In 2019, some of music’s biggest acts took a backseat to rising stars and the underground. In the hip hop scene artists like JPEGMAFIA and Danny Brown started to get some of the mainstream love that they deserve. In pop, the two left-of-center pop princesses capitalized on their signature sounds. And refreshing acts in both hip hop and rock popped up in all sorts of strange ways. So here are the ten best albums of this weird year. Keep in mind that this list is just my opinion!
10. Lover- Taylor Swift
Crazy I know right, Lover in my top ten? They’re gonna take away my Kanye Fan Badge, but I cannot pretend that Lover is not a really well done album. Lover marks a return to pop for Taylor Swift after 2017’s Reputation took a detour into all kinds of styles, not all of which played to Taylor’s strengths as an artist. Good news is that Lover brings her back to many of the pop sensibilities and guitar balladry that came off so well on albums like Red and 1989. Taylor continues to baffle me with her single choices like “ME!” and “The Archer,” but the fourth single “Lover” may very well be one of the best pop singles of the year. The simple strings and thumping percussion all climax perfectly into the album’s best moment. The same formula applies equally as well to a song like “Paper Rings” which has a great throwback instrumental. Now this album is far from flawless, there are a few head scratchers in the track-listing, but I think it is Taylor Swift’s best work since Red.
Favorite Tracks: Lover, Paper Rings, Cruel Summer
9. ZUU- Denzel Curry
Last year Denzel Curry released one of the best hip hop albums of the decade, and ZUU is the palate cleanser that followed. For an album that isn’t supposed to be much ZUU actually does a lot in its short run time. Denzel’s signature hard flows pair nicely with the Miami style production he chose on this album. The two singles “RICKY,” and “SPEEDBOAT,” are two of the most electric songs of the year. There’s even a feature from Rick Ross, arguably the biggest Miami hip hop artist since 2 Live Crew, and his appearance is a worthy cosign for Denzel. ZUU is short sighted in concept, which is obviously intentional for a project like this. I do wish I could hear the ideas of home and Miami gang life fleshed out further on an upcoming record but for now ZUU is an ample substitute.
Favorite Tracks: ZUU, RICKY, WISH, AUTOMATIC
8. Norman F*cking Rockwell!- Lana Del Ray
I almost can’t believe that in 2019 I’ve become a little bit of a Lana Del Ray fan, but here we are. Her latest album Norman F*cking Rockwell! sounds like what Lana Del Ray fans have always acted like her music sounds like. On NFR! her poetry has improved drastically and, as expected, her sound pairs very nicely with production from Jack Antonoff. Additionally, NFR! is free of extraneous features that have previously littered Lana’s projects and it allows her and Antonoff’s chemistry to really shine.
Favorite Tracks: Mariners Apartment Complex, Norman F*cking Rockwell, hope is a dangerous thing to have…
7. Dedicated- Carly Rae Jepsen
At the beginning of this decade Carly Rae Jepsen exploded with her number one single “Call Me Maybe.” Some people may see that song as a crutch for Carly but really it has been a launching pad for the most refreshing artist in pop music. Nine years after that hit and the Canadian Pop Princess is still making great music but in a different way. Her newest album, Dedicated, is yet another solid record from CRJ. On Dedicated, Carly continues to deliver on the sound that she so masterfully broke through with on 2015’s Emotion. While Dedicated may not be as consistent from start to finish as that other record; I actually think that there are more great songs on this album than her last. Songs like “Want You In My Room,” and “No Drug Like Me,” continue with her 80’s pop aesthetic but the narratives on this album have changed quite a bit. No album in 2019 is as enjoyable, carefree, and polished as Dedicated, and Carly Rae Jepsen continues to make pop music that refuses to conform.
Favorite Tracks: Julien, No Drug Like Me, Want You In My Room, Everything He Needs
6. uknowhatimsayin?- Danny Brown
This year Danny Brown took solace in his new role as a veteran of the rap game, and his album unknowhatimsayin? embodies that spirit entirely. Like the opening tracks says, this is a “Change Up” in every way for Danny, from the production and bars all the way to the features. The most exciting factor going into this record was the executive production from legendary rapper producer Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest. Q-Tip’s influence is all over this thing, especially on songs like “Dirty Laundry,” “Best Life,” and “Combat,” which all include his signature production quirks and boom bap style. The biggest surprise of unknowhatimsayin? is the track “Shine” with Blood Orange. An unlikely pairing of two experimenters on opposite ends of the spectrum, coming together to make a really excellent song. I have no clue where Danny Brown is headed from here. unknowhatimsayin? feels like a send off record if there ever was one, but Danny pairs well with so many artists on this record that I would love to see him pursue a collaboration project next.
