I am a DJ and I am what I play…
Welcome back to the annual tradition where I pretend like My Top 50 Songs of the Year is something that other people even passively care about! Yesterday, we kicked things off with #50 to #31, but if you’re late to the party then you can click here to get all caught up. Today, we’re covering the middle stretch!
30] 100 gecs
There is a very real and salient argument that perhaps, in our Extremely Online age, irony has officially gone too far. That the desire to farm for online karma and say controversial things for “the bantz” or break from established social contracts of basic human decency has caused us to lose touch with the consequences of our actions, whether that be in the abhorrant act of swatting online opponents or pushing Venom up to $856 million at the worldwide box office. Who cares about notions of good taste or common decency when “THE BANTZ YOU GUYS?!” On that point, there is likely an argument out there that the praise and fanbase for 100 gecs is just another example of irony going too far, of everybody elevating a one-note joke to living meme status just for “the bantz” since the music is so abrasively stupid. To those who would make that argument I say “hey you little piss baby you think you’re fucking cool huh you think you’re so fucking tough you talk a lotta BIG GAME FOR SOMEONE WITH SUCH A SMALL TRUCK!”
29] Jayda G
“Sunshine in the Valley (Feat. Alexa Dash)”
“Diva Bitch,” the last collaboration between rising Canadian deep house connoisseur Jayda G and time-displaced diva house powerhouse Alexa Dash – seriously, I feel like I should be hearing her voice roaring out of actual lost 90s house records rather than new cuts in 2019 – was one of the best tracks of 2018 I was too late to get around to, hence it not making that year’s list, and I ain’t about to make the same mistake twice. Especially not when the resulting concoction is such an airy, heavenly delight. Dash’s vocals soar skyward around the track with such a manipulated grace that it makes me desperately want to go out to one of those boutique clubs with $10,000+ soundsystems just to hear them swim around me. Jayda’s production, meanwhile, goes for restraint and is all the more effective for it. Every instrument on the track is almost hushed, in a way, even the drop when the drums and popping bass come in, which really allows one to appreciate the clinically-organised dynamics in the design.
“Lesley (Feat. Ruelle)”
When I first heard Fraser T. Smith’s synthesised minor-key harp scales, coupled with a glance at the eleven-minute track length, I cop to rolling my eyes a touch. “Here we go,” I thought, “It’s the marked out ‘Important Devastating Ballad’ that inevitably ends up having all the emotional complexity and effectiveness of Hollyoaks.” About 10 minutes later, I was drying a tear from my eye. Turns out, even after a fantastic string of tracks leading up to it, I had been unfairly underestimating Dave’s storytelling ability. The narrative he spins, of the titular depressed pregnant woman in an abusive relationship, doesn’t sound like much when written out on a beat-by-beat basis, but it’s the detail and delivery that turns this into a genuinely affecting tragedy. When he circles back to the voicemail message near the end for the knife-twist, I let out a genuine gasp of shock. Even before his final call out to the listener with that one hell of a mic drop (“how many Lesleys are running from their Jasons?”), the empathy he displays is cutting. This is not a song I will voluntarily listen to as often as others on this list, but goddamn is it a masterclass of a thing all the same.
“IF YOU PRAY RIGHT”
2019 was a relatively quiet year for the world’s hardest working boyband, only putting out one 12-track album under the BH banner (although leader Kevin Abstract did also release a decent solo album) with no loosies and no announced-then-swiftly-cancelled projects. Instead, all their efforts went into GINGER, inarguably their most focussed record as a group to date (bizarre sequencing aside) whilst also being a distillation of what’s earned them their adoring cult following. Off-kilter production choices (such as the mocking marching band which makes up the main beat of “IF YOU PRAY RIGHT”), distinctive personalities who all bring their own energy to the track and collectively elevate each other (Matt Champion only gets 8 bars here but his swagger is invaluable), an honest openness about their own mental health even when engaging in class-A shit-talk (“romanticising what I’ll do if I ain’t stop me”), and a fearlessness to just careen off-course at a moment’s notice (I’m the person who likes the outro on the album take).
