Once more with feeling…
This list remained stuck at, I think, 82 entries for so goddamn long. I simply just didn’t know what to cut next. My year in music had been so varied, so filled with songs I really liked and didn’t want to shut out of my yearly showcase, that I just felt like the line-up was correct (as could be) and any further pruning was fruitless. A similar paralysis/contentment came over me when I did eventually make the sacrifices required to reach the middle stretch of my list. I just genuinely did not know which songs definitely belonged over others; the thought had never really occurred. Perhaps part of that can be attributed to my having spent much of this year focussed on the music of yesteryear for work purposes – so much so that my Spotify Wrapped declared my #2 song of the year to be Let Loose and my #2 artist of the year to be The Black Eyed Peas – so I hadn’t been giving as active a thought as to how my list would shake out as in previous years. Or perhaps it’s because I heard so much new music this year that I just decided to wing it come list-making time and see what naturally felt right rather than attempting to keep active track of the changing benchmark.
You and I both know that this was a busy-ass year for music with so much having been released, because I mention some variation on that in every single preamble for this recurring series and every other group music retrospective thing I do elsewhere. So, rather than even slightly entertain the notion that this is some kind of definitive Best Songs list, let’s briefly examine what it says about me and the evolution of my tastes this year.
Well, it’s very poppy, for one. Maybe not always mainstream radio-type pop – I’m not a 35-year-old wine-addicted divorcee so you won’t find Lewis Capaldi haunting this list, nor am I an actual fucking jar of mayonnaise so there’s no Ed Sheeran either – but definitely a lot of out-and-out pop songs. You could say I’ve become a full bore poptimist were that term not condescending as fuck to pop music. A much bigger slice of the list is made up of hip hop than usual, reflective of the quietly brilliant year it had and how much it has overtaken popular culture. Guitar bands are not absent but they’re also not a major presence, either; I think this might be my first list ever to not include a token One Killer Song From An Otherwise Mediocre/Garbo Indie Rock Band – thanks to my time in a job, I have been getting into the punk scene, kinda by osmosis, but almost all the great songs from that general sphere got painfully cut. Mainly, it’s queer and femme as fuck. Well over half the list comprises of female or female-featuring musicians, a lot of the list is proudly queer and I genuinely didn’t plan this at all. It just shook out like so. I highly recommend everyone make lists like these, you learn so much about yourself at a specific point in life by doing so.
Right, then, a refresher of the usual rules for those new here. Only songs originally released in 2019 are eligible for consideration regardless of whether the single from 2018 got bundled onto a 2019 album release. Covers are straight-up not allowed no matter how rocking they may be – were they so, then Tropical Fuck Storm’s take on “Can’t Stop” by Missy Elliott, a cover I honestly might prefer to the original at this point, would be in the Top 10. Remixes of older songs need to significantly alter the song in question in order to be eligible – so, yes, no “Old Town Road” period I KNOW BUT THESE ARE THE RULES! But, most importantly, only one song per artist – we’re all about finding the one killer track here even if doing so is detrimental to the artist’s position on the list – although repeating by features is allowed (but that’s a loophole which hasn’t been needed this year).
Finally, I have been doing these lists for nine years as of this one. There’s a real lineage, by now, and our victor this year shall be joining some prestigious names! Let’s refresh our memories of them, right quick!
2011: Florence + The Machine – What the Water Gave Me
2012: Tame Impala – Elephant
2013: Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Sacrilege
2014: The Juan MacLean – A Place Called Space
2015: Jamie xx – Loud Places (Feat. Romy)
2016: David Bowie – I Can’t Give Everything Away
2017: Gorillaz – Strobelite (Feat. Peven Everett)
2018: Florence + The Machine – No Choir
OK, it’s now or never. As per tradition, today we’re covering #50 to #31, tomorrow will be #30 to #11, and Sunday is the Top 10. Sunday will also bring forth a nice Spotify playlist so’s you can stream the whole lot to your heart’s content, or blast the countdown at full volume on New Year’s Eve if you really passive-aggressively want your guests to leave.
