The album won't go down without a fight. As the algorithmic thinking of the streaming music era tightens its grip on the record industry and consumer listening habits, artists are still writing and recording collections of new material, releasing them as cohesive units on specific dates, and suggesting that you listen to them in a pre-established order. As a format for enjoying multiple songs and a way of thinking about creative development, it remains essential. Whatever happens to music in 2019, the album isn't going anywhere.
And neither is this list, which we've been putting together for the last three years. (Check out the best albums from 2016, 2017, and 2018 if you want to catch up.) The goal remains the same: To keep track of the best new records released in the calendar year from across multiple genres and bring them to your attention as they're dropping. There's always good new music out there. Here's the best of 2019 so far.
Big Boi From OutKast Introduces Cliff to Atlanta’s Food Scene
Note: You can listen to a Spotify playlist of songs from these albums below. It features a song from every record.
20. thank u next by Ariana Grande
Release date: February 8 Record label: Republic Why it's great: For her follow-up to 2018's Sweetener, an album of ripped-from-the-tabloids romance and R&B-inflected pop experiments, Ariana Grande stays on the same stylistic pathway but appears to have stronger, more confident footing here. Where her last record ping-ponged between sketch-like Pharell-produced jams and more polished tracks produced by hit-makers like Max Martin, thank u next sounds more sonically cohesive, prioritizing a confessional tone that puts the singer's powerhouse vocals front and center. A song like the opener "imagine," with its clicking percussion and soaring hook, elegantly moves between moments of intimacy and widescreen catharsis. Tracks like the skittering "bad idea" and the Rodgers and Hammerstein-interpolating "7 rings" perform similar pivots in perspective. Even if the slapdash quality to some of the songwriting, likely due to the lightning-quick manner the album was recorded and produced in, makes it less satisfying than Sweetener, the music on thank u next has a propulsive energy that distinguishes it within Grande's increasingly impressive catalog.
19. Better Oblivion Community Center by Better Oblivion Community Center
Release date: January 24 Record label: Dead Oceans Why it's great: For over two decades, Conor Oberst has perfected a specific strand of warbling, exasperating melancholia. In his folk-rock group Bright Eyes, his punk band Desaparecidos, and on his multiple solo records, he's looked at emotional distress from an array of creative vantage points. (One of my favorite Oberst songs sounds like it was recorded under a sheet of slowly cracking ice.) Understandably, 24-year-old singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers has a shorter resume, but her 2017 debut Stranger in the Alps explored similar thematic terrain with dark humor and psychological acuity that propelled her into the new indie darling spotlight. For their collaborative project, Better Oblivion Community Center, the two have crafted a moving, eclectic collection of songs that range from stark, haunted folk ballads ("Service Road") to rollicking, jangle-rock head-nodders ("Dylan Thomas"). Trading backing vocal duties and swapping tales of woe, the pair puts a joyful, resilient spin on the old "misery loves company" proverb: It turns out misery loves collaborative side projects, too.
18. What Chaos Is Imaginary by Girlpool
Release date: February 9 Record label: Anti- Why it's great: The big change on Powerplant, the excellent sophomore record from Los Angeles indie rock duo Girlpool, was that songwriters Harmony Tividad and Cleo Tucker added drums to the striking loud-soft, guitar-and-bass dynamic they explored on their debut. The pair's third record, What Chaos Is Imaginary, is yet another thoughtful, considered broadening of their musical scope, stretching out to 14 tracks and incorporating a wider range of instruments, including synths and strings. Tucker, who came out as transgender in 2017 and began hormone replacement therapy, now has a deeper vocal range, which makes a track like the whirling alt-rock-inflected "Hire" stand out in new ways from the band's older work. Throughout the record, the duo's gift for crystallizing complex feelings into poetic phrases remains, like when Tucker gets downright metaphysical and sings of revoking "the time and space for you to just feel it in your name." As a map of artistic growth, What Chaos Is Imaginary finds order and beauty in ever-shifting territory.
17. Crash Talk by Schoolboy Q
Release date: April 26 Record label: Interscope Why it's great: Shorter and nimbler than his previous records, Crash Talk finds TDE's hedonist-turned-30-something-dad-rapper Schoolboy Q easing into his lane as one of the most reliable hip-hop shape-shifters on the West Coast. He sounds equally self-assured on a tough-talking single like "Numb Numb Juice" as he does on an eerie deep-cut like "Water," which uses whispers and space to convey a sense of dread. Drawing less from his turbulent youth and more from his life as a weary rap star, Q knows that his elastic, authoritative voice is still the main drawing point, and he's recorded over a dozen bass-filled tracks that let him snarl quotables like, "I been counting dead men, puttin' bodies in the safe." In his own telling, this album is an attempt to pull back from the unrelenting bleakness of Blank Face, one of the most intense and ferocious major label rap projects of the last few years. Crash Talk sacrifices focus and cohesion to deliver pleasure and enthusiasm, pushing the listener to just embrace the habits and contradictions that have made Q such a compelling artist from the jump.
