From Billie Eilish to Burna Boy, JPEGMAFIA and Jerkcurb, we look back on our favourite albums of the year
2019 saw a raft of excellent debut albums, whether from inimitable new voices like Billie Eilish and slowthai, or from newly solo artists like Caroline Polachek, formerly of Chairlift. It also saw long-awaited new records from recognisable acts, like FKA twigs finally following up 2014’s LP1 with MAGDALENE and These New Puritans topping 2013’s excellent Field of Reeds with Inside the Rose. As we sit at the end of the year and on the cusp of a new decade, we look back on some of our favourite albums of 2019.
20. FELIX LEE, INNA DAZE
Felix Lee’s clubnight, Endless, undoubtedly shaped London’s cultural underground as we know it, an incubator for new sounds and style, with little regard for what was taking place in the city’s mainstream art scene. As Lee, who previously made music as Lexxi and 5tarb01, told Dazed back in 2014: “The music, film and fashion industries are irrelevant, truth be told. So that’s exciting.” This two-fingers-up attitude made Endless feel anarchic and inclusive, and attending those nights in London altered my view of what club music could or should sound like.
Lee’s debut album Inna Daze, released on Planet Mu, sounds like my memories of walking home from those head-spinning nights. It features Lee singing over shimmering synths deep basslines, narrating his own intimate world of the city – smoking weed, DMs, alienation – plus calls on collaborators linked tightly to his own scene such as GAIKA, Kamixlo, and Yayoyanoh. It’s an album that’s reflective of where London travelled to sonically, created by an artist who helped it move there. (Thomas Gorton)
19. LAFAWNDAH, ANCESTOR BOY
On her debut album Ancestor Boy, Lafawndah pulls on her nomadic upbringing between Tehran and Paris to shape her unique brand of diaspora-pop. The experimental musician’s sound is non-linear – a labyrinth of genre and style, globally sourced shades of ambient, pop, trip-hop, and industrial music – rather like the artist herself, who lived in New York and Mexico, before moving to London last year. It’s within this free-flowing framework that Ancestor Boy reveals itself: slow, cavernous beats are juxtaposed with glitchy, leftfield club sounds and Middle Eastern samples to discombobulating effect. Some listeners might find this alienating, but Lafawndah’s music is totally vibrant, and the complexities of Ancestor Boy will stay with you long after they finish. (Gunseli Yalcinkaya)
18. JERKCURB, AIR CON EDEN
Jerkcurb, the alias of south London’s Jacob Read, is an incredibly gifted songwriter, and his debut album Air Con Eden is full of gorgeous melodies and arrangements – but it’s his mastery of atmosphere that really draws you in. Each song on Air Con Eden feels like slipping into another world. Read is obsessed with classic images of Americana (diners, motels, shopping malls), and his music evokes this era with its romantic slide guitar tones and Phil Spector harmonies. But there’s a strange quality to it, too. Songs like “Wishbones” and “Midnight Snack” convey the same uncanny feeling you get from David Lynch’s films or YouTube projects like Dan Bell’s Dead Mall Series, where nostalgic images of the past are haunted by a future that never materialised. An album as beautiful as it is beguiling, Air Con Eden was impossible to shake off this year. (Selim Bulut)
17. THESE NEW PURITANS, INSIDE THE ROSE
In a recent interview with Another Man, These New Puritans frontman Jack Barnett described his admiration for the poet William Blake, who defined love as a way to “build a heaven in hell’s despair”. If that’s true, then Inside the Rose is These New Puritans’ attempt to let a little more heaven into the picture. Billed by drummer George Barnett as a “much sexier” record than its predecessor, 2013’s insular Field of Reeds, it’s the Essex band’s most capital-R ‘Romantic’ statement to date, a thrilling, muscular excursion into the mystic that brought a swoony sense of optimism to the band’s apocalyptic sound. Highlights included the sublime “A-R-P”, which channelled the late Mark Hollis’s Talk Talk, and “Beyond Black Suns”, whose epic coda sounded like a host of angels squaring off with Steve Reich in a psychic duel. And yet, for all its Miltonic grandeur, the album’s most powerful moment was also one of its quietest, “Where the Trees Are on Fire”’s flash of poetic insight among the most nakedly expressive of the band’s career. (Alex Denney)
16. BURNA BOY, AFRICAN GIANT
Calling out Coachella’s line-up set Burna Boy off on a winning trajectory this year as he reaffirmed his grand, but well-earned title of African Giant. Pulling together his influences – from Fela Kuti, the now-colossal afrobeats sound, dancehall, and hip hop – African Giant is teeming with ideas. It oscillates from club-ready bangers like “Killin Dem” and “Gbona” to songs that sound deceivingly romantic like “Secret”, where the sunny melodies distract you from the fact he’s actually asking his side chick not to blow his cover. All of this sits along his overarching message of African pride and black unity.
