Raghav Raj’s Top 20 Albums of 2019

Well, 21 albums really…

20: Rap Or Go To The League by 2 Chainz (Review)

The Artist Formerly Known as Tity Boi ascends to elder-statesman status on his impressive fifth studio album, executive produced by LeBron James. Whether he’s tossing flexes in the air or offering tax advice, 2 Chainz sounds self-assured and sagacious, attacking each beat with wisdom and gusto. His tone is boastful and apologetic at turns, and with the wisdom he exudes on this record, I find myself thinking of one Shawn Corey Carter.

Highlights include: “Threat 2 Society,” where 2 Chainz settles into a soulful 9th Wonder chop as he deftly explores his troubled upbringing. “Money In The Way,” a triumphant, fist-pumping coronation set to raucous horns and heavenly choirs.

19: uknowhatimsayin¿ by Danny Brown (Review)

It’s really been a year for rappers entering elder-statesman status, hasn’t it? On Danny Brown’s new record, he steps past the anxious, bleak, drug-fueled-nightmare soundscapes he made his name on, opting to work with executive producer Q-Tip for a record that feels warmer and more spacious. It’s a surprisingly classicist record for someone who entered the scene with a yelp and some skinny jeans, but with Brown spitting bars in peak form, it works shockingly well, and it’s especially nice knowing that he’s having the time of his life.

Highlights include: “Dirty Laundry,” which hiccups and tics its way into a bouncing groove, as Brown tosses out double-entendres like they’re dollar bills at the strip club. The closer, “Combat,” which warps a horn sample into something that’s jagged and delightful, a beat that Brown carves through with unmatched gusto.

18: Schlagenheim by black midi (Review)

It’s weird to think that one of the most hyped debuts of 2019 could come from some London experimental rock band, but to characterize black midi as a mere “rock band” is to ignore how ahead of the curve they are. Their sound—potent, perpetually in motion, a freak hybrid of the intricacy of math rock and the rawness of punk—is nothing short of stunning, festering as they work fervently through their infamous live performances. Schlagenheim is a remarkable extension of this sound, a record that teems with promise and potential.

Highlights include: “Ducter,” a wiry, groovy, perpetually intensifying 6-minute behemoth of a closer, constantly teetering on the brink of collapse. “Bmbmbm,” a dreadful no-wave exploration rooted in a metronomic march that never seems to break focus, as lead singer Geordie Greep works the absurdist lyrics through his teeth and into his throat.

17: i,i by Bon Iver (Review)

The latest record in Justin Vernon’s project is truly beautiful. Duh. All of Bon Iver’s records have been stunning in their own special ways, from the fragile isolation of his debut, to the lush arrangements of Bon Iver, Bon Iver, to the jagged electronic textures that swirled around 22, A Million. On this record, he distills sounds from his past work into something new and enlivened, filling the space with collaborators and creating a record that’s truly revelatory in how moving it is.

Highlights include: “Hey Ma,” a gorgeous lead single that meshes together childhood memories and “Tokin’ on dope,” held together by sonar pings, gentle, popping snares and reedy saxophone work. “Sh’Diah,” a reflection on the 2016 election (the title stands for “shittiest day in American history”) that glimmers dreamily as Vernon’s voice wails and coos.

16: Closer To Grey by Chromatics

After teasing the near-mythical Dear Tommy for almost five years, it’s a fascinating heel-turn by the Johnny Jewel-led synth-pop group to suddenly announce a record that is not Dear Tommy and release it the very next day. And yeah, that doesn’t really do Closer To Grey any favors; it’s easy to consider it an afterthought, a record that doesn’t matter as much as its lost counterpart. Yet the music on Closer To Grey constantly serves to disprove this notion. The record is a fantastic hybrid of futuristic noir and Italo disco, filled with all the delightful drama you’d expect from the group and a premise filled with vampiric undertones.

Highlights include: “You’re No Good,” a pulsing, string-filled gem, filled with Ruth Radelet’s gorgeous vocal harmonies and glimmering synths. “Light As a Feather,” which takes a glimmering loop, dodging the usual drum-machine fare for a sampled break that hits crisply, as Radelet coos ominously over the sonic landscape.

15: HOMECOMING: THE LIVE ALBUM by Beyoncé (Review)

With her 2018 Coachella set, every single statement ever made about Beyoncé being the pop icon of her generation was instantly validated, presenting a marvelous volley of her greatest hits injected with a crash course on black music by way of The Bzzzz Drumline behind her. HOMECOMING is a marvelous document of this set, one that captures the thrill of hearing an iconic entertainer in her prime. It’s riotous, anthemic and delightful in spades, like a front-row seat to one of the greatest live performances in recent memory.

