The Year in Music: 2019

The Year in Music: 2019|The Year in Music: 2019

My list of the top 10 albums of the year is as follows:

1. FKA Twigs: “Magdalene” (Young Turks)

In a year when most of the creative energy that would’ve livened up indie rock a decade ago went into indie pop instead, “Magdalene” brought FKA Twigs to a new level of ambition. She pushed her voice to new highs, summoning the spirit of ‘80s Kate Bush with production full of glitchy electronics. The album makes one misstep with the trap-oriented “Holy Terrain” (which sounds like a response to her label’s request for a potential hit single); but it puts her recent experience living in the public eye (on “Cellophane,” she sings “They wanna see us, wanna see us apart… And I don’t want to have to share our love”) and suffering intense pain from fibroids into a context informed by perceptions of religious figures like Mary Magdalene. You don’t need to have dated a movie star to feel her ache.

2. Polo G: “Die a Legend” (Columbia)

Mainstream hip-hop with substance coming from a rapper in their early 20s is a rarity these days, especially from an artist who blew up thanks to a viral hit (“Pop Out”) promoted by teenagers’ memes on TikTok and YouTube. But Polo G masters an intense, rapid-fire flow and melodic singing equally well, backed by minimal production that makes something beautiful out of five notes on a piano or chimes. Finding a halfway point between Chicago’s dual traditions of conscious rap and bleak drill music, he movingly describes a life of witnessing and committing violence, numbing himself with ecstasy and Percocet, and a tentative hope that his current fame will permanently transform his life.

3. Weyes Blood: “Titanic Rising” (Sub Pop)

Nostalgia for ‘70s soft rock is in the air these days, but one-woman band Natalie Mering puts it to her own use. “Titanic Rising” makes great use of the larger budget she received from signing with Sub Pop, working with string and horn arrangements for the first time to flesh out her vision. The results suggest a Karen Carpenter solo album where the singer was fully in control of her music and life. “Movies” is a mission statement about turning from spectator to artist.

4. Big Thief: “Two Hands” and “U.F.O.F.” (4AD)

Rooted in folk music and the singer/ songwriter tradition, the two albums released by Big Thief this year chafe at the notion that this limits the band. The hazy, mostly acoustic “U.F.O.F.” uses the studio to create an eerie gloss on singer/ guitarist Adrianne Lenker’s songs. (Without making any public declarations about her sexuality, she writes love songs to both men and women.) “Two Hands,” recorded live in the studio in two days, has a rough, volatile feel that seems like it could go off the rails at any minute, while still maintaining the same level of craft. The astonishingly passionate “Not” is as good as rock music gets in 2019, especially when Lenker’s guitar solo takes flight in the song’s last few minutes.

5 Jenny Lewis: “On the Line” (Warner Bros.)

The soundtrack for driving drunk through Southern California wildfires. (Lana Del Rey’s “The Greatest” is more subdued but basically shares the same spirit.)

6. Dorian Electra: “Flamboyant” (self-released)

Launching themselves early this decade as a libertarian novelty pop singer with songs like “I’m In Love With Friedrich Hayek,” non-binary, queer artist Dorian Electra has moved to the left politically and embarked on a genre-bending aesthetic. “Flamboyant” achieves a conceptual brilliance, with witty, campy lyrics. “Career Boy” doubles as a satire of yuppie life and description of the grind necessary to get attention as an indie musician. Electra uses Autotune to distort their voice to make gender impossible to pin down.

7. Various Artists: “Queen & Slim: The Soundtrack” (Motown)

The movie is fine, but critic Hannah Giorgis was right when she wrote that this soundtrack album expresses its themes better. It emphasizes slow jams, with lesbian singer Syd’s “Getting Late,” Vince Staples, 6LACK & Mereba’s “Yo Love,” and Tiana Major9 & Earthgang’s “Collide” all exuding a sultry tenderness missing from the actual film. Kicking off with Megan Thee Stallion’s ferocious “Ride Or Die,” it ends in a far more ambiguous place with “I’m not gay, but I’m not straight” producer Blood Orange’s final song, which repeats “can’t keep running away” as its sole lyric.

8. Orville Peck: “Pony” (Sub Pop)

I initially dismissed Peck, a gay Canadian country singer who uses a pseudonym and performs behind a mask, as a gimmick. But once I sat down and listened to “Pony” all the way through, the strength of his vocals (a baritone evoking Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash) and songwriting are undeniable. Working behind an overt persona allows Peck to put the drama in his music upfront; the cowboys and drag queens who populate his lyrics become mythic figures beside the heterosexual men and women trapped in repressive small towns in Bruce Springsteen songs.

9. Sharon Van Etten: “Remind Me Tomorrow” (Jagjaguwar)

On her fifth album, singer/ songwriter Van Etten went in a new direction. “Remind Me Tomorrow” weds electronics — she named a song after the Jupiter 4 analog synthesizer — to slick production inspired by ‘80s arena-rock. “Seventeen” achieves sublime melodrama, with Van Etten looking back on her teenage self and the changes in New York since her youth and wondering, “ I used to feel free, or was it just a dream?”

