This is about the time that I’d typically look at last year’s hit songs and highlight the ones that stood out to me the most. But I’ve hardly kept tabs on the hit music scene for 2019—and similar to what appears to be nearly everyone else, the year wasn’t entirely kind to me—so we’re going to do things slightly different today.
I’m opening this up to the entirety of music this time, not just the hits, and it’s going to be far more than just ten songs plus honorable mentions. Consider this to be a partial survey of the ways in which my eternal love of music grew and evolved, highlighting a big chunk of the music that I discovered throughout the last twelve months. They all aren’t songs that debuted in 2019, but regardless of when and where they originated, they all ended up on my radar within that year.
Afterwards, perhaps you can share your own music finds for the year down in the comments? Everyone ought to have a chance to share in the love.
Update 1/17/2019 2:35 pm—Pronoun corrections. I goofed badly.
Update 1/16/2020 3:15 pm—By reader request, here’s a Spotify playlist with almost everything mentioned below, with which you can follow along! Albeit with a couple of differences. First, as the one-hour song covers by Blanks aren’t on Spotify, the original “bad guy” and “Señorita” were put in their places instead. Additionally, neither of Griffin McElroy’s The Adventure Zone compositions aren’t on Spotify at all, so those unfortunately are left off entirely. He does have his stuff on Bandcamp, though.
In artists’ first-name alphabetical order, here is a large sampling of 50 songs that made their mark in 2019.
Here’s a New York City-based brass band whose name I know largely thanks to bassist Adam Neely’s YouTube output. They put out a record early in the year; “It Was Here” is the title track, a richly arranged statement of purpose. I can practically imagine it soundtracking the kind of montage making up the opening titles for Saturday Night Live, full of lovingly crafted shots of the splendor of nighttime NYC.
This is one of the most locked-in grooves that Alicia Keys has committed to, and it’s so potent, it holds up even with only a spare acoustic guitar arrangement backing it. When you’ve got a good performance, and good chemistry with a duet partner like Miguel, perhaps that’s all you really need.
With the original “Balloon”—a pleasant electronic pop gem with slight hints of Owl City—as a springboard, Foamek goes on to build a towering seven-minute monument of retro trance moves where dropping straight-up ATB “9PM (Til I Come)” synth guitars is merely the beginning of the madness. This Foamek guy must’ve set out to make a song with a receptive audience of me, and only me; late-90’s and early-00’s trance was what started my love of music as a whole, so this remix hits an oddly specific but thoroughly pertinent sweet spot of mine.
Best known, by far, as the first theme song of The Adventure Zone, the podcast that finally got me to make the leap to playing Dungeons & Dragons. Thus, it’s pretty much impossible for me to separate the song from the show, but that is to its benefit, as it’s such a perfect match. It’s got those moderately creepy and thoroughly retro flavors that draw out the Rod Serling allusions of the show’s title, while also possessing that element of kitsch that fits the utter absurdity of the action and antics undertaken by Magnus, Merle, and Taako.
You ever witness the YouTube algorithm giving you simply the most random yet specific recommendations from artists that you’d never heard of before, but then when you decide to give it a listen, it turns out that it slaps? That was me, beabadoobee, and “She Plays Bass” this past year.
The 90’s alternative vibes are especially strong with this one, complete with the disengaging non-sequitur that “It don’t matter ‘cuz we’re both in space.” It’s also got some bright, resplendent guitar tones that emphasize that spaciness, and I really dig the singer’s breathy delivery as well. And perfectly befitting the title, the bass does, in fact, hold itself down awesomely.
Pop starts don’t typically get big on the back of willful, confrontational antagonism, yet America was somehow in a state of mind to slap this creepy whispered horror-pop onto the Billboard Hot 100. My first exposure to Billie Eilish was from a piano duet with Khalid, so this was a pretty stark change of direction from what I had known. But I can get with this! The young folk apparently have room for self-titled album James Blake-ass vocal manipulation and quiet electronic minimalism, and they’ll have no complaints from me for that.
The true peak of that antagonism for my money, however, goes to this trap-inflected gem. She’s got such a masterful command of her quiet singing voice, knowing when to deploy just the right amount of vibrato at just the right moments, to elevate it beyond gimmick. And the beat is a sterling monument of controlled menace. This got the Takashi Murakami music video treatment for good reason.
