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Cristina Interiano | The Observer

It’s the grand finale: Scene’s official list of the top 20 albums of the year. Our writers have spent 2019 listening to countless hours of music, as our Spotify Wrappeds can confirm, and have taken this time before finals begin to reflect on the year in music by ranking our top albums. Each writer’s rankings have been compiled, and while some albums didn’t make the cut, the final list can be officially called Scene’s 20 best albums of 2019.

1. “Father of the Bride” by Vampire Weekend

By Ryan Israel, Scene Writer

Vampire Weekend’s “Father of the Bride” reflects the unique time of life that many of us “young adults” find ourselves in. In the loose, upbeat, jam-band style tunes, there’s the desire to be carefree, to throw oneself unhesitatingly into life and love and to search out all the fun. In frontman Ezra Koening’s smart, poetic lyrics there’s a reminder of the unceasing pressure to be cautious, to think of the long-term and to remember that love, happiness and even our own planet have an expiration date — “How long ’till we sink to the bottom of the sea?” “Father of the Bride” acknowledges the pressure and the anxiety and says that, regardless, we should still live. The chorus of “Harmony Hall” is the message: “I don’t wanna live like this, but I don’t wanna die.”

 

2. “Norman F—ing Rockwell!” by Lana Del Ray

By Sara Schlecht, Scene Writer

Norman Rockwell lives on in infamy for his paintings that so perfectly captured 20th century American culture. With “Norman F—ing Rockewell!,” Lana Del Rey has set herself up to do the same, but with songwriting as her medium. Gone is the singer who used stars and stripes to create a nostalgic, patriotic image, although the American flag is still present on the album cover. “Norman F—-ing Rockwell!” has it all — unceasingly beautiful California devotion, wistful literary allusions and an exquisite cover of Sublime’s “Doin’ Time.” If these are the things that constitute American culture, then, as she sings in “The greatest,” “The culture is lit, and if this is it, I had a ball.” There’s a pervasive sense of resignation, but Lana Del Rey certainly hasn’t settled with this album. 

 

3. “Better Oblivion Community Center” by Better Oblivion Community Center (Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst)

By Charlie Kenney, Associate Scene Editor

Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers make slow-moving, despondent music. Oberst, 39-years-old, of Bright Eyes fame has been writing tracks rife with witticism and lamentation since the mid 90s while 25-year-old Bridgers has taken her own, equally morose spin on the genre within the past five years. Yet the collision of their styles in the duo “Better Oblivion Community Center” sees those themes, which traditionally dominate their music, replaced with upbeat, enthusiastic melodies. While it’s elation never reaches the heights of traditional pop, the record inhabits a space between two genres — with lyrics distressing it and rhythm providing resistance. “So sick of being honest / I’ll die like Dylan Thomas / A seizure on the bathroom floor,” Oberst and Bridgers sing simultaneously on the record’s most popular track as sanguine notes fills the periphery and suppressed grins steal onto their faces. 

 

4. “Immunity” by Clairo

By Matthew Kellenberg, Scene Writer

Have you ever met someone who you have already followed on social media for some time? You know what they did last break, but here they are, telling you their name. That tension pervades modern debut albums. Emerging artists, already known for their internet-famous singles, spend their first LPs making feigned introductions. Not Clairo. The “Pretty Girl” singer’s debut, “Immunity,” is not so much an introduction as a departure. Breaking the chains of bedroom pop genredom, Clairo revamps her songwriting and production with fresh collaborators. Rostam Batmanglij, formerly of Vampire Weekend, lends his production talents to the album’s lush yet forthright reflections on longing and self-discovery. And on “Bags,” an album highlight, Danielle Haim joins on percussion. Drum beating, heart beating, Clairo broaches her passionate desire, “Every second counts, I don’t want to talk to you anymore.”

