Illustration: Belinda Kou for NPR
Illustration: Belinda Kou for NPR
This list was made by writers, editors and producers at NPR Music operating under two rules: Albums had to be released during 2019 and no lead artist was allowed to appear on both this list and our list of the 25 Best Songs of 2019. You can find the rest of our picks for the best music of 2019 here.
Tyler, The Creator
Generally speaking, breaks-up are trash. But what if you're not even allowed to call it a break-up?
IGOR, the fifth studio album from Tyler, The Creator, mourns a love that was never really allowed to flourish in the first place. Across 40 minutes, IGOR draws, erases and redraws emotional lines in the sand, smudging up Tyler's self-esteem with each new boundary crossed. The pining of "EARFQUAKE," the short-lived euphoria of "I THINK," the feeble negotiation of "NEW MAGIC WAND," the obvious lie of "I DON'T LOVE YOU ANYMORE," the diluted compromise of "ARE WE STILL FRIENDS?" Think of these tracks as the face muscles that construct the dead-eyed, sanguine smile you flash during that first unexpected run-in with your ex. Even with a supporting chorus of Kanye West, Lil Uzi Vert, La Roux, Solange and more, the true magic of this album is Tyler's ability to let his guard down just enough to give you symphonic slivers of his heartbreak. —Sidney Madden
■ MORE: Watch Tyler Perform At NPR's Tiny Desk
While I'm Livin'
In spite of the reverence shown for country music made in the 1970s and the groundswell of nostalgia for '90s country, Tanya Tucker — an artist whose high-caliber hits spanned both eras — has been perpetually underappreciated. This year she found champions in Shooter Jennings and Brandi Carlile, who took up the task of framing Tucker with a warmly rustic, often rocking vintage sound on While I'm Livin'. The album cast a more intimate spotlight on her gravelly timbre and the sensuality and gravitas of her phrasing, but more than that, its songs showcased her interpretive gifts and, at long last, placed her at the center of her own enthralling mythology. —Jewly Hight
■ MORE: Hear Tanya Tucker In Concert At AmericanaFest
In the hands of pianist Kris Davis, a musical phrase can bristle or bloom — sometimes managing both at once, as often happens on this visionary album. Working with two core partners, turntablist Val Jeanty and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, Davis devises a new strain of avant-garde chamber-jazz, volatile yet gleaming. A clutch of blue-chip guests (like Nels Cline and Marc Ribot on guitars, Tony Malaby on tenor saxophone and Esperanza Spalding on spoken word) bring personality as well as fire. This is sound that refuses stasis, insisting on endless renewal from one moment to the next. —Nate Chinen, WBGO
Bad Bunny & J Balvin
Bad Bunny and J Balvin have both taken up the charge to make urbano a worldwide project without sacrificing the hunger that has made the genre seem abrasive and vulgar to some in their industry. That this album-length collaboration by two of urbano's most visible artists covered as much genre territory as it did prompted another examination of its often relegated place within "Latin" music, whatever that is. From the knotted bass punto guajiro on "Yo Le Llego" to the rock en español "Un Peso" with Enanitos Verdes' Marciano Cantero to the two taking a backseat to Afrobeats rising star Mr. Eazi on the closer "Como Un Bebé," OASIS stretches across the spectrum of where urbano has been and where it's going. —Stefanie Fernández
■ MORE: Bad Bunny's Alt.Latino interview
John Luther Adams
This is, simply put, one of the most stunning recordings of 2019. John Luther Adams' follow-up to his Pulitzer Prize-winning Become Ocean is brought to life here by the Seattle Symphony and its conductor emeritus Ludovic Morlot in grand-scale minimalist fashion. The orchestra's 100 or so musicians and a chorus of singers weave a beatless, beatific drone that draws inspiration from the deceptive monotony of our planet's deserts, where time only appears to stand still. Like its namesake, Become Desert feels infinite, stretching out in every direction at once; even after 40 celestial minutes, its ending arrives unexpectedly, lest we forget that sand always runs out. —Otis Hart
■ MORE: John Luther Adams on All Things Considered
And then, out of thin air, an impossibly polished, balanced and restrained piece of work from a faceless trio — we think it's a trio, at least — quietly slipped into the world. The surreptitious Sault — is it pronounced "soo" or "salt" or "so," we wonder — may have connections to the equally mysterious-at-the-outset group Jungle, a rumor that has some heft given the evolved disco/pop/R&B/soul genetics they clearly share. But while mysteries are fun, and can be a slam-dunk marketing approach too, there's no urgent need to solve this one. First of all, this lovely, wholly consistent album is answer enough. But also, the group will most likely be unavoidable in the new year, so enjoy the unknowing while you still can. —Andrew Flanagan
Lana Del Rey
Norman F****** Rockwell
Twice this year across social media, the so-called 10-year challenge meme made the rounds (and prompted some extremely 2019 cybersecurity concerns). Consider, then, a side-by-side accounting for a certain pop star who came into full flower over the course of the decade: In 2011, Lana Del Rey's mere presence was viewed by some as an affront to the ideal of authenticity; in 2019, few albums achieved the critical consensus that greeted Norman F****** Rockwell! At some point between "Video Games" and "The greatest," Lana Del Rey went from upending accepted norms to voicing our collective unease.