Billie Eilish’s original is pretty alright, but I’m a particular fan of what YouTube-occupying musician Blanks managed to do with it in the course of orchestrating a quick cover. When exposed to a little synthy sunlight and propped up with more energetic singing, it turns out that “bad guy” can be pretty damn groovy.
The most eye-opening revelation he provided, however, was this rendition of the Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello duet. The original is thoroughly average, but this cover is a strong argument for it being a secretly fantastic song that just needs a little more love to reach its true potential. Like, holy shit, this hacked-together-in-an-hour arrangement is leagues better, and all that Blanks and singer Emma Heesters really had to do was put lush instrumentation in place of an antiseptically clean beat, further emphasize the rich harmonies, and build up to a chorus that goes full gorgeous when it unfurls. This demands a full version.
I’m not sure when it will stop feeling strange that K-pop has carved out a spot in the American music mainstream. It’s the good kind of strange, though; a more non-European presence on the charts is a healthy development. Especially when it means getting tracks as good as this—an airy, feel-good funk pop confection with hooks for days, and the best thing Halsey did this year; she can be fun!—up to number 8 on the Billboard Hot 100.
So we’ve got Dick Clark’s Rockin’ Eve playing on ABC waiting for the ball drop to ring in the new year, as one does. They cut over to the venue in Hollywood, where Ciara is about to do a live performance. It starts, and the song is…some straight-up Miami Bass that’s got “now that’s that chocolate chocolate!!!” as a hook. It ends with MELANIN plastered on the television screens behind her and all of the dancers.
I’m not sure words can do justice in trying to explain the extent of my delighted confusion. Or how I was even more gobsmacked upon looking the song up later on and finding that fucking LUPITA NYONG’O is one of the featured guests!! Everything about this is so weird, it makes me happy. And it’s catchy.
While shopping around in the mall one day, I heard this funky sampladelic dance number playing over the intercom. Hoping to know what it was for posterity’s sake, I Shazam’d it, and the artist came up as Chaka Khan. Immediately, my reaction was to annoyingly go “No, I want the name of the song that SAMPLES the Chaka Khan song, not the Chaka Khan song!” then try Shazam-ing it again. Same result. At that point, I gave up, admitting defeat.
Cut to a couple of weeks later, when I decide to listen to this Chaka Khan song anyway, and picture my complete surprise and subsequent embarrassment upon realizing that this actually was the “sampladelic song” I had been looking for in the first place. And that she came out with it just two years ago. Sure is some good shit, though!
The second time that CHVRCHES, a band I really like, has dedicated themselves to the theme song for a video game. And I think I might even like this one better than “Warning Call”. There’s a good chance that I am never going to play a second of the Hideo Kojima video game Death Stranding, but I can still appreciate the way it inspires a “Science/Visions”-style anthem with soaring lighters-to-the-sky overtones.
Its pleasures are simple. Lightly psychedelic indie rock anchored by flanger-inflected guitars? There doesn’t need to be much more than that to get me on board.
Another song that seemingly calls upon the trance tracks of old, though everything here gets absurdly overdriven to the point where it feels like standing in the crossfire of a laser light show within a darkened hall of mirrors. A moment where sensory overload is exhilarating.
A legit tell-off anthem, the one you pull out when damn well truly do mean it when you say that you’re over them. There’s no agony in Dua Lipa’s voice, only gleeful spite, and she’s fully committed to keeping things as funky and fun as can be. I happen to be an easy mark for some well-placed disco string stabs, too.
If anyone could turn the death throes of a malfunctioning arcade game into a baller song sketch, of course it would be Flume.
And he’s just as capable at turning fuzzy samples into dreamlike bliss. Out of the plethora of tracks in Hi This Is Flume, this was the one that stuck out to me the most. It packs in so much in such a short two minutes and fifteen seconds.
As the prophecies dictate, “The One Directioner who deigns to channel their inner MGMT shall be the chosen one.” And lo and behold! Coming in hot with an “Electric Feel”, Harry Styles is the one! Starting one’s post-boy band career with a callback to 70’s classic rock delivered bleakly, a la “Sign of the Times”, deserves plenty of respect. But honestly, I’ve got even more appreciation for consciously making a move towards gauzy white-boy R&B, and selling it capably.
