2019 came and went and left with it a legacy of highly listenable albums. Young pop stars had their moment, while a couple of old favourites made major comebacks. Before 2020 bombards us with yet more music, we round up 20 of the most notable albums of 2019.
1. Julia Michaels – Inner Monologue Part 1, Part 2
Julia Michaels went from being a songwriter to the stars to being a pop star in her own right. For fans of Dua Lipa, Halsey or Lauv, Michaels — now on her fourth EP — is an artist to watch. With themes of broken relationships, mental health and nostalgia, Michaels turns the unremarkable and fleeting into the heart-wrenching and infinite. Whether collaborating with Selena Gomez on ‘Anxiety’ and Niall Horan on ‘What A Time’ — or delivering solo brilliance on ‘Happy’ and ‘Hurt Again’ — Michaels knows how to mix self-reflective depth with contemporary relevance.
2. Backstreet Boys – DNA
It’s no small thing that this was Backstreet Boys’ first No 1 album since 2000’s ‘Black & Blue’, or that they got a Grammy nomination for the lead single. BSB are back in top form, taking a daring turn on the bass-heavy track ‘New Love’, while sticking to finger-snapping innocence on ‘Breathe’. Featuring major contemporary songwriters Shawn Mendes and Ryan Tedder (‘Chances’), it’s no surprise that ‘DNA’ was a creative breakthrough for a band who has managed to maintain relevance 25 years later.
3. Ariana Grande – Thank U, Next
Grande debuted six years ago but finally comes into her own on her fifth studio album ‘Thank U, Next’ (which earns her her first No 1 single). The pop star is on the precipice of something great — unapologetic, brazen, fresh out of a heavily publicised celebrity break-up and slammed for grieving another former love. Grande has had a tough few years — Manchester Arena bombing notwithstanding. As a performer, however, the hardships and scrutiny have put things into perspective. Cracking the last of her controlled Disney persona — and escaping Mariah Carey comparisons — she’s finally able to say, “To hell with it.”
4. Juice WRLD – Death Race for Love
Juice WRLD’s ‘Death Race for Love’ opens with a gentle tinkling of piano before launching into a tortured rap of, ‘The same black hole that’s in place of my soul, Empty, I feel so goddamn empty.’ That tells you everything you need to know about this promising talent whose life was cut short this year. An emo rap darling, Juice wasn’t afraid to lay out his feelings as is, without hiding behind complicated turns of phrase or clever metaphors. Focusing on drug reliance and heartbreak, ‘Death Race for Love’ feels like Juice is working out his issues in real-time, figuring it out as he goes along. A painful window into a young artist, who died earlier this month aged 21.
5. Billie Eilish – When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
It’s Billie Eilish’s world, we’re just living in it. The singer — only 17 at time of release — takes plenty risks on her debut album: her delivery is sluggish, dark, hidden behind experimental and deliciously punchy production (thanks to her closest collaborator and brother, Finneas O’Connell). Her subject matter is mature, but you never get the sense that it’s intended for this person or that, rather written by and for herself. Recorded in a bedroom, it has the heart and rawness of something that could have only been conceived so close to home.
6. Lizzo – Cuz I Love You
Lizzo has been working hard on getting her name out there, with ‘Cuz I Love You’ marking her third studio album and her first major label release. The titular track — a spine-chilling opener that gets into your bones — sets a serious expectation, one that is broken again and again. Lizzo feels different on every track. Whether playing with R’n’B, rap, jazz, funk, disco or pure pop, the ever-changing singer infuses her music with humour, feeling, confidence, urgency and a sense of togetherness — this is you and Lizzo against the world, after all.
7. Megan Thee Stallion – Fever
Challenging her contemporaries on album opener ‘Realer’, Megan Thee Stallion spits: “I’m a real rap [expletive], this ain’t no pop [expletive].” The Southern rapper offers a no-holds-barred, highly explicit manifesto on mixtape ‘Fever’, a progression from what made her go viral in the first place: a 2013 clip where she battled against all-male opponents on a cypher while at university. The 24-year-old — previously known by aliases Tina Snow and Hot Girl Meg — has quickly become known for her confidence and blunt lyricism.
8. Banks – III
On ‘III’, Banks’ sonic palate turns from tooth-rottingly sweet to bone-breakingly dark. As she transitions between crystal clear vocals to a distorted earthquake of overlapping noises, equally perturbing and pleasant, Banks pulls you in with her bark but holds you in place with her bite.