26] American Football
“Uncomfortably Numb (Feat. Hayley Williams)”
American Football (3)
Yes, this was in fact from 2019. It’s been a long year, you’re forgiven for forgetting that American Football finally came through with a worthy follow-up and progression to their mythic 1999 debut (2 was good but jogged in place). The sonics of “Uncomfortably Numb” in particular are both cold and comforting at once, the softness of those interlocking guitars and that French horn which turns up in the background of the third verse. It’s almost like setting up an intervention which is fitting given the heartbreaking tale of generational abuse and alcohol addiction spun by Mike Kinsella. “I blamed my father in my youth/Now, as a father, I blame the booze” in any other song would be one of the most haunting lyrics of the year, yet it’s outdone by the closing resigned riposte to those urging his protagonist to get better: “I’ll make new friends in the ambulance.” Some people you just can’t save, no matter how badly you wish you could.
“It’s Gonna Be Okay, Baby”
Saves the World
Y’know what? Even though I made a brief recurring bit out of it at the time, I’m glad I didn’t end up finding space for MUNA on my Top 50 Songs of 2017. Doing so means that I can sincerely proclaim that, even as a big fan of theirs, I had absolutely no idea they had an album or a song like this in them; Saves the World is such a massive step-up from their debut and “It’s Gonna Be Okay” is a near-all-timer of a pop song. But it’s also a song that could only have arrived thanks to the additional experience and confidence of getting a few years of songwriting under one’s belt, as singer Katie Gavin autobiographically lays out her life’s highs and lows with candour and specificity – experimenting with Communism, cutting off her hair with dull scissors from a desk in her dorm room, coming to depend on the sex of a sadistic stranger – before releasing all of that pain and expanding the emotional scope out of the personal into the universal through that titular chorus. It’s a magic trick which is incredibly hard to pull off, get it wrong and you risk coming off as self-involved or cloyingly cynical, but the effect is cathartic as hell. I already regret putting it outside of the Top 10; blame the band/label’s refusal to physically release the album in the UK!
24] Social House
“boyfriend (with Ariana Grande)”
Everything Changed… – EP
Yeah, it’s “thank u, next” again. It’s even by the same guys who produced Ari’s undeniable chart colossus, hence why the production sounds so much like a remix of the beat from “thank u.” But I was the dumbass who didn’t put “thank u, next” on their Top 50 last year, so just let me have this, alright? But even stepping aside from the blatant melodic rewrite of “thank u,” I think this really slaps. There’s something I find kinda irresistible about the lyrical story of a pair of emotionally-stunted fuck-ups so allergic to commitment yet toxically possessive and incapable of working through that baggage they’re willing to ruin the lives of each other and anyone who comes into contact with them. (Yes, I know that all parties have gone on-record saying the song is uplifting or kinda sweet, but Death of the Author alright.) Ari sounds phenomenal as always, the Social House guys are better singers than either Disclosure brother, everyone has good chemistry, song’s a catchy bop, and I’ve rarely related to an opening lyric more than “I am a motherfuckin’ trainwreck.” What more do you want?
“Feel the BEAT”
Look, I love The Beatles, don’t get me wrong – although I do love them a little less after watching Yesterday, but we’re getting waaay ahead of ourselves there – but they could be a touch preachily corny in a very 60s hippie manner which has not aged all that well. “All You Need is Love” is a solid song which resonated at the time, no disputing that, but listening back today in the wrong mood can make it seem like being stuck at some kind of dystopian happiness re-education centre. You know what I think could fix that problem? If we picked the tempo up a bit so it stopped being a march and instead became something you could dance to, if we added some progression into the structure so the ending didn’t end up feeling like “Hey Jude” in double-time, if we chucked the tuba into the bottom of the sea and replaced it with sparkling new-wave-y J-Pop sonics, and if we did all the lyrics in Japanese with a fantastic quartet of female voices who tempered the calls for love with frank admissions of how forkin’ exhausting the world can be even when you’ve got that support system to hand. What I’m basically saying is that CHAI wrote a better song than The Beatles, deal with it.
