We are well into 2020 by now, and a deluge of good music has already come out in the new year. But that doesn’t mean we should shortchange 2019, so at long last, here are the 50 best songs of last year. It took me so long because I got burned out from writing about the 200 Best Songs of the 2010s, but I’ve rallied since then. Better late than never…? Hopefully you’ll agree, because these songs are well worth your time.
Here are 15 honorable mentions before we dive in.
Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever: “Read My Mind”
Mannequin Pussy: “Drunk II”
The Black Keys: “Go”
Miley Cyrus: “Slide Away”
Rosalía & J. Balvin ft. El Guincho: “Con Altura”
Big K.R.I.T. ft. Lil Wayne & Saweetie: “Addiction”
Rapsody ft. D’Angelo & GZA: “Ibtihaj”
Danny Brown ft. Run the Jewels: “3 Tearz”
Big Thief: “Strange”
Priests: “Jesus’ Son”
Julia Jacklin: “Don’t Know How to Keep Loving You”
WIVES: “Waving Past Nirvana”
Hideout: “Next Time I See You”
Long Beard: “Getting By”
Hatchie: “Stay With Me”
Alright, let’s go. Numbers 50 through 26 are presented without commentary, but I wrote some blurbs about the top 25. Enjoy!
Anderson Paak ft. Smokey Robinson
“Make it Better”
“So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings”
Sharon Van Etten
Freddie Gibbs & Madlib ft. Anderson Paak
Durand Jones & The Indications
“Listen to Your Heart”
Mark Ronson ft. Miley Cyrus
“Nothing Breaks Like a Heart”
Tyler, the Creator
“GONE GONE / THANK YOU”
Stef Chura ft. Car Seat Headrest
“Sweet Sweet Midnight”
“No Bullets Spent”
Charli XCX ft. Christine & the Queens
The New Pornographers
“Falling Down the Stairs of Your Smile”
“Something to Believe”
“Black Truck (Extended Version)”
“Black Truck” is a silky smooth R&B/rap combo that brings thorough sensory satisfaction, with production from hip-hop underground legend 9th Wonder that’s simultaneously pleasing and compelling. Mereba, who has lived literally all over the world (Philadelphia, North Carolina, Atlanta, Alabama, Ethiopia), says her Ethiopian heritage informs her music, and those subtle touches are present on “Black Truck.” Favorite moment: “Ha ha ha, I’ll cut you off like my old split ends.”
Kaytranada ft. Kali Uchis
Kaytranada came out firing with a mid-December album, just at the right time to mess up all our lists. “10%” is a display of what Kaytranada does best: soulful, pulsing club beats and excellent featured guests. This time, Kali Uchis has the mic, turning in a sumptuous vocal line.
I didn’t know what to think of Vampire Weekend’s somewhat divisive fourth album, Father of the Bride, when I first heard it. It certainly had a more jammy, basic feel than their previous work. I eventually came around to it, but one song I loved from the very beginning was “Unbearably White,” because it sounds like it could slot right into Modern Vampires of the City. In other words, it reminded me of the old Vampire Weekend. “Unbearably White” is defined just as much by its spaces as its actual contents; it’s an airy song with room to breathe, not overstuffed with ideas. It’s catchy in a slow, breezy way. My favorite part is the outro in the last minute or so, as different elements gradually combine — the melodic bass line, the “call it a day, call it a night” background vocals, the “Yoo-hoo-OOH!” yelps, the gorgeously subtle bells. It’s a twinkling beauty.
Lover saw the return of the more introspective, more acoustic Taylor Swift, after the big pop endeavors of 1989 (which I loved) and Reputation (which I didn’t as much). The whole album is much more of a slow burn, highlighted by its title track. “Lover” sounds instantly classic, like a love song that’s existed for 50 years. The turns of phrase Swift has built her name on are here in full force, as she paints a vivid scene of domestic love: “We could let your friends crash in the living room. This is our place, we make the call. And I’m highly suspicious that everyone who sees you wants you. I’ve loved you three summers now, honey, but I want ’em all.” The music is exquisite as well, sounding like a live band on stage in an empty auditorium, playing a song so familiar that you swear you’ve heard before.
