The Best Songs of 2019
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Unlike the best movies and TV shows of the year, where the release of genuinely good entertainment feels finite, the amount of great, new music in a given year feels endless. It's just about finding it. So, after deep-diving across release platforms, scouring the charts, looking into the most interesting, emerging names, and returning to classic, fan-favorite artists, we bring you the 100 best songs of 2019, starting with a ranked top 10 and then 90 more gems that you should know about. These 100 tracks are the ones we put on repeat all year because of just how good their beats are, the ones we had some good cries too, and those that somehow sounded unlike anything we had ever heard.
Check them out below, and then head to our best albums of the year list to do a full deep-dive into all of the good music that came out in 2019.
The Top 10 Best Songs of 2019
10. "EARFQUAKE," Tyler, the Creator
Tyler, the Creator has steadily risen from alt-rap collective Odd Future's elusive leader to a bona fide, game-changing creative. While the rapper/singer/producer/designer's last several records struck a chord with critics and further solidified his cultish following, this year's IGOR is his crowning achievement. On the record, he takes on a persona to ease the pain of a break up, while simultaneously feeling most joyously himself as he explains he knows you can find love again. Its track "EARFQUAKE" is the love song of 2019, a rap song that transverses genre with production that sounds as if it's pulled deep from R&B archives. He sings that he thinks he's found love, and there's nothing in the song to lead you to believe otherwise.
9. "The View," Oso Oso
Jade Lilitri is very emo. He also fronts the best emo band today, Long Island's Oso Oso. He's so emo that his excellent album Basking in the Glow is about attempting to give your all to move from the darkness toward the light, and learning to love that side of life. One of the best album tracks, "The View," hurls you into this emotional madness with its quixotic, upbeat drums and guitars. The sound actually allows you to give the song a shallow listen, when really the slur in Lilitri's voice is as if it suppresses whatever it is he's really feeling. It's like he's making revelations as the song plays on -- like how he's drawn to a form of apathy ("I was in love with it") before later realizing that living life detached strips away everything that makes it worthwhile. It's extremely heartwarming to hear Lilitri come to this conclusion, and if you surrender to the emo, nothing's stopping you from also moving towards the lightness.
8. "Drunk II," Mannequin Pussy
Those with a hardened exterior are used to people asking how we're able to keep it all together. But in reality, everybody breaks at least a little when shit hits the fan, and some of us are just better at wearing a collected mask. This is what Philly noise/punk band Mannequin Pussy wrestles with on the lead single "Drunk II" off their record Patience. The stellar song sounds like hysteria as riffs flail ecstatically, harmonies are increasingly layered, and vocalist Marisa Dabice transitions from escapist wailings to the penultimate, revealing line, "And everyone says to me, 'Missy, you're so strong,' but what if I don’t want to be?" On "Drunk II," the loud band who continues to stun is that internal conflict personified, a sonic journey of how insane and debilitating it can feel to let go and truly engage with what's going on inside.
7. "Almeda," Solange
Without a peep of warning, in spring 2019 Solange dropped her first release, When I Get Home, since her magnum opus of a record, 2016’s A Seat at the Table. Where the R&B singer illustrated her self-assurance on her last album, here, she metaphorically takes us to Houston, the place that shaped her, to exemplify even further how the black community shines and informs her art. "Almeda," a markedly faster song for the downbeat recording artist, plays like chilled-out '90s rap from her and featured artist Playboi Carti, preaching her hometown’s resilience ("Black faith still can’t be washed away / Not even in that Florida water"). It could be a hymn in a Southern church, or just as likely blow out speakers from cars passing by with the windows down; the track is an extremely hot celebration.
6. "Lark," Angel Olsen
On her latest album, All Mirrors, indie icon Angel Olsen sounds like she wants to want to become a full-blown, stadium-sized pop star. She should, and we should all aid the singer-songwriting in this journey, because she's one of the most powerhouse talents today. Her record opens with "Lark," which follows her odyssey of arriving at a place where she feels shameless in fiercely pursuing it in her dreams. You can hear it in her brandish voice over an orchestral section as she lays out to a former lover how their love was meant to die. "You say you love every single part / What about my dreams," she asks -- but she need not worry any longer, because you can tell she's ready to flourish on her own. It's a masterpiece, and what feels like a star stepping into her spotlight.
5. "Bad Guy," Billie Eilish
You may have started 2019 not knowing who Billie Eilish is. Now, you'd have to be a boomer with no access to the internet and/or live under a rock not to know who the multi-Grammy-nominated teenager is. She's absolutely an enigma: a green haired, semi-goth teen that Gen-Z kids are going crazy for -- but it's all because she's singing their truths. It's on "Bad Guy," one of the biggest songs this year, that she solidifies her innovative, somewhat bonkers but mostly genius status. It's 2019 pop at its finest: a weird, dark calico infused with trap and spookily produced like it could play in your nightmares. Eilish is the bad guy, and you damn well should be scared of this 18-year-old because it's terrifying how talented she is, which she proves on hit. Don't hide from her though, she's going to take over pop. (Duh.)
4. "Con Altura," Rosalía and J Balvin (feat. El Guincho)
Some of the most popular up-and-coming hitmakers with powerhouse potential are rapidly crossing geographical and genre borders, and Spain’s Rosalía certainly fits that mold. The Latin-Grammy-winning Best New Artist paved her own lane, transforming flamenco music for today with a touch of R&B, and on this year's "Con Altura" she immerses that sound in reggaeton with the assistance of Colombian artist and reigning crossover star J Balvin. Over a pulsating beat, Rosalía’s wispily fierce voice alternates verses with a confident Balvin to make for a thrilling, flirtatious track. Just let the seductive production and deep bass inevitably turn your hips into a swivel -- you won't be able to resist.
3. "Cellophane," FKA twigs
Sometimes it's the simplest songs that make our heart feel the heaviest, their lyrics carrying the exasperated weight of a final sigh after a long sob. It's what British electronic recording artist/producer/dancer FKA twigs does and more on "Cellophane," from this years stunning MAGDALENE. At its core, the song is a piano ballad examining the demise of her relationship with Robert Pattinson, a romance that propelled her into the public eye and was exposed as if it was shrink wrapped in plastic. She'll take away your breath away in each of her airy gasps, desperate to understand what went wrong as she repeats the minimal verse that, even so, is complex to digest: "Didn't I do it for you? Why don't I do it for you?" She may express not feeling enough on this track, but as an artist of this caliber, you can also sense her power that she can withstand anything.
2. "Gone," Charli XCX feat. Christine and the Queens
Charli XCX has been called a pop futurist. Her songs are daring, and genuinely sound like how you might imagine music will be when we're all living in space in the next century. (That is, if the rest of the pop music machine attempts to take the risks she does.) Her collaboration for Charli with French queer artist Christine and the Queens demonstrates the lengths Charlie XCX is willing to go. The production consumes you with each chaotic beat, engineered as if your ear is pressed right up to a speaker, mirroring the artists' pleas to find release in moments of anxiety. It's like a pop panic attack, until it breaks down into a form of euphoria. There's simply nothing like it on the radio.
There's a joke among Charli XCX fans that she must be exhausted from carrying the weight of pop music on her back -- but from the sounds of it, she knows she can't get too tired. She's got to keep driving the genre forward.
1. "The Greatest," Lana Del Rey
LA is literally on fire, and the rest of the world may as well be, too. The American Dream and the Hollywood fantasies that singer-songwriter Lana Del Rey writes about and pine for are starting to go up in ash, and even she is struggling to put out the flames. In part, it's what she comes to realize on "The Greatest," singing, tongue-in-cheek, "The culture is lit, and if this is it, I've had a ball." The entire song likes a blissful homage to her dreams for a nonsensical, whimsical world of yesteryear brought to today -- her words poignant, nostalgic and like she's throwing her arms up in the air, laughing without a care as a '70s Laurel Canyon-like guitar plays. As the song starts to end, the piano fades to none as if it's a to-be-continued: She's not ready to give up on her dream yet, and she's inviting us to join her exhibition to make tomorrow great.
Where her past releases might have sounded like perfect tributes to the icons whose feet she falls to, she became her own icon on Norman Fucking Rockwell! It's a vision we can all turn to in one way or another, her call to not let the fire overcome us and the culture.
