Glastonbury Festival is upon us, we’ve just had the Summer Solstice, and a heat wave is sweeping Europe. That can only mean one thing: we’ve reached the halfway point of the year, and it’s time to reflect on the first six months of 2019.
It’s been an exciting time for music, with some seminal and unexpected releases. UK jazz and rap has pushed to new heights, while the parameters of guitar music, R&B and pop have been stretched in new, innovative ways.
Here we’ve collected what we believe to be the 25 most standout albums of the first six months of the year.
Remember: This list is unnumbered, for our full official final countdown of 2019 releases check back in December…
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Skepta – Ignorance Is Bliss
Given the cultural significance of Skepta’s previous, Mercury-winning album ‘Konnichiwa’ is, the follow-up was always going to be difficult. Fortunately, Skepta returned with a project that not only built on the promise of its predecessor but one that further expanded the reach of UK music. The MC nails an underrated skill in rap music, lyrical and sonic balance.
The instrumentals are quintessentially British but with an ear for a wider appeal, and his verses are the perfect mixture of content and personality. You probably won’t hear a better conscious UK rap track than ‘Bullet from a Gun’ this year, or a better party track than ‘Love Me Not'. Maybe you will, but not on the same album and definitely not on a project as consistently thrilling as this. – REVIEW
slowthai – Nothing Great About Britain
slowthai marked his industry arrival with the brilliantly outspoken, politically driven debut. The MC toys with his flow across this album – in places displaying an unorthodox delivery – but throughout he’s totally magnetic, commanding listeners’ full attention. As a whole, ‘Nothing Great About Britain’ is ambitious and laced in artistic expression – songs such as ‘Missing’ combine slower drum and bass soundscapes with British hip-hop – while the likes of Skepta and Jaykae offer up premium contributions: many have called ‘Inglorious’ Skepta’s best collaboration of the year.
Elsewhere, homage to grimes pioneers can be found on both ‘Drug Dealer’ and the album’s opener – where slowthai references ‘Boy In Da Corner’. Maybe this is a knowing hint that his project is another UK icon in the making. – REVIEW
Madonna – Madame X
In a midst of disposable chart-toppers Madonna delivered her most authentic album in over a decade, exploring her expatriate life, taking listeners on a journey around the world from start to finish. The album is a brilliant showcase of politically charged thought-provoking material, showing Madonna using her voice as a means of social change; something that’s been at the core of her work since the very beginning.
Alongside her forthright song writing, each track communicates a story through its experimental composition as she explores all regions of current popular music, resulting in an eye-opening, diverse and effortlessly cohesive project. - REVIEW
Tyler, The Creator – IGOR
Tyler, The Creator is an artist increasingly influenced by nostalgia, and ‘IGOR’ – the follow up to 2017’s equally wistful ‘Flower Boy’ – perfectly encapsulates this. His use of obscure samples is nothing new, but the album is elevated by Tyler’s defiant lyricism, which speaks of the bleak nuances of modern day breakups.
His frequent use of distortion, synths and guest vocalists (who go uncredited) add to the element of mystery that surrounds being in and out of love in 2019. Producing, writing and arranging the album himself, Tyler, the Creator is a DIY artist in the best sense of the word, and ‘IGOR’ proves this. - REVIEW
Rosie Lowe – YU
Rosie Lowe’s 2019 album is a confident, technicolour portrait of life lived and passions made apparent, funk twining with blues rock riffs, soul keys, the cosmic turn of a synth and even the odd country twang. Delivered in Lowe’s trilling vocal, pointed and pithy lyrics centre on fulfilment and possibility: ‘The Way’ joyously looks at a love-filled future, ‘Pharoah’ asserts her power found in her imperfections, while even in dark times her independence blisters, as in final track ‘Apologise’ (hint – she doesn’t).
A confident, coherent mingling of genres is matched with an impressive roster of collaborators – Jamie Woon, Jamie Jidell, Jay Electronica – to create a masterful treatise from a woman with a new perspective, new weapons, and the confidence to use them. Careful now. -REVIEW
Pivot Gang – You Can’t Sit With Us
This signalled the triumphant return of Chicago’s youngest generation of hip-hop influencers. Spearheaded by rising star, Saba, on this record Pivot Gang showcase an evolution: in not just the maturity and consciousness of their words but also their image. It’s built on honest references to the pitfalls and struggles of growing up in Chicago as a black man, all the while showing how they found peace and joy in expressing themselves through music.
