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Best Albums of 2019 (So Far)

Best Albums of 2019 (So Far)

We are pleased to present a list of albums that we feel have bubbled to the top of the heap.

As we ease into the halfway point of 2019, it’s time to pause, light up the grill and enjoy the summer, bathing ourselves in the glorious new music that this year has yielded. We are pleased to present a list of albums that we feel have bubbled to the top of the heap. And while there are some significant absences, we hope this feature will inspire you to seek out some of the smaller names here.

Mdou Moctar – Ilana: The Creator (Sahel Sounds)

One of the year-to-date’s best, most shredding rock albums was made by a musician who, not too long ago, didn’t even know what rock ‘n’ roll was. Born in a small village in Niger, Mdou Moctar first played guitar on a homemade instrument and grew up in a religious area where secular music was frowned upon and the electric guitar was all but forbidden. During one of his increasingly frequent U.S. tours, he bonded with Detroit-based producer Chris Koltay over ZZ Top.  One person’s AOR staple turned out to be another person’s magic; the result is Moctar’s most electric album to date, a wild turn from the relaxed acoustic folk of the 2017 release Sousoume Tamachek.

Fans who have been following Moctar’s career might worry that a professional studio would slick up his gift beyond recognition. But the guitarist’s circular figures, which in acoustic performances make use of hypnotic overtones, are still here—just turned up to 11 and careening into wild directions previously unheard in his work. Ilana: The Creator reveals the fervor of a cultural exchange fueled by a pedal madness that has transformed this generous visitor as well as the vast musical landscape that he has only begun to explore. Pat Padua

Kukangendai – Palm (Ideologic Organ)

There is too much music. Each year, more than a lifetime’s worth of listening material is released. Yet, we continue digging. Scraping through websites like this one, hoping to find something new, something we haven’t heard before. Something that makes us feel—to paraphrase the poet Emily Dickinson—as if the top of our head has been taken off. If I am being honest, more often than not my search comes up empty.

But then, sometimes, it doesn’t. Such is the case with Palm by Kyoto-based trio Kukangendai. Over the course of six tracks, the album eats itself. Like punk-rock as misremembered by a dying computer, each track settles into a looping, polyrhythmic groove only to introduce subtle variations. The players—the trio is made up of an electric guitarist, a bassist and a drummer—carve out separate islands of sound and just as the songs seem to descend into chaos, the islands converge to form a strange, new continent. The compositions are simple on their face, often revolving around a bass-groove (“Mure”) or a single guitar note (“Hi-Vision”), but as they unfold, layers of complexity are added. The tracks can move glacially or at light-speed depending on where the listener focuses their ear.

Words, of course, are inadequate to describe music like this. This is what the search is about: to find something beyond language. Records like Palm are why we keep looking. – Ian Maxton

Ariana Grande – thank u, next (Republic)

Everybody wants to read details from Ariana Grande’s life into her music. Clearly, she invites this kind of interpretation on thank u, next. From the ex-naming title track to the grief-stricken “ghostin,” the album lets you know that Grande simply isn’t interested in separating her private experiences from her star persona.

But let’s not forget that thank u, next is so much more than a memoir. For one, it makes being single sound ultra-romantic. These songs ask what other relationship status gives you so much room for reflection. This can be reflection on dubious attractions (“in my head”), desire for attention (“needy”) or even self-loving listlessness (“break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored”). And, as chart-topping “7 rings” reminds us, it’s rolling solo that opens up space for giving more love (and fancy presents!) to friends.

