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Under the Radar’s Top 100 Albums of 2019 (Part 1)

Dec 31, 2019
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2019 was a divisive and toxic year for politics on both sides of the Atlantic and elsewhere, but can we all agree that the decade's final year was firmly a fantastic one for music? Probably not, but here at Under the Radar we certainly felt that way. So while we all stress about impeachment, never ending Brexit negotiations and the election of Boris Johnson, protests in Hong Kong and a trade war with China, immense forest fires in Australia and Brazil and the ever worrying threat of climate change-there was amazing album after fantastic album to get lost in. Whoever says full-length albums are a forgotten artform or that indie rock has been overcome by poptimism clearly hasn't heard 2019's best releases. Some notable artists even released two great albums this year.

As you've probably noticed, we've taken our time assessing which 2019 albums are the best, posting this list on the very last day of the decade. We're not overly concerned with being first, more with getting it right. Here we present a Top 100 Albums of 2019 list-whereas many other websites might opt for only a Top 50 or less-and our writers have done brand new write-ups on each of the Top 60 albums. Even then, there were some good albums that almost made the list, but didn't quite get on there, including 2019 albums by These New Puritans, TOY, Priests, Iggy Pop, Hand Habits, Glen Hansard, Wand, Sudan Archives, Telekinesis, Vivian Girls, The New Pornographers, and King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard's Fishing for Fishies-so consider all those honorable mentions.

To arrive at Under the Radar's Top 100, 24 of our writers and editors (including myself and my co-publisher/wife Wendy) each submitted a list of their favorite albums of the year and were encouraged to turn in at least a Top 45. All-in-all 443 different albums were submitted for the vote, but to make the Top 100 an album had to be picked by at least three or more separate writers (our #1, for example, was picked by 21 of our writers and our #2 was chosen by 18 different writers). We then did a secondary vote to determine the bottom four, from a selection of 19 different albums that almost made the Top 96. It doesn't always shake out this way, but in 2019 my two favorite albums of the year were mirrored by the overall staff vote. So as we usher in a new year and decade, take time to reflect on 2019's best albums below (and check out part 2, with #41-100, here). Let us know in the comments which albums were your personal favorites. By Mark Redfern

1.

Angel Olsen

All Mirrors

(Jagjaguwar)

As her previous releases placed Angel Olsen in a variety of settings that included nods toward country and ’60s folk-rock, there was always a clear sense of who she was in each of those rooms. All Mirrors, on the other hand, is a work that seems uniquely of Olsen, from attic to basement. Often dark, gorgeous, and riveting, the album stands as an early career peak for an artist whose creative momentum most likely won’t ultimately allow it to define her.

Strings and drums loom and swell over “Lark,” serving to heighten the tension that Olsen builds over an epic six minutes. It’s as arresting an album-opener as anything in recent memory. Pulsing electronic pop resets the mood on the title track as Olsen sings, “Standing facing all mirrors are erasing/Losing beauty, at least at times it knew me.”

Among the album’s facets, a pounding beat powers the catchy “What It Is,” while the torch musing of “Endgame” looks back at what couldn’t be had. As with “Spring,” sometimes the most poignant moments come in a wistful thought: “Days that keep slippin’/A life that I’m missin’/I wish it were true love/I wish we were kissin’.”

The gripping “Impasse” follows Olsen onto a relationship’s bleakest crag. Strings soar and crash along with her, and as it seems clear that Olsen is moving toward a heartbreaking crescendo, she’s not going there without you. By Hays Davis

2.

Weyes Blood

Titanic Rising

(Sub Pop)

Having made music under the guise of Weyes Blood for almost a decade, it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that Natalie Mering unleashed one of 2019’s finest albums. Each of its three predecessors gradually built on the foundations laid by the last one, culminating in 2016’s excellent Front Row Seat to Earth. So when Titanic Rising appeared in April it proved to be every bit as majestic as one hoped it would.

Titanic Rising is inspired by both factual events and mythological theories, each depicted with an element of poignancy (“Picture Me Better,” “Nearer to Thee”) and wonder (“Andromeda,” “Something to Believe”) that set Mering apart from all of her peers this year. Recorded with Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado the previous year, Titanic Rising bore all the hallmarks of an introspective masterpiece from the outset.

Musically referencing numerous sources from classic ’70s folk rock to ambient chamber pop via sparsely driven electronic interludes. Indeed, both Titanic Rising and its creator has a universal appeal that’s already seen it embraced by the shoegaze, folk, and pop communities. Where Mering goes next is anyone’s guess, but as demonstrated by her output to date, the possibilities are endless. By Dom Gourlay

3.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

Ghosteen

(Ghosteen Ltd.)

The vast majority of us couldn’t manage one song, never mind a full album and certainly not 17 over a three-and-a-half-decade career. And that’s before we start considering all the other things Nick Cave spends his time doing. But what’s special about Ghosteen, the latest record from Cave and his regular and rolling collaborators that make up The Bad Seeds, isn’t that it marks impressive longevity, even though it does. What’s special is that it’s really, really good.

This is not usually what happens when veteran acts keep returning. Normally they muddle through with anachronistic retreads and misjudged modern touches in a bid to appear contemporary. Ghosteen sidesteps all this. Cave doesn’t really operate in our universe anyway. He exists in some unspecified time and place, one foot in the real, one steeped in religion and mythology.

