The year is nearly halfway over, so many music sites are offering lists of the best music from the last 6 months. I am not above this, so I am listing out my 50 favorite albums from this year so far. They are ranked, but it’s more of a general idea of where they should be (#13 is better than #50 but not necessarily better than #14 blah blah blah.) I wrote a little about each one. This list covers albums released before 6/15. Enjoy!
[cover photo of CHAI by Ebru Yildiz]
50. Yves Jarvis – The Same But By Different Means
Un Blonde’s rebranding as Yves Jarvis (real name: Jean-Sebastian Audet) is meditative with that same sun-drenched glow Stevie Wonder would conjure up in the ’70s. At 22 tracks through 49 minutes, the album is constantly morphing, searching, and evolving. The album is at its best when Audet steps back and lets the instrumentation do the talking; a strong theme here is learning when to listen and appreciate what doesn’t need to be said.
49. Triad God – Triad
Triad God’s raps are practically ambient with a Laurie Anderson speak-sing quality that traps the listener in an eerie dread. Once you accept the aimlessness of it all (no percussion, few “verses”), it’s an intense listen that makes you question why rap can’t be a little more like this.
48. Aldous Harding – Designer
The third album from New Zealand singer-songwriter Aldous Harding softens her thornier attributes into a collection of folk-pop gems. If Party was her breakthrough, Designer is her taking aim at top billing. Still, Harding separates herself in a draping of dense silence that is conveyed in the blackness of the album cover.
47. The Comet Is Coming – Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery
These three get to the point: cosmic jazz is equal parts lighthearted revelry and sincere pretentiousness. For their second album, The Comet Is Coming leaned into their formal classic side more and came away with a fun record you wouldn’t immediately scoff at as tacky contemporary jazz. They do skate that line though and listening to them pull it off is thrilling to behold.
46. Kornél Kovács – Stockholm Marathon
Kovács’ second album, with help from electro-pop duo Rebecca & Fiona, is an easily-gratifying nightclub album — so much so, that you will barely recognize how intricately constructed each beat is. That’s simply deep house at its best.
45. Phoebe Bridgers & Conor Oberst – Better Oblivion Community Center
Coming off boygenius and the growing cult status of Stranger in the Alps, Phoebe Bridgers captures much of the same magic with Bright Eyes singer-songwriter Conor Oberst, who is involved in his best work since I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. Both of their eccentricities are streamlined to great effect, especially when they harmonize.
44. PUP – Morbid Stuff
People who love PUP, LOVE PUP. I like PUP. They certainly possess a lyrically-dexterous skill that is often missing from their pop punk counterparts. Otherwise, they hit their mark musically and are often thrilling despite its predictability.
43. Inter Arma – Sulphur English
Since 2013’s Sky Burial, Inter Arma have been a strong contender for second-best metal band in the world right behind Deafheaven. They hit some of the same melodic highs as their metal-if-you-don’t-love-metal companions but truly shine in their menacing, towering presence that rarely gives the listener an outlet.
42. American Football – American Football (LP3)
American Football songs glide like the wispy skyline on their third album’s cover. Their brand of emo rock is so un-2019, it feels odd to include it on this list. In a time where indie rock has mostly scaled down towards the two-three minute mark, American Football risk overstaying their welcome with seven-minute epics that still feel down to earth. Like all great comebacks, it’s refreshing to relive the past.
41. Priests – The Seduction of Kansas
Priests’ The Seduction of Kansas is not as good as Nothing Feels Natural, their great 2017 album, but that was a tall order anyway. Personally, I’m glad Priests stuck to their roots and made little attempt to expand upon their DIY aesthetic. Their strength is Katie Alice Greer’s dry melodic vocals, which need that menacing underbelly to stand out.
40. Sada Baby – Bartier Bounty
Danny Brown called Sada Baby the best rapper in Detroit right now, and he’s absolutely right. Bartier Bounty is his breakthrough (or at least should be), as he puts himself in a category with Rico Nasty for the most-expressive voice in the game. He turns every verse into a hypefest through sheer force. I barely listen to his lyrics while I’m bobbing my head; I’m sure they’re fine.