“Good Time Charlie”
The Seduction of Kansas
There’s something to be said for the seemingly-unassuming “damn-good” song which manages to remain a fixture of one’s rotation for the entire year but it doesn’t even seem that way until time comes to make one’s list and discovers that “shit, this slaps!” (Another reason why I think everybody should make year-end lists, even if they don’t want to expound in excess of 12,000 words explaining them.) I found The Seduction of Kansas to be a forgettable disappointment compared to Priests’ stunning 2017 debut, but I could not stop coming back to “Good Time Charlie” even long after the fact that they released an album in 2019 slipped my mind. In fact, it quietly may even be my most-played song of the year. There’s just something about that driving rhythm, about G.L. Jaguar’s unconventional guitar lines, about that crash into the chorus each and every single time, about that chorus itself with its wordy yet weirdly melodic tongue-twister, which I just could not get enough of. I really should’ve gone to see this band live whilst I had the chance.
“Can the Sub_Bass Speak?”
Can the Sub_Bass Speak? – Single
Goddamn. Frankly, I don’t think I should be writing about this. I fear that doing so is proving the point of Franklin James Fisher’s confrontational seemingly stream-of-consciousness spoken word, as he spends the length of the track scorching the earth of the institutionally white-supremacist music industry and music critique side-industry. The subtly demeaning ways that musical comparisons can undermine the music being made and reveal an unconscious racist bias (the “you look like” stretch starts at TV on the Radio and ends on the entirely-inaccurate Lenny Kravitz), the clickbaity flavour-of-the-month attitudes towards treating black artists as homogenous social voices, how dismissive reviews can undermine personal experiences (“bombastic to the point of kitsch”), and closing with a haunting poem directly linking fascination by white figures with black art about their pain being not all that far removed from the days of “dancing monkeys.” All the way, Algiers construct an overwhelming free-jazz sound collage which traces the history of Black music – from spirituals to blues to jazz to rock to trap – all co-opted and stolen by White society over the centuries to be presented as their own. The overall effect is chilling, uncomfortable, mordantly funny at points, and absolutely essential.
“Kiss You Goodbye”
Don’t You Think You’ve Had Enough?
In a year filled with insidious hooks, the kind which you hear once but don’t think is gonna haunt you like a forkin’ poltergeist until it’s been 21 straight days and that hook is all you’re capable of thinking about, “Kiss You Goodbye” may be the most utterly insidious. This thing has been relentless on my mind ever since first hearing the song back in May, and every single time it returns I end up sashaying my hips uncontrollably along to the rhythm because it’s just that strong and distinctive. Even worse is that, nine times out of ten, said hook will start in its native key only to transition halfway through into the Last Chorus Key Change, which is somehow even stronger than the regular version! I’m thinking of filing a class-action lawsuit against the Clavin sisters (Jennifer and Jessica) for the psychological duress inflicted by their near-perfect mash-up of 70s disco strut and 70s yacht rock LA vibes. The act of exasperatedly going through the logistics of a break up has rarely sounded so cool.
“Super Cool (Feat. Robyn & The Lonely Island)”
The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Long-time followers of this series will know that I have a real affinity for funky, empty, but fun-as-hell songs from animated kids’ films. Whilst you were all, perhaps rightly, ripping into Justin Timberlake for his profoundly dorky “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” from Trolls, I was over here naming it my tenth favourite song of 2016 in Example #7,865 as to why you should never listen to me about anything. Therefore, it’s probably not a surprise that a LEGO Movie cut has cracked this year’s Top 50 – sorry, Frozen, try releasing earlier than the last week of November next time! “Super Cool” is low-calorie, generic, empty bon mots with a deliberately simple chorus that even 3-year-olds could sing along to and a pair of meta-Lonely Island verses which aren’t particularly funny after the first listen. It is also, and I cannot stress this enough, a bop. Were Warner Bros. not fucking cowards and released the extended version, where the assembled artists start shouting out and roasting key personnel involved in the movie by name, this would’ve been at least five positions higher.
