Note to our readers: it takes a tremendous amount of time to curate, write, edit, and format this list. POW is one of the last fully independent music blogs still standing and is 100 percent user funded. Please consider donating a few bucks to the Patreon. Your support is very much appreciated and needed.
In the interest of whatever passes for objectivity, we declined to put any of the artists on POW Recordings on our year-end rankings. Because we believe that they are exceptionally brilliant and deserving of recognition, they are celebrated here as honorable mention. If you’re so inclined, you can purchase their records on the POW Bandcamp here.
And yes, there is a playlist at the bottom.
Honorable Mention: Natia – Natia the God LP [POW Recordings]
In June, the Los Angeles Times reported that LA’s homeless population increased by 16% (within the city) over the last year. For the first time since his late teens, Natia wasn’t among the headcount. Still, the 25-year-old Inglewood rapper’s POW debut, 10K Hours (2017), remains painfully relevant. Offering harrowing glimpses of homeless life between clever boasts of mic supremacy and scathing takedowns of his peers, Natia documented the hunger, the search for shelter, hustles legit and dubious, mental illness and the drugs consumed to cope. He synthesized Slim Shady LP Eminem’s wordplay, the rock bottom honesty, and Redman’s psychedelic zaniness as he recounted his fractured life. The album was remarkable for those reasons as much as it was for the circumstances of its composition.
On his sophomore album, Natia the God, Natia documents his improved circumstances (e.g., finding housing, making money from rap) and reflects on days of dire straits while casting himself as a drug dealer on the rise. He weds the influences of 10K Hours with purple tape Raekwon. It’s a Scorsese joint that traverses LA’s sprawl: Inglewood train tracks, Westchester tennis court benches, K-town apartments, Eagle Rock coffee shops. “Chapter Two” is deeply embedded in this milieu. Natia praises his plug and serves walking skeletons over a beat that sounds like it samples the speakers of a decades-old Italian restaurant.
To temper the severity of these songs, he pens comic lines and verses like those on “The Natia Show.” It’s as deranged as it is hilarious, a mushroom-influenced interlude where he grapples with his minor artistic stature between championing butt hair (word to UGK) and making Tiger Woods allusions. Though Natia the God hits the hardest when Natia opens lifelong wounds: “Voices” is a moving and terror-ridden cry for help, an attempt to talk through his schizophrenia in lieu of receiving costly treatment from our sham of a healthcare system. All is better for Natia on Natia the God (thankfully), but the demons still circle. He hasn’t escaped his past yet. — MAX BELL
Honorable Mention: Gabe Nandez – Diplomacy [POW Recordings]
Gabe Nandez speaks as many languages as textiles appear on Diplomacy’s cover art. A product of the diaspora, the son of diplomatic officials, Nandez has spent time in New York, Tanzania, Palestine, Haiti, Jerusalem and Canada. So Diplomacy is fittingly diverse. It sounds New York in essence, but on a hairpin he can rap like a Quebecer fixing his gaze on West Africa. There’s as many unpaved roads as street corners. There’s a few dialects and there’s a surreal moment where Chester Watson transmits through like a sentient glitch in the Rosetta Stone. The production stays humble; there’s as many guitars as hi-hats, and Nandez plays them all.
Diplomacy seems global because there’s a feeling of transience, of constant movement, that validates the breadth of this scope. It’s such a thing to consider writing well, and then it’s a completely other thing to consider writing well in a language that’s not your own. To communicate fluidly enough, to grasp all the minor subtleties of different culture’s eccentricities, mannerisms and quirks, is to understand a universality in people. English was the second of Gabe’s three fluencies, and his liquid mumble acts as a unifying agent; even when he shifts to French mid-verse, he raps like he’s barely lifting his eyelids. This makes Diplomacy to be the sleepiest, most effortless work of cosmopolitan consequence since a semi-retired Tracy McGrady averaged 25 and 7 in the CBA. He raps like a learned professor, who we all know gets a little high each morning before lecturing on the foreign policy. He should teach on the matter. He’s as qualified as anyone. — THOMAS JOHNSON
Honorable Mention: Pioneer 11 – Gravitorium [POW Recordings]
It’s easy to talk about Pioneer 11’s music as ‘cosmic’ or ‘psychedelic’ or ‘ethereal’. It is all of those things to a degree—I mean they’re named after a satellite—but those words imply a disconnect from tangible reality, when the opposite is exactly why their music connects and their transmission echoes above other spacecraft. The world they present on Gravitorium is real, this is just the first time most of us are experiencing it with synesthesia. Pioneer 11 aren’t profanely obtuse and they don’t fetishize cryptic detours, which by itself makes them noteworthy in the genre of psychedelic rock (“cocktail of reverb and ethical programming” better captures their genre though). Gravitorium is their first LP and it’s been four years in the making for Alex Hasting and Bryan Gomez.
The opening track “Grumpy Goomba” starts with bass chords that act as an undertow for the whole album — simple plucks that lead into the absurdity of a concept song about the 9-to-5 life of a grunt videogame villain. Later tracks like “School of Fish” are meditative and haunting with lines that question the classical hierarchy of being. Then there’s “I’m Not a Player”, a Big Pun cover that works because they don’t try to be Big Pun. Much like their earlier “Return of the Mack” rendition, Pioneer 11 isolate the song elements that fit their musicality and accentuate less obvious gems in the originals. Across its forty-five minutes, Gravitorium is elemental, thoughtful without falling into the “Matthew McConaughey trap” of handsome, mystic buzzwords and expertly paced, especially considering how much acid was probably in their system. — MIGUELITO
50. Murlo – Dolos [Coil Records]
Bursting beyond the UK clubs that birthed Murlo’s one-of-a-kind sound, Dolos collides bass music’s sense of heaviness and scale to the melodic world building you’d expect from a multi-disc JRPG — if not a multi-season cable TV fantasy series. Murlo’s come a long way from the instrumental grime scene that developed around Boxed, which first brought him to prominence. He’s progressively shifted towards sets emphasizing the beauty in his melodies rather than the aggression in his rhythm, but even compared to his later singles, Dolos stands out for its sheer expansiveness. So while there’s plenty you can dance to here, the format is primed for album length listening, preferably blazed in a moving vehicle or while contemplating the man’s increasingly engaging visual art, as the album was released with a 36-page, self-drawn graphic novel detailing the album’s ‘story’ of a man escaping a city.
It’s all very high concept and the rare electronic album that actually deserves the cliché praise that it “takes the listener on a journey,” but it’s also a hell of a lot of fun and miles away from the dry business techno or bro-ready EDM dominating tastemaker clubs or capitalist festivals. In short, it’s the rare contemporary electronic album that reminds us of dance music’s potential as science fiction in an era where computer aided art is the norm, and we look at our laptops with suspicion. — SON RAW
49. Altin Gün – Gece [Glitterbeat Records]
You can’t go wrong with good, old-fashioned psych. The fuzz guitar, the Moog synths, the drum breaks—it’s timeless stuff, like hot chocolate on a snowy winter morning or the smell of freshly-baked cinnamon buns from grandma’s kitchen.
Altın Gün understands this allure well. The Amsterdam-based outfit began as a way for Dutch musician Jasper Verhulst to explore classic Turkish rock and folk from the 1960s and ’70s. Over two albums they’ve evolved into a proper Anatolian force, reviving the spirit of the old masters like Fikret Kızılok and Selda Bağcan by way of insanely funky, phaser-fried psych tunes.
Gece covers all the bases with aplomb: “Layla” has Sabbath-y riffs, UFO synths and Turkish lyrics from singer Merve Daşdemir, delivered in a devilishly melancholic croon. Other tracks find Erdinç Ecevit letting loose on the electric saz, a Turkish lute perfect for soulful, staccato phrasings (you can also hear the saz in some of Omar Souleyman’s songs). Meanwhile bassist Verhulst, percussionist Gino Groeneveld and drummer Daniel Smienk make for a superior rhythm section, laying down legitimately dope rhythms that elevate the band beyond the realm of a mere nostalgia act and gives them something more lasting and fresh.
The band’s devotion to a vintage look and feel reflects a similar mindset from labels like Daptone Records: From another region and another era, here’s a band recapturing an old sound with the chops, soul and legit credentials to back it up. — PETER HOLSLIN
48. Lucki – Freewave 3 / Days B4 III[Self-Released / EMPIRE]
It’s easy to compare Lucki to Future — both have tapped into their addiction and heartbreak to create painful, searing art — and perhaps Future is the best reference point. Who else has come close to capturing such bottomless lows through rap in recent memory? But while Future has often turned that pain into triumph, letting his pop sensibilities refine and reframe that viscerally, in 2019, Lucki crept further into the abyss, reaching deeper into the fog for the most uncomfortable vignettes he’s ever dispatched.
I’ve spent more time with Freewave 3 and Days B4 III than most other music from the year. 2019 was a transitional year for rap — the superstars flailing, the buzzing stars turning to broad-stroke formalism, the old SoundCloud wave distilling and distilling into flat, uninteresting shapes — and Lucki’s projects kept me interested in just why rap matters. They sound like they were recorded in different time periods: on Freewave 3, Lucki is deep in the midst of love, then heartbreak. Whereas he’s speeding off in an SS on Days B4, gazing into the blurry rear view mirror.
Throughout both, he writes in agonizing capsules that provide staggering detail (“Got my momma googling lean, keep sendin’ me kidney stuff”) and tactile poeticism (“Need you to come my way, I’m goin’ out my mind”). His drug-addled stomach is rejecting food. Codeine never gets bored of him. His son is asking why his water is pink.
On his 2017 project Watch My Back, he grew obsessed with bringing his voice down to a barely-there mutter, and he perfects that delivery here. While Freewave 3 sounds like a below-freezing Chicago morning — the rapping barren, the beats sinkholes — Days B4 is more bluesy and melody-infused; hear how Lucki bends his notes into shape on “Go Away!!”
As a teenager, he confessed his paranoia over opiated Chromatics samples, baring his soul and innovating on a new sub-genre that transformed into the slow, serrated muck of the SoundCloud underground. Lost in that narrative was Lucki’s world-class transparency as a writer, which continues to set him apart from the scene he helped originate, and rap at large. — MANO SUNDARESAN
47. Westside Gunn – Hitler Wears Hermes 7 [Griselda Records]
Quality street music. DJ Drama yells these words on “FCKNXTWK,” the opening track from Westside Gunn’s Hitler Wears Hermes 7 (HWH7). Drama always yells these words—I imagine he yells them in his sleep and during sex—so incredulity surrounding his endorsements is warranted. In Gunn’s case, though, he’s correct.
The Buffalo, NY rapper has released over 12 projects since the initial HWH (2012). They vary in quality, but none are subpar. Unloaded clips, high body and thread counts, kicks that appreciate like blue-chip stocks, off-white whips and bricks—Gunn always traffics in the tropes of east coast street rap influences like Kool G Rap and Raekwon. The enduring allure is partly the juxtaposition of the grimy means and luxurious ends. There’s also Gunn’s voice, slightly higher pitched and unmistakably from New York, which cuts through every track. Of course, none of the above would matter without Gunn’s witty and syllabically intricate lines. For he and his Griselda compatriots (Conway and Benny the Butcher), rap is both a sport and an art.
HWH7 is the greatest work of art in Gunn’s HWH series, one of his best projects outside of Supreme Blientele. It’s the product of countless hours in the studio, of an affinity for and dedication to craft. The themes remain the same, but Gunn sounds more assured and relaxed than ever, spitting some of his sharpest darts to date and rattling off his gun-mimicking adlibs with abandon. On “Broadway Joes,” for instance, he condenses his journey from wearing handcuffs to wearing high-end watches in one couplet. The list of producers — Alchemist, Daringer, Statik Selektah, Green Lantern— offer a veritable murderer’s row who excel at pairing clipped loops with spartan drums. Is Gunn, as he claims on “Undertaker vs. Goldberg,” the “new king of New York?” It depends on who you ask. For now, there’s still no debating the quality of his output. — MAX BELL
46. YNW Melly – We All Shine / Melly Vs. Melvin [Self-Released / 300 Entertainment]
YNW Melly is currently incarcerated as he awaits trial for his alleged role in the murders of two of his close friends in 2018. He’s staring down the possibility of lifelong imprisonment or the death penalty. He maintains his innocence in the case, but given the forensic evidence stacked against him, his outlook is looking pretty bleak. His musical output this year though has been anything but.
