When we did our mid-year album list, back in July, we called 2019 a “wacky” year for albums: The reason? We still hadn’t seen the massive event album that we’ve seen, essentially, every year this decade. (The exception being 2014 — an excellent but lowkey year in music.) And unless Rihanna or Frank Ocean shocks us within the next week, or so — or if Kanye West drops an album that people actually enjoy listening to — there won’t be an event album to drop this year.
And that’s fine. It just means that 2019, won’t be dominated by any one artist. Which makes this list — and other publication’s best albums of the year list — more interesting.
It allows for some diversity. In our albums of the year list, we collected 19 albums that have varying points of view. There’s albums from rookies trying to leave their mark, veterans shifting their artistic direction, semi-stars trying to gather some momentum, and artists following up on a classic.
It’s a fitting way to end an erratic decade of music. It’s a decade that started out with uncertainty, with profits from music sinking rapidly, even though listeners’ passion seemed to be endless. Now, with 2020 approaching, we are again in a stage of uncertainty, with profits being rising rapidly, despite listeners’ passion and retention level waining. Who knows what 2029 will bring. Will people even be making lists anymore? Will people even be listening to music anymore?
Those are weighty questions to examine another time. Instead, read our 19 Best albums of 2019 list below.
19. Maxo — Lil Big Man
“My clock been ticking, I’m just tryna get myself right,” Maxo declares on “Time,” Lil Big Man’s album opener. There are many lines that embody what Maxo’s album is about, and this is one of them. The want to build yourself into the person you know you’re capable of being, only to wonder if you’ll achieve that before your inevitable departure. It’s a relatable and sobering listen, Maxo’s vulnerable and direct lyrics grounded by soulful production that provides a base for the rapper’s reflection. He thinks back on advice his parents have given him; friendships and relationships that have run their course; the hope of being acknowledged as the talented rapper he is and his close ones behind bars able to see his success on a TV screen someday. In its brevity, Lil Big Man showcases why Maxo is one of the most promising young rappers out now. A coming of age project that beautifully captures the melancholy of trying to find and understand yourself, hopefully before it’s too late. — Elijah Watson
SiR’s Chasing Summer offers a plethora of songs that leave an indelible mark. His riveting voice isn’t forgetful, instead it’s warm and filled with different tones depending on what the topic of the song is. In “John Redcorn,” the standout track, his vocals float as he sings about his dream girl over an easygoing beat. “Still Blue,” featuring Jill Scott, is a song that’s a little melancholy but it’s beautifully written. Chasing Summer proves that the California-bred singer is a master at creating memorable songs that speak to emotionally-charged moments experienced within relationships (and after they end). —Robyn Mowatt
The title of Snoh Aalegra’s sophomore effort, Ugh, those feels again, is meant to be slightly skullduggerous. While it would suggest that the LP is merely a sequel to her triumphant 2017 debut album FEELS, this project actually displays her reframed view of love, showing maturity, growth, and understanding of the concept in more ways than one.
Taking cues from musical influences such as Prince and Stevie Wonder, Aalegra pours her heart out on her most musically-ambitious project to date. Thanks to meticulously crafted arrangements, the complex gamut of love is tackled thematically and sonically on the 14-song album, which elicits all sorts of, you guessed it, feels.
On “Situationship,” an airy beat captures the carefree spirit of a summer fling. The bedroom-ready “Toronto” highlights the singer’s vocal range over an intoxicatingly seductive guitar, where she notes that she cannot wait to “fuck until the sunrise.” DJ scratches, via the album’s Executive Producer No I.D., are a smooth mix with Snoh’s scat-rap flow on the album’s finale, “Peace.” The latter finds our heroine channeling a spiritual rebranding, ultimately choosing the “peace in [her] mind” over a lover.