The LP’s also got some añejo top-shelf production from the likes of Tommy Brown, Pop Wansel and Happy Perez. Check out the bottle-popping bass line of “NASA,” the prosecco pizzicato of “imagine” and the cask-aged, big-top keys of “fake smile.” Yet Grande and company’s lyrics remind us that it’s not all Fernet and Fenty Beauty kits. “If I’m hurt, I ain’t gon’ lie about it/ Arms crossed with the attitude, lips pouted,” she raps. Maybe the line connects to some superfan-fodder biographical detail, but that hardly matters. It just feels good to communicate feelings to the world with such ferocity. – Jeff Heinzl

The Pirate Ship Quintet – Emitter (Denovali)

The Pirate Ship Quintet, a UK-based instrumental group, understands the impact of texture and patience. Akin to moody post-rockers like Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra, TPSQ crafts epic narratives rich in depth and intent with nary a spoken word in sight. Emitter, their third record, hones their skills for crafting melancholy melodies and extended song structures to new levels.

Comprised of rock and classical musicians, TPSQ balance the best of both worlds to find the common places between rage and serenity. It’s an elusive balancing act to manage nuance with visceral bite, one ambitious bands have attempted with faltering results.  Lesser acts descend into self-indulgence from a lack of ideas, but TPSQ seem to have mastered the difficulties of fusing divergent genres. Works like the 16-plus minute “Companion” and the title track envelop the listener with haunting guitars and moaning cellos as if they were made for each other.

Minimal packaging and stark and haunting cover art foreshadow the secrets on the record. Emitter sends listeners on a mysterious venture crossing emotive heights. It’s not the feel-good album of the summer, but it will keep you fascinated and entranced all through the winter. – Andy Jurik

Maurice Louca – Elephantine (Northern Spy)

The last few years have seen American and European presses picking up on the experimental and improvisatory music of present-day Cairo. The latest of these releases is Maurice Louca’s fantastic Elephantine, a free-wheeling celebration of improvised and group music from a litany of traditions. While Louca is the billing artist, Elephantine is just as much a showcase for his 12-person band as it is a solo project. Particularly Tommaso Cappellato’s drumming and the twin saxophones of Anna Högberg and Piero Bittolo shine, the latter pair dominating the reed-heavy, mesmerizingly repetitive “Laika.”

Against this moment of reserved instrumental forces, Elephantine is defined by Louca’s ability to create distinct characters out of slight shifts in his core compositional style. Where the opener, “The Leper,” builds a gigantic crescendo out of a rockist groove, “One More for the Gutter” climaxes in all-ensemble chaos. The title track flirts with Tortoise-style post-rock before deconstructing into Art Ensemble sparsity. By the thundering group hits that close the album on “Al Khawaga,” both the abilities of each musician and the firmness Louca’s overall approach to this type of global fusion are unquestionable. Elephantine, all of its sincerely out-there sections included, is an approachable and endlessly interesting document of both the Cairo scene and the globally-accumulating interest in group-centric improvisation removed from a strict jazz idiom. – Connor Lockie

Solange – When I Get Home (Columbia)

“I saw things I imagined,” repeats Solange Knowles no less than 16 times in the first minute of her fourth album, When I Get Home. Maybe that sounds a little daft to you, but if you feel the mystery deepen with each repetition, you’ll be right at home with a record like this. As opposed to the tersely worded polemics on 2016’s A Seat At The Table, When I Get Home is abstract and impressionistic. Lyrics come up blank or fade into the mix. The songs that don’t end in mere minutes meander far from where they started. It’s easy to see the album’s vaporousness as the result of a lack of effort, a member of pop’s royal family coasting on her name. An interlude on the record lands as a strike against preemptive criticism: “Do nothing without intention.”