16. Pony by Orville Peck
Release date: March 22 Record label: Sub Pop Why it's great: Singer-songwriter Orville Peck likes to obscure his face, often donning a leather-fringe bandit mask to go along with his increasingly on-trend cowboy hat. Though the costume might call to mind Sia's fame-thwarting wigs or the goofy identity-obscuring get-ups found on FOX's dystopian singing competition show The Masked Singer, Peck's fashion choice has a theatrical wryness to it that doesn't feel derivative or overly referential. Similarly, his music -- cosmic country songs about lonesome drifters and gay hustlers sung in a deep baritone -- has a brooding tenderness that might remind listeners of "Wicked Games" crooner Chris Isaak or Fables of the Reconstruction-era R.E.M., but he establishes his own take on the genre throughout Pony, his evocative and rewarding debut LP. Finger-plucked ballads like "Roses are Falling" and soaring foot-stompers like "Winds Change" reveal more than any peek behind the disguise ever could.
15. Young Enough by Charly Bliss
Release date: May 10 Record label: Barsuk Why it's great: The buzzsaw energy of Young Enough, the second album from Brooklyn power-pop four-piece Charly Bliss, is perfect for sitting on a deck or going for a drive on a sunny afternoon. The guitars and synths have strong "just got out of work after a shitty day" energy, jittering with possibility and a sense of mischief. For the follow-up to 2017's Guppy, lead singer and guitarist Eva Hendricks has said she drew lyrical inspiration from an abusive relationship, and many of the songs drip with righteous, burning anger. "Sick with worry, plagued by fear," she sings on "Bleach." "It took so long to say I know I wasn’t happy there or here." Luckily, those feelings of despair are offset by melody-packed songwriting that gives just enough room for Hendricks' witty, pugnacious words. (Worth noting: Hendricks often sings fast, hitting that sweet spot between pop-punk and actual pop.) That happy-sad seesaw dynamic, perhaps best encapsulated on the Blondie-like "Capacity," drives the band to new creative heights. Young Enough is the rare rock record that steals moves from chart-toppers without losing that personal, handmade touch.
14. LEGACY! LEGACY! by Jamila Woods
Release date: May 10 Record label: Jagjaguwar Why it's great: The multitasking, multipurpose neo-soul of Jamila Woods always stretches outward. Drawing from the past and looking toward the future, the Chicago artist's sophomore release, LEGACY! LEGACY!, is defined by its ambition: Each song title name-checks a cultural figure like jazz great Miles Davis, science-fiction writer Octavia Butler, or painter Frida Kahlo, immediately placing the lyrics and the music in conversation with history. It's the type of genre-melding, mind-expanding music you can spend hours pouring over, discovering new meanings and possible interpretations. A track like "SUN RA" combines galaxy-exploring, consciousness-rupturing Afrofuturism with a deceptively simple chorus that goes, "my wings are greater than walls," charting a path to escape and mapping a political plan for hope. An Associate Artistic Director at the literacy nonprofit Young Chicago Authors, Woods is paying tribute to her heroes, providing a syllabus, and subtly weaving a web of influence for the listener on each track. At the same time, she also opens the album up to collaborators like Nitty Scott, Sabra, and trumpet-player Nico Segal, who lend a communal vibe to the project.
13. Punk by CHAI
Release date: February 13 Record label: Burger Records Why it's great: Like a shopping cart soaring down a hill in a mall parking lot, the second album from Japanese rock quartet Chai is admirable for its velocity and its tenacity. There are choices on this record, rhythmic detours and genre-smashing stunts, that might sound puzzling: For example, the giddy "This is Chai" resembles a remix of a tinny marching band attempting to write a stadium-ready jock jam. (The title turns into a triumphant chant!) On paper, this album should be a mess -- and it does sound jarring at times -- but the herky-jerky intricacy of the songwriting has a pleasing, soothing logic to it that helps the record hold up under repeat listens. A track like "Family Member" kicks off with hand-claps and a bit of static before morphing into a tender, nostalgic sing-along; the more abrasive, danceable "I'm Me" or the synth-powered, disco-tinged "Curly Adventure" tap into the same sense of communal glee. It's a record that stays in motion at almost every moment -- hop in and let the wind whip through your hair.
12. Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest by Bill Callahan
Release date: June 14 Record label: Drag City Why it's great: "Let's spend a light year together," sings Bill Callahan on the wry and romantic "Watch Me Get Married" off his new record. "Oh, I know it's a distance from here to the stars." The 53-year-old singer-songwriter, known for his deep voice and contemplative lyrics, has the ability to bend time and space with a few casual words. That gift for framing the mundane in cosmic terms is what makes Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest, the follow-up to 2013's similarly rich Dream River, such an endlessly rewarding listening experience. Largely ditching conventional verse-chorus-verse song structures, never a common element even in his early lo-fi days under his Smog moniker, Callahan really allows himself to ramble here, turning songs like "747," where he imagines waking up on a plane "flying through some stock footage of heaven," into miniature meditations on birth and death. It sounds heavy -- you don't write a song titled "Young Icarus" if you don't want to fly close to the sun -- but Callahan approaches life's deeper questions with a keen matter-of-factness and a dark sense of humor that prevents the album from turning into Old Testament doomsaying or stoned philosophizing. No single song explodes like a geyser here; instead, the record is filled with wisdom passed down with the steady urgency of a babbling brook.
11. Drip or Drown 2 by Gunna
Release date: February 22 Record label: YSL Why it's great: On Drip or Drown 2, Atlanta rapper Gunna, the artist behind 2018's inescapable hit with Lil Baby "Drip Too Hard," doubles down on the elements of his style that have always worked. His songs are compact and direct, built on melodies that target your brain like heat-seeking missiles, but his flows are slippery: A song like "Cash War" off the new project creates a mood of unease and anxiety through a series of mumbled phrases about passports and cars with carpets on the floorboards. Evocative images of wealth and status accumulate across Drip or Drown 2, growing steadily like the Lego bricks Gunna references at one point, but there's also a sense of scarcity and precarity lurking in the background. Will this success last? The tension of that question is reflected in the project's playful album cover, which finds Gunna posing underwater in designer clothing with an umbrella and naked models swimming in the background. Is he sinking or swimming? Depending on how you look at it, he could be relaxing after a hard day of work -- or preparing for a storm.
10. Titanic Rising by Weyes Blood
Release date: April 5 Record label: Sub Pop Why it's great: "Some people feel what some people don't," sings Natalie Mering on "Movies," one of the gloomier songs on the latest record from her long-running project Weyes Blood. "Some people watch until they explode/The meaning of life doesn't seem to shine like that screen." She invests each line of the song, which explores questions of desire and artifice, with a depth of feeling that can be startling and strange, like stumbling upon a decontextualized image from a David Lynch film in your social media feed. (It shouldn't come as a surprise that Mering is a big fan of Lynch's debut feature Eraserhead.) The synth-speckled, doom-soaked folk arrangements on Titanic Rising, which can be both gauzy and menacing, set the stage for lyrics about demons, tigers, and the Garden of Eden. Biblical, mythological, fantastical, and dream-like detours blend together with the mundane and fraught details of daily life, allowing Mering to traffic in a heightened version of magical realism that never feels cheesy or silly. Instead, it's captivating.
9. Fever byMegan Thee Stallion
Release date: May 17 Record label: 300 Entertainment Why it's great: Pinpoint accuracy counts for a lot when you're attempting to stand out in hip-hop's increasingly crowded, ever-shifting landscape. When Houston rapper Megan Thee Stallion, the stage-name of 24-year-old Megan Pete, claims there "ain't no chick alive who can knock me off my grind" on "Pimpin" off her mixtape Fever, it's easy to believe her because she delivers the line with total vocal control. Every word sounds deliberate, shiny, and locked in place. A boast like "I see those haters, I don't complain/I must be poppin' if they know my name" doesn't feel like empty Instagram caption fodder; it lands like a left hook. Fever, her first project since signing with 300 Entertainment, features three songs with production by Three 6 Mafia legend Juicy J, including the infectiously catchy "Simon Says," and one track co-produced by his brother Project Pat -- the "Weak Azz Bitch"-sampling "W.A.B." -- but this isn't a backward-looking nostalgia play or a self-satisfied coronation. There's always a sense that Megan has something to prove, which gives all the tough talk a sense of gravity.
