Exclaim!'s 20 Best Pop and Rock Albums of 2019

BY Exclaim! StaffPublished Dec 4, 2019

With the decade coming to a close, the trends and changes over the past ten years have begun to crystallize into the forms through which they'll be memorialized in the decades to come. Pop music was further pushed into exploratory territory while rock music wholly embraced new perspectives, and this year was no different. Rising stars like Angel Olsen, FKA twigs and Weyes Blood made their boldest statements to date, while stalwarts like Nick Cave and Jenny Lewis got personal. Here are Exclaim!'s 20 Best Pop and Rock Albums of 2019.

20. Caroline Polachek
(Sony Music Canada / The Orchard)

Caroline Polachek's first record released under her real name is an elegant, career-spanning blend of the artful songwriting sophistication of Chairlift's last album, the emotional nuance of her solo work as Ramona Lisa and CEP and the futuristic synth-pop burble of PC Music alumnus Danny L Harle (who co-wrote and co-produced most of the album). Polachek's best quality is her ability to express multiple emotions at once — "So Hot You're Hurting My Feelings" somehow is horny and wistful at the same time — and she completes that balance masterfully throughout PANG, a title that perfectly evokes sadness, joy, regret and the rest of the album's emotional spectrum in just one word.
Stephen Carlick

19. Carly Rae Jepsen
(604 / Universal)

It can be easy to forget it's been nearly a decade since Carly Rae Jepsen really flew into the pop stratosphere. With the release of "Call Me Maybe" in 2011, Jepsen had an earworm for the ages, and she's since been following up with material that's just as catchy and artistically rewarding, if not more. Dedicated is even further proof of her staying power as an artist, complete with strong lyricism and her own emotive vocal abilities. But most of all, it shows a singer who strives to push herself artistically, and it's hard not to think she has more up her sleeve.
Matt Yuyitung

18. Jenny Hval
The Practice of Love
(Sacred Bones)

Where does one go following an album like Blood Bitch, the 2016 concept album that cemented Hval's position as one of art-pop's finest voices? In Hval's case, you write a novel and then create what is often wrongly asserted as your most accessible album yet. Not that The Practice of Love isn't accessible: its sonic palette is familiar and it features a more significant amount of outside contributions than Hval's previous work. But every song on The Practice of Love unfurls in unexpected ways to form a collection that's both deeply impactful and aurally pleasing, but that continues Hval's ability to provoke and confound.
Scott Simpson

17. Billie Eilish
When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
(Darkroom / Interscope)

From a SoundCloud song drop to her first full-length release, Billie Eilish has steadily built a loyal fanbase over the last four years with an ease that seems unprecedented. She's bold, brash and boundlessly creative, all of which is entirely applicable to her debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? This release encapsulates a sound that will no doubt be replicated the world over — dark and haunting, schematic yet complex, sometimes beautiful, often brooding. Rife with distortion and low end, it's an unusually brilliant approach to an evolving brand of pop music with incomparable production. At 17, Eilish has created an album that many artists spend a lifetime aiming for.
Ashley Hampson

16. black midi
(Rough Trade)

A manic, blissful and all-out fantastic record, Schlagenheim is what happens when you take post-punk, paint on some jazzy edges and distorted chaos, and then Jackson Pollock the shit out of it. The sheer riffage on opener "953" gives way to self-loathing on "Reggae," anchored by frontman Geordie Greep's looming intensity. The madness continues on "Years Ago," tense syncopation and drum fills galore. Groovy for all the right reasons, at times leaning into noisier territory, black midi have set a torrid standard for those who choose to follow.
Josh Weinberg

15. Jenny Lewis
On the Line

Coming five years after The Voyager, On the Line finds Jenny Lewis wrestling with heartbreak, grief and regret, but also blessed with her strongest set of songs yet, one that features seemingly endless supplies of memorable lyrics, colourful characters and unshakeable hooks. If On the Line often evokes the lush Southern California pop of late-1970s Fleetwood Mac, the album suggests that Lewis also shares Buckingham, Nicks and McVie's propensity for crafting emotionally transparent break-up songs wrapped in polished, subtly layered arrangements that reward close listening. All may not always be well in Lewis's world, but On the Line confirms that her ability to wring compelling, sun-kissed pop out of personal turmoil is nearly unmatched.
Thierry Côté

14. Vampire Weekend
Father of the Bride
(Sony Music)

A lot of fans had cause to be worried what Vampire Weekend's first album without Rostam Batmanglij would sound like, but the remaining crew weathered the storm with grace — and Rostam even returned for some guest production on Father of the Bride. Looser than they've ever sounded, the band embraced jam-rock and folk influences to surprising success, and welcomed new voices like Danielle Haim and Steve Lacy into the fold alongside Ezra Koenig's distinctive croon. Moving away from absurdist lyrics and incorporating straightforward love songs about marriage without ever getting boring, the result is Vampire Weekend's most mature and intriguing work to date.
Sarah Murphy

