This year has already given us a great Beyonce live album, Jenny Lewis’ L.A. stories, Springsteen’s western adventure and great releases from up and coming artists like Stella Donnelly, Weyes Blood and Jamila Woods. Here’s our unranked rundown of the year’s most noteworthy releases.
Born in Houston, nurtured in Minneapolis, Lizzo drops Cuz I Love You on the edge of turning 31. (She was born just a few days after Prince dropped “Alphabet Street,” which may help explain her superhuman levels of Paisley Park-dom.) It’s a flawless major-label debut, after she grabbed ears with her indie gems Lizzobangers and Big Grrrl Small World. No filler here — just 33 minutes of twerk-core, hip-hop self-love anthems, torchy soul ballads, plus the occasional moment where she busts out her inner Tull to play flute hero. Lizzo’s woodwind muse, Sasha Flute, has its own Instagram, becoming the most iconic axe to rock the hit parade since guitars like B.B. King’s Lucille or Neil Young’s Old Black.
There have been times throughout Bruce Springsteen’s career when California has called. He named a song for the state after his parents moved there in 1971, and he’d return to it, in life and writing, repeatedly, chasing his dreams like Steinbeck’s Tom Joad. Western Stars(out June 14th) is the latest visit: a lushly orchestrated set of throwback, country-tinged folk pop that, despite some resemblance to previous works like Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad, sounds like little else in his catalog. Frankly, its sheen is off-putting at first. But once you settle in, the set reveals some of Springsteen’s most beguiling work ever.
Recorded with the help of her older brother Finneas in their family home in Los Angeles, it’s an album full of dressed-down avant-pop with D.I.Y. immediacy and intimacy that can still hold its own amid Top 40 maximalists like Ariana Grande and Halsey. Eilish’s sound is hyper-modern, but still feels classic; evoking another Billie in history, she sets the jazz-aware swing in her vocals over skittering trap beats and doo-wop piano asides. Yet for reasons that are unclear — perhaps her taste for the macabre, or her aesthetic as a tomboy par excellence — Eilish’s roguish pop has lead to a double life on the male-heavy rock and alternative charts.
Father of the Bride is so zealously detailed and meticulously contoured that you easily sink into its inventions: the whirl of country picking, surf-guitar twang and classical interlude in “Harmony Hall”; the loopy hip-hop of “Sunflower” with its creeping-vocal riff; the Soweto-like bounce and AutoTuned-Beach Boys-style chorale in “Flower Moon.” But this is ear candy loaded with trouble. Frustration, helplessness and romantic crisis come just like the songs, in grenade-like bursts, as Koenig delivers bad news like the “wicked snakes” in “Harmony Hall” (“Inside a place/You thought was dignified”) with disarmingly clean-cut vocal brio.
In the Netflix documentary Homecoming, her diligent, meticulous preparations for such a show as a performer and a creative director offers insight into the type of hard work it takes to be Beyoncé. As the behind-the-scenes footage in the concert film progresses, her role as director comes with the particular challenge of translating the energy of the massive performance, not only to the live audience but to the people either watching the show’s livestream or even the just-released concert film. Listening to the live album version of Homecoming, which was dropped as a surprise-release on all streaming platforms the same morning as the documentary, it’s clear that Beyoncé and her musicians met the call. —Brittany Spanos
It is a long rock & roll tradition: writing songs about the high price of success in exhaustion, sanity and lasting relationships. Modern-rock stars Cage the Elephant take a turn on Social Cues, their fifth studio album. And the bill comes due with a vengeance. “I was promised the keys to an empire,” singer Matt Shultz claims in the opening garage-rock sprint “Broken Boy.” But he is already lost and fried in the next track, the title song. “I don’t have the strength to play nice,” Shultz admits against a tightly wound mix of dirty-glam keyboards and space-cowboy steel guitar. “People always say/Man, at least you’re on the radio,” he notes in the chorus. It sounds like cold comfort. If this is an old story, Social Cues is a dynamic, uncommon telling by the Kentucky-born band
Like Flower Boy, Tyler’s new album IGOR is an album for the summer months. It’s a rich and messy mélange of R&B, funk and rap that carries a luminous sheen and a bittersweet undercurrent; lyrically, Tyler traces the emotional journey of being the odd man out in a love triangle. “Your other one evaporate, we celebrate/You under oath, now pick a side,” he raps on “New Magic Wand.” On IGOR, Tyler seldom acts as the character he plays in the “What’s Good” music video, in which he vigorously shadowboxes while wearing a blonde bowl cut wig and a two-tone pink suit. Much more often he’s wounded and vulnerable, weighed down by real emotional labor.
