The Ringer’s Shea Serrano and Rob Harvilla have teamed up again to count down the best albums of the year, from a few megahits that dominated the charts to some reliable indie darlings to left-field newcomers worthy of your time. For more on our no. 1, read Harvilla’s accompanying essay, and for more year-end music coverage, read Micah Peters and Justin Sayles’s countdown of the best songs of 2019.
10. Larry June, Early Bird
Between February and November of this year, Larry June released five albums. FIVE. Which is a lot of albums. And which is all the more impressively stunning when you realize that all five of them are good. Or, rather, four of them are good, and one of them is excellent. The excellent one is Early Bird, which is the first of the bunch. It’s measured and considered and charming, and it leans into Larry June’s strengths, which is to say that it allows him to be a little bit melodic (“Dear, Snow”) and a little bit weird (“Trappin’ Orange Juice”) and a lot bit confident (“On My Way”). The album ends with a song called “Baggage Claims,” during which Larry June interrupts his own rapping and comes over the top of his vocals with “Switch that hoe all the way up. I ain’t really feeling this flow.” The flow changes right then, and a few seconds later he starts talking to himself again: “This a cool little rhythm,” he says, before launching out a few soft jabs at himself, or someone who doubts him, or anyone, really. It’s great, and the kind of sidewinding that you (a) can always find on a Larry June album, but (b) are always still happy to hear. —Shea Serrano
9. Jenny Lewis, On the Line
Jenny Lewis is far past the point of shocking anyone, even with her excellence. Her early emo-gone-pop band Rilo Kiley rendered turn-of-the-century sadness as something exquisite and ferocious; her L.A.-rascal solo albums since, 2014’s The Voyager especially, sketched out an exhilarating cosmic-country universe that would soon elevate Kacey Musgraves, for one, to Grammy-night glory. But the swan-dive depth and honeyed profundity of Lewis’s voice on On the Line is a startling thing: It’s as smooth and intoxicating as top-shelf bourbon sipped directly out of someone else’s mouth. She does sensual Fleetwood Mac angst on “Red Bull & Hennessy” (great guitar solo); she does rubbery funk on “Little White Dove”; she wraps it up with the perfect power-pop earworm “Rabbit Hole.” And there is serene wisdom, somehow, in the way she sings the words, “And everybody knows we’re in trouble / Doo doo doo doo doo / Candy Crush.” —Rob Harvilla
8. Jamila Woods, Legacy! Legacy!
The truth is that this Best Albums of 2019 list is a compromise. Rob and I wrote it together, but because Rob and I have very different tastes, our album picks always look very different. And because the lists look so different, it’s difficult for us to settle on a final top 10 because he wants all of his picks on there and I want all of my picks on there. So what we do is we each make a list of our favorite albums of the year and then, because this is the only way that we could think of to do it without the final selections turning into a shouting match, we mush together the top five from each. That’s how we get the final top 10.
That’s why Jamila’s Legacy! Legacy! sits in eighth place here, even though it was my fourth favorite album of the year.* It’s a wonderful piece of art, fat with wonderful moments. Consider the opening song, “Betty,” which starts off small and curled up into itself before unfurling fully at the 1:03 mark into something big and beautiful and demonstrative. Or “Frida,” which moves with the same kind of confidence as its namesake. (Every song is named after an artist of color.) Or “Muddy,” which is exactly as bold and confrontational as you’re hoping (“Motherfuckers won’t shut up / We been in a war, my God.”) The whole project is a delight and a declaration; exactly the right amount of social commentary paired with exactly the right amount of musical ingenuity. —Serrano
*My sixth favorite was DaBaby’s Baby on Baby. Seventh was Jhay Cortez’s Famouz. Eighth was Bad Bunny and J Balvin’s Oasis. Ninth was Le$’s Original Player. Tenth was Rapsody’s Eve. Eleventh was Burna Boy’s African Giant. And 12th was Cousin Stizz’s Trying to Find My Next Thrill.
7. Charly Bliss, Young Enough
Nobody conveys pure giddiness like Charly Bliss singer Eva Hendricks, and nobody weaponizes it with deadlier aplomb. The Brooklyn rock band’s 2017 breakout Guppy was an instant Ringer favorite for its throwback ecstasy (what if No Doubt invented riot grrrl is the basic idea) and the immediacy of its gleeful agony. (“I’m too sad to be mean” is a line I think about a lot.) Young Enough refines what they’re already great at (“Under You” is a rad burst of giddy, agonized lust) but pushes far beyond it: The drum-machine clatter of “Capacity” is jarring on first listen and still thrilling on the 200th, and “Young Enough” has a massive arena-rock scope with more vivacity than the past five U2 albums combined. But the insidiously catchy “Chatroom” is what sticks with you: “I was sexually assaulted by someone I dated, and I wrote ‘Chatroom,’ and most of Young Enough, as a way of processing that experience and explaining it to myself,” Hendricks told Jezebel, concluding that it’s “a song about reaching ecstatic joy through consuming rage.” The joy and the rage are in fact inseparable; it’s her deadliest weapon yet. —Harvilla
6. Tyler, the Creator, Igor
My favorite efficiently insightful examination of what makes Igor so enjoyable came from Micah Peters, staff writer at The Ringer*, when he wrote earlier this week, “It’s head-spinning to think the same man that ate a cockroach and then hung himself for shock value could arrange something as beautiful and earnest as ‘EARFQUAKE’.” Because that’s exactly what Igor feels like; like we’re all watching Tyler become the artist he’s been angling toward for years. The songs on Igor feel urgent (“I THINK”) and impassioned (“A BOY IS A GUN”) and sincere (“EARFQUAKE”), and it’s all very exciting to watch happen (or to “hear” happen, I suppose). Given the creative trajectory his discography has exhibited thus far, I have no idea what Tyler’s next album will sound like, or feel like, or move like. But he probably doesn’t either. Which is sort of the whole point. —Serrano
*My second favorite efficiently insightful examination of what makes Igor so enjoyable came from Danny Schwartz, who had the following observation at Rolling Stone: “By couching his vocals deep in the mix, Tyler is basically saying that he sees himself as producer, singer, and rapper, in that order.”
