Critical consensus is boring. While a handful of artists with hefty label budgets and PR campaigns did make excellent records in 2019, some of the best offerings of this year—and every year—come from under-the-radar artists that won't make many publications' year-end lists. Some albums just don't get enough shine from the national press, whether it's from of a lack of mainstream buzz, critics being stretched too thin, or the record not making its way into their hands until it's too late.
Whatever the reason, it's important to highlight the scrappy, underdog LPs that we spent the most time with. While we highlighted some mid-year favorites that may have slipped through the cracks as well as ones that made our Best Albums of 2019 List, these LPs still stuck with us and deserved some extra love. Here, in alphabetical order, are some incredible albums that just missed out on our lists, but are still worth your time and attention.
It only took ~15 years, but I finally outgrew emo. That said, those feelings of, like, 'appreciating everyday beauty' and 'getting lost in thought' and 'being sad thinking about your college boyfriend' still pop up and hang around from time to time, begging for some sort of musical catharsis. To soundtrack that heavy task of—ugh!—emoting for those of us who worship the riff, Alcest's new record Spiritual Instinct is the ideal outlet. The pioneering French blackgaze band's brand of soaring, tumbling post-metal is just hard enough for raging against your machine of choice, with an intricacy that inspires and warms instead of numbing, and songs like "Protection" and "Spiritual Instinct" drip with that heavy beauty that once made that kid videotape a plastic bag in the wind. It sounds like the human condition, which is, of course, dark and complicated but also expansive and gorgeous. Is it a little sentimental at moments? Sure. But aren't we all? — Hilary Pollack
Rock 'n' roll poetry is shockingly hard to pull off. It’s got to be equal parts silly, profound, and, more than anything, seemingly effortless. With all due respect to Tindersticks, Mountain Goats, and the “magnetic force of a man” part of Taylor Swift’s “Lover,” the finest rock 'n' roll lyric of 2019 was “Some mutts can't be muzzled/ Well, I guess I got you puzzled/ Woof woof” from Amyl and the Sniffers’ “Some Mutts (Can’t Be Muzzled).” Within a truly odd ode to our most petty and relatable reactions to a former lover moving on, backed by some of the finest pub rock we’ve ever heard, it’s the “woof woof” that does it. Dogs are great! Rock 'n' roll is (occasionally) great! Ask Iggy. Ask anyone.
Considering their quirky name, their singer’s onstage antics, and the entire band’s 70s Australian working-class rocker aesthetic, Amyl and the Sniffers could have easily fallen into the trap of pure novelty. Instead—fueled by Amy Taylor’s hip-hop-inspired songs of aspiration, mental self-care, and unhinged rage at an unfair, unjust, creep-infested universe—The Sniffers’ self-titled debut is a wonder. Dumb as dirt riffs (in a good way OBVIOUSLY), a rhythm section that could’ve built Rome in a day, and a singer who sings like rock 'n' roll damnation is her only viable option... it’s the best rock album of the year. If it was overlooked, it’s because critics were too “smart” for it. More the pity for said critics. — Zachary Lipez
Black Dresses' second album of 2019 is, like the rest of their catalog, shredded and upsetting. The project's two members, Devi McCallion and Ada Rook, trade pained screams over scuffed-up instrumentals, mulling the burdens of existence and the way that buried trauma always pokes at the surface of everyday life. But, at which its title gestures, LOVE AND AFFECTION FOR STUPID LITTLE BITCHES is defined by a more hopeful feeling—not positivity, exactly, but something like it. The opener "STATIC" is something like a mission statement. They sing of the myriad ways the world has fucked them up, but nevertheless they've "never felt so alive." It's a testament to stubborn, paradoxical resilience; if nothing else, the fight to push onward, even when it doesn't make sense to. And it's a testament to the power of the music they make together—it's easier to stand the suffering with a friend at your side. —Colin Joyce
If you were at least halfway plugged into the metal underground this year, you could not escape Blood Incantation. So many memes, so many longsleeve shirt designs, so many memes about longsleeves—was it all cover for a fleet of papier-mâché spaceships? Hidden History of the Human Race obliterates skepticism and puts Blood Incantation in the elite pantheon, upholding one of death metal’s secret traditions as the true successor to psychedelic music, another means of bludgeoning your brain, filling it with butterflies, and opening it to new dimensions. Death metal is rarely as brisk or exciting as on “Slave Species of the Gods,” shape-shifting in hyperspeed and embracing cosmic chaos like Trey Azagthoth at his most whacked-out. “Inner Paths (To Outer Space)” is half Cynic-esque voyage and half workout music for the bugs from Starship Troopers, an antidote to newfound Mortician-jocking lunkheads that has no shortage on brawn. Demilich frontman Antti Boman’s lone growl at the end is no mere guest spot; it is an anointing from a weird death metal god. Death metal rules because it’s strange, but it could always be stranger. Hidden History, bless, is strange. —Andy O'Connor
