There are years when my yearly exercise in ranking albums is fairly easy. That was decidedly not the case this time around. Maybe I can attribute the added challenge to the high number of releases that spoke directly to me, or maybe I simply did a better job this year of exposing myself to more music (the This Week’s Model feature absolutely introduced me to artists I would have otherwise missed). Whatever the reason, my affection was spread so evenly across these records — and a few more that hover just outside of this group of ten — that I can imagine jumbling the list and still feeling satisfied with the ranking.
Well, the album at the top might need to stay the same, no matter what.
1. FKA twigs, Magdalene — On her second full-length effort, FKA twigs continues her mission to turn pop music inside out, exposing the vulnerable networks of nerve underneath the surface. The sense of adventurous invention is so pervasive and the level of intricate craft so astonishing that Magdalene positions twigs as a worthy successor to Kate Bush. The album’s crystalline beauty is often breathtaking.
2. Sharon Van Etten, Remind Me Tomorrow — Sharon Van Etten took five years between albums, exploring different parts creative opportunities during the interim. Returning to her day job, Van Etten is vividly renewed. The songwriting, performance, and production on Remind Me Tomorrow are all exemplary, exuding purpose and mastery. The album sounds stronger each time I listen.
3. Better Oblivion Community Center, Better Oblivion Community Center — This surprise collaboration between Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers is a master class in indie rock songwriting. Easygoing melodies combine with clever, heartfelt lyrics, and the two performers deliver the songs with an endearing eagerness to share. The aw-shucks charm is endless.
4. Sleater-Kinney, The Center Won’t Hold — There were plenty of fans and music writers who seemed to relish disparaging the latest from Sleater-Kinney, a situation I find utterly baffling. Produced by St. Vincent, The Center Won’t Hold finds a great band exploring new territory while maintaining the core of their sound. This is what smart evolution sounds like.
5. Angel Olsen, All Mirrors — Lush and seductive, Angel Olsen’s fourth studio effort is a wise extension of the glum, grand artistic thesis gradually perfected across her previous albums. The songwriting remains piercing, and Olsen’s measured command of her distinctive sound is a pure astonishment.
6. Jenny Lewis, On the Line — On the Line is Jenny Lewis’s strongest set of songs since her Rilo Kiley heyday. The material is romantic, melancholy, and relentlessly clever. It’s crisply produced and sung with offhand emotion that ideally suits the album’s tone. It’s music for one last somber skate around the roller rink.
7. Big Thief, Two Hands — Two Hands is full of spare, folk-inflected music that is somehow both fragile and steely. The album is one of two released by the Brooklyn band Big Thief within a matter of months in 2019. Remarkably, the other one is nearly as strong.
8. Vagabon, Vagabon — Featuring splendid, elegant neo-soul from a performer who radiates charisma, Vagabon’s self-titled album locks into a sly, intoxicating groove so good it prompts a pang of heartbreak when it’s over.
9. Billie Eilish, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? — A delightful weirdo, Billie Eilish offered a debut album that is fiercely of the moment, taking modern pop styles and warping them to her inspired whims.
10. Emily Reo, Only You Can See It — Pristine pop songs for now people, crafted by a multi-talented artist with a clear-eyed point of view and an enviable talent for hooks. Emily Reo’s album is equal parts sweet and tangy. It feels like a gift.