Where African-ness, in its vast complexity, can sometimes be presented as homogeneous (ahem, Black Panther), Burna Boy’s album is an auditory passport to Nigeria. Never one to be watered down, he sings in his mother tongue and makes references not everyone will understand. Now English fans scream along to the pidgin in “Dangote”, singing the names of Africa’s envied wealthy elite with very little idea of what they’re saying. Best of all it’s an educational tool, as Burna Boy spreads knowledge of Nigeria’s painful colonial history at the hands of the British via “Another Story” and puts diaspora wars to bed on “Spiritual”, with the lyrics, “Every black person should please remember you were Africans before you became anything else.” (Kemi Alemoru)
15. OFB, FRONTSTREET
This is, for my money, one of the best British debuts of the decade. OFB (which stands for Original Farm Boys) are three young drill artists from the Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham. OFB is made up of three core members – SJ, Double Lz, and Bandokay, the latter of whom is the son of Mark Duggan, shot by police in 2011, a killing that sparked the London riots. Frontstreet is their debut mixtape, a ferocious collection of drill tracks that marks the teenage trio out as dextrous, inventive storytellers, laying down raps over haunting pianos and brutal kick drums. Frontstreet is a confrontational listen, but one that transports its audience straight into their world, which is an accurate reflection of young gang life in austerity Britain. The tension inherent in drill is how music can provide its artists a route out of this world, while also being impossible to separate from that very environment. What struck me listening to this mixtape is how little the word ‘I’ seems to appear – this is not an album about individual struggle, but rather about life itself in inner-city London, a no-holds-barred depiction of lives spent growing up around violence. (Thomas Gorton)
14. DORIAN ELECTRA, FLAMBOYANT
“No taste for subtlety and no time for restraint / No, I go all the way,” sings Texan musician and performance artist Dorian Electra on “Flamboyant”, the title track of their debut album. Flamboyant is, indeed, an incredibly unsubtle and unrestrained album: it’s colourful, it’s ornate, its sexuality is upfront, and its songs hit you like a headrush (none of them clock in at much longer than three minutes and 30 seconds). It’s also one of the more musically ambitious albums of the year. “Musical Genius”, “Flamboyant”, and “Live by the Sword” are absolutely crammed with ideas – it’s pop pushed to baroque extremes, creating a sense where anything could happen, so long as you let it.
Electra creates characters and explores ideas of imagination, hedonism, and pleasure in their lyrics. But like all fantasy, Flamboyant is rooted in experiences that are fundamentally real. On “Adam & Steve”, which Electra has described as a piece of “gay biblical fan fiction”, they express the tension of holding religious faith despite one’s sexuality: “God made me gay, and he loves me.” (Selim Bulut)
13. KELSEY LU, BLOOD
Liquid strings and delicate birdsong flutter through Kelsey Lu’s magical debut album as she ruminates on romance. A cellist, singer-songwriter, and producer from North Carolina, Lu works alongside producers like Skrillex and Jamie xx to realise a vast vision of pop experimentalism. Standouts include “Poor Fake”, a disco fever dream that likens a relationship to an artistic forgery, as well as a strikingly meditative cover of 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love”. On the title track, Lu sings, “History has taught us hope is the answer / Yes it is,” something that she does really wonderfully here: crafting a sublime and surreal sonic utopia to look to and feel free in when reality can feel kind of bleak. This album is a beautiful retreat. (Tara Joshi)
12. THE RHYTHM METHOD, HOW WOULD YOU KNOW I WAS LONELY
Obviously an album that boasts the lyrics, “I’ve had sex with women, more than I deserve,” and features a music video that looks a bit like an old GCSE Media Studies project, is going to make Dazed’s albums of the year list. In June, The Rhythm Method released How Would You Know I Was Lonely?, which despite being their first record was a greatest hits album, of sorts. Over the past six years, Joey Bradbury and Rowan Martin have built a small but loyal following, leading fans to recognise songs like “Ode2Joey” and pub banger “Local, Girl” alongside a raft of new tracks. Those tracks detail subjects like the struggles of trying to pull while growing up on the outskirts of London, and falling in love on an all-inclusive holiday in Europe. The album’s spoken word vocals and catchy pop hooks playfully mock the mundanity of UK culture, referencing everything from Auf Wiedersehen Pet and Princess Diana, to Spoons and birthday beatings. Arriving in a year where British politics turned into a slapstick farce, How Would You Know I Was Lonely? is a timely and triumphant debut, full of The Rhythm Method’s charismatic wit, as well as their genuinely touching sincerity. (Brit Dawson)
11. NILÜFER YANYA, MISS UNIVERSE
There’s a cohesion to the celestial spheres of Nilüfer Yanya’s musical universe. Her burnished guitar work, impeccable musicianship, and thrilling charm spin each at their own speed, yet singing sweetly together. The west London experimentalist’s take on pop incorporates elements of R&B, soul, jazz, and indie rock – yet that blend feels perfectly alloyed and coded with vibrant allusion. The sleek futurism of Miss Universe plays out in brief tracks repping “WWAY Health”, a Big Brother-esque healthcare company that highlights the album’s themes of obsession, strength, fragility, and anxiety.