50] Mark Ronson
“Late Night Feelings (Feat. Lykke Li)”
Late Night Feelings
You know that it’s a pretty miserable time to be alive when even Mark frickin’ Ronson is releasing music designed for people retreating into their feels. Whilst the album as a whole is rather hit-and-miss, it does work as a fantastic reminder that Ronson has a real knack for the subtleties and right kind of restraint which just make a song. The title track is littered with fantastic examples of this. The little disco string flourishes which carry the song into the main chorus hook, the way he triple-tracks Lykke’s vocals for the “on and on and on” part in such a way that they snap but don’t blow the song out (ditto when the beat kicks in each time on the chorus), those recurring steel drums whose soft mixing allows them to provide texture rather than feel like a years-too-late arrival to the tropical house party.
“REAL TRUTH (Feat. Tkay Maidza)”
That beat is some off-kilter brilliance, let me tell you. In doing research for writing up this entry, I discovered that one half of J-E-T-S, Travis Stewart (who collabs with Jimmy Edgar), had also provided production work on at least one track from Vince Staples’ Big Fish Theory which immediately explained why I locked so much into the clangy, metallic industrial soundscape of “REAL TRUTH.” It really does sound like a series of industrial machineries going about their own preset operations but just so happening to lock rhythmically in-step with one another, like a level from Sound Shapes. And on top of it all, Australian rapper Tkay Maidza glides across the stop-starting beat with effortless ease even whilst J-E-T-S go about disrupting her voice at every turn.
48] Confidence Man
“Does It Make You Feel Good?”
Does It You Feel Good? – Single
Even though I may have had Confident Music for Confident People down as my favourite album of 2018, and even though their live show was one of the best I’ve experienced this year (and I have experienced a lot of great gigs this year), I will admit that a part of me has been concerned about the obvious party-ending hangover looming ominously overhead. Can the joke last for more than one album? Can the line separating goofy fun and grating kitsch be successfully navigated for an act which is just as much concept as it is bops? How can they keep this up? “Does It Make You Feel Good?,” presumably the first single off of the upcoming sophomore album, answers that question in the most obvious yet no less satisfying way: who cares right now, shut up and dance to the incredible-sounding throwback gay house already.
47] The Twilight Sad
IT WON/T BE LIKE THIS ALL THE TIME
I would like to thank the Stereogum commentariat for, right back in the second week of January, informing me both that The Twilight Sad are still a thing and that their then-new album was going to quietly be one of the best of the year. Even on an album that’s nothing but urgent melodrama, “Auge/Maschine” is an intense centrepiece of a thing. Andy MacFarlane’s buzzsaw siren guitars roar up and down for almost the entire length of the track, plunging any semblance of light right down deep below the earth as James Graham painfully reckons with a deep emotional trauma inflicted upon him by the nameless subject. There’s something about the way his Scottish brogue delivers the refrain of “I can’t believe you hurt me” with an equal mixture of shock, accusation, and hurt which has just stuck with me for the past twelve months.
“i’m so tired… (Feat. Troye Sivan)”
How I’m Feeling
The history of pop songs about being tired of love songs is a long and storied one, and I think it is fair to say that “i’m so tired…” doesn’t really bring anything new to the table besides a naggingly catchy hook and actively shouting out the names of said songs which are getting the protagonists down, although I don’t recall Lorde’s “Buzzcut Season” being a love song. But what I like so much about it, besides my boy Troye continuing to kill it vocally, is how it plays with the current sound of pop radio – vibey, 80s in unspecified feel, those same drum presets which show up everywhere – starting quiet and insular before eventually and somewhat reluctantly being blown out to the same big-but-not-really climactic chorus as the songs the protagonists are trying to get away from. It’s like they want to just wallow and pout but the world outside of their emotional bubble refuses to stop turning and keeps bleeding in unwanted. That’s a nice touch.
“You and I”
Unfortunately, I’m spoiling this for those of you who haven’t been lucky enough to hear the song yet, but the first time that the beat switched on this new Caribou track I ended up pulling an involuntary stank face in appreciation. Just, like, a proper “oh, shit!” See, until the beat switch, I was heavily vibing with the song well enough already, as it arguably provided me with the Currents-era Tame Impala grooves that Kevin Parker’s own project currently appears completely incapable (for whatever unknown reason) of delivering. I especially loved those little dancing xylophone-esque bells which provide a running counter-melody and the snap in the snare. But then the beat switches and it’s like the floor drops out and the club is just jumping, yet somehow the switch (and its later harder follow-up) doesn’t jar with the earlier groove. Between this and other single “Home,” Dan Snaith’s apparently determined to make the new decade’s first classic album!