18] Sampa the Great
In my last part, I shouted out my friend Kofi for introducing me to the DRAM song which landed in #37, but his biggest contribution to my music tastes this year was “Final Form,” a song he loved so much that he played it on his BBC radio show, a show which is meant to have an entirely new playlist each week, for three consecutive weeks and kept bringing it back in the months afterwards. If you cannot understand why, then either you haven’t heard the song (in which case you are in for a treat fam) or you have absolutely no musical taste (in which case what in the fuck are you doing reading this). That beat is an utter barnstormer of a thing, I can already fully envision the blaxploitation movie whose opening credits montage it would play under – in fact, even with a specifically Zambian tinge in the instrumentation and manipulation, its construction reminds me a lot of vintage Swizz Beats. Sampa’s flow, meanwhile, is commanding, coolly flexing and celebrating her blackness in the face of a system and society aiming to keep her down. Damn-near every time I hear this, I find myself involuntarily making the Black Power fist in solidarity when she proudly chants the phrase during that bridge.
17] Charli XCX
“Gone (with Christine and the Queens)”
OK, this joke has gone on far enough, General Society. It was cute the first few times y’all decided that you were somehow too good for Charli and let all of her post-“Boom Clap” singles bomb – aside from the time she allowed Rita Ora to ruin “Doing It” because for some reason y’all are infatuated with actual white noise – to such an extent that “1999”’s surprise success carries an air of novelty to itself. But now that you’re going around actively snubbing “Gone,” a titanic eighteen-wheeler of a song which marries relatable anxiety/distaste of being stuck out at a party you hate lyrics to a song structure which is so nothing-but-hooks it rivals Girls Aloud-era Xenomania for utter unconventional pop genius?! And with Christine bringing so much of her own idiosyncratic yet perfectly complimenting energy to her duet part, creating a chemistry which has more believable heat despite the two not actually being in a relationship than the entirety of Camilla Cabello and Shawn Mendes’ supposed twu wuv romance? You just let this completely fizzle out?! What, because of the digital breakdown where the last chorus should be? THAT’S THE BEST PART, YOU CRETINS! FUCK OUTTA HERE!
Heavy is the Head
On the 25th April, Stormzy dropped his first solo track since Gang Signs & Prayer vaulted him to National Institution status back in mid-2017; a cool, confident, banging and endlessly quotable three-minute slice of exquisite shit-talk. Also on that day, Taylor Swift dropped her big first effort at a post-reputation comeback; the highly-expensive, chart-calculated, technicolour Brendan Urie collab dogshit “ME!” Improbably, given how much democracy has otherwise failed in 2019, the former won out the gruelling chart battle and Stormzy became a #1 artist in his own right. It is not unfair to assume that whatever Stormz came back with was likely gonna be received with fervour, what with the Glastonbury headline set on the way and the instantly-iconic video. But I highly doubt that a lesser song than “Vossi Bop” would’ve become the phenomenon that this ended up becoming. By his own admission, he had nothing left to prove yet he put in the effort to secure his legacy anyway and made it look effortless. It doesn’t take much to make kids nowadays yell “FUCK BORIS,” but to get tens of thousands of them to do it with such conviction… that’s inspiring.
15] Big Thief
Never has my “one song per artist” rule been so tested as in the case of Big Thief’s 2019. The number of artists who can release more than one genuinely great album within the space of a year can be counted on one hand, but not only did they make it seem like the easiest thing in the world, they put out two equally mesmerising Song of the Year contenders on both albums and expected me to somehow be able to pick between them and not have it affect the winner’s place on the list. Well, congrats guys, your gambit paid off, you bloody show-offs! I absolutely adore “Cattails,” a gorgeous Joni Mitchell-esque number with possibly my favourite Adrianne Lenker vocal performance ever, but “Not” is It. In a way, it kinda has to be since the band have been workshopping it live for years, but “Not” really is the quintessence of the alchemy which makes Big Thief so special. That chemistry, that tangible sensation of four best friends huddled up together feeding off of each other’s energy and pushing everyone to be better, is completely undeniable here. When the track descends into a wrenching ugly-ass guitar solo jam, one of the first (if not the first) in the band’s history, it is utterly electric to witness. This, as they say, is It, chief.
