In spite of the political turmoil and trauma taking place on both sides of the Atlantic and throughout the rest of the world, art and music has stepped into the void, nurturing forward thinking conversation and holding up a mirror to our way of life, which is no longer serving us.
Perhaps political chaos and instability is the perfect breeding ground for exceptional, beautiful and thought-provoking art. Like Harry Lime says,
“Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long Holly.”
The music that has resonated with me this year has been music that has pushed boundaries. Music that has been uncomfortable or difficult listening at times but has made me move outside of my comfort zone and has made me think, turning over the lyrics and the sounds in mind each time I go back and listen.
From Sara Bareilles Amidst the Chaos and Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell, both of which reflect and dissect the current political and cultural landscape of America, to Ariana Grande’s thank u, next and Taylor Swift’s Lover; two artists who decided to push their own professional and personal boundaries by making the albums they did. Both Grande and Swift also opened up the conversation that is usually reserved for industry insiders as to how an album should be made, what an album should sound like, and above all, who should own an artist’s music if not the artist themselves.
The following is a list of my favourite nine albums from 2019, ranked from low to high. Like my record collection upstairs, my favourite albums are so eclectic and varied but are all ultimately held together by two things I cherish the most: honesty and freedom.
Let me know your thoughts on my top albums of 2019 in the comments or on social media. What have been your favourite albums and songs this year and why? What releases are you looking forward to in 2020?
9. Romance – Camila Cabello
Camila Cabello’s Romance was released in mid-December and perhaps, if I had had longer to listen, it would have featured further up my list but nevertheless, the album is beautiful and fun and sexually powerful and vulnerable all at once.
Romance to me feels like split between songs about the falling in love with the right one and the love that arrived too late. It’s about what romance and love should be and what romance and love should not be. There are moments of darkness and the inevitability of falling back into that darkness – ‘This Love’ and ‘Feel It Twice’ – but also moments of sereneness amongst the butterflies and all-encompassing violent love with ‘Easy’ and ‘Used to This’.
There is an argument to be made that Cabello could have gone further, could have excavated her heart more on Romance but maybe because love is so ephemeral, so every changing that you only ever almost capture the feeling in words. It will never be final or enough.
Romance is for every emotion, for every season of love, lust, infatuation and heartbreak.
Favourite lyric: Losin’ you I couldn’t face/ But to love you is worse/ Waitin’ for ya just in case one day it doesn’t hurt (This Love)
8. Wildcard – Miranda Lambert
Wildcard is a natural progression from the immense and beautiful The Weight of These Wings, a double-sided album that Lambert split in two: ‘The Nerve’ and ‘The Heart’. Lambert also made the decision to do little to no promotion for the record, because as she wrote in the album sleeve, “For art’s sake and for your heart’s sake”.
Critics have compared Wildcard to Lambert’s 2014’s Platinum, which I believe is lazy and a mistake. Yes, it has the bright, sparkly and tongue-in-cheek ‘It All Comes Out in the Wash’ and ‘Way Too Pretty for Prison’, a duet with Maren Morris, but it also has the hopeful ‘Bluebird’, the honest ‘Settling Down’ and the last, and my favourite track, ‘Dark Bars’.
Wildcard feels and sounds more like the next chapter with Lambert taking all that she learnt and experienced in The Weight of These Wings and laying it out in the hazy afternoon sunlight. The songs show that life has many shades of grey, that even when you are happy you still get sad, unsure or scared.
Perhaps it is also a reminder that whether heartbroken or happy, Lambert still feels at home in smoky bars…
Favourite lyric: Watchin’ drunks all drown with no lifeguard/ ‘Cause I know a thing or two about broke hearts/ Neon truth can hit real hard/ In a dark bar (Dark Bars)
7. Happysad – Meg & Dia
Meg and Dia Frampton’s last record Cocoon was released 2011. After Dia’s success on The Voice, the sisters took break from music and from each other with Meg opening an artisan coffee shop back in Salt Lake City and Dia trying her hand at acting and creating one of my favourite records of the last few years, Bruises.
