ANGEL OLSEN, All Mirrors: The chameleonic rocker and producer John Congleton expanded her instrumental palette (orchestral strings, more synths) and developed big, alluring atmospheres to reflect the drama of tracks such as “Lark” and “New Love Cassette.” Like life, it was stormy and cathartic.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, Western Stars: A career highlight from the Boss, who turned from Jersey shores to Joshua Tree and 1960s-’70s pop for inspiration. The melodies were some of his richest, embellished to satiny heights by a proper orchestra, and re-animated his cherished themes of hope and redemption.
CAOIMHÍN Ó RAGHALLAIGH & THOMAS BARTLETT, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh & Thomas Bartlett: The Gloaming bandmates turned introspective with these nine mostly improvised fiddle-and-piano instrumentals, as luminously beautiful as they were healing.
CARSIE BLANTON, Buck Up: The New Orleans songwriter seasoned compositional smarts with greasy grooves, pop hooks, jazz sensibility, and wise ass charm, and lightheartedly expressed (“American Kid,” “Bed”) the wearying anxiety so pervasive in 2019.
CHRISTIAN SCOTT ATUNDE ADJUAH, Ancestral Recall: A musically compelling offering grounded in West African rhythms that showcased the New Orleans jazz trumpeter’s curiosity about other instruments and, most crucially, cultural identity — a topic of intense discussion in 2019.
DAMON LOCKS’ BLACK MONUMENT ENSEMBLE, Where Future Unfolds: A musically layered, historically informed jazz-gospel-spoken word hybrid. The melodicism and conscience of tracks like “Sounds Like Now” (“Separate not equal/ Power to the government/ Never to the people”) deserved broader attention.
DURAND JONES & THE INDICATIONS, American Love Call: Gritty wakeup call “Morning in America” rightly drew attention to this quintet of Indiana University grads, whose ’60s-’70s soul-style arrangements sounded timeless yet topical whether protesting politics or crooning doo-wop harmonies.
JOE HENRY, The Gospel According to Water: A rare, illuminating work that contemplated home, love, mortality, spirit, gratitude, and the essence of art. Recorded over two days after the respected Pasadena songwriter/producer’s cancer diagnosis, it brimmed with melodic beauty and lived wisdom.
J.S. ONDARA, Tales of America: An intriguing blend of formality and familiarity, this was a welcome surprise from a Kenya-raised, Minnesota-based folk artist whose life experience afforded him a unique view of America’s promise and divisions.
THE HIGHWOMEN, The Highwomen: An inspired supergroup with a mission, Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris and ringleader Amanda Shires honored the Highwaymen (Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson) with a sociopolitically conscious rewrite of Jimmy Webb’s title track, and shook up a woman-leery country music industry with this smartly written, harmony-gilded keeper.
LITTLE SIMZ, GREY Area: Calling herself “Picasso with the pen” (“Offence”), the UK rapper/actor spoke to the bewilderments of 21st-century life (hence the title) with unsentimental delivery, perceptive intelligence, and support from chums such as Michael Kiwanuka and Little Dragon.
LIZZO, Cuz I Love You: 2019 was Lizzo’s year. This hooky testament to her earthy ebullience positioned her as a pop culture force of empowerment, as legions of fed-up women embraced “Juice” and the Missy Elliott-guesting “Tempo” as anthems of sisterhood.
MAVIS STAPLES, We Get By: Teamed with insightful producer Ben Harper, the soul-gospel icon stared hard into the nation’s darkness. “Heavy on My Mind” and “Hard to Leave” disturbed with their acknowledgement of mortality, grounding anthemic calls for justice (“Change,” “Stronger”) that reminded what a national treasure Staples is and how much we need righteous voices like hers.
MDOU MOCTAR, Ilana (The Creator):
The Nigerian guitarist’s scintillating fretwork reinforced the bridge connecting desert blues and Western classic rock, pairing the music’s galvanizing rhythms with urgent songs decrying the violence, environmental devastation and industrial exploitation threatening West Africa.
MICHAEL KIWANUKA, Kiwanuka: Shadowed by 1960s soul and civil rights struggles, the UK soul-folk troubadour’s songs of existential restlessness and racism felt lived in this moment, accented with gospel, jazz and psychedelic rock, and ultimately reaffirmed belief in love and a higher power.
THE MORNING YELLS, On the Lash: Refreshing pop sparkling with harmonies and reverbed guitar. Siblings Phil and Laura Stancil and band managed to evoke the Mamas & the Papas and 1960s-’70s Laurel Canyon singer-songwriters while representing LA’s contemporary music scene.
OUR NATIVE DAUGHTERS, Songs of Our Native Daughters: Individually acclaimed artists Rhiannon Giddens (who also garnered kudos for “There is No Other” with Italian multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi), Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, and Birds of Chicago frontwoman Allison Russell explored slave narratives and contributed needed songs of racism, resistance and hope to Americana’s canon. A formidable summit.
RAPHAEL SAADIQ, Jimmy Lee: Digging into painful family history, the R&B crooner delivered a powerful statement of an album, named after his late brother, that was musically seductive and thematically timely with its themes of physical and psychological prisons, spirituality, and addiction.
SOLANGE, When I Get Home: Dreamier than 2016’s songwriting-focused “A Seat at the Table,” this sensual pastiche of ’70s R&B-inspired sounds and poetic fragments served notice (as if any was needed) of the younger Knowles sister’s range and socially conscious artistry.
STRAND OF OAKS, Eraserland: Bunkering in wintry isolation along the ocean-pummeled shores of Wildwood, South Jersey, yielded the kind of transporting, cathartic rock rarely heard anymore for frontman Timothy Showalter, who tapped My Morning Jacket guitarist Carl Broemel to help bring these soul-bracing songs to life.
TANYA TUCKER, While I’m Livin’: More than just a comeback for the scrappy-as-ever “Delta Dawn” survivor, co-producers Shooter Jennings and Brandi Carlile honored Tucker with moving story songs and resilient anthems (“Wheels of Laredo,” “Hard Luck”) that resonated strongly with listeners.
TINARIWEN, Amadjar: The nomadic Malian collective that’s been calling for independence and popularizing their influential desert blues since the 1980s returned to the source for this smoldering set of songs lamenting exile and celebrating community, recorded outdoors in Mauritania’s desert.
WILLIAM TYLER, Goes West: Nick Drake’s influence remained, but the Tennessee-raised guitarist’s instrumental music feels more personal and sunnier since relocating to LA, and welcome uplift arose from the push-pull dynamic between his acoustic figures and intuitive electric guitarist Meg Duffy.
JIMMIE VAUGHAN, Baby, Please Come Home: While younger artists like Gary Clark Jr. and Baby Rose stood on the blues to advance elsewhere, this veteran Texas guitarist’s first album in eight years demonstrated how much vitality remains in the genre.
YOLA, Walk Through Fire: A spirit-lifting, hummable soul-country gem that mined triumph from adversity and established the UK dynamo as a thrilling voice to be reckoned with, with significant support from guitarist/producer Dan Auerbach.