"Morrow," 070 Shake
New Jersey rapper 070 Shake seemed to come out of virtually nowhere just a few years back, still in her teens. Now 21, the artist, whose real name is Danielle Balbuena, produces woozy, alt raps that caught the attention of Kanye West, garnering a contract with his Def Jam imprint Getting Out Our Dreams and an appearance on 2018's Ye, as well as a handful of other strong features, on top of her own even stronger singles. She continued her ascension in 2019 with the track "Morrow." She described the single as "one to cry to," which is a fair assessment, as the wallowing song explores the paranoia of focusing on a relationship's fate ("I know it’s hard to swallow / I don’t know if I’ll be here tomorrow"). An interesting name in rap for her taste in sound, 070 Shake’s deep, radiant voice mixes well with the low, downbeat production and chilling sonic elements.
"Money Machine," 100 Gecs
Unless you're on indie Twitter or into experimental electronic music, there are not enough "gecs" in the world to understand 100 gecs if you aren't already familiar with them. For those who don't know, 100 gecs is the batshit electro pop duo of producers Dylan Brady and Laura Less. By no means is their music universal; it sounds like they went into the studio and just smashed on their keyboards until random sounds popped out, then decided the absurdist result was just deranged enough to work. On songs like "Money Machine," off their record 1000 gecs, the aggressive synths and minimalist beat support a series of obliterating roasts straight from the first line: "Hey, you lil' piss baby / You think you're so fucking cool? Huh?" will knock the wind out of you. But this is a banger, like the rest of 100 gecs' freakish brand of pop, so it'll have you on your feet, head-banging, in two-and-a-half minutes.
"People," The 1975
The 1975 are pissed the fuck off, man. Frontman Matty Healy is vocal about being frustrated (like the rest of us) to live across the pond with the threat of Boris Johnson, while Donald Trump gaslights the US, and climate change turns everything to shit. Their 2018 album A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships may have been about trying to stay optimistic but with the first official single of their upcoming 2020 album, "People," it's like they're screaming in our faces that we must turn that forward-thinking into something revolutionary. It's a riotous punk take from the British alt band, and enough energy to send you straight to the picket line. The song kicks off with Healy screaming, "Wake up, wake up, wake up / It's Monday morning and we've only got a thousand of them left," and closes with, "Stop fucking with the kids." The tension will convince you the time for anarchy is now.
"Shea Butter Baby (feat. J. Cole)," Ari Lennox
DC talent Ari Lennox's brand of neo-soul is pretty and feminine, but nixes the idea that to be womanly means keeping quiet about the messy and personal. That's all part of the intimacy. The J. Cole prodigy's title track off her debut is a collaboration with the rapper, a sexy R&B number that literally wound up in the sheets, reflective of her whole bedroom eyes sound. The subtle production sounds restrained, but her words and J. Cole's verse couldn't be more up front with their desires. It's smooth like shea butter, and upon listening, it's so perplexing that you can just about smell it too.
"NASA," Ariana Grande
Ariana Grande promised fans that six months after releasing Sweetener, she’d be back with more music, and the pop star came through with the thank u, next. For many reasons (tragedy, public relationships, major albums), pop has really become Ariana’s universe that we’ve all just been living in, and "NASA," off thank u, next, takes us out of this world with a cheeky outer-space song about needing distance, but even its sound is too grand for this stratosphere. Its R&B production and the composition of synths and bass may not sound atmospherically cosmological, but it is her new signature and exemplifies the influence of her individual satellite on the industry. At the beginning of the track, you can faintly hear, "This is one small step for woman, one giant leap for woman-kind" -- of "NASA," of thank u, next, of Ariana and all that she’s been up to, it's the truth.
"Caro," Bad Bunny
Puerto Rican trap/hip-hop/rapper/reggaeton artist Bad Bunny is an urban innovator, so it's no surprise that when the SoundCloud rapper blew up, became the world's pappi, and dropped his first studio album, X 100pre (in late December 2018), the highly anticipated release was a surefire hit. While the entire record features impressive Latin trap numbers, "Caro," which blew up early this year after its music video release, is a statement from the recording artist: His music is uniquely Puerto Rican, but an innovation nonetheless. Rapping about how he flips gender norms, and that everyone is valuable no matter their identity, he's bringing something fresh to Latin rap. His flow shifts as the bombastic bass does before it becomes somewhat of a ballad, allowing the song to take on many forms -- much like Bad Bunny himself.
"Dylan Thomas," Better Oblivion Community Center
Back in January, modern folk favorites Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst combined forces and surprised fans with a duo project titled Better Oblivion Community Center. Wrapped in their shared folk rock of empathetic songwriting, the project is entwined in their togetherness while exploring their individual experiences feeling unavoidably alone. One of these numbers is "Dylan Thomas," an admittedly more up-beat track on the record with its bursting, twangy guitar solos and lyrics written in witticism about the gravity of feeling helpless in the current political landscape. In harmony they sing, "I’m getting greedy with this private hell / I’ll go it alone, but that’s just as well," and despite how insular they sound, in the subtly humorous song there’s reassurance knowing many of us are fighting the same fight.
"Not," Big Thief
Big Thief had a big year. The indie folk darlings released two major albums, both to great acclaim -- which checks out, as the Brooklyn-based band consistently creates an organic, earthy world in all that they release. They may be known for front woman Adrienne Lenker's revelatory songwriting, but their lead single "Not" from their second album of the year, Two Hands, is all about the words left unsaid. She crafts verses listing the banalities and details that life is not about, but as the rock ballad builds and indulges in pure shredding cacophony, it's as if the group's left whatever life is about to be felt right then.
"Xanny," Billie Eilish
Alt-pop prodigy Billie Eilish quietly became one of the biggest pop stars in the world because of her depressingly dark music -- her vulnerable and frank lyrics are exactly what her young audience connects to. And they're onto something. WHEN WE ALL FALL ALSEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? album track "Xanny" epitomizes her writing prowess in a song dissecting her weakness in the face of her peers’ drug use. Her hushed voice sways tragically with a reverberating bass that feeds in and out, and her brutal words ("I can’t afford to love someone who isn’t dying by mistake in Silver Lake") will make you crumble. "Xanny" intoxicates, and shows there’s no blowing away the smoke around Eilish’s emerging popularity.
"953," black midi
black midi quickly became one of the buzziest bands of the year. Their post-punk/noise/jazz/mind-altering music took off in the London underground and garnered them a great deal of conversation and "best new bands" superlatives once they debuted at festivals stateside -- and once their debut dropped, they secured their position as one of the biggest, weirdest breakout acts only the coolest know about. "953" epitomizes what they do, walking the line of post-punk and art-rock, refusing to remain still. Anxious guitars bounce erratically under rapping, and as off as it all sounds, it’s extremely exciting. "953" ends in a moment of insanity, not unlike the frenzy that developed around the group rather rapidly this year -- because, as you can hear, they’re doing something more interesting than the rest.
"Hey, Ma," Bon Iver
It's been awhile since Bon Iver retreated to the forest since his folk music moved towards folktronica, but he never left the home that was built for him there. It's where he returns on his loveliest i, i entry, "Hey, Ma," that looks fondly and gratefully back on his childhood memories, prompting him to give a call to the woman who raised him. A simple concept, but one that is delivered with all of Justin Vernon's heart: His angelic voice in a lower register sounds somehow even more human, and the production is so atmospheric it could conjure up your own memories of youth.
"Silent Ride," Boogie
After years of singing in the church choir and independently producing mixtapes under the moniker Boogie, Compton-based rapper Anthony Dixson and his viral successes warranted a co-sign from Eminem and a deal with Shady Records. The recording artist's first official LP, Everything's for Sale, features a number of mesmerizing rap tracks, led by the entrancing single "Silent Ride." With a sing-song delivery that dynamically picks up in pace, Boogie talks about wrestling with inner demons and that ruthless voice that haunts your head. The stripped-down, Heaven-esque production feels on trend with rap's recent gospel kick, which entered the mainstream thanks to the popularity of Chance the Rapper, but the song stands out next to the major label-produced trap flooding the airwaves, making the rapper one to watch.
"Now That I Found You," Carly Rae Jepsen
You expect a certain joy listening to Carly Rae Jepsen: Her '80s synth pop is childishly fun, and there's an excitement in how she navigates her feelings. Her Dedicated number "Now That I Found You" is especially the sort of song you crave from her -- synthesizers and a chorus that builds until it bursts into glitter and rainbows. The song has the kind of beat that you might expect to hear on a mainstream EDM producer's radio single that called for a female vocalist, but instead its decadent drum machines and head-over-heels exhilaration about finding "the one" is the energy only beholden to Jepsen.
