The final year of the 2010s decade was filled with breakout artists and further blurring of genre lines. Female rappers owned the industry, dance music continued its dive into softer melodies, and R&B enjoyed a banner year. Here are the 19 best albums of 2019:
19. KIRK (DaBaby)
2019’s biggest breakout rapper, DaBaby, capped off his chart-busting entrance into the mainstream with his most nuanced and well-produced album yet, KIRK. With features ranging from Migos to Nicki Minaj and from Chance the Rapper to Kevin Gates, DaBaby opts to expand his musical scope with the help of new collaborators. He gets introspective on “INTRO” and tackles relationship woes on “iPHONE.” Interestingly, KIRK comes after DaBaby exploded onto the scene with three singles from his last project, Baby on Baby. So, on KIRK we get to hear DaBaby tackle his newfound popularity (“POP STAR”) and try to strike the balance between crafting radio hits and making authentic music (“GOSPEL”). All in all, KIRK was the exact project DaBaby needed to follow up hits like “Suge” and “Goin Baby”; it’s slick enough to show obvious musical growth, but still chock full of nimble flows and amusing one-liners to please his core audience. Read my full review of KIRK here.
18. Cuz I Love You (Lizzo)
Lizzo, the most nominated artist at the 2020 Grammy Awards, dominated this year thanks to a surge in popularity of a three-year-old song: “Truth Hurts.” While that song is fun to chant along to and is bursting with Instagram caption ready lyrics, Cuz I Love You reminded us that Lizzo has a lot more to offer. The album is filled with rambunctious power ballads (“Jerome”; “Cry Baby”), smooth hip-hop tracks (“Tempo”; “Soulmate”; “Like a Girl”) and softer sexy moments (“Lingerie”). Lizzo blends rock, pop, soul, rap, and gospel to create one of the most buoyant and accessible albums of the year. But, don’t be mistaken, this is an album by an artist that is steeped in the history of black music. Cuz I Love You is as much a self-motivational love letter as it is an overview of the Black American musical diaspora.
17. Fever (Megan Thee Stallion)
Hot Girl Summer™ was one for the books. But the Hot Girls and the City Boys would be nowhere without the visionary who started it all, Megan Thee Stallion. Fresh off of her excellent Tina Snow mixtape and her breakout hit, “Big Ole Freak,” Megan created a new alter ego and theme to dominate the summer. Hot Girl Meg is cool, sexy, confident, vicious, and fearless. She proves that her pen game is not to be played with (“Realer”; “Running Up Freestyle”) and flexes her ability to create slinky radio hits (“Cash S**t”; “Simon Says”). Fever is the perfect soundtrack to an endless summer and a great set up for what is sure to be a monster of a debut album. Read my full review of Fever here.
16. Eve (Rapsody)
Female rap dominated 2019. From Nicki to Megan and from Rico to the City Girls, the women held it down this year. The best album to come from this prestigious group is Rapsody’s Eve. The intricate and forward-thinking release was absolutely breathtaking. Rapsody made bops for the club (“Michelle”), introspective ballads (“Nina”), and uptempo bangers (“Oprah”) all while finding a way to highlight and uplift different black women along the way. This is a must listen. Read my full review of Eve here.
15. Fine Line (Harry Styles)
Some One Direction alumni released the year’s worst albums, but Harry took his time and crafted one of the year’s best. Fine Line floats around different subgenres of rock and pop and expands Harry’s songwriting skills and vocal prowess. He’s more mature and fearless on this record and he experiments with a new sound at every turn. Despite all of this, he never cracks under the pressure. He doesn’t get swallowed by the ska influences (“Sunflower, Vol. 6”) or the Queen tributes (“Treat People with Kindness”), instead he becomes stronger and more well-rounded than he was on his debut. Read my full review of Fine Line here.
14. BUBBA (KAYTRANADA)
KAYTRANADA, one of the best and most underrated producers of the decade, delivered a stellar record with BUBBA. What sets KAYTRANADA, and by extension, BUBBA, apart is his knowledge of percussion. Rousing drums are the foundation of nearly every track on the album. He builds his sparkling disco utopia on this foundation and invites a slew of smooth collaborators (Tinashe, Masego, Kali Uchis, SiR, Estelle, etc.) on his journey to paradise. KAYTRANADA’s genre of midtempo electro-R&B can often feel repetitive, but on BUBBA the album never really falters. Every track is just as good as the last.