Following a conventional rise on Soundcloud, spanning across three years, Baby Keem began to really gain traction over the last year, scoring credits on the Kendrick Lamar’s Black Panther soundtrack, Jay Rock’s Redemption, ScHoolBoy Q’s CrasH Talk, and The Lion King: The Gift. Amongst these feats, the multi-talented force unveiled his latest album. Die for My Bitch instantly delivers beyond its standout hit “Orange Soda,” presenting to listeners a fully-fledged trap encapsulant ready for mainstream attention. In places, Keem manages to incite an atmosphere akin to that of Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. On “France Freestyle,” for instance, the lyricist is punchy and matter-of-fact across the bass-driven backing. However, it’s the onomatopoeias, ad-libs, and tone which instantly draws parallels to the TDE frontman. Elsewhere, “Bullies” and “My Ex” strongly emphasize the emo and melodic aspects of Die for My Bitch. In 2019, trap demands more than half-slurred lyrics and monotone production: Keem provides the perfect antidote for this need while still maintaining a gravitas and cultural cool from beginning to end. – Nicolas Tyrell
In a vacuum, So Much Fun is more of a victory lap than a classic album. It’s Young Thug’s first number one album, yet many fans would argue it’s not even in his top five projects. Nonetheless, it’s a solid encapsulation of his skillset. This time around, he’s figured out a more radio-friendly approach regarding singles (or maybe the world just finally caught up?) “The London,” featuring J. Cole and Travis Scott, scored a Grammy nomination for Rap/Sung Performance and “Hot” is his highest-peaking single where he isn’t the featured artist.
It’s been speculated that a handful of Fun tracks were years old, previously stashed away in the vault. Regardless, the album features stylistic exploration few rappers could pull off. “Mannequin Challenge,” featuring the deceased Juice WRLD, is a wind sprint around the booth — the chorus is about 16 bars alone. Thug downshifts and puts on the cruise control for his 8-bar verse. The triumph isn’t as much about the contents of the album, as it is the command shown throughout the course of the album. — Torry Threadcraft
In April of 2013, a 16-track collection of songs attributed to Jai Paul went up for sale on a Bandcamp page. Three days later, anyone who paid for the project was complicit in the unintentional heist of Paul’s unfinished work, banishing the tracks to various internet back channels. Personally, there was only about 12 hours of guiltless rotations before Paul joined Twitter for the sole purpose of distancing himself from the project, revealing it was uploaded entirely without his involvement.
Officially released in June, alongside a pair of new singles and a personal statement on the trauma sustained during and after the leak, it’s still a conflicting play. But, by any set of moral metrics, Paul’s leaked sketches are as singular now as they were seven years back. Lined with electrifying genre-deconstructions, scattered instrumentals and dreamy sample-heavy collages, Leak 04-13 (Bait Ones) glimpses some paisley, glitched-out alternate pop dimension, challenging listeners to brave its half-cooked hooks and accept its messy, perpetually oscillating mixes as post facto aesthetic. On “Str8 Outta Mumbai,” the only “complete” song in the sequence, Paul builds an anthem of buoyant Bollywood chops and warped guitar heroics. Wooly synths and a skittering drum machine run rampant on the seductive follow through, “Zion Wolf Theme.” On “Crush,” Paul extracts and focuses Prince’s “Extraloaveable” source code, transforming a late-90s bubblegum bop into a fret-heavy funk blitz. “100,000” flashes high-voltage alchemy and Dilla-scale swing, while the towering campaign starters, “BTSTU,” and “Jasmine” appear in early untreated forms. And “All Night” dissolves the set with a slow-burning R&B ballad. Now that it’s officially been embraced as cannon, this unkempt 16-track capsule is just as disorienting, invigorating, and profoundly potent as it was on that strange spring Saturday in 2013. — Zo
DaBaby’s year was a clinical case study on what it takes to become a modern rap star. He signed a deal at the top of the year and didn’t really change anything about his approach. He had a signature flow — staggering between the unique meter JetsonMade-layers behind it. He specialized in four-to-six-bar hooks when most try their hand at banking on melodies. His videos with Reel Goats got more memorable as his popularity soared.