"Door," Caroline Polachek
You may not know her name until now, but you've probably heard Caroline Polachek's music before. The singer fronted the early 2010s core indie pop band Chairlift, and went on to write for pop stars once the group dissolved after the release of their 2016 album. Luckily, this year she went solo, creating synth-pop that lays all of her emotions on a platter, sounding somewhere between an angel and AI, were robots ever able to express love and loss. On "Door" she sings in a bouncing falsetto, "Back in the city, I'm just another girl in a sweater," before the song turns into a fantasia as she imagines running through a series of doors to someone, or something -- perhaps it's someone she loves, or perhaps its the artistry of strange pop she's ready to pursue.
"Daylight Matters," Cate le Bon
Often from behind the scenes, Welsh singer-songwriter Cate le Bon has become an essential name in indie, producing major albums for artists like Deerhunter while recording stunning krautrock-inspired music of her own. "Daylight Matters," the lead single from her solo album Reward, illustrates the breadth of her talent, while moving into a pop-minded, almost jazzy realm from behind the piano. The track casts you under a mournful veil with the simple chorus, "I love you, I love you, I love you, but you’re not here," and its atmospheric sound only pushes you further into a longing, quizzical headspace. But it doesn't feel weary, just a gentle embodiment of reflection.
Through their dance-infused punk music, the four women of the Japanese band CHAI set out to redefine the concept of "kawaii," or Japan's perception of cuteness. To CHAI, which deviates from the increasingly internationally popular J-Pop style by embracing louder, art-rock sounds, everybody is cute in their own way, whether they're conventionally attractive or not (the latter being especially embraced). CHAI represents this vision both sonically and with their attitude, and the group's song "Fashionista," is perhaps the greatest example of that. With its percussion, funky bass, and stylish tone, "Fashionista" literally sounds like music for the runway, but only if that catwalk were to feature the most avant garde fashions. Just as anybody can be cute, anybody can be a fashionista -- and CHAI's sweet harmonies on this fun single should have you feeling like anything's possible, too.
"Chatroom," Charly Bliss
Brooklyn's Charly Bliss is like scuzzy '90s alt that’s been candied; the group’s front woman Eva Hendricks makes it especially sweet, having one of the most identifiable, girlish voices in alt rock today. Although despite making power pop, and tapping into pop mentality even more on their album Young Enough, there’s a ferocity there. Their "Chatroom" is an example of this exuberance: a youthful track of loud drums and guitars that climax at a moment of anger turned into no-fucks-left-to-give, a reflection of what Hendricks said she personally felt following a toxic relationship and experience of sexual assault. You hear this shift in emotion in the growing song, its repetitive chorus so catchy you sense it in your soul that it's always possible to bite through the sour.
"Wasted Nun," Cherry Glazerr
There's been an absence of sticky, sweet indie rock in recent memory -- the kind that mixes harsh, danceable guitar riffs with a harsh crunch. Cherry Glazerr, the fiery, garage LA output, fills that void, and Stuffed & Ready track "Wasted Nun" finds frontwoman Clementine Creevy singing about feminine exhaustion over red hot, exuberant guitars. The song personifies the wasted feeling of being a young woman -- overlooked, but with expectations thrust upon her. It's maddening, but in a dynamic way that feels all too familiar.
There's a reason bedroom pop artist Clairo's lo-fi music went viral (thanks, TikTok) and became the subject of major label bids before she committed to staying independent. Her soft sounds are like a reflection of isolation, when you're left with nothing to do but weed through your emotions. Where her original releases relied on the euphoria of keys and dainty lyrics of Gen-Z relatability, the first single off her debut Immunity is a bittersweet statement piece to her artistry. About a relationship coming to an end with feelings left unsaid, "Bags" feels earnestly broken with her airy voice and verses like, "I should probably keep it all to myself, know you’d make fun of me." A jarring piano and repetitive guitar try to make sense of the fallout, and of course they can't, but her vulnerability is profound enough to prove she'll get through.
"Path," Club Night
Club Night may be composed of seasoned musicians from the Oakland DIY scene, but they arguably sound like a group of kindergarteners bashing on a set of classroom instruments -- in a good way. The indie noise band sounds especially pure and entrancing when meshed with the frantic. Off their full-length debut, What Life, "Path" is odd and intensifying, featuring riffs that gently play before crashing and burning to be one in the same with lead singer Josh Bertram’s boyish howl. Like the lessons we learn when we’re small that sometimes get lost growing up, Bertram exclaims, "We need an education, compassion, or shred of empathy," making "Path" a boisterous call from this band-to-watch to always be kind.
The Brooklyn-based band Crumb occupies a landscape of their own, somewhere between jazz and psych-rock. While the group was originally a way for vocalist Lila Ramani to turn her personal high school musings into professionally recorded tracks, they’ve since toured non-stop and are just riding the release of their first album, 2019's Jinx. Their single "Nina" perfectly embodies the band's magnetism, with its engrossing synthesizers, elongated vocal tracks, and trippy guitars wrapping you in a neo-jazz dream. With "Nina" (and all their songs), Crumb takes you to another realm.
Like you would any newborn, we must love and nurture DaBaby. The North Carolina rapper is the baby of hip-hop: one of the best new acts this year, offering nothing but joy in the form of elated South trap. As he should be, the rapper is just as enthusiastic about himself and his career as fans are; "BOP," off Kirk (his second LP of the year), hilariously and excitedly spits bars about his promising future over a slinky, hot beat. This won't be the first "bop" you hear from him.
"Dirty Laundry," Danny Brown
Rapper Danny Brown's lead single off his record uknowhatimsayin¿ is like an unfiltered stand-up set or deranged skit from The Eric Andre Show in the form of a hip-hop song. His life coming out of dealing in Detroit to a career as one of rap's greatest alt stars has certainly been a wild ride, and his brazen personality has only made the journey all the more interesting. He embraces this debauchery on "Dirty Laundry," chronicling a series of ridiculous sexcapades delivered in a snarky, comical tone over '90s-bumping production from A Tribe Called Quest's Q-Tip. Brown sounds his best bonkers, and the punchline, carried all the way to the final verse, slaps on this one.
The superlative for the sweetest song of 2019 goes to Dehd, a surf rock trio from Chicago made up of scene natives who previously lent their talents to bands like NE-HI and Lala Lala. Beginning with the line, "Lucky to have people in my life with the power to break my heart," Dehd can fill you up with butterflies. That feeling persists, the scuzzed out surf sounds mirroring what it feels like the settle into the unpredictable anxiety of a new crush. Their lyrics may come off as indifferent at times, eager to hold onto what they’ve found ("I long to be lucky"), but in each yearning guitar tone, you can free yourself of doubt because, in Dehd, love is alive.
"SPEEDBOAT," Denzel Curry
South Florida rapper Denzel Curry has arrived. The recording artist released a series of records within the past few years and made a name for himself in the Miami scene and beyond, but now with his latest album ZUU, he's committed to showing fans what the South is all about. "SPEEDBOAT" blazes like the Florida sun, a meditation on how volatile his scene is. Breezing through lines about luxurious aspirations and friends dying too young over a sampled piano, the track is arguably on Curry's softer side, but encapsulates his hometown experience all too well. And that anthemic chorus singing, "Jesus, please deliver us from evil / please pray over all my people," will have you ascending, finding God even in the Sunshine State.
The shoegaze band DIIV sort of inadvertently cemented a reputation for themselves in indie music as that band who inspired the indie boy band aesthetic for the 2010s. You know, a guitar band who's sickly skinny and dressed in oversized T-shirts and baseball caps. There's much more to the group fronted by Zachary Cole Smith than a look, however; in recent years, Smith has become candid about his struggles with addiction. DIIV's guitars are always intoxicating, especially when they sound disordered, which often feeds into tracks exploring Smith’s recovery, but on their Deceiver song, "Blankenship," it feels as if it alludes to the climate crisis ("The earth is ownerless / Blankenship / Children lead the cry"). It's not easy listening because DIIV doesn't want to be a passive band; here, they're in disarray and they've never sounded so great.
"Don't Start Now," Dua Lipa
The way Dua Lipa's exponentially risen in the past couple years is perhaps what many aspiring pop artists pine for: fame just sort of falling into their lap. The British singer wanted to be a pop star, moved to London as a teenager, and… became one, record deal, Diplo-collaborations, and all. Her dark, alternative pop has already produced stylish international hits like "New Rules," but no release thus far has felt like her sound fully realized and hit as hard as "Don't Start Now. It's funky as hell, and like a disco fantasy. With this one, you'll want to follow the neon lights, and join Dua on the dance floor because she sounds confidently moved on and having a ball.