39. Empath – Active Listening: Night on Earth
Empath continue to play small ball following last year’s great EP Liberating Guilt and Fear, but still in under 30 minutes, they create a fuzzed-out dreamy punk rock that stands out and leaves you wanting more. “Rose That Cry” may be their best song to-date.
38. Faye Webster – Atlanta Millionaires Club
From that first pedal steel in “Room Temperature,” Webster properly introduces herself as an endearing country pop star that is too fixated on the small details to ever sound over her head. A running theme is trying to get out more, but she sounds in her element stuck in her bedroom.
37. duendita – direct line to My Creator
direct line to My Creator is duendita’s debut EP released in late 2018, and she might be under the radar specifically for her mellow tendencies and eschewing trends for a subtly vibrant aesthetic that never distracts from her Sade-like dynamic vocal range. Just listen to the stunning “Thunder” to hear a talent on the cusp of critical acclaim.
36. Rico Nasty/Kenny Beats – Anger Management
Why is this only 18 minutes????? If this album was 40 minutes and maintained this energy, we’re talking about the best album of the year. At least this version exists, and we hear the best rapper and producer right now at the peak of their powers. Rico slaughtering the “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” beat is a crown-stealing statement that everyone should take note of.
35. Kehlani – While We Wait
SweetSexySavage was an unexpected triumph that catapulted Kehlani to stardom, and While We Wait attempts to offer a subdued consistent mixtape that wouldn’t have to be compared to it. Surprise! It might be better than her breakthrough and still is a commercial success with the Ty Dolla $ign-featuring “Nights Like This.” Kehlani should be an r&b radio mainstay for years to come.
34. 21 Savage – i am > i was
21 Savage had been searching for consistency since the spare, brutal Savage Mode, and he finally found it on this sneakily-great late 2018 release. Rhythms abound within his verses, and he’s confident in his dark storytelling aesthetic. It’s impressive how quickly he went from rap freshman to seeming like a veteran underdog.
33. Caterina Barbieri – Ecstatic Computation
Barbieri’s brand of IDM is so tight-laced that when the seams start tearing, you’re left dumbfounded. “Fantas” builds for 9 minutes only to have it deconstruct into choppy bursts; the rhythm in “Closest Approach to your Orbit” is attacked 3/4ths of the way through never to return again. The Italian composer is due for some recognition.
32. 박혜진 park hye jin – If U Want It
The debut EP from this young Korean singer/house producer displays a star in the making. These five tracks mix classic deep house elements with washed-out, bilingual ruminations that guide the EP to a more somber headphone listen. These tracks still bounce, though.
31. The Chemical Brothers – No Geography
At their commercial height, The Chemical Brothers never shied away from grand statements and collaborations that may have distracted them from perfecting their craft. Here, they keep their brash, shoot-for-the-stars tendencies, but focus more on creating a full-length mix that captures the consistent pleasures of electronic music’s past.
30. Jenny Lewis – On the Line
2014’s The Voyager was a big favorite on year-end lists, but On the Line is a major upgrade in instrumentation and confidence as Lewis sounds less like a country pop upstart and more like a classic rock mainstay.
29. Rina Mushonga – In a Galaxy
Rina Mushonga was born in India, raised in Zimbabwe, attended college in the Netherlands, and moved to London. In a Galaxy displays this world pop influence that blurs lines between electronic & folk, the Western & Eastern worlds. It swirls up into a hard album to describe musically, but it certainly is never stagnant.
28. Stella Donnelly – Beware of the Dogs
Donnelly is here to confidently take no shit from men in power on opener “Old Man.” That same direct lyricism continues on tales of loneliness and bitter love. It’s all emboldened by the simple, folksy instrumentation that places her targets right in the middle of sing-along anthems.
27. Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride
My first impression after one weekend was to write VW’s fourth album off as a major disappointment that did not need to be revisited. Over a month later and maybe it’s just a minor disappointment, like Neon Bible or Hail to the Thief. For the first seven tracks, you can be tricked that this is just another classic album from these reliable straight-laced aristocrats. “This Life” certainly ranks as one of their best songs.
26. Juan Wauters – La Onda de Juan Pablo
Juan Wauters’ best album to-date is the work of a tour of Latin America and collaborating with friends he made along the way. It’s a beautifully serene album that captures the naturalistic history and atmosphere of these lands with a Paul Simon-esque ear for melody.
