners Circle’ samples ‘90s gangster movie A Bronx Tale: “You’re only allowed three great women in your lifetime. They come along like the great fighters, every 10 years.” JB
41Taylor Swift, ‘Lover’ (Republic Records)
In a nutshell: T-Swiz sacks off the snakes and smashes the heart emoji instead
Taylor was angry on sixth album ‘Reputation’. Filled with vengeful lyrics and complemented by visuals filled with snakes, it was a gutsy record that took musical revenge on those that had wronged her. ‘Lover’, the follow-up, took a totally different tone. This time around Taylor was head-over-heels; starry-eyed love permeated the record. From the future first-dance favourite that was the title track to the tongue-in-cheek ode to IRL boyfriend Joe Alwyn ‘London Boy’, it was a gorgeous collection of shimmering pop tunes.
Key track: ‘Lover
Best bit: The bold takedown of the patriarchy in ‘The Man’. Take that. HM
40Doja Cat, ‘Hot Pink’ (Kemosabe)
In a nutshell: Colourful rap kiss-offs that turned the ‘Mooo!’ milk sour
If you were left feeling bereft by Nicki Minaj’s announcement that she was planning to retire, Doja Cat’s ‘Hot Pink’ should have provided some consolation. Bright and bolshy, 24-year-old Amalaratna Dlamini set herself up as a natural heir to Minaj’s throne with her cartoon-y second album, which eradicated the memory of throwaway viral hit ‘Mooo!’ and replaced it with fiery, filthy raps such as ‘Cyber Sex’ and ‘Talk Dirty’.
Key track: ‘Juicy’
Best moment: When she rapped over the riff from Blink-182’s ‘Adam’s Song’ on ‘Bottom Bitch’. RD
39Orville Peck, ‘Pony’ (Sub Pop)
In a nutshell: Dreamy campfire debut from the man with the year’s greatest new look
A queer singing cowboy who obscures his identity with a fringed leather face mask, it’d be easy to write Canadian singer-songwriter Peck off as a novelty were his music not so utterly sublime and delivered with such sincerity. He’s clearly an old soul at heart: there’s a whiff of Roy Orbison in his heartworn balladeering.
Key track: ‘Winds Change’
Best bit: This line in ‘Roses Are Falling’: “You Know darling, you bring out the worst in me / Sometimes, when I’m around you, I feel like pure evil”. DS
38Sam Fender, ‘Hypersonic Missiles’ (Polydor)
In a nutshell: The Geordie Springsteen comes good
He may have been billed as guitar music’s great next hope, but ‘Hypersonic Missiles’ was the album that proved that Sam Fender is much more than that reductive accolade. Heavy-hitting themes such as male suicide, the plight of children in Gaza and the pressures of small-town frustration were all addressed on a debut that marked out Fender as one of the most distinctive songwriters of his generation.
Key track: ’Hypersonic Missiles’
Best bit: That sax solo on Hypersonic Missiles. E Street Band horn-blower Clarence Clemons would have surely approved. NR
37Stormzy, ‘Heavy Is The Head’ (Merky)
In a nutshell: Glastonbury was only the beginning
After headlining Glastonbury with just one album to his name, Stormzy arrived at LP2 a bona fide pop culture icon – with a weight of expectation hinted at by the title. ‘Heavy Is The Head’ delves into the Croydon rapper’s experiences with fame and the responsibility that comes as part of the package, a multi-textured musical package that shows vaulting ambition.
Key track: ‘Audacity’
Best bit: “When Banksy put the vest on me, it felt like God was testing me,” he raps on ‘Audacity’ of his Glastonbury performance – the way he pelts through the rest of the song with ultimate confidence proves he knows that he passed with flying colours. WR
36BTS, ‘Map Of The Soul: Persona’ (Big Hit Entertainment)
In a nutshell: Jungian K-pop with an intellect as big as the hooks
In a year that saw BTS go from stars to superstars, the Korean seven-piece proved that they had the substance to back up the stats. On ‘Map Of The Soul: Persona’, they used the psychological theories of Carl Jung to explore ideas of identity (the riff-fuelled rap-rock of ‘Intro: Persona’) and delved into Greek mythology with the swaggering ‘Dionysus’. Collabs with Halsey (the bubblegum pop of ‘Boy With Luv’) and Ed Sheeran (who co-wrote ‘Make It Right’) bolstered a record that showed a band in eclectic, ascendant form.
Key track: ‘Boy With Luv’.
Best moment: Jin’s spine-tingling falsetto wails during the final headbang-worthy section of ‘Dionysus’. RD
35Denzel Curry, ‘Zuu’ (PH Recordings)
In a nutshell: Young buck treads in the footsteps of Florida forebears
Curry’s triumphant second studio album reminded us of the greatness within his home state of Florida – especially on the booming ‘CAROLMART’. That track saw signature pungent vocals soaring atop a sample of Florida greats Plies and Trina’s ‘So Clean’, and they were name-checked in the lyrics: “Was raised off of Trina, Trick, Rick, and Plies”. With this well-crafted homage, the 24-year-old edged himself closer to his idols.
