In a hyperspeed world, it is increasingly meaningful to sit with the vision of one artist for an extended period of time. It’s an experience that can offer shelter from the noise—or it can offer better noise, if that’s what you’re looking for. From drowsy hip-hop to pitch-perfect pop, albums of all genres felt more profound than ever. Synthesizing devastating breakups and calling for revolution in every style of sound, these albums went all-in on what matters.
10. Purple Mountains: Purple Mountains
We’re used to confronting a work of crushing sadness after the artist who made it has reached a better place. Stories of depression and despair are easier to take with full knowledge of the happy ending. Purple Mountains, the final album of new music from David Berman, released 26 days before he took his own life at age 52, offers no such luxury. A number of lines and song titles—“The dead know what they are doing when they leave this world behind,” from “Nights That Won’t Happen,” or “No way to last out here like this for long” from “All My Happiness Is Gone”—seem to point at what was to come, and to hear them in a certain mood is to be emotionally overwhelmed.
But it’s important to remember what Berman’s friends at Drag City said following his death: His music didn’t predict his death; it was written despite his depression. The best way to hear these songs now is to listen to them in that spirit—to assume Berman was fighting fire with fire. He searched for the perfectly turned phrase to articulate pain because it helped him feel less of it; he added jokes because the absurdity of life is funny. His parting gift turned out to be one of his very best records.
9. Weyes Blood: Titanic Rising
Titanic Rising is vintage-sounding music for people who don’t want to live in the past. On her fourth album as Weyes Blood, L.A. singer-songwriter Natalie Mering coos laughably old-fashioned lines like “treat me right, I’m still a good man’s daughter” while referencing the cosmic loneliness of modern dating. You can parse out the weight, hope, and humor of Mering’s poetry, or you can sit back and let her dulcet tone and excellent taste in George Harrison-esque slide guitar wash over you. But even going the comfortable route, she is constantly disrupting her own ’70s soft rock pastiche with sounds that represent the future—space-age synths, satellites trying to connect. This simultaneous backward-forwards vantage point leaves Mering well-positioned to consider our current moment—even if she sounds almost nothing like it.
8. Fennesz: Agora
The magic of Christian Fennesz’s work comes in the way he turns the minimal into the maximal, expanding tiny moments into huge sonic environments. When making Agora, his first solo album in five years, the experimental ambient producer was forced to work minimally—after losing his studio space, he was relegated to using headphones in a bedroom—and he translated these restrictions into one of his most oversized works yet. The album’s four tracks are all over 10 minutes in length and unabashedly sweeping, as processed guitar tones and dense computer manipulations generate droning, nearly-orchestral waves. But each mountainous track is also filled with small details, be it a high-pitched squall, a grainy click, or a distant rumble. Like all of Fennesz’s best work, Agora evokes memories and the way they linger and change. But the album never feels faded or nostalgic; all of its enveloping sound is immensely present, pulsing with life.
7. Helado Negro: This Is How You Smile
The most striking aspect of Helado Negro’s This Is How You Smile isn’t the dreamy production, with its lush acoustic guitars wound around intimately rendered drums. It’s not the field recordings that populate interludes like “November 7.” Nor is it the album’s introspective closer, “My Name Is for My Friends,” which splices ambient sounds with brief, cryptic dialogue. Amid all this wonder, what stays with you most is Roberto Carlos Lange’s comforting voice: It’s resonant and entrancing in both Spanish and English as he narrates meditations on resilience and the Latinx experience. Fresh hells rear their ugly heads every day, and Helado Negro reminds us that we can care for our communities as we seek to improve a world determined to beat us down. This Is How You Smile effortlessly illustrates the kind of quiet rage that has come to feel increasingly common in our current reality; for that reason, it might be the finest political record of the year.
6. Bad Bunny: X 100PRE
By the time Bad Bunny dropped his debut LP on Christmas Eve 2018, the Puerto Rican star had already demonstrated fluency in the trap, R&B, and reggaetón sounds that dominate urbano music through a deluge of hit singles and features. But X 100PRE was the first time all of those musical sides—and more—were presented in a singular statement. Expertly sequenced and absent of fluff, the album deploys only a choice few guest appearances designed for maximum impact: a rare Spanish verse from Drake, dirty bass programming by Diplo, and a romantic harmony courtesy of Ricky Martin. The focus instead is on flaunting Bad Bunny’s wide stylistic range; he channels salsa king Héctor Lavoe and flamboyant Mexican pop star Juan Gabriel as fluently as he might modern reggaetoneros like J Balvin and Ozuna. His versatility is most evident on the standout track “La Romana,” in which bachata guitar weaves cleverly into a trap beat before swerving into a full-on dembow banger. For the past few years, Bad Bunny has remained a true original in an urbano scene littered with talented copycats, and X 100PRE is his hard-to-catch victory lap. –Matthew Ismael Ruiz
5. Solange: When I Get Home
In Solange’s vision of Houston, the streetlights are hazy, the liquor is dark, and the air is humming with dreams. The singer’s fourth album, When I Get Home, is a collection of reveries on family, history, and blackness—a love letter to her hometown. She finds solace in the frequent repetition of phrases and calls on powerful forebears for guidance, be they Alice Coltrane, Steve Reich, or DJ Screw. With its loose, almost jazz-like form, When I Get Home elevates Solange’s artistry to another plane: The grace and wisdom that flowed through 2016’s A Seat at the Table is chopped and screwed, complicated not just spiritually but musically as well. The album’s more abstracted tendencies also come to the forefront in its surreal visual companion piece, set in various real and imagined locations around the city. But in Solange’s generous hands, heady ideas don’t feel out of reach. We’re all given a place to rest in her Houston of the soul.