Last year on his debut album I Am You, the trauma-riddled teenager painted the devastating circumstances surrounding his life growing up in Gifford, Florida with playful strokes. This year, he pushed his frolicking melodies even further with lighter content, more reflective of what his new day-to-day was looking like as a successful 20-year old rapper than the heartbreaking stories that led him to get there. He even dedicates a song to cursing out PNC Bank for not letting him take out as much money as he wants to.
We All Shine and Melly vs. Melvin should both be seen as pop albums at their core. The piano underlying We All Shine is Ray Charles whiskey sitting on the piano fun, while Melly’s vocal meandering finds the sweet spot between being too all over the place and too concentrated. He lets himself run wild at times, but never feels out of range or control. The 4-song run on the b-side from “Why You Gotta Walk Like That???” to “Curtains (Burtains)” is the catchiest 4-song run I can remember, overflowing with the type of warm melodies that’ll creep up on you months later. Melly vs. Melvin is generally more somber in tone and has a few more misses than We All Shine, but the heights of balladry he reaches are unparalleled by any other rapper or singer currently working.
Should Melly end up in prison for the rest of his life or on death row, the three album run from I Am You to Melly vs. Melvin will tragically go down as one of the great pop-rap experiments of the decade. — HARLEY GEFFNER
45. WiFiGawd & Hi-C / WiFiGawd – Underworld Order (Volume 1) / Return of Da Big Dawg [DTLA Records]
Wifigawd posted a selfie on Christmas day, captioned “fuck y’all doin.” If that’s not indicative of the type of person Wifigawd is, then maybe it’s his Fubu collection — which is so extensive that he plans to open a store next year. When asked how he spends his time outside of rapping, he told POW contributor Lucas Foster that all he does is shop for rare Fubu, eat out a lot, and smoke exotic.
The D.C. native’s SoundCloud numbers more than quintuple his major streaming service numbers. The raucous D.C. DIY scene is basically run by Wifigawd, as he sells out almost every show and his fans show out in force to rap every word of his voluminous catalog. He once moved a show to a warehouse hallway when the venue canceled day-of, and it went exactly as you’d imagine.
His cover art is legendary in its own right, typically evoking feelings of heavenly descent, and he’s consistently ahead of the curve when it comes to identifying new sounds to touch on. This year, he picked out producers Gawd and Hi-C as the two who would come to help define his sound.
Wifi’s voice is like a hot gust of wind shooting up from the subway vents on a cold day. He raps with the technical vision of the art’s historical torch-bearers, but the flair of his futurist peers. Hi-C, of the Reptilian Club Boys, is one of those futurists, and on Underworld Order Vol. 1, his beats dismember your brain cells from inside-out with cartoon laughs, digital cackles, raven crows, and muddied and bizarre synthlines. Wifi’s gusty flows find a home in the spaces that others might see as filled, dripping his words around the edges. And on Return of Da Big Dawg, Wifi takes Richmond producer Gawd’s minimalist space elevator beats to a darkened cave where he fills them with witch curses for his enemies who will never own as much Fubu or smoke as much strong as he does. WiFi’s ability to bring the best out of any beat he touches is truly special. — HARLEY GEFFNER
44. JPEGMAFIA – All My Heroes are Cornballs[EQT Recordings]
2019 marked JPEGMAFIA dubbing himself the “young black Brian Wilson” (on a track he marvelously named “BBW”). Last year’s incredible Veteran was caustic and revolutionary. Sometimes brittle, sometimes hollow like somebody’s head getting cracked open with a bat, sometimes heavy and course. All My Heroes are Cornballs trades in the heavy distortion and hatchet-chopped samples for an ambiance that’s part Brian Eno and part trappped in a lucid dream chamber.
A lot, maybe even too much, has been said about the confrontation at the forefront of Peggy’s music. How’s this for a “fuck you,” Cornballs is carried by a pervasive sense of beauty. Heady, atmospheric, ambient beats float like ether from the fog of war in the background of Peggy’s caustic raps and funny interpolations of eternal banger “No Scrubs.” He’s still quenching his thirst with redneck tears and namedropping WWE stars (shout out Sami Zayn), still loading up his impressive gun collection and urging Twitter tough guys to say it to his face. He asserts the rap business only amounts to the merch you sell. But here, Peggy sounds playful even while pushing buttons and exposing uncomfortable truths.
When Peggy’s dreams come true and rap gets him cancelled, let the record reflect he chased down singular music paths while keeping it so real, most of the sycophants roaming the arts world today would visibly balk. — DOUGLAS MARTIN
43. Earl Sweatshirt – Feet of Clay [Tan Cressida / Warner Records]
Everyone wants to be a writer; almost no one wants to write. That’s an old cliché, but no less accurate than the cliché of the gifted recluse, or the cliché of the artist who works right outside the zone of easy comprehension. So when Earl Sweatshirt regards his wholly idiosyncratic seven-song EP Feet of Clay as a set of songs where, “Shit be making itself sometimes,” (as he told Apple Music) we should treat the EP’s moments of impenetrability as a plus. Or at least as a signature move.
Emerging from sub-basements and catacombs of underground New York rap, Feet of Clay offers beautiful oddities like the strange, too-loud accordion sample on “East,” “El Toro Combo Meal” and a mastery of the personal-surreal slipstream that makes me think of peak-Ghostface and literally no one else. He seem to smash disparate things together line-by-line, and the result feels whole: “ Let’s take it there like courier pigeon / 50,000 roots, none of ’em rigid / Some of them wicked how they grew”
Are those lines about family? Birds? Other big things? Whatever Earl raps about, it’s blissfully free of cliché and loaded with mystery. Remind me of another cliché: The great ones make it look easy. — EVAN MCGARVEY
42. Quelle Chris – Guns [Mello Music Group]
Guns is an intricately-produced examination of American culture, a meditation on our collective indifference to the epidemic of mass shootings that seems to settle in the same liminal space that Talib Kweli evoked when he said our “firearms are too short to box with God.” Quelle Chris is a veteran rapper, producer, animator, and director whose talents stretch in many directions. He is less a renaissance man than a self contained unit. Few artists of the current era are better poised to deliver a handmade work of art like Guns with bold, unsettling visuals, and music marked by insight about complex issues and moments of real beauty. Quelle’s rap style here is refined, more straightforward than earlier efforts, eschewing coded language in most cases to say what he means. The production is densely layered, overflowing with information, underpinned by rugged drums that recall his Detroit roots, and they often drop well into the songs, amplifying their impact.
The listener has no choice but to confront the ugliness of our time, as Quelle delivers a scathing indictment of American morality, piercing the veneer of civility purported by the government and organized religion. Out of this frustration, the artist has painted a compelling picture, at times shocking, at times ugly (gun sounds, long a staple of rap production, are present here but not nearly as plentiful as a standard Griselda release.) and at times quite beautiful. There is a Brian Wilson-esque choral harmony that appears twice—including at the very end of the record—that provides a counterpoint to the many dark, key-laden beats here. After so much paranoia and critique, Quelle Chris does the unthinkable. He ends his treatise on a note of hopefulness. — DAD BOD RAP POD
41. XL Middleton – 2 Minutes Till Midnight [MoFunk Records]
Matthew T. Hudgins’ deepest vision of Los Angeles living comes from an insatiable appetite for antique synths and analogue waves so crisp they could renew Dam-Funk’s hood pass (in the extremely unlikely event he’d need that). As both head of MoFunk and one of the label’s solo stars, XL Middleton has spent his career trying to perfect the West Coast party record.
2 Minutes Till Midnight may prove to be the Pasadena funkateer’s zenith—a séance that summons glimmering robo-soul, popping G-funk, stoned lounge piano breakdowns, and raps that drip with L.A. gangster boogie. The heavy slab of rubbery basslines, squelchy keys, and snappy drums on songs like “Where We About To Take It (Salvation)” offer as much bounce to the ounce as anything this side of Roger Troutman. And though this will appease acolytes of nostalgic sounds, don’t take XL for some kind of medium who only echoes the past. On “Gentched Up,” the rapper/producer delivers the ultimate kick-back to gentrification that’s chantable not just in modern day Cali, but anywhere you find the evil wheels of capitalism turning. – DEAN VAN NGUYEN
40. clipping. – There Existed an Addiction to Blood [Sub Pop]
We always knew that clipping.’s Daveed Diggs was a good writer and a studied rap stylist, and that William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes had interesting ideas on how to incorporate noise music and musique concrete into rap beats. Even with that being the case, some of clipping.’s previous music felt like experiments moving towards an ideal. There Existed an Addiction to Blood feels like a successful completion of that experiment.
The music on the album takes pieces of the texture of Luc Ferrari, the bombast of No Limit Records producers like KLC, John Carpenter scores, and the ambiance of ’90s Memphis and New York horrorcore, to create a perfect atmosphere for some of Daveed’s best writing revolving around the horrors of surviving being black in America. I mean, just listen to “Blood of the Fang,” a song about the possibility of liberation through black militancy. It has to be the best thing Daveed’s ever written. Then there’s “La Mala Ordina,” where Daveed, El Camino, and Benny the Butcher’s vocals get turned into straight visceral noise by The Rita. It’s the best work of horror not shown live on CNN this year. — SAM RIBAKOFF
39. Baby Smoove – Purple Heart / Baby [Never Stop Cashin]
A Day in the Life of Baby Smoove: Waking up in the morning and not caring about the $8,000 you spent the day before. Buying a pair of $1,000 shoes to wear once. Dropping $7,000 at a store and tossing the receipt. Renting security to carry your bags from store to store. $500 on a zip of exotic because your weed is trash. A steak for dinner that costs more than your rent that he won’t even eat.
Baby Smoove makes shopping sound exhausting. Shopping with him isn’t about buying clothes, it’s about expressing emotions. Unlike most of his peers in Detroit, he doesn’t really collaborate with other artists from the city very much. His production doesn’t stray too far from the city’s typical sounds though, working with producers like Undefined and CardoGotWings. Across the 62 songs he’s released onto streaming platforms this year, only five have features. Working alone has given him the opportunity to focus on what he does best: telling stories through shopping.
Baby’s “Hawaiian Runtz” and “Off White Runtz” score dark and ominous crawls through Saks Fifth. Over the G-Funk synths of “04 Iverson,” he’s cruising down Melrose in a G-Wagon. On Purple Heart, he tilts the camera away from himself, penning some of the year’s finest Wockhardt-tinted love poems. The title track of Purple Heart is equally as romantic as it is dramatically horny. Counteracting the sweetness of offering to fly his girl anywhere because she’s stressed, he offers to break her spine while off a percocet. He could make a trip to the corner store sound interesting. — BRANDON CALLENDER
38. The Paranoyds – Carnage Bargain [Suicide Squeeze Records]
The debut full-length by this Los Angeles quartet introduces a dream scenario: What if the Go-Go’s were weaned on Mika Miko and their favorite past time was smoking joints in the desert? Much like Douglas Martin’s Dirty Shoes, Seattle label Suicide Squeeze has struck gold with a very specific style of rock music (shout out to Death Valley Girls and L.A. Witch), and the Paranoyds bridge the label’s greyscale bands to longtime Suicide Squeeze punks the Coathangers. The charisma and humor are there, but also some very solid writing and the kind of cool aesthetic rock bands in 2019 pretend they don’t strive (and sometimes struggle) to emulate.