Highlights include: The live rendition of “Countdown,” which comes roaring out the gate with an assault of brass that bends into DRAM & Lil Yachty’s “Broccoli.” “Drunk In Love,” which somehow eclipses the studio version in pure sing-along glee, inducing chills as the crowd screams in euphoria.

14: IGOR by Tyler, The Creator (Review)

The latest record from Tyler, The Creator is his most daringly ambitious yet; a broken-hearted odyssey that spirals through a pit of anger, guilt, desperation and finally reconciliation. Filling the crevasses with textures of neo-soul and bubblegum pop, it bends genres at the will of Tyler’s voracious artistic appetite. With collaborators including Kanye, Solange, Santigold and a marvelously baby-voiced Playboi Carti, IGOR is an expansive, cinematic look at love.

Highlights include: “A BOY IS A GUN,” which flips the Ponderosa Twins’ “Bound” into a start-stopping ode to flawed love (sound familiar?). “NEW MAGIC WAND,” a violent, riotous ultimatum rooted in Earth-shaking bass and clattering percussion, and a desperate plea for love with some of Tyler’s hardest bars.

13: ANIMA by Thom Yorke (Review)

After soundtracking Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Suspiria in 2018, the Radiohead frontman returns with what’s easily his best solo work; an uneasy piece of minimalist, avant-garde techno that ebbs and flows. On ANIMA, Yorke may be covering his usual bases of hallucinatory, tech-fueled paranoia, but his knack for creating unnerving soundscapes adds another dimension to his apocalyptic visions. ANIMA sounds absolutely sublime, remarkably disorienting and beautifully alien in all the best ways.

Highlights include: “Traffic,” the opener, which warps its way into a tight, unnerving groove as Yorke parties with a rich zombie and desperately gasps for air. “Dawn Chorus,” a long-teased Radiohead track that serves as a sparse, show-stopping centerpiece.

12: Emily Alone by Florist (Review)

On Emily Sprague’s new record under the Florist moniker, she wanders through fleeting memories and empty spaces, following her voice as it illuminates the path in front of her. It’s a sparse, skeletal album, guided by fingerpicked guitar and occasionally some piano flourishes, with an affinity for finding beauty in the mundane that floods every void with warmth. Emily Alone is truly a record for pondering, one that unwinds question after question with each listen, as it drifts into infinity.

Highlights include: “As Alone,” maybe the softest existential trainwreck of a song I’ve ever heard, goes back and forth from panic to self-soothing as guitars lilt onward. “I Also Have Eyes,” a song that seems to gaze into the void as Sprague ponders her very existence over one of the most immediate melodies here.

11 (Tie): U.F.O.F. / Two Hands by Big Thief (Review) / (Review)

If there’s any band that truly owned their indie hype this year, it was Big Thief, who dropped back-to-back masterpieces in the span of 5 months. First came U.F.O.F in May, a record of truly transcendent, metaphysical folk music, as alien and as beautiful as the title (which stands for “U.F.O. Friend”), filled with Adrianne Lenker’s evocative writing and surrounded by a band whose playing swirled around her prose. Then came Two Hands, the more corporeal “Earth twin.” Visceral, violent and no less essential, Lenker’s snarling cries backed by the sort of ragged guitar-work that’d have Neil Young and Crazy Horse standing, mouths agape. Two records of brilliantly powerful rock music. Please don’t make me pick between them.

Highlights include: “U.F.O.F.,” a surreal, graceful, and fingerpicked gem, enlivened by Lenker’s free-associative lyrics. “Not,” the six-minute shredder at the heart of Two Hands, filled with Lenker’s gasping growls and an absolutely unreal guitar solo.

10: Father of the Bride by Vampire Weekend (Review)

Their long awaited return from a 6-year break between albums, the double-album from Ezra Keonig & Co. may not have Rostam, but it’s still an absolute triumph; an expansive, bright and warm indie rock record that opens up more and more with each and every listen. At 18 tracks and almost an hour long, Father Of The Bride is somehow fiercely consistent while also showing off Vampire Weekend’s incredible range. A new chapter for one of the best indie rock bands in a generation, the record’s bathed in an unmatched light, one of the most welcoming albums to come out in 2019.

Highlights include: “Flower Moon,” filled with handclaps, vocoded vocals, and a surprisingly welcome Steve Lacy feature, a joyful romp bathed in the moonlight. “Unbearably White,” a placid probe into a faltering relationship that’s carried by one of their prettiest guitar lines this side of “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” and one of the most beautiful songs they’ve ever made.

