The artists behind the year’s best songs were teenage pop superstars who came out of nowhere (Billie Eilish, Lil Nas X), established names looking at life and music from the cusp of their thirties (Vampire Weekend, Taylor Swift), and fan favorites making major career and personal breakthroughs (Lizzo, Ariana Grande). Meanwhile, Latin pop, indie rock, country, and hip-hop kept evolving like crazy and producing exciting new voices, from rising Atlanta titan Da Baby to Aussie truth-sayer Stella Donnelly. These are the tracks that defined 2019.
Kim Gordon’s solo debut, No Home Record, was an L.A. meditation that still rumbled with the noise and chaos of Sonic Youth’s New York. “Paprika Pony” is minimalism that feels maximal: Over a slow, shuddering, click-clack rhythm and the slightest hint of a melody that sounds like bored-sad gamelan music, Gordon coolly mumbles fractured feminist poetry: ”You take a bite/In a country dress/New avenue/You own me/You’re roaming/And you don’t see the tree,” she sings, reconfiguring the language of commodification and desire in her unique terms, just as she’s been doing for decades.
A bare-bones club track built around an intoxicatingly winding vocal snippet from a 2006 Nelly Furtado song, “Only Human” was sparingly deployed at shows by Kieran Hebden — the unassuming English DJ better known as Four Tet — until it gained a mythic status. After years of fan-led attempts to track it down, Hebden let “Human” loose to the world in 2019 without much fanfare, crediting it simply to KH. It sounds just as good as everyone remembered.
This antsy anthem to dwelling in romantic uncertainty sounded for all the world like Nineties indie rock, notwithstanding the fact that it racked up more than 20 million Spotify streams in 2019. Sparkling, fretful, calculating, horny, it’s about Claire Cottrill’s early experience with another girl — but also, she conceded, about “becoming comfortable in between spaces” in general. The sound here shows she’s plenty comfortable in between genres, too, irresistibly triangulating bedroom-pop gloss, shoegaze, and alt-rock shamble, as she does across her entire debut LP. It’s a good place for a 21-year-old singer-songwriter to be at the start of a new decade, and it suggests an artist that, after the viral hits “Pretty Girl” and “Flaming Hot Cheetos,” looks to be in it for the long haul.
Faye Webster kicks off her excellent record Atlanta Millionaires Club with a statement of millennial loneliness: “I should get out more.” The 21-year-old Atlanta singer-songwriter repeats this line over and over in “Room Temperature,” a tropical bummer backed by a breezy steel guitar. The video features Webster dancing the hula on a beach, flanked by dancers as she whimpers, “Nothing means anything, at least anymore/Even my tears have gone, room temperature.” “This was the first time I wrote a song solely about myself,” she told Rolling Stone about the track. “Which was refreshing because it wasn’t for anyone except me.”
At first listen, urbano soul singer Sech might be easily mistaken for a long-lost Latino member of Boyz II Men. (And had he been alive in 1991, the Panamanian surely would have finessed the band’s Spanish-language hit, “Al Final de Camino.”) On “Otro Trago” — or “Another Drink” — Sech plays a humble piano balladeer, but he comes out swinging upon co-star Darell’s roaring cue: “Everybody go to the discotheque!” Darell implies that the best way to get over an ex is to hit the club and show ’em what they’re missing on the dance floor.
Róisín Murphy’s “Incapable” is the kind of disco opus that lodges in your head from the first kick-drum hit and then steadily makes its way through the rest of your body. On the track — produced by the Irish singer-songwriter’s regular collaborator DJ Parrot — the bass and guitar simmer beneath cascading synths. A ringing double-time pulse arrives out of nowhere, lending the song a delirious edge. On “Incapable,” Murphy said she sought to embody a diva who’s “mildly concerned at her own lack of feeling.” Her vocals are deliciously cool, even brusque, but the way she sings “Never had a broken heart/Am I incapable of love?” captures a timeless feeling of agony and ecstasy on the dance floor.