The album’s title track smartly melds the garbage on our phones with the garbage we pollute the earth with, the track having the vaguest whiff of something that could have been from the Breeders’ Title TK sessions. Carnage Bargain possesses an anti-consumerism thread which pulses and swells through the Trojan horse of fun, catchy songs like the one about a girl named Courtney who has dreams of driving to Japan. There are lots of interesting instrumental shifts and couplets that make you go “hmmm.” But the song about doing laundry is just as profound. — DOUGLAS MARTIN
37. Moodymann – Sinner [KDJ]
Sinner mysteriously appeared earlier this year like mana from the sky. In the year preceding it’s release some Moodymann acolytes found themselves scouring the internet and even a Detroit-area backyard BBQ for a sign of what was forthcoming from the enigmatic Detroit House prophet. Fittingly, the question of why or how we got Sinner seems to dissolve as soon as the first punch of Moodymann’s drum machine lands and jostles one’s sense of equilibrium on the album-opening hedonist-anthem “I’ll Provide”.
Over the years Moodymann has only gotten better at melding the esotericism of multiple genres into one unique and universally accessible sound and on Sinner he flirts with perfection. On “If I Gave U My Love” Moodymann opens with the seemingly sacrosanct section of Camille Yarbrough’s “Take Yo’ Praise” that formed the foundation for Fatboy Slim’s iconic “Praise You.” If employing the same sample of one of the biggest house crossover hits of all time wasn’t enough of an indication of the way Moodymann carries himself, then the spasming computerized cowbell that follows it should leave no doubt that Moodymann worships no man or thee man. As the minute mark passes it becomes clear that the dialogue that started the song isn’t so important and that “If I Gave U My Love” is really a timeless Disco-lounge hymn built around The Reverend and for the come-down.
Moodymann is at once subversively undermining genre-convention and an encyclopedia indoctrinating us in the ways of 7 different sub-genres of house, jazz, soul and everything in between. Moodymann has done it before but it is never not a marvel to hear someone achieve that indescribable thing that many live musicians never can on record while also making a recording feel like the fleeting magic of a night in the club under the trance of a great DJ. Obviously a sinner, Moodymann seemingly offers salvation for all and for that we should rejoice and forgive all heavy-handed religious allusions on my and his behalf. Amen. — MICHAEL DUPAR
36. Future – Future Hndrxx Presents: The WIZRD[Freebandz / Epic Records]
It’s hard not to compare Future to LeBron at this point. Even while at his unreasonably long peak, he continues to score hits and work at an insane pace. The WIZRD was one of two solo projects Future dropped this year, coupled with a 45-minute documentary of the same title that follows behind the scenes of his 2016 Purple Reign tour. He’s already teasing another collab project with Drake for 2020 and just curated a compilation album for 1800 Tequila.
The breakneck pace resembles the world he lives and raps about, all of which is front and center on The WIZRD. This album isn’t the bold direction that was HNDRXX or the far left experimentation of SAVE ME. This is Future on autopilot — which, for reference, is like a 30, 6, and 12 game for Bron.
The WIZRD gives us everything we want from Future. It’s highs aren’t as high as Monster, Beast Mode, or any number of his other classics, but it’s him as consistent as ever. The whole thing moves like a speedrace. “Never Stop” is one of his best intros and has a number of lines that define peak Future (“Love is just a word, it don’t matter to me / I got so rich, nothing matters to me / I’m livin’ my second life, it’s so amazin’ / I done been hit with a bullet, and one grazed me”). Listen to “Crushed Up” and “Jumpin’ on a Jet” and you will notice the cash spilling out your speakers. “Stick to the Models” is a quintessential Future track that could fit seamlessly on DS2.
“Krazy But True” is where he starts to come up for air. Future steps outside the glitzy narcoticism of the last 11 tracks to reflect on his success and have fun proclaiming how great he is (“I’m God to you niggas / I worked too hard just to spoil you niggas / You need to pay me respect”). He delivers these lines like he’s sitting us down to make sure we’re really listening and the hook (“It’s crazy, but it’s true”) is where he laugh us off.
There is music you listen to and then music you can’t unhear. For the last decade Future has made nothing but the latter. The WIZRD falls right in line, but fell under the radar only because of how high the bar is set by the rest of his catalogue. His influence is so embedded that he could reasonably claim writing credit for like 90 percent of whatever is being put out now and we wouldn’t blink an eye. He continues to top his peak and is without question, the artist of the decade — it’s time we stop to give him his flowers. — MYLES ANDREWS-DUVE
35. Galcher Lustwerk – Information [Ghostly International]
Call it hip-house because he’s quasi-rapping, call it deep house because the drums bump crispy clean, the bass thumps immaculately, and the synths glide, but to me Cleveland’s Galcher Lusterk makes night music. This is smooth, effortless music that sees all, knows all, but somehow transcends above it all in graceful moonlight. It’s music made from an amalgamation of Black history: house, funk, hip hop, disco, techno, drum and bass, ambient, soul, jazz, and R&B — melded into one composite perfect sound. Galcher Lustwerk has been working out the kinks of this sound for a couple of years, and Information is the summation of those efforts into a stellar project filled with insatiable grooves and whispered gems of lyrics. There’s “Another Story,” where Glacher tells us about a busy day with lyrics like, “I don’t do it for the clout, I just do it for the glory. I just drank another 40. That shit is another story.” — SAM RIBAKOFF
34. Maxo Kream – Brandon Banks [Big Persona/88 Classic/RCA Records]
Maxo Kream makes locomotive rap. His bars rumble and hearing them pour out can be like watching train cars go by, wondering if and when they’ll end. Except, instead of a train, you’re waiting for him to take a breath. It’s pulverizing, and brutal as his world, and it’s the exact reason Brandon Banks, a pensive and deeply compassionate album, is among the best releases of 2019.
Maxo’s combination of these diverging properties on “Grannies” makes it one of the most perfect rap songs of the decade — there’s more than 50 of them — and Brandon Banks is essentially an exploration of that dichotomy over fifteen songs. He has leaned increasingly into his storytelling since he kicked the door down with #Maxo187, and that’s involved incorporating and articulating his immediate universe. His Houston is brutal, and reminders of its cruel designs breathe at his doorstep. Some of them even pay his rent. Brandon Banks is the street name of Kream’s father, the man on the cover. The man who exchanged beatings with his son and raised him, taught him violence and responsibility, family, anger, determination and table manners. It’s domestic, and in the careful consideration he gives not only his father, but his mother, grandmother, brothers and cast of friends free and incarcerated, Maxo integrates his most compelling attributes as a rapper: his force, his attention, and his reflection.
Brandon Banks is as nuanced and difficult as the family upheld by the titular subject, and Maxo’s depictions of said family beget cruelty and empathy in equal measure. But there’s conviction in that they’re his family, his home. A monument of loyalty to the house.
Oh, and in that house they’re watching the Megan Thee Stallion Show. — THOMAS JOHNSON
33. Teebs – Anicca [Brainfeeder]
In these grotesque times of yada yada, I’ve found something like relief in two new albums that prioritized prettiness: Pi’erre Bourne’s The Life of Pi’erre 4 and Teebs’ Annica. (Beauty feels too broad a descriptor; many beautiful things aren’t pretty.) The latter producer builds pulsing feather-soft rhythms with rattles, shakers, chimes, tambourines, taps, and fuzz, nudging along melodies on guitar (“Atoms Song”) or harp (“Slumber”) in tender crescendos that leave you grasping for metaphors in nature, a sunrise, a flower bloom, to describe the sensation.
The vocalists recruited here—Sudan Archives, Anna Wise, and Panda Bear among them—follow suit with lyrics of love and heartache that take inspiration from the natural world: “I’m flying, black dove, above; flowin like the water when you stumbled in my life; new garden, new feelin.” Those tracks in particular, where Teebs translates his instrumental sensibility into song, feel like a frontier. — TOSTEN BURKS
32. Chris Crack – Collected [New Deal Collectives]
The joke is absolutely on me, but, this was the first year that I got into Chris Crack. I had seen him do sets at a few Chicago shows between 2013-15, and I knew that he made pure magic with Tree on the boards, but until recently I had never sat down and fully developed a relationship with his work. Again, the joke is 1000 percent on me. Chris Crack made sure I knew that he’s one of the best and most compelling rappers on this planet, and I’m sure he didn’t give a fuck about when I found this out, because Chris Crack raps and presents like he’s known this all his life.
He dropped a masterful, career-sized discography this year alone, arriving by sheer force with velvety, untamed swagger. Crackheads Live Longer Than Vegans is psychedelic miniaturism, a strong 15-minute DMT hit with a dizzying sense of humor. The Future Will Be Confusing is exactly that, thrilling and messy and quite hard to make any sense of. Never Hated I Just Waited has a vaporwave bopper called “No Parking in LA.” On Pretty Niggas Only, Chris Crack and his accomplice Ugly Boy Modeling go Southern Baptist preacher with explosive horniness during “Brainwashed Generations.”Each 90-second joyride from 2019 brims with absurdist logic, technical brilliance and self-assured pimpery. After all, anyone who flips “Bria’s Interlude” and ends it with vocoder croons of “move his booooowwwwels” is probably worth dying for. — STEVEN LOUIS
31. Malibu Ken – Malibu Ken [Rhymesayers Entertainment]
That Black Moth Super Rainbow front man, Tobacco, and the prodigiously proficient spitter, Aesop Rock, would choose to do an album together isn’t so surprising. BMSR opened for Rock back in ’07, and Aesop returned the favor by guesting on “Dirt” from Tobacco’s Fucked Up Friends in ’08. Game recognizes game, after all. The real news is how goddamn good they sound together more than a decade after the fact.
On Malibu Ken, the duo brings out the weirdest, and therefore best, in each other. Known for his burbling analogue synth work and Frankenstein-ian approach to chopping and cutting his beats, Tobacco (aka Thomas Fec) throws down an acid drenched soundscape for Ms. Bavitz’s boy, AR, to drop increasingly meaty rhymes that cover the topics that most affect Americans today. Ranging from webcams watching eagles eating cats to Satanism in the suburbs, Malibu Ken plays like a series of increasingly bizarre dares to the two artists, wherein someone threw the most random ideas possible into hat, and the pair said, “yeah, we can turn that shit into an album.”
Beyond the aforementioned web cam (“Churro”) and devilishly demented (“Acid King”) tracks, Malibu Ken delves into such topics as “lesser known fetish porn” (“Tuesday”), “world weekly news,” the movie, The Sandlot (“Corn Maze”) and that one episode of “The Brady Bunch” where Peter and Bobby find the tiki necklace (“1+1=13”). There’s obviously something here for everyone (who, when confronted with something described as “vaguely hallucinogenic,” thinks, “yeah, I’ll ingest that”).
30. Young Thug / Lil Keed – So Much Fun / Long Live Mexico [300 Entertainment/Atlantic Records/YSL Records]
The verdict is in: the big boss was right in his own way all those years ago — when CNBC cameras caught Lyor scolding Thug for leaving his songs like “orphans.” Turns out that industry-shattering, anarchistic artistry doesn’t mesh well with industry-standard album release cycles, and unfortunately, part of 2015 Young Thug’s chaotic Essence could only have ever been captured in an infinite series of 1.1x and 0.9x YouTube uploads of forum leaks. This path we have found ourselves upon is our collective cosmic punishment for streaming Travis’s SoundCloud leak of “Pick Up the Phone” instead of waiting for the Starrah version. Through the J. Cole Trojan Horse it is.
But, come on. So Much Fun is the perfect compromise, tightening up the act while still reveling in precisely the right vices, like Lil Duke features. It’s nineteen songs long, with several songs that never evolve past concept; Quavo is here again, again on probably the wrong song. A song receives a head-shaking (Machine Gun Kelly? In this economy?) feature post-release. More of statement: “Just How It Is” is a classically deliberate Thug intro, plodding directly in the footsteps of Barter 6’s “Constantly Hating”, a magnetically calming mid-career retrospective. No one ever could’ve said that Thug was afraid of being himself, but there’s an assuredness here in how he navigates his own greatest hits – the spikiness of “Drippin’” on “Ecstasy”, the “Harambe” growl on “Cartier Gucci Scarf”, the dexterity of “Mannequin Challenge”. The truly brilliant chess move here was managing to cleanly encircle nearly everything Thug represented, even the most baffling and chaotic elements, and packaging it into a digestible Piece of Art.
