NPR Music Staff Picks: The Best Albums Of 2019

Dec 17, 2019
Originally published on December 17, 2019 12:47 pm

Last week, we shared NPR Music's best music of 2019 in the form of nearly two dozen lists our staff and contributors made collaboratively. Today we're handing over more private treasures. The albums listed below are personal favorites from our staff, ranked from one to 10. The lists themselves are also presented in order of best to worst. Just kidding. They're listed alphabetically by the list maker's last name, because every strict hierarchical ranking should include at least one element of utterly meaningless randomness.


Bob Boilen

1. Big Thief, Two Hands

2. Big Thief, UFOF

3. Angel Olsen, All Mirrors

4. Better Oblivion Community Center, Better Oblivion Community Center

5. Aldous Harding, Designer

6. Lankum, The Livelong Day

7. Mdou Moctar, Ilana: The Creator

8. Kate Davis, Trophy

9. Joan Shelley, Like The River Loves The Sea

10. The Good Ones, RWANDA, you should be loved


Rodney Carmichael

The Blues. That's what 2019 gave me in multitudes. Hip-hop might be my day job at NPR Music, but this was the first year since neo-soul's heyday — some 20 years ago — that I found myself much more drawn to rap's forebears. Even the rap that resonated was steeped in the blues. That's the connecting tissue running through my personal top 10 — from the stunning debut of Baby Rose to Hiatus Kaiyote drummer Clever Austin's funky solo LP. If years ending in 9 tend to offer signs of the sounds to come, the roaring '20s stand to be soul-achingly deep.

Touching Bass

1. billy woods, Terror Management

2. Ari Lennox, Shea Butter Baby

3. Raphael Saadiq, Jimmy Lee

4. Brittany Howard, Jaime

5. Baby Rose, To Myself

6. Maxo Kream, Brandon Banks

7. Solange, When I Get Home

8. Summer Walker, Clear

9. Wilma Vritra, Burd

10. Clever Austin, Pareidolia


Bobby Carter

Forever Living Originals

1. Lucky Daye, Painted

2. Freddie Gibbs and Madlib, Bandana

3. SAULT, 5

4. Anderson .Paak, Ventura

5. Ari Lennox, Shea Butter Baby

6. Baby Keem, DIE FOR MY BITCH

7. Raphael Saadiq, Jimmy Lee

8. Snoh Aalegra, ugh, those feels again

9. Men I Trust, Oncle Jazz

10. Rex Orange County, Pony


Nate Chinen (WBGO)

Radicalism and refinement. Complexity and clarity. And as one album title crisply puts it: Old New. All of these qualities, however contradictory they might seem, inhabit the music that struck the deepest chord for me in 2019. In fact, the common thread running through these albums (mostly by jazz artists, with a few captivating exceptions that kept drawing me back) might be a refusal to get pinned down. Or maybe it's just a stubborn honesty of expression — however complicated it gets, and in whatever shape it comes.

Pyroclastic Records

1. Kris Davis, Diatom Ribbons

2. Tomeka Reid Quartet, Old New

3. Branford Marsalis Quartet, The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul

4. Guillermo Klein y Los Guachos, Cristal

5. Brittany Howard, Jaime

6. Angel Olsen, All Mirrors

7. Chick Corea Trio, Trilogy 2

8. The Art Ensemble of Chicago, We Are On The Edge: A 50th Anniversary Celebration

9. Bill Callahan, Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest

10. Matana Roberts, Coin Coin Chapter Four: Memphis


Felix Contreras

I keep mental notes about albums that speak to me each year then look back at the end to see if there is a unifying theme. This year the albums that stood out are deep dives into the musical DNA of each artist, from Angelique Kidjo's adolescent love of salsa and Celia Cruz to Carlos Santana's base of African music (from his first album to his latest) to iLe's Afro Caribbean roots to Fea's collaboration with their one of their punk inspirations (Alice Bag). Self reflection — even as these artists tear down the walls of what is considered "Latin music'' — made for fine listening, from this list and beyond.

