The top 25 albums of 2019

Wednesday, January 15, 2020 - 4:31pm

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25. Injury Reserve, Injury Reserve 

As a trio, Injury Reserve has progressively created a solid reputation for themselves in the rap community through the release of mixtapes and EPs over the years, starting in 2013. In 2019, they finally released their self-titled debut: Injury Reserve. The album is experimental, pushing the boundaries of rap and into a new future for the group; however, much of what is meant to be unique sometimes comes across as trying too hard (i.e. “Jailbreak the Tesla”). Despite this, the dynamism of the record — from more laid-back songs like “Gravy n’ Biscuits” to the unique deconstruction of a rap track in “Rap Song Tutorial”— gives the album a unified feel.

Taking that into consideration, what really solidified Injury Reserve as a stand-out album is the extremely strong start and finish. The two big features, A-Trak and Rico Nasty, deliberately hook in a new listener. The record ends with deeper cuts, from “Best Spot in House” where Ritchie raps about his guilt regarding not going to a friend’s funeral, to “New Hawaii” which ends on a heartfelt proclamation of love, and then finally closing on “Three Man Weave,” a feel-good success anthem for the group. The powerful ending is what gives the album a place on this list. 

 — Gigi Ciulla, Daily Arts Writer 

 

24. Big Thief, Two Hands

Two Hands is a peaceful protest and a regrounding of roots, both personally and collectively. Frontwoman Adrianne Lenker sings with careful timing, rasping and breaking just delicately enough to invoke the vitality of respecting our basics — our earth, our bodies and our words. Two Hands is the scuffs on your knees, or the random bruises that appear on our legs without notice. Somehow, in its earthen tones, Lenker collects the limbs and soil we all share and presents it with such grace and care that the record has become integral to my own attempts to lower my defenses and deactivate my racing thoughts. Two Hands, for me, attunes the listener to be acutely aware of the building blocks of a human — shoulders, veins, hands — and in doing so, subconsciously creates a respect for the simplicity of who we are. But the true grace of this album is the way those singular “body building blocks” are used to make listeners receptive to universality, inducing unity among humans throughout the whole listen. And the magic of that is all but captured in this quote from a Stereogum interview with lead woman Adrianne Lenker: “We want to create something that would help, not just donate money we get from tour to organizations but try and grow closer to the earth, closer to our own centers.” 

— Samantha Cantie, Daily Arts Editor

 

23. Arianna Grande, thank u, next

In the six months between the release of Sweetener and thank u, next, a lot changed for Ariana Grande. Rapper and ex-boyfriend Mac Miller passed away, then Grande ended her highly publicized engagement with Pete Davidson. thank u, next chronicles this hurt and growth in a glossy mesh of R&B, trap and pop. 

On the now iconic title track, Grande is entirely positive about her past hardships. She thanks her exes for what they’ve taught her, but sings primarily in generalities. Throughout the album Grande does something similar — giving the listeners a peek behind the curtains of superstardom, then retreating back into its sheen. 

A pop star at the top of her game, Grande has a way of tucking her personal life into unthinkable high notes and catchy hooks, rendering her both likable and completely untouchable. She strikes this balance best on “fake smile.” While anyone can relate to not wanting to lie about their feelings, very few can comprehend getting swarmed in public. Grande tackles both experiences in the same breath. 

thank u, next finds Grande flirty and confident on songs like “7 rings” and “needy,” then heartbroken and weary on songs like “ghostin’,” but most importantly, she’s thoughtful,  with as strong of vocals as ever.

 — Katie Beekman, Daily Arts Writer 

 

22. Bon Iver, i,i

i,i is the soundtrack of lucid dreams and hazy landscapes, moments of breathtaking beauty. With its dichotomy between acoustic, earth-bound motifs and digital synths, the album provides a strange yet satisfying blend of natural and man-made elements. Lead singer Justin Vernon rises above the abstract noise rather than letting himself become absorbed by it, delivering aching, raw melodies to complement the refreshingly authentic aesthetic the band is aiming for. Both lyrically and sonically, i,i creates a distinct tension between hopefulness and despair with its swings between dramatic, orchestrated refrains and more tranquil instrumentals. It’s in this dissonance that you feel most connected to the band’s music, constantly moving between times of hope and moments of surrender, all the while admiring the raw beauty to be found in the experience. Between Vernon’s convincing vocal performance and the band’s multi-dimensional instrumentals, there’s a depth to i,i that offers listeners the thrill of dissection.

