Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell!

Del Rey’s stately sixth album is completely out of step with contemporary trends: as if a Brill Building stablehand went west on a Laurel Canyon recon mission. Those sounds are more than just another layer of Americana cosplay: her obsession with American archetypes, once dismissed as superficial, has matured into an acute understanding of how they are created and frustration at what they conceal. A subtly defiant assertion that Del Rey is here for the long haul, no matter what. Laura Snapes Read the full review.


Dave – Psychodrama

Reflective … Dave. Photograph: Joe Magowan

Until this year, rapper Dave was a singles artist – he managed 11 before his debut album was released – but Black marked a sea change: serious, reflective and grown-up. And from album opener Psycho onwards, where he’s positioned as a patient telling all to a therapist, we meet a rapper as agitated as he is angry. An absentee father, a sibling in prison (his brother Christopher is serving a life sentence for his involvement in the killing of Sofyen Belamouadden), a burgeoning, pressurised music career – it all gets mixed into an urban opera that plays out intensely, and internally. Lanre Bakare Read the full review.


Billie Eilish – When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?

The singles that heralded its arrival were spectacular – the crawling menace of You Should See Me in a Crown; Bury a Friend’s warped, unsettling glam stomp; Bad Guy’s cocktail of sharp lyrics and 60s spy thriller theme pastiche – but they aren’t significantly better than the rest of the album. It’s adventurous, beautifully crafted, devoid of filler, packed not just with hooks but finely wrought sonic details. Alexis Petridis Read the full review.


Sharon Van Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow

Sharon Van Etten.
Sophisticated … Sharon Van Etten. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Though it used sounds and textures familiar from the 80s, Remind Me Tomorrow didn’t sound like an 80s record. But it summoned to mind that strain of 80s pop when older musicians would reach the top end of the charts with sophisticated, modern records that used production techniques from records for teenagers, and applied them to songs unmistakably written about adult life. Remind Me Tomorrow was a grown-up record that didn’t sound jaded. It was alive with possibility. Michael Hann Read the full review.


Tyler, the Creator – Igor

Performing concerts in support of the album while dressed in a Warhol wig, shades and dazzling neon suits, Tyler cavorted all over the stage celebrating an even greater breadth to his music. Tracks either abruptly snap off like an unfinished thought or dissolve into the silent distance. While Tyler has always been chameleonic, on Igor his restlessness feels like a conscious choice for the first time, not just the jittering impatience of a young star looking to explore new sounds. Ammar Kalia Read the full review.


Angel Olsen – All Mirrors

Angel Olsen.
Breaking up and moving on … Angel Olsen. Photograph: PR

A breakup record that muses on the nature of relationships without romanticising them, All Mirrors sees Olsen drill down into the damaging power-play of past loves, interrogating how they have made her feel less-than, as well as the self-knowledge and peace their endings have occasioned. It’s a body of work that’s comforting and heartening in the way a journey towards enlightenment should be, but it’s also challenging, full of ambivalence and irresolvable confusion. Rachel Aroesti Read the full review.


FKA twigs – Magdalene

“They’re waiting and hoping I’m not enough,” she sings on Cellophane in the album’s final moments, contemplating the fallout from the end of her relationship. It’s a moment of fragility, but one that’s undercut by what has come before it – FKA twigs has proved that she is more than enough, someone who can sing, write, produce and pole-dance, all of it brilliantly. Some breakup albums wallow, but this one carries itself with the strength and tenacity of its namesake. Ben Beaumont-Thomas Read the full review.


Nick Cave – Ghosteen

There are spectral strings and synths, bells, electronics, a smattering of piano notes. The slow, meditative sound echoes the album’s themes of acceptance; relative calm after the angry, anguished Skeleton Tree. There are moments when Cave appears to be slowly coming to terms with what has happened: “Sometimes a little bit of faith can go a long, long way,” he sings. Kathryn Bromwich Read the full review.