And this version of Thug never could have existed if over the past 2 years, his stylistic children hadn’t slowly infiltrated mainstream consciousness. But unlike the Gucci-Thug baton pass (where it felt like some of Gucci’s fundamental lunacy was channeled outwards as he transitioned into post-prison Instagram reformation) each of Thug’s proteges feel like champions of different segments of the Thug kaleidoscope. So despite living in the same octaves as Thug, Keed an imperfect encapsulation of that ultimate, foundational unpredictability that Thug always embodied.
But instead, he is the master of the one-note slow burn, the surreptitiously rising vocal pitch that suddenly finds itself mid-howl, spiraling up into unrecognizable registers. Unlike his past mixtapes scattered across the past couple years, Long Live Mexico earns its twenty songs and sixty-plus minutes, a fun-house mirror reflection of So Much Fun if it’d been dunked underwater and allowed to bubble back to the surface. It’s relentless and gravity-defiant, sloped diagonally upwards.
Locked in that slow burn is an urgency that Keed unmistakably internalized from Thug’s most important teaching – the voice isn’t just another instrument, because it takes nothing to tap the highest note on a keyboard. Tearing through to the highest registers of your voice exacts a payment, one that’s more strikingly evident across twenty songs than twenty seconds. I think it’s why when, there’s more music than ever before, these are projects that not only deserve but require their runtime – and when Keed and Thug float off into Route 94’s “My Love” on the revival of the song that should’ve sealed Thug’s place in the mainstream back in 2015, it feels like the correct send-off. May the 2020s have many more. — SUN-UI YUM
29. Weyes Blood – Titanic Rising[Sub Pop]
As the existential anguish of climate change has settled in on a mass scale, creatives in all mediums have grappled with the most incomprehensible crisis of our time, a futureless future of our making. Perhaps no work of art can ever fully come to grips with this horror, but as California songwriter Natalie Mering, aka Weyes Blood, understands, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make beauty out of the chaos while we’re still here. Mering’s fourth and best album, Titanic Rising, faces our human-made calamity head-on, accepting what’s to come without succumbing to despair (“Let these changes make you more holy and true/ Otherwise, you just made it complicated for nothing”). It’s stirring and picturesque—Mering’s haunting voice, reminiscent of Joni Mitchell, invokes images of burning people, collapsing trees, swelling seas, and vast galaxies beyond our tiny world. Yet against these daunting backdrops, her songs still focus on the things that make us human, puzzling out the complexities of relationships, seeking faith in something larger than ourselves, and holding on to optimism and our sense of resilience.
Listening to Titanic Rising makes for an almost overwhelming experience: Songs often start quietly, then build to lush, absorbing soundscapes of violins, guitars, synths, and layered vocal choruses, culminating in sweeping moments of rapture. The effect recalls all at once vintage orchestral Hollywood scores, church choirs, and the harmonies and discordant chords of ’70s art rock. It’s ambitious, elegant music, envisioning not a false paradise, but a universe in which we still have room for all of life’s emotions, from grief to happiness, from keen longing to warm comfort. The songs of Titanic Rising may not provide any satisfying answers to the human predicament, but they do here what truly great music does best: make it easier for us to reckon with the unimaginable. — NITISH PAHWA
28. Khruangbin – Hasta El Cielo [Dead Oceans]
In the last few years, the Texas trio Khruangbin made their name by incorporating faraway sounds into their instrumental jams. The Universe Smiles Upon You from 2015 riffed on ’60s Thai funk and Con Todo El Mundo from 2018 alluded to Iranian pop from the ’70s. Scroll down on their Spotify page and you’ll find a menagerie of playlists they’ve made with their favorites from Turkey, Brazil, Nigeria, and Guadalupe. Their mode is exotic pastiche.
Khruagbin’s music feels amazing because of its gentle rhythms, ensconcing guitar work, and cozy bass; but also because Khruangbin is a celebration of music that prizes the music’s inherent beauty. The object of their attention is the music itself, not so much its surrounding experiences and circumstances. They don’t opine on military juntas, Islamist despots, or historical grievances. Is this myopic? Callous? It doesn’t sound that way. Lovingly interpreting a genre honors its progenitors. You leave your polemics at the door at Khruangbin’s international jam session.
Hasta El Cielo takes the fully realized, dulcet utopia of Con Todo El Mundo and treats it like unshaped clay. Like a trickster deity, Khruangbin distort their old reality to see what its inhabitants look like unsettled and unmoored. It’s a dub album that reworks its predecessor in the tradition of Jamaican recording engineers. The signature riff of “Lady and Man” gets muffled under an ocean of reverb and its guitar stabs echo like they’re falling off the edge of the world. “Order of Operations” subdues everything about its original except the drums which swell until they scrape the sky. The music’s pace evokes a peacefulness that belongs to another century.
Khruangbin celebrate the particularities of genres by grabbing them off the shelf of history and playing with them. They remind us that the world is big and its musical traditions are bountiful. Hasta El Cielo reaches for one genre that subsumes all the others and reminds us that our existence is infinitesimally small. — EVAN NABAVIAN
27. Skengdo x AM – Back Like We Never Left[MOVES Recordings]
2019 started with Skengdo and AM becoming the first artists in British history to be handed a suspended sentence for performing one of their most popular songs. By the end of the year, they certified their presence as prolific stalwarts in an ever-changing drill scene against the backdrop of Draconian censorship with their most ambitious mixtape, Back Like We Never Left.
Skengdo and AM’s raps on inner-city life portray a Brixton where the street lights flicker, the smell of Stardog fills the air and the music blares out of cars with tinted windows speeding down the roads. It’s not just in the big details—such as the homage-paying “Brixton Boy” and the repping of #410—but in the small details where a majority of collaborators are from Brixton (bar Peckham’s PS and Lagos’ Oxlade) and the synthesis of multiple genres bleeds from Brixton’s rich musical history. It’s a love for Brixton expressed through words but also through production: from the Afroswing-laced “Don’t Care” that dabbles with tropical melodies enveloped in kiss-and-tell anecdotes, the Road-Rap infused “Bakerloo” that captures the ire and paranoia to drug-slinging and of course, the macabre, double-tap “UK Drill” that was being fathered in their postcode.
In the past, Drill artists have dodged the demands of injunctions by employing a mask or bally or a change of alias, but Skengdo and AM’s poise doesn’t cower. It demands our attention as they fix their eyes upon us in the album cover, refusing to budge. It teems with a pathos reminiscent of Franco Rosso’s film Babylon, a masterpiece that centers on Blue, a dub-reggae MC in 1980’s Brixton who’s traumatized by police brutality and the rise of far-right political National Front, discovering music to be his only outlet. In the final scene, he roars “Can’t Tek No More” in a smoke-clouded hall while police sirens and rushing footsteps invade the building and finally, the sound of a battering ram hitting the man-made barricade, shutting down their sound system. The screen turns to black, the credits start to roll, yet a wave of black voices persists on singing the rest of the exclusive, acapella — the music won’t be silenced. — ETHAN HERLOCK
26. Akai Solo and Pink Siifu – Black Sand [Field-Left]
On Black Sand, the sometimes LA-based producer Pink Siifu’s beats are muddy and noisy and they often lack familiar anchors like drums and negative space. “Fate Shifter” is an extreme example, with a growling, claustrophobic low end. Other times, Siifu pulls back and offers a spacey and minimal track with fewer stimuli. “Show Love” is just a lone, dreamy guitar. He either makes you wrestle through a morass or he drops you in a vacuum. He never makes things easy.
Siifu shares these canvases with Akai Solo of Brooklyn who describes his music as “a brain teaser for black people.” They dispense with signifiers like places and names to give their lyrics the air of a proverb. They’re coy with their meaning, but a few themes emanate. They bristle at the materialism of their peers, they distrust or abjure institutions like political parties and the government, and they regard truth and understanding as precious and elusive.
The most arresting part of Black Sand is its pacing. Many songs ease into a contemplative reverie more typical of psych rock than rap. They drift like the sun across the sky and they give you time to chew on the parables in the lyrics. The whole thing is heady and disorienting like the sounds that once animated LA’s beat scene.
Is the inscrutability of the music just a gimmick? The broken beats and the abstruse soliloquies — are they just miming MF Doom and Mos Def and dressing it up in profundity? Or do you cheapen an idea when you make it plain? — EVAN NABAVIAN
25. Billie Eilish – When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? [Dark Room/Interscope Records]
On her debut LP, Billie Eilish posed a centuries-old question: WHEN WE FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? In this dark and masterful lullaby, the 18-year-old icon took our hand and told us what happens when the lights turn off: good girls go to hell, bad guys get called on their BS, friends are buried, and hearts are broken. It’s the stuff modern pop stars are made of — only riddled with night terrors and nose bleeds. Rest assured, WHEN WE FALL ASLEEP is anything but bubblegum. But so is the captivating punk-goth princess narrating. Although Eilish has won the world over with her anti attitude, there’s a complicated creature beneath her oceanic eyes.
In this 14-track project produced by her brother FINNEAS, the young artist hypnotizes with her signature whispering vocals. Here, they feel as snug in doom-laden electronica and convulsing hi-hats and they do in chilling pianos and sweet ukuleles. WHEN WE FALL ASLEEP is a purer form of her 2017 don’t smile at me EP with a bold takeaway: there’s a payoff to sharing your dreams and nightmares. Earning Eilish a whopping six Grammy nominations, the LP made her the youngest artist to be nominated in all four categories. Standout single “bad guy” has remained on the Billboard Hot 100 chart since its release, and spare ballads “when the party’s over” and “listen before i go” proved that she doesn’t need much to keep us in the palm of her hand.
This year, Billie Eilish shared stages with Alicia Keys and front seats with James Corden, performed around the world, and let tarantulas crawl around her crown and out of her mouth. And one night, she fell asleep, strapped on a spiked choker, and introduced pop as we knew it to its best worst nightmare. – PALEY MARTIN
24. Angel Bat Dawid – The Oracle [International Anthem]
When she was five, Angel Bat Dawid’s father took her to see the movie Amadeus, a semi-fictionalized biography of Mozart. She remembers laying eyes on a young Mozart playing the piano and violin and feeling something visceral in her body. It wasn’t long before the Chicagoan was given a clarinet in her school band, despite a true desire to play violin like her on-screen idol.
Some time later, hearing a cassette of Mozart’s clarinet concerto changed her mind about the instrument’s allure. A few decades of mastery and life later, the composer, clarinetist, and singer has released her first album, The Oracle, on International Anthem. An integral part of the avant-garde jazz scene in Chicago, Angel Bat Dawid performed, overdubbed, and mixed almost all of the vocal clips and instruments on this debut, miraculously recording the entire thing on her iPhone’s voice notes app as she travelled across the globe. The resulting album is a capstone in jazz music this decade, overflowing with grief and joy, diasporic history and personal odyssey. To listen to The Oracle is to be gifted entrance into one of the most intimate jazz experiences in recent memory, and the way it was cobbled together piece-by-piece helps to explain this appeal. What bares our souls and psyches today more than smartphones?
Each song is misty and slightly distant, like music trickling from an old radio transmitter on a dusky morning. It’s a reclamation of what it means to be a black woman, told in the language of free jazz and Sun Ra. A living, breathing document on enduring black pain, the effects of imperialism, the need for collectivism. There’s an elegiac quality to the album, with mantras repeated and chanted throughout. Angel’s spots of singing give the songs a charming rawness, a rush of intimacy after passages of head-spinning composition.
The arrangements say something even when they don’t. There are moments when her untamed clarinet sounds not like a classical instrument but a person wailing, ricocheting between portentous keys and clashing cymbals. But on the album’s final, eponymous song, Bat Dawid herself ululates like she has lost everything. This album, like any art, offers no solutions to generational plunder, murder, psychological warfare, and trauma. The composer cannot predict the future like the titular Oracle from The Matrix, the same way she cannot compartmentalize the past and present—the plight of people of African descent in America and elsewhere. She is just making her voice heard the only way she knows. – COLIN GANNON
23. Mach-Hommy – Tuez-Les Tous / Wap Konn Joj! [Soul Assassins Records/Self-Released]
What makes Mach-Hommy’s music so addictive is that it’s simultaneously cryptic and immersive. If you’re never precisely sure what it is you’re listening to, you’re always at least waist-deep, and before you know it you’ve passed hours trying to decipher runes. Tuez-Les Tous, the first of two full-length collaborations with DJ Muggs, would appear to conjure an alternate Duvalier-era history, with cobbled, whispered dialogues and vox that sound like they’re being transmitted live via guerrilla radio. There are discursions into haunting melody and beats ground from gravel; sometimes he’ll start rapping in French and it doesn’t break the flow at all because it’s not any more or less esoteric than when he raps in English.