At the beginning of 2019, Ozzy Osbourne thought his life was caving in; he tripped and fell and had to cancel a year of gigs while he recuperated. Then, of all people, Post Malone’s producer Andrew Watt stepped in and featured the Prince of Darkness on Post’s “Take What You Want,” inspiring Osbourne to record a new LP, Ordinary Man, as he healed. The first single, “Under the Graveyard,” was a dour accounting of the metal legend’s despair (“I ain’t living this lie no more,” he sings over a crushing guitar riff) set to gothic acoustic guitars and heavy blues riffs. It’s a perfect Ozzy song, and for all his self-pity, one thing was clear: The Ozzman was back.
Before his newest album, Gary Clark Jr. was tagged a blues revivalist whose albums never quite captured the explosive spirit of his live shows. But on “This Land,” he figured out how to take his sound into the future. Inspired by a trip to Memphis’ Lorraine Hotel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, Clark reflected on the injustices he’s faced, specifically a racially fueled confrontation with a neighbor near his 50-acre ranch “right in the middle of Trump Country.” “Go back where you come from,” Clark howls in the chorus. The six-minute production is thunderous and heavy, sampling the late Sharon Jones’ take on “This Land Is Your Land.” By drawing on his most personal experience, Clark found his sound and his message, and the industry is taking notice: The song earned him four 2020 Grammy nominations.
Brooklyn indie rockers Charly Bliss gave Nineties nostalgia a coat of rhinestones with “Chatroom,” a track off their second album, Young Enough. The LP found the garage-pop band expanding their toolkit beyond just guitars and drums, bringing in synths and electronic flourishes courtesy of veteran producer Joe Chiccarelli (Elton John). This dance-y track about a man with way too much power (the music video depicts a cult leader in a Midsommar-like commune) tapped into lead singer Eva Hendricks’ painful relationship past while opening up the mosh pit.
Six years ago, the Jonas Brothers packed it up. They were maturing and moving on from their Disney partnership, with dreams of solo stardom. After some exploration, the siblings have, thankfully, realized that they’re better together, and “Sucker” served as both a return to the catchy, drippy romance of their boy-band past and a reintroduction to the trio as adult artists. Above muted guitar chords, Joe and Nick harmonize about how intoxicating their partners are, and the song quickly blossoms into a dynamic, rousing dance-rock anthem. It’s an impeccably sweet-and-sour pop-rock tune, and a throwback to the kind of playful fun that made the JoBros so likable in the first place.
At a time when tens of thousands of new songs appear on streaming platforms every day, a memorable first impression is more important than ever. The Nigerian singer Rema nailed it with “Iron Man,” the lead track on his first official EP. The key here is the vocal delivery: Rema slathers his voice in Auto-Tune and drips come-ons — including the distinctive request to “be your Iron Man” — like warm honey over a plinking, pleasantly syncopated beat. Rema’s vocals bring to mind both classic T-Pain and pop from India; he’s almost smearing rather than singing. But when paired with the precise rhythms of Afrobeat, this becomes impressionism you can dance to.
With “Drunk II,” these Philly punk kids sum up every late-night call to your ex that you never should have made. Mannequin Pussy’s Marisa Dabice starts the song trying to party her angst away, until she finally explodes and makes that call: “I forgot we were broken up/I still love you, you stupid fuck.” It’s a raw, cathartic, and hilarious gem from the band’s breakthrough album, Patience. And to top it off, there’s a great, big, old-school greasy guitar solo for that extra emotional kick. A “My Own Worst Enemy” for our times, from a band to watch.
Built on a sample of Galt McDermott’s “Space,” Ari Lennox’s breakthrough single felt like a timeless slice of R&B. Sexy, cool, and undeniably hooky, “BMO” had the newcomer asking her lover to “break me off” before making a reference to Patti LaBelle’s classic “gitchi gitchi ya ya” line from “Lady Marmalade.” Above the beat, which sounds like it was pulled from a pulpy Seventies film soundtrack, Lennox’s voice is crisp but warm as she politely asserts what she wants. This Shea Butter Baby cut ends with a clip from one of her beloved Instagram Live sessions, summing up Lennox’s offhanded charm.