8. Gold & Grey by Baroness
Release date: June 14 Record label: Abraxan Hymns Why it's great: The bang-and-smash hooks on Baroness's Gold & Grey, the boundary-pushing Georgia metal band's triumphant double-album, are unrelenting. Frontman John Baizley, the constant creative force in the band's ever-shifting lineup and the visual artist behind color-coded album covers, has a voice that reaches out through the mix and shakes you. Given the record's considerable length -- its 17 tracks stretch across 60 minutes of wild experimentation -- it makes sense that the group, which added lead guitarist Gina Gleason after the departure of longtime guitarist Peter Adams, would pause for the occasional psychedelic desert detour or pensive trip down memory lane. Like many great hard rock bands before them, Baroness realize that speed and volume are powerful tools, weapons to be deployed to convey intense emotions and tackle provocative ideas, but those aren't the only options available. The album benefits from the odd, ruminative textures of songs like "I'd Do Anything," which opens with a lonely piano and builds to an achingly vulnerable chorus backed by a lightly strummed acoustic guitar. Even the fist-pumping single "Borderlines" has an almost math-rock-ish intricacy, switching up its tempo at a moment's notice while still delivering visceral bursts of intensity. After the slightly slicker Purple, the group's first collaboration with psych-rock super-producer David Fridmann and their comeback following a tragic bus accident, Gold & Grey finds Baroness operating at their peak.
7. While We Wait by Kehlani
Release date: February 22 Record label: Atlantic Why it's great: On 2017's SweetSexySavage, Kehlani experimented with different R&B songwriting approaches, gliding between the genre's hallowed past and its tricky present. On While We Wait, a stopgap "mixtape" released between major label albums, she sounds more drawn to the possibilities and complexities of the future. After a handful of high-profile guest vocal spots in 2018 on projects from Cardi B, Eminem, Kyle, and Charlie Puth, she's back in more comfortable, familiar waters here. (Literally, the first thing you hear on While We Wait is the peaceful, welcoming sound of waves crashing into a beach.) As a lyricist, she's still digging deep into moments of personal sorrow and romantic frustration -- "No matter what I seen in the past/I won't let it impact how we grow now, baby" she sings on the bouncing stand-out "Feels" -- but on tracks like the nimble closer "Love Language," she constructs her own vocabulary of intimacy. Luckily, very little gets lost in translation.
6. Remind Me Tomorrow by Sharon Van Etten
Release date: January 18 Record label: Jagjaguwar Why it's great: "I walked in the door/The Black Crowes playing as you cleaned the floor," sings Sharon Van Etten on the glimmering, synth-speckled travelogue "Malibu" off her fifth studio album, Remind Me Tomorrow. "I thought I couldn't love him any more." It's a moment of quaint, plain-spoken domesticity in a song that paints the California city as a landscape of trucks, jokers, and one "little red car that don't belong to you." On a record that scans as a creative departure -- the stripped-down singer-songwriter aesthetic of Van Etten's early albums has been replaced with a palette that's more Nick Cave than Nick Drake -- the most resonant lyrics are the ones about returning home and coming to terms with who you are. On the record's devastating emotional high-point "Seventeen," the singer addresses her teenage self: "I see you so uncomfortably alone/I wish I could show you how much you've grown." Whether she's slipping through time or crossing the country, Van Etten moves with an unwavering sense of purpose.
5. On the Line by Jenny Lewis
Release date: March 22 Record label: Warner Bros. Why it's great: The organ-playing that arrives almost midway through "Heads Gonna Roll," the opening track of Jenny Lewis's latest record of droll character sketches and confessional snapshots, has a beautiful, forlorn quality to it. Those small but significant instrumental flourishes add a touch of the celestial to go with the plain-spoken talk of paying tolls, hooking up, and drinking till the bar closes. From a thematic and production standpoint, the former Rilo Kiley songwriter hasn't strayed too far from the sun-kissed, melancholy Laurel Canyon vibe of 2014's The Voyager, but she continues to find new ways to write songs that offer boozy tranquility and then stab you in the gut with an elegantly phrased dagger of a line. "I watched a scorpion crawl across my feet," she sings on the caustic "Party Clown," providing the perfect image for how her lyrics tend to operate. Like Harry Nillson or Randy Newman, Lewis combines a total command of the studio-as-instrument approach, each track humming along with session-musician mastery, with a willingness to sting the listener at a moment's notice. Keep your wits about you.