Norman F****** Rockwell! sharpens the singular vision that's always animated Lana Del Rey's body of work. As her discography has grown, her imagery has evolved: less shorthand, more self-reference. With callbacks crisscrossing place and time, her music is now made of her own sepia-toned mythology. In collaboration with producer Jack Antonoff, drawing on the Laurel Canyon sound, she achieves both timelessness and timeliness in tone. Wistful, resigned and cutting, it's a fitting swan song for the decade. —Lyndsey McKenna
■ MORE: Ann Powers on Lana Del Rey
iLe recorded Almadura long before the political situation in Puerto Rico came to a historic conclusion this past summer, but the themes she addresses on the album were the same as those raised in the massive protests that eventually drove its governor from power: musical stands against injustice and inequality, passionate statements of cultural pride and a barely contained fury at being at the mercy of U.S. policies for over 100 years. Case in point: "Te Rumba" comes across as a hypnotic love song that stands as a personal statement of desire, but like the best protest music, the power of the message is in the storytelling. It's a cleverly-worded plea for social justice set to a masterful pastiche of Afro-Caribbean rhythms. The powerful music on Almadura will long outlast the injustices iLe and the rest of the island are fighting against. —Felix Contreras
■ MORE: Alt.Latino's interview with iLe
A spirit of collaboration courses through Holly Herndon's third album, PROTO. The talk that's surrounded it has focused on Herndon's co-creation of an AI that became part of an ensemble she worked with to make the record. While that's of note, it does a disservice to the music, which is epic on every level. Human voices and machine voices coalesce in double helix formations; trance motifs and mile-wide drums offset the choir's earnest emoting and lyrics unfurl like folk stories. PROTO is an album about the human spirit and the future that new kinds of collaboration — or, as Herndon calls it, interdependence — could bring. —Ruth Saxelby
■ MORE: All Songs Considered interviews Holly Herndon
Burna Boy has been a superstar of Nigerian music for years. "I am an AFRICAN GIANT," he blasted on Instagram after Coachella displayed his name on a festival poster with what he considered a too-small font. Months later, he released his fourth album with the same title. Whether it's conceit or confidence, Burna Boy deserves to brag. Every one of the album's 19 tracks is a gem and features his signature Afro-fusion genre blend of dancehall, reggae, R&B and hip-hop. Though fundamental African rhythms are clearly defined, the album's dance-infused pop sensibility makes it a crossover success. And while its musicality and artfulness are outstanding, the album spans party anthems and themes of love, history and political activism too. It's no surprise that Burna Boy received his first Grammy nomination for this album. Look for his name in larger fonts in the future. —Suraya Mohamed
■ MORE: Watch Burna Boy perform at NPR's Tiny Desk
Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah
New Orleans trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah is one of the most compelling voices working in music today — and his latest "stretch music" album is possibly his most ambitious work to date. With guest artists including musician/poet/rapper/actor Saul Williams, Ancestral Recall is an intense, keenly felt and richly articulated celebration of many of the musical streams that have nourished generations of the African, Native and Caribbean diasporas — a sonically and texturally spacious project that would feel urgent and necessary at almost any time, but asserts itself especially now. From the exuberant, endlessly intricate West African polyrhythms of "I Own The Night" to the Afro-Latinx groove of "The Shared Stories of Rivals" to the metallic, Afrofuturist clang of "Prophesy," this project is both firmly rooted in the past and a vision of a dynamic, powerful future. —Anastasia Tsioulcas
■ MORE: Watch Jazz Night In America's Christian Scott special
A lot of artists made big, ambitious albums in 2019, but few soared as wondrously as Weyes Blood's Titanic Rising. Singer Natalie Mering's meticulously layered harmonies drew comparisons to the celestial sounds of Enya and her winding melodies, crystalline voice and autumnal reflections owe just as much to '70s folk-pop icons like Joni Mitchell or The Carpenters. It's a beautiful and potent mix, one Mering deftly subverts with hints of madness. Songs suddenly stagger and devolve into warped or broken electronics while her videos, for songs like "Everyday" or "Mirror Forever," include graphic scenes of murder, rape and drug use. It's a beautiful world, but we are not okay. —Robin Hilton
■ MORE: Watch Weyes Blood perform at NPR's Tiny Desk
Our Native Daughters
Songs Of Our Native Daughters
