Lana Del Rey’s complex and beguiling fifth album, Norman Rockwell, was music critics’ favourite record of 2019.
Full of luscious soft-rock ballads that peer uneasily at the demise of the American Dream, the album has topped a “poll of polls” compiled by BBC News.
“Thank you so much to the BBC for album of the year,” the star said.
“This was such a meaningful, fun record to make. I enjoyed every minute of it. It’s lovely to see it receiving so much attention from friends and critics.”
She added: “Every word and melody came in a joyfully unexpected way and from the bottom of my heart, so I’m super-happy for Norman, grateful for Jack [Antonoff] for helping me make this record and looking forward to inspiration striking me again for the next one.”
The BBC’s chart was compiled from 30 end-of-year lists published by the world’s most influential music magazines, blogs, newspapers and broadcasters – including the NME, Rolling Stone, BBC 6 Music and France’s Les Inrockuptibles magazine.
Records were assigned points based on their position in each list – with the number one album getting 20 points, the number two album receiving 19 points, and so on.
Female artists dominated the list, accounting for eight of the top 10 albums.
Critics’ top 10 albums of 2019
In total, the critics named 189 records among their favourites, from the literate punk of Dublin’s Fontaines DC to the exuberant pop of US star Lizzo.
There was no love for the UK’s best-selling albums of 2019 – Ed Sheeran’s No. 6 Collaborations Project and Lewis Capaldi’s Divinely Uninspired to a Hellish Extent – while Taylor Swift’s Lover, which has sold in excess of three million copies worldwide, took 22nd place.
Lana Del Rey’s album soared above the competition, earning 389 points (from a potential 600) and scoring top marks from Q Magazine, The Guardian and Pitchfork.
Billed as “a folk record with a little surf twist”, it topped the UK charts in August, and recently earned the US star her first Grammy nomination for album of the year.
“Norman Rockwell feels like the album that Lana Del Rey has been building towards for her entire career, a perfectly realised synthesis of her aesthetic and her classicist pop songwriting,” enthused Stereogum’s Peter Helman.
“It sounds like a languid Laurel Canyon fever dream – lightly psychedelic folk-rock ballads that got lost on their way to Dennis Wilson’s favourite bar and sat down at a piano bench instead.”
One of the album’s key tracks, The Greatest, also featured in critics’ top 10 songs of the year, alongside Lil Nas X’s country-rap crossover Old Town Road and FKA Twigs’ devastating ballad Cellophane.
Billie Eilish’s unconventional pop hit Bad Guy was the overall winner after taking pole position in seven separate “best of 2019” lists.
Critics’ top 10 songs of 2019
Read more about the albums that made the top 10 below:
1) Lana Del Rey – Norman Rockwell
On her previous albums, Lana Del Rey has cast herself as the helpless heroine, dolled up and dragged around by men who were ultimately more interested in themselves and their video games. On Norman Rockwell, she’s found her voice. “Goddamn man child,” she scolds in the album’s opening lyric, a scathing put-down of a callow lover. “You act like a kid even though you stand six foot two.”
Later on, she addresses those people – critics, boyfriends, record industry bigwigs – who “mistook my kindness for weakness”. The not-exactly-hidden subtext being, “that won’t happen again, schmucks”.
The album is named after the artist and illustrator who is synonymous with idealistic visions of American life – but Del Rey’s cast of characters, from serial killers to Sylvia Plath, suggest the dream has never been what it seems.
On The Greatest, she surveys a country riven by political anxiety, climate change, vacuous celebrity culture, and even the false alarm of a nuclear attack on Hawaii, concluding: “I guess I’m facing the greatest loss of them all.”
But the record ends on a fragile note of optimism. “Hope is a dangerous thing for a woman to have, but I have it,” she whispers as Jack Antonoff’s piano chords dissolve to silence. “Yeah, I have it.”
She told Q Magazine: “It’s an album about coming into one’s own, and choosing to laugh rather than cry.”
2) Billie Eilish – When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
While most artists assemble a crack team of songwriters and producers, Billie Eilish made her debut album at home, assisted only by her brother Finneas O’Connell.