“You might say I’m an old white guy,” Neil Young quips on “She Showed Me Love,” the second track to Colorado, his first new record with Crazy Horse in seven years. The cheeky line proves the rocker is more self-aware of his position in the 21st century than on 2012’s Psychedelic Pill, where he sang, “Gonna get me a hip-hop haircut.” Sonically, “She Showed Me Love” thrives on searing guitar reverb and melody, while the chorus features the blissful harmonies of Young, guitarist Nils Lofgren, drummer Ralph Molina, and bassist Billy Talbot. Lyrically, it’s a testament to Young’s sustained conviction — as he sings, “I saw young folks fighting to save Mother Nature,” it’s evident that he’s still driven by the same ideals that fueled classics like “After the Gold Rush.”
What if climate change got the David Lynch treatment? That’s the premise behind Titanic Rising, Natalie Mering’s stellar fourth album as Weyes Blood, which twists the hopeful image of history’s greatest shipwreck rising back to the surface into a doomsday threat. And on torch-ballad climax “Picture Me Better,” written for a friend who died by suicide, sweeping orchestral pop serves as a backdrop for the all-consuming weariness of the world. “A lot of people are living in a state of millennial burnout, trying to keep up with something that nobody really fully understands yet,” Mering told Rolling Stone in June. But like the rest of the album, the track’s greatest strength is that it never loses its sincerity, or its grip on human emotion. You can almost hear late-era Judy Garland singing a song like this, a farewell letter to the past that dreams of a brighter tomorrow.
“Ghetto America” is by turns tragic and defiant. “Traumatized, my whole city been through cruelty,” the Chicago MC sings during the chorus. But moments later, the rapper urges his peers to remain dogged in the face of danger. “Ain’t no feelin’ hopeless,” he commands. “I done been through what you been through, why you mopin’?” The beat matches Calboy’s mood — brooding and creeping, with a guitar line that brings to mind gloomy Eighties power ballads — as does fellow Chicago rapper Lil Durk: “I’m steady losin’ my mind, don’t know if it’s the demons or the pills.” This is the quietest moment on Calboy’s Wildboy album, and the hardest-hitting.
This one-off collaboration between Spanish flamenco fusionist Rosalía and Colombian reggaeton trailblazer J Balvin — the queen and king of cutting-edge Latin pop — initially seemed like a lightweight, opportunistic knockoff after both artists’ masterpiece solo LPs. But that didn’t blunt the single’s power or pleasure. The title is slang for “leveling up,” and the song is mainly Rosalía’s show: alternating lines with Barcelona shape-shifter El Guincho, she name-checks salsa legend Hector Lavoe and flamenco legend Camarón de la Isla, shouting out her culture and her live-fast-die-young credo. Then Balvin drops in to calmly announce what he’s done to your girlfriend. At last check, it’s clocked more than 300 million Spotify streams and a billion YouTube streams — con altura, indeed.
“I ha[d] some voice memo of the melody, and then Conor was thinking about a bunch of dark shit,” Phoebe Bridgers said of the lead single from her collaborative album with Conor Oberst. As the duo slings impressionistic verses over a jingle-jangle Nineties indie-pop riff, the premise — paying tribute to a self-destructive modernist poet — quickly evolves into associative riffs on sinister political punditry (“The king is only playing a game of four-dimensional chess”) and playful self-commentary (“That ghost is just a kid in a sheet”). If Better Oblivion Community Center’s recipe for success was merging the two songwriters’ distinct sensibilities, “Dylan Thomas” was the album’s apex, the moment where Oberst and Bridgers’ talents blended so completely that they became something new altogether.
Jepsen has described this fan favorite from Dedicated as her “come hither” track, her most directly sexual song to date, and she isn’t wrong. From the blunt title right down to the insistent, Daft Punk–esque vocals that echo it over and over the chorus, it’s pretty clear that Jepsen knows what she wants. Yet there’s a bright, beaming quality to the song — thank Jack Antonoff, who once again brings Eighties-synth-pop nostalgia to his production. Put it on your bar mitzvah playlist in between Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love” and Whitney and Kygo’s “Higher Love.”
