What an amazing year for music!
The year is drawing to a close, which presents the opportunity to look back at some of my favorite albums of the year. There was a lot of music released this year at blistering rates; sifting through it all was overwhelming at times, and even more difficult was trying to grade everything on a reasonable scale. Nevertheless, here are the albums that I feel stood out from the pack in 2019.
Headlines of 2019
R&B Dominates: R&B & neo-soul absolutely stole the show in 2019, hands down. Last time R&B had a year this amazing was in 2017, when artists like SZA, H.E.R., Daniel Caesar, Miguel, and more dropped incredible projects.
- 7 of the Top 10 albums of 2019 (70%) are classified as R&B/Soul projects.
- 11 of the Top 20 albums of 2019 (55%) are classified as R&B/Soul projects.
- 25 of the Top 50 albums of 2019 (50%) are classified as R&B/Soul projects.
Women Rule: The musical releases by women this year, especially Black women, have simply been extraordinary. Their voices, songwriting, and production heavily defined the musical landscape of 2019.
- 6 of the Top 10 albums of 2019 (60%) were sung and/or rapped and/or produced by women.
- 15 of the Top 25 albums of 2019 (60%) were sung and/or rapped and/or produced by women.
- 26 of the Top 50 albums of 2019 (52%) were sung and/or rapped and/or produced by women.
Sparkling Debuts: A lot of artists got their careers off to spectacular starts with some stunning projects.
- 13 of the Top 50 albums of 2019 (26%) are classified as the artists’ debut studio albums.
The Top 60 Albums of 2019
HOMECOMING: The Live Album
Beyoncé made history in 2018 by becoming the first Black woman ever to headline Coachella, the biggest music festival in America. She marked the achievement by putting on what is now widely recognized as one of the most monumental showcases of the decade. Beyoncé’s performance was more than just an extravagant show of her extensive catalog; HOMECOMING celebrates Black culture and Black excellence through the prism of the HBCU experience. Beyoncé’s live vocals are as magnificent as ever, and marching band renditions of her biggest hits give songs like “Crazy in Love” and “Countdown” new life.
Cuz I Love You
It’s kinda impossible to discuss 2019 without at least mentioning the name Lizzo. Her sudden, meteoric rise from obscurity to stardom, off the back of the massive sleeper hit “Truth Hurts,” was one of the stories of the year. Cuz I Love You builds upon the soul-infused, body-positive, feel-good pop foundation she laid on her Coconut Oil EP, which marked her sonic departure from hip-hop. I understand that Lizzo is a polarizing character. And sure, some of the songwriting here is a bit too bush-league. But Lizzo’s vocal talent is undeniable, and her ability to craft earwormy hooks is premium-grade.
When I Get Home
Solange’s latest album is very different from the A Seat at the Table sequel that many fans were expecting. Rather, Solange does away with both context and verbiage on When I Get Home, as she opts to deliver a sonic experience that pays homage to Southern hip-hop culture. In Solange’s abstract world, Blackness reigns supreme and chopped ‘n screwed music is a high art. Though there isn’t a plethora of heartfelt, luminescent moments like there were on ASATT, Solange still manages to paint a fascinating picture of what she appreciates most about her home and upbringing in Houston’s Third Ward.
39. Kyle Dion – Suga
38. Raphael Saadiq – Jimmy Lee
37. Nicole Bus – Kairos
36. slowthai – Nothing Great About Britain
35. JPEGMAFIA – All My Heroes Are Cornballs
34. Blood Orange – Angel’s Pulse
33. Danny Brown – uknowhatimsayin¿
32. Kehlani – While We Wait
31. Tei Shi – La Linda
30. Tay Iwar – Gemini
29. Asiahn – Love Train 2
The centerpiece of Maxo Kream’s latest album, as the cover depicts, is his father — whether Maxo is directly addressing his father’s infidelities and abuse, or whether he’s detailing the life of crime that’s partially due to his father’s absence. Brandon Banks, is kind of an observation of how Maxo’s difficult life — from trapping out of Panera Bread, to visiting his homies in the pen — is merely a product of his strained relationship with his father. The minimal production allows Maxo Kream’s compelling storytelling to shine on this gem of a hip-hop album.
Songs for You
Tinashe’s Songs for You is an experience that is inextricably tied to the circumstances in which it was created. Label expectations, as well as the pressures of chart success, led to years of struggle and numerous public faux pas. But what Tinashe delivers on her first independently-released studio album is encouraging sign for fans of her music. Winning back creative control has resulted in some of Tinashe’s most emotionally-resonant songwriting moments, and songs like “Die a Little Bit” and “Perfect Crime” present new and exciting forays into hip-house and disco. Independence has certainly breathed new life back into Tinashe’s career.
