Yes, Norman Fucking Rockwell! and Father of the Bride were phenomenal—but there were also plenty of amazing records that didn’t make The Young Folks’ Top 50 list. Some of them are exciting returns from artists we’ve known and loved for ages; others are one-of-a-kind collaborations or new releases by indie bands cementing themselves as fan favorites. Here are ten underrated, but wonderful albums and EPs that rocked 2019.
Karen O and Danger Mouse – Lux Prima
What do you get when you bring together Karen O of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Danger Mouse of Gnarls Barkley and Broken Bells (and Demon Days)? Lux Prima—a hidden gem of an experimental rock album. From start to finish, it sounds like the soundtrack to the most beautiful film you’ve never seen. Some tracks, such as the epic opener, deal in graceful instrumentals; others, such as bluesy, fierce “Woman,” could be alt radio hits. If you’re a fan of either artist—or if you’re looking for something new and lush—this collaboration is a must-hear.
Catfish and The Bottlemen – The Balance
Lead singer Van McCann once said that while other bands try to “go leftfield,” Catfish and the Bottlemen only aim to “make brain-dead rock’n’roll.” While the British rockers deserve a bit more credit than that, there is a certain simplicity that ties their music together—and on “The Balance,” they do what they’re best at, smashing out one chorus-heavy, concert-ready rock hit after another. “Longshot” and “Encore” are sweet while staying effortlessly cool; “Conversation,” an anthem for McCann’s father, is unexpectedly heartwarming.
Temples – Hot Motion
Modern psychedelic rockers Temples caught fans’ eyes with Sun Structures and won their hearts with Volcano. Hot Motion shows them moving in a less poppy, more rock-heavy direction, harkening back to the sounds of artists like Status Quo. The title track kicks things off with a rollicking beat and a countdown that’s almost Biblical in nature: “Fourteen days of destruction/Thirteen days in the storm/Twelve long days of destruction…” Throughout the album, allegorical lyrics, delicate harmonies, and haunting synths add to the drama.
Cage the Elephant – Social Cues
Cage the Elephant has always been known for its gritty garage rock. On Social Cues, it breaks that mold, playing around with different styles. The title track is a Broken Bells-esque romp through Matt Shultz’s insecurities about fame. “House of Glass” is frantic, wide-eyed, and prophetic a la early MGMT. Then there’s “Night Running,” a vampire-hunting anthem that features reggae rhythms, resounding horns, and good old Beck. (Yes, you read that right.) For those who like the classic Cage sound, the haunting “Ready to Let Go” will be a sure favorite.
Yeasayer – Erotic Returns
Yeasayer has consistently struck the perfect balance between catchy hooks and indie innovation. On Erotic Returns, they do it again. Don’t be fooled by the record’s buoyant sound: many of the lyrics tackle controversies associated with the Trump administration. The commentary starts subtly on tracks like “Crack a Smile,” which describes a mysterious tyrant (guess who), and builds to a climax on “24-Hour Hateful Live!”, where Chris Keating sings, “Stephen Miller, child killer.” The album isn’t bogged down by pessimism: love songs “Ecstatic Baby” and “I’ll Kiss You Tonight” add some sweetness to the fury.
The Raconteurs – Help Us Stranger
In 2006, The Raconteurs—Jack White (of White Stripes fame), Brendan Benson, Jack Lawrence, and Patrick Keeler—made their debut with timeless rock hit “Steady as She Goes.” A few years later, Benson was ambiguous about the fate of the band: “It will come around and we’ll get together again… or maybe not.” Now, the guys are back with Help Us Stranger, their triumphant return. In classic Raconteurs style, the record blends sounds from a variety of genres, including folk, psych rock, garage rock, and the blues. Every track is meticulously crafted: “Only Child” haunts with gentle harmonies and a glorious instrumental finale, while “Now That You’re Gone” pulls punches with backup singers and a guitar solo.
Two Door Cinema Club – False Alarm
If you’ve fallen away from Two Door Cinema Club over the years, False Alarm is the album to reel you back in. Here, the band continues and improves upon the retro stylings heard in Gameshow, resulting in something that’s groovy and synthy and poppy in all the best ways. The standout track is “Satisfaction Guaranteed,” the band’s catchiest release since the Tourist History era. With dramatic backing vocals, frenetic guitars, and a chorus that evokes artists like Wham! and Bananarama, it shows the band committing 110% to its new direction. “Dirty Air” has an electrifying sense of urgency; “Once” mixes dreamy sounds with pensive musings in the style of alt rock contemporaries The 1975.
Nick Cave – Ghosteen
Nick Cave, king of baritone musings on the harshness of life and death, returned in 2019 with Ghosteen. The double album is the final part of a trilogy that began with Push the Sky Away and Skeleton Tree; it is also the first album Cave has written in full since the tragic death of his son Arthur. He takes a mystical, creative approach to the topic, using everything from Irish folk mythology to Christian iconography to ancient Buddhist stories to capture the many facets of love and love. As always, he sings—and, on “Fireflies,” speaks—with the purest emotion.
The Drums – Brutalism
It doesn’t get much dreamier than The Drums. Over the years, Jonny Pierce’s songwriting has only gotten more graceful, his soundscapes more sublime. Brutalism is his peak—although he’ll surely outdo himself with the next record. Lush, Britpop-esque “626 Bedford Avenue” might be the most clever shutdown song of 2019. Pierce sings like an angel, but each line is harsher than the last. “I should have left when you laughed at my shoes,” he sings over sunny guitars; “You might be a psychopath,” he gorgeously intones in the background. “I Wanna Go Back” is a more straightforward lament: a gentle riff repeats over the soft lapping of waves as Pierce mourns a failed relationship.
Irontom – Kid Midnight EP
Irontom’s music has always sounded a bit mystical, as if the band is actually a front for a 1900s-style spiritualist society that communes with medieval ghosts. This rings true on the West Coast rockers’ newest EP. The title track seems to be a theme song for Harry Hayes’ new persona: “I’m Kid Midnight/All I wanna be is something better than me,” he croons over the sound of organs. “Black Cat” is a down-and-out anthem for anyone who’s felt chased by bad luck, starring a killer riff. If these singles are any indication, the band’s next album will be stellar.