What a year. In addition to introducing us to some brand new stars and gifting us with some of the best projects yet from some remarkable talents, 2019 also saw a few of our very favorite artists break through with their most successful albums yet. It was a joy to watch, and it made it a pleasure for us to compile this year’s list of our favorite albums.
Below are Radio Milwaukee’s Top 25 Albums of 2019, as voted on by our station DJs and staff. We hope you’ll find some new favorites in here.
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25. Electric Guest – KIN
In 2019, Electric Guest delivered to us exactly what we wanted. Falsetto emotional melodies, woven beautifully over undeniable grooves. The ability of this group to maintain a high level of pop sensibility while never compromising great song writing and structure is what makes Electric Guest so outstanding. Earlier releases from this to duo, often conjured up memories of Motown sounds and Quincy Jones era disco pop. On the album can, those sensibilities remain, but there is a feeling to the music that is much more contemporary. Some of the songs could have been created by hip-hop or dance pop artist, but this album is 100% Electric Guest. (Jordan Lee)
24. Tyler The Creator – IGOR
Ever since his 2017 album “Flower Boy,” Tyler The Creator has found his niche seamlessly blending neo-soul with hip hop and “IGOR” is the next step in that evolution. Instead of going for the shock value of his early work, he’s more heartfelt and vulnerable revealing he’s just as flawed as everyone else. It’s even more impressive that he produced all the songs, which is probably why his singing sounds so good as well. All of this is what makes “IGOR” stand out compared to all his other albums and one that will be on repeat for years to come. (Tyrone Miller)
23. Sleater-Kinney – The Center Won’t Hold
There is no band like Sleater-Kinney with their longevity as an all female act, still spreading their political and necessary gospel. They are instrumental in the history of riot grrrl and its beginnings in Olympia, Washington in the 1990s and they continue to deliver with this record, telling it like it is. And on top of this they got St. Vincent to produce the record. This album is Sleater-Kinney on fire, louder and sharper than ever before, re-solidifying “Girls to the Front.” I was lucky enough to see them perform this record when they came through as well, and my dream idea of what a rockstar is was personified in their large, full sound along with an organic attitude and movement to their deserving message. It feels like when someone acts like a rockstar, they got it from Sleater-Kinney. (Ayisha Jaffer)
22. Rapsody – Eve
Here we are in 2019, a time when the rap album feels like a lost art form. Hot videos and chart topping streams will dominate most year-end lists of rappers for 2019. However the credit we will give to Rapsody will be for something much more impactful than having millions of streams, she made an incredible album. From the bone-chilling start with “Nina” to the triumphant and empowering ending on “Afeni” this album is perfect. The greatest albums of all time all have a solid concept that holds us through all sides, and “Eve” stays consistently focused a lineage of black female icons. It hits this theme literally through its titles, each one named after an influential black woman. The album also reinforces this theme through Rapsody’s lyrics, reminding us when sampling Tupac: “We all came from a woman. Got our name from a woman and our game from a woman.” (Jordan Lee)
21. Amyl and the Sniffers – Amyl and the Sniffers
Amyl and the Sniffers’ self-titled debut album is a sweaty, bruise-inducing, whiplash causing, CBGB echoing, eardrum popping, grab them by the bulls, take no shit record that gets the crowd hanging from rafters, climbing walls, and jumping off speakers (this actually happened at Cactus Club when they were in town this July). After two DIY EPs, the Melbourne punk rock quartet joined forces with producer Ross Orton and managed to capture their bigger than life, rowdy as hell shows all into the 29 minute record.
