#40: Billie Eilish – When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
Teen pop phenoms are almost always obnoxious – Donny Osmond and Justin Beiber were both awful in their own special ways. 2019’s teen pop phenom, Billie Eilish, manages to avoid this through the virtue of being really ridiculously good. Someone online – I forget who – called her ASMR pop and there’s a lot to that, really. Her style is like she took the mic into her closet and whispered her darkest secrets into it; these Whisper confessions were then laced over solid arrangements that both embrace and subvert pop conventions. An insane debut for a 17 year old, and a harbinger of big things to come.
#39: Stella Donnelly – Beware Of The Dogs
A Lily Allen for the MeToo generation, Stella Donnelly crafts winsome singer-songwriter pop that calls out creepy old men, power-tripping sexual harassers, and the like out on a consistent basis.
#38: Bon Iver – i, i
Justin Vernon’s Bon Iver hit the mainstream in the early part of the decade; after, he became a major force in song features and released an album that asked “What if latter-day U2 was actually good?” i, i is a return of sorts to the original Bon Iver sound, but with the detritus of the accumulated past embedded into it.
#37: Nilufer Yanya – Miss Universe
Jumpy, noisy, restless indie rock from a British songwriter that comes across as a slightly less weird Mitsky. Strung together with spoken word pieces about the alienating hell of modern healthcare bureaucracies, if you’re into that sort of thing.
#36: Michael Kiwanuka – KIWANUKA
Many people of late have been going back to that old-school hard hitting Motown soul, but no one has been hitting all the right notes quite like Michael Kiwanuka. Smooth and snappy all at the same time, Kiwanuka bangs from beginning to end.
#35: Brittany Howard – Jaime
The Alabama Shakes singer has the pipes of a late-period goddess but on her first solo effort she cranks up the experimental quotient and introduces elements of art-rock, post-punk, and soulful noise. Weird and wonderful, and as different from her day job as the sun is from the moon.
#34: Vampire Weekend – Father Of The Bride
After hitting their peak and then de facto breaking up, everyone involved in Vampire Weekend seemed to be successful enough that we would never see the band again. We did, though, and it was a much more genial, laid-back, Deadhead version of VW than it ever was before. They’re no longer the former hip-hop cover band from the dorms of Columbia University playing Ivy League indie rock shot through with African sounds, and they might be better for it.
#33: Little Simz – Grey Area
Lorde, Billie Eilish, Little Simz: proof that you are never better than you are at the tender age of 17. Possessed of a flow that rappers twice her age would kill for, the British MC is also better than most of those aforementioned rappers.
#32: Angel Olsen – All Mirrors
In which the reigning queen of indie rock ditches the indie rock in favour of lush, sprawling orchestral arrangements over which she emotes like it’s 1957 all over again. Not for the impatient, or the faint of heart.
#31: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Ghosteen
The last entry in a slow-burning trilogy of albums that explores the spaces between sounds, and the grief that comes from sudden loss. It began before the death of Nick Cave’s son, hit it’s stride in the middle, and gently floats to earth on the wings of the full force of that longing and loss.
#30: The National – I Am Easy To Find
This wasn’t supposed to be an album; after 2017’s stellar (and Grammy-winning) Sleep Well Beast the band was looking to finish up their tour and rest a bit before embarking on another album. The ever-restless Matt Berninger, however, accepted an offer from director Mike Mills (20th Century Women, Beginners) to collaborate on something, and that “something” spiralled into a whole new album and a 26-minute short film. I Am Easy To Find shows the band opening up their sound just a touch; it’s still extremely recognizable as a National album but their are a wide array of female voices entwining with Berninger’s, including contributions from Sharon Van Etten and Gail Ann Dorsey. Also, the Guided By Voices interpolation on the title track is *chef’s kiss*.
#29: Du Blonde – Lung Bread For Daddy
An inordinately messy, punk-inflected album that hearkens back to the septic old days of Nineties alt-rock – like a Liz Phair that never disappoints or a Courtney Love that didn’t sell out like some kind of Hollywood fuck.
#28: Danny Brown – uknowhatimsayin?
The Detroit rapper dials back the experimentalism from Atrocity Exhibition but keeps the off-the-wall flow and oddball sense of humour; the effect is a weirdly more coherent but less mature Danny Brown.
#27: Injury Reserve – Injury Reserve
The two MCs that make up the rapping portion of Injury Reserve aren’t even the point; it’s the production and the guest verses that really carry the day here. It’s experimental in a way that sounds like pop Grips, but it’s also crisp and huge, like El-P is secretly manning the boards.
#26: Julia Jacklin – Crushing
There is a LOT of great indie rock led by women singer-songwriters right now, but Julia Jacklin belongs near the top of the heap. She’s mastered atmosphere and the art of unleashing a devastating hook in mid-tempo, and evidence of that is just all over the place on this record.
#25: PUP – Morbid Stuff
I WAS GETTING HIGH IN A VAN IN ST. CATHARINES, WHILE YOU WERE RUBBING ELBOWS IN THE ART SCENE.
#24: JPEGMAFIA – All My Heroes Are Cornballs
Just as blown-out and bizarrely messy as Veteran, but more genial, if that makes sense. It’s still the most experimental sound in the game, but rather than taking the grind route, it’s more like an excuse to take a bunch of drugs and make music with friends – what Skinny Puppy used to call a brap.
#23: Big Thief – Two Hands
A newer, earthier Big Thief, one that takes the uber-indie sound the band perfected earlier in 2019 and rubs dirt in it, adding in a touch of Neil Young and a touch of Red House Painters to sharpen the contrast between instrumentation and voice. It’s not common to release two albums in the same year in the indie rock world; it’s even rarer that the second one eclipses the first.
#22: Karen O and Danger Mouse – Lux Prima
God, remember when Danger Mouse first got famous and it was just because he had the amazing good taste and foresight to mash up Beatles songs from the White Album with acapellas from Jay-Z’s Black Album and call it the Grey Album? Wasn’t that like 17 years ago or something? It seems as though he’s worked with pretty much everyone since then, but some of those collaborations have been far more special than others. His work with Cee-Lo on Gnarls Barkley and James Mercer on Broken Bells are the most famous, of course, but Lux Prima aspires strongly to those sorts of heights. Karen O’s smoky, gussied-up take on Siouxsie Sioux’s voice wore out it’s welcome in the Yeah Yeah Yeahs but with Danger Mouse at the helm she transforms into something else – something darker, less obvious, more mysterious. These are easily some of the best songs of either of their careers.
#21: Sturgill Simpson – Sound & Fury
Sturgill Simpson has always been shut outside of the mainstream Nashville country music establishment and despite his pride in this it’s also a source of contention for him. Nothing encapsulates this dichotomy more than Sound & Fury. The addition of rock ‘n’ roll tropes (verging on many occasions on pure ZZ-Topism) seems like a conscious dig at the twang-pop infesting country, and the lyrics on the album (including the title of “Make Art Not Friends”) create a deliberate “us and them” division in an artistic sense. Honestly though, if this is how he deals with his sense of not belonging then he should continue to not belong.