44] The Black Keys
In 2019, I got really into The War on Drugs, most especially their perfect 2014 album Lost in the Dream. Therefore, I am indeed aware of the context when once-talented professional trolling asshole Mark Kozelek slagged the group off by calling them “beer-commercial rock.” Thing is, perhaps even more so than usual, Kozelek’s talking out of his arse cos nothing about The War on Drugs puts me in mind of “beer-commercial rock.” If anything, that burn is far better suited to “Go,” and especially everything else on The Black Keys’ long-awaited and immediately-forgotten comeback record, which frankly seems purpose-built to soundtrack Chevrolet ads, travel montages in shoddily-made studio comedies, Coachella second-from-headline sets, and, yes, beer commercials. That all said, “beer-commercial rock” doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing and even though “Go” has the only worthwhile hook on the entire album it’s at least a damn effective and extremely fun one.
43] Octo Octa
“Spin Girl, Let’s Activate!”
Sometimes, you just wanna dance. And I don’t mean dance in the way that miserable-ass hetero indie kids at gigs “dance,” begrudgingly swaying from side-to-side whilst their feet remain glued to the floor. I mean dance. Fling your arms in every conceivable direction, maybe some ill-judged high kicks and pirouettes regardless of whether you can do them or not, engage in communal twerking, and just generally give yourself over to the rhythm without a care in the world. (Or, as a prominently displayed piece of graffiti in Scottish rave dramedy Beats puts it, “your fear of looking stupid is holding you back.”) That’s what the most fun track on Octo Octa’s sensational fifth album is all about, constantly pulling out new gay-as-fuck hooks at every turn and combining them all together to make dancing an inevitability rather than a non-committal invitation. And that woozy slow-down at the halfway mark has me mentally screaming “YAAAAS!” every single time. Get on the floor and tooty-frooty, get on the floor even if you ain’t got that booty!
42] The S.L.P.
Kasabian have always been unashamed fetishists of 90s British music, their debut album cribbed almost all of its notes from the non-garbage Primal Scream records of that decade after all, and much of their best work has come from their flirtations with dance music as strong grooves override band leader Serge Pizzorno’s muddled lyricism. “Nobody Else,” the standout on his extremely mixed bag of a solo debut, melds both of those prior influences into what is undoubtedly the man’s best pop move since West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum but also, crucially, doesn’t sound at all like a cast-off from his day-band. “treat,” from 48:13, is probably its closest antecedent, but that track still had to swagger and clutch at its balls, whereas “Nobody” allows itself to be vulnerable and just relax into those gorgeous high-class piano house chords. And, yes, I too am shocked that EA Sports had the restraint not to stick it on FIFA 20.
41] Róisín Murphy
Incapable – Single
It is really quite rare to find a song which runs in excess of eight minutes, cresting on one groove which lays basically all of its cards out within the first minute and does not heavily change in the seven minutes following, and still feel like it’s honestly too short. Genuinely, I could listen to at least another four minutes of that popping four-bar bassline, the accentuating muted-guitar plucking, those swimming synths which come in after the first chorus, and Róisín’s magnificent Detroit disco diva vocals. Cutting this down into a Radio Edit of any description should, frankly, be considered a crime punishable by the lopping off of ears. Meanwhile, those simultaneously self-deprecating and self-effacing lyrics in which her protagonist questions whether she’s actually capable of forming a meaningful connection with anybody really speaks to my emotionally-muddled asexual self. (Form an orderly queue, ladies and gents.)
“Song 31 (Feat. Phoelix)”
Song 31 – Single
The new year wasn’t even a few minutes old before Noname decided to drop one of its best songs on an unsuspecting public, even if the much-hyped Room 25 follow-up never materialised, which should’ve been a strong indicator that 2019’s music wasn’t taking any prisoners. “Song 31” finds her right in that Room 25 pocket of soft-spoken but truth-bomb-filled raps over some utterly gorgeous live jazz band soundscapes in all kinds of off-kilter time signatures which she just casually bests without needing to make a big show-off thing about it. If that plus the placeholder title of “Song 31” gives off the impression of a loosie being used to tide fans over until the next move, then at least it’s an excellent loosie and Noname’s verses are as observationally and introspectively sharp as ever, as she reckons with her insecurities over “selling [her] pain for profit” and shouts out Black creatives flourishing without White help/control.
