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As we look back and ponder the best music produced in this, the final year of the decade, it’s hard not to also marvel at how things have changed in a turbulent ten years. 2009: blog rock was still a driving force in independent music. 2019: what’s a blog?

I say that facetiously, of course, but the ways we find culture to consume are constantly in a state of flux. If the aughts were the decade of accessibility that previous generations never could have imagined, the teens were the decade not only where that accessibility accelerated to unfathomable levels (what’s up, streaming), but the middleperson was largely cut out from the equation; fans can literally beeline directly to the music they want to hear, and explore their interests to their heart’s content, mostly free of judgement or misdirection.

Sure, it still helps to have trusted and devoted ears always out there listening, putting you on to stuff you might not catch otherwise. And whether they be a writer, a playlist selector, a DJ, a gig promoter, an Instagram or YouTube personality, or one of the few remaining independent record retailers, it’s hard to imagine the role of the curator will disappear (at least we here at The Key hope it won’t). At the same time, it’s brought those tasked with curation a bit down off their high horses, lest they become irrelevant.

At the tail end of the decade, I’d like to think we see the fruits of that shift in the 15 albums our team of writers, photographers, and music lovers voted as the year’s best.

Artificial boundaries are less of a thing than ever, and some of the most celebrated records in the mainstream — including the year’s biggest cross-demographic pop smash, Lizzo’s unstoppable Cuz I Love You — sit cozily alongside challenging, unconventional releases inspired by very specific branches of underground DJ culture (Solange’s When I Get Home), as well as collections of searing sound driven by the raw pain and anger of an unjust society (Moor Mother’s Analog Fluids of Sonic Black Holes). The punk rage of Mannequin Pussy and PUP share space with the artful pop of Sharon Van Etten and The National.

And this is just the top 15, a list driven by consensus; in a few days, we’ll share our annual rundown of albums not to overlook, and it’s even more of an assortment, driven by one unifying principal: good music, and music that’s good to think deeply about, to unpack, to explore. Let’s dive in.


15. Angel Olsen – All Mirrors – (Jagjaguwar)

The version of All Mirrors that came out this year is not the first version Angel Olsen recorded. Originally envisioned as a solo acoustic album, the songwriter had no sooner laid down the tracks before deciding to trade them in for something grander in scale. It’s not a conventional way to make music, but over the four albums she’s released this decade, the Asheville-based songwriter has proven herself to be anything but conventional.

Olsen’s last record, My Woman, one of our Top Albums of 2016, was her first major departure from the sparse and folksy sound she had established early in her career. Three years later, Angel Olsen has reinvented herself again; All Mirrors is a highly stylized record that’s cloaked in drama and intrigue, without a trace of My Woman’s buoyant retro pop. Somber self-reflection is paired with rich string arrangements and jarring synths; Olsen’s vocals are both soaring and incisive. 

Olsen says the album is about “owning up to your darkest side, finding the capacity for new love and trusting change even when you feel like a stranger”; the notoriously distant artist is vulnerable but not too vulnerable. From the arresting six-minute opener, “Lark,” to the renewed hope of the closer, “Chance,” we hear Olsen’s loneliness, frustration, and healing, and while we’re along for her ride, we’re forced to think about what these themes mean for us. 

Angel Olsen is known for her unpredictability, for not following the rules, for being a bit of a mystery. Her eccentricities are as strong as ever on All Mirrors, but this doesn’t render her music inaccessible; it’s actually quite the opposite. With this latest incarnation, she’s shown us that while some problems may be universal, the path forward doesn’t need to be the one that’s expected of us — or even the one we expect of ourselves. – Sarah Hojsak

14. Megan Thee Stallion – Fever – (300 Entertainment)

The world of women rappers is full of poorly conceived critiques and dated social norms. One of the main arguments is that women rap too much about sex, which suggests they lack lyrical prowess. With the likes of Cardi B and Nicki Minaj, this theory has been proved to be untrue. But Houston, TX’s, Megan Thee Stallion has shattered all of these misguided notions and lyrically risen above many of her predecessors.

