demo's Best Albums of 2019

A round up of demo's favourite albums of 2019

1. Norman Fucking Rockwell! by Lana del Rey

For many people – myself included – Lana Del Rey is not only the artist of the year, but the artist of the decade. When "Video Games" was first released in 2011, it was unlike anything else on the radio at the time: beautiful and melancholic, it was a romanticization of not only a relationship but of a bygone era as well. Following "Video Games", Del Rey was continually attacked by critics for a variety of reasons. She was ‘too inauthentic’, an industry plant manufactured by her millionaire father, or she wasn’t feminist enough, or her persona was too contrived, her sound too overwrought, and the list goes on and on. Instead of giving up however, she continually strove to refine her vision over the course of the next decade, building upon the same themes and sounds she’d been using from the start as opposed to reinventing her sound entirely.

Norman Fucking Rockwell! is the product of a decade’s worth of artistic discovery, her magnum opus which serves to finally cement her status as a true American legend. The album starts with one of the strongest opening lines in recent memory (“Goddamn, man child…”), and it only gets better from there. Del Rey subverts the classic Americana imagery she’s been utilizing since the start of her career, merging a sound mired in late-60’s psychedelic rock with all-too-relevant lyrics reflecting on the political landscape of today. It’s peak LDR, from the distinct sun-drenched California sound and the multiple Crosby, Stills, and Nash references, right down to the slightly-ridiculous-but-kind-of-poetic song titles (case in point: stunning album closer “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but I have it”) and the gloriously campy album cover: Del Rey beckons to the viewer in a neon green windbreaker atop a boat as California burns in the distance, with Jack Nicholson’s grandson draped around her arm. As we step into a new decade, it’s the end of the world as we know it, and Lana’s ready to provide us with the perfect music to soundtrack it all. (Zain Ahmad)

2. Assume Form by James Blake

With Assume Form, James Blake has delivered his most accessible album to date. His signature blend of hip hop beats layered with soul-inspired refrains still sounds fresh and exciting in 2019. Even though these sounds have become increasingly popular in mainstream music, Assume Form shows that no one achieves it with the same vibrancy as Blake. Assume Form has its fair share of collaborations as well, including features from Travis Scott, ROSALĺA, and André 3000. Blake incorporates these artists with widely varying styles seamlessly on this album. The tracklist has something for everyone; “Barefoot in the Park” is for your friend that loves to dance, while “I’ll Come Too” is bound to be loved by hopeless romantics. Assume Form cements James Blake as perhaps one of the most consistent artists in modern music, it almost seems ironic that Kanye, once upon a time, called Blake his favourite artist. (Dani Mariam)

3. Igor by Tyler the Creator

An album of the year list isn’t complete without mentioning IGOR. Public frenzy for this album was immediate, London district Peckham was closed down by thousands of fans and multiple police riot vans as Tyler announced a surprise free concert there on the day of album release. Tyler the Creator’s fifth studio album matured his sound even further, taking the common hybrid of rap and funk but developing it into a sound that is unique to this album. IGOR is a successful attempt to push the boundaries of production, successfully enticing the listener by putting on full display the labour of love that has gone into creating every part of the album. Every song is meticulously built on layers upon layers of synths and vocals, and regularly take fascinating creative twists: Kayne’s feature verse is reduced to part of the backing track, and the first verse only appears at the end of the second song. Charting the emotional journey of gradually coming to terms with loss, as he gets left behind in a love triangle, Tyler has masterfully created something that is simultaneously poignant, funny and exciting. (Kathryn Beaton)

In an interview done with Rick Rubin earlier this year, Tyler, The Creator speaks on each of IGOR’s tracks with a palpable giddiness. He knows the brilliance of what he’s created, and has the right words to describe it. He compares it to its predecessor, the summery coming-of-age tale Flower Boy, saying: “You don’t leave LA and go to New York and go back to LA with no knowledge. No, now you know how to wear a jacket.” It’s ironic then, that IGOR seems to shed a layer, losing the veil of nostalgia that was within Flower Boy. While it’s left up to us to decide whether the album’s impressionistic, Call Me By Your Name-esque narrative is fictional, real, or somewhere in between, there’s a consistent thread of palpable sincerity and emotion in Tyler’s voice. He sings on this record more than ever before, over production that masterfully balances haphazard distortion with soulful, jazzy elegance. It’s akin to a dense symphony, with programmatic, recurring lyrical and melodic motives. For example, the distorted bass that opens the album comes back on every track in some form, and the album ends with the same sound played a 5th higher, suggesting the only way for the album to resolve itself is to start again. 