Coming as their first double album since 2004, the conclusion to a loose trilogy, and the first music fully written since the death of Cave’s teenage son in 2015, Ghosteen lies somewhere between album and experience. There are 11 deeply textured, ambient tracks, full of isolated sounds, subtle rhythms, ringing chords and rich, poignant lyrics shifting endlessly through shades of light and dark.

That’s not to say the songs aren’t frequently standout experiences. “Bright Horses,” “Galleon Ship,” and “Fireflies” would sound incredible anywhere even if it’s not really the kind of music that can be easily picked apart. It’s a thousand different moments woven together to create a whole falling across anyone listening, weighing nothing and everything. It’s not succinct and boiled down, but if anyone wants succinct, the title track offers the best summation. Cave opens singing “This world is beautiful.” That it can be is partly because music like this exists. By Stephen Mayne

4.

Thom Yorke

ANIMA

(XL)

Over the course of his solo career, unaccompanied by his main band Radiohead, yet usually joined by the ever-present Nigel Godrich, Thom Yorke has continually circled a particular sound that attracts certain adjectives like a magnet: lonely, bleak, desolate; and don’t forget cold, icy, chilly. This year’s ANIMA is not much different in that respect, but what is different is for the first time, the sound is joined by songwriting on par with Yorke’s main band.

ANIMA is largely built from the frigid (another one!) synth tones he’s utilized over his last albums, particularly on the spacious “Last I Heard (...He Was Circling the Drain),” but there are surprising instrumental touches that make for a greater sonic impact, like the bass line that drives “Impossible Knots” and the guitar that seems to emerge from the surface of the watery keyboards drowning “The Axe.” And the languid, aching “Dawn Chorus” is one of the most emotionally potent ballads Yorke’s ever written. With the album’s Jungian themes of shadow selves, dreams, and connection/disconnection throughout, Yorke’s writing is becoming more concise and powerful as well.

Perhaps Yorke, in one of the most creatively fruitful periods of his career, has grown in solo confidence since he started dabbling in film scores, or maybe it’s just that his artistic language has expanded to include more visuals (the Paul Thomas Anderson-directed ANIMA short film on Netflix is a must-watch, as is the video for “Last I Heard”). Regardless, ANIMA is a masterwork that stands up with some of the best Radiohead albums. By Scott Dransfield

5.

Strand of Oaks

Eraserland

(Dead Oceans)

With a sound that combines elements of neo-folk, dream pop, Springsteen nostalgia, and arena rock grandeur, Eraserland by Timothy Showalter’s Strand of Oaks deserves a spot on this list because his latest record encapsulates the best of what this decade had to offer.

As he prepared to write and record the follow-up to 2017’s Hard Love, Showalter brought in a stellar ensemble of collaborators to help him execute the vision of Eraserland, including most of the members of My Morning Jacket (bar Jim James), the songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Emma Ruth Rundle, and Americana icon Jason Isbell. Despite the hopefulness displayed by the soaring musical moments on songs such as “Ruby,” Eraserland is a dark record full of pensive lyrics that reflect on heartbreak and crushing world events, themes not unfamiliar to any listener these days. One common element in the instrumentation involves wide-open reverb on the guitars and drums that seem to place your mind in the darkness of a cavern, with the choruses acting like faint lights bouncing against the stone walls, most notably in the middle track, “Visions.”

At times, Showalter and his band sound resigned, but in other moments, the pulsing and beating of the album’s heart is ferociously strong. Either way, we’ll take any sliver of brightness to keep us moving forward to the surface. By Chris K. Davidson

6.

Nilüfer Yanya

Miss Universe

(ATO)

Nilüfer Yanya’s wildly inventive first record is a rare triumph; a debut that is as technically ambitious as it is traditionally satisfying. Miss Universe can be loosely viewed as a concept album about our relentlessly insidious self-improvement culture, tied together by a series of tongue-in-cheek sketches. But it is more important as a genre-bending expansion of indie rock’s boundaries. From the spiky riffs of “In Your Head” to the gorgeous synth-pop of “Safety Net,” Yanya reveals herself as an inventive and versatile songwriter, as influenced by the avant-garde soul of Frank Ocean’s Blonde as the indie-rock heroes of her youth.

Yanya is a strikingly unpretentious writer, with an eclecticism that is the product of sprawling modern listening habits. However, certain features hold Miss Universe together as a coherent project. One is the consistency of her writing, which overflows with melodies and surprising turns across this album. The other is Yanya’s voice, which alternates between aloof sing-speak and impassioned yelps. The result is that her sound is unmistakable, even if she introduces elements of house, jazz and new wave into the mix.

These are sharp lean rock songs, trimmed of excess and posturing. And whether Yanya is upending conventional structures (see: “The Unordained”) or producing warped pop music (see: “Tears”), her experimentals feel essential. On Miss Universe, she has staked her place as one of the most vital additions to the indie-rock landscape. By Conrad Duncan

7.

Sharon Van Etten

Remind Me Tomorrow

(Jagjaguwar)

On her bold, strapping fifth studio album, Sharon Van Etten bursts forth after a brief hiatus as a commanding rock star. The rich power of Van Etten’s voice has always given her music a stadium-sized grandeur, as have the wild passions at play in her songs. Now, she has the sound to back it.