The album takes the best and quintessential parts of ‘70s rock ‘n’ roll with quick riffs, instrumental build-ups, anthem-like callbacks, and roaring energy without diluting the past, or their own style. While the album is a fast-paced, non-stop riled-up ride, the songs also hold heavy lyrical content that is relatable to their (and my) reality of a digitally-dependent and chaotic social climate and provides a big F-you attitude that’s cathartic, affirming, and, overall, pure fun. (Stephanie Baghai)
20. Karen O and Danger Mouse – Lux Prima
This is the collaboration we have all been waiting for, even if you didn’t know you needed this album. Karen O, who we know best from Yeah Yeah Yeahs, shows more vulnerability and tenderness than you might expect from her previous work, channeling an almost new age or spiritual tone. Her vocals stretch like cirrus clouds on the first two tracks, “Lux Prima” and “Ministry,” casting shadows on Danger Mouse’s ethereal production. Then, the album picks up a bit more steam, with Karen O showing more intensity in her voice on “Turn The Light” and “Woman,” giving us the sing-along hooks we were looking for. “Lux Prima” could have gotten in the way of itself by overdoing it on the slick production, but Danger Mouse guides the work expertly, delivering interesting orchestral and syth flourishes — sometimes simultaneously like on “Reveries” — pushing himself and his collaborator into new and captivating territory. (Nate Imig)
19. Sampa the Great – The Return
“The Return” is a risk-takers album which is no surprise to me having been able to be in the presence of Sampa the Great at a handful of shows down under. She exudes confidence in her presence and her creative choices. There are genre and even decade sounds blended throughout this record that just work. It’s a journey that you take with Sampa as she comes to the conclusion that “I will reside in myself” which I find to translate into I rely on myself for all that I seek. There’s a theme in my top music choices — they are sounds with purpose. (Ayisha Jaffer)
18. James Blake – Assume Form
This is a beautifully produced record that starts with self-reflection and “connecting motion to feeling.” It reminds me of the moment when you allow yourself to love fully and remove self-doubt from life by letting the sun shine and the light prevail. It’s about sharing your dreams, purpose and vision and allowing yourself to “stay long” in those moments. Even when we think it is just in us, we are encouraged to recognize the music in our hearts is never finished, it’s like the ocean, continuously in motion. I love the line that says, “If it feels like a home, power on.” This record makes my heart feel home. (Sarah Fierek)
17. Jidenna – 85 To Africa
Would you believe me if I told you that Jidenna was born in Wisconsin Rapids? I wouldn’t believe me either, but it’s true. The suit wearing, slick talking “Classic Man” burst on the scene in 2015 on Janelle Monae’s label, Wondaland Records. Fast forward to his sophomore album “85 To Africa,” where Jidenna explores the African diaspora from U.S. South to the origins of the Motherland. This album is exactly what the title suggests, a trip that takes you on a musical journey from hip-hop to Afropop. The opening track, “Worth The Weight” featuring Fela Kuti’s youngest son Seun Kuti, is the perfect set up to a very smooth transition of sound. (DJ Kenny Perez)
16. FKA twigs – MAGDALENE
Mary Magdalene — biblical outkast and icon of repentance, reinvention, desire, sin and sainthood — serves as the adopted byname of FKA twigs’ latest work. The traits of Magdalene inextricably pervade FKA twigs’ album, a potent self portrait that exposes her most cathartic and bestial being as something to be summoned, not suppressed.
Through an enveloping dystopia of moaning synthesizers, metallic collisions and gritty pulses, FKA twigs ushers us inside her state of internal alchemy. Her immeasurably emotive vocals — at times claustrophobic and wincing, at times beckoning with intimidating force — extract the feelings our super-egos order us to cast out. The opening track “thousand eyes” serves as a foreboding hymn that is monstrous and mutational in its naming, much like the album collectively. As a listener, it sounds as if we’re inside the mind of FKA twigs, privy to a choir composed of the voices swarming inside her head.
This hair-raising experience repeats itself throughout all nine tracks with evolving intensity. The album is desolate yet invasive, witching yet warming, triumphant yet pitting to the core. It’s beautiful in a way that isn’t polished and pristine. It’s beautiful in a way that is heavy and unrestrained. “MAGDALENE” is a thunderous example of FKA twigs’ innovation, and expressive in a way that is purposeful, intricate and dizzying in the most satisfying way. (Erin Bagatta)
15. Burna Boy – African Giant
TL/DR: If you are a fan of Bob Marley, Fela Kuti and dancehall artists like Beenie Man or Popcaan, you will love Burna Boy’s album “African Giant.”