Freddie Gibbs & Madlib
Freddie Gibbs teamed up with enigmatic, crate-digging producer Madlib in 2019 to release Bandana, their second collaborative album since 2014’s Piñata. Their partnership has always been unexpected — Madlib’s woozy, soulful, trippy production work has typically suited oddball underground rappers like MF DOOM, but somehow it also works tremendously with a more straight-up, hard-nosed rapper like Freddie Gibbs. On “Crime Pays,” Madlib flips a bouyant late-’70s fusion jazz sample as Gibbs raps about the game: “Diamonds in my chain, yeah, I slang but I’m still a slave / Twisted in the system, just a number listed on the page.”
Rosalía & Ozuna
“Yo x Ti, Tu x Mi”
Rosalía captured everyone’s attention with 2018’s flamenco-pop crossover success El Mal Querer, and kept it going with a ton of guest features and collaborations in 2019. There were so many good ones, but my favorite was the airy, colorful reggaeton track “Yo x Ti, Tu x Mi” with Puerto Rican singer Ozuna. The production doesn’t try to do too much — it’s unhurried, doing just enough to get you to dance and fall in love.
Yes, “Summer Girl” rips off “Walk on the Wild Side” so thoroughly that they gave Lou Reed a songwriting credit, but the Haim sisters still make the song their own, giving Reed’s New York original their trademark L.A. spin. “Summer Girl” really shines in the last minute and a half, coming into focus when Danielle sings, “Walk beside me, not behind me.” The outro is a display of serene brilliance, fading out as she sings, “And I can see the angels coming down, like a wave that’s crashing on the ground.”
James Blake ft. Travis Scott
I was actually disappointed the first time I heard “Mile High.” It wasn’t what I wanted to hear out of James Blake. But since then, it’s grown on me a ton. It sounds particularly amazing at night, when the woozy production and the vocal interplay between Blake and rapper/singer-of-the-moment Travis Scott speaks to your soul.
Brittany Howard, who came to prominence as the immensely talented singer of blues rock stalwarts Alabama Shakes, has one of the best voices I’ve ever heard. It’s an instrument all its own that pushes and pulls, heaves and seethes in just the right moments. “Stay High,” from Howard’s first solo foray Jaime, shows Howard at her most restrained. Instead of maxing out her voice, she holds back, riding the masterful groove like she’s floating down a river.
“Domino” is a jangly, sparkling, lively indie rock jam from French-speaking Montreal band Corridor. It’s reminiscent of the type of catchy college rock I was listening to in the mid-2000s, and perpetuated by bands like Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever now. If I formed a band, I think I would want my guitars to sound exactly like this.
Better Oblivion Community Center
Phoebe Bridgers, one of indie’s brightest young stars, has a penchant for brilliant collaborations — most notably, teaming up with Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker for their boygenius EP. She continued the streak by forming Better Oblivion Community Center with indie folk star Conor Oberst and releasing a full-length album. “Sleepwalkin'” is my favorite on it, opening with Oberst lamenting the song’s tempo changes — “It’s, it’s impossible to count!” Something about the song’s slow plodding during the verses paired with the fast chorus just gets me, along with the way Bridgers sings “You like beer and chocolate, I like setting off those bottle rockets. We can never compromise, but fighting ’til the death keeps us alive.”
“Before I Let Go”
In 2018, Beyoncé gave a legendary Coachella performance for the ages, a spectacle that relied on the energy and skill of some great HBCU marching bands. She released a live album of that performance, but included a bonus studio cover of Frankie Beverly and Maze’s 1981 song “Before I Let Go.” It’s bouncy and overflowing with energy. Every year I make a summer mix meant for mid-year parties and drives, and I put a lot of thought into what the first track should be. It needs to set the tone by being both catchy and vigorous. “Before I Let Go” fit the bill.
Clairo, the 21-year-old rising phenom, has already proven herself to be a masterful songwriter. She employs Rostam Batmanglij as the producer and Danielle Haim as the drummer on “Bags,” lending it a thick, layered, endlessly compelling atmosphere; but, “Bags” would be just as great if it were stripped down to just Clairo singing over her guitar. The melodies, the chord progressions, the tension (both musically and lyrically) is all there, as Clairo lets us experience the insecurities and uncertainty surrounding a new love interest.