Nigerian superstar Burna Boy is nothing if not confident. Earlier in the year, he responded to a minimal placement on a Coachella promotional poster by demanding better placement and calling himself an “African Giant.” He later gave his newest album the same name, and as afrobeats continues its surge towards the international mainstream, Burna’s nickname is becoming more and more fitting. African Giant is all at once a celebration of the brilliance of Blackness, a critique of the state of Nigerian politics, and a call for global pan-Africanism. It’s a profound statement by an artist who’s bound to be a global icon in the coming decade, if he isn’t already.
WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?
From dropping a double-platinum debut album, to being nominated for six Grammys, Billie Eilish practically owned 2019. On When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, Billie Eilish’s dream-pop balladry — the type you hear on her breakout “Ocean Eyes” — gives way to her darker, more sinister, “bad guy” tendencies. Her ASMR-esque vocals, which I thought were initially off-putting, brilliantly compliment the vulnerable songwriting and haunting production, which incorporates both hip-hop and industrial tropes. Eilish has musical maturity that extends well beyond her mere 17 years, which is perhaps the most impressive aspect of her debut.
Megan Thee Stallion
I’ve been saying for a while now that Megan Thee Stallion is one of, if not the most exciting New School rapper out right now. Aside from having a likable personality, her sex-positive, ultra-raunchy raps are imbued with an infectious, almost-palpable confidence. On Fever, her first legitimate commercial breakthrough, Megan brings back everything we have come to love about her — sensational shit-talking, impressive flows that harken back to Southern hip-hop legends, and unbelievably quotable bars. And to emphasize the “Hot Girl” aspect of her persona ego, Megan also delivers a steady helping of danceable, club-ready tracks like “Shake That” and “Big Drank.” Fever is another fun project from the burgeoning Houston torchbearer that only adds to the hype for a proper studio album.
If there’s one thing you need to know about Kelsey Lu, it’s that she’s a free spirit. At the age of 18, she broke away from her religious home to attend music school and pursue a music career. As she indicates on the introductory track, she’s a “Rebel” — literally and artistically. Moreover, Blood, her dazzling debut album, also refuses to be confined to any musical conventions, falling somewhere in the wide cavern between classical and disco. Kelsey Lu’s affinity for the ambient and abstract, which sometimes result in mysterious subject matter, nevertheless make listening to Blood a fascinating experience.
thank u, next
The story of Ariana Grande over the past couple of years has been one of emotional resilience. She followed up both the devastating Manchester attack and a fractured long-term relationship with the bold Sweetener album last year. And after the end of her brief engagement with comedian Pete Davidson and the passing of former partner Mac Miller (RIP), Grande bounced back with thank u, next. It isn’t just delightful production and dreamy vocals that characterize nearly the entire tracklist; thank u, next is about honesty and growth, boasting some of the most sobering and emotionally resonant moments in Grande’s discography.
The part of Denzel Curry’s music that has often gotten lost in the weeds is how much he reps where he comes from. His music, while great, has never really screamed “South Florida” in the same way that Rick Ross or Trina or City Girls’ music often does. Not that it ever needed to, but it clearly was a part of his musical identity that Curry felt like rectifying in 2019. On ZUU, an in-between project to hold fans over until his next big album, Curry dials the hometown homage and commercial replayability all the way up. There may be less to digest lyrically on ZUU than on his previous album TA13OO, but here, Curry offers listeners an honest glimpse of the people and culture that have influenced and inspired him up to this point.
Rico Nasty & Kenny Beats
Rico Nasty took last year by storm, emerging as one of hip-hop’s hottest new commodities. Producer Kenny Beats helped shape the landscape of trap music in 2018 and emerged as one of hip-hop’s most sought-after producers. Given their chemistry and the quality of their collaborations on Rico’s major label debut Nasty, it was not at all surprising that their lightning struck twice on Anger Management. The project is brief — only 20 minutes in runtime — nevertheless, Anger Management is a hyperactive, aggressive, fun project full of personality, artistic synergy, gut-punching (and sometimes motivational) raps, and trunk-knocking beats.
Tyler, the Creator
Tyler, the Creator has had quite an interesting character arc. Over the course of the 2010s, Tyler has continually reinvented himself, transitioning from an angsty, bad-mouthed teenager with daddy issues, to a sensitive young man learning to publicly embrace his sexuality. Prone to risk-taking, Tyler’s latest album IGOR has him veering even further left than he did with Cherry Bomb. On IGOR, we find Tyler at his most emotional; backed by experimental, synthy production, heavy pitch-tuning and frequent singing, Okonma travels the complex emotional spectrum of breakup — love, longing, jealousy, heartbreak, and acceptance — in what is undeniably his most ambitious and most vulnerable album ever.