Slowthai – Nothing Great About Britain

Playing the jester … Slowthai.
Playing the jester … Slowthai. Photograph: Daniel DeSlover/Zuma Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

Slowthai wryly evokes the forgotten parts of the country through snapshots of working-class life: tea and biscuits, hiding drugs, fallouts with a stepfather, EastEnders’ Phil Mitchell. By playing the jester, he became the voice of a British generation at the turn of a turbulent decade. Hannah Ewens Read the full review.


Weyes Blood – Titanic Rising

As slow and stately as a tanker turning, and as waterlogged as its title implies, Titanic Rising was a curio in 2019. Unburdened by modish musical trends – no guests, no genre crossovers – it was a feat of immersive beauty, the kind of record you might put on an old-fashioned stereo, dim the lights and sit through in one indulgent sitting, the better to appreciate its three-dimensional production washing over your skin like a gong bath. Kitty Empire Read the full review.


Caroline Polachek – Pang

Pang details a rebirth – the end of a marriage, a new start, a new creative partnership with producer Danny L Harle – and its avant-garde mix of airy synthesis and human tactility glistens with wonder. Polachek explores and is often overcome by this new reality, reflecting her sense of discovery in choruses that loop like Escher staircases (Door) and vocal runs so startling (Ocean of Tears) they seem to suggest the invention of entirely new emotions. LS Read the full review.


Michael Kiwanuka – Kiwanuka

Michael Kiwanuka.
Sharp … Michael Kiwanuka Photograph: Olivia Rose

Too many artists stick unnecessary interludes between album tracks this year; Kiwanuka is a rare exception, a properly immersive album that offers space for reflection between Michael Kiwanuka’s close considerations of where hope might live among love, immigration and civil rights. Producers Danger Mouse and Inflo make his retro soul sharp enough to strike a match on, giving it an edge to match Brittany Howard’s equally expansive Jaime (see No 32 below). LS Read the full review.


Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride

The artwork for Vampire Weekend’s fourth album is pure Windows 97 ClipArt, earnest United Colors of Benetton graphics, CD-era prosperity in its prominent positioning of Sony’s label. It’s goofy and utopian, an idealism that blows through Father of the Bride with its Edenic genre inclusivity, jam-band brightness and Ezra Koenig’s odes to love and marriage. Yet the darkness of their first three albums is never far from the door, antisemitism and apocalypse snapping a little harder at the heels of a new father and husband who’s realised how much more he has to lose. LS Read the full review.


Little Simz – Grey Area

Little Simz.
On top of the beat … Little Simz. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

The best work yet from the London rapper – she was already one of the most technically accomplished MCs in the country, but broadens and popularises her craft here with affecting song forms. On Boss, she goes in as hard as an aggrieved Wu-Tang member over a raw bluesy beat; on the very next song, Selfish, these spikes are melted into smooth R&B. With every twist, Simz is already on top of the beat. BBT Read the full review.


Richard Dawson – 2020

2019’s not been great – in fact, things haven’t been great for a while – and Richard Dawson’s album suggests it’s not going to get any better in 2020. In these brawny, meandering folk songs, a butcher spouts anti-immigrant bile, an anxious jogger hears of racial violence, and workers in a warehouse flog themselves half to death; at a more intimate level, there are infidelities and loneliness. Nevertheless, human decency still feels close at hand – not least from the man singing. BBT Read the full review.


Ariana Grande – Thank U, Next

Pop in 2019 has been all about spontaneity, whether that’s the off-the-cuff language that’s crept into the biggest pop hits or the intensifying feedback loop between pop and TikTok. But nobody perfected the approach like Ariana Grande, whose second album in six months (following 2018’s Sweetener) vibrates with immediacy. After Manchester, the death of ex-boyfriend Mac Miller and a called-off engagement with Pete Davidson, Grande gracefully considers how life could have been and how it turned out, tangling sweet melodies with embattled production. LS Read the full review.


