Three writers provide reflect on the past year and pick their top album of the year 2019 following this Grammy season.
WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO – Billie Eilish
by Charlotte Creamore
My favourite album of this year has undoubtedly been Billie Eilish’s WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP WHERE DO WE GO? It is rare for me to listen to the entirety of an album without disliking a single song, perhaps explaining why my Spotify playlists consist mostly of individual songs from a large array of artists. However, the fact that Billie’s album is so coherent, with each song embodying an unbearably heavy sadness, yet without feeling overdone or self-obsessed, rocketed the album to not only my favourite album of the year, but also what I consider to be one of the best of the last decade.
Even the closing track entitled ‘goodbye’, an amalgamation of significant lines from each song on the album, I have listened to just as many times as the body of the album itself despite the track appearing to serve primarily as a much-needed bookend to such a heavy set of verses. Although this album confirms that Billie doesn’t appear to have achieved her goal to not “be so sad”, there is still an intense beauty in the softness of her voice and her melancholy lyrics. A special mention must be given to ‘ilomilo’, whose instrumentals and lyrics capture me every time, the verse “Said I couldn’t love someone/ ‘Cause I might break/ If you’re gonna die, not by mistake” holds, what is to me, the concentrated, aching heart of the album.
Perhaps it is the opening lines of ‘goodbye’ that best sum up my thoughts upon finishing the album: “Please, Please/ Don’t leave me”.
Bandana – Freddie Gibbs and Madlib
by Carl Higgins
Bandana, the second collaborative effort between Gangsta Gibbs and the Beat Conductor, Freddie Gibbs and Madlib, came five years after their critically acclaimed record Piñata in 2014. Given the success of Piñata, this felt more so as a victory lap for the duo, but this didn’t mean that they sat back on their laurels. While Piñata saw Madlib outshine Freddie due to fantastic beat selection and putting on an instrumental masterclass, the more stripped back beats of Bandana gave rise to one of Freddie’s greatest performances in his entire discography. Bandana usurps all other rap albums of the year in its careful attention to detail from top to bottom, from its beats to its features.
This album’s highlights come in the form of the devastating lyric clinic of ‘Education’, featuring Yasiin Bey and Black Thought, and ‘Palmolive’ featuring Killer Mike and Pusha T, where Push delivered Complex’s Verse of the Year. Other high points include ‘Giannis’, featuring Anderson .Paak, who delivers one of the features of 2019, while ‘Crime Pays’ proves to be a sermon from the hood about the ways of a Gangster. Madlib, yet again, masterfully constructs beats from obscure and carefully chosen samples to deliver a wide range of vibes on Bandana; from vulgar head-bobbers found on ‘Flat Tummy Tea’, cinematic vibes found on ‘Fake Names’, or more jazz inspired melodies on tracks such as ‘Practice’, or ‘Cataracts’. This album shone a spotlight on the sheer chemistry between two very talented artists in hip-hop, who seem to compliment each other perfectly. I can’t wait for their third album, Montana, to drop soon.
Norman F*cking Rockwell – Lana Del Rey
by Sabrina Penty
2019 was the year in which Lana del Rey’s Norman F*cking Rockwell was released, a 14-track album consisting of soft rock and piano ballads which makes reference to American icons, experiences of love and loss and the tarnished American dream. NFR is seemingly a declaration of Del Rey’s newly found confidence and maturity, qualities that might have been lacking in her previous work. It is elegant, melancholic and transformational, overall establishing it amongst critics as not only one of the best albums of the year, but also of the decade. Lana’s complexity remains, yet it is manifested in another form. Her focus seems to now be on more personal experiences, rather than on the alter ego she has created throughout her previous career in music.
Yet, Del Rey’s album also challenges the fantasies of American culture. The album’s title alone is already enough of a political statement, with “f*cking” cutting through the name of the artistic icon of the 50’s and 60’s who is known for his idyllic images of American life. Could Lana be ridiculing the notion of the American dream? Her song The Greatest’ is a further display of this, as she conjures up the issues her beloved nation is going through. “LA’s in flames, its getting hot/ Kanye West is blonde and gone/ Life on Mars ain’t just a song”. “It’s more just a line that represents a lot of things”, Del Rey said in an interview with the New York Times. ‘California’ also makes reference to this, as she credits the place where dreams are known to die. In her own way, the singer perfectly evokes the decay of American idealism in the wake of politically turbulent times.
“Hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but I have it”, she sings on the last track of her album. This song sums up the experiences of women, from not being respected or acknowledged, to sexual assault, which is why Lana declares that there is a danger in having hope. Because she’s “a modern day woman/ With a weak constitution”.
She still clings onto that hope, however. “But I have it”, she repeats, because she is determined to not give up. Her authenticity, grace and truthfulness, her references to the American Dream and what it’s become, overall create a vessel for what came with 2019. And it is for that reason, that Norman F*cking Rockwell was undoubtedly the greatest album of the year.