Our Top 9 Albums of 2019 So Far
We’d be completely lost without all of the artists who created our favorite albums of 2019 so far. While identifying some unifying themes for the year may be a bit premature, it feels safe to say that the most obvious are self-acceptance and self-love, and many of the albums on this list explore the circuitous, sometimes harrowing paths to getting there. Although the eventual payoff may seem distant, each of these artists has created something to cheer you on along the way. We’ve got six more months to reach 2020 as the best versions of ourselves, and thank god we have these women (and Girlpool’s Cleo Tucker, who recently made a female-to-male transition, honoring the most authentic version of himself) as inspiration. — Kate Flynn
Tiny Ruins — Olympic Girls
Ba Da Bing Records
The intimate sounds of Tiny Ruins bring you to the most mesmerizing places—places sublime, nostalgic, and familiar. They call to mind wandering through a damp forest, stumbling on a quiet open hill to watch the clouds, opening a letter from a long-lost friend.
It’s no wonder, then, that Tiny Ruins, who carves out these private, clarifying spaces for listeners, had to disappear for a little bit too. Olympic Girls is significant for being a re-emergence of sorts, the third full-length release after frontwoman Hollie Fullbrook got burnt out touring 2014’s Brightly Painted Ones. Almost five years later, this new album comes off like the sun bursting through the clouds, offering more of a full, layered sound while retaining that guitar-picking intricacy.
Fittingly, on this new release, 34-year old Fullbrook is thinking a lot about freedom. The title comes from an encounter that Fullbrook, who was born in Bristol and moved to New Zealand at age 10, had while taking a 13-hour bus ride from Dallas to Chicago in 2004, when she was 18 or 19. She was there to experience the U.S., and she certainly got one side of it: a group of men who had just been released from prison boarded in Memphis, and she struck up a long conversation with one, who told her about how it felt to witness the bright, athletic freedom of the Olympics while living life detained in a prison cell. “In the freedom of a microphone/There's a shadow I can't shake” she sings, self-aware and maybe a little bit conflicted.
Her band swells behind her whispery voice, the overall album displaying more of a range of light than previous releases, unafraid to not only be a presence in a room but to be the room, too. She cites a book of Vincent Van Gogh paintings as an initial inspiration as well, the broad color strokes visible in her lyricism and her dense vocabulary and sprinkled with inside jokes to herself.
Each song has its own unique inspiration; “Holograms” was partly inspired by a scooter accident and Star Wars helmet; “Kore Waits in the Underworld” may be a reference to a miscarriage, or the myth of Persephone; “Cold Enough to Climb” touches on a moment of culture shock, when the New Zealand lollipop paled in comparison to Fullbrook’s UK version.
Freedom can be a loaded term these days. Perhaps most of it all, in all of the album’s varied inspirations, Fullbrook reminds us of the importance of the freedom to piece together varied parts of our lives that don’t always feel cohesive, the freedom to make meaning from it all. — Amelia Diehl
Lizzo — Cuz I Love You
If you weren’t already obsessed with Lizzo—first of all, where have you been, and secondly, there’s no way you won’t be by the end of this one. Cuz I Love You, Melissa Jefferson’s third album and major level debut, combines R&B, pop, hip-hop, trap and neo-soul in a series of dancefloor manifestos preaching feminist self-acceptance and confidence. “Love me or hate me/Who are you changing?/And I don't give a fuck, no/That's exactly how I feel,” Lizzo sings on “Exactly How I Feel.” Lizzo doesn’t hold back; you will know exactly how Lizzo feels. Her brash brand of self-love shines through the crowded pop landscape, inviting you to love yourself just as hard.
While other albums might completely revolve around a breakup, the musician still hung up on the past, Lizzo has clearly done the work of knowing how to love every part of herself unapologetically. She is very much in the moment, trying to live life to the fullest right now. While she does address an ex on the sultry and sober “Jerome,” it’s almost like she slowed it down because she was worried he wouldn’t be able to keep up. She’s not here to mince her words. “Can't let a pretty face distract me from business,” she tells him, going on to critique a situation many of us are familiar with: “'I’m sorry, 2 a.m. photos with smileys and hearts/Ain't the way to my juicy parts.”
But this confidence doesn’t really depend on putting other people down; she knows you have to do the work of loving yourself to truly connect with others: “'Cause I'm my own soulmate/I know how to love me,” she sings on “Soulmate.”