I’d been so preoccupied with the idea of LiSA and Eir Aoi being the two pillar singers of the Sword Art Online series, that Haruka Tomatsu became just as frequent of a touchstone as the other two without me noticing until just this year. It’s not the pair anymore; it’s the trinity. She did the opening theme song for war of underworld, and it’s been a real grower. Maybe even the best theme that SAO has had in years. Haruka provides an epic romantic sweep that Alicization absolutely does not deserve.
Disclosure brings the smooth, happy synth chords; Khalid brings some laidback vibes. It’s like they’ve come together to take it easy—just have themselves a little breather—and we’re all invited to join in. The combined result of it all puts a smile on my face.
The dark undertow of Gesaffelstein’s productions don’t exactly scream “would be a perfect fit for Pharrell.” Despite that, “Blast Off” totally makes it work, mainly by leaning right into that incongruity, going so far as to have a chorus of falsetto Pharrells holding down the chorus. His singing lends levity that complements the persistent groove of the beat.
As a mid-2000’s high schooler who frequented MTV2, there was this one random song from this random band Head Automatica, “Graduation Day”, yet somehow the one bit about them that stuck with me long-term was that the frontman also had this other and apparently harder band called Glassjaw. Yet somehow, despite never hearing a single Glassjaw song, that band name was evidently so awesome that I always remembered it, whereas I had to look up Head Automatica throughout the course of this post to even remember what the hell the band I actually heard shit from back in the day was called.
Well, 2019 was the year I FINALLY heard a Glassjaw song, and a) “Cosmopolitan Blood Loss” is just a fucking amazing title, and b) holy shit this song wrecks. It sounds positively livewire, like my face flesh would just melt off if I was physically exposed to the energy of its discordant guitars and frantic rhythm.
Who’d have guessed that the sweetest baby brother of My Brother, My Brother and Me, who started taking up music production in the middle of his D&D campaign, would end up producing such a gloriously fun, outright fabulous dance track after such a short amount of time? This cavalcade of synth stabs and frenetic chipmunk vocal chops seems like it would lend itself well to bouts of high-intensity voguing.
As far as mood-setting goes, however, one of his strongest pieces is the lo-fi hip hop/trip hop theme song for Amnesty, i.e. the Monster of the Week campaign of The Adventure Zone. It encapsulates the rural eccentricity of the West Virginia setting, preparing all listeners for the weird shit to come, but arguably even more importantly, it proved to be the perfect closing track for each episode’s end, too. The long, lone guitar strum that rings out before the beat finally drops is ample fodder for badass cliffhanger one-liners and stupid Ryan Gosling-based goat puns alike, something that Griffin used frequently and to its full potential.
On that fateful day, the one where my wife and I watched a video about the inner workings of an ice cream factory, we were introduced to a nugget of pure royalty-free gold. The flute melodies still frequently get stuck in our heads because it’s just that irrepressibly catchy.
The best line in The Beatles’ “The Fool On The Hill” is about how the fool’s “eyes in his head see the world spinning ‘round.” “Slow Burn”, a gorgeous ode to taking in the totality of life in the grand scheme of things, slowing down to appreciate it all, is probably what that scene sounds like. After first hearing this, it rapidly shot up to become one of my all-time favorite songs ever.
An infectiously groovy elevator music tune to which I’m compelled to bop my head as if I were the Animal Crossing: New Leaf villager in Club LOL.
Hey, no sense in leaving off The Most Obvious Pick In The World if it turns out to still be a strong pick.
It did take a bit of time to fully embrace it, though. The turning point was the moment I realized just how iconic and perfect the repeated refrain of “Can’t nobody tell me nothin’” was. Big mood.
And Lil Nas X isn’t a one-trick pony, either! I really like his specific mix of singsong rapping here—not as straight-up singing like a Post Malone, nonetheless rather tuneful and demonstrating a serious ear for hooky melodies—and it fits well with the lilting synthesizer tones. It also packs a surprise when the drum machine gets interrupted by a live drum loop, as if “Panini” were taking a hard turn into power ballad territory. Highlighting the remix because it extends the song length into full-song-length territory.
This hit right at the start of the year, and such was the power of its propulsively funky confidence that it got me to excitedly wonder, “Is this was what pop music is going to sound like this year??” And wait, it’s by that awesome flute chick?! Ultimately, that turned out to be a fluke rather than a bellwether for music’s direction…and it apparently wasn’t much of a hit either. For shame. But it did turn out to be Lizzo’s year overall, and I can’t not be glad for that.