FKA Twigs premiered “Sad Day,” along with a handful of her other songs from Magdalene, at live shows this past spring. Within a show that includes a troupe of costumed ensemble dancers and elaborate baroque sets, the choreography for “Sad Day” was relatively simple: Someone gave FKA Twigs a sword, and she danced with it, swinging it about even as the lyrics beckon her lover to draw closer to her. It was all very Kate Bush, and “Sad Day” is pure Hounds of Love — Twigs’ harplike vocals are cut by piercing electronics from a production team that includes Nicolas Jaar and Skrillex, a soundscape suggesting a desperate rush through the trees.
If you tuned into a Latin radio station this summer, you may have noticed a theme: Summer 2019 was the summer of the soltera. Lunay’s bubbly ode to single ladies was the soundtrack, and he got a boost from Latin-pop playboys Daddy Yankee and Bad Bunny on the remix. The video sees newcomer Lunay and friends sitting atop a giant cake and serenading a room full of bachelorettes, who show off their own moves in drunken, liberated reverie. “Being single is in fashion,” sings Lunay in Spanish. “That’s why she does not fall in love.” Bad Bunny adds, “She does what she wants/And who gives a fuck?” Featuring an old-school dembow riddim — and comical lines like “Her heart is on a diet” — “Soltera (Remix)” is a thirst-quenching instant classic.
“Hot” was simultaneously a re-awakening and a passing of the baton. Produced by Wheezy, the song is built upon dramatic horns and whispered “hot” chants. For 90 seconds, Thug cedes the floor to his YSL-label signee Gunna, who correctly sums up the moment by stating, “I created history and made me a lot.” “I always knew the ground that those guys could shake up,” Thug told Rolling Stone in August. “It wasn’t such a surprise for me, because I’ve always believed Gunna, Keed, and Lil Baby to be … like my li’l brothers.”
“Don’t you lose your halo,” Morris advised her listeners in the shimmering title track to her second album, Girl. She knew firsthand how some are determined to dim a woman’s glow and grace. “We’re so overly well aware of what we’re up against, it’s almost like we’re sick of hearing it,” she told Rolling Stone about the frustrations of living in a sexist world. “I just want to look to the future and stop being in the present.” Morris channeled her anger at being held back at country radio and used it to further the cause in “Girl,” a song that hit its stride when the Grammy-winner released a music video that depicted the struggles of women of all stripes. “I know that you’re tryin’/Everything’s gonna be OK,” Morris sang, her voice confident that change is coming.
Megan told Rolling Stone, “I don’t feel like we ever really had a female rapper come from Houston or Texas and shut shit down. So that’s where I’m coming from.” Mission accomplished. The MC made her Hot Girl Summer even hotter with “Cash Shit,” warning the tricks in the house, “It’s very expensive to date me.” DaBaby sounds at home in his verse, but it’s Megan’s show — her money’s so thick, she walks with a limp.
Cohen wrote and recorded until his final breaths, and “Happens to the Heart” is a magnificent parting shot that’s also that rare thing — a posthumous work that feels as alive and essential as anything issued in the artist’s lifetime. Completed by his son and collaborator, Adam Cohen, the track is colored by his dad’s longtime accompanist, Javier Mas, playing Moorish lines on Spanish laud, and his fellow Canadian Daniel Lanois on piano. The rhymes still rival any MC (“Had a pussy in the kitchen/And a panther in the yard/In the prison of the gifted/I was friendly with the guards”). And most striking is a verse which seems to address #MeToo-ed zen master Joshu Sasaki, who Cohen studied with and served for many years. “Just a filthy beggar guessing,” Cohen concludes — disgust and weary disappointment rippling across his skeletal baritone — “What happens to the heart.”
If Harry Styles asks you to “step into the light,” you listen. Following his debut LP, Styles laid low, taking an extended trip to Japan and then holing up in L.A. studios like Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La with his close-knit group of collaborators. Fans were left hypothesizing how he would follow the folky glam of his debut, and he delivered with something dance-y and full of joy, confidence, and, of course, light. On “Lights Up,” Styles gave his Seventies FM pop a twist with touches of psychedelia and soul, yielding a track that sounds both nostalgic and timeless. Styles asks “Do you know who you are?” repeatedly on the chorus, and with this single he’s never sounded more certain of his own identity as an artist.