Verve

1. Angelique Kidjo, Celia

2. Santana, Africa Speaks

3. iLe, Almadura

4. Gaby Moreno and Van Dyke Parks, ¡Spangled!

5. Alex Cuba, Sublime

6. Dayme Arocena, Sonocardiogram

7. Fea, No Novelties

8. La Santa Cecilia, La Santa Cecilia

9. Y La Bamba, Mujeres

10. Jane Bunnett and Maqueque, On Firm Ground/Tierra Firme


Raina Douris (World Cafe)

For me, 2019 was a year of change. I split the year between Toronto — the only city I've ever lived in, where I hosted a show on the CBC — and my new home: Philadelphia, where I now host World Cafe. My best-of list this year reflects that move, with lots of Canadian representation, but also an expanding horizon that comes with being in a new place and hosting a new program.

Interscope

1. Michael Kiwanuka, Kiwanuka

2. Sharon Van Etten, Remind Me Tomorrow

3. Pup, Morbid Stuff

4. Vampire Weekend, Father of the Bride

5. Haviah Mighty, 13th Floor

6. Lizzo, Cuz I Love You

7. New Pornographers, In The Morse Code Of Brake Lights

8. Tyler Childers, Country Squire

9. Angel Olsen, All Mirrors

10. Leif Vollebekk, New Ways


Stefanie Fernández

RVNG Intl.

1. Helado Negro, This Is How You Smile

2. Aymée Nuviola, A Journey Through Cuban Music

3. Yawners, Just Calm Down

4. Bad Bunny & J Balvin, OASIS

5. Quelle Chris, Guns

6. Lana Del Rey, Norman F****** Rockwell!

7. Daymé Arocena, Sonocardiogram

8. Las Nubes, SMVT

9. Shunkan, Cumberland Falls

10. Jean Dawson, Bad Sports


Jacob Ganz

I followed Lindsay's rule.

Merge Records

1. Ariana Grande, thank u, next

2. Miranda Lambert, Wildcard

3. Ex Hex, It's Real

4. Lankum, The Livelong Day

5. billy woods & Kenny Segal, Hiding Places

6. Aldous Harding, Designer

7. Brittany Howard, Jaime

8. Clairo, Immunity

9. Sturgill Simpson, Sound & Fury

10. Vanishing Twin, The Age of Immunology


Lars Gotrich

In 2019, it was crucial — life-affirming and -saving, even — to make your own noise. "This is the sound / It moves in our bodies / It passes through time / Brings what came before us," Petrol Girls' Ren Aldridge screamed at the top of a turbulent punk record filled with compassion. That boundless philosophy resonated with me this year — to listen and absorb more deeply, to excavate the traces of memory in music.

Hassle Records

1. Petrol Girls, Cut & Stitch

2. Blood Incantation, Hidden History of the Human Race

3. Kali Malone, The Sacrificial Code

4. billy woods & Kenny Segal, Hiding Places

5. Holly Herndon, PROTO

6. RAKTA, Falha Comum

7. Sunwatchers, Illegal Moves

8. Bill Orcutt, Odds Against Tomorrow

9. Control Top, Covert Contracts

10. Real Life Rock & Roll Band, Hollerin' the Spirit


Otis Hart

Purple Mountains' majesties towered over the rest of my 2019. Rest in peace, David Cloud Berman.

Drag City

1. Purple Mountains, Purple Mountains

2. SAULT, 5

3. John Luther Adams, Become Desert

4. Lankum, The Livelong Day

5. Yves Jarvis, The Same But By Different Means

6. Mdou Moctar, Ilana: The Creator

7. Jenny Hval, The Practice Of Love

8. Little Simz, GREY Area

9. Kali Malone, The Sacrificial Code

10. Aldous Harding, Designer


Jewly Hight

The albums I couldn't shake in 2019 were from artists who'd just discovered their voices or arrived at newly vital ways to use them.

Easy Eye Sound / Nonesuch

1. Brittany Howard, Jaime

2. Yola, Walk Through Fire

3. Tanya Tucker, While I'm Livin'

4. Kalie Shorr, Open Book

5. Randy Houser, Magnolia

6. Ari Lennox, Shea Butter Baby

7. Jamila Woods, LEGACY! LEGACY!

8. iLe, Almadura

9. Erin Enderlin, Faulkner County

10. Che Apalache, Rearrange My Heart


Robin Hilton

A lot of artists took really big swings this year. Some completely upended their sound. Some made epics. It felt like a year of renewal, driven by restlessness or defiance, with a sense of urgency and resolve. The albums I loved most in 2019 captured this spirit, often looking inward while asking big questions about identity and purpose. I could add a lot more to the list below (Wilco, Hand Habits, Jay Som, Emily Wells), but these are the 10 I revisited the most.