Megan’s 2019 release Fever was a rude, brash, and overtly sexual masterpiece where she arguably exhibited more skills than many of her peers, regardless of gender identity. Megan can rap, and she’s damn good at it.

 “Realer”,  the first song on the 14-track album gives 70’s blacksploitation vibes that match the iconography of the album’s cover art — surely a reference to the statuesque brickhouse women protagonist of the era, whom Megan’s resembles. The lyrics “Niggas ain’t real when the shit really count. / That’s why I keep my lil’ cat in they mouth” is a prime example of the authority and raw sexuality that Megan commands.

 The album’s second track, the Da Baby-featured “Cash Shit,” is another lesson in unapologetic confidence. “He know he giving his money to Megan. He know it’s very expensive to date me.” While simple in structure, Megan’s relentless bravado when delivering lines like these makes the words cut that much deeper.

With an introduction sample from the 1972 classic “Me and Mrs. Jones” by Billy Paul, “Simon Say”s (featuring Juicy J) continues the 70’s era theme. The smooth-as-butter crooning is quickly interrupted with a twerk anthem. Energetically similar to other songs on the album, “Simon Says” stands out as it offers an instructional manual for those who may not have knees as strong as Megans.

If  presence, lyrical talent, and sex appeal are all the trappings of a what makes a phenomenal rapper, Megan made her mark with Fever. – Melissa Simpson

13. PUP – Morbid Stuff – (Little Dipper / Rise Records)

To hit play on a PUP record is akin to stepping onto a controlled demolition site. 

Morbid Stuff, the Toronto quartet’s third LP, doubles down on the career characteristics of singer Stefan Babcock and company’s frantic brand of punk-pop (and not quite the other way around): Across its 11 tracks, the hooks are tighter, Babcock’s vitriol all the more bitter, and a unique cynicism has distilled down into even the lead guitar melodies.

Don’t get me wrong: Like all PUP records, these are the key elements to making  Morbid Stuff irresistible and fun as hell. It’s not hard to understand why. Misery loves company, right? A proper PUP song, like Morbid Stuff’s “Kids,” “Bare Hands,” or “Closure” is a heavy lean toward the communal, an open invitation to commiserate along with Babcock’s scrappy, melodic missives with a primal howl, because it simply just feels good: 

“I had it maxed out! And nothing is working! And everything’s bleeding!”  

“You were feeling lonely and you called me hoping I’d be home! You’re like a bad trip or a sick habit!” 

Or ever so simply: 

“I need closure!” 

If the end result in Morbid Stuff is something like transmuting deep frustration and anger into whatever it felt like to sit courtside as the Toronto Raptors took home the NBA Championship, perhaps it’s by design. 

Call it a self-help method to process pain through party-ready earworm punk tunes, but with PUP’s knack for clever songwriting and winking gallows humor, the morbid never sounded so sweet. – Marc Snitzer

12. Moor Mother — Analog Fluids of Sonic Black Holes — (Don Giovanni)

Though Moor Mother’s been out traversing space-time, breaking barriers and crossing over into intergalatic territory, the immediacy of her music hasn’t dissipated. She’s shared stages with the likes of Art Ensemble of Chicago and Saul Williams, landed the cover of widely respected experimental music mag The Wire, while bringing her cosmic gospel to spaces like the The Met, Art Basel and the Kennedy Center on a touring schedule that has her practically teleporting across the globe. On Analog Fluids of Sonic Black Holes, Moor Mother’s second album on eclectic indie label Don Giovanni, we find the artist bringing the rawness and expanding on the themes from her debut: African diaspora pain as a catalyst for triumph, mystic incantations as a means of surviving encoded trauma, and Afrofuturism as a means for
empowerment.