“It Might Be Time”
Tame Impala released two singles near the beginning of 2019 (“Patience” and “Borderline”), both of which were a bit lackluster in my opinion. Luckily, I think Kevin Parker felt the same way, taking months to regroup before announcing his forthcoming 2020 album The Slow Rush and dropping a new song, “It Might Be Time.” This is more like it. The song features a Supertramp-esque keyboard line, thrilling drum patterns, and a killer chorus.
“All My Happiness is Gone”
David Berman, the indie rock veteran behind Purple Mountains, had dealt with depression most of his life. Soon after releasing an album in 2019 (his first new music in over a decade), he tragically ended that life. It lended even more potency to the dark, lonely, very human ruminations on songs like “All My Happiness is Gone.” This was a song that slowly grew on me to the point where I couldn’t stop listening; the chorus is catchy, meant for a jaunty singalong, but it’s almost comical in a sinister way when the lyrics are literally “All my happiness is gone.”
Berman is a poet, with a knack for clever lines like “it’s not the icy bike chain rain in Portland, Oregon,” as well as an ability to make his hurt feel universal: “Friends are warmer than gold when you’re old, and keeping them is harder than you might suppose. Lately, I tend to make strangers wherever I go; some of them were once people I was happy to know.” Regardless of my overall emotional state, as someone who just entered his thirties, I can heavily relate to that feeling of old friends from a different part of life slipping away. I grapple with that all the time. I wish Berman were still around to continue sharing his weary wisdom with us.
Lil Nas X ft. Billy Ray Cyrus
“Old Town Road”
“Old Town Road” makes me so happy; how do I even count the ways? A dutch beatmaker named YoungKio samples a simple plucked banjo instrumental by Nine Inch Nails. Lil Nas X, a kid who runs some Nicki Minaj fan accounts on Twitter, purchases the beat for $30 and records a country-style rap over it one day. “Old Town Road” takes off on TikTok, as users use it to soundtrack videos for the “Yeehaw Challenge” meme. It debuts at #83 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, as well as on the Hot Country Songs and Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs charts, but soon gets controversially removed from the country chart. It steadily gains momentum and eventually becomes the #1 song in America.
Billy Ray Cyrus of all people jumps on a remix and that version eventually becomes the definitive version. “Old Town Road” then sets the record for longest time atop the Billboard chart EVER, at 19 weeks, thoroughly dominating the culture and inspring fans of all ages. Even stripped of the unlikely rags-to-riches story, the song itself is just incredibly fun. That Nine Inch Nails sample sounds amazing with the added drum and bass, Lil Nas X’s sing-songy rapping and that chorus are as catchy as it gets, and Billy Ray Cyrus’s verse just sounds spontaneous and full of life. The phenomenon of “Old Town Road” is incredible, and the engine of that phenomenon is even better.
Wilco’s quality control in the 2010s was not quite at the level as it was in the previous couple of decades, but they still released some extremely enjoyable material. 2019’s Ode to Joy was a return to form of sorts — they kept their recent looseness, but shook their songwriting chops of any lingering cobwebs. “Everyone Hides” is light, airy, and extremely fun.
Lana Del Rey
“Mariners Apartment Complex”
Lana Del Rey has been an ever-present enigma throughout the 2010s, emerging at the beginning of the decade as an internet lightning rod over questions of authenticity, but steadily releasing solid music in the following years. In 2019, she released her masterpiece, Norman F**king Rockwell. The album boasts a plethora of great songs, but I immediately honed in on “Mariners Apartment Complex.” Over a slow-burning, late-’60s, Hollywood Hills-sounding instrumental from producer Jack Antonoff, Del Rey opens up to someone close, inviting them to trust her: “You lose your way, just take my hand. You’re lost at sea, then I’ll command your boat to me again.”