Key Track: ‘CAROLMART’
Best bit: When, on club banger ‘SHAKE 88’, he pitch-shifts his voice to make himself sound like a stereotypical Floridian party girl. Naughty Denzel. K-SW
34DIIV, ‘Deceiver’ (Captured Tracks)
In a nutshell: New York indie heads go shoegaze. Painfully
If last album ‘Is The Is Are’ felt like “the light at the end of the tunnel” as troubled frontman Zachary Cole Smith put it, third album ‘Deceiver’ is what’s on the other side. Recorded after he’d successfully completed treatment for addiction and armed himself with a renewed approach to songwriting, ‘Deceiver’ saw the band pair sobering realities with distorted guitars, replacing their usually sweet melodies with pained catharsis.
Key track: ‘Blankenship’
Best bit: The emotional gut-punch created when Smith wails, on the chorus of ‘Horsehead’, that he wants to “breathe in / And never breathe back out”. TS
33Bon Iver, ‘i, i’ (Jagjaguwar)
In a nutshell: Justin Vernon knits the threads of his career so far into, ooh, a beanie probably
The fourth Bon Iver album brought Justin Vernon full circle. In early promotional videos he revealed each of his albums to date had represented a season. With the release of ‘i, i’, he announced, “it might be autumn”. The album felt like a finale, combining elements of Bon Iver’s entire back catalogue and fusing them together: the whirring electronics of ‘22, A Million’, the folk strums of ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ and the baroque pop of ‘Bon Iver’. Impressive and poignant.
Key track: ‘Hey, Ma’
Best bit: When Vernon declares “Well, it’s all fine and we’re all fine anyway” in closing song RABi. HM
32Desert Sessions, ‘Vol. 11/12: Arrivederci Despair/Tightwads & Nitwits & Critics & Heels’ (Matador)
In a nutshell: Josh Homme’s super-group get lost in a desert jam. Or do they say jelly out there?
The emergence of a new Desert Sessions album in 2019 was something of a surprise. The last record put out by Josh Homme’s motley crew of rock stars arrived in 2013 and marked the 10th volume in the series – a pretty natural number to round things off on. But, backed by a new troupe of musicians (including Royal Blood’s Mike Kerr, Scissor Sisters’ Jake Shears and mystery man Töôrnst Hülpft), ‘Vol. 11/12’ presented a jam album that plumbed the depths of desert rock, 1970s psych and gale-force goth, and was a whole heap of fun.
Key track: ‘Something You Can’t See’
Best bit: When Homme goes full Bowie then full falsetto on closing track ‘Easier Said Than Done’. RD
31Octo Octa, ‘Resonant Body’ (T4T LUV NRG)
In a nutshell: Techno’s next superstar has arrived (see Number 18)
New Hampshire DJ Octo Octa’s 2019 record ‘Resonant Body’ was pure bliss. From the opening squelches of ‘Imminent Spirit Arrival’, it was stuffed with exuberant house licks, drum ’n’ bass beats and techno soundscapes. Riotous anthem ‘Spin Girl, Let’s Activate’ was a battle cry for dancefloor dwellers, while ‘Power to the People’ – which sampled chanting activists and audio from a ’80s ACT UP rally – was a glorious protest song. Jubilant stuff.
Key track: ‘Move Your Body’
Best bit: The moment, midway through ‘Spin Girl, Let’s Activate!’, when the tempo woozily slows, before gearing up again as the exhilarating piano riff kicks in. HM
30Ariana Grande, ‘Thank U, Next’ (Republic Records)
In a nutshell: Reactions to a fast life that arrived in real time
A whip-crack on from ‘Sweetener’, a record about survival and rediscovering joy, ‘thank u, next’ delved deeper into loss, digging into the complexities of going through emotional turmoil with the whole world watching. It was a generous, compassionate and honest album, too. “Fuck a fake smile,” Grande sang on ‘Fake Smile’, “If I’m hurt, I ain’t gonna lie about it.” It was something of a mission statement for ‘thank u, next’ as a whole.
Key track: ‘Fake Smile’
Best Moment: Instead of laying into her exes flaws on ‘Thank U, Next’, Ari takes a kinder approach: “One taught me love, one taught me patience, and one taught me pain,” she says. “Now, I’m so amazing.” EH
29Sharon Van Etten, ‘Remind Me Tomorrow’ (Jagjaguwar)
In a nutshell: Van Etten goes widescreen with surprise heartland rock epic
Those who assumed that Sharon Van Etten would be forever consigned to the “confessional singer-songwriter” category were proven wrong on her widescreen fifth album. From the Bruce Springsteen-indebted heartland rock tracks ‘Seventeen’ and ‘Comeback Kid’ to the gritty dream-pop experiments ‘Memorial Day’ and ‘Jupiter 4’, this was Van Etten’s biggest and boldest experiment to date. The acoustic, lo-fi balladeering of her early albums soon became a distant memory.