Wap Konn Joj! is more straightforward which, for Mach-Hommy, means a higher degree of difficulty, his bars woven over dreamy instrumentals like your grandma’s AM radio on Sunday morning. It’s dour and even perverse in its way, but the tracks are so evocative that the result is an odd earnestness. Mach and Quelle Chris are proudly antisocial on the unforgettable “Chiney Brush,” and “Mozambique Drill” is so seamlessly smooth you can’t help but grow suspicious. Mach-Hommy’s taken great pains to cultivate his mystique, which wouldn’t matter if we hadn’t bought into it so fully. – PETE TOSIELLO
22. Tree – Collected [SOUL TRAP MUSIC/Parallel Thought LTD]
The fuck is wrong with you? The video for Tree and Vic Spencer’s “Flood” – off this year’s Nothing is Something – has, as of this writing, 1,043 views on YouTube. That is unacceptable. You have not been paying enough attention to Tree.
Don’t you hear it? Come on, just listen: Vic, serious as a heart attack and cold as the middle of a Hot Pocket. Tone, spitting the hook like he’s about to get caught. And Tree, god, Tree, rapping about nothing but with that voice that sounds like everything. Smooth, damaged, like a revelation. His flow, which started hearty and straightforward circa 2012’s Sunday School, rolled cleanly through the advent of the Migos flow and absorbed it without ever sounding like Tree was pandering or trend-hopping.
Yes, my neocortex knows that the music industry is a bitch, that fame is the roll of a dice, that styles shift in the blink of an eye – especially in rap.
But Tree is not an artist who inspires calm consideration. He inspires passion. Tree is an artist who makes you want to go up to everyone you meet and, like some kind of rap Hare Krishna, yell, “HAVE YOU HEARD THE TRUTH OF TREE YET?”
Whatever Tree has, he deserves more of it. If he has a condo, he deserves a house. If he has a raccoon fur coat, he should have a mink. He’s from Chicago – from the famous and now-demolished Cabrini-Green housing projects on the north side. Just make him the mayor, even for a day.
Tree was one of the first artists I wrote for for this site, way back in 2013. He has never left my mind. I thought he’d be massive by now. To see him getting only minor plaudits from well, writers like me, and not headlining festivals and starring in Super Bowl commercials, it just bums me out.
21. Moon Duo – Stars are the Light [Sacred Bones Records]
There is a good chance you’re taking Moon Duo for granted. The San Francisco band (an offshoot of Wooden Shjips, consisting of Shjips guitarist Ripley Johnson and his wife, keyboardist Sanae Yamada) have been aggressively prolific since the 2011 release of their debut album, even if they don’t receive the fanfare merited for a band with such steady, reliable output. Their seventh LP, Stars Are the Light, arrived earlier this year, largely sailing under the radar as it competed with a slew of higher-profile releases. But Stars, unassuming as it sounds on first listen, worms its way into your brain and sets up camp.
Moon Duo have always dealt in hypnotic, swaggering psychedelia, songs that sound like what my grandparents feared my parents were listening to while they dropped acid; Stars Are the Light doesn’t radically alter that. But it does steer their focus further away from guitars in favor of dance and electronica. There are nods at funk and krautrock and even disco (none alien to the band’s sound but explored more deeply here than ever before), with songs both meticulously rendered and playfully loose, even jammy.
The result is something groovier and warmer than Moon Duo’s previous offerings, propulsive and buoyant in all the right measures. It adds color and dimension to the band’s soundscapes of choice, reinforcing their strengths while extending their reach. Having the entire history of music streaming at your fingertips can render the discovery of new albums obligatory and joyless – you shrug at the hot album of the week, decide that you’ll probably never listen again, and determine that you’re fine with that. So it’s disarming to find a record like this one, one you can truly get lost in. – ALEX SWHEAR
20. Roc Marciano – Marcielago [Marci Enterprises]
Marcielago is more than an album, it’s an opportunity to reflect on the absolutely seismic impact Roc Marciano has had on underground rap this decade. After all, hardly a week goes by without another 30+ emcee from rap’s hinterlands emerging with a slow, literary take on the Loud Records playbook, but Marci was the original. A master craftsman, Marci slowly, patiently delivered new iterations on his sound, mostly self-produced, all viciously penned, with Marcielago being no exception. Whereas last year’s Behold a Dark Horse was ruthlessly efficient, darkly psychedelic classic, 2019’s Marcielago is a vast survey of his influence, inviting old friends and heirs apparent alike for a master class in rap that’s as luxurious as it is gutter.
Through his richly developed character and his writing’s contrast of material luxury and poverty’s grind, songs like “Molly Ringwald” and “Puff Daddy” deliver a critique of contemporary society too scathing and too honest for woke seals clapping for easy answers. Of course, it helps that practically every moment, from “Richard Gear’s” frostbitten paranoia, to Ka’s show stealing verse on “Ephesians,” to the ’70s crimesploitation beat switches on “Tom Chambers” is beautifully scored, the work of an incredible cratedigger with an ear for not only unearthing incredible musical moments, but seasoning them with just the right amount of grit to take the listener to another world entirely.
And so dear readers, while Roc Marciano may not grace a mainstream publication’s end of the year or end of the decade lists, that is their loss: they’ll be claiming they were fans all along, as his influence continues to grow and reverberate through the next decade. Marcielago is just the latest gem in the watch. — SON RAW
19. Floating Points – Crush [Ninja Tune]
The Sam Shepherd resume almost reads like an inside joke, a superhero Origin Story from the turntables – the tale of a Manchester-born, classically-trained pianist, steam arising from pulsing London clubs, a neuroscientist fiddling with a harmonograph. It took him five years to release the stunning debut album to critical acclaim, and just five weeks for the follow-up.
The result is something more sparse and technically exacting, less forgiving in its lushness. The debut, Elaenia, enclosed familiar classical notes within aluminum bars, a metallic symphony: Crush is less sonically operatic but more thematically grand, self-characterized as a cry outwards at the contemporary world. That newfound anxiety finds a home in the transitions between songs, whether it’s “Anasickmodular” hammering to a close or “Apoptose, Pt. 1” twiching as the seconds count down. It’s uncertainly animated, fidgety, and it makes sense that Crush was inspired by the experience of opening for the xx on tour with a synthesizer Shepherd was barely familiar with. When the riff of “Last Bloom” starts to open up and reach upwards, we remain rooted to Earth, disjointed voices not ready to release their secular cling. “Requiem for CS70 and Strings,” the emotional pivot, builds from a six-note inkling that first appears to be a skeleton but reveals itself as a cage. The most powerful moments during Crush serve to remind that music at its best feels unknowable, with boundaries un-chartable. The cartography is intentionally incomplete.
Sometimes music like this feels self-obsessive, too concerned with the pockets it finds between its own beating drums. The song’s Loop is sacred – an outline scrawled in drum-beats that slowly paints itself inwards, evolving with each repetition, letting you find a rhythm before locking you in and throwing out the key. But Crush never nods its head too hard or closes its eyes for too long; it feels more like a magnifying glass, only ever able to take in a single patch of a broader canvas. It feels like an infinite number of doors opening or petals unfolding, always peeking its head around the corners of slinking hallways. Shepherd says Crush arose out of “searching for hope and not being rewarded”, and perhaps that’s why it feels like music that never waits too long in one place. It is hardly soothing but it is honest, and when we do not know what lies next, there’s comfort in being blind together. — SUN-UI YUM
18. Danny Brown – uknowhatimsayin¿ [Warp Records]
They wanted that old Danny Brown six years ago and now they’ve got him: 38 years old with a full set of teeth, method acting his way into middle age. And yet “Change Up,” the opening track on uknowhatimsayin¿, asserts that he will “never look back”, and “never change up.” As much as the LP is stripped back compared to the experimental grandness of 2016’s Atrocity Exhibition, it isn’t much of a departure from previous work. He’s still squawking about drugs, death, and darkness with both punchlines and poignancy; it’s just the urgent sense of despair isn’t quite as palpable. When he says, “ain’t no next life, so now I’m just living my best life,” the implication isn’t necessarily that he’s stuffing as many drugs as possible into his system. We know that that’s Danny Brown’s personality, and that he’s capable of exploring aspects of his psyche that most rappers won’t touch. The most experimental thing he could do, then, five studio albums into his career, was reel it all in.
uknowhatimsayin¿ is a distillation of Danny’s rapping ability, embracing hip-hop’s foundational roots rather than pushing against them. It doesn’t have any standout singles—although “3 Tearz” is the best RTJ fans could ask for in a year in which there were no Christmas fucking miracles—but it flows together into a singular, coherent sound. Every song is pleasant. No song falters. Those who expected the old (as in, more of the same) Danny Brown might be less interested in the direction he pursued on uknowhatimsayin¿, but the album caps off his decade of wild exploration in tamer, but not timider, fashion. He moves forward into 2020 as an influential veteran: still on the margins, old but still unwilling to put out anything other than something refreshing and new. – WILL HAGLE
17. FKA Twigs – MAGDALENE [Young Turks Recordings Ltd.]
If a tragedy doesn’t destroy you physically, the event’s reverberations can haunt you and turn you into a monster — or you can walk through the depths of darkness and come out the other side with a renewed sense of your own durability and the fragility and grace of life and human beings. On MAGDALENE, FKA Twigs takes us through the latter option, inspired by the dissolution of her relationship with the psychopath from Good Time, and her struggles with fibroid tumors in her uterus. She channels Kate Bush’s flights of lyrical heights and dark lows, Burial’s rain swept post-dubstep atmosphere, and Jayne Cortez’s poetry of self reflection to understand her own surrounding world and history.
Songs like “Home with You,” are almost too personal, too revealing, for comfort, but the catharsis of Twigs whisper shouting “didn’t I do it for you? Why don’t I do it for you?” isn’t just for the listener to perversely peer into her grief, it’s Twigs embracing the mantle of the biblical character of Mary Magdalene, the person mentioned more than any other apostle in the New Testament — from all accounts a close confidant of Jesus, and somebody who performed miracles to heal the sick and the broken, only to be eventually misidentified as a prostitute in history and almost written out of devotional practices.
Twigs embraces both the biblical story of the woman, and the mischaracterization, saying you can heal yourself and heal the world while indulging in yourself and the world. But, like, hey, there’s also a song about masturbating while you’re depressed, and a verse from Future, the poster boy of letting personal tragedies turn you into a monster. — SAM RIBAKOFF
16. Mdou Moctar – Ilana: The Creator [Sahel Sounds]
Tuareg guitar shredder Mdou Moctar has been wrecking shit on North American and European concert stages seemingly nonstop since his starring turn in Christopher Kirkley’s lo-fi 2015 remake of Purple Rain set in the Sahara. Reared on the heady “desert blues” of Mali masters Tinariwen and now one of the biggest stars to come out of the frontier city of Agadez in neighboring Niger, Moctar has vaulted to international acclaim on the strength of some wonderfully unique recordings as well as a live show full of furious solos and explosive turns.
Ilana is his most ambitious effort yet. Recorded in Detroit, it veers between being showy and heady, imbued with the same raw power and psychedelic release of Detroiters like MC5 and the Stooges but anchored by the droning chord patterns and plaintive lyrics that come straight from West Africa. Moctar takes the obvious lead, but his band also throws down with a powerful chemistry; using chord patterns and lyrics from a different regional repertoire, they’re able to reframe what it means to rock when many young Americans seem to have turned their backs on the six string.