“Poly Blue” sounds like a long-lost sigh from the folk tradition of 1970s Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles. Jessica Pratt has a gift for conjuring sepia-toned images with her music, imbuing it with a thick, vivid nostalgia among the fluttering flutes and strummed 7th chords. “Poly Blue” makes me ache to be back in my southern California hometown. Its elegant, yearning beauty is enthralling.
“Hard to Believe”
“Hard to Believe” is a sparkling pop punk track from rising Brooklyn stars Charly Bliss. It’s fast, air-tight instrumentation is flawless and catchy as hell. The video is a gem, showing each band member trying to get through practice while dealing with their own unique distraction. Also, fun fact that I have to throw in here somehow: the band’s guitarist, Spencer Fox, was the voice of Dash in The Incredibles. Small world.
(Sandy) Alex G
I’m not sure how to even begin describing the sound of “Gretel” by Alex Giannascoli, also known as (Sandy) Alex G, so I’ll quote music critic James Rettig of Stereogum: “It’s all baked in syrupy digital decay, a constant downward spiral that feels like descending into some ghastly fairy tale.” The dark, loopy clouds of guitars eventually give way to a sunnier, acoustic guitar strumming along while Giannascoli sings “I don’t want to go back, nobody’s gonna push me off track.” That lyric was stuck in my head for two months straight this year — it just tunnels it’s way directly into your mind. Despite the more hopeful feeling of the chorus, the original dark undertones are actually more fitting when you find out the song is an altered re-telling of Hansel & Gretel, where Gretel lets her brother get eaten by the witch and dreams about staying and eating more of the candied house. Yikes.
The National are seasoned indie rock veterans by now, with a full, consistent body of work. The four albums they released this decade were all tremendous — High Violet is probably the most popular favorite, while I lean more toward Trouble Will Find Me and Sleep Well Beast. However, my favorite National song of the decade happens to be from their most recent album, I Am Easy to Find. “Light Years” is a melancholy number, built on a powerful but simple piano lick packed with emotion, upon which Matt Berninger sings about the isolation that comes with realizing you’re on a completely different plane of existence from someone you love.
Aldous Harding’s “Fixture Picture” came out in 2019, but I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve known it my whole life. The 29-year-old New Zealander channels a very specific style of early ’70s folk rock that I associate with driving around Southern California on a Saturday morning. “Fixture Picture” overflows with brilliant moments — my favorite is when the usual background harmonies singing the title name unexpectedly sing a dissonant chord near the end.
On “All Mirrors,” Angel Olsen drops the controlled restraint of her previous work and instead summons fire and brimstone. It’s a sweeping, cinematic, gothic hymn. Olsen says the song is about a woman trying to become “uninhibited and aware, unashamed and at peace, in control of her own universe, yet calmly leaving space for the inevitable possibility of change and inward shifting.” About halfway through the song, the strings are left alone, slowly building like a tempestuous sea starting to spin out of control. The other instruments come crashing back in on a gigantic wave, while Olsen sings the chorus again with such ardor that stops you in your tracks: “Standing, facing, all mirrors are erasing; losing beauty, at least at times it knew me.”
Vampire Weekend threw everyone a curveball in 2019. After a six-year hiatus, and anticipation through the roof, the band released “Harmony Hall” and completely messed with our expectations. I didn’t know what to think. Did Vampire Weekend, a band with such a firmly fashionable aesthetic that they had started out with a self-imposed “shirts with collars only” dress code, just release a song that basically doubles as an oversized t-shirt? Why does this new Vampire Weekend single sound like a cross between the Grateful Dead and a Hands Across America event? Is “Harmony Hall” too cheesy to be good?
It turned out, after getting stuck in my head endlessly, that it was actually too good to be cheesy. Or, at least, too good to worry about the cheesiness. It reminds me so thoroughly of music I listened to while growing up. This was corroborated by Pitchfork’s review of Father of the Bride, the album that houses “Harmony Hall,” when they said “Vampire Weekend have resuscitated the multicultural boomer sounds of the ’90s… a folksy alternative to the punk-derived sound of ‘alternative music.’”
“Harmony Hall” completely rewired my concept of “good music,” and only Vampire Weekend has the talent and the gall to have pulled it off.
Best Songs of 2019 Spotify Playlist: