Billie Eilish may or may not be the voice of her generation, but she definitely provided the slurp and the duh of her generation. Her conquest of 2019 happened through sensation and spectacle, with her spider-laden visuals and whispery sound creating the thrilling illusion—witnessed previously with punk, metal, and Harry Potter—of an entire youth cohort turned demonic. Meanwhile, the genre-breaking sophistication of her songs has been underrated. Hits like “Bad Guy” and “Bury a Friend” brighten industrial thump with clever structural twists and cleverer melodies. Her ballads are also ingenious, with vocal layering enabled by of-the-moment production and emotions grounded in that thing all lasting phenomena require: human talent. — S.K.
Listen to: “I Love You”
Lana Del Rey, Norman Fucking Rockwell
In Lana Del Rey’s telling of the decades to come, America is doomed. But thankfully Norman Fucking Rockwell offers more than a bleak assessment of a plagued country. Her sixth studio album is a work of staggering beauty and small, important revelations. It’s replete with brooding lyricism, but even so, the project is not humorless. Its title track begins with a romantic assessment so Twitter-ready it hurts: “Goddamn, man child / You fucked me so good that I almost said ‘I love you.”’ Still, Del Rey’s best allusions aren’t to toxic men, but rather to other women. Consider the album closer, “Hope Is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman Like Me to Have—But I Have It,” on which she sings: “I’ve been tearing around in my fucking nightgown / 24/7 Sylvia Plath.” Even in its personal focus, the song looks outward—there are, of course, other women like Lana. — H.G.
Listen to: “Venice Bitch”
Chris Farren, Born Hot
As stigmas against depression ease and psychiatry come to feel ubiquitous, a potentially dehumanizing side effect looms: Will friendship, despair, and love be redefined in terms of labor and science? Art like Chris Farren’s wry pop rock may help ensure that the quest to feel better doesn’t result in too much bot talk. He sings of unplaceable anxiety with poetic specificity, but puts as much finesse into describing the relationships that can provide salve. Bright-eyed hooks, sparkly orchestration, and tight songwriting seem to simultaneously medicate and celebrate, and he’s thoughtful about the line between introspection and selfishness. “My anger turns to apathy / before my mouth can disagree,” he sings in one typically lovely vignette. “Did you even consider me / when you were making plans?” — S.K.
Listen to: “Search 4 Me”
Ari Lennox, Shea Butter Baby
If Ari Lennox ever decides to fully leave music behind, she could rest comfortably knowing a career in comedy would await her. Shea Butter Baby, her debut studio album, is a soulful delight. It’s also incredibly funny. “BMO,” a song on which Lennox invites a lover over, ends with a skit, presumably Lennox talking to herself in the time spent waiting for the object of her desire to arrive: “Lemme go and check on these goddamn garbanzo beans / Let’s see if they, um, cooked yet.” The record is full of tracks that play with structure, and Lennox flexes her ability to capture some of the specific anxieties of millennial dating. The opening notes of “Chicago Boy” feature some of the most affecting saxophone notes I’ve heard in recent memory. Here, too, Lennox weaves lust and lightness: She meets her potential one-night-stand at a CVS, where she stopped for some Ricola. — H.G.