On the opening track “Repeater”, strange, ghostly strings and darkly orchestral synths rise and swell as Moor Mother’s ominous voice speaks bleakly about love lost — “come back when you are made of ashes”; but it’s a love deeper than romance, a love that seems to stretch centuries and across continents. It’s a powerful intro into a record that maintains such relentless electronic skronk. When the comparatively meditative “The Myth Holds Weight” creeps into space with its warbly, dreamy excess sounding like yoga music for Transformers, we’re nearly spent. On the track she reminds us that “they will sell you back your heart / so you can load up guns for your art” and “condos and bodybags run high on NASDAQ.” Those words are the perfect bridge to Analog’s second act, where tracks like “LA92”, with its punk rock energy and hood cypher cadence, explode off the streaming service.

The beauty of Analog Fluids is that among its noise, its chaos, is a wonderful bliss, an ethereal spaciness that feels warm– it’s an approach far from the “dude hunched over a pedal board” aesthetic often associated with noise music. As Moor Mother invokes “My mother and her mother and her mother picked so much cotton /it saved the world” over west African ritual drumming on closing track “Passing of Time,” we are witness to Analog Fluids of Sonic Black Holes’ sonic ritual unfolding, witness to a black Philadelphia woman, poet, teacher, sound architect and time-traveller coming into her own, edging us closer to liberation. — Alex Smith

11. Dreamville / J. Cole – Revenge of the Dreamers III – (Dreamville / Interscope)

J. Cole has assembled a master class of young artists under the umbrella of his Dreamville label, and they all came for blood with Revenge of the Dreamers III. Nothing about this album is boring. Nothing is sleepy. Nothing is redundant. If anything, it’s overwhelming in all the best ways.

The assortment of folks featured on the 18-track collection is seemingly endless — some acts hailing from the label, others from elsewhere. There doesn’t appear to be any narrative theme aside from the fact that everyone is rapping their asses off. Well everyone with the exception of Ari Lennox…who is singing her ass off.

Instead of trying to summarize this album in less than 300 words here are some interesting takes on some of my favorite songs:

“MIDDLECHILD” (J. Cole solo): Cole reflecting on his career thus far. He finds himself somewhere between the old heads who have since left their mark and the young cats who are ushering new styles and approaches to hip-hop. “MIDDLECHILD” was released in early 2019 a decade after J. Cole became the first artist signed to Jay Z’s Roc Nation in 2019, and the song shows his lyrical and topical growth over the years.

“Wells Fargo” (J.I.D, EarthGang, Buddy, and Guapdad 4000): A lyrically frenzied mad-dash where the gang readies some heavy artillery as they prepare to rob a bank. Arguably the best song on the entire project. Manic and erratic.

“LamboTruck” (Cozz, REASON, Childish Major): A nuanced take on what it means to be an up and coming rapper. You got clout, but not too much money – yet. The checks ain’t start hitting and Cozz who’s down with Dreamville and Reason who’s down with TDE muse on whether or not they should rob J. Cole and Top Dawg. An overall cleverly haunting tale of desperation.

“Self-Love” (Ari Lennox, Baby Rose, Bas): One of the few calmer songs on the album – thanks to Lennox’s shea buttery vocals. Bas’ take on the love affair turned sour is an accountable and refreshing. Baby Rose’s unique and sometimes spooky vocals is reminiscent to that of Nina Simone. Her voice is what makes the song.

In sum, listeners will not grow weary with Revenge of the Dreamers III – it simply has too much to offer. There is literally something for everyone, so dig in. – Melissa Simpson

10. Rapsody — Eve – (Jamla / Roc Nation)

Eve is a celebration of women in music and culture.  Throughout the album, Rapsody challenges listeners to think about black women in relation to every aspect of the larger society and culture:  in hip-hop, in sports, politics, film, fashion, etc.