— Kaitlyn Fox, Daily Arts Writer 

 

21. Weyes Blood, Titanic Rising 

Weyes Blood’s voice will always be nostalgic, no matter the listener. On her fourth album Titanic Rising, this quality to the artist’s music comes to a fever pitch, balancing expansive soundscapes and ideas in songs like “Andromeda” with the intimate confessionalism of “Something to Believe.” The ethereal singer, real name Natalie Mering, seems to capture the fleeting nature of emotion by crystallizing it, using creative production to strike a middle ground between hazy synths and bare bones folk instrumentation. Titanic Rising is an unabashed masterpiece, and easily the standout of Mering’s general discography. It sounds like an artist, no, a human being, finding herself through a labyrinth of song, reaching higher with every soaring note, trying to divine a meaning from the chaos and distractions of daily life. Though many have compared Weyes Blood to the songstresses of the ’60s and ’70s, it could be argued that she is a songwriter uniquely suited to our time, bringing the confessional sensibilities of the past to meet a confident future. 

Clara Scott, Daily Arts Writer 

 

20. Taylor Swift, Lover 

What happens when the queen of break-up songs gets into a long-term relationship? She writes an album about love. Lover’s title track dazzles with instrumentation that sounds as timeless as its lyrics are clever. “Ladies and gentlemen will you please stand? / With every guitar string scar on my hand / I take this magnetic force of a man to be my lover,” Swift croons. But this album captures other kinds of love as well. On the tear-jerking, acoustic “Soon You’ll Get Better,” Swift wills her mom, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2015, back to health. “The Archer” and “ME!” trace Swift’s struggle and determination to love herself. “You Need to Calm Down” is her controversial attempt to show love for the LGBTQ+ community. 

Still, Swift shines when tackling the subject matter she’s known for — romantic love. Whether it’s an agonizing summer fling that just might turn into something more in “Cruel Summer” or a cheeky tour around her boyfriend’s hometown in “London Boy,” Lover sees Swift’s talent to turn a burst of emotion into an earworm flourish. 

A dramatic departure from Reputation, this sparkling, joyful album makes it obvious that Taylor took her own advice — “Step into the daylight, and let it go.”

— Katie Beekman, Daily Arts Writer 

 

19. Brittney Howard, Jaime 

Howard earns her place on our list for both the complex themes and emotional authenticity bursting forth in her 2019 album, Jaime, and for the exhilarating experimentation in this debut. Howard, who some might recognize from her time with beloved band Alabama Shakes, has proven without doubt that her talent cannot be constrained to any one band, song or genre. One could mistake Howard for an Olympic athlete with the unbridled strength she uses to bend the music to her will, as graceful as a snake charmer and as bombastic and exciting as a ten-person strong ensemble. 

Jaime, named for Howard’s late sister, is a dramatic, solidifying statement on how the labors of our lives shape identity. Moving from grief, to racism, love and heartbreak, to listen to Jaime is to have lived a second life. Humanity, marked by flaw, is ultimately what Howard’s work boils down to. The origin stories of the world often agree that humans are marred by irreconcilable design flaws –– be it any number of so-called sins –– but Howard suggests, consciously or not, that the world cannot be defined in black-and-white, as we are wont to do. Goodness and “badness” aren’t inherent, or permanent –– it’s how we live life in spite of struggle that matters, and that’s why Jaime deserves, with full fanfare, a pedestal on our list. 

— Madeleine Virginia Gannon, Daily Arts Writer 

 

18. Maggie Rogers, Heard It In a Past Life 

Heard It In A Past Life, Maggie Rogers’ debut album, is a taste of the real, authentic music we’ve been starving for. Rogers, a former NYU student who has quickly risen to fame over the past year, writes about her struggles with anxiety and relationships set to contagious beats and folksy melodies. While she sings about the pains of losing control over her life, Rogers’ vocals are light, euphoric, and ironically freeing. Add her raw lyrics and earthy undertones of bells and effervescent beats, and you have an album that reminds you of long car rides down winding streets, where you can appreciate the beauty of getting lost. While Rogers distinctly borrows elements from pop and folk genres, her voice is completely her own with its delicate yet fierce inflection. The success of Heard It In A Past Life is telling of Rogers’ unique style and suggests we will be hearing her genuine, blended sound again in the near future. 

