It’s dicey business to make grand inferences from a list of creative works if you’re the person who made the list, since you’re providing the evidence for the conclusions you draw. With that caveat in mind, I’ll risk pointing out a couple of themes common to most of my choices for the best albums of 2019. Nearly all of the recordings I view as the most original, most moving, or most impressive are hybrid works in one way or another: the mash-up of imagination and history in Julia Wolfe’s oratorio Fire in My Mouth; the cerebral pop electronica of Magdalene, by the multi-platform artist FKA twigs; the collage of spoken language, song, and jazz in Kris Davis’s Diatom Ribbons. All, with no exceptions, have thematic content centered on or otherwise reflecting the experience of women, by virtue of the fact that all of their creators were women.
Here’s the list:
- Fire in my mouth, Julia Wolfe
Epic in scale and impact, this monumental work of musical drama recasts the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster as one of activist outrage by maltreated laborers, most of them women. (Read our review of the concert performance.)
- Magdalene, FKA twigs
An untrammeled, free-form rumination on the story of Mary Magdalene in irresistible beats, electronics, and elegantly piercing vocals by video-audio-and-everything-else artist Tahliah Barnett.
- Diatom Ribbons, Kris Davis
Best known before this as one of the most creative young pianists in avant-garde jazz, Davis emerges here as a composer of substance and range and a bandleader with a purpose strong enough to unite collaborators as varied as Esperanza Spalding on vocals, Nels Cline of Wilco on guitar, and Haitian electronics artist Val Jeanty on turntables.
- Eve, Rapsody
With her second album, Laila’s Wisdom, the MC Rapsody paid homage to her grandmother and earned a Grammy nomination. She cuts broader and deeper in this follow-up, a tribute to 16 women of color, from the civil rights activist Myrlie Evers-Williams to Michelle Obama and Sojourner Truth. The poet Reyna Biddy adds spoken-language interludes, but Rapsody’s raps are more fiercely poetic.
- Orange, Caroline Shaw
Shaw’s album includes six works for string quartet, including the five-movement suite Plan & Elevation, that somehow make the form defined by Joseph Haydn sound like a new invention. (Read our review.)
- Speak, Be Silent, Riot Ensemble
The academic provenance of this music, composed and recorded under the auspices of Huddersfield University’s Centre for Research in New Music, in West Yorkshire, England, may make this appear much more pretentious than it is. The album has five rigorously imaginative and deliciously strange compositions by Chaya Czernowin, Mirela Ivičević, Rebecca Saunders, Anna Thorvaldsdóttir, and Liza Lim (composer of the three-movement title piece).
- When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, Billie Eilish
Eilish’s album is confessional, slightly paranoid music, sometimes sad and sometimes biting, as true to life in the 21st century as rock and roll was for the singer’s parents. Cocreated by Eilish and her brother Finneas O’Connell, it’s sung in a whispery mode ideal for earbuds. (Read our review.)
- Fanm d’Ayiti, Nathalie Joachim
Fanm d’Ayiti is a gorgeously vivid musical scrapbook of testaments by Joachim, a seasoned composer and vocalist whose debut was long overdue, to the women of Haitian heritage who inspired her. (Read our review. )
- Parlour Game, Jenny Scheinman and Allison Miller
Americana and contemporary jazz conjoin happily in this first album by two longtime collaborators working as co-leaders. Violinist Scheinman composed eight of the album’s 11 tracks, drummer Miller wrote two, and together they composed one; all are intimate and playful. With pianist Carmen Staaf and bassist Tony Scherr.
- Valve Bone Woe, Chrissie Hynde
The Pretenders’s singer and songwriter fronts a smart jazz-pop ensemble in this fresh take on jazz standards and vintage pop tunes. Hynde, like Dylan in his recent albums of Tin Pan Alley material, is true to both the material and herself. We find here classicism, but not karaoke. (Read our review. )
Honorary mention: Hittin’ the Ramp: The Early Years (1936–1943), Nat King Cole
Hittin’ the Ramp includes 183 tracks from Cole’s earliest years, before he signed with Capitol Records and became a star. It is hard-swinging, jubilant, virtuosic fun.