Brazil's Boogarins took psych rock into eccentric and thrilling territory on Sombrou Dúvida. Their arrangements are airy, precise, and wholly forward-thinking. Take the slow build of opener "As Chances" or the eccentric and choppy tones on "Invenção," which both unfold rewardingly. There's a masterful grace to their songwriting that feels completely fresh, pushing the genre in directions that haven't been tread by marquee acts like Tame Impala or MGMT. This is an album full of off-kilter experiments and gleeful risks that uniformly pay off in unexpected ways. —Josh Terry
Chicagoan-by-way-of-Bogotá romance punks Divino Niño inject a heavy dose of sultriness into Latinx guitar rock on Foam, their phenomenal LP that dropped this June. It's a collage of bright riffs, serenading vocals, and nostalgic melodies packaged into a mellifluous, Spanglish garage-band treat. This record's as sunny as a summer's day and as sweet as candy, and not just because two of its tracks are called "Coca Cola" and "Melty Caramelo." — Hilary Pollack
There's a rustic serenity to You Made It This Far, the 10-song LP from New Orleans songwriter Esther Rose. Across the album's sub-30-minute runtime, she crams in a wealth of affecting folk and understated roots, arranging songs that could easily be heard from a busker outside of a Bywater cafe. She sings with a calming but powerful drawl on songs like the breezy "Only Loving You" and the woozy "Lower 9 Valentine," which is a love letter to the neighborhood where she recorded the LP. This is modest and no-frills country music, but it packs a punch in its affecting simplicity. —Josh Terry
Singer/songwriter Emily Sprague is no stranger to solitude, both personally and musically. But for the third album by her band Florist, Emily Alone, she left her bandmates for the first time to record with little besides her guitar and plainspoken prose at hand. It's a familiar story, no doubt, but the stark honesty and introspection displayed in these 12 free-flowing, serene folk songs is only as common as the likes of Phil Elverum and Sufjan Stevens. Over finger-plucked acoustic guitar and murmuring ambience, Sprague sings softly about the parts of her existence no one else sees: that book she'll never finish, the sand she wants out of her hair, the ivy plant she wakes up to every morning, when she feels the dark pull of the ocean at night. Listening to Emily Alone is transportive in the way that peering into the corners of another mind can be, but it's also just as grounding in its relatability. For an album that explores the emotional landscape of isolation, it's remarkable how often it feels like spending time with a thoughtful, generous friend. —Patric Fallon
What we know as black metal largely didn’t want to be heavy metal; its aesthetic is better described as underfunded demos with blasting structures more ambient and Kraut than they are headbanger-friendly. No mosh, no -core, blah blah. Yet a lot of great modern black metal embraces the hesher within by incorporating classic influences, and Funereal Presence’s second record Achatius is a stunner in this regard. Bestial Devotion, who helms this project and also bashes drums in the prog-stricken Negative Plane, twists Mercyful Fate’s evil melodies into demented longform black metal, warping them into alien shapes that don’t obscure their catchiness. It’s as though Hank Shermann and Michael Denner fell into an alternate dimension where they didn’t just influence second-wave black metal... they were of it. And when Bestial Devotion’s Negative Plane comrade Nameless Void guests on guitar for two tracks, they have that same chemistry. In his hypnotic blasting, Bestial Devotion also slips in some cowbell, releasing a nighttime lust Blue Oyster Cult could conjure in their prime. You’re thinking of making that joke. Don’t. —Andy O'Connor
Seattle and Milwaukee band Great Grandpa made one of the year's most ambitious leaps forward with their sophomore LP Four of Arrow. Where their 2017 debut Plastic Cough was grungy and catchy, this album ecstatically traverses through genres. There's the twangy, Tom Petty-referencing "Bloom," which answers the question "what if Sheryl Crow fronted a punk band?", and the bright "Rosalie." Lead singer Alex Manne sounds freshly confident as they soar over the band's full-throated arrangements. The twinkling "Mono No Aware" is also a highlight, where lyricist Pat Goodwin has Menne singing about time slipping away: "It now reminds me of my failing grasp / Of the present, memory, self, and past." This is thoughtful and unquestionably pretty indie rock. —Josh Terry