Key track: ‘Comeback Kid’ was Van Etten’s snarling, ‘80s-styled, erm, comeback. She’d been away for four years trying her hand at acting (in the brilliant, sadly cancelled The OA), studying and motherhood.
Best bit: The visceral, rip-roaring chorus of ‘Hands’. CK
28JPEGMAFIA, ‘All My Heroes Are Cornballs’ (EQT Recordings)
In a nutshell: Experimental hip-hop entrenched in internet humour
‘All My Heroes Are Cornballs’ was JPEGMAFIA’s most personal album to date, combining his own brand of punk-infused rap with darkly comical lyricism, offbeat ad-libs and video game snippets. He thrust himself into low-fi R&B territory, notably including a surprise cover of ‘No Scrubs’ and gentle crooning on ‘Grimy Wifu’. Lines such as “one shot turn Steve Bannon into Steve Hawking” (from ‘PRONE!’) affirmed Peggy’s notoriously brazen wit.
Key track: ‘Jesus Forgive Me, I Am A Thot’
Best bit: Peggy’s attempt to smoke out basic bitches with ‘BasicBitchTearGas’, a cover of TLC’s ‘No Scrubs’. GE
27Kano, ‘Hoodies All Summer’ (Parlophone)
In a nutshell: The statesman of grime puts an arm around the youth
It’s been a helluva year for the London rapper, who starred in the Drake-backed return of poignant drama Top Boy and released his sixth album, on which he offered sage advice to troubled young folks in his hometown. It was a testament to his sense of style that he didn’t sound like that Family Guy sketch where Will Smith implores kids to “help out your mom and dad by getting a job”. This was an album soaked in compassion.
Key track: ‘Trouble’
Best bit: When, on the impossibly moving ‘Trouble’, he insists: “Any beef can be squashed if hands could be shaken.” JB
26Pup, ‘Morbid Stuff’ (Rise Records)
In a nutshell: Toronto punks exorcise depression with life-affirming singalongs
Packed with hooks, life mantras and one-liners to bellow from the depths of a moshpit, Pup’s third album finally earned them a seat at punk’s top table. Singer Stefan Babcock sings about depression with biting humour. ‘Morbid Stuff’ was joyous and positive – a handbook to help you get by.
Key track: ‘See You At Your Funeral’
Best bit: When Stefan yells “Make no mistake, I know exactly what I’m doing / I’m just surprised the world isn’t sick of grown men whining like children” on the appropriately-named ‘Full Blown Meltdown’. WR
25Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, ‘Ghosteen’ (Ghosteen Ltd)
In a nutshell: Rock’s shadow man lays his heart on the line
While many perceive previous album ‘Skeleton Tree’ to be Cave’s exploration of suffering, it was in fact written before the death of his son Arthur in 2015. Since then, he’s laid everything bare, being brave and confessional through film, his website, conversation tours and, yes, on the devastating ‘Ghosteen’. With gossamer touch and cinematic scope, it was a three-dimensional, fever-dream portrait that travelled that full gamut of love, loss and grief before concluding: “Peace will come”.
Key track: ‘Leviathan’
Best bit: In the closing track ‘Hollywood’, Cave concludes that no matter how profound grief may seem, “Everybody’s losing someone”. Humbling beyond measure. AT
24Angel Olsen, ‘All Mirrors’ (Jagjaguwar)
In a nutshell: North Carolina singer-songwriter turns up the colour filters
Super-saturated and drenched in theatrical flourishes, Angel Olsen’s ‘All Mirrors’ skewered heartbreak with brutal precision. Grinding synths jostled for space with spiralling strings on a record that’s towering in scope and ambition.
Key track: ‘All Mirrors’
Best Moment: When those lush orchestral arrangements fully unfurl on the magical ‘Tonight’. EH
23AJ Tracey, ‘AJ Tracey’ (Self-released)
In a nutshell: The lad from Ladbroke Grove tackles grime, dancehall, trap – and country?!
AJ Tracey started out making grime and, in February, told NME: “I’m a legendary grime MC”. On his wildly inspired self-titled record, though, he spread his wings. Tracey backed up that killer quote on the likes of the stuttering ‘Doing It’, but elsewhere explored dancehall (the Not3s-featuring ‘Butterflies) and even a little country rap (the fabulous ‘Country Star’). Yet it was the perfect ‘Ladbroke Grove’, on which he paid homage to the garage sound he loved as a teenager, that proved AJ Tracey is legendary full-stop.
Key track: ‘Ladbroke Grove’
Best bit: When he steps away from the horror-core stylings of ‘Horror Flick’ to assure us that he’s a “cool guy” who’s “lovely with parents”. Phew! JB
22James Blake, ‘Assume Form’ (Polydor)
In a nutshell: Jim finds love in a hopeless place
‘The Colour In Anything’, released in 2016, was a bleak listen, a glitching watercolour of bleeding greys and blues. Its successor, ‘Assume Form’, was a gear change, trading the unsettling splutters of noise for warmly plunking bursts of piano. Yes, this was Blake in love (with actor Jameela Jamil, who co-wrote much of it), and at times he sounded like he was bouncing along the pavement as if on an invisible bouncy castle.
