Not a year went by in the 2010s without someone either proclaiming or predicting its demise, but the album format evolved and mutated each year into something that made a convincing case for its continuing relevance. Whether you're buying hard copies once on vinyl and listening to them dutifully on your record player, or just following them on Spotify as new tracks get tacked onto them at their makers' discretion, LPs still find a way to elbow their way back into the discussion -- and now they're being released faster, wider and in more shapes and sizes than ever before.
Will the 2020s face the same ongoing discussions about the Death of the Album that the 2010s did? Will the format be as alien to us now in 2029 as it would be to listeners in 2010 seeing what it's become today? The answer to both is probably yes -- and we'll probably still be doing a top albums of the year list then, too. Until then, here are the Billboard staff's 50 favorites from the final year of the 2010s.
50. Celine Dion, Courage
For her first English-language album in six years, Celine Dion gave us Courage -- a work that balances vintage Dion with current-day pop trends. The title track is pure Celine: a mournful, beautiful ballad about coping with the death of her husband-slash-manager René Angélil. But "Lovers Never Die" takes a page from Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off" talk-rap vibe, while "Flying On My Own," which opens the album, is a sassy (yet somehow eerie) dancefloor confection. And "Nobody's Watching" is a perfect antidote to any naysayers, of Dion's or otherwise. In her latest effort, Celine both digs deep, and lets us see her lighter side -- and that's the power of Dion. -- DENISE WARNER
49. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Ghosteen
Between singer-songwriter Nick Cave’s mortality fixation and backing band the Bad Seeds’ ability to unearth the barest bones of Bo Diddley-styled rock n’ roll in his most nightmarish compositions, you might expect Ghosteen -- the first album written since the death of Cave’s teenage son in 2015 -- to be unrepentantly dark and discordant. Instead, guitars and drums are replaced by mournful, disorienting synths and delicate, otherworldly choral voices; the result is a psyche-straining work of tenderness and loss more beautiful than anything the post-punk legend has made before in his four-decade career. -- JOE LYNCH
48. Kim Petras, Clarity
Nine of the 12 songs on Kim Petras’ debut album had already been released by the time the full-length dropped in June. Spoilers much? Not really: Sequencing matters, people! The first half of the fully assembled version -- produced (controversially) by Dr. Luke and released on Petras’ own BunHead label -- showed the German pop star trading in her glitter canon for a smoke machine, as she explored the darker side of pulsing electro-pop with “Icy” and “Personal Hell.” The rest of Clarity was less playful, with resentment and sadness (“Broken,” “All I Do Is Cry”) joining the mix of sexual and material escapism (“Do Me,” “Blow It All”), before the album culminates in the triumphant self-love of closer “Shinin’,” Petras singing “From nada to Prada, you know you’re a star." Even when she brings you low, she’ll always leave you high. -- CHRISTINE WERTHMAN
47. Danny Brown, uknowhatimsayin¿
Three years after his last full-length, Atrocity Exhibition -- and just his second studio effort since 2013 -- 38-year-old rapper Danny Brown returned as energetic as ever with the punchy and efficient uknowhatimsayin¿, tapping Q-Tip to handle executive production duties. Despite its radiant album artwork, it isn’t early-career-levels of sonic psychedelia, but it makes up for any lost eccentricity with career-best, face-twisting one-liners so stellar and goofy (“I ignore a whore like an email from LinkedIn") that they demand gold plaques. -- JOSH GLICKSMAN
46. Madonna, Madame X
After two albums of Madonna sounding like she was largely playing catch-up to mainstream trends (2012's EDM-courting MDNA and 2015's collaborator-stuffed Rebel Heart), the pop GOAT decided to go back to blazing her own trail, and not looking over her shoulder at how many were following her lead. Top 40 and streaming audiences might not have been particularly amenable to her genre-hopping free-for-all, but longtime fans found plenty to chew on in the set's unpredictable excursions -- including a Walter Carlos-like dip into synthified Tchaikovsky in "Dark Ballet," a Random Access Memories-worthy prog-disco odyssey in "God Control," and a welcome return to Latin pop in the breezy Maluma team-ups "Medellín" and "Bitch I'm Loca." Madge can rest assured that anyone still trekking along with her at this point is in for the long haul, and excited as ever for what twists and turns lay ahead. -- ANDREW UNTERBERGER
45. Ozuna, Nibiru
Ozuna’s first two albums, Odisea and Aura, were treasure troves of urban hits with unexpected twists and strong melodies. Nibiru follows suit but it highlights an artist on a very clear evolution. The album includes reggae, trap, bits of pop, hip-hop and an increased dosage of acoustic instrumentation. It also features a notable roster of collaborators, including Diddy, Snoop Dogg and Swae Lee. And as ever, it features an Ozuna who can veer from dance tracks (“Reggaeton en Paris,” featuring Nicky Jam and Dalex) to introspection (in “Nibiru”). This is an artist with the depth and breadth to last for a long time. -- LEILA COBO
