As another year draws to an end, I take a moment to reflect in the way that I have since 2013: ranking and writing about my favorite music of the year. Taken together, these albums represent my personal trials and growth this year. I still have a queue of albums to listen to fully, but this non-definitive list does its best to capture something unique about the person I am still becoming.
If you’re more of a listener than a reader, I won’t hold it against you. I’ve made a playlist of some of my favorite songs from the year.
(29) Kyle Dion— SUGA
(28) Ari Lennox — Shea Butter Baby
(27) Snoh Aalegra — – Ugh, those feels again
(26) James Blake — Assume Form
(25) Harry Styles — Fine Line
(24) Lizzo — Cuz I Love You
(23) SiR — Chasing Summer
(22) Rapsody — Eve
(21) Red Hearse — Red Hearse
(20) Sleater Kinney — The Center Won’t Hold
(19) Solange — When I Get Home
(18) Billie Eilish — WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?
(17) Bad Books — III
For their third collaborative album, Kevin Devine and Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull stripped away everything but their voices and acoustic guitars. Fortunately, this is all they need. “If the people you want are mostly you in disguise / want what you want, something good in their lives,” Devine asks, “Is that a socialist song or an invocation of Christ?” Throughout their careers, Devine and Hull have asked searching questions about faith and doubt, and III more directly addresses the political implications of their introspective theologies. Personal moments of tragedy still shine, as in “Left Your Body,” a song about the passing of Hull’s grandfather, where he imagines a conversation between his loved one and God as a way to ask about the afterlife and his own soul.
(16) Brittany Howard — Jaime
On Jaime, Brittany Howard offers probing, honest examinations of self and society. On the beautiful “He Loves Me,” Howard does not worry that she no longer goes to church because, as she sermonizes, “I know he still loves me.” On “Goat Head,” she reflects on her biracial identity by recounting an instance of racism against her parents. The song ends somewhat abruptly, lingering on a question rather than imparting any firm answer on the moment or the larger history it reflects. Here and in other places, Howard offers intimate snapshots that form a string of vignettes, threading together a single person’s life. The end result bears witness to spirituality, society, and self.
(15) The National — I Am Easy to Find
2016’s Sleep Well Beast marked a notable shift for The National: openly addressing the question of how to age gracefully, Matt Berninger enlisted Carin Besser, an author/editor and spouse to Berninger, to co-write songs about their marriage. The results were brutally honest and endlessly intriguing. On I Am Easy to Find, the group continues along this trajectory, enlisting multiple female singers to share vocal duties with Berninger, at times even replacing him altogether. For a veteran band, it is a bold venture with mixed results. The National are still best when deep in the throes of introspection, and find new ways to name those emotional depths. Take “Oblivions,” which lays Berninger’s insecurities bare: “It’s the way that you’re gonna stop needing to tell me / you want me as much as I want you to tell me.” The older Berninger gets, he’s no less anxious: he embraces that insecurity, and does his best to be honest about it while he grows up. It’s nice to hear that growth arrive—in part—by quieting down and listening to other voices.
(14) Taylor Swift — Lover
Leaving behind the darker reputation, Taylor Swift makes no further apologies for her unabashed earnestness. From absolute jams (“I Forgot That You Existed”) to classic cuts (“Cornelia Street”), Swift is back to doing what she does best: shameless pop music. That said, she is not afraid to venture into new territory (for her) on Lover, with political subtexts (“Miss Americana”) and subtler mood songs (“It’s Nice to Have a Friend”). But it’s still her songwriting that makes her stand tall at the end of a decade she dominated: “All of my enemies started out friends,” she confesses, “help me hold onto you.” These lines exhibit Taylor’s maturity from a lyricist leveling not-so-subtle digs at exes and enemies to a queen taking stock of the blood on her crown. “I’ve been the archer,” she observes, “I’ve been the prey.” This is the honesty she has always been known for, but on Lover it is refreshingly nuanced. I feel myself growing up alongside her: it’s fun, it’s hard, and if it doesn’t get easier, at least maybe we get better at facing it.
(13) Ariana Grande — thank u, next
For a star of her prowess, Ariana Grande has been dealt several tragedies, from the bombing at her Manchester concert to the sudden death of rapper Mac Miller, her ex-partner. Through it all, Grande has shown strength and vulnerability with her concurrent rise to pop superstardom. On thank u, next, as the title suggests, she expresses gratitude for past loves and looks decidedly forward. The songs here are her best yet, from the sultry sweet “imagine” to, well, everything that follows. Amidst the highs, Grande does not shy away from the lows, and the album’s most emotional moment appears on “ghostin,” where she apologizes to a lover while she grieves the loss of Mac Miller. It is one of many shades of Grande honoring her losses and carrying them with her head—and ponytail—held high.