Key track: ‘Can’t Believe the Way We Flow’
Best Moment: “Let’s go home and talk shit about everyone,” he suggests ‘Power On’. We simply have to stan bitchy Blake. EH
21Kanye West, ‘Jesus Is King’ (GOOD Music)
In a nutshell: The ‘I Am A God’ man has a rethink
It was easy to sneer at Ye’s latest endeavour – a gospel-only collection renouncing his previous misgivings and reaffirming his commitment to his faith – but the much-delayed project was a surprisingly humbling listen. Born out of his Sunday Service live sessions, it saw the rapper praise God, his wife, his family, God, Chick-Fil-A, God and, er, God. A blessed return to form.
Key track: ‘Follow God’
Best bit: The throat-cracking vocals on ‘God Is’, where Kanye admits that his faith helped him overcome sex addiction and gave his life renewed purpose. TS
20Post Malone, ‘Hollywood’s Bleeding’ (Republic Records)
In a nutshell: A genre-hopping collection from trap’s divisive court jester
Not everyone loves Post Malone, but everyone loves at least one Post Malone track. That was the secret of ‘Hollywood’s Bleeding’, a 17-track effort built for streams and listeners’ own personal curation. At the time NME called it a “synth-pop-rock’n’roll-bedroom-indie-trap-hip-hop-break-up album”. Post Malone had a lot of feelings and famous friends and tried to figure it all out over some expensive beats. There were at least three tracks in here that you’d enjoy and put on a summer playlist, and three you’d skip. Posty will laugh all the way to the bank.
Key track: ‘Sunflower’
Best bit: “Give me a chance and I will fuck up again”, a lyric from ‘Staring at the Sun’, showcases the best of Post Malone. Kind of loveable, kind of disappointing, ultimately very endearing. CA
19Amyl & The Sniffers, ‘Amyl & The Sniffers’ (Rough Trade)
In a nutshell: The soundtrack to your 2019 pub brawl
These Melbourne punks are best enjoyed from just out of gobbing-range of the stage, but their debut album proper was ludicrously good fun nonetheless, a collection of unreasonably great songs that – at just 29 minutes total – rush by like a strawpedo-ed tinny.
Key track: ‘Control’
Best bit: ‘Gakked On Anger’ will chime with cash-strapped, boomer-hating millennials in particular: “I don’t have a house, I can’t pay the rent / I’m sleeping on the floor, in a car, in a tent.” DS
18The Chemical Brothers, ‘No Geography’ (Virgin EMI)
In a nutshell: Dancefloor dads throw down the gauntlet
It was conceived in divided, aggressive times, and The Chemical Brothers sought to unite people with their awe-inspiring ninth studio album. Whether it was through the arms-aloft anthem ‘Got To Keep On’ or the rage-fuelled ‘MAH’ – on which the Brothers announced that they were totally sick of this shit – they rolled out some of the biggest and most inventive beats they’ve ever put together.
Key track: ‘Got To Keep On’
Best bit: The album’s dazzling opening 20-minutes, where four tracks (‘Eve Of Destruction’, ‘Bango’, ‘No Geography’ and ‘Got To Keep On’) go back-to-back without a moment of respite. TS
17Dave, ‘Psychodrama’ (Neighbourhood)
In a nutshell: The crown prince of British sits down with his therapist
2019 saw Dave release the Mercury Prize-winning ‘Psychodrama’, remind everyone that Thiago Silva is one of the best defenders in the world and scare the life out of us in Top Boy. That’s a banner year that most industry veterans would trade precious gifts for; Dave is only 21 years of age and Psychodrama was his debut. It’s Dave’s world; we’re all just living in it.
Key track: ‘Lesley’, a twisting, turning, 11-minute opus that sees Dave encounter a pregnant woman trapped in an abusive relationship.
Best bit: ‘Screwface Capital’ saw Dave at his imperious best: “Just know I put both the Ps in opp / At the same time a put the “pay” in paigon.” If there’s a vowel sound in there, Dave will find a way to toy with it. CA
16Lizzo, ‘Cuz I Love You’ (Atlantic)
In a nutshell: Self-love anthems from the people’s pop star
Question: how could Lizzo follow up the total earworm that was ‘Juice’? Answer: With an album filled to the brim with personality, powerhouse vocals and self-love. Her third album ‘Cuz I Love You’ established her as a global star, and reinforced what her fans already knew – that she’s a multi-talented rapper/singer/flautist who can hop between sultry R&B jams (‘Lingerie’ and ‘Jerome’) to swaggering hip-hop thumpers (‘Tempo’). It was confident, cohesive and filled with banging tunes.