39] Pusha T
“Sociopath (Feat. Kash Doll)”
Sociopath – Single
Speaking of loosies, “Sociopath” had been floating around on the Internet for close to a year in unfinished leaked form before King Push got around to cleaning up the song and giving it a proper release. As a firm believer that DAYTONA is one of the finest rap albums of the decade, I think that leaving this off of the album was the right call but that’s not because it’s somehow below that album’s par. Believe me, a song with bars like “call the bitch Swiffer cos all she know is swipers,” “I got a bitch that’ll master your card/Nice with the Visas/Passports is art” and an all too short Kash Doll cameo is more than up to snuff with the rest of DAYTONA. Rather, it sonically just wouldn’t fit, with a Neptunes-esque beat so trunk-rattling and so much better than anything the Neptunes themselves have done post-Hell Hath No Fury that I’m honestly wondering why co-producer Pharrell has been incapable of getting it together like this on his own shit for so long. Also, thankfully, they kept in the “charcuteries” interjection.
38] The 1975
Notes on a Conditional Form
The 1975 are the millennial Blur. This is an observation that clicked in my head whilst reading the overreacting meltdown music critics, music lovers, and 1975 stans had to the first official lead single for their perpetually-delayed Notes on a Conditional Form. “The 1975 have gone punk!” “It’s a tribute to the screamo of their youth!” “Why does this remind me of Marilyn Manson?” Err… no? It’s a Blur song. It’s the two-and-a-bit minute up-tempo thrashout that Blur would do once on every album. Just like Blur, The 1975 are boyband-pretty musicians with wide-ranging musical sensibilities and a propensity for shifting genres and sounds quite majorly over the course of an album, skewering modern British youth society with a keen eye and the latter-Blur confessional songwriting which makes them active participants just as much as they are objective observers, and are able to synthesise all of that into addicting pop songs which has won them a loyal fanbase and made them one of the biggest bands in Britain. So, it only makes sense that they’d eventually just go the whole hog and write a Blur song.
“The Lay Down (Feat. H.E.R. & WATT)”
The Lay Down – Single
When my friend Kofi played this song on his BBC radio show (humblebrag), I immediately messaged him in all-caps “THIS IS PRINCE AS FUCK, HOLY SHIT.” That was my first time hearing the song and, months later, it is not an observation which has meaningfully changed. DRAM as an artist has far more of a self-aware wink than Prince used to, specifically the kind where the line separating joke from sincerity can often be hard to define and a touch smug in its worst moments, but he dials that right the hell back for “The Lay Down.” This is fuck music, designed for rose-petal beds, lowered ambiance and suffocating aromatic candles, and is completely unashamed and non-winking about that fact. If the cascading wall of vocals on the chorus hadn’t made that clear enough, or the heat-filled chemistry between DRAM and guest vocalist H.E.R. hadn’t done that job, then Andrew Watt’s screaming, overdriven, climaxing guitar solo (which includes ad libs from both vocalists trying to scatt along to his pitch) definitely will. This is old-school funk-inflected R&B. This is dead-on Prince.
36] Cardi B
Press – Single
“DING DOOOONG!!!” God, I love Cardi. The backlash has come hard for her this past year, partly because the music press (and industry) has been anointing her the queen of the game ever since Invasion of Privacy dropped and miserable fucks averse to fun will tear down anyone in that situation, partly because she has admittedly been openly problematic in the public eye. But I love her and I don’t care who knows it. She is just so much goddamn fun, as epitomised by “Press.” Dropped whilst in the midst of her assaulting feud with Nicki Minaj (although recorded way back last December), it’s two minutes of raucous shit-talking, bars which are just so much fun to yell at the top of your lungs (“ridin’ that dick like I’m Cardi Andretti!”) and a chorus honestly better than what most of the professional pop stars could manage to come up with this year, all delivered in that inimitable hard-as-fuck Bronx bark. Please never let her leave, the game would genuinely be a duller place without her around.
