Written by Sam Murphy - Illustrated by Bianca Bosso
2019 really needs no introduction. It was a great year for music and here are just a handful of the gems that made it special.
Lover redeemed itself in ways we could’ve never imagined given how terrible the first two singles were. The fact that ME! And You Need To Calm Down were the poster children for an album that contained this monster Swift banger is criminal. With a surprising St, Vincent co-write, Swift delivered one of her most sweltering songs to date. It captures the lust of a new relationship with an intensity that verges on masochism and who would’ve thought that would be thrilling coming from Swift? That rollicking final bridge is one of her finest songwriting moments to date.
It’s difficult to examine Billie Eilish’s first number one single bad guy now that it’s flooded memes and radio but it’s still easy to see why Eilish was such a breakout. The teen artist managed to crack the mainstream on her own terms, finding a yearning for oddball pop that was distinct to the artist rather than an era. Absolutely nobody else could’ve made this playful and creepy banger, proved best by Justin Bieber’s misfired remix.
RAYE has clocked a number of hits in her short career but this year it felt like she tapped into a truer version of her artistry. As well as penning the intimate Bigger for Beyonce, she unveiled Love Me Again - her most emotionally bare single to date. There are no pop trends or unnecessary bloats watering down this song. It’s just RAYE and her thoughts, giving a way to a moment that feels spiritual and rejuvenating. “I figured one last call, Can't hurt more than this wound,” she sings in the final bridge as tears permeate the recording. Pop music rarely allows the space for an artist to be this noticeably affected by their own writing.
There’s no simple explanation for any Vampire Weekend song. Ezra Koenig interpolates ideas from all over the place and wraps it up in sunny instrumentals and flawless choruses. This Life is peak Vampire Weekend. He borrows a hook from iLoveMakonnen’s Cheating to form the chorus and invites Haim to provide backing vocals while examining personal flaws. It’s about realising that perhaps two parties in a relationship can be wrong at the same time but you’re the only one in control of evaluating your fault. As has become custom for the band, it’s a heavy topic for a song that could accompany an Aperol Spritz session.
Burna Boy and LA production duo DJDS became a formidable trio this year producing an EP and this African Giant highlight Destiny. “Feel good, I ain’t gonna lie,” Burna Boy sings capturing absolute joy within the opening few seconds of the song. It may sound effortless but he knows too well that it takes work. Burna Boy has been grinding for a minute and he takes this opportunity to document his past and determination for a better future. It’s a triumphant moment for an artist who deserves every bit of success that is coming his way.
We would’ve bet money after Witness that Katy Perry wouldn’t appear on a list like this in 2019 but we have to humbly admit we were wrong. Never Really Over is far better than any Perry single should’ve been this year. It’s a relentless, flailing pop song that recaptures the carefree bliss of Perry’s Teenage Dream record. It reminded us exactly why she rose to the top in the first place even if it didn’t reach the heights that it deserved.
Few rappers have had a debut year like DaBaby has had. He came in like a wrecking ball, flexing with incredible precision on his breakout Suge. As mumble rap swarmed the chart, DaBaby came through with clarity and charisma, coming at this Jetsonmade beat like a ricocheting basketball. On Suge, he’d just signed a deal but he was already confident about his future, comparing himself to former Death Row Records CEO Suge Knight. It’s a little early to make the call but DaBaby’s exuberant confidence makes you believe that he’s already there.
Victoria Monet’s Ass Like That may be the most stirring song about squats ever made. This self-love anthem celebrates fitness triumphs over a gorgeous R&B backdrop that takes us back to modern soul Queens Mary J. Blige and Keyshia Cole. It’s easy to imagine this song falling flat at the hands of any other songwriter but Monet is an excellent writer and she turns this into a syrupy flex.