Sometimes, all of that comes together at once, as on the entrancing “Baby Blu”: “I guess it’s just too bad / We’re moving on now / And ain’t it sad?” Whether the rippling, up-leaning guitar on “Angels” or the burnt drum patterns of “Heat Rises”, the record’s subtle interplay between lyric and composition is the ultimate exemplar of Yanya’s brilliant songwriting. And over the top of it all is her surreal voice, equally capable of slippery cool and desperate howl. Yanya clings to vulnerability, and yet never lets it dominate the frame. There’s a magnetism at the core of Miss Universe, one delivered in flashes of diaristic intimacy. (Lior Phillips)
10. JPEGMAFIA, ALL MY HEROES ARE CORNBALLS
That JPEGMAFIA’s third album includes the line, “Say what you said on Twitter right now,” is telling of how much he plays with the concept of internet culture, and the ways in which we can use it to share, but also mask, our vulnerabilities. He talks cancellation, verification, and ASMR over 45 minutes of caustic energy melding with a fascinating, meandering softness and decidedly DIY aesthetic – you can hear him coughing throughout, alongside comments from collaborators like, “Such a cool chord change!” He flits between the angry, hardcore narrative he made his name through (for example, screaming on “JPEGMAFIA TYPE BEAT”), but also femme pop energy, as he refrains “I wanna be your girl” on “Thot Tactics”, as well as briefly covering both TLC and Wayne Wonder. This is while he implores us, “Don’t rely on the strength of my image.”
In an age of social media and memes, it’s easy to form preconceptions about people, but All My Heroes pushes us to reconsider our assumptions of JPEG and of rap. Futuristic and fractured, one of Peggy’s producer tags is “You think you know me?” On his most ambitious yet palatable release to date, he shows us that maybe we never really will. (Tara Joshi)
09. SOLANGE, WHEN I GET HOME
Following on from 2016’s brilliant A Seat at the Table, Solange’s fourth studio album When I Get Home is, unsurprisingly, about her hometown of Houston, Texas. An album played best in its entirety – and accompanied with the Cary Fagan-shot visual film – it snakes from track to track blending genres like jazz, hip hop, and R&B with a ‘cosmic’ energy and sound. At times, she gives fans exactly what they want with empowering lyrics on “Almeda” celebrating “Black skin, black braids, black waves, black days,” before declaring: “These are black-owned things.” Elsewhere, like on opening track “Things I Imagined”, we hear Solange doing exactly what she wants to empower herself creatively, repeating the song’s title no fewer than 16 times. Continuing to hone her black avant-garde aesthetic, Solange knows her lane, her audience, and just the right amount of conceptual confusion to keep them on their toes. (Dominic Cadogan)
08. RICO NASTY & KENNY BEATS, ANGER MANAGEMENT
When Rico Nasty spits, you feel it. On Anger Management, the 22-year-old take us on a high-voltage ride through her many degrees of angst. Her collaborator, producer Kenny Beats, described the album as a “temper tantrum” from start to finish (“I had a lot of built anger that I had to let out,” Rico sings on “Sell Out”). But there’s a cathartic element too (“The expression of anger is a form of rejuvenation,” she continues). This is expressed through the artist’s kinetic energy, guttural throat voice, and clever wordplay, which includes punchy one-liners like, “You’re a bounced check / I’m a swipe card,” and, “I got bitches on my dick and I ain’t even got a dick.”
