Songs might be the most personal items that can be sorted into publication-wide music lists. Albums are more easily agreed upon, but individual tracks are as different as snowflakes, often pushing preferences for them to range far and wide, despite their sitting side-by-side on the same record.
We have a predominance of women-fronted bands and female musicians on this year’s songs list—which shouldn’t be cause for celebration, but rather the norm; still, it feels significant in a year wherein straight white male privilege continued its reign of terror in the White House and beyond.
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The tracks we’ve chosen to highlight deal with every kind of misery imaginable: declaring your love despite not knowing whether it’s reciprocated, being a messy bitch in your thirties, recalling the innocence of youth that you’ll never access again, musing over your encroaching mortality. But as always, there is comfort to be found both in expressing pain through music, and in listening to someone else’s pain being so beautifully expressed.
Presenting the best songs of 2019.
10. Rosalía — “A Palé”
Can I understand anything Rosalía is singing? No. Does it matter? Also no. “A Palé” marks a collaboration between the Spanish singing sensation, producer Frank Dukes, and her longtime collaborator El Guincho. It’s similar to the flamenco-nuevo/art-pop mashup we’ve come to expect from Rosalía, though with a darker hip-hop underbelly and raunchy sub-bass—clearly, she’s more than willing to experiment with genre. The track follows her RIAA gold–certified and MTV EMA–winning “Con Altura,” an international hit made with J Balvin and El Guincho. “A Palé” dropped just a few weeks ago in celebration of her album’s one-year anniversary (El Mal Querer came out in November of 2018), and the track’s title—a phrase repeated by the singer like a prayer on a low, husky chorus—refers to the wooden shipping pallets Rosalía saw growing up in a trucking industry–dominated town near Barcelona. In the accompanying Jora Frantzis–directed video, Rosalía dances in a shipping yard, rides a conveyor belt, and rocks a defiant unibrow. Industrialism has never been this much fun. —Dean Brandt
9. Cherry Glazerr — “Daddi”
LA rock band Cherry Glazerr have always been shamelessly feminist, sewing messages of empowerment through their discography, and that stance has never been more apparent than on “Daddi,” a track off their fourth album Stuffed & Ready. Frontwoman Clementine Creevy kicks it off with a robotic series of questions whispered in an eager, somewhat panicked fashion: “Where should I go, Daddi? What should I say? Where should I go? Is it OK with you?” It’s easy to imagine the complacent Creevy as a puppet with strings at the edges of her mouth dictating what she’ll murmur next.
Those submissive inquiries continue until she breaks free from the patriarchal puppet master, exploding into a dominating chorus backed by garage-rock riffs: “Don’t hold my hand. Don’t be my man.” Taking charge, Creevy allows her scalding frustration to become front and center in protests of traditional gender roles—until the series of questions returns, that is. The push-pull between these two sections creates delicious tension, especially as the hazy guitars rev up and simmer back down again. The juxtaposition yanks the listener about, though Creevy ultimately ends “Daddi” on an assertive note. You can hear some hope in it, too—like, the future will be female-led before too long. —Taylor Ysteboe
Read our feature on Cherry Glazerr here.
8. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib — “Crime Pays”
Long hip-hop’s most credentialed crate-digger, Madlib’s gift is his ability to transform samples to the point where their source material is indeterminate and effectively irrelevant, creating his own erratic kingdoms through simple variances in RPM. “Crime Pays” is vintage ’Lib, its ascending bells rooted by a sturdy bassline, hypnotically pitched so that it sounds like a siren wailing past while you’re rooted to the sidewalk.
Freddie Gibbs’s violent narratives frequently bear fantastical elements themselves, a blinding Los Angeles sun stretched taut across his native Midwestern gloom. Over two frenetic verses on “Crime Pays,” he frets about disease and betrayal, furnishing broken bodies over a brutalist landscape and making a garish, grinning clown of Madlib’s saccharine sample. If anything, Madlib’s production has elicited a more mercurial, dissolute Gibbs over their two full-length collaborations, and their Bandana LP finds two mad geniuses combining potions. —Pete Tosiello
7. Jenny Lewis — “Heads Gonna Roll”
If you ever needed convincing that Jenny Lewis is at the top of her game right now, “Heads Gonna Roll” is it. As the opening track off On the Line, her first album since 2014’s The Voyager, the country-tinged waltz puts all of Lewis’ trademark songwriting talents on a display instantly worthy of a spot in her catalogue of greatest hits. Lewis’ honeyed voice soars; it’s never better than when narrating an epic short story of heartbreak and hedonism that bursts at the seams with colorful characters (“a narcoleptic poet from Duluth”), detailed settings (the corner of a Harlem graveyard), guttingly precise takedowns (“I hope the sycophants in Marrakech make you feel your very best / Anonymity must make you blue”), and wry observations (“Maybe a little bit of hooking up is good for the soul”). Swelling songs about love and loss have been a staple of Lewis’s oeuvre since her Rilo Kiley days, but at age forty-three, the situations are more realized than imagined, her sweetly sad voice warmer, wiser, and more lived-in.