Let me give you a little back story on Burna Boy. He’s already the #1 singer in Nigeria and is wildly popular in every African country. He has been in the U.K. music scene for years. He released his fourth album, “African Giant,” to global critical acclaim earlier this summer. He has even been touring in the US for the last two years. And average Americans still don’t know who he is. I won’t go into all the reasons why I will just say this is an important album for any world music enthusiast.
Why is “African Giant” my best album of the year? I judge how great an album is on the music itself and lyrical content and whether I feel the need to skip a song when I re-listen. “African Giant” is outstanding on all accounts.
Burna Boy calls his blend of musical styles Afro-fusion which is a perfect moniker. Any given song may lean towards pop, dancehall, reggae, American rap or Afro-beat giving the listener a variety of rhythms to enjoy. All are outstanding and fit his delivery style perfectly.
Economic struggle, political strife, historical misrepresentation and social issues are common all over the world. The lyrics to several songs on “African Giant” touch upon those things through the lens of an African. What’s key for me is I can actually enjoy the lesson I’m listening to. But it’s not limited to just that. Burna Boy still sings about parties, pride, lust and love as well. He sings in English, Pidgin, Igbo and Yoruba throughout the album, each song a blend of English and at least one other language, but that should encourage you to find out what the man is trying to tell you not discourage you from listening. If the video description doesn’t have the lyric translation, commenters on Youtube will graciously put it up for us English speakers. His songwriting ability is adept at getting his message across but not necessarily beating you over the head with it. And it’s catchy, too. The cadence, structure, and melody of each song all work together in harmony. You will find yourself singing choruses in a language you don’t even understand because it’s a banger, a bop, a vibe, CHUUNNNEE!
I normally eschew collaborations with other artists because for me, it historically indicates an artist doesn’t have enough good content to fill a song or an album (see most music from 2000-2010). Not the case on ‘African Giant’ which has 18 songs (and one skit). He has collaborations with Zlatan ( Nigeria), M.anifest (Ghana), Angélique Kidjo (Benin), Damian Marley (Jamaica), Serani (Jamaica), Jorja Smith (U.K.), Jeremih (U.S.), YG (U.S.), and Future (US). And each artist complements his style to a T and each song is a jam.
Burna Boy shows many faces on this album: historian, rebel, storyteller, rudeboy, the everyday man. We can all identify with what he has to offer while dancing to the best music on “African Giant.” (Natasha Jewels)
14. GoldLink – Diaspora
GoldLink has always been an entertainer – nobody graduates D.C.’s go-go scene without learning how to work a crowd – but on “Diaspora” he showcases his gifts as a curator. Recruiting a stable of voices including Pusha T, WizKid, Tyler, The Creator and Khalid, he traces hip-hop back to its African roots, with detours into dancehall and London club music and cameos from rising global stars like Nigerian singer Lola Rae and K-pop vet Jackson Wang. For all that globetrotting, though, “Diaspora” never plays like a musicology lesson. GoldLink’s game presence and nimble glow ensures that it’s always a total romp. (Evan Rytlewski)
13. Little Simz – Grey Area
The hip-hop in the U.K. has come into its own. Just like the forefathers in America did, our UK musical cousins created something magical with what they had at hand and that was with its various multi-cultural influences. Little Simz’s latest album “Grey Area” is a perfect example of that. But as the cliche goes, the whole is greater than the sum of its part. And that what makes this album so special. It is truly hip-hop for the 21st century from its genre-bending production to Little Simz’s self-reflecting lyrics. (Tarik Moody)
12. Big Thief – Two Hands
I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time with the band Big Thief this year. I interviewed them three times in three months and felt like I really got to know them. The biggest feeling I’ve gotten out of that time is that Big Thief is a band that is really trying to exist outside of construct. And when they aren’t eating mud or bathing naked they are creating a world of their own making and continually questioning what it is to be alive and in touch with the world. “Two Hands” is an attempt to touch the ethereal. Recorded on a ranch in Texas, they made a mystery box to recreate the chaos that exists in everyday life. The album questions and questions, occasionally coming up with an answer, usually pertaining to how we are all connected, but connected mysteriously. That mystery takes center place in “Two Hands.” It’s cosmic and connected, rough and raw. It always challenges itself. It was my favorite album of the year not for the answers that it provided, but for the questions it asked. (Justin Barney)