9: The Practice of Love by Jenny Hval (Review)

After a crowning achievement like 2016’s “period” piece, Blood Bitch, the concept of beloved Norwegian experimental musician Jenny Hval taking a left turn into her most accessible music yet by mining the sounds of ’90s techno might sound scary. And yet, The Practice of Love weaves gracefully past every worry. A rich, textured, bold, constantly rewarding exploration of love in all forms, Hval’s lyricism is, as usual, unmatched, and the company of artists like Vivian Wang and Laura Jean makes for something truly beautiful in collaborative spirit.

Highlights include: “Ashes To Ashes,” a flurry of Hval’s dreams— dreams of death, of music and, yes, of fucking— carried by an off-kilter thump that chugs onward at full steam. “Six Red Cannas,” an esoteric exploration of the legacy of female art, swirling Georgia O’Keeffe, Joni Mitchell and Amelia Earhart into an absolutely unreal groove that wills the body into motion.

8: This Is How You Smile by Helado Negro (Review)

Roberto Carlos Lange’s newest project is one of the most blissful albums in recent memory; a comforting exploration of the Latinx experience that’s profound while sounding as light as a feather. Lange’s voice is a terrific, restrained instrument that’s at turns stunning and gentle, and it sounds absolutely remarkable paired with his astral synth-folk soundscapes. The record is timelessly placid, endlessly loving, and nothing short of sublime.

Highlights include: “Two Lucky,” a devastatingly wistful look at youthful love that seems destined to get eyes misty for as long as it’s played. “Please Won’t Please,” a cosmic exploration of self worth and self love that feels incredibly intimate, bathing every corner in gentle, forgiving warmth.

7: Nothing Great About Britain by slowthai (Review)

The debut from the U.K. MC is a searing thesis that manages to combine righteous anger with a cheeky sense of humor, a grand indictment of a country and the imbalances it upholds. Whether he’s calling the Queen the c-word or dismantling class divides, slowthai’s delivery is both loose and furious, gliding gracefully over sharply produced beats. Nothing Great About Britain is a masterstroke of protest rap, a distillation of working class rage that’s startlingly resonant in an era where more and more people find themselves wronged by those in positions of unimaginable power.

Highlights include: “T N Biscuits,” a volley of contradictions that’s self-assured and absolutely livid all in one breath, with slowthai’s snarling bars finding a perfect home over a warped beat. “Gorgeous,” with slowthai deftly working his verbal acrobatics over a truly stunning beat, an autobiographical shoutout to Northampton.

6: Norman Fucking Rockwell! by Lana Del Rey (Review)

I could take hours waxing poetic on what a record like NFR! really even means. The title, breaking through the gatekeeper of the American Dream myth with an irreverent “fucking.” The writing, with abstract character portraits and explorations of love, filled with strains of glamour, wit and surreal prose. The music, carried by Jack Antonoff’s production, pulling from Laurel Canyon folk and spinning the sound into something positively spectral. But what words could ever do this album justice to such a lyrical, musical and artistic triumph? As Jenn Pelly says in her Pitchfork review of the album, NFR! “establishes [Del Rey] as one of America’s greatest living songwriters.” I’d be hard-pressed to disagree.

Highlights include: “Bartender,” a last-call piano ballad that drifts gently as Del Rey paints a stunning portrait of the suburbanite Californian housewife, filled with dissatisfaction and desperate to be held. “Doin’ Time,” a cover of the Sublime song that turns the original into something far balmier, filled with synth flourishes that glow behind Del Rey’s lovely voice.

5: Shepherd In a Sheepskin Vest by Bill Callahan (Review)

The latest record from the marvelous singer-songwriter is easily his most expansive record; a gentle ode to the joys of fatherhood and domestic bliss, with warmth spiling out from all sides. Callahan’s baritone carries the placid, soothing arrangements with a lilting ease, and his writing is endlessly witty and inquisitive, always searching for answers to whatever question pops up in his head next. Shepherd In a Sheepskin’s Vest is truly a marvelous late career highlight from an indie legend, exploring death, the Hulk and period sex, all with equal profundity and a slight chuckle.

Highlights include: “The Ballad of the Hulk,” where Bruce Banner is catalyst for Callahan to explore his past and question the mistakes he made, all while not losing sight of the absurdity of his own existentialism. “Black Dog On The Beach,” a slow, gentle drift through time, a song that lilts gently through generations of family as Callahan gazes into the horizon.