So many talented singers have stepped up in recent years to grab the reigns of contemporary R&B, and I think Lucky Daye firmly positioned himself amongst that group in 2019 with the release of his debut album Painted. Daye’s R&B influences are clear and wide-ranging — from Ginuwine to Frank Ocean to Kendrick Lamar — but considering the fact that he’s still discovering his own artistic voice, Painted is more than just a “promising debut.” His vocal chops and his elegant take on R&B’s multifarious soundscape show that he is already lightyears ahead of many of his own peers.
-Ugh, those feels again
Snoh Aalegra delivered a second dose of autumn feels in 2019 with her album -Ugh, those feels again, the sequel to her aptly-titled 2017 debut FEELS. Inspired by previous long-term relationships and the early phases of a kindling romance, -Ugh captures both the euphoria associated with new love, as well as the heartbrokenness one experiences when love is lost. Over an arrangement of ethereal production that strays from the retro vibes of her previous couple of projects, Snoh Aalegra guides listeners across the emotional spectrum, her melting vocals and touching songwriting leading the way.
The title of Dave’s debut album was not frivolously chosen. Psychodrama, similar to the psychotherapy technique from which it gets its name, is the 21-year-old Streatham rapper’s attempt to gain insight into his emotional pain and anxiety — all from the solace of a metaphorical therapist couch. With pointed detail and fretful tone, and guided by nebulous, piano-driven production, Dave opens up about his life — his tumultuous upbringing, rough environment, lack of a father figure, and his brother’s incarceration. Psychodrama‘s stories of struggle, racial inequality and abuse make for a profound, sometimes gut-wrenching look into the life of a young Black man growing up in London.
Little Simz easily has one of, if not the most remarkable pen game in hip-hop right now, and it’s a shame that she, like many other talented UK hip-hop artists, is often overlooked in stateside hip-hop conversations. Not any longer, though, because it’s on her latest album GREY Area where Simz’s nearly-immaculate lyricism and storytelling skills splice seamlessly with her artistic vision. She is more honest than ever, as she opens up about her anxieties, vulnerabilities, and indignation in the wake of political tensions in the UK in recent years; yet, she is simultaneously more confident than ever, reeling off some of her most lyrically potent records to date.
Since 2011, Dawn Richard has been blazing her own trail as an independent artist, expanding her artistic umbrella into the realms of avant-pop and electronic R&B. On new breed, the follow-up to her acclaimed Heart Trilogy of albums, Richard takes it back to her hometown of New Orleans, paying homage to the place that shaped much of her social, political, and musical identity. Impressive vocal performances and themes of Black female empowerment permeate the tracklist, as Dawn Richard proves once again that she is an artist not to be overlooked.
May the Lord Watch
Given their nearly decade-long break, and both artists focusing on their own separate careers, Little Brother‘s release of May the Lord Watch was a welcome surprise. This album is grown-man rap at its finest, as Phonte and Big Pooh, both of whom are veterans in the rap game, reflect on their careers, their legacies, love, family, Black excellence, and more. There’s a lot of insightful commentary, nostalgia, humor (by way of hilarious skits and exclamations), and great production, as well as the standard level of elite lyricism we’ve all come to expect from both Phonte and Pooh.
Michael Kiwanuka pairs up again with Danger Mouse and Inflo, with whom he struck gold on his previous album Love & Hate, to create an album that takes a look inward and explores “what it means to be a human being today.” The beauty of Kiwanuka lies in its expansive range of influences; the British singer immerses himself in the retro vibes of ‘60s/‘70s rock, classic soul, jazz, folk, and afrobeat. The result is a work of art that is as psychedelic and audibly spellbinding as it is introspective and vulnerable.
Charli XCX’s musical journey following the popularity of “Boom Clap” is one of the more interesting developments of the 2010s. Her collaborations with PC Music leader founder A.G. Cook have led to some of her best songs to date, many of which appear on her third studio album. Charli, which the artist described as her “most personal album,” follows the groundwork of subversive, futuristic, tasteful pop she’s been laying since 2016, while also embracing some of the mainstream pop aesthetics that helped launch her into stardom in the first place. Ambitious production and confessional songwriting make Charli a treat.
Watching the rise of an artist as likable and talented as Anderson .Paak — who was homeless at the start of the decade and is finishing the 2010s as a Billboard-charting artist — has been inspiring. He’s a fairly young guy with an old soul, and his reverence for soul’s heyday has resulted in some of the decade’s most tasteful musical moments (e.g. Malibu, Yes Lawd!). Among these moments is Ventura, the sequel to his 2018 outing Oxnard. In contrast to the latter’s rap-heavy, “gritty” persona, Ventura is a joyous return to the ‘70s inspired funk/soul that we’ve come to know and love. Sublime collaborations with music legends, as well as Anderson’s trademark virtuosity, practically guaranteed a spot amongst the year’s best bodies of work.