Moctar’s best recordings conjure the good feelings you get while sharing a drink (in his case, a pot of tea) around the campfire. And he still has that soulful touch on Ilana: One of the best tracks is “Takamba,” a limber jam in which drummer Aboubacar Mazawadje and bassist Michael Coltun follow their way around Mdou’s sidewinding guitar lick, adding their own ornamentations and flourishes. But the guitarist’s wider ambitions show through in more epic tracks like “Tarhatazed,” a blazing, multi-part piece that doubles down on the distortion and even features some Van Halen-style finger tapping.
Moctar seemed to come out of nowhere when he first reached the ears of international listeners a decade ago. But on Ilana (The Creator) it’s clear that he’s reaching a new peak of guitar glory. — PETER HOLSLIN
15. 03 Greedo X Kenny Beats – Netflix & Deal [Alamo Records]
Kenny Beats has had a strong few years. The super-producer and rap’s current favorite white boy has brought out the best in a number of talented MCs, including Rico Nasty, Vince Staples, and Freddie Gibbs. On Netflix & Deal, he collaborated with hands 03 Greedo, the Watts legend currently serving a prison sentence for drug trafficking and gun possession. The result is a tight but effective sampler of what makes both of them special at the thing they’re doing.
The most impressive thing about Netflix & Deal is probably that it’s a Greedo project somehow contained to a mere 13 tracks and under 40 minutes. Album standouts “Disco Shit” and “Aye Twin” are the more magnetic records, and if you needed a clearer example of the playfulness and freewheeling vibe happening on the record, there’s an entire track based on name-checking the movies if Brad Pitt (in a song appropriately titled “Brad Pitt”). While Kenny remains a chameleon of the best kind, able to morph his sound into the perfect laid-back breezy west coast car music that Greedo’s croaking vocal style sounds best on.
The short length is right despite leaving you wanting more, Greedo’s effortless ability to flow from his creaky melodies and sing-rapping to hard spitting should be a turn off but is instead strangely hypnotic. Kenny’s production is at its most muted that it can be on Netflix & Deal: he knows who the real star is here. – ISRAEL DARAMOLA
14. Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell! [Polydor Records/Interscope Records]
There is a notion that Lana Del Rey is a project about America. This might be because Elizabeth Woolridge Grant began this decade playing Jackie to A$AP Rocky’s JFK; it might be because she spent years performing in front of the projected image of an American flag; it might come from the way she writes a rugged (but not too rugged) frontier California full of stoic men and expensive sand dabs. The new album is called Norman Fucking Rockwell! The man next to her on its cover, squinting into the middle distance, is Jack Nicholson’s grandson. His name, inevitably, is Duke.
Alternate idea: Lana Del Rey is a project about irony, about what you can get away with when you never break character because it’s not exactly a character, about how many genuine emotions you can wring from an audience when you’re triggering little bits of Americana like found sounds on a sampler. A project about whether an audience will allow itself to recognize and then sink into those emotions even when the artifice is made visible (she counts in her band before the hook on “California”); about the audacity it takes to call your shot, so to speak, and still surprise that audience, like Babe Ruth leaning over a balcony at the Chateau Marmont.
There are breathtaking moments on the back half––there’s “The greatest,” which is the sound of somebody burning a prom to ash, and there’s “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but I have it,” where she coos “Hello, it’s the most famous woman you know, on the iPad” and “I had 15-year dances / Church basement romances / Yeah, I’ve cried”––but the opening five-song run is what anchors NFR. To be clear: that run includes a psychedelic, ten-minute song called “Venice Bitch” and a Sublime cover, which read credibly as part of one long tonal arc. “I like to see everything in neon,” she says at the beginning of “Fuck it I love you,” an idea she quickly qualifies with: “Maybe the way that I’m living is killing me.”
Some pieces of Norman Fucking Rockwell! feel like magnet-poetry songwriting, while others seem wholly, unnervingly original––long text messages that are syntactically confused and emotionally devastating. We often talk about Lana Del Rey as if she were a collagist, going door to door with a bag of tricks and old photographs, trying to provoke. NFR uses that assumption to its advantage: by the time it’s clear that what Lana is building will cohere into a wrenching, singular whole, it’s too late to run for the hills, which are burning either way. – PAUL THOMPSON
13. Yazz Ahmed – Polyhymnia [Ropeadope Records]
Named for the ancient Greek Muse of sacred arts, Polyhymnia pays tribute to some of the most important women to emerge in our modern era. The album’s shape-shifting blend of jazz, classical Arabic music, and psychedelic production echoes the boldness of figures like Rosa Parks and Malala Yousafzai. Just as they risked it all to break down oppressive systems and challenge those who sought to silence them, Ahmed also takes creative risks to explore radical new territory and map out her own musical framework.
The album’s six pieces unfold in layers of complex harmonies, dense rhythms, sudden key changes and soaring horns; “2857” cuts through a prickly, angular groove, while “Lahan al-Mansour” reworks a Middle Eastern scale into a cosmic rush of trumpets and effects. Ahmed, a British-Bahraini trumpeter and composer, underlines her thesis in “One Girl Among Many”: “They are afraid of women / The power of the voice of women frightens them,” a group of vocalists chant, quoting a speech that Yousafzai delivered to the United Nations in 2013. The rest of the ensemble (which totals out at two dozen musicians) joins in, throwing down a thunderous melodic refrain as if to say: Yes, be frightened!
Each member of the ensemble gamely ducks and dives, pulls back and lets loose, creating a smoldering cauldron of attitude and spontaneity. By rewriting the rules on their own terms, Ahmed and her collaborators create an album that celebrates independence and creativity for all. — PETER HOLSLIN
12. Purple Mountains – Purple Mountains [Drag City Inc.]
I got really into Silver Jews — like reallllllly into them — for the first time in my life towards the end of July 2019. After years of being sort of ambiently aware that they were a good band, a band that I would probably like, a band I will definitely get around to listening to one of these days, I fell for their records, I fell for them hard, and I fell hard for David Berman’s new project, Purple Mountains, along with them. This, of course, tragically, meant that though I did not know it at the time, I had approximately one and a half weeks to fantasize about seeing my new favorite human play my new favorite songs when he took them out on tour, only for my new favorite human to die by suicide.
It’s corny to talk about our own relationship with a dead person we never met, and I am fully aware that not only have I already committed an act of arch corniness, I’m about to get myself in further trouble by attempting to turn it around. The thing about David Berman’s music, though, was that every verse he wrote was like a Swiss watch: ornate, complex, sophisticated yet simple and always a little unknowable. You could spend hours analyzing it, attempting to dissect how the hell he even thought to line those words up in this way and realize they’d come across like that, and still walk away with all. His was the type of talent that encouraged relationships with his music, this incredible thing that was of him but still separate from him, so at least I’m not alone here.
For Purple Mountains, Berman teamed with the indie rock group Woods for a sound a bit more straightforward than his Silver Jews work — the new record has choruses and everything! — but no less unfussily labored-over. It’s like Berman decided to try his hand at submitting entries to the Great American Songbook, except because it’s him, he wrote songs about death (“Nights that Won’t Happen”), incels (“Maybe I’m the Only One for Me”), the failures of therapy (“Storyline Fever”), and, in the case of “Snow Is Falling in Manhattan,” something that’s technically not a Christmas song but nails the melancholia of all the best ones anyway. If the idea of listening to David Berman warble about that stuff appeals to you, then you were more than probably all over this record before you read this, maybe even before I first listened to the damn thing myself. But if not, just give it some time, and then one day you’ll find yourself waking up with a hankering for exactly what Berman had to offer. I speak from experience. — DREW MILLARD
11. Toro Y Moi – Outer Peace [Carpark Records]
In the opening shot of the short film Creating Outer Peace, we see Chaz Bear’s hands working in their natural form. His fingers thump away on piano keys, while also making sporadic clicks on a faded apple keyboard. Originally grouped into the chillwave tags of 2010-2011, Toro Y Moi has remained amorphous to genre, continually defying standards by plucking specific parts of what he likes, and more importantly, what the fans want to hear most. In 2019, we find him in Cazadero, a small unincorporated community in western Sonoma County, California. Over the rattle of the Super 8 Film are Bear’s solo’d vocals for “Monte Carlo” a standout track from his 2019 album, Outer Peace, as he muses over different melodies to play over it.
A recurring theme of Outer Peace is travel. There’s the sampled beep of a public crosswalk, looped and pitched down to a special effects growl on on “Freelance.” Or on “Who I Am,” which opens with a field recording of airplane cabin instructions, muffled perfectly to render the experience of trying to ignore them through the music in your headphones. We even glimpse some vulnerabilities: on “New House” Bear winces at the anxiety-inducing setting of landing at JFK and braving baggage claim. Along with his preference for the East Bay, he describes avoiding BART due to paranoia on the hypnotic “Monte Carlo” featuring WET.
Outer Peace is a pledge for personal contentment. Clocking at 30 minutes over 10 tracks, the album is a reminder in the power of brevity. In the accompanying short film, Bear tinkers with various riffs, some of which sound familiar. You also get to see him laying down the housey synth melody on “Laws of the Universe,” songs forming piece by piece. The film is grainy and slightly meditative, and you begin to see this as inherent to the recording process. In the middle ground of seclusion, relaxation, and even boredom where Bear stresses that creation as escape occurs easiest. Perhaps we should have followed Walden’s words more closely. — EVAN GABRIEL
10. Dave Harrington Group – Pure Imagination, No Country[Yeggs Records]
While Los Angeles, Chicago, and London have spent the decade forging and nurturing enthralling jazz communities, New York has quietly chugged along. The five boroughs have always been home to rabid experimentation, which is perhaps why the light hasn’t shined as brightly upon the city in recent years. But it’s also why the dynamic work of Dave Harrington and his group works so well and is so tied to the city. His albums are propelled by an unrelenting weirdness, a desire to shape asymmetrical visions into sturdy, quadrilateral wholes. Harrington’s debut under the Dave Harrington Group moniker is restless and unforgiving, the audible equivalent of a car crash you can’t look away from. Beneath the layers and layers of noise rest fragments of pure beauty. Guitars are turned inside out until they resemble a cry to alien planets and lucid synths beg for a moment’s peace to explore the terrain. It’s an unceasingly hectic album, a far but exciting cry from Harrington’s work with Darkside. The group’s second LP, Pure Imagination, No Country, aims for some sort of middle ground, in which cacophony slowly morphs into beauty; an attempt at extracting a perfect moment from deluge and scorched-Earth melancholy.
The album’s dichotomous nature is spoiled in the title itself, which solidifies the record in its final two tracks. “No Country” is ugly and metallic, a cultural moment in an album that moves more personally than politically. It’s impenetrable and static, a vertical stack of thickly layered fragments. It offers no entrance, a pure portrait that’s hostile to subjectivity. But the album’s last track, “Pure Imagination,” breaks through in stunning glory. It’s a play on the Willy Wonka classic, stripping the melody of its silliness and imbuing it with a grace as serious as it is breathtaking. Harrington posits a philosophy in which the beautiful can change a perspective, can change the world. It’s optimistic in the face of the album, which spends much of its first half conjuring storm clouds. Here, at last, the sun peaks through.
Harrington introduces the melody by splitting it between guitar, pedal steel, and synths, muddling it up enough to lend his first run through the fragment a punch that hits right in the stomach. His guitar tone is clean, bouncing off a hall of mirrors and occupying the song’s entire frame. It’s both a refreshing cleanse and a tensely ecstatic moment. His variation of the classic song evokes a sense of innocence and vulnerability, joy and responsibility.
Throughout Pure Imagination, No Country, Dave Harrington and his band prove themselves to be consummate musicians, but more than that, consummate artists. They take their work seriously and believe in the power of a transcendental experience. It’s hopeful but high stakes, a big money bet that’s far from a sure thing. If anyone can cash out, though, it’s Dave Harrington: the leader of a New York underground that’s been patiently waiting for its moment.— WILL SCHUBE
9. Flying Lotus – Flamagra [Warp Records]
Energetic, sprawling, curious, Flying Lotus’s Flamagra feels like a cleansing fire after the mourning periods and wakes and shivas of 2014’s You’re Dead!