For the majority of the 2010s, Tyler, the Creator’s sonic ambitions outpaced his skills. In his music, you could hear influences ranging from the Neptunes to Stevie Wonder, but Tyler hadn’t yet mastered the tools necessary to meld his influences into something singularly his own. Then “Earfquake” arrived in all of its pure and childlike chaos. Tyler’s pitched-up voice melds with Charlie Wilson’s soulful croon; Playboi Carti mumbles his way through the year’s best verse, while synths that sound summoned from the dust of video-game consoles past fuse with romantic keys. All of the edges of Tyler’s horrorcore past are shaved off. In their stead are syrup-infused pleas to a lover: “ ‘Cause you make my earth quake/Oh, you make my earth quake/Riding around, your love be shakin’ me up/And it’s making my heart break.” “Earfquake” is the centerpiece of arguably Tyler’s most polished album, Igor, and a fitting way for the former enfant terrible to end a decade spent searching for a sound worthy of his forebears.
From “Gasolina” to “Despacito,” Daddy Yankee has made many a hit in his lifetime. But when writing this year’s Latin smash, he dialed it back to 1992, and rang up reggae’s very first Number One hitmaker: Canadian rapper Snow. Together, the two rewrote Snow’s most memorable song, “Informer,” and came up with the ridiculously viral English-Spanish reggaeton track “Con Calma.” It’s a collaboration nobody asked for — except for maybe a teenage Daddy Yankee — but it worked. In less than a year, the video has racked up more than a billion YouTube views and inspired hundreds of dance challenges; even Katy Perry couldn’t help but jump on the bandwagon and supply her own remix. “I wanted to pay tribute to the classic,” Daddy Yankee told Rolling Stone, “and the best way to do that was to bring the man who made it.”
At 17, Eilish professed that she still jumps a few feet into bed, as if there’s a monster lurking underneath. And in her mall-goth noir gem “Bury a Friend,” the monster becomes her. Over a sinister, jump-rope-snapping pulse, Eilish casts her voice through a warping prism as she ponders stapling tongues and selling her soul. “Anything could be the monster,” she told Rolling Stone in February. “It could be someone you love so much that it’s taking over your life. I think love and terror and hatred are all the same thing.” Never has a teen pop star gone so dark — she’s Gen Z’s answer to Marilyn Manson circa Antichrist Superstar.
Marshmello — yes, the EDM DJ who wears a giant marshmallow head for a living — made one of the hardest rap records of 2019. Nothing about “Project Dreams” made sense as a concept. Roddy Ricch was an upcoming Compton rapper, gaining momentum for bleak and nihilistic street ballads about death and poverty (“Die Young,” “Down Below”). The saccharine and intergalactic beat for “Project Dreams” seemed more up the alley of a pop princess than a dreary West Coast melodist. But then Roddy contributed a chorus dripping with so much excess and inspiration that the vision immediately snapped into focus. Every boast — Roddy flying in a jet, riding in a Phantom, or telling his expensive watch to calm down — was underlined with a sense of foreboding tension and swift release. The duo’s first collaboration wasn’t a monument to extreme wealth, but instead an ode to what it feels like to survive for so long and finally achieve some semblance of joy on the other side.
Polo G and Lil Tjay needed “Pop Out.” The Chicago and New York rappers, respectively, entered 2019 with the momentum that comes with being part of hip-hop’s latest rookie class, but each had to score a singular hit to announce his arrival to the mainstream. Produced by JD on the Track and Iceberg, “Pop Out” paradoxically sounds hyper-regional and universal, a mixture of the Midwest and East Coast’s sonic present. Over menacing keys, Polo G builds a depressing and violent chorus that still managed to shoot up the charts (“I’m a killer, girl, I’m sorry, but I can’t change/We ain’t aimin’ for your body, shots hit your brain”). But Lil Tjay’s verse is the song’s devastating emotional climax. In an Auto-Tuned chirp, he laments, “If I showed you all my charges, you won’t look at me the same/Made some choices in my life I wish I never had to make,” during a song that’s meant to be a banger. In the world of Polo G and Lil Tjay, pain is never far away.
