NPR’s best albums of 2019 (so far)

NPR’s best albums of 2019 (so far)

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We asked our panel of public radio writers one question: What is your favorite album of 2019 so far? There were so many ways to answer: we’ve heard albums that feel germane to our time, that allowed us to escape, that reconfigured a beloved artist’s roots or that signaled the next wave of sound. But ultimately, what we have here are the No. 1s as picked by some of the biggest ears in the country, the albums that we just can’t stop listening to, even when time, algorithms and unending news cycles demand otherwise.

So you won’t find a ranked list, or any reason to wonder about behind-the-scenes jostling for higher spots — there will be plenty of time for spirited debate in December. In the meantime, it’s time to find your new favorite album.

Graphic credit: Chelsea Beck for NPR

Aldous Harding
Designer

Aldous Harding is a remarkably expressive songwriter and performer. Her lyrics often resemble dramatic portrait paintings with poetic imagery, but with clear-headed vision. Producer John Parish helps keep the music clear of effects and that allows Aldous Harding’s vocal nuance to remain front and center, right where it belongs. –Bob Boilen

♬: APPLE / SPOTIFY / AMAZON

Anderson .Paak
Ventura

After experimenting on last year’s LP, Oxnard, Anderson .Paak returns to his regularly scheduled soulfulness on Ventura. From the bars to the features, everything feels natural and less forced, proving we just need to let .Paak cook. –Bobby Carter

♬: APPLE / SPOTIFY / YOUTUBE / AMAZON

Angèlique Kidjo Celia

Celia Cruz always emphasized Cuba’s African heritage, even when it wasn’t popular. West African vocalist Angélique Kidjo digs deep into that DNA for Celia, a musical gift for wannabe musicologists, as well as folks who just want to get their Cuban dance groove on and celebrate everyone’s favorite Cuban aunt. –Felix Conteras

♬: APPLE / SPOTIFY / YOUTUBE / AMAZON

Beyoncé
Homecoming: The Live Album

Recorded over two weekends at Coachella last year, Beyonceé’s live album connects intellectually and socially, with fresh takes on some of her biggest hits. Plus, “Before I Let Go” offers a new dance challenge. Let the Beyhive rejoice! –Maya Eaglin

♬: APPLE / SPOTIFY / YOUTUBE / AMAZON

Big Thief
U.F.O.F.

Big Thief’s third full-length is at once as timidly vulnerable as rustling blades of grass and as powerfully raw as a river tearing over stones. Brilliant musicianship abounds, but Adrianne Lenker’s surreal lyrical world of love and loss steals the show, with “hound dogs crowing at the stars above” and moths “crying… through fruit bats’ eyes.” –Paul Georgoulis

♬: APPLE / SPOTIFY / YOUTUBE / AMAZON

Billie Eilish
When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?

Combined with the production talents of her brother Finneas O’Connell, Billie Eilish takes on the airs of the Brothers Grimm, rewriting pop fairy tales into biting, bouncing cautionary electro-stories with moody loops and skittering synth. In this storybook, Billie Eilish is the anti-hero for whom we’ve been waiting. –Joni Deutsch, WFAE

♬: APPLE / SPOTIFY / YOUTUBE / AMAZON

Bruce Springsteen
Western Stars

Bruce Springsteen’s Western Stars takes us beyond the boardwalk and the dust bowl — heading to the sonic space where Nashville and Southern California met in the 1960s and ’70s. The cinematic feel of the album has a starring role, too, with a lush soundtrack of strings, horns and pedal steel. –Sarah Wardrop, WFUV

♬: APPLE / SPOTIFY / YOUTUBE / AMAZON

Carly Rae Jepsen
Dedicated

Carly Rae Jepsen once looked like a prototypical one-hit wonder, with an inescapable breakthrough track (“Call Me Maybe”) that exuded frothy novelty. Seven years later, she’s putting out albums like Dedicated, a 15-song dynamo that seems to roll about a dozen hits deep. Every song here works, whether it’s about lost love (“Julien”), found love (“Now That I Found You”) or self-love (“Party for One”). –Stephen Thompson