The theme of When I Get Home is, well, home, which for Solange means Houston and which, for the purpose of the record, means Devin the Dude collabs and chopped-and-screwed vocal samples. But the music itself creates a physical space around the singer that she can inhabit, a sort of shell or cocoon from whose chrysalis she sings—a home. It’s so ambient you’d be forgiven for not realizing how funky it is; those astonishing pops and burbles on “Way to the Show” don’t make themselves known unless you will yourself to notice them. This isn’t an album that seeks you out. You must approach it with a certain mindset, a suspension of disbelief—not necessarily an inclination to believe in magic but something in that neighborhood, a willingness to let reality slip. – Daniel Bromfield

Kevin Morby – Oh My God (Dead Oceans)

Since the release of his breakout album City Music in 2017, Kevin Morby has shown himself to be one of the most earnest, soulful and intelligent young songwriters around. With this year’s Oh My God, he has cemented that reputation with an especially inspired and reflective set of songs. “Everything we do is a mess/ But oh, honey, may this mess be blessed,” he sings on “Nothing Sacred / All Things Wild,” in his characteristically calm, commanding voice, a line that is as much a message to the song’s addressee as it is an apt summary of Morby’s art and its broadly redemptive ambitions. He makes holy music for a secular age; his register is the folk-divine. Oh My God is not only the album’s title, but also a phrase repeated several times and in different ways throughout the album, an elemental expression with multiple resonances.

Moments of Velvet Underground fun like “OMG Rock n Roll” sit alongside quieter, slow-burning piano numbers like “Seven Devils” and poetic ruminations like “Savannah.” What seemed like a troubadour-ish delivery on past albums has morphed into a more seer-like mode, as though the newfound attention garnered by City Music had propelled Morby not to capitalize on fame by doing more of the same but, rather, by taking the opportunity to reflect on himself.

Songs such as “Sing a Glad Song” have a softly anthemic quality. “Take a glad song/ And put it where it hurts,” Morby sings on that standout track, which shuffles along unassumingly even as it casually dispenses wisdom and insight. Especially on the closer “O Behold,” it becomes clear that what Morby is really after is communion. Oh My God is Morby’s latest offering; there will be more to come, but for the moment, it is a blessing. – Dylan Montanari

The National – I Am Easy to Find (4AD)

There’s something embedded in the coding of every album the National makes that requires several listens for the full effect to kick in—a common joke whenever a new one comes out is, “If you don’t like it, give it another hundred listens.” The dense I Am Easy To Find is no exception, but allowing it to unfurl is intensely rewarding. This is largely because it tries so many new things: the fact that it was created as part of a symbiotic relationship with a short companion film by director Mike Mills, or the presence of largely spoken songs like “The Pull of You” or the rambly “Not in Kansas,” or that there’s so many women here—six women, including Lisa Hannigan, Sharon Van Etten and Gail Ann Dorsey, accompany Matt Berninger on the 63-minute album, sometimes taking over entire sections of songs. For “Dust Swirls in Strange Light,” he hands over the whole thing to the Brooklyn Youth Choir.

The things that remain the same are as satisfying as ever: Berninger’s lyrics are funny and crushing giving us beautiful lines to unpack like “There’s a million little battles that I’m never gonna win anyway/ I’m still waiting for you every night with ticker tape” and “I’m not that spiritual, I still go out all the time to department stores.” The rest of the band, the Devendorfs and the Dessners (with the help of a few dozen other players) add so many layers of detail that you’ll hear flourishes on your 30th listen that you totally missed the first 29 times.

With every passing album, the National further reveal themselves as one of the best American bands of the generation, a sentiment shared without any hyperbole. I Am Easy To Find worms its way in, and it’s satisfying enough that it won’t take 100 listens to do it. – Holly Hazelwood

Sunn O))) – Life Metal (Southern Lord)

Sunn O)))’s sponge-like absorption of influences and their avid spirit for collaboration has long stretched the boundaries of their sedentary dirge-drone, but curiously Life Metal, a back-to-basics record that strips even long-time mainstay Attila Csihar from the lineup, feels like one of the group’s most expansive albums.