 

5. “Heard It In A Past Life” by Maggie Rogers 

By Dessi Gomez, Scene Writer

As soon as Pharrell Williams discovered her, Maggie Rogers was destined for greatness. In the best way possible, she reminds me of Adele in both her vocals as well as the tone of her songs. She layers her clear and beautiful voice over innovative sounds in her songs, producing a collection of vastly different singles that each stand out for different reasons — the percussive pieces being a definite highlight. “Light On” put her first album, “Heard It In A Past Life,” in the spotlight. “Alaska” might be the calmest song on the album in terms of sound and lyrics. The combination of delicate sounds and light airy vocals conjure the essence of an Alaskan image. “Retrograde,” “Burning” and “Back In My Body,” the final three songs, pack a punch at the end of a powerful debut album for Rogers.

 

6. “i,i” by Bon Iver

By Hanna Kennedy, Scene Writer

On “i,i,” Bon Iver — like we all wanted to do during 2019 — retreats into himself and away from the chaos of the world. The tracks are stripped down, and Justin Vernon’s voice is front and center. On “Hey, Ma,” — arguably the best song of the album — his voice is earthy and solid, while on “Holyfields” and “Marion” he switches between baritone and a higher, more searching pitch. There are still the electronics and synths that have come to characterize a Bon Iver song, but on “i,i,” Vernon manipulates those sounds in a way that makes them new. The album as a whole has an overwhelming sense of calmness to it, created largely by Vernon’s vocals, but summed up by the line “I like you / And that ain’t nothing new” from the track “iMi.”

 

7. “Cuz I Love You” by Lizzo

By Jake Winningham, Scene Writer

The less said about “Truth Hurts” the better. In spite of itself, Lizzo’s long-gestating number one hit brought plenty of attention to the best pure pop album of 2019. Whether it’s the Prince-esque guitar solo that opens album peak “Tempo” or the hypnotic piano and brass loops peppering bonus cut “Water Me,” “Cuz I Love You” finds Lizzo expanding on the sonic palette of her earlier work. The Minneapolis multi-hyphenate is the undeniable centerpiece of the album, however, and with good reason. “Only exes that I care about are in my chromosomes” isn’t just one of the year’s best lyrics — it’s the perfect example of Lizzo’s irresistible blend of humor, empowerment and quotability. 

 

8. “House of Sugar” by (Sandy) Alex G

By Ethan Utley, Scene Writer

(Sandy) Alex G is the epitome of experimental folk, and “House of Sugar” is no exception. Beautifully melancholic folk songs like “Hope,” “Southern Sky” and “Gretel” sit strongly at the front of the album. However, the record moves from catchy sing-alongs to songs that just listening to would make your parents worry. Haunting compositions of strings and drums dominate a lot of the second half, paired with eerie synthesized vocals — see “Sugar.” (Sandy) Alex G uniquely combines beautiful lyrics of love and regret with ones pointing to his obvious inner-demons. This album is good for those comfortable with exploring an artist’s point of view.

 

9. (Tie) “Dogrel” by Fontaines D.C. 

By Mike Donovan, Scene Editor

My affair with Fontaines D.C. started as an argument, both of us having staked rather dubious claims on “Dublin in the rain.” I’d walked around Dublin a bit — ambling until well-bothered — and took my drenching in the Northside nooks as reason enough to be possessive. Fontaines had the added benefit of actually being from the city, but for them, its streets were too marred with immediacy (“Too Real,” you might say) to actually constitute some sort of “better land” — certainly nothing worth the burden of ownership. For me, though, Dublin’s rare-ish rays of sunlight, which peek through “city skies” with a beer-stained aura visible at a distance, assumed only the life my imagination afforded while I consumed them from thousands of miles away in the words and witticisms of Fontaine’s dreampunk debut, “Dogrel.”

