With the decade soon coming to a close, 2019 offered the last chance for musicians to capture the cultural and emotional zeitgeist of the 2010s, as well as, set the tone for music to come in the 2020s. Over the past year, radio powerhouses such as The Black Keys and The Raconteurs reemerged from hibernation, newcomers such as Black Pumas, Brittany Howard and Jade Bird all created lasting power in the public eye, Future and Earl Sweatshirt dropped solid projects amidst a relatively quiet year in hip-hop, and collaborations such as Better Oblivion Community Center and The Highwomen elevated their lesser-known members to new heights.
In a time of widespread anxiety and uncertainty, when one chapter of the 21st century is turning into the next, the following 10 artists delivered albums this year that made sonic explorations and artistic statements indicative of where music is heading in the next decade while sounding perfectly at home in 2019.
10. Seeing Other People by Foxygen
On Seeing Other People, the year’s most underrated rock record, Foxygen return to the casual playfulness of what made its previous albums so extraordinary. Coming off 2017’s orchestra-accompanied release, Hang, Seeing Other People lowers the stakes but exponentially raises the fun factor. The album is a blast to listen to. Over Jonathan Rado’s 80s pop rock production, singer Sam France drops hilarious one liners. “Well, I’m so bad I must be wanted by the FBI” he proclaims on the Springsteen-tinged track “The Thing Is.” On “Face the Facts,” an upbeat breakup song that is also the album’s best number, France realizes hard truths including that he’s never going to live in a time “when they put cocaine in Coca-Cola” or dance like James Brown or win the love of his ex-girlfriend back.
The title track has an ambiguous chorus that goes, “We’re seeing other people all the time,” which is either a devastating truth about a romantic couple or a humorous literal statement about living in society. The record is full of double entendres that could be taken as serious or sarcastic and it’s the rare breakup album that sounds like a house party. There hasn’t been another record in 2019 with the sheer fun or cheekiness of Seeing Other People and that’s why it rounds out this list.
9. Let’s Rock by The Black Keys
After a five year absence, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney of The Black Keys return to their blues rock roots with the band’s guitar-and-drum-heavy ninth album, Let’s Rock. The album thematically tackles love that’s either lost or gone sour, and for every rocker and ballad on this record, there’s a gets-stuck-in-your-head melody. You’ve more than likely heard the album’s first single “Lo/Hi” if you’ve left your house this year or even turned on the TV, and it’s probably implanted itself into your psyche.
The chorus of the second single, “Eagle Birds,” is representative of the record’s statement as a whole with Auerbach singing, “Don’t nobody wanna be lonely/Everybody oughta be loved sometime,” a sentiment that’s universal in an increasingly polarized world. But aside from the catchy singles, there’s also a few tender deep-cuts such as “Walk Across the Water” and “Sit Around and Miss You” that balance out the more raucous tunes and give the record a better pace.
Although Let’s Rock is not territory The Black Keys haven’t explored before, the album holds its own as a decade-ending comeback with memorable riffs and sing-along lyrics. It’s a big improvement from the band’s stylistic detour of 2014’s Turn Blue and feels more like an extension of Brothers, the record that nearly 10 years ago cemented the band as one of radio rock’s most dependable groups, an accolade The Black Keys still maintain.
8. Better Oblivion Community Center by Better Oblivion Community Center
Fresh off a solid collaboration with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus called Boygenius, singer/songwriter Phoebe Bridgers teamed up with accomplished indie rocker Conor Oberst earlier this year to form Better Oblivion Community Center. Following the release of its self-titled 10-song debut album in January, the band embarked on a tour of cities and network talk shows that reintroduced Oberst into the public spotlight and made Bridgers a household name among music fans, building up both artists as any good collaboration should do.
But, in addition to the initial excitement this alliance drew, the key to the success of Better Oblivion Community Center is the marriage of Oberst and Bridgers’ idiosyncratic songwriting styles and refined, early emo-inspired chord progressions. The duo focuses its lyrical topics on the struggles of family members, strangers and themselves. Songs range from quietly reflective tunes such as “Didn’t Know What I Was In For” and “Service Road” to fiery, explosive rockers such as “Big Black Heart.”
“Dylan Thomas,” the album’s standout track and only single, captures the more widespread social and political anxieties of our time and expresses a desire for total escapism. It’s a quintessentially 2019 song ridiculing narcissistic showmanship, propaganda-spewing talking heads and rampant authoritarian gaslighting, and, like the rest of the powerful debut, it’s among the clearest songwriting to take on the mental effects of this political and cultural climate.
7. Memory by Vivian Girls
In the late oughts and early 2010s, Vivian Girls released a string of three albums that made the all-female trio not only one of the coolest bands in Brooklyn, but in all of indie rock. I remember immediately falling in love with the nostalgic 1960s, wall of sound songs from the group’s 2011 album Share the Joy such as “I Heard You Say” and “Take It as It Comes.”