Recorded in mega-analog mode by laissez-faire master engineer Steve Albini, the LP comes the closest of any of Sunn O)))’s studio work to retaining the full scope and beauty of the band’s live set. Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson continue to churn out riffs at a pace that may now be officially slower than that of glacial melt, but they wring ad-hoc chord progressions from wayward bursts of feedback that they harness so effectively you’d swear they meant for the speaker to suddenly screech or moan. The band’s ability to forge genuine, compelling compositions from walls of noise remains one of the most impressive feats in contemporary experimental music, and the bright sound of Life Metal’s production even manages to drag the group’s sound out from the abyss and into the light. It’s yet another triumph in the band’s formidable, ever modulating discography, and as good an entry point as you’re liable to find into their skull-rattling but oddly pacifying noise. – Jake Cole

Foals – Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost – Part 1 (Warner Bros.)

There comes a time in many a band’s career where they’ll “go electronic.” On paper, it’s an easy way to switch up your sound. But in practice, few groups can pull it off where the added elements aren’t an awkward addition or afterthought. For Foals, known for their unique, ear-twisting guitar riffs and head-banging rhythms, it seems like this change would play away from their strengths.

Instead, Foals does what it’s always done best on Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost – Part 1, bending all musical elements to their will and crafting some of the catchiest melodies and grooves this year. “In Degrees” shimmies with a digital seesaw pulse that glides smoothly into a high-pitched guitar riff. It works just as well on the festival stage as it does in a disco. “Exits” hits with a speaker-shaking stomp. “Sunday” is a true standout, its slow, atmospheric sprawl transitioning into a full-on rave, then back again. Plus, the band leaves room for some straightforward rock with “On the Luna,” a worthy follower to songs like “What Went Down” and “My Number.”

On top of these body-moving beats, Yannis Philippakis gives an all-time great vocal performance, singing about environmental degradation without it coming off as preachy or a footnote. He brings across the sense of regret at damage done with simple, cutting lines: “We had it all but we didn’t stop to think about it”; “Cities burn, we don’t give a damn”; “Now the sea eats the sky/ But they say it’s a lie.” This is an album that’s both for dancing in memory of what’s been lost and fighting against losing anything more. It’s a hot-blooded, thrilling listen. – Joe Marvilli

Robert Ellis – Texas Piano Man (New West Records)

Robert Ellis’ Texas Piano Man harkens back to a long-gone era both literally and figuratively. Each track sounds cribbed from a lost early Randy Newman session both musically and lyrically (check opening tracking “Fucking Crazy” and “Passive Aggressive” and go from there for further proof), while “Nobody Smokes Anymore” lyrically opines for a time when folks used to share a smoke at concerts and bars rather than stand around staring at their cell phones. At 11 tracks in 42 minutes, Texas Piano Man is structured in the classical idea of what an album should be: its strongest tracks bookending the proceedings; the deep cuts just as good if not a bit too idiosyncratic to appeal to a mass audience (“Father,” coming in at the number five spot, falls neatly into this latter category).

In a year when everything seems to be flying off the rails, it’s nice to have an album this grounded in the familiar to turn to. This isn’t to say Texas Piano Man is derivative. Quite the contrary is true, as it plays up its influences (Newman, Nilsson, Elton, et. al.) while maintaining an individualistic tone throughout. While it would be easy enough to picture Newman (hell, even Nilsson circa Schmilsson) singing lyrics like, “Go on ahead and say something you cannot take back /….You’re so passive aggressive…I’m gonna lose my mind…you’re so damn passive aggressive,” the nasally (think Rupert Holmes mixed with Andrew Gold, in keeping with the mid-‘70s theme) delivery is wholly Ellis’ own.

It’s not an album that will likely wind up on a lot of Top 10 lists at the end of the year, those being more significant in the short-term than memorable. But chances are good it will stand the test of time and prove itself, maybe 10 years on or so, to be one of the best albums released in 2019. – John Paul

Charly Bliss – Young Enough (Barsuk)

Two years ago, Charly Bliss established themselves with the energetic garage-rock of Guppy. Vocalist Eva Hendricks laughed at herself while working through some difficult subjects. The band played with confidence, its pop-rock a warm blast, but the lyrics sifted through some uncertainty. Now the group returns with Young Enough, an album that remembers the template that made their debut such a success while finding new places to go.