 

9. (Tie) “My Finest Work Yet” by Andrew Bird

By Sarah Kikel, Scene Writer

Beginning with his characteristic upbeat whistling in the opening measures, Andrew Bird’s 12th solo album unfolds into a symphony of political messages, Greek mythology and love. On “My Finest Work Yet,” Bird examines today in light of where we’ve come from and where we’re headed, giving political advice on “Sisyphus” (“History forgets the moderates”) and climate warnings on “Manifest” (“I’m coming to the brink of a great disaster”), but offering hope on “Olympians” (“We’re gonna turn it around”). With its poetic rhythm weaved in with rich violin textures, Bird’s latest album takes flight, resulting in his finest commentary on modern times.

 

11. “MAGDALENE” by FKA twigs

By Elizabeth Gregory, Scene Writer

FKA twigs’ live performances command attention — it’s impossible to look away as she balances upside down on a tiny pole or swings a sharp blade a fraction of an inch from her face. The emotional vulnerability of “MAGDALENE” wields this same power. On “cellophane,” stripped down music, harrowing lyrics and desperate vocals feel like heartbreak. Elsewhere, a trap beat introduces a sensitive song about sex, romance and empowerment on “holy terrain.” “MAGDALENE” somehow exists as both an intimate album and an explosion of innovative sonic art. FKA twigs presents strength in femininity and vulnerability. She reclaims the narrative of Mary Magdalene and imbues beauty into the story of womanhood and humanhood.

 

12. “Raw Honey” by Drugdealer 

By Ethan Utley, Scene Writer

Drugdealer is truly a 60s soul, and he only confirms this further with “Raw Honey. He paints a path from The Moody Blues, Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles all the way to modern day indie rock. Focusing on melodic sounds, jazz-based drum lines and wavy guitar solos, it’s just about the easiest listen you can find. High points include “Honey” and “Fools.” Each of these ballads examine love trouble from a mature, “been-through-that” perspective, while the cool drums and sunny keyboards remind us how good life really is. Pair this album with a summer day and good friends and you won’t go wrong.

 

13. “When I Get Home” by Solange

By Dessi Gomez, Scene Writer

Solange’s newest oœuvre flows from song to song. She and her sister succeed at creating poised pieces of music that drift smoothly through one’s ears, and “When I Get Home” is no exception. The beat picks up on “Nothing Without Intention (interlude),” which serves as a good transition between the smoother songs and the more percussive fast-paced ones. The combination of soft piano and silky vibrato joined by low base strums on “Time (is)”  stands out. “Sound of Rain” is a sonic mosaic. I will say that some of the songs run together for me because they sound so similar, but it’s impossible not to appreciate Solange’s art.

 

14. “Forever Turned Around” by Whitney

By Mike Donovan, Scene Editor 

A relationship’s collapse — immediately after its occurrence — has a certain crispiness to its character, asserting itself in speech and song at sharpened pitches (like those at the center of Whitney’s acclaimed debut, “Light Upon the Lake”). Time, however, softens the initial crunch, making of it feelings smooth and doughy. These we get on Whitney’s “Forever Turned Around” — the buttery centers of bread-slices missing the bulk of their crust. Though the experience of consuming these softer bits isn’t particularly challenging, it satisfies to no end, and the satisfaction is reason enough to keep “Forever Turned Around”  turning in your life as a means to safely compress your pricklier highs and lows to an even keel.

 

15. (tie) “placeholder” by Hand Habits

By Hanna Kennedy, Scene Writer

On “placeholder,” Hand Habits explores what it means to be vulnerable. The opening lines of “jessica” foregrounds the human tendency to overthink and the barriers that the practice creates: “When I get to thinking / I start to worry that you don’t know me anymore.” But Meg Duffy goes on to capture the necessity of letting go and the good that can come from being open: “And suddenly, the mirror, it turns itself around / But I’ve seen the deepest part of you.” “placeholder” turns the mirror around on its listeners and shows them the fear associated with opening up to another person, but, in doing so, emphasizes the beauty and forgiveness that comes with mutual vulnerability.

