Kitty Empire’s best pop and rock of 2019

Sometimes pop moves glacially slowly. In the early 00s, a new kind of punk emerged in London: fast, angry, uncouth – but made by black Britons, so gatekeepers didn’t recognise it as an asset. Twenty years later, in 2019, grime has come gloriously of age: Stormzy is a national treasure, with a landmark Glastonbury headline slot and great second album, just out. At least half a dozen more outstanding grime LPs were released this year, with a deserved Mercury prize win for Dave, and Kano in particular providing a novelistic, emotional, mature spin on a genre that refused to die.

Sometimes, though, pop moves fast. When Billie Eilish – just 15 at the time – released her debut EP in 2017, few could have predicted that the Los Angeles teenager would end the decade slouching proprietorially over a seriously disrupted pop landscape. In a year when the sainted Ariana Grande and a resurgent, LGBTQ+-positive Taylor Swift both released strong albums – Thank U, Next and Lover, respectively – this entirely different kind of solo female singer scooped the honours.

Billie Eilish

Billie Eilish. Photograph: Sara Jaye Weiss/Rex/Shutterstock

Eilish’s nightmare-themed, neon-dipped, emo-trap-pop confection When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? was 2019’s most streamed album on Spotify, and Apple Music’s inaugural album of the year. (Point of information: albums have not gone away yet.) It was a US/UK No 1, and Eilish has been nominated for six Grammy awards. She might not be the first maverick to go mainstream, but this home-schooled creative (she has an auditory processing disorder and Tourette syndrome) pointedly refused to play the standard male-gaze game, wearing whatever she pleased; the more luridly coloured and baggy the better.

No one told Lizzo how to dress, either. Few women have made the post-feminist argument for thong-wearing better than this versatile 31-year-old. The multi-hyphenate rapper-singer-flautist-twerker also made an especially glorious leap from left field to ubiquity with the feelgood album of the year, Cuz I Love You. No one preached self-care and resilience in the face of heartbreak this year quite like Lizzo, whose move into mass entertainment came seemingly without compromise.

But exactly how huge numbers of fans engage with music changed suddenly too. This year, TikTok – a Chinese app whose surveillance aspects are not as much fun as its content – emerged as the key accelerator of pop. For Lizzo, the meme/pop interface was something of a double-edged one. She co-opted one meme – “I just took a DNA test, turns out I am 100% that bitch” – for the song Truth Hurts and ended up being forced to credit the British singer whose tweet had kicked off the phrase. With no little irony, though, it was the fan engagement with Truth Hurts on TikTok that made the song a real world hit, with umpteen people videoing themselves taking cheek swabs and posting them on the social media site.

TikTok had a major role in Old Town Road too. The No 1 trap-country confection was a tune made for, and by, the internet, with the teenage Lil Nas X infamously buying the beat for $30 from a teenage Dutch producer. This chart smash was driven not only by its resourceful mash-up of country and hip-hop, but how drinking “ye-ye juice” could turn anyone into a cowboy.

This was the year that “DIY” no longer meant punk or fey, melodic indie pop. Much has been made of how Eilish and her older brother, Finneas, cooked up her music in their bedrooms. One of the defining motifs of Eilish’s songs is her up-close whisper, perhaps erroneously attributed, in her case, to the need for discretion.

The genre of “bedroom pop” also came of age this year and most of it sounded very little like Eilish: more self-effacing and intimate, pressing gingerly on teenage sore spots in the privacy of often female safe spaces. Where once the garage was the place where embryonic bands rehearsed, the democratisation of music technology meant that virtually anyone with a laptop and some talent can now make release-ready music.

Two notable bedroom pop producers released their first confirmatory non-bedroom albums: America’s Clairo and, in the UK, Rex Orange County, paving the way for many more in 2020. Electronic musicians have been DIY bedroom operatives for years, of course. But suburban teens have now caught up in their droves, at the precise cultural moment where genres are dissolving into one another.

The top 10 albums of 2019

Nick Cave.

Nick Cave. Photograph: Matthew Thorne

1. Ghosteen
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Unimaginable grief, keening synths and a new openness made this Nick Cave’s most human album so far.

2. I Was Real
75 Dollar Bill
Drones and ragas made in Brooklyn but inspired by world music: rocking out compulsory.

3. Father of the Bride
Vampire Weekend
Songs about the state of the world plus the best guitar loop make Ezra Koenig’s post-Rostam LA rebirth a dense joy.

4. Cuz I Love U
The body-positive flute-toting rapper went pop and took no prisoners, starting her breakthrough album like most would end theirs.

5. Titanic Rising
Weyes Blood
Natalie Mering sings like Karen Carpenter with a film studies degree, turning her love of movies into a bittersweet exploration of the past and the subconscious realm.

6. Charli
Charli XCX
Real emotion was probably the last thing everyone expected from Charli XCX – but that’s what made this acrylic piece of collaborative ear-candy so moreish.

7. Jaime
Brittany Howard
Named after the sister who died of cancer at 13, the debut solo album from the Alabama Shakes frontwoman was a humid, funky reckoning not just with racism and faith, but with the good times.

8. Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest
Bill Callahan
Farewell, misanthropy, hello happiness: Callahan’s sixth album under his own name was no less than one of the most unexpected turnarounds in American music.

9. Designer
Aldous Harding
Transplanted to Wales, New Zealand’s most oblique creative wrote a set of haunting, impossible-to-crack songs whose meanings were as open as “height under a pilot”.

10. Heavy Is the Head
Stormzy’s imperial phase is well under way, with a second studio album that more than confirms the grime MC’s depth and reach.


Jesus Is King
Kanye West
West might have missed the bit about camels passing through the eyes of needles in his latest flirtation with the Gospel.

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