13. Brittany Howard

Putting Alabama Shakes on the backburner to create Jaime was necessary for Brittany Howard, who wrote her solo debut as "a process of healing." While rooted in the Shakes' rock 'n' blues, Jaime is Howard's most musically ambitious effort, on which she leads a talented backing band through hip-hop, funk and R&B influences with her singular voice. Howard's deeply personal — and often political — songwriting effortlessly matches the musical stakes with words of love, hope and persistence. Considering the scope of her self-reflection, it is nothing short of masterful what these songs accomplish in so little time.
Calum Slingerland

12. Bon Iver

As artists mature, they tend to fall into sharper focus. Not so with Justin Vernon; with each new Bon Iver album, the project's mastermind slips further into the background, increasingly consumed by his own sonic tapestries and the idea that Bon Iver is a band, not a person. That impersonality could be a turn-off to listeners, but i,i buffers the trend by offering a through line across Vernon's career. While nothing is as stripped down as rustic intimacy of his debut, its warmth paired with its predecessor's ambition is felt across the record's 40 minutes. The result is a record that finally lets listeners catch up with Vernon's restless creativity without sparing his need for constant evolution.
Ian Gormely

11. Big Thief
U.F.O.F. and Two Hands

Simply put, Big Thief stole 2019, as the folk-rock quartet proved their deep bond by releasing two impeccable albums a mere five months apart. Crafting flesh-and-blood autobiographical sketches, these albums highlighted how integral the voice of Big Thief's emotional centre, Adrianne Lenker, has become amongst contemporary singer-songwriters.

Delivering lyrics rife with wonder, Lenker's voice is equal parts care and violence. However, Big Thief's other members aren't merely a vehicle for Lenker. All four are in sync, lifting these songs with traditional guitar/bass/drums arrangements that sound unprecedented, tender and otherworldly. Retreating to Washington to record the lush U.F.O.F. and shifting to Texas for the stripped-down Two Hands, Big Thief's twin 2019 releases prove that slight production variation can create distinct song sets that feel equally prescient. What these works may prove most is how sheer openness, devoid of cynicism, makes people want to listen.
Sam Boer

10. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
(Ghosteen Ltd.)

Over the last few years, Nick Cave has been through a spiritual journey brought on by a devastating loss. The sudden, accidental death of the Australian singer-songwriter's 15-year-old son, Arthur, has radically reshaped his perspective on life and humanity, transforming the way he engages with his audience and his approach to writing. Out of all that emerges Ghosteen. While the magnificent Skeleton Tree was haunted by that loss, this is the first to face it squarely and peel back the endless layers of grief. You'd think that would make Ghosteen a deeply sad experience (and it often is), but its emotional complexity, cinematic scope and surreal, undeniable beauty are enough to welcome you on this journey — one that is startlingly blissful and intensely rewarding.
Adam Feibel

9. Better Oblivion Community Center
Better Oblivion Community Center
(Dead Oceans)

Better Oblivion Community Center launched with a recruitment campaign, promising "care and service catered to find your own better oblivion." What seemed like a dystopian support group was revealed to be a new supergroup composed of Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers, with a masterful folk-rock debut. The pair deliver empathetic tales about modern anxieties and existential distress, honouring the support group concept by offering moments of solace amid the adversity: "I'm fine with what I've lost," "I feel so proud now for all the good I've done." Sonically evoking that theme, the pair expertly place soothing harmonies and purposefully sparse instrumentals within their otherwise burgeoning soundscape. At the height of their musicianship, Oberst and Bridgers offer compassion at the end of a trying decade.
Lisa Vanderwyk

8. Weyes Blood
Titanic Rising
(Sub Pop)

Weyes Blood is quite the expert when it comes to creating sonically hazy dreamscapes, and Titanic Rising is no exception. The ten-track album is Natalie Mering's fourth full-length LP and arguably her most articulate and fully-formed. Musical influences range from the Carpenters to Joni Mitchell ("Everyday" sounds like it could be a '70s smash hit, despite the lyrics detailing adventures in online dating), yet Mering is still able to maintain an individual identity separate from her inspirations. It takes a special kind of artist to combine soft-rock sensibilities whilst paying homage to a certain '90s film starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, but Weyes Blood does it seamlessly.
Hannah Ziegler

7. Purple Mountains
Purple Mountains
(Drag City)

Purple Mountains looked like the start to an unexpected second act for David Berman, a decade after abruptly retiring his beloved Silver Jews. Instead, it was a coda: less than a month after the album's release, the poet and songwriter died by suicide. It's impossible not to hear overwhelming sadness and isolation on tracks like "All My Happiness is Gone" and "I Loved Being My Mother's Son," but there remains a lingering undercurrent of hope. Before he passed, Berman gave the world one last collection of heartfelt, twanging rock tunes coupled with the most direct songwriting of his career, filled with the type of melancholic quips that stand among his best. It's a sad, but encapsulating, farewell to one of Gen X's most singular songwriters.
Matt Bobkin

