Midway through 2019, many of music’s biggest names — Ariana Grande, BTS, the Jonas Brothers — have already released chart-topping albums, while a slate of others like Taylor Swift and Katy Perry are marching towards release dates later in the year.
But several of our favorite albums of 2019 thus far belong to artists a tier or two below superstar status who continued their consistent track records by putting out stellar new collections this year.
Read on for Maeve McDermott and Patrick Ryan’s eight favorite albums of 2019’s first half.
Vampire Weekend, ‘Father of the Bride’
I’ve abandoned and come back to Vampire Weekend so many times that it’s become a familiar cycle to me. I start with listening obsessively, then feeling embarrassed that I wasted months binging the preppiest, least-hip band in indie rock, and then walking away completely only to return whenever they’d release new music to start the cycle again.
Thankfully for me, I had six years in between the release of the band’s 2013 album “Modern Vampires of the City” and this year’s “Father of the Bride” to reset my listening habits and accept how meaningful VW will always be to me. As an academic, Paul Simon-loving teen in the late 2000s, few new bands appealed to me the way frontman Ezra Koenig and his pastel-wearing cohort did. And in 2019, they released the exact album I wanted from them with “Father of the Bride.” Where their previous releases were alternately obsessed with dramas of being young and the terrors of aging, over the course of the album’s almost completely filler-free 18 songs, Koenig instead takes the “que sera, sera” approach as he sings cheerfully on one of the album’s songs, “this life, and all its suffering.”
It’s Vampire Weekend’s least self-conscious release, and their first album that I haven’t felt self conscious about loving. — McDermott
Tyler, The Creator, ‘IGOR’
Tyler, the Creator has always been a one-of-a-kind rapper among his generation. For a while, that wasn’t necessarily a compliment with his scorched-earth years as the frontman of the rap collective Odd Future entrancing fans while horrifying the internet’s adults in the room with their shocking lyrics and depictions of violence amid flashes of musical brilliance.
Eventually, Tyler’s world expanded into starring on TV shows, hosting music festivals and presiding over his Flog Gnaw empire that was more governed by his own idiosyncratic tastes than anything related to his former group. He’s always been a god among his loyal followers, but his recent releases have increasingly been just as embraced by critics, from 2017’s “Flower Boy” to his 2019 album “IGOR,” the best album of his prolific career thus far.
The gay slurs that infamously tarred Odd Future’s early releases have given way to same-sex love songs told through offbeat song sequencing, dance music explorations and neo-soul instrumentation that’s less a fractured collection of ideas and more a fascinating display of Tyler’s abilities as a singer and producer as well as a rapper. He’s in good company on the album as well, trading pitch-shifted and filtered vocals with a cast of uncredited artists, giving an even more impressive scope of his vast artistic vision. — McDermott
Carly Rae Jepsen, ‘Dedicated’
She did it again — almost. After charming critics and amassing a cult fanbase with her 2015 pop smash-that-was-never-a-smash, “Emotion,” Jepsen returned in 2019 with “Dedicated,” featuring the artist honing in on her ‘80s aesthetic in a more focused release that gains in artistic maturity what she loses from the spontaneity of “Emotion.”
Jepsen has spoken about whittling down 200-plus songs from her “Dedicated” recording sessions to the 15 that appear on the album, and the result is a deliberate collection of songs that show a calculated range of Jepsen’s personas-in-love: the stalker, the seductress, the dumper, the dumpee, and most commonly, a woman drunk in love and unrepentantly lusty.
That doesn’t mean “Dedicated” isn’t any fun, from the bubblegum Jack Antonoff collaboration “Want You in My Room” and the delicious lead single “Party for One” to the album’s most representative track, “Too Much,” an ode to the excesses that Jepsen has expertly chronicled throughout her career. — McDermott
Jenny Lewis, ‘On the Line’
Any conversation of the best singer-songwriters of the past 20 years is incomplete without Jenny Lewis’ name. She won over a rabid fanbase of indie rock listeners in the 2000s with her piercing songwriting with her band Rilo Kiley, then struck out on her own, releasing albums with a higher-gloss polish but the same master-level storytelling that first compelled her early acolytes to, in a documented trend, get tattoos of her lyrics.
Lewis’ work on “On the Line” is just as tattoo-worthy as ever, an album that casts Lewis as world-weary but never bitter, a woman who still loves a party but recognizes the damage she’s left in her wake, less a tragedy than a fact of life. A master of imagery, her songs of doomed romances play out on lush green lawns, in cramped little cottages and red convertibles and alongside frozen rivers. She doesn’t always emerge triumphantly, but always leaves, arm-in-arm with the listener, with her head held high. — McDermott
Billie Eilish, ‘When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?’
After years of intriguing one-off singles and an EP, the 17-year-old Internet phenomenon managed to cut through the hype with her haunting, genre-defying debut. Whether she’s playfully sampling “The Office” on “My Strange Addiction” or nodding to Kanye West’s “Yeezus” with the frenetic “Bury a Friend,” Eilish moves the needle forward for what is considered pop. She also creates a musical universe that’s pervaded by more than just teenage angst, singing about dark subjects such as loneliness, heartbreak and death with surprising frankness and vulnerability. — Ryan
James Blake, ‘Assume Form’
Is that … happiness? On a James Blake album? Music’s resident “sad boy” (a label he has fiercely rejected) has made a career of excellent but melancholy ballads, which are best appreciated on rainy days or through post-breakup tears. But his gorgeous fourth album finds the Brit rapturously in love (with longtime girlfriend Jameela Jamil of “The Good Place”) while also opening himself up to new collaborators. The spellbinding “Where’s the Catch?” features a blistering verse from rapper Andre 3000 while the Spanish-language “Barefoot in the Park” with Rosalia is an impossibly beautiful duet about connection. — Ryan
Ariana Grande, ‘thank u, next’
Few of us had a tougher 2018 than Grande, who endured a whirlwind engagement and split from comedian Pete Davidson as well as the sudden death of her ex-boyfriend, Mac Miller from an accidental overdose. That she managed to channel all that pain into her most confessional and commercially successful album yet is no small feat, made all the more impressive by the fact that she released adventurous third album “Sweetener” just six months earlier. Trading in her signature vocal acrobatics for something sexier and more subdued, Grande candidly reflects on romance, healing and self-care, and delivers an album’s worth of catchy R&B-inflected pop that’s as suited for the bedroom as it is the dancefloor. — Ryan
Weyes Blood, ‘Titanic Rising’
Thanks to Maggie Rogers and Weyes Blood, we’re fully ready to buy crystals, wear flannels and go wander in the woods. Their respective “Heard It in a Past Life” and “Titanic Rising” are two of the year’s best folk-pop albums, although the latter hasn’t gotten the mainstream attention it deserves. Evoking Joni Mitchell and Karen Carpenter, singer/songwriter Natalie Mering – who goes by Weyes Blood – crafts a stunning collection of dreamy, ’70s-indebted songs that are as grand as they are intimate. The spaced-out “Andromeda” is a lyrical plea to invite love in while wistful opener “A Lot’s Gonna Change” is a tear-jerking ode to growing up. — Ryan
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