Published Dec 04, 2019With the decade coming to a close, the trends and changes over the past ten years have begun to crystallize into the forms through which they'll be memorialized in the decades to come. Pop music was further pushed into exploratory territory while rock music wholly embraced new perspectives, and this year was no different. Rising stars like Angel Olsen, FKA twigs and Weyes Blood made their boldest statements to date, while stalwarts like Nick Cave and Jenny Lewis got personal. Here are Exclaim!'s 20 Best Pop and Rock Albums of 2019.
20. Caroline Polachek
(Sony Music Canada / The Orchard)
Caroline Polachek's first record released under her real name is an elegant, career-spanning blend of the artful songwriting sophistication of Chairlift's last album, the emotional nuance of her solo work as Ramona Lisa and CEP and the futuristic synth-pop burble of PC Music alumnus Danny L Harle (who co-wrote and co-produced most of the album). Polachek's best quality is her ability to express multiple emotions at once — "So Hot You're Hurting My Feelings" somehow is horny and wistful at the same time — and she completes that balance masterfully throughout PANG, a title that perfectly evokes sadness, joy, regret and the rest of the album's emotional spectrum in just one word.
19. Carly Rae Jepsen
(604 / Universal)
It can be easy to forget it's been nearly a decade since Carly Rae Jepsen really flew into the pop stratosphere. With the release of "Call Me Maybe" in 2011, Jepsen had an earworm for the ages, and she's since been following up with material that's just as catchy and artistically rewarding, if not more. Dedicated is even further proof of her staying power as an artist, complete with strong lyricism and her own emotive vocal abilities. But most of all, it shows a singer who strives to push herself artistically, and it's hard not to think she has more up her sleeve.
18. Jenny Hval
The Practice of Love
Where does one go following an album like Blood Bitch, the 2016 concept album that cemented Hval's position as one of art-pop's finest voices? In Hval's case, you write a novel and then create what is often wrongly asserted as your most accessible album yet. Not that The Practice of Love isn't accessible: its sonic palette is familiar and it features a more significant amount of outside contributions than Hval's previous work. But every song on The Practice of Love unfurls in unexpected ways to form a collection that's both deeply impactful and aurally pleasing, but that continues Hval's ability to provoke and confound.
17. Billie Eilish
When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
(Darkroom / Interscope)
From a SoundCloud song drop to her first full-length release, Billie Eilish has steadily built a loyal fanbase over the last four years with an ease that seems unprecedented. She's bold, brash and boundlessly creative, all of which is entirely applicable to her debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? This release encapsulates a sound that will no doubt be replicated the world over — dark and haunting, schematic yet complex, sometimes beautiful, often brooding. Rife with distortion and low end, it's an unusually brilliant approach to an evolving brand of pop music with incomparable production. At 17, Eilish has created an album that many artists spend a lifetime aiming for.
16. Black Midi
A manic, blissful and all-out fantastic record, Schlagenheim is what happens when you take post-punk, paint on some jazzy edges and distorted chaos, and then Jackson Pollock the shit out of it. The sheer riffage on opener "953" gives way to self-loathing on "Reggae," anchored by frontman Geordie Greep's looming intensity. The madness continues on "Years Ago," tense syncopation and drum fills galore. Groovy for all the right reasons, at times leaning into noisier territory, Black Midi have set a torrid standard for those who choose to follow.
15. Jenny Lewis
On the Line
Coming five years after The Voyager, On the Line finds Jenny Lewis wrestling with heartbreak, grief and regret, but also blessed with her strongest set of songs yet, one that features seemingly endless supplies of memorable lyrics, colourful characters and unshakeable hooks. If On the Line often evokes the lush Southern California pop of late-1970s Fleetwood Mac, the album suggests that Lewis also shares Buckingham, Nicks and McVie's propensity for crafting emotionally transparent break-up songs wrapped in polished, subtly layered arrangements that reward close listening. All may not always be well in Lewis's world, but On the Line confirms that her ability to wring compelling, sun-kissed pop out of personal turmoil is nearly unmatched.
14. Vampire Weekend
Father of the Bride
A lot of fans had cause to be worried what Vampire Weekend's first album without Rostam Batmanglij would sound like, but the remaining crew weathered the storm with grace — and Rostam even returned for some guest production on Father of the Bride. Looser than they've ever sounded, the band embraced jam-rock and folk influences to surprising success, and welcomed new voices like Danielle Haim and Steve Lacy into the fold alongside Ezra Koenig's distinctive croon. Moving away from absurdist lyrics and incorporating straightforward love songs about marriage without ever getting boring, the result is Vampire Weekend's most mature and intriguing work to date.
13. Brittany Howard
Putting Alabama Shakes on the backburner to create Jaime was necessary for Brittany Howard, who wrote her solo debut as "a process of healing." While rooted in the Shakes' rock 'n' blues, Jaime is Howard's most musically ambitious effort, on which she leads a talented backing band through hip-hop, funk and R&B influences with her singular voice. Howard's deeply personal — and often political — songwriting effortlessly matches the musical stakes with words of love, hope and persistence. Considering the scope of her self-reflection, it is nothing short of masterful what these songs accomplish in so little time.
12. Bon Iver
As artists mature, they tend to fall into sharper focus. Not so with Justin Vernon; with each new Bon Iver album, the project's mastermind slips further into the background, increasingly consumed by his own sonic tapestries and the idea that Bon Iver is a band, not a person. That impersonality could be a turn-off to listeners, but i,i buffers the trend by offering a through line across Vernon's career. While nothing is as stripped down as rustic intimacy of his debut, its warmth paired with its predecessor's ambition is felt across the record's 40 minutes. The result is a record that finally lets listeners catch up with Vernon's restless creativity without sparing his need for constant evolution.
11. Big Thief
U.F.O.F. and Two Hands
Simply put, Big Thief stole 2019, as the folk-rock quartet proved their deep bond by releasing two impeccable albums a mere five months apart. Crafting flesh-and-blood autobiographical sketches, these albums highlighted how integral the voice of Big Thief's emotional centre, Adrianne Lenker, has become amongst contemporary singer-songwriters.
Delivering lyrics rife with wonder, Lenker's voice is equal parts care and violence. However, Big Thief's other members aren't merely a vehicle for Lenker. All four are in sync, lifting these songs with traditional guitar/bass/drums arrangements that sound unprecedented, tender and otherworldly. Retreating to Washington to record the lush U.F.O.F. and shifting to Texas for the stripped-down Two Hands, Big Thief's twin 2019 releases prove that slight production variation can create distinct song sets that feel equally prescient. What these works may prove most is how sheer openness, devoid of cynicism, makes people want to listen.