Now in 2019, Vivian Girls has reunited to put out its first album of new music in eight years, Memory. With the exception of “Waiting In the Car,” the trio largely abandons the pop stylings of its earlier records in favor a noisy shoegazing aesthetic that feels more apt for the chaos of this day and age than starry-eyed dream pop. On this album, there’s no “I Heard You Say” but instead heady, anxious guitars coupled with hazy mantra-like harmonies. “Sick” and “Lonely Girl” are anthems of despair and catharsis rather than cheeky playfulness.
Usually when a band reunites, there’s some sense of celebration. But on Memory, it feels like Vivian Girls returned to deliver a warning. With women’s reproductive rights being infringed upon all over the country and sexual harassment still a pervasive issue, what else is there to feel about the future except worry and uncertainty? Vivian Girls use Memory to bottle the anxiety of 2019 and cast it into a sea of fuzz.
6. Lost Wisdom Pt. 2 by Mount Eerie and Julie Diordon
Over the past two years, Mount Eerie’s Phil Elverum has been going through it. In the wake of his wife’s untimely death from cancer in 2016, Elverum developed a vulnerable, confessional style of songwriting that recounts his recent struggles without holding back his heartache. On Lost Wisdom Pt. 2, his third album in this diaristic style, he and collaborator Julie Diordon try to find meaning and poetry in the aftermath of a different kind of tragedy than death: a separation. Despite being a sequel to his 2008 collaboration with Diordon, Elverum continues to mine the details of his recent life in order to find some solace and reckon with ongoing grief.
Throughout Lost Wisdom Pt. 2, Elverum details accounts both discomforting and sweet. On one of the album’s most revelatory songs, “Widows,” he talks about taking his daughter to a support group event in an unshowered state, smelling like salmon and recalls his feelings when tabloids found out about his separation from actress Michelle Williams. But later in the song, rather than assign blame to his misery, he instead recalls good times in the relationship with the closing line, “Please remember at the bookstore in the poetry corner upstairs/I slept with my head on your lap.”
It’s brave of Elverum to address what must be a difficult topic and try to transform his pain into something that is healing for the rest of us. He, like us, continues to muscle through a world beset by inevitable suffering. The moving final lines of the collab’s last song, “Belief pt. 2,” even signal that Elverum has reached a place of acceptance and is ready to continue to move forward: “There’s nothing else I can give but love.”
5. When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? by Billie Eilish
Billie Eilish’s quick ascent from viral phenomenon to full-blown pop star was one of music’s biggest stories in 2019. And her debut LP, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, turned skeptics into believers, receiving co-signs from Dave Grohl, Jack White and Thom Yorke, not to mention, her 41 million Instagram followers. At 17, Eilish is one of the youngest artists ever to top the Billboard song and album charts and a flag-bearer for the so-called Tik Tok generation whose lifespans never dipped into the 90s.
Her debut, written with her brother Finneas, is a solid first offering from an artist that is sure to come into stride in the 2020s. Songs such as the monstrous hit “Bad Guy,” the Nine Inch Nails-esque “Bury A Friend” and the boisterous “You Should See Me in a Crown” present Eilish as a bloodthirsty force conquering the pop landscape with sinister intentions. But conversely, the debut’s softer songs such as “xanny,” “Wish You Were Gay” and “I Love You” show her as less of a horror villian and more of a balladeer. Similar to her teenage peers, Eilish has many unseen dimensions.
WWAFAWDWG is a record that balances power and vulnerability to a T. With her talent, Eilish will undoubtedly top this record on future releases, which makes it all the more exciting to see her begin on such a high note. And until that next release day comes around, I’m certain my cream-colored vinyl copy will get plenty more spins.
4. When I Get Home by Solange
In 2016, Solange released A Seat at the Table, one of the finest R&B albums so far this century. So how does an artist follow such universal acclaim for her rich narrative and anecdotal songwriting? Like Kendrick Lamar did on To Pimp A Butterfly, Solange decides to present visceral, abstract and fractured lyrics on her latest afro-futurist effort, When I Get Home. Inspired by Houston Texas, Solange spends the album’s 40 minutes singing and rapping about black identity, social solidarity and cultural tradition without reaching the finite resolutions found on her previous album. Here, she is content simply inviting us into her world and truth.
For production, Solange recruited a host of skilled collaborators including Pharrell, Dev Hynes, Earl Sweatshirt and Panda Bear to name a few. When I Get Home has a polished, jazzy feel that also nods to Houston’s legacy of chopped and screwed music. Lyrically, the album explores black identity and repurposes stereotypes as emblems of cultural pride, most evident on the hook of “Binz,” where Solange sing-raps, “Dollas never show up on CP time/I just wanna wake up on CP time.” On “Almeda,” Solange overwhelms the listener with swatches of imagery that’s either black or brown over a sweet, descending piano that makes it sound like a celebration of heritage, referencing Wallace Thurman’s The Blacker the Berry and the hoodoo object “Florida water.” “Almeda” ends with a standout verse by Playboi Carti, his best of 2019, where he sounds comfortable matching Solange’s impressionistic flow.