“You treat my mind like a hotel room,” Lambert sings in “Mess With My Head.” Over an angular guitar riff and producer Jay Joyce’s atmospheric studio effects, Lambert describes the experience of letting down her guard and embracing the rush of pleasure, even if it was at the expense of her psyche. Lambert has frequently incorporated rock flourishes since the beginning of her career, but this was something entirely different — like a pairing of grunge’s loud-soft dynamics and the intense self-examination of Pink’s best work. “It was a little stretch for me,” Lambert told Rolling Stone when the song came out. “I wrote it and I loved it, but I wasn’t necessarily positive — could I pull it off and would it sound like me?” Thankfully, she had the confidence to take the risk.
“Money Machine” is the sound of cross-country duo 100 Gecs kicking in the door to your house with manic grins plastered to their faces. The vanguard song from the internet sensation 1000 gecs is experimental — in a “what would happen if we poured gravel in the washing machine?” sense — and joyously blunt, an overloaded successor to the PC Music scene of a half-decade ago, but with less to prove. “Money Machine” is designed to make first-time listeners ask what, exactly, they’re listening to. It’s going to change what you listen to, too, by sheer force of will.
During the past 20 years, Lewis has mastered the art of disguising her darkly depressive narratives in cheery SoCal-stoner melodies. But she’s never deployed that juxtaposition quite like she did on “Hollywood Lawn,” a downtempo highlight from On the Line. The first two verses are vivid scene-setting, with Lewis chugging French wine over a hazy organ riff and pondering chemtrail conspiracies as she daydreams in the sun. But by the end of the song, the narrator’s California dreaming has caught up with her: “Your demons got reason to fight,” Lewis repeats, her sunshine vocal growing more urgent as the song’s simmering subtext — her heartbroken past — comes to the fore.
Billed as the first gay country song (it’s not), the Highwomen’s “If She Ever Leaves Me” was certainly a high-profile example of one when it appeared on the supergroup’s self-titled debut. Amanda Shires penned the song with her husband, Jason Isbell, and “Before He Cheats” co-writer Chris Tompkins, but put fellow Highwoman Brandi Carlile in the lead role. “I thought about this project and went, ‘What if Brandi sang it?’” Isbell told Rolling Stone before the album came out. “And I started going, ‘Gay country song! Gay country song!’ ” The end result was a waltz-time weeper in which Carlile, an out queer woman, gives a dose of reality to a cowboy who has an eye on her significant other. “It takes more than whiskey to make that flower bloom/By the third drink you’ll find out she’s mine,” sang Carlile, before matter-of-factly dropping the hammer: “If she ever leaves me, it won’t be for you.”
Lizzo staked her claim on 2019 in the first days of January when she dropped the retro funk bomb “Juice” as a preview of her new album, Cuz I Love You. In a tidy three minutes and 15 seconds, the Minneapolis singer-rapper seamlessly combined New Wave guitars à la Flock of Seagulls with enough swagger to make Bruno Mars look modest, offering a resonant message of self-love that helped her become one of the year’s biggest breakthrough artists. “Mirror, mirror on the wall — don’t say it ’cause I know I’m cute,” she sang at the top, rattling off an entire Twitter feed’s worth of clever, meme-worthy couplets from “I’m like chardonnay, get better all the time” to “No, I’m not a snack at all, look baby, I’m the whole damn meal.” Sure, “Truth Hurts” ended up being the bigger hit, but “Juice” was the inspiring, self-fulfilling prophecy: Lizzo sincerely believed she was the baddest, and by the end of 2019, so did everyone else.
Stella Donnelly’s acerbic wit and indie-pop charm can be heard all over her debut LP, Beware of the Dogs, but nothing is as striking as the takedown of male toxicity in opening track “Old Man.” “Your personality traits don’t count/If you put your dick in someone’s face,” she bluntly says over blissful guitar chords. “We sat there silently while you kept your job/And your place and your six-figure wage.” “I have no other way of being able to write now than to be real,” the Welsh-Australian songwriter told Rolling Stone in April. “Everything else just feels too contrived.”