In the 1969 documentary American Revolution 2, a member of the Black Panther Party is filmed giving a speech: "My scene is picking up my damn gun, and I'm a mother. Have my baby in one hand, my gun in the other, and walking up to some honky—all honkies!—saying, 'I'm here motherfucker, to get what's mine.'" Her tirade is sampled at the end of "These Things Happen," from the exceptional third album by Toronto art-punk band Greys, and it marks an early shift in the tone of Age Hasn't Spoiled You. What kicks off like a record spinning anxiety, indignation, and dissonance into powerful noise-pop anthems soon begins taking stock of the world around it, and doubles down on its restless angst. Singer Shehzaad Jiwani begins the next song with an altered perspective ("Soft focus fade from sight, into nothing at all"), which only darkens and slips further down the rabbit hole as the tracklist continues. Like an OK Computer for the Trump era, or a Leaves Turn Inside You for woke millennials, Age Hasn't Spoiled You taps into the disquiet that pulses through the culture and seeps into our inner lives, reflecting it back to us as imaginative, immersive rock music. —Patric Fallon
The stories Grip tells on his excellent LP Snubnose are brutal, gritty, and vividly rendered. The East Atlanta rapper is a deft lyricist, able to weave together narratives of gun violence and mental health with an ease that's astounding. On opener "He is … I am," he raps over a sticky soul sample flip, "Back when I was watching Goof Troops and eating Fruit Loops / You sprayed at your target but the strays ricocheted and struck a kid that used to shoot hoops." At the midpoint of the track, the beat shifts and the perspective changes from childhood trauma to Grip rapping as a .38 cal. revolver. His voice is pitch-shifted and menacing, "Me, myself, I go by tre eight, keep me on your waist, you gon' stay straight." It shouldn't work as well as it does but Grip, who also excels on the Mick Jenkins assisted "Finessin," is talented enough to pull it off. —Josh Terry
A creative's biggest fear is having every aspect of their process micromanaged and diluted until, eventually, the final product is nowhere near their original. Detroit's Jayla Darden isn't sticking around to let that happen, because not only is she a singer/songwriter, but she produces, mixes, and masters all of her music, too. Onto Something finds Darden honing in on her sound, with songs like "Be Your Girl" and "Pick Up" reflecting her laid-back delivery and minimalistic approach to production. You don't have to search far to hear her musical influences with a title track that sounds like an homage to R&B princesses of the 90s like Brandy and Aaliyah. Jayla Darden is a jill of trades and she's mastering them all. — Kristin Corry
While rapper-turned-podcaster Joe Budden boasts the largest profile of any of his erstwhile Slaughterhouse associates, Joell Ortiz deserves credit for making the best music in the group’s long aftermath. Since dropping 2015’s Human with producer !llmind and subsequently linking with the boom bap brethren over at Mello Music, the perennial Brooklyn underdog keeps reminding hip-hop heads why he can’t ever be counted out. His second outing for the label, the unflinching Monday finds him approaching 40 with a great deal of wisdom to impart and a lot to get off his chest. That pugilistic mix of streetwise sentimentality comes through as contrition on “Learn You” and confidence on “Grammy.” On “Sip Slow,” Ortiz comes to terms with his current status in the rap game, while on “Before Hip Hop” he reflects on the life he led before all that. —Gary Suarez
Militant raps in Italian over barrages of noise-scuffed beatwork fill the majority of this first salvo from one cell of a self-proclaimed "terror corps" born in Bristol, UK. Even if tu parli italiano it's likely tough to make out much of what Franco Franco—the rapping half of this duo—is saying much of the time, his delivery is queasy and seasick, and, perhaps more importantly, he's often crowded out entirely by the crushing instrumentals, coughing through the rubble of digital distortion and the creaky wreckage of old industry. Still though, it's appropriate stuff for a loud, crumbling world—it's the sound of people like you, barely hanging on. —Colin Joyce
Having mastered NWOBHM, Boston’s hardcore-bruisers-turned-heavy-metal-warriors Magic Circle give their third record, Departed Souls, a more 70s, bell-bottomed-to-hell production. Reliving the 70s is a criminal offense at this point (do we need another Sabbath boogie clone?) yet not only do Magic Circle bust out on parole; they once again prove they’re as much masters as students. If you know these guys through their other bands—Innumerable Forms, Stone Dagger, Mind Easer, and Sumerlands to keep it real brief—you won’t be shocked this is another banger. The title track and “Valley of the Lepers” do Pentagram better than Pentagram, controlled burns with groove for eons. Give them any trope, and they’ll find life in it. With the band laying back a bit, they really let vocalist Brendan Radigan shine, his wails becoming more of a focal point. He’s soaring, but he’s also raw, and his streetwise menace compliments his band’s more earthbound direction. They haven’t entirely abandoned NWOBHM, with “Nightland” adding a heap of aggression and a guitar lead ending that’s whirlwind romance at fatal speed. Life is too short not to listen to metal. —Andy O'Connor