— Kaitlyn Fox, Daily Arts Writer 

 

17. The Highwomen, The Highwomen

It’s no secret that country music has been having a women problem — country radio has been playing less and less female artists for years. However, what makes country supergroup The Highwomen (comprised of Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Natalie Hemby and Maren Morris) so great is that they are so much more than a feminist statement. 

A fresh take on traditional instrumentation, The Highwomen’s world is full of fiddles, sassy one liners and strong songwriting. But it’s also incredibly inclusive. On “Crowded Table” the women encourage everyone, despite their differences, to sit and eat dinner with them. “If She Ever Leaves Me” finds Carlile warning a man eyeing her wife that, “If she ever leaves me, it won’t be for you.” And on the stunning title track, various stories of courageous women from different time periods are recounted. 

The Highwomen proves that this group isn’t just paving the way for more women to be heard in country music, it’s showing the way forward for everyone in the genre. When the group promises that “we’ll come back again, and again, and again, and again, and again,” the listener feels a sigh of relief.

— Katie Beekman, Daily Arts Writer 

 

16. Anderson .Paak, Ventura 

Anderson .Paak’s Ventura quickly follows up one of the most simultaneously anticipated and disappointing albums of 2018. It’s not so much that Oxnard was a weak album more so that it was a feeble follow-up to 2016’s Malibu. Where was the smooth .Paak who wowed us with his groovy, effortless heart and sincerity just two years ago? Trap-tinged, raunchy Oxnard felt like it was trying too hard to be something .Paak wasn’t. In many ways, Ventura could be considered a return to form. Opening track “Come Home” grooves as leisurely as his legendary opener “The Bird” did three years before. Alongside Andre 3000, he sets the stage for the record with his soul centered both sonically and thematically on love. Oxnard’s braggadocious film is swapped for comfortable sweet nothings that recount the beauty and entanglements of love. Love endures just as much as it fizzles to bittersweet memories on this album and .Paak effortlessly captures the nature of relationships under a funky, addictive ambience. However, do not mistake this album’s demeanor for blithe and carefree. This lush landscape ventures into more hard hitting territory. “What we built here is godly / They can’t gentrify the heart of kings,” Paak sings on “King James.” Through Ventura, .Paak aptly restores the heart and groove that initially brought him into the limelight with his ability to convey his passions in unwavering ease. 

— Diana Yassin, Daily Arts Writer 

 

15. 100 Gecs, 1000 gecs

1000 gecs is a carnivorous approach to every music trend that’s spanned the last decade. None of this is new, none of this hasn’t been heard before, but the way everything comes together feels exciting and fresh. 100 gecs duo Laura Les and Dylan Brady take a maximalist approach to music that combines almost every trend of digital age and it feels right. Do not be fooled though; this almost abrasive mishmash never feels contrived or overwhelming. The grimy dubstep mix that thrashes at the end of “745 Sticky” is a departure from the song’s initial distorted, plinking synths but they transition into one another with ease. As is the case with the EDM emo blend that wraps incoherent “hand crushed by a mallet,” the perfect bridge between Brady and Les’ distinct production styles. Maybe it’s the creaky, pitched vocals that stand out amid the chaos or the sparse, almost incoherent lyricism that keep this project from feeling like an incomprehensible catastrophe — in theory, this project shouldn’t have worked. Whatever the case may be, Les and Brady brilliantly, dare I say meticulously, curate an energetic mix of short tracks that deftly display different forms of music all at once. 

— Diana Yassin, Daily Arts Writer 

 

14. Liturgy, H.A.Q.Q

Liturgy’s last release, The Ark Work, was a step in the wrong direction with regard to the band’s mission to create “transcendent black metal.” It featured too much hip-hop, too much glitchy weirdness and too much non-black metal music. It looked like the band was doomed to abandon their black metal roots and try something new, something that wasn’t black metal.