Hot Chip – A Bath Full of Ecstasy

Hot Chip
Idealism … Hot Chip Photograph: Ronald Dick

The title, the new age font, the tie-dye colours of the album artwork – they all indicate that Hot Chip are getting in on the very 2019 taste for rave culture. While Hungry Child puts an offbeat spin on the sounds you might have heard pulsing from a motorway underpass 30 years ago, the vibe on A Bath Full of Ecstasy is less about revisiting the hedonism of some lost youth than its tender idealism, creating a bright, tender, often ballady idyll in a wretched age. LS Read the full review.


Cate Le Bon – Reward

Cate Le Bon wrote Reward during a year spent living in the Lake District and learning how to make furniture. Without resembling anything so cliched as a “getting it together in the country” record, her fifth solo album runs on that solitary, spartan existence: sad and lovely piano-led songwriting unfolds in its own unruffled time, but then a post-punk scribble like Mother’s Mother’s Magazines upsets Le Bon’s calm, like a momentary wigout at her dislocation from society. LS Read the full review.


Solange – When I Get Home

“This shit is for us,” Solange announced on her previous album, handing her music to the black diaspora. On its follow up, she continues to wrap herself in its lore. Seemingly stumbling with Gucci Mane through a haze of chronic on My Skin My Logo, glorying in laidback “CP time” on Binz, the beautiful little nest of references that is “black molasses, blackberry the masses”, this is an understated and poetic celebration of a culture. Her love for it is infectious. BBT Read the full review.


Clairo – Immunity

Intimacy … Clairo. Photograph: Hart Leshkina

After Clairo’s lo-fi, bedroom-pop hit Pretty Girl went viral, there was the risk that her ascent to pop proper would obliterate the intimacy that made her appeal in the first place. Happily, that isn’t the case: featuring production from former Vampire Weekend member Rostam (and occasionally drums from Danielle Haim), Immunity is tender and earnest, its scale in keeping with the way 21-year-old Clairo’s generation shrugs off emotional disclosures with a lower-case “lol”. LS Read the full review.


Charli XCX – Charli

Charli XCX’s long-awaited third album proper firmly puts to bed asinine questions about whether she is a mainstream pop star or a left-field one: here is someone not just punching above their weight but operating in an entirely different cosmos, unconcerned about putting goofy nostalgia (1999) next to deeply queer bass workouts (Click), trance-tinged, cocksure flexes (Next Level Charli) alongside cage-rattling anxiety anthems (Gone). LS Read the full review.


Fontaines DC – Dogrel

Their ranting live shows gathered hype like a crowd round a bullhorn, and this debut album delivers – and then some. The band’s picture of Dublin is as vivid and impetuous as the Joycean visions they clearly admire, all rough beauty and “ready-steady violence”; the pint-chucking songs have the blithe, amused swagger of someone who enjoys a fight, but the ballads (Roy’s Tune, Television Screens) are equally good, with a bleating, pub-piano sadness to them. BBT Read the full review.


Nilüfer Yanya – Miss Universe

Nilüfer Yanya.
Contemporary ennui … Nilüfer Yanya. Photograph: Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP via Getty Images

Miss Universe doesn’t really need the concept-album framework, with its satirical interstitial muzak from the supposedly caring corporation Wway Health. It’s full of contemporary ennui as it is, expressed as much in Yanya’s subtly hangdog vocals as in the lyrics. Whether it’s bossa nova pop, Snail Mail-style slacker grunge or moody synthetic rock in the tradition of the xx, Yanya’s songwriting bar flexes and warps but stays permanently high. BBT Read the full review.


Aldous Harding – Designer

Music is filled with no shortage of characters proclaiming how “mad, me” they are, so it’s rare and delightful to come across a genuine oddball. Even before you get to Aldous Harding’s magnetic, bug-eyed live shows, the New Zealander’s third album operates on its own unique logic: inscrutable lyrics and tender folk settings that are deeply eerie yet obviously benign, like the traditional music of some beatific lost civilisation. LS Read the full review.