Remind Me Tomorrow is the most optimistic music of Van Etten’s career—inspired by her newfound romantic stability and parenthood—but it is also sonically brooding. Two of her most unequivocal love songs (“Jupiter 4” and “Malibu”) are offset by confrontational production choices—a rumbling bass and haunting synth line on the former, and sporadic bursts of clattering drums on the latter. Remind Me Tomorrow may stand out for its contentedness, but Van Etten is still eager to challenge her listeners.

Better yet is “Seventeen,” which captures the soaring majesty of Bruce Springsteen as Van Etten scolds and envies her younger self—“Now you’re a hotshot, think you’re so carefree/But you’re just seventeen, so much like me.” It’s the sort of song she could only have written at this point in her life, having shed the pretentious ideals of youth and lived and failed in all the ways one promises themselves they won’t in adolescence. Remind Me Tomorrow is rich with the clear-eyed insights of grown-up life. It is also the most urgent and essential music of her career so far. By Conrad Duncan

8.

Hatchie

Keepsake

(Double Double Whammy)

The enchanting spell that Hatchie (aka 26-year-old Australian singer/songwriter Harriette Pilbeam) spins on her stellar dream-pop debut, Keepsake, is heady and hard to resist. “Obsessed,” easily the most delicious of ear wormy-y melodies here, gets its host toe tapping along instantly. She sings in earnest of an experience of love so innocent and unselfish: “You are the one who told me to run/Give it a try/Just have a life”—that whatever misgiving the album might harbor is happily forgotten in the whir of jangly guitars and the fuzz-drenched wash of her breathy vocals.

Pilbeam cut her teeth in the Brisbane indie scene, playing bass on other people’s songs. After eight years, she stepped out on her own under the Hatchie moniker with her 2018 EP, Sugar & Spice. If she was still unsure of her prowess, a remix of “Sure,” the EP’s standout, by Cocteau Twins’ guitarist Robin Guthrie should have dissipated any doubts.

She has a knack of borrowing from the genre’s best progenitors and current practitioners, but also folds in mainstream pop and emo—musical styles that should be at loggerheads—yet in her capable hands, succeed and soar. Her airy vocals can slide satisfyingly from chesty to high, head tones in one breath; and has a timbre remarkably similar to that of Dolores O’Riordan of The Cranberries. Often, as in “Without a Blush” and “Keep,“ songs are anchored in evocative lyrics, rooted in that desire to give voice to emotions once suppressed or fleeting moments that need to be savored over and over again.

“Fate keeps trying to find me/I’m not the kind of/Girl to let it define me,” she coos on the shimmering “Not That Kind.” It’s beyond just a pithy observation of a girl caught up in the machinations of romantic love; it functions as battle cry for how she regards her career in music. By Celine Teo-Blockey

9.

Big Thief

U.F.O.F.

(4AD)

Big Thief collectively stunned us in 2019. Their previous two increasingly wonderful albums—Masterpiece (2016) and Capacity (2017)—showed how rapidly they were evolving, and two years later, they went into hyperspeed. When the New York indie-rock quartet released U.F.O.F. back in May, many commentators saw it as an instant album of the year contender. The fact they went on to release another excellent album just five months later proves what a special band they are.

U.F.O.F. builds on Big Thief’s already established foundations and expands them in every way possible. The sheer range on display on each of these 12 tracks is quite stunning, the fact that it all holds together as a cohesive piece, is phenomenal. Some of their heaviest tracks live here in “Contact” or “Jenni” amongst some of their most delicate in “Orange” or “Century” and everything in-between with devastatingly beautiful songs such as “Cattails” or the album’s title track.

U.F.O.F. also sees Big Thief’s incredibly prolific singer/songwriter, Adrianne Lenker, show what a distinct talent she truly is. Lenker already displayed her worth on last year’s underrated solo album abysskiss, so here she brings her talents to her immensely talented bandmates—Buck Meek (guitars), Max Oleartchik (bass), and James Krivchenia (drums), without whom none of this hangs together—by upgrading solo tracks “From” and “Terminal Paradise.” Lenker’s range both in her voice—such as on “Betsy”—and songwriting—like the playful “Strange,” for instance—only serve to further prove her prowess as one of our most gifted composers. The finale, “Magic Dealer,” drifts off into the atmosphere rather than explode at its climax—as opposed to the live version—to sonically join the unidentified flying object friends Lenker imagines, capping off a truly special record. By Adam Turner-Heffer

10.

Anna Meredith

FIBS

(Black Prince Fury)

Classically trained British composer Anna Meredith ended up with one of the most delightfully offbeat albums of the year in her second full-length album in a pop context. Entitled FIBS, the album races through a myriad of approaches—most of which are hyperkinetic, such as the opening builder of “Sawbones” or the evening news alert pulses of the vocally driven “Killjoy.” Though far from conventional, the sing-song-y “Inhale Exhale” has Meredith fearing she is “out of her depth”, but nothing could be further from the truth. FIBS exudes confidence flitting from a guitar laden sprint (“Limpet”) to a more reflective close (“Unfurl”). Most of all, the album comes off the sonic equivalent of a day-glo assortment of cupcakes—ones that sound like they were just as fun to make as they are to listen to. By Mark Moody

11.

