Another year, another list. Here at HeadStuff we’ve taken a simple approach to the selection process—just picking our own personal favourites. There were some close calls and a few artists can count themselves unfortunate to narrowly miss out. Nonetheless, if you haven’t made this list, your career is undoubtedly over.
Now, without further ado, here are the best albums of 2019 (according to us) listed in alphabetical order. Or, if you don’t fancy reading anything, skip to the end for the obligatory playlist.
Amanda Palmer | There Will Be No Intermission
Never before has an album given as visceral an insight into someone’s personal life as There Will Be No Intermission. Her familiar off-kilter piano is back, but Palmer’s vocals are softer and lighter than before. She is no longer singing from anger but from grief. This is a tough album to listen to. Palmer speaks on topics such as abortion, miscarriage, cancer, grief, and the overwhelming fears of parenthood. There Will Be No Intermission is breathtaking in its honesty. The album cover is as open as the lyrics, featuring a naked Palmer atop a wooden post, holding a sword into the sky. It is both vulnerable and powerful, mirroring the album’s sentiment—that you can be both at the same time.
Big Thief | U.F.O.F.
‘Not’ is probably my track of the year, but I’ve gone for U.F.O.F. over Two Hands as my favourite Big Thief record of 2019. Led by Adrianne Lenker’s ethereal imagery and staggering vocal delivery, the prolific Brooklynites have cemented their status as one of the most exciting bands in the world this year. The opening run of ‘Contact’, ‘UFOF’, and ‘Cattails’ is an immediate declaration of intent—dense, layered songwriting meshing Lenker’s voice with the otherworldly soundscape cultivated by her bandmates. Later in the album, crunching guitars offer catharsis on heavier tracks like ‘Jenni’. Listening to U.F.O.F. gives the odd feeling of submersion, with Lenker’s vocal the only source of illumination beneath the surface. In the end, you come up for air feeling cleansed. Big Thief are ending the decade on an unprecedented high, long may it continue.
Billie Eilish | When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
If we remember one album from 2019, let it be this one. Billie Eilish has changed the pop game this year. The viral appeal of ‘Bad Guy’, the skilful, off-the-wall production, and the pure catchy fun of this kid genius’s work has ingrained her in the public consciousness. She’s showing no signs of slowing down either. More than that, this album inspires just a touch of hope. Maybe if a weird artist who does things her own way and releases a batshit album like this can make it big, then even more interesting musicians can spring up in the next few years.
Bon Iver | i,i
A new Bon Iver album is a hotly anticipated musical event and the release of i,i was no different. Again, the production of Bon Iver’s work is fascinating. There is so much audio trickery here. It’s proper meaty songwriting that can be dissected and discussed for hours and hours—if your friends can be arsed listening to you. Mine could not, but the joke’s on them. I have an incredible album with some of the decade’s best songwriting, and what do they have? Companionship?! Pfft. Losers. Anyway, listen to ‘Hey, Ma’ or ‘iMi’ for all I care.
FKA twigs | MAGDALENE
FKA twigs’ music has always been an enchanting fusion of electronica, trip-hop and contemporary R&B. This long-awaited follow up to her universally acclaimed debut, LP1, sees her exorcising emotional demons. We can assume that much of the material on MAGDALENE refers to the dissolution of her high-profile relationship with actor Robert Pattinson, but also to surgery undergone in 2017 to remove fibroid tumours from her uterus. ‘Mary Magdalene’ signals the bulk of the album’s content, her tenor voice over scintillating keys reaching a sort of epiphany in the song’s opening moments:
A woman’s work
A woman’s prerogative
A woman’s time to embrace
She must put herself first
Girl Band | The Talkies
Holding Hands with Jamie was a pulverising, relentless, unorthodox attack on the senses, establishing Girl Band as leaders in the contemporary Irish music scene. With all the hype, and the spotlight on frontman Dara Kiely as a “troubled genius”, it was small wonder that cracks would soon appear. 2017 saw a tour cancellation and an indefinite hiatus. 2019’s return, with the ear-splitting ‘Shoulderblades’, was glorious. Recorded in seclusion at Ballintubbert House, The Talkies is predictably unpredictable. Produced by bassist Daniel Fox, mostly in the key of A, and with lyrics featuring no pronouns, the album opens with the heavy breathing of a panic attack on ‘Prolix’. Kiely’s oddball lyrics and ranting vocal style spill all over Adam Faulkner’s hissing snare and Alan Duggan’s chaotic riffage on ‘Going Norway’:
“Apple, penny, table” said
Doctor Awkward savage head
Needs a minute
Got a minute
There are many sonic treats throughout (reverse-tape loops on ‘Aibohphobia’, klaxon-like guitars on ‘Couch Combover’). It’s beyond difficult to unpack, but it’s a unique listening experience, and one that is completely their own.