Favorite Tracks: Combat, Dirty Laundry, Best Life, Negro Spiritual
5. GINGER- BROCKHAMPTON
GINGER is a grower, not a shower. On first listen it comes off as endearing but a little disjointed and not as energetic as old releases. But each listen peels back the layers of the group and reveals the motivations behind an album this depressing. The best example of this is probably the opening track “NO HALO.” It’s a soft guitar ballad accompanied by great performances from Merlyn, Matt Champion, and Deb Never but what makes it special is just how different it is. BROCKHAMPTON has become known for starting albums with bombastic singles and “NO HALO,” is anything but that. It’s a precursor for what GINGER is, a deep meditation on the group, faith, fame, and their now former member Ameer Vann. Each member of the group gets a chance to shine on this album, something that couldn’t be said of past releases. Merlyn gets to be more than the group’s hype man, and Bearface shines brightly on almost every track. Joba especially impressed me as a rapper, and I previously saw him as more of an addendum to the group than a key member. So much of the material on this sounds completely new to BROCKHAMPTON, but they manage to put their own spin on everything so that it all comes out perfectly. GINGER, despite being the least Brockhampton-y album they have ever released is somehow their most fulfilling and cohesive yet.
Favorite Tracks: GINGER, NO HALO, BOY BYE, DEARLY DEPARTED
4. Bandana- Freddie Gibbs and MadLib
I never would’ve thought that the second pairing of legendary producer MadLib and Freddie Gibbs would see Freddie as the dominant of the two. Even more surprisingly I didn’t think it would make for a better album. In opposition with Pinata, the beats are a little less crazy, the skits are less invasive, and Freddie’s raps are much better. As a result the project is much more enjoyable because it doesn’t sound like either artist is trying to outshine the other. From the first single, “Crime Pays,” I knew we would have another classic on the way. Everything about “Crime Pays” embodies what makes this duo so much fun to listen to. Insane soul samples and ice cold coke raps. And it’s not just the core duo clicking on Bandana, this album includes the best features of the year by far. Anderson .Paak and Pusha T shine on “Giannis,” and “Palmolive,” respectively, but the most underrated features come courtesy of Yasiin Bey and Black Thought on “Education.” Bandana is solid from start to finish, with great raps and equally great production making it a can’t miss for hip hop fans.
Favorite Tracks: Crime Pays, Flat Tummy Tea, Giannis
3. GREY Area- Little Simz
GREY Area is not experimental, in fact it’s probably like a lot of things you’ve heard if you’re a hip hop fan of the 2010’s, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t a great album. Every song on this from start to finish is a perfect pairing of Simz’s rapping and beautiful live instrumentals. In fact the only real complaint I can level against GREY area is that it isn’t long enough, and that’s a good thing. I believe Little Simz could do huge things for UK hip hop in the future if her next albums are even close to this quality. She is unquestionably the best female rapper right now and really it isn’t close, all because of how insanely perfected every aspect of this album is.
Favorite Tracks: Boss, Selfish, 101 FM
2. All My Heroes Are Cornballs- JPEGMAFIA
On his third commercial release JPEGMAFIA (aka Peggy) continues to do what he does best in every way but this time in a much more consistent album. Peggy has a unique way of merging the traditional sounds of hip hop and pop music with these insane stretches of glitchy and postmodern production and he showed it off on this album in new ways. A lot of tracks off of his last album Veteran, came off as one trick ponies. On AMHAC each track has several sonic passages, huge flow switch ups, and in the case of “Kenan v.s Kel,” the best beat switch of the year. In a lot of ways this album is like a more experimental version of Tyler, The Creator’s IGOR and because of that several tracks on the final stretch of the album are a little over indulgent. But the first two thirds remain impeccable and they show Peggy coupling his patented “rhetoric” style of rapping with some of his best instrumentals ever. In my opinion, JPEGMAFIA is among the top five artists in hip hop right now, and he continues to say more on each verse than most rappers do on their whole albums. He has me salivating for what’s coming next.
Favorite Tracks: Jesus Forgive Me I Am A Thot, Kenan Vs. Kel, Beta Male Strategies, Grimy Waifu
1. IGOR- Tyler, The Creator
I was never a Tyler, The Creator fan if I’m being honest. In the early days I thought his music didn’t do enough to interest me lyrically or sonically. Occasionally I would buy into the absurdity of tracks like “Yonkers,” but for the most part his material from the Odd Future days really fell flat on my ears. Flower Boy was the first exception to this. I thought Tyler really found a sound that he could perfect with that album, but as a whole listening experience I didn’t think it was entirely complete. My opinions on Tyler have now shifted entirely after his latest release IGOR. On IGOR, Tyler manages to craft an entire world of sounds so that the listening experience is so complete there is no point in the track list where one can leave. The opening distortions on “IGOR’S THEME,” and Tyler’s emotional screams on the closing track “ARE WE STILL FRIENDS?” are equally as satisfying as all the moments between them. But it is the sound palette and song structures that make this album as good as it is. Each track is packed with features used so subtly that they melt perfectly into the background. And despite Tyler wearing his influences on his sleeve the whole albums manages to sound totally uniquely him.
Favorite Tracks: EARFQUAKE, GONE GONE/THANK YOU, ARE WE STILL FRIENDS?, I THINK, IGOR’S THEME
Honorable Mentions: JESUS IS KING- Kanye West, So Much Fun- Young Thug, Injury Reserve- Injury Reserve, Charli- Charli XCX,