“Off the Grid”/“In the Grid”
“The Hammer” is, in my completely valid and authoritative opinion, the finest individual song that !!! have yet made. Just an absolutely masterful and undeniable slow-release blast of sweaty dance-punk energy, the eventual drop after the mid-track breakdown is genuinely not far behind the drop on LCD Soundsystem’s “Dance Yrself Clean” for my favourite such of the decade’s first-half. “Off the Grid” gives me much that same sensation as the New Yorkers once again team up with Shake the Shudder’s secret weapon Meah Pace for a sweaty, urgent, burbling, physical beast of a thing which builds up such a head of steam that its only recourse is to crash out in a wash of sound. But then “In the Grid,” which is basically the outro for “Off” that has for some reason been split into its own track (much like a lot of Wallop) hence why I’ve included it here as one entry, swims in the haze of the wreckage that “The Hammer” chose to ignore, those clean-strummed guitar chords providing a moment of clarity as the track fades away to the sound of the chaos starting up again.
34] Faye Webster
Atlanta Millionaires Club
There perhaps should be no universe in which soundtracking numbed introverted depression to a mixture of Hawaii-movie Elvis cast-offs performed with a drawled-out in-joke delivery, novelty country signifiers, and the general sensation of being stuck on hold listening to the wait music of a particularly annoying call centre should work. Like, by all metrics, this should just be straight up embarrassing. And yet, “Room Temperature” really does work. You may be expecting a suffix of “in spite of itself” there, but in all honesty that kind of purgatorial call-centre holding pattern is a surprisingly unique yet not inaccurate way of musically depicting the days when one’s depressed despondency has metastasized into just a general lethargic state of being rather than the deepest darkest nights of the soul or a struggling battle to overcome. That completely insincere delivery of the refrain, “I should get out more,” cuts right to the heart of the matter. Is Webster being told it by somebody else? Is she telling it to herself? Is it a resolution? Either way, she knows it’s hollow so why bother hiding the contempt.
33] Denzel Curry
Hot Take: I did not care for ZUU. Believe me, I tried because I rode for Curry’s 2018 project TA13OO and really wanted to hear what everyone else was raving about in this one, but I just found it exhausting and lacking in depth. (And if you think that’s a take to send me to the stake, just wait til I tell you how I actively disliked most of Bandana.) “RICKY,” however, bangs. This is music for stomping mudholes in people, from the redline-crushing production designed to blow speaker systems to pieces, to Curry’s aggressive right-hook ALL-CAPS of a delivery, to that frickin’ huge chorus paying tribute to the wise advice of his parents. Surely, it’s only a matter of time before some professional fighter claims this for their walkout music? If you’re stood across from somebody who walked out to this, you are going to lose, my friend.
32] FKA twigs
It’s all about 1:41. This is not meant to diminish the rest of the song – twigs’ vocals are devastatingly vulnerable (perhaps the best I’ve ever heard from her), those stripped-back piano keys put me welcomingly in mind of “13 Ghosts II” by Nine Inch Nails, I love the little whispered approximations of a ticking clock which chug along uncaringly in the background, and the picture she paints lyrically about a failing relationship in the online public eye when everyone outside is rooting for it to fail is heartbreaking. But it’s all about 1:41, that indescribable sound which cracks the song open like thunder cracks the sky prior to a heavy rainfall. The first time I heard it, I got goosebumps. Basically every time I’ve listened to it since, I’ve still gotten those goosebumps. It’s a truly transcendent five seconds, the kind that singlehandedly makes good songs excellent.
“Blood of the Fang”
There Existed an Addiction to Blood
As I said in my review of the album: when Blood is on, it is some of the most exciting rap music of the year. Never more so than on late-album war cry “Blood of the Fang,” the best Run the Jewels song in almost three years. I get a real El-P vibe from Jonathan Snipes and William Hutson’s production which makes perfect sense given that Daveed Diggs is lyrically attempting to incite a full-on violent Black uprising, mixing propulsive bass bursts with a soulful flipping of an extract from the 1973 black vampire horror Ganja & Hess which repurposes a despairing tale of Black addiction into a karmically-due cry for justifiable reparations. Diggs is also just straight-up on fire with this, his predilection for double and triple-time motormouthed flows really selling the cumulative weight of centuries of oppression, murder and assassination of radical Black voices deemed dangerous to the white supremacist societal normal – that third verse is legitimately breathless and by the time it lets up the listener is probably ready to fling their body at the nearest police barricade. “Death ain’t shit!”
Come on back tomorrow for the middle-stretch of our countdown!
Callie Petch said “send me stationary to make me horny!”