Their bold, unsettling songs disrupt the typical verse-chorus structures of pop, luring you down dark sonic avenues, where dentist drills coexist with pop hooks.
Eilish has a disarmingly intimate vocal style, singing so quietly and so close to the microphone that, at times, it sounds like she’s whispering in your ear. As a result, ballads like When The Party’s Over feel extra-vulnerable, while the goofy lyrics of Bad Guy feel like a shared joke at the back of the classroom.
“She champions the strange, the misfits, the misunderstood… capturing the hopes, fears and vulnerabilities of an entire generation,” wrote Clash magazine’s Yasmin Cowan. “The genius in this record is its unaffected relatability.”
3) Tyler, The Creator – Igor
“Don’t go into this expecting a rap album,” announced Tyler, The Creator in a social media post announcing the arrival of Igor. “Don’t go into this expecting any album. Just go, jump into it.”
Those who took the plunge found themselves submerged in the musician’s psyche as he traced a doomed love affair with his “favourite garçon” – from euphoria (Earfquake) to paranoia (A Boy Is A Gun) and regret (Are We Still Friends?).
The music was as turbulent as the lyrics, switching up rhythms and styles with the shifting tides of his emotions. There were guest appearances from Pharrell, Kanye and Solange – but this was 100% Tyler’s album.
4) Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Ghosteen
The stripped-back songs on Nick Cave’s 17th album were composed as the musician grappled with the tragic death of his 15-year-old son.
At first, he’d been unable to write anything. But he told fans: “I found with some practice the imagination could propel itself beyond the personal into a state of wonder. In doing so, the colour came back to things with a renewed intensity and the world seemed clear and bright and new.”
But Ghosteen doesn’t offer a simple, ordered narrative of overcoming grief. The songs are long, diaphanous and meditative; and Cave’s hope falters as often as his despair gives way to acceptance.
“Yes, it can be painful, but there’s a beautiful catharsis contained within Ghosteen that makes it one of the most essential records of recent times,” observed Music OMH. “A lifejacket for anyone surfing that dreadful wave of grief.”
5) FKA Twigs – Magdalene
In 2017, Tahliah Barnett had major surgery to remove six tumours from her uterus. At the same time, she was dealing with the “all-encompassing” pain of breaking up with actor Robert Pattinson – a relationship that had made her an unwilling tabloid fixture.
The singer’s physical and emotional suffering merged to devastating effect on her second album. Some songs are pure anguish – “Didn’t I do it for you? Why don’t I do it for you?” she pleads on Cellophane. Others, like Fallen Alien, sound like being trapped in a nightmare.
Twigs combines operatic and choral harmony with pop melodies and surging pulses of electronica, building stark new sounds in the same way she had to rebuild herself. It’s unsparing and exposing and utterly human.
6) Weyes Blood – Titanic Rising
On the cover of her fourth album, Natalie Mering, AKA Weyes Blood, is floating in her teenage bedroom as the waters rise around her. It symbolises the album’s main theme – yearning for the comforts of childhood as they’re submerged by the messy complexities of adult life.
Fittingly, the album is full of nostalgic call-backs to the sumptuous, melodic pop of The Beatles and Carole King, overlaid with velvety strings and cascading synths.
At the centre of it all is Mering’s voice, soaring and melancholy, as she frets about climate change and our over-reliance on technology. But, like Lana Del Rey, she locates hope in the midst of political and environmental disaster.
“I want to make sure everybody feels like they deserve to be alive,” she told Pitchfork. “I hope you could have a smile during the apocalypse.”
7) Angel Olsen – All Mirrors
Angel Olsen made her fourth album twice. The original version was a stark, acoustic solo record. The version she released was much more ambitious, her dramatic vocal performance propelled by querulous strings and surging synths.
The benchmark was “early period Scott Walker,” she told NPR. “What I really wanted was to avoid making a record that just had ‘added strings’, and instead have something more reactive and interactive with the lyrics.”
To understand how far she went, consider this: Jherek Bischoff, the composer who helped record the album’s 14-piece orchestra, had to devise a new way of conducting, using special gestures that allowed him to guide the ensemble through what he called “a Doppler effect with a big chord of trills“.