ATL hip-hop duo EARTHGANG theatrically croons, "just another day in these filthy, sweet Atlanta streets," to kick off their track "UP" -- as if peeling back the curtain on the circus of a track that's about to play, and the allure of their hometown scene. Officially released on their new major label debut, Mirrorland, out on J. Cole's imprint, the song is like a showcase of the tenacity of the Southern sound and the up-and-comers themselves. They mercilessly play with funk and keep you on your toes by swerving between R&B swoons and ghastly, screeching bars. It pulsates with OutKast's influence, but largely relays how much these two are the next Atlanta artists to watch. EARTHGANG knows they're on the up and up.
"Hanging out of Cars," Empath
There’s a near-universal exuberance in speeding down the freeway, sitting beside someone you love. It never ceases to go away when you’re young, with every car ride feeling as if it's is the first one since you’d gotten your license. In "Hanging out of Cars," from Philly-based four-piece Empath’s debut LP, Active Listening: Night On Earth, the group epitomizes this experience through their jittery, harmony-rich noise-pop. Empath, who have quickly become a staple in the percolating Philly noise-rock scene, envelops you in loud, fuzzed out sounds before they fade out to fill space with strange, cinematic production. The track and this gripping group are dying to pierce your speakers as if you're a teenager tracing your hometown highways once again.
"Kingston," Faye Webster
Emerging folk singer Faye Webster is a strange conglomerate of sound -- folk, alt-country, R&B, and even hip-hop -- but it all meshes deliciously like a bite into peach cobbler, and makes sense, being that she's from the Atlanta indie scene. The 21-year-old's voice often sounds like it's quivering, as if she's making statements too awkward to say aloud, but the unbridled longing on "Kingston" is so romantic. As much as the Southern artist's sound is very much one of a singer coming up in 2019, that twangy guitar and jazzy chorus inspires imagery of 20th century couples dancing in their carpeted, wood-panel-walled living room as a record plays.
"Henna Tattoo," Field Medic
Some things are meant to fade, like posters in your childhood bedroom basking in daylight, sun tans, temporary tattoos, or relationships. Folk artist Field Medic knows this, no matter how painful it may be. The lead single off his latest fade into the dawn, "Henna Tattoo," narrates a moment of realization that the one he yearns for has eyes for somebody else, and the halcyon moments of their time together are fading to none. The song is a solemn number from the solo artist who makes clever folk music in a variation of DIY aesthetics, hip-hop production, and Americana twang, although it sounds romantically worn as if it's playing off a tainted cassette. The song is enough to convince listeners that Field Medic's brand of folk is something a bit more permanent.
Girlpool’s "Pretty" from What Chaos Is Imaginary is a lovely, slow burning ditty. And despite its title, it's like it's based in the "un-pretty," how it can feel going through days void of dreaming and making an idol of someone who you ultimately come to realize is "pretty broken." When vocalist Harmony Tividad sings, "I’m not a dreamer in their prime / I’m consistently not worth your time" amidst the rest of her stream of consciousness lyrics in tandem with the group’s dancing, lo-fi signature, you can feel your heart go from light to incendiary. Like all of What Chaos Is Imaginary, on this song they search to "understand what this sadness means," but even then you sure can hear them find the prettiness in the mess.
Electropop experimentalist Grimes became an indie icon with her 2015 record Art Angels. By no means has she been quiet in the past four years, though. Rather, she's been making headlines for reasons that can only be described as a glitch in the simulation, like dating Elon Musk and feuding with rapper Azeaelia Banks for locking her out of Musk's home. She started to double down on music in 2019, and in the most majestic way that only a strange alien princess turned sort of household name like her could. Her forthcoming record is said to be "a concept album about the anthropomorphic goddess of climate change" (because of course), and one of its singles released this year, "Violence," definitely embraces that allegory with lyrics about complacency in an abusive relationship. It's melodic and her breathy vocals sound manufactured to mirror a cookie-cutter pop star, making that intentional toxicity all the more tangible.
"Summer Girl," HAIM
HAIM's "Summer Girl" sounds like a memory -- the way you constantly reminisce about July through heart-shaped frames and rose-colored lenses. Instead of a guitar-focused funk song the LA-based sister trio is known for, the single that arrived in late July is hushed and simmering, like the afternoon sun beaming on your shoulders. Danielle Haim's repetition of "I'm your summer girl," affirms her position in her lover's life, but the saxophone, her beautifully mindless "du du dus," and the tremble in her trailing voice could just about catalyze her and the tune into a specific moment in time, one she would hope you'd look back on fondly. But in the bridge as she declares, "You walk beside, not behind me / Feel my unconditional love," it's certain this song is for holding onto that summertime feeling even when it seems fleeting.
"Lights Up," Harry Styles
You'd be lying to yourself if you weren't slightly breath-taken by Harry Styles. At the very least, you're intrigued by whatever it is about the former One Direction member that makes him so freaking charismatic. The lead single from his album Fine Line, "Lights Up" is a good indication; it fashionably transplants '70s pop rock in 2019 with its vague, nonsensical lyrics delivered in a rock star croon. The song invites you to "step into the light," which might mean radical self-acceptance, but may as well be an initiation ceremony into his following because of how entrancing you'll find the young star to be. Just do it, just step into the light -- Styles is an icon in the making.
"Stay With Me," Hatchie
Nothing sounds quite as lush as Australian shoegaze artist Hatchie. Harriette Pilbeam produces dream pop that oozes romanticism in the form of crystalline guitar and synth tones. The singer/songwriter from down under quickly become the "it girl" of the genre with her debut album Keepsake. "Stay With Me," a single off the record, shimmers with its disco-clad vibe, as if it’s meant to be cried over in the club. Synthesizers and Hatchie's hushed, yearning voice make "Stay With Me" euphoric, even as she recalls a romance that's ended. The track makes you come undone with her, in the best way possible.
"Please Won't Please," Helado Negro
In his project Helado Negro, Roberto Carlos Lange makes what sounds like liquidized folk music. It's slow and pulpy; electronic music made restful. On "Please Won’t Please," off the tender This Is How You Smile, the recording artist makes this mellow place a world worth soaring in. His soft voice in tandem with warm synthesizers, Lange sounds golden, like the strength of his Latinx background, singing powerful verses like, "Lifelong history shows that brown won’t go, brown just glows," an ode to his Ecuadorian immigrant parents and cultural history. The track glows, too.
"Highwomen," The Highwomen
Every once in a while, country produces a supergroup that transcends the big star, arena-rock ethos that dominates the genre. In 2019, veteran Brandi Carlile teamed up with young star Maren Morris and songwriters Amanda Shires and Natalie Hemby to give country the mega-band it was missing in The Highwomen. A take on The Highwaymen, the classic outlaw supergroup made up of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson, the 21st century version essentially flipped the '80s band's self-titled introduction "Highwayman" into a song of their own for their record. Their somber voices shine as they sing, "We are The Highwomen, singing stories still untold," and their lyrics make history out of the hardships all women face. The group exists to show up the boys' club of a genre they're in, and songs like this will make you believe they can do it.
"Saturday Night," HUNNY with Bleached
With the release of LA alt band HUNNY's debut record Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. in July, they birthed into the world the only song deserving of Saturday-night-in/slumber party/teen movie theme song status with their Bleached collaboration, "Saturday Night." (It's right there in the name!) Much like this new wave-y pop-punk band themselves, the sheeny, bubbly track is impeccable -- the kind made for bedroom dance parties. Vocalist Jason Yarger's angsty drawl spits lovesick pleas ("Because you're all that I want and every word that you mock sounds so pretty to me / you should die with me"), and slides in mentions to Echo and the Bunnyman and My So Called Life, but there's no song that should've been meant for a '90s teen series as much as this.
"QUE PRETENDES," J Balvin, Bad Bunny
Pop stars are perfectly competent at making hits; it's literally what they do. But Latin phenoms J Balvin and Bad Bunny needn't make a safe, formulaic song for it to be a banger. The Colombian Reggaeton star teamed up with the Puerto Rican trap artist to drop a surprise joint release OASIS this summer, and it drips heat like the condensation on the glass of your mojito. "QUE PRETENDES" is a stand-out on the eight-track project, finding the two complementing each other's talents: Balvin crooning elegantly on the chorus and Bad Bunny's smokey rap bringing ample speed to the atmospheric beat. Singing about the torment of a lover who left you behind and coming back to torture you some more, these two know the art of seduction.
"He," Jai Paul
It took over seven years to hear new solo music from British electronic/R&B savant Jai Paul. He may not be a household name, but the two songs that he released under his name blew up at the start of the 2010s, and their artful electro production undeniably projected where music went throughout the remainder of the decade. He didn't let the era go out without having another say, though, sharing two singles including "He," which represents what fans had been vying for since he blew everyone away back when he was uploading recordings to MySpace. Understated, gospel-like, and quiet, it's like an ever-changing electro hymn, and whether it's about a lover or spirituality, it becomes something rather glorious.