Sonically, the band moves forward with more patient songs and more thoughtful production. While Guppy filtered uncertainty in its lyrics, Young Enough shows nothing but confidence in its music. Hendricks’ work ethic and her vocal training pay off. She’s never short of fabulous, her distinctive tone put to good use whether she’s jumping up and down or considering tough times.

That reflection helps the band get to a new level. Always smart, Charly Bliss has added maturity without sacrificing their youthful energy. The title track looks back on a failed relationship, with Hendricks singing, “We’re young enough/ To believe it should hurt this much.” Hendricks can see the flaw in both her and her partner, but she comes away not with bitterness, but with appreciative growth. That song captures the openhearted way the group employs their knowledge of danger. It hurts and, as on the opening track, everything might get “blown to bits,” but that’s all the more reason to dive into life. Hendricks wants to take a moment to appreciate “Laughing out loud in your bathing suit/ And I’m still alive, best year of my life,” pain or not. Young Enough‘s blend of youth and maturity catches the band in just the right spot, though it’s likely more “best years” are ahead for Charly Bliss. – Justin Cober-Lake

Sharon Van Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow (Jagjaguwar)

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Remind Me Tomorrow is that Sharon Van Etten didn’t necessarily have to make a record like this. She had gotten into a pretty enjoyable, striking groove after her last album, and if this one didn’t leap so far from her established sound, it still would have been worth a listen. What’s more, Van Etten went out and got a degree in psychology in the time between albums, so she didn’t necessarily have to make a record at all. But not only did she get back into the studio, she also went and made the best album she’s ever done.

There’s real, considerable growth at the heart of Remind Me Tomorrow. Once a very insular songwriter who wrote in the moment, Van Etten takes a step back here, becoming more reflective as her lyrics focus on the people around her and the person she used to be. These ideas are delivered with a stern confidence that is reflected in how she takes advantage of the studio, throwing in drum machines and synthesizer loops and writing songs far grander than anything she’s done before. Many singer-songwriters cut from the same cloth as Sharon Van Etten never step away from that intimate songwriting space, but Van Etten has not only done that; she’s done that with something truly daring and tremendous. – Kevin Korber

Vendredi Sur Mer – Premiers Émois (Profil de Face)

Charline Mignot rarely sings on her debut album, instead preferring to speak in a breathy, seductive whisper. That’s not because she can’t sing, but because her voice compels you well enough without much effort. It carries the same intense intimacy of Sade whispering the tale of a player who speaks in seven languages. The Swiss-born Vendredi Sur Mer (Friday at Sea) speaks in French, which adds an additional sophistication to the luxurious and relaxing Premiers Émois.

Its tracks, all produced by French maestro and close collaborator Lewis Ofman, are assembled with a stylish ease. Combining violins, analog synths and a flute and keeping it all from sounding busy is not a small feat, yet “Écoute Chérie” arrives like an ocean breeze with Mignot riding the wind. Such languid elements appear across the rest of Premiers Émois, conjuring equally vivid images of moonlit evenings (“La femme à la peau bleue”) and ruthless heartbreakers (“Larme à gauche”). It helps that all the while Mignot floats above the instrumentation as a rather dramatic narrator. Her exaggerated, campy murmurs act as a soothing guide across the album, undeterred even when delivering heavy revelations: “Rappelle toi qu’on était ensemble, et que sans moi/ Rien ne s’assemble” which translates to “Remember, that we were together, and that without me/ Nothing is assembled.” By telling her story on her terms, Mignot keeps herself together, and you enthralled. – Mick Jacobs

Helado Negro – This Is How You Smile (RVNG Intl.)