Key track: ‘Juice’
Best bit: The opening, a capella vocal gymnastics of title track. HM
15Foals, ‘Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost (Part 1)’ (Warner Bros)
In a nutshell: Oxford art-rockers find a new wave groove
Despite the departure of bassist Walter Gervers in the making of this record, Foals enhanced the rhythm as they explored new sounds and textures on the first and best of their 2019 duology. The result: 10 existential bangers riddled with post-millennial anxiety and fuelled by compulsion. A contender for the best album of the band’s career, it was followed by sequel sister record ‘Part 2’, which proved to be a rock beast, marking 2019 as a real purple patch for Foals – one of Britain’s most essential bands.
Key track: ‘In Degrees’
Best bit: That drop, 17 seconds into ‘In Degrees’. Hold my can, lads, I’m going in. AT
14Solange, ‘When I Get Home’ (Columbia)
In a nutshell: The coolest Knowles sister pens a love letter to her hometown
Solange’s fourth album was one of the best surprises of 2019. Mixing dreamy R&B with modern rap production, she broke the mould with tracks such ‘Almeda’ and ‘My Skin, My Logo‘, which respectively featured rap heavyweights Playboi Carti and Gucci Mane. Having the Atlantans rap on her floaty R&B set her album apart from any other record in the genre this year. ‘When I Get Home’ is short, sharp and perfectly formed.
Key track: ‘Binz’
Best bit: The echoing, undulating refrain that runs through ‘Stay Flo’. What a beaut. K-SW
13Slipknot, ‘We Are Not Your Kind’ (Roadrunner Records)
In a nutshell: Old dudes in masks don’t age – they just get better
Bucking the trend for metal bands of a certain vintage to “go pop”, soften or – heaven forbid – mature, Slipknot’s sixth album was their heaviest, fiercest, most eviscerating collection in years, forged in personal turbulence and giving voice to the age of rage.
Key track: ‘Unsainted’
Best bit: Finding yourself slinking along to the sexy ‘Spiders’, then remembering you’re listening to Slipknot. DS
12Vampire Weekend, ‘Father of the Bride’ (Columbia)
In a nutshell: Ezra takes control and proves two heads aren’t always better than one
After a six-year hiatus – and now Ezra Koenig’s own ship to steer – New York ensemble Vampire Weekend pulled out all the stops on their fourth LP, an extensive and world-spanning double album that swings from classic romantic country through to chaotic warped electro-rock. With appearances from Danielle Haim and Steve Lacy and no musical stone unturned, the band made sure to sidestep expectations. This allowed them to explore the full capabilities of storytelling from a place of humour, comfort and curiosity.
Key track: ‘Sympathy’
Best bit: The cinematic, Steve Lacy-featuring tracks ‘Sunflower’ and ‘Flower Moon’. NK
11Bring Me The Horizon, ‘Amo’ (RCA)
In a nutshell: Reformed Sheffield deathcore lads go alt-pop
Bring Me knew they’d get stick from metal purists when they went experimental with their sixth album, and they did it anyway. Grimes-featuring techno-pop (‘nihilist blues’) and mellow ambient (‘fresh bruises’) share the tracklist with a moving orchestral ballad (‘i don’t know what to say’) and gothic rock (the Danii Filth-assisted ‘Wonderful Life’). Amazingly, it makes for an exciting, coherent whole. The heartbreak-inspired ‘amo’ proved that Oli Sykes and co. can change up their sound and retain their unique identity.
Key track: ‘Mantra’
Best bit: The robotic voice that deadpans “Mantra” before the scything riff on the aforementioned key track. Big. Huge. JB
10Clairo, ‘Immunity’ (Fader Label)
In a nutshell: Intimately-recorded bedroom album chimes with zillions
There comes a point in young adulthood where you really get deep into figuring out who you are. It’s usually in that period between ending school and starting university or getting a job, your mind opened by the fact that you’re surrounded by new people in a new place where no one knows you well enough to judge you. Clairo’s debut album ‘Immunity’ was written in those moments and presented a quiet but close read on the experience of becoming who you are.
‘Immunity’ might have been created in the last years of Cottrill’s life as a teenager, but its songs were soothing balms for any periods of life characterised by transition or upheaval. In her intimate, personal lyrics, she gave empathetic reassurance to those who needed it, the incidents she recounted – from being saved from suicide by a friend on ‘Alewife’ to feeling like a burden in a relationship on ‘I Wouldn’t Ask You’ – becoming beacons to cling onto. If this woman could go through these things and make something so beautiful out of them, there was hope for you too.
It wasn’t only in her lyrics that Clairo proved to be an emotionally astute creator. Her production choices (she co-produced the album) made the feelings in her words palpable, be it through the impenetrable wall of auto-tune on ‘Closer To You’ to the dizzying distortion on ‘Sofia’. Cottrill found fast fame with her track ‘Pretty Girl’, which went viral on YouTube, but ‘Immunity’ proved that she was so much more than a lucky wannabe.