"ZORA," Jamila Woods
Like she sings on the single “ZORA,” Chicago-based soul artist Jamila Woods' "weaponry is [her] energy." Her music creates a universe of its own, expanded upon her poetry about the beauty in blackness and her R&B sound that goes into a dimension parallel to Afrofuturism. On this year's LEGACY! LEGACY!, she paid homage to the black artists that inform her work, naming each track after them, like author Zora Neale Hurston on "ZORA." The track glistens with keys entwined with strings, as so does Woods, singing with warm confidence as if she's taken on the unapologetic spirit of the late-great writer. When she delivers the line, "I dare you to shrink my wave, I'm on a new plane," it's as if she's singing from the elevated plane of existence that she and Hurston exist on, and one can only imagine how enchanting it must be if it sounds this good.
"Superbike," Jay Som
The music of Melina Mae Duterte's dream pop project Jay Som feels warm in the same way that afternoon light streaming through your curtains does as it brightens a room. "Superbike," off this year's Anak Ko finds her swirling sounds more magnetic than ever. As if boarding a motorcycle and setting off into a picturesque horizon, she's expanding the breadth of pretty guitars and taking them on a personal journey. She sings the final verse, "Gonna breathe until you're gone," with two minutes of instrumentals left in the track; you'll be left trying to inhale every bit of her shoegaze sweetness the rest of the ride.
"Heads Gonna Roll," Jenny Lewis
It's as if indie rock icon Jenny Lewis ran into you, a former dear friend and lover, at a dive bar along the highway in "Heads Gonna Roll," a track off On The Line. You can almost see the songwriter smiling at you from across the bar with a tear in her eye before she decides to pull up a stool up beside you to revisit all of your distant, fond memories kissing in graveyards and disagreeing about everything "from Elliott Smith to Grenadine." The song is a masterclass in songwriting and Lewis' forlorn voice conveys a closeness only true friends can offer. With its twangy guitar solos and slinky, stretched out tone, the indie darling sounds like a country star on horseback riding into the sunset -- the proper legacy status the former Rilo Kiley singer deserves.
"Sucker," Jonas Brothers
The Jonas Brothers never really left pop-culture consciousness; Nick and Joe just went on to make solo music (and stayed trending based on their relationships with other mega-famous celebrities). But what pop didn't know is that it needed an infusion of the revived family trio once again in 2019. Rather than keeping up with their '00s pop rock, the JoBros now make the genre-defying pop that they likely would've landed on eventually had they kept the band going. It's freeing and tastefully (p)optimistic, the Happiness Begins lead single "Sucker" one of the most fun on the Hot 100 this year. It's been nearly a decade since you've gotten to groove to the carefully crafted boy band, so it's about damn time you surrender to the bass line and swoon over Nick's falsetto intermixed with those synths.
"Jesus Forgive Me, I Am A Thot," JPEGMAFIA
…and the best song title of the year goes to JPEGMAFIA. That's not the only praise owed to the experimental, alt-rapper's track. Much like the artist's experience relocating to LA following a stint in Baltimore after his military deployment, his sound crosses borders and can't be pinned down -- and "Jesus Forgive Me…" is as zealous as they come. Over majestic synths and piano, he wavers between boastful prayers regarding his own success, and the future of humanity. It's like an amalgamation of his frantic, genre-pushing sound, and you can't help but think those sounds of glass breaking on the track echo how he's shattering the expectations of what music can sound like. On the song, he raps, "I put my soul into every bar, and every verse, and every rhyme" -- amen to that!
"Hope Is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman Like Me to Have, But I Have It," Lana Del Rey
It may seem as if Lana Del Rey, plagued by loneliness, feels like no one understands her besides the literary icons she prays to, but in reality, the songwriter knows she mirrors the timeless experience of the melancholic modern woman. Like the subjects of Sofia Coppola movies or Sylvia Plath's writings (the latter's name dropped in the track), her Norman Fucking Rockwell! album closer is an ode to this side of her and the unsatisfied, emotive woman yearning for more out of life. But as somber as the self-referential piano ballad is, she has hope that this apathy isn't everlasting, and as desperate as she sounds, you believe her. Simply put: This is pinnacle Lana Del Rey, and that's a beautiful thing.
"Old Town Road - Remix," Lil Nas X (feat. Billy Ray Cyrus)
Giddy up -- because the yeehaw agenda said, "This town ain’t big enough for the two of us," and proceeded to take over culture this year. And the breakout track from Soundcloud rapper turned major-label-signee Lil Nas X is the soundtrack to the internet-dubbed "yeehaw agenda." The rap/country track may have sparked controversy after Billboard removed it from the country charts, but that prompted country mainstay Billy Ray Cyrus to offer an assist on several verses, and also the internet to adamantly lend its support of the song, making it blow the fuck up. This daunting bass is made for outlaws, it's got a certified hook, and with its cheeky Western lyrics, "Old Town Road" is exactly what should play as you gallop on your steed right out the ranch.
"Free Uzi," Lil Uzi Vert
Lil Uzi Vert is free! The 24-year-old emocore rapper started off the year declaring he was forced to retire due to conflicts with his former label, but since he struck a deal with JAY-Z's Roc Nation, he came back hot-as-ever with "Free Uzi." The track reminds listeners how the young talent lit a fire that never stopped burning, his delivery so rapid it's hard to keep up with his snarky verses; the muted production only feeds into the level that he’s on. "Free Uzi" is right, because it would be a crime not to hear more from the young rapper who's turning the genre temptingly dark.
Self-love anthems are a constant of pop music... but no one did self-love this year quite like Lizzo. On Cuz I Love You''s "Juice," the hip-hop artist unapologetically touts how incredible she is, and she makes the case to give you every reason to believe she's telling the truth. Over a nostalgic, soulful funk beat, her track takes you back to the most indulgent of eras with its '70s stylings, further informing its decadence and convincing you, too, to let go. Like Lizzo, leave the boys in the DMs and instead fall for the woman in the mirror, and parade her out on the dance floor. With quips like "I'm not a snack at all, baby, I'm the whole damn meal," she may well inspire this kind of confidence in us all.
"Burning," Maggie Rogers
Maggie Rogers, a folk-pop phenom who ascent into the ether with viral success over the past three years, it seems wanted to reclaim her narrative with her debut album Heard It In a Past Life. Her name has been attached to Pharrell’s since the virtuoso played the recording artist one of her songs at an NYU workshop in 2016 and he adopted her as a mentor. But the singer, who dances with the cosmos in her lyrics like a 21st century Stevie Nicks and plays with electronic production with an ear for streaming success, should be heard as her own. On "Burning," she's on fire. The back track of jovial percussion feels primed for a festival finale song, but it's in Rogers' joyous delivery of being woken up, in a conscious state of living, that she's heard as the bright name in pop that she is. In "Burning," she's lit a spark, and you’ll feel it too.
"Late Night Feelings," Mark Ronson (feat. Lykke Li)
A handful of pop artists in recent years have turned a blind eye to bubblegum music and shifted their focus to sad bangers. It may sound like an oxymoron, but there's no better term for a track that sounds like a bop and has heartbreaking lyrics that are what "crying in the club" is all about. It's what Mark Ronson and his fleet of co-writers/vocalists turned to for Late Night Feelings. It might seem like the songwriter/producer has little to cry about with his recent accolades for his A Star is Born co-contribution with Lady Gaga, "Shallow," but here he brings the melodrama of feeling shamelessly sad over love lost with simplistic, sage pop sentiments and gleaming production. The title track epitomizes the record's mood: how an aching heart feels when the clock creeps closer to midnight, and the leverage it has over our actions. Dance to this song alone in your room after an evening out, and it might have you feeling regretful come morning.
"Cash Shit," Megan Thee Stallion (feat. DaBaby)
When Houston rapper Megan Thee Stallion spits a verse, you need to take a seat afterwards; her confident, sexually charged lyrics and delivery are that potent. Reclaiming what it means to be a Texan and taking ownership of the explicit, the artist was thrust into the mainstream for her debut record Fever -- and her empowerment of the "hot girl" is something everybody can get behind. Album track "Cash Shit" is a pinnacle example of her bold delivery, knowing she's deserving of all the finer things in life, and its deep bass only hypes her up more. It's exactly what that "real hot girl shit" is all about.