There’s a contagious intensity to Rico Nasty, whose rude gal image and ‘zero fucks’ attitude is largely unexplored in a rap context that typically favours the hyper-feminine. The final two tracks of the record, “Sell Out” and “Again”, see the rapper peel away her anger into self-reflection (“I felt like something was missing, it must have been trust / Don’t like to talk about growing up, because I had it rough”), and with that, Rico Nasty’s ‘anger management tape’ is over. (Gunseli Yalcinkaya)
07. BILLIE EILISH, WHEN WE FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?
As the pop star that put Gen Z on the map™, critics have used Billie Eilish to pronounce on everything from declining rates of teen pregnancy to a generation’s flagrant lack of regard for the work of Van Halen (and you thought millennials were bad!). But can we just draw attention to the fact that her debut album is really, really good? When We All Fall Asleep is as catchy as Britney, as weird as Yeezus-era Kanye, a miracle of homespun pop production full of genius touches like the sample from The Office that opens “my strange addiction” (“Billie, I haven’t done that dance since my wife died!”) and quiet, horror-movie flourishes that give “bury a friend” its claustrophobic feel. The songs are great, too – “xanny” was a straight-edge anthem wrapped up in a lovely, Lana-ish ballad, and “bad guy”, the song that finally knocked Lil Nas X off his saddle, was the best bit of pantomime pop villiainy this side of “The Real Slim Shady”. (Alex Denney)
06. FKA TWIGS, MAGDALENE
FKA twigs’ second album MAGDALENE is cinematic, ambitious, and deeply emotional. Her vocals are tender (lead single “Cellophane”, with its slow-burning refrain of “Didn’t I do it for you?”, is a striking reminder of twigs’ pure, malleable voice), and there are slow, spacious beats cut with electronic distortion, lending tracks like “fallen alien” and “sad day” a leftfield sense of liturgy. It’s a record brimming with heartbreak and exploring the healing power of womanhood, largely through the lens of a maligned Biblical figure: “Mary Magdalene would never let her loved ones down,” she says on “home with you”, speaking to the weight of emotional labour that’s often expected from women.
twigs’ performances this tour have included exquisite pole-dancing and intricate swordwork while dressed in feathers and opulent gowns like an opera singer. Coupled with the experimental-classical stylings of her sound, marrying chamber music songs with modern production (not to mention a feature from decade-defining Atlanta rapper Future), this current era finds FKA twigs further pushing and playing with preconceptions surrounding black women’s artistry. (Tara Joshi)
05. TYLER, THE CREATOR, IGOR
Shortly after watching Tyler, the Creator perform at Brixton Academy, I made the case to anyone who’d listen that he was this generation’s David Bowie. Both fearless, anarchic popstars evolving from album to album, operating outside of the mainstream but adored by it, playing around with androgyny, all with their own unique point of view on fashion. I stand by it, and IGOR was the moment that Tyler, the Creator completed his full transition from simply a rapper, to Brian Wilson-esque auteur, complete with a compelling new look. On “Running Out of Time” and “Earfquake”, he channels the pop sensibilities, psychedelia and songwriting craft of the The Beach Boys, married with the hip hop foundations that launched him into public consciousness as a teenager in Odd Future. It’s a powerfully personal album, one about coming out of the other side from heartbreak, and a record that marks him out as one of the most ingenious artists of our time. (Thomas Gorton)
04. WEYES BLOOD, TITANIC RISING
There was a day this year when everyone decided to qualify their sentences with “even though the planet is burning...” It’s hard to prove, but maybe it happened on April 5, 2019, when Natalie Mering AKA Weyes Blood released her fourth album, Titanic Rising. Music’s eschatology moment was inevitable (we’re all going to die, our children will have a shorter existence than previously thought, but art still exists – even though the planet is burning). However, on Titanic Rising, Weyes Blood doesn’t just submit herself to that fate, she reckons with it. “It’s high time you learned to get by,” she sings on the album’s opener “A Lot’s Gonna Change”.
