The 20 Best Albums of 2019
What kind of year has it been?
It's that time again.
The moment in which we assess the very best of music this year in terms of albums that were released between January and December.
There will be snubs. There will be hyperbolic praise. There will be blood.
Brief But Important Note
A new Irish artist by the name of For Those I Love released an astonishing album of the same name this year.
On first listen it was clear that this was something special and alive in a way that only the strongest and most personal art can be. It transcended its sample-heavy, spoken-word dance overtones and emerged as a true unforgettable original.
In truth, it is worthy of topping this very list. However, the record was quietly removed from the Internet after a short underground release and thus it feels wrong to include. Should it return some day, make it your business to find it.
#20. The Murder Capital | When I Have Fears
Dublin roustabouts The Murder Capital had a decent breakout year, turning heads with fierce live performances, releasing an abrasive debut and sitting down for a chat with JOE.
Amazingly, it's not that last one but the middle bit that we're going to hone in on.
When I Have Fears is a predictably brooding listen but you can't fault frontman James McGovern's commitment, nor his bandmates' impressive instrumental twists throughout.
Standout Track: 'Slowdance II'
#19. Hatchie | Keepsake
Having announced herself back in 2017 with the magnificent 'Sure' - think a splice of Natalie Imbruglia's 'Torn' and Sixpence None the Richer's 'Kiss Me' with light My Bloody Valentine flecks for company - Australian singer-songwriter Hatchie finally delivered a debut album to be proud of and one of the more enjoyable pop records of the year to boot.
Standout Track: 'Unwanted Guest'
#18. James Blake | Assume Form
Experimental producer James Blake has been great value when it comes to dissecting and articulating the ongoing conversation regarding music and mental health - read his most recent words on the subject here - not least due to his own struggles and the fact that people are often too quick to label his work as unavoidably downbeat.
In truth, Blake creates inviting music that just so happens to be a bit challenging. Assume Form finds the man on flying form as he ruminates on life as a man deep in the throes of love. The lucky divil.
Standout Track: 'Mile High'
#17. Tandem Felix | Rom-Com
Dublin man, Arsenal (and Bohs) fan and Americana enthusiast David Tapley, aka the leader of Tapley Felix, kept us waiting for a while for a debut record that turned out to be just what the doctor ordered of a wistful autumnal evening, thank you.
A wonderfully warm alt-country adventure, even when it stings.
Standout Track: 'Making Dinner on Valentine's Day'
#16. Billie Eilish | When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
2019 was the Year of Billie Eilish as the teenager played to the biggest crowd in Electric Picnic history, provided the basis for a hundred thousand memes, upset strange people by not knowing who Van Halen are and generally dominated all forms of media.
Here's the rub; she's really, really, really good. She's also the voice of an important, angst-ridden future that released a bold, creative and admirably dark pop debut.
Standout Track: 'Bury a Friend'
#15. Lankum | The Livelong Day
An arresting shot in the arm for Irish folk music that ascends - or descends - into something so captivating it approaches the very best in atmospheric horror soundtrack territory.
That, and the score work from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Yep, Lankum's third album (second under this name having rebranded from Lynched in 2016) really does rattle the bones and shake the soul in its highest moments, of which there are many.
Don't be surprised to see this one take home the RTÉ Choice Music Prize in March.
Standout Track: 'The Wild Rover'
#14. Clairo | Immunity
The 'is she an industry plant?' conversation that surrounds Claire Cottril, aka Clairo, is really quite dull. Frankly, who cares?
Her pivot from DIY bedroom pop-rock to fully-fledged star-in-waiting is supported by smart songwriting and cool conviction.
Immunity houses all of that and plenty more.
Standout Track: 'Bags'
#13. Hayden Thorpe | Diviner
Wild Beasts were the kind of act that could only last so long, such was their niche enough cult appeal.
Though stellar craftsmen, the UK outfit made no bones about refusing to write radio singles for the cheap seats, ultimately calling it a day on their own terms in 2017.
What next? For one half of the band's co-frontmen Hayden Thorpe, familiar yet no less elegant territory in the form of Diviner, a debut offering in which minimalist piano and synth lines act as bedfellows for one of the most stirring voices out there.
Standout Track: 'Love Crimes'
#12. Girl Band | The Talkies
Don't call it a comeback.
Girl Band, handily one of the most formidable forces that this country has ever produced, return with no shortage of power and passion.
There's a million clichés in music writing - and I won't pretend I haven't dipped in a hundred times myself - but the Dublin foursome really are everything they have been described as.
By design, The Talkies is a tough album to get through, but you're better off for it.
Standout Track: 'Shoulderblades'
#11. American Football | LP3
In stark contrast, the third self-titled American Football record is a warm blanket of a thing.
It's easy to dismiss this one as something your dad might like - if he grew up enjoying emo, for American Football are regarded as pioneers of the genre - but there's significantly more under the hood on an album that meets the whole 'getting older' thing in graceful earnest.
Standout Track: 'Silhouettes'
#10. Kevin Abstract | ARIZONA BABY
You wonder if Kevin Abstract respects the concept of sleep.
Not content with putting out five albums over three years with rap collective Brockhampton, Abstract released third solo record ARIZONA BABY in April. The dude is 23 years old.