14] Little Simz
Up until 10 days ago, I had no idea which GREY Area track was gonna end up on this list. That’s a common affliction which affects universally excellent albums, with chances increasing depending on how close to my Album of the Year said album ends up (GREY Area is my AOTY btw), because it makes finding that one killer track so much harder, and especially when several of the obvious candidates are released as singles the previous year and thus are ineligible for contention. It took seeing Simz live for my decision to be made, as the pit opened up and the building went completely berserk for the drop in “Venom.” To be honest, I always knew that this was The One, for those phenomenal Psycho-esque strings which instantly set the tone, for the dustbowl dub haze of the eventual drop, for the sheer virtuosity of Simz’s raps and ever-shifting rhyme schemes and flow. A part of me was reticent to acknowledge the obvious out of a fear that it would look like I’ve gone for the technical showcase over the tracks with less showy and more emotional heart; a common act for basic White rap bros to do, overpraising the flash in spite of the substance. Then Simz restarted the song in an effort to make the molten crowd go even crazier and I stopped giving a fuck.
Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost, Pt. 1
The streak… is over. Until now, Foals had a perfect record on my lists, being members of my Three-Timers Club (I should probably note that down officially someday) and never once being outside of the Top 10. That run has come to an end. This is not a knock on “In Degrees,” however, frankly their best track since “My Number” which makes sense given that it’s effectively meant to subsume the latter’s place in Indie Disco playlists the UK over. Much like that slice of fried gold, “Degrees” is a break-up song which chooses to convey the urgency of its emotional duress via the art of sweaty, relentless, undeniable dance-rock, with gang vocals over the chorus, a signature ping-ponging guitar line, and in such a hurry to get to the dancefloor that it drops without warning about 16 seconds in and just won’t stop the building-dropping-rebuilding cycle until someone pulls out the aux cable. Unlike “My Number,” the bass is on synths this time, and it turns out that’s the one element which was stopping the earlier song from being a Godzilla trucking everything in sight.
Nothing Great About Britain
You can’t accuse the song title of false advertising. “Gorgeous” is, well, gorgeous. That beat is just pure concentrated wistful nostalgia, the looping piano triplets which keeps skittering in and out combined with the accentuations of the violins and that implaceable vocal sample. Even without slowthai on top of it, I could just lie back and listen to that beat for hours as I tour my own childhood memories both good and ill. With slowthai on top, his unconventional rhyme schemes and thick Northampton accented flow brim with a tangible wistfulness for the simplicity of his younger years, even the way he describes he and his friends being wrongly profiled by the police (“five man deep and we all in cuffs”) carries a glint of appreciation for what the experience had taught him. But it’s when the main song ends that the track becomes something truly special. The beat cuts out and slowthai relates a story to his friend of the time his stepdad tried to take him to a football game despite clearly not having tickets or knowing where the match was even supposed to take place, with the beat slowly reconstructing itself as the story goes on providing a bittersweet counterpoint to what came before with a reminder of the mundane everyday disappointments of British working-class life.
11] Vampire Weekend
Father of the Bride
I spent the entirety of university without new Vampire Weekend, and if there was any time most befitting for some new Vampire Weekend it should’ve been my three years immersed in academia. You guys wanna leave me high and dry for so long, huh? You wanna just disappear without saying a word, without a single peep, without even the slightest objection as I moved onto new flings hoping they could make feel like the protagonist in a New York-set coming-of-age dramedy? Then you wanna return six years later with an absolutely perfect slice of Madchester-inflected indie pop that’s somehow exactly like I wanted the return of Vampire Weekend to be and also like nothing else you’ve done before, repurposing the standout line from “Finger Back” for a cathartic-as-heck protestation against the alt-right miseries of 2019 life, and with an acoustic guitar riff so lovely that people were perfectly happy to listen to a two-hour loop of it in the week leading up to release? And you just expect me to take you back like it’s 2013 and we aren’t different people than when we last spoke? Cos you’d be goddamn right, get back in here! Yes, you can bring your embarrassing children’s campfire song too. I’m just so happy you’re back!
Come on back tomorrow for the exciting conclusion!