"Hot Girl Summer," Megan Thee Stallion (feat. Nicki Minaj, Ty Dolla $ign)
Megan Thee Stallion literally reclaimed and dominated an entire season by pioneering (what has since become a social media phenomenon co-opted by brands) "Hot Girl Summer." After posting extensively about what Hot Girl Summer means (dress however you want, live life like the stakes don't matter, and do whatever feels right, be that leaving men on read or sending that "wyd" text yourself), she finally released the eponymous single to define the movement after teasing it all season. It's chill and carefree, and Ty Dolla $ign lays down a swoon-worthy hook, but the real treat comes in the form of Meg and Nicki Minaj's alternating, satisfyingly explicit bars. It soundtracked Summer '19, and shows how hot a track can be when artists squash the unnecessary trope that female rappers must be pit against one another.
"Mother's Daughter," Miley Cyrus
Miley Cyrus is a pop star who's hard to pin down. The Nashville girl rose to fame portraying Hannah Montana, which inadvertently blurred her own identity and taste -- one tinged by a country twang and love for pop and hip-hop. Her releases have jumped around, from hip-hop to rock experimentation, which she's gotten a fair amount of criticism for -- but in 2019 she made music that expounded upon all the iterations of herself. "Mother's Daughter" is the singer's rock opus. She's declaring how strong of a woman she is, a sentiment that's been drilled into her by her mother, even if that means she's defiant and a bit nasty. Produced by frequent collaborator Mike Will Made It, rap production may streamline the track, but sung in her rasp, this is her version of a radio rock anthem in 2019.
"It's Gonna Be Okay, Baby," MUNA
The album closer from indie pop group MUNA's record Saves The World sounds like if there was a sequel to Lady Bird and it came in the form of a song. This is to say that even with its specificity -- moving to NYC, cutting off your hair with a dull pair of scissors, dancing to LCD Soundsystem at a party -- its story of a coming-of-age will harken back to your own experience, and ignite within you a sense of relief. The LA three-piece makes sincere, queer pop music, and their entire album is about their lifelong journeys growing beyond trauma with like "It's Gonna Be Okay, Baby" make you believe their music could be a form of therapy. Were you to hear this upon leaving home for the first time, there's no doubt you wouldn't feel as if everything's going to be alright.
"In Your Head," Nilüfer Yanya
On her debut album Miss Universe, London-based singer-songwriter Nilüfer Yanya plays the role of mental health phone operator. Yanya, who grew up a classically trained musician and was fervently pursued by the industry following several buzzy Soundcloud releases, kicks off her semi-concept album by introducing it as a hotline for the fictional "WWAY HEALTH," where she will be on the other line, caring for your deepest concerns. But her means of being a receptive therapist is to reveal to you her own scattered anxieties, like in the first official album track, "In Your Head." Over excitable pop rock and the sparkling electric guitar that she wields so well, Yanya worries her feelings are nothing more than projections, her spiraling out of control. This is what makes the rising pop singer "Miss Universe" -- we sense and identify with all of her hysteria, which just so happens to be impeccably paired with a spritely new wave beat.
"Song 32," Noname
In her music, you can hear how Chicago-rapper Noname draws heavily from her background in slam poetry. On "Song 32," she lays down her verses with a spoken-word clarity and stamina, and even pays ode to her rise declaring, "Started getting money from writing the haiku." The recording artist has long been a Chicago staple, having worked with Chance the Rapper before breaking through last year with her triumphant record Room 25. With each release, Noname illustrates she's rapidly ascending to the title of one of rap's bests. The track in particular follows a chilled out, jazz rhythm with a slight reggae influence, but her lyrics about colonialism and her personal journey to success are what truly stands out. After the song builds, she repeats the line, "I’m America at its best," and you'd be a fool not to believe her.
When boy bands and girl groups break up, the Justins and Beyoncés of the remnants eventually reveal themselves when they find more success solo than they ever did as part of a band. Camila Cabello may have left Fifth Harmony before the pop outfit officially went on hiatus (and she's certainly been doing alright for herself), but when Normani dropped "Motivation," she put forward a convincing case that she was the real star of the group. Inspired by the Y2K music she grew up on, the romantic number is part bubblegum pop and part aughts R&B in the stylings of Destiny's Child and Ciara. It sounds blissful and nostalgic, and you can hear in her voice that Normani is motivated to be the next big pop star.
It can be a long journey to feel deserving of love. It's something Boston's Ellen Kempner, who makes music as Palehound, recognizes the pain in irrational thinking through the most earnest of means in "Worthy," a single from this year's Black Friday. The lo-fi artist does what she does best on the song, her Elliot Smith-esque mumble and alt-country guitar tones the perfect relay for this form of reflection. She may be singing about the cruelty one can spew at themselves, but in her poeticism you recognize that hopefully love will one day convince that feeling to subside.
"Pop Out (feat. Lil Tjay)," Polo G
"We come from poverty, man, we ain't have a thang," Chicago rapper Polo G raps on his mega-hit "Pop Out." And truths the song spews don't just stop there. It's full of violent and bleak revelations about his life of crime, but rather than speaking as if he's left them in his past, he's matter-of-fact about how they've made him the artist he is. It's a dense but melodic party track, combined with his history as a quick-spitting drill-style rapper, so it makes sense the song was a surefire winner -- but the fact that its lyrical content took off in mainstream rap speaks to what makes this one a particularly special hit.
"Heavy Heavy," Pom Pom Squad
Depression sucks. It's an unbearable weight, in more ways than one -- but no matter how difficult the fight, Brooklyn-based riot grrrl band Pom Pom Squad is here to first recognize the validity of feeling empty, and then stomp on its throat at full force. The band helmed by Mia Berrin has been a constant in the Brooklyn indie scene for the past few years, playing shows non-stop and igniting tearful fits in fans with their vulnerable, lashing punk. "Heavy Heavy" finds Berrin struggling to cope ("It's getting heavy telling everyone that I’m fine"), her guitars and vocals spiraling out of control to mirror her internal self unfurling. The track is wrapped up in the messiness of femininity and how painful it can be to rationalize sadness as a woman, but, boy, does it pack a punch.
"The Seduction of Kansas," Priests
After the 2016 election, a handful of mainstream media outlets responded to the results by launching a series of stories exploring the "plight" and demands of conservative middle America. The rock band Priests did the same on their record The Seduction of Kansas -- except to them it's more of a confounding sickness than something worth rationalizing. The DC-based band grew out of punk, and holds onto this political attitude still in their work, though has a leniency for art rock, which can be heard delightfully in their album title track. Built on eerie disco elements and cultural references sung sneeringly by vocalist Katie Alice Greer, the song is a campy attack on the heartland. This is the music of the resistance that's meant to be remembered.
"Lauren (Track 2)," Prince Daddy and the Hyena
Albany-based party punks Prince Daddy and the Hyena have made their rounds in the East Coast emo scene, playing insane gigs out of their friends' basements and DIY spaces. But what they'd probably really like is to be propelled into outer-space, leaving this shit-hole excuse for reality behind. That's the mentality that fuels their post-teenage existential crisis/escapist "what if a rocket pelted me into space" concept album Cosmic Thrill Seekers. The lead single, "Lauren (Track 2)," captures this best, and in a way that's childish, relatable, and not totally void of positivity. The song follows frontman Kory Gregory's crusty howl complaining how the world feels pitted against you, like how much it sucks when you friends leave you to rot in summer, and how lonely it is to be, well, alone. But Gregory and the group's vibrant thrash reveal, as long as you have someone near and dear, this world doesn't have to be one to make a quick exit out of.
"Sugar Honey Iced Tea (S.H.I.T)," Princess Nokia
You may remember in 2017 a video of a woman throwing soup at a man who was yelling racist slurs on the NYC subway that went viral. If you're into rap, you may also remember that woman behind the heroic soup tossing was Brooklyn-based rapper Princess Nokia, who fans and blogs identified once the video blew up on Twitter. On her 2019 single, a soulful, horn-laden number, the artist addresses the incident and delves into her activism. She's known for angry bars, and even infuses a hardcore/pop-punk mentality into her music, but here she sounds matter-of-fact, as if to say she stands up for justice because she feels compelled to, not for the notoriety. She raps, "I’m on the train throwing soup / The racist men making threats / I’m not gangster but I can tell you I love to throw hands on racists, bigots, and scum," and references hating domestic abuse. She knows someone has to stand up for her girls and strangers on the train, so that person might as well be her.