With DaedaePIVOT layiing down the beats, the project switches between more spacious, smooth hip-hop beats, to heavier, trap stylings, further demonstrating the Gang’s versatility. Not an album to be overlooked – and one with high replay value – it’s a definite highlight release of 2019 so far. - REVIEW
Holly Herndon – PROTO
There are plenty of albums on this list that could be described as ‘otherworldly’, but not one of them sounds quite as much like a genuine transmission from another galaxy as ‘PROTO’ does. To human ears Holly Herndon’s album sounds utterly alien.
Like the most compelling works of horror, ‘PROTO’ draws you in while also freaking you out – its stacked synthetic harmonies (which Herndon uses in place of traditional instruments) conjure disturbing visions of angelic, insectoid choirs that chitter and coo from crevices on distant worlds. It truly transports you to another place… just not any place you’d want to stay in long. - REVIEW
Little Simz – Grey Area
“Committed” is the word that immediately springs to mind when describing Little Simz’s ‘Grey Area’ - every line is delivered with clarity, conviction and with full commitment to its meaning and sentiment.
A follow up to the incredible ‘Stillness In Wonderland’ – which managed to slip by in 2017 relatively unnoticed – it explores racism, empowerment, love, hate, power and self-doubt expertly, sealing Simz as among the best lyricists operating right now. She also shows herself to be a feminist icon for the modern ages, with ‘Grey Area’ as her statement of intent. Start with ‘Venom’ or ‘101FM’. Very loud. - REVIEW
The Comet Is Coming – Trust In The Lifeforce Of Deep Mystery
If this doesn’t win this year’s Mercury Prize, then it is categorically impossible for any jazz entry to do so. From the dreamlike opening of ‘Because The End Is Really The Beginning’ to the final chaotic salvo of ‘The Universe Wakes Up’, this modern space odyssey continually opens up new cosmic frontiers.
The stunning scope of the universe the London trio build here is more comparable to that of classic science fiction novels than the work of their peers, as though they tapped into the visions of Frank Herbert or Arthur C. Clarke and re-interpreted what they saw as thrillingly psychedelic jazz. - REVIEW
Fontaines D.C. – Dogrel
“A sell-out is someone who becomes a hypocrite in the name of money," insists Grian Chatten on ‘Checkless Reckless’. Seeing the world through Dublin’s finest exports Fontaines D.C. is a raw, gritty and aesthetic experience – ‘Dogrel’ mirrors the climate in Ireland by depicting beauty in a harsh reality.
From the shouty opening on ‘Big’ and drunken poetry of ‘Dublin City Sky’, to the Joy Division-like atmosphere on ‘The Lotts’ and the brisk New Order-like ‘Television Screens’, much ground is covered. The compulsive nature of the lyrics is undeniable, but ‘Dogrel’ is political, and this album presents authenticity in the truest sense. - REVIEW
Ezra Collective – You Can’t Steal My Joy
This year Ezra Collective broke through from the UK jazz scene into the mainstream with their brilliantly confident ‘You Can’t Steal My Joy’. It blend sounds from the Caribbean and African diaspora into a London melting pot, making for an addictive sound. ‘Red Whine’, in particular, embodies a fresh, new take on jazz – with its ska-reggae stylings – while ‘Quest For Coin’ folds in UK funk, Afrobeat, and almost-hip-hop.
As if that wasn’t enough multiplicity ‘Sao Paolo’ brings a Latin-tinged vibe, and the record is punctuated with collaborations from fellow young Brit luminaries Jorja Smith and Loyle Carner. This album marks the point where Ezra Collective – not just content with UK jazz fans – started causing major waves across the nation, and the world - REVIEW
Fat White Family – Serfs Up!
Following a three year sabbatical, Fat White Family’s much wanted return was one of glory. The band’s third album – and their strongest work – is also the first project where the band’s three core members, Saul Adamczewski and brothers Lias and Nathan Saoudi, have made equal contributions to the song writing, and the result is staggering.
This is a masterpiece that gradually makes its brilliance known; from the disco beats of opener ‘Feet’ and ‘Kim’s Sunset’, to the glam rock-inspired ‘Tastes Good With The Money’ and the dark, rave-like beats on ‘Fringe Runner’. This album is totally unmissable and addictive. An absolute must. - REVIEW
Billie Eilish – WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?
