These last few years, when it comes time to write a quick intro to Unwinnable’s list of the year’s best albums, my initial inclination is to say, “Ooof, that was some year, huh?!?” The world certainly seems to suck a lot of the time, but, thankfully, people keep making great music. This year, Unwinnable’s crack team of contributors and assorted ne’er-do-wells managed to put together another eclectic mix of artists to make up the top ten albums of the year. The list runs the gamut from artists with decades of work to their names, like Nick Cave and Trent Reznor, to the latest superstar to storm pop music in Lizzo. We hope you enjoy this playlist of our favorite albums of 2019. At the very least, you can crank it up and drown out the cacophony of nonsense that surrounds us.
– Ed Coleman, Curator
GREY Area, by Little Simz
GREY Area is an album of two halves. On the one hand, you’ve got the vicious bars and fuck you energy that peaks with “Venom” and “Offence.” The flow and energy are electrifying, with lyrics taking on patriarchy, white supremacy and her general enemies. On top of this, “Wounds” has a uniquely incisive take on gang culture and toxic masculinity writ large. All of this comes with a power that feels cathartic (especially for a post-election Britain). On the other hand, you’ve got the more tender and self-reflective side of the album, with “101 FM” reflecting on her upbringing and “Sherbet Sunset” releasing feelings about a bad relationship. All of this is woven together with incredible beats, melodic backing vocals and fantastic features, making GREY Area a phenomenal and emotionally resonant album.
– Oluwatayo Adewole
Watchmen OST, by Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
HBO’s Watchmen series had me the most surprised I’ve been in some time. I, like a lot of superhero comic readers, hold the original series in high esteem. So when I heard Damon Lindelof was putting together a “remix” of Watchmen for HBO, I felt a sense of trepidation. The Leftovers was brilliant, but I am still one of those annoying people who whined about Lost (sorry!). When I heard Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross were doing the soundtrack, I figured at least the music would be worth the price of admission.
The Watchmen soundtrack was released to streaming services and on vinyl in three volumes. The releases were concurrent with the nine episode HBO series. Reznor and Ross killed it. Tracks like “NUN WITH A MOTHERFUCKING GUN,” “DREAMLAND JAZZ” and their cover of David Bowie’s “LIFE ON MARS?” run the sonic gamut of intense bass-driven chase music to Angelo Badalamenti inspired sax and piano to an otherworldly hymn for an absentee god.
Each album covers an act of Lindelof’s story while also serving as Reznor and Ross’ meditation on Watchmen’s alternate history and how it intersects with our own troubled past. There is a lot to love about Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ Watchmen Soundtrack cycle. So why are you reading this blurb? Go listen!
– Ian Gonzales
American Football (LP3), by American Football
American Football’s influential self-titled debut record casts such a long shadow that it’s difficult to assess subsequent releases based on their own merits. However, while 2016’s LP2 seemed to come and go with moderate fanfare, this year’s LP3 feels a confident step forward that would stand strong even without the band’s storied legacy. This is no mere attempt to cash in on nostalgia; rather than sticking within the narrow confines of almost arrhythmic finger-picking on alternate-tuned and capo-equipped Telecasters, it explores a much broader swath of sounds and textures.
The 7:22 opening track “Silhouettes” immediately sets a texturally adventurous tone, mixing bells and chimes into an extended introduction that eventually give way to the gut-dropping crescendo that precedes the first verse. “Uncomfortably Numb” (which features a guest appearance from Paramore’s Hayley Williams) offers a thematic counterpoint, compressing massive soundscapes into a concise pop song structure. If LP2 showed that American Football is back, then LP3 shows they’re not done exploring where their creativity can still go from the unassuming house where everything began.
– Ben Sailer
Jaime, by Brittany Howard
My introduction to Brittany Howard was as the lead singer of Alabama Shakes, specifically through that stunner of an anguished note that leads into her vocals on Sound & Color’s “Don’t Wanna Fight.” In two seconds of concentrated, raspy angst she redefined “soul.” I vowed to download everything she produced before and since once that wail good and rattled my bones, and with this year’s September release of her solo debut, Jaime, I was happy to keep my promise. The album is named after Howard’s late sister, but it’s really a whole memoir in songs, exploring the singer’s biracial and queer identities through a sometimes soulful, sometimes funky, sometimes psychedelic lens. Spiky beats that pound straight into the gut give way to vibe-y howls that one can surf like waves. Brittany Howard is very much her own thing, but every now and then I detect the slyest of homages to Nina Simone, Ray Charles and, maybe, The Righteous Brothers? Listen to “Run to Me” and let me know. Brittany Howard tells a whole lot of her story through Jaime – in its music, a mood; in her voice, a life.
