50 Best Albums of 2019 So Far List - Rolling Stone
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The 50 Best Albums of 2019 So Far

Including Lizzo, Vampire Weekend, Billie Eilish, Tyler the Creator and more

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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.

Rhiannon Giddens, 'There Is No Other'

Rhiannon Giddens, ‘There Is No Other’

As its title indicates, Giddens’ latest is a musical bridge-building project, with the 42 year-old North Carolinian singer merging her excellent banjo playing with Turrisi, who draws on polyglot North African, Middle Eastern and Italian traditions in his accompaniment. It’s hard not to take the record’s title as a commentary on her own singular musical interests, which encompasses everything from classical music to 19th century minstrelsy to contemporary country and folk-roots. With its mix of originals, covers and traditional songs, Giddens’ latest encompasses the disparate strands of her heritage like nothing before, blending the canon-recasting interpretations of her 2015 solo debut Tomorrow Is My Turn with the historically-minded storytelling of her 2017 opus Freedom Highway and this year’s Songs of Our Native Daughters, a black feminist roots reclamation recorded with Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell and Amythyst Kiah.

Rico Nasty and Kenny Beats, 'Anger Management'

Rico Nasty and Kenny Beats, ‘Anger Management’

For the first couple years of her career, Rico Nasty worked to develop her “sugar trap” style — melodious, Lil Yachty-indebted sing-song flexes on top of beats that sounded like souped-up versions of the Barney theme song. Her career trajectory changed course one night in late 2017, during her first-ever studio session with producer Kenny Beats. They reunited this January for a five-day session that yielded their new collaborative project Anger Management. Across nine tracks and 18 minutes, they attempt to achieve the catharsis of primal scream therapy and to trace the emotional arc of anger management, from rage to calm, as a way to explore new tones and evolve their musical relationship. “The expression of anger is a form of rejuvenation,” Rico raps on “Sell Out.” “I’m screaming inside of my head in hopes that I’m easing the pain.”

Sigrid, 'Sucker Punch'

Sigrid, ‘Sucker Punch’

“Can I be basic with you?” Norwegian singer Sigrid Raabe offers on her debut LP. In a moment where many aspiring pop artists pile on heroic pretensions, the idea of aspiring to normal-ness is refreshing, especially since the music that undergirds her lyrics is anything but basic – part openhearted acoustic confessional, part elated dancefloor gusher. Sigrid can recall anyone from Robyn and Dua Lipa to Maggie Rogers and Regina Spektor, sometimes in the same song. She first got attention with her tough-talking 2017 single “Don’t Kill My Vibe,” a European hit included here, and she later lent a cover of Leonard Cohen’s synth-doom classic “Everybody Knows” to the Justice League soundtrack. On her debut LP Sucker Punch, she smooths out strange moods into glistening songs, making for top-shelf coffee shop synth-pop.

SOB X RBE and Hit-Boy, 'Family Not a Group'

SOB X RBE and Hit-Boy, ‘Family Not a Group’

The Vallejo, California hip-hop quartet SOB X RBE are basically a 21st century version of d’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers. They rap ceaselessly about defeating men in gun duels and seducing their girlfriends. Their signature icon (other than a ski mask) is the crossed swords emoji. And the title of their new album, Family Not a Group, is a less poetic analog of the Musketeers slogan, “All for one, and one for all!” Family Not a Group marks a collaboration between SOB X RBE and Hit-Boy, the savvy producer (“Niggas in Paris,” “Backstreet Freestyle”) whom Juice WRLD’s A&R recently brought in to spruce up Death Race For Love. Hit-Boy takes a different tack than the DJ Quik-influenced, sample-heavy beats of SOB X RBE’s 2018 breakout albums Gangin and Gangin II; rather, he hews closer to sounds like the detuned pan flute synth of “Paramedic,” the group’s feature on the Black Panthersoundtrack, and uses the sparse, melodic bass thumps of California rap as a needle to weave together R&B and trap elements.