Our Native Daughters chose a band name and album title that highlight the kinship ties between the four group members — Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Allison Russell and Leyla McCalla — and their musical, cultural and spiritual ancestors. It would've been a historic event for four women of color who write, reinterpret and perform roots music on banjo to simply come together and make music — their collaboration is, in and of itself, a reminder of the whitewashed African roots of their instruments. But, urged on by Giddens, they shaped a song cycle aimed at reversing the erasure of black women from American historical narratives, at zeroing in on the dehumanizing suffering black women faced under slavery, their strategies of survival and resistance, their sharp, sly critiques of oppressive systems, their creativity. The Daughters' collaboration is enriched by the distinctness of each of their voices: the dogged Appalachian blues rock of Kiah's "Black Myself," the willowy reverence of Russell's "Quasheba, Quasheba," the commandingly vivid narration of Giddens' harrowing call-and-response "Mama's Cryin' Long," the Kreyol liveliness of McCalla's "Lavi Difisil," the polyrhythmic communal audacity of "Moon Meets the Sun." It's an album that rustles with collective imagination and purpose. —Jewly Hight
■ MORE: Jewly Hight reviews Songs Of Our Native Daughters
Shea Butter Baby
Ari Lennox declared her intentions for her debut album right from the title. Shea Butter Baby speaks to an often misunderstood and underrepresented music lover: The Black woman. The D.C. native sings about universally recognizable ebbs and flows of life on songs like "Broke," "BMO" and "Speak To Me," which are sprinkled with euphemisms that will hit women of color first. Producers Elite and Ron Gilmore handle the bulk of production, lacing her words with jazzy and soulful sonics that put her range on display. Awards season has begun and we've already seen Shea Butter Baby obviously snubbed by the Soul Train Awards and the Grammys. It's just more confirmation that we need Ari's voice now more than ever. —Bobby Carter
■ MORE: Watch Ari Lennox perform at NPR's Tiny Desk
The working title for Laetitia Tamko's second album as Vagabon was All the Women in Me — a versatile phrase to sum up everything from the roles women play in society to the singer's own complex identity as a Cameroonian who relocated to New York at 13. But the moniker didn't stick.
After 2017's Infinite Worlds pushed past the boundaries of bedroom pop, Tamko's new record expands her sound still further, most notably landing on synth-smeared electro-pop in masterful, appropriately fluid songs like "Flood" and "Water Me Down." Singing of her deep ambivalence about love and identity, Tamko ultimately settled on the only album title that could sum up the full measure of her sleek, soulful shape-shifting: Vagabon. —Stephen Thompson
■ MORE: Laetitia Tamko On The Making Of Vagabon
The Practice Of Love
What does it mean to make a family? How do we care for each other? How do we make sense of our relationships with our bodies or the planet — and how do those relationships impact each other? To grapple with these questions, Jenny Hval made her most accessible album yet; the production is delicately beautiful and hypnotic, with lyrics that unspool like poetry. Hval and her collaborators conjure Georgia O'Keefe, ponder childlessness and search for God. Quotidian objects — dried figs, stretch mark cream, a cigarette, a porn magazine — become vessels for meaning both grander and more visceral than expected. This isn't love in the strictly romantic sense — nor is it strictly platonic, or familial, or sexual. Instead, as the title promises, the album depicts intimacy as a process: a series of trials and metaphors that draw us closer to each other. —Marissa Lorusso
billy woods & Kenny Segal
It's said that comedy is tragedy plus time, but what if the tragedy never ends? Does the lengthening onslaught ever become absurd enough to laugh at? billy woods released two great albums in 2019: the jagged Terror Management and Hiding Places, a collaboration with L.A. producer Kenny Segal. The latter is an album-length self-excavation that crawls through moldy memories in a brutal poetry that is at times darkly funny but mostly wrestles with personal and societal truths that'll leave you touched, shook. woods found an inspired partner in Segal, whose beats are built like the condemned house falling apart on the album's cover. On "Speak Gently," heavy fuzz guitar suddenly disintegrates as if Thanos had snapped his fingers; it's disarming, haunting. woods rocks references to authors who distilled drama with forceful wordplay (John Steinbeck, J.D. Salinger and Charles Dickens), but he himself knocks at their door with an ability to wrap nostalgic imagery within a crucial moment that never leaves your psyche: "Dollar movie theater, dingy foyer, little kid, not a penny to my name / F*****' with the joystick, pretendin' I was really playin'." —Lars Gotrich
