The two biggest sales weeks from rock albums in 2019 came from a pair of bands who’d waited a combined 19 years since releasing their respective previous LPs. Nostalgia and battle-tested names will do some heavy lifting for any 60-year old genre, but fortunately, rock was also pushed forward this year by numerous upstarts and cult favorites. Some of the best used that nostalgia to create something totally fresh and unique.
Across rock and its numerous sub-genres — metal, punk, folk, indie, and beyond — here are Billboard‘s picks for its top 25 albums of 2019.
25. Pup, Morbid Stuff
Indie labels are shuttering, sales are down, and just about the only way a non-ginormous punk band can carve out a living these days is through grueling touring. Pup knows this all too well; the Toronto rabble-rousers — who once played over 250 shows in a calendar year — saw their label SideOneDummy suspend operations while they were readying the follow-up to 2016’s Polaris Prize-nominated breakout The Dream Is Over. Undaunted, Pup launched its own imprint and delivered a white-knuckled, shout-along joyride that finds catharsis in battling the very demons that threaten to derail them.
“On the verge of poverty and a full-blown meltdown / I’m still a loser and will always be, so why change now?” snarls frontman Stefan Babcock on Morbid Stuff‘s most aggressive track, “Full Blown Meltdown.” It’s a middle finger towards a system stacked against them, particulary how musicians’ mental health is often festishized through tired “tortured artist” tropes. Fortunately, these losers aren’t backing down anytime soon. — CHRIS PAYNE
24. The Raconteurs, Help Us Stranger
The Raconteurs heard the “rock is dead” whines and delivered a tightly produced album to prove everybody wrong. And in doing so, the band experienced a series of firsts: Help Us Stranger was The Raconteurs’ first release in 11 years, their first Billboard 200 No. 1, and their first album released solely on co-frontman Jack White’s own Third Man Records. Not only is rock alive, it’s also in good hands. — LYNDSEY HAVENS
23. Volbeat, Rewind, Replay, Rebound
Mainstream rock radio’s long had an oddball in Volbeat; the Danish quartet simultaneously plays by the format’s conventional rules and toes the line outside them. It incorporates rockabilly and groove metal alongside its usual hard rock sensibility, indebted to singer Michael Poulsen’s influences — ranging from Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash to Judas Priest and Slayer. Rewind, Replay, Rebound reads as Volbeat’s admission that, with multiple No. 1s and legions of fans behind it, the band can play even further into its quirkier influences. The result? The Metallica-worshipping “The Everlasting,” Poulsen’s ‘50s-esque “buh-buh-buh-buh-baby” declaration in “Pelvis on Fire,” clinking piano and grooving saxophone on “Die to Live.” It’s the most fun radio rock record you’ll hear all year. — KEVIN RUTHERFORD
22. Bruce Springsteen, Western Stars
If topping his Broadway project was going to prove impossible, well, at least Western Stars soars miles above Bruce Springsteen’s previous studio effort, 2014’s High Hopes. A sparkling collection of ‘60s/’70s country-fornia with shades of Glen Campbell, Western Stars has a flattering view of the American west like John Ford in widescreen, while maintaining the Boss’ Capraesque fixation on the little guys in each town who strive to carve out their little piece of happiness. It’s not necessarily a new Bruce classic, but it’s a comforting, rewarding slice of what makes him one of America’s all-time greats. — JOE LYNCH
21. American Football, American Football
If American Football’s second self-titled album in 2016 was an exercise in restoring the confidence of their fans and justifying their decade-plus absence, this year’s similarly eponymous follow-up serves as proof that the project is still the best conduit for its individual members, no matter how far-reaching their interests have become. LP3 finds the beloved emo collective stretching its reliably crystalline melodies into hypnotic grooves, complete with the occasional glockenspiel, and welcome features (including Paramore’s Hayley Williams). While American Football’s continued existence is reassuring enough, it’s the uncanny divergence from the band’s formula that allows for a greater reappraisal of their legacy. — BRYAN KRESS
20. Girl in Red, Chapter 2
One of the most incisive singer-songwriters in rock is Norwegian 20-year-old Marie Ulven Ringheim, better known as Girl in Red, whose anthems of sex, death and anxiety — and the ways all three are forever intertwined — have made her a minor streaming sensation. Chapter 2 is her finest mini-set yet, five piercingly catchy bangers of alternately lulling and quaking gauze-rock that see her freaking out over a misguided hookup, freaking out over having to make conversation, freaking out over finding her own lifeless body in the swimming pool. It’s a lot to absorb, but for her part, Ringheim’s not really sweating it: “It’s fine, it’s OK. I’ll die anyway.” — ANDREW UNTERBERGER
19. Orville Peck, Pony
You know that gorgeous, vintage jukebox with a Southwestern scene painted on the front of it — a bucking palomino or rolling plain, maybe — in your favorite dive bar? Orville Peck’s debut LP, Pony, takes that aesthetic, updates it, and forges a fresh and compelling neo-country triumph. The Canadian, masked and mysterious artist is now as known for his smooth tenor — see “Dead of Night,” the doo-wop inflected lead-off track, in particular — as he is the face-covering fringe that’s seemingly surgically attached to his head. Maybe we’ll never truly get to know the man behind the mask, but Pony definitely makes us want to. — HILARY HUGHES
18. Vagabon, Vagabon
The self-titled sophomore LP from the prodigious singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Laetitia Tamko is an even more layered and diverse collection than acclaimed debut Infinite Worlds, ranging from the lurching post-punk guitar scrapes of “Flood” to the droning ambient balladry of “Home Soon” to the sparkling electro-pop shuffle of “Water Me Down.” But for all her musical proficiency, Tamko’s most impressive attribute remains her obvious lyrical empathy: “All the women I meet are tired,” she suggests in “Every Woman,” before later amending that to “All the women I meet are fired up” — understanding that both can be true, and not true, and so much more. — A.U.