With so many of her more direct points having already been gotten across on A Seat at the Table, it feels like Solange wanted to make an album simply be felt. With its relentless cultural themes and smooth neo-soul meets crispy new-age-trap production, this album accomplishes her goal. Though not as revolutionary as A Seat at the Table, When I Get Home is still head and shoulders above any other R&B release from this year.
3. Sound & Fury by Sturgill Simpson
Recorded at a Michigan motel and accompanied by a groundbreaking anime — at least as far as visual album and Netflix standards go — Sturgill Simpson’s fourth LP, Sound & Fury, presents a dystopian future populated by freeloaders, sycophants, grubby journalists and fake friends looking to ride out the storm under the singer’s wing. Over its 41 minutes of sleazy boogie and psychedelic rock songs, including one co-written by John Prine, Simpson sounds pissed and dangerous, not simply concerned with feigning a good look. On the track “Remember to Breathe,” he warns that he’s “Staying off the radar like a bomber on the run” and doing “another lap around the target just for fun.” Likewise on the bitingly critical “A Good Look,” he touts his lyrical lethality with the lines “I got a SOCOM Scout/Twenty extra mags/And a couple severed heads in my bug out bag.”
The anime companion piece perfectly complements the songwriting and imprints a visual component upon every song. Most strikingly, the anime heightens the album’s climactic song, “Mercury In Retrograde,” depicting a winged being rising out of a cave full of muck, metaphorically escaping from the grifters Simpson says are “Hanging around/Pretending to be my friend.” Sound & Fury is an exorcism from other people’s problems and their manipulative ways that further complicate our already complicated lives. With this album, Simpson offers us advice beneficial to our self care: cut out all the toxic bullshit and turn up the volume.
2. Father of the Bride by Vampire Weekend
With the departure of songwriter/keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij, Vampire Weekend lost a foundational component, creating speculation on how LP4 would sound compared to the rest of the band’s rock solid back catalog. But, after the release of the first few singles, fear of the worst disintegrated into excitement. On Father of the Bride, singer/guitarist Ezra Koenig steps up even more into the role of bandleader and spearheads a collection of upbeat and meditative songs with what feels like millions of catchy guitar riffs — looking at you, “This Life”.
Almost completely ditching its earlier preppy sound in favor of a jam band vibe, Vampire Weekend reflects on the uncertainties of modern life. The band takes on spirituality and the unwritten future on “Big Blue,” “Sunflower,” and “2021,” while also shedding light on 21st century relationship dynamics on key songs such as “Hold You Now,” “This Life,” “We Belong Together” and my personal favorite “Married in a Gold Rush.” Danielle Haim, who appears on several duets with Koenig, does a good job of filling any traces of the void Batmanglij left and offers a necessary female counterpart to the album’s male narrator. Koenig comments on this need for multiple perspectives on “Unbearably White” with the lyrics, “Sooner or later the story gets told/To tell it myself would be unbearably bold.”
Although there are a few average songs toward the end of this double LP, Father of the Bride has enough depth and memorable melodies to hold listeners over until 2021, and its ambition and execution surpasses every other album of 2019 save one.
1. Buoys by Panda Bear
After the release of its first single, “Dolphin,” it was easy to tell that Panda Bear’s latest album would be nothing we had heard before. Continuing the experimental pop he has so expertly cultivated in both his band Animal Collective and on his solo albums such as 2007’s excellent Person Pitch, Noah Lennox deconstructs rock and pop song structures on Buoys to deliver tracks that linger on just a little too long and are all the more interesting for it. His sixth album is chock-full of cleverly abstract but memorable one-liners, “A blast from an automatic/Smooth/No jamming,” and floats through its 31-minute runtime using psychedelically buoyant instrumentals where an acoustic guitar is given as much weight as a water drop sample.
With the album’s frequent use of meta lyrics such as “Let me give you something/Hot to brave the coldest of cold” on “Token” and “And I give this to you/Part of a thank you to you” on “Master,” it’s clear that Lennox released Buoys foremost as a labor of love to his audience, secondly as a vehicle to share his emotions but, most importantly, as an act of rebellion against a sea of boring music. Buoys tests the boundaries of how weird a pop song can sound and still be catchy, accessible and viable for radio play on stations such as SiriusXMU, which is undeniably the album’s superpower and the reason it tops this list. No other album from 2019 pushes the limits as far as Panda Bear’s Buoys, and what emerged from his latest experimental risk is a sonic marvel.
All Mirrors by Angel Olsen
The Wizrd by Future
Remind Me Tomorrow by Sharon Van Etten