Not the case. Liturgy proves that The Ark Work was a misfire by reloading with the release of H.A.Q.Q. It took four years, but it was well worth the wait. H.A.Q.Q. presents a band one step closer to the realization of transcendent black metal. Sure, it doesn’t all work. The series of “EXACO” interludes aren’t quite necessary nor are they black metal, but songs like “PASAQALIA” and “GOD OF LOVE” more than make up for them. These songs breathe and adapt, almost like the music is alive. The glitchy elements are still present, but they augment the songs. It seems that with H.A.Q.Q., Liturgy has righted their course on the long road to the discovery of transcendence in black metal.

— Jim Wilson, Daily Arts Writer 

 

13. Solange, When I Get Home 

In a conversation with Antwuan Sargent about her new project When I Get Home, Solange said “with this album I had so much to feel. Words would have been reductive to what I needed to feel and express. It’s in the sonics for me.” 

This impressionistic philosophy is executed to blissful effect on the project. Listening to When I Get Home feels as though you’ve been transported directly into Solange’s reveries. She’s aware of your presence, but pays it no mind. She’s not singing for you. The project is the sound of memories, curiosity and longing. The high concentration of dreamy interludes makes this album feel more like a singular, forty-minute experience than a collection of individual tracks. This is not to say that no songs stand out: “Stay Flo,” “Almeda” and “Binz” seem to break through the haze that hovers over most of the project, yet they are still rooted in the same sense of mellow curiosity as the rest of the album. And on top of it all, Playboi Carti’s feature on “Almeda” is life-changing. 

On When I Get Home, Solange sounds comfortable and confident, drifting over lush keys and sleepy grooves. While certainly less lyrically profound than A Seat at the Table, it is no less impactful or entrancing.

— Jonah Mendelson, Senior Arts Editor 

 

12. Lizzo, Cuz I Love You 

Let’s make one thing clear from the get-go: Cuz I Love You is a fantastic album. That’s it. Yes, we can talk –– and will –– about how Lizzo is exhilarating, powerful and bold, how she breaks barriers we didn’t realize we still had. But Lizzo isn’t on this list because she’s Black, or plus-size or explicit (I prefer free) with her words and actions. Lizzo is on our list because her album is good; Because her music is foot-stomping, hip-swinging, booty-shaking great. The bottom line is her music, and everything else that’s amazing about her can come after. I won’t cheapen Lizzo’s victory by suggesting Cuz I Love You is printed here for anything other than it’s own merits. 

Why is Cuz I Love You so good? The album is like a cannon blast: Lizzo’s powerful singing, the colorful, energizing lyrics, the diversity of sound in every track; because “Truth Hurts” is the anthem not just of the year, but of a coming generation. Lizzo, while undeniably a feminist powerhouse, speaks for the masses of the fed-up and taken for granted. Regardless of gender, age or race, Cuz I Love You speaks a little bit to everyone. Any album that can reach the hearts, minds, and souls of so many deserves profound acknowledgement. Because no one can hear Lizzo call out “I just took a DNA test, turns out I'm 100% that bitch” and not crow in joyful chorus. 

— Madeleine Virgina Gannon, Daily Arts Writer 

 

11. (Sandy) Alex G, House of Sugar 

House of Sugar sets up the euphoric highs and dark pitfalls of a haunted gamble, except it places your 10-year-old self in front of the dealer. With a loose connection to the Philadelphia Casino “SugarHouse,” (Sandy) Alex G tackles indulgence and sweet facades with an eerie twist on what it means to be a kid in a candy shop. 

House of Sugar calls your bluff. The production distorts reality and then swings intermittently to moments of earnest acoustic chords that seem to snap us back to a discernible and disarming reality (perhaps when the candy is less addictive). The constancy of the acoustic chords offer a sober shoulder to lean upon, grounding his cosmic launches into electronic instrumentation. 

(Sandy) Alex G skews vocals and plays with repetition to expose youth throughout the record — tracks like “Taking” launch me back to a time when the most prominent lesson to learn was how to share. He’ll take a synth and turn the knob on it, with tracks like “Crime” and “Gretel,” like taking the pitch of a wolf’s howl and watching it deepen. You can physically feel the downward parabolic projection. The forest is haunted, the candy turns sour. Then we’re back to the sugar rush of his sweet upper register. 

House of Sugar seamlessly dips into southern folk, electronic,and psychedelic rock (to name a few), all while resting under this umbrella of assiduous DIY. It’s sincere and homey but takes immense, professional risks in a production that makes you feel like the entire animation team at Pixar could be behind this. But yet it’s still a DIY vibe. Baffling. 