Of course, all that effort would count for nothing if the songs were inadequate but, thankfully, All Mirrors delivers, with a suite of lyrically-moving torch songs written during a turbulent period when Olsen’s career took off just as her relationship fell apart.
“I’m not saying I’ve experienced the most loss,” she told The Times. “But I’m pretty f-ing good at describing a sad thing.”
8) Ariana Grande – Thank U, Next
Ariana Grande’s fourth album, Sweetener, delivered in the wake of the Manchester Arena bombing, was defiantly positive – a celebration of life that was meant to honour the 22 people who lost their lives. But while she was promoting that record, Grande’s close friend, collaborator and ex-boyfriend Mac Miller died from an accidental overdose. Just over a month later, her whirlwind engagement to comedian Pete Davidson ended.
As her world collapsed, the star sought refuge in a recording studio across the street from her New York apartment. There, surrounded by friends, she poured her heart into this stunning, compelling record.
“It kind of saved my life,” Grande she told US radio host Zach Sang. “It sounds really corny, but it was the most beautiful. I don’t think life has ever been as bad as it was when [we started] and then my friends made it amazing and special.”
The album’s emotional centrepiece is Ghostin‘, a stark confessional about two lovers haunted by an absent third party. “I know that it breaks your heart when I cry again, over him,” she apologises, blinking back tears.
While Miller’s death haunts the album, there are moments of levity. The title track presents an affectionate roll call of her exes, while the self-assured strut of Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored, confirms that Ariana may be down, but she’s not out.
9) Lizzo – Cuz I Love You
Did anyone attack pop stardom with more gusto this year than rapper, singer and flautist Melissa Viviane Jefferson, AKA Lizzo?
She burst out of the traps in the first week of January with Juice, a disco-funk cherry bomb of joy and positivity; and with each successive release, her sense of humour and messages of body positivity and black self-love became harder and harder to resist. Who else in 2019 had the chutzpah to appear on live TV performing in front of a giant pair of inflatable buttocks?
Her breakout album Cuz I Love You was actually her third release – but the first to really crystallise Lizzo’s unique blend of club-inspired rap (Tempo), gospel-infused vocal power (Jerome) and her way with a one-liner. “The only exes that I care about are in my chromosomes,” she cackled on Like A Girl.
The album was bolstered by the success of two earlier singles, Good As Hell and Truth Hurts, which somehow managed to climb the Billboard charts without being promoted by her record label. They were hastily bundled onto a “deluxe edition”, which earned the star eight nominations for next year’s Grammys.
10) Brittany Howard – Jaime
The first solo album from Alabama Shakes singer Brittany Howard is named after the older sister she lost to cancer at the age of 13. Although the songs aren’t specifically about Jaime, she wanted to reclaim the name “so it would no longer bring me sadness”.
“She was my first teacher,” Howard told the BBC. “She was the one who taught me to love music, and who taught me to be imaginative and creative. She left me with all those things I hold near and dear to me, so it only felt appropriate to put her name on there – because I feel like I didn’t do it alone.”
The album is autobiographical, though, as Howard addresses her struggles with religion on He Loves Me, unrequited love on Georgia and racism on Goat Head – sparked by the memory of a severed head left in the passenger seat of her mixed-race parents’ car when she was growing up in rural Alabama.
Musically rich and unconstrained by genre, Howard wrote the entire record while holed up in a sweltering box room in Topanga, California, before fleshing out her demos in the studio with jazz musicians Nate Smith and Robert Glasper.
It confirmed her status as one of America’s most compelling modern songwriters. “It’s really liberating because I can just do whatever I want,” she told Paste magazine. “I mean, what a great feeling.”
Best albums of 2019 (11-20)
The 30 “best of” lists appeared in: Associated Press, BBC 6 Music, Billboard, Complex, Consequence of Sound, Cracked, Dazed and Confused, Entertainment Weekly, The Guardian, Hot Press, Les Inrockuptibles, Loud & Quiet, Mojo, NME, NPR, Paste, People, Pitchfork, Pop Matters, Q Magazine, Rolling Stone, Stereogum, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Times, Time Magazine, Triple J, Uncut, Uproxxx, US Weekly and Vice.