Each song is named for a famous woman and its lyrics explore how Rapsody relates to her. “Tyra,” points out “Fendi, Gucci, Dior, women like me ignored. / But it’s all right, though, outsiders never change what’s in store,” while “Ibtihaj” is a nod to Olympic fencing champion Ibtihaj Muhammad, comparing her skills to needing sharp wits to succeed in rap.

As much as men love to talk about how much they respect Rapsody, let’s face it, she’s always compared to Lauryn or is qualified as “good for a female emcee.” Rapsody sees through the BS and calls it out on “Cleo”, named after Queen Latifah’s character in the film Set it Off. The song samples a repetition of Phil Collins singing “I remember” from “In the Air Tonight” while Rapsody raps: “Remember  early on, y’all ain’t treat me all the same though / Used to question why the brothers even rocked with me for.”  

Eve appreciates and recognizes black culture through the numerous collaborations on the album.  Rapsody’s albums have always featured appearances by legends and newcomers alike. However, hearing her mix it up with the likes of everyone from singer Mereba, poet Reyna Biddy, to legends like GZA, D’Angelo, not to mention a smoking verse by Cleo herself, Queen Latifah, is impressive and shows how she sees herself in the pantheon of music. Eveis Rapsody’s seventh solo full-length, yet she is only now getting the credit she deserves as hip-hop royalty. – Maureen Walsh

9. Big Thief – U.F.O.F. – (4AD)

Not many bands could release two albums in one year, fewer still could do so with the silent precision of Big Thief, whose first album of 2019, U.F.O.F., gently asks the listener to find comfort in the strange. This album feels intimate but entirely foreign, built out of the chemistry the band has been building for years, but only just now perfectly fitting into place. It is marked by details that give the music life, Lenker humming along to melodies and background noises that would seem like accidents if they didn’t perfectly underscore the intention of Big Thief. Even “Cattails,” by far the best track off the album, is a recording of the first time the band had played it together. One of Big Thief’s greatest assets is their lack of restraint. 

Often described as later album Two Hands “celestial twin,” U.F.O.F. is an expansive journey into different sounds, from Adrianne Lenker’s unhinged scream three minutes into “Contact” to the distorted guitar feedback in “Jenni,” which Buck Meek reportedly achieved by hanging his guitar on a rope and surrounding it with amps, à la Lee Ranaldo. Big Thief had always seemed as Andrianne Lenker’s project, or at times, a continuation of her and Buck Meek’s time as a duo. On this album, every part is felt as much as the next, such as the breathing basslines of Max Oleartchik or the intuition of James Krivchenia’s drums, both of which move smoothly in tandem throughout the album, triggering the sharpest climaxes or underscoring the solemnity of a song. As one of the most inventive voices in rock music today, the group set the bar that much higher with their first album of 2019. — Sam Kesler

8. Vampire Weekend — Father Of The Bride – (Columbia)

My favorite hashtag of the year was #vampireweekendisajambandnow. That statement is not entirely true; Even though the band graced the cover of noted jam band mag Relix, have taken to extended live shows, and even have fan-made bootleg site dedicated to them, Ezra Koenig and crew returned after a five year hiatus with a record consisting of their most direct songwriting yet, Father Of The Bride. With the departure of band member/producer Rostam Batmanglij, the band added four live members and pivoted from preppy New York cool to tie-dyed California sunshine. When first single “Harmony Hall” dropped back in January, listeners instantly compared it to the Dead’s “Touch Of Grey” and Happy Mondays’ “Step On” — 80s classic rock and 90’s British rave music. The worldly metaphors are still there (climate change, religious conflict, relationship strife), but Koenig’s time away from the spotlight and his new dad status caused him to look inward. 