17. Baroness, Gold & Grey
Baroness hae been functioning at a high level since the mid-2000s, when the Georgia-bred metal band began its series of color-themed opuses, ranging from 2009’s pummeling Blue to 2012’s panoramic double-LP Yellow & Green. This time, the band capped its color series delivering what could well endure as the most intriguing LP in their catalog. With psych-rock experimentalist Dave Fridmann behind the boards, typical Baroness burners like “Throw Me An Anchor” and “Broken Halo” were injected with surrealistic production and twinkling, string-laced ambience. No two Baroness albums have featured the same lineup; what could curse some bands steadies frontman John Baizley’s, as new guitarist Gina Gleason contributes plenty of necessary shredding and well-placed backing vocals. Such is the greatness of Baroness: always different, yet always the same. — C.P.
16. Cage the Elephant, Social Cues
“If you get caught up in just the trends, you’re in trouble,” Cage the Elephant frontman Matt Shultz told Billboard in April. Whatever the hit-making formula is for the alt rock group, it’s working. The Kentucky-bred band nabbed its eighth and ninth No. 1s on the Alternative Songs chart — fifth-most in the tally’s history — with “Ready to Let Go” and the title track, respectively. Underneath radio-friendly garage rock vibes, Social Cues explores heavier lyrical content in the band’s follow-up to the Grammy-winning Tell Me I’m Pretty, unpacking Shultz’s divorce and the woes that accompany fame. — JOSH GLICKSMAN
15. Angel Olsen, All Mirrors
Those who fell in love with the shambolic rock of Angel Olsen’s My Woman in 2016 might be put off a bit by the orchestra-augmented austerity of All Mirrors. But Olsen can’t be your messy-but-relatable musical bestie forever, and on Mirrors, we see her refashioning herself almost as an indie rock Dusty Springfield, delivering a work that’s as much about the meticulous performance as it is the material. But maybe these songs are too real not to dress up a bit. After all, when she turns the approach on its head with “Tonight” — where the tasteful strings stand in stark contrast to her quivering voice — the result is almost unbearably fragile. — J. Lynch
14. Big Thief, U.F.O.F.
The indie folk outfit continues to gradually pare down its sound on its third album, a gentle, spellbinding collection of melodies about nostalgia, aging, love and trauma that is leavened with the same childlike wonder its title suggests. On lightly twangy standout “Cattails,” vocalist Adrianne Lenker imparts fleeting memories of her upbringing in Minnesota (“with the windows wide by my side;” “meteor shower at the motel”), with the strangely comforting, repeated chorus, “You don’t need to know why when you cry.” Even with its dazed musings, there’s a circular nature to the track, which, like the album, seems to have its own center of gravity. Five months after the release of U.F.O.F., the band released another, slightly more grounded album — Two Hands, described as U.F.O.F.‘s “Earth twin” — but in the end, it’s tough to match the magic of the celestial predecessor. — TATIANA CIRISANO
13. Pronoun, I’ll Show You Stronger
Pronoun, born Alyse Vellturo, is a one-woman band with a particular talent for hitting the emotional nail on the head. I’ll Show You Stronger, her captivating debut album, exudes a melodic franticness smartly paired with frustrating topics like breaking up: “It’s not how you do it/ It’s not like you’re being discrete/ Saying you need time but just back-burning the s–t out of me,” she seethes on “Run.” The Brooklyn-based Vellturo has promised that the this-too-shall-pass closing track, “Everybody Knows,” will lead into the theme of a future album: “[It] is looking at yourself in the mirror, without all the distractions of other issues, and being like ‘F–k, who am I when I’m alone with my thoughts and myself?’” Yeah, that one hits close to home. — GAB GINSBERG
12. Alcest, Spiritual Instinct
Alcest practically invented blackgaze, and even amid plenty of disciples marrying black metal and shoegaze over the past decade, the French duo have been perfecting the genre ever since. Spiritual Instinct is yet another feather in Alcest’s cap, perhaps the darkest one yet. Songs like “Protection” and “Les jardins de minuit” unfold over many minutes of searing guitar and billowing percussion, while frontman Neige’s vocals alternate between abrasive screams and near-ethereal singing, against the towering wall of sound of which it’s a part. — K.R.