Big Thief – UFOF

Big Thief.
Songwriting groove … Big Thief. Photograph: Michael Buishas/4AD

Where their second 2019 album Two Hands (see No 37, below) has a torn-paper edge to it, the first, UFOF, is pristine – but it essays a world that is far from perfect. Whether in grunge ballads (Jenni), front-porch blues (Orange) or the ambient indie-folk that sways reed-like throughout, the mood is as melancholy as it is beautiful. This is a band caught deep in one of the songwriting grooves of the century. Long may it last. BBT Read the full review.


Jenny Lewis – On the Line

Lewis fully leans in to her best west coast troubadour mode on her fourth solo album, spinning endlessly captivating yarns of estranged lovers and lost hopes. Her classic band arrangements chime with festivity even as Lewis reveals her darkest experiences: the devastating Little White Dove is set at the deathbed of her estranged mother, who battled heroin addiction throughout Lewis’s life. LS Read the full review.


Taylor Swift – Lover

As with Sleater-Kinney’s album, there was so much noise around Lover that it was hard to parse the record itself on release. But peel away the gaudy rollout, two misrepresentative lead singles and the baggage surrounding its creator and you’re left with an endearing, adventurous old-school pop album. Lover paints in complex emotional shades and finds an artist known for her strict adherence to her brand trying lots of new things, from the girl-groupy Paper Rings to Mazzy Star-style reveries on the title track. LS Read the full review.


Lizzo – Cuz I Love You

Zest … Lizzo.
Zest … Lizzo. Photograph: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

One album can’t really contain the pop-cultural moment that is Lizzo – she is at her most enjoyable live, feeding back with a crowd that are delighted to see a star who looks like them, or, rather, not like everyone else in pop. But the sheer zest for life in these bombastic, ultra-quotable self-empowerment tracks – as well as the pure-pop hooks – gives them intensity even on record. BBT Read the full review.


Jenny Hval – The Practice of Love

The Practice of Love is Jenny Hval’s most ambient album, an eerie, euphoric spell sustained by new-age aura and trance beats. It’s certainly the first record by the Norwegian artist that you could put on as background music, give or take some striking spoken-word sections. But it’s a disarming invitation to Hval’s most intimate work yet, one where she and her collaborators contemplate the purpose of existence and art in imagery that’s no less evocative for its surrealism. LS Read the full review.


Kim Gordon – No Home Record

Releasing a debut solo album at 66 is impressive enough; that it’s one of the most skilful records of an already iconic career is even more so. No Home Record is as industrial as it is impish, full of sculpted noise, harebrained ragers and sly protest songs – against corporate branding and treacherous ex-husbands – that are sexy and seditious. LS Read the full review.


James Blake – Assume Form

Atmospheric … James Blake.
Atmospheric … James Blake. Photograph: Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP via Getty Images

The quavering, circuitous voice of British jazz-dub songwriter James Blake is still a beautiful instrument, and his arrangements are as atmospheric as ever here. He resembles a heart-eyes emoji at various points, swooning over girlfriend Jameela Jamil on Power On and Can’t Believe the Way We Flow. The strongest tracks, though, are when he slinks softly around guests Travis Scott and RosalÍa. BBT Read the full review.


Brittany Howard – Jaime

Alabama Shakes hardly cleaved to one genre, but frontwoman Brittany Howard shows just how astonishingly broad and instinctive her talent is here. Ramshackle hip-hop, spoken word, gospel, neo and not-so-neo soul, raunchy funk, spiritual jazz and whatever glorious noise 13th Century Metal is, it’s all given extra heft by Howard’s poignant reflections on love and identity. BBT Read the full review.


