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The 100 best songs of 2019 (so far)

Ciara, Lil Nas X, Billie Eilish

Ciara, Lil Nas X, Billie Eilish YouTube

Don’t worry, I didn’t write about all of them. Just the top 25.

Over the past six months, I’ve been adding the best new songs I’ve come across to a playlist every week and posting some notes about them here. Now, just as we’ve squeaked past the mid-year, I’ve edited that collection a bit, cutting some tracks that didn’t quite hold up and limiting each artist to a single entry. Here are the 100 songs that survived.

I’ve offered some explanation for my top picks, but if reading’s not your thing feel free to skip down to the playlist. The listening is the important part, after all, and there’s 348 minutes of music here. I’m sure you’ll like at least some of it. Pretty sure, anyway.

25. Lizzo – “Juice”

How big is Lizzo now? I heard this in a Bounty commercial on Spotify yesterday. “Spill your juice? That’s why there’s Bounty.” Get that paper (towel), grrrl.

24. Khalid feat. Megan Thee Stallion & Yo Gotti – “Talk (Remix)”

“Talk” was a grower, as many great pop hits are, and this remix, with Megan and Gotti adding a little vocal variation, might win over skeptics who find Khalid’s somnolescent purr less seductive and personable than fans like me.

23. Hand Habits – “Can’t Calm Down”

22. Ezra Furman – “Calm Down AKA I Should Not Be Alone”

One more jarring aspect of Ms. Swift’s smugly Pride-jacking lecture of a single “You Need to Calm Down” is that two indie talents had already established that 2019 was very much the year of not calming down. As Hand Habits, Meg Duffy’s perturbed murmur floats above a barebones beat as persistent as the drip of a bathroom faucet invading an insomniac’s head space, the sound of that willed stasis you impose on your dangerously percolating nerves when you need to appear presentable. (The splintered panic attack of a guitar solo is how Duffy really feels.) And nobody frazzles classic rock purpose with anxious punk frenzy quite like Ezra Furman, who firehoses lyrics at you like he’s desperately trying to bail out his flooded brain. 

21. Palehound – “Killer”

Nothing says murder like a well-honed guitar arpeggio, and as each string shimmers individually and ominously behind her Ellen Kempner pledges vengeance and love as an act of exorcism in a cool simmer of a monotone: “I wanna be the one who kills the man who hurt you, darling.”

20. The Boyboy West Coast – “U Was at the Club (Bottoms Up)”

If the summer’s other great meme-spawned track never became the hit it deserved to be, well, maybe it would have worn out its welcome. This playful pickup jam, which started as a teaser and went viral via TikTok, imagines the uncanny valley as a singles bar, its melodic flow unfolding with the cool inevitability of both casual conversation and autogenerated text.

19. Insignificant Other – “I’m So Glad I Feel This Way About You”

“We’re not even friends anymore,” Sim Morales declares on this envoi to a former intimate as this Birmingham-based band distill a one-sided devotion and affection they wouldn’t jettison if they could into a rush of prickly guitar.

18. 21 Savage feat. J. Cole – “A Lot”

Abolish ICE.

17. Mannequin Pussy – “Drunk II”

There’s no shortage of songs about getting sloshed and crawling back into the wreckage of a defunct relationship, but with guitars stirring up a dramatic clamor too smart to topple into fancy grandeur, Marisa Dabice’s confessional expertly distills what it feels like to be trapped between the familiar misery of bad decisions and the strain of living up to your friends’ respect for you: “Everyone says to me/‘Missy, you’re so strong’/But maybe I don’t want to be.”

16. Tove Lo – “Glad He’s Gone”

The sexed-up Swede takes her recently liberated pal out trawling for dick but leaves open the option that she’d rather hook up with her herself with lines like “you and me under each other… 's wing.” And I like how the chorus is kinda an E-40 tribute.

15. Denzel Curry – “Ricky”

A screwed baritone booms a monstrous chorus while the Florida MC shares some home wisdom from his parents: “My daddy said, ‘Treat young girls like your mother’/My mama said, ‘Trust no hoe use a rubber.’”

14. The Scary Jokes feat. Louie Zong – “Community Gardens”

“Full disclosure: I am a monster/A creature of despair, not that that should be a cause for concern“ is the opening line of the year, because really, 1) aren’t we all and 2) should it ever be? Pert-voiced self-described “transmasc nonbinary clown from the garden state” Liz Lehman sells this chipper, rambling search for human connection amid ecological apocalypse as Zong’s guitar fills in the gaps between keyboard parts.

13. DaBaby – “Suge”

For all his credible threats of bodily harm and clench-jawed diction, this North Carolinian is a surprisingly elastic rubber ball of a rapper. He doesn’t flow so much as poing, bounding as irresistibly as the squelchy synth-bass popping beneath him.

12. Rosalia & J Balvin feat. El Guincho – “Con Altura”

Even the most hapless gringo monoglot can hear how enjoyably the stars’ voices—flamenco-pop queen Rosalía’s nimble and fluty, neo-reggaeton chart titan Balvin’s gruff and bullish—ride that artfully overhauled boom-didi-boom-boom.