When an album begins with someone audibly removing their Invisalign, you know you’re in for an experience and that’s exactly what we got with Billie Eilish’s full length debut, ‘WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?’.
With an army of young fans from the age of 14, expectations were high for the now 17-year-old Eilish, however, sceptics were quickly silenced by this confident and emotive debut. With tracks such as chart hit ‘bad guy’ exhibiting her distinctive way of combining darkness, angst and a carefree nature, whilst also receiving the ultimate accolade of our time, being ‘meme-ified’, Eilish has cemented her position as pop music’s latest heavyweight talent. - REVIEW
Nilüfer Yanya – Miss Universe
It feels like we’ve been building towards this debut full-length from Nilüfer Yanya forever. Over the last few years, singles and EPs have dropped with regularity and offered shades of diamond-in-the-rough-type genius. On ‘Miss Universe’, Yanya goes above and beyond any of this initial hype.
Spanning 17 tracks and running the best part of an hour, this concept album that comments on our current state as a cold, faceless, consumerist society does a fantastic job of combining social commentary with brilliant pop-rock sensibilities and reveals it’s central creative force as one to watch in years to come. - REVIEW
AJ Tracey – AJ Tracey
After building significant buzz – through collaborations with the likes of Dave and a plethora of mixtapes and EPs – AJ Tracey had a lot to prove with his self-titled debut album. Carrying the weight of the pirate radio era with him, the Ladbroke Grove MC managed to curate a set that embodied an authentic exploration of sound, grounded by a consistent commercial appeal.
Joined by veterans and newcomers alike – Wiley along with Not3s – this album is effortless in its weaving together of sounds from multiple points in time. From its incorporation of Jorja Smith samples (‘Wandering Romance’) and the fusing of grime, soca and hip-hop, Tracey embodies the experimental sound and approach that UK music is embracing in 2019, and the genres that have informed this shift. - REVIEW
Giggs – Big Bad
The Hollowman dropped his fifth album in 2019, and reminded us all that he really is one of the biggest and baddest. Bouncing with comically sensual lyrics – you can almost hear him smiling through the bars, relishing his own weirdly witty wordplay – icy cold production gives the South London rapper’s bars room to luxuriate and breathe, in that trademark husky Giggs style.
Elsewhere, warmer soulful cuts like the introspective ‘Show Me Respect’ and the intimate ‘Shade’ demonstrate his versatility, and features draw from both sides of the Atlantic – such as Ghetts (on menacing standout ‘Run Me Down’) and Lil Yachty. With this project Giggs is taking UK road rap to new, infectious heights. - REVIEW
Lizzo – Cuz I Love You
With enough chutzpah to fell the White House, Lizzo's first-big time album ‘Cuz I Love You’ is an emotionally-raw, studio-polished collection of red hot bangers. She’s been a feel-great bop star for years, but in 2019 Lizzo brought her knack for fizzy one-liners, huge vocal hooks and hairbrush-miming soul pop into a league of its own through sheer force of talent and personality alone. And it rightfully hit the big-time.
With many of her songs now rocketing up into the tens of millions of streams, and the rumbling ‘Truth Hurts’ far exceeding the 100 million mark, turns out Lizzo is “100% that bitch”, as her own merch proudly states. - REVIEW
Cinematic Orchestra – To Believe
Expectations were high for the Ninja Tune stalwarts’ first proper release in 12 years. So, rather than re-scaling the majestic heights of masterworks ‘Every Day’ or ‘Ma Fleur’, Jason Swinscoe and his electro-jazz innovators embarked on a deeper, more introspective journey for their second coming.
Every track here is an oasis of peace, a haven in which to shelter and take stock before returning to the noise of the outside world. Star turns from Tawiah and Moses Sumney lend this record an equal, if not greater, emotional heft than its predecessors: a stunning achievement for a project presumed finished by most. - REVIEW
Swindle - No More Normal
Swindle’s ground breaking ‘No More Normal’ demonstrates a unique knack for traversing grime, jazz, reggae and soul, but also his vision for what music can be: it’s a project that actively encourages cross-pollination between genres.