– Sara Clemens
Birth of Violence, by Chelsea Wolfe
Gonna be honest: I went into Birth of Violence expecting a further exploration of the heavy sounds Wolfe rolled out in Hiss Spun (2017). This was encouraged by the cover art, which pictures a stone faced Wolfe clad all in black, holding a dagger in spike gauntlets above her head. Instead, we have a throwback to Wolfe’s folkier material, a downshift in energy similar to, but more intense than, the one between the deliriously gloomy Apokalypsis (2011) and the acoustic loveliness of Unknown Rooms (2012). The darkness is still there, but it is both haunted and haunting a dreamy sense of wonder. And despite its softness, it can punch you in the guts just as well as a distorted blast of guitar. After all, a knife is a quiet weapon.
– Stu Horvath
Father of the Bride, by Vampire Weekend
A six-year break wasn’t enough to kill Vampire Weekend’s schtick. But that’s not unexpected: on 2019’s Father of the Bride, guest appearances foreground a sentimentality and earnestness that comes only from looking back. Even though the staccato gibberish and Epiphone noodling have been tamed by samples and autotune, the trademark whimsy isn’t gone: it’s just no longer being used to sell shower arguments as solipsism. A borrowed line from Modern Vampires of the City; the self-aware “Rich Man” (a contented millionaire – what a concept!); on their latest, Vampire Weekend neither shrinks from nor redeploys the pent-up energy of records past. They just realized that the space they helped create is big enough to share – even with themselves.
– Jason Dafnis
The Center Won’t Hold, by Sleater-Kinney
Ahead of the release of the latest album from Sleater-Kinney, fans received some unexpected news. The band’s drummer, Janet Weiss (for my money one of the all-time greats), announced she was leaving the band citing the group’s new direction. At that time, the single “Hurry On Home” had been released, a great track with quintessential Sleater-Kinney guitars and Carrie Brownstein’s desperate vocals. The track seemed like it would have fit perfectly alongside the songs on the band’s previous album, No Cities To Love. Produced by St. Vincent, The Center Won’t Hold does have a slightly different feel than many other Sleater-Kinney records. The song “RUINS,” for example, featuring overly fuzzed out guitars and some creepy vocal effects is a departure from SK’s often stripped down sound, while the Devo-like “LOVE” and stomp-banger “Bad Dance” are more quirky than one might expect from the normally earnest group. But overall, the production feels fresh and even songs with a dark sparseness, like the title track and the excellent “The Dog/The Body,” eventually explode into the kind of epic chorus one expects from SK.
Nothing on this album feels any more out of step than some tracks on One Beat, which was a bit erratic (even including poppy horns on “Step Aside”), or the expansive and ambitious sound of The Woods (which features two of Weiss’ best drumming performances ever on the insanely energetic tracks “Let’s Call It Love” and “Entertain”). Some time later, Weiss said in an interview the other two members of the band, Brownstein and Corin Tucker, told her she was no longer a creative equal in the group and would be just the drummer going forward. Weiss said she was unwilling to accept inequality in a band that champions equality, so she walked away after nearly 25 years with the group. The Center Won’t Hold is a nice creative step for SK, branching off the triumph of No Cities To Love, but knowing there won’t be another album from this trio I love so dearly, it’s a bittersweet record to put at the top of my list for the year.
– Ed Coleman
Ghosteen, by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
I made the mistake of listening to Nick Cave’s seventeenth studio album, Ghosteen, while at work. I spent the next hour and eight minutes trying not to cry at my desk. The music haunts with bone-deep sadness. Then you listen to the lyrics, and get hit with lines like, “I say goodbye to all that as the future rolls in / Like a wave, like a wave / and the past with its savage undertow lets go.” I mean, fucking hell. Nick Cave has long been a master of emotional destruction (hang on while I re-listen to “Henry Lee,” or the entirety of The Good Son), but in Ghosteen, it truly feels like he’s reached Marianas Trench depths of sorrow. It’s a gorgeous descent.
– Deirdre Coyle
Cuz I Love You, by Lizzo
Cuz I Love You cannot be denied. Nearly every song on the album bulldozes you over with energy and gusto. From the first moment on the opening title track, everything feels big and loud. Lizzo puts everything into the very first line “I’m crying cuz I love you,” where the bass-heavy backing track picks up the slack. But Lizzo herself never takes a back seat to anything on this record. Every piece of it puts her voice front and center, whether she’s singing or rapping. Most of the tracks on the album follow this formula, making the entire outing larger than life, yet each song has its own vibe entirely. “Juice,” one of the more mellow tracks, becomes the party track of the year thanks to Lizzo’s wordplay – blame it on her juice (or the goose). Even on “Lingerie,” the one standout quieter track, she crescendos in the middle of the song as she shows her sexual/vulnerable side. Cuz I Love You is just banger after banger, and it will hit you like a freight train.
– Jeremy Signor
Careful, by Boy Harsher
Careful drips with sex. Boy Harsher have perfected their ascetic sonic palette; every last one of Jae Matthews’s breathy exhalations and each pneumatic stab of rhythm hits like an aphrodisiac. The songs are enigmatic yet rich with detail, intensely physical but icily withholding. They pulse; they tease; they writhe. Beneath their velvet surfaces lie grief, passion, dissociation – everything that twists and churns in your gut, at once the screech of anxiety and the sigh of lust.
– Astrid Budgor