11. Great Grandpa – Four of Arrows
A few years ago I heard the song “Fade” from Great Grandpa and put it on my car mixtape. Every time it came on, it made me feel so jubilant and had that perfect summer day drive vibe. When I got the press release for the then upcoming “Four of Arrows” and heard the initial singles, I could hear the band really leap from where “Plastic Cough” started, diving into deeper, more lush waters. I sent the new tracks around the office and we added “Mono No Aware.” Their PR agent Nathan Walker responded to our support of the new album with, “you know they moved to Milwaukee, right?” I did not know, but it was super cool to learn songwriters Pat and Carrie Goodwin wrote some of the album here following a move for a grad school program at Marquette from Seattle. Maybe the heaviness and the drawing inward of a Milwaukee winter added to the emotional weight of this new release from the band. If you need some catharsis around growing older, navigating the present while carrying the weight of the past, family health and divide, then “Four of Arrows” might speak to you, too. (Amelinda Burich)
10. Angel Olsen – All Mirrors
By now it’s no longer a surprise when one of indie rock’s brightest talents opts to ditch guitars in favor of synthesizers – it’s almost expected at this point. And yet Angel Olsen’s fourth album is a genuine shock: a crackling record fearsome in its scale. Recorded with a 14-piece orchestra, it roils and thunders, and Olsen commands its tectonic arrangements like a general leading her troops into combat. For the first time she’s matched by music as enormous and seething as her own voice. (Evan Rytlewski)
9. Earthgang – Mirrorland
The debut album from duo Earthgang gave hip hop a healthy dose of funk that it needed in 2019. Between songs like “Stuck,” “Proud Of U” and “Swivel,” Earthgang showcase their versatility in all styles of hip hop, all while keeping it soulful. The entire album is an ode to their musical roots, the city of Atlanta and their Blackness so it gives you a full glimpse into who they are. While no one can be the next Outkast, if they keep it up Earthgang has the potential to have just as big of an impact. (Tyrone Miller)
8. Michael Kiwanuka – Kiwanuka
An album that you can peel back, layer after layer, and still notice new things, Songs sound like one thing on the first listen and something else a few listens later. I think it’s appropriately self-titled and I know I’ll sound like a cliche saying it’s obvious Michael put a lot of himself in this album, which is good because his knack for using his voice to sing songs from within his emotions is what makes him a modern classic. In a world full of artists making retro this and thats, on “Kiwanuka,” Michael makes a totally new album whose name you can write on the list of classics and past masters. That is fresh! (Marcus Doucette)
7. Flying Lotus – Flamagra
The evolution of Flying Lotus is remarkable. From the early days of providing bump music for Cartoon Network Adult Swim to running one of the country’s most progressive and interesting independent label Brainfeeder, Flying Lotus has definitely secured a legacy that will live for years to come. His latest album “Flamagra” is the latest chapter in his evolution. On this album, he has successfully gave birth to the child of future beats and jazz. This child has become curious, playful and creative but unlike most children, this one possesses wisdom and experience. You can hear this throughout the album’s 27 tracks. (Tarik Moody)
6. Chance the Rapper – The Big Day
Calling this album a debut almost seems like a misnomer. Chance the Rapper had already been mega-successful with his independently released singles and mixtapes, with 2016’s “Coloring Book” being the most notable. His musical identity, since his beginning, has always been rooted in doing it his own way. Which is why it’s not surprising his first full-length release comes off as a fully realized artistic statement, one that is deeply his, much more significant than a collection of songs. “The Big Day” is stacked; you could easily, and accurately, call it a double album. The 22-track release is full of interesting features from some of the biggest artists in the game, and some on the rise. MadeinTYO and DaBaby shine on “Hot Shower,” Megan Thee Stallion adds a sultry swagger on “Handsome” and En Vogue et. al provide a welcomed ’90s throwback moment on “I Got You (Always and Forever).” Chance himself glues it all together throughout, showcasing his impressive versatility in terms of delivery and flow. Lyrical similes hit you every other bar or so — ranging from clever, to hilarious, to poignant — guiding you through a full range of emotion on this action-packed, sunny listen. (Nate Imig)