10. Pelada: “Movimiento Para Cambio” (PAN)

This Canadian duo finds common ground between punk and house music. Non-binary singer Chris Vargas’ righteous anger informs their Spanish-language lyrics, which bring a queercore/ riot grrrl sensibility to the dance club — and also take on surveillance capitalism. Producer Tobias Rachman’s beats burrow into a spare but driving groove.

Runners-up (with asterisk indicating music by LGBTQ artists):

black midi: “Schlagenheim” (Rough Trade)

Blanck Mass: “Animated Violence Mild” (Sacred Bones)

Blood Incantation: “Hidden History of the Human Race” (Dark Descent)

*Blood Orange: “Angel’s Pulse” (Domino)

Blut Aus Nord: “Hallucinogen” (Debemur Morti)

Burna Boy: “African Giant” (Atlantic)

Charly Bliss: “Young Enough” (Barsuk)

Leonard Cohen: “Thanks For the Dance” (Columbia)

Theon Cross: “Fyah” (self-released)

Denzel Curry: “Zuu” (Loma Vista)

*Default Genders: “Main Pop Girl 2019” (self-released)

Lana Del Rey: “Norman Fucking Rockwell” (Interscope)

DIIV: “Deceiver” (Captured Tracks)

Ex Hex: “It’s Real” (Merge)

*Fire-Toolz: “Field Whispers (Into the Crystal Palace)” (Orange Milk)

Florist: “Emily Alone” (Double Double Whammy)

Rhiannon Giddens: “There Is No Other” (Nonesuch)

Lucki: “Freewave 3” (self-released) and “Days B4 III” (Empire)

Mdou Moctar: “Ilana: The Creator” (Sahel Sounds)

*Bob Mould: “Sunshine Rock” (Merge)

Caroline Polachek: “Pang” (Perpetual Novice)

Resavoir: s/t (International Anthem)

Tomeka Reid Quartet: “Old New” (Cuneiform)

Rico Nasty & Kenny Beats: “Anger Management” (Atlantic)

75 Dollar Bill: “I Was Real” (Glitterbeat)

Slowthai: “Nothing Great About Britain” (Method)

Tinashe: “Songs For You” (self-released)

*Torche: “Admission” (Relapse)

Triad God: “Triad” (Presto!?)

*Tyler, the Creator:“Igor” (Columbia)

Soundtrack: “Us” (Back Lot)

Adia Victoria: “Silences” (Atlantic)

My 40 favorite singles:

Afro B: “Drogba (Joanna)” (Marathon Artists)

*Julien Baker: “Tokyo” (Sub Pop)

J. Balvin & Bad Bunny: “La Cancion” (Universal)

Better Oblivion Community Center: “Dylan Thomas” (Dead Oceans)

*Brockhampton: “No Halo” (RCA)

Charli XCX: “White Mercedes” and *Charli XCX & Christine & the Queens: “Gone” (Atlantic)

Eric Church: “Some of It” (EMI Nashville)

George Clanton featuring Nick Hexum: “King For a Day” (100% Electronica)

*Lucy Dacus: “Dancing in the Dark” (Matador)

Marie Davidson: “Work It (Soulwax remix)” (Ninja Tune)

Lana Del Rey: “Looking for America” (Interscope)

Georgia: “About Work the Dancefloor” and “No Letting Go” (Domino)

*Brittany Howard: “Stay High” (ATO)

Carly Rae Jepsen: “No Drug Like Me” & “Too Much” (Interscope)

*Kehlani featuring Ty Dolla $ign: “Nights Like This” (Atlantic)

Kokoko!: “Malembe” (Transgressive)

Ari Lennox featuring J. Cole: “Shea Butter Baby” (Dreamville)

*Lil Nas X featuring Billy Ray Cyrus: “Old Town Road (remix)” (Columbia)

Little Scream: “Dear Leader” (Merge)

Galcher Lustwerk: “Cig Angel” (Ghostly International)

Megan Thee Stallion featuring Da Baby: “Cash Shit” (300)

*Octo Octa: “I Need You” (Technicolour)

*Frank Ocean: “In My Room” (Blonded)

Plaid: “Maru (Skee Mask remix)” (Warp)

*Priests: “The Seduction of Kansas” (Sister Polygon)

*Princess Nokia: “Sugar Honey Iced Tea (S.H.I.T.)” (self-released)

Pusha T featuring Kash Doll: “Sociopath” (G.O.O.D. Music)

Rhi: “Swagger” (Tru Thoughts)

Rosalia: “Milionària” and “Dio$ No$ Libre del Dinero” (Columbia)

*Sneaks: “Hong Kong To Amsterdam” (Merge)

Harry Styles: “Lights Up” (Columbia)

21 Savage featuring J. Cole: “A Lot” (Epic)

Vampire Weekend: “Harmony Hall” (Columbia)

The Weeknd: “Blinding Lights” (Republic)

billy woods featuring Fielded: “We Reject Western Education” (Backwoodz Studioz)

YG: “In the Dark” (Def Jam)

A YouTube playlist of my favorite music of 2019 is at

“Pony” proves that the strength of Orville Peck’s vocals and songwriting are undeniable.