Carly Rae Jepsen is too much and that’s exactly why we love her. She’s one of the few popstars out there offering up hyperbolic pop music that holds nothing back which is why she’s become a cult hero. Too Much sees her embracing that idea specifically, ironically over one of her slinkiest beats to date. “I'm not afraid to know my heart's desire,” she sings in the songs buoyant hook and that may be the best way you could possibly describe her approach to songwriting.
Hatchie was born to soundtrack ‘90s teen comedies but she stepped up a level with her debut album, particularly on its best single Stay With Me. Situating on the dancefloor, she masters the heartbreak banger. You can almost feel the crowd dancing around here on this one but Hatchie remains frozen, elongating the hook, “Stay with me, ‘cause I’m not done.” By the end of it, the song feels light and cathartic like Hatchie is almost ready to let go and join the rest of the dancefloor.
Ghostin is the one song Ariana Grande had to be forced to include on Thank U Next and you can see why. She’s stayed mostly silent on Mac Miller’s passing and her breakup with Pete Davidson in the press but here she displays her a career songwriting best, with a devastating depiction of the situation. Over eery Max Martin synths, she sing to Davidson on the first verse before addressing Miller saying, “Though I wish he were here instead.” It’s a gut-wrenching admission and an incredibly brave thought to put in song.
Caroline Polachek’s Pang is a story of love lost and found and Look At Me Now is close to rock bottom. In some of her most revealing songwriting ever, she sings about the aftermath of a breakup and her dwindling perception of self. Instrumentally, it’s one of the most organic moments of the album giving us acoustic guitar as she deals herself stunning blows like, “Trying to find the lightswitch in the dark/Burying the good girl I know I'm not.” Here she is realising her reality and trying to figure out who she is in the eye of the storm.
Milionària is Rosalía both embracing her success and envisioning the lengths it could go to. She wants to be able to close down the Louvre, Beyonce and Jay-Z style, and she sings about it with a cheeky, playful calm. The hook and the only English part of the song, “Fucking Money Man,” says so much. It’s a celebration and condemnation of wealth from someone who is quickly heading into the storm of it.
DaBaby and Megan Thee Stallion are the best new rappers of the year so it’s no surprise that their collision ended in flames. Cash Shit is a masterclass in charismatic rapping, delivering line-upon-line of gold like Megan’s, “He told 'em send me a pic 'cause he miss me/I told him send me a stack if he really.” DaBaby is the perfect supporting act for Megan because he oozes personality. By the end of this song, you’re not even really sure what the beat sounded like. It’s all about what Megan and DaBaby are doing in front of it.
Before this year, Clairo was a viral, internet artist who had tapped into a pocket of the web that rarely goes much further. Instead of being a cult artist though, Clairo flourished with honest, emotional songwriting on her debut Immunity which houses lead-single Bags. With stunning clarity, she explores the early signs of falling for the same sex, brining a complex situation simplicity with lines like, “I can't read you, but if you want, the pleasure's all mine.” While her instrumental surrounding are hazy, Clairo’s voice sounds clearer than ever, piercing through the speakers for the first time.
This is the sort of pop song that will skip over your head if you’re not paying attention on first listen. On the surface, it’s a breezy, carefree song bereft of the brashness that Tove Lo usually offers. Dig a little deeper, however, and you’re gifted a supremely written song about friendship and breakups that details the situation with finite detail. You wish you had a friend who edges on a breakup with friendly advice like, “Wanna get over, get under.”
Haim lifted an emotional can of worms this year. They’ve always been honest songwriters but they dug deeper, writing about depression, death, sisterhood and illness. Now I’m In It was the best of the three releases, tackling lead-singer Danielle’s depression with a heartening optimism. It’s a muscular, determined pop song that reclaims life following a dark period. There were few pop songs that offered so much light and shade as this one did. A worthy career highlight for the Haim sisters.