— Samantha Cantie, Daily Music Editor 

 

10. Billie Eilish, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?

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Lars Crommelinck Photography

At just eighteen years old, Billie Eilish can play into your fears and masterfully manipulate them into a chart-topping hit. Despite the album’s chilling nature, its heavy bass riffs and exotic lyrical approach sucks you in; Eilish’s dark yet beautiful world of monsters and “bad guys” hypnotizes listeners. In a string of songs loaded with haunting vocals and heavy, reverberating bass, Eilish transports you to your worst nightmares while also feeding you with the satisfying electro beats you didn’t know you needed. While Eilish sticks to the spooky motif throughout the entire album, it contains brief moments of arbitrary elements — Eilish giggling, audio clips from “The Office,” and Eilish removing her Invisalign — slightly resembling the cluttered mind of a teenage girl. The most notable aspect of the album is the way Eilish boldly disassociates herself from the modern pop scene, giving a more mature and controlled style as compared to her teen-idol counterparts. Her distance from the status quo is the most defining element of the album and has certainly rewarded her in 2019. 

— Kaitlyn Fox, Daily Arts Writer

 

9. JPEGMAFIA, All My Heroes are Cornballs 

On All My Heroes Are Cornballs, JPEGMAFIA takes the aggressive and industrial spirit of his 2018 record Veteran and injects it with more singing and ethereal warmth than on any of his past projects. This is an album that’s jarringly discordant yet harmoniously smooth, outrageously grimy yet polished to near-perfection. In one moment, Peggy is singing a beautiful chorus, like on “Free The Frail” — “Don’t rely on the strength of my image, hey / If it's good, then it’s good / Break it down, the shit is outta my hands, whoa.” Next thing you know, he’s spitting hilarious and hard raps like on “Post Verified Lifestyle” — “I'm treatin’ this bitch like a cuck, brrt, MAC, loadin’ it up.” He’s here to piss people off and make them uncomfortable; lines like “I’m not a rapper, I’m white trash in a mocha body” are on the gentle side. So many disparate elements meld into a genuinely experimental album. How many people were making music anything close to what JPEGMAFIA was making in 2019? Next to none.

— Dylan Yono, Daily Arts Writer 

 

8. FKA Twigs, MAGDALENE

FKA twigs and her airy, seraphic vocals come to life in the most godly of ways on her second studio album, MAGDALENE. It is fair to say that, five years following her last release, twigs has created what could be considered a masterpiece. Without a doubt her most impressive and deep work to date, the album encapsulates all of what makes FKA twigs special in ways that her listeners haven’t heard before. She dives into sounds she hasn’t tried on her past projects with grace, taking on a variety of instruments and background vocals that she hasn’t before. She effortlessly tackles the concepts of religion and heartbreak, introducing pain and solving it with healing. The album completes itself perfectly; it doesn’t feel like any song doesn’t belong exactly where it is. 

FKA twigs did not need to make more of a presence for herself. Her initial full-length release, LP1, brought her to the attention of the mainstream public. Through doing a feature on A$AP Rocky’s album, Testing, she got even more exposure. Despite her rise over the years, twigs has stayed extremely true to the sound that gave her a name. While MAGDALENE is clearly her most well-rounded and outstanding release, it still sounds exactly like what an FKA twigs album should sound like; otherworldly. One of the most obvious choices for a top album of the year, MAGDALENE was exactly what the progression of FKA twigs’ discography should be and so much more.

— Gigi Ciulla, Daily Arts Writer 

 

7. Danny Brown, uknowhatimsayin¿ 

The man, the myth, the legend. Danny Brown. After a relatively quiet three years mostly spent streaming on Twitch, Danny Brown has finally returned to the scene, bringing with him a new album, uknowhatimsayin¿, executive produced by none other than Q-Tip, and he’s embracing his elder statesman status.

A new sheriff is in town on uknowhatimsayin¿. Gone is the old, strung-out, yelping Danny Brown. The new Danny Brown is almost a different person — happy, relaxed and loving life. Almost. uknowhatimsayin¿ may have a heavy focus on pure rapping, but Danny is still Danny. He’s still experimental, but he’s more subtle about it. He selected beats that sound more traditional on the surface, but a deeper look into songs like “Best Life” shows that they are anything but. His set-ups are crisp, and his punchlines are executed flawlessly throughout the entire album. There are bars aplenty as Danny Brown raps his ass off for the entire thirty-three minute runtime over art-house boom-bap beats. uknowhatimsayin¿ is the perfect introduction to this new stage of Danny Brown’s career.