Produced by long-time collaborator Ariel Rechtshaid, FOTB includes featured guests Danielle Haim on three country-influenced duets (album opener “Hold You Now,” “Married In A Gold Rush,” and “We Belong Together”), and The Internet’s Steve Lacy, who shows up to add some prog-soul cool on the one-two punch “Sunflower” and “Flower Moon.” Haim’s presence is peppered throughout the record to drive home the true collaborative spirit of Father Of The Bride. Songs such as “This Life” and “Stranger” speak to our interpersonal relationships with each other, whether it be romantic or platonic, or to our relationship with the Earth. 2019 was a pivotal year for Vampire Weekend, just like it was a pivotal year for all of us. Now that we find ourselves in late December, it’s time to make good on those relationships: to the Earth, to our friends, and to our loved ones. – Tyler Asay

7. The National — I Am Easy To Find — (4AD)

There’s a bad version of I am Easy To Find. A version where the The National, led by frontman Matt Berninger, dive headfirst into their late forties with absolute abandon. You know, the 75-minute sprawling, conceptual epic they’ve always meant to release, the thinly veiled attempt to stave off aging and obsolescence with “depth” and “vision.”And you know what? I would’ve loved that album, but thank goodness they saw an opportunity to do something completely different.

Sure, I Am Easy To Find is a 63-minute ebb and flow of art-rock, instrumentals and mumbled, wine-soaked spoken word, all familiar moves implemented by bands with as much earned trust as Berninger and company, but it’s what The National choose to do with all that trust that’s important. For as much as Berninger famously stumbles around stage with eyes cast down, this is far from the kind of navel-gazing that can infect old, indie dudes approaching five-decades of existence. It is, instead, an example of a band acknowledging their limited view and finding peace in relinquishing control. 

Just take the album’s title track; “A million little battles I’m never gonna win anyway / still waiting for you every night with ticker tape, ticker tape,” sing both Berninger and Kate Stables, aka This Is The Kit. This isn’t some single-ready feature, I Am Easy To Find is littered with voices that aren’t Berninger’s, from Gail Ann Dorsey and Sharon Van Etten to lesser known singers like Eve Owen and Lisa Hannigan, each serving not as (BLANK) sing The National, but fully-formed foils on their own. Much of this can be attributed to Carin Besser, Berninger’s wife and collaborator, who this time took an even larger role in the albums lyrics. The National have always been conversational, but this time, through inclusion both behind the scenes and on stage every night, that conversation is far more two-sided and all the more affecting. — Sean Fennell

6. Sharon Van Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow – (Jagjaguwar)

Most musicians, when they take a ‘break’ from music, often come back with a bumpy album.  A rough-around-the-edges attempt to put a toe back in the pond and test the waters.  Sharon Van Etten, however, isn’t most musicians, and Remind Me Tomorrow isn’t like most albums.  Not content with fitting neatly in to a box, Van Etten flexes every musical muscle she has to build a deeply personal album dripping with atmosphere.  It’s been fiveyears since her last release, and she’s done a lot of reflecting in the interim — coming to grips with what music and being a musician means to her. 

She’s honest with us, as listeners, right out of the gate: the melancholy “I Told You Everything” opens up to us “Sitting at the bar I told you everything.  You said ‘Holy shit, you almost died’.”  Her voice every so slightly quivers, and there is no doubt that this is a real, lived-in experiences we’re going to hear about.  The songs revel in her resilience as a youth.  “Comeback Kid” navigates us through different narrative views of her younger self — the adults, family, and neighbors.  On “Seventeen,” Van Etten calls back to her teenage self, telling her how strong she is, and wishing she could show her that.

It almost feels like eavesdropping on a therapy session.  It’s an intimate conversation that we’re not sure we should be hearing, but Sharon Van Etten isn’t shy about growth and change.  That which may have hurt her in the past has only made her stronger, and we’re all better for having heard it in her chosen medium. – Matthew Shaver

5. Solange — When I Get Home — (Columbia)

After illustrating the broadly-stretched canvas of her acclaimed 2016 album A Seat at the Table with deep truths, poignant societal critiques, and undeniably suave pop melodies, Solange Knowles went deeply inward with her followup project When I Get Home. The dazzling, idiosyncratic 19-track project is as personal as a record can get; along with a companion visual album, it is a loving tribute to her home state of Texas, particularly her hometown of Houston, and further particularly to the Third Ward, where she grew up.