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Caroline Shaw / Attaca Quartet
Orange

How many ways can you pluck a violin – or a viola, or cello? A lot, as it turns out, in the Attacca Quartet’s terrific album of music by Pulitzer winner Caroline Shaw. A violinist herself, Shaw reimagines language for the classical string quartet with inspiration from old masters and plenty of pizzicato. –Tom Huizenga

♬: APPLE / SPOTIFY / YOUTUBE / AMAZON

Fontaines D.C.
Dogrel

Dogrel is the remarkable debut from a young Dublin band that bonded over their love for poetry and verse over pints at the local pub. Fontaines D.C. makes the mundane transcendent and the discrete universal, delivered with sensitivity and the gritty grime you want out of a great rock band. –Kevin Cole, KEXP

♬: APPLE / SPOTIFY / YOUTUBE / AMAZON

Hayes Carll
What It Is

Previous entries from Hayes Carll have represented a sliding scale of exuberance and introspection. What It Is mines both emotions and way more. There is love and gratitude, coltish uproar and canny sensibility. The album was co-produced by Allison Moorer, with whom he just tied the knot. –Jessie Scott, WMOT Roots Radio

♬: APPLE / SPOTIFY / YOUTUBE / AMAZON

Heather Woods Broderick
Invitation

Is inner clarity achievable when everyone’s broadcasting all the time? That’s one of the questions Heather Woods Broderick, longtime compatriot of Sharon Van Etten and others, explores on this pensive, expansively orchestrated gem. Songs confronting past and present life choices unspool with a wise, becalmed grace – making introspection seem not simply alluring, but necessary. –Tom Moon

♬: APPLE / SPOTIFY / YOUTUBE / AMAZON

Helado Negro
This Is How You Smile

Titled after a Jamaica Kincaid story, Helado Negro’s sixth album is a worn instruction manual for moving through the world with hope. “Brown won’t go / Brown just glows,” Reberto Carlos Lange notes, among other lessons learned the hard way. He fills the space between words with memories of sounds, blips of consciousness in the slow waking up to oneself. –Stefanie Fernández

♬: APPLE / SPOTIFY / YOUTUBE / AMAZON

Holly Herndon
PROTO

How would a computer-generated being respond when networked into that most deeply human art form, group singing? Sometimes, on PROTO, the answer feels spiritual, sometimes uncannily sensual; sometimes it feels like science fiction. Holly Herndon’s work goes deep by challenging the assumption that those categories are different. Herndon’s music shows us that’s where we already are. –Ann Powers

♬: APPLE / SPOTIFY / AMAZON

Jade Bird
Jade Bird

This is easily one of the most remarkable debut records of 2019. Jade Bird sings with strength, passion, anger and irony. In the song “Lottery,” Bird guts out the refrain, “You’re betting on me.” And yep, that’s exactly what we’re doing. —David Brower, WUNC

♬: APPLE / SPOTIFY / YOUTUBE / AMAZON

James Blake
Assume Form

James Blake captures the heart-flutters of new love with Assume Form, an album that shows the gloomy synth wiz blossoming into a hopeless romantic. Features from Moses Sumney, Travis Scott and Andre 3000 add contemplative counterpoints, but Blake shines in moments of sentimental reverie. –Nastia Voynovskaya, KQED

♬: APPLE / SPOTIFY / YOUTUBE / AMAZON

Jamila Woods
Legacy! Legacy!