Muna – Saves the World

Intense … Muna. Composite: Issac Schneider

Specificity is the marker of killer pop (the matches in Pet Shop Boys’ So Hard, the shoelaces in Robyn’s Be Mine), a trope that the LA trio Muna wield to intense effect on their second album of gothic synthpop. Saves the World is an unsparing emotional confrontation that drags you right into the bedroom bathed in pink light, the dorm room with the blunt scissors, not to mention singer Katie Gavin’s torrid self-examinations. LS


Bill Callahan – Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest

In the five years since his previous album, Bill Callahan got married, became a father and attained a level of beatific perspective that could probably settle international conflicts. While that warmth glows through Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest, Callahan’s understanding of his inherent masculine violence, and his way with lucid profundity, means his domestic treatise was never cloying. LS Read the full review.


The Murder Capital – When I Have Fears

The other Dublin post-punk success story of 2019 alongside Fontaines DC, The Murder Capital have a bit more monochrome hauteur – but there’s still a touch of lairiness. Over metronomic garage-rock, frontman James McGovern sings like a man reading a list of demands out of a high window, but also modulates into sweeping gothic romance. BBT Read the full review.


Sleater-Kinney – The Centre Won’t Hold

Carrie Brownstein, left, and Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney.
New ground … Carrie Brownstein, left, and Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney. Photograph: PR Handout

When drummer Janet Weiss quit Sleater-Kinney prior to the release of their ninth studio album, it cast an unfair pallor on a record mired in suspicion, every new dazzling synth or poppy refrain regarded as the possible straw that broke the camel’s back. But its status in the band’s catalogue is beyond reproach. With St Vincent as producer, Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker break new ground as songwriters – high camp on Bad Dance, trading intimacy and vaulting catharsis on The Dog/The Body – while mining affectingly desperate and ugly emotional depths. LS Read the full review.


Big Thief – Two Hands

The Brooklyn band’s second album of the year is earthier than UFOF, the glowing collection that arrived in spring. Here, the four-piece till the dirt and Adrianne Lenker sings relentlessly about death and disease, elemental concerns that nevertheless reach some kind of higher plane thanks to the tenacious, cracked songwriting that’s swiftly establishing them as Brooklyn’s answer to Crazy Horse. LS Read the full review.


Black Midi – Schlagenheim

Black Midi
Abstract daubs … Black Midi. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

As buzz bands go, Black Midi is a weird one, a jagged mulch of math rock, Beefheart restlessness and the 90s Chicago school of alt-jazz, full of the declamatory vocals of Geordie Greep (whose voice you couldn’t make up if you tried). But Morgan Simpson’s astonishingly tight drumming keeps them painting within the lines, even when they’re making the most abstract daubs. BBT Read the full review.


WH Lung – Incidental Music

From Stereolab to LCD Soundsystem and Hookworms, almost every year produces a band who replicate the soothingly simple, eternal groove of Neu! – and in our world of lies and gaslighting, we need that north-star constant more than ever. Manchester’s WH Lung are on hand to provide it, garlanded with airy vocals and endearingly retro sonics. BBT Read the full review.


Sturgill Simpson – Sound & Fury

Much as Kacey Musgraves broke open country songwriting in 2018 with the love-bombing body high of Golden Hour, Sturgill Simpson casts himself as the genre’s outlier in 2019. This is a strutting, utterly badass glam rock record, shot through with a gimlet-eyed outlaw nihilism – and comes with its own accompanying Kurosawa-inspired anime. All of a sudden, songs about beer and broads seem a little lacking. BBT Read the full review.


These New Puritans – Inside the Rose

With ambition and intent that should shame many of their peers, These New Puritans have crafted another suite of post-punk symphonies. As ever, the sound design is exquisite, bass thrumming in clouds under choirs, pianos and their trademark instant-decay drums, but the big earnest melodies give it heart. Jack Barnett’s vocals, conversational yet epic, add their own particular drama. BBT Read the full review.


The Japanese House – Good at Falling

Dense layers of fluttering gauze ... Amber Bain
Dense layers of fluttering gauze ... Amber Bain Photograph: Publicity image

Like Caroline Polachek, Hannah Diamond and so many others this year, Amber Bain uses super-synthetic electropop and soft rock to say much rougher, grittier truths. The production, aided by George Daniel of the 1975, is like dense layers of fluttering gauze, annotated with fine detailing; floating through it all is Bain’s breakup pain. BBT Read the full review.