We’ve always known that Ariana Grande was a competent writer but on Thank U Next she really flexed. Melodically, it’s luscious and easy and lyrically, it’s vivid, honest - metaphorical only when it needs to be. NASA is the star of the show. It’s an instantly endearing mid-tempo that cleverly plays with the dual-meaning of space. We’re shot into the galaxy with imagery of orbits and stars and then brought back to earth by Grande’s declarations of independence. It feels both lofty and grounded which is a near-impossible juxtaposition to pull of but she does it with those limitless vocals.
If I think about the most purest form of love, I think about the dogs I’ve had in my life. It sounds silly but it’s the simplest form of it - unconditional and largely without confrontation. Mallrat encapsulates that in a song that’s simply about love. Imagery of tea and coffee brings a warmth to the song but it’s that vivid image of her dog Charlie waiting for her to come home that makes the heart swell. From crushes to family, Mallrart gives little indication that the love she gives is being reciprocated throughout the song but Charlie offers it back at the tail-end of the song. It’s the mark of a songwriter who is becoming incredibly good at pinpointing the exact moments that make her feel.
While New Rules may have been Dua Lipa’s breakthrough, it felt like she tapped into something on Silk City’s Electricity. It’s the thread she’s chosen to extend with her forthcoming album Future Nostalgia and Don’t Start Now is an extraordinary kick-off. Disco has been re-hashed time and time again but rarely has a new reincarnation felt this fresh. It’s a breakup anthem that’s strangely light on its feet, dancing through the pain like it’s absolutely nothing at all. These aren’t new rules but they’re pop superstar rules followed with precision.
Solange’s A Seat At The Table was a record that documented her healing and wrestled with notions of home. There’s a freeness and comfortability to 2019’s When I Get Home though that gives Solange the chance to have fun. Binz is the height of that. It’s a bare-boned, in-the-moment jam that at times feels like a freestyle because of its lucidity. Here’s Solange near-rapping about riches while feeling every inch of the beat. It’s a rejuvenating moment full of decadent harmonies and twisted vocal work, flirting with both reality and the imagination. The video shows her dancing in front of her computer with a blunt in hand. The most joyous thing about this is Solange is making music for herself to enjoy and that’s a win for any artist.
In 2019, Lana Del Rey was fed up. She was done with the accusations of falsity, sick of ignorant climate change deniers and ready to call out ill-informed loud mouths. Hope is the accumulation of all these thoughts coming to the surface. At its core it’s a sad, sweeping ballad full of imagery of loneliness (“I’ve been tearing around in my fucking nightgown, 24/7 Sylvia Plath.”) There’s more to it though. “At best I can say I’m not sad,” she sings, explicitly rejecting the sad-girl title that’s so often bestowed upon her. It’s a stark admission from an artist who once said, “I wish I was dead already.” Del Rey doesn’t think like that anymore and she hasn’t for a while. This is a song about hope. Despite all the things that are wrestling with her happiness, she’s holding on, clutching at that optimism. You suddenly realise she’s had it all along, championing the American dream by singing out its idealistic potential and calling out its grave shortcomings. She’s not giving up.
You’ll spend your first listen of UK breakthrough Georgia’s About Work The Dancefloor trying to figure out what the hell its titular line is. Then you’ll realise you couldn’t care less. It’s provocative, it gets the people going. This is a mighty dancefloor stormer - one that takes a feeling of club-fed euphoria and maximises it without going too far. From the pulsating beat to the flickering synths, every little detail of this song tugs at the heart and while you never quite figure out what’s so affecting about it, it’s the complete immersion that overtakes. You’re right there with Georgia, in the moment, running through fragmented thoughts.
Tyler The Creator hasn’t wanted to be a rapper for a while now. Until this year, however, he’d struggled to make a record that organically veered him away from the title. On IGOR, he adopted a blonde wig-wearing alter-ego, gifted with ‘70s style and funk-influenced dance moves. EARFQUAKE was the standalone highlight on a record that that needed to be heard in its entirety to fully immerse. Offered to pop acts like Justin Bieber, EARFQUAKE is Tyler’s strike at the pop world - a bullseye he hits convincingly. It’s far too wonky and textured for pop radio but it’s full of delicious, singalong hooks and rightfully earned him a US top 10.