But really, as great as “Juice” may be, this is the track that truly, fully connected with me, watered my crops, cleaned out my pores, fulfilled my self-actualization, etc. Part of it is surely the triumphant attitude towards which every sonic element and Lizzo’s performance contributes. The “FEELING GOOD AS HELL!!” sample drop is especially on point. Honestly, though, it might just be because I’m a real sucker for a solid breakbeat, and would you look at that? “Good as Hell” deploys a chunky one with the enthusiasm it deserves.
A very Missy Elliott track, featuring Missy Elliott herself doing her thing in full glory by decimating the concept of proper pronunciation in the name of them rolling rrr’s. It’s somewhat ironic in one sense that this ended up actually ended up sounding more like a specifically Missy song than one of the actual central (still pretty solid) Missy songs from 2019. Lizzo’s flute even gets in an expertly placed trill!
I checked out from MGMT after not especially liking Congratulations not really keeping tabs on them during the years afterward. Then the algorithms-that-be served up one of their more recent songs, and maybe I have to check them out again, because maybe they got awesome again? I would not have pegged them as likely to be on some warped funhouse Electric Light Orchestra shit. Yet on “One Thing Left to Try” they are, and they harness those energies into uncanny strangeness.
This is like an alternate-universe “We Can’t Stop” where everything that was weird and wrong with that song was set right. It turns out that defiant confidence is an attitude that fits Miley’s skill set as a vocalist rather well. This is also a great beat, particularly the drum machine and its slow-but-heavy momentum.
One totally unexpected yet pleasant surprise was finding out that a crazily skilled bluegrass mandolin player who I had heard of because of an improbably stellar Radiohead cover eventually got himself a steady gig hosting a live music/variety show that also happens to have a YouTube channel. That sure is a random assortment of words, but okay! More power to you, Chris Thile!
Live from Here has proven to a pretty solid place to turn to for some nice live performances in a pinch, and this one with Chris’ band Nickel Creek was one of my favorites. There’s simply no competing with those otherworldly three-part country harmonies.
Quiet-loud quiet, verse-chorus-verse, the same old alt rock song and dance. But “Particles” happens to pull off the typical with impressive aplomb. A rubbery bass and drums with rhythmic potency surely help, as does a frontman with a falsetto that can seriously milk the highs in the choruses for all they’re worth.
I got to checking out an Oasis album after hearing about what a mess their third record, Be Here Now, apparently was, and then wondering what a good album by them sounds like. I went with the one that had the most hits I recognized, i.e. (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?
It took a little while to nail it down, but “Cast No Shadow” is easily my favorite track of the bunch. The poetry here is so good, it wholly earns the right to basically repeat its single verse twice. There’s this beautiful sadness throughout, especially as the Gallagher brothers trade off on call-and-response lines and harmonies, and I very much empathize with its portrait of somebody from which life takes too much and treats a bit too unfairly.
I’m alright with trap rap/mumble rap from time to time, but it can also get too old, especially whenever it feels like that’s all there is out there. So “Backin’ It Up” already gets an edge over the competition for not being trap, hearkening a bit closer to something like an early-2000’s rap, and Pardison Fontaine and Cardi B both rightly commit to throwback flows that match the vintage. However, production in the late 2010’s is an immense upgrade from the early 2000’s, so the beat also gets the added benefit of sounding far punchier. The end result is monstrous.
A science fiction synthwave jam with serious edge. Oh, you turn to music like this as a fantastical escape, perfect for your gamer brand, is that right? Well, there’s no escape this time; take a gut punch instead as an android taunts you with the looming shadow of ecological ruin. It’s creepy and unsettling, and sounds real good while being all that.
Any doubt that I had about a Post Malone and Travis Scott-plus-Ozzy Osbourne collaboration working went right out the window once Ozzy belts out an instant classic hook—“I feel you crumble in my arms down to your heart of stone”—as his first line. It’s the kind of overblown yet awesomely ridiculous drama-queen emo attitude that spruces up the typical Post Malone post-grunge vibe with a shot of glam.
One of the Rae Sremmurd dudes is a capable autotune crooner! Who’d have thought? Yeah, yeah, I first knew this song back in 2018, being attached to the incredible Into the Spider-Verse and all that, but this year was when I began to fully appreciate its lush warmth.