On Jamila Woods’ second album, she expresses her admiration for proud people of color – Miles Davis, James Baldwin, Nikki Giovanni, Eartha Kitt – through anger, sharp messaging and her own ancestors. Embedded with hope and humor, and wrapped in enduring melodies, Woods mines the past in a way that feels futuristic. -Jeff McCord, KUTX

♬: APPLE / SPOTIFY / YOUTUBE / AMAZON

Jenny Lewis
On The Line

Neil Leifer’s iconic shot of the triumphant Muhammed Ali lording it over Sonny Liston personifies boxing superfan Jenny Lewis’ On the Line as her very own declaration of independence: making peace with her roots while casting an artful wink at the angels and demons cheering her on in the corner. –Ginny Mascorro, KXT

♬: APPLE / SPOTIFY / YOUTUBE / AMAZON

Joey DeFrancesco
In the Key of the Universe

We hold this truth to be self-evident: All organists are not created equal, for Joey DeFrancesco is the best Hammond organist on the planet — strike that, in the universe. In the Key of the Universe honors pioneering forefathers of free jazz — saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders appears on three tunes — while saying something new about this music of spiritual transcendence. –Matt Silver, WRTI

♬: APPLE / SPOTIFY / YOUTUBE / AMAZON

Josh Ritter
Fever Breaks

Always pushing himself to build upon his sound and excellent songwriting, Josh Ritter teamed up with Jason Isbell to produce Fever Breaks. Recorded with the 400 Unit, Ritter soaks up the rock to reshape his penetrating songs. —Bruce Warren, WXPN

♬: APPLE / SPOTIFY / YOUTUBE / AMAZON

Karen O and Danger Mouse
Lux Prima

Each instrument and vocal line sync together beautifully in the sonic jigsaw puzzle that is Lux Prima, the extraordinary collaboration between Karen O and Danger Mouse. –David Hadel and Malayna Joy, NV89

♬: APPLE / SPOTIFY / YOUTUBE / AMAZON

Kayhan Kalhor & Rembrandt Frerichs Trio
It’s Still Autumn

This gorgeous and evocative album will be perhaps best savored after the fall equinox, but it’s just too beautiful to hold off on sharing. Iranian composer and kamancheh (spike lute) virtuoso Kayhan Kalhor teams up with pianist and composer Rebrandt Frerichs, bassist Tony Overwater, and drummer Vinsent Planjer for a magical two-part outing: “Dawn” and “Dusk.” –Anastasia Tsioulcas

♬: APPLE / SPOTIFY / YOUTUBE / AMAZON

Kehlani
While We Wait

When Kehlani sings, “Here’s to being honest,” at the outset of While We Wait, she sets a roadmap for the R&B mixtape. Characteristically vulnerable and starkly introspective even in its playfulness, the 24-year-old’s fourth project showcases some of her softest work (“Footsteps”) alongside some of her most biting (“Nunya”). –Rosalind Faulkner

♬: APPLE / SPOTIFY / YOUTUBE / AMAZON

Little Simz
GREY Area

GREY Area starts with the boom bap of “Offense,” ends on some of the dreamiest sounds in “Flowers” and, in just over a half an hour, you’re left wondering, “How did I get here, and why was the ride so enjoyable?” Little Simz’ new album is from a woman who knows exactly what she wants and god help you if you get in her way. –Jill Hopkins, Vocolo Radio

♬: APPLE / SPOTIFY / YOUTUBE / AMAZON

Lizzo
Cuz I Love You

Lizzo is smart. Lizzo is funny. Lizzo is beautiful. Lizzo is a star. Lizzo writes bangers. She knows it. You know it. Let’s just say it. Cuz I Love You is the gas-up album we need in the world. –Justin Barney, Radio Milwaukee

♬: APPLE / SPOTIFY / YOUTUBE / AMAZON

Megan Thee Stallion
Fever

Megan Thee Stallion is the most energizing force in rap right now. After years of cyphers in her native Houston and growing her fanbase online, the MC has reached mass appeal with Fever. Pick any track and listen as Meg’s bars fuse together nerdcore, meme-mining, braggadocio and slick sex appeal to subvert misogyny with an almost-dizzying delivery. –Sidney Madden