Toronto punks PUP never got over teenage angst. Instead, the four-piece band, who've been putting out solid punk albums since 2013, just keep getting angrier with age. On the lead single off Morbid Stuff, frontman Stefan Babcock begins wailing, "Just like the kids, I’ve been navigating my way through the mind-numbing reality of a godless existence." It’s like he settled into an attitude at 16, and decided it was well-suited to the music PUP makes; the reverb and raucous drums also create a chaotic, feverish tone throughout the track. But no matter how cranky and pent up their guitars sound, it’s a goddamn good time. On "Kids," it’s about finding someone who's just as angry as you ("I don’t care about nothing but you") -- an admittedly less horrible experience than wallowing in isolation. It stings, but there's joy here, too.
"Hatin," Rico Nasty, Kenny Beats
DC rapper Rico Nasty knows she's an icon on the rise -- her aggressive, sweet raps and bold energy are too big to keep down. Shortly after releasing last year's excellent major label debut Nasty, the recording artist is back with another mixtape, Anger Management, this time a collaboration with frequent partner and trending producer Kenny Beats, who's lent his talents to acts like JPEGMAFIA and Vince Staples. Her vocal prowess and feminine rage shine especially on "Hatin," a track that unapologetically samples JAY-Z's "Dirt Off Your Shoulder." Her signature rasp is as domineering as ever, as she even hilariously flips the samples' chorus, spitting, "If you're feeling like a boss bitch, go." No man will hold her back from reaching the top.
Give it a couple years and Rosalía is going to be one of the biggest pop stars across the globe. The Spanish star's flipping flamenco track "Milionária," off her double EP Fucking Money Man, is the first written in her Barcelona home tongue of Catalan, and it hits the jackpot. The translation sees dollar signs and the finer things in life on the singer's mind, but even as she ascends to pop domination, there's a cynicism to her tone over the upbeat song. "Fucking money, man," she boasts between dreams of making it rain; the song's catchiness only mirrors the infection that is capitalism.
"Lasting Friend," Samia
It’s a self-destructive habit women often have: measuring their self-worth based on their relationships with men or their sexual history. While some women take ownership of their choices, as well they should, for others it's more complex, like something to make light of or mask. Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Samia, going by the lyrics to "Lasting Friend" -- a '90s-Liz Phair-ish number about how she used to let boys touch her boobs at lunchtime in middle school -- wavers somewhere between the two. The song is just one of the up-and-coming artist's anthems; she's been breathing energy into the Brooklyn rock scene of late with her vivacious, witty personality and poeticism. But here alone, you can tell that she's one to remember, as her fierceness positions herself to be one of the next great songwriters of tomorrow.
"Gretel," (Sandy) Alex G
Bedroom recording artist-turned-indie hero (Sandy) Alex G is a storyteller. You turn to his music to project your own reckonings onto the characters he's written into his stories, and find solace in them. It only makes sense that eventually the songwriter would turn to one of the most famous pieces of folklore, the Brothers Grimm's fairy tales, for inspiration. The first single from his lovely House of Sugar, "Gretel" smartly reframes the tale as a means to fight for his own happiness. The instrumental introduction sounds like the titular character's escape from the indulgent candy home, but by the end, the warm guitars and the repeated line, "I don't wanna go back / Nobody's gonna push me track," you're out of the woods and in line with the storybook ending you're writing for yourself.
You may not know her name yet, but it’s possible you’ve heard SASAMI before. The LA-based multi-instrumentalist’s work is all over the records of contemporary indie staples like Cherry Glazerr, Vagabond, and Wild Nothing, but now it’s time for her own synth-wielding, dream pop debut. SASAMI finds her power in gentleness, in sonic moments that could be overlooked, but instead strike like lightning, and in the softness of her voice singing of brokenness. Her debut album song "Free" (featuring harmonies from songwriter Devendra Banhart) may sound simple and quiet, but it carries weight, like in the reverberated guitar moments echoing the demise of a relationship from the lyrics. And as solemnly soft as the track seems, SASAMI proves that sometimes things must end for us to feel free; ultimately, she sounds at peace.
"My Type," Saweetie
Saweetie is extravagant (and forward) if nothing else -- which is exactly why the LA rapper-to-watch is already a boss. She blew up in just a matter of years with Instagram freestyles and dropping her luxurious breakout "ICY GRL" on Soundcloud, and this year she laid out exactly what she wants and deserves, as any hip-hop princess should, with "My Type." The fast track features an underlying aughts-like beat as she describes her type of man: "eight-figure," "eight inch," "Lamborghini keys," the utmost type of cash and class. It's delightfully extra, and flips men objectifying women in music on its head as she sets a bar of standards for anyone even looking her way. You know she can get what she's after (even if no man is quite as deserving of her).
"Numb Numb Juice," ScHoolboy Q
ScHoolboy Q’s got a list of grievances. It took a minute to hear from the Kendrick Lamar collaborator and core TDE signee to release solo work after his 2016 career-defining record Black Face, but that doesn’t mean the introspective, fierce LA rapper ran out of things to say. In fact, on this year’s "Numb Numb Juice," he riffed on that "bitch shit" he can't stand, be it other men talking smack about women or refusing to support the efforts of up-and-coming hip-hop contemporaries. In less than two minutes, he slides in and out of aggrieved rapping to a thrilling sing-song made menacing by a daunting bass in the background. You wish he’d keep on bitching, and it would never end.
"Seventeen," Sharon Van Etten
Singer-songwriters hailing from NYC have long lamented about the painful changes of their beloved urban jungle. On "Seventeen," folk star Sharon Van Etten contributes to this tradition. Her smokey voice sounds reflective, forlorn over how the streets she used to strut so self-assured now look, and the Springsteen-esque rock track only further plays into its nostalgia. But Van Etten, whose become somewhat of an indie legend, recognizes that the legacy of New York is that it belongs to all who grace it, like a circadian rhythm that a new slew of 17-year-olds will occupy the same block she once felt as if she owned ("I used to fee free, was it just a dream? / Now you’re half shy, thank you’re so carefree / But you’re just seventeen, so much like me").
"If I Can't Have You," Shawn Mendes
Shawn Mendes has (more or less) made a career about being a sweet boy. The young pop star's probably broken a million hearts around the world just because he's, you know, pop star Shawn Mendes, but his songs about getting his own heart broken are always able to mend theirs again since he feels like he could be your own high school sweetheart. "If I Can't Have You" is yet another love song from the young hit-maker, and it's almost too joyful for the confines of pop song. As Mendes is nearly driven to insanity over his lover, the song gets injected with saccharine electro sounds and basically explodes into the final sequence of a rom com as he's running across the city/airport/what have you to her. Lord, let this boy get the girl!
"Downhill Lullaby," Sky Ferreira
After six years that felt like an eternity since the release of Night Time, My Time, Sky Ferreira finally returned The alternative pop artist released her debut album to much acclaim back in 2013, but hit label roadblock after roadblock during the production of her sophomore effort. With "Downhill Lullaby," though, she emerged from the darkness to cast a spell on us once again. The eerie track follows a violin that sounds like it’s drawn from a fairytale, and Ferreira’s voice is weighed low with a haunting bass, marking a transition for the singer from her new wave space to somewhere much more gothic. In a way, it sounds as if she’s made a deal with the devil, refusing to sacrifice her artistic integrity, and now as the princess of the underworld, she’s dragging listeners down with her -- and this is a journey we should all be dying to take.
"My Way to You," Somos
One of the most poignant rock songs of the year unequivocally goes to Boston's pop-punk/activist hometown heroes Somos. Their track "My Way to You" off this year's Prison on a Hill finds the band pondering how they hope their relationships with loved ones turn out when life reaches its final hour. For a band known for brash punk sounds, it's as if this number was pulled in from another ethereal dimension with its synthesizers and chorus that builds like the final cinematic sequence of a classic movie when the hero is running into the arms of the one they love. And it all plays out with a particular heartbreak, considering the group's founding member and guitarist Phil Haggerty died ahead of the record's official release. A lovely emo ballad, and a reminder to forever work your way to the ones you love.
"Leona," Strange Ranger
Third Eye Blind's "Semi-Charmed Life" came out in 1997. It's a melodic alt-rock anthem, and the "du-du-dus" will never stop being subject for singalong. Portland-to-Philly transplants Strange Ranger's "Leona," from their new album Remembering the Rockets, could basically be a dead ringer for "Semi-Charmed Life." Both songs also more or less about the mid-20s rut, Strange Ranger's more innocently concerned with the terror of falling in and out of love ("I've given up love / I've given up wanting love"), never finding an end to the painfully cyclical pattern. The concerns are universal, but there's something endearing about how this sound remains unchanging, like the rising guitar band is desperate to hold onto indie rock charms. And "Leona" isn't actually bleak; its "ba da da da das" inspire that you'll feel sure of yourself again, and this tune will carry you through.