5. Bon Iver – i,i
Maybe you have never connected with Bon Iver’s music before. Not everyone digs the same stuff, that would be boring. If you haven’t given this album (pronounced I comma I) a thoughtful listen, you may be missing out. I enjoy this record the most with headphones on so I can shut the rest of the world out. Just me and the music. This album combines the best of what Bon Iver has been putting out so far and there is a little something for everyone: guitars, horns, piano, woodwinds, synths and organs mix artfully with Justin Vernon’s jittery electronics and fragmented song structions. As you explore the tracks, you will find special contributions from James Blake, Jenn Wasner, Aaron Dessner, Velvet Negroni, Moses Sumney, Psymun, Phil Cook and Francis Starlite. If you want a catchy, sing-along song…go right to the track “Hey Ma”. But I suggest carving out forty minutes for yourself and listen from start to finish…you deserve it! (Dori Zori)
4. Jamila Woods – Legacy! Legacy!
Everything Jamila Woods does, she does with purpose. This is a clearly thought out concept album that gives worthy nods to influential women through her personal history as well as the rest of the world’s. Woods has stated that when she wrote these songs, she thought about the writing process as creating self-portraits for these women and that comes through so clearly in her work. Not only that, you’re hearing history and finding a timeline of growth to what’s to come. This album is not only an artwork but a very relatable work to the unrelatable and it’s a sound you can’t just put on the background, you must pay attention. (Ayisha Jaffer)
3. Billie Eilish – WHEN WE FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?
Billie Eilish came out of nowhere and burned like a meteor this year. In January, I didn’t know who she was. By July, I was with 25,000 people seeing her headline Summerfest. The come up was immediate.
At the show she had a way of talking like she was just talking to you. Like you were the only person in the room. Her album does that too. She whispers. She spills her heart. She brings the room to silence. She waits a couple seconds. Then BOOM. Her music comes on full force in an instant. Full of dark oddities. A dentist drill, metal scraping against metal, a laugh track. Then back to Billie and a plain piano. It never stops taking you somewhere, even if that somewhere is sitting right next to you.
Every once in a while an artist breaks our belief that pop music is a formula. Billie Eilish adds a drop of poison to the recipe. She kicks it down the stairs. She whispers in its ear. She’s popular not because she’s conforming to pop music, but because she’s making pop music conform to her.
United, we stan. 2019 was the year of Billie Eilish. (Justin Barney)
2. Anderson .Paak – Ventura
What is so tantalizing about Anderson .Paak is that when you listen to his new album “Ventura,” he clearly understands and has mastered the musical idioms he emulates; creating afresh from a palette of classic sounds. Be it funk-rock, smooth soul, neo-soul or G-funk, Paak just “gets” it, gets it right and grooves it good. On “Ventura” Paak shows he’s the kind of musical author whose personality shines through many aspects and the album is a gem. And though it’s not without its flaws, the sum of its parts approach plus his smoky vocals and emulation of his inspirations makes this album a hip listen with an easy-to-agree-on dopeness; very shareable, funky and fun. (Marcus Doucette)
1. Lizzo – ‘Cuz I Love You
2019 was the year the rest of the world figured out what we already knew: Lizzo slays. From the opening track that shares the same name as the album, it’s clear Lizzo has something to say. Songs about mourning lost love, being your own soulmate and feelin’ yourself are all served up on a party platter for your ears. In a time where artists are releasing single tracks, “‘Cuz I Love You” is an album that should be, MUST BE, listened to all the way through (true story) — although I do recommend rewinding the Missy Elliott track “Tempo” a few times before returning to the rest of the album. I could write more about this album, but I’m gonna go listen to it again instead! Thick thighs save lives. (Dori Zori)