He's also extremely charismatic and engaging, moving like a whirling dervish across a head-spinning - in a good way - 32 minutes.
Standout Track: 'Georgia'
#9. Michael Kiwanuka | Kiwanuka
JOE had the pleasure of chatting with Michael Kiwanuka at Electric Picnic this year just an hour or two before he was due onstage.
There was an infectious, chilled-out energy to the singer-songwriter on that Sunday evening, perhaps no surprise given how good he is at conjuring up an atmosphere.
Kiwanuka, his third record, speaks to his mastery of time and place - it honestly sounds like you're being transported to another era of music entirely at points - but there's a personal triumph throughout that puts this one over the top.
Standout Track: 'You Ain't The Problem'
#8. Thom Yorke | ANIMA
Having assisted with the solemnity and dread of 2018's Suspiria remake in the form of an alluring score, Radiohead mastermind Thom Yorke returned with another solo effort.
ANIMA may well be his best in that regard, somehow finding new corridors for the man to beckon us towards.
You know it's a precarious enough invite, yet you cannot refuse.
Standout Track: 'Dawn Chorus'
#7. Big Thief | Two Hands
The second album released by Big Thief in the space of just six months and the superior vintage in a huge breakthrough year for the alt-folk New Yorkers.
It's worth chatting with Big Thief fans and asking them just what it is they love about this band. You'll likely witness the kind of body language that speaks to personal connection, like there's a secret understanding.
You can't fake that alchemy.
Standout Track: 'Not'
#6. Tyler, The Creator | IGOR
Releasing a new album or mix tape every two years on average, Tyler, the Creator is handily one of the most prolific artists going.
The de facto Odd Future leader has always been inventive, but his music has begun to find a more accessible vein of form with recent releases.
2017's Flower Boy remains a rewarding standout, though it was this year's IGOR that entranced from its opening Yeezus-via-1980s-slasher-movie synth blast until its Al Green-assisted end credits.
Standout Track: 'I THINK'
#5. Tool | Fear Inoculum
13 years really is a long time to wait for a new Tool album.
In truth, Fear Inoculum is far from the legendary prog rock outfit's finest work. In a way, Tool made a rod for their own collective back, having waited so long and by finally placing their formidable back catalogue on streaming platforms in the weeks prior to FI's release.
"So why's it at number five in your list then, JOE?" you rightly ask.
Fair question, simple answer - not only is Fear Inoculum much, much better than its familiar surface initially suggests, it is an album that hugely appreciates in value over the course of months of repeat listens, revealing itself as one of the most oddly calming records of the entire year.
Standout Track: 'Invincible'
#4. Slipknot | We Are Not Your Kind
"This is the most I’ve ever worked for anything.
"I’ve gained the most and I’ve lost the most."
The words of Slipknot percussionist and creative director M. Shawn 'Clown' Crahan when JOE came calling during the summer. Despite the name, he wasn't joking.
Slipknot's sixth record We Are Not Your Kind is many things - a return to form, a defiant statement of purpose, a skilful juggling act of what has brought them to this particular macabre dance and the genre conventions that must be adhered to in order to keep a worldwide fan base happy - but there's one prevailing takeaway that hits hardest- this is a band reborn.
Standout Track: 'Unsainted'
#3. Lana Del Rey | Norman Fucking Rockwell!
What a decade it has been for Lana Del Rey.
From emerging as a throwback construct that invited intrigue, devotion and scepticism to growing into one of the great American songwriters, it's fair to say that Lizzie Grant seriously done good.
Norman Fucking Rockwell! - profanity, exclamation mark and all - was almost instantly and universally hailed as a magnum opus. You could make that argument for preceding fifth album Lust for Life but NFR! is worthy of the noise that surrounds it.
Epic in scope, endlessly searching and forever honest in both inward and outward measures, this is a record that cements a legacy.
Standout Track: 'The Greatest'
#2. Denzel Curry | ZUU
From unleashing one of the best Rage Against the Machine covers in recorded history to bringing that same energy and dynamism to everything from live turns to features, Denzel Curry owned this year.
Need further proof? The album goes by the name of ZUU. As with artists such as Vince Staples and Ho99o9, there is the sense of an electrical current in play at all times here, the feeling that this is more than just one or two guys showcasing impressive command of a microphone.
Curry, on his fourth studio record at just 24, tied it all together over the course of 29 gloriously contained minutes, each new chapter bringing urgency, wit, dexterity and boundless charisma.
Why he's not a bigger success than he is yet is mystifying, so hopefully the rest of the world wakes up in 2020.
Standout Track: 'RICKY'
#1. FKA Twigs | MAGDALENE
The moment when FKA Twigs went from being a very, very, very good artist to a legitimately great one.
Much has been made of the avant-garde performer's break-up with Batman himself Robert Pattinson, so credit to Twigs for harnessing intensely personal and difficult energy and turning it into something so confessional and brutal in its brilliance that it forces the audience to ask itself - 'Should I really be listening to this?'.
The answer, of course, is yes.
MAGDALENE offers exceptional art and soul-shaking catharsis, not just nodding towards but extending a warm hand to its title figure, herself scrutinised and condemned for generations.
In amongst it all, Twigs achieves magnificent rebirth, as may those willing to engage.
Standout Track: 'Cellophane'