Key track: ‘Bags’
Best moment: When that sweet slather of distortion hits in ‘Sofia’. Rhian Daly
NME said: “‘Immunity’ is an album to burrow into and become resident in its songs. It’s a comforter that wraps itself around you when you’re feeling low and a resilient reminder that there are brighter times ahead.”
9Weyes Blood, ‘Titanic Rising’ (Sub Pop)
In a nutshell: Born-out-of-time singer-songwriter laments paving of paradise and putting-up of a parking lot
The cover art for ‘Titanic Rising’ depicted Natalie Mering – aka Weyes Blood – walking across a childhood bedroom submerged underwater. It was a fitting introduction to her beautifully immersive fourth album.
Climate change, washed-out love, existentialism and nostalgia for simpler times were some of the record’s resounding themes. Opening track ‘A Lot’s Gonna Change’ best tethered those ideas together: “Go back to a time when I was just a girl,” she crooned, “When I had the whole world”.
Mering bookended the album with this song, which promoted faith in the face of ominous change, and the disconcerting instrumental ‘Nearer To Thee’. The latter’s title alluded to the hymn that the Titanic’s house band supposedly played as the ship sank. There was hope here, but also a sense of fatalism.
Through 10 tracks that traversed orchestral grandeur, twisted country, psych-folk and old-timey piano pop, Mering welded together hope and despair. Life truly is a complex beast, and Mering somehow explored its countless textures in 40 fascinating minutes.
Key track: ‘Andromeda’
Best bit: The epic choral crescendo on ‘Something To Believe’. Charlotte Krol
NME said: “The Summer of Love ended in bloodshed and, on her fourth album, it’s as though Natalie Mering is looking back at the seemingly idyllic era through a smeared prism.”
8Michael Kiwanuka, ‘KIWANUKA’ (Polydor)
In a nutshell: Contemporary soul hero achieves greatness matched only by his idols
They don’t make ‘em like Michael Kiwanuka any more: the north London singer-songwriter makes lush, politicised soul that harks back to genre’s ‘70s golden era. His self-titled third album featured sparkly modern production from Danger Mouse – weird, distorted percussion here, buzzing electric guitar there – which prevented ‘KIWANUKA’ from coming off like a throwback. And then there were his lyrics: gorgeous, triumphant odes to personal fulfilment and celebrating your identity.
“A lot of this record is about how you get to an age where you feel confident in yourself and comfortable in your own skin,” he told NME. Jubilant opener ‘You Ain’t The Problem’ saw him shed off old insecurities as he vowed to stop getting in his own way, no longer willing to give in to self-doubt, beaming: “No need to play myself… I used to hate myself… Break out the prison”.
Where his folky 2012 debut ‘Home Again’ often erred on side of caution, with more emphasis on pleasant tunes than weighty subject matter, this one was jammed with heavy stuff treated with a lightness of touch. The rollicking ‘Hero’ lamented brutality against black citizens and on the muted, elegiac ‘Solid Ground’ he insisted: “When it gets hard, I will roll those sleeves.” ‘KIWANUKA’ was classic and modern all at once.
Key track: ‘You Ain’t The Problem’
Best bit: The warped, experimental intro to ‘Final Days’, which proved that Kiwanuka is a more adventurous musician than he’s often given credit for. Jordan Bassett
NME said: “As with each of his albums to date, Kiwanuka navigates the past and the present, skilfully making sounds and subjects appear both classic and contemporary at once.”
7Fontaines DC, ‘Dogrel’ (Partisan)
In a nutshell: Irish punk meets the Irish poets meets a massive moshpit
Fontaines DC’s debut album arrived in the thick of a post-punk revival that birthed a rich seam of furious, socially conscious guitar music. For the old punks who had finally found a band to believe in again after decades of disenfranchisement to the teenagers coming face-to-face with their first real heroes, Fontaines’ emergence felt like a real moment.
When frontman Grian Chatten yelled “Dublin in the rain is mine” to open the album on ‘Big’, you were immediately thrust headfirst into the soggy backstreets of a city that had found its voice again, Chatten wonderfully narrating its ups and downs and twists and turns. There was an honesty and romanticism to ‘Dogrel’ that defined the record, and when Chatten snarled “Is it too real for ya?” on ‘Too Real’, irony was refreshingly thrown out the door in favour of true, cast-iron connection.
With ‘Dogrel’ the band also proved that they’re not just a band of five punks who shout a lot. ‘Boys In The Better Land’ and ‘Too Real’ were chaotic punk anthems, no doubt, but it was on the twisting melancholia of ‘Television Screens’ and unashamedly old-school closer ‘Dublin City Sky’ that they really showed their colours.
Key track: ‘Boys In The Better Land’
Best bit: When Chatten bellowed, “My childhood was small, but I’m gonna be big” on ‘Big’, it sounded like a gargantuan mission statement. Will Richards
NME said: “The Irish troubadours come good on a debut album that offers both a storyteller’s narrative voice and a snarling new vision of youthful disillusionment.”