Protest music usually falls into two categories: blitzing fury unloading clips at all oppressors a la Rage Against the Machine, or plaintive prayers for the world to heal itself, like Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On. But for 2019’s best album, political and otherwise, This Is How You Smile matches its revolutionary ambitions with sheer, unmitigated beauty.

Roberto Carlos Lange is calmly defiant. His voice radiates comfort, the sonic backgrounds are pillowy and plush. Steel drums tint the rhythm, he sounds like a half-awake Lionel Richie. But make no mistake, he’s cooing about revolt.

On the gentle, floating “Pais Nublado” (Cloudy Country) he sings “We’ll be here long after you.” He sees his community of artists, friends and family, of countless, mixing backgrounds as something vulnerable, but also unflinching in the face of danger. Their bodies are enshrined and made of light. Their every existence an act of resistance.

Like Jamila Wood’s also stellar LEGACY! LEGACY!, This Is How You Smile focuses on the radical proposal of health and happiness blossoming from the cultivation of community. Lenago’s tight knit collective of artists, friends and family is his world. A world he will fight to the death for, but with a gentle, vulnerable strength. The revolution will be lullabied. – Nathan Stevens

Chaka Khan – Hello Happiness (Island)

Come December, Chaka Khan’s 13th solo album is probably not going to be on many “Best of 2019” lists. First, it’s a new album by a 66-year-old legacy artist, and those only do well with critics when they’re grim reflections on mortality, preferably produced by Rick Rubin. Second, it frankly hasn’t reviewed all that well; its 68 on Metacritic as of this writing is respectable, but hardly “Album of the Year” material, with the general consensus being that Khan’s decision to cut a dance-oriented album with ex-Major Lazer producer Switch failed to highlight her strengths as a vocalist.

So why am I giving the nod to Hello Happiness as one of my favorite albums of the first half of 2019? Mostly, because it’s a blast: a breezy 27-minute shot of musical serotonin, from the polished-chrome nu-disco groove of the opening title track to the barnstorming blues of “Too Hot” to the sun-dappled acoustic soul of closer “Ladylike.” In short, I love Hello Happiness because it crackles with the eternally youthful, give-no-fucks energy that Chaka Khan seems destined to exude until the moment she departs this mortal coil. Better albums have been released in 2019, and I’m sure there will be more to come; but no other album in the first six months of the year has made me as happy as this one has, and that ought to count for something. – Zachary Hoskins

Patience – Dizzy Spells (Winona Records)

In a different, possibly better universe, New Order’s Bernard hands the reigns over to Gillian, Yazoo never broke up, and Dizzy Spells is a contemporary continuation of the themes those bands (amongst others) explore, rendered both modern and contextually appropriate. Throughout Dizzy Spells, the dominant mood is of the personal, those small and intimate moments that are significant while also being private. And while other analogue synth-focused acts might tend towards the chillingly urban as the setting for their lyrical dramas, Patience paints pictures of the suburban, the wood-paneled dens and thickly carpeted bedrooms where songs like these were received and are now composed. “The Girls Are Chewing Gum” is simple and arresting, a yearning for meaning that leads directly into “Living Things Don’t Last” and “White of an Eye,” small-town English evocations of wistful desire and the sense that, driven by Peter Hook-esque bass lines, anywhere is better than here. “Aerosol” offers a more Ballardian landscape of flightpaths and collapsed relationships, and album closers “The Pressure” and “Silent House” echo Virginia Astley’s aching and autumnal pastorals.

Patience’s Roxanne Clifford nails the way in which the experience of life is so often made sense of in relation to media; songs that spell out exactly how we feel, lyrical turns and musical motifs that capture not just how we act but how we see ourselves while acting and, particularly, who we think we’re acting for

One reason popular culture connects with us is because it speaks universally of the incredibly personal, and where some genres might offer fantasies of how life could be, others narrate versions of how life is. Dizzy Spells is exactly that latter form; delicate, carefully crafted and gorgeous. – Scott Wilson

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