Purple Mountains

Purple Mountains

(Drag City)

There’s probably not much to argue about in terms of David Berman having made the comeback of the decade in the release of his new project’s self-titled debut, Purple Mountains. As important as the album’s release was, the introduction to a legion of new fans to Berman’s prior work with Silver Jews was equally valuable. But not to sell Purple Mountains short by any means, Berman, though sounding a little worse for wear, reemerged with his wit fully intact, a batch of infectious hangdog songs, and a new found openness that let the listener in to his lost decade. Quoting Berman always feels a cheat to the full listening experience, but suffice it to say that songs like “That’s Just the Way That I Feel,” “All My Happiness Is Gone,” and “Margaritas at the Mall” are as brutally funny as they are painfully confessional. Many have stated that the album is too difficult a listen after Berman’s passing just a few weeks after its release. But with the passage of time, Purple Mountains will no doubt be treasured for what it is—a gift of insight into an artist who always said it like no one else. By Mark Moody

12.

Bat for Lashes

Lost Girls

(AWAL)

Bat for Lashes’ Natasha Khan likes taking on guises. For her latest album, Lost Girls, she assumes her most adventurous, romantic, and mythical persona yet. She is Nikki Pink, a character largely informed by the terrain and folklore of Southern California, where Khan now makes her home. Deserts, mountains, and the ocean strung together by endless miles of green-and-white signposted freeways conjure up images of both vampires and Native American medicine women, each with colorful story to tell.

Khan explores these tales on Lost Girls through Pink, plus a few filters, most noticeably an ’80s synth-driven one, which, at times, gives its place to a psychedelic one. Fun and pop-y jangles puncture “Feel for You,” while church organ-like keys darken the visually charged “The Hunger.” Some of the songs on Lost Girls are quite literal in their tangible and intangible illustrations of Khan’s surroundings, such as “Peach Sky”—more often than not the color of Los Angeles’ sunsets and “Jasmine”—the scent of the city.

Even if Lost Girls unabashedly references ’80s touchstones—The Cure, Hall & Oates, and Spandau Ballet converge on “Vampires”—it’s not a nostalgic album in the least. Rather, these references root the fantastical stories told, making them seem all the more reachable. By Lily Moayeri

13.

Jay Som

Anak Ko

(Polyvinyl)

Melina Duterte’s band Jay Som made a big splash in the indie world in 2017 with their sophomore album Everybody Works. That album was celebrated for the big-sounding results from its DIY recording ethos, but the real story is how Duterte repeated the trick—once again producing this year’s Anak Ko herself, at home. She shows remarkable growth as a songwriter, producer, and player throughout the album’s nine songs. The anthems (“Superbike,” “Tenderness”) are dreamier and smarter, and Duterte displays a mature, knotty skill on guitar and bass on deep cuts like “Devotion” and the title track. With a cohesive feel and no missteps throughout, ultimately, Jay Som has made the sleeper indie record of the year. By Scott Dransfield

14.

FKA twigs

MAGDALENE

(Young Turks)

MAGDALENE is only the second full-length Tahliah Barnett has released as FKA twigs in the seven years since her first EP appeared. Given the profile she has, it’s not a lot. Of course, it doesn’t matter when the quality is this high.

The four-year gap since her last EP (2015’s M3LL155X) heralds a substantial leap forward, with Barnett’s hushed soprano the number one revelation on a record full of them. Her voice has always been powerful. What she adds is an emotional edge to technical precision. It’s a mannered vulnerability, comfortable reaching for highs, subtly effective when it sinks back down again.

This would still be nothing without the songs, dancing to the rhythms that define the undefinable genre hopping Barnett excels at. She can be Kate Bush one moment, a classical choral experience the next. The threads that link the glitchy, haunting conclusion to “mary magdalene” are as varied as they are common to the Thom Yorke opening bars of “fallen alien” or the clipped bursts of emotion as “sad day” soars into repetition.

The repetition is fitting for an album worthy of multiple visits. If her next release takes twice as long, there’s more than enough here to fill the gap. By Stephen Mayne

15.

Big Thief

Two Hands

(4AD)

The second of two tremendous 2019 albums released by New York indie rockers Big Thief, Two Hands has seemingly been slightly overlooked in certain corners at the end of 2019. Perhaps it was dismissed because it was wrongly seen as the lesser release to its “spiritual sister album” U.F.O.F., or perhaps its because Two Hands is the more direct, sweaty, raw beast of a record. Whatever it is, Two Hands stands as a testament to this truly brilliant band’s flexibility to create two immediately distinct records in one year, yet still feel connected.

Connectivity is an important theme to Big Thief’s music and in particular lead singer/songwriter Adrianne Lenker, who draws parallels to universal, big-picture themes (such as global warming or spirituality) to minute, personal details such as the “spine tattoo” or the “shimmery eye” of a lover. Two Hands risks being outweighed by its center-piece track “Not” (the song of the year in this writer’s opinion), however, it is filled to the brim with so many excellent songs such as “Forgotten Eyes” or “Shoulders” that it’s impossible to dismiss as a “one-hit album.” U.F.O.F. may have been the more ambitious effort, but Two Hands more than stands upright next to it. By Adam Turner-Heffer

16.

Vampire Weekend

Father of the Bride

(Spring Snow/Columbia)

Vampire Weekend have always skirted around the edges of cool, so what more fitting way for them to return after six years than with a deep dive into immaculately unfashionable pop rock. Instead of the neat, respectable style of 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City, the tone of their overstuffed fourth album, Father of the Bride, is goofy and sentimental—a combination that brings out some of their best songwriting yet.