13. Shea Butter Baby (Ari Lennox)
Ari Lennox received a lot of flack for her reaction to going 0/3 at the Soul Train Music Awards, but can you really blame her? If I made an album as great, soulful, and honest as Shea Butter Baby, I’d feel some type of way too. Ari Lennox has the type of voice that is bursting with soul and wisdom far beyond her years. On every track, her voice is simply immaculate. Moreover, her songwriting is so witty and emotional that you can’t help but to smile, laugh, cry, and yell your way through this record. Shea Butter Baby is definitely an album that will stand the test of time.
12. Assume Form (James Blake)
James Blake has been making some of the best music of the decade since he debuted, but with Assume Form he expanded his sonic palette and the results were impressive. He played with trap on “Mile High” and “Tell Them,” delivered more of his classic melancholy ballads (“Don’t Miss It”), and turned surprising collaborations into winning moments (“Barefoot in the Park” with ROSALÍA and “What’s the Catch?” with André 3000). Assume Form is similar to Bubba in a sense that they are both indicative of how far dance/electronica has come this decade. Gone are the days of massive beat drops, we only do silky synths and downbeat rhythms here.
11. Euphoria – Original Score from the HBO Series (Labrinth)
Jordan Peele’s Us (review here) had the best film score soundtrack of 2019 (give Michael Abels the Oscar, now!). On the television side of things, HBO’s Euphoria (review here) delivered the most innovative and emotional score of 2019. Helmed by Labrinth, a visionary artist in his own right, the score blends original songs inspired by the dark characters (“WTF Are We Talking For”) and transformative ballads that strike a careful balance between gloom and mystery (“The Lake”; “Euphoria Funfair”). It’s a fitting album for such a dark and entrancing series.
10. Heavy Is The Head (Stormzy)
As Americans, we love making fun of grime and U.K. rappers. Stormzy, however, can go toe to toe with a lot of our best and most successful current rappers. Despite the industry’s pivot to singles over albums this decade, Stormzy closes out the 2010s with a true album. Heavy is the Head isn’t a collection of random tracks built to drive two or three singles to the top of the charts. Instead, it’s a meticulously crafted rumination on his rise to fame, subsequent success, racism in the U.K., religion, and relationships. Stormzy blends gospel and grime and soulful samples with Jay Z-influenced cadences throughout the record. This is another slam dunk from the U.K. superstar.
9. LEGACY! LEGACY! (Jamila Woods)
In the same way that Rapsody’s Eve was a tribute to iconic black women, Jamila Woods’ LEGACY! LEGACY! was a love letter to iconic black artists. From literary legends like James Baldwin to influential musicians like Miles Davis, every track is named for a different icon. Jamila uses her soft tone to weave her way through grimy guitars and more subdued neo-soul production throughout the record. Her spoken word roots are evident through the gorgeous lyricism and attention to detail. LEGACY! LEGACY! is a triumphant celebration of art that is as humble as it is hopeful.
8. Over It (Summer Walker)
Summer Walker made waves with “Girl Needs Love” and showed off her musicianship with her CLEAR EP, but it was Over It on which she expertly blended her commercial viability with her emotional and cloudy artistry. Equally based around dry guitars and 90s R&B samples (“Say My Name” and “You Make Me Wanna…”), Over It is the latest addition to a subgenre of R&B that updates classic melodies and places them in the context of more personal and honest songs. She laments about double standards in relationships and puts her man in her place, but she never loses the cool and calm demeanor that we all fell in love with. Read my full review of Over It here.
7. Igor (Tyler, The Creator)
Tyler, The Creator’s audio odyssey based on relationship highs and lows is still as beautiful as it was when it first dropped earlier this spring. The album scored Tyler a Grammy nomination for Best Rap Album, but, honestly, the album is more driven by R&B and pop than rap. With euphoric production on love anthems like “EARFQUAKE” to jazz-influenced beats on the grandiose and yearning “ARE WE STILL FRIENDS,” IGOR never relents from creating gorgeous sonic moments. Without a doubt, this is Tyler’s best album, and something tells me he has just reached the beginning of his full potential. Read my full review of Igor here.