Saddle Creek

1. Sharon Van Etten, Remind Me Tomorrow

2. Lana Del Rey, Norman F****** Rockwell!

3. Holly Herndon, PROTO

4. Microwave, Death is a Warm Blanket

5. Ada Lea, what we say in private

6. Weyes Blood, Titanic Rising

7. Tiny Ruins, Olympic Girls

8. Great Grandpa, Four Arrows

9. Molly Sarlé, Karaoke Angel

10. Kate Davis, Trophy


Tom Huizenga

These diverse albums were my daily bread, escape, drug, joy, pain and comfort this year. Joan Shelley calmed my nerves, while SAULT shook my fanny. Ellen Reid's Pulitzer-winning score helped me re-think opera and Lise Davidsen proved the art of the dramatic soprano is still alive. I got lost, madly and deeply, in both Weyes Blood's retro-'70s daydreams and Daniel's Wohl's electro-acoustic funhouse. John Luther Adams took me on another symphonic trip while Caroline Shaw retooled the string quartet. Aldous Harding floored me with her audacious songwriting and Andrew Combs' tasteful vocal stylings always inspired smiles.

No Quarter

1. Caroline Shaw / Attacca Quartet, Orange

2. John Luther Adams / Seattle Syphony, Become Desert

3. Weyes Blood, Titanic Rising

4. Joan Shelley, Like the River Loves the Sea

5. Aldous Harding, Designer

6. Ellen Reid, p r i s m

7. Daniel Wohl, État

8. Lise Davidsen, Wagner-Strauss

9. Andrew Combs, Ideal Man

10. SAULT, 5


Marissa Lorusso

Many of my favorite albums this year reminded me what it looks like when we care for each other. Control Top provided a blueprint for resisting forces of oppression; Mannequin Pussy and Sharon Van Etten tended to old wounds by showing compassion to their former selves; (Sandy) Alex G and Kim Gordon mined weird sounds to make incisive but empathetic portraits. Palehound wrote my favorite love song in recent memory ("Aaron") and Big Thief gave me the cathartic ode to abjection I didn't realize I needed ("Not"). In a calamitous year, these albums offered hope, refuge and solidarity (and in honor of those qualities, I've sorted them alphabetically rather than as a ranked list).

Epitaph

1. (Sandy) Alex G, House of Sugar

2. Big Thief, Two Hands

3. Carly Rae Jepsen, Dedicated

4. Control Top, Covert Contracts

5. Girlpool, What Chaos Is Imaginary

6. Kim Gordon, No Home Record

7. Mannequin Pussy, Patience

8. Palehound, Black Friday

9. Sharon Van Etten, Remind Me Tomorrow

10. Vagabon, Vagabon


Sidney Madden

Feeling over thinking.

Artium Recordings

1. Tyler, The Creator, IGOR

2. Megan Thee Stallion, Fever

3. Solange, When I Get Home

4. Snoh Aalegra, ugh, those feels again

5. Baby Rose, To Myself

6. Raveena, Lucid

7. Baby Keem, DIE FOR MY BITCH

8. Lucky Daye, Painted

9. Dua Saleh, Nūr

10. BEAM, 95


Lyndsey McKenna

I spent 2019 in motion. I logged more miles than ever before in advance of the New York City Marathon. I witnessed seven weddings in locations near and far. With so much movement, more than any other year, I found stability in songs: From the catharsis of Charly Bliss' "Capacity" and the domestic warmth of Vampire Weekend's "Stranger," to the empathy of HAIM's trilogy of singles and the ebullient abandon of Taylor Swift's "Paper Rings," the snapshots I loved most offered a feeling of comfort and compassion.