— Jim Wilson, Daily Arts Writer

 

6. Harry Styles, Fine Line 

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Columbia Records

Masculine and feminine, moody but cheeky, former boyband member turned current sex symbol, Harry Styles knows a thing or two about fine lines. That’s why Styles’s second solo album sounds like a drive up the California coast, a burst of sunshine turned torrential downpour and a dance between darkness and light — sometimes all at once. In fact, the atmosphere Fine Line builds is such a distinct mixture of pop and rock that Styles and his promotion team created an imaginary island, “Eroda,” just to market it. 

Songs like “Golden” and “Watermelon Sugar” shimmer whereas stripped back “Falling” and “Cherry” burst. On the latter Styles can’t help but wonder, “Does he take you walking in his parents’ gallery?”, achingly holding onto the final syllable until he’s forced to rip back into the chorus. 

The lyrics on Fine Line are often sparse and simple, but always packed with a punch. “Put a price on emotion,” Styles pleads on the title track, “I’m looking for something to buy.” When the song is taken over by building horns and military drumming, he is left to insist that, “We’ll be alright.” And the listener wants to believe him. Maybe it is that easy to be everything at once. If anyone can do it, Styles can.

 — Katie Beekman, Daily Arts Writer 

 

5. Purple Mountains, Purple Mountains 

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Purple Mountains, the project of former Silver Jews frontman and author of the acclaimed poetry collection Actual Air David Berman, is best summed up by this line from “Storyline Fever”: “Got a comb over cut circa Abscam sting / Make a better Larry than Lizard King.” It’s simple yet complex, chock-full of witty, self-referential anecdotes and esoteric blurbs and comparisons, all tinged with melancholy. Berman is strictly himself on Purple Mountains. He is always truthful and has nothing to hide, even when it hurts.

Unfortunately, Purple Mountains is the last album that Berman will ever release. A few weeks after the album’s release, he was found dead in an apartment in Brooklyn, having committed suicide. 

To be blunt, this album is deeply sad, but Berman expertly circumvents the sadness by writing captivating, catchy and, most importantly, congenial songs. He incorporates humor with all the sadness, as if to say it’s the only way to overcome. It is simultaneously and accessible, infused with Berman’s essence. 

Purple Mountains was Berman’s swan song. A beautiful, bleary-eyed, poignant swan song.

 — Jim Wilson, Daily Arts Writer 

 

4. slowthai, Nothing Great About Britain

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Despite countless British culture references going over my head, this album’s cleverness and excellence has not been lost on me. Nothing Great About Britain is stacked with genuinely terrifying beats beneath slowthai’s grim tales of growing up in Northampton. The title is defiant by nature, a challenge to the prevailing mindset of patriotism, but slowthai shows love and pride for Britain through his storytelling. This is his story set in his home and slowthai doesn’t hold back one bit. On the rage-fueled “Doorman,” he critiques the wealthy through his characterization of a relationship with a higher-class woman: “I pour my heart out, she laps up my blood.” Then on “Gorgeous,” slowthai is nostalgic for the time him and the boys first got arrested — “Five man deep and we all in cuffs” — the experience made fond by the presence of his friends. Every word slowthai spits, he gives it raw. And if the main album wasn’t enough, slowthai’s got all his bases covered with six bonus tracks that bang even harder than the album cuts. “Drug Dealer” and “Polaroid” are easily the most scream-along-able tracks of 2019. But Nothing Great About Britain has a greater accolade: This is the punkest rap album of the decade.