With nearly every listen since IGOR’s release, I’ve been discovering new magical moments that resonate with me - moments that I know will differ from person to person, because this album’s packed with them. After playing album highlight “RUNNING OUT OF TIME” for Rubin, Tyler exclaims, “I love that fucking song so much.” His giddiness is justified. (Keshav Sharma-Jaitly)

4. Titanic Rising by Weyes Blood

Weyes Blood’s 2019 release Titanic Rising is nothing short of a cinematic journey from start to finish. Natalie Mering’s nectar-sweet vocals guide the audience through the world she has created for herself, one of love and loss, anxiety and wistfulness. It starts with the Gatsby-esque musical theatricalism in ”A Lot’s Gonna Change”—a poignant opening track on finding stability and solace in the face of uprooting change, one which certainly sets a fitting tone for the rest of the album. From the 70s-inspired instrumentals of “Everyday,” to the spacey ambience of “Movies”, it’s clear that Mering continues to explore the frontiers sound while making it entirely her own.  It makes for a cohesive album that’s altogether nostalgic and melancholy, introspective and narrative, a warm embrace and a familiar face in the uncertainties of modern living. (Hannah So)

5. All Mirrors by Angel Olson

In October, singer-songwriter Angel Olsen released her fourth album All Mirrors and solidified her presence as someone capable of crooning about all emotions, big and small. The alternative album featured 11 songs that show off Olsen's range. Some of these tunes, such as "Lark", feel monumental: it starts off with a simmer, and then breaks into a sudden urgency, filled with rage and nostalgic frustration. There is catharsis found in this voice that screams out about a love misunderstood, about wanting someone to love the real you, instead of some abstract image. Others, such as "Spring", showcase a softer and more vulnerable side. "Remember when we said we'd never have children? / I'm holding your baby, now that we're older". The common thread throughout these songs is that Olsen never shies away from feeling. Everything is laid out on the table, heartbreak and sadness and youth-like optimism mingling at the same table. Angel Olsen may have created a deeply introspective album about her own experiences, but the reflection in the mirrors she holds up to herself is a reflection that many can empathize with. (Mena Fouda)

6. Charli by Charli XCX

“I go hard, I go fast, and I never look back,” Charli XCX sings on the opening track of her third studio album, Charli. The song’s title, “Next Level Charli”, says it all: it’s Charli’s world, we’re just living in it. Except this isn’t the ordinary world we inhabit – it’s a futuristic realm, one that’s both robotic and fluid at the same time. Following an EP, two mixtapes, and a slew of singles, Charli marks XCX’s first studio album in almost five years. For anyone who missed out on the aforementioned works, it’s a huge leap from the punk-pop of 2015’s Sucker.

Largely inspired by the futuristic hyperpop of PC Music (the album was produced by A.G. Cook, founder of the movement itself), the album is pop music that simultaneously pushes the genre’s boundaries and further reinforces the structures that comprise it. It’s also Charli at her most vulnerable – from the rattling existential panic of “Gone” (featuring Christine and the Queens), which contains perhaps one of the best breakdowns in a pop song ever, to the brash, jarring “Thoughts,” which finds her ruminating on everything and nothing at the same time. Charli takes the listener through a variety of genres, yet everything seems cohesive, anchored by the same overarching sense of futurism. With Charli, she’s proved herself as one of the most innovative musicians working in pop today, one focused on dismantling and expanding the genre itself as opposed to chasing commercial success. (Zain Ahmad)

7. Father of the Bride by Vampire Weekend

Vampire Weekend’s Father of the Bride blends an assortment of stories and instrumentation into a cohesive and profound listening experience. With the addition of Danielle Haim’s vocals throughout, Father of the Bride feels like a prolonged dialogic narrative –– digressions from the narrative also complement and add to the story of the album. The naturalistic theme of the album, achieved through both lyricism and sound, thematically ties the work into a satisfying auditory bow.