Rise Records / Little Dipper

1. PUP, Morbid Stuff

2. Mannequin Pussy, Patience

3. Great Grandpa, Four of Arrows

4. Angel Olsen, All Mirrors

5. Ariana Grande, thank u, next

6. Lana Del Rey, Norman F****** Rockwell!

7. Charly Bliss, Young Enough

8. American Football, American Football

9. Sharon Van Etten, Remind Me Tomorrow

10. Pedro the Lion, Phoenix


Lauren Onkey

This list isn't an argument — it's the music I kept returning to for some solace in 2019. It's all built to last.

Luaka Bop

1. Brittany Howard, Jaime

2. Raphael Saadiq, Jimmy Lee

3. Our Native Daughters, Songs of Our Native Daughters

4. Various Artists, World Spirituality Classics 2: The Time for Peace is Now

5. Bruce Springsteen, Western Stars

6. The Comet Is Coming, Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery

7. Yola, Walk Through Fire

8. Christone "Kingfish" Ingram, Kingfish

9. Santana, Africa Speaks

10. Van Morrison, Three Chords and the Truth


Ann Powers

I don't believe in "bests" when considering the year in music. Most consensus judgments (lists, prizes) elevate excellent albums that were also well-marketed, widely reviewed and embraced by a significant fan base. So much else deserves your time. The albums at the top of NPR Music's 25 Best list are all among my favorites, but these, perhaps less lauded in the general sphere of year end critical assessment, represent my more personal listening — the music with which I found myself in inner conversation most often, apart from anyone else's canonizing push. I hope you enjoy another way of hearing 2019.

Verve

1. Angel Bat Dawid, The Oracle

2. Adia Victoria, Silences

3. Mereba, The Jungle is the Only Way Out

4. The Mekons, Deserted

5. Philip Bailey, Love Will Find a Way

6. Jazzmeia Horn, Love and Liberation

7. Hiss Golden Messenger, Terms of Surrender

8. Matthew Halsall, Oneness

9. Erin Enderlin, Faulkner County

10. Joe Henry, The Gospel According to Water


Stephen Thompson

It was the Year of Lizzo, whose breakthrough album was as wonderfully joyous as it was popular — which is to say, very. But other pop stars, including Carly Rae Jepsen and Lana Del Rey, also made ambitious, powerful records, while new voices like Dermot Kennedy and Yola bubbled up ahead of massive breakthroughs in 2020. Elsewhere, folk-rock veteran Glen Hansard made his most inventive record yet, Joan Shelley lowered our blood pressure at just the right time, Bon Iver crafted an autumnal and sweet-natured grower, and Big Thief made two great, highlight-strewn records. Best of the year: The Highwomen, an Americana supergroup whose first album dug deeper and hit harder than expected, without a wrong note.

Atlantic Records

1. The Highwomen, The Highwomen

2. Dermot Kennedy, Without Fear

3. Lizzo, Cuz I Love You

4. Carly Rae Jepsen, Dedicated

5. Joan Shelley, Like the River Loves the Sea

6. Bon Iver, i,i

7. Lana Del Rey, Norman F****** Rockwell!

8. Glen Hansard, This Wild Willing

9. Yola, Walk Through Fire

10. Big Thief, Two Hands


Cyrena Touros

"I should get out more" — the opening refrain of Faye Webster's infectious album swam through my head this hazy summer. But get out I did; this music soundtracked a year of perma-transit, accompanying airport layovers, empty hours on buses and day-long walks. It's airy, spacious, intimate, quiet and cathartic — soothing (ir)rational fears or blasting them out the speakers when all else failed. And eternal love to Angel Olsen, Julia Jacklin, Jenny Lewis and Cate le Bon, but the 10 albums that follow are by artists I met for the first time in 2019, when I needed new friends the most. Onward.

Domino Recording Co.

1. Sharon Van Etten, Remind Me Tomorrow

2. Faye Webster, Atlanta Millionaires Club

3. Weyes Blood, Titanic Rising

4. Sasami, Sasami

5. Mannequin Pussy, Patience

6. Stella Donnelly, Beware of the Dogs

7. Helado Negro, This Is How You Smile

8. Ada Lea, what we say in private

9. Queen of Jeans, If you're not afraid, I'm not afraid

10. The Japanese House, Good At Falling

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.