(12) Vampire Weekend — Father of the Bride
Like a lot of veteran indie rock bands, Vampire Weekend returned this year to address whether they still have something to offer. More than any other group—it seems safe to say—the answer is yes. Across 18 tracks that offer variations of diverse sounds and influences, Ezra Koenig and Co. remind you why they lasted this long. If FOTB does not quite reach the heights of Modern Vampires of the City, that is only because they do not sound interested in besting themselves. Vampire Weekend let these songs carry them where they will, and this apparent ease and flexibility pays off several times over, often quietly. “This Life” is one of their bests. “Harmony Hall” is a surprisingly thoughtful take on white privilege. My personal favorite is the short “2021,” where Koenig asks if someone will still think of him then: “I can wait a year, but I shouldn’t wait three,” he complains. The song could stand as the band’s artistic statement, a question of how long anything can last in an era of convenience. But for Vampire Weekend, they’ve lasted at least this decade, and now maybe more.
(11) Thom Yorke — ANIMA
For decades Thom Yorke has remained agitated with the state of things, and his warnings are no less sharp with age. On ANIMA, syncopated beats back Yorke’s bitter denouncements of the present historical moment. As 1984 celebrates its 60th year, I cannot think of an artist who gets closer to the spirit of Orwell’s message than Yorke, who takes on the voice of a Big Brother-esque persona to satirize the empires of the day. But the most cutting track arrives with his own voice of judgment on “Dawn Chorus,” where Yorke grimly mocks the faceless amalgam of a suburbanite: “If you could do it all again / a little fairy dust / a thousand tiny birds singing.” In an era where everyone must choose how we confront our complicity in the corrupted powers of the day, Yorke has been standing on the corner with a sign, waiting for people to wake up, to realize, as he sinisterly repeats on the final track, “This is when you know who your real friends are.” It’s a lyric that should hurt, if you’re really paying attention.
(10) Sharon Van Etten — Remind Me Tomorrow
“Sitting at the bar, I told you everything,” Sharon Van Etten begins on Remind Me Tomorrow. “You said, ‘Holy shit, you almost died.’” The song recounts a time when Van Etten told her now-partner one of those stories that takes a relationship to a new level of intimacy, and how a truly good friend can handle your truth and love you more for it. “I told you everything about everything,” she continues, “I had no idea.” It’s one of those songs that I sit with—I mean, really, it sits me down—one that makes me think about my friends, so many of whom moved away this year, and how the physical distance between us cannot sever us from the love we have poured into each other’s lives, the vulnerability that was necessary to get us to that level. Of course, I had no idea when I told them “everything about everything” how much those friends would come to mean to me. This song, along with the excellent album that proceeds (see especially “Seventeen”), are all about maturing through the ordinary ways it magically happens: conversation, reflection, and resolve.
(9) Carly Rae Jepsen — Dedicated
2019 was a big year for pop music, from Taylor Swift’s triumphant return to Ariana Grande’s unstoppable ascent, but my absolute highlight was Carly Rae Jepsen’s Dedicated. I missed the Emotion wave in 2015, but though I am late to the party, it is far from over. Jack Antonoff’s production is best served with Jepsen’s boundless candor, and Dedicated is 15 perfect pop songs displaying Jepsen’s characteristic vulnerability distilled with pure joy. There’s “Happy Not Knowing,” where Jepsen feels better off not finding out she had a chance with a missed opportunity crush. There’s “Too Much,” where she owns the fact that she overdoes everything in life. There’s “Party For One,” where she lets someone go for the sake of dancing for herself. I mean, these songs are MOODS. I could go on and on about every one of them, but gushing about this album is a lot less fun than listening.
(8) Jamila Woods — LEGACY! LEGACY!
The legacy Jamila Woods celebrates on this album is evident: each of the song titles is named in tribute to artists of color (she is not the only artist this year to do so, as Rapsody did on her fantastic Eve). Woods embraces the spirit of each artist on their respective songs. On “BETTY,” Woods honors the self-possession of Betty Davis: “Falling for myself / it’s taken time to know I’m mine.” “ZORA” renders Hurston’s famous essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” into an expression of the conflicting nature of identity. Woods is carving a legacy of her own here, a poet capable of honoring her forebears while carving out her own artistic soundscapes. My personal favorite is “BALDWIN,” which compels white listeners to consider ourselves as having bodies, not just listening to songs without self-knowledge: “My friends James says I should love you anyway,” but “all my friends wanna know why you ain’t figured it out just yet.” She ends with a conviction: her friends have “been reading the books you ain’t read.” LEGACY! LEGACY! essentially provides this reading list for listeners, pointing to authors and artists of color as essential history, both personally and culturally.