Vampire Weekend balances insanely catchy upbeat tunes such as “This Life” or “Sunflower”, with more heartfelt songs like “2021” or “Jerusalem, New York, Berlin”. The album manages to exude happiness, but a happiness which is always in check, always with exception and hesitation. Each song feels vaguely familiar in a warm and wistful way, one can venture to guess they have taken some effective inspiration from some of our folk rock forefathers. Vampire Weekend did not shy away from the unconventional either. The band’s integration of complex instrumentation and creative eccentricity, such as with the quasi-western themed “Sympathy”, makes for easy listening while achieving great depth and dimension of sound.

Vampire Weekend’s Father of the Bride is a gem of 2019. It realizes a feat of balance and pleasing, digestible risk. This one will stay on the playlist into 2020, if not indefinitely. (Maia Harris)

8. Heavy is the Head by Stormzy

Anyone who knows me, well or not, knows that a key component of my identity is being a Londoner.  During Frosh week, it was my ‘fun fact’ and is the only information on the About tab on my Facebook. Indeed, I have an obnoxious fondness for referring to Samuel Johnson’s quote (even when not relevant): “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”. Perhaps this is reason why I am so enamoured by Stormzy’s second studio album, Heavy is the Head (HITH) – it is an ode to my favourite city.

Despite its late December 13 release, HITH has risen up the charts and rapidly gained recognition in media outlets. This is due not only to the excellence of the albu, but also undoubtedly because of Stormzy’s vocality surrounding British politics.

As in many big cities, the youth voice is prominent in London, and Stormzy uses his lyrics as a vehicle to communicate his personal biases: “ it’s not anti-white it’s pro-black” he raps on the ‘Crown’ before clarifying that “They’re sayin’ I’m the voice of young black youth / I say ‘yeah, cool’ and bun my zoot”. The intermingling of London slang and his politics is what separates HITH from other grime albums. The key to Stormzy’s success is in his accessibility; he does not shy away from his London roots and this allows him to authentically engage with young people across country. There is something innately comforting about HITH––– it’s like you are chatting shit over a pint with your best mates, the conversation bouncing from Brexit to literature to the people that you fancy. The album is multi-faceted: Stormzy finishes "Superheroes"
with a riff from the Tracey Beaker theme song (an iconic British children’s book and television character); apologises for cheating on Maya Jama (not his finest moment) and boasts of his friendship with heartthrob, Idris Elba (peng man – I mean, have you heard him speak?!).

The albums title, Heavy is the Head, is a nod to Shakespeare’s own reference to the burden of responsibility placed on the heads of kings, and his lyrics build upon this intertextuality and powerful imagery. Away from the 16 tracks, Stormzy has sung, “Fuck the government and fuck Boris” with Harry Styles for BBC Radio1; he has visited his old primary school to be interviewed by a group of children; and bickered with Piers Morgan on Twitter. It has been a very busy month for Michael Omari and is likely to be an even busier career. (Kashi Syal)

9. Pang by Caroline Polachek

Caroline Polachek’s Pang is everything and nothing all at once–– a sharp pain, a vague emotion, the dissolution of a marriage, and the start of something new. The first album under her own name, it also details the start of a new creative partnership between former Chairlift member Caroline and PC Music’s Danny L. Harle, who executive produced the album. Polachek remained in complete control however, allowing for Harle’s experimental production to nicely complement her work as opposed to overwhelming it entirely, keeping her distinctive voice at the centre of it all. The result: one of 2019’s best pop albums. From the insanely addictive, upbeat “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings” to the melancholic soundscape of “Parachute”, Pang takes the listener on a journey, one that explores human emotion through a uniquely new lens. It’s one worth embarking upon – alongside her fellow PC Music and PC Music-adjacent peers, Polachek is carving out the future of pop music. (Zain Ahmad)

10. Anima by Thom Yorke

Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke’s third solo album Anima was released in June 2019 alongside a musical short film of the same name directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. The record, like much of Yorke’s oeuvre, is concerned with both the public and the personal. Fittingly, the album’s title—drawn from Jung’s theories of man’s unconscious mind—alludes to the terrorizing effects of technocracy and political instability on the self. Atmospheric and spare, producer Nigel Goderich’s long-time collaboration with Yorke combines woeful lyricism with orchestral electronic instrumentals. On “The Axe,” Yorke sings, “Goddamned machinery/Why don't you speak to me?/One day I am gonna take an axe to you,” adding, “And where's that love/You promised me?.” Nearly 7 minutes long, the track layers Yorke’s echoing vocals and siren-like synths over an anxious beat.