 

15. (tie) “IGOR” by Tyler, the Creator

By Ryan Israel, Scene Writer

With “IGOR,” Tyler, the Creator ventures further down the path he began on “Flower Boy” and takes another step away from the brash and chaotic tendencies of his earlier work. He embraces pop rap, using playful melodies and catchy choruses to create songs that blend genres, and turns inward, writing primarily about love and heartbreak. It’s a relatively new subject matter for Tyler, but he captures the ups and downs with surprising skill and maturity. In the end, no song stands out more than “EARFQUAKE,” an unlikely 2019 hit. The combination of Tyler’s heartbreaking hook and Playboi Carti’s baby-voice verse is undeniable. It just works.

 

17. “Western Stars” by Bruce Springsteen 

By Jake Winningham, Scene Writer

The Boss’ best album in decades doesn’t have a saxophone in sight. “Western Stars” is the latest reinvention in Bruce Springsteen’s nearly 50-year career; it’s an album that finds him trading in his muscle shirts and world-conquering anthems for cowboy hats and Glen Campbell-style country and western shuffles. Backed by stunning orchestration throughout, Springsteen turns his attention to a new set of concerns and characters. The title track — which joins “Beautiful Disguise” on the short list of Bruce’s best lyrics — is narrated by a Viagra-guzzling character actor whose career peak was being shot by John Wayne. Even if it doesn’t sound like a traditional Springsteen song, the track proves that old habits die hard; by the end, we’re so stirred that we can’t help but root for the guy to make one more comeback.

 

18. “All My Heroes Are Cornballs” by JPEGMAFIA

By Ryan Israel, Scene Writer

On “All My Heroes Are Cornballs,” rapper and producer JPEGMAFIA cuts, chops, splices and screws strange sounds and snippets into dense and alluring sonic compositions. The result is an album that sounds like it comes straight from the dark web; it’s glitchy, chaotic and captivating. As far as rapping goes, JPEGMAFIA is solid, but on this album, it’s his singing that stands out. On tracks “Jesus Forgive Me, I Am A Thot” and “Free the Frail,” Peggy’s auto-tuned vocals are woozy and melodic. And as always, Peggy’s a troll, using attention-grabbing sounds, lyrics and titles to draw you in and good music to keep you there.

 

19. “Midnight” by Stef Chura

By Willoughby Thom, Scene Writer

Stef Chura is the new Patti Smith. She has redefined modern indie-rock.

Through raspy screams and echoing vibrato, Chura’s lyrics about love, loss and strength summon nothing but passion. Her album “Midnight,” produced by Car Seat Headrest’s Will Toledo — which explains why Scene Editor Mike Donovan loves this album so much — is something perfectly unique and fresh. Stef Chura may not be as well-known as some of the other artists on this top 20 list, but she is revolutionizing music from the underground. Like Patti Smith, the godmother of punk rock, Stef Chura’s push for unity and understanding in our chaotic world should be recognized and held in great esteem. Whether it be a statement for women’s equality and independence in her song “Scream” or pure angst towards an ex-lover in “Method Man,” Stef Chura’s music is one of the greatest things to happen to music this year.

 

20. “Anak Ko” by Jay Som 

By Hanna Kennedy, Scene Writer

Jay Som recorded and produced her first album, “Everbody Works,” on her own in her home studio, earning her music the label “bedroom pop.” Her second album, “Anak Ko,” still fits that label but introduces other artists — Vagabon’s Laetitia Tamko, Chastity Belt’s Annie Truscott and Boy Scouts’ Taylor Vick — as collaborators. Jay Som opens up her sound on “Anak Ko,” and as a result, her music shifts from intensely personal to exploratory and playful. Her lyrics are distorted and gauzy, and the instrumental passages give each song substance and a searching character. The pleasure of “Anak Ko” comes not from what it is saying but from the simple act of listening itself.

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About Ryan Israel

Ryan's favorite album is "Blonde" by Frank Ocean and his favorite movie is "Dazed and Confused." He's also a junior double majoring in Sociology and Television, but that's not as important. Follow Ryan on Twitter @ryizzy.

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