(7) Lana Del Rey — Norman Fucking Rockwell!
One of the highest rated albums in recent years, NFR! solidifies the artist as one of the defining songwriters of her generation. What I love about Lana is that she represents so much of what it means to be a millennial, from expelling deeply felt emotions via dramatic performances to being keenly aware of her faults yet wearing them proudly. From the opening title track, Lana compromises with a bore of a man: “Your poetry’s bad / and you blame the news / but I can’t help that / and I can’t help you.” Helplessly in love or something adjacent to love, Lana colors much of the album in her deepest blues, as desires get sidelined (“there’s things I want to talk about / but I’ll just let you live”) and the world spins without resolution. Producer Jack Antonoff holds back on pop theatrics, but the result is no less theatrical: every piano-driven number sounds like Lana just took the stage in a smoky bar and the audience fell quiet to listen to her secrets, except we’re watching at home, on a livestream. It feels as if Lana has been singing through the ages, but really, she is singing for our particular age, and that’s why she still sticks.
(6) Angel Olsen — All Mirrors
At over six minutes, “Lark,” the opening song on All Mirrors, propels furiously forward, changing gears only after exhausting its current speeds. “All we’ve done here is blind one another,” Olsen remarks. As a songwriter and singer, Olsen turns the dissolution of a relationship into a grand epic, requesting her ex-partner—or herself—to hear what she has to say in as many ways as she can tell it: “I looked around and found something else / something that was bigger than us.” Backed by an orchestra that matches her power, Olsen’s fiery voice singes and scorches. By the final song, “Chance,” when Olsen arrives to the other side of heartbreak, she is still pensive, and piercingly so: “I wish I could unsee some things that gave me life.” She ends the album with a request that sweeps me away every time: “It’s hard to say forever, love / forever’s just so far / Why don’t you say you’re with me now? / With all of your heart?” I am never ready for this ending, like a film I know by heart but can’t prepare for. Many people know the story of me and my partner, enduring our own breakup for many years before returning to one another. I listen to All Mirrors and remember the effort it takes to make something good and right last, and I am reborn to that promise.
(5) Better Oblivion Community Center — Better Oblivion Community Center
Conor Oberst, of Bright Eyes fame, left his famous moniker in the first decade of the century so that he could grow up as a singer-songwriter and leave his emo reputation behind. But Phoebe Bridgers, whose more recent career began with much of the same emotional depth, has brought out Oberst’s best work in years. The two join sad forces on Better Oblivion Community Center, where both strengthen one another to strike resounding chords. Many of their laments skew political, like attendance at a rally for a general where “confetti made it hard to see.” The subtlety of such images rings loud: the lines do not elaborate or comment on the general’s speech, but I can see it before me, the empty celebration and grandeur, and wondering: why I am here? Or, where I am, here? This complicity, guilt, and overwhelming melancholy follow Bridgers and Oberst at every turn: “Today I went walking while things explode / some sad independence / I want to be just as loud.” Bridgers and Oberst prove that hurting is a private act that, when made public or shared with a friend, can be made meaningful.
(4) Tyler, the Creator — IGOR
On 2017’s Flower Boy, Tyler grew all the way up, laying out the sunny path for a mature artist in the second, surprising leg of his career. IGOR is further proof of that maturity, and it’s the type of breakup album you would never have expected from Tyler at the beginning, or even middle, of the decade. Tyler’s fully-realized production allows his endearing, imperfect singing to flourish as it watches love grow and change and wilt. I don’t think I’ve ever smiled this much while listening to a record about love ending, and that is not just a testament to the bright sounds on the album but to the true spirit of Tyler that has been present through his many changes, that of an artist who, deep down, wants listeners to experience his warmth. The album ends with a trifecta of emotional heights: “GONE, GONE / THANK YOU,” a touching tribute to showing gratitude for people who loved you this far but cannot go on with you; “I DON’T LOVE YOU ANYMORE,” a cathartic and hard-earned acceptance; and “ARE WE STILL FRIENDS?”, the question that follows closure. It may sound silly, but my favorite line on this album might be on that final song, when Tyler sings, “Don’t say goodbye / smell you later.” It’s an embodiment of his compelling humor, emotional intelligence, and disarming grace. I wish I had this album years ago when I experienced heartache and turned to Tyler, who was—understandably—still learning how to grow up.