"Girls Need Love (with Drake) - Remix," Summer Walker
Love and sex has long been at the core of R&B, but in 2019 it felt like a new crop of female singers emerged putting sexuality on their own terms at the forefront of their songwriting. Summer Walker is one of the Atlanta-based singers leading the charge, and her breakthrough song "Girls Need Love" is both indicative of this energy while simultaneously calling out sexual double standards ("Girls can't never say they want it / Girls can't never say how"), and delightfully blunt. The song may have first dropped in fall 2018, but after Drake caught wind of one of Walker's music videos and reached out to her as a fan, she asked him to hop on the track for a remix that makes the song even more pure in its longing.
"Disco," Surf Curse
If it weren't presumptuous to canonize the LA DIY scene of, well, today, Surf Curse would be canon. From Nick Rattigan and Jacob Rubeck (who hit the scene in other projects, too), the duo makes jangly, arty indie rock in the way that LA does best. Nothing has ever sounded so good and representative of their buoyant scene than this year's "Disco," though. The entire song feels as if it paints the scene of a party -- built upon fast-paced drums and guitars -- but its lyrics describe nothing mattering more than the moment of locking eyes with that one beautiful person across the room, and dragging them onto the dance floor where it's just you two and the rhythm. It doesn't sound like disco in the slightest, but it sure is a movie-like party we're all longing for an invite to.
"Patience," Tame Impala
After stints producing for the likes of Kanye West and Travis Scott, Tame Impala frontman Kevin Parker finally lent his talents back to the psychedelic Aussie group that started it all for him. The band's first release since 2015’s Currents, "Patience" is just as pop-minded as the perfectionist album that catapulted them to mainstream success (and caught Rihanna’s attention), albeit a strange reentry now that the band has caught the world’s attention. Trading guitars for piano and bongos, one could imagine the track lighting up the dance floor on a singles' cruise, but its disco intonations are a true joy to surrender yourself to. Sure, cyclically lamenting about the passage of time and its weight on you as an artist is what you do when you’re a chill Australian group who became one of the biggest bands in the world, but Parker’s ingenue remains in the song’s production, and it's a welcomed return from the band.
"The Archer," Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift had a confounding roll-out leading up to the release of what turned out to be the glistening Lover. First, she released "ME!," which borders on a children's music, and then she dropped "You Need to Calm Down," a flippant sort-of-diss-track/sort-of-political-anthem. It was all an extremely confusing move from one of the most divisive pop stars -- but even non-Swifties must remember that she is also one of the best pop songwriters of our time. So, enter "The Archer," the third single that unfortunately didn't spark quite as much conversation as her first two… perhaps because it's good. The synth-pop song slowly builds as Swift indicts herself and the wars she's both started or been drafted to ("I've been the archer I've been the prey / Who could ever leave me, darling? But who could stay?"). It may not be a battle cry or breakup anthem to blast along the frontlines of love, but it feels like the mega-star at her most vulnerable and calls back the now-old songwriting of hers that has since become cannon Swift.
"Only Child," Tierra Whack
Tierra Whack is one of (if not, the) most innovative names in hip-hop right now. The Philly-bred rapper flips her songs into a sort of alt-pop art, infusing her backing tracks with boisterous, cartoonish qualities. Rarely does she fail to take her greater aesthetic into consideration: For instance, her debut album Whack World, was a 15-minute visual album odyssey inviting others into her obscure world. This year she dropped "Only Child," which is just as interesting and continues to classify her as a bold name in music; on the track, she stresses she has no time for people with only child syndrome, smartly sing-song rapping about the inherit coldness of those who "think about nobody but yourself." Over the stripped-down production of childlike, warped keys, Whack’s lyricism and her artful voice shines, and even as she’s putting you in your place, Tierra Whack is always a treat to hear.
"Glad He’s Gone," Tove Lo
Swedish pop singer Tove Lo catapulted to fame with her 2014 hit "Habits (Stay High)." Where many pop acts today are delivering scathing, brutally honest tunes more and more, that's always been second nature to Tove Lo. She'll lay out her post-breakup depressive episode for you, just as she's excited to exclaim she's in need of a fast-and-casual hook-up. That duality persisted on Sunshine Kitty with songs like the chilled out, tropical "Glad He's Gone." The beat sways as she tells her friend jokes and to say "fuck you" to the fuck boy. It's an unfiltered, sunny attitude and sound that'll cheer you up like the girlfriend she's consoling.
"This Life," Vampire Weekend
After a five-year break and lots of speculation, Vampire Weekend finally returned (sans founding member Rostam Batmanglij) with their excellent double record Father of the Bride. Though the album is full of certified bops that transport you back to the innocent days of when you first fell for the band, "This Life" encapsulates the group at their prime. The song at first listen sounds resonant of "Brown Eyed Girl" and holds the same acoustic levity of a Van Morrison song, though it dances with duality: the kind of baroque tune you'd expect from Vampire Weekend while exploring the unfortunate simplicity of a relationship running its course… and life doing just the same. It's delightful and cynical, the witty self-criticism frontman Ezra Koenig does best. While the band may have drilled into fans the hysterics of mortality and passing time throughout their discography, another truth of this life is that Vampire Weekend is forever a comfort.
"Are You Bored Yet?," Wallows (feat. Clairo)
In spring 2017, LA-based indie rock band Wallows blew up after sharing their first-ever single "Pleaser." In part, it was because actor Dylan Minnette, who stars in the buzz-worthy Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, fronts the band and Season 1 of the series had just dropped, but also because the ‘60s guitar tone, surf-rock-influenced group is really good. The band of three childhood friends finally released their first full-length Nothing Happens this year, and it was well-worth the wait. "Are You Bored Yet?" is a surefire ear worm. The SoCal group has long been influenced by ‘80s new wave sounds and a John Hughes-like youthful romanticism, all of which informs the track. Its pristine keys and drum machines particularly sound as if the song could have fed the airwaves circa ’86, and nothing has ever sounded so quintessential to soundtrack the scene of a high school dance than when bedroom pop artist Clairo’s duet kicks in.
"Movies," Weyes Blood
As psychedelic pop artist Weyes Blood, Natalie Mering creates a sonic landscape in her Titanic Rising track "Movies," which, just under six minutes, sounds as if it could score a short film featuring a romantic epic that's destined to fail. It sweeps you off your feet with its synthesizers and violins that feel like the moment the lights drop in the theater to the penultimate, final big-screen kiss. Even as the song is meant to bring you down to earth through a sweeping reality check that what we watched when we’re small is only fiction, "Movies" is like an untouchable, celestial body in itself. Weyes Blood has been an indie/alt favorite act for quite some time, but this is her Oscar-winning score.
"Might Be Right," White Reaper
Kentucky's White Reaper probably grew up listening to a lot of Van Halen, The Ramones, and Thin Lizzy, and a whole lot of other power pop rock bands. The group that dubbed themselves "The World's Best American Band" with their 2017 album is drenched in stadium rock nostalgia that they somehow make sound entirely new with a sort of sexy dirtiness and tactful fun. This year they refined their sound, as if greasing up their engine to really go full throttle, making their song "Might Be Right" a golden example of the only music deserving of midnight parking lot hangs.
"Used To Be Lonely," Whitney
Chicago alt-country band Whitney made jaws drop upon their 2016 debut, and this year's Forever Turned Around was just as easy to cozy up to. Their sound is just so lovely. "Used To Be Lonely," from the new record, is lovely as well, looking at loneliness and how freeing it is once it subsides. At first there is a trail in drummer/vocalist Julien Ehrlich's voice, as if he's wary to speak the end of his lonesome into existence, but the layered composition grows with horns, pianos, and guitars, and there's no room for isolation here. At the song's core is an acoustic guitar that recalls someone improvising a tune while sitting around a bonfire, before it grows into a full jam session. It's as if Whitney meant to inspire this camaraderie, a togetherness the multi-piece band knows best.
"Hot (feat. Gunna)," Young Thug
It's fun to imagine how much fun Young Thug has. Between jet-setting off to the front row at Fashion Weeks across the globe, the style icon/rapper is hitting the studio with Childish Gambino, Travis Scott, and other top tier rappers creating hits in a matter of minutes. He promised to share the fun with the rest of us creating party tracks on his first studio album, So Much Fun -- and that he did with "Hot (feat. Gunna)." In his signature slur, he raps about knowing how good he's got it ("Everything litty, I love when it's hot"), and that beat over a snake charmer-like flute is enough to exude a life of luxury in a listen. If you ever get the chance to cruise through the city in a limo (preferably in slow-motion) with champagne popping, make it be this track.
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