5. Billie Eilish, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
“Duh,” as the kids say. (Do the kids really say “duh”? Are they using “duh” ironically to further mock doddering old people? Shit.) No young artist screams THE FUTURE louder, or whispers YOU ARE PROBABLY NOT THE FUTURE with more alluring malice than this actual teenager on this actual postapocalyptic pop masterpiece. Its goofiest moments (like the insidious bounce of very improbable no. 1 single “Bad Guy”) are inseparable from its scariest. (Like the zombie-crawl breakdown of “Bad Guy,” on which she whispers, “I like when you get mad / I guess I’m pretty glad that you’re alone.”) To hear the bone-chilling “Bury a Friend” on the radio (complete with dental drill and Nightmare Horse) is to watch your life, and the lives of several suddenly ancient pop stars, flash before your eyes. But the chilly torch song “When the Party’s Over” lingers longest, a classic heartbreaking power ballad mutating into a terrifyingly beautiful new form. The video is a whole lot, of course; the kids aren’t all right, but it’s OK. —Harvilla
4. Maxo Kream, Brandon Banks
First, know that: “Brandon Banks” is the alias that Maxo Kream’s father adopted when Maxo was a child. Because, second, know that: Maxo naming this album Brandon Banks was less of a thing he did because it sounds like a cool name, and more of a thing he did as a mission statement. Because, thirdly, know that: Again and again and again on Brandon Banks, we hear Maxo, a 29-year-old rapper who has grown into real national prominence these past two or so years, wrestle not only with his father’s legacy, but also with the idea that his father’s thoughts and actions might have informed Maxo’s own existence more than he was previously willing to admit. It’s supremely interesting, really, to hear Maxo roll from father-to-son insight to son-to-father insight (the most moving parts are when Maxo implies a level of forgiveness for some of his father’s familial sins), all of which is made more impressive by the fact that the album never sacrifices even a second of its pacing because of it.* —Serrano
*I have a very distinct memory in my head of the time when I’d begun considering how the imprint my father left on me was going to shape the kind of man that I was going to become, and the kind of father that I was going to become. I have to imagine that’s part of the reason that I found Brandon Banks so appealing. I greatly enjoy hearing others discuss that kind of idea, especially in a forum as open and vulnerable as music.
3. Purple Mountains, Purple Mountains
“’Course I’ve been humbled by the void / Much of my faith has been destroyed / I’ve been forced to watch / My foes enjoy / Ceaseless feasts of schadenfreude.” It’s the jaunty way David Berman croons these words—delighting in the rhymes, reveling in the woozy country-rock that bolsters them—that makes them so miraculous and hilarious and, ultimately, devastating. Berman—rock-star poet, philosopher-goofball icon, and former Silver Jews frontman delivering his first album in 11 years—took his own life less than a month after releasing Purple Mountains, which makes the devastating parts (like the newly double-past-tense ache of “I Loved Being My Mother’s Son”) far more devastating. But Berman’s corner-brightening warmth and pitch-black wit is built to withstand any darkness, including that caused by his absence, like when he summarizes the modern condition as “we’re just drinkin’ margaritas at the mall.” Grin dopily through the tears; sob uncontrollably through the laughing fits. —Harvilla
2. Megan Thee Stallion, Fever
Two things here:
- On occasion, a musician will appear in your orbit in whatever way it is that a musician appears in your orbit, and as soon as you hear them you say something like, “OK, so obviously this person is a star and was intended to be famous.” Megan Thee Stallion is one of those kinds of musicians. Of that, there can be no denial. Which leads to the second thing:
- A neat trick that certain albums are able to pull off is when they act as a sort of timestamp on culture, like the way that listening to Get Rich or Die Tryin’ today feels distinctly like 2003, or the way listening to The Score today feels distinctly like 1996, or the way listening to To Pimp a Butterfly today feels distinctly like 2015. That’s what Megan Thee Stallion’s Fever did, and does, and why it will find its way onto so many Best Of lists this month. Because when it came out, it felt very much like both a moment (Houston has a new star! Have you been watching those freestyle videos that everyone’s posting?! It’s Megan’s time!) and a movement (the phrase “Hot Girl Summer,” created by Megan and intended as a celebration of being unapologetically yourself, became such a ubiquitous and undeniably lovely sentiment that multiple brands tried to co-opt it). And listening to any parts of the album today—be it, say, the dazzling “Cash Shit,” or the kinetic “Simon Says,” or basically any other song on there—confirms that it was exactly both of those things. —Serrano
1. Lana Del Rey, Norman Fucking Rockwell
The short version is that “Your poetry’s bad and you blame the news” is the sublime Insult of the Decade, as delivered by somebody who started out the 2010s as a comically maligned lightning rod and is ending the 2010s on the very short list of Artists of the Decade. This is the long version. — Harvilla