9. Post Malone – Hollywood’s Bleeding
It’s hard to escape the lure of Post Malone. With his distinctive vocal and frequent emotionality, he’s become a fixture on the Top 10. Criticised for being a culture vulture and referred to by some as ‘trap pop’, Post Malone nonetheless went to No 1 with ‘Sunflower’ and ‘Circles’.
10. Charli XCX – Charli
Charli XCX’s third studio album is packed with collaborations — Tommy Cash, Lizzo and Troye Sivan, to name a few — but the 15-track cosmic effort is also indicative of what Charli can do when left to her own devices. The synth-pop album is both retro and violently futuristic, with songs like ‘1999’ sounding like they might play in a nightclub filled with droids. The boldness and singularity of her vision is fascinating.
11. Brockhampton – Ginger
At 12 songs long, Brockhampton’s ‘Ginger’ clocks in at just under 45 minutes — one of the prolific band’s most succinct and edited efforts to date. But it packs a punch that lasts far longer than its runtime. The fifth studio album by the hip hop collective processes the loss of innocence, the pain of growing up (and apart) and the power of evolving through trauma.
12. Ruel – Free Time
If you can get past how much the shaggy-haired Ruel sounds like Justin Bieber on tracks like ‘Real Thing’, you’ll hear the appeal of this young Australian singer-songwriter on his second EP. The 17-year-old has the potential to find his own voice and rub shoulders with Bieber and Shawn Mendes on the charts with his sensitive musings.
13. DaBaby – Kirk
DaBaby’s ad-libs and diaristic lyricism — interspersing breakneck bars about the loss of his father with joyful musings on his success and living large — have made him a fast favourite. With guest appearances from Chance the Rapper, Gucci Mane, Migos and Nicki Minaj, DaBaby’s sophomore album has soared rather than slumped, taking him to No 1 for the first time.
14. FKA Twigs – Magdalene
FKA Twigs’ طMagdaleneط feels more like fine art than a music album. Rife with biblical references, it kicks off with the insectlike buzzing of طThousand Eyesط, to the distorted vocals of طHome With Youط, evolving through a desperate mid-section only to crumble emotionally with طCellophaneط, which holds the cleanest vocal performance of the album as a distressed FKA croons, “Why won’t you do it for me, When all I do is for you?”
15. Jonas Brothers – Happiness Begins
The rebirth of Jonas Brothers has been fascinating. While boy bands tend to target their existing fans with comebacks and reunions, this trio has raked in a whole new fan base with ‘Happiness Begins’. The trio — all settled down and with less Disney angst — start over with a fun, organic effort, mixing Joe’s DNCE experimentalism with their pop roots and exhibiting the kind of laid-back swagger that comes with age.
16. Summer Walker – Over It
It’s a testament to Summer Walker’s skill that she’s attracted the biggest names of the genre on her first studio album. ‘Over It’ features Drake, Usher (their song ‘Come Thru’ extrapolates ‘You Make Me Wanna…’), Jhene Aiko and more. Walker’s old school R’n’B beats and sultry vocal delivery make her an irresistible force.
17. Harry Styles – Fine Line
While Harry Styles’ self-titled debut record was more of a wide net cast into his heroes’ back catalogues and reeled back in with a blur of inspirations, his sophomore album ‘Fine Line’ is certain and cohesive in its proclamations. Styles steps into a fleshier world, committing to retro melodies and carnal themes as he takes his reverent love letters to a new level. A theme of nature and in particular fruit (watermelon, strawberry, cherry) gives the album an earthly and summery feel.
18. Stormzy – Heavy Is the Head
Stormzy hits back at his haters and revels in his own greatness on ‘Heavy is the Head’, which cements him as a leading figure of modern UK grime. Both musically and lyrically, he torments, aggravates and lands punches without breaking a sweat, but never loses the sense of community and gratitude that underpins his confidence.
19. Tool – Fear Inoculum
As Tool’s first album in 13 years, ‘Fear Inoculum’ understood the expectations surrounding it and delivered accordingly. With songs exceeding 10 minutes (‘7empest’ goes on for nearly 16 minutes), the 10-track album clocks in at just under an hour-and-a-half. According to lead singer Maynard James Keenan, repeat listening is required to understand the gradually building album.
20. Ed Sheeran – No. 6 Collaborations Project
With a self-indulgent album chock-full of A-listers — from Travis Scott, Eminem and Bruno Mars to Stormzy, Chance the Rapper and Cardi B — Ed Sheeran hops indiscriminately between genres. ‘South of the Border’ with Camila Cabello, ‘Beautiful People’ with Khalid and ‘I Don’t Care’ with Justin Bieber are just three earworms out of 15 solid tracks.