44. Miranda Lambert, Wildcard
You didn't even need to listen to it to know Miranda Lambert was going through it on her last project -- a raw double LP called The Weight of These Wings that touched on some of her personal lows from the past few years. But on the other side of hardship comes wisdom, and Lambert's wit and live-wire country-rock on seventh LP Wildcard make even the most well-worn life advice sound revelatory: don't sweat the small stuff (“It All Comes Out in the Wash”), own your history (“Track Record”), embrace the curveballs (“Bluebird”). And when all else fails, just a schedule a date night with your old friend tequila. -- NOLAN FEENEY
43. Young Thug, So Much Fun
If you run through Young Thug's catalog, you'll see plenty of noteworthy gems -- including commercial mixtapes like 2015's Barter 6 and 2017's Beautiful Thugger Girls -- but despite his half-decade of stardom, he'd yet to release a proper album lauded by mainstream listeners. Tethered by his flair and cooky rhyme patterns, 2019's So Much Fun is an off-kilter wonderland for not only Young Thug enthusiasts but your everyday music lover. From the splashy standout "Surf" to the stunt-heavy "Mannequin Challenge," Thugger finally slithers his way into crossover glory with this Billboard 200-topping set. -- CARL LAMARRE
42. Oso Oso, Basking in the Glow
Never mind the broken storefront light that adorns its cover -- love and luminosity permeate every corner of Oso Oso's breakthrough album. Long Island-bred songwriter Jade Lilitri sings of romance's everyday minutia and panoramic promise like the twenty-something torchbearer for third-wave emo many have tried to play, but few have so effortlessly become. Affirming as Jimmy Eat World and cozy as the Early November, the sunrise-sized choruses of "The View," "Morning Song," and the title track are well worth sticking out the night for. -- CHRIS PAYNE
41. MUNA, Saves the World
In order to save everyone else, first you have to save yourself. That's the ethos powering queer pop-trio MUNA's sophomore album Saves the World; where their debut project About U took aim at the gargantuan cultural and political problems that plagued people's lives, their follow-up dealt almost exclusively in the personal. Keeping their signature, self-produced indie-pop sound intact, the trio tackled internal fears like rejection ("Taken"), self-doubt ("Number One Fan") and lovelessness ("Who"). Saves the World is living proof that not all superheroes wear capes -- some of them make crying-in-the-club pop music to soothe listeners' souls. -- STEPHEN DAW
40. The Raconteurs, Help Us Stranger
This year, The Raconteurs didn’t just return with their first album in 11 years, the Brendan Benson/Jack White co-fronted rockers also proved they hadn't lost a step: In fact, the album was the band’s first-ever to hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Help Us Stranger delivered The Raconteurs’ classic, loud guitar-driven rock to 2019 -- along with a few downtempo gems, like the acoustic “Only Child” and the searing “Now That You’re Gone” -- while also sounding more polished and tighter than ever before. Contrary to the title, this band doesn't need much assistance from anyone. -- LYNDSEY HAVENS
39. Nilüfer Yanya, Miss Universe
From her surreal voicemail of an intro track (“WWAY HEALTH”) to the jangling strums and warm synths of closer “Melt,” Nilüfer Yanya’s debut full-length, Miss Universe, is a staggering work of eclectic experimentation in rock. The London-bred singer-songwriter transports listeners with every hazy guitar riff (“Paralysed”), jacks up their heart rate (“In Your Head”) or indulges in romantic interludes with whispers of sax solos (“Paradise”) depending on the track. As a first act, Yanya’s Miss Universe is a prime representation of versatile songwriting and killer instrumentation -- and it’s thrilling to hear her thrive. -- HILARY HUGHES
38. Luke Combs, What You See Is What You Get
Combs scored his first No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart with his sophomore album, What You See Is What You Get. The North Carolina native co-wrote each of the project’s 17 songs, effortlessly blending modern and traditional country influences to complement his commanding voice. The LP includes raucous chart-topper “Beer Never Broke My Heart” and reflective follow-up “Even Though I’m Leaving” (also a Country Airplay No. 1 single). Meanwhile, the arena-ready “1, 2 Many” featuring Brooks & Dunn and the heartfelt “Dear Today” further showcase Combs’ ability as a captivating songwriter and mainstay on the charts. -- ANNIE REUTER
37. Maluma, 11:11
Maluma is one of the few artists in the Latin realm who is able to take mundane love stories -- the girl whose guy plays around, the guy whose love is unrequited -- and turn them into songs whose lyrics feel like conversations with friends. Vacillating between urban and pop, this is an album of songs more than raps, where the beats are always at the service of the melody. At 16 tracks, 11:11 is full of collabs (Ricky Martin, Sech, Ozuna, Madonna, and more). But its best material, rhythmic, catchy, clever and impossible not to relate to, is Maluma’s alone: Sample “Shhhh (Calla’)” to get your textbook instructions on how to be discreetly unfaithful. -- L.C.