On the apocalyptic centerpiece to Norman Fucking Rockwell!, Lana Del Rey’s voice sounds like it’s transmitted from the Santa Monica Pier at sunset on mankind’s last day on earth. And what better way to go into 2019 than to shrug and declare, “The culture is lit, and if this is it, I had a ball”? “The Greatest” is a sad girl update to that “tears in the rain” speech from Blade Runner (a film that takes place in the dystopian future of…2019), with an outro taken straight from someone’s Twitter feed on Judgment Day, all sung by a pop star who doesn’t bat an eye at wearing a department-store clearance-sale outfit onstage at a headlining gig. The culture is lit, indeed.
On Thank U, Next, Ariana Grande realized she has the ability to turn just about any subject matter into an anthem. “NASA” was a deeply empathetic (and devastatingly catchy) ode to wanting to be alone, and letting absence make hearts grow fonder. The beat, courtesy of producers Tommy Brown and Charles Anderson, is the standout on an album with stiff competition, based around a whistling, underwater-sounding synth. The writing, which took place in a marathon New York recording run, is some of Grande’s sharpest to date. And on top of all that, the song’s basic thesis is correct: If you haven’t listened to it in a while, throw it on right now. You’ll like it even more than you used to.
Combs is synonymous with rowdy beer-drinking songs — there’s even a “Beer Never Broke My Heart” charm affixed to his line of signature Crocs slippers — but the guy has quietly become Nashville’s new king of ballads too. With his dare-you-not-to-cry single “Even Though I’m Leaving,” the North Carolina songwriter has made grown men emotional as he charts the circle of life between a father and son. Monsters under the bed, military service, and ultimately a final goodbye all figure in, but this song isn’t a tired old cliché. “Trying to write the best song we can is still a huge rush for me,” Combs says. “Going, ‘Could this be the best song I’ve ever written?’” He and co-writers Ray Fulcher and Wyatt Durrette come damn close to that goal here.
“I feel like this is the first time there is pure Afrobeats from Nigeria in the pop scene,” Nigerian singer Mr Eazi said of “Como Un Bebe,” his killer transatlantic collaboration with Bad Bunny and J Balvin. The instrumental was made by Legendury Beatz, a pair of Nigerian producers based in London, who grafted a breezy beat to an insistent bass line. The groove was fierce enough that Mr Eazi “thought it was too intense for people that are not from Nigeria.” But Balvin heard it and flipped, excited by the opportunity to “merge worlds.” The final product features all three stars sharing the spotlight and throwing a simple command — “Baila pa mi,” or “Dance for me.” Club-goers around the world obeyed.
This breathless post-punk gem sums up the awesome reformation of an artist who previously spoke her truth in near-whispers with a guitar, instead of hollering it over snarling synths. The new direction may have something to do with her touring with Nick Cave, or with the changes of age and motherhood. Either way it’s thrilling, never more so than during the screamed bridge of “Seventeen,” where she grabs someone else’s eyes and channels the future through them. “I have a lot more perspective,” she told Rolling Stone just before the song’s release. That’s unmistakable.
Hope Tala’s “Lovestained” effortlessly bridges regions and eras: The guitar suggests Brazil in 1965, the steel drums add a springy touch of the Caribbean, and the bass seems plucked from an irresistible hit on American rap radio circa 1998. “That’s what the vision is: bringing together bossa-nova influences and R&B all into one,” explained the London singer-songwriter, who tagged the record as RnBossa on SoundCloud. “There’s an amazing synthesis that can occur between those genres.” She wrote “Lovestained” in a 30-minute flurry of creativity, and that ease translates directly to the listener.
Bad Bunny made his breakthrough with X 100pre, and on the single “La Romana,” the Puerto Rican trap king also introduced his new fan base to a rising star from a neighboring island: the Dominican dembow ambassador El Alfa. Chasing a piping-hot combo of bachata and trap, El Alfa picks up the pace midtrack with a swift dembow riddim and chants for “Fuego, fuego, fiyah, fiyah!” His verses cut like sparks, igniting an international summer jam.