Sweetener was an ambitious artist crafting a self-consciously wide-scale pop statement and, coming just six months later, Thank U, Next turns out to be her best album yet. Thank U, Next is just a woman and a mood, taking that mood out for a drive until she pedal-to-the-metals it right off a cliff. What a glorious pop rush it is—the album version of one of those emergency break-up karaoke sessions with a few therapeutic hours of Mary J. Blige and Toni Braxton songs. “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored” is a perfect song title in the tradition of Britney’s “Get Naked (I Got a Plan),” with Max Martin and a clever interpolation of the ‘NSync deep cut “It Makes Me Ill.” It’s the perfect way to end this album—after crying her tears and screaming her screams and feeling her feels, Ari flirts with the bartender on her way out, ready for more punishment. This is one of the year’s best pop albums so far, even in a 2019 that’s already turning out to be a great one for new music. Thank U, Next makes you suspect that the best Ariana is yet to come. –Rob Sheffield
Lewis’ vocals were tracked in Capitol Records Studio B, the room christened by Ol’ Blue Eyes in 1956 when he gesticulated at the sessions for (Frank Sinatra Conducts) Tone Poems Of Color, her piano chords fingered on the same keys that voiced Carole King’s Tapestry. The music indeed feels touched by King’s white-girl Laurel Canyon soul, but maybe more by Harry Nilsson’s tender, hooky wit. Lewis channels Brian Wilson’s sun-kissed doo-wop on the title track — with a sly pun on letter-sweaters and a winking reference, perhaps, to “Caroline No” (here “Caroline, uh”). Elliott Smith gets namechecked on “Heads Gonna Roll,” the Go-Go’s perky new wave shines from “Rabbit Hole,” Fleetwood Mac’s heady harmony-builds bloom on “Red Bull and Hennessy.”
Solange carries her history like a talisman. It’s there to remind her — and us — how to remain grounded while moving forward. With When I Get Home, she pays tribute to her roots in Houston by presenting a therapeutic and transfixing scrapbook that seamlessly brings together the past and the future of her home. With 19 songs the clock in at under 40 minutes total, Solange’s tribute takes an unusual form. She offers brief but potent statements; over half the tracks are under three minutes and each one bleeds into the other like watercolors on her canvas. Every moment, beat, sample and feature feel carefully constructed and articulated, and for Solange, that’s just her default mode of creation.
Van Etten started out playing hushed, disgruntled folk rock, so she often gets tagged as an “indie” artist. But she’s always had bigger things in mind for her music. Her fantastic new album, Remind Me Tomorrow, ups her ambitions even further, pushing toward a grand, smoldering vision of pop. Van Etten’s previous LPs rode a sepulchral slow-burn. This music is just as expansive, but the songs are sharply sculpted. “No One’s Easy to Love” is a hazy intimation of regret with a head-slap groove; on the hot single “Comeback Kid,” Van Etten sounds like an imperious Eighties MTV avenger, punching her way through gossamer synths and Phil Collins-huge tom-tom rumble. “Jupiter 4” is like a torch-ballad version of the interplanetary jazz David Bowie explored on Blackstar.
Colombian star Maluma’s fourth studio album is a Hail Mary of sorts. Inspired by “angel numbers” (a repetitive sequence deemed auspicious by spiritualists), 11:11 sees Maluma betting on a future — not just in his home turf of reggaeton, nor in Latin music — but in pop at large. It’s most evident in his features: among them Madonna, Ty Dolla $ign, and one of the original Latin crossover kings, Ricky Martin. But there’s room for unsung talents, too: Panamanian newcomer Sech, imparts his R&B tenor on “Instinto Natural” while Colombian diva Farina gets her close-up in “Puesto Pa’ Ti.” Maluma meanders from the dancehall-inflected “No Se Me Quita,” breezes through the English-language club jam “Tu Vecina” and breathes cool into the classic salsa sound in “Te Quiero.” But for a guy who’d hoped to shed his rep as a single-genre artist, Maluma shines brightest in his reggaeton tracks.
Girl is where Morris makes her pop move. She’s stretching out musically, going for more of a Selena Gomez-Camila Cabello vibe. She got a taste of the Top 10 last year with “The Middle,” her surprise EDM hit with Zedd and Grey, which clearly whetted her pop appetite. The high points on Girl have major emotional reach. “A Song for Everything” follows in the style of “My Church,” as she sings about music memories: “What’s your time machine?/Is it Springsteen or ‘Teenage Dream’?” (Weird footnote: Morris yearns for the good old days “back when Coldplay still played clubs.”)