The individual songs themselves are minimalist successes, burning through a few samples until they’re examined and exhausted after two minutes: the strings on “Say Something” ; “Post Requisite” ‘s plinking astral effects; the snare and a gauzy Theremin on “Inside Your Home.” “Andromeda” is made for either 4:45 PM or 4:45 AM, all dusty drums, clear whistle, drink in a cup, a whiff of a frizzy guitar in the background. Even the conventional (for Ellison) funk, jazz, and digital quiet storm blend on “Debbie is Depressed” feels speculative.
The album’s combination of range—27 songs total— and none longer than 3 minutes flat, and plenty songs shorter than 90 seconds—reflects the half-decade of recording and revision behind the work. David Lynch has a monologue here. One of the precious few MC spots goes to Denzel Curry, as exciting a young rapper as we’ve got. I don’t know of another album this year that both contained exquisite, specific choices and felt so improvisational. Flamagra burns and sizzles and smolders and roars.— EVAN MCGARVEY
8. Sada Baby – Bartier Bounty [Asylum Worldwide]
Detroit’s rap scene had a watershed year. ShittyBoyz, Kasher Quon, Bandgang, Teejayx6, Babyface Ray, Veeze, and Drego & Beno elevated their profiles nationally and showed the world how they “get their shine on the internet”. When the dust settled, Sada Baby still sat a head above them all. While his YouTube loosie run in the last quarter of 2019 is masterful—and still technically going—he opened the year with Bartier Bounty, an aggressive, revealing and expansive project that grips like a chokehold. The start of album is a great showcase of Sada Baby’s appeal. The full-bearded Detroit rapper uses his growl-like register to adjust the J.G. Wentworth jingle (“It’s my money and I need it now”) from a cry for structured settlement headache relief to a demand for drug payment from his aunt. It’s a pop culture reference that makes you feel nostalgic and unsettled. Bartier Bounty, and really all Sada Baby songs, function this way.
Sada provides signposts that make his raps accessible, then he uses his charisma and wordplay like a funhouse mirror to stretch a familiar image into a demented and exaggerated shape. Freddy Krueger is a real midnight terror not a cheesy B-horror staple and the mumbled gibberish of Boomhauer on King of the Hill becomes rounds from automatic weapons (“Aunty Melody”). Nothing is sacred. He’ll compare your girl to a cartoon fish voiced by Ellen Degenerees. Bartier Bounty is long—and padded by a couple of singles—but Sada’s humor and honesty keep it engaging. When he’s not using the ukulele as a teaching moment for holding firearms, he peels back scabs of trauma, like being ignored by his father and beaten by his mother (“On Gang”). Sada Baby’s music doesn’t exist for a higher purpose unless that purpose is to make his listeners better writers and dissectors of culture. Or maybe just to remind you how ugly Lonzo’s shot really is. — MIGUELITO
7. DaBaby – Baby On Baby / Kirk [Interscope Records]
Let’s get one thing out of the way: both Baby on Baby and Kirk have tracks worth skipping. No one’s trying to hear DaBaby’s Chance or Nicki impressions, and a finger on the skip button was going to be the price of entry for listening to just about any mainstream minded rapper operating in today’s content economy. What matters, is that in 2019, DaBaby rapped his motherfucking ass off, and looked fly doing so. Resembling nothing less than a southern, modern spin on Big Daddy Kane, completely with acrobatic flows and backup dancers, DaBaby didn’t just ride the pocket, he landed triple axels into cartwheels with the flow in a year where his competition tried to make rapping offbeat cool. “Suge” is the obvious entry point, the moment everyone stopped confusing him with Lil Baby, but look at how much he’s grown since. Kirk’s intro saw him channeling 2Pac via Boosie. “Off The Rip” out-fast rapped anything out the UK. “Bop” somehow kept flute rap relevant for another year. “Pop Star” was downright reflective and saw Kevin Gates (nearly) get his ass handed to him on the mic.
In millions of running playlists across even more streaming accounts, DaBaby demanded our collective attention off the strength of the flow, and an infectious personality, a practically wholesome outlier amidst a peer group full of clout chasing non-rappers. Because above all else, DaBaby clearly gave a shit about rapping and had an awesome time doing so, serving as a much needed palate cleanser and breath of fresh air after a solid half decade of morose, auto-tuned R&B that seemingly owed more to emo and pop punk than anything in worth throwing and elbow to.
It’s that sense of joy and enthusiasm for the art form – though old heads might not have noticed it – that truly sets the best moments on these two albums apart. DaBaby not waiting more than two seconds into a track to start rapping made for a great meme, but it made for an even more gripping collection of songs, no matter how many albums or playlists they’re split across. We can only hope the next generation of babies picks up on this, and by all accounts, they hear him loud and clear. — SON RAW
6. Sudan Archives – Athena [Stones Throw Records]
If you’re overly concerned with technique and theory, it can be difficult to experiment. Finding your sound becomes a process of unlearning. The music of Cincinnati, Ohio native and LA transplant Sudan Archives (Brittney Parks) is a sound argument against a traditional musical education. Self-taught on violin, Sudan later discovered and drew inspiration from West African and Sudanese fiddlers. Her first EPs (2017’s Sudan Archives and 2018’s Sink) were full of auspicious albeit short experiments. She channeled those African influences on her violin, combining/looping notes with beats and basslines that pulled equally from R&B and the LA beat scene. Sudan’s voice was captivating, but the lyrics were sometimes the most lacking piece of the puzzle. In an NPR interview, she called the songs on the EP’s “freestyles,” compared them to haikus.
Athena, Sudan’s debut album, is a purposeful artistic statement that doesn’t sacrifice the experimentation that made her EPs so singular. Sweeping and grand, it’s intentional in its innovations, assured in every aspect. It’s both a breakup record and a record about new love. The breakups aren’t solely romantic, as is the case on opener “Did You Know?” There are splits with friends and former selves. “Limitless” is a lament about a once broke and woke friend who’s now materialistic and IG-influencer deep (“I don’t want your hugs / I just wanna go back to times when money didn’t make you budge”). On “Confessions,” Sudan affirms that her instincts are paramount and rejects the parts of herself that didn’t believe (“I washed away my fears / And trust in my own ears”). One of the most seductive songs on the album, “Green Eyes” sits on the other end of the spectrum. Sudan articulates the rush of new love and argues for feeling over fear and romance-killing analysis.
Sonically, Athena builds on the templates of Sudan’s EP’s, constructing suites that are simultaneously stranger and more refined. The opening plucking on “Did You Know?” is percussive and propulsive, a refreshing break from traditional pop song build ups. “Black Vivaldi Sonata” sounds like the kind of beat made by someone who grew up on Timbaland and loved everything coming out of Low End Theory. In some places, Sudan’s work on the violin is more of an accent (“Limitless”). When her playing is the focal point, though, the results are even more rewarding. The layering of her varied playing and plucking on “Down on Me” is epic and immersive. “Glorious” is the closest Sudan comes to her influences, where the melody she plays sound like someone playing the Gonje.
Athena didn’t spring from Sudan’s head fully formed, but the missteps and experimentation of her early work lead to one of the most progressive avant-R&B albums of the decade. The album is going to educate violinists and singers for years to come. — MAX BELL
5. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Bandana [Keep Cool/RCA Records]
Their first collaboration was considered one of the best full-lengths of the decade, and it was rooted in the dream scenario of Gibbs going off over a pack of Madlib beats. It didn’t need to be anything more than that, it didn’t need to be a more thorough collaboration than one of the greatest rappers of his generation over a randomly assorted collection of beats from a beatmaking talent already on the all-time list.
Freddie Gibbs went through his own personal hell writing the words which guide this album. Extradition over an alleged sexual assault. Drying out and detoxing in an Austrian jail, “kicking shit like Solange in the elevator.” Then, he was acquitted of all charges and continued putting out his best work, with each successive release being written with such fine craftsmanship. He wrote a little in jail to fading memories of Madlib’s beats, reportedly made on an iPad, but was a man with a lot on his fucking mind when came time to record the wildly anticipated follow-up to Piñata.
And to his credit, Gibbs unravels Bone Thugs flows and bars about Spike Lee’s depiction of Malcolm X being out of need of funding from the white boys. He writes heartfelt odes to the structure of the family unit when a person hits rock bottom and throws a jab at old friends for buying Jeezy a new pair of shoes. He Debo’s the plug, recalls finding quick stress relief from a woman he knew. The white man coming to Africa with rifles and bibles. Junkies shooting up detergent, the trunk of a car filled with cassettes, Maurice in line for Moneygram every Sunday morning, the clinking of chains while Gibbs fucks his pastor’s daughter. (All other sexual encounters are off the record.)
An all-star cast of guests put forth their best foot (like Pusha T road trippin’ to a Motel 6 like a family on a budget vacation, but it’s hard to think about anything but how perfectly Gibbs and Madlib occupy their space. Or the first time you heard the beat change on “Fake Names.” How Madlib’s beats alter the emotional tone of Gibbs’ writing.
It most certain isn’t in the wheelhouse of most of the soccer moms I’m in acquaintance with, but Bandana is the kind of singular, impeccable rap album that feels like it arrives once every few years nowadays. With the culture of social media and holding onto one’s opinions for dear life, it’s hard to agree on anything, but Bandana lives up to the hype as 2019’s only barely disputed rap classic. — DOUGLAS MARTIN
4. Burna Boy – African Giant [Atlantic Records]
There are precious few artists who are able to consistently level up with each release. We’re all familiar with the typical trajectory: artist makes a name for themselves with engaging, singular work, receives more notoriety, releases more good projects before settling in as a legacy act and becoming the topic of “remember when?” conversations. Nowadays, that entire trajectory can unfold within the course of a year or two.
Burna Boy has spent this decade turning that arc onto its ear. He began the 2010’s with two solid mixtapes that led to a very good 2012 debut album, L.I.F.E., spawning a series of hits that could have been a number of artists’ creative peak. Within three years, he was back with another very good album, On a Spaceship, setting the tone for what was to come.
After another three years had passed, Outside was released and this album represented a significant step forward from the first two. Surely, this was Burna Boy’s true peak moment. How could you top an album with “Ye,” “Sekkle Down,” “Koni Baje,” “Streets of Africa,” “Rock Your Body,” “Giddem” AND “Calm Down on it?”
To come back with a career defining album like African Giant within one year isn’t just amazing (although that word is thrown around a bit too much these days), it’s almost unprecedented. The level of versatility that Burna Boy has showcased throughout the course of his career is on full display here, as he moves from sound to sound without ever sounding out of place.
There are not a lot of albums that could incorporate Future, YG, Jorja Smith, Damian Marley, Angelique Kidjo, Jeremih, Serani, Zlatan and M.anifest this seamlessly. Whether he’s creating songs that are tailor made for dancehall playlists (“Pull Up”/”Anybody”), paying homage to his Nigerian forefathers (“Another Story”) or offering social commentary (“Wetin Man Go Do”), the groove is never lost and the songs never delve into “eat your vegetables” territory.
Every song feels like a piece of a greater whole, as opposed to an attempt to check off all the boxes. This is a testament to Burna’s fervent music fandom. He grew up on American rap (he regularly speaks highly of DMX) and R&B, in addition to Afrobeat and dancehall. All of these influences are evident in the music and his craftsmanship allows him to thread them all together with ease.
These experiences have informed the creative process, as Burna has looked to avoid some of the more craven crossover attempts (how did a Davido/Young Thug song come out so bland?) of his contemporaries. As someone who grew up taking in foreign sounds, he does not see the need to switch up his style for foreign audiences. If he could understand Ruff Ryders and Bad Boy without needing his hand held, the same should be true in reverse.