36. Jamila Woods, Legacy! Legacy!
Before you even hit play, a look at the track list for Jamila Woods’ sophomore LP Legacy! Legacy! gives a good picture of what’s to come: one of the 2010s’ most insightful R&B singers connecting her own art, career, and life to that of her biggest inspirations, with each song named after a different historical figure. Most of the all-caps icons named in the titles are women of color, informing the specific confidence that Woods brings to the table, taking influence from Eartha Kitt, Betty Davis, and Zora Neale, among others. Legacy! Legacy! uses Woods’ velvet voice to bridge her past, present, and future, with her legendary heroes by her side. -- ERIC FRANKENBERG
35. Sturgill Simpson, Sound & Fury
Playing on Trump’s threat of “Fire and Fury like the world has never seen,” Sturgill Simpson's fourth album is a dark concept record that doubles as a country crossover, hard-charging with blues-driven psychedelia and disorienting pedal effects that wail like a screaming V2 engine on an in-bound scud missile. While Simpson brags about carrying “a couple severed heads in my bug out bag,” the psychosis of Sound and Fury (and the accompanying ultra-violent anime from Jumpei Mizusaki on Netflix) is merely how Simpson's wandering-mind deals with his own disillusionment over fame. By the end of the record, he concedes the violent fantasies are an escape from the attention he draws writing deeply personal songs -- and the disappointed faces of s--t-grinning music types constantly asking the meaning of his lyrics. “Mercury must be in retrograde again,” he sings on the second-to-last song, “but at least it’s not just hanging around, pretending to be my friend.” -- DAVE BROOKS
34. Better Oblivion Community Center, Better Oblivion Community Center
After releasing their surprise joint album as Better Oblivion Community Center, Oberst told Billboard that the two of them "get pegged as being emo and death-obsessed." Sure, there might be some truth to that as soloists, but when together, there's a sense of hopefulness about where we're all going. That's part of what makes their debut 10-track album so special -- it's unlike anything either of them have released before, beautifully combining Bridgers' snarky one-liners and Oberst's brooding introspection. They create a breathtaking combination most evident in "Chesapeake" and "Dylan Thomas," the latter of which reached Billboard's Adult Alternative Songs chart. -- XANDER ZELLNER
33. Ari Lennox, Shea Butter Baby
The question of “Is R&B really dead?” seems to arise every few years -- but if you scratch below the surface, there's always a bevy of exciting new singers breathing life into the genre. In the late '10s, Ari Lennox is one of the genre leaders: The DMV native’s Shea Butter Baby debut reads like a diary of your around-the-way Black girl, flipping through the pages of our kaleidoscopic personalities. She gets down and dirty on “Facetime,” walks around naked right out the shower on “New Apartment,” modernizes classic neo-soul on “Up Late” and gives us something to bop to with “BMO.” Along with her honeyed vocals and vulnerable lyricism, Lennox’s biggest strength is her undeniable relatability. -- BIANCA GRACIE
32. Khalid, Free Spirit
Fresh off a year full of hit collabs in 2018, Khalid released the 17-track Free Spirit that showed the impact pop collaborators like Halsey and Normani had on his sound. The LP features bigger production and stronger melodies, particularly apparent on tracks like Disclosure-produced lead single "Talk" and funky John Mayer team-up "Outta My Head." And with a No. 1 debut on the Billboard 200, Free Spirit proved Khalid's solo star power, further solidified by his $30 million-earning Free Spirit World Tour. -- TAYLOR WEATHERBY
31. Bad Bunny, X 100pre
