Half of 2019 is nearly in the bank, and one word screams out to me above all others: breakthrough. In some cases, that can mean a young artist living up to all the hype heaped on them upon arrival. (Um, we’re looking at you in particular, Billie Eilish.) It can also signify a promising artist finally reaching the end of that star-bound trajectory we knew they belonged on all along (Jamila Woods, Lizzo, or Tyler, the Creator, anyone?). However, breakthroughs can also come from veterans — even some of our favorite artists — who achieve new levels of success and artistry after being in the game for a number of years (paging the remarkable Sharon Van Etten).
A slew of breakthroughs can make for one helluva inspiring year. To see so many artists coming into their own and reaching new levels of artistry can inspire all of us to believe that we’re only scratching the surface of our capabilities, only a twist of fate or a few more drops of sweat removed from a truly rich harvest, or only one last epiphany, push, or night’s sleep from realizing our creative visions and dreams. So many of the 25 albums here make us feel that way about music, ourselves, and life. If that’s going to be the legacy of 2019, I can’t wait to hear what happens next.
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25. Better Oblivion Community Center – Better Oblivion Community Center
Origin: Los Angeles, California
The Gist: Supreme keepers of my melancholic malaise (and mostly likely yours, too) Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst joined hands once again in 2019 to surprise almost all of us with a brand-new band and a self-titled debut that plunges the depths of isolation, alienation, and maybe a better tomorrow. While this writer writhes at the very thought of even the slightly unexpected, she cannot count Better Oblivion Community Center’s beguiling collection of deftly designed, tender folk-rock among that list.
Why It Rules: Ten days deep into following BOCC cross country on their first-ever tour this spring, I found myself alone in a crowd of Austinites, together worshipping at the altar of folk’s finest heroes. Each night, I licked my lips for every last drop of communion poured at their sonic sermon. Each night, I watched two kindred souls come together in flawless introspective polyphony. It is this very harmony, coupled with signature sharp lyricism and marvelously grimy guitar riffs, that drives Better Oblivion’s self-titled to the top of 2019. The internal friction divulged from song to song is augmented here not by dueling duets spawned from differing approaches to songwriting. Instead, Bridgers and Oberst croon together, traversing the instinctive introspection of what it is to be sad as one. The result is a record that doesn’t beg its listeners to shed their dejection, like many on this list do, but offers a cathartic shoulder to lean on — a musical milk thistle for melancholia to help us cut through the noise. –Irene Monokandilos
24. Pivot Gang – You Can’t Sit with Us
Origin: Chicago, Illinois
The Gist: SABA should be the next household name that emerges from the thriving Chicago rap scene. In a time where much of the most popular hip-hop sounds stuck in the same groove and gets pushed on listeners in Costco bulk units, SABA and fellow Pivot Gang members prove that rap full of subtlety, nuance, and honest storytelling will never go out of style. Joined by family, friends, and local guests like Mick Jenkins, SABA and co. flaunt the power of Chicago’s Westside on You Can’t Sit with Us.
Why It Rules: Let’s keep it as real as a slice of deep dish (fuck that fold-able NY pie) and throw in a Bulls metaphor because … when in sweet home Chicago. We’ve seen SABA play Pippen to Chance the Rapper’s Jordan and drop 60 on his own sophomore game-changer, 2018’s Care for Me, but now he’s proving to be “just like Mike” by taking his Windy City brethren along for the championship ride. And You Can’t Sit with Us boasts so much more than just its most famous member dishing (not dropping) dimes for easy layups. On top tracks like “Colbert” and “Mortal Kombat”, others are playing the role of floor general and make telling these tales of turmoil and triumph look as smooth as a proper full-court weave. Again, SABA should be the next household name out of Chicago, but Pivot Gang proves he sure as hell shouldn’t be the last. –Matt Melis
23. Julia Jacklin – Crushing
Origin: Sydney, Australia
The Gist: Most people deal with a breakup by dyeing their hair and listening to “Suzanne” on repeat for six months. Instead of that, Julia Jacklin responded to her own decoupling by decamping to the Australian bush and crafting one of 2019’s best albums. On her sophomore record, Crushing, Jacklin emerges from the chrysalis of a failed relationship with a collection of songs that interrogate romantic grief and renewed autonomy while simultaneously reclaiming and reacclimating to the liberty of being unattached.
Why It Rules: Even when taken as a part of Australia’s recent boomlet of confessional female rockers (including 2018 standouts Camp Cope and 2019 contenders Alex Lahey and Stella Donnelly), Jacklin’s work walks its own path; the best songs on Crushing are equally adept at sketching scenes with the detail of a diorama (“Body,” “When the Family Flies In”) as they are at offering diaristic deconstructions of everything from self-care culture (“Pressure to Party”) to well-meaning advice (“Convention”) to men with boundary issues (“Head Alone”). Affirmational without ever falling into the trap of anthemic platitudes, Crushing aptly captures the messy but rewarding process of resetting your life and rewriting your rules. –Tyler Clark
22. American Football – LP3
Origin: Urbana, Illinois
The Gist: When Mike Kinsella announced the reunion show of his seminal emo band American Football in 2014, it felt like a rare gift, a chance for latter-day fans to make a pilgrimage for a band whose legend had grown exponentially after they released a single masterpiece and promptly disappeared. When a new album came two years later, it brought with it a certain wariness; could Kinsella ever hope to match, let alone surpass, that first instant legend? The band’s LP2 answered that question with a resounding affirmative and also set up the story line for the understated triumph of LP3. No longer promising upstarts or a longed-for nostalgia act or even a high-profile comeback story, American Football finally had the chance to be something it hadn’t been since 1998: a band with no expectations.
Why It Rules: If American Football’s debut acted as a guidebook for navigating Gen X’s particular brand of twentysomething turn-of-the-millennium angst, their latest album does the same for the existential weariness that accompanies the move to middle age. Over the course of eight shimmering tracks, Kinsella [along with guest vocalists Elizabeth Powell (Land of Talk), Hayley Williams (Paramore), and Rachel Goswell (Slowdive)] offers gentle contemplation on life’s shittiest milestones, from repeating the mistakes of your parents (“Uncomfortably Numb”) to the inexorable loss — whether through death (“Mine to Miss”) or disillusion (“Doom in Full Bloom) – that waits at the end of every happy ending. –Tyler Clark
21. Lady Lamb – Even in the Tremor
Origin: Brunswick, Maine
The Gist: Three times the charm, indeed. Four years after dazzling us with her sophomore record, 2015’s After, Aly Spaltro returns with her most autobiographical record to date, Even in the Tremor. Under the guidance of ex-Bowie producer Erin Tonkon, Spaltro unlocks her inner anxieties over 11 tracks that soar with volume. No kidding. As she’s wont to do, Spaltro swims over a thousand words, all of which carry a dusty trail of experience and wisdom. It’s also fitting that the album finds her back on her original label, Ba Da Bing Records, as this record feels like a 360 of sorts. A new beginning, if you will.
Why It Rocks: For as hyper-literate as Spaltro can be, her true divinity dwells in her vocals. It’s been that way since she first charmed our socks off over half a decade ago with “Crane Your Neck”, and it’s even more alluring now that she’s a little older, a little wiser, and, well, a little stronger. “Deep Love” says it all. The conviction alone speaks to her maturity as a songwriter. It’s the sound of experience. Of every meandering relationship. Of every wounded heart. Of every timeless hug. And that’s only one track. Surrounding it are 10 other tracks from a songbook that bleeds as much as it screams. –Michael Roffman