FKA twigs’ first album in five years, Magdalene, is about many things. On the surface at least, Magdalene is an intricate, lush meditation on love, and heartbreak, and trauma, and neediness, and adoration, and indignation, and longing, and depression. But you can also tell, just by the title she selected for this album, that Twigs is trying to underscore a particular point. Using the analogy of Mary Magdalene — the biblical follower of Jesus who, for centuries, was inaccurately viewed as a prostitute thanks to the erroneous teachings of Catholic leaders — Magdalene aims to make an empowering statement — not just about women’s worth, but also the importance of women seizing control of their narrative.
The Jungle is the Only Way Out
Mereba’s debut studio album The Jungle is the Only Way Out displays an artist with a melting pot of musical inspiration. The multi-talented, self-described “rolling stoner” may have kickstarted her musical journey off the back of New Age aesthetics, but here, she pulls from a variety of musical sources like folk, r&b, neo-soul, hip-hop, and country. Mereba showcases her knack for songwriting — a skill that she honed in college while she was writing for Def Jam — in her poetic, lovely, and often conscious lyrics, as well as her powerful spoken-word interludes. Serving as her first genuine exposure to the masses, The Jungle is the Only Way Out is a glorious major label endeavor that has made me ecstatic about where Mereba will go next.
The singularity of Baby Rose’s voice can be a bit jolting at first; considering that she’s only in her mid-twenties, it’s hard to imagine that someone so young could have a voice so aged and evocative. With that being said, this uniqueness is exactly what makes listening to her on her debut album To Myself such a gratifying experience. The soulfulness of Rose’s voice lends itself to her ability to make listeners really feel the pain and heartbreak that fuel this project, which is inspired by a real-life breakup. Aided by its beautiful songwriting and gorgeous production, To Myself’s poignant meditations on heartache and relational turmoil resonate almost as much as Rose’s sensational voice.
British electronic producer/singer James Blake has always had a penchant for emotional transparency and vulnerability, which has earned him the label of a “sad boy” artist — a categorization that he has vehemently denounced. To be fair, most of his music is steeped in a melancholy; however, on Assume Form, his first album in almost three years, Blake appears to be painting with much warmer colors. Songs like “Can’t Believe the Way We Flow” and “I’ll Come Too” read as a man who is absolutely smitten by the woman he’s found himself with (in Blake’s case, actress Jameela Jamil). James Blake assumes a form he’s rarely ever taken — upbeat and blissful — and the primary reason, quite simply, is love.
Freddie Gibbs & Madlib
If you ask me, no rapper in the 2010s displayed more consistency and high-quality output than Gary, Indiana rapper Freddie Gibbs. His stretch of album releases spanning from 2014 to 2018 featured some of the best hip-hop releases of both their respective years and of the entire decade, such as Piñata, Shadow of a Doubt, and the collaborative album Fetti with Curren$y. So it was almost no surprise that the highly-anticipated Piñata sequel, which was initially announced in 2016, actually lived up to its billing. Gibbs brings his signature brand of gutter lyrics, versatile flows, and vivid storytelling, while legendary producer Madlib — who composed all of the beats on an iPad — works his sample-chopping wizardry once again while making it look almost too easy.
Shea Butter Baby
Ari Lennox has a talent for turning seemingly ordinary scenarios into lovable moments; lyrics about shopping at CVS, getting a new apartment, and striking out on Tinder, come across as equal parts relatable and endearing. Shea Butter Baby is a product of Lennox’s very down-to-earth nature, charmingly-goofy personality, and playful sensuality. Led by her soulful, Erykah Badu-esque vocals, this warm, sultry collection of tracks provides a clear view of what Dreamville co-founders J. Cole and Ibrahim Hamad saw in Ari Lennox when they signed her; she’s a neo-soul star in the making, even if the Soul Train Music Awards doesn’t acknowledge it.
If Jamila Woods’ 2016 album HEAVN underscored the lane she was carving out for herself in the R&B arena — a lane which focused on introspection and social commentary — then her most 2019 follow-up LEGACY! LEGACY! is her most exquisite, most complete realization of her vision and art thus far. LEGACY!, in its totality, is a unique expression of identity and a celebration of Black excellence, and a weapon of social critique; Woods accomplishes this by observing the legacies of some of her personal influences — who just so happen to be some of history’s most important artists of color. Her reflections on the art and lives of people like James Baldwin, Betty Davis, and Muddy Waters allow Woods to offer astute, relatable perspectives on political/social/racial issues such as gentrification, toxic masculinity, and cultural appropriation. LEGACY! LEGACY! is one of the most essential musical releases of the year and is the best album of 2019.