6. The Lion King: The Gift (Beyoncé & Various Artists)
Within the last decade, Beyoncé brought back visual albums, brought live albums to unimaginable heights, and basically invented the surprise drop. For her last hat trick of the 2010s, Queen Bey gave us “sonic cinema” in the form of The Lion King: The Gift, her “love letter to Africa” and soundtrack album inspired by the 2019 reimagining of The Lion King. Structured around afrobeats, hip-hop, and R&B, Beyoncé collaborated with Africa’s brightest talents and gave them room to show off their intricate production skills and enviable songwriting. From Burna Boy’s standout “JA ARA E” to Bey’s sexy “ALREADY” with Shatta Wale and Major Lazer, this album was truly a gift. Read my track-by-track analysis of The Gift here.
5. Songs for You (Tinashe)
Tinashe has driven the sound of R&B and pop for the better part of the decade. Songs for You was one more reminder, before the decade ends, that she is the tastemaker of a generation. Tinashe reached for West Coast hip-hop (“Hopscotch”), Southern trap (“Link Up”) and dreamy cloud R&B ballads (“Stormy Weather”; “Remember When”) on this gorgeous record. Her vocals are as excellent as ever, but the real triumph is how in control she sounds. Whether she’s rapping (“Cash Race”, inviting guests to the party (Ms Banks, 6LACK, G-Eazy), or baring the depths of her soul, Tinashe never loses control. Every decision is precise and the result is a simply beautiful album. Read my full review of Songs for You here.
4. WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP… (Billie Eilish)
Billie Eilish is a prodigy, plain and simple. WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO is a dark and deeply honest look into the heart and mind of Gen Z. The album is as creepy as it is vulnerable, and it is as dynamic as it is introspective. Written and produced with her brother, Finneas, the album is the natural progression of the alternative pop pioneered/popularized by Lana Del Rey and Lorde and the deconstructed hip-hop influences of “urban” music’s minimalist period. Whether she’s commenting on party and drug culture (“xanny”) or working her way through every twist and turn that romance has to offer (“when the party’s over“; “wish you were gay”), Billie ends up on top. Why? Because WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP is effortless and spontaneous, there isn’t agenda here to make Billie the next big pop star, it just happened. Read my full review of WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?
3. thank u, next (Ariana Grande)
After becoming the defining pop star of the latter half of the decade by way of Sweetener, where does Ariana go? After the dissolution of her engagement to Pete Davidson, the untimely passing of her ex-lover and close friend, Mac Miller, and an onslaught of online abuse and slut-shaming, Ariana grabbed her closest musical friends, found refuge in a studio, and crafted thank u, next in about two weeks. The album covers every emotion that comes after loss. Ariana tackles intense grief on “ghostin” and loneliness on “needy” and “NASA.” It’s not all sad fare though, Ariana also sings of the triumph of recovery on the triumvirate of year-defining singles that close out the album: “thank u, next“; “7 rings“; and “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored.” Thank u, next cemented Ariana as one of the most successful, talented, and important pop stars of this decade, and she’s just getting started. Read my full review of thank u, next here.
2. When I Get Home (Solange)
Despite the muted reception this album received from fans and some music listeners, When I Get Home is the best album of Solange’s career and among the best of the year. The jazzy album is a showcase of how silence can be music in itself. Solange’s gentle tone floats over anthemic trap moments like “Almeda,” introspective ballads like “Dreams,” and hip-hop leaning bops like “Binz” and “Stay Flo.” When I Get Home is very much the companion record to A Seat at the Table. While Solange’s Grammy-winning record was more concerned with the politics of race and gender, When I Get Home is a more emotional look at Solange’s heart and psyche. Why go bigger when you can go deeper? Read my full review of When I Get Home here.
1. Norman F*****g Rockwell! (Lana Del Rey)
Lana Del Rey, an undeniable music icon and one of the defining artists of the 2010s, closed out the decade with yet another masterpiece: Norman F*****g Rockwell! All of Lana’s albums are great, but, on this record, she tapped into something that we haven’t seen from her since Ultraviolence. With Rockwell, Lana expertly captured the whimsy, political unrest, change, and hope of the 60s. She grounds her work with accessible references to poetry and art, but, at the end of the day, it’s her gut-punching lyricism and haunting vocal performances that elevate the album. From the reckless glee of “F**k it I love you” to the harsh bite of the tile track, Norman F*****g Rockwell is a gorgeous record. It’s the culmination of Lana’s experimentation with classic rock, hip-hop, trap, and baroque pop, and it feels like the natural next step for an artist with wisdom beyond her years. Read my full review of Norman F*****g Rockwell!