♬: APPLE / SPOTIFY / YOUTUBE / AMAZON

Melissa Aldana
Visions

Melissa Aldana, a Chilean-born tenor saxophonist, has the elusive ability to balance technical achievement against a rich emotional palette. Visions, her finest album, was inspired by the inner life of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo; it’s a brilliant showcase for a band that includes this year’s breakout star, Joel Ross, on vibraphone. –Nate Chinen, WBGO

♬: APPLE / SPOTIFY / YOUTUBE / AMAZON

Middle Kids
New Songs for Old Problems

When your soul needs to sing, who cares about album cycles? This new EP comes less than a year after the Australian band’s debut. “Real Thing,” in particular, takes in the joyous wailing of a group constantly gobsmacked by the tiny wonders of a bus ride. –Phil Jones, WERS

♬: APPLE / SPOTIFY / YOUTUBE / AMAZON

The National
I Am Easy to Find

The National has spent decades in self-reflection, questioning connection and seeking answers. Eight albums later, she responds. Women take the wheel in I Am Easy to Find, driving the band’s narrative to undiscovered territories. The effort is direct, yet complex, unfolding a messy universe that is becoming wiser with perspective. –Stacy Buchanan, WGBH

♬: APPLE / SPOTIFY / YOUTUBE / AMAZON

Nilüfer Yanya
Miss Universe

“We worry about your health, so you don’t have to.” In addition to crafting a fully-realized debut album, Nilüfer Yanya imagines an entire conceptual world built around a menacing self-care program. Pressing play on Miss Universe will entertain the listener with an eclectic mix of bulletproof pop-rock songs, so they won’t have to entertain themselves. –Beau Brady, KOSU’s The Spy

♬: APPLE / SPOTIFY / YOUTUBE / AMAZON

Orville Peck
Pony

Orville Peck’s Pony might be the most engaging and eerie album to come along in quite some time. With a haunting croon that adds to the mystique, Peck mixes a classic country sensibility with nostalgic ballads and a contemporary gothic vibe. –Benji McPhail, Colorado Sound

♬: APPLE / SPOTIFY / YOUTUBE / AMAZON

Our Native Daughters
Songs of Our Native Daughters

Rhiannon Giddens, Allison Russell, Amythyst Kiah and Leyla McCalla answered to the trend of fedora-and-suspenders-clad white folksingers, by dropping this stunner of a folk collection. Each exquisitely performed tune has been pulled from — or inspired by — deep, overlooked, oppressed black tradition. It is best heard by listening closely. –Kim Ruehl, Folk Alley

♬: APPLE / SPOTIFY / YOUTUBE / AMAZON

Palehound
Black Friday

On the Boston-based trio’s third album, Palehound digs deep into connections: between friends, between lovers, between parts of the self. Songwriter Ellen Kempner complements her impressive guitar riffs with searing, soul-searching and solace-providing lyrics, including on standout “Aaron,” one of the most affecting love songs I’ve heard in recent memory. –Marissa Lorusso

♬: APPLE / SPOTIFY / YOUTUBE / AMAZON

PUP
Morbid Stuff

With all due respect to Kawhi Leonard (and Drake), fellow Toronto underdogs PUP beat the Raptors to the Cinderella story with a come-from-behind win earlier this year. On Morbid Stuff, the band levels up, channeling monotony, anxiety, nihilism and dread to cathartic effect, earning a victory lap in the process. –Lyndsey McKenna

♬: APPLE / SPOTIFY / YOUTUBE / AMAZON

Rakta
Falha Comum

Once a psychedelic post-punk band mining gothic grooves, Rakta digs for more harrowing, ritualistic sounds on Falha Comum. With motorik rhythms, hypnagogic noise and moans echoed to cracking walls, the Brazilian duo approaches something closer to the meticulous mayhem of Goblin’s Suspiria soundtrack, offering creepazoid emanations from a subterranean plane. –Lars Gotrich