6FKA Twigs, ‘MAGDALENE’ (Young Turks)
In a nutshell: Heartbreak, as you’ve never heard it before
FKA Twigs’ second record tellingly borrowed its name from the Biblical figure Mary Magdalene. Very little is known about her life, and any concrete details are very thin on the ground. Despite this, Mary is frequently depicted in popular culture as a “sinful woman”. This was the starting point of ‘MAGDALENE’, an astounding exploration of the way that society moulds, oppresses and continually gazes upon women. And it came from an artist all too familiar with being in the public eye in the shadow of a famous man.
Sinister and choral, ‘thousand eyes’ painted a final parting from a lover as hungry anonymous eyes look on. It was a deeply personal moment being simultaneously digested. ‘Sad day’ used warped syntax to depict a sad wank: “Faux my cunnilingus,” she said, scrawling out the verbs and flipping word orders back to front, giving the whole song a disjointed quality. And ‘Cellophane’ was an anguished cry: “They want to see us, want to see us apart,” she sang, addressing a vague, collective spectator once again.
Physicality was absolutely key to Twigs’ art, and she wielded it like a weapon. She had also mastered Wushu, an intricate martial art involving razor-sharp swords. Whirling a blade around on-stage, the razor-sharp edge whizzing within inches of her body, Twigs was putting on a killer performance. But with ‘MAGDALENE’, her message was this: fuck with me at your peril.
Key track: ‘Mary Magdalene’
Best Moment: Those absolutely flawless high notes on ‘Cellophane’. El Hunt
NME said: ‘MAGDALENE’ is an album about rebuilding after collapse… By its close, FKA twigs is an unstoppable force of nature.
5Little Simz, ‘Grey Area’ (Age 101 Music)
In a nutshell: The UK’s most overlooked rapper dares you not to stare this time
North London through and through, Little Simz became this year’s comeback kid when she blew us away with ‘GREY Area’, her stellar second third album, which she used to explore new sounds. Where its predecessor ‘Still In Wonderland’ was a knotty, complex concept album, here she stripped everything back.
This was especially true of the opening track ‘Offence’, on which she reduced her style to drum and buzzing bass, making her outrageous – and brilliant – boasts seem even more blunt than usual: “I’m Jay-Z on a bad day / Shakespeare on my worst days”. Pushing her sonic boundaries, she crafted one of the year’s stand-out albums from a British rapper. As with ‘Offence’, the wilfully primitive basslines on ‘Boss’ or ‘Therapy’ put her strong, independent tone front-and-centre. On ‘Sherbet Sunset’, though, she also made herself vulnerable, laying bare her personal struggles: “Posing like my life is perfect, really it’s the opposite / Lately I been down a lot / I talk to no one about it.”
The airy production left space around her inspired lyrics. With the reflective ‘Flowers’, which features soulful vocals from fellow Londoner Michael Kiwanuka, she closed the album with a passionate rap about fallen stars – such as Amy Winehouse – with whom she senses kinship. It was a poignant conclusion to a triumphant record.
Key Track: ‘Boss’
Best bit: When she snaps, “You was meant to be in my Grammy speech – your entire loss”, on ‘Sherbet Sunset’. Kyann-Sian Williams
NME said: “Across these 10 tracks, Simz utilises her most valuable commodity: honesty.”
4Slowthai, ‘Nothing Great About Britain’ (Method Records)
In a nutshell: The irresistible lovechild of punk, grime and austerity Britain
‘Nothing Great About Britain’ was a statement of intent from the self-dubbed ‘Northampton’s Child’. Here was a rapper unafraid of tackling the hard stuff, of speaking out against the status quo, of being vulnerable in a musical space that doesn’t always allow for emotional candour.
The jagged beauty in Slowthai’s theatrical retelling of childhood antics and struggles – alongside proclamations of love and self-assurance – thrust the listener into flux that was emotive and unpredictable, but always exciting.
With razor-sharp commentary that touched on everything from romance to success, exposed empty nationalism and even got nostalgic about the 99p Flake, ‘Nothing Great About Britain’ showcased the breadth of Slowthai’s focus and his ability to interweave humour and personality with the bleak and sometimes tragic
Fellow Midlands native Jaykae’s fiery appearance on ‘Grow Up’ also indicated that part of this record’s charm lays in its distinctly anti-London perspective, which enabled Slowthai to speak from a more inclusive perspective.
It’s safe to say that ‘…Britain’ has cemented Slowthai as something of a zeitgeist figure for the politicised youth, and laid a solid platform for him to continue to push the boundaries of his art even further. With a bit of luck, he’ll be igniting necessary conversations for years.
Key track: ‘Doorman’ ft. Mura Masa.
Best bit: When, on the title track, he sends up those Dizzee Rascal comparisons: “I’m just a boy in the corner.” Natty Kasambala
NME said: “Guiding you on a whistlestop tour of his life, community and resultant beliefs, the record serves not only as a statement of identity, but also an indication of the sprawling possible paths for his career to grow into.”