4. Rap or Go to the League by 2 Chainz
Release date: March 1 Record label: Def Jam Why it's great: Though he's perhaps most widely known for his wickedly funny punchlines and gloriously riotous guest verses, like his appearance on "Mercy" from back in 2012, 2 Chainz has quietly put together some remarkably solid full-lengths as a solo artist. (2013's underrated B.O.A.T.S. II: Me Time remains a personal favorite.) His latest collection Rap or Go to the League, which was executive produced by hip-hop fan and NBA player LeBron James, has more of a conceptual hook than his previous records -- many tracks focus on systemic injustice through the lens of 2 Chainz's past -- but the appeal remains rooted in his elastic delivery and his hardscrabble persona. Songs like "Threat 2 Society," "Statute of Limitations," and "NCAA," which finds him criticizing college athletics and bragging about "playing the clit like a guitar," stack up against his best work. From his early days as Tity Boi to his more recent reinvention into television host, there's always been a strategic quality to 2 Chainz's artistic decisions; he moves with the times and always finds his lane. On this record, he turns the burgeoning "prestigious" elder-statesman hip-hop album on its head, lending it a much-needed touch of mischief.
3. Goes West by William Tyler
Release date: January 25 Record label: Merge Why it's great: William Tyler creates music that makes you want to buy a sleeping bag. Whether or not you travel to a sporting goods store or pull the trigger on an online order for one doesn't really matter; what matters is that his spacey, hypnotic take on American folk music awakens, enlivens, and nurtures the urge to sleep under the stars. His fourth album Goes West, which was mostly written following a move to Los Angeles from Nashville, peels away much of the electric guitar tones of 2016's Modern Country in favor of the patient, careful acoustic fingerpicking he first became known for. (Before going solo, Tyler played with indie rock acts like Lambchop, Silver Jews, and Bonnie "Prince" Billy.) On Goes West, his playing is often supported by other instruments: "Fail Safe" gets a kick in the pants from some artfully deployed percussion; "Rebecca" floats along thanks to lovely piano accompaniment; "Virginia is for Loners" takes on an otherworldly glow thanks to what sounds like a cello humming in the background. In interviews, Tyler has described his music as "rural new age," which implies a spiritual dimension to the work that might not be immediately apparent on first listen. It might be simpler to think of the record like a camping trip for the soul.
2. Father of the Bride by Vampire Weekend
Release date: May 3 Record label: Columbia Why it's great: Following the honor-roll melancholia of Modern Vampires of the City, Father of the Bride has a wide-eyed, back-from-study-abroad earnestness, which was archly signaled by the slightly kitschy globe on the album cover. Opening with a track that samples the Christian hymns from Terrence Malick's philosophical war epic The Thin Red Line, Vampire Weekend continues to take big creative swings, tackling thorny concepts of personal privilege and familial responsibility, but the group also remains committed to the rambunctious pluck that defined a single like "A-Punk" back in 2008. A duet like "Married in the Goldrush," which adds a touch of yee-haw to the band's studied art-pop, has a winsome radiance to it that's completely new and entirely welcome; similarly, a track like "Flower Moon," twitching and jittering with life, displays a jam band's sense of mischief that pushes against lead singer Ezra Koenig's more concise songwriting tendencies. Initial band co-leader Rostam Batmanglij may have left the group, choosing instead to focus on his own solo work, but he still appears in the credits, which also include multiple guest appearances from vocalist Danielle Haim of the group Haim and guitarist Steve Lacy of future-funk specialist The Internet. It makes for an ideal double-album: overflowing with ideas and reaching for greatness, but guided by a communal spirit of generosity.
1. Quiet Signs by Jessica Pratt
Release date: February 8 Record label: Mexican Summer/City Slang Why it's great: California singer-songwriter Jessica Pratt conjures oddly specific visual reference points when you close your eyes, open your mind, and let her songs slowly unfold. The hazy guitar strums and lilting vocals of tracks like "Fare Thee Well" and "This Time Around" off Quiet Signs, her follow-up to 2015's sophomore LP On Your Own Love Again, could score a dread-soaked pastoral sequence in a horror film or a romantic interlude in a Medieval costume drama. Though the wordless opening track "Opening Night" is a John Cassavettes allusion, most of this record, her first produced in a professional studio, feels untethered to popular culture or recent history; it's difficult to imagine an album sounding more unburdened by the anxieties of social media. (At the same time, she's not hiding from modernity: Gripping closer "Aeroplane" has lines about "city lights" and not wanting to "touch down.") Individual lyrics are often hard to pick out and can be even more challenging to decipher -- musings like "a seabird laughs alone in the dark" bubble to the surface -- but the melodies, like the mournful calls of "Crossing," connect on a deep level. Each song becomes a passageway to escape through.