Technically, X 100pre is an awkward fit on this list: Bad Bunny’s debut studio album arrived last Christmas Eve -- though it debuted on the Billboard 200 in early 2019, hence its misfit inclusion here. But of course, the Puerto Rican trap star is known and beloved for breaking the rules, and he continues to do so on X 100 Pre, which infuses reggaeton with alt-rock (the ‘90s-nostalgic “Tenemos Que Hablar”), pop (the pulsating “MIA” with Drake) and even piano balladry (the emotive “Solo de Mi”). And just when you get used to the boisterous, merry chaos of the El Alfa-assisted fan favorite “La Romana," the song abruptly shifts to a completely different, abrasive beat. In all, X 100 Pre is a showcase of boundless creativity that leaves the 25-year-old born Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio poised to become one of the genre’s most influential artists. By the end, its title -- which translates to "Forever" -- feels prophetic. -- TATIANA CIRISANO
30. Bruce Springsteen, Western Stars
The New Jersey native headed out West on this album, a winning blend of roots-rock and orchestral pop. When Springsteen announced the album in April, he said it was influenced by "Southern California pop music of the 1970s," including such greats as Glen Campbell. It connects with a tradition that extends even further back, to "Home on the Range," "Don't Fence Me In" and other Americana classics. The album opened at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, though it faded quickly, and failed to score any Grammy nominations -- even for best Americana album. But Springsteen's loving tribute to a rich American musical tradition stands on its own. – PAUL GREIN
29. Rapsody, Eve
One of two things typically happens when you land a Grammy nomination: You either become content and rest on your laurels, or you get doubly motivated to trump your latest feat. Fortunately, Rapsody fell in the latter camp, as she thrashed the competition with her empowering effort Eve last August. Not only does she silence the chatter of possible slippage with her follow-up to 2017's Laila's Wisdom, but she cranks up the intensity lyrically. From embracing her tomboyish ways ("Aaliyah") to becoming a voice for female rappers ("Nina"), Rapsody is no longer hip-hop's biggest underdog, since she now has the bark and bite to outduel any of her peers. -- C.L.
28. Sharon Van Etten, Remind Me Tomorrow
“Don’t look back” has long been one of rock ‘n’ roll’s rallying cries, but start pushing 40 and it’s not so easy. Veteran singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten’s fourth album is an authentic and evocative soundtrack to that struggle, as well as a major evolution of her sound. Shortly before her last full-length release, 2014’s Are We There, the singer-songwriter became involved with her drummer (now her manager) Zeke Hutchins and gave birth to a son. Remind Me Tomorrow plays more or less like a song cycle of those life changes, ultimately moving away from the darkness of an abusive former relationship and towards the light of a new love -- but the past isn’t easily exorcised, and the future can be scary as hell. Much like Springsteen’s brilliant Tunnel of Love, Tomorrow is freighted with tension, both lyrically and musically, thanks to a brooding synth-heavy production from John Congleton. But when that tension breaks and Van Etten goes all-in vocally, as she does on “Jupiter 4” and “Seventeen,” it’s all goosebumps and fist pumps. -- FRANK DIGIACOMO
27. Solange, When I Get Home
While Solange's stellar 2016 release A Seat at the Table was a reaction to the world around her, the Texas-born artist took a more insular approach to her fourth studio album. When I Get Home is a jazz- and hip-hop-infused deep dive into Knowles’ hometown of Houston, with references to its highways, culture and people. The 19-track album, interspersed with poetry and spiritual wisdom, serves as the kind of unconstrained and uncompromising glimpse into black womanhood audiences have come to expect from the younger Knowles sister. -- TAYLOR MIMS
26. Maren Morris, GIRL
Morris further cemented her status as an adept storyteller and powerhouse vocalist on her sophomore album, GIRL. The CMA Award-winning album of the year highlights Morris’ reflective storytelling as can be heard on the Country Airplay No. 1 “Girl,” as well as the standout “Common” featuring Brandi Carlile, where the pair search for answers to life’s difficult questions. A genre-bending project, Morris’ pop and R&B influences can be heard on the anthemic “Flavor” and sultry “RSVP,” while the nostalgic “A Song for Everything” and romantic “The Bones” continue to set the singer-songwriter apart from her Nashville peers. -- A.R.