The project’s super specific themes are brought to life with abstract, alluring visuals of black cowboys at a rodeo and flowing dancers on the dusty plains; these elements center and celebrate the strength of marginalized communities in the reddest of red states, showing their numbers, and by extension their power. In the midst of it all, we hear Solange surrounded in this atmospheric beauty, soaking it all in.

It’s true that When I Get Home lacks the overt pop sensibility of A Seat at the Table; with the exception of the buoyant bump of “Stay Flo,” the album feels more like an audio collage meant to be experienced front to back in an art gallery setting, rather than a collection of songs for easy playlisting and algorithm appeal. As it turns out, this is an unexpected asset. The opening “Things I Imagined” is a hiccupy, yet elegant introduction to the project based around a single lyrical phrase. “Almeda” meditates in a single lane of skittery trap beats and honey-dipped keyboard chords over the course of four minutes, as Solange’s lyrics are driven by abstract, yet pointed imagery: “Black skin, black braids / Black waves, black days / Black baes, black days / These are black-owned things / Black faith still can’t be washed away.” The pulsing “Binz” is a glorious sunburst of vocal harmonies set to a slick dub-influenced arrangement, while “I’m A Witness” brings the album to a close with gospel style serenity.

One refrain I heard throughout the year from fellow listeners was “I wasn’t into the Solange album at first, but I can’t stop listening.” That says something about her reverence for and studious attention to her fellow H-town innovators; When I Get Home’s start-stop choppiness, abstracted voices and repeated bars that modify and manipulate their timing the longer they go on, are all in homage to DJ Screw, the late and much-loved Houston artist known for pioneering the “chopped and screwed” style that came into massive vogue in the early years of the new millennium. It’s an approach to mixtapes, club sets, and remixes that catches your ear, pulls you in, and doesn’t let go, presenting you with a soundscape that is very singular and captivating, but in a minimal moreso than overdressed way.

But part of it is, once again, Solange Knowles’ unparalleled skill as a multimedia artist, an endlessly creative person with the ability to both reflect worlds as well as create worlds to get lost in, places where listeners can find strength and truth, understanding and enlightenment, or simply a beautiful headphone experience for the course of 39 minutes. — John Vettese

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q55AVeXzqeE&feature=emb_title

4. Lizzo – Cuz I Love You – (Atlantic)

Best New Artist nominee Lizzo is not an overnight success story, even if her eight Grammy nominations ( including Song, Record and Album of the year) make her seem like a present magically gifted to us as a reward for making it through the decade. Cuz I Love You mixes straight forward pop-rap and soul with messages of self-empowerment and self-love without feeling preachy or self-obsessed. Lizzo broke into the mainstream this year with her viral “Church with a twerk” live performance videos, some of which showcase her skill playing the flute while twerking, reintroducing this ‘classical’ instrument to the main stage. She crafts her songs as “conversational songs” as opposed to “heady and poetic,” lending to the album’s mass appeal. “Truth Hurts” (on the deluxe version of Cuz I Love You) was written two years ago and found a new audience on the heels of its use in Netflix’s Someone Great. The song bloomed organically out from a conversation with Producer of the Year nominee Ricky Reed about a recent breakup, then blossomed into 2019’s breakup anthem. “I put the si-i-ing in single.”

Lizzo’s vocal prowess is unquestionable from track one, the titular track, and “Cuz I Love You” helps keep the almost overly pristine pop production grounded and endears us to Lizzo personally, before making us get up and move with upbeat dance tracks. Not to be boxed in as bubblegum pop, every line on the album is meme-able, quotable, and would fit well written on post-it notes and stuck on a mirror. On her positive lyrics, Lizzo says, “I need it because I have to sing it and relive it every night.” 