All the stars aligned for Baby on Baby. The buzz from Blank Blank coincided with his hometown Charlotte hosting NBA All-Star Weekend. “Walker Texas Ranger” served as a sort of stopgap single preserving the buzz between projects. All these events — in addition to him escaping serious charges in the wake of that infamous Wal-Mart shooting — set the stage for his first major project, and he knocked it out of the park. — TT
Beyond its musical heights, Chicago is known for its politically driven ethos and commitment to community. Jamila Woods is no exception in articulating these conventions with her sophomore offering LEGACY! LEGACY! Woods is deliberate in championing the lessons of figures who helped inform the African-American power movements, as well as wider isms across history. On “Giovanni,” the poet is hyper-aware of ancestors who are watching her and hones in on her appreciation for the poem “Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why)” by Nikki Giovanni. As the song progresses, Woods examines her position as a woman and demonstrates an appreciation for the women in her life who have helped shape her from birth. It’s this beauty that circles darker themes such as slavery, that manages to create an unapologetic sense of optimism across Jamila Woods’ second offering. Sonically, LEGACY! LEGACY! tackles a wide-array of genres, some of which originated in Wood’s home-town. The projects closer, “BETTY,” is a roaring co-sign to the Chicago-house scene. The beautifully produced, drum, piano and bass-led number sees the talent embrace her unique attributes that have captivated critics and listeners alike to date. — NT
Rapsody stepped into 2019 with one of hip-hop’s most decorated resumes. Her dense and razoring sophomore album, Laila’s Wisdom, was nominated for a Best Rap Album Grammy in 2017. She lost to friend and occasional collaborator Kendrick Lamar. Two years later, already locked in for having a pantheon pen, the North Carolinian rapper is seemingly-unconcerned with the accolades on her not-so-quietly-confident third studio outing, Eve. Here, rather than seeking the institutional recognition of her work, Rapsody pivots the lens to the black women who inspired it. With a tracklist that reads like a roll call of excellence, the First Lady of Jamla devotes each of Eve’s 16 songs to a different artist, activist, athlete, or entertainer, that was a revolutionary presence in their field. “Nina,” the album’s opening stomp, commences with the familiar haunt of “Strange Fruit.” On “Aaliyah,” the bars are uncluttered and muscular, riffing on femininity and identity over a boom bap knock and looping lilts: “I am who I am, I don’t rock a disguise, to be more than a woman now come with some tithes.”
The album’s lead single, “Ibtihaj,” stages a sparring match with GZA and beams in D’Angelo for a rubbery and redemptive hook over the iconic strut of Willie Mitchell’s “Groovin.” And on its candied closer, “Afeni,” PJ Morton’s velvet vox shares the chorus with a searching excerpt from Tupac’s “Keep Ya Head Up,” as Rapsody pleads for an earned reverence and elevation of black women. Closing the decade with a still criminally overlooked catalog, the album could have easily been a gaudy and embittered response to ten years of snubs. Instead, Eve glows with gratitude, poise, and absolute mastery of craft, leaving the transgressions to the 2010s and knowing with impenetrable certainty that there’s nothing left to prove. — Zo
What makes Little Brother’s comeback album, May the Lord Watch, such a triumph is the fact that, while it’s a grownup rap album, it doesn’t use nostalgia as a clutch. Yes, there are some pretty blatant fan service attempts — the UBN skits, the Joe Scudda shoutouts — but they are only sprinkled on. (Like, this isn’t The Rise of Skywalker.)
May the Lord isn’t trying to remind you that they were once great. It’s an album about how, when together, they are great. The bond and warmth the two have for each other are showcased throughout the album. One special note has to be saved for Pooh, who has had to wear the Phife Dawg label for so long. But on May the Lord Pooh is reenergized — giving the standout performance of his career, especially on standouts like “Right On Time” and “What I Came For.”