4: All My Heroes Are Cornballs by JPEGMAFIA (Review)

It’s been really interesting to see JPEGMAFIA’s artistic development in real time, from the unvarnished aggression of early records, streamlined into a radical, fiery mission statement of chaos for his 2018 gem, Veteran. On his new record, his music still feels confrontational, powerful, visceral, but it also feels broader, bolder and more radical. There’s no shield of irony here; this is as vulnerable as we’ve seen Peggy, and maybe that’s why it often sounds so beautiful. Elevating the lyricism, filling the noise-rap textures with subtle, gleaming melody, the record is a brilliant evolution of an incredibly promising artist, not to mention one of the finest rap records the year.

Highlights include: “PTSD,” an anxious volley of bars that stands as one of the best rapping performances on the album, pulling together leftist rage, pop-culture references, and tight beatmaking into as close as the album gets to a mission statement. “Grimy Waifu,” as absurd as its title, a heartfelt ode to a gun that’s oddly beautiful, guided by soft guitars, pretty flutes, and a surprisingly commanding croon.

3: When I Get Home by Solange (Review)

There’s something cosmic about Solange’s new record; a tribute to her hometown of Houston that shares the city’s vibrancy. A free-flowing exploration of experimental R&B that bends the rules at will, the album is beautiful, fun and unapologetic, but it’s also remarkably conceptual and well arranged; the closest thing to musical high art we got this year. At the center of this swirl is Solange Knowles, wielding a fearlessly creative vision and a jaw-droppingly gorgeous voice that floats through the unhurried arrangements. A marvelous achievement that exudes blackness from each and every note.

Highlights include: “Almeda,” a knocking, chopped-n-screwed tribute to black excellence, complete with an electric Playboi Carti verse that juxtaposes “brown liquor, brown skin” with “diamonds dancing in the dark.” “Binz,” a sunny, Sister Nancy-inspired ditty that’s loose, delightful and as fun as the music video that accompanies it.

2: So Much Fun by Young Thug (Review)

It may be weird for some people to see Young Thug on my list, placed over the likes of Thom Yorke, Lana Del Rey, Beyoncé, Solangé and two Big Thief albums. But to the people who want to object to this ranking: have you listened to this album? It fucking rocks. Seeing a Young Thug album filled with the people he’s directly paved the way for is remarkable, because it shows both how ahead of the curve he’s always been and how good he is at drawing out the best from his collaborators. So Much Fun is a triumph, a gleeful victory lap, a record that spills with hit after hit from every side, with some stunning beats and some wheelie-popping verses in tow. In a year filled with some great hip-hop records, it’s amazing how effortlessly Young Thug stands above the rest. It’s an absolute joy to listen to, and it has to be my favorite rap record of 2019.

Highlights include: “Circle of Bosses,” which pairs Thugger with long-time collaborator Quavo and sticks the two atop a gorgeous Wheezy beat, one filled with mystic, pastoral guitar fills and paired with tight percussion. “The London,” maybe the best case scenario for any song with Young Thug, Travis Scott and J.Cole, the latter of whom steals the show with self-assured glee.

1: Purple Mountains by Purple Mountains (Review)

Fuck, man.

What else can I say? What could I possibly say here? How could I ever put into words the sort of grief that I, along with millions of David Berman’s other fans, felt after the news that he had died at the age of 52, just 26 days after dropping this comeback album under the Purple Mountains moniker?

Talking about Purple Mountains is hard now. Yeah, it’s one of Berman’s greatest records. It’s as good as the greatest of his Silver Jews records, up there with American Water and The Natural Bridge. And even the finality of death can’t change that. In essence, this was his final gift, warts and all. Sure, it’s filled with sadness, emptiness and pain, but it’s also witty, warm and wise. For all the hurt you can hear, there’s a song like “I Loved Being My Mother’s Son,” a song that’s so pure and elemental and touching. For all the bitterness of a song like “Maybe I’m The Only One For Me,” there are the colorful country-rock arrangements of the backing band Woods, lilting and lively. And for all the loneliness in these songs, there’s the warmth and comfort of “Snow Is Falling In Manhattan,” which sounds like it’s nestled inside a blanket near the fireplace. As easy as it may be to read into the album as an omen of doom, that’s not what it is. Purple Mountains, as many of Berman’s Drag City label-mates attested to, is an album of hope. An album that stops to appreciate on the absurd beauty of life, that fights demons with a self-deprecating grin. It’s a reminder that Berman fought till the very end, and a parting gift to the fans that loved him, the fans that’ll ensure that his spirit remains eternal.

Highlights include: “That’s Just The Way That I Feel,” a honky-tonk romper that deftly wields the acerbic wit that Berman was so well known for, a terrific opener that’s unflinchingly honest. “Nights That Won’t Happen,” maybe Berman’s most beautiful, poetic exploration of death, guided by gleaming pedal-steel and exuding a placid, nocturnal glow.

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