(3) Bon Iver — i,i
“I know it’s lonely in the dark,” Justin Vernon acknowledges, “and this year’s a visitor,” and I’m already in tears. But he’s not finished preaching what I need to hear: “And we have to know that faith declines / I’m not all out of mine.” This year, I took a step out in faith, confessing to many people that after years of preparing for ministry in the church and studying religion, I had walked away from the church because I need to deconstruct and rebuild my spiritual life on my own time and terms. It was incredibly difficult, and I experienced some hard moments of grace with my family and friends as we all confronted the reality that millennials are leaving their faith in droves, uncontent to sit with the politics that stand in many of the places of worship we grew up in. Vernon has long stood as a wayward philosopher to my group of friends, and it felt like i,i was ripped from our conversations, as if he was listening in and wanted to offer some words of comfort. A culmination of the sounds on his previous albums, i,i opens wounds that cannot be soothed otherwise: “Living in a lonesome way / had me looking other ways,” he confesses, “But on a bright fall morning, I’m with it / I stood a little while within it.” As my friends start to stretch their lives out across the country, I am learning to honor “the ordinary something neither of us holds.” As my family sees me grow, I look for ways to hold their love with care as I become a person different from who they might have imagined: to that end, I cannot listen to “Hey, Ma” without reflecting on my mom’s particular love for me. Vernon wants us to hold onto each other while we figure it all out. If it doesn’t all make sense, at least “some life feels good now, don’t it?” Thanks to Vernon’s sermon, I look around me, and I tend to agree.
(2) Maggie Rogers — Heard it in a Past Life
On Heard it in a Past Life, Rogers extends gratitude to the past and welcomes the new without romanticizing either: “I wonder if I still lived in the city, would I see you at a party? Take a big sip of my whiskey and then leave quickly / and pray you missed me.” Here is millennial uncertainty in every shade, memories never sweet enough to cherish wholesale, but too strong to forget. Rogers calls it “the knife of insight,” and everywhere on the album mourning, longing, and acceptance cut through to provide clarifying relief: “If you keep reaching out, then I’ll keep coming back,” she admits, “but if you’re gone for good, then I’m okay with that.” These lines come from “Light On,” a track that reminds me so much of that inescapable feeling of remorse, when a relationship has ended for the better but it’s hard to remember that when you play the highlights on a reel. This decade finally brought me a group of people to call my own, but earlier, I found myself in a group of friends who I thought were forever—then, only some time later, I found myself avoiding them in public, blocked from their social media, strangers in the same city realizing too often how small it could be. Crying in the bathroom, Rogers understands, while the people surrounding her remind her, “You should be so happy now.” But it’s not that easy, and elsewhere she memorializes the changes that we almost didn’t chance upon: “saw my old life and my old friends / saw me haunted, saw me back again.” These ghosts might mean more than I wanted them to, my mid-decade depression “a past life coming out inside of me,” but I’ve learned to let them in and hear them out before asking them to leave. Maggie Rogers delivers an anthem to this growth, and now whatever comes my way in the third decade of this century, at least I’ll know that I’m “back in my body.”
(1) FKA twigs — MAGDALENE
“If I walk out the door, it starts our last goodbye,” FKA twigs announces—and repeats—throughout the opening track of her first album in years. But ultimatum quickly turns to compromise on “home with you,” as twigs tries to save a selfish love: “I wonder if you think that I could never raise you up / I wonder if you think that I could never help you fly.” The theatrical production on MAGDALENE performs acrobatic stunts to match the intensity of twigs, but cedes the floor to her, dropping completely away when she shares a secret meant only for one: “I didn’t know that you were lonely / if you would have told me, I would be at home with you.” twigs tries to elevate herself in the eyes of her lover, vying for respect from someone who doesn’t deserve hers, only to finally make the ultimate sacrifice: truth. “I’d have told you I was lonely too,” she bookends, trading honesty like a bargaining chip, a last resort in the dissolution of a relationship. The biblical figure Mary Magdalene functions as an extended motif throughout the album, a woman who exists to lift up a great man, surrendering herself to live in his shadow. But twigs subverts this image, her exegesis a brooding take on what is lost when love is not returned in equal measure. In the hands of twigs, Magdalene becomes not angel but “fallen alien,” biblical myth meeting post-apocalyptic landscape, where desolation is salvaged for art and devotion is tested until it reaches its final limits. twigs reimagines Magdalene, her sacrifices dampened by celebrity gossip rags: “They want to see us alone / they want to see us apart.” As desperation degenerates into despair, twigs tries to close the coffin lid on a love suffocated by unrealized possibility: “All wrapped in cellophane / the feelings that we had.” In part, MAGDALENE hit me so hard because just two weeks before, another biblically-themed album was released by a man who used to thoughtfully—dare I say, brilliantly?—engage with religious doubt, but traded all of that in for glossy conversion and right-wing conviction. He was embraced by the very people I’ve wondered how to engage thoughtfully in my own work. twigs insists that old narratives can still be told anew, their endings not wrapped in bows but weighted with convictions that sound more like questions posed than answers told. As our troubled decade comes to a close, I’m still so much more drawn to this curiosity over conclusion.