■ MORE: billy woods is the rapper of 2019
Lankum, The Livelong Day
The Livelong Day
This stunningly beautiful, trance-inducing album record draws heavily on traditional Irish folk music, but with a deep dark Dublin twist. The sound of drones play a central role in the overall tone of The Livelong Day. Brothers Ian and Daragh Lynch, Radi Peat and Cormac MacDiarmada create crushing, apocalyptic, layered drones using Uilleann pipes, harmonium, fiddle, voice and more. It has the intensity of electronic music, but this is all acoustic musicin service of songs that are often centuries old. The opening track, "The Wild Rover," goes back at least to the 16th century and is often thought to be a drinking song, one you might raise your glass to at a pub, singing, "No, nay, never no more / Will I play the wild rover / No, never no more." But the original intent is that of a temperance song, and that's how Lankum approach it, with a sustained heaviness to match the story's consequence and building sense of regret. The Livelong Day makes the past entirely fresh and present. —Bob Boilen
■ MORE: Lankum's All Songs Considered interview
Caroline Shaw / Attacca Quartet
Those who might consider the string quartet little more than a fusty, forgotten genre haven't heard Orange. With help from the expressively agile Attacca Quartet, Pulitzer-winning composer Caroline Shaw takes inspiration from the old masters but makes the music shine in her singular way. Shaw gene splices strands of Mozart and Ravel into rigorously assembled pieces such as Plan & Elevation, proving that while some tricks of string quartet architecture remain, her buildings emerge with fresh authority. From the album's compact spaces to its expansive vistas, Shaw excels in the evocative power of the pluck – formally termed, pizzicato – which is the backbone of the ricocheting yet songful Limestone & Felt. They say the mark of a great artist is a smart, distinct and identifiable voice. If that's true, Shaw has arrived, speaking loud and clear. —Tom Huizenga
■ MORE: All Things Considered's review of Orange
Sharon Van Etten
Remind Me Tomorrow
Remind Me Tomorrow opens with six seconds of silence. Then: simple piano chords. It's a compelling, echoing acoustic introduction to a primarily synth-driven album, which at times resolves into chaotic crescendos. The starkness of those first chords of "I Told You Everything" offer a reprieve; a chance to gather yourself, to take one last breath before dunking deep beneath the surface. Because Sharon Van Etten has no time for superficiality. She pulls you under with her. Like that opening track warns, she tells you everything. Remind Me Tomorrow is an album of introspection and honesty that never feels navel-gazing. In a time when people deploy terms like "emotional bandwidth" to refer to how much energy they have to support their own friends and family, this album reminds us that vulnerability is not a commodity, but the essence of genuine connection. —Raina Douris, World Cafe
■ MORE: Watch Sharon Van Etten perform at NPR's Tiny Desk
No music I heard this year convinced me I could hear my own cells dividing like Designer, Aldous Harding's approachable, enigmatic third album. It's lovely, but how do you explain it? The New Zealand-born Harding writes songs in familiar, folk-simple forms but appends them with odd angles that sometimes land like jokes and sometimes like warnings. Voices emerge from the depths to thread hints of peril or restlessness into the fabric of gentle melodies. Harding's lyrics are filled with poetic images that slip away when you try to grasp them — she's spoken about her desire to resist interpretation. (With her flexible but utterly distinctive voice, she sometimes reminds me of Cat Stevens, if you never had a single clue what Cat Stevens' songs were about.) The title track stops and starts as if looking over its shoulder to see if you're still there. "The Barrel" could be a consideration of motherhood, or it could be about creation and destruction, a tale of a minor deity, off in a corner of the universe, a god sinking her fingers into clay, shaping a new world by rules as she imagines them. All that inscrutability could be off-putting, but Designer is the kind of art that rewards questioning. It only frustrates if you demand answers. —Jacob Ganz
■ MORE: Aldous Harding performs live for KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic
When I Get Home