The result is a frank yet life-giving collection of songs which balances the chamber pop of music’s golden era (the 70s, as Mering and your dad would probably argue) with arpeggiated synthesisers, as on standout track “Movies”, which swallow Mering’s dreams, memories, ecstasies like the ocean that the ship Rose and Jack went down on, after they went down on each other. If anything should soundtrack the beginning of the end of the world, it should offer one last glow. It should be nostalgic, not mournful; sentimental not despondent. In other words, it should be Weyes Blood’s Titanic Rising. (Emma Madden)
03. SLOWTHAI, NOTHING GREAT ABOUT BRITAIN
After a decade of austerity and political turmoil, an album like slowthai’s stellar debut was inevitable. Nothing Great About Britain not only proved Tyron Frampton to be an effervescent personality and one of the UK’s most astute rappers, but cemented his position as a vital voice when it comes to youth engagement with the country’s politics. Of course, we should have expected nothing less from the rapper who led chants of “fuck Theresa May” at his gigs, and brandished Boris Johnson’s ‘severed head’ at the Mercury Prize awards, but slowthai’s debut was particularly special in its determination to recognise the downtrodden population too-often forgotten by Westminster’s ghouls. Lurching from the class war in punk-inspired “Doorman” to his disdain for authority in the gentler “Toaster”, right through to a candid account of his tumultuous upbringing in “Northampton’s Child”, the rapper paints an intimate – and for many, familiar – picture of growing up on the supposedly-idle outskirts of a metropolis. His words often seem crude, like when he calls the Queen a “cunt” on the album’s title track, but it’s violent language directed at a violent state, one that routinely wields its power against the vulnerable. slowthai shrewdly uses his debut to prove that the greatest thing about Britain is the creativity of the working class in the face of political oppression and control. (Brit Dawson)
02. LANA DEL REY, NORMAN FUCKING ROCKWELL!
Seasoned Lana-watchers have been waiting an age for her to drop her masterpiece now; sometime in 2018, around the release of the fabulous, nine-minute epic “Venice Beach”, we started to believe we might actually get it. Everything about Norman Fucking Rockwell! speaks to an artist at the absolute top of her game, from the glorious pop-art cover (who has gone overboard?) to the 70-minute runtime and chutzpah of its opening lines, which perfectly express Del Rey’s way of restating her persona in ways that are surprising and even laugh-out-loud funny: “God damn man-child, you fucked me so good that I almost said ‘I love you.’” Even the title, which takes a name that’s become synonymous with the American dream and hurls it with venomous force, was a clue to Del Rey’s grand intent here.
“Mariners Apartment Complex”, “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me...”, “The Greatest”: the best songs on NFR! touch on a genius that puts her in the ranks of California greats like Joni Mitchell and Joan Didion, dissecting the an American present somewhere east of Eden with a wit that leaves her critics flat-footed (“LA’s in flames, it’s getting hot / Kanye West is blonde and gone / ‘Life on Mars’ ain’t just a song”). Perhaps the only misstep was the cover of 90s ska-punks Sublime’s “Doin’ Time” – fine enough on its own terms, but a nod to radio airplay on a record that mostly thumbs its nose at such concerns. Instead, Norman Fucking Rockwell! is a widescreen summation of everything Del Rey does best, a record that subtly expands her scope to reflect her growing confidence as an artist, and the serious tenor of the times. Don’t try to change her, baby. It doesn’t get any better than this. (Alex Denney)
01. CAROLINE POLACHEK, PANG
It says something about my state of mind that it took me two listens to fully grasp that Pang, Caroline Polachek’s debut album under her own name, was a record about love. The exhilaration felt a bit foreign at first, like when you wake up after falling asleep on your arm. Co-produced with PC Music’s Danny L Harle, Pang is a ballad, in the literary sense, about the end of a relationship and the beginning of a new one. Polachek has been collaborating with PC Music since the dissolution of her indie duo Chairlift in 2017, and on Pang, their natural fit is obvious, even when the album veers into the farcical, like on the campy, electric guitar-laden “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings” (which may or may not contain the lyrics “show me your banana”). But Polachek’s classical training and oddball lyrics combine with Harle’s grandiose weirdo pop with disarming ease. And anyways, isn’t having a crush always a tightrope between baroquely high stakes (“If I’m already out of time, then make it worse / Go on and hit me in the heart, hit me where it hurts”) and comical desperation (“Not like I’m counting the days / But it’s been 25”)?
There isn’t that much to be excited about right now. In America, where Polachek is from, the West Coast is burning, and a depressing new election is on the horizon. In the UK, where much of Pang was made, we’re closing in on the third year of a political identity crisis. And yet, there’s something in the air. When I think of 2019, I mostly think of the teenagers leading climate walkouts and demanding that their futures be taken seriously. In the run-up to the UK general election, even my most cynical friends waived their pessimism, one by one. It’s not that the outcome doesn’t matter, they say, but it feels good to be connected to each other. Having hope, after all, is a little bit like having a crush.
And what’s more hopeful than looking around you in these times and choosing to make an album about love? In an interview in The FADER, Polachek said that she didn’t explicitly want to make love songs, it is “just what was happening”. Pang is the album that sounds most like how 2019 has felt: a little hysterical but romantic, against all odds. (Zsofia Paulikovics)