“Like a Girl” is a jaunty bop with a chorus that uses raucous background vocals and call and response to cheerlead the reclamation of the phrase. “Juice” is the singularity at work, blending the perfect crafted pop algorithm with real human bravado and soul. “Tempo” is a tribute to, and collaboration with, her hero Missy Elliot, (“She’s a weird black girl, I’m a weird black girl,” as she said in an interview on The Breakfast Club from New York’s famed 105.1) as well as a nod to the mid 90’s production craze of sampling Raymond Scott. The album’s furthest departure, “Crybaby”is a subtle reminder of Lizzo’s Minnesotan past, performing at Paisley Park (Prince’s production palace) for Prince’s posh private parties. – Koof Ibi Umoren

3. Tyler, The Creator – Igor – (A Boy Is A Gun / Columbia)

In a now-viral clip, Odd Future co-founder Tyler The Creator freestyles on Funkmaster Flex’s HOT97 radio show. Flex’s show and its freestyle segments have become something of a rap music institution, where some of the world’s fiercest MCs appear to get on the mic and show and prove. Tyler, with his long track-record for offensive, homophobic and misogynistic lyrics and shock-value aesthetics, used his slot on Flex’s show to break one of rap’s few remaining taboos; openly rhyming about same-gender sex acts “Me and Flex looking in the index for buff neck niggas just for some hot butt sex, mmmmm…”

At this stage in his career and public life, Tyler’s sexual orientation was no surprise to anyone who had been paying attention, but the Flex freestyle hit differently. In that moment Tyler may have played these lines for shock, awe, and laughs, but the album that he came on Flex’s show to promote, Igor, comes equipped with an altogether different intention. Igor is not a vehicle for jokes about butt sex and cheeky addresses of Tyler’s orientation, the album presents an even deeper level of candor in its quest to make sense of sex, commitment, love, heartache, and healing.  

Inspired by a real-life love triangle in which Tyler found himself falling in love with an unnamed man whose is still in love with an unnamed woman, Igor takes all of Tyler’s agony, jealousy, rapture and lovesickness and wraps them in twisting synth lines, romantic chord progressions and swooning vocals harmonies. The music and the lyrical themes are the very definitions of bittersweet. “Earfquake” is a beautiful pop-trap concoction about a love that can shake a man to the core. The song’s desperation is palpable, revolving around a simple, and heartbreaking refrain “Don’t leave….it’s my fault.” “Running Out of Time” recalls the spiraling, lovesick atmosphere of Kanye’s magnum-opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. More breathless desperation hangs in the air here as Tyler begs, pleads and bargains for his lover to commit and love him openly, without apology.

On “New Magic Wand,” Tyler’s jealousy takes the form of a figurative green-eyed monster, pacing about a room flooded with emotion over a warped, bass-heavy beat. “I saw a photo, you looked joyous. My eyes are green, I eat my veggies…I need to get her out the picture. She’s really fucking up my frame…”

On a micro level, Igor is a breakup album, in the macro-sense, it is a study / culmination of a very public act of self-invention and affirmation. By crafting a musical narrative around a very real-life love affair with another man, Tyler becoming more of himself. Openly queer where he was once wildly homophobic. Vulnerable and tender in places where he was once crass and offensive. Ultimately, Tyler, as he is now, is a figure who could not have existed at any other point in rap music’s history. Certainly not in the genre’s “golden era”; not even at the beginning of this decade, when Tyler and his Odd Future cohorts first stormed onto the scene. 

“A Boy Is A Gun” finds Tyler pleading with his lover to make his mind up because he is sick of waiting patiently.” His partner’s indecision and callousness are wielded like a weapon. Eventually his very presence feeling like a gun aimed right at his heart, causing Tyler to push him away angrily. 

“Stay the fuck away from me!”