Back when DJ Screw was plying his chopped-and-screwed mixtape trade heavy in Houston, Solange was living out her wonder years. His time-altering mixes — as otherworldly as Sun Ra's Afrofuturist musings; as inventive as Kool Herc's Merry-Go-Round breakbeat technique — were the soundtrack for anybody coming of age in the '90s in H-Town. They tainted the water. They colored a universe. In the 19 years since DJ Screw's death, his Screw music escaped Houston and infected the world. It practically became a genre unto itself, with DJs taking up the mantle, younger artists adopting the sound and producers incorporating his slurred, stutter-step technique. Then, Solange messed around and made the hardest Screw tape of the decade in the form of an R&B album: The woozy BPMs. The repetitive phrasing. The freestyle flows. If A Seat At The Table was all about her giving the world a piece of her mind, When I Get Home is Solange returning to her interior world for some peace of mind. It flew over some folks' heads, but only because it so thoroughly resists the white gaze. "These are black-owned things," as Solange sings on "Almeda." She's been around the world, professionally and personally, but there's a special kind of power in being at home with yourself. —Rodney Carmichael
■ MORE: 'Still Tippin': Solange At Home In Houston'
As a producer, an electric bassist and a singer-songwriter, Raphael Saadiq has long been meticulous: about chord voicings and melodic pathways, about the quantum mechanics of rhythm, about his sly evocations of classic soul and the wobble or sheen that brings them up to date. You could always count on him for craft and concision, the way you count on a sports car to roar to life when you turn the ignition key.
Jimmy Lee, Saadiq's first studio release in eight years,has all of those musical trademarks in place. But it's also untidy, uneasy, irresolvable. Drawing from personal history — including the death of his older brother, the album's namesake, from a heroin overdose — Saadiq delivers an anguished suite of songs about black struggle and surrender, incarceration and redemption. The result is revelatory, not only for the raw emotion in his lyrics and delivery but also for the way that this material pushes his music out of a comfort zone. —Nate Chinen, WBGO
■ MORE: Watch Raphael Saadiq perform at NPR's Tiny Desk
"I didn't know that the record was going to sound this way at all."
Those words, spoken by Angel Olsen during a conversation we had just after All Mirrors was released this fall, summed up my sentiments too. This album, Olsen's fourth, runs screaming from her quiet side, with songs propelled by string arrangements that, along with her dramatic vocal performance, enhance the lyricism of some of Olsen's most energetic songs. She co-produced this record with John Congleton; those string parts were written by Ben Babbitt and arranged by Jherek Bischoff. Congleton told me that after they first made a solo acoustic version of the album (a version you may get a chance to hear in 2020), they worked to expand its scope, aiming for "early period Scott Walker" as an inspiration, "where it's fantastic songs, with really cool arrangements and you're hearing something totally new." This is an album of deep inner struggles thrust onto a bigger stage, with words — "What about my dreams? What about the heart?" — that matter, magnified magnificently. —Bob Boilen
■ MORE: Angel Olsen's All Songs Considered interview
Black radicalism, the philosopher Fred Moten has written, cannot be understood outside the context of its origins in oppression; as a force of rebirth, it also always breaks out of that context. The same, Moten says, is true of black music – a broken circle, rooted and free, it demands a new way of listening. The first solo album by Alabama Shakes front woman Brittany Howard inspires such heady thoughts.
Sinking her fingers into the dirt of her own life story as a black biracial queer woman born in the Deep South, now living far West of that beloved, problematic home, Howard wrote a set of songs that invoke Moten's image of the groove as a broken circle. These are songs that draw the ear into their slow rhythms, only to disrupt and rearrange themselves; that build melodies like vines growing, turning and knotting into loops, getting tangled as they move toward sun. They tell stories of desire with names like "Stay High," unorthodox faith through declarations like "He Loves Me" and family history by facing painful memories (in "Goat Head," the stench of racism permeates). Yet following her own perspective, Howard turns confession on its head. To realize her songs' deceptively plainspoken complexity, Howard and producer Shawn Everett brought together jazz disruptors Nate Smith on drums and Robert Glasper on keys, alongside her old bandmate and musical anchor, bassist Zac Cockrell. They took chances. They got psychedelic, locked into heavy funk, slid into classic R&B and then cleared space for Howard to be lonely, like the blues chanteuse she also can be. This album is a radical act of self-claiming, one that does more than reintroduce a great 21st Century voice. It turns a broken circle into an open road. —Ann Powers
■ MORE: Watch Brittany Howard perform at NPR's Tiny Desk