11. Bleached, Don’t You Think You’ve Had Enough?
Singer-songwriter sisters Jessie and Jennifer Clavin had been rocking hard since their days in Mika Miko, a late 2000s L.A. punk band best known for its rave zine reviews and rowdy live shows. After forming Bleached and crafting some of the 2010s’ most criminally-underrated jukebox jams, the Clavins came to a realization, crystallized in the title of their crowning third LP. After years of flirting with disaster, both sisters got sober to write Don’t You Think You’ve Had Enough, a stylish LP combining the CBGB singalongs of their past work with hip-shaking LCD Soundsystem grooves, roller rink pizzaz, and the radiant hooks you’d expect from an album prepped while on the road with Paramore. “When I first started performing sober, I was coming offstage with this insane high,” Jennifer Clavin told Billboard earlier this year. For a comprable effect, roll down the windows and crank “Hard to Kill.” — C.P.
10. Brutus, Nest
Simply calling Brutus a power trio is like calling the carnage of Pompeii a minor tragedy. The Belgian band is an unstoppable force of nature on its sophomore album, with Stefanie Mannaerts — lead vocalist and drummer — directing the catharsis. She can belt like Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker, simultaneously thrashing each song onward, guitarist Stijn Vanhoegaerden and bassist Peter Mulders wreaking havoc in her wake. Listening to Nest feels like being caught in the middle of an ice storm, each piercing time signature shift a new mutation on the storm radar, each track its own slab of unrelenting metal, punk, and hardcore, sometimes with a sheen of shoegaze. Fans of all of the above should take immediate notice. — C.P.
9. Charly Bliss, Young Enough
Few things sounded as thrilling in 2019 as the moments on Charly Bliss’ sophomore album Young Enough in which the band tries to rip your face off, as songs like “Blown to Bits,” “Bleach” and especially the pummeling “Under You” demonstrate a more muscular and unflinching approach from the power-pop quartet. Young Enough works well during its more restrained moments, too — “Hurt Me” matches down-tempo synths with an account of an abusive relationship — but Charly Bliss soar when they’re inspiring your inner Warped Tour teen to once again want to join the pit. — JASON LIPSHUTZ
8. Sharon Van Etten, Remind Me Tomorrow
“Standing at the bar, I told you everything…” Sharon Van Etten’s fifth studio album, Remind Me Tomorrow, is starkly vulnerable yet sure and determined off the bat. The rocker went through some huge life changes in between 2014’s Are We There and her latest — parenthood, career changes, bicoastal moves — and it all shows in a work as eclectic and profound as the experiences themselves. “Seventeen” is an anthem that’ll follow Van Etten as a career standout from here on, but “Jupiter” and “Memorial Day,” two darkly brooding instrumental change-ups, show Van Etten’s adventurous spirit and musical dexterity. She always had it in her to make a classic, and in 2019, she proved it. — H.H.
7. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Ghosteen
Mortality has been a muse for Nick Cave since the ‘80s, but Ghosteen — his first album written since the accidental death of his teenage son in 2015 — is in many ways his least-savage meditation on the subject. Meandering between pastoral piano laments and synthscapes that sound like Vangelis composing church music, Ghosteen finds Cave crafting a work of naked, breathtaking tenderness. — J. Lynch
6. Better Oblivion Community Center, Better Oblivion Community Center
Not even three months removed from joining forces with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus to drop the collective’s self-titled debut EP Boygenius, Phoebe Bridgers returned in January with a surprise release, this time pairing up with former Bright Eyes leader Conor Oberst as Better Oblivion Community Center. Over the album’s 10 tracks, the pairing often succeeds in employing a less-is-more mentality, allowing soft rock chords to wash over deeply brooding — and expertly written — harmonies. Yet, the duo doesn’t shy away from turning up the volume every so often, as it does on the rollicking standout, “Dylan Thomas.” — J.G.