Jamila Woods – Legacy! Legacy!

Like Sons of Kemet’s Your Queen Is a Reptile, each track on poet/activist/songwriter Jamila Woods’s second album is named for a pivotal artist of colour, whose legacies she explores as models of how to live life to the fullest. The Chicago musician flips between them – from Zora Neale Hurston to James Baldwin – with warmth and close attention, her sandy voice full of tenderness and the jazz-influenced backing sun-baked and dazzling. It makes Legacy! Legacy! feel less like a history lesson and more like a glimpse into a beloved photo album. LS Read the full review.


(Sandy) Alex G – House of Sugar

A future cult classic ... (Sandy) Alex G.
A future cult classic ... (Sandy) Alex G. Photograph: Tonje Thilesen

By blending the trudging splendour of slowcore with country melodies and the kind of genuinely oddball artistry that doesn’t second guess or try to make things fit, (Sandy) Alex G remains one of America’s most underrated songwriters. Southern Sky, Bad Man, SugarHouse and plenty more make this a future cult classic. BBT


Purple Mountains – Purple Mountains

As with Bowie’s Blackstar and Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker, David Berman’s long-awaited return to music will forever be overshadowed by his death, as he died by suicide less than a month after its release. Elegiac and rickety, it’s a lasting testament to his mordant and philosophical poetry, but also to his pain: “The end of all wanting is all I’ve been wanting,” he sings on That’s Just the Way That I Feel. LS Read the full review.


Durand Jones and the Indications – American Love Call

Modern classics ... Durand Jones and the Indications.
Modern classics ... Durand Jones and the Indications. Photograph: Rosie Cohe

These one-time music students create a perfect simulacrum of 60s and 70s soul, but lit with the lamps of a jazz club rather than the sterile striplighting of a lab. American Love Call is full of modern classics, from the falsetto raptures of How Can I Be Sure to the perfect country soul of Long Way Home. BBT Read the full review.


Flying Lotus – Flamagra

Twenty-seven tracks long, and with guests ranging from Solange to David Lynch, Flamagra is the most ambitious vision yet from the LA beatmaker. He gives more space than ever before to his vocalists, but he could never become a producer of straightforward backing tracks – his tumbling, symphonic funk is as impetuous and psychedelic as ever. BBT Read the full review.


King Princess – Cheap Queen

There’s potential in classicism yet ... King Princess
There’s potential in classicism yet ... King Princess Photograph: Publicity Image

While artists like Billie Eilish and Polachek have pushed pop into the future this year, King Princess joins Lana Del Rey in showing that there’s potential in classicism yet. The 20-year-old – born Mikaela Straus – released a debut album filled with louche balladry that, despite her New York pedigree, is plump with west coast studio richness. Also: echoes of All Saints’ sultry best. LS Read the full review.


Fat White Family – Serfs Up!

The chief grotbags of the British indie scene return, retaining a genuinely reptilian edge to their lounge lizard music. They dip into the strangest, sexiest bits of the 70s, with prowling disco on Feet, rollicking glam on Tastes Good With the Money, and electronically, chemically enhanced psychedelic skronk throughout. BBT Read the full review.


Kano – Hoodies All Summer

One of the UK’s greatest ever MCs ... Kano.
One of the UK’s greatest ever MCs ... Kano. Photograph: Olivia Rose

With his sixth album, the east Londoner cements his status as one of the UK’s greatest ever MCs. There’s a musicality to his delivery that suggests a man considering one side of the argument, then the other – but ultimately there is little equivocation as he condemns institutional racism, needless violence, and the difficulty of social mobility: “We’re Kunta Kintes in some Cuban links / The Balenciagas didn’t blend us in.” BBT Read the full review.

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The 20 best songs of 2019
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Ben Beaumont-Thomas and Laura Snapes

02, Dec, 2019 @11:00 AM