25. Girlpool – What Chaos Is Imaginary
This is a new version of Girlpool that put off many of their small-indie admirers. That’s a shame because the guitar work here is richer and more tempestuous. The rewards come tonally and atmospherically in a shoegaze-like way.
24. Julia Jacklin – Crushing
How does Jacklin stand out in a crowded field? It’s not easy to parse out why, but simply put, she’s great at writing to fit her expressive voice. Whether it’s more of a slow burn or a classic indie jam, she’s adept at turning these familiar sounds towards intoxicating listens.
23. Fennesz – Agora
Much like GAS’s comeback, Agora displays a legendary ambient artist meticulously pushing the genre into a denser, “purer” scenery-building space. Amidst the rise of ambient noise-cancelling playlists that soften the genre into a palatable relaxing mood, Fennesz and others are creating inhospitable masterworks.
22. Charly Bliss – Young Enough
Charly Bliss is for the Rock Band video game generation that grew up pounding red and blue circles over alt-rock jams that always bordered on uncool — okay maybe just me, but Charly Bliss certainly have more in common with the pop rock styles of Paramore than their indie rock contemporaries. On Young Enough, their melodies and production are more refined.
21. Denzel Curry – ZUU
My first impression of ZUU was wrong. I saw Curry’s fourth album as simply trend-hopping and that he hid behind more accessible sounds and beats rather than sharing more of his personality. I still feel that on the album’s low points, but that overlooks how fun ZUU is from start to finish. Curry is mostly in his element here as a shit-talker, so hopefully he hops on contemporary trends down the road.
20. Nivhek – After its own death / Walking in a spiral towards the house
How do we approach artists who record under multiple pseudonyms? I tend to treat the new pseudonym as a separate entity (I keep forgetting that last year’s great release from A.A.L. was just Nicolas Jaar, etc.) Liz Harris (Grouper) released these two compositions as Nivhek, and the new alias is justified as she sets aside the piano and vocals for these dark treks though empty, suffocating spaces. The work under Grouper jumbles up your perceptions and emotions to the point where you can’t decipher how you feel, but Nivhek’s compositions undoubtedly beset an eerie dread within you.
19. Powder – Powder in Space
Powder is a Tokyo-based DJ and producer named Moko Shibata. She crafts this mix with an ear for enlivening the strict business life aesthetic in the city. Her choices in tracks (plus a few of her own) may seem reserved, but the subtle vibrancies are for people too closed-in and too busy to enjoy music outside of a headphone listen.
18. Little Simz – GREY Area
GREY Area is Little Simz’ first undeniable triumph, as she covers a lot of ground in these 35 minutes. She goes from a disco-collab with Cleo Soul on “Selfish” to a sharp-strings Dre-style beat on “Wounds” like they belong on the same album. That whiplash often produces incongruous highs and lows, but Simz guides us through each shift with her virtuoso, classic stiff-necked UK Grime delivery.
17. Aleksi Perälä – Sunshine 3
Perälä is a longtime Finnish producer we should have been paying attention to more. He is cut from the same cloth as Syro-and-beyond era Aphex Twin with the resistance to stagnation or helpful song titles (each one here has the code “NL-L56-18-074__”), and these 12 tracks pop with that quintessentially-IDM crystalline charm. There’s a lot to dive back into with his discography, but Sunshine 3 is a necessary starting point.
16. Young Nudy & Pi’erre Bourne – Sli’merre
Atlanta’s Young Nudy has been a longtime collaborator with Pi’erre Bourne, who gained recognition with Playboi Carti and Lil Uzi Vert, and their symbiotic relationship pays dividends as Young Nudy finally offers an undeniably-great full length following the spotty Slimeball series. His choice of features is a collection of the best young rappers in the game (Megan Thee Stallion, DaBaby, Lil Uzi Vert). Nudy’s persona is certainly more-subdued than his peers, but it works perfectly with Pi’erre’s space-heavy beats.
15. Megan Thee Stallion – Fever
Fever is Houston rapper Megan Thee Stallion’s debut album, and she avoids those typical breakthrough-rap-album pitfalls. The features are limited, thankfully, as the only two here offer the same tired guy-on-a-woman’s-song sexualized lyrics. The focus is all on Megan Thee Stallion here; she raps every hook here, so there are no awkward tonal shifts. She knows her lane of sexualized party music and excels at it.