What's better than one strong R&B vocalist? Five strong R&B vocalists. Los Angeles-based Next Town Down are students of their predecessors; they've studied Boyz II Men's harmonies, New Edition's crossover appeal, and have the potential to reach B2K's pandemonium-level fandom. To listen to Juliet is to get acquainted with the range of Chris, Malik, Leon, Tre'Von, and Terence's individual voices that bring texture to their sophomore project. If "Easy" caught your ear like it did ours this summer, so will "Front Seat," a bass-heavy cut featuring Calboy. But, "Wondering" positions Next Town Down as a group that can be as sultry as they are wholesome. —Kristin Corry
There are those who sleep and those who dream. Those who dream, like QUIN, relish in the alternate universe they've created, taking a break from the limits of everyday life. QUIN is so infatuated with her fantasies that she's dedicated Lucid, her latest EP, to those visions. The seven-track project teeters between the upbeat house production of "Fairy Love," to the hazy guitar strings of "Into You," which finds the California singer casting herself as the center of someone's desires. "When you're wide awake in your dreams, make it lucid / Put you back to sleep, I'll be back in the morning," she sings. 6LACK is the only co-star in her dreamland, and the duo's sing to each other in a near whisper on tracks like "MUSHROOM CHOCOLATE" and "Fav," which do little to hide their chemistry. QUIN's Lucid is your favorite dream—the one you spend a lifetime trying to recreate. —Kristin Corry
Tenci's Jess Homan sings with a room-filling, sweeping warble that takes up more than enough space on her sparse and stunning album My Heart is an Open Field. While the songs here might be slow, they're never meandering, able to blissfully glide with Homan's croon and delicate guitar playing. "Earthquake" kicks off the LP and is a perfect introduction to her pastoral and skeletal indie rock. Produced by Spencer Radcliffe, who also provides lead guitar and horns on several songs, the album shines on Homan's powerful voice and unfussy arrangements. Though she's only been performing as Tenci for a little over a year, these songs are confident and jaw-dropping enough for a veteran. —Josh Terry
Full disclosure: my cell phone number features the same area code that Tony Molina has tattooed on his forearm. Yep—I was born and raised in San Mateo County, so naturally, I was especially drawn to Tony Molina's excellent new offering which is fittingly titled Songs from San Mateo County. But setting aside my own positive biases toward all things West Bay, Molina's album is another installment in his seemingly endless discography of impressively written powerpop anthems, all clocking in under two minutes but still replete with memorable guitar lines that could easily live within the most bittersweet moments of Guided by Voices, Dinosaur Jr., or Weezer. All of the best elements of punk, garage, rock, and pop are here, and you're always left wanting more. Plus, this record would sound damn good cranking out of your car stereo while you hang around the parking lot of the Redwood City Safeway at 2 a.m., just being grateful for where you are, where you're from, and the understated appeal of the suburbs. —Hilary Pollack
Trey Gruber died in 2017 after a long battle with drug addiction, but his awe-inspiring and too-brief time in Chicago's music community is still felt on the posthumous compilation Herculean House of Cards. Boasting 25 songs and largely sequenced in the order Gruber wrote and recorded them, the double album is an affecting document of his creative evolution as one of his city's most essential indie rock songwriters. Compiled by Gruber's mother, Bunny's Jess Viscius, and Paul Cherry, his mostly unfinished songs are lovingly mixed and mastered. There are glimpses of genius on tracks like "Sister Say" and the impossibly devastating closer "Hammer Out the Edges." Released via archival label Numero Group, the album is a bittersweet tribute to an essential musician. —Josh Terry
The Pittsburgh-based producer W00DY called her September album My Diary as a signal that the four tracks contained on that release were more intimate than anything else the project released to date. On Bandcamp, W00DY called the release a summation of her "most personal thoughts and feelings," which is potentially concerning when you consider the tracks themselves, each of which are marathons of fractured sampling, caffeinated drum programming, and rhythmic contortions vertiginous enough to make you wonder if something's off in your inner ear. If this is what it sounds like in her head, it's probably a pretty overwhelming place to be—which is probably the point. On the whole, it's a testament to too-much-ness and a celebration of states of mind that feel hard to sustain. It's hyperactive, panicked, and ecstatic, often all at once—the sound of a mind that can never rest. —Colin Joyce
This article originally appeared on VICE US.