5. Maddie Ross, Never Have I Ever
The debut full-length from L.A. pop-rock upstart Maddie Ross landed as one of 2019’s most fully-realized concept albums. The concept here — what if you took a Napster-era teen flick, moved the queer characters from the sidelines to the forefront, but kept the killer soundtrack? — is the unabashed nostalgia trip you didn’t know you needed, down to every last bulldozer power chord and scene-setting record scratch that somehow wasn’t sampled from a Fountains of Wayne album or the Josie and the Pussycats soundtrack (2001 version, of course). Across the self-released album’s ten tracks, Ross shows up at a new school, falls for a popular girl, gloomily discovers their first date was all a bet, but lands on true love before the credits roll — a coming-of-age tale ripe for a sequel. — C.P.
4. Slipknot, We Are Not Your Kind
Slipknot’s never been one for missteps anyway, but with We Are Not Your Kind, the metal masters finally have a worthy follow-up to 2001’s Iowa. Corey Taylor, Shawn Crahan & Co.’s newest release dives into boldly dark, gritty riffs and grooves, some of the band’s best percussion work on record, and a vocal performance from Taylor that’s constantly turned up to 11, often sounding no less furious and at times bordering on unhinged than he did on day one. Some bands soften with age. Slipknot sounds like it’s still searching for even deeper, darker depths. — K.R.
3. Brittany Howard, Jaime
One listen through the first ten seconds of “13th Century Meta,l” and it’s clear that Brittany Howard shirked expectations in the best way with her debut solo album. The Alabama Shakes frontwoman amassed a devoted fanbase for her rallying hooks and incredible voice, but with Jaime, she stepped outside of the framework she was known for and dove into a new chapter. Thunderous rock deluges under spoken word (“13th Century Metal”), doo-wop flirtations straight out of the ‘60s (“Stay High”), funk grooves D’Angelo would covet (“Tomorrow”) — her voice and guitar are ever at the forefront, but Jaime is the first step in untapping Howard’s true potential. — H.H.
2. Oso Oso, Basking in the Glow
There’s certainly something ineffable about the understated pop-rock majesty of Long Beach-bred indie outfit Oso Oso’s breakout album: No one thing about it is as stunning as just how much every part of it seems to be exactly where it should be. Riffs hit where they need to and then get out of the way. Harmonies arrive on time to fill in just the right crevices. Choruses say more with less and let the melodies shade the rest. It’s no surprise that everything about the album — from its title, to its cover, to its most memorable refrain — suggests luminosity: While the album is rich enough to be worth diving into its component minutiae, it’s best experienced by just standing back and watching it shine. — A.U.
1. Vampire Weekend, Father of the Bride
In the half-decade following Vampire Weekend’s 2013 masterpiece Modern Vampires of the City, many wondered if rock was dead, dying, or in desperate need of resuscitation. Others just said “f–k it” and ranted at Justin Bieber for wearing Metallica t-shirts. As the world’s most well-adjusted former blog band, such pitfalls never claimed Vampire Weekend. Still, they’d moved significantly from their rock origins since 2008’s self-titled debut: Modern Vampires was defined by post-modern hip-hop textures like looped, left-field beats, that downpitched A$AP Rocky vocal effect, and building an entire single around a Souls of Mischief quote. With the lengthy layoff, those opening “A-Punk” licks figured to fade even further into the rearview.
But just when it seemed every last alternative radio band had given an interview about their love of synthesizers and ‘90s R&B, Vampire Weekend reemerged and shifted the conversation yet again. Major label debut Father of the Bride recast Ezra Koenig and company as earthy, amicable dad rockers with a knack for tie-dyed singalongs and kumbaya country duets. Would a line like “We go together like pots and pans, surf and sand, bottles and cans” have survived a writing session when Rostam Batmanglij was still in the band? Some feared Vampire Weekend would lose its edge after the multi-instrumentalist/in-house producer amicably departed in 2016, but Koenig’s sillier instincts flourished alongside new core collaborators like alt-pop maestro Ariel Rechtshaid and duet partner Danielle Haim. A nearly-doubled live lineup assured the majesty of “Harmony Hall,” the freakiness of “Sunflower,” and the arms-locked togetherness of “This Life” manifested on a nightly basis.
Father of the Bride checked numerous items off the Vampire Weekend bucket list: a Madison Square Garden sell-out, an album of the year Grammy nom, and the band’s first two airplay No. 1s, alongside earning its third-straight Billboard 200 chart-topper. Guitar rock may no longer be a dominant cultural force, but that doesn’t mean it’s done shaping culture. By the time you’re sick of reading trend pieces on the Grateful Dead, Ram Dass, and Birkenstocks, rest assured Vampire Weekend is already shaping what’s next. — C.P.