Stef Chura, 'Midnight'

Stef Chura, ‘Midnight’

Michigan’s Stef Chura is a formidable triple threat: intense singer, bracing guitarist, revelatory songwriter. You can hear Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs in her side-eyed snarl, Cat Power’s coiled intimacy in her quieter moments, Jack White and PJ Harvey in her modernist take on primitive instrumental violence and Nineties guitar-twisters like Silkworm, Pavement and Modest Mouse in the way her songs can often mutate and stretch beyond where you expect them to end up. But chalking up Chura to the sum of any sonic signposts doesn’t nearly do her second album justice. In every chirp, croak and holler, in every athletically mangled solo, she’s discovering her own voice, finding her own way to rewrite her world, and fool it too.

Stella Donnelly, 'Beware of the Dogs'

Stella Donnelly, ‘Beware of the Dogs’

Donnelly’s gently conversational singing and acerbic drollery evokes a vaunted lineage of indie-rock real-talkers from Jonathan Richman and Belle & Sebastian to Courtney Barnett and Free Cake For Every Creature; musically she recalls the spare, strummy charm of K Records champs like the Softies or the cocktail-hour prettiness of Ivy. But Beware of the Dogs is a triumph on its own terms, going from high point to high point as she maps the pains, pleasures and anxieties of her personal patch of twentysomething bohemia. The combination of humor and craft means she always makes it out of the most harrowing situations looking like a hero

Stephen Malkmus, 'Groove Denied'

Stephen Malkmus, ‘Groove Denied’

Malkmus played all the parts on Groove Denied himself, using, among other things, Ableton software, a Moog, a mellotron, and “E drums with addictive drums.” Key influences, according to a recent Rolling Stone interview, include the Human League, “Louie Louie” and – hey, why not – the cantina scene in Star Wars. There’s a satisfying sense of discovery to the more electronic tunes, of a laid-back icon finding new ways to make noise after the kids have gone to bed. Mostly instrumental opener “Belziger Faceplant” burbles along before opening up into hard-grooving electro-funk; “Viktor Borgia” is arch, circa-1982 synth-pop; the swirling “Forget Your Place” sounds cool through headphones. It becomes more guitar-heavy on the back half. “Rushing the Acid Frat” sounds like homemade Nuggets while the striking “Ocean of Revenge” is a catchy, softly-rocking sketch in which a Scottish sharecropper gets hanged for axe-murdering a Mississippi plantation owner. “Love the Door” is best described by the man himself: “Kind of like a stereo ad, cocktail jazz thing, but with bad vibes and a weird time signature.”

Supa Bwe, 'Just Say Thank You' album art

Supa Bwe, ‘Just Say Thank You’

If you don’t know Supa Bwe, you know his sound. The 29-year-old Chicago rapper has championed a combustible blend of hip hop, pop-punk, and R&B and helped carve out what would become a fertile, crowded lane occupied by younger stars like Lil Uzi Vert, XXXTENTACION, Trippie Redd, and YNW Melly. And yet, Supa is still constantly producing personal stylistic flourishes that no other artist could possibly replicate. On “Rememory,” from his new EP Just Say Thank You, he enlists Chance the Rapper to craft a dewy, electric piano-driven lullaby in which Bwe bounds in from left field and snatches the mic, instantly turning the track on its side with his singular singing voice—the sweet, sticky, Auto-tuned caterwaul of a lovesick feral cat. Just Say Thank You features production that is often slower, quieter, and sparser than that of Supa’s 2017 debut album Finally Dead and leans all the more on his feline wail to sustain its energy.