The lead single from Father of the Bride felt transitional in the best way. With one foot in VW’s old sound — departed co-founder Rostam Batmanglij gets a co-production credit — it steps into a brave new jam-band–y world, opening on a gorgeous guitar tapestry (with Dirty Projectors’ Dave Longstreth in the mix) and segueing into a proudly ecstatic noodle-dance groove. “I don’t wanna live like this, but I don’t wanna die,” declares Ezra Koenig, as his cryptic lyrics evoke the sad state of the nation. It’s followed by a baroque piano breakdown and electric-guitar ascent, suggesting nothing so much as Jerry Garcia’s interplay with Bruce Hornsby at the Grateful Dead’s nine-show 1991 run at Madison Square Garden, a room Vampire Weekend themselves packed in September. It made for the year’s giddiest pop flashback, and the most refreshing.
At a time when tuneful warblers rule the hip-hip charts, along comes DaBaby, who raps like he never heard a Drake track before and emphasizes his love for bygone hip-hop values by invoking Death Row Records impresario Suge Knight. The “Suge” beat, produced by Jetsonmade and Pooh Beatz, is a minimal jackhammer, a long string of hi-hats punctuated by eruptions of bass. DaBaby squeezes syllables together in tightly wound patterns and sprays boasts that always seem to double as threats: “I’m the type to let a nigga think that I’m broke until I pop out with a million/Take 20K and put that on your head and make one of your partners come kill you.”
Like so many songs in the Taylor Swift pantheon, “Cruel Summer” sprints on the knife-edge of a crush, reckless, anticipating the wreck, but compelled and consumed by capital-F “feeling.” There’s an acknowledgement that we’ve been here before (“Angels roll their eyes”), and even Swift seems exasperated, crying out in the bridge, “I love you, ain’t that the worst thing you ever heard?” But then the music cuts out, and from the dark comes a sound unlike anything Swift’s ever recorded — a raw, back-of-the-throat howl. It’s vintage Swift, a burst of mischief and desire, messy drama with a wink, yet it hits at fresh power, the thrill of hearing one of pop’s most underestimated chameleons daring you to wonder what she can’t do.
A trap-country song featuring a prominent Nine Inch Nails sample and a rap verse from Billy Ray Cyrus probably wasn’t on your 2019 bingo card when the year started, but it’s hard to imagine what 2019 would’ve felt like without it. When Lil Nas X, born Montero Hill, recorded “Old Town Road,” he was a college dropout living on his sister’s floor and praying for the perfect viral moment to bring him success. He bought the NIN-sampling beat online from a Dutch producer he’d never met and added a spare yet unforgettable lonely-cowboy tale. After the song went viral on video app TikTok, earning a remix from Cyrus, Lil Nas X became a bona fide pop star, and debates sparked about what “country” is. More important, it’ll be stuck in your head for years to come.
Yes, “Truth Hurts” came out in 2017, but there’s no denying the song’s effect on not just Lizzo’s career but the entire year in culture. After being featured in Netflix rom-com Someone Great, the single saw a resurgence in popularity, spurred on by Lizzo’s increasing fame and the success of her major-label debut, Cuz I Love You. “Truth Hurts” became an unstoppable breakup anthem over the summer for an army of new and old fans who have found empowerment in lines like “Yeah, I got boy problems, that’s the human in me/Bling, bling, then I solve ’em, that’s the goddess in me.” In the song, Lizzo exhibits the ultimate form of self-care: letting yourself be a little petty and self-satisfied after a relationship with an undeserving partner comes to an end.
Smells like teen spirit. Billie Eilish rose out of the all-American teenage wasteland this year to turn into everybody’s favorite pop nightmare. With “Bad Guy,” she gives her generation the anthem it deserves, hitting Number One three years after she became a SoundCloud cult figure with “Ocean Eyes.” It’s the sound of a home-schooled 17-year-old weirdo turning her diaries into macabre bedroom trap pop, as she whispers, “Make your mama sad type/Make your girlfriend mad type/Might seduce your dad type.” Eilish stands her ground with a bloody nose, bruised knees, and a punk-rock heart. She’s the bad guy. Duh.