3Lana Del Rey, ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell’ (Polydor)
In a nutshell: A lush tapestry of swoonsome sounds and killer wit from America’s most underrated songwriter
Lana Del Rey’s fifth album was her most captivating yet. She expressed resentment towards her ‘man child’ boyfriend on the title track, but also acknowledged – with a nod to Leonard Cohen – that she was willing to stand by him, declaring on ‘Mariners Apartment Complex’ that “I’m your man”.
With a wicked sense of humour, she picked out her own flaws, as well as those of the men in her life (“Why wait for the best when I could have you?” she also purrs on that title track). There was less of the braggadocio that peppered her previous work. Instead, we saw a more tender approach, as her stunningly stripped-back vocals shone through as she exclaimed: “Fuck it, I love you.”
Yet there was strength in her vulnerability, heightened by Jack Antonoff’s minimalist production and the fact that tracks such ‘hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but i have it’ featured only piano and her exposed vocals.
The result was a strikingly cinematic conclusion, evoking a Joni Mitchell-like quality as she opened up to declare herself “a modern day woman with a weak constitution”.
Key track: ‘Fuck It, I love You’
Best bit: That opening line, obviously. For posterity: “Goddamn, man-child / You fucked me so good that I almost said ‘I love you.” Oof. Georgia Evans
NME said: “Lana Del Rey is large – she contains multitudes, and the way she balances and embodies them on her fifth album is nothing short of stunning.”
2Tyler, The Creator, ‘Igor’ (A Boy Is A Gun)
In a nutshell: Flower Boy has a bad break up, asks if they can still be friends.
On 18 May 2019, music fans in the UK took a look at Twitter and promptly lost their shit. It was Tyler the Creator, in a pink and red suit stood in front of Buckingham Palace.
Theresa May was gone. Tyler was back. And he had a new album called ‘IGOR’ – and what an album. The record continued the growth and self-actualisation evident on 2017’s ‘Flower Boy’ and showed us the artist Tyler the Creator had been trying to become for years.
After Igor’s release, he tweeted that he’d recorded nine different versions of the bridge for ‘I THINK’ (a song that sounds like it was plucked from the mind of 1980s Quincy Jones), an indication of his commitment to this project.
‘IGOR’ was different from his previous albums. Yes, Tyler was as loud and creative as he had been before, figuring stuff out in his own multi-talented, multi-faceted way – with loads of interesting collaborators, including Kanye West and Lil Uzi Vert – but on this album, Tyler was… sincere.
He asked himself – and the listener – honest questions about gender and sexuality. ‘IGOR’ found Tyler at his most honest and most evolved state. Odd Future’s class clown grew up to become the biggest hearted member of the bunch. Imagine that.
Key track: If, at the start of the decade, you’d told us the kid who ate cockroaches and talked about stabbing Bruno Mars in his goddamn oesophagus would end the 2010s with a song as heartbreakingly earnest as “Earfquake”, we’d have called you a goddamn liar.
Best bit: When, on ‘Are We Still Friends’, he asks, “Are we still friends? Can we be friends?” Rarely does an artist rap with their heart on show like modern day Tyler. Carl Anka
NME said: “‘IGOR’ sees the 28-year-old expressing his flourishing musicianship, showcasing his strength as a songwriter with a keen eye for detail.”
1Billie Eilish, ‘When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?’ (Darkroom)
In a nutshell: Prodigious talent delivers game-changing debut. When did you last hear a genuinely new sound?!
If you’ve arrived at the end of the 2010s curious about what the next decade holds, Billie Eilish’s, ‘When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?’, might be the blueprint. The LA teen’s debut album was bold, brash and little like anything that’s come before, as the 17-year-old paired muffled beats, barely audible vocal takes and cutting-edge song-writing. Basically: things are about to get really weird.
Eilish and her older brother Finneas O’Connell made the record in their bedroom-studio, so there’s little surprise that ‘When We All Fall Asleep…’ acts as diary entries from an anxious generation. There’s ‘Bury A Friend’, a fear-fuelled tale told from the perspective of the monsters under Billie’s bed, and ‘Xanny’, a response to America’s teenage opioid crisis, on which she admitted that she was the only one at the party “who’s not stoned” and asked her friends to not “give me a Xanny – now or ever.” There were laughs to be had, too, though. ‘Bad Guy’ was as funny as it was catchy and the siblings concocted an in-jokey spirit on the likes of ‘My Strange Addiction’ and ‘!!!!!’.
Beyond music, 2019 saw her become the kind of cultural force that appears once in a generation, using her platform to speak out against body-shaming, online bullying and conveying her faith in the planet’s youth to combat the climate crisis. With voices and personalities like Billie Eilish’s, the next decade might turn out all right after all, y’know?
Key track: ‘Bad Guy’
Best bit: The beat-switch in ‘Bad Guy’s final third, where a monstrous bassline rips through the song. Thomas Smith
NME said: “A memorable and game-changing debut record, with Billie’s disruptive streak front and centre. We’ll no doubt see the mainstream scrabbling to replicate it.”