He’s joined by a stellar line-up to do this, from MCs like Ghetts, D Double E and P Money, to instrumentalists like Yussef Dayes and Nubya Garcia, and singers like Kiko Bun (more than reason enough to check out the album) but it’s the skill with which Swindle weaves sounds together that make it. Take ‘Drill Work’ with Ghetts, oozing swagger and fusing jazz instrumentation with grime, or the stripped down, pensive ‘Take It Back’, pairing D Double with reggae artist Kiko Bun...who else could pull off a project like this? - REVIEW
Denzel Curry – ZUU
Racing back to his Miami roots, Denzel Curry’s ‘ZUU’ is the epitome of Carol City, Florida – his hometown. With features from the likes of Rick Ross and production credits including Tay Keith and Charlie Heat, even though Denzel has been in the game for almost a decade, this acts as a perfect re-introduction.
Highlights include ‘Ricky’, ‘Shake 88’ and ‘Carolmart’, which help demonstrate that Denzel is more than the screaming lyrics that fans are accustomed to. The project shows that he’s evolved dramatically – exhibiting different and alternating flows throughout, while maintaining the form fans fell in love with. This album is a prime example of growth. - REVIEW
Ariana Grande – thank u, next
In February 2019, on the back of many public personal and professional struggles, the release of - and subsequent success of - Ariana Grande’s fifth studio album ‘thank u, next’ became proof of the R&B pop singer’s developing artistic prowess. A collection of fascinating sonics that mixed intense pop with hip-hop beats and lyrical beauty, the production is a clear indication of the long journey the Nickelodeon star turned pop star has come on.
From the cutesy, cat-ear wearing youngster to a mature musician making a statement of independence in ‘7 Rings’ , to the message of vulnerability brought forth in ‘Fake Smile’ and the catchy confidence of the title track, Grande has blossomed into a woman whose voice makes a difference to the world.
Sharon Van Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow
The onetime purveyor of tragic, skeletal folk ballads finally made the leap from small to widescreen that she threatened back on 2014’s ‘Are We There’. After taking some time off to become a mother, Sharon Van Etten returned with the aptly titled ‘Comeback Kid’ towards the end of 2018.
The following album added subtle electronics, not-so subtle electronics and bonafide, balls-to-the-wall rock anthems to her already formidable arsenal of song writing tools, reminding the world exactly why she’s already talked about as one of the finest songwriters of her generation. - REVIEW
Vampire Weekend – Father Of The Bride
It was a long wait for Vampire Weekend's fourth full-length, but we were richly rewarded. With Rostam Batmanglij's departure from the group weighing heavily on fan's minds, Ezra Koenig and co bounced back with a collaborative heavy double album loaded with new and old magic.
Previously New York had played a crucial role in VW's world, but 2019 found Koenig living the LA life and experiencing fatherhood for the first time. It proved a heady mix, numbers such as 'This Life,' 'Sunflower' and 'Stranger' unveiling a band whose boyish charm had been replaced by laid-back maturity. Another gem in one stellar back catalogue. - REVIEW
Sam Walker Smart
Anderson .Paak – Ventura
The R&B sister project to his previous, more rap-focused ‘Oxnard’, Anderson .Paak showed us with 'Ventura' that he’s not afraid to reinvent and experiment. .Paak described the concept behind this and his previous LP as the drive to and from a night in Vegas, with ‘Ventura’ being the emotional comedown after the brasher, more hedonistic ‘Oxnard’.
Opening track ‘Come Home’ certainly feels like a rough morning after, filled with bleary-eyed melancholy and regret. Along with the pop brilliance of ‘Make It Better’ the album is playfully experimental, .Paak switching up flows and structures on tracks like ‘Winner’s Circle’ and ‘Chosen One’. It’s equally impossible and exciting to try to define the sound of this album, sliding between multiple genres. A bold move, and one that paid off. - REVIEW
Solange – When I Get Home
Solange’s ‘When I Get Home’ is thoughtful, soulful and unforgettable. It starts with ‘Things I imagined’ - a dreamy, wistful way to set the tone for the album – before the album goes on to draw on jazz, funk, reggae and electronic stylings, all underpinned by her heavenly vocals.
Tracks like ‘Way To The Show’ and ‘Stay Flo’ are instantly appealing, helping to deliver Solange’s message, while the impressive credits include Pharrell, Sampha , Earl Sweatshirt and Tyler, The Creator. Solange’s son Julez also played a hand in co-producing some tracks, adding an even more personal element to the project. But it’s the album’s sonic fluidity that really makes it so well loved. - REVIEW
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