1. i,i by Bon Iver
Since their inception in 2008, Bon Iver’s name has been synonymous with beautiful individualism, artistically-outlandish creativity, and consistent success. They’ve amassed a pseudo-religious following over the past 10 years through the power of unconventional, inventive, and ever-changing songwriting. Their 2019 album i,i follows that same formula and is the next link in what many would consider an unbroken chain of spotless 21st century dominance. It’s mechanically intricate yet surprisingly accessible, balancing sophisticated distortion techniques with raw instrumental composition for a sound unlike anything the world’s ever heard. Perfectly aligned features like James Blake, Moses Sumney, and Bruce Hornsby pop up throughout, while Justin Vernon’s incredibly singular voice sits confidently at the forefront of nearly every track. The album is anything but formulaic or predictable, further representing some of the most touching and audacious music Bon Iver has released over the course of their unblemished career.
Favorite Tracks: Hey, Ma; Marion; Naeem; U (Man Like); iMi; Sh’Diah
2. Father of the Bride by Vampire Weekend
There’s no doubt that Vampire Weekend are revered bohemians within the indie rock space. Their worldly influences, use of obscure and underutilized instruments, and fun lyricism from lead singer Ezra Koenig were crucial in the construction of 21st century indie rock as we know it. But after their seemingly integral band member/producer Rostam Batmanglij left the group to start a solo career after the release of their 2013 album Modern Vampires of the City, Vampire Weekend’s perceived ceiling was sinking lower and lower with every passing month. Six years of dormancy turned the band’s most loyal fans into skeptics and dissenters who lacked the faith in Vampire Weekend to produce anything on the same level as their traditionally treasured discography. Those skeptics and dissenters were the first to apologize upon the release of Vampire Weekend’s fourth studio album Father of the Bride this past May. The album is brilliant, radiating an aura of positivity with bubbly Paul Simon-esque storytelling that naturally brings a smile to listeners faces. New producer Ariel Rechtshaid introduced featured artists into the mix for the first time in the Vampire Weekend’s history, including singer (and Rechtshaid’s girlfriend) Danielle Haim from the band HAIM and guitarist Steve Lacy from the band The Internet. The 18 track behemoth is a serious time-suck, but the ingenuity from track to track keeps the album wholly entertaining for its nearly hour-long run time. It’s illustriousness brought it straight to number one on Billboard’s Top 100 Albums chart a week after its release, thus returning Vampire Weekend back to their rightful place atop indie rock’s pedestal of supremacy.
Favorite Tracks: Harmony Hall; This Life; 2021 Spring Snow; Jerusalem, New York, Berlin
3. My Finest Work Yet by Andrew Bird
Don’t overthink the satirically meta title of Andrew Bird’s latest album: this really is the finest work he’s ever produced. As the twelfth studio album in his solo career, My Finest Work Yet refines and polishes the neo-jazz essence that Andrew Bird has been rooted in for over two decades. Historic Andrew Bird fans need not worry; the collection is decorated with his typical shtick. Fluttering pianos and a gorgeous string section are only occasionally interrupted by Bird plucking the strings of his violin like a guitar and using his keen whistling ability as if it’s another instrument in his repertoire. He focuses on beauty rather than boisterousness, sucking audiences in with instrumentals more conducive to a ballroom dance than a head-banging mosh. After a career sprinkled with political sentiment, it may come as a surprise to some that My Finest Work Yet is Andrew Bird’s first full-length collection entirely focused on the current political climate. Sure, Bird has made unmistakable jabs over the past few decades at basic societal flaws like our nation’s tenuousness towards charity or our reluctance regarding acceptance and community. However, My Finest Work Yet departs from these casual social inquiries for something more consequential. It acts as a vessel for revolution, inciting movement rather than feckless thought. At it’s most elemental form, My Finest Work Yet is meant to incite a line of questioning similar to that of a renaissance. The album art, title, and theme want nothing more than for Bird’s audience to question their manifest destiny in the most energizing, artistic, and outspoken way possible.