Chicago r&b poet Jamila Woods generated her first major who is she?! moment beside Chance the Rapper in the “Sunday Candy” video by Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment; her LP debut HEAVN answered that question a year later with a personal set of gospel-tinged rap-soul hybrids. Her new Legacy! Legacy! views the personal through a lens of cultural history. Songs are named for giants: “MILES,” “ZORA,” “EARTHA,” “BALDWIN,” “BASQUIAT,” and if the connections aren’t always obvious, they’re always inspired. But like her last record, Legacy! Legacy! is about community, about legacies as heritage but also as that which is forged on the ground in the moment.
The 21-year-old’s Atlanta roots allow her to effortlessly coalesce R&B with indie-folk. This is especially true for “Pigeon,” in which the steel guitar is joined by quirky keyboard chords to create a beat reminiscent of TLC’s “Waterfalls.” “I used to make my bed/but now I see no point in it,” she sings. On the seductive “Flowers,” she’s joined by Father, the Atlanta rapper from local label Awful Records that helped jump-start Webster’s career. “Why won’t you come here to visit? Why do you only speak of it?” she asks over saxophone in “Come to Atlanta,” begging a lover to come to the city where Webster started it all. “I only want that with you.”
Aldous Harding uses oddness as both lure and armor. You can see it in her performances, which suggest a neurodiverse lexicon of emotions in her facial tics and physicality. And you can hear it in the language of Designer, her quizzically beautiful third LP, where she pivots artfully from folk eccentric to pop eccentric. Harding’s from Christchurch, New Zealand — a far-flung spot that, before becoming yet another poster town for racist violence, was best-known for its thriving indie-rock community in the ‘80s and ‘90s, with bands like The Bats and Bailter Space, and the touchstone Flying Nun label, Harding’s first home. The singer’s got range, and she plays in it like a sandbox, pushing her contralto up to Kate-Bushy highs and Nico-conjuring lows. She also has an inviting sense of melody, seemingly rooted in the folk traditions of the British Isles, but which opens up on Designer with lilting grooves suggesting other islands, Caribbean and South Seas.
If last year’s Oxnard was Anderson .Paak’s version o Outkast’s Speakerboxxx – a shape-shifting hip-hop LP steeped in eccentric R&B — its sister LP, Ventura, is his The Love Below, an eccentric R&B record tilting towards hip-hop. Ventura even begins with an André 3000 cameo, a memorable one at that, the MC-emeritus navigating grown-ass relationship trials (aging, hair dye, relationship counseling) on verses that move from trot to canter to gallop to warp-speed: “Amazing how time can run/away from us/I’m no nun/you’re no priest/but I promise hon/You’re goin’ to see a phenomenon/Come with me like it’s Ramadan.” The benediction caps “Come Home,” a lavish slow jam that otherwise has .Paak pleading with his own beloved amidst angelic soul choirs. And it sets the tone for an LP that’s in large part about a rather un-pop concept: the sustained, sometimes unsexy effort necessary to create something lasting, whether it’s social change or a healthy relationship.
Four albums in, the notion of Jepsen coming out with a “mature” album would be anathema to all that is Carly Rae. And she seems more than happy holding the mantle of cheerful, mid-tempo pop-rock for her generation – a great American tradition passed down from the Monkees to Wilson Phillips to Hanson. The downside is that when your fans expect you to bring the hooks, you better bring them. Jepsen doesn’t appear constrained by those expectations, maybe because pop’s two main ingredients — melody and melodrama — come to her naturally. But with all its polish and production, Dedicated can sound less like an artistic benchmark and more likethrowing gum drops at the ceiling to see which ones stick.
Death Race builds on Juice’s instinct to distill emotion rather than tell a story. On the opening track “Empty,” he gestures towards the affected nihilism of his 2018 debut album Goodbye and Good Riddance and uncorks the incredible eye-roller, “My world revolves around a black hole / the same black hole that’s in place of my soul.” Death Race is rife with clunkers like these but its 22 tracks also constitute an unmistakable step forward for Juice WRLD’s sadboy aesthetic, which has now become broader and more richly textured. The album’s most compelling moments are Juice’s realizations that his money won’t solve his problems: “It’s been months since I felt at home / But it’s okay ’cause I’m rich / Sike, I’m still sad as a bitch,” he sings matter-of-factly on “Fast.” On “Robbery,” he offers the reverse humblebrag, “One thing my dad told me was, ‘Never let your woman know when you’re insecure’ / So I put Gucci on the fur / And I put my wrist on iceberg.” These admissions provide a grounding context for his emotional distress that his previous work has generally lacked; here, he appears less of an avatar of suffering and more like a human.