14. Sunn O))) – Life Metal
Through their peaks and valleys across the 21st century, Sunn O))) remains standing and still as unfuckwithable as when they started. Their doom metal ambience has no competitors on Life Metal, so all they had to do was a whole “back-to-basics” narrative with Steve Albini as producer. Each drawn-out chord brings a new magnificent hellscape to be in awe of.
13. Jessica Pratt – Quiet Signs
Across three albums, Pratt has built herself up as a mystical folk giant capable of sounding beyond her years. On Quiet Signs, she’s more confident and direct in her acoustic, percussion-less aesthetic and never loses the listener’s focus across these 27 minutes, which contains two of her best songs — “This Time Around” and “Poly Blue.”
12. Sharon Van Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow
Sharon Van Etten is indie rock’s leader in brooding, as evidenced from Are We There‘s “Your Love Is Killing Me” and “Every Time the Sun Comes Up.” On Remind Me Tomorrow, there’s a little more bounce to the dismay. The best songs here — “Seventeen” and “No One’s Easy to Love” — offer a vibrant rhythm that adds another element to her grave demeanor. I also recently heard “Seventeen” in a Gatlinburg gift shop, so there’s that.
11. Cate le Bon – Reward
Cate le Bon has always been on the edge of breaking through as her singular, dynamic status has consistently been recognized, if not fully appreciated. The best of her last album Crab Day suggested a undeniably-great album was on the way, and that’s what Reward turned out to be. Her production credentials shine through on little flourishes like the distant drum machine cymbals on “Here It Comes Again.” Overall, there’s a naturalistic minimalism that is emboldened by her broad experience of grinding out underappreciated music.
10. Holly Herndon – PROTO
Herndon’s third glitch pop triumph utilizes the uncanny valley terror of an AI/human mixed choir to provoke questions of potential destruction through dehumanization. “Frontier” and “Eternal” are some of her most accessible songs to-date, and she presents a doomsday-M83 sound with a kid’s voiceover on “Extreme Love.”
9. Weyes Blood – Titanic Rising
I saw Weyes Blood at the Ryman when she opened for Father John Misty, and she was excellent. She performed her best material from Front Row Seat to Earth and a George Harrison cover pretty straightforward and packed up. Natalie Mering’s formal stage presence and work as Weyes Blood doesn’t quite mesh with her experimental beginnings or collabs with Ariel Pink, but she has fully leaned into her elegiac voice, which can command a historical venue like the Ryman with ease. Multiple publications have already called Titanic Rising the best album of 2019 so far, so hopefully, she won’t have to open anymore and will be able to flaunt a little more.
8. Slowthai – Nothing Great About Britain
Slowthai is a different species of UK rap. Skepta and Giggs still shoot to be embraced by the American mainstream, but Slowthai is too coarse to ever play over here. A closer contemporary to him might be King Krule, if his brand of despondent urban malaise was always forceful like on his “Blue Train Lines” feature. Nothing Great About Britain is the culmination of a 2018 that saw Slowthai release nothing but diverse, exciting singles. This is the best rap album of 2019 so far.
7. Nilüfer Yanya – Miss Universe
Nilüfer Yanya has been the most promising name in indie rock since summer ’17 when the Plant Feed EP came out, and “Baby Luv” and “Thanks 4 Nothing” just fanned the flames more; she had to follow through and thankfully, did not disappoint. Don’t want to repeat an overused “music critic” phrase here, but Miss Universe is more than a collection of songs. The “WWay Health” interludes are a welcome slice of humorous theme-setting. But of course, it’s the “collection of songs” that makes Miss Universe so special. Yanya’s brand is almost straight-up sophisti-pop with some necessary hard-hitting guitars thrown in to keep you honest.
6. Solange – When I Get Home
A Seat At the Table was a revelation and will always tower over Solange’s discography. If the biggest knock against When I Get Home is that it’s not as good as A Seat At the Table, I’ll take it. Here, Solange embraces a driftier, cosmic jazz atmosphere that often scoffs at the idea of “jams,” which of course are undoubtedly here — “Almeda” and “Stay Flo” are two of her best tracks. I believe the jury’s still out on this album as to whether the lyrics and thematic direction display a detracting aimlessness or a deeper, subtler resoluteness to not state the obvious; I lean towards the latter.