On “Like A Girl”, she reclaims that playground put-down, celebrating feminist wins and making space to live out even more liberated possibilities. Not only is she paying for her rent–-and her whip–-by herself, but she also “Woke up feelin' like I just might run for President.” She name drops Lauryn Hill and Serena Willy (Williams) as queens paving the way for her to shine, and we know Lizzo is on that list for so many others. She’s careful to leave room for self-definition, singing the trans-inclusive line, “If you feel like a girl, then you real like a girl.”
Lizzo, 31, has been carving out a space for herself for a while now, from her homes in Detroit to Houstin to Minneapolis, and this album shows off her lyrical chops in big ways. She joins forces with Missy Elliott on the trap-inspired “Tempo” and sings with Gucci Mane on “Exactly How I Feel.” While she earns her spot as the main character in her life, she is also ready to celebrate with the community that has lifted her up.
Lizzo demands nothing but the utmost respect from herself, and you. She’s also entirely relatable, making references to astrology signs and poking fun at the DNA test craze: “I just took a DNA test, turns out I’m 100 percent that bitch.” After you’re done dancing to it all, perhaps the most real thing you can feel is gratitude. — Amelia Diehl
True Blossom — Heater
Citrus City Records
From the recent crop of Atlanta's pop weirdos and rap titans, True Blossom have found a wonderful niche crafting studio-perfect pop confections. The band’s debut Heater is fun, poignant, and chock full of synth sounds that could make Future Islands jealous. If labelmates Crumb are you when you’re starring in an introspective Jarmusch film, True Blossom is you when you’re starring in a great rom-com.
Heater is a joy from start to finish. It's incredible to discover that this band has been together for just over a year, so succinct and tight is each composition in its execution. Opener "Baby" starts quietly enough, but as soon as the chorus hits and Sophie Cox croons, "And if you want to go there, I will too," it turns into a raucous synth dance fest, a basement show crowd pleaser.
Songs like “Flu Punks” and “Me & U” could make Discovery-era Daft Punk envious, and “We’ve Been Here Before” has some of the best synth sounds since Giorgio Moroder’s turn on “Take My Breath Away.” A surprise cover of Mount Eerie's "Grave Robbers" notes a marked change for the back half of the album, where songs like “I Still Hate You” and “Heater” turn down the tempo for a flawless lounge appeal. To make yet another movie analogy, the album follows the beats of a well-crafted film, with some conflict about three-quarters of the way through and a triumphant and well-earned finish with “One More Time” and “What I Want I Can Never Have.”
Cox is a songwriter who can write about the trainwrecks of a heartbreak, but still emerge on the other side. A cool self-assurance comes through her voice, making lines like, “I hope you feel it, I want to hurt you” sound less like revenge, and more like pity.
I can't recommend this album enough, but I will try. It's sure to please DIY fans and pop purists alike. — Colin Vallee
Patio — Essentials
"Split me from the inside, halve me ‘til I’m whole again." Never have more chilling lines been delivered with such nonchalance and icy steel. After I heard them, Patio’s Essentials had me hooked.
There are a lot of songs here about body destruction, bodies failing, interpersonal disconnect. "This piece of glass feels great, but now I can't see straight." The women of Patio are constantly searching for something to feel, often at increasingly higher costs to their own well-being. But their ennui shouldn’t be confused with nihilism; it’s more of a direct response to the current state of the world. A generation thrown into a chaotic world, with little power to enact change. Why wouldn’t they search for ways to feel in control?
The album is filled with ruminations, minor studies in where your head can go when you let it drift away on a sea of anxieties and past regrets. Co-lead singers and writers Loren DiBlasi and Lindsey Page-McCloy take turns delivering lyrics, while drummer Alice Suh’s sticks dance around on the kit. All of the songs’ sparse compositions give the entire album a sense of unease that rarely lets up, but there’s enough pop-melody work here to keep you humming songs like “Boy Scout” well after you hear them.
This is an album made for the bored, not the boring, for when the night is over because the house party got raided, but you feel like taking the long way home. — Colin Vallee
Yola — Walk Through Fire
Country and folk-rock has seen a bit of a resurgence lately, but there are still many people (including myself) who like to say they “like all music, except for, like, country.” Enter Yola, whose bold, deep voice on her gritty and glitzy country soul jams will change everything for you. This is a fun and impressively produced debut that showcases the hard-won solo explorations of an empowered musician.