Anderson .Paak’s Ventura served as a reassuring palate cleanser to its formidable but underwhelming predecessor Oxnard. Yes, there were great moments on the latter, like Kendrick Lamar effortlessly floating on the upbeat soul track “Tints.” But Ventura is a more cohesive listen, .Paak opting for a more laid back project grounded in traditional R&B and soul sounds but done in a way only .Paak can do. He’s a student of the genre’s veterans, enlisting everyone from Smokey Robinson on the album’s second single “Make It Better” to Brandy on “Jet Black.” But some of the album’s strongest moments come from .Paak himself, standouts like lead single “King James” show his ability to lead a track all on his own. Ventura is a testament of how much he’s grown as a drummer and singer-songwriter since his 2014 debut, Venice. — EW
Flamagra doesn’t mean anything. Like, literally, the word was made up by Flying Lotus. In an interview with Afropunk, he said he made up the word because he wanted “something that suggested the name of a fire spirit.” In an odd kind way this makes all the sense in the world. His addictive, sometimes-challenging fiery sixth studio album, Flamagra takes listeners on an expansive journey. It’s a journey that includes many contributors who somehow meet FlyLo on his wavelength. All the features work on this album, from Tierra Wack’s trickster appearance on “Yellow Belly” to Denzel Curry’s fervent appearance on “Black Balloons Reprise.” — DS
Danny Brown’s previous two albums, Old and Atrocity Exhibition, while good, were weighted down with ideas and everything-but-the-kitchen-sink tactics. It was clear that Brown was trying very hard to make a classic. Probably too hard. This is why uknowhatimsayin¿, his fifth album, works so well. It doesn’t suffer from try hard. In fact, uknowhatimsayin is most like his actual classic XXX, an album in which Brown was just trying to prove he could rap his ass album. With the pressure off, Brown displays why he’s a tip tier MC, like on “Dirty Language” or “Combat, where he rhymes slick shit like “Want beef? You gon’ fuck around and end up a vegetable” over one of the hardest Q-Tip beats in years. Shout out to not trying. — DS
On African Giant, Burna Boy’s fourth album, audiences are introduced to a fully-fledged superstar in his prime.
Burna Boy grooves through African Giant, ushering in the global-community to his kickback, while simultaneously offering up a bite of contemporary Afrobeats. The project’s title-track opener births a fully-embracing Burna Boy, half-singing, half-rapping in his mother’s tongue in places, emphasizing his migration to genres popular in Nigeria. The manifestation of this ancestral-squeeze is ever-present throughout African Giant, with the act firmly spearheading its 21st-century prominence. The euphoric production, often led by a meld of hand drums, guitar riffs, and percussion-based instruments, invite wider influences along the way. “Secret,” for example, incorporates elements of Caribbean-derivative genres such as reggae and light dancehall, standing as a passionate union of the diaspora. Paired with the strong sonic-foundations the album also tributes figures which came before Burna Boy. On “Dangote,” the Giant pays homage to Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest figure, according to Forbes. Tied within this song’s construction also are Fela-Kuti’s classic jazz horns, nodding to Burna Boy’s undeniable respect for the Afrobeat forefather. — NT
There’s no denying that Solange’s fourth studio album, When I Get Home, is a love letter to the Lone Star State. On this particular project, hooks don’t matter as much as the purpose — which involves clear and present nods to Houston, the city that raised her. Chopped-and-screwed influence on tracks like the 22-second “Not Screwed!” Interlude and the Playboi Carti-featured “Almeda” display her Southern roots. Many of the song titles reference her beloved state, such as the dreamy and calming “Beltway” and the instrumental “Exit Scott” Interlude, which samples The Family Circle’s “I Hope You Really Love Me.”