African Giant is not just Burna Boy’s best work, it is one of the best albums that this decade has had to offer. It takes a great deal of confidence to jump from toughness to vulnerability as easily as he does but he has the swagger and resourcefulness to pull off any idea that comes to mind. It’s an album that you can play at the party and on a quiet ride home. It’s the sort of album that could only be made by a true music devotee and that’s why it is destined to stand the test of time. — HAROLD BINGO
3. Burial – Tunes 2011-2019 [Hyperdub]
Tough to believe, but come 2020 we will have been blessed by Burial’s (non-) presence for 15 years. At this point, the sound of the elusive South London producer, who genuinely seems less interested in self-mythology than being left the eff alone, has become canon. But since canons tend to be built around large, coherent pieces of art, it makes you wonder how Burial achieved this status by following up 2007’s Untrue with a shapeshifting decade of sporadic collabos, one-offs, and EPs and singles. Of course, jumping in and out of the greater musical conversation as he pleases seems much more fitting to the narrative that was spun pretty much against William Bevan’s will, than adhering to any obsolete two years album cycle.
Tunes 2011-2019’s biggest trick is to create an environment that works without all the heavy luggage of context every Burial release since 2007 has been met with. (That said, if you want context, go read Alex Shwear’s excellent breakdown of the comp for this site.)
For an (almost) exhaustive collection of tracks released on EPs and 12”es, it‘s striking how much Tunes 2011-2019 feels like one body of work. Clocking in at two and a half hours, the matter-of-factly titled comp highlights the importance of sequencing in electronic music. It starts with a whopping 25 minutes of the darkest ambiance – chimes, chain rattles, water streams and all. You’re getting dragged deep into the forest (or down the burning beach / submarine temple respectively), before you’re allowed to see a familiar face again. Going from these recent Burial soundscapes down the years to his glorious 2012/2013 streak of “Kindred,” “Rough Sleeper,” and “Rival Dealer” feels like falling down a trap door through the decade, contrasting today’s grim reality checks and quiet acts of reassembling against the vague and muffled euphoria of the early ’00s. Even at their most anthemic, Burial’s tracks never hide that their foundation are moments that have either just passed or that might never materialize.
London-resident and pop quiz master Gabriel Szatan wrote it best in his Pitchfork review: the quality that makes Burial’s music so spine-shatteringly relatable is “how much he gets it,” namely the universal, collective and utterly lonely moments of the night life experience. As with many other style-defining UK artists of the past decades, I wonder what the difference in perception may feel like. The promise and the longing that this music sends out – is it any different for seasoned ravers who depend on the South London transportation system every single day; and does the aspect of familiarity heighten their relation to the sounds? Is there another layer of emotional connection for occasional UK visitors that stems from feeling excluded from the sensations and the musical lineage that birthed these tracks?
Quite possibly, Burial’s emotive palette is broad enough for us all to be triggered the same way, which would be his prime achievement.
Forgive me, this blurb is written on a 7AM train from London Stansted airport to Liverpool Station, surrounded by yawning commuters, all dressed up for work in the city and exhausted before the day even starts. For a moment, it seemed implausible that not everyone on this shuttle was listening to “Nightmarket” in unison, whether they’re wearing headphones or not. If isolation as a collective experience is the default status of this decade, Tunes 2011 – 2019 captures it perfectly. — JULIAN BRIMMERS
2. billy woods & Kenny Segal – Hiding Places [Backwoodz Studioz]
billy woods is lonely, but better to be lonely than surrounded by fools. Loneliness doesn’t cloud his perspective on the stellar Hiding Places, but it does emanate from his voice, the deep and cavernous way he dissects the trauma of youth and the safety of a hideout undiscovered by bullies or cowards. Made with Kenny Segal, woods has churned out a record effortlessly elusive and covered in dust, a reflection of broken times less prescriptive than hellbent on reminding us of where we went wrong and how to avoid doing so again. Although woods is smarter than all of us, Hiding Places is never didactic. It’s the journal of a genius, resurrected from a displaced and unnameable childhood memory. It’s no surprise that when I interviewed woods earlier this year, he mentioned that his writing now is surprisingly similar to the musings he penned as a teen. Hiding Places is riddled with anxiety and coping mechanisms, it turns safe spaces into crevices of life or death.
Any fan of woods knew this breakthrough was coming. His discography, his effortless brilliance (while also, at times, being willfully obvious), and his unrelenting working pace guaranteed NPR acclaim and Pitchfork accolades. History Will Absolve Me is a masterpiece, as is Today, I Wrote Nothing. Diehards of the New York-based emcee may even make arguments in favor of those efforts as the top-tier of woods’ discography. But anyone debating semantics is missing the point: billy woods’ discography is the best of the decade. Each album is as good or better than the one that came before it. He’s like a film director whose toolkit stays honed through a film noir here, a thriller there. woods’ perspective is limitless, and on Hiding Places, he’s honed in on isolation, the joys and perils of being truly alone.
“Spongebob” is an iconic opener. woods’ voice always sounds like there’s something in his mouth, whether it’s taffy or chewing tobacco or the bones of a wack emcee. He’s the rap equivalent of the garbage disposal: he’ll digest your scraps and turn them into something useful, or tear you apart if you come as a threat. Kenny Segal’s not going to get a ton of credit here, because woods is that good, but his beats are tremendous. The meditative thump of drums on “Spongebob” perfectly backs woods’ melody-barren chorus: “Spongebob the whole operation under water,” he practically yells, trying to muscle himself over the suffocating emptiness he’s submerged himself in. Elsewhere, on “Checkpoints,” Segal brings in your high school garage rock band to back the emcee, who raps, “If I haven’t heard a word in ten years, assume me dead/Or guest to the feds/Or cultivated a better class of friends.” It doesn’t matter what you guess, just know he’s at least two steps ahead.
The satisfying but ultimately empty allure of billy woods is that he always seem past the point we receive him at. By the time Hiding Places emerged, its themes dissected, and nature understood, dude was gone. Terror Management was on the way. Few artists treat their work in a more practically cathartic nature. billy woods raps because he has to, and we listen because no one does it better. Hiding Places is just the latest iteration of a legitimate master at the height of his practice.
The whole operation’s still underground, the tours still self-booked, and the videos still shot with masks because who can afford to blur with CGI? woods is always slightly removed from the world he presents himself in. There’s a slim barrier, but it’s impenetrable. His albums play like audio books, from another time but not one describable with our vocabulary. It’s like Faulkner, or Ellison, or Morrison. These works exist in a particular time, but transcend it, too. billy woods is a mystic, and he’s revealed his hiding place. By the time we reach it, though, he’s already gone. — WILL SCHUBE
1. Tyler, The Creator – IGOR [Columbia Records]
The first album of this decade emerged from the final week of the last one. Tyler, the Creator hurled the furious Bastard into the Tumblr void — a molotov cocktail with a box frame logo on the fuse that initially exploded to little noise. The asthmatic Fairfax skate teen emerged from some murky tie-dyed nexus between Damiano’s (RIP) and Hawthorne, Stones Throw, Supreme, and the Ladera Starbucks, with blistering eviscerations of his deadbeat and ambiguously dead dad, Steve Harvey, jerkin,’ gatekeeper bloggers that ignored him, and 40-year-old rappers still talking about Gucci. How could you not want to play it in church?
If the erstwhile demon seed kick-doored the 2010s with an atomic eruption of hate, directed at anyone who wouldn’t put on an an 18-year old making his own fucking beats, covers, and videos, he ended it with one of its most complex, vulnerable, and fault line-shifting confessions of love. Igor marked a legitimate artistic revelation – the enfant terrible who once hurled epithets and arson threats for shock value reinvented himself as the moonstruck conductor leading hold-me-tender teardrop symphonies with a blond pageboy bob and bespoke lime suits. He stitched together ’80s British jazz-funk to Studio 54 disco to glimmering Impala-cruising soul to bullfrog-larynx rap. It is treehouse jazz, sea-foam funk, velvet rainbow blues. The sound that always existed in the back of Tyler’s brain finally conjured to life.
Igor is Pet Sounds for a generation that purchased disembodied cat head Golf Wang hoodies. Andre’s The Love Below if Dracula’s Wedding occurred at the golden hour under an autumnal forest canopy with Charlie Wilson conducting the nuptials. My Dark Twisted Fantasy if the fantasy was a utopian pansexual forest carnival. Pinkerton if Rivers Cuomo had actually had sex. My Dirty Mind if Tyler’s mind was, well, maybe it’s actually pretty similar. Recorded at studios all over LA (including Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La), Atlanta, and Lake Como, it features Lil Uzi Vert and Kanye, Solange and Playboi Carti, Cee-Lo Green and Slowthai, La Roux and Pharrell, but they’re so subsumed into his vision that you’d have to first read the liner notes to recognize most of them. The eccentric teenage N.E.R.D disciple turned 28 and now understood exactly what Pharrell was in search of.
In those interviews around 2010, Tyler would tell anyone who asked that he hated rap — at least apart from Based God (whose 6 Kiss is the other first album of this decade), Flocka, Madlib, Clipse, Missy, and Eminem. Despite wielding a blood-curdling butcher’s knife baritone, he’d complain about how he wanted a quivering falsetto. The Bastard growling over one-finger synthesizer melodies that sounded lifted from a Dario Argento slasher film evolved into a masterful orchestra conductor, directing his guests with operatic precision and using an arsenal of production tools to bend, cortort, and amplify the power of his voice. And while he’ll always lack the timbre he idealizes, Howling Wolf Haley actually learned to sing.
The genius of Igor lies in the details both large and small. It’s a concept album without being corny and telegraphed. It’s replete with grand sweeping gestures and a miniaturist’s obsession for perfection, but still feels improvised and loose, unvarnished and head-splitting immediate. Intricate suites that Van Dyke Parks would envy end with his voice buried low in the mix asking “do you want me to do it over?”
It’s one of those albums that stands alone as a dramatic statement of purpose and intent, but can be broken down into brief moments of sweltering beauty. Those diamond-clustered funky staccato drums on “Igor’s Theme” giving way to the seraphic falsetto, the keyboard swoons that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Roy Ayers record, but still feel like a 21st Century advancement. This became the first rap album to ever top the charts written, produced and arranged by one artist — Tyler’s New Quintet, a one-man band but with his government name on the cover. If his true identity was a secret to start this doomed ten-year span, Tyler finishes it without subterfuge or shock value. He didn’t need it anymore. The art was more than enough.
There is “Earfquake,” unwisely passed on by Rihanna and Bieber that became his biggest hit to date. Playboi Carti is deployed as though it’s a prized leak, his infant vocals cooing on an infinity loop. “I Think” could be the best Jade or Zhane banger you never heard. It’s the twinkling cars zooming on and the female choir repeating itself on the outro of “Running Out of Time.” The sinister winged monkey laugh at the start of greasy upset stomach banger, “New Magic Wand.” While “Puppet” plays out like a modern reinterpretation of the Bobby Purify classic, built for lowrider callers to request on Art Laboe, except they’re on GOLF boards streaming it on their iPhones.
It’s “What’s Good,” where he somehow makes a Sam Bowie reference effective 36 years after Portland made the worst mistake in NBA and rap history — which makes sense here because the album itself is about the ultimate bad choices. It’s the way that “please don’t leave me” is buried in the mix on “Obsession, to sound numb and desperate with “WHITE MAGIC” filtering through a distorted microphone. And yes, the gorgeous chords. He figured out the fucking chords.
There is, of course, the way in which it devastatingly captures the uplift and volatility of a relationship. The lust of “Earfquake” and the coital afterglow of “I Think,” where Igor is alone the next day thinking about what and how just went down. “A Boy is a Gun” captures the danger and fear inherent in willing to risk heart, the sneering kissoff at his lover bringing his ex to breakfast. There is the understanding that the most emotionally dangerous people are those who don’t know what they want. “A Boy is a Gun” operates as a microcosm for the album itself, cycling through love, rage, fear, and confusion — before repeatedly murmuring “stay the fuck away from me” like a protective hex. It concludes with “Are We Still Friends,” finding a beautiful sadness in the acceptance of the relationship dissolution. It almost feels like the last scene in Annie Hall except of instead of getting coffee together after “The Sorrow and the Pity,” it’s a bike ride after a revival screening of Call Me By Your Name.
Igor reminds you of that old truism: good artists give people what they want, but the great ones reveal what they never could have even imagined. No one else could have ever made this album: a timeless teenage bedroom symphony from Satan’s son. —JEFF WEISS