On I Am Easy to Find, the indie standard-bearers have reconfigured themselves with multiple women’s voices at the LP’s core, a portion of the roughly 77 musicians that temporarily explode the band’s quintet. They pull it off without diluting their National-ness. The lyrical and formal suggestion, explored throughout the record, seems to be that it takes two to tango, and despite the canyon that separates our perceptions, however gendered, we all share vast tracts of emotional territory, and are capable of deep empathy. Whether we act on it is another story.
In April 2017, Cate Le Bon moved to the Lake District of Cumbria, England, alone. She spent a year there, learning how to build furniture from scratch while constructing introspective songs on an old piano. Her fifth studio album, Reward, is the result of this isolation—ten sonically diverse tracks that are delicately layered in texture, accompanied by Le Bon’s swelling vocals that deliver short, surreal lyrics. “Magnificent Gestures,” a standout track that features Kurt Vile on vocals, is a trippy expedition into art-pop territory. “She was born with no lips,” Le Bon declares triumphantly. “Drip drip drips.” The hazy piano on “Sad Nudes” is reminiscent of “Love Is Not Love,” a highlight from her great 2016 LP Crab Day. But it’s hard to go back and listen to earlier albums after Reward—the enhanced instrumentation and dreamy songwriting make this the singer’s strongest album yet.
The second Charly Bliss LP has plenty of bright, bracing power-pop: “Hard to Believe” and Bleach” are New Pornographers-worthy in their quick and easy sleekness, while the That Dog-y “Camera” riffs cleverly on identity theft. It also sees the band leaning a little heavier on New Wave synthiness that was present but inchoate on Guppy. That somewhat moodier texture fits the album’s difficult subject matter. “I’m at capacity/I’m spilling out of me/Desecrated and complacent,” Hendricks sings over the mechanical beat and keyboard blips of “Capacity.” On “Chatroom,” she processes the aftermath of a sexual assault, turning pain into rage. Young Enough is poppier than its predecessor but not always as immediately catchy. Sometimes that feels intentional and it can often be a good thing, often slowing down the band’s torpedo tunefulness to negotiate trauma in real time.
In the first song on I Need A New War, Craig Finn takes up the sweep of an American life in a handful of lines — guy meets girl, maybe at a Dead show; she’s in recovery; they move to Montana. Things get “druggy” and fall apart; he pieces together life without her, finds religion, has a kid and, eventually gets ominous news from a doctor: “we’re looking at these numbers from your tests.” That’s just the first two verses — it gets sadder, deeper and more provocatively unsettled from there. It’s one of 10 songs completing an LP trilogy that began in 2015 with Faith In The Future, followed by 2017’s We All Want The Same Things. And you can look at the whole trilogy as just another chapter in Finn’s career-long musical novel, one with a Greyhound busload of hard-luck, hard-partying survivors, and a handful of casualties in the boot.
After a surprising amount of press attention for a band yet to release a full album, Philadelphia’s Empath finally drop their debut: a fierce, spacey, cacophonous, 27-minute-long LP. Like the EP and singles that preceded it, Active Listening: Night On Earth is defined by manic mood swings. Plenty of great bands bring together disparate musicians in a singular unified voice. What’s thrilling about Empath is how they resist the singular. They sound like four people who sat in a room flexing their own freaky styles until — before they realized their interests might be wholly incompatible — the chaos created its own logic. Given the influence of playlists and streams shaped by corporate algorithms (Pop Punk’s Not Dead, in case you were wondering), it feels truly punk to slot a riot grrrl style tirade (“Heaven”) next to meditative organ and guitar noodling (“IV”). What may once have been considered ADD is now the new normal.
“Angie, are you tough enuh-uff/To let it go?” asks Mary Timony over sugared electric guitar churn at the outset of Ex Hex’s latest, immortalizing a new rock’n’roll Angie with as much performative heartache and swagger as Jagger, maybe more. Ex Hex’s second album is about garage-rock thrust at its core, like prime Stones and their own debut Rips. Like that LP, it draws a through-line from the Shangri-Las to Blondie to Sleater-Kinney to, well, Ex-Hex. This time, though, pop-metal production shine adds a new meta-textual layer, conjuring visions of the CBGB Class of ‘76 upscaled to the arena rock of ’86, thanks in part to furniture maker-turned indie-rock production swami Jonah Takagi. It’s nothing but guitars, bass, and drums, but the sound is huge, bulked up with vocal reverb, choice pedals and amps.