“Maybe after all is said and done, we’ll all be skulls,” Lewis muses on the chorus. It’s a plainspoken acceptance of unavoidable mortality that puts life into perspective, suggesting that that which hurts us will most likely not kill us, and who’s to say whether we’re going to heaven or hell—if either are real?—anyway, so we might as well live our lives the fullest way we know how. Tracked live in the historic Capitol Studios with an all-star backing band comprised of Don Was, Ringo Starr, and Benmont Tench (who absolutely deserves bonus points for the most soulful, yearning Hammond organ solo of the year), “Heads Gonna Roll” not only sets the stage for the rest of this album, it places Lewis firmly in the canon of singer-songwriter greats. —Carrie Courogen
6. HAIM — “Summer Girl”
Over two albums, HAIM has bordered on household-name status while remaining critically untouchable with their brand of sun-dappled pop rock—but it’s the very mention of “brand” that gets the band’s online detractors itchy. The greatest sin of 2017’s Something to Tell You might’ve been laying the studio sheen on a bit thick, but the thought of a band of women attempting to carve a mainstream career out of their Fleetwood Mac–reminiscent rock while daring to be friends with pop’s biggest names threatened to dominate the conversation around Something.
On “Summer Girl,” the band’s first single post-Something, HAIM cheekily trade the ever-present Fleetwood comparisons for another ’70s icon. The strolling upright bass and the “doot-doos” threaten to take a walk on the wild side, but Danielle Haim anchors the song as a personal message to her partner, producer Ariel Rechtshaid, who battled testicular cancer. Despite the circumstances, “Summer Girl” is arguably HAIM’s breeziest song to date, stripping away the band’s signature percussion flourishes and studio tweaks to make space for the trio’s god-given gift of making nostalgic pop rock that’s all their own. Across the rest of the year, HAIM moved effortlessly into unabashed radio pop (“Now I’m in It”) and fingerpicked folk (“Hallelujah”) without any clear sign of a forthcoming album—but if the relief of “Summer Girl” is any indication, there’s plenty of joy to be found in unpredictability. —Tim Gagnon
5. Sharon Van Etten — “Seventeen”
“Seventeen” is the soaring, sepia-toned first single from Sharon Van Etten’s Remind Me Tomorrow. Simultaneously heartbreaking and hopeful, the song reads like an aural transcript of a visit to her old stomping grounds, and the discordant memories which can bubble to the surface when we survey our past. While there’s definitely some pining for youth, innocence, and promise here, Van Etten is far too deft a narrator to drape a gauzy, feel-good filter over everything she felt at that tender age. Because along with singing about feeling free, she tackles loneliness, being led astray, and the fear that she’ll never become the person she truly wants to be.
It’s a pensive track that showcases her ability to flip between silky croons, desperate howls, and languid la-la-las with alacrity. At points, she speaks directly to her former self, that girl perched precariously on the precipice between her formative years and a foggy future, pleading, “I wish I could show you how much you’ve grown,” and they’re among the song’s most powerful moments. With “Seventeen,” Van Etten displays stellar, Springsteen-esque songcraft, and demonstrates that while she’s unafraid to look backward, she’s still rising to the height of her powers. —John Coyle
4. Mannequin Pussy — “Drunk II”
I think we were all so satisfied with Mannequin Pussy after they put out Romantic in 2016 that none of us bothered to consider what the band would sound like if they didn’t jam all that rage and vulnerable lyricism into brief ninety-second recordings, but instead communicated their strong feelings through coherent, emotionally leveled balladry. “Romantic” had so much to say despite being smushed into a relatively epic two-and-a-half minutes, perhaps inspiring its spiritual successor to describe a similar relationship-hell over the course of twice as much time.
“Drunk II” was the galaxy-brain first single from Patience which transcended the sphere of punk and broke into some bizarrely straightforward punk-goes-pop iteration of rock music, maintaining the band’s edge almost entirely due to Marisa Dabice’s jarringly open account of hitting thirty and thinking of all the dumb shit she’s felt pressured to do to keep her social life afloat. Written after a break-up, and while she was drunk, the track is full of the kind of epiphanies that only ever pop into your brain under the influence—“I pretend to have fun,” she confesses in regard to the tedious act of socializing post-uncoupling, while the iconic “I still love you, you stupid fuck” comes shortly after.
Debuting with a Dabice-directed video meant to illustrate that sinking feeling of wasted time by showing the singer entering the same bar over and over again, flirting with different people, and ultimately crying and retching in an alley, the single quickly became an anthem for any of us who feel like a messy bitch after a bit of much-needed self-reflection, and hopefully offers enough empathy to help us all move on. —Mike LeSuer
Read our feature on Mannequin Pussy here.