There’s a stunningly charming riff on “Brown Eyed Girl” (“This Life”), a giddy shot of jazz-rock noodling (“Sunflower”), and a wholesome campfire singalong (“We Belong Together”). But there is more traditional fare as well. You can find the romantic swing of Modern Vampires of the City on “Unbearably White” and the jerky buzz of 2010’s Contra on “Bambina.” Father of the Bride is undeniably too long but it is also an embarrassment of riches; you’d be hard-pressed to find two people who agree on what to cut. By Conrad Duncan

17.

The Twilight Sad

IT WON/T BE LIKE THIS ALL THE TIME

(Rock Action)

If The Twilight Sad’s previous long player, Nobody Wants to Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave (released in 2014), ended up prophesying the doom associated with the Brexit referendum two years later, its successor could perhaps be linked to the Conservative Party landslide at this year’s British general election.

IT WON/T BE LIKE THIS ALL THE TIME is the sound of a band who’ve spent the interim years developing their sound both musically and lyrically. Its contents reveal a stark progression and sometimes uneasy listen, yet one that’s constantly rewarding.

It also marks the band’s first release on Mogwai’s Rock Action label and like its suitors’ output, manages to straddle the central divide between brutal noise and nascent melody. Songs such as “Videograms” and “VTr” were already established live favourites before the album appeared, so when they arrived surrounded by the other nine compositions that make up the record it felt a sonic eclipse had just taken place. The wry “Shooting Dennis Hopper Shooting” and desolate “Girl Chewing Gum” only admit to the album’s stark demeanor coupled with an air of mystery, making it one of 2019’s most essential collections. By Dom Gourlay

18.

Julia Jacklin

Crushing

(Polyvinyl)

Sydney, Australia’s Julia Jacklin showed us her immense potential on the rather underrated 2016 album Don’t Let the Kids Win. On Crushing, her second full-length, she went above and beyond showing why she had caught many observer’s attention. Jacklin is yet another example of the flourishing music scene currently exploding between Australia’s two biggest cities (along with Melbourne) which has given us acts like Courtney Barnett, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, and Royal Headache (amongst others) in recent years.

Crushing is a devastating portrayal of an auto-biographical breakup in which Jacklin’s voice is our primary player. On top of some brilliantly constructed songs, Jacklin’s eye for detail is a true thing to behold as she keenly observes the mini-aggressions that former lovers constantly throw at each other. Jacklin’s struggle is all too real on opener “Body” and the album’s center-piece “Don’t Know How to Keep Loving You.” However, Crushing ends on an, albeit solemn, moment of optimism with “Comfort,” a song that arrives after the chaos and fallout of the breakup that is the previous nine tracks, assuring us and Jacklin herself, that even in the toughest of breakups, things will always be alright in the end. By Adam Turner-Heffer

19.

Lana Del Rey

Norman Fucking Rockwell!

(Polydor/Interscope)

After a decade of brilliant misdirection, Lana Del Rey has proved that she could actually play by the rules all along. Norman Fucking Rockwell! is the album she has often teased—a bold reinvention of the classic American songwriter that perfectly balances modern perspectives and traditional appeal. To the question of whether Del Rey is more style than substance, it provides an emphatic answer.

The production on Norman Fucking Rockwell! is clear and understated, invoking the elegant piano-ballads of the ’60s and’70s, but Del Rey speaks the ironic, self-deprecating language of the Internet. See, for example, the witheringly funny title track and the pop culture nostalgia of “The Greatest.” While her music harks back to a supposedly simpler time, her lyrics stare down an increasingly messy and unedifying present, with songs such as “Hope Is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman Like Me to Have – but I Have It” containing some of her most profound writing. Del Rey may never make a record like Norman Fucking Rockwell! again but at least just this once, she gave her critics what they wanted. By Conrad Duncan

20.

Rose Elinor Dougall

A New Illusion

(Vermillion)

Rose Elinor Dougall deservedly makes Under the Radar’s Top 20 albums of the year with her stunning third album, A New Illusion. It genuinely is her most accomplished and mature work to date and provides yet more proof that Dougall is one of the UK’s finest and most innovative songwriters. It’s a dazzling album that radiates warmth, beauty, and intelligence and is also one that soothes, comforts, and moves in equal measure.

A New Illusion is a timeless collection of songs that showcases the languorous beauty of Dougall’s vocals as well as the depth and maturity of her songwriting. In many ways, this is a very “English” album, one that melds baroque pop and folk with hints of psychedelia to perfection. Why she hasn’t yet reached “national treasure” status in England remains one of life’s great mysteries, but make no mistake, A New Illusion is one of the most perfect albums you’re likely to hear this year (or any other year for that matter). By Andy Von Pip

21.

Jenny Hval

The Practice of Love

(Sacred Bones)

For a theme covered with relentless frequency, love is often viewed through an unnecessarily narrow boy meets girl lens. Not everyone is so dull. When Jenny Hval tackles it, as she did this year with an album named after and inspired by a 1985 Austrian movie, it’s no surprise to find her trying something different. She’s already ranged across topics from eroticism to vampires and horror movies so it’s not a shock to find her succeeding in the traditionally banal waters of love.

Despite this, The Practice of Love still feels like a revelation, a trance inflected wonder mixing an endless array of compositional touches beside hypnotic, rhythmic beats. It all aids an exploration of love in the broadest sense, capturing the emotion far beyond the world of rom-coms and crooning ballads. Supported by a collection of collaborators, Hval’s seventh record lingers far beyond its succinct running time. It’s one of the best of her career, which automatically makes it one of the best of the year. By Stephen Mayne

22.