25. YBN Cordae, The Lost Boy
There’s a sonic coherence to YBN Cordae’s debut album, which sees the young MC rhyming casually over a bright palette of beats, pulling from soul, gospel, groove-funk and major-key guitar. Still, there's a few flourishes of heaving, ominous overtones that align much more closely with lyrics that paint a portrait of the bleaker side of life, albeit with an optimistic outlook. On tracks like “Have Mercy” and the second half of “Broke As F--k,” Cordae flexes his ability to forge his own flows in creative ways, while he shines alongside the likes of Chance the Rapper (“Bad Idea”), Anderson .Paak (“RNP”) and Meek Mill (“We Gon Make It”). Then there is “Nightmares Are Real,” his showstopper with Pusha T, which showcases both rappers at their best. -- DAN RYS
24. Karol G, Ocean
Karol G has become urban music’s most successful female star today by baring her heart in her music. Ocean criss-crosses all emotions, from love to lust, from loss to getting even, with disarming sincerity -- coupled with a flair for hooks and memorable phrases. There are big hits here, including “Mi Cama” and “Culpables,” her and boyfriend Anuel’s public declaration of love. But more importantly, there’s also the achievement of Karol becoming an urban female act who can boast the same success as her male counterparts. Groundbreaking. -- L.C.
23. Megan Thee Stallion, Fever
A lot of popular hip-hop is based upon braggadocio, but few MCs boast as persuasively as Megan Thee Stallion, who spends the entirety of her Fever mixtape stepping on the neck of any hate, doubt or adversity coming her way. The Houston rapper's technical skills are more than enough to entertain across 14 tracks -- syllables tumble out of her mouth in short bursts, like each line is a quick punch at an enemy's ego -- but Fever has the songs, from the boisterous takedown "W.A.B" to the simmering state-of-the-union "Hood Rat S--t," to graduate from impressive to essential. -- JASON LIPSHUTZ
22. Clairo, Immunity
Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that a 21-year old singer-songwriter who bubbled up with song names like “Flaming Hot Cheetos” would craft a debut as immediately accessible as Clairo’s Immunity, but what’s most impressive is how she utilizes her disarming openness to broach more tightly held subject matter like her sexuality, isolation and suicide. The promising young artist lays a clear path to her heart with unwaveringly direct songwriting, while each of the elaborate earworm loops handcrafted by her and co-producer Rostam Batmanglij slowly blossom into indie anthems, revealing the fully fledged vision from one of the most formidable talents to emerge this year. -- BRYAN KRESS
21. Summer Walker, Over It
In case you were wondering if 23-year-old R&B breakout Summer Walker was too young to be properly schooled in the late-'90s classics, Over It serves as a sort of senior project for her studies: She invokes Destiny's Child's "Say My Name" in "Playing Games," samples 702's "Get It Together" on "Body" and even invites Usher himself to bless her reinvention of his "You Make Me Wanna" on "Come Thru." But the reason Over It works is that even with the support from all these '90s touchstones, Walker still clearly thrives as her own singer-songwriter in her own era, a fresh new voice offering recognizable after-hours ruminations -- whether she's drunk dialing instant regrets or threatening the lives of potential romantic rivals with a shrug. Drake doesn't descend from his perch atop popular music just to anoint throwback artists, you know. -- A.U.
20. Carly Rae Jepsen, Dedicated
The Canadian singer has flawless pop albums down to a science -- and that's not just hyperbolic praise for 2015's Emotion and this year's follow-up, Dedicated, it's just literally how she works: Jepsen whittled about 200 songs down to a 15-track LP by focus-grouping songs, labeling them with colors and keywords, ranking their energy levels from 1 to 5 and, in some cases, reworking them in the studio more than a dozen times. The payoff is the fullest portrait of Jepsen, the Artist yet -- earnest but no pushover, guileless but quick with the sass, hopelessly romantic but surprisingly horny. Who else would put a Disney-approved Popeye interpolation into a song about getting to third base in various places? -- N.F.