The 35-year old musician, full name Yolanda Quartey, has literally walked through fire, and her resilience shows. The Bristol, UK singer’s LP is a rebirth of sorts, an impressive catalogue of her varied inspirations–-spicy Americana, roots, blues, pop, rock. But her most important inspiration may be herself. Back in 2015, her kitchen was engulfed in flames from an appliance fire. After the initial panic, she realized this fire was bad–-but not as bad as the life she’d left behind. Growing up poor, her parents discouraged her from pursuing music, but that clearly didn’t stop her (music is “an aesthetic and sound that you’re fighting for,” she told Rolling Stone). She had been frustrated with her primary role as back-up singer (for such acts as Massive Attack, The Chemical Brothers and Iggy Azalea), and her old band, Phantom Limb, was dominated by white boys. So she lit her own way (“The red hot coals are calling/And I know it's the only way,” she sings on the title track), voice flaming and filling up the room with the clarifying heat of a powerful new sound.
Yola plays with the familiar vibes of dusty country sorrow over smartly arranged combinations of fiddles and tremolo guitar, adding her own soulful flair. (And there are some amusing dark turns she takes—in the music video to “Ride Out in the Country”, Yola literally buries her past in an ode to her own empowerment). It’s no wonder the album comes across with such a grounding in country roots: it was recorded in the Americana mecca of Nashville and produced by Dan Auerbach, that symbol of blues-rock revival via The Black Keys (and you can see that Black Keys influence on the cover’s slick, old-school bright color production). It’s got more grit than pop country, but has the catchy sway of any simmering hit single out there, breaking out into something more like funky soul at some points.
In short: if you’re looking for something to blast on a joy ride in the dog days of summer, or a companion to soothe your weary heartbreak on a night full of cicadas, Yola’s your girl. — Amelia Diehl
Girlpool — What Chaos Is Imaginary
The clarity of Girlpool’s vision emerged via immaculate conception on their 2014 debut, or at least that’s what it seemed like. It was, frankly, intimidating: Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad knew exactly how they wanted to sound, and their seamless harmonies and careful guitar work only served to bolster the overall aura of cohesion. The duo’s third studio album, What Chaos Is Imaginary, finds them growing into their most polished sound yet—while also, for the first time, stepping into their own identities, separate from each other.
On first listen, the most evident change is in Cleo Tucker’s voice. Since their last release, Tucker has come out as trans and started hormone therapy. The band’s addition of a lower vocal range is showcased beautifully in “Hire”, a song about leaving an older version of oneself behind to make space for optimism about the future. There are other sonic changes, too: crunchier, more distorted guitars; the appearance of drum machines and synths; a starker, brighter contrast between Tucker and Tividad’s voices when they harmonize. “I’m trying to be in the myth and in the thrill,” Tividad sings in “Stale Device”, a song that acts as a balm for anyone who has ever struggled with the smallness of their life in the face of the world’s vastness.
One of the biggest shifts occurred in how the two worked with each other in writing songs for this album. Tucker and Tividad have been writing together since they were teenagers, but now, both in their early 20’s, they are experimenting with how it feels to create songs independently. “We were writing songs and sending them to each other and I realized I was kind of crutching on Harmony for certain aspects of my process,” Tucker told Billboard in January. The two were living in separate cities, and Tucker eventually resolved to push through on his own whenever he ran into a songwriting quandary. It ultimately creates a better, stronger band; two strong and well-defined perspectives, rather than one. What Chaos Is Imaginary is a work on a grander scale than anything the band has attempted before, and the risks pay off beautifully. — Kate Flynn
Jamila Woods - LEGACY! LEGACY!
Given the political climate and general state of affairs, “Motherfuckers won’t shut up” is a big, big mood for 2019. It’s also a line from Kevin Coval’s poem “Muddy Waters Goes Electric”, which Jamila Woods covers on the track “MUDDY” from her slump-free sophomore effort, LEGACY! LEGACY! The record is a beautiful 12-song tribute to the Chicago-bred singer’s heroes, and Woods poured over hours and hours of interviews to inhabit the minds of those she writes to–-the likes of Betty Davis, James Baldwin, Jean-Michael Basquiat, and Frida Kahlo. The line from Coval’s poem refers to Waters’ decision to go electric to drown out rowdy bar-talkers when he first hit the music scene in Chicago, and in an interview from 1971 when ridiculously asked (by a white man) about his white teenage fans being able to play the blues like him, Waters said, “White kids? Sing like me? Oh no. They ain’t got enough soul. They ain’t had enough hard times.”