Mekons, deserted album cover

The Mekons, ‘Deserted’

California’s High Desert is heavy with rock history. It’s where country-rock icon Gram Parsons had his corpse cremated by friends; where an Irish band found a name and cover image for a great LP; where Jim Morrison dropped acid and made a movie. Now The Mekons — those zany, erudite and beloved British punk-country-reggae-rock survivors — join the processional with Deserted. As always on Mekons LPs, there’s grim humor. “Weimar Vending Machine” salts puns (“Iggy pops up in Berlin”) into a delightful Bowie tribute that greets the heart of darkness with Eno-esque synth squalls, boozy hollers of “the priest is gone!,” and a laundry list of delirious end-time visions: “Mankind snivels, footprints stretch /Across tattered meadows bloom
 round in circles of sex/
a snakes eye blinks staggers and dims/ A bubbling cauldron of sad lonely beans/ A dirty vest.” (Hey, at least there’s sex.) As bad as things look, beauty, especially in the natural world, ultimately wins out.

Mountain Goats, In League With Dragons album cover

The Mountain Goats, ‘In League With Dragons’

The latest Mountain Goats LP invents a sonically rangy genre Darnielle calls “dragon noir,” a merger of sorts, as the name suggests, of fantasy and crime fiction. It’s less conceptual than thematic, often honing in on tales of heroes gone to seed. The title track is a beautifully sad country-folk tune sung in the voice of an over-the-hill wizard, making emo arrangements with himself as he prays for dragon reinforcements to show up and make him look good again in the eyes of the people he can no longer defend. Darnielle works a similar sense of sunset reflection into songs like “Doc Gooden,” which picks up the career of a once-great pitcher as he slogs through his final tour of the majors, and “Passaic 1975,” the grim lament of a Seventies rocker slipping into blood-coughing, lyrics-forgetting self-parody. It should go without saying that Darnielle, steadfast champion of marginalized music worlds, would never play a song with a Hobbit-rock title like “Clemency For the Wizard King” for laughs. That doesn’t mean these songs aren’t funny, but he brings real empathy and concern to every character he creates.

Todd Snider, 'Cash Cabin Sessions Vol. 3'

Todd Snider, ‘Cash Cabin Sessions Vol. 3’

Todd Snider’s an ace word guy — his lyrics are razor sharp, unsparing, hilarious, and surprisingly tender — so this bare-bones acoustic LP is a fine idea. Punchlines fly from the get-go (there’s no Vol. 1or 2), with humanity the usual butt of the jokes, though Trump’s a target, too. Take “Talking Reality Television Blues,” a tribute to Dylan (see “Talking John Birch Society Blues,” “Talking World War III Blues,” etc.) and Woody Guthrie before him that draws a line from Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theatrethrough MTV, Fox News and The Apprentice, dissecting the talking blues trope along the way. Snider likes meta: see also “Working On A Song,” an extended koan that frames the life of a Nashville writer from 22-year-old newbie to a greying bard, still staring at a half-empty page. “The Ghost of Johnny Cash” conjures an encounter (supposedly true) between Loretta Lynn and the late man in black at Cash’s old mancave, which Rick Rubin helped transform into a studio during the American Recordings sessions, and where this album was cut.

weezer, black album cover

Weezer, ‘The Black Album’

Musically, their latest portends a bit of a change-up. Cuomo primarily composed The Black Album on piano, and brought in Dave Sitek of experimentally minded indie-rockers TV on the Radio to produce. But even if he primarily composed on pan flute, it’d still be what it is — another edition of their signature precise, poker-faced California pop-rock. There’s some predictably trollish tongue-in-cheek teen-angst (“Zombie Bastards”), and a glam jeremiad on the wages of stardom (“The Prince Who Wanted Everything,” which comes with allusions to the actual Prince that seem a little off for a jaunty joke song; too soon, Riv). On “I’m Just Being Honest” the crown he wears is heavy indeed; over a guitar grind that shimmers like alt-rock radio circa 1995, Cuomo sings about living in a personal hell of his own creation, where bad thirsty musicians bug him at his gigs looking for feedback on their CDs: “I had to quit/Your band sounds like shit,” he intones. He’s a five-star dude in a one-star world; that may not be enough to earn our sympathy but on most of The Black Album he’s still holding our attention.