11. D’Angelo – “Unshaken”

And to think, there was a moment when this spare, existentialist psalm from the Red Dead Redemption 2 soundtrack seemed almost certainly the biggest musical moment that video game would spawn in 2019. (Then—spoiler—the fella in our next entry here was inspired by RDR2 to write the year’s biggest song.) A showcase for far-from-prolific neo-soul auteur’s grave lower register, the forlorn spiritual combines Old West frontier desolation with a touch of Leonard Cohen’s sepulchral stoicism. “May I stand unshaken,” D’Angelo prays. “Amid, amidst a crashing world.” Yee haw?

10. Lil Nas X feat. Billy Ray Cyrus – “Old Town Road”

Maybe you think you’re had enough. Maybe you really even have had enough. All’s I know is that every time I think the novelty has finally worn off and I’ve ridden till I cain’t no more, those introductory chords send a jolt to my brain and quicken my pulse the way great pop always does and I’m back on that damn horse. Sure, he’s the first kid who truly gets how 21st century pop stardom works, and he exposed the noxious racial politics of genre classification without even trying. But all tweets and thinkpieces and trolling aside, the reason you’ll be hearing this at every sporting event, wedding, and miscellaneous all-inclusive public occasion you attend in the indefinite future is simple: People love singing along with and dancing to this song, And let me conclude by once more putting in a good word for Cupcakke’s transcendentally filthy “Old Town Hoe.”

9. Lana Del Rey – “Hope Is a Dangerous Thing For a Woman Like Me to Have”

Sure Sylvia Plath and Slim Aarons are all-too-appropriate namechecks, but I bet you didn’t have a haunted iPad with daddy issues on your LDR bingo card now, did you? Anyway, the obviousness is, as always, her point, expressing the horror of recognizing that you’ve succumbed, once more, to emotional caricature—just as the upwardly phantasmal waft of the melody expresses the pleasure of recognizing that... well, yes, you’ve succumbed, once more, to emotional caricature. She revels in the humor of her melancholia, which, as always, doesn’t dispel it, and if the title is a setup the punchline isn’t “But I have it”—it’s that she never makes clear whether she’s a danger to others or herself. Both, probably, right? 

8. Chai – “I’m Me”

I’m too far removed from the culture this Japanese quartet is reportedly challenging (ironizing? deconstructing?) to (yet?) fully appreciate the subtleties of their acclaimed full-length, Punk. But when “I’m Me” injects its industrial-strength artificial sweeteners directly into my mainline, my brain’s pleasure sensors topple into the red in a way even the most glossily superficial U.S. pop hasn’t managed in years.

7. Four Tet – “Only Human”

Producer Kieran Hebden tinkers with a high-stepping U.K. garage beat so it doesn’t just build with a momentum that’s already made this track a dancefloor favorite, but also with a rhythmic logic shut-ins like me can hear and feel now that it’s streamable at home. When the vocal elements of Nelly Furtado’s 2006 song “Afraid” emerge, the chanted “You’re so afraid of what people might say/But that’s okay ’cause you’re only human” sounds less like a pop star’s inspirational patter and more like a throng of joyous townspeople flooding the street during a climactic production number. Need something to make you feel better? Hell, this might even make you feel good.

6. Tierra Whack – “Only Child”

The first and best of this North Philly MC’s five excellent standalone singles this year is, at 3:59, more than one-quarter as long as the entirety of Whack World, her  2018 15-minute masterpiece of 15 one-minute tracks. But she’s just as witty and wily at this sprawling, epic length, easing into the groove to set you up for the multiple climactic dunks (”Used to arch my back for you and now I'm your arch-nemesis,” “I don't want to work it out, so cancel our gym membership”) before she closes by choosing “money ova dick.” 

5. Noname – “Song 32”

This casually genius, free-associative Chicago rapper weaves contradictory yet complementary images of American affluence, violence, dominance, excellence, and race—”I'm Cardi's engagement ring," "I'm Obama pushing the button, in Libya, Pakistan," "I'm patriarchy on Sunday, don't push me, I'm Viacom"—into a seductive helix of metaphor that’s more than the sum of paradoxes. Whatever the next level is after “next level,” Noname’s floating high above it.

4. Doja Cat feat. Rico Nasty – “Tia Tamera”

Just a coupla cool chicks rapping about boobs.

3. Billie Eilish – “Bad Guy”

Duh.

2. PUP – “Free at Last”

“Just ’cause you’re sad again/That doesn’t make you special at all” is targeted harassment and the mods have been notified.

1. Ciara – “Thinkin Bout You”

The friskiest pop thirst-spree of 2019 peaked at an insultingly piddling #20 on the Billboard Hot 100, and we the masses will never be fully able to make amends. For four and a half minutes, Ciara allows us to experience all the giddy craving of possibly unrequited infatuation with none of the potentially heart-pulverizing real world consequences. If we can't make this our new national anthem (can't we?) the least we should do is award Ciara the very first Nobel Prize for Horniness.

And IC, as they say, YMI, here's my list of the year's best albums (so far).