 — Dylan Yono, Daily Arts Writer 

 

3. Freddie Gibbs and Madlib, Bandana

Bandana is the long awaited follow-up to 2014’s Pinata. A seemingly unlikely duo in 2014, the collaborators curated a tour-de-force with a blaxploitation inspired album that perfectly bridged Gibbs’ street rap with Madlib’s throwback G-Funk flair. The result was a nostalgic, genre-defiant throwback that was gritty and well developed enough to feel contemporary. This is not the case with Bandana, an album that is just as provocative as its predecessor but more unhinged and in the now. Gibbs is all over the lyricism with Black activism and freedom at the very core. He paints the album in historical references that harken back to major Black figures and moments in history while still keeping it personal. This is nothing new to Gibbs, it’s a quality he’s had since his mixtape days — but here, he’s less assured of how to approach activism. “I can’t move the same/ I gotta readjust how I maneuver,” he raps on “Gat Damn.” Madlib’s production is robust and maximized, a significant departure from his signature lo-fi beats. Different elements and instruments develop the background from twinkling bells and spazzed-out cymbals on “Half Manne Half Cocaine” to “Flat Tummy Tea’s” jerky, warped riff. Through Bandana, Madlib and Gibbs further the strength of their teamwork, their individual styles bouncing off one another’s seamlessly for a powerful rap album. 

 — Diana Yassin, Daily Arts Writer 

 

2. Lana Del Ray, Norman Fucking Rockwell! 

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“Maybe the way that I’m living is killing me,” sings Lana Del Rey in her 2019 album Norman Fucking Rockwell!, and if anything better summarizes the ethos of this past year, this writer is at a loss. It’s Del Rey’s undeniable, bone-cutting relevance that earns her such a high placement on our “Best Of” roundout. Norman Fucking Rockwell! is more than an album, more than Del Rey, more than any of us –– it’s a musical transcription of the glory and gore of modern America. This album is both a love letter to and a condemnation of the “American Dream,” a once shining gold-standard that has now rusted. Maybe it is better to compare Norman Fucking Rockwell! to a time capsule: Del Rey weaves together an eon of America culture, from 50’s Doris Day to contemporary pop, from artist Norman Rockwell to the icon herself, Lana Del Rey. 

Allow me to make a bold claim: Del Rey has never written a pointless song. Every lyric is carefully constructed to add layers of thematic depth and imagery to her songs. A wordsmith and master of her craft, Del Rey proves her chops not just from the sociopolitical insight of her music, but also in her razor-sharp skills that never dull. 

I said it once, and I’ll say it again, to round out the year: Listen to Norman Fucking Rockwell!. Consider it a mandatory exercise of patriotism. 

 — Madeleine Virgina Gannon, Daily Arts Writer 

 

1. Tyler The Creator, IGOR

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IGOR is the soundtrack to falling out of love after an emotionally turbulent period of denial, as Tyler desperately tries to hold on to a romance he knows is fading away. 

The raw feeling imparted in IGOR is almost palpable: the rough textures of retro synths combine with peculiar drum patterns and distorted, pitch-shifted vocals to build up emotional tension. This tension is released with beautiful, fleeting flashes of weightlessness, such as the bridge of “I THINK” and the soulful sample in “A BOY IS A GUN*.” Early in the album, this harmonic unsteadiness creates an ironic contrast with lyrics such as “I think I’m falling in love,” this tension suggesting that Tyler is lying either to you or to himself as he struggles to free himself from the obsessive limerence that ties him, almost involuntarily, to this other person.

“But at some point you come to your senses”

“GONE, GONE / THANK YOU”  is the emotional centerpiece of IGOR as Tyler finally accepts that his “love’s gone” after trying to fight back against the inevitable for most of the album. To my ears, IGOR functions as a warped, almost mocking companion piece to the more optimistic and lush Flower Boy up until the second half of that track, when a beautiful, fleeting flash of melody (“Thank you for the love”) unexpectedly and powerfully reaffirms the value of love in the face of disillusionment, albeit from a more mature and cautious perspective (“Now I’m scarred for life”). It’s better to have loved and lost, according to Tyler, even if he doesn’t feel ready to go through it all again at the moment (“But I don’t ever want to love again”). That last line might seem awfully pessimistic, but in context, melodic and lyrical, it becomes clear that there’s more here than meets the eye. He’s still lying  — much as you swear off alcohol forever when you wake up hungover, you never actually mean it. 

Acceptance is not the end of the story. The final two tracks show Tyler questioning what the future holds. Where does he go from here? What does his relationship with this person look like now that they are no longer romantically involved? Has he truly accepted the loss, or is he still hanging on? Maybe if we’re lucky, one day he’ll let us know. 

 — Jonah Mendelson, Senior Arts Editor