Favorite Tracks: Manifest, Bloodless, Proxy War, Fallorun, Archipelago
4. Norman Fucking Rockwell! by Lana Del Rey
Lana Del Rey is getting more elegant and complex by the minute. Her new album Norman Fucking Rockwell! exposes her at her most honest and steadfast yet, but you would never know that based on the album’s juxtaposed aesthetic. Norman Fucking Rockwell!‘s disarmingly quiet sound is punctured by beautiful pianos, soft guitars, and Lana Del Rey’s tender voice, all of which can cause listeners to overlook the ceaseless spite she dishes out on nearly every line. Using cunning jabs like “Your poetry’s bad and you blame the news”, “If he’s a serial killer, then what’s the worst that can happen to a girl that’s already hurt?”, and “I fucked up, I know that, but Jesus, can’t a girl just do the best she can?”, Lana Del Rey simultaneously unmasks the chauvinistic men who thickened her skin and the shameful culture that formed those men. The album is complete with a rainbow of cuss words, an endless supply of satirical scrutiny directed at the American dream, and even an expertly composed cover of Sublime’s reggae-pop track reimagined as a slow ballad. All in all, it’s clear Lana Del Rey has crossed a career-defining threshold with Norman Fucking Rockwell! as she approaches music from the perspective of headstrong fearlessness rather than glassy vexation.
Favorite Tracks: Norman Fucking Rockwell, The greatest, Mariners Apartment Complex, Venice Bitch, Love song
5. Charli by Charli XCX
Forget wondering what music will sound like in 2020 – Charli XCX just predicted what pop music will sound like in the 22nd century. Her fifth studio album Charli is intoxicating, incorporating an element of heady experimentation often sanded down from conventional pop records. It’s loud as hell, filling every inch of blank space with galvanizing noise commonly translated into fuel for compulsory dancing. She beautifies this already exhilarating collection with an eclectic superabundance of big league artists like Lizzo, HAIM, Christine and the Queens, Troye Sivan, CupcakKe, Clairo, and many more. Each track has a complementary flavor of its respective feature mixed with Charli XCX’s fearless persona as a an emerging pop veteran. Most importantly, Charli herself is as rousing as ever. She provides self-assured elegance and provocative production that together make Charli sound decades ahead of its time.
Favorite Tracks: Gone, Blame It on Your Love, Cross You Out, Next Level Charli, White Mercedes
6. Forever Turned Around by Whitney
Flashback to the final days of August as the warm weather was beginning to fade, sunny evenings were giving way to darkness, and 2019 was kissing its summer goodbye. As warm spirits dwindled, Whitney’s sophomore album Forever Turned Around laid out the perfect soundtrack to help their fans smoothly transition out of summer. The album is Whitney’s first since their 2016 debut Light Upon the Lake, and it only further solidifies their role as a bridge between the worlds of folk and indie rock. In addition to frontmen Julien Ehrlich and Max Kakacek’s respectively agreeable percussion and acoustic guitar, the album is filled with a sonically comforting arrangements such as assuaging violins, an army of jovial brass instruments, and the tender twang of a homey pedal steel guitar. Led by Ehrlich’s very singular, impudent voice, the ensemble of warm textures employed within Forever Turned Around amounts to nothing short of soothing, upbeat bliss. Lyrically speaking, Forever Turned Around doesn’t focus on the end, but instead focuses on the ups and downs that contributed to Ehrlich and Kakacek’s dynamic narrative. It bares the scars of burdensome relationships, yet takes a peaceful, reflective assessment on their emotional expeditions to fairly balance melancholy with maturation. Although Whitney’s history has been short, Ehrlich and Kakacek have never sounded more symbiotic.