♬: APPLE / SPOTIFY / YOUTUBE / AMAZON

Resavoir
Resavoir

Resavoir is a diverse collective from Chicago, under the direction of trumpeter Will Miller (Whitney, Chance the Rapper, Lil Wayne). The band’s debut is both accessible and deep in its musical sensibilities, a blend of neo soul-jazz and elegant instrumental hip-hop. The aesthetic here is ethereal and beautiful, warranting repeated listens. –Matt Fleeger, KMHD

♬: APPLE / SPOTIFY / YOUTUBE / AMAZON

Sharon Van Etten
Remind Me Tomorrow

Sharon Van Etten returns after a five-year break between albums and completely dismantles everything fans have loved about her music: acoustic, singer-songwriter reflections are out; monster beats, jagged synths and dark undercurrents are in, as she sings about the joys and terror of parenthood, growing older and letting go of the past. This record is a triumph. –Robin Hilton

♬: APPLE / SPOTIFY / YOUTUBE / AMAZON

Solange
When I Get Home

Much like her creative agency, Saint Heron, Solange’s When I Get Home represents a visionary’s carefully crafted musical design — an architectural exploration of trappy rhythms, luscious melodies and jazz-tinged harmonies. It’s an album that complements solitude or friendship, joy or sadness — it completes any experience at anytime. –Suraya Mohamed

♬: APPLE / SPOTIFY / YOUTUBE / AMAZON

Strand of Oaks
Eraserland

Eraserland brims with moments that will stop you in your tracks. Grappling with depression, Timothy Showalter was ready to hang up his hat when his friend, My Morning Jacket guitarist Carl Broemel, urged him write. The result is a cosmic tour-de-force, but the true beauty lies in songs like “Keys,” the languid spaces where there’s room to breathe. –Desiré Moses, WNRN

♬: APPLE / SPOTIFY / YOUTUBE / AMAZON

Various Artists
Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980-1990

In 1980s Japan, an economic boom left corporations flush enough to pair their products with original music, and the composers getting those commissions were savvy to the work of Western experimenters like Brian Eno and sensitive to the encroaching bustle of city life. The result was a canon of calming, immersive music that seems to hum with its own consciousness. –Daoud Tyler-Ameen

♬: APPLE / SPOTIFY / YOUTUBE / AMAZON

Weyes Blood
Titanic Rising

For Titanic Rising, Natalie Mering mined the rich textures of 1960s and ’70s pop — plinky autoharp wallpapering, rubbery and sunset-colored guitar solos, crescendos as tall as typhoons — and tumbled those gems into one of the most finely constructed albums of the half-year. Mering spun her influences into a modern reckoning utterly her own, full of dark humor and optimistic realism. —Andrew Flanagan

♬: APPLE / SPOTIFY / YOUTUBE / AMAZON

woods + segal
Hiding Places

Nothing drives home the dystopia of 2019 like Hiding Places. Billy Woods hammers the last nail in this decade’s coffin while illustrating the winter of our discontent over Kenny Segal’s sedated beats. And when he eulogizes the loss of innocence on album highlight “A Day in a Week in a Year,” it’s as if we’re all that penniless kid in a dollar-movie arcade: “F****** with the joystick / Pretending I was really playing.” –Rodney Carmichael

♬: APPLE / SPOTIFY / YOUTUBE / AMAZON

Yola
Walk Through Fire

Walk Through Fire is an exhilarating full-length introduction to Yola, a vocal powerhouse and veteran of U.K. studio and stage work whose vision for her own music, achieved in collaboration with Dan Auerbach, encapsulates country-soul lustiness, plushly orchestrated pop transcendence and a range of expression both subtle and striking. –Jewly Hight

♬: APPLE / SPOTIFY / YOUTUBE / AMAZON

Yves Jarvis
The Same But By Different Means

It’s fashionable to eulogize the concept of genre these days, especially in the wake of Lil Nas X’s meme “Old Town Road.” If that’s really the case and the future contains only “popular” and “niche” music, give Yves Jarvis his “Best Niche Album” Grammy right now. There’s no way to categorize The Same But By Different Means without selling it short. –Otis Hart

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