Deerhunter

Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?

(4AD)

Deerhunter’s eighth studio album came out early in the year and didn’t garner the attention it deserved. The album has its share of stumbles in tracks like “Tarnung” and the truly bizarre “Détournement,” but otherwise Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? is a hell of a fine production. The vampy “No One’s Sleeping” is interlaced with a fractured Beatles-like melody and sits alongside Bradford Cox and company’s finest work. And if you were lucky enough to catch their live show this year, you know that songs like “Death In Midsummer” and “Element” absolutely rip when stretched out. It’s an album that’s definitely worthy of revisiting if you didn’t give it a full listen. By Mark Moody

23.

Aldous Harding

Designer

(4AD)

If the third album is supposed to be the “most difficult,” New Zealand’s Aldous Harding tackles Designer as if it were the most carefree act of creation there were. Harding’s voice is so malleable it’s hard to assess if she’s singing lead vocals, harmonies, and if the same person is singing from song to song. And that along with bubbling melodies paired with impenetrable lyrics are what make Designer such a joy to listen to. With John Parish back on board as producer and multi-instrumentalist, the artists’ comfort with each other manifests itself in a warmly wrapped cocoon where the listener can pillow-in and go with the 40-minute flow. Certainly the play-on-repeat single “The Barrel” is a strong contender for any song of the year list, but so many others surround it that plenty of favorites abound. By Mark Moody

24.

The National

I Am Easy to Find

(4AD)

One of the decade’s most consistent performers, The National decided to close out the teens with their most ambitious work yet. The New York-via-Cleveland indie-rock stalwarts had already begun to push the boat out on 2017’s electronica influenced Sleep Well Beast, however on their eighth album, the quintet set about scoring a cinematic world of their creation. Well, theirs and that of acclaimed director Mike Mills (Beginners, 20th Century Women), who co-produced I Am Easy to Find with the band in the studio as well as directing a 26-minute film of the same name starring Alicia Vikander.

The theme of collaborations runs deeper than just Mills, however, as I Am Easy to Find features a host of female vocalists to counterbalance frontman Matt Berninger’s baritone voice and white male perspective—a trick both Fucked Up and American Football also employed over the last 12 months. Guests such as Sharon Van Etten, Lisa Hannigan, and David Bowie’s former bassist Gail Ann Dorsey color some of I Am Easy to Find’s finest moments in an album full of them, though it is “Rylan,” The National’s archetypal banger, that proves why they are still such a consistently great talent. By Adam Turner-Heffer

25.

Stella Donnelly

Beware of the Dogs

(Secretly Canadian)

Plucky, politico-pop from Australian Stella Donnelly is just the antidote we need to counteract the miasma of toxic masculinity and men continually behaving badly. Donnelly’s perky vocals are reminiscent of ’90s Frente! frontwoman Angie Hart (famed for cutesy hit “Accidently Kelly Street”), but lyrically taut themes plant her firmly in the post-Harvey Weinstein #MeToo moment of 2019.

There’s no churlish yelling here. Instead, Donnelly employs a toothy grin, cheerful guitars, and expertly drawn characters in her vignettes. On breezy opener “Old Man,” she drops: “Your personality traits/don’t count if you put your dick in someone’s face,” and swiftly the prettiest of harmonies follows. “Boys Will Be Boys” calls out the culture of victim blaming in sexual assault.

Naturally, barbed criticisms also extend to government and religion. She does her best Billy Bragg on the album’s title track exposing white Australia’s damning policies and double standards with its indigenous peoples: “There’s no Parliament worthy of this countryside/All these pious fucks taking from the 99.” Beware of the Dogs’ penultimate track is “Watching Telly,” a personal take on women’s reproductive rights, couched in bubbly synths where she usurps “God is love” for the more telling “God loves men.” By Celine Teo-Blockey

26.

Marika Hackman

Any Human Friend

(Sub Pop)

On her third full-length album, English artist Marika Hackman sings frankly about sex (partners optional) and the vagaries of human connection. An untempered sense of humor adds some insight as well as levity, with “Lately I’ve been trying to find the point in human contact” being a more amusingly bold statement than her neighbors may be willing to make. By Hays Davis

27.

Ride

This Is Not a Safe Place

(Wichita)

When Ride returned at the start of 2015 they made it clear from the outset there was unfinished business. While the initial reformation may have centered around commemorating debut album Nowhere’s 25th anniversary, Mark Gardener, Andy Bell, Laurence “Loz” Colbert, and Steve Queralt stated in every single interview that new music would be imminent.

Which it was just two years later, the band’s fifth long player Weather Diaries avidly suggesting their creative spark had been reignited. However, not many could have predicted such a sparkling return to form exacerbated by its follow up just two years later. This Is Not a Safe Place is the sound of a band fully at ease with themselves right now, freed from the pressures that undoubtedly caused the turmoil leading to their initial split back in 1996.

Comprised of 12 songs, not one of which could be constituted as filler. This Is Not a Safe Place represents Ride’s most satisfying collection of songs since 1992’s Going Blank Again, whilst fully highlighting the diverse range of influences that went into it. As with its predecessor, Erol Alkan’s production ensured its modern sheen but ultimately it’s the songs themselves that made it stand out as one of 2019’s finest. By Dom Gourlay

28.

