2019 in Britain has been tumultuous; despite endless discussion, we’re no closer to a harmonious Brexit, and Boris Johnson has the overwhelming support of the majority – trying times, to say the least. And it’s been reflected in the music. This year’s Mercury Prize Awards was possibly the most angry in history. Bands like IDLES and Black Midi raged against the machine, and Slowthai even took to the stage with the head of a waxwork Boris Johnson, sporting one of his own ‘Fuck Boris’ t-shirts.
And so it’s fitting that the UK this year are so excellently, and deservedly, represented in our top 10 albums of 2019. Six out of the ten albums are by British artists, but more than that – these six albums will go down as some of the best to come out of this country for decades to come. Dave, Stormzy, Little Simz, Kano, Skepta & Slowthai we salute you.
The title of 2 Chainz fifth studio album is a reference to the misconception of young African-American men that their only options for success are as rappers or athletes [see also Biggie’s ‘Things Done Changed‘]. 2 Chainz himself was a high school and college basketball player before ultimately deciding to pursue Hip Hop, and even stripped of it’s impressive roster of features, this LeBron James executive-produced album is an incredibly solid work; consistent but with plenty of pleasant surprises.
The follow-up to 2014 cult classic ‘Piñata‘ delivers everything its predecessor did, and more. Featuring the singles ‘Flat Tummy Tea‘, ‘Bandana‘ and ‘Crime Pays‘, the album features Madlib’s stunningly textured beats [which apparently were all made on an iPhone!?] paired with Gibbs’ tales of his drug dealing past, but this time around there’s a humour to the narrative. Gibbs has allegedly retired from the game to a zebra farm in the midwest but, as the ‘Crime Pays’ video can attest, old habits die hard. Much like ‘Piñata‘, ‘Bandana‘ has all the makings of another cult classic, and will likely prove to be low key the album of 2019. If you know, you know.
Skepta’s fifth studio album and the follow-up to May 2016’s ‘Konnichiwa’ features fellow J Hus, Lancey Foux, and Nafe Smallz, as well as a selection of Skeppy’s Boy Better Know cohorts. Originally titled ‘SkLEVEL’ [which Skepta has since dubbed a ‘2018 pattern’], ‘Ignorance is Bliss’ features singles ‘Bullet from a Gun’ and ‘Greaze Mode.’
Kanye West promised us a Gospel album with ‘The Life Of Pablo,’ but delivered something altogether quite different. Now based on a ranch in Wyoming and having apparently surrendered himself wholly to The Lord he appears to be a changed, and altogether happer, man. It shows on ‘Jesus Is King.’ It may not be a Kanye classic, but it’s certainly innovative.
“At the time I was writing, I was in a very confusing headspace,” Little Simz said of her third studio album. “Everything was in this weird area, and it was all a shade of grey. Being in your mid-twenties feels like a strange place to be. I’m still discovering myself and things are a lot more complex than they were five years ago. Nothing’s straightforward. I’m peeling off layers as I’m getting older, and finding more and more about myself.”
Stormzy’s sophomore album comes in the form of ‘Heavy Is the Head,’ a 16 track collection featuring singles ‘Vossi Bop,’ ‘Wiley Flow,’ ‘Crown‘ and ‘Own It.’ The album’s title and central theme explores the weight of expectation on Big Mike following his recent successes. It’s a kind of humble brag that allows Stormzy to make consistent reference to the fact that he’s right at the top of his game, whilst acknowledging that he struggles with the weight of that expectation. It’s absolutely a worthy follow-up to his spectacular debut ‘Gang Signs & Prayer‘ that follows the same willing formula that sees Stormzy balance honest introspection, chart-facing accessibility, and hard-hitting bars and beats.
Dave’s debut LP comes in the form of excerpts from a year-long course of therapy; 11 songs that see Dave examine the human condition and his own complex wiring. Dave’s often rivetingly poetic on ‘Psychodrama’, tracks like ‘Streatham’ showcase his unstoppable wordplay perfectly and it’s intention, of course, is laudible and pure.
Kano’s sixth studio album ‘Hoodies All Summer’ comes after a three year hiatus following his last LP ‘Made In The Manor.’ Kano, one of Grime’s “old guard” re-enforces his vital importance in the scene with an album that addresses the nation; it’s fiery and provocative, but more considered and precise, potentially, than anything the genre has ever produced before.
On ‘IGOR’ it feels as though Tyler has finally managed to fuse the two sides of the dichotomy that make him so compelling. The lush, expansive textures we heard on ‘Flower Boy’ work in harmony with the face-scrunchingly raw edge of ‘Cherry Bomb.’ Thematically, ‘IGOR’ picks up where ‘Flower Boy’ lefts off, picking up characters and storylines which continue the Tyler, The Creator narrative.
Slowthai’s debut album ‘Nothing Great About Britain’ makes every bit as much of a statement as its title might suggest. It’s a searing treatise on what it means to be British in 2019; one that deserves to be held aloft next to the likes of ‘Original Pirate Material’, ‘Boy In Da Corner’ and ‘Never Mind The Bollocks.’ The album’s opener and title track is packed with references to every day British life, ending with ‘Thai calling our Queen a cunt before letting loose the Mura Masa-produced punch to the jaw that is ‘Doorman.’
Birmingham MC Jaykae features on ‘Grow Up,’ and Skepta’s verse on ‘Inglorious’ offset Thai’s perfectly. This careful selection is typical of the album – yes it’s raucous, but it’s razor sharp in its indictments. Barely a bar wasted that’s not dripping with Slowthai’s sardonic world view. Ironically, if there is something great about Britain in 2019, it’s its musical output – this album in particular.
So there it is – our top 10 albums of 2019. Let us know if your favourite made the cut, and who’d make your list. Here’s to another year of amazing music in 2020.