However, it’s clear that there’s an overarching theme throughout Solange’s discography –– she is black as fuck. Whether through the Gucci Mane-assisted “My Skin My Logo” or the New Orleans-tinged “Binz,” the artist aims to bring her melanin to the forefront, and growing up as a black woman in the South, she shares a narrative many can relate to in some way. As someone who has the spotlight on her, she feels a duty to dissect these experiences, and she does it beautifully. — JJ
Summer Walker is a rising star for good reason. With Over It, she allows listeners to experience her femininity, her relatable songwriting, and her refreshing voice. At times she relies on the nostalgia of ‘90s samples as the guiding light of tracks as heard on “Body,” “Playing Games,” and “Come Thru.” Yet, despite this, it’s hard to stop listening to this album. On “Nobody Else,” she sings about finding a supreme love that seems to be the only one who will ever get you. While on “Body” she delicately addresses infatuation and yearning for something she can’t quite understand. Summer also manages to drag PARTYNEXTDOOR out of hiding for “Just Might,” a song that touches on sex, stripping, and gender double standards. Over It epitomizes what millennial women are dealing with right now: drunk dialing, situationships, and insecurities. — RM
On Christmas, Tyler, the Creator wrote a touching post about his crude debut album Bastard. In the lengthy post, Tyler wrote: “Everybody was so free. No complaints. All Safe. Not trying to make ‘good’ music, just making.” When did Tyler become so introspective and sentimental? This new, softer, Tyler was fully realized on his masterful fifth studio LP IGOR — an album that, when it’s all said and done, will go down as Tyler’s classic.
Over his 10 year career— where does the time go? —Tyler has become less interested in being rapper that agitates. His interests now lay in songwriting, production, and displaying a range of genuine emotion. On standouts like “Earfquake” and the devastating “Are We Still Friends?” we see something that would have made 2009 Tyler throw-up a cockroach: genuine vulnerability. — DS
From Eric B. & Rakim to Kool G Rap & DJ Polo to Gang Starr, there is a long lineage of great rap duos. Yet, as hip-hop has scaled, the premise — of one all-time great producer working exclusively with one all-time-great MC — has gone out of style. It seems like Freddie Gibbs and Madlib, aka MaddGibbs, are doing their best to keep this tradition alive. On their debut, Piñata, they were trying to prove they belong in the pantheon. On Bandana they are just having some fun, doing a lot of experimenting in the process. So, that means Madlib is producing his first trap beat, on “Half Manne Half Cocaine,” while Freddie Gibbs is dropping knowledge alongside Yasiin Bey and Black Thought on “Education.”
With the release of this album an important thing happened: we have seen the reclusive Madlib come out of his shell for the first time ever, conducting interview after interview and making an appearance on Tiny Desk. He’s proud of this album and his partnership. The only question remains: what’s the next album going to sound like? — DS
Dreamville’s resident songbird Ari Lennox is used to doing things a bit differently. Her quirky personality and peculiar observations are focal points of her candid Instagram Live sessions, and she approaches her music in a similarly unconventional manner. While she plucked inspiration from the soulful R&B stylings of the ‘70s, Lennox’s efforts on her debut studio album, Shea Butter Baby, stamp her as a modern-day purveyor of the genre’s most sacred attributes. Her ability to convey emotion hit the heart with the quiet confidence of Sade, and her lyrical honesty flows through the veins with the straightforward bite of Erykah Badu. Yet throughout the 12-song LP, her around the way temperament is undeniably Ari from top to bottom. Shea Butter Baby doesn’t front like it’s entirely polished, much like the D.C. native herself, but that’s the kicker.
On “New Apartment,” she coos about life transitions over a hypnotizing, horn-friendly beat, while still managing to slide in a few cusses. Her soaring vocals take center stage on the album’s trap-influenced titular track, where she and Dreamville’s head honcho J. Cole rhyme about their down and dirty sexual desires. Her IG Story-ready comments are peppered throughout the album as interludes and outros, showcasing her adorably awkward charm. While her sincere spirit is one of the hallmarks of Shea Butter Baby, Ari Lennox’s inimitable approach as an overall musician should be similarly applauded. Her marriage of feel-good nostalgic melodies with Millennial-centered references — like Tinder dating, FaceTime and Targét-brand lingerie — bring a warm familiarity to listeners from any era. Much like shea butter itself, the 28-year-old’s first full-length achievement is soothing, sweet, a little bit nutty, and sure to keep R&B fans hydrated for quite some time. — JJ
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