The fact that, try as far-too-many might, black culture simply can’t be counterfeited is this album’s fiery beating heart. “You can’t police my joy,” she sings on "BASQUIAT" (featuring fellow Chicagoan Saba at his best), reclaiming her anger and her ability to do with it what she pleases. “Yes I’m mad / (What makes you mad?) / I don’t fuckin’ know,” she continues. On “OCTAVIA," “They tease our pronunciations then try to mimic our greatness,” and on “BALDWIN,” “You don’t know a thing about us/ tell it wrong all the time.” In these sonic artist portraits, Woods poetically explores various aspects of the black experience and ties the past to the present.
Throughout LEGACY!, we also get what feel like glimpses into how Woods feels about herself on a more micro level–-diary entries of a journey toward self-acceptance. When Woods sings, “Who’s gonna share my love for me with me?” on “EARTHA,” it feels like the next chapter after her first album HEAVN’s “Holy,” in which her soothing neo-soul voice proudly belts, “I’m not lonely, I’m alone, and I’m holy, on my own.” On “BETTY,” her quest for fierce self-love continues as she sings, “Falling for myself/ It's taken time to know I'm mine.”
And Woods certainly should fall for herself. She isn’t just a wildly talented singer, she’s a teacher, activist, poet–-a modern renaissance woman whose talents and voice don’t just suggest that motherfuckers shut up and listen, but demand it. — Amanda Koellner
Weyes Blood — Titanic Rising
“It’s a wild time to be alive.” Titanic Rising finds Weyes Blood’s Natalie Mering reiterating the sentiment behind this lyric of hers throughout 10 songs of pure poetry as she muses on life, love, happiness, and the potential lack of any or all of the above thanks to technology, climate change, and capitalism leading to the potentially imminent, and certainly in-progress, breakdown of life on earth as we know it. Light stuff, right?
No need to stress, for the dread is soaked in optimism (for the most part). Produced by Jonathan Rado (Foxygen), Mering’s fourth record under her Weyes Blood moniker, and first for indie giant Sub Pop, is a journey into the human condition and what it means to be on this chaotic floating rock in 2019—the ups and the downs, the hope and the fear.
The record’s press release described Titanic Rising as “the Kinks meet WWII or Bob Seger meets Enya”, and the result takes the ears from its cover’s submerged ‘90s childhood bedroom (“Titanic Rising”, “Movies”) to the Laurel Canyon of Joni Mitchell–-a tired comparison for Mering, but one that is both so complementary and apt I’d be remiss not to mention it (“Something To Believe”, “Everyday” ). Futuristic synths, ‘70s slide guitar, and sweeping strings soundtrack Mering’s existential dread, a dread that, ultimately, lands her in the glass-half-full camp.
The record is bookended by different versions of the hymn, “Nearer, My God, To Thee”–-the song that the famed Titanic band allegedly played as the unsinkable ship went down. In a myriad of interviews surrounding Titanic Rising’s release, the singer said what struck her most about the 1997 blockbuster’s lasting impact was how even despite the globe’s rising temperatures and melting iceburgs, we see Titanic almost exclusively as a love story (and one that perpetuates unrealistic expectations of love, at that), rather than recasting its message as a metaphor for our environmental crisis.
Despite her unease about the world today, she told Pitchfork, “I hope you could have a smile during the apocalypse and be grateful for whatever conditions exist, because life is a beautiful thing.” If you need a little help, might I suggest giving Titanic Rising a spin to usher in End Times. — Amanda Koellner
Mannequin Pussy — Patience
In just 25 minutes and 39 seconds, Patience accomplishes what all art aims to do: force listeners through an Olympic-sized emotional gauntlet. It’s not the kind of album that can be cherry picked for bangers and, fair warning, it’s not appropriate for a casual summer barbecue unless your idea of a good time is silently sobbing into your Mike’s Hard Lemonade (no judgment).
On Patience, Mannequin Pussy cements vulnerability as punk canon with devastating songs about heartbreak, anxiety, self-destruction, insecurity, and resilience. Their signature sound is still there: angry vocals over break-neck rhythms and a healthy dose of distortion balanced with shining melodies that make every song infectious. At times the album threatens to drown you in sorrow (“Drunk II”, “Fear/+/Desire”, “High Horse”) before throwing you a tender life raft (“Who You Are”, “In Love Again”). Overall, Patience shines in its entirety and is worth the 25 minutes for a full listen—and maybe a good cry. — Meagan Lilly