Jenny Lewis

On the Line

(Warner)

Anyone that rhymes “today” with “Beaujolais” not only sets a mood, but they also deserve to have their best year ever. That couplet appears on the dreamy “Hollywood Lawn” off of arguably Jenny Lewis’ best album yet, On the Line. And by all accounts, Lewis’ 2019 has turned into a stellar trip around the sun. Many of the songs off On the Line were inspired by her breakup with longtime boyfriend Johnathan Rice (the title song being a particularly devastating take), but all are reeled off with such carefree sing-along melodies that it’s hard to see the tears. Lewis parlayed the album into a smart as a whip “girl with her own phone line” inspired stage set and tour. A tour that found her paired back up with The Watson Twins and on some nights phoning friends as diverse as Jackson Browne and Spoon’s Britt Daniel to join her on stage. If breaking up is hard to do, Lewis rebounded by throwing one hell of a year-long party, most of it adorned in a sequined mermaid maxi-dress. You could do a lot worse than to raise a glass to ring in the New Year with On the Line as your soundtrack. By Mark Moody

29.

Solange

When I Get Home

(Columbia)

Following up one of the decade’s most significant albums was never going to be an easy task. But if anyone was going to do it, it was probably going to be a Knowles sister. Beyoncé and Solange between them could conceivably make a case for being the most important and influential artists of the decade beyond Kendrick Lamar, and for good reason. Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Solange’s A Seat at the Table changed the game of pop/R’n’B music in the 2010s and the younger Knowles sister doubled down to follow her milestone achievement up.

When I Get Home is a celebration of her native Houston, however, it can be applied to any major city. If you were left cold by this album’s lack of notable hooks or traditional song-structures, try listening to its deep grooves walking or driving around a city at night. I promise, then it will click. When I Get Home is a mood piece whereas Solange’s previous record was a rallying cry, however, it is a big mood. It’s pointless to highlight any of these particular song-sketches as a standout when the whole record is meant to be enjoyed as a singular, magnificent piece. By Adam Turner-Heffer

30.

Black Midi

Schlagenheim

(Rough Trade)

Few bands in recent memory have divided opinion like Black Midi; a London four-piece whose music has been described in equal measure as the future of rock and pretentious nonsense. The truth may lie somewhere in between. Black Midi’s prog-post-punk, and particularly the nasal crooning of Geordie Greep, is undoubtedly ridiculous, yet their talent is undeniable.

Anchored by the extraordinary drumming of Morgan Simpson, Black Midi switch abruptly between pummeling thrashes of distorted guitars and intricate math-rock melodies. Lyrical subjects also vary widely, from the Flint water crisis (“Near DT, MI”) to faux-intellectual posturing (“bmbmbm”). If you think it all sounds deranged on paper, you’re correct. But Schlagenheim contains some of the most viscerally exciting music in any genre this year. The question is not why have Black Midi done this? But why hasn’t anyone else? By Conrad Duncan

31.

Black Belt Eagle Scout

At the Party With My Brown Friends

(Saddle Creek)

There’s a beauty in the brevity of Katherine Paul’s work, the young indigenous woman behind Black Belt Eagle Scout. At the Party With My Brown Friends is filled with half-formed, full-hearted narratives that lament the loss of love (“Scorpio Moon”), longing for love (“My Heart Dreams”), and an undefined yearning (“I Said I Wouldn’t Write This Song”). These vulnerable snippets are never more than a few couplets circulating over again alongside a beautifully dreamy indie rock backdrop. The elements are always sparse yet sincere—the hallmarks, we’re learning, that form a proper Black Belt Eagle Scout release. By Matt Conner

32.

Elbow

Giants of All Sizes

(Polydor/Verve Label Group)

The guiding question on Elbow’s magnum opus, Giants of All Sizes, can be found on its opening track, “Dexter & Sinister.” Guy Garvey asks plainly, “Hey, how do ya keep your eyes ablaze in these faith free, hope free, charity free days?” The next line? “Come back to the light.” The friction therein comprises the material on Elbow’s eighth studio album, a true master-class in pop construction that stretches the band’s sonic palette in all directions, a canvas upon which Garvey asks (and sometimes answers) the questions that plague us all in these days ruled by corrupt Giants of All Sizes. By Matt Conner

33.

DIIV

(Captured Tracks)

DIIV dial back the ringing clarity of their first two albums in favor of something messier, more downtempo, and the result is a complex record that surprises not only from song to song, but from moment to moment. Rather than bury them in the mix, Zachary Cole Smith allows his lyrics to take a more central role, with evocative lines (“I sat/in a slump/so my shadow/slumped, too”) and naked emotion (“Fighting to get through the door/but I can’t live like this any more”) centered around his addiction. Few records were more honest, in all of its sloppy, uneven glory. By Jim Scott

34.

Michael Kiwanuka

Kiwanuka

(Interscope)

Michael Kiwanuka was altogether too agreeable in the early part of his career. While his old soul tone was ripe for telling woes, Kiwanuka stayed safe, going along and getting along. Spending time with inventive and risk-taking producers Danger Mouse and Inflo, Kiwanuka gained the confidence to use his impossible-to-ignore voice to talk about disagreeable topics. The personal and real world matters he started discussing on his second album, Love & Hate, he delves deeper into on Kiwanuka. Lo-fi and scratchy (the same words used to describe his debut, Home Again), Kiwanuka has a ’60s psychedelic twang and a muffled ’50s soul vibe that has nothing in common with today’s sounds and is all the more refreshing for it. By Lily Moayeri

35.