4. Angel Olsen: All Mirrors
With each record, Angel Olsen’s music grows grander and darker, and on All Mirrors, she spreads her leathery wings and nearly blots out the sky. Her most dramatic release yet, All Mirrors telegraphs to us in Andrew Lloyd Webber-sized gestures: When Olsen’s voice ascends an octave on “Lark,” the accompanying drum resounds like a cannon aimed at a fortress, and the dive-bombing glissandos from the orchestra mimic debris streaming around her. Over the album’s inky expanse, Olsen tries out an entirely new, gothic corner of her record collection: The Cure’s Disintegration, Cocteau Twins’ Heaven or Las Vegas, Siouxsie and the Banshees. Even at its gauziest, however, Olsen’s music still thrums with anxiety; her version of dream-pop is unsettled by existential terror, which prickles to the surface of “Too Easy” and “What It Is” like fever sweat.
3. Big Thief: U.F.O.F.
Like white light refracted through a prism to reveal an array of colors, ordinary words and phrases—wrinkled hands, silver hair, clear water—take on new meanings when sung by Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker. U.F.O.F, the first of two stellar albums the band released this year, sounds at once exploratory and wise, as if they are both seeing the world with fresh wonder while explaining the way things have always been. On bulked-up folky rock songs like “Jenni” and “Betsy,” Lenker’s winding voice twists through a dense weave of vine-like guitars and brittle drums, acting as a sonic anchor while the rhythm swirls around her. The lyrics are elliptical yet striking, so successful at filling you with what feels like an ancient longing that it sometimes feels like you’re discovering a new language entirely.
2. FKA twigs: MAGDALENE
FKA twigs’ second album plays like an unsparing breakup manual for a distant species, some glamorous alien race presumably as brilliant at everything as she is: singing, producing, writing, dancing, seducing, exorcising, empathizing. MAGDALENE is an overwhelming collection of intimacies, a generous feat of communication that turns her specific pain (not all of us have to get over a breakup with a celluloid vampire) into communion.
For all the clever syntheses in MAGDALENE’s production—polyphonic vocals wisping over bass shudders; operatic trills distorted into grisly yelps—twigs is desperately clear in her words. Over the alluring trap beat of “holy terrain,” she asks coyly for fidelity, nervous and brave in her open-heartedness. Part the waves of distortion on “home with you,” and she is wailing, gorgeously, at the injustice of emotional abandonment. And on the exquisite centerpiece “cellophane,” she is as exposed, fallen, and overwhelmed as the album’s namesake. But unlike Mary Magdalene, twigs can reclaim her narrative, in this act of graceful assertion that makes the agony of her love heroic.
1. Lana Del Rey: Norman Fucking Rockwell!
After eight years, five albums, and complete political and cultural upheaval, Lana Del Rey has risen to her greatest musical heights. When she first crash-landed into the public consciousness in 2011, breathily cooing about video games and blue jeans, the artist formerly known as Lizzy Grant was engulfed in heated debates over her authenticity, whether or not she was in control of her creative output, and whether she deserved her success at all. (As if the Bowies and Madonnas of the world didn’t spend decades proving that an artist’s greatest triumphs can come from reinvention.) But she ignored the haters and plowed forward, steadily carving out her own dark corner of the pop landscape. Norman Fucking Rockwell! takes that journey one step further: It cements Del Rey as a newly emergent Great American Songwriter.
The elements of the Lana Del Rey Cinematic Universe, as established in the Born to Die era, have remained consistent throughout her discography: Lynchian dreamscapes of haunted prom queens and suburban ennui, meditations on the death of the American Dream, Old Hollywood glamour, the agony and ecstasy of bad men, references to classic rock and Comp Lit 101. On Norman Fucking Rockwell!, her songwriting at last goes toe-to-toe with the grandeur of her ideas. Her lyrics are dense poems destined for academic scrutiny, anchored by the kind of dry wit that could come as easily from the pen of Dorothy Parker as from a really good Instagram caption. Del Rey’s attitude towards destructive relationships take a refreshing turn, giving her more agency than ever before: “You’re fun and you’re wild/But you don’t know the half of the shit that you put me through/Your poetry’s bad and you blame the news,” she sings wearily on the title track. “’Cause you’re just a man/It’s just what you do.” (Because the reality of loving a fast-living, leather jacket-clad Romeo on a motorcycle is that you also have to deal with his bullshit.) Later, on “Venice Bitch,” she’s “fresh out of fucks forever,” like so many of us aspire to be. On “The Greatest,” she takes a widescreen look at our planet, sighing into the void as climate change brings about a hellish endless summer.
Del Rey’s melodies also find their ideal setting in producer Jack Antonoff’s airy Laurel Canyon psych-folk, where she follows in the lineage of Joni Mitchell and Carole King. Untethered from the electronic pop and hip-hop trappings of many of her previous songs, her vocals breathe deep and her melodies luxuriate. Nothing here aims anywhere near the top 40; to paraphrase Del Rey’s buddy Kacey Musgraves, she’s classic in the right way.
Norman Fucking Rockwell! is an album that arrived feeling like a greatest hits collection. Future generations will marvel that one album contained “Venice Bitch” and “Mariners Apartment Complex” and “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but i have it.” And they will scoff in disbelief that Lana Del Rey was once treated as anything but the poet laureate of a world on fire.