With Igor, Tyler proves that he has grown far beyond the shock-value homophobia of his past work while living his truth in a manner that no other mainstream rapper has done to date. If sex and physical intimacy been two men is still deemed taboo, then the very notion of this kind of deep male love and emotional intimacy can be a truly revolutionary proposition. This idea, that men can be soft, loving and vulnerable with one another, is a proposition that is capable of challenging the very foundations of our society. By using one of the year’s biggest rap albums to embrace and unpack all of this, Tyler The Creator has made a statement that is as bold as the real-life love that it depicts. – John Morrison

2. Mannequin Pussy – Patience – (Epitaph)

Mannequin Pussy is no longer confined to crackling speakers and dank Philadelphia basements, but haven’t lost that confrontational, what-are-you-going-to-do-about it attitude. The band’s latest release Patience is their most expansive yet, unapologetically taking up the space it deserves. Marisa Dabice’s visceral howl has been quelled to a throttled rage. If 2016’s Romantic was their twisted version of a love song, Patience is the subsequent breakup, the kind where you set your boyfriend’s clothes on fire.

Dabice sings from a place of disassociation, separate from the body being abused, her only form of escape. “When you hit me, it does not feel like a kiss,” she sings on “Fear + Desire.” Images of violence and entrapment surface throughout the album, “High Horse” describing a cornering in excruciating detail: “Pushing me up against the kitchen sink / I feel your breath on me, I can taste it in my teeth.” But there is redemption yet, the end of the song finding Dabrice reclaiming herself, striding from the scene, leaving scorched earth in her wake.

The credits don’t roll – there is more to it than just leaving, although that takes an enormous strength. There is the labor of healing, the aftermath of self-hate and regret to sort through. How do you figure out who you are, when you’re no longer half of something? When you’ve spent so long in the service of loving someone else, how do you find pleasure in loving yourself? Acts of self-care are work, especially if you’ve been made to feel worthless, internalizing brutality as the normal. Mannequin Pussy shows us they can be optimistic without losing their raw edge. “In Love Again” leans away from their usual thrashing punk rock into something tamer. Glossy melodies collapse into piercing guitar solos, Dabrice’s airy soprano reminding us that it keeps getting better. — Mariah Hall

1. Big Thief — Two Hands — (4AD)

Appreciation of great records can often be enhanced by a broader context, whether they’re reviewed against a context of contemporary culture or even simply considered with an understanding of where and how they were physically conceived or recorded, even if a particular location or geography could potentially become either an impetus or a pigeonhole, or both. 

Much has been made of the obvious contrasts between U.F.O.F. and Two Hands — the two incredible records released by Brooklyn indie-rock darlings Big Thief in 2019 — with the latter having been recorded on a sprawling residential recording complex in the heart of the Chihuahuan Desert. It’s a site which the band themselves had ostensibly chosen deliberately to help shape the sound of the sessions, which were for the most part recorded live (and, nevermind that it’s actually the former that features a song called “Open Desert.”) 

So much of the power in Adrianne Lenker’s songs is derived from the torque and tension of balance, from her delicately delivered insights and her poised, poetic turns of phrase, and from the imagery she invents. It’s what Big Thief’s fans have come to know as her innate and prolific storytelling gift. Two Hands rings with an organic depth, with musings on murder, death, poison, and the “fossils of earth.” Lenker’s characteristically elegant, transparent, flawed persona is full of vulnerability that allows her to render portraits both bound and transcendent. There are no coyotes in this desert, but there are wolves, and it’s all imbued with the same sweat and tears she pours into all of her vocals, cracked and fraught on this record against the band’s analog interplay. — Josh Pelta-Heller

Revisit our previous year-end lists:

The Key’s Top 15 Albums of 2018

The Key’s Top 15 Albums of 2017

The Key’s Top 15 Albums of 2016

The Key’s Top 15 Albums of 2015

The Key’s Top 15 Albums of 2014

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