Mavis Staples, We Get By album art

Mavis Staples, ‘We Get By’

On the gospel-R&B legend’s new album, We Get ByBen Harper serves as Staples’ newest collaborator, writing and producing a series of defiant declarations of peace, justice and heartbreak. From the charging electric blues of “Change” to the modern soul protest of “Brothers and Sisters,” Staples further refines the type of socially conscious artistry she rediscovered on 2017’s If All I Was Was Black, in the wake of horrors like Charlottesville and Trump’s child-separation policy. But Staples, who lost her sister Yvonne last year, is at her best here when she’s exposing a rare vulnerability or further bolstering (and commenting on) her own mythology. Folk ballads like “Heavy on My Mind” and “Never Needed Anyone” find the singer bruised and bleeding with grief as she wrestles with loss and loneliness. “Now all that we are,” she moans on the former, “is the living ghost of our youth.”

Santana, 'Africa Speaks'

Santana, ‘Africa Speaks’

Santana launched their career half a century ago with a cover of Nigerian percussionist Babatunde Olatunji’s “Jingo” and now, for their 25th album, they’ve created a love letter to Africa. Although Africa Speaks sounds undeniably like a Santana album, with Carlos’ fiery guitar bursts and reedy-voiced singer Buika’s Spanish-language exclamaciones, it explodes from the start with African rhythms and a unique freedom to the way the group plays the songs. The tracks on Africa Speaks unfold more like jazz tunes, finding their way as they go.

Weyes Blood, 'Titanic Rising'

Weyes Blood, ‘Titanic Rising’

Taken line by line, the conversational lyrics of Natalie Mering, aka: Weyes Blood —pronounced “Wise Blood,” a moniker taken from the Flannery O’Connor novel — seem straightforward, sober, and frequently inspirational. We hear from someone who “drank a lot of coffee today,” who recognizes that “some of us go astray,” who wants “something to believe.” Someone who tells a lover “we love our love.” Someone who believes “you’ll learn to get by/ cause you got what it takes.” But as they pile up, these statements turn cryptic, contradictory, and uncertain, as romantic optimism is swept up in waves of doubt and realist pessimism.

Big Thief, 'UFOF'

Big Thief, ‘UFOF’

Big Thief’s third album UFOF creeps up on you. Unlike their previous LPs — 2016’s Masterpiece and 2017’s Capacity — on which sweet-n-sad folk-rock wrapped you in a warm embrace, UFOF sends a shiver down your spine in its simplicity. The album is 43 minutes of gentle, crackling coos from singer-songwriter-guitarist Adrianne Lenker about what lurks in the unknown (the final “F” in “UFOF” stands for friend). The impact is so quiet you might miss it, but it’s revelatory enough that you can’t escape it. Songs that deal with signature Big Thief themes of love, loss and longing, asking listeners to step into the abyss with them, to come along for the ride as the band searches for a higher meaning.
-Daniela Tijerina

Karen O and Danger Mouse, 'Lux Primaas'

Karen O and Danger Mouse, ‘Lux Prima’

Karen O and Danger Mouse have described their first-ever collaborative album Lux Prima as a “shared destination,” and by the sounds of it, space is their place. The nine-song LP is a lush journey down the milky way of their rock ’n’ roll sensibilities, meaning a bit of the signature rough-around-the-edges heaviness in Karen O’s voice converging with Danger Mouse’s star-gazing, atmospheric production. The LP starts off ambitiously: the nine-minute title track is like a space-rock “Sicko Mode” as the tempo and even entire energy of the song changes every couple minutes: it starts off deceivingly as a drifty instrumental before unfolding into a sunburst before settling into a smooth, hypnotic R&B burn. The album shifts between extra-terrestrial disco (“Turn the Light”), seductive rock teases (“Leopard’s Tongue”) and anthemic pop blitzes (“Woman”). But the genre explorations are tied together beautifully with the overarching synth-washed camp of their otherworldly dreams.

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