As an electronic album, Anima both celebrates and interrogates the unity of man and machine, matching Yorke’s melancholy, dystopian lyrics with equally feverish production. And yet, Yorke withholds any explicitly biographical details in his writing; in “Impossible Knots,” he laments,  “I'm tied up in impossible knots/I'll take anything you got,” indicating a kind of fatigue and longing that characterizes the album. For all its timely messaging, Anima resists definition as either a “political” or “personal” record, neither confessional nor partisan. Instead, Yorke has created an expressive collection of restrained, thoughtful tracks, cultivating a futuristic sound that provokes both contemplation and dance. The album's standout track “Dawn Chorus” (which features heavily in Anderson’s short film), is an exemplar of Yorke’s musicianship. Almost hymnlike, the song offers a glimmer of hope in the form of “a thousand tiny birds singing,” a promise of some kind of second chance. Best tracks include: “Traffic,” “Dawn Chorus,” “I Am a Very Rude Person,” and Runawayaway.” (Sana Mohtadi)

11. Baby on Baby by DaBaby

North Carolina's DaBaby has made waves this year, especially after the release of his album Baby on Baby. Full of energy, playfulness, and confidence, the album highlights DaBaby’s charisma. The rapper’s charm and public relation skills have gained him admiration from the public. Once, pon being unable to make a concert due to airplane delays, DaBaby not only refunded tickets to concert goers, but performed a show from his jet on FaceTime.

The beats on Baby on Baby are not particularly interesting or complex themselves, with one Twitter user saying they “sound like when fat villains be tip toeing in cartoons”. Part of Baby on Baby’s charm, though, is that DaBaby embraces it and comes up with fire. On the first track, “Takin It Out”, DaBaby jumps straight in before the beat, rapping “I’m thinking bout takin it out/It’s hard to pop shit with my grill in/I can’t let it fuck up the flow”. The immediate start and bouncy beat sets the tone for the rest of the album: fast and confident. On Grammy-nominated “Suge”, Baby pays homage to Death Records co-founder, Suge Knight. The track has a quintessential Baby flow and bouncy beat. “Baby Sitter” is similarly bouncy, and includes a feature from Offset, who shows that he’s still worth a feature on the right track.

What makes Baby on Baby an album of the year is that DaBaby knows exactly what he’s doing and executes it well. What the industry is lacking at the moment is Baby’s strength: charm. (Charlie Jupp)

12. Cuz I Love You by Lizzo

You couldn't go two minutes this summer without hearing "Why men great 'til they gotta be great?", the opening line to Lizzo's chart-topping single, "Truth Hurts". Though the track was released in late 2017, it was featured on the deluxe version of her 2019 album Cuz I Love You. The track is filled-up with feel-good, anti-scrub lines: "I just took a DNA test/ Turns out I'm 100% that bitch" and "I'm glad you're back with your bitch/ I mean who would wanna hide this?/ I will never ever ever ever be your side chick". They're the kind of lyrics that you can't not sing.

The album is thoughtful and purposeful pop, full of anthemic, feel-good, feminist tracks. On “Feel Like A Girl”, Lizzo raps “Woke up feelin’ like I just might run for precedent/Even if there ain’t no precedent, switchin’ up the messagin’/I’m about to add a little estrogen”. Beyond the feminist lyrics, the track also highlights her musical versatility: she’s a singer, a rapper, and also a classically trained flautist. In fact, in Lizzo's live performances she famously busts out her flute for its own solo in between dance breaks.

Cuz I Love You also features some slower, more soulful tracks. On “Jerome”, soul and blues-inspired track, Lizzo sings to her lover, “Go on, take your ass home/ and come back when your grown”. The track is a stand out on the album, and highlights Lizzo’s honesty in her music. She has an ability to explore complex, conflicting feelings that many 21st century women fight with. Album closer, “Lingerie” is a sexy neo-soul track, though her shyness about it charmingly comes through. Cuz I Love You is an exploration of pop and R&B by a woman who unapologetically has turned the pop industry's idea of "pop star aesthetic" on its head. (Charlie Jupp)

13. Relaxin’ With Nick by Nicholas Payton

Anyone with an interest in contemporary Jazz will tell you that multi instrumentalist and composer Nicholas Payton is a master and luminary of the music. Hailing from a deep tradition of trumpeters from New Orleans, Payton’s music is steeped in the tradition while also being one of the most thoughtful and innovative thinkers in the “Jazz” aesthetic. Payton himself rejects the term jazz and refers to this music as “Black American Music” or #BAM.