Favorite Tracks: Giving Up, Valleys (My Love), Rhododendron, Used To Be Lonely, Before I Know It
7. New Ways by Leif Vollebekk
In the grand scheme of things, Leif Vollebekk’s new album New Ways is not all that different than his 2017 album Twin Solitude. Both albums are balmy and dominated by Vollebekk’s piano, and in fact, Vollebekk himself called New Ways a companion piece to his last album. But where Twin Solitude was delicate and introspective, New Ways is conversational and effusive. He clearly intended New Ways to be a reflection of societal balance communicated between not just himself, but between his diverse audience. The grooves on this record are much tighter and deeper, outlining the sharp and minute details in his key strikes and snare hits that make the record sonically meaningful. Most of all, Vollebekk’s music is still undeniably soothing. The predominantly mellow tracks match his assumed poise and provide the prefect the soundtrack to a meditative odyssey.
Favorite Tracks: Phaedrus, Apalachee Plain, Transatlantic Flight, The Way That You Feel, Hot Tears
8. Immunity by Clairo
Claire Cottrill, aka Clairo, rode a rollercoaster of praise and skepticism after breaking onto the scene as a low-fi YouTube singer in 2017. She seemed like the perfect poster child of the indie music world, materializing as an online sensation using nothing but a webcam, markedly simplistic songwriting, and a stunning, unedited voice all her own. But the investigation of some internet sleuths found that she had a web of familial connections to the music world, making her out to be more of an industry plant than a homegrown prodigy. Whether or not you believe (or care about) the drama around her rise to relevance, it was clear that Clairo was under an abnormally bright spotlight as the world awaited her debut album. The product, titled Immunity, was as poised and majestic a debut as her fans could have asked for. If you thought her voice sounded great over a cheap laptop microphone, her refined studio vocals are downright arresting. Perhaps the smartest move on the part of Clairo’s team however, was introducing the aforementioned Vampire Weekend dropout Rostam Batmanglij to co-produce Immunity in its entirety. The production quality reflects Rostam’s seasoned chops, giving Clairo a refined platform to surround her frankly quiet voice with expertly engineered components of heavy basslines, hard-hitting percussion, and layered vocals needed to show off the budding star’s most redeeming qualities.
Favorite Tracks: Softly, Bags, Feel Something, White Flag, Impossible
9. LEGACY! LEGACY! by Jamila Woods
Jamila Woods is not claiming a dignified position within the R&B community through her new album LEGACY! LEGACY! Her sophomore album is a tribute towards distinguished individuals who historically fought against the persecution of people of color. It calls upon their respective legacies as a source of inspiration, citing the impact of their lives as a potential catalyst for the change needed to reach prospective equality. Jamila Woods’ music is socially perceptive and deeply introspective, often calling upon self-love, social justice, and racial transgression as talking points for her layered narratives. Her calm, powerful voice fills rooms with a soulful ambiance, drowning out any competing noise with intense vitality and emotion. Although she is consistently expressive and vocally rousing, her supporting instrumentals are fairly volatile. They encourage sedative reflection, but often jump between boom-bap, funk, and psychedelic styles. Those styles culminate into an immersive, flowing collection on LEGACY! LEGACY! that leaves listeners calm yet hyper-focused on the complex narrative booming from Woods’ golden pipes. Woods is using her music as an agent for change within the R&B community, poetically and informatively harping on history, feminism, and identity within African American culture, all the while promoting self-respect and adoration for her roots within the City of Chicago.
Favorite Tracks: GIOVANNI, BALDWIN, BETTY, ZORA, EARTHA
10. Lover by Taylor Swift
Unsurprisingly, a large percentage of year’s most impactful content arguably came from some of the world’s most illustrious pop stars. To no one’s astonishment, Taylor Swift currently reigns atop that ivory tower of mainstream illustriousness as one of the year’s biggest winners. Her 2019 album Lover preserves her shameless poise and charming obsession with love songs, yet sprinkles in a new layer of maturity and self-awareness. It isn’t on the same level as her career-defining albums like 1989 by any means, but Lover adds a clever variable of wisdom to Swift’s repertoire of fun bubblegum pop. Simply put, this album only sets her further apart as one of the most decorated songwriters in the 21st century mainstream.
Favorite Tracks: Lover, Cruel Summer, Soon You’ll Get Better, Afterglow, You Need To Calm Down