19. FKA twigs, Magdalene
FKA twigs has always dressed emotion in somewhat dangerous apparel, cloaking the raw power of her voice in layers of noise and spiky electronics. With the release of “Cellophane,” the world-rending first single from Magdalene, it was clear something had changed. “Didn’t I do it for you?” she pleads on the track, bereft, tears almost palpable in the gentle quiver of her delivery. The production was rich and confounding as ever, but vulnerability was the operative idiom, for the song and the album it ultimately closed. More incantatory than declarative, tracks like “Daybed,” “Mary Magdalene,” and “Mirrored Heart” expose the flesh beneath the crystal garments of Twigs’ production. Draped in lucid, shimmering sonics, Magdalene lays heartbreak newly bare. -- WILLIAM GOTTSEGEN
18. Mark Ronson, Late Night Feelings
The British producer’s fifth studio album is a self-described collection of “sad bangers,” meant to tug at the heart strings and get you dancing. It memorably thrusts a diverse group of female vocalists to the fore, while Ronson lays back and works his talents on the boards. Those distinct voices -- including Camila Cabello, Alicia Keys, Miley Cyrus and powerhouse singer-songwriter Yebba, who sings on three tracks -- drive the album in various distinct (and often unexpected) directions. It’s a definite departure from the previous work of Ronson, who made chart-topping magic with Bruno Mars on the sparkling “Uptown Funk” and Amy Winehouse’s soulful Back to Black, but you'll love where you end up with it. — ALEXEI BARRIONUEVO
17. Brittany Howard, Jaime
Fans thought they knew Brittany Howard and the heights of her talent through Alabama Shakes, the rock quartet that served as their introduction to her soul-shaking bellow and effortless guitar work. But with Jaime, her solo debut album, she dives deeper into the sounds she loves, while sharing some of her most personal work to date. Jazz fusion intersects with spoken word, doo-wop roots and stark social commentary across Jaime, with the chaotic din of “13th Century Metal” and “Goat Head" -- the latter about a terrifying, racist incident her parents faced when she was growing up -- standing out in a stellar crop. Howard stuns as the frontwoman of Alabama Shakes, but Jaime sheds light on the multitudes her artistry contains. -- H.H.
16. Jonas Brothers, Happiness Begins
Six months after 2019 began with no trace of a Jonas Brothers reunion, the sibling trio proved to be back and bigger than ever with the then-largest album debut of the year. Though the feat wasn't shocking after the massive success of the wildly catchy lead single "Sucker," which debuted atop the Hot 100 (the brothers' first career No. 1), it showed the world that the JoBros should be taken seriously. The music did the same: All 14 tracks presented a more mature Jonas Brothers sound, leaning into their sultry falsetto on songs like the bouncy single "Only Human"; lyrically, the album dives into their adult relationship experiences in both heartfelt ("Hesitate") and lustful ("Trust") ways. While the guys credit executive producer Ryan Tedder for helping rejuvenate their musicality as a group, Happiness Begins is simply evidence of the Jonas Brothers' magic -- and it's even better now that they're older. -- T.W.
15. Angel Olsen, All Mirrors
On her fifth album All Mirrors, Angel Olsen confronts her fractured state of mind with the sheen of strings, synths and self-assurance for an unburdening that allows the ascendant artist to display the clearest visage of herself yet. Despite the pivotal transition period of her life and career, Olsen still manages to not lose sight of her singular skills as a lyrical firebrand and captivating vocalist, whether she’s navigating the tense sonic standoff of “Impasse,” honing a quiet power in the hushed affirmations on “Tonight,” or soaring above a symphony as sweeping as the mountains in her Asheville, North Carolina hometown on “Lark." The reflective nature of All Mirrors suggests that Olsen might not be as familiar with the person staring back at her lately, but she’s never sounded more sure of herself than now. -- B.K.
14. Burna Boy, African Giant
Burna Boy has been delivering Afro-fusion hits since the start of the decade, but the Nigerian artist truly stepped into his power with fourth album, African Giant. He previously showed his admiration for Afrobeat pioneer and activist Fela Kuti, and his new LP elevates Kuti’s teachings, resulting in a musical reawakening that traveled beyond the African continent and touched new territories overseas. By refusing to dilute his raw sound to please a mainstream audience, Burna Boy tackles all the issues his nation faces -- oppression, poverty and corruption (seen on tracks like "Dangote") -- to raise awareness. Despite the grim underbelly, the album’s hip-shaking grooves ("On The Low"), doses of flirtation ("Secret") and commanding vocals ("Anybody") give a sense of hope. “Music started from Africa,” the artist told Billboard in July. “It’s all going to come back to its roots eventually. When you hear our music, it resonates in the soul.” -- B.G.
13. Post Malone, Hollywood's Bleeding
Though Post Malone has been a lock for smash singles since he laced up his sneaks and dreads for “White Iverson,” crafting a classic album never felt high on his to-do list -- a solid distance behind shotgunning Bud Lights, copping the dopest Dak Prescott custom jerseys, and ruling the charts with filler-laden full-lengths. That changed with third LP Hollywood’s Bleeding, the most top-to-bottom enjoyable project Post has ever released. Throughout ubiquitous singalongs “Circles” and “Sunflower” and memorable deep cuts like the sticky-sweet “A Thousand Bad Times” and the ghoulish, scene-setting title track, the singer-rapper embraces what’s been obvious for a while: Post Malone is pop, and pop is Post Malone. He’s capable of hosting a ferocious Halsey verse on the same song as a hedonistic Future cameo, ruling the radio alongside Swae Lee, or indulging his rock ‘n roll dreams head on amidst gnarly hair metal soloing and the unholy wail of Ozzy Osbourne himself. -- C.P.