Hozier | Wasteland, Baby!
Hozier came back in force this year, with anticipation for his return higher than the Fibbers smoking area. This album is full of pop tunes infused with Hozier’s own brand of mythical lyricism, clever musicality, and magical vocal ability. If you can avoid chanting along to ‘Nina Cried Power’ or having a lil’ boogie to ‘Dinner and Diatribes’, then you’re a stronger person than me and I respect you.
James Blake | Assume Form
James Blake has, somehow, found himself a very well-connected man among the biggest names in the music industry. That’s not intended to be disparaging, Blake has clearly worked hard and finds himself in such demand because of his obvious talent. Nonetheless, the trajectory of his career has been an unusual one. From melancholic post-dubstep producer to Beyoncé collaborator isn’t a familiar career path, but it’s one Blake has carved out for himself.
On Assume Form, he draws on these superstar connections to great effect, recruiting the likes of Travis Scott and André 3000 for an uncharacteristically upbeat record. The production, as expected, is immaculate throughout, and though Blake’s voice is probably best suited to the more downtrodden subject matter of his past work, the willingness to reach out and express his joy (‘Can’t Believe The Way We Flow’) is all the more endearing because of this. Finally, to call back to Blake’s collaborators for a moment, that Andre 3000 verse on ‘Where’s the Catch?’ is just something else.
Lana Del Rey | Norman Fucking Rockwell!
A longtime Lana Del Rey skeptic, I never thought I’d find myself here. From her emergence on the back of ‘Video Games’, I’d been unconvinced, seeing Del Rey’s retro Americana shtick as nothing more than, well, shtick. Perhaps, had I paid a little more attention, I’d have seen her mature into the songwriter capable of delivering one of my favourite albums of 2019. In the end, I’m more certain of Norman Fucking Rockwell! than any of my other inclusions on this list.
Lust For Life (2017) may have offered strong individual tracks (‘Love’, ‘Heroin’) but Norman Fucking Rockwell! is consistently engaging throughout. Del Rey dives into west coast America, sun-soaked and sordid, with substantial lyricism beyond a mere pastiche of retro Americana and old-school Hollywood glitz. There’s a lingering sense of doom throughout, with tracks like ‘Venice Bitch’ meandering off down psychedelic alleyways, before circling back to find Del Rey’s voice rising up from the calm centre of a storm. Every choice pays off, from the production to the pacing, to the inclusion of a cover (‘Doin’ Time’). Del Rey is lyrically sharp and her voice sounds better than ever. This is the record she’s been striving to make all these years—and it sounds effortless.
The Murder Capital | When I Have Fears
The Dublin quintet’s debut album is highly-strung and attention grabbing. Frontman James McGovern’s heavily accented rasp and lyrics purge the ghosts of his past and the traumas of his present. “If I gave you what you wanted, you’d never be full”, he seethes on ‘More Is Less’, over a relentless, anxiety-inducing rhythm section. Every single track on When I Have Fears sounds deliberately grimy. A feeling of despair haunts the soundscape of ‘Green and Blue’, as allusions to sirens and collapse are reflected in the ear-piercing guitar loops of the song’s dying moments.
Producer Flood’s work in capturing the band has drawn comparisons to the likes of Joy Division, but the poetic beauty and brutality of McGovern’s lyrics, and how they fit the band’s sonic onslaught, are unprecedented. Adopting a hushed drawl on ‘How the Streets Adore Me Now’, McGovern fights a battle with the undivided self. Dark and beautiful, When I Have Fears is an outstanding first effort.
PVRIS | Hallucinations
Hallucinations is electro pop trio PVRIS’ first release in 2 years. While the songs were written at various times over the course of a few years, you can feel a common thread between them, as they came into their final incarnations at the same time. It gives a sneak peek into what to expect from their third studio album, which they’re aiming to release in 2020. While Hallucinations leans more on the EDM/pop side of their sound, a familiar haunting underlay still remains. These more upbeat songs are separated by the track ‘Things Are Better’, featuring frontwoman Lynn Gunn’s angelic voice over hypnotic piano. Hallucinations a collection of songs showing PVRIS at their best.
Wallows | Nothing Happens
After nearly a decade of playing together, Wallows finally emerged with their debut album Nothing Happens. It’s a solid collection of bedroom indie-pop with a very clear hint of its LA genesis. It’s upbeat, it’s bright, and it’s exactly the kind of album you need for a coastal road trip on a sunny weekend. Above all, Nothing Happens is an ode to the pains and the joys of youth. These past regrets and celebrations add to the dreamy vibes of nostalgia.