I can fully understand why their voice lends itself to all manners of ballads and torch songs, but somehow, they’re much better as a dance/electronic vocalist. Thus, “Dancing With A Stranger” is already easily the best single they’ve put out that wasn’t a collaboration with some producer or DJ by virtue of being the first one where they seemingly embrace electronic pop on their own turf, and does so over a good low-key beat.
It’s Normani who ultimately steals the show, however. Camila Cabello may have been the breakout start from Fifth Harmony, but she’s the one I’ve been seriously growing to like more and more each time I end up hearing her on something. It also happens to be during her part that the beat deploys its secret weapon, a choice selection of marimbas, thereby taking the whole song from good to utterly sublime.
It’s an R&B jam where the beat is great, where Summer Walker owns the spotlight, and where Usher even pops in for a good turn and some harmony trades. I feel a bit stupid, not being able to provide a bit of that deeper analysis that could amply summarize this song’s appeal. The most enduring monument to this that I can give is that I first heard it by stumbling into the middle of it while browsing radio stations on a drive, and it captivated me right in the first split second I heard. Perhaps “Come Thru” isn’t complicated, but it doesn’t need to be; it’s just damn good, through and through.
A collective of programmers and artists fed a bunch of Eurovision songs into a neural network, then challenged said network to take what it had learned and spit out a bunch of lyrics and melodies in an attempt to make an artificial intelligence-composed Eurovision anthem. After taking snippets of the neural network’s output and forming them into a song, they ended up with the best song title of 2019. The attached music also happens to be nonsensically, triumphantly dramatic, and it’s got two rising key changes. TWO OF THEM!!!
Computer speech synthesis had a big moment in 1961 when an IBM 704 computer was made to “sing” a rendition of the late 19th-century tune “Daisy Bell”. That makes that computer essentially the ur-ancestor to the Vocaloid phenomenon that would come to prominence nearly five decades later.
So there’s a part of me that finds this tribute to history—where modern Vocaloid technology joins the IBM 704 and a vocoder (another foundational building block in speech synthesis) on the same song—so touching. It even becomes outright emotional when all of these different technologies that emerged generations apart sing the chorus together. The grandchild shows reverence and gratitude to their grandparents.
Of the three singles that Taylor has put out for her latest album Lover, the title track is the best one, no contest. For these four minutes, she channels the energy of Oldest Taylor—when she still had one foot squarely in the “country” part of country pop—through some saccharine 1950’s-esque balladeering.
I daresay the style suits her nicely. Plus, it feels like it’s been a while since last hearing her over mostly live instrumentation, and there’s something about that which I find pretty refreshing. What fully sells me on “Lover”, however, is the overarching sentiment of “This is our house; we make the rules.” The sound of liberation as a younger generation gets a place of their own to call the shots.
This sounds like an SNES battle theme on steroids. It goes hard enough to blur the line between dance music and sheer propulsion. And to think that if I had missed this last year, I would’ve first considered it as last decade’s music!
It’s The Weeknd putting out an “I’m Back, Bitch!” single even more blatantly I’m-Back than “Starboy”, but as gauche of a move as that is, damn if I don’t dig it. It’s a collage of lovely Kiss Land-era synth work sutured to a scatterbrained mess—the beat frequently transforms and changes tempo with abrupt gracelessness, sirens get practically stapled in with little rhyme or reason, the entire production sounds like it’s barely held together with duct tape—yet that’s exactly where it gets its appeal.
All of the haphazardery undercuts the bravado by perhaps implying that the protagonist is maybe just a little psychologically unmoored. He’s back, bitch! But not, like…fully back. On a related note, I also love the music video and its depiction of The Weeknd as a Vegas-loving, toad-licking dweeb.
This song, meanwhile, is straight-up outright kickass, and a potent reminder of what a spellbinding vocalist he is. When there’s no flexing involved, and he’s just purely singing, he still authoritatively holds his own. And this time, he’s doing so to sounds practically airlifted from neon-drenched 1980’s, “Maniac” by way of Blade Runner. Now, we sure as hell don’t need any more synthwave vibes for the next four decades at the absolute minimum, but exceptions can be made for a Weeknd version of it, especially if the results are as fruitful as “Blinding Lights”.
That covers it all from my end. Now, your turn: What songs were you glad to have discovered in the past year?