12. Beyoncé, HOMECOMING: THE LIVE ALBUM
Nothing will ever compare to the experience of being at Beychella, Beyoncé's massive and much-lauded Coachella 2018 headlining spectacular; dancing, crying, passing out when Michelle and Kelly rose out of the stage. One thing comes close though, and it's Homecoming: The Live Album: the masterpiece of a performance in all of its aural glory. Over 40 tracks, Homecoming runs through the show's brassed-out version of Beyoncé's many, many hits -- "Crazy In Love," "Sorry," "Diva," "7/11," "Partition," "Singles Ladies," etc. -- but more importantly, it captures the essence and the energy of what made the performance so goosebump-inducing, from the cheers of the tens of thousands of humans in attendance to the interludes explaining how Beyoncé and her village pulled it all together. The show only happened twice, but through this album we can all revisit those fateful, historic nights in the southern California desert, even if we weren't actually there. -- KATIE BAIN
11. Vampire Weekend, Father of the Bride
One-time blog buzz bands don't generally age gracefully into middle age -- particularly after losing a core member -- but Vampire Weekend have made a career out of exceeding the bar, and Father of the Bride might be their greatest and most graceful pole-vault act yet. Forever reviving the unrevivable, the band finds rich soil to till in harmony-laden '70s country-pop, jaunty '80s adult alternative and Grateful Dead phases that real fans can probably ID to the exact gig date. It's all blended with VW's typical acuity for gently off-kilter hooks -- and maybe-maybe-not in-jokes like the titles of "Unbearably White" and the album itself, possibly a reference to Steve Martin, or perhaps eventually Quincy Jones -- and a newfound sense of emotional stakes, whether frontman Ezra Keonig's fretting is personal or ecological. "2021, will you think about us?" he asks on one of the many tracks that could fit either category. Boy, if you don't know by now. -- A.U.
10. J Balvin & Bad Bunny, Oasis
Rumors of a joint Balvin/Bad Bunny album circulated for two years before the two friends dropped Oasis with no previous announcement. The content was as surprising as the concept itself: Bad Bunny and Balvin collaborated on every single track, as if they were a reggaetón duo. It was unprecedented, and often brilliant, with Bunny’s trademark baritone contrasting with Balvin’s smooth vocals. Don’t think about riffing on global change or social issues; Oasis is all about girls and parties. But the eight-song set, largely produced by Sky and Tainy, is also carefully, thoughtfully put together, built just on single beats and vamps, with scant -- if any -- further instrumentation, and touches of other genres very cleverly scattered throughout. It's not quite reggaetón, not quite trap, and the pair's voices blend together seamlessly. -- L.C.
9. DaBaby, Kirk
Though DaBaby muscled his way into the rookie of the year conversation this spring with his Hot 100 scorcher "Suge," he placed a bow on his monstrous 2019 with Kirk. Dedicated to his late father, Kirk is an emotional and fun-filled highlight reel for those who missed out on his explosive debut from earlier in 2019, Baby on Baby. Though Baby's knack for party bangers ("Bop" and "Vibez") does the heavy lifting, he isn't a one-trick pony. Whether he's showcasing his lyrical fury ("XXL") or uplifting the downtrodden ("Intro" and "Gospel"), everyone gets a different slice of Baby on this brisk 13-track blockbuster. -- C.L.
8. The Highwomen, The Highwomen
Two decades after the Highwaymen last rode, the Highwomen took up their mantle with a debut LP that somehow exceeded expectations; considerable considering the stellar-on-their-own forces of Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Amanda Shires and Natalie Hemby. But while the women on the album’s cover are its most important assets, The Highwomen also succeeds thanks to a supporting cast that includes superproducer Dave Cobb, featured vocals from veterans (Sheryl Crow) and rookies (Yola) alike, and songwriting contributions from the likes of Jason Isbell, Ray LaMontagne, Lori McKenna and even Miranda Lambert. Point is: The Highwomen was a behemoth of an undertaking, but it’s all too effortless, the leading ladies’ voices mingling in some truly sublime harmonies (“Crowded Table,” “Wheels of Laredo”) and songwriting so strong (“If She Ever Leaves Me,” “My Only Child”) you’d think they were performing standards, not originals. -- KEVIN RUTHERFORD
7. Tyler, the Creator, IGOR
“I hate wasted potential,” Tyler, the Creator asserts towards the end of IGOR, his fifth studio album. After a decade spent refining his style, the artist and businessman reached a new peak -- notching his first Billboard 200 No. 1 -- with a queer love story (which he wrote, produced and arranged) that moves further away from his earlier provocateur persona to reveal the tender, curious, human soul of Tyler Okonma. Across a tumultuous, brilliant maze of distorted keys, layered vocals and soft jazz flourishes, he dissects how relationships get tangled up with self-worth, fantasy and anxiety.