Happysad is first and foremost a project borne between the two sisters who had drifted apart but had now found their own way back to each other, which would explain why the album suddenly appeared in the world on 26 July. But secondly, and this can’t be stated enough, Happysad is pop perfection. Its production is slick, the instrumentation is tight, and there are never any wasted words.
That is not to say that the album is not deep because it is. ‘American Spirit’ feels like a reimagining of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ but from a millennial point of view – “If I let go of holding tightly/ Will I see Jesus in a stranger tonight?/ The devil hides in Coca-Cola/But if I’m high, will I be more qualified?” It’s a sardonic look at all the things society and capitalism tells us to buy to become complete. But in spite of all of these “things” at our fingertips, we are all still out there looking for something more, like our frontier brothers and sisters hundreds of years before.
Favourite lyric: Remember what I wanted/ When it was still okay to want it (Better at Being Young)
6. The Hurting Kind – John Paul White
The Hurting Kind was released in early this year, yet when I listen to the title track all those months later, it still has the same effect on me as when I saw White standing in front of me in a small venue in London. Tears. Not just because of the overwhelming sadness of the story but also because of the pure beauty of the song and the story White weaves.
The rest of the album is also about hurt. From the slow decline of memory in ‘James’ to the end of a world some of us are clinging desperately and unhealthily to in ‘The Good Old Days’, and then the final track, ‘My Dreams Have All Come True’, watching the inevitable unravelling of a relationship that you always saw coming.
Like I said in April, “White is careful not to equate romantic love as the only thing that hurts but rather leaving it open to all things… The Hurting Kind gathers up all the hurt like loose threads, tying each to its own balloon, and with each listen, the hurt is excavated and let go.”
Favourite lyric: I know, I know love is hard to find/ But your love is the hurting kind/ Oh your love may be all mine/ But your love’s the hurting kind (The Hurting Kind)
5. Norman Fucking Rockwell – Lana Del Rey
“The culture is lit and I had a ball/ I guess that I’m burned out after all”.
If Norman Fucking Rockwell is Del Rey’s magnum opus, then perhaps we can all go home happy.
Like all of Del Rey’s work, the album is an exploration into the darker underbelly of American culture. The parts that exist on street corners under neon streetlights or on stools in dark bars in the middle of nowhere. Del Rey talks about the things no one else wants to talk about, the stuff people push to the back of their wardrobes and hope doesn’t spill out onto the floor. Whether through her lyrics or purely the filmic sounds she creates, her music is utterly unique to her and her storytelling always feels like nostalgic longing for a time, place or a person that forever remains elusive to her.
Norman Fucking Rockwell is a meditative record. It is eclectic and the songs swing from barely there and instrumental ‘Venice Bitch’, to grand sweeping cinematic scores like on the centrepiece track, ‘The Greatest’, to the vast and self-propelling soundscape of ‘California’ that makes you want to get in your car, wind the windows down and drive as fast as you can.
Norman Fucking Rockwell keeps pulling me back in to rediscover the world Del Rey has laid down in over an hour. It is a special record and one that is perhaps the best the reflection of our world in the last couple of years than any other record in circulation.
Favourite lyric: We’ll do whatever you want, travel wherever how far/ We’ll hit up all the old places/ We’ll have a party, we’ll dance ’til dawn/ I’ll pick up all of your Vogues and all of your Rolling Stones/ Your favorite liquor off the top shelf/ I’ll throw a party all night long (California)
4. Amidst the Chaos – Sara Bareilles
Amidst the Chaos is about finding love amongst the mess and darkness that life brings. The love Bareilles sings about over the 12 tracks that deal with politics, depression, feminism and falling in and out of love, is diverse and all encompassing.
‘Armor’, a jazz inflected song about catcalling, sexual harassment and finding your power in fighting back does not feel out of place in between two songs about trying to get over someone and being unable to see a future for yourself without that person.
‘Wicked Love’, which is perhaps one of Bareilles most well written songs, tells a story of a love affair. Right from the beginning all the way through to the end, when an innocuous jar of fireflies is the magic that breaks the wicked spell.