The October release Relaxin’ with Nick, is a demonstration of Nicholas Payton’s thoughtfulness and innovation. A double album recorded live at SMOKE Jazz club in New York City, it features Payton singing, and on trumpet, piano, and a Fender Rhodes alongside his consummate sidemen: Peter Washington on acoustic bass and Kenny Washington on drums. Highlights include their rendition of Benny Golson’s “Stablemates” which features Payton’s piano playing and a distortion tinged solo on the Rhodes. On “Tea for Two”, a classic jazz standard from the Great American Songbook, the trio embarks on a no-nonsense, hard swinging voyage into the realm of bebop. “Jazz is a Four-Letter Word” features Payton singing overtop a bouncy hip-hop groove with a sample of the late drummer Max Roach speaking about the word jazz being synonymous with exploitation. The band then breaks into a hard swinging groove for the solos.  

In this album, Payton not only displays a great mastery of his instrument and the music, but also demonstrates a very clear artistic vision and process. For Payton, it is not enough to be a fantastic technician of the Trumpet, nor a musician who limits his output to what others have defined as “jazz”. This album is a reflection of Nicholas Payton the musician, the activist, the philosopher and the artist. (Leighton Harrell)

14. Over It by Summer Walker

“Girls need love, too / So what's a girl to do when she needs loving, too?)” sings Summer Walker, on her debut studio album, Over It. The lyrics reveal the albums quintessential themes, about women being open about their sexual and emotional desires, and having the confidence to assert them. Summer’s allure comes from her eclectic artistry. The singer combines the self-assurance of a rapper and the vulnerability of an R&B singer. This album presents the type of music you can put your makeup on to or play during scary hours.

Her reverence for the R&B of her childhood is evident thought the work. She features Usher, along with a sample and interpolation of  his 1997 track “You Make Me Wanna” on “Come Thru”. She also pays homage to Lenny Williams’ “Cause I Love You.” on “Drunk DIaling…LODT”. Her ode to the past is coupled with the contemporary as she features highly favoured R&B artists such as 6lack, Bryson Tiller, Drake and even the long dormant PARTYNEXTDOOR on the insouciant “Just Might”.

Summer explores the range of emotions that come with relationships, from the feeling of excitement and infatuation with  “Like it” and “Over It” to the sadness and self-pity in the face of rejection in “Fun Girl”, where she sings, “Is it 'cause I know what I want just like you?/ ‘Cause I make my own money and my own moves?/ Love who I want and fuck who I choose to/ Don’t take no shit and won't be used” and apparently inspired Drake to write two new tracks of his own. With her first debut album, Summer has proved her chops as a forerunner R&B musician and has carved out her niche in the music industry. (Christine Bradshaw)

15. Thank U, Next by Ariana Grande

Following her hit 2018 album, Sweetener, Ariana Grande again released another majorly successful album this year, Thank U, Next. The title is a reference to her single, "thank u, next", released late 2018. It feels like Ariana is reclaiming herself on this album. If you’re a heartbreaker, peace out; you cheated on me? Bye; you want a divorce? Bring it on, I can do so much better.

Thank U, Next comes during a tumultuous time in Grande’s life; her ex-boyfriend Mac Miller died, her engagement to SNL star Pete Davidson was called off, and Grande admitted to struglling with her mental health–– all while on a world tour. Among all this, Grande has made an album that is dedicated to all the women around the world who believe men define them. Ariana sings to her fans is that it’s okay to mess up, and life is meant to be a roller coaster. Emotions, struggles, and disappointments are all a part of the ride. Not only are the lyrics meaningful, but the melodies of the songs themselves, especially “break up with your girlfriend” and “7 rings” are all tunes that can easily get stuck in your head, and stay there, all day long. This album played a huge role in defining pop music for 2019.  (Adsaya Anpalagan)