2. Billie Eilish, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
It’s both stupefying and incredibly obvious that When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? is only a debut album. Its impact this year was so massive, and the presence of Billie Eilish has been so prominent in pop culture, that it feels like both have been with us forever. At the same time, the fact that both are so new is what’s so exciting. While Eilish has spent nearly four years developing her artistry and strategy, she’s said time and time again that nothing could have prepared her for this explosive year. Since her debut arrived in March, she’s been hailed as a reinventor of pop, a boundary breaker, and the voice of a generation, thanks to the unique sound and perspective of left-of-center Asleep hits like the prowling “Bad Guy” and the electrifying “All the Good Girls Go to Hell." And at only 17, she's the youngest artist to nab Billboard’s year-end No. 1 album. Nine months later, Asleep feels just as urgent and game-changing as when it dropped — and has forced a reevaluation of genre boxing that should continue well into 2020. -- L.H.
1. Ariana Grande, Thank U, Next
“I find it interesting that this has been one of the best years of my career and the worst of my life,” said Ariana Grande while accepting the award for Billboard’s Woman of the Year in 2018. That year, Grande got engaged to (and broke up with) SNL star Pete Davidson, released the Billboard 200-topping album Sweetener, and lost rapper ex-boyfriend Mac Miller to a drug overdose. In the aftermath, she found solace in the studio, sipping champagne with friends and collaborators (including Tayla Parx and Victoria Monét), while writing and recording the best album of her career in only two weeks, Thank U, Next.
Grande’s description of her fifth full-length as “like if First Wives Club were an album” was spot-on, as the 12 songs were all about liberation -- from guilt, emotional restraint, and impossible expectations. But rather than a bombastic expression of freedom, Grande kept most of the songs mid-tempo, bass-focused and spacious, lightly skipping through verses more often than belting them out: “And I won’t say I’m feeling fine/ After what I’ve been through, I can’t lie,” she confesses on “Fake Smile.” Grande has been clowned in the past for not enunciating, but on this album, her softer delivery allows for none of her words to go unnoticed, whether admitting her desire for attention on “Needy,” asking for space on “NASA,” moving on on the title track or trying to steal your man on “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I'm Bored.” But the most poignant line comes on the hazy, possibly Miller-referencing “Ghostin’,” when she sings, “We’ll get through this, we’ll get past this, I’m a girl with/ A whole lot of baggage,” a message sent out to those around her as much as to herself.
When Thank U, Next was released on Republic in February, it not only debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, but also marked the biggest streaming week ever for a pop album, and resulted in her becoming the first artist since The Beatles to score the top three songs on the same Hot 100. “As far as my personal life goes, I really have no idea what the f--k I’m doing,” she admitted at Women in Music. The same was not true of her music, and on this album, the pop princess officially became a queen. -- C.W.