3. Big Thief — “Not”
One of the greatest sleight-of-hand tricks Big Thief pulls is making rock and roll sound like spindly backwoods folk music, all while giving their folk songs rock’s visceral, bleeding edge. On “Not,” a standout track from their two-albums-in-a-year burst, the sleight-of-hand is so persuasive it’s hard to know exactly what to call it. It has components you’d expect from a rock and roller—the howl of feedback, an eruptive electric guitar solo, pummeling forward momentum—yet it’s all stitched together to sound wobbly, a rickety construction that constantly teeters on the brink of collapse.
It’s the closest thing they’ve made all year to a banger, and in true Big Thief style, it’s as noteworthy for its delicacy, its quivering tactility, as it is for its relentless groove. The lyrics, too, are a bit of a trick, offering a litany of negations that scan as oddly affirming. “Not the meat of your thigh / nor your spine tattoo / nor your shimmery eye,” declares Adrianne Lenker, calling into stark reality the very things she claims to deny. —Josh Hurst
Read our FLOOD 10 feature on Big Thief here.
2. Clairo — “Bags”
Since Clairo’s nasally, whisper-sung 2018 EP diary 001 didn’t advance Claire Cottrill’s music beyond the sounds of her viral breakout hit “Pretty Girl,” naysayers were quick to label her as just another internet-age fluke. But when “Bags” arrived earlier this year, it immediately destroyed that notion. Few songs in the genre loosely classified as “indie rock” have done so much with so little. From the get-go, Cottrill’s beefy but clean guitars and guest drummer Danielle Haim’s eighth-note groove align in perfect lockstep. Cottrill’s voice, partially due to the finesse of ever-sought-after co-producer Rostam Batmanglij, sounds as clear as glass while still conveying her signature impassivity. Her melancholy suffuses both her guitar and her voice, and the pianos that later float into focus only emphasize her anguish. It’s minimalist, but it’s huge.
“Bags” is just as direct lyrically. It’s among many songs from Cottrill’s debut album, Immunity, on which her bisexuality fundamentally dictates the narrative. Though a lyric like “pardon my emotions / I should probably keep it all to myself” might not seem inherently profound, when sung by a bisexual twenty-one-year-old, it becomes a stunning statement on worrying whether a woman she loves also loves women. The pre-chorus lyric, “Can you see me? I’m waiting for the right time / I can’t read you, but if you want, the pleasure’s all mine” amplifies that agony. Cottrill nevertheless hesitates to reveal her true feelings, since her loved one recoiling would hurt more than keeping the mask on: “I guess this could be worse / walking out the door with your bags.” It’s a situation every queer person has experienced, but it’s rarely been conveyed so thoughtfully.
Despite her sorrow, Cottrill’s lyricism never veers toward anger or histrionics. Her mindset remains as strong as the driving, only subtly changing music beneath her voice, and she’s never sounded bolder. Maybe the object of Cotrill’s desire would leave if everything were out in the open, but the knife-sharp hooks of “Bags” ensure that listeners aren’t going anywhere. —Max Freedman
1. Lizzo — “Cuz I Love You”
You’ve gotta admit: 2019 came up all Lizzo. She was everywhere—from the cover of Allure to your Twitter feed to getting sued by a Postmates driver (wut). Her biggest song this year was undoubtedly “Truth Hurts,” a track first released back in 2017 and one embroiled in recent plagiarism controversies, included as a bonus on Cuz I Love You, Lizzo’s third studio album released this past April. But it is this record’s title tune, written by Lizzo in an impressive ten minutes flat, that stands to be memorialized as her most vulnerable, meaningful contribution to the year.
“I’m crying…cuz I love you!” she bellows like a volcanic eruption at the opening, seconds before a barrage of horns kick down the door and blast their way into the room. This is a full-throated soul belter, a bombastic declaration of love, and a little surprising for a woman who had previously told the internet: “pro tip: if you’re planning on sweeping me off my feet—bring a vacuum.” She addresses her romantic cynicism in the sassy first verse (“Never been in love before / What the fuck are fucking feelings, yo?”) but by the time the final chorus before the bridge rolls around, her voice is sputtering on the much-repeated “I’m crying” refrain, as though even her own vocal cords cannot handle these affections’ intensity.
Her love and longing might be a little much (“Now I’m crazy, ’bout to tat your name,” she threatens)—but it simply wouldn’t be Lizzo if it wasn’t. In the accompanying music video, she makes a room full of grown men weep over her beauty. Lizzo might be willing to get sensitive in lyric, but she sure isn’t going to confess her love quietly. She makes the rest of us look soft and compliant by comparison. —Anya Jaremko-Greenwold