1. Cattails – Big Thief
This isn’t a song that grows on you. It’s a song that hits you hard right away and sticks with you. Big Thief released two great albums this year, and this is the best song from either one. Cattails, like a lot of Big Thief’s songs, is emotionally raw. It’s a song about home, and also a song about being overwhelmed. Adrianne Lenker sings with a comforting wisdom, repeating the following line throughout the song: “you don’t need to know why when you cry, you don’t need to know why.” Sung by Lenker in the context of this song, those words become the most powerful lyrics of 2019.
2. All Mirrors – Angel Olsen
The title track from Angel Olsen’s stellar album is epic. She described the song and album’s title on Twitter: “I chose All Mirrors as the title of this upcoming record because I liked the theme; the theme of how we are all mirrors to and for each other.” In an email to NPR, Olsen further explains how mirrors can reveal all of our different selves – who we have been in the past, who we are today, and who we might become in the future. All Mirrors the song is a dramatic confrontation of everything you are, which is apparently empowering and terrifying at the same time. It’s important to listen to the song all the way through – the truly spectacular climax of All Mirrors starts at 2:54.
3. Come Home – Anderson .Paak (ft. Andre 3000)
Anderson .Paak went back to his soul/R&B roots on this year’s Ventura to follow up his disappointing Oxnard album. Ventura is a great album overall, and Come Home is the most exciting part of it. The greatest music always demands investment on the part of its listeners; on Come Home, the all-time great wordsmith, Andre 3000, provides a verse that demands engaged listening. That means either putting the song on repeat, scrubbing through the verse for clarity, or looking up the written lyrics when keeping up with the audio becomes too dizzying. That’s the investment this verse demands, and that’s why it’s one of the best of the year – and why the song is in our top 3 for the year.
4. Summer Girl – HAIM
Haim returned this year with drum loops, a Walk on the Wild Side-esque bass line, a saxophone, and unconditional love. Oh yeah, and a Paul Thomas Anderson-directed music video where the three sisters shed layer after layer of clothing. Danielle Haim wrote ‘Summer Girl’ for her partner who was diagnosed with cancer at the time, and for whom she wanted to be the “hope when he was feeling hopeless.” (Thankfully, her partner is now in the clear). The quiet dreaminess of the bass and saxophone masks the lyrics’ intensity about bottled up fear and sadness. Summer Girl’s resilient and powerful message is proof that sometimes simpler is better.
5. Gorgeous – Slowthai
In the outro of Gorgeous, Slowthai remembers when his stepdad took him to his first Liverpool soccer game. The story is a relate-able and down-to-earth ending to the best rap song of the year. Well, it’s relate-able if you’re from the UK at least, since professional football (soccer) hasn’t quite become mainstream yet in the US. One thing’s for sure – no rap songs from America spend much time discussing the sport. Anyways – 2019 saw the continued rise of UK hip hop, and Slowthai emerged as an eccentric and kinetic voice on his album Nothing Great About Britain. The boldly-titled album proves to pack much more than a controversial name, and Gorgeous is a brilliantly personal and biting song about his childhood.
6. East – Earl Sweatshirt
Over the last two years, Earl Sweatshirt has carved out a new genre of minimalist avant-garde hip hop. The combination of Earl’s knack for poetic imagery and his experimental beats ornamented with jazz loops and soul samples has resulted in two career-defining projects. 2018’s Some Rap Songs is Earl’s magnum opus, and hailed by some as a top rap album of the decade. This years’ shorter project, Feet of Clay, is less ambitious in scope, but feels like it was born out of the same creative energy as its predecessor. East, the most lyrically intricate track on Feet of Clay, is a prime example of Earl speaking in a language that is entirely his own. Over a repetitive sample of an Egyptian accordion, Earl’s cadence, off-beat rhyming, and figurative language make the song as much riddle as it is rap song.
7. Con Altura – Rosalía & J Balvin
Con Altura was the most infectious reggaeton song of 2019. Spanish singer Rosalía became a worldwide pop star this year thanks to 6 new singles for her upcoming album, including collaborations with reggaeton hitmakers J Balvin and Ozuna, as well as a great guest appearance on James Blake’s 2019 album Assume Form. Boosting the song’s popularity, thee award-winning party-on-an-airplane music video for Con Altura has became wildly successful, reaching almost 1.2 billion views already this year. Even though songs made for clubs and parties are often ephemeral, Con Altura won’t fade away once the next wave of popular reggeaton songs come out; this one will remain in rotation for a long time.
8. He – Jai Paul
English singer and electronic music producer Jai Paul returned this year from a 7-year hiatus. He officially released his album Leak 04-13 (Bait Ones), which had leaked years earlier, along with two completely new songs He and Do You Love Her Now? Paul is less experimental on these songs, instead opting for sexy R&B with funky grooves, warping synths, and electric guitar licks. On He, Paul sings heartfelt lyrics in falsetto over bouncy production, resulting in one of the most enjoyable and silky smooth songs of the year.
9. Palmolive – Freddie Gibbs (ft. Killer Mike & Pusha T)
Freddie Gibbs and Madlib have released two albums together, Piñata (2014) and Bandana (2019), and are planning on a third installment to complete the trilogy. The rapper-producer team up combines Madlib’s pristine jazz-fusion, soul-sampling production with rapper Freddie Gibbs’s knack for storytelling that is hardcore yet full of streetwise sensibilities. This year’s Bandana, even more so than Piñata, showcases a hip hop purism reminiscent of the early 90’s. On Palmolive, which features a verse from Pusha T and a chorus courtesy of Killer Mike, personal accounts of drug dealing are woven together with political commentary in one of the most arresting rap songs of recent years.
10. Dangote – Burna Boy
Nigerian-born Burna Boy released the album African Giant in late July this year. The album has its roots in afrobeat(s) music, and mixes in dancehall and rap to create an internationally-appealing record more diverse than his previous ones. Burna Boy came up with the album title African Giant in response to seeing his name in tiny font at the bottom of a Coachella lineup poster earlier this year. Maybe a lot of people attending Coachella, or a lot of people in the States more generally, weren’t familiar with him at the time – but Burna Boy was already a bona fide star in Africa. And he’s now exploding onto the international scene. The song Dangote is named after richest man in Africa: Aliko Dangote. Burna Boy is inspired by Dangote’s tireless drive for money and successs, who’s so rich he ‘sleeps on money.’ If the man with almost 10 billion dollars is still hustling, shouldn’t the rest of us be motivated to try to catch up? The song has a universal message, beautiful horn arrangements, and maybe best of all, reason to believe Burna Boy’s best music is still to come.
Check out the Spotify playlist to listen to songs 11-100