Brittany Howard

Jaime

(ATO)

Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard warns that history repeats itself at the start of her ecstatic debut solo album but there is nothing backwards-looking about her take on soul and blues. On Jaime, Howard unleashes her weirdo instincts, proving there was always more to her work than the rapturous power of her voice.

Across 11 restless songs, she draws together the modern psychedelia of Flying Lotus, synth-pop, and a cacophonous funk-rock ruckus built for the apocalypse. Two moments in particular stand-out. On “Baby,” when Howard bends her vocals around a lolloping groove like she’s Young Thug moonlighting as a soul singer. And on “Stay High,” a celebration of familial love for her father that doubles as a document to the joy of love itself. Howard is not afraid to go dark (see the black humor of “Goat Head”) but the primary takeaway from Jaime is the giddying thrill of her music. By Conrad Duncan

36.

Mannequin Pussy

Patience

(Epitaph)

Mannequin Pussy bring a dash of accessibility to their searing intensity on Patience, structuring their ferocious punk rock around soaring, cathartic hooks. The added focus makes Marisa Dabice’s dissection of broken and abusive relationships all the more potent. On “Drunk II,” she sings about getting so wasted she forgets about the break-up she’s trying to get over. “I still love you, you stupid fuck,” she wails devastatingly. Elsewhere, “Fear/+/Desire” and “High Horse” provide surprisingly beautiful moments of calm.

But amid the newfound clarity, Mannequin Pussy have lost none of their ability to create an all-mighty racket. On “Clams” and “F.U.C.A.W.,” a two-part rager that merges into one song, Dabice is at her confrontational best. “What did you say to me, boy?/Come on and spit it in my face,” she screams, as her bandmates unleash an onslaught of pummeling riffs behind her. By expertly balancing vulnerability and strength, Patience is a triumphant breakthrough. By Conrad Duncan

37.

Sleater-Kinney

The Center Won’t Hold

(Mom + Pop)

One of the year’s most highly anticipated, and controversial, albums, The Center Won’t Hold changed one of the world’s most beloved rock acts of the last 25 years forever. The idea of Sleater-Kinney working with equally adored Annie Clark (St. Vincent) for their first album since 2015’s fantastic reunion record No Cities to Love, had many spectators frothing at the mouth, but instead, it lead to the departure of long-time drummer Janet Weiss. The singles received mixed “wait-and-see” reviews, but the real telltale sign was the band’s final TV appearance as a trio, on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, where a visibly uncomfortable Weiss performed with a grimace.

Since the fallout, words have been exchanged on both sides, tours re-planned, and an unfortunate car accident putting Weiss on the shelf, all making for a rather awkward return for the Portland band. It’s a shame, because for all the furore, The Center Won’t Hold is full of fantastic songs that prove Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker’s continuing worth as truly great songwriters. There is a slight misstep on the album’s penultimate power-pop anthem, but elsewhere this is Sleater-Kinney once again pushing their music forward into fascinating new places which will be re-evaluated on the live circuit. By Adam Turner-Heffer

38.

Bon Iver

i,i

(Jagjaguwar)

With his three critically-acclaimed Bon Iver albums this decade, not to mention his collaborations with rappers, his indie-rock production work and side projects, and his hometown festival project, it’s not hard to understand Justin Vernon’s status as one of the most influential solo artists of the decade. With i,i, Vernon shares the spotlight with a new band lineup that includes Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner, and with guests like Bruce Hornsby, Moses Sumney, James Blake, Bryce Dessner, and more. The result is Bon Iver’s most open-hearted, warm, and eclectic album yet. Sonically, it’s a mashup of the glitchy electronics of 2016’s 22, A Million with the lush indie rock of 2011’s self-titled record, and lyrically, it’s odd and obtuse as always, but with more personal touches and conceptual clarity. And when everything comes together, such as on the anthemic “Hey, Ma” or the stunning three-song stretch that finishes the album, it’s a comforting, familial-feeling, and it’s indie rock magic. By Scott Dransfield

39.

Cate Le Bon

Reward

(Mexican Summer)

Cate Le Bon’s fifth long player, Reward, has a bit of an ironic title as repeated listens do little to unveil easily gotten treasures. The ruminative vamps that make up the collection run from the contemplative and moody to somewhat swingier affairs. Obtuse, yet compelling, Reward pairs up well with David Bowie’s Lodger, and it’s no wonder that Le Bon and Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox have become something of kindred spirits. The album is impeccably crafted, expertly played and sung, yet is still a tough egg to crack. Sometimes the reward comes in the challenge itself. By Mark Moody

40.

Andrew Bird

My Finest Work Yet

(Loma Vista)

The inventive guitar work, the commanding whistle, the beautiful orchestral backing, the exquisite songcraft—it’s all very much in play, once again, on Andrew Bird’s latest full-length album, My Finest Work Yet. In fact, producer Paul Butler has partnered with Bird to give the acclaimed songwriter more space than ever and the results are stunning. If you missed this upon initial release, start with “Sisyphus,” one of Bird’s, well, finest works yet. By Matt Conner

Click here to see #41 to #100.

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