2019 was Lizzo’s year without a doubt. Not for the reasons one may have thought though. In early 2019, it was Juice, the lead single from her album Cuz I Love You, that pricked everyone’s ears up. It was a perky, charismatic pop track that encapsulated Lizzo’s incredibly likeable aesthetic in one. It’s since been steam-rolled by Truth Hurts and Good As Hell but but it’s hard not to regard Juice as the most worthy hit. It’s the mark of an artist stepping into her own, selling self-love without flashing it in people’s faces. As Lizzo says, however, “If I’m shining, everybody gonna shine.” It didn’t really matter what song took off in the end as long as Lizzo finished the year where she belongs - on top.
Those who had been watching her closely knew Normani was a superstar. She had all the pieces but she was still yet to put them all together on her own. Then came Motivation. Her first solo single on her own shut down the internet with flame emojis flying across every social media platform. Motivation is a great song, first and foremost. It’s an Ariana Grande co-write that injects flavours of early ‘00s pop and New Orleans brass. It’s Normani’s commitment, however, that makes it brilliant. She envisions herself as nothing less than an icon and the manifestation was realised, particularly in the groundbreaking video that had everybody pinging basketballs off their backsides, mostly unsuccessfully. We can’t all be Noramni but we can all dream.
Before this year, ROSALÍA operated to the left of the mainstream. Her flawless 2018 record El Mal Querer played with flamenco music and elongated acapellas. On Con Altura, however, she stepped into the spotlight. Over a reggaeton beat by El Guincho, Frank Dukes and ROSALÍA herself, she established herself as a superstar. Con Altura is so cool it hurts. It’s a three-minute flex by two of the most in demand Latin artists that edges to the left but stays in the centre enough to appease the masses. From dancefloors in Barcelona to H&Ms in California, Con Altura deservedly took over the world this year.
Social anxiety is no new emotion for an artist but no one has captured it quite as aptly as Charli and Chris do on Gone. It’s a constraining, harsh pop song that begins in a state of claustrophobia. Bit-by-bit, their friendship forms and they find a way out, breaking away together. As the song progresses, the grip tightens and it becomes looser. By the time the dance-break hits, the pair are sprinting towards euphoria together. It’s a testament to Charli and Chris’ chemistry that they were able to create an atmosphere where they’re working together to find freedom.
FKA twigs walked an unusual path in between her albums. LP1 made her a critical and alternative darling but a high-profile relationship with Robert Pattinson landed her in the gossip mags, many underwriting her talents as a musician to simply label her a “girlfriend”. The pair broke-up but she wrestled with the fallout both publicly and personally. Instead of hiding it away, however, she released Cellophane as her first single in years, declaring, “didn’t I did it for you?” It’s one of the frankest songs of the decade, directly addressing her ex and the public over a minimal but towering instrumental. This is twigs accepting her place in the public eye, performing for them, but also pouring her heart out in sincerity. The lyrics leave her completely exposed but her adamant vocal delivery in the final parts of the song find strength in the release of emotion.
There are few artists who could essentially write a retirement song at the height of their career but Del Rey has always lived for the drama. Like Frank Sinatra’s My Way, The Greatest faces the final curtain call. “I guess I’m signing off after all,” Del Rey sings before the drums rollick, turning the drama dial even more. This isn’t her actually signing off though. She’s nostalgic for a time when things were simpler. She was a nobody, able to simply do nothing and she’s yearning for that. The world has always been complicated but in this moment it’s overwhelming. One of Del Rey’s heroes Kanye West is spiralling, the world is quite literally on fire and life is lived-out on a livestream. This is Del Rey’s way of retreating, even though she knows she can never truly return to the way she used to live. It’s both grandiose and fragile, marking one of her greatest songwriting achievements ever.