5. Jamila Woods – Legacy! Legacy!
If you didn’t know by the inspiration for this album, Woods majored in Africana studies. She also writes and edits poetry and engages in community work around Chicago. All of this is to say that an album with 13 tracks dedicated to inspirational Black and feminist figures has to be properly pulled off by someone with her credentials — walk the walk rather than simple lip service. An interesting listener-interpretation debate to be had for an album with this premise is whether or not the album works “on its own” in a strict auditory listen. It does work with Woods’ commanding yet down-to-earth vocals, and there is a clear stop-start to each track that points to a new mode of thought. Thankfully, she broke down the meaning of each song in an interview for Pitchfork, so that there’s no confusion as to what this album is aiming for, inspiration-wise.
4. Helado Negro – This Is How You Smile
Helado Negro’s best album to-date works as an understated amalgamation of his influences — culturally and aesthetically. “Pais Nublado” and “Sabana de luz” offer a glimpse into the Ecuadorian and Floridian tropic sounds Negro grew up surrounded by. Negro is also an art school graduate with an ear for cinematic arrangements, as the instrumental “November 7” displays. At his best here, he is a somber pop genius with opener “Please Won’t Please” and the breathtaking centerpiece “Running.” Any list without this album (see: most of them) has to be called into question.
3. CHAI – PUNK
CHAI name-check Basement Jaxx and Tom Tom Club in their short Spotify bio; those are good hints that, despite the title, you’re listening to the best POP album of 2019. Every song here blares with the bubblegum intensity of EMOTION or Sweetener, but their instrumental prowess should not be downplayed either. Take “Family Member,” where Yuki’s bass playing shines, or Mana’s keyboards which create that coveted wall of sound on every track. If this is what punk is in 2019, sign me up.
2. Big Thief – U.F.O.F.
If Capacity didn’t tell you that Big Thief should not dare be compared to any trendy indie singer-songwriter acts, then U.F.O.F. struck you like a lightning bolt. This is the sound of a band capable of making their, say, Strange Mercy, Be the Cowboy, Teen Dream, etc. and deciding to make a gnarled, emotionally-drained, brush fire of a masterpiece. It starts with Lenker, who’s not here to give you the easy-going melodies we all so desperately crave. The two immediate classics here — “U.F.O.F.” and “Cattails” — are circular, with hooks appearing from odd repetitions and syncopations and not when the music gets louder around the chorus just because it has to. Meek’s and Lenker’s guitar work can be Court and Spark-level elegant or can approach a death metal intensity like on “Jenni.” U.F.O.F. ends on its most haunting note with “Magic Dealer,” which is a Lenker a capella with exactly three drum hits and a soft siren-like wind blending into a rustling fire to close it out. This is the most intense indie rock has sounded since Halcyon Digest, and maybe even that one is a little too peppy to be a proper comparison. Casual listening is not the right approach here.
1. Jai Paul – Leak 04-13 (Bait Ones)
Is this cheating? I’ve been listening to this “album” piecemeal for six years, crosschecking YouTube videos and illegal downloads to make sure it’s the right track playing at the right speed. The infamous Jai Paul album that wasn’t actually an album is officially released, and with it, breathes a new life of critical reevaluation into this masterpiece. Of course, caveats have to be discussed. Jai Paul’s accompanying letter with his details of therapy after trying to cope with his music career being upended by people who stole his catalog still should hang a cloud of shame for any listener trying to enjoy these leaks. To make matters tougher, Paul added an “unfinshed” tag to 11 of the 16 tracks. However, these tracks are finished in this form, and what a wonder they still all are. Jai Paul presented his first two singles as demos in the first place, so we’re accustomed to labeling confusion around his finished mixes anyway. At the end of the day, it’s beautiful to listen without struggle to the only thing resembling a definitive long length from pop’s most insular, peerless visionary. When your stolen unfinished tracks are better than practically all the other music in the world right now, maybe it’s a sign to release a proper album…….right? This has all been a nine-year build up to the debut, which comes out later this year, okay. I can feel it.