Bareilles takes the chaotic nature of each song and creates their very own little world for them. Putting them in their own box but never putting a full stop on the story or shutting the lid too tight. Bareilles allows their chaos to spill from the sides and become tangled and enmeshed within one another. These songs and stories exist in spite of, and amidst the chaos in our world.
You say I think too much/ Tell me I always mess it up/ Well, I break the glass and see/ If the fireflies agree (Wicked Love)
3. Heard It In A Past Life – Maggie Rogers
This album feels like freedom and sounds like summer. Maggie Rogers somehow manages to mix folk music with EDM, and still creates moving, introspective and vulnerable stories but stories you can dance aggressively to. The music soars and crashes, carrying the words with it.
From the opening of ‘Give A Little’ right through to ‘Back In My Body’, you feel your world opening up and your lungs sucking in as much of everything as possible. Heard It In A Past Life is an experiment in space and breadth and freedom, something Rogers achieves on each and every track.
Heard It In A Past Life also contains my favourite lyric of 2019. Perhaps the most honest and succinct line to ever be written, that is so brief yet contains so much. Like finally finding that person in a crowd, feeling the electricity, but then losing them as quickly as you found them.
Favourite lyric: And every time our fingers touch/ I knew that it would be too much/ And too little to hang on to. (Say It)
2. Lover – Taylor Swift
Lover to me represents the best version of Taylor Swift the artist. The best of all her albums in one. It has the lyrical introspection and vulnerability of RED, the bombast and darkness of reputation and the pop sensibilities of 1989, but without the detachment and coolness that I felt plagued her 2014 release. There is the fast paced, sharp as a knife ‘Cruel Summer’, the beautiful indifference of ‘I Forgot That You Existed’, and the exquisite vulnerability of the title track.
Lover is the best of all worlds, all “eras” of Swift. ‘Death By A Thousand Cuts’ is the example of this. Perfect pop production but really intricate storytelling. Full of all this imagery from looking through boarded up windows of a house with a chandelier still hanging there, to the bridge of all bridges where Swift lists all the memories of the relationship but all the ways she can’t shed those memories.
Lover is Swift’s album first and foremost both artistically and legally. It is the first album she owns outright. But because of the beauty of the universality of specificity, Lover becomes everyone’s album who listens to it.
Favourite lyric: I’m drunk in the back of the car/ And I cried like a baby coming home from the bar/ Said “I’m fine” but it wasn’t true/ I don’t wanna keep secrets/ Just to keep you/ And I, snuck in through the garden gate every night that summer/ Just to seal my fate/ And I scream “For whatever’s it’s worth I love you, ain’t that the worst thing you ever heard?” (Cruel Summer)
- thank u, next – Ariana Grande
It was incredibly hard to choose between thank u, next and Lover as my favourite album of 2019. Why? Because both are incredibly well written, well produced but above all, feel as a listener completely authentic and true to the artists that made them.
However, the thing that settled it in my mind is that thank u, next feels more cohesive than Lover. I don’t mean sonically because both are diverse, and diversity is not a detrimental thing to an album. What I mean is that thank u, next feels like a perfect snapshot of a period of time. Something that I have found to be extremely rare, not only capture in the writing and recording of an album, but also to be translated in the same way to the listener.
Albums usually take months to write and months to record and then months before the listener finally hears the finished piece of art. thank u, next is the exception to this rule because the writing, recording and release happened in the space of 5 months, with three singles (‘thank u, next’, ‘imagine’ and ‘7 Rings’) being released whilst the album was still be written, recorded, sequenced and mastered.
The writing and recording took place side-by-side over a two-week period whilst Grande was submerged in grief. There was no going back and editing songs or leaving a period time between writing and recording to reflect and maybe erase some of the vulnerability. No, it all happened in a whirlwind, and as a listener you can hear and feel that rawness in the music. Like the fog of grief, it only lifts after the final song has ended.
Favourite lyric: Yeah, look at you /Boy, I invented you/ Your Gucci tennis shoes running from your issues (in my head)
Click to see my list of favourite albums from 2015.