6. PUP
Morbid Stuff
(Little Dipper)

Ultimately, PUP's Morbid Stuff takes everything that the band has done so well over the years and perfects it to a tee. While the album as a whole is a clear representation of how PUP has matured, it possesses just enough adolescent reflection to keep you coming back for more. Every single track on the album expertly navigates different facets of mental health in the most candid and honest way possible. Morbid Stuff sees PUP at their most confident, yet most vulnerable. It's an album for both the angsty youth and the apathetic young adults that they grow into.
Alex Rodobolski

5. Sharon Van Etten
Remind Me Tomorrow

While her music has always delved into deeply personal territory, Sharon Van Etten's fifth full-length album does with a sharpened, unapologetic sense of confidence; her most powerful songwriting to date, paired with John Congleton's synth-heavy production, merging to conjure a sinister, maximalist storm that she sits comfortably, and unhesitantly, in the eye of. From the indestructibility of youth on the anthemic "Seventeen" to the blunt album opener "I Told You Everything" that sees her divulging a traumatic past — without giving away the subject matter — Remind Me Tomorrow is filled with timeless tracks meant for dancing, screaming, laughing and weeping in equal measure.
Courtney Baird-Lew

4. (Sandy) Alex G
House of Sugar
(Rough Trade)

Alex Giannascoli's music sounds like it wouldn't work on paper—what with his pitch-shifted vocals, genre-defying tracklistings and ragged guitar playing. But over the past decade, he's risen out of the bedroom and up indie rock's ranks to become one of the most enigmatic and inspiring artists of his generation. His eighth studio album, House of Sugar, is his best yet, mixing all too familiar tales from most people's 20s (the death of a friend in "Hope"), sweet and sour sonics ("Gretel"), and stories that blend fiction with reality to create an album that's worth endlessly puzzling over.
Matthew Ritchie

3. FKA Twigs
(Young Turks)

On Magdalene, FKA twigs has found the perfect balance of glorious, heartfelt popsmithery and bold, crackling experimentalism. Where recent EPs skewed towards abstract avenues of musical thought that weren't always interested in clear payoffs, Magdalene puts the emotional arc of the songwriting first, but doesn't restrain her wilder production instincts by any means. Not since Björk has an artist danced between genres with such wowing finesse, incorporating aspects of any style that supports the intent of her alchemical avant-pop art. Magdalene is a magnificent achievement and shining example of the magic unfettered artistry can weave in the hands of a singular talent.
Scott A. Gray

2. Angel Olsen
All Mirrors

Some artists just get better as time goes on. Angel Olsen has always been talented and multifaceted — contemplative lyrics have been a touchstone of her work since 2012's Half Way Home, as have shape-shifting arrangements — but, with All Mirrors, her fourth full-length studio album, she reaches a place of transcendence. A 14-piece orchestra adds swelling drama to sparkling synth (first track "Lark" is a standout), as well as quiet grandeur to songs like "Endgame," where Olsen finds empowerment in heartbreak and solitude. It provides additional compass through a deep exploration of Olsen's emotional landscape, thick with revelations of love and realizations of self. Complicated, cathartic and sublime, All Mirrors is Olsen's best effort yet.
Yasmine Shemesh

1. Lana Del Rey
Norman Fucking Rockwell!

Right from the electrifying opening line of Norman Fucking Rockwell! — "Goddamn, man child. You fucked me so good that I almost said 'I love you'" — Lana Del Rey has listeners in the palm of her hand.

On her fifth record, Del Rey covers reggae-ska band Sublime, name checks Sylvia Plath, and, like always, litters her album with Americana references. But on Norman Fucking Rockwell!, the clearest demonstration of Del Rey's talent to date, she sidesteps the hollow mopiness of her previous recordings and delivers meticulously cutting lyricism whose appeal is undeniable. Between the minimalist piano ballads like "Happiness is a Butterfly" the soft-pop of tracks like "Mariners Apartment Complex," and the sprawling, near-10 minute, psychedelically textured pop song "Venice Bitch," Del Rey crafts a record that will stand the test of time.

But perhaps the most emotionally striking quality of Norman Fucking Rockwell! is how stubbornly hopeful Del Rey is despite the painful heartache that she describes throughout. "Fuck It, I love you," she resigns, clinging to the possibility that the feeling will be returned. And in the album's closing moment, she sings, "hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have. But I have it." Goddamn, Lana Del Rey.
Laura Stanley

Check out more of Exclaim!'s Best of 2019 lists here.

Latest Coverage