“How can I tell you?” he asks gingerly on third track “I Think"; by the time we arrive at the stinging “I Don’t Love You Anymore,” the titular lyrics tumble out of his mouth like those of a bitter toddler. In the end, it might be the album’s rough edges that make it so unavoidably moving: On the fizzy “Earfquake,” Tyler’s voice trembles and strains as if struggling to carry the weight of a feeling, while the bittersweet, six-minute “Gone, Gone / Thank You” is perhaps one of the most poignant relationship eulogies ever written. It’s both heartbreaking and perfect that the final song ends with a question mark. -- T.C.
6. Lana Del Rey, Norman F--king Rockwell
It all started in September 2018 with "Mariners Apartment Complex," a dreamy and somber rock ballad. Nearly a year later, Norman F--king Rockwell arrived, teeming with that very specific combination of power and grace that Lana Del Rey has been building for the past decade. Penultimate track “Happiness Is a Butterfly” features velvety vocals and references from the Lana Del Lexicon (iconic American landmarks, serial killers, dancing). Then there’s “Venice B--ch,” a soothing, near-ten minute psychedelic rock opus that makes you miss the '70s, even if you weren’t born yet. Suddenly, Del Rey seemed universally loved by critics; not that this was a terribly vital development. With Lana, the point has never been whether you like her or not -- "fresh out of f--ks forever" can be interpreted in a number of ways -- it’s about how she makes you feel, as any LDR fan knows. Still, it propelled her to an overdue album of the year nod at the 2020 Grammys. -- GAB GINSBERG
5. Maggie Rogers, Heard It in a Past Life
If Heard It in a Past Life doesn’t inspire every fiber of your being to explode with joy in the most carefree, show-off-every-dance-move-in-the-arsenal fashion, maybe nothing will. That’s not to say that alt-pop singer-songwriter Maggie Rogers’ debut studio album exclusively explores the sweetest moments life has to offer -- often forging head-on in the opposite direction, as it does in “Light On” (“Would you hear me out if I told you I was terrified for days?/ Thought I was gonna break"). But such instances of uncertainty and despair are refreshingly human: Like learning to dance, the biggest signs of growth hardly ever come without a fair share of stumbles -- or flat out faceplants -- along the way. Rogers doesn’t shy away from a single one either, willing herself back to her feet each time, and ultimately making feel-good album closers “Burning” and “Back in My Body” all the more freeing. -- J.G.
4. Lizzo, Cuz I Love You
Talk about impact: No less a fan than President Obama posted Lizzo’s single “Juice” on his annual summer playlist in August. That same month, the twerking, flute-playing pied piper drew the largest crowd for the Today show’s summer concert series — outpacing Jennifer Lopez and the Jonas Brothers -- while “Truth Hurts” has essentially spent all 2019 going viral, most recently in a video featuring a dancing Pittsburg, Calif. teacher motivating her second graders with revamped lyrics: “I just took an ELA test, turns out I’m 100 percent that smart.”
Cuz I Love You vibrates with authenticity and humor as the rapper/singer belts out life-affirming declarations of self-love and empowerment, which hit home even if you’re not plus-sized and black. Just as freeing and feel-good is the music itself, which careens from soul, gospel and rock to rap and pop. It took Lizzo 10 years to become a breakthrough sensation, but it was worth the wait -- as demonstrated by the eight Grammys she’s up for in 2020, including best new artist, record and song of the year (“Truth Hurts”) and album of the year. -- GAIL MITCHELL
3. Taylor Swift, Lover
Whether GLAAD-handing with glee on “You Need to Calm Down” or protesting institutionalized sexism with incisive economy on “The Man," Lover is Taylor Swift’s most socio-political effort so far -- but it’s also a welcome return to the sillier side of Swift that’s been largely absent from recent efforts. Her effervescent self-effacement is on delirious display on “London Boy” (where she celebrates her British beau while goofily attempting U.K. jargon) and the spoken-word waltz interlude on “Lover” is a masterclass in mixing self-mockery with romantic sincerity. From synth-bops to acoustic laments